Saturday, 23 September 2017

St Mary, Balcombe Trinity 15 24th September 2017

How do you see God?

Has the pastoral vacancy enlarged him for you? Most people pray - if only when a brick falls on their toes - Oh God! Losing Fr Desmond has meant some of you have had not exactly a brick but certainly a load of stuff to deal with. No man of God is a good chance to be more the people of God in one sense, but in another sense it's an unwelcome discontinuity in the pastoral and liturgical scene at St Mary’s. God though is God of the gaps - not philosophically in the sense of being invoked where there's no rational explanation for something - but God of your pastoral gap alias the interregnum. I’m glad to be alongside you as a godly fill in if you like.

How do you see God?

This morning's readings have a lot to say about this. I’m struck by the capacity of scripture to enlarge our vision of God. Years ago I had a faith crisis. I went back to Mirfield where I trained as a priest. I hardly felt God present in my life. I said the same to the monk who took me on as guide. I remember he said to me: ‘It's not God that’s left you, John, but your vision of him. Pray for a vision of God more to his dimensions and less to your own’. I did so, with his help and that of the Bible. Something happened, and here I am years on still working as God’s priest!

Today’s readings are particularly encouraging and challenging in terms of the vision of God they present.

Let’s turn first to our Gospel passage from Matthew Chapter 20:1-16. Look at the God Jesus speaks of and is himself to reveal by dying and rising! He is symbolised in the land owner who goes out no less than five times in a day to hire labourers for his vineyard. They are hired with a promised reward but at the end of the day all who worked, even those who signed on at 5 o’clock, receive the usual daily wage. All hell breaks out as the workers who’d done a whole day complain, ‘you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat’. These workers represent the Pharisees and others who as faithful religious adherents resented how Jesus favoured non-adhering outsiders like tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus lets the landowner speak for God: are you envious because I am generous?

How do you see God?

I see God as a smiler. He smiles on us, especially when religious people - allegedly his people - frown on the workings of grace. Church life - village life too - is often about working your way up the hierarchy so that newcomers are always suspect. In Horsted Keynes we joked about people only being accepted as villagers after quarter of a century or more, but there was unpalatable truth there to joke about. Maybe it's as true in Balcombe! In Horsted Keynes the pastoral vacancy is surprising in its engaging relatively new worshippers more in leadership within the congregation. May that be true here.

Where people see God as all embracing there are no grounds for discrimination and people very often learn to swim by being thrown in at the deep end!

As I say I see God as a smiler. I’ve just been to Lourdes with its smiling Virgin Mary who very much represents her Son’s humour in this passage! It's patient smiling, but the wounds in the risen Christ’s body born to this day in the heavenlies were made by the narrow thinking that handed over to crucifixion One who taught God as God of all and not just the godly.

Are you envious because I am generous? The Lord says to us this morning and as he says it he is asking us: how do you see me, how do you see God?

If the Gospel reading at this Sunday’s Eucharist encourages us to expand our thinking of God as a God with love for everyone and not just churchgoers the first reading opens another frontier.

Christian faith sees God’s love as all embracing, literally embracing this world and the next. This service is living memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection opening up a vision of God beyond this world, beyond our human imagining. For Saint Paul the experience of Christ’s love was such that, writing most likely from his death cell in Rome to Philippi he is able to say to me living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. For Paul and for all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour there is an assurance that God is God of the dead and the living. He is no this worldly construct but a God who reveals the resurrection so that for a thousand years in this building Sunday has been kept as marker of that event.

How do you see God?

The Lord’s people gather in the Lord’s house on the Lord’s day around the Lord’s table because Jesus Christ rose breaking the chains of death and opening the kingdom of heaven to all believers. To live with Christian faith is to live with death domesticated, brought down to our level or rather made able for us to handle it through knowledge of Jesus Christ who has brought death to heel. To me living is Christ and dying gain… my desire is to be with Christ, for that is far better. Only though when we have run our measured earthly course, for us as for Paul, will that thought begin to triumph as I have seen it triumph on many a devout Christian deathbed.

Are you sure in your faith? Is it in a God who’s all embracing, who’s bigger than death?

Pray for assurance, seek it in prayer this morning and this sacrament which is medicine of immortality. Talk to the priest afterwards if you’re not sure.

Meanwhile may God grant us all by his Spirit a vision of himself more and more to his dimensions and less and less to our own!

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Trinity 13 (23rd of Year A) Presentation Church, Haywards Heath 10th September 2017

At my ordination as a priest 40 years ago the Bishop asked me this question in Sheffield Cathedral: Will you give your faithful diligence … to minister the Doctrine and Sacraments, and the Discipline of Christ, as the Lord hath commanded? I replied with the others: I will so do, by the help of the Lord.

This commitment came back to me as I looked through our readings for Trinity 13 with their focus on church discipline.  The reading from Ezekiel Chapter 33 reminds the prophet of his watchman role which connects with the gospel passage from Matthew 18 that provides instruction about correcting Church members.

The Anglican tradition emphasizes discipline alongside word and sacrament as foundational to church life. At their ordination, therefore, priests and bishops commit to teach, lead worship and pastor the flocks committed to them.

Among other words from the ordination service that stick with me – I read them every year before the renewal of priestly vows at the Chrism eucharist with the diocesan Bishop in Holy Week – are these: Have always… printed in your remembrance how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve is his Spouse, and his Body. And if it shall happen the same Church, or any Member thereof, to take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue.

As we heard warning in the first reading to the sentinel priest Ezekiel, their blood I will require at your hand. Neglect of Christ’s flock purchased at the price of his own blood is as serious a thing as you can imagine.     It has made me as a priest more concerned to feed the sheep than entertain the goats! By that I mean this: we priests very easily get lost among non-churchgoers in our parishes to the exclusion of care for those who actually attend church and developing their gifts of praise and service.
It’s never been easy to live and teach Christianity, let alone to minister the discipline of Christ. I’ve done my best and continue to do so through writing and broadcasting. I was at Cuddesdon College yesterday contributing to the Oxford Diocesan Festival of Prayer sponsored by my commissioning publisher, the Bible Reading Fellowship in conjunction with two books I’ve published recently on the Jesus Prayer and on Christian Rule of Life. The last of the two I’ll drawing on now as I speak about our readings.

What is the discipline of Christ? How do I teach it?

Attend eucharist every Sunday wherever you are unless very seriously hindered. Pray every day. Read your bible. Serve the needy which includes giving your money to serve God’s work. Confess your sins.

These five Christian duties - worship, prayer, study, service and reflection - are the basic disciplines Christians are under. We need these disciplines. They’re paralleled by our Muslim sisters and brothers whose Five Pillars consist of knowing their creed,  praying five times each day, giving to the poor and needy, fasting during the month of Ramadan and making pilgrimage to Mecca.

Oh that you and I had the fervour and discipline of Islam!

Back to the scriptures! The Gospel reading makes clear that discipline in the Church isn’t just from the church pastor but fraternal, that is, carried out by church members to the benefit of each other
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. We are all involved in church discipline and not just the priest. He of course is under a special discipline himself being accountable to God through the Bishop. At the Presentation we also have a team sharing leadership and oversight of our congregation with Fr Ray and Fr David and their supporting priests.

If there are sick needing visiting, grieved needing counsel, church members who’ve fallen away or whatever we all share responsibility for them, according to the Gospel. However, according to the first reading and the ordination service, there is a special responsibility that lies with our priests and to a lesser extent lay leadership teams.

At my ordination the Bishop said these words from St John’s Gospel Chapter 20 echoed at the end of today’s Gospel from Matthew 18: Receive the holy Ghost for the office and work of a priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained. And be thou a faithful dispenser of the Word of God, and of his holy Sacraments; In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Awesome words – what dignity, what responsibility! Also behind my preference to be called Father John, since to imagine John Twisleton could do what a priest does is fanciful and irreverent - I can change no bread and wine or penitent heart.

Please pray for us priests, for all who minister the Doctrine and Sacraments, and the Discipline of Christ. Pray that we may carry our office courageously, believe in our priesthood and love our people. May we truly believe Christ’s doctrine, enter more fully into the awe of the sacraments and live more fully under the discipline of Christ so we priests who minister in God’s temple…may say and sing with our lips [what] we believe in our hearts, and show [that faith] forth in our lives.

Today’s Gospel ends with a promise to all Christians which has echoes of the ordination rite. Our Lord says whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

Where Christians are united, where they accept a mutual discipline of worship, prayer, study, sacrificial service and confession of sin, the Holy Spirit can come in power among them. Part of that unity is obedience to our leaders in all things lawful and honest, you to me and my fellow priests, we priests to the bishop and the bishop to God. As St Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.

Indeed may peace be with us, respect for one another, priests and people, and agreement together in a common discipline so that where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, he may be among us.           We have heard his word and approach the sacrament but let’s now take a moment to think of and renew commitment to the five Christian  disciplines I mentioned:  Sunday worship, daily prayer, bible study, sacrificial service including giving our money to God’s work and reflection including confession of sin. Let’s pause for a minute and welcome any reminder the Lord has for us as individuals.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

St Bartholomew, Brighton Trinity 12 3rd September 2017 Romans 12.9-21

It is a very great privilege for me - I’m Canon John Twisleton - to be back with friends at St Bartholomew’s after my 8 years at St Giles, Horsted Keynes. Before that I served as Diocesan Mission & Renewal adviser when I had the joy of fostering the work of God in this parish.

Now I’m living in Haywards Heath I’ve got the best of both worlds. I have the great choices of going up to Brighton inland (they call it London) or travelling down to London-by the sea!

This morning I exercised another choice celebrants at Bart’s are given between having the Old Testament or New Testament reading before the Gospel. That wasn’t a hard choice since my favourite book of the Bible is the letter of St. Paul to the Romans we’ve been following as an option on Sundays for a month or two.

Why is Romans so exciting and important? I think because, unlike other apostolic letters, you find the whole gospel within it, both in principle and in application.

You start in chapters 1 to 3 with the downward spiral of the human condition and its crying out for salvation summarised by Paul later on as I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do (7:19). You then move on in Chapters 5-11 from our need for help to the good news of God’s loving provision in Christ’s death and resurrection and the gift of the Spirit by which God’s love is poured into our hearts. After a little excursion in Chapters 9 to 11 on how the Christian good news is good news for the Jews as well, the letter moves to its conclusion, like any good sermon, by turning to application.

This is the background to today’s reading from Chapter 12 on how God’s love shines out in Christian life as warm-hearted, inspired, hospitable, humble, extravagant and militant.

I invite you to turn to the pew sheet and follow the passage again, starting with verses 9 and 10 of Romans 12.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour.

Let love be genuine. When I was a child I was accused of showing cupboard love, affection to my parents to get a biscuit out of the cupboard. Love that’s genuine has no such pretension. It comes from the heart. Later in 1 Corinthians Chapter 13 when Paul says to give your body to be burned means nothing without love he’s saying love is warm-hearted if it's anything at all.

Christian love, like Jesus himself, is warm-hearted. Then secondly it is inspired - reading on in the passage.

Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.

If Christian love is from the heart it’s also inspired from beyond our situation.

When I was an undergraduate at Oxford I stumbled into St Mary Magdalene’s which unknown to me had an ardent priest called Fr. Hooper. I went to tea with him one Sunday. At length he asked me if I’d ever considered going to Confession. I had no good answer! Somehow the spiritual force of the man hit me – I had to go to Confession, the fervour, the warmth of the Spirit of Jesus Christ was in him and inspired me. I never looked back from then, although Confession has not always been so easy for me. By the way, if you ever want to make your Confession don’t be shy of approaching any of our priests here at St Barts after services. The Anglican saying on confession is all may, none must, some should.

Let’s read on, verses 13 and 14 of Romans Chapter 12

Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

Christian love is hospitable - which might mean not talking about God too much with not yet believers. More can be achieved to spread the faith by patient, hospitable friendship, coupled to intercessory prayer, than we sometimes imagine. Let’s read on:

Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

If love is warm-hearted, inspired and hospitable it’s also humble.

Do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Henri Nouwen is one of my favourite writers. He wrote books about the spiritual power that abounds among the intellectually disabled. He speaks of the struggle to make himself present and vulnerable to other people in the L’Arche handicapped community. His preference was again and again to go hide away at his computer and write books!  I know that feeling - I’m a writer too! So often, though, the world of computers subtracts from our loving by taking us away from people! Let’s continue:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written: ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord’. No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads’.

How should the good news of the gift of God’s love see application in a Christian life?
With a love that’s warm-hearted, inspiring, hospitable, humble and, fifthly, extravagant.
At the heart of Christianity is a God with no favourites, not even his friends, who calls us to be similarly extravagant in love. The extravagance to an enemy that’s described as being like heaping burning coals on his head!

Reflecting on God’s extravagance St Teresa of Avila wrote after years of Christian service: We should forget the number of years we have served him. The more we serve him, the more deeply we fall into his debt.
How many years have you served Christ? Are you more deeply in his debt? Does anything you’ve achieved do more than reflect back on God who gave you life and health and strength to do it – as well as the heart to do it with love?

He wants more extravagant service from you and I, believe me!  So to the last verse.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Our love is to be warm-hearted, inspiring, hospitable, humble, extravagant and lastly militant.

Love is in conflict for the soul of the world. The war has been won by the decisive battle on Calvary and our Sunday worship is a living memorial of this but the mopping up operation continues.

All our Christian loving is meant to be militant overcoming evil with good. It raids the kingdom of fear, not least the fearfulness of those who oppose the church. We counter fear and apathy by good humour, warm-heartedness, God’s inspiration, hospitality, humility, extravagance and militancy.

Soldiers of Christ arise therefore and put your armour on this day! Armed with God’s word, united as a living sacrifice to Christ and fed by his living Bread go forth into battle knowing in the great words of the letter to the Romans Chapter 8 that we are more than conquerors through him who loved us and nothing in heaven or earth can separate us from the love of God.