Sunday, 23 February 2014

Baptism of Eleanor Vincent 23rd February 2014

Sower Sunday fits Eleanor’s baptism as we’re sowing seeds for a new growth in her life in its spiritual dimension.

It’s got something appropriate also with dad’s work helping Ethiopia improve its agriculture, not to mention the food component of John’s UK involvements that link in with Government on free school meals.

John, Katie, Natasha and Eleanor look over fields at Treemans but like many English fields down south they’re rather more for horses than for cultivation.  Incidentally we sympathise with them on their tree fall, and with them that no one was hurt in the fall of that massive oak.

Eleanor follows her mum’s musical passion with her flute and piano. Mum is a familiar figure on BBC, former news reader, now Radio 3 presenter with regular appearance on TV for Last Night of the Proms. Katie and I were reflecting last week on whether Land of Hope and Glory was written at Treemans since the poem’s author Arthur Benson lived there with his mum, Mary, the widow of Archbishop Benson.

It’s lovely to have your family and many friends gathered in St Giles this morning, especially our godparents Dean and Angus, old friends of John’s and Kate and Helen, close friends of Katie who go right back. David, who can’t be here on account of medical treatment, is here in spirit and also in our thoughts and prayers.

All of us gathered here add to the sense of celebration at such an important junction for Eleanor on this Sower Sunday in the Prayer Book cycle. I want to turn with you now to that Gospel reading from Luke Chapter 8 verse 4 to 15 which you can follow again on p 3.   
‘A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.’

It’s when we hear his Parables that we come closest to Jesus. He spoke the truth and all truth is self-evident and compelling to those who get the point while staying a mystery to those who don’t. Parables are literally comparisons or analogies. In the Parable of the Sower Jesus is making an analogy with how worthwhile it is to communicate the love of God, even if it causes a lot of hassle, for how much we welcome the love of God will determine the fruitfulness of our lives.

Jesus’ message that his Father and ours has unconditional positive regard for everyone in the world caused hassle. One of the reasons they put him on the Cross was he said repeatedly that God isn’t just God of the righteous but of sinners a well. 

Speaking of himself as a seed Jesus said in John 12 verse 24 ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’. Jesus sowed seeds of God’s love at the greatest cost to himself – God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.

The Buddha gave his teaching. Christ gave his life as well as his teaching. In Eleanor’s world Christianity stands side by side with other faiths in a way it didn’t when her parents or grandparents were her age. Sometimes alas they don’t just stand side by side – they conflict!

People sometimes say ‘all religions lead to God’ to counter religious extremists so convinced their brand is right they condemn all the other brands.

 In the best sense saying 'all religions lead to God' is an exercise in sweet reasonableness in the face of those using religion to divide the world but I would have a couple of questions for those who say so!

The first is 'how do you know so? By whose authority - do you know what God knows?' The second is 'who says religion leads to God anyway'? Jesus Christ showed by his words and sacrificial deeds humans aren't worthy to enter God's presence, since we're sinners and God is holy. If anything or anyone leads us to God it’s not religion but God himself so loving the world as to give his Son Jesus and bring sinful humans to be one with a holy God through faith and baptism.

That being said I recognise there's a measure of holiness in all humans and therefore in practitioners of all religions, so something of God is to be found outside Christianity. God is bigger than all of us including all religions so there can’t be a perfect religion. Jesus set himself against  religious leaders whose nit-picking legalism made them unworthy of a great and loving God. He all but said to them 'your God is too small'. The hope for religion lies in a figure like Jesus who is so much bigger than Christianity that Hindus and Muslims honour his person and Buddhists and many other faith practitioners engage with his teaching.

Today Eleanor is affirming the Christian faith of her parents and grandparents. In so doing she is committing to Jesus the Sower who would sow the truth of God’s love in the hearts of people everywhere.

With her parents, with all of us here this morning who own the Christian tradition, Eleanor has caught a glimpse of the love of God shown in Jesus. It’s an inclusive and protective love, like that Eleanor and her sister already receive from their parents Katie and John.

To know you are loved is the springboard for human endeavour and creativity. We have here a creative young lady, born into a loving and creative family. May the love of God enfold her and equip her to give to others as it has been given to her by God.

May the figure of Jesus Christ who is ever new and ‘the same, yesterday, today and for ever’ (Hebrews 13.8) continue to intrigue her, and all of us, so that we may hold fast to him with honest and good hearts and bear fruit [a hundredfold] with patient endurance.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Epiphany 6 Sermon on the Mount antitheses 16.2.14

I was speaking the other day to someone following a career change towards corporate finance, thinking through its ethical implications and how his ethical values deriving from a Christian vision might steer his engagement.

Reading through the Sermon on the Mount afterwards, preparing this sermon, reminded me how hard it is to engage the absolute demands of Jesus with the detail of say that parishioner’s life and by contrast how far from being overall prescriptive our Christian faith is. Jesus indeed was prescriptive but left us very flexible on how we best respond to his teaching in daily life, though he instituted his Church to be our guide. That reading from the sermon on the Mount is actually pretty demoralising: if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement… everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out… Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Thinking of my friend moving into corporate finance - how will he keep his ‘Yes’ to mean ‘Yes’? Those Classic FM ad disclaimers that go so fast as they make a Yes mean No. The fine print, through which many of us are made the poorer, and which damages commercial life by its undermining of trust.

Thinking of those in charge of UK foreign policy deciding on the best response to international crises – how can military action square up with the intrinsic pacifism of Jesus? How can his teaching on turning the other cheek later on in the Sermon on the Mount be brought into the international sphere.

Thinking of the medium of advertising, built on catching the eye – how can it be right to put sexuality so much to the fore in the process of wealth creation? For consumers, how do we keep faithful to Jesus deluged as we are hour by hour by ads that use sexual attraction to sell us things?

I bring you some thoughts on today’s Gospel of the so-called antitheses, in which Our Lord gives a new interpretation of Old Testament law – an ‘anti’ thesis. Jesus gets us to look at the old thesis ‘you have heard that it was said…’ and goes on ‘hear now what I say unto you’. The prohibition of murder should be enlarged to embrace anger. The prohibition of adultery should be enlarged to cover lustful thoughts and the prohibition of false oaths enlarged to avoiding oaths altogether and making your ‘yes’ always to mean ‘yes’.

We should note in passing what an extraordinary thing it must have been to the Jewish population gathered on that Mount by Lake Galilee to hear a teacher quoting words from God from their Bible and then going on to say but I say unto you. What an authority! They didn’t balk at it, strangely, seeing before them a quite extraordinary and compelling figure. Yet A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. C.S.Lewis wrote. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. Lewis outlines the so-called trilemma Jesus presents to everyone who engages with him.

We are here this morning to stand, as we just did, and give reverence to the words of Jesus as the words of God.  The Church bids us sit for the Old Testament and the writings of the Apostles but to stand for the words of Jesus. As Lewis continued You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. ... Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.

It is this reduced understanding of Our Lord as a human teacher that we have to challenge in our day. The insight Jesus gives penetrates right down to the heart, for he knew, and we as Christians have come to know, that the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.

This means he knew and we know our first reading from Ecclesiasticus gets it wrong. It’s far too optimistic about human beings’ freedom to choose what’s right without the help of grace. The author’s main thrust is to exonerate God for evil since he has not given anyone permission to sin. Is that so?  How does that compare with St Paul, not in the second reading but in Romans 7.19-20  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

We have this morning the unfounded optimism of Ecclesiasticus and the defeating counsel of the Son of God in his Sermon on the Mount!

Where does it leave us? The parishioner at business school concerned for honesty? The politician acting for us to challenge tyranny with the use of force and our support or challenge of them ? Decision making about commercial transactions that promotes advertisement failing to tell the truth and exploiting our lower nature?

A few observations. The ‘better righteousness’ called for earlier in the Sermon on the Mount is beyond our unaided powers and points clearly to the need for grace. I remember being troubled in my teenage years by a lapsing Roman Catholic friend who, taught that to look with lust was as bad as acting on it started to sleep with a number of his girl friends. No one had taught him about Pentecost, about how Christ who taught us the right way died and rose and gave us his Spirit to keep us in that way.

Could we see today’s teaching as like setting your alarm clock an hour early to catch the plane for fear of over sleeping? The Sermon on the Mount keeps you alert, on your toes ethically, by coming so hard at us! Reading one commentary on today’s Gospel I picked up this advice. ‘The relation of the absolute demands of God to the relativities of human life is a tricky business. The preacher will need some sort of ethical methodology like that of the “middle axioms” – just as the voltage of a high power line has to be transformed downwards for ordinary consumption’.

Impressed by that advice I googled  ‘middle axioms’, which are a mid 20th century attempt to transform today’s Gospel from high voltage down to ordinary consumption. I quote John Bennett:  ‘Middle axioms’ are an attempt to define the directions in which, in a particular state of society, Christian faith must express itself. They are not binding for all time, but are provisional definitions of the type of behaviour required of Christians at a given period and in given circumstances.  Bennett gives as examples of middle axioms for his time as the need of international collaboration in the United Nations and the maintenance of balance between free enterprise and government control of economic power.

Like this sermon a ‘middle axiom’ sets forth suggested Christian "next steps" and, hopefully, without watering-down the full implications of the Sermon on the Mount.

We move to a close with a quote from 4th century Augustine, one of the greatest Christian minds. Give me the grace to do what you command and command what you will.

Here at Eucharist is grace. You have heard the commands – they’re tough this morning – now let’s together look for the grace to be supplied. At this altar the Son of God, Jesus Christ is to embrace us and makes of himself our Food and Drink. In this way his high voltage teaching can inspire and energise us in the right way and not defeat us.

Jesus knows and tells what’s best for us. In his compassion he’s expert in not making what’s best for us the enemy of what’s good for us here and now.

Let us reflect for a moment on our ‘next steps’, on how his word to us this morning from the Sermon on the Mount can effect our life today and tomorrow.

There is no Word of God without power.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Epiphany 5 Salt and light 9.2.14

When we look at the impact of St Giles Church on Horsted Keynes and its surrounds it amounts to far more than an ancient spire pointing to God. The real pointers to God are you and I and all members actively involved in family, work and neighbourhood.

'You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? ... You are the light of the world... let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven'. Matthew 5:13-16

Those words from the Sermon on the Mount capture a large part of what we are at St Giles. We aspire to be a church 'growing in faith, love and numbers' not just for our survival but for the sake of the quality of our life together in the village and its surrounds.

To dwell on salt, it may be currently an unfashionable commodity, but without it much of what we eat would be uninspiring. When we were on our self-catering holiday we bought some the first day having forgotten to bring some along. We got far more than we needed, so here it is coming out this morning as a sermon aid! (show Gran Canaria salt)

Those who live close to God, as Jesus intimates, have disproportionate impact on their surrounds and here I take a bit of a risk naming some village ventures that have been church initiated and are making a difference.

The idea for the village lunch came from St Giles. Through that vision 50 or so partake of a monthly event that brings the village together. The lift scheme is partly manned by church members. You may remember from the Premier Radio series how it was an important first step towards the Church for Lesley Whiting who was confirmed last year. Her husband John phoned me during a freeze up to ask for help to get to hospital for Lesley's ongoing cancer treatment.

That story shows how social engagement can have evidently evangelistic consequences - in any case we show the good news of God's love by living it as much as, if not more, than by speaking of it, though speaking of it we must do on occasion. This is where salt partners light (show bulb).

Another seasoning to village life is the effort taken by church members in the name of Family Support gathering clothing, toys, food and so on to serve families in need. In this way surplus goods are seasoned, to use the Gospel image. The little bit we do, like a little bit of seasoning salt, puts tasty meals on the table for many in Sussex driven to choose between food and fuel.

'You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?' As on many occasions we wrestle with Our Lord's imagery. As a physical chemist I find it hard to imagine that most stable of compounds, sodium chloride, losing its taste other than in a high energy desalination plant! However I do see how Christians can lose their flavour and I'm sure it happens in my own life at times through lack of imaginative service.

Being salt and light is about instrumentality, about giving up our own ambitions, the desire to make our mark on others, in the name of collaborating with God and others to increase overall the quality of our common life.

Last week we celebrated our school and its right to praise the school governors, not least those from St Giles, for their voluntary input week by week, month by month, which seasons the life of our Primary School. Through that partnership of teaching staff and volunteers a real difference is made to the life of the children of this village and its surrounds.

The salt and light images are images of love in being outgoing and selective. We choose where we season or where we shine our light, 'this little light of mine'. The love of Christ in us has no ambition to serve itself but only to move beyond selfishness into service where Christ so desires.
That love within us has the power, Scripture says to overcome all things and it is such faith that helps us stand alongside struggling people and agencies pointing them to what's within their grasp.

Here I could remind us all how imaginative connected up thinking by a handful of individuals of Christian conviction, brought funding into play to renovate the Martindale and season it for better service. I would also here pay tribute once more to Derek Crowson at the Old Rectory for his generosity to the village and the church over many years. Where people are in a position to donate large sums of money the presence of community groups who know the ground and how its best to be cultivated often leads to transformative action.

To speak here of the need for toilet facilities at St Giles is not a distraction. It's evidently not a kingdom of God priority along the lines of Family Support Work or the Village lunch, packing of clothes for Mozambique or sending funds to Guyana - but it is exactly relevant to restocking the salt cellar (show) or renewing the light bulbs (show). For church growth you need nowadays, besides good preaching and reverent celebration of the sacraments, car parking, heating and toilets. I am encouraged by the interest of the Friends in finding us a lavatory!

Our Mission Action Plan seeks church growth 'in faith, love and numbers'. Today's Gospel addresses how we exercise faith to show and build love. By that I mean how we overcome selfishness so as to see things as others see them, sympathise and place our time, talents and resources their way. 'Give', Jesus says, 'and it will be given to you'.

We're thinking from our Gospel reading in Matthew Chapter 5 of church growth in faith and love, how we give out, but that in itself should grow us in numbers. Of course God doesn't think primarily in numbers but he does so sufficiently to maintain his work which is always one generation away from extinction.

Last year I invited each of us to pray for a period of time a blessing on one person 25 years younger than themselves. I believe those prayers have been answered among other things through our having eight or so confirmation candidates preparing for full church membership next month. Keep up those prayers, for without them, without new leadership emerging at St Giles, we'll see the Friends taking over the whole building in 25 years time!

Into the melting pot of these godly concerns, concerns for St Giles to maintain itself to give salt and light to Horsted Keynes, I would add a concern we find God's women or men to serve in forthcoming PCC vacancies. In particular one to stand alongside David Lamb in place of James Nicholson whose much appreciated term of office as Churchwarden will end in two months time.

What might God be saying to you this morning as you hear Jesus say 'be salt' or 'let your light shine before others'? Most of all he would speak to where your life is currently bound up in marriage, family and workplace so there you can shine and savour things. The community ministry of the Church is an add on to this, partnering what we do together to savour and light up the life of our community, but it may be his invitation to you at this time.

My advice is seek Him, seek what the Lord requires, seek God knowing family and work must come before church, but seek him mindful of the needs I have set forth which we have at St Giles in case you can add value to his work among us.

'Give and it will be given to you' - and God is no one's debtor!

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Candlemas 2014

We come to Church to worship and to be enlightened.

Jesus came first to the Temple on this day with those two ends of self offering and edification.

His parents made an offering on his behalf and they heard Simeon's prophecy of their Son becoming 'a light to lighten the nations'.

Candlemas gives us an opportunity to pause and reflect about what we do when we come to this Temple Sunday by Sunday.

It is a Temple before it is a preaching house, a place of teaching, yes, but primarily not a place of edification but a place of worship.

On this site the worship of the eucharist has been offered for half the Christian era. People in their hundreds of thousands have ascended this hill to offer the unbloody sacrifice initiated by Jesus Christ we call the eucharist.

They've come Sunday by Sunday, as the Prayer Book says, 'to offer themselves, their souls and bodies as a living sacrifice' with, in and through Jesus Christ.

Today, his first visit to the one earthly Temple of his day, we recall that event as a prefiguring of Christ's eternal sacrifice. The turtle doves sacrificed on his behalf in that Temple gave way, with all animal sacrifices, to his once for all offering made on a repeat visit to Jerusalem in his 33rd year.

The priests and people then took no doves but an innocent Lamb, and as they did so the prophecy about his mother Mary in today's Gospel was fulfilled. 'A  sword will pierce your heart'.

I saw last week in Gran Canaria that very image of Our Lady at the foot of the Cross, graphically in black and with a sword stuck into her heart.

We come to Church to worship and to be enlightened.

Part of that enlightenment, as Mary and Joseph found, is the bringing of understanding and hence more creative involvement with the dark times of our life.

We all live with these - bereavement, chronic illness or the necessity to live with unresolved situations where there may be conflict. With Mary and Joseph this morning we welcome holy Simeon's words with gratitude since they speak of peace coming, as it does again and again, through heavenly illumination.

Jesus Christ is the light who lightens all nations  and all ages.

May his light shine on us and into our various life situations this morning as we come to worship 'offering ourselves, our souls and bodies as a living sacrifice' with in and through Jesus Christ to whom be glory now and for ever. Amen.