Saturday, 29 March 2014

Mothering Sunday 30th March 2014

It’s Laetare Sunday, Rejoice Sunday.  ‘Rejoice Jerusalem’ I read for the opening antiphon on Mothering Sunday. We’re allowed a little respite from Lent – today is also called Refreshment Sunday - and we even have flowers. The daffodils will appear at the end for you to take away.

We rejoice today in Mother Church, our Jerusalem on the hill but also the heavenly Jerusalem above spoken of in today’s epistle. As God is our Father the Church is our Mother. The world has reduced this to our earthly mothers, which is no bad thing, especially when, as for many of us, our faith is owed to good mothering as well as fathering.

There is another mother I need to speak to and her image is over the altar.  ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord’ she says in the Gospel we read on Lady Day last week ago: ‘Let what you have said be done to me’.

Her ‘Yes’ to God is become the model for a spiritual exercise we’re inviting of our members over the last three weeks of Lent. This is to compose a Letter to God to be returned in a sealed envelope via one of the Sunday collections. These will be set alight outside by a flame from the Easter Candle at the end of the 10am All age Easter eucharist symbolising the offering of our lives to God.

Week by week there will be teaching on the theme ‘I’ll say Yes, Lord’ to help you in this and the last page of this booklet provides an optional guide to structure your letter.

We’re called like Our Lady to let Christ and his kingdom prevail. This means being attentive to God’s gracious demands, as Mary awaited the call of Gabriel.

We best serve God and others through discerning and then effecting best harnessing of our gifts into his praise and service, and this discernment stems from a determination to listen to God like Mary.

The more real Jesus becomes to us and in us, not least through our Lenten devotion, the more our actions will grow loving as he is loving. It’s not how much we do or say or even listen that matters so much a how much love we put into it so to speak, which is why our listening to God is so important.

How can we best give more of ourselves? The Letter to God exercise might be a tool to do this. It will involve listening to God and then secondly to ourselves with Mary. Mary encourages us towards a positive self-regard. The Almighty has done great things for me she says as part of her Magnificat which is the subject of the second window in this Chapel.

These last weeks of Lent you and I have an invitation to take stock of all that Jesus is doing in our lives and rejoice! To take stock also of the ingrained selfishness, the ‘dog in the manger’ bit so we can give it to God in confession maybe through the Letter to be burned at Easter.

Listen to God, listen to yourself, sift and purify your agenda, then listen to those God puts your way who need your ears! As we listen to others on this feast of family with our outer ears let’s keep two inner ears listening to God and to our own reaction to what we hear lest it get in the way. Like Mary let’s be there for people without getting in their way.  

Let’s go more for surrendering ourselves, as at this Eucharist, to whatever God wants of us so we’re made better Christ-bearers under the watchful care of the Mother of believers. 

Jesus who was first carried by Mary at Bethlehem, who is carried to us in Bread and Wine this morning, waits to be carried by you and I to a waiting world!

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Lent 2 Abrahamic religions 16th March 2014

If the 6 billion inhabitants of the world were but 100, there’d be: 31 Christians, 21 Muslims, 14 Hindus, 6 Buddhists, 12 people who practice other religions and 16 people who’d not be aligned with a religion.

Among the last two groups there’ll be a good number who raise the thought we’re to engage with in this week’s Talking Points, namely the claim that ‘all religions lead to God’.

Given these statistics, we, as Christians, need discernment over how we share about Christ and talk forward from this assertion in as positive a way as we can in a context where awareness of the variety of religions is widespread, even in Horsted Keynes!

I want to get us thinking about all of this on a Sunday when the Lectionary centres helpfully on Abraham as father of faith. He is so for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the so-called Abrahamic faiths. In our first reading from Genesis God promises to Abram I will bless you and make your name great. So he has, as Paul says in the second reading Abraham is the father of us all. His faith as a Jew is in the same God we put faith in who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

Our worship reminds us all the time of our Jewish roots. We chose for our entrance procession an Abraham hymn used to open Synagogue worship with last verse amended. The preface chant I sing at the Eucharistic prayer has beauty because it traces right back to Jewish worship, as does the whole idea of ‘eucharist’ or berakah, thanksgiving.

Let’s go back though, thinking beyond the three Abrahamic religions to list five approaches to the varieties of religion in the world today since we want to get our minds and hearts engaged with this key issue. It’s key if only because though in a sense religion is God-given it’s also heavily man-handled – even the Christian religion - and hence the source of division in the world.
This morning’s teaching is important since, as Hans Kung once said, there’ll be no peace in the world without peace between religions and no peace between religions without understanding between religions. Put this morning down to our going for deeper understanding from a Christian vantage point.

There are five possible approaches to the existence of different religions:

  • All religions are false
  • One religion only is true, the others completely false
  • One religion only is true, the others mere approximations or distortions
  • All religions are true in what they agree about; and false wherever they disagree
  • All religions are true and any contradictions are superficial.

‘All religions are false’ is the first approach and such is the ownership of that approach we felt it right to run ‘Talking Points’ in Lent to help us better engage with our detractors.

‘One religion only is true, the others completely false’ is a view we can quickly gauge from ‘door to door religion sales folk’, Rector excepted – I mean Jehovah’s Witnesses and to some extent Mormons. Roman Catholics were said to hold ‘outside the church there is no salvation’ but  now clearly deny they do so, with recent teaching accepting in some degree the baptised of any Church and looking positively, from a salvation angle, on all who follow their conscience.

As you can guess as a good Anglican I’m aiming for the middle thesis that ‘one religion only is true, the others mere approximations or distortions’. I’ll come back to this.

‘All religions are true in what they agree about; and false wherever they disagree’ may have some truth about it in identifying a hierarchy of truth but it is over optimistic about the clash of truth claims there is between religions.

Lastly  ‘All religions are true and any contradictions are superficial’.

Again too optimistic – some of you may have heard this very beguiling story along those lines from Kevin O’Donnell’s book ‘Inside World Religions’ .

‘There were five blind Hindu holy men on the banks of the Ganges. A tame elephant wandered among them one day. One reached out and touched its body; he thought it was a wall of mud. One touched its tusks and thought these were two spears. One touched its trunk and thought it was a serpent. One touched its tail and thought it was a piece of rope. The last one laughed at them and held onto its leg. He said it was a tree after all. A child walked by and asked, ‘Why are you all holding the elephant?’

The story is quite seductive, a sort of ‘plague on all your houses’ that fits those who say ‘all religions lead to God’. The parable is used by Hindus to teach each faith has the truth but not the complete picture.

So where does this lead us? As I said earlier to the third thesis that one religion only is true, the others mere approximations or distortions’ which is the consensus of most Christian churches.

In John chapter 14, verse 6 Christ said: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me’ and in Chapter 18 v38; ‘Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.’

If everyone believed that life would be simpler and I wouldn’t be speaking as I am this morning!   Putting it in a more challenging way to you and I, the existence of other religions is proof of our failure to meet with Jesus at a deep level and become the heart to heart draw we’re meant to be through his magnetic love.
What though of those who’re drawn elsewhere? We see distortions of Christ’s truth in faiths and also approximations.  If you read my book ‘Meet Jesus’ it has a section on how I see other faiths where I write:

‘Saying yes to Jesus does not mean saying ‘no’ to everything about other faiths. It can mean saying ‘yes, but…’ or rather ‘yes, and…’ to other faiths, which is a far more engaging and reasonable attitude.

I say ‘yes’ to what Buddhists teach about detachment because Jesus teaches it and Christians often forget it. At the same time I must respectfully question Buddhists about the lack of a personal vision of God since I believe Jesus is God’s Son.  

I say ‘yes’ to what Muslims say about God’s majesty because sometimes Christians seem to domesticate God and forget his awesome nature. At the same time, I differ with Muslims about how we gain salvation, because I believe Jesus is God’s salvation gift and more than a prophet.’

Other faiths can wake us up to aspects of Christian truth that might otherwise get forgotten. What might happen, for example, if Christians were as serious in their spiritual discipline as many Buddhists are?’

In conclusion I invite you to think through this week’s questions along those very same lines – ‘What good do you see in people of other faith?’ Then, mindful of the Gospel reading this morning , that God so loved the world he gave us his only son, I invite you to think about what’s very basic to us as Christians namely the question ‘Can religion lead you to God?’ Our faith sees religion as expressing love in return for love since in Christianity it is God who leads us to God.

So it is this morning in the eucharist – we can lift our hearts to God in the eucharist only because God so loved us as to give us Jesus whose word and body are the subject of this service.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Lent 1 9th March 2014

On Monday in London on my day off I bumped quite remarkably into Eddie. I say remarkably since there are 9 million folk in London and its surrounds so it was extraordinary to meet someone by chance who’d been on my bus on our True Life in God pilgrimage to the Holy Land in September.

There’s something about Eddie - a social worker based in Highbury, mid 40s, who has a wondrous assurance of the love of God. A few years back he’d been persuaded to go on a pilgrimage to Medugorje, came back and on his birthday treated himself to a full English in a cafĂ©. He felt prompted by re-awakened faith to say grace for his meal. As he did so he was, in his own words, utterly zapped by the love of God. It still shows and it might show in me because his company is infectious.

During Lent we’re linking sermons to Tuesday’s and Thursday’s Talking Points for which this week’s two questions, at the end of your booklet, are ‘how do you see God?’ and ‘what light does Jesus Christ shed on God?’ The idea is we take away the service booklet, ponder the scripture and this teaching from the pulpit, maybe come and hear John Hall, Dean of Westminster Abbey on the Talking Points programme and one another’s thinking in the Tuesday or Thursday group discussion on these two questions. We might even like to start talking over coffee today – nothing stopping us!

How do you see God? Like Eddie I see him as all powerful-love surrounding me and you and all he’s made at all times, whether folk know or don’t know what Paul describes today as the free gift in the grace of the one man Jesus Christ. In Lent we centre, and the readings centre, on what God’s done for us in Jesus which is this week’s second question what light does Jesus Christ shed on God?  

With these two questions in mind I want to look with you at the first two readings this morning from Genesis 3 and Romans 5 which go to the very heart of Christianity.

Their truth was summed up in two verses of Newman’s hymn Praise to the holiest  we sang at the entrance procession for this morning’s eucharist:

O loving wisdom of our God! When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came.

O wisest love! That flesh and blood, which did in Adam fail,
Should strive afresh against the foe, should strive and should prevail.

Those verses sum up the analogy between Adam and Christ presented in the second scripture reading building on the first which I invite you to look at again with me on p2 and p3 of our booklet.

First the Genesis 2 and 3 reading. It expresses in magnificent poetry the great truths of creation and fall.  If we find light on God from Jesus Christ it is, as the Romans passage indicates, in the saving significance of his death and resurrection we celebrate at Lent and Easter. Genesis tells us we are God’s creatures yet fallen creatures. Something has gone wrong with us. We’re not what God intended us to be.

Take a minute to read through the passage again on your own, Genesis 2.15-17 and 3.1-7.

I wonder what you felt? Especially the ladies? A few thoughts.
  • The Hebrew word for man is “adam” so even if the author intends it as the name of an individual first man we’re in order to see it as the personification of Everyman. Adam’s story is our story, as is Eve’s.
  • We should not press her role in the story as it’s been pressed in the past, when woman was blamed for the Fall more than man being the one deceived by the serpent. In the Romans passage Paul says nothing about Eve and actually blames all on Adam.
  • Man and woman are jointly responsible for their fallen condition and can’t blame God or the devil for it – we’ve made and continue to make wrong choices that head us away from what God intends us to be.
  • Whilst our wrong choices weigh against us, and our fallen condition makes it harder to choose rightly, scripture makes clear in this story that we’re still responsible for our actions.

Let’s go on to the second reading Romans 5 from the bottom of p2  which takes up the account of Adam’s fall we’ve just looked at and balances it with the restoration God has given us in Jesus Christ so that, with Eddie, we can experience his redeeming love.

It’s not an easy passage I’m afraid. Here are some thoughts:
  • It starts with a clear truth: Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, [and ]so death spread to all because all have sinned and then there’s a massive digression which we could have removed for reading in Church, lines about the period between Adam and Moses when, since there was no Law people, weren’t technically accountable.
  • Reginald Fuller’s commentary on the Sunday Lectionary takes up this loss of thread in Paul’s argument in Romans 5 and suggests this helpful summary of the passage: As Adam began a history of fallen mankind, characterized by sin and death, so Christ began a new history of mankind characterized by acquittal, life and righteousness. Yet it is not an analogy in which both sides are of equal weight… Christ’s achievement is far greater than Adam’s… death was negative, life is positive. Death’s dominion enslaved man, Christ’s dominion sets him free.

All of which brings me back to John Henry Newman’s summary on the fall and redemption from Dream of Gerontius we sang earlier:

O loving wisdom of our God! When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came.

O wisest love! That flesh and blood, which did in Adam fail,
Should strive afresh against the foe, should strive and should prevail.

What light does Jesus Christ shed on God?  Read Romans or sing Praise to the holiest to capture the light he sheds, or use this four liner:

God made us for friendship (hold hand upwards).
Sin came in as a barrier (place book on hand as symbol of the barrier),
Christ died to lift the barrier (lift book off hand)
Making us friends with God (raise hand up again)

To know that friendship, to sense the love that lies over us and around us and beyond us in heaven, we need Jesus! We need to see how in the words of John 3.16 God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that all who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life.

The world around us finds it easier to believe in Genesis 3 than Romans 5. Reasonable folk admit the effects of our fallen-ness but they miss out on that which goes beyond reason, which is the very good news that brings us to Church on a Sunday. Paul describes this news today in Romans as the free gift in the grace of the one man Jesus Christ and elsewhere  in 1 Corinthians 15.22 he uses these words: as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive

We’re given the Lent challenge, forty days of training, to help us come more alive to Jesus Christ and see the power and direction of God coming more to bear upon the world through the exercise of our faith in prayer, study and good works.

As we go to his altar this morning we go mindful of Eddie seeking a fresh anointing in God’s love which seeks to touch the centre of our being in the consecrated bread and wine of the eucharist.

I leave you with this week’s questions How do you see God? What light does Jesus Christ shed on God? 

Take time to ponder these in the coming minute and the coming week for they touch on what is transformative for you, the church, the village and the cosmos!

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Sunday next before Lent 8am 2nd March 2014

It’s three days before the Lent challenge and it’s natural to think about that this morning at the eucharist.

Each year Lent’s given us to remind us, as the Bible says to run with perseverance the race that is set before us looking to Jesus (Hebrews 12.2).

We’re given the Lent challenge, forty days of training, to help us make a difference to the world, the church and to our spiritual lives. I put it that way round to keep our sights on the big picture. The training we accomplish will bring the power and direction of God more to bear upon the world through you and me.

As we go to his altar this morning we might have to face the truth before God – that we’re really out of training.

The bicycles before you isn’t the sort you find in the gym but it’s meant as a teaching aid for us all this morning

How does a bicycle work? How does it get its power and direction?  It receives its power and direction from the cyclist through its spokes to its wheels.

You and I are believers on the move. We travel empowered and directed by the Holy Spirit through the disciplines, spokes of the Christian life especially prayer, study and action.

Lent is an opportunity to refresh our discipleship by fresh attention to our spiritual discipline. You don't get disciples without discipline.

Our sisters and brothers of the Muslim faith have provided us in their keeping of Ramadan with an example of discipleship we should ponder. If only a handful of Christians took Lent as seriously as they take Ramadan there would be a spiritual revival in our land!

The Lent challenge is there from Wednesday. Forty days to get into training. 

Coming back to those spokes that bring power and direction to the wheels of a bike what are the spiritual spokes or disciplines you and I can attend to?

I'll give you three. Three spokes would be enough if they were broad spokes and I'm talking broad headings at this stage - prayer, study and action.

Spoke 1 - Prayer. I came back from Gran Canaria a month ago where I was reminded that prayer is like sunbathing. You need to book your lounger, strip off and lounge.

Several people have told me over the years how much they appreciate the silences in the Eucharist. Try a silence at home. You looking at God and God looking at you. Try stopping everything for 5 or 10 or 15 minutes a day from Wednesday. Book your space, strip off your preoccupations and lounge in God's presence. I can't promise you it'll be like Gran Canaria but it will make a difference to you and through you to the world.

Sunbathing can be a corporate activity. In Lent there's a 25 min extra Eucharist on Tuesday morning at 10.30am and Stations of the Cross on Saturdays at 5.30pm.

Spoke 2 - Study. One of the things that is really getting to many of us as Christians is the way Christian faith gets ridiculed and sidelined in the United Kingdom. We lose our confidence. Lent is an opportunity to build up that confidence and this year we’ve got the four week Premier Radio Talking Points listen again on Tuesday evenings and Thursday afternoons to help with that.

Maybe a weekly course is difficult for you.  Pick up your Bible. Read a Gospel - Mark only takes 90 minutes for an average reader. There’s a 100 minute catechism on our Church website called Firmly I Believe CD set – 40 3min talks on the creed, sacraments, commandments and prayer with mood music backing.

The last spoke - Action. We need to pray and to study but most of the difference we make to the world comes through unselfish Christian action. I hesitate to illustrate this but charity begins at home. Lent is a time to identify and address what and whom we're neglecting.

It may be a time to look at best use of our time and talents and see how these may be more fully woven into God’s work among us. I shared the other week about our need for help in administration and in the sacristy as well as for new PCC members, and a new Churchwarden for James’ term, alas, comes to an end next month. The words are shocking to me – next month! Rather than me knocking on doors may Jesus do some knocking on hearts so folk will knock on my door with offers of service and I’m not just talking the big ask of ‘Churchwarden’  – Christianity is after all a supernatural religion!

Prayer, study, action - alone or with the Church - these are disciplines we should ponder and refresh this Lent. These are spokes given to help God's power and direction flow more through us into a needy world.

God grant us all a happy and holy Lent! Jesus grant that fruits of his passion may grow in us! Come, Holy Spirit, and give us all fresh power and direction so the kingdom of this world may become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ!