Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Wednesday 29 July 2009 - Live, love, learn

This was the last sermon I gave at my post in the Kidderminster and Stourport Circuit; it was given at an ecumenical service of Holy Communion that worshiped together every Wednesday.

The sermon is based on John 12:1-8.



Today the church celebrates the festival of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Our Gospel reading for today contains all three of these characters as well as Jesus, but it also contains another character: Judas.

If you were going to make a film out of this morning’s story, I reckon that you could turn this into quite an uncomfortable scene.

Lazarus has just been raised from the dead in the previous chapter and, although the text doesn’t say it explicitly, we imagine that Jesus is having a celebratory meal with these friends who he loves. Mary then does something that would be as embarrassing as someone in our society hiking her skirt up to her thighs.

In my imaginary film I can just see Judas portrayed as a model of calm and sensibleness, looking at Mary with an attitude of pity and announcing: “The money you spent on all the drink you’ve just poured down yourself could have been given to poor”…

So when Jesus opens his mouth to speak, we expect that he’s going to take Judas’ part and tell Mary to calm down and stop making everyone uncomfortable. But instead Jesus tells Judas to leave her alone. And the narrator tells us that Mary’s heart is right with God and that Judas’ is not.


Although today is the feast of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, it’s the character of Judas who is the foil that helps us learn from the example of these three siblings.

Let’s think about the difference between the Judas and Lazarus to start with. Lazarus has experienced resurrection and Judas has not.

None of us has any idea of what it would feel like to be resurrected, but there are people in our culture who have had near death experiences. It seems to me that one universal outcome of such experiences is that people often have a sense of the true meaning and the true value of life.

I imagine that Lazarus might feel that he has nothing to lose and everything to gain. He’d lost his life but now he’s found it again and every moment, every day, every taste of food, every drink, every moment shared with a loved one is a sweet and joyful bonus.

Judas, I imagine, thinks that life is much more serious than this. Life is about freedom from political oppression and Judas will stop at nothing to get it.

But although Judas is serious and apparently lacking in a certain degree of empathy, we are also told that he is not straight. Judas’ serious outlook toward life did not prevent him from stealing from the common purse.

Lazarus, along with Jesus, is on the right side of resurrection.

The readers of this story are invited to be on the right side of resurrection as well: the poor will always be with you until the resurrection of the dead and the kingdom of God has come.

Turn your sights to the day when God’s children will live in true freedom. Be like Lazarus and live the resurrection life today.

Workers for the Kingdom

Then we have Martha.

Poor old Martha; I always think she gets a bit of a raw deal. Martha does all the work of the kingdom behind the scenes and, although she always gets mentioned, the picture I have of her is as some sort of generic worker-bee.

And it’s the Marthas – male and female – who are the backbone of the Church, and often the backbone of society’s army of carers. People who quietly do the work of God asking for no recognition or reward who often influence the lives of many for good.

Here again, though, is a contrast with Judas.

I imagine the Judas thought of himself as working for the coming of the Kingdom of God. But I suspect that he also wanted that kingdom to come in a blaze of earthly glory. And I somehow doubt that he would have been content to fade into the background.

Martha, unlike Judas, understands what the real work of the Kingdom is. We are called to be like Martha. When we work, we work for Jesus and for the Kingdom of God. We do not work for personal glory or gain.

Prophets for the Kingdom

And then we have Mary.

Mary the sister who sits at the feet of Jesus learning from him. But Mary who also embarrassingly proclaims her love for Jesus in today’s text.

Mary is something of a prophet. She is happy to ignore what is normally expected in society in order to learn from Jesus. And she is happy to embarrass herself in order to proclaim the profound truth about Jesus: Against all expectations of what the Messiah will be like, Jesus will have to die in order rise again.

The Messiah does not look like what the world expected. The Messiah will not bring about the Kingdom of God the way that the world expected.

That, of course, is the great contrast between Judas and Mary.

Judas insisted that Jesus must follow his expectations. And when Jesus’ Messiahship didn’t follow the pattern that Judas wanted, he was willing to betray Jesus. Mary learned from Jesus. Judas expected Jesus to learn from him.

Need I say: be like Mary, learning from Jesus. Do not make God in your own image.


Mary, Martha and Lazarus appear to have been amongst Jesus’ closest friends during his earthly life.

But we celebrate their lives not simply because of their intimacy with Jesus, but because they represent three important aspects of being a follower of Jesus. Resurrection life, active discipleship, and the willingness to pray and learn from Christ.

As we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together this morning, I pray that we all may be strengthened for the journey ahead. May we learn from Christ, may we seek to follow him actively and may we always keep our eyes on the resurrection. Amen

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday 19 July 2009 - A heart of Reconciliation

This sermon is based on Ephesians 2:11-22



Ephesians 2:14 For he (Christ) is our peace; in his flesh he as made both groups (Jews and Gentiles) into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

Christ has broken down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile. I wonder if anyone here this morning would disagree with this idea?

It seems like a no-brainer to us, but it was a hot topic for the early church. A VERY hot topic, in fact. It was as emotional and contentious to the early church as any of our own hot topics are to us.

And the topic of whether or not Gentiles had to be circumcised before being accepting into the church was not the only thing the Early Church was arguing about.

In the New Testament, we hear that the early Church was arguing about whether or not to eat food that had been sacrificed to idols or used in Pagan temples. They were fighting about the proper way to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and this debate got so heated that Paul even ends up pointing out that some of the early church members might be at risk of eating and drinking to their own condemnation.

The early Church fought about the marks of leadership, about what the fruits of a God-appointed leader looked like and even whether or not Paul himself was a leader appointed by God. And they fought about charismatic gifts: Should supernatural gifts be used in public worship or was worship to be a place of strict order and dogma?

Close to Home?

Whilst we ourselves might think silly the debates about Gentile membership or food sacrificed to idols, some of the other issues might start getting a bit too close to home. We are happy to accept uncircumcised Gentiles in the Church these days, but what is the Church’s track record when it comes to opposing anti-Semitism?

And debates about the nature of the Lord’s Supper or what sort of person should lead or whether or not charismatic gifts are to be used in worship are not debates that are entirely unheard of in the Church today.

So, if we’re tempted to write off this morning’s reading from Ephesians as yet another all-too-familiar no-brainer statement about the unity of Jews and Gentiles, let’s not do that.

Let’s appreciate the seriousness of the emotions behind this particular issue and let’s not feel too smug or superior as we listen to author telling us that through the flesh of Christ, the dividing wall between factions has been broken down and that the former hostility has been turned to peace: to Shalom.

Because, at the end of the day, this reading is not really about Jews and Gentiles both being accepted by God as disciples of Christ. What this reading is about at its most fundamental level is Shalom. Peace.

And Shalom is not just the absence of violence; it is a holistic peace where a right attitude toward God and toward our fellow human beings shows us the potential of human life as it was first created to be. Shalom, is, above all, an attitude of the heart.

Living without Forgiving

A story is told of a famous preacher who was asked by a friend of his to preach at his church’s morning service.

As the famous preacher went up to the pulpit, he looked out into the congregation and saw a very angry-looking woman sitting on the pulpit side of the church. The preacher felt that the anger, which was so apparent in her face, might put him off his message of Good News, and so he decided to preach to the other side of the Church.

The only problem was, in his direct line of sight on the other side of the church was another woman, almost the same age, sitting there exuding as much anger as the first women. The preacher decided that he would have to deliver his sermon somewhere in the vague direction of the centre aisle, which he preceded to do!

At lunch with his friend, he was told that the two women were sisters and they’d had a small disagreement about 25 years ago and they weren’t speaking to each other. The visiting preacher said ‘It’s a good job they don’t live together!’ to which his friend replied ‘But they do!’

The friend went on to explain that each sister had told him that she was prepared to forgive the other, but that the other sister had never asked to be forgiven. Each one concluded that she was not prepared to forgive her sister until the other woman asked for forgiveness.

And so they had spent 25 years living together and becoming people whose anger was apparent for all to see.

God the Reconciler

The Good News that we hear in this morning’s Epistle Reading is that God is not like that.

The reconciliation that God offers to people through his Son Jesus is not a reconciliation that depends on us making the first move toward God, because we can’t. It is not our saying sorry that causes God to forgive us, but rather God’s offer of forgiveness that calls our repentance from us.

The Good News in today’s readings is that God makes the first move toward reconciling us to himself.

Elsewhere, scripture tells us that it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us. Of course, we still have to recognize the gift of reconciliation that God gives to us in order to benefit from the gift. And I think that it is really in this recognition that we can begin to achieve the kind of peace – the kind of Shalom – that God wants for every one of us.

The point of my sermon this morning isn’t so much to say to you ‘Be thankful for the reconciliation that God has offered to you by being reconciled with others’, although that is of course true.

My point this morning is rather to point you to the truth that reconciliation is God’s way; It’s God’s way for creation and it’s God’s way for all his children.

Reconciliation is, if you will, one of the central tenets of the Christian faith, it is central to Shalom and it is central to being the kind of people who God wants us to be.

Ironically, it is in reaching out to others by trying to find a point of commonality that our own lives will be enhanced. It is in making the first move toward forgiveness that our own peace will be grow. Just like love isn’t love until you give it away, so too reconciliation isn’t reconciliation until you give it away.


As we come to the Lord’s table this morning, let us give thanks for our brothers and sisters in Christ who came before us and who challenged mindset of denominationalism so that we can freely celebrate communion with each other today.

Let’s also think about those situations where reconciliation is still needed. There are still many of these: I expect in our own personal lives, in our communities, within our own churches and even still between some Christians.

And let’s also give thanks to God for the forgiveness and reconciliation afforded to each and every one of us in Christ.

And may the Spirit enable each one of us to be messengers of peace. Amen

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sunday 12 July 2009 - Sow Love, Reap Hope

This sermon is based on Ephesians 1:1-14 and Mark 6:14-29. This was also the last sermon that I preached at one of my four churches.



What a contrast we have in the two different readings assigned for today.

The first reading we heard was from the letter to the Ephesians: a letter that is dedicated to explaining the covenant relationship between Christ and his Church universal.

The particular reading that we heard this morning/evening from the beginning of the letter was written in a style that would have been familiar to people in the Greek and Roman world. It’s a eulogy of praise that people might have heard given at a banquet in honour of a wealthy patron. Except that here the words of praise are not directed at a human being but toward God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.

The second reading we heard this morning/evening was from the Gospel of Mark as the assigned readings continue through the 6th chapter of Mark. This reading is quite a contrast from the glorious opening verses of the letter to the Ephesians. Here we have a dark story: a powerful man (Herod) who recognizes the prophetic calling of a man of God, but who nonetheless allows the forces of jealousy, anger and hatred to have their way. And John the Baptist is killed because of the evil intentions that Herodias has been harbouring in her heart toward John the Baptist.

It occurred to me that there is a contrast in these two readings between different attitudes of the heart:

The first reading expresses all sorts of Godly and constructive perspectives: the praise of God, gratefulness, unity with God and with fellow Christians, forgiveness, grace, wisdom, goodness, hope, abundant life, truth, redemption and good news.

But the second reading is a lesson in evil. We see that evil arises from wrong-doing and from anger and vindictiveness.

We also see illustrated in this story the fact that evil is given free reign when good people do nothing to stop it.

So my thought for today is ‘Be careful what you wish for’. Or maybe more accurately, ‘Be careful what you think’

Keep your Eye on the Goal

Many moons ago, my husband and I decided that we were going to take golfing lessons together. I still can’t really play golf because I never learned how to use a driver, but that’s a different story.

As those of you who do play golf know (and pardon me if I’m teaching my grandfathers to suck eggs but) this is a game that is not just physical, but it is also mental.

And one of the things that our golfing instructor taught us was that we should visualize where we wanted the ball to go before we took a shot. If we wanted to get the ball on the green, we should visualize not only the green but also the hole that we were aiming for. He also pointed out that the worst possible thing that we could do would be to think ‘Don’t go into the sand trap, don’t go into the sand trap.’

Guess why? Because our brains would be thinking about the sand-trap and visualizing the sand-trap and that’s exactly where the ball would end up going. The combination of the physics of golf and the leverage involved in the game somehow manage to transmit your thoughts into physical action and to have a real effect on the direction of the ball.

As you think, so shall you reap.

Herodias’ thoughts were apparently on revenge. We are not given any details about what Herodias, Herod’s wife, thought and felt prior to asking her daughter for the head of John the Baptist, but we can well imagine the strength of emotion behind this request. How long had Herodias been rehearsing this day in her head? How long had she been wishing for John to get his comeuppance? She certainly seized the opportunity to initiate his death the minute the opportunity presented itself.

In a foreshadowing of Pilate’s role in Jesus’ crucifixion, we get the impression that Herod would rather let John the Baptist go all things being equal. But events seem to have taken on their own momentum and ordering the death of this holy man is now Herod’s safest option.

Herodias’ evil thoughts led to evil being unleashed in to the world.

A World of Grace and Hope

But look at the contrast with this morning’s Epistle reading.

We move from a world of evil to a world of grace and of hope. We move from a world ruled by the forces of chaotic, incoherent evil to a world ruled by mercy, by grace and by hope. We’ve moved from the Kingdom of Evil to the Kingdom of God on earth.

I suppose that one lesson you could take from what our golf teacher taught Trevor and me is the ‘power of positive thinking’.

But the power of God’s Kingdom isn’t just the power of positive thinking. All the positive thinking in the world isn’t going to do anyone any good if hope isn’t real, if the Kingdom of God isn’t real. The words that the author of the letter to the Ephesians uses are powerful words precisely because they are expressions of the underlying truth of God’s rule.

It is certainly true that there is evil in the world. Today’s Gospel story reminds us of its power. But the Good News that Christians proclaim is that, in Christ, the powers of evil and chaos and confusion have been conquered.

That means that we do have real choices, under God, about the influence we have on the world around us. It is not futile to hope. It is not futile to seek to do what is right. It is not futile to forgive.

The choices made by God’s people can and do help to further the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.

And it is by being careful to tune our hearts and minds in to the will of God that we can be used, as God’s church, for agents of good in the world.


At the end of the day, the task of a Christian preacher is both very easy and very difficult. The easy bit is the Gospel message.

The Gospel of Christ is that creation has been set free from the powers of evil and that human beings have real power to choose good. The Gospel of Christ is about the fact that God loves each and every individual and wants to draw each person to him.

The difficult bit for the preacher is that we need to find 50 or more different ways to say this every year!

But, I think that, most of us understand intuitively what is important in life and that is love in all its various aspects and relationship in all its various aspects: with God and with other people.

By turning both our thoughts and our deeds in God’s direction, we gain practice in all those things described in the introduction to Ephesians: The praise of God, gratefulness, unity with God and with our fellow human beings, forgiveness, grace, wisdom, goodness, hope, abundant life, truth, redemption and good news.

My prayer this morning is that, as we prepare for our ways to part from one another on this stage of our journey, we may all grow in the grace and knowledge of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To him be all the glory for ever and ever. Amen

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Sunday 5 July 2009 - Being Prophetic

Today's sermon is based on Ezekiel 2:1-7 and Mark 6:1-13

There are some similarities with last week's sermon as these two were preached to different congregations.



In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus has just come back from doing great deeds of power in Galilee. He is now in his hometown and it would seem from this morning’s reading that the people are not amused.

I wonder if Jesus would have been better received if he had come into town as a healer? After all, he has just exorcised a demon-possessed man, healed a sick woman and raised a dead girl. And all of these people have not only been healed of their aliments, but possibly more importantly, they have been restored into their communities.

The occupation of ‘healer’ would have been a recognized occupation in first century Palestine. And the healing work that Jesus has just done in Galilee would most likely have been of great value to any community. Jesus wasn’t just dealing in home remedies for everyday complaints (and let’s not minimize their value in a pre-scientific culture); he’d just healed some pretty tough cases.

Ironically, the raising of the young girl might be the easiest of Jesus’ recent healings to explain away.But Jesus has also shown power over something which looks to us like schizophrenia and he’s healed a woman who has been hemorrhaging for 12 years. Jesus’ healing power works on the tough cases.

Jesus the Teacher

But Jesus didn’t come into his hometown as a healer. He came into his hometown as a teacher. And in today’s story Mark, unlike Luke, doesn’t even give us a hint what it was that Jesus was teaching in his hometown. But we are told of the effect of the teaching: the hearers recognize it as a powerful message and they reject it angrily.

Carpenters weren’t supposed to teach; who did Jesus think he was? The people of Jesus’ village knew all about him; I’ll bet some of them were pretty convinced that they actually knew Jesus better than he knew himself. These people knew that Jesus wasn’t a teacher and they knew that he wasn’t a healer either. It was almost inevitable that they would reject his message.

And, we are told, that Jesus wasn’t able to perform miracles because the people of Nazareth (I’m assuming) didn’t have faith in him and his teaching.

Faith in Jesus’ Teaching

I wonder what that means - Faith in Jesus and his teaching? From what Mark has to say, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that Jesus’ message might have been one of healing. And Luke’s account of the same story suggests a ‘healing’ message as well: the message that God is not just the God of Israel but of all people.

This is a message that has the power to heal not just individuals, but the world. But, of course, it is also a dangerous message.

Because if we open our worldview to others, if we open our minds to the idea that God might love other people as much as he loves us – that he is on their side as well as ours - then we lose a good deal of human-made security. We will have to give up the idea of building fences to keep other people out of our lives; be those fences literal ones of chain or stone or wood or even – dare I say it – of national borders. And we will have to be open to the possibility that God also works in the lives of people who we view as frightening or as our enemies.

Learning Healing

But if we simply hear this teaching and we don’t apply it in practice because we don’t believe it or because it is too hard, then there isn’t going to be any healing in the world.

If countries continue to operate on the basis of Realpolitik – of deterrent force - then the world will not escape ongoing cycles of warfare. If communities do not seek forgiveness and understanding then strife between people of different ethnic groups will continue in many parts of the world – not least in Northern Ireland. If individuals do not forgive one another and treat one another as precious gifts of God, then families and communities will continue to be torn apart. Children & elders will continue to be abused, and family members will continue to suffer from mental illness, addiction and all manner of stress-related physical symptoms.

Healing is possible, but only if we believe in it enough to ask God for the grace to change.

Embracing Healing

Now that I think about it, maybe the people of Jesus’ hometown wouldn’t have embraced him if he had come to them as a healer. Because healing and repentance have always been linked together. And repentance means to turn around and go in a different direction. Repentance means to walk in God’s direction rather than to walk along the path of prevailing social values.

And going against the grain of the values of wider society is difficult. It requires us to give up a good deal of perceived safety and security. To embrace forgiveness rather than revenge requires us to give up safety and security. To risk relating to those who we find frightening requires us to give up safety and security. And – dare I say it - to risk believing that God loves people outside the church or outside of Christianity as much as he loves us requires us to give up safety and security.

If we think about ‘having faith in God’ in terms of repentance and in terms of seeing life in a way that is different from prevailing social values, it’s easy to see why faith can be difficult. It’s easy to see why living prophetically can be difficult. It’s easy to see why Ezekiel found it difficult to tell the people of Israel that God had allowed the exile to happen because of Israel’s unfaithfulness.

And it’s easy to see why Jesus warned the disciples that their message would be rejected by some people in the community. Nevertheless, Jesus called his disciples to go out into the community and to depend for their well-being on the very group of people who were liable to reject them.


At first glance, it might seem that there isn’t a lot of good news in today’s Gospel reading. But it wouldn’t be correct to take this portion of Mark’s gospel and look at it in isolation from the rest of the Gospel.

It is good news that God is a God of healing. This is not just a God who is a common garden-variety healer; this is also a Creator God whose desire is to heal everything that he has made.

As always, the good news is that Jesus is Lord and that Caesar is not Lord. Peace of body, mind and spirit – the Shalom of wholeness – comes from loving God and loving our neighbour as ourself. God’s peace is not the peace of Rome; it is not the peace that comes from might making right. God’s peace is the peace that comes from seeking to obey the law of God but also by living out that law in a loving way that takes account of circumstances and individual situations.

Because the good news is that God loves all of his creation and there is no one from whom he withholds the offer of his salvation.

Jesus showed us the way; as the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, Jesus showed us the character of God. But he didn’t just show us God’s character, he died and rose again so that we could enter into relationship with God.

And that, of course, is the very best news of all.

I pray that as we go from this place, that the Spirit will fill us with the courage to dare to get out into the community and tell those who do not know about the love of God. I pray we will be passionate about proclaiming this message even when it means that the message will not be gladly received. And I pray that, as we continue our journey as Christ’s disciples that we may continue to be amazed by hope, love and the peace that passes all understanding. Amen