You Are Loved, You Have Hope, You Are Not Alone

Dorchester Abbey

A sermon on Romans 12:9-21 at Dorchester Abbey.

Good morning! It is wonderful to be with you today. Let me quickly introduce myself: I’m Hannah and I work for an organisation called Viva. Viva is an international children’s charity which grows locally-led partnerships who are committed to working together so that children are safe, well, and able to fulfill their God-given potential and last year we reached 2.2 million children in 26 countries. But whilst my colleagues jet off to places like Uganda or Lebanon, my role takes me to the exotic location which is Cowley and other areas in and around Oxford. I manage Viva’s network here in the UK called Doorsteps. Doorsteps is relatively new, it’s only been around a couple of years, but it was started because Viva’s heart is for children worldwide including those here in Oxfordshire, those on our doorstep.

Outside of work I help lead the youth work at my church in Oxford and last week I took some of my teenagers to a Christian festival called Soul Survivor, which involved camping for five days. Now, I hate camping. It is not something I consider fun and even if you like camping, I imagine it slightly loses its appeal when you’re camping with around 9000 teenagers. The state of the toilets still haunts me. And I was just having a bit of a grumble to God one morning about how much I hate camping when I looked over to my young people just hanging out with each other. And in particular I saw my super cool 17 year-old boy playing a game with my phenomenally energetic 12 year-old girl and they were just interacting with each other so wonderfully and I was watching what my other young people were doing and the woes and horrors of camping just evaporated. And all I could say to God was, ‘God, I just love them so much!’ This passage from Romans which we heard earlier is given the subheading ‘love in action,’ and we read in verse ten ‘be devoted to one another in love.’ When we love something, we can’t ignore it, we feel compelled to respond. I love the teenagers in my youth group and I know how much they love going to Soul Survivor and so how could I not take them? And actually one of the things they get from being taken is the affirmation that they are loved, that someone would do this for them.

At Doorsteps, we run a project called Find Your Fire which is all about supporting young people who are struggling, who have really low self-esteem and whose future looks desperate and myself and my youth worker colleagues we come alongside them and mentor them and taking that time to invest in them, to show them care and compassion and love, it changes them. I was chatting to one of my colleagues recently about the difference between the young people at the start of Find Your Fire and at the end of it. These young people stand taller, they have more confidence. At the celebration day one of them was taking me through a list of things they’d done that day and said to me, ‘I couldn’t have done this without Find Your Fire.’ Now they actively look forward to what the future holds because someone put love in action to come alongside them and help them realise their potential. And this love in action is twofold: first it’s us as Doorsteps and the practical things we do to show them how much we care. And second, it’s the young people themselves realising that there are people who care for them, who champion them, and who love them. ‘Be devoted to one another in love,’ it sounds nice, it sounds like something that we should all be doing. And at Doorsteps we see what the practical outworking of that can look like and the impact on the lives of these young people is just incredible because it shows them repeatedly and emphatically: you are loved. That’s the overriding message of the Gospel: you are loved, we see it paradigmatically in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. You are loved.

It would be wonderful if just knowing that we are loved solved everything, at Doorsteps we don’t underestimate the impact of it because we see the effect it has on people. But what so many of the people we encounter lack is hope. The catalyst for Doorsteps’ creation was Operation Bullfinch, which was an investigation into child sexual exploitation in Oxford and one of the hostels where girls were being abused was just round the corner from Viva’s head office. And if you were familiar with the case or have read anything or watched anything on some of the other high profile grooming scandals, such as Rochdale and Rotherham, they offer just a small insight into an utterly abhorrent situation where primarily young girls were just subjected to appalling treatment. I was speaking recently to someone who knew one of the girls who had been groomed and this person had listened to her tell her everything that had happened to her. And when she finished, she asked her, ‘what was the worst part?’ And the girl replied, ‘hearing the central locking of the car go down.’ Because that was the point at which she felt hope was lost. Those words just floor me every time I remember them. And that point of hope being lost appears again and again and again in the stories of those who were targeted in these gangs around the country. Losing hope is the story I hear from young people at the start of Find Your Fire, losing hope is the story I hear from the families waiting to be matched with a befriender in Doorsteps’ family befriending project, losing hope is the story I hear from around the county in response to children’s centres being shut down.

And yet, as a Christian I fervently hold to those amazing words in the beginning of John’s Gospel, ‘light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.’ My prayer for all those who encounter Doorsteps in any capacity is that they will know that despair is not the end of the story, that there is always hope. In today’s passage in Romans we read ‘be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.’ Yes, it’s easier said than done, but it speaks to something invaluable which is the encouragement to keep going because no matter how bad things might be right now, this darkness is not the final word. We live in a society that writes people off if they don’t seem to measure up and this attitude just leaves despair in its wake. And yet hope, Christian hope, is inextricably linked with joy and it inspires perseverance. If I manage to achieve only one thing as Doorsteps Project Manager then I hope it is this: showing people that there is always hope. For just as you are loved, so you always have hope. You have hope.

Love and hope are marvellous and wonderful and not to be underestimated, they are central to the message of God in Christ. But it is not simply enough to tell people this good news, we need to live it. As Christians, as people who know the love and hope of God means we cannot but show this same love and hope to others. But how best to go about doing this? The way Viva works is through networks, so we have 38 networks around the world, partnerships of churches and other organisations working together for the good of others. The founder of Viva was volunteering in Bolivia and he found that on a Monday evening there were all these different churches providing food for homeless children but then they weren’t there for the rest of the week, so Tuesday-Sunday these children starved. Through the simple act of connecting these churches, the children were fed more often.

One of the things that I find in my job is that it is such a comfort to know I am not alone. I work with some great people to deliver these projects, but I know that Doorsteps is not alone in its dream to see children and young people reach their potential. For the young people taking part in Find Your Fire, for the families who are really struggling and who we are hoping our family befriending scheme will support, they similarly need the comfort to know that they are not alone. And we can and should practically make this real to people. Romans continues, ‘share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality… Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn… Do not be proud but be willing to associate with people of lower position… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’ To be shown that you are not alone is love in action, it sustains people through hope. It shows people they belong. In belonging, we meet again the God who is love, the God who loves so much that he inspires those who love him to look out for the least, the last, and the lost, and to bring them into belonging.

‘Be devoted to one another in love… Be joyful in hope and patient in affliction… Share with the Lord’s people who are in need.’ Challenging words which if we act on them, live our lives by them, change the lives of those around us for the better. My prayer for all those who encounter Doorsteps, the marginalised teenagers, the struggling families, is that they will know that they are loved, that they have hope, and that they are not alone. It the same prayer I have for myself and for each one of you here this morning: you are loved, you have hope, you are not alone.

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Storms Will Come, But Christ Is In The Boat

Wakefield

A sermon on Mark 4:35-41.

I thought we would start this morning with a quick quiz. It’s called, guess the phobia. It’s very simple, I promise! All you have to do is guess what this phobia or fear is, and to make it even easier, it’s multiple choice.

First one: What is arachnophobia?

Is it… a. Fear of flying; b. Fear of the dark; c. Fear of spiders; d. Fear of water

Second one: What is turophobia?

Is it… a. Fear of small spaces; b. Fear of falling asleep; c. Fear of cheese; d. Fear of clowns

Third one: What is anatidaephobia?

Is it… a. Fear of snakes; b. Fear that a duck may be watching you; c. Fear of holes; d. Fear of the colour yellow?

Final one: What is blennophobia?

Is it… a. Fear of mucus; b. Fear of crowds; c. Fear of thunder; d. Fear of The Peace

I’ll give you a clue for this one: I have this phobia.

I wonder what phobias the disciples may have had. I don’t imagine they were at all afraid of water as they set out on their boat that day. For those who were fishermen, this is familiar ground for them and by all accounts it’s a peaceful day.

But this peace doesn’t last long. We read in verse 37, ‘a furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.’ It’s a terrifying thing to imagine. This picture here on the screen was one I took from a plastic pedal boat in the middle of a lake in Canada. And what you may be able to tell from this picture is that all was not especially calm on the lake that day. In fact, a hurricane was making its way up the East Coast of America and heading straight for us. Top tip: if there is a hurricane headed your way, don’t be in the middle of a lake in a plastic pedal boat.

The disciples panic. It’s easy to hear the fear in their voices when they shake Jesus awake and say ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’? Jesus ‘got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”’

Of course, Jesus calms the storm. Throughout scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, God always turns chaos into order, it’s what’s known in biblical studies as the chaoskampf motif. Transforming chaos into order is what God does. We can always have that hope, then, that the chaos and tumultuous situations we find ourselves in, are not the end of the story.

There’s a famous theologian you may have heard of called Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and one of the few Christian leaders in Germany to speak out against the Nazi regime. In one of his sermons, Bonhoeffer says this:

Let’s say there is a ship on the high sea, having a fierce struggle with the waves. The storm wind is blowing harder by the minute. The boat is small, tossed about like a toy; the sky is dark; the sailors’ strength is failing. Then one of them is gripped by… whom? What… Someone is there in the boat who wasn’t there before… he shrieks: Stranger in this boat, who are you? And the other answers, I am Fear. Now the cry goes up from the whole crew; Fear is in the boat; all arms are frozen and drop their oars; all hope is lost, Fear is in the boat. Then it is as if the heavens opened, as if the heavenly hosts themselves raised a shout of victory in the midst of hopelessness: Christ is in the boat. Christ is in the boat, and no sooner has the call gone out and been heard than Fear shrinks back, and the waves subside. The sea becomes calm and the boat rests on its quiet surface. Christ was in the boat!

Bonhoeffer delivered this sermon in early 1933. In 1945, he was executed in a Nazi concentration camp just two weeks before it was liberated. In a letter he wrote while imprisoned he said, ‘May God in his mercy lead us through these times; but above all, may he lead us to himself.’

Storms will come. Storms will come, circumstances may turn sour, we may find ourselves in desperate situations, things may overwhelm us with fear, but Christ is in the boat. It is great that one day the storms of life will be no more. It is greater that in the storms of life God is right here with us leading us to himself. The miracle of this story is not that Jesus calms the storm, great though it is; the miracle is that the disciples realise Christ is there with them. The miracle of the paralysed man lowered through the ceiling is not that he got up and walked, but that his sins were forgiven. The first miracle of the cross was the thief on Jesus’ right-hand side who ceased mocking Jesus and accepted him instead. Could God have gotten him down from the cross? Of course. But if the choice is between getting down from the cross or being united with God, I know which one I’d rather choose.

I think Bonhoeffer is onto something in the way he personifies fear. Fear can be so much more than just an emotion, it can be a master we feel a slave to. Maybe this master for you is a particular situation, maybe it’s something you do that you don’t want to do or know you shouldn’t do, but fear has left you feeling trapped.

‘Why are you so afraid?’ Asks Jesus. ‘Do you still have no faith?’ Why are you so afraid? I am here with you. When I first read this passage, I thought Jesus was chastising the disciples. ‘Why are you so afraid?’ He asks, tacking ‘you idiots’ silently on the end. But I don’t think that’s how he said it. ‘Why are you so afraid?’ It’s okay, I’m here, I’m not letting you go. You don’t have to be afraid.

It only takes the smallest amount of faith to floor a huge amount of fear. At the name of Jesus, fear can no longer compete nor compare. If you’re anything like me, then your default position when fear comes is to panic first and pray second, or more realistically, panic first, pray 476th. But if you flip it the other way around, if you pray first and panic second, the peace of the Lord intervenes and panic gets forgotten.

Storms will come, but Christ is in the boat. Not every storm, not every situation, not every fear, will God end in just a whisper. But in every storm, God will be right there with us, leading us to himself, it’s one of his foundational promises to us so have faith! Have faith, do not be afraid. Storms will come, but Christ is in the boat.

 

Love Fiercely, Love Intimately, Love Persistently

8212243206_23b5c4a2df_b.jpg

A Maundy Thursday sermon on John 13:1-17, 31-35

If you were following the news last week, you may have heard that there was a bit of an Easter crisis. Cadbury’s had teamed up with the National Trust to put on an Easter egg hunt, however, rather than calling it an Easter egg hunt, they called it the Cadbury’s Egg Hunt. And numerous people from the Archbishop of York through to the Prime Minister, viewed this as an egregious attack on Easter and everything Easter means. But if you want to find the people who are sticking up for Easter and defending it, happily they all hang out in the same place: Twitter. Now I would love to read you some of the tweets of Easter defenders verbatim, but common decency prohibits me from doing so. But here are a few censored examples of people fighting for Easter.

‘Went to Tesco to buy Easter eggs last night. Seems they don’t sell Easter eggs now just chocolate eggs! Won’t be using Tesco again – boycott!

‘Bought Cadbury’s Easter eggs for the neighbours kids and now they’re all going in the bin.’

‘I find I “accidentally” have a problem when handling Easter eggs that don’t say Easter on them. It’s a shame because once broken they are no longer sellable. So strange my thumb never crushes the ones with Easter on them. I wonder why.’

To which someone replied, ‘Destroying children’s Easter eggs for Jesus. #it’swhathewouldhavewanted’

And yet, when we come to this passage in John’s Gospel, we get a picture of Jesus that is a world away from destroying confectionary just because the word ‘Easter’ doesn’t appear on it. Jesus knows that he is mere hours away from prolonged agony. Someone he loves is going to betray him, others he loves are going to deny him, he’s going to be tortured, mocked, humiliated, and he’s going to be crucified not just despite the fact that he is innocent, but because he is innocent. He is the only person who does not deserve in any way what he is going to go through, and yet he willingly goes through it. And although we know the magnificent ending to the story, it doesn’t make the pain any less difficult to go through.

But despite knowing all that was to come he is filled with love. There it is in verse one, ‘having loved his own who were in the world he loved them to the end.’ ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’ He loves them to the end, he loves them fiercely.

And Jesus demonstrates this love in a profound and beautiful way. ‘He poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.’ Some of you may know that I invest quite a lot of care and attention on my nails, but I am ashamed to say that this care and attention does not extend to my toes. In fact my feet in general are pretty terrible which is why you will never see them! My nail varnish on my toes is chipped and reveals that I don’t actually remove my nail varnish and just paint new coats over it and due to having abnormally narrow feet, so as not to lose my shoes when I walk, I wear shoes a size too small for me so my feet basically look like they belonged to my 94 year-old grandmother. If anyone here is a foot doctor, please don’t judge me!

So if Jesus was here and he said to me that he wanted to wash my feet, my response would be no. No thank you, Jesus, I’m alright thanks, I’ll spare you from my feet. But that is how I feel about a lot of things, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Don’t get too close, Jesus, don’t get your beauty too close to my mess. The act of washing his disciples’ feet was Jesus loving intimately. One by one, he washes his disciples’ feet. He washes the feet of the of the person who he knows is going to deny him three times. He washes the feet of the person he knows is going to betray him in just a few hours. He washes the feet of his followers whose feet show that they have walked miles and miles following him and serving him. This is how Jesus loves us: intimately.

There are many incredible things about Holy Week, but in the next three days especially there is the most fantastic collision of humanity with divinity. In the next three days, the fullness of God’s power and glory is on incredible display, destroying sin, defeating death. And also in the next three days, the fullness of human life is on bold and raw display. Because we all have days that are like Good Friday. We all know pain so intense and so unfair that it feels like we’re going to burst. And we do all have days like Easter Sunday where we feel deep joy and the peace and confidence that comes with it. And we have plenty of days like Holy Saturday. Days where it we’re just doing the best we can, where at times it’s mundane, and at times it’s confusing. Days where following Jesus feels like striving and like we are just getting tired and weary feet. But the Jesus who washes our feet, regardless of what has caused them to get into the state they are in, loves us persistently. His love persists through whatever it is we’re facing, be it pain, or joy, or in the every day. He loves us fiercely, intimately, persistently.

And he issues us a challenge, the challenge to love as we are loved: fiercely, intimately, persistently. Maundy comes from the Latin mandatum or mandate, the mandate or command Jesus gives us in verses 34-35: ‘A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ It’s not an easy command.

‘As I have loved you’ means we have to wash the feet of those who will hurt us. ‘As I have loved you’ means we have to wash the feet of those we’d rather not go near. ‘As I have loved you’ means we have to wash the feet of everyone, including the person who would really rather you didn’t, the person who for whatever reason is afraid to be known and makes it hard to love them. When I first started coming to St Clement’s, I did a really good job for the first few months of getting out of church as quickly as possible once the service had ended. And I did this with great success until one day, I was cornered by somebody. And they asked my name. And they asked what I did. And they asked if I wanted a cup of tea. And from then on, whenever they were in church, my plan to slip out failed. And because of their persistence and their love I ended up in a home group and ended up getting to know more people in church, and then ended up calling this place home and the people in it, family. And without such fierce, intimate, persistent love, my life would be much much poorer.

‘As I have loved you’ is a twofold command. First it is to let Jesus in, to let him wash our feet, to let him love us with the fierce, intimate persistence that he does his disciples. Second, it is to love others the same way, to love people just as they are, to love people, despite the fact that it so often comes with a cost. Jesus tells his disciples ‘as I have loved you’ because that is what they need to remember over the next three bewildering, painful, glorious days. Jesus tells us ‘as I have loved you’ because that is what we need to remember for others as well as for ourselves, for our bewildering, painful, and glorious days.

‘As I have loved you, so you must love one another.’ As Jesus has loved us, the free, powerful, vulnerable, earth-shattering, temple-veil tearing, sin-destroying, death-defeating, feet-washing love, so we must love one another. ‘As I have loved you…fiercely, intimately, persistently, so you must love one another.’