Seek The Lord And Live

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A sermon on Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90:13-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

I heard the story recently of a priest whose church features a list of the ten commandments on display. A visitor to the church was looking forlornly at the list and said to the priest: ‘I’ve broken all of these… oh, except murder’ he hastily added. To non-Christians, Christianity can often seem like a religion of rules. Ask someone whose encounter with Christianity began and ended with primary school to quote a Bible verse and it’s highly likely their guess will begin ‘thou shalt not.’ Christianity and by association Jesus Christ, seems to be all about limits on life.

The rich man in Mark’s Gospel clearly wants more. He comes to Jesus saying, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He says he’s kept all the commandments, which, for those of you who have parented teenagers, will perhaps find that claim a little hard to swallow with regards the fifth commandment! Jesus looks at him, loves him, and says ‘‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving.’ Jesus loves, the man grieves. What a response to God’s love; as the Psalmist says ‘satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.’ Jesus loves, the man grieves. Jesus offers a love without limit and a life without limits, but the man can’t see it. In what he must let go of – his money, his possessions – he won’t do it. He won’t limit his life like that, and in doing so, limits his life completely.

The fallen world makes us believe that security and freedom are found in power and things rather than in the person of Jesus Christ, rather than in the justice of God Almighty. There are over 2000 verses in the Bible that address poverty and justice, and the Book of Amos is particularly known for its strong emphasis on social justice that God commands. The prophet declares ‘seek the Lord and live…seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you…hate evil and love good, and establish justice.’ But we so easily seek other things, things which promise freedom, but slowly kill us and, sometimes not so slowly, kill those less fortunate than us.

I live in Oxford, a city known for its fancy university, a site of great thinkers having major breakthroughs; it’s produced 150 Olympic medal winners, 27 British Prime Ministers, and 20 Archbishops of Canterbury. But it’s only one small side to Oxford. 1 in 4 children there live in poverty, there are ongoing issues with child exploitation, and for A Level students in the area of Barton only 20% of them will go to university, whereas for their peers five minutes down the road in Summertown, 80% of them will go. The city of Dreaming Spires is actually, for many people, a bit of a nightmare.

There are plenty of parallels to be drawn between British society today and Israel in the Sixth Century BC, where the prosperity and wealth of some Israelites was side-by-side with exploitation of the poor and the vulnerable. It’s part of the reason why the Church has waged war on Wonga, because using your privilege and power to the detriment of others leads both you and those you perceive as beneath you, to destruction. On that day, you will be ‘laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom you must render an account.’ So why do we do it? Why, when we have so much already, do we seek to gain more at the expense of those who have nothing?

The rich man who game to Jesus wanted more. Something within him obviously new that he was not satisfied; wealth might have brought him some freedoms, but there were limits to that freedom. He claimed to have kept the commandments not out of humility, but out of hubris, out of a belief that he could earn the unearnable. It’s impossible, it’s like a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle.  When we think that we must earn our way into God’s love, we effectively put ourselves in cages. We believe the lie the fallen world tells us that freedom is to be found in possessions and power and that once we have them, we must not let go of our grip on them. That fear makes us selfish, it causes us to mistreat people, and it takes us further and further away from God. The rich man wanted eternal life, he wanted the ultimate freedom, but rather than the seek the Lord and live, today and for forever, he sought a way to freedom that he could control. Jesus asked him to lay down everything so as to gain everything, to limit what he owned so as to gain limitless life. And he wouldn’t do it.

Seek the Lord, says the prophet, Amos. Follow me, says Jesus. It’s scary, it’s costly, and it looks limiting. But in seeking and following, Jesus gives us the ultimate freedom.

Seek the Lord and live today and for forever.

In that famous hymn, ‘Rock of Ages’ it says, ‘nothing in my hands I bring, simply to your cross I cling.’ Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to your cross I cling. And in that moment, you have everything. You hold nothing, rather you are held by perfect love, perfect justice, and perfect peace, and you are carried into eternal life.

What is it you are carrying that you think brings you freedom? Maybe you are like rich man, maybe it is something else. Whatever it is you cling to, Jesus wants you to lay it down and cling to him instead. When you come to the altar, as you hold Christ’s body, know that he holds you and that in letting go, you’re not losing everything, but gaining everything that matters. For salvation is impossible for us to earn, but not for him, not for the God who loves you, for God, all things are possible.

Seek the Lord and live, today, and for forever.

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God Is Calling

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A sermon on Luke 5:1-11

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I did an interview with Premier Christian Radio for their programme ‘Called To Be A Priest.’ I’m on from 15:58! Click here to listen.

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Simon Peter’s washing his nets after a hard night’s work. By all accounts, it’s been a frustrating night: he and his friends have caught nothing, despite all their hard work, despite doing everything right. He looks up, and there’s Jesus getting into a boat, his boat as it happens! Simon Peter knows it’s Jesus because you don’t easily forget the guy who heals your mother-in-law! He goes to him, Jesus asks to be taken out a little way from the shore, and he obliges. He gets a front row seat as Jesus turns his boat into a pulpit and preaches the word of God to the gathered crowds.

As the crowds start to disperse, Jesus turns to Simon Peter and says, ‘put your nets out.’ Simon Peter looks slightly incredulous for a moment, ‘But we worked all night and caught nothing, but because it’s you, Jesus, I’ll do it.’ Fish rush the nets which begin to break under the strain, Simon Peter calls for reinforcements to deal with the fish stampede. He looks at all the fish. He looks at Jesus. He falls to his knees before him. ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.’ As those around him continue to marvel at the massive aquatic haul, Simon Peter knows that the real marvel is the man in front of him. Jesus continues, ‘Don’t be afraid; you see all this?’ He points at the fish. ‘You’re going to keep doing this, but with people, my people.’ They return to the shore, Simon Peter drops everything, and follows Jesus.

We know it turns out to be the best decision Simon Peter makes; he gets a front row seat at Jesus’ miracles, at his teaching; he plays a key role in the early church and in proclaiming the Gospel. And, I was in Rome this time last week, he gets an alright basilica named for him! His recognition in that moment on the boat of who Jesus is and his decision to follow him and respond to his calling, is the beginning of a pretty spectacular, if not always easy, adventure.

But what if Simon Peter hadn’t listened to God’s call and responded in the way he did? He didn’t have to. He’s still got a couple of Jesus-stories he could’ve dined out on for the rest of his life. When news reached him of Jesus’ death he could’ve said, ‘Oh, that’s a shame, back in the day he came here, healed your grandmother!’ as his children rolled their eyes, having heard the story a hundred times before. ‘Back in the day.’ ‘I met him, once or twice.’ ‘I heard that he did some miracles, yeah, he offered me the chance to come with him… still, I’ve got that day with the fish to remember him by.’

It’s very easy to encounter Jesus and not have it change your life. You can meet the living God and have it stay with you as something wonderful and incredible that you will always remember, and then watch from the side-lines as he goes about his kingdom business. ‘But because you’ says Simon Peter. But because God is who he says he is, if he we see him, if we recognise him, how can we not respond as Simon Peter did? We are not created to be bystanders, we are not called to watch God from a distance. We are created to be active participants with the Holy Spirit bringing about God’s Kingdom here on earth; we are called to take up our place as God’s chosen, as God’s beloved, as God’s hands and feet. If Simon Peter had shrugged off his call, stayed a fisherman, the amount God loved him would not have changed, not one bit. But in realising his call, in his realising who and what he was created to be, in recognising that Jesus is God, he got to experience so much more of God and be used by him in unimaginable but incredible ways.

A man gets to heaven and St Peter is giving him a tour of the place. ‘Throne room is over there, the angels live upstairs, they’re a bit raucous.’ ‘What’s in here?’ asks the man. ‘Oh, you can have a look, but I recommend you don’t.’ The man’s like ‘Totes having a look’ and opens the door and let’s out a massive sigh. In the room are boxes full of all the blessings, all the opportunities, all the moments of intimacy that God wanted and had planned for the man and that he had avoided.’ Don’t be a bystander. God’s first calling on each and every one of us is to himself, to know him and experience him and through that intimacy with him, discover who we are created to be. God knows what he’s doing, he knew what he did when he made you, and the most important thing he made you to be is his child and his friend who he can spend time with. Don’t be a bystander. Get involved with the God of universe, take up your front-row ticket and your backstage pass. Don’t be a bystander.

Don’t be a bystander and don’t make excuses! Simon Peter almost tries to, ‘but I’ve caught no fish, why try again?’ He doesn’t make the same mistake when he’s called to be a fisher of men. As Rachel mentioned earlier, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and talking about calling this year as I have been in the discernment process exploring a call to ordination. Trust the Church of England to take something very exciting and make it sound really dull! Unlike Simon Peter, who was obedient to God’s call pretty much immediately, I was not. I made so many excuses to God about why I couldn’t possibly do this thing he was calling me to. God, I’m not holy enough, I’m not clever enough, I’m a very unhelpful combination of being bossy and yet also shy, which, God, seems awfully unhelpful for a vicar. Then I went for, God, I can’t do this because I’m a girl and not only that, I’m not even married – and both of those arguments went down spectacularly badly with God.

And there are many things I have learnt in this process of discernment and wrestling with God over his call on me. The first is, I’m not fully qualified. But that’s not a problem, God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called. The second is, I will never be fully qualified. There’s a really good reason for that, which is, I’m not God. I cannot bear the weight of this calling on my own, I have to continually turn to Jesus, to lean on him and his power rather than doing it by myself, in my own strength. And third, it’s not actually all about me. I can’t do it, I’m not holy enough, I’m not clever enough, I’m not good enough so I won’t do it – that attitude makes it all about me. And it’s not. Your calling doesn’t just affect you, it affects those around you.

We are all like instruments in an orchestra; we play different roles and play at different times, but if we don’t play at all, someone else misses their cue. God’s call on you, isn’t just for your life but other people’s lives as well, and you might have no idea and be completely oblivious to how God uses you in this way. You know, I stayed at St Clement’s because one person followed God’s prompting to say hello to me, to ask my name, and what I did, and get to know me. They were following God’s call to use their gift of welcoming and hospitality, and had no idea that God was using them to speak something very specific from God into life. Rachel mentioned a few weeks ago about the importance of encouraging one another in our gifts, of discerning people’s calling. I am so grateful for all the people who have encouraged me in my calling. We never do discernment of our calling alone, we do it with God and we do it with one another. And as we go about responding to God’s call, we continue to do it together; God never expects us to bear the weight of it by ourselves.

Don’t make excuses, because it’s not all about you. But also, don’t make excuses, because some of those excuses are not from you. Excuses like, ‘I can’t afford this’ or ‘my boss wouldn’t like it’ or ‘how do you expect to have a comfortable retirement’ are not questions that are prompted by common sense or thinking rationally. Excuses like ‘oh, I thought God was calling me to this but that was probably just my imagination’ or ‘was God there in that situation, or did I just get through it by myself?’ If it causes you to doubt God’s faithfulness and sovereignty, then it’s not from common sense, it’s from the enemy. And the enemy wants nothing more than to turn you in on yourself, because if you’re turned into yourself, you’re not looking God. You’re not looking at the one who calls you and who is faithful.

Don’t be afraid. says Jesus in verse 10. Don’t be afraid. God is faithful. God is faithful, has been faithful, and always will be faithful. We’re at the start of Simon Peter’s journey, if you want to know just how faithful God was to Simon Peter, just know, we’re on week 2 of an entire sermon series on him and his life and we’re going to be with him until like nearly Christmas. And when we’re not bystanders, we get to experience his faithfulness every day if we let him in. The biggest joy of the discernment process for me was I had to look back over my life and I realise that there has not been a single moment since the 21st November 1991 where God hasn’t been faithful. Jesus reveals who he is to Simon Peter before he reveals his calling, because it means we have to trust him first. The voice of common sense says, this is the God who has never let me down, if he says go or do or be, my money’s on him. Look at the cross, his cross, it’s the most perfect and enduring mark of his faithfulness.  So don’t be afraid; Jesus is going to repeat that to us as he does to Simon Peter. Even when you can’t see how it’s going to work or what the future holds, God sees it, he holds it, and he holds you. Don’t be afraid, the one who calls you is faithful.

So what are you waiting for? God’s calling, don’t wait! He’s faithful, he’s good, he’s created us for a particular calling. And I don’t know that might be for you. It might be God’s called you to something specific, a specific job or a specific place. It might be that he has called you through a particular gifting that you have that he wants you to exercise. God is creative, so don’t do discernment through a narrow lens. And often the first step to realising God’s call on you comes from other people, so let’s discern together, we’re family, it’s part of our remit. And when you realise what it is, don’t wait. Don’t wait a single moment, but do a Simon Peter and just go for it.

I waited ten years; it was ten years between God first calling and my doing something proactive about it. Of course it’s good to test vocations, but it’s also important to be obedient. God was persistent with me, he never let it go, but what I’ve never told anyone is that there was a time for about eight months, where God was silent on the topic. And I can tell you exactly where I was when I realised that I hadn’t heard any voice mention my calling. And I can tell you exactly how I felt. Through fear and excuses, I followed my own path that I thought would lead me to freedom but instead it bound me in chains. I’m pretty terrified about how the rest of my life is going to look, to be honest, I really don’t think I’m going to suit a dog collar, but the agony of glimpsing the blueprint of my soul and then realising it’s been locked away is the worst feeling. And when God, faithful, wonderful God, called again, handed me back the calling I was created for, I have never felt so alive and so free and so loved.

Don’t wait. Don’t wait to draw close to God, to take up your first and most important calling which is to being his beloved, knowing him and being known by him, experiencing his incredible love. Don’t wait until you think you’re ready, because otherwise you’ll be waiting for forever. You’re going to sin anyway, it’s a downside to being human, you might as well do a Simon Peter and sin right next to Jesus so he can forgive you and pick you up right away. Don’t wait a moment longer to say however timidly, however worriedly, however excitedly, ‘Here I am.’ Don’t wait.

Don’t be a bystander. God is calling you to himself.

Don’t make excuses. It’s not about you, it’s about the one who’s called you.

Don’t be afraid. Because the one who calls you is faithful.

Don’t wait. It begins with just three words: Here I am.

There’s More To Life Than Life

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A sermon on Philippians 3:12-4:1.

When I was 15 I was given an assignment in school to set the three goals I wanted to achieve by the time I left school at 18. I thought long and hard about what the three things were I wanted to achieve and came up with goals I thought were eminently achievable: the first was to duet with Barbra Streisand, the second was to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and the third – and most important – was to marry Hollywood heartthrob, Zac Efron. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t achieve these by the time I was 18. I am now 26 and still haven’t achieved them. And, call me a pessimist, but I just have a slight hunch that I may not ever achieve any of these goals as my life might be going down a slightly different direction.

We all make plans, from our days to our whole lives. In movies and by advertisers, we are sold a particular narrative of what life is meant to look like, mainly successful, with a moment of character-building heartbreak, and then a glorious happy ever after. Life is presented as an upwards trajectory, something neat and defined.

The thing is, life doesn’t always seem to pan out like that. To quote that famous philosophical treatise from the 1990s, ‘so no-one told you life was gonna be this way, your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s DOA, it’s like you’re always stuck in second gear, when it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year.’

There’s more to life than the tidy path to a happy ending, there’s more to life than just life. It’s often far more messy and complex than that. There is brokenness, there is pain, there is sin, and there is death. We all experience things which wound us deeply. What are we to make of those experiences? If we call ourselves Christians, followers of and believers in the God who is the source of all life and joy, how do wounds and sin and death fit in to life lived in Christ?

On first reading, Paul’s message to the Philippians offers a relatively simple solution: ‘forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’ Paul’s response to the messiness of life seems to be just forget about it. Makes sense, really, if you’re Paul. This is the guy who is responsible for killing Christians, he’s been imprisoned, he’s been shipwrecked, he’s got an unrelenting thorn in his flesh causing him some kind of difficulty, and he’s facing the ire of officials because of his conversion to Christianity and passionate proclaiming of the Gospel. So forgetting all the rubbish and just focusing on Jesus seems like a pretty sensible option. Selective amnesia makes pursuing the upwards trajectory of life far easier.

Except, that’s just not how life works. Try as we might, we can’t forget our wounds. We can try and ignore them, we can try and fill the gaps with other things, and we can leave them to scab over or stick on a plaster and hope for the best, but they’re still there. So is Paul being naïve when he advocates forgetting as key to pressing on with life? Or is that not what he’s saying at all?

There’s more to life than life and pain, because there is resurrection. ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection’ says Paul, and this is the goal to which he is striving for, ‘the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’ And this is a literal, historically proven resurrection. This is not simply a comforting metaphor, but an absolute reality. After all, a metaphorical resurrection is of very little hope to beings whose death is no metaphor.

But you don’t get resurrection without wounds. When Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, his wounds were still visible, his followers were able to touch them. Resurrection hadn’t erased them, but it had transformed them. From the wounds of crucifixion and death and sin and darkness, resurrection transformed them into wounds of hope, of triumph, of salvation, of new life.

In resurrection, God makes our wounds his dwelling place. He cleans out our wounds, rids them of the rubbish and pain and sin and instead makes them places where he is alive and where we can encounter him and be empowered. Our wounds no longer become painful and debilitating, but a place where Jesus brings perfect comfort and begins to heal us.

This is what Paul forgets in pressing on: he forgets the guilt and sin of his past and remembers he has total forgiveness; he forgets what he had tried to fill his wounds with to try in his own strength to make himself whole. But he doesn’t forget his wounds, only he is now able to press on because his wounds are a source of Christ in his life, a foretaste of resurrection power today to be fully revealed on that future day, Jesus has promised will come. So we can, as Paul encourages us, ‘hold fast to what we have already attained.’ We get to live as resurrection people, wounded, yes, but in those wounded places being transformed by the God we encounter there and on the path to healing.

And in that place we discover what the goal really is, what the thing is we should be striving to achieve: and it’s sharing in Christ’s resurrection. Good news: Jesus did the hard part! All we have to say is ‘yes’ to him as Lord, ‘yes’ to him as the source of forgiveness, ‘yes’ to him to come into our wounds and make them his dwelling place.

This should make us free. Life no longer becomes about striving for the upwards trajectory, we are not bound by worldly markers of success or happiness. Rather, in both joy and pain, we are in Christ Jesus, whose plan for our lives begins with us knowing absolutely and deeply how much he loves us.

My biggest wound is that I’m fatherless. One which I did well at filling. And then I let God in to do some healing. And that was that. Wound was inflicted upon me, I made it worse, God did some healing, nice metaphorical plaster I stuck on top, and now I don’t have to think about it. I can press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus blah blah blah, end of story, onto the next thing.

Except it wasn’t. We have an endlessly creative God and a really repetitive enemy and we don’t yet have the fullness of the resurrection promise. When we don’t let God continually tend to our wounds, it becomes so easy to try and fill them ourselves or have others hand more grit into them. And thinking that God had completely dealt with the fatherless wound made me careless. I thought it was over and so I didn’t notice how I and the enemy had tried doing our own hatchet job on my wound. It became re-filled with pushing people away before they could abandon me, doing things to make people like me, and forgetting God’s love for me and trying to earn it instead.

We still have pre-resurrection bodies. God’s healing is for these emotional hurts will always require the maintenance delivered by divine encounter. We need to be mindful of our wounds and let God continually work on them and make himself known to us in them. They are vulnerabilities which he does not abandon us to, but releases resurrection power in to. Our wounds will one day fully go away, but until then, they don’t become things we can completely forget. That’s why God comes into our wounds and makes them his dwelling place, transforming them into sources of resurrection life and transforming us in the process.

God’s encouragement to me was to peel back my own layer over my fatherlessness wound and let him back in there to keep working and keep on healing. It’s a bit costly. Because Jesus is in my wound but so are my fears. My fears noisily exclaim that I’m unlovable, that I’m not wanted, that I need to do everything I can to finally be good enough. Fear shouts, but Jesus whispers: he says I’m loved, he says he wants me so much he went to the cross to make a way for me, he says that grace is unconditional, I can’t earn it. Whispered truths are more powerful than shouted lies. In my woundedness I experience God’s resurrection power. In my woundedness, my pain is taken seriously and my sin is forgiven. In my woundedness, I daily encounter the living God who has made real to me the goal to which I now strive towards.

Our wounds are no longer a source of weakness or of pain, but of Christ’s empowerment as he transforms the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory. We press on towards the goal of continued transformation by Christ’s resurrection power, that our life is redefined by his, that ultimately, new life awaits us. But that in the brokenness of life right now, he is here with us, wounded with us, but also transforming us and healing us. There is more to life than life, there is woundedness, but there is resurrection.

‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection… Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own… I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus… Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way.’ Amen.

 

Named. Loved. Empowered.

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A sermon on Ephesians 3:14-21/

Good morning! It’s wonderful to be with you today; my name is Hannah and I work for Viva as Doorsteps Project Manager. 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 fulfil their God-given potential and last year we reached 2.2 million children in 26 countries. Doorsteps is the name of Viva’s network here in Oxford and I help co-ordinate its work with children, young people, and families. I know that for many of you here, you are already familiar with the work of Viva, you have been and continue to be, very much part of the Viva family in how you have championed and supported us over the years. So let me begin by saying a big thank you to you for your support, and I apologise if anything I say today is repeating things you already know about Viva and our work with children around the world.

So let’s begin with these great words one from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul loves the people in the Church of Ephesus, it’s so clear: ‘I pray that out of God’s glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.’ This entire passage gets to the heart of what so much of the New Testament is about: we are a family of people together, in other New Testament letters, Paul describes this family as being one body, united in the person of Jesus Christ. Unity, togetherness, are hallmarks of Paul’s theology and this is what drives him to pray for the Church at Ephesus and to praise God for them. He loves them, he wants the best for them.

The distinctive thing about Viva, its USP if you like, is our networking pattern. 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. By the process of networking rather than owning, we go some way to achieving this unity that Paul, inspired by Jesus, longs for.

From this passage, there are three things I would like us to go away knowing today: we are named, we are loved, and we are empowered.

Verse 14, ‘for this reason I kneel before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.’ Names are a big deal. It’s why names are often carried on through families, why we have affectionate nicknames for our close friends and families, and it’s why when people call us bad names, it really hurts – names matter.

In Viva’s Guatemala network, there is a project called ‘I Exist’ which is helping children from the poorest communities receive birth registration. Unregistered children lack basic rights such as education and health care. They are invisible to the stage and because of this are highly vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and trafficking. There are currently an estimated 600,000 children in Guatemala who do not have a birth certificate. Viva has been working with the government authority responsible to change this situation. By setting up birth registration centres in local churches which are part of our network, we have so far given over 5000 children registration.

Maggie’s family has not had the money to register her. When she was five years old, she was rushed to hospital needing a gall bladder operation. What made the situation even more distressing was that her mother didn’t know if she would be allowed to return home afterwards, because she wasn’t registered and her father was unwilling to co-operate. Viva managed to step in before it was too late. They were able to obtain a medical report from the health centre where Maggie was born so they could register Maggie using only her mother’s name. Today, Maggie has recovered well from her operation. Birth registration is a complex process, but by giving this to Maggie, we are changing her life for the long-run as she can now access basic rights such as health and education.

Maggie is named. We are all named. We all have the right to accept our place as children of God, whose image we bear. We can be confident of our identity and the innate human dignity it affords each and every one of us. So claim your name which comes from Heaven.

I chose this passage in Ephesians to reflect on today because it is one of my favourites, with this bit in particular just the most moving and wonderful: ‘And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.’ Just take a moment to reflect on that, how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ for you, for me, for everyone. It’s really quite astounding.

If you are familiar with any early years studies, then you may know that being loved in the first year of your life really has the power to make or break a person. There was a report on this recently by the BBC titled ‘the children who are confused by love.’ It looks at children who have suffered abuse and neglect who can often become violent and distressed at the thought of being loved and that, once shown love and affection, become fearful of it going away.

Being loved can and does have a transformative effect on people. At Doorsteps, Viva’s Oxford-based network, we run a project called Find Your Fire which is for young people who could do with a bit of extra input in building their resilience and realising their potential. We had one young guy show up to the first session and he spent the whole of that session with his hood up, crying and we had no idea why. It was only afterwards that his school told us that he has ASD and a host of other learning disabilities and so he was just really overwhelmed by being in a new environment with new people. And we had weeks go by where we barely got a word out of him and he wouldn’t engage and he wouldn’t make eye contact. But we kept persevering. And now he engages with us and with the programme, he makes eye contact with us, he gets involved in group discussions – he has blossomed. At a recent session when he had a bit of a wobble and one of the youth work team went after him and he said to them ‘why are you doing this for me?’ To which she replied ‘because I care.’

Realising you are loved and letting that have its transformative effect can be a slow process. It’s been a long year at Find Your Fire where there were weeks where I thought we’re not making any progress, this is exhausting. But the week in, week out, showing up, showing we care, showing we think each of these young people is inherently valuable has paid off.

And how much greater is the love of God for each and every one of us.

There’s a song by an American worship pastor which has these lyrics, ‘oh the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God. Oh it chases me down, fights ‘til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine. I couldn’t earn it, I don’t deserve it, still you gave this love away. Oh the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God.’

God’s love, it’s of unfathomable proportions. Do you know just how fantastically and wonderfully and how overwhelmingly you are loved?

Paul’s final exhortation in this passage to his named and loved friends in Ephesus is that they may know the power of God at work within each of them, how they are empowered beyond anything they can dare imagine.

When we take up the call on our lives which God has empowered us to do, amazing things happen. Halima lives in Uganda. She left school are she fell ill and her family could no longer afford her school fees as all their money was spent on her treatment. Thinking she would never go to school again, Halima began to lose interest in education. Then she met Stella. Stella had been a student at a Creative Learning Centre, an initiative part of Viva’s network in Uganda, which help build confidence and catch up with missed education with the ultimate aim of reintegrating the children back into mainstream school. Stella encouraged Halima to enrol in the Creative Learning Centre in her community. There she received teaching and mentoring which inspired her to return to school. Today, Halima loves studying and has enrolled at a nearby school where she hopes to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer and fighting for the rights of others. She is empowered to make a difference.

Then there’s Puja, who lives in India. She’s seventeen years old and she has a disability and has suffered from low self-esteem because of the physical abnormality she has. She took part in Viva’s network programme in Patna, called Dare To Be Different. It gives the girls who take part value-based life skills training dealing with issues including rights abuse, self-esteem, media impact, peer pressure, sex and sexuality, adolescent health and making the right choices. Puja said that the training has infused in her the realisation that she is unique and beautiful saying, and I love this, ‘I feel confident and believe I lack nothing.’ I feel confident and believe I lack nothing. To be empowered is not just to believe you can change the world, it is to know that who you are is wonderful, is known, is loved, is created by a relational and powerful and living God. Claim your name, claim your love, and claim the empowerment by God to change the world around you.

You are named by the God of the universe, you are loved with a love of unfathomable dimensions, through God, you are empowered to follow his call and his leading to where you can make a difference. Viva doesn’t care about its own name, but the names of the people all over the world bringing help and hope to children at risk. We know names like Maggie and Halima and Puja because we know the names Carmen, Mim, and Devesh, the people in those countries who just wanted to make a difference to the children in their community. We love them and so our work is to empower them in their work.

God knows us. He has named each and every one of us. And he loves us. Receive the empowerment that comes from those two foundational and indisputable truths.

Be Filled. Be Free. Be Forgiven.

CM_Prints_FB

A sermon on Luke 2:21-40.

 

I’ve been reading lots of stories on social media this week about how gyms across the country will this week put away all the extra equipment they’ve had out for the past two weeks as people’s New Year’s resolutions to get fit pretty abruptly fall by the wayside. The rhetoric surrounding New Year’s resolutions is the idea of ‘new year, new me,’ it’s a desire for transformation. But what we often find is that changing is hard.

I don’t know if any of you made New Year’s resolutions and if so, how well they’re going thus far, but as we begin a new series in our morning services, exploring the glimpses of the living God in the early life of Jesus, this offers us the opportunity to reflect on what habits and spiritual disciplines we might want or need to cultivate that can help us to encounter God every day.

If you want to know what a lifetime of spiritual discipline looks like, Simeon and Anna are a good place to start. They are remarkable for being unremarkable; two ordinary people through whom God revealed the extraordinary; they both get their first glimpse of the living God in the flesh and both speak out about how this child before them will bring about the salvation of the world. They are two people just like us who dedicated their lives to God and who exercised spiritual discipline in response to divine encounter, which led to continued divine encounter.  That’s not to say their example isn’t intimidating! We read in verse 37 how Anna never left the temple, but prayed and fasted day and night. That’s a pretty serious commitment.

You may remember that a few months ago I made a pretty big commitment of my own. I joined the Community of St Anselm, which is a modern monastic-style community based at Lambeth Palace, led by Archbishop Justin Welby. One of the main elements to the community is having to follow a Rule of Life which contains no fewer than fifteen parts to it, in fact there are so many parts to it that I cannot remember what they all are off the top of my head. But one of the aspects to the Rule of Life is about welcoming the work of the Holy Spirit within us. It states:

We acknowledge that God calls us holy though our experience says we are not. In humility we say our ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ and choose to act in obedience to Him whose Word changes our reality.

Transformation without the help of the Holy Spirit and his sanctifying work in us is futile. It’s God who brings about lasting change within us. The impressive spiritual discipline shown by Simeon and Anna is not of their own making but is the work of the Holy Spirit in them, drawing them into deeper intimacy with God so that they are more familiar with his voice and his presence and so can respond faithfully to him. If we want to go deeper in our relationship with God, the first thing is to be filled; to give our ‘yes’ to God and allow him to fill us with his Holy Spirit so that he might begin that sanctifying and transformative work in us. Your past isn’t going to count against you. God offers each and every one of us the opportunity to be filled.

It is from that place of being filled by the Holy Spirit, that Simeon and Anna live lives of worship. For Anna, we see it in the discipline of her unceasing worship in the temple; for Simeon, we see it in his trusting in the promise that he will see the Messiah thus keeping close to God so that he is ready and willing to respond to the Spirit’s prompting.

Their exercise of spiritual discipline is quite different from how we might perceive spiritual discipline. The word discipline doesn’t necessarily conjure up the most positive of images. One of the reasons why I wanted to join St Anselm was because I thought it would be spiritual boot camp. I thought the best thing for my spiritual life would be to have a restrictive experience where my incessantly chatty inner monologue and easily distracted mind could be squashed under the weight of a Rule of Life which made anything other than prayer impossible. Then, and only then, would I learn to pray properly and graduate from being a Christian Level One and finally progress onto Level Two.

The problem is, I found the exact opposite. When you try to cultivate spiritual discipline without being filled with the Holy Spirit, your discipline is dependent on yourself. But this isn’t the motivation of Simeon and Anna’s disciplined lives. When you are filled with the Holy Spirit, spiritual discipline is not about restriction but about freedom. The Rule of Life we community members try to follow is not there for us to measure ourselves against and to see our shortcomings. Rather, the Rule of Life opens up ways for us to encounter the living God and in drawing near to him, we find mercy not punishment, we find the God who wants us to be free to worship him without fear. We need to be filled so that in our spiritual discipline we can be free to worship the living God rather than punish ourselves with our self-imposed restrictions.

Without this freedom, the Christian life is more of a slog– and it is a bit of a slog sometimes. Simeon is given a promise for which he has to wait an awfully long time. In a time and place where wannabe messiahs roamed the land promising everything and delivering nothing, Simeon waits on the Lord. And then, finally, it happens, something stirs his insides and this is it! The Messiah he’s been promised he will see has arrived. He races to the temple and – oh, it’s a baby. If I was Simeon and I had been promised that I would see the Messiah, I’d probably be expecting I’d get to see the Messiah being, y’know, Messiah-y. And yet God honours his promise to Simeon in a much more amazing way as he gets a glimpse of the salvation of all nations. When we are able to be free in our discipline it allows us to set aside our expectations of what we think God should do and, instead, we become open to God’s unexpected glimpses, which are always far more incredible than anything we could ever have expected.

It’s not easy. Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes life is bitterly disappointing. Imagine Anna, in a culture where women were raised to be wives and mothers, she gets married, her life trajectory seems set, and then it’s gone. But she keeps going, she keeps pursuing intimacy with God because she is free to worship, and that’s how you keep going with spiritual discipline when times are hard or mundane or busy. It’s a response to the God who is unchanging rather than being dependent on how you’re feeling that day. When we make spiritual discipline dependent on restricting ourselves to a standard we’ve imposed rather than a response to God, we lose the constancy spiritual discipline gives us to get through whatever life throws at us.

As part of St Anselm, I have to wear this cross. It was very strange putting it on for the first few weeks but now it’s a habit. If I forget it, I notice it; but what I don’t notice is how often I grab hold of it throughout the day and how the feel of it in my hand reminds me that God is with me. Spiritual discipline enables us to encounter the unchanging God and we don’t experience that through restriction, but through freedom. We need to be filled and we need to be free.

And finally, we need to remember that we are forgiven. Let’s hear those great words of Simeon’s song again:

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.

I love this passage in Luke’s Gospel which, for me, is one of the best passages throughout scripture. The glimpse of the living God we see is the God who has saved us. And there is no salvation for us without the forgiveness of our sins. And this revelation of God affirms that in the most wonderful way. Because here is God as a tiny baby, fragile and vulnerable, which resonates perfectly with our own fragility as human beings. When it comes to spiritual discipline, we will mess up, we will make mistakes. But we are forgiven. When we fall short, God doesn’t flounce off in disgust, instead he offers us his forgiveness. What we need to do is accept it for the gift of grace that it is and allow ourselves to be forgiven.

It’s counter-intuitive but sometimes we like to hold onto our guilt and our shame because maybe we don’t feel like God has ever truly forgiven us. Or maybe we’ve been holding onto those things for so long that we don’t know who we are without them. Maybe we hold onto them because we feel we deserve punishment rather than mercy.

But look at this glimpse of God seen here as a baby presented in the temple. This is a God who knows, a God who understands, this is a God who gets what it’s like to feel pain, and this is a God who loves you without condition, who wants you to draw near to him and encounter him day after day after day. This is a God who has revealed himself to you because he longs for a relationship with you. He has forgiven you, so allow yourself to be forgiven, show yourself the same mercy he has shown you.

Let’s be filled by the Holy Spirit so that we may be transformed; let’s be free in our spiritual discipline so that it comes from a place of worship rather than restriction; and let’s every day choose to be forgiven and so live each day with the living God who loves us and shows us his mercy. Be filled. Be free. Be forgiven.

Light Actually

lightactually

A sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and John 1:6-8, 19-28.

In the beginning of the classic Christmas film Love Actually, Hugh Grant’s character says in a voiceover:

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there… If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling that love actually is all around.

It’s a nice sentiment and yet often when I look at the state of the world, it’s hard to feel anything but gloomy. Maybe I’m too much of a pessimist, perhaps I am just a cynic, but I look at the world and I just feel a lot of despair. The UN has declared a humanitarian crisis due to the famine in Yemen, there’s a game of nuclear war chicken being played out via Twitter, homelessness has doubled in the UK in the past two years, on average this year, a woman has died every three days from domestic violence, and these Dreaming Spires of our city mask the fact that 1 in 4 children here live in poverty. As lovely as the saccharine sentiment of Heathrow’s arrivals gate as a conduit of love is, it doesn’t really seem to be enough.

In the face of what feels like unrelenting tragedy and pain and despair, the prophet Isaiah presents us with some simultaneously challenging and inspiring words. He says:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim the good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captive and release from darkness for the prisoners…to comfort all who mourn, and…to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes.

What is this good news the prophet speaks of that we are to proclaim? Well, it is nothing less than the good news this season of Advent points us towards, the good news that a saviour has come for each and every one of us and that saviour’s name is Jesus. It’s unequivocally good news; it’s amazing news! And yet, does it ever feel like a bit of an impossible endeavour to really share this good news?

When I was an undergrad and part of the Christian Union, we used to have a week each year called ‘Events Week.’ And it was called ‘Events Week’ because ‘Missions Week’ was deemed too Christian for the non-Christians we were trying to reach. The week consisted of a series of talks on frequently asked questions about Christianity, with a flashy big name in Christian apologetics brought in to deliver talks challenging enough to convince people to give their lives to Jesus.

And then the rest of the week involved us members of the CU standing in strategic places around campus to hand out flyers for these talks, but we also had to wear luminous yellow hoodies with navy writing on. I really cannot overstate how horrendously yellow this hoodie was. And it was so embarrassing having to wear this hoodie every day for a week. I used to put it on and just cringe and then have person after person after person ignore me as I tried to hand out flyers. Do you know how much effort it takes to deliberately ignore someone who is wearing a hideously yellow hoodie? Not even my flatmates could be persuaded to come to these events and for the rest of the year I had to put up with them asking me why I wasn’t wearing my super attractive yellow hoodie. And my main take away from that week was that I was rubbish at mission, rubbish at proclaiming the good news. And so, I never did another Events Week. Why bother, it’s not like I’d bring anyone to Jesus anyway?

If John the Baptist had been part of my uni CU you just know he would’ve loved the yellow hoodie. He’s just built for that kind of thing. And yet, this passage in the beginning of John’s Gospel tells us some crucial things about him that make his example seem not so unattainable after all. He came as a witness to testify to the light of Jesus, he himself was not the light, he was not the saviour. People are drawn to him because they see something in him, and they mistake him for the messiah because he has the light of God in him. His proclaiming of the good news is not some heady combination of extroversion, charisma, and apologetics training. His proclaiming of the good news is the light of God within him that is spilling out into his everyday life as light which draws people in.

This up-ends everything I believed constituted mission, constituted proclaiming the good news. Because I have the light of Jesus in me, and you have the light of Jesus in you. We began this term looking at this, we are the light of the world. We testify to the ultimate light by being the light in this somewhat gloomy world.

And what does it look like to be this light? Well, it’s in proclaiming the good news by binding up the broken-hearted, comforting those who mourn, and bestowing on hurting people crowns of beauty instead of ashes. It’s in doing for other people, what Christ has done for us. Because we have his light in our gloom, his saving for our poverty, his binding for our hearts, his comfort for our mourning, his crown for our hurt. All we need to do is let that shine through.

How do we do this? Praying for people, taking the time to ask people how they are and genuinely wanting to know the answer, helping at something like the winter night shelter, helping with Café Church, checking in on vulnerable neighbours, to the many great charitable endeavours I know so many people in our church family are a part of.

We’re going to be talking more about Alpha towards the end of this service, and I had the privilege, and I really do mean privilege, of helping to run the Alpha Course we held at the beginning of this year. I say this totally sans-hyperbole, but it was one of the best things I have ever been a part of. And what I loved was how our church family pitched in to help, from making meals, to doing the washing up, to praying for the course – and all that was a great example of proclaiming the good news by the light of God within us spilling out into the world around us through those acts of service.

Let’s be encouraged! To proclaim the good news of our saviour we don’t need some kind of special training or expert skills, we just need to recognise that Christ is in us, that he loves us and has saved us, and let his light within us spill over into our everyday lives.

And if you’re here and you don’t yet know Jesus, but you’re intrigued by him and this light he gives, then you’ve come to the right place to be shown the reality of his good news, so please do come and ask one of us if you want to hear more, because we’d really really love to tell you.

So let’s look at the world: it’s broken, it’s hurting, it’s gloomy. But we’re in it and we have God with us, Christ in us, the Spirit upon us, so if you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling that light actually is all around.

 

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.

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

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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.’