Sermon: The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (A) – 31st August 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 6pm

Readings:  Exodus 3:1-15  Psalm 105: 1- 6, 23-26  Romans 12: 9-21  Matthew 16: 21-28

In the section of Roman’s immediately prior to this morning’s reading Paul encouraged his readers to undergo a transformation of their minds in order to discern the will of God and then he presented an image of the church as the body of Christ, in which each member plays an essential role. Today’s selection, he builds on this, first by defining the virtues needed for life of the church and then turning to the community’s relations with the world outside. Although some of what is found could apply to life in the community the focus is now on matters such as persecution and conflict with genuine enemies.

There is nothing strictly speaking, exclusively Christian in the sense that each virtue can be found in ancient pagan and/or Jewish moral writings. Some were found only in Jewish writings and contrasted sharply with classic virtues. To this latter group belong those having to do with kindness toward enemies. Proverbs 25:2 says: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them …” This also reflects Jesus’ teaching.

It was no accident that God’s love in Christ Jesus was the centre of the gospel as promoted by Paul and that “genuine love” was the leading value in the list. For Paul, life in Christ is indeed a “new creation”, but it is not unconnected with what human beings have generally defined as the good life throughout human history.

Christians should have no problem in cooperating with persons of other faiths or philosophies, who hold similar values, as we seek to work on behalf of the common good. However, this should not obscure the ways in which authentic Christianity remains counter-cultural. For example it promotes reconciliation rather than belligerence in both the personal and the political realms, pursuing the common good rather than personal gain, and fostering human solidarity rather than zealous nationalism or ethnic exclusiveness.

Some other perspectives are counter-cultural in similar ways, and we should celebrate this fact. Nor do we need to flaunt our belief in the empowerment offered by the Spirit to those who are in Christ, as if God could not offer such gifts to others.

And yet it is part of Christian faith to believe that to be incorporated into Christ is in fact to be drawn into an environment in which the Spirit is in fact at work. We all know, however, that Christians have attributed many destructive attitudes which is one reason that listings of virtues such as we have today remain important and why love must always remain central.

On other occasions I have mentioned that on my study wall I have a plaque on which are inscribed the words of “A Desiderata”. Many of you will have heard it before. I like it because it speaks of a sensible manner in which we can live confidently in God’s beautiful world and it reflects the words and feelings of this reading. It is found in Saint Paul’s Episcopal/Anglican Church of Baltimore, USA. It was written by Max Ehrmann in the Nineteen Twenties.

“Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.”

Then we have the words of Jesus who said;  ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

In the all the various prayer books of the Anglican Church since Cranmer composed the Book of Common Prayer in the early sixteenth century, is this blessing. It incorporates all the thoughts of Jesus and Paul. May we, through the power of the Spirit, endeavour to live up to its high ideals each day of our lives.

Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage; hold fast that which is good; render to no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak; help the afflicted; give honour to all; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit; and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.[1]




[1] The sermon uses material found at by Russell Pregeant


Sermon: Evensong. The Festival of Saint Bartholomew (A) – 24th August 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 4pm

Readings:    Psalm 97, Genesis 28:10-17, Luke 22:24-30

Worship and singing.

“How awesome is this place, it is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.”

At all times and in all places people worship God. The variety of Anglican worship is only a small section of a large spectrum. The austere silence of meetings of the Society of Friends is worship. The mystical splendour of the Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgy is worship. Muslims worship when they bow their heads toward Mecca and recite the opening chapter of the Quran. Jewish Hasidim worship when they gather morning and evening wrapped in prayer shawls to study the Torah. Buddhist monks worship as they sit cross-legged, silent and immovable, contemplating the nature of the reality at the centre of their being. In Egypt, Greece, and Rome; in India, China, and Japan; in Mexico and Peru, ancient temples testify that here, too, human beings have worshipped God. The earliest artefacts of human culture; amulets, primitive drawings on the walls of caves, heaps of bones piled around rough-hewn altars, circles of stones, groves of sacred trees, all speak of a human response to something beyond the human.

The English word worship is a contraction of worth-ship. Worship involves assigning worth to what is thought to be worthy and giving expression to that estimate of value. Worship, in fact, has to do with value. The earliest uses of the word worship in English did not chiefly, or even primarily, refer to God. Worship usually referred to persons. For example in a court of law the judge is referred to as Your Worship.

Today, of course, the word usually refers to the worship of God. An element of supremacy, of absoluteness, has attached itself to the word aswe normally use it. Worship involves not merely the assigning of worth to what is thought worthy, but the assigning of ultimate or absolute worth to what is believed to have ultimate value. In other words the word became religious, and its religious use has crowded out its other meanings. One of the reasons why the fundamental significance of the human activity of worship has become obscure in modem times is that the religious meaning of worship has been detached from the others. In detachment the activity of worship is found to have little connection with the perplexing, often agonizing, problems of value which we encounter day in and day out.

Christian assemblies have at all times and in all places read the Scriptures, prayed, and sung. The Christian liturgy was born singing, and it has never ceased to sing. A good number of the elements of present day liturgy appeared on the scene only gradually; the feast of Christmas, or church buildings for example. Others are met with only in a particular cultural area; the Orthodox iconostasis, or stained glass windows. Singing, however, must be regarded as one of the fundamental constituents of Christian worship. This fits the fact that Christian worship is the public proclamation of the marvels of God and of the good and joyful news, an act of thanksgiving, praise and blessing for the freedom won for us by the resurrection. It is an Amen, an unceasing Alleluia (Rev. 19.4), a Yes to the new Covenant, a hymn of glory to God the Father.

The Church used music and singing in its worship well before it began to ask itself questions about why and wherefore, and such questioning was at first connected with matters of discipline, devotion, and even polemics. It is not till the modern period that we first meet any systematic attempt at theological reflection on the matter.

What do singing and music add to the worshipper in the Christian assembly?

Singing and music take pride of place after words and gestures among all the signs and symbols that make up Christian worship. To sing a psalm or the Trisagion, (Holy, Holy, Holy) to ring a bell or play the organ-these are every bit as much rites as are the reading of a lesson, the saying of a prayer, a procession, or even the breaking of bread. As with any other rite, the purpose of singing and music is to awake meaning and induce an attitude.

The first and most distinctive characteristic of singing would appear to be that of musical time. Singing places a person before God as a creature existing in time. Whether it be the Byzantine Liturgy, the Roman Mass or Anglican Evensong, a large part of the service consists in singing of various sorts. The different chants mark off the order of service (Introit, Kyrie, Gloria, etc.). Saint Augustine goes so far as to say:

“Apart from those moments when the Scriptures are being read or a sermon is preached, when the bishop is praying aloud or the deacon is specifying the intentions of the litany of community prayer, is there any time when the faithful assembled in the church are not singing? Truly I see nothing better, more useful or more holy that they could do.”

(Ep. 55. 18-19; PL 33.204)

The liturgy is the shared activity of a people gathered together. No other sign brings out this communal dimension so well as singing. Bodily movements can be synchronized but remain separate. Many individual voices, however, can actually be fused together, so that when they blend and follow the same rhythm, only one voice is heard; that of the group. This brings out a very strong feeling of unity and of belonging. It even touches on the essential mystery of the Church as joint communion. From the time of Ignatius of Antioch down to our own day, singing with one voice has remained a privileged way of expressing unity in diversity.

Shortly after becoming bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom preached these words to his flock:

“The psalm which occurred just now in the office blended all voices together, and caused one single fully harmonious chant to arise; young and old, rich and poor, women and men, slaves and free, all sang one single melody … All the inequalities of social life are here banished. Together we make up a single choir in perfect equality of rights and of expression whereby earth imitates heaven. Such is the noble character of the Church.

(Hom. S; PG 63.486–‘7)

The Christian worship can be celebrated without singing or music: but this is to mutilate it. The liturgy is a ‘festal gathering’ as it says in Hebrews. A festival implies singing, music and dancing. A given piece, a Christmas carol, or a National Anthem, may serve as the symbol for a particular celebration. The canticle of Moses, celebrating the deliverance of Passover, became the ‘new song’ of the Lamb in Revelation and, as such, the symbol of all who have been definitively saved by the One who ‘makes all things new’. The Eucharistic feast of those who anticipate the coming of the Kingdom is a ‘sacrifice of praise’, which needs singing if the sign is to be really complete. In the Psalms, the todah, which is the liturgy of confession-thanksgiving-praise, together with the Jewish berakah liturgy of blessing, makes up the biblical background of the Christian Eucharist, is often associated with music, including the use of instruments. This context of musical praise is found in the assemblies of the people, in the Temple liturgies and in the proclamation of the Name.

A distinctively Christian use of music in the liturgy is met with in the teaching and evangelistic aspect of worship. Following the prophets and even Jesus himself, Christian preachers have made use of rhythm and even melody, in order to proclaim the gospel. This was the style of preaching adopted by many early Church Fathers. A refrain sung by the assembly often punctuated the strophes or verses of the preacher. Even today, the Easter Proclamation sung around the Easter Candle at the Easter Vigil and the prefaces of the Eucharistic Prayer take on a melodic form thanks to it being sung.

Missionaries of all periods have made use of hymns to teach and spread the Christian faith. The charge of seducing the people by means of hymns has been levelled at heretics down to today. Popular hymns played a great part in the religious reforms of Luther, Calvin, Wesley and the Catholic Counter­ Reformation. None of this should surprise, since singing adds new power to a text thanks to rhythm and melody. Attempts have sometimes been made to banish all singing from church, mainly because it represents a concession to human weakness granted under the old Covenant.

To one such objection, an author of the fifth-century answers:

“The apostle Paul calls the canticle the ‘sword of the spirit’, because it provides a weapon for those who virtuously fight against the invisible spirits; for the word of God, taking possession of the spirit when sung or spoken, has power to drive away the demons.”

(Qu. 107; PG 6.1354)

If we consider singing and music from the point of view of the worshipper, the emphasis has varied in different periods. The Fathers stressed the ease which singing brings to prayer and the manner in which it sweetens and tempers the rigours of the law. Thus S Basil can write:

“The Holy Spirit sees how much difficulty mankind has in loving virtue, and how we prefer the lure of pleasure to the straight and narrow path. What does he do? He adds the grace of music to the truth of doctrine. Charmed by what we hear, we pluck the fruit of the words without realizing it.”

(Hom. in Ps. 1; PG 29.211)

Some desert Fathers protested against the way music invaded prayer, but the mainstream of monastic spirituality expects music to add a certain sweetness and savour to the text, provided that the mind is attentive to the meaning of the words.

Today, the emphasis is less on the powers of liturgical singing as an aid to teaching. These powers retain their importance, but it is the poetic and beneficial quality of music that is stressed. Western liturgy has suffered in the past from an excess of rationalization and singing during a celebration brings an important corrective. Melody can allow a text to unfold in a way that allows time for contemplation. Music appeals to the emotions rather than to reason and this too is important when we remember that the Spirit appeals to the whole person.

Up till now, we have lumped music and singing together. It is, however, important to distinguish them without separating them. Compared with ‘pure’ music, instruments and wordless humming, for example, singing has a privileged position in the Christian liturgy because of its connection with the revealed word. Only singing can combine explicit confession of faith in Christ with musical expression. All music can indeed be religious or sacred, but only that music is specifically Christian that articulates the Christian faith.

It would, however, be wrong to oppose liturgy and music. It is true that the early Church as a whole, and the majority of Eastern today, have excluded all instrumental music from the liturgy. This reserved attitude is to be explained as a balanced attitude to instrumental music sees the instrument as an extension of the human voice and body. Humanity is widening its capacity for song when it accompanies singing or even plays without actually singing. Hence music, like singing or any other human activity, can become a ritual. It gets its meaning from the celebration as a whole, provided that it in some way prepares for, accompanies, or prolongs the word and the sacrament. It is as signs of, and for, faith that singing and music enter into the sacramental life of Christian worship.

“Let all the world in every corner sing:

My God and King!

The heavens are not too high,

his praise may thither fly;

The earth is not too low,

his praises there may grow.

Let all the world in every corner sing: My God and King!”[i]




[i] The sermon based upon material from: The Study of Liturgy, Jones et al Editors, SPCK, London, 1979, and Liturgy for Living, C Price and L Weil, The Seabury Press, New York 1979.


Sermon: The Feast of Bartholomew, Apostle and Martyr (A) – 24th August 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am and 8am

Readings:Deuteronomy 18:15-18 Psalm145: 10-18  Revelation 21:9b-14  John 1: 45-51

The name “Bartholomew” appears in the New Testament only on lists of the names of the twelve apostles. This list normally is given as six pairs, and the third pair in Matthew, Mark and Luke is “Philip and Bartholomew”.

John gives no list of the Twelve, but refers to more of them individually than the other three. He does not name Bartholomew, but in today’s reading he tells of the call to discipleship of a Nathaniel who is often supposed to be the same person.

John’s Nathanael is introduced as one of the earliest followers of Jesus, and in terms that suggest that he became one of the Twelve. He is clearly not the same as Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Thomas, Judas Iscariot, Judas (not Iscariot, also called Thaddeus), all of whom John names separately. He is not Matthew, whose call is described differently. This leaves Bartholomew, James the son of Alpheus, and Simon the Zealot.

Of these, Bartholomew is the leading candidate for two reasons: “Bar-tholomew” means “son of Tolmai”. It is therefore likely that he had another name. “Nathanael son of Tolmai” seems more likely than “Nathanael also called James (or Simon).”

Second, Nathanael is introduced in John’s narrative as a friend of Philip. Since Bartholomew is paired with Philip on three of our four lists of Apostles, it seems likely that they were associated.

According to tradition after Christ’s Resurrection Bartholomew evangelized in the East, in Mesopotamia, Persia, around the Black Sea and perhaps reaching as far as India. Like all of the apostles, with the singular exception of Saint John, he met his death by martyrdom. According to tradition, Bartholomew converted the king of Armenia by casting out a demon from the chief idol in the temple and then destroying all of the idols. In a rage, the king’s older brother ordered Bartholomew to be seized, beaten and executed.

Different traditions describe different methods of Bartholomew’s execution. He is said either to have been beheaded or to have had his skin removed and been crucified upside down, like Saint Peter. He is depicted in Christian iconography with a tanner’s knife, used to separate an animal’s hide from its carcass. Some depictions include a cross in the background; others (most famously Michelangelo’s Last Judgment) show Bartholomew with his own skin draped over his arm. The face on the skin is generally considered a self-portrait of Michelangelo.

According to tradition, the relics of Saint Bartholomew made their way from Armenia to the Isle of Lipari (near Sicily) in the seventh century. From there, they were moved to Benevento, in Campania, northeast of Naples, in 809, and finally came to rest in 983 in the Church of Saint Bartholomew-in-the-Island, on the Isle of Tiber in Rome. He is the Patron Saint of: Armenia, tanners, plasterers, cheese merchants and those with nervous tics.[i]

The story of his martyrdom is one of tradition. It is a tradition to which we subscribe, but know that it is not Scripture. What is Scripture is the Gospel appointed for this day of St. Bartholomew.   The answer is found when you put the story of his martyrdom and this Gospel together.

“Who is the greatest of all the disciples?” How do we measure greatness? In our own lives we measure our greatness based on what we’ve done or who we are. Things we inherit and things we work for, but in the end they are all to be considered works or merits. They are the things we turn to, to find our place at the table of life.

The disciples asked Jesus who was the greatest in the Kingdom.

The greatest among the disciples doesn’t participate in their foolish conversation. Jesus is infinitely greater than any of the disciples sitting at their table. No one can ever match him in greatness. He keeps every jot and tittle of the Word of God, and always will. He is victorious and no one can defeat Him, not even death itself.

St. Bartholomew was great among the disciples, but his greatness was not because of his horrific and senseless execution. His greatness was found not in what he did in his life or even how he died. Those are the things we would see and judge by. His greatness, however unseen it is, was found in what Jesus had given to him and all the disciples those three years as they sat at his feet. His greatness was because of Jesus. He does the same for us.

Jesus is our greatness. He is given to us, and carrying with him He brings all his gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation. No matter how horrible our lives may be, having been beaten by the assaults of the devil, stripped of our skin, our reputation, by this dark world, he will never leave us or forsake us. He cannot and will not be taken from you.

This confidence is the example of St. Bartholomew and all the martyrs. Their hope and peace, as well as ours, is not found in the disciples themselves and their perceived greatness, but rather outside them in him who is great for them – Jesus. In him we suffer loss and pain, but our loss and pain is not endured alone. Our great champion over death and the grave is with us. He is ours. Not even death will rend us from him. He is our greatness.

All we know of Bartholomew it is enough. Anyone who was willing to trek to India, probably mostly on foot, in order to preach the gospel, and then to walk back to Armenia to be flayed alive is a great person in my book. And before that, he allowed his devout Jewish way of life to be so stretched open by a travelling preacher from a village with a bad reputation that he spent three years following that man around doing the things we know that Jesus did. Then, after watching him die a cruel death, he was willing to suspend rational thinking and say that he had indeed had breakfast with a man who was horribly crucified three days earlier.

We celebrate Bartholomew because he staked everything on the truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. So perhaps we can claim him as Patron Saint for all disciples, such as us, who never hit the headlines, but just get on with being faithful.

The Book Ecclesiasticus gives some insights into what that involves. Ecclesiasticus is a book of wisdom found in the Apocrypha, the writings from the inter-testamental period. It describes a person who devotes himself to the study of the law of God.

What makes for a life of day in, day out, devotion to God?

First there is immersion in God’s written word. If you are a not reading the bible daily, why not? Sunday’s readings are not enough to nurture us properly; we need to be absorbed in the bible much more frequently. The daily lectionary, which we use in the chapel, will guide you through most of the bible in the course of two years and there are also Bible Reading Fellowship notes for anyone wanting help with understanding and engaging with scripture.

In addition to studying the scriptures, Ecclesiasticus tells us that the devoted person gets out among all kinds of people. We hear that such a person serves among the great and appears before rulers, travels in foreign lands and learns what is good and evil in the human lot. Many of us fit into some of those categories in one way or another but have we been seeking to serve God at the same time?

Third, a devoted person is a person of prayer, setting their heart to rise early so that they can pray to the God who made them. That’s not so easy for many of us, but some time set aside is important.

Then, fourthly, God can fill such a person with the spirit of understanding so that they pour forth words of wisdom that are not our own – wisdom that comes from God.

The additional gift of God is that some people live on in the collective memory, become part of our heritage and so today we remember Bartholomew. As we give thanks for him, we celebrate the daily routine of ordinary discipleship, of getting on with the task in hand, perhaps rising to occasional moments of greatness but underpinning them with routine devotion and, when the occasion arises, being willing to go wherever we are sent, but to do so without great fanfare, just with fidelity.

From Bartholomew’s ordinary discipleship that nevertheless led to extraordinary events we can take our example with thanksgiving. We have to remember that we can’t just be spectators because our baptism demands that we are to be involved too, we have to follow the example of saints and martyrs.



[i] This sermon produces using material found at and and, by The Rev. Dustin L. Anderson and and by

The Reverend Rosalind Brown


















Sermon: The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (A) – 17th August 2014

St Aidan’s Anglican Church Epping 8.30am

Readings: Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:13-32; Matthew 15:21-28

We each have our own experience of dreams. Sometimes we can remember them; sometimes we have a sense that we’ve had a significant dream, or a hint of what it was about, but we can’t really remember it. There are people – experts or amateurs – who will try to interpret their meaning. But in the Bible, dreams can be very significant indeed: indeed it might be hard to make a clear distinction between a dream and a vision, a divine message. And rather than picking up something to do with our past experience, dreams in the scriptures often point to the future.

Certainly this is true in the story of Joseph, part of which we heard last week and now this morning. Dreams got him into trouble as a young man. When he told his family that he had dreamed that their sheaves had bowed down to his, and then that the sun, moon and 11 stars had bowed down to him, the meaning was pretty obvious. He was claiming one day that they would all bow down to him. And since he had already made himself unpopular with his brothers by flaunting his father’s favouritism, and getting them into trouble with their father, perhaps it is not surprising that his brothers were happy to take the opportunity to sell him as a slave bound for Egypt.

We know the story. In Egypt he was falsely accused of sexual assault, and ended up in prison. Two who found themselves with him in prison were Pharaoh’s cupbearer and chief baker. These two had their own dreams, which Joseph was able to interpret correctly. As he foretold, the chief baker was hanged, but the chief cupbearer was restored to his position. Joseph had begged him not to forget him, but 2 years passed and Joseph remained in prison.

Then Pharaoh started having dreams which troubled him, and finally the cupbearer remembered Joseph, the interpreter of dreams. And indeed Joseph was able to interpret those dreams. “God has shown Pharaoh what he is about to do: there will be 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine. The dreams have been repeated, and this is a sign that these things are sure to come, and to come soon.”

And then Joseph added some advice: “Find someone wise who will organize the storage of surplus supplies during the 7 good years, so that there will be food available during the 7 years of famine.”

And of course the wisest man that Pharaoh could think of was standing before him. So Joseph was catapulted into the Prime Ministership of Egypt. He effectively arranged the storage of resources for the years of famine, and then their distribution to people in need once the famine has begun. Unlike other countries, Egypt was prepared for the famine.

The final part of the story has Joseph’s brothers coming to Egypt, hoping for supplies as they experience famine in their own land. Before he reveals his identity to them, he sets up some elaborate and uncomfortable tests. Only when he is convinced that they will not treat his full brother Benjamin with the same callousness with which they had treated him does Joseph tell them who he really is. As we heard in the first reading, his brothers are terrified. What will Joseph do to them to pay them back? But Joseph assures them of his desire to do them good, and tells them to bring his father Jacob and the rest of the family down to Egypt, so that they will be provided for throughout the famine years. His brothers are finally persuaded, and there is a joyful reunion.

So Joseph’s dreams and the dreams of others were used to forward God’s gracious purposes. Dreams were a catalyst to get Joseph where God wanted him, even if the means were not pleasant for Joseph. Joseph’s brothers meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. God was at work, even when people were doing their worst. And dreams brought him to the notice of Pharaoh, and enabled him to be God’s instrument in saving the people of Egypt, and his own people, the people of Israel.

But this story opens up another theme which is vital in the purposes of God: that is the relationship between the people of Israel and the people of other nations – or the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in God’s purposes.

Joseph was used by God to save not only his family, but also the people of Egypt, and quite probably of other nations. God’s purposes reached beyond his ancient people.

The relationship between Jews and Gentile Christians is an important issue to Paul, indeed something of great personal significance. It is explored by Paul in Chapters 9-11 of his Letter to the Romans, part of which we heard last week and this week.

As he wrestles with the fact that so few of his fellow-Jews have become followers of Christ, Paul sees even this as within the purposes of God, though he knows that each person is responsible for the way they respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In our reading he tells Gentile Christians not to take their faith for granted: they need to keep trusting Christ and keep following Christ. But he also expresses his dream that Jewish people will in a new way come to acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, and share in the blessings of God’s kingdom. He is convinced that God is not finished with them yet, and will bring his promises to Abraham to their true fulfilment.

Our passage finishes with the statement that “God has imprisoned all in disobedience that he may have mercy on all”. God gives us freedom to live lives in which we disobey him, in which we are guilty of sin, but his grand plan is to have mercy on all. Christ’s death and resurrection makes that possible. Does that mean that each and every human being will be saved? I don’t think that is what Paul means, but ultimately we must leave that question with God, who is great in wisdom and rich in mercy. None of us can earn a place in his kingdom: we all can only enter because of his generous forgiveness and mercy. And at the right time, we will recognize how wonderful that wisdom and mercy really is as we join with all his people in his glorious kingdom. God reached out to the people of Israel, and he promised to Abraham that through him all people would be blessed. That promise has come to us through Jesus, the descendant of Abraham, but Paul is surely right in believing that God has not abandoned his ancient people. He will in time fulfil his purposes.

And in our Gospel, we see the same two sides of this story coming out. Jesus was in foreign territory when a Canaanite woman came seeking his help to rid her daughter of a demon. But Jesus’ priority in his earthly ministry was to the Jews to whom he had been sent.

As Joseph had been tough in testing out his brothers, so Jesus was tough with this woman. She had no claim on Jesus’ help: she knew that. She acknowledged the label that Jewish people might give to pagan Gentiles, that they were no better than dogs. But she was desperate in her need, and Jesus responded to that need, and healed her daughter. She mightn’t be entitled to food from the table of God’s people, but she would settle for the crumbs that fell off the table.

And Jesus responded to her faith, desperate and determined as it was. Jesus’ priority was to his fellow-Jews: that was the task given to him by his Father. But as the Father’s love reached out to all people, so Jesus’ loving power reached across the boundaries to minister to a foreigner in great need.

Dreams for us often will have some link with reality: our story, our experiences, our troubles, our hopes: but when God is at work, dreams become reality. People are helped and saved in difficult circumstances: people from all nations find eternal salvation. God’s dreams express his purposes, and he will bring them to fulfilment. In a world where so much that we see and hear about seems to deny the claims and values of God, he is still at work, bringing about his purposes.

Let us then keep on praying in our need and uncertainty. Let us keep trusting even when we do not have all the answers. And let us keep looking forward to the fulfilment of God’s gracious and wonderful purposes, when dreams will be swallowed up in glorious reality. Amen.


Paul Weaver





Sermon: The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (A) – 10th August 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 8am and 10am

Readings:  Genesis 17:1-4, 12-28  Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22  Romans 10:4-15  Matthew 14:22-34

This year in our Lectionary is the Year of Matthew, and most of our Gospel readings throughout the year have come from Matthew’s Gospel. This year is also the year of Romans, and in the Sundays since Pentecost we have been reading selections taking us through Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In fact we are now more than halfway through the book.

I think there are good grounds for regarding this letter to the church in Rome as one of the most significant human documents ever written. Most of Paul’s letters were responses to questions and often to crises in the churches he had associations with. But in the Letter to the Romans, written to a church he had not founded and had never visited, he sought to set out in an organized way his understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and its implications for the church and for followers of Jesus.

The Gospels tell the story of Jesus, and the teaching of Jesus in his time. But what did it all mean? Who really was Jesus? What was the meaning of his death and resurrection?

The Gospels certainly tell us much, but in the providence of God, Paul’s role was to bring it all together in an ordered way, and above all we find this set out in Romans. The message of Romans was pivotal in the early stages of the church, as it sought to understand and teach its message, to keep on the right path, and to bear witness to the Gospel.

And Paul’s Letter to the Romans was also pivotal to Martin Luther as he challenged the teaching of the Catholic Church five centuries ago. It was right at the theological heart of the Reformation, and whatever criticisms there may be of the Reformation, there is no question that the Catholic Church during that era was in desperate need of reformation – structurally, politically, morally, spiritually and theologically.

So this work of the apostle, closely argued and daunting though it may seem, is of great significance to us all as Christians who are in some way at least heirs of the Reformation – with its blessings and achievements, its challenges and opportunities, and perhaps also its inadequacies and mistakes and failures.

In our journey through Romans, in Chapters 1-8, we have heard Paul’s exposition of the problem of sin, and God’s provision of a solution through the death of Christ. Paul has made clear that our forgiveness and salvation is a gift of God, and we receive God’s gracious gift as we put our faith in Jesus Christ. But he has also emphasized that our faith ought to be expressed in godly lives, and shown that the Holy Spirit is with us to enable us to live as Christ’s followers.

In a couple of weeks as we reach Chapter 12, Paul will begin to spell out some of the principles and practical aspects of living a truly Christian life.

But this week and next week’s readings come from Chapters 9-11, which form one of the most hotly debated parts of the New Testament.

What are these in-between chapters all about? Many people think they’re a side-issue or even a blind alley. Some think they’re an irrelevance or even a mistake. A few people think that they are the key to the whole letter. Others think they are best ignored.

Like the Anglican I am, I take a moderating position. I don’t think Chapters 9-11 are the most important chapters of the letter, but I do think that they have some very significant things to say. So this morning I want to take us on a brief tour of these three chapters, and encourage you to have a read through them today, or in the next few days.

Our reading comes from around the middle of the section. It has some important things to say, and we will come back to them.

At the end of Chapter 8, Paul has reached a wonderful climax with his stirring message that nothing in creation “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” But then he regathers his thoughts, and goes back to his Jewish roots. He agonizes over the fact that his fellow-Jews have by and large rejected the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He yearns for his countrymen and women to turn to Christ, who is the fulfilment of the promises of their scriptures. Paul would make any sacrifice to help it happen. The Jews are uniquely God’s own people. Why haven’t they accepted God’s Gospel?

And in these chapters, Paul approaches this question from three angles. In Chapter 9, he says that it was God’s plan for the Jewish nation to reject the Gospel. Then in Chapter 10, he says that that it is their own fault. And in Chapter 11, he says that God isn’t finished working out his plan yet, and he isn’t finished with the Jews yet.

Perhaps the most troubling part is Chapter 9, where Paul says that it was God’s plan for the Jewish nation to reject the Gospel. What is he getting at when he says this?

Paul wants us to be clear that God is always in control. Even when people are doing their worst, even when things happen which are contrary to his laws and his ways, God is in control. Nothing happens which is ultimately outside God’s control and God’s purposes.

Now that’s a pretty hard message to stomach – and it’s no easier when we think of the news of the world today. But think of the alternative: God’s trying to be in charge and he’s doing the best he can, but it’s a bit too hard for him to keep evil under control and run the world effectively. That’s the alternative, and I don’t think that’s very satisfactory either!

But what Paul is saying is that even when people are doing their worst, God is still working his purposes out. So Joseph is sold as a slave and sent to Egypt in today’s reading: but when he meets his brothers years later, he will tell them “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, so that you might be saved from a dreadful period of drought”. And of course, it is demonstrated above all in the crucifixion of Jesus: a terrible act of injustice, but one which brings forgiveness and salvation to all people.

But there is what might seem a positive side to all this. How did the Jews become God’s people? Not by accident, and not because of their seeking and searching, and not because of their goodness and worthiness. It was because the Lord chose them in his gracious purposes.

And Paul goes on to say that if we are followers of Christ, and have become God’s people through faith in him, God has enabled us to come to that point. In a real sense, God has chosen us to be his.

Now Paul’s purpose is to give us confidence in God’s promises to us in Christ. He doesn’t want us to think: “If God chose me, I must be pretty good.” He certainly doesn’t want us to try to work out who is chosen, or to judge others. He just wants us to keep trusting God, and following Jesus, and to be confident that God won’t let us down. He is in control. He has his plans, his purposes. We don’t understand them all. But, no matter what happens, God is still God.

 But strangely, having said that Israel’s rejection of Jesus and of the Gospel is part of God’s plan, Paul takes what seems to be a totally different tack. He holds the people of Israel responsible. Israel, as so often in the Old Testament scriptures, has been rebellious and blind. Israel has failed to live up to its call as God’s people. And it has again rejected God’s message of grace and life in Christ, clearly offered to it.

And in today’s reading from Chapter 10, Paul asks: How do we find true life? Do we have to invade heaven to find it? Do we have to plumb the depths of hell? Not at all! Jesus came from heaven to us, and he rose from the world of the dead to bring us life. The way to life is available for anyone: it is not too hard for anyone.

Hence Paul’s desire for the message of the Gospel to go out to all people. And so Paul says that the Lord blesses all who turn to him: he saves Jews by faith, and Gentiles by faith. We are responsible, not to solve the problem of sin, but to accept God’s solution to the problem by trusting in Christ.

In Chapter 11, Paul brings these two sides together. He says that the Gospel went out to the Gentiles largely because it was rejected by the Jews. God’s purposes were at work. And Paul clearly believes that God has more blessings for his covenant people of old. Experts differ on exactly what blessings Paul is pointing to: perhaps he wasn’t sure himself. But he has confidence in the gracious purposes of God towards the people he chose of old.

Two sides to the one truth. God is always in control. We humans are always responsible for what we do. We are not God’s playthings, pawns manipulated by God the chessboard master. Both truths encourage us to live positively as Christians in a mixed-up world, a world yet to reach its true goal in the purposes of God.

And when Paul in these chapters gets to a point where the implications are too hard to sort out, he simply comes back to the basic truth. God is God. We don’t understand all his workings with the world, but we know his love and his faithfulness in Christ. Surely that can encourage us to be humble before him and before others; to be thankful for that love shown to us; to be obedient in showing God’s love to others. We don’t see the whole picture: we are not God.

God is in control: let us keep our confidence in his loving purposes, even when we don’t really understand why things are the way they are. We are responsible: let us keep trusting him, and live the loving lives he calls us to lead, as followers of Christ. Amen.


Paul Weaver    

Sermon: The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (A) – 10th August 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am and St Aidan’s Anglican Church Epping 8.30am

Readings:  Genesis 17:1-4, 12-28  Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22  Romans 10:4-15  Matthew 14:22-34

Jesus said to Peter: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

The “little faith” of the disciples is a theme that runs through the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew has Jesus using the concept five times always in relation to the disciples.

Littleness of faith does not mean utter lack of faith; the disciples waver back and forth throughout the gospel. The specific nature of the “little faith” varies from passage to passage. In chapter 6, the problem is worry over material welfare; in chapter 8, it is fear in the face of physical danger; in chapter 16 it is lack of understanding; in chapter 17 it is lack of confidence in God’s power in the face of a demon.

In today’s passage, it is again lack of confidence in divine power, this time combined with fear, as Peter loses heart in his attempt to join Jesus in walking on the water. It is precisely that element of losing heart that distinguishes this passage from the others, because Peter is initially able to walk this miraculous kind of walk but allows doubt to overcome him when the going gets rough.

Fear is present throughout the story. The disciples are at first terrified when they see Jesus, in the night, walking on the sea; they think he is a ghost. We can thus see and hear that sense of the awesome and terrifying mystery of the holy as an important component in religious experience. It is a sense of the utter otherness and inexpressibility of the divine, an unsettling combination of difference, fear and fascination in the face of ultimate mystery. Such as we see in the call of Isaiah in the temple, where Isaiah says,

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is I! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

The fear and understanding of difference are here expressed by the perception of Jesus as a ghost, but they are balanced by his comforting words: “Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.” The disciples by now know Jesus and trust him, even if their faith remains incomplete. Thus, for him to say, “It is I” is to bring their fear and awesomeness of the scene under control by relating it to what is familiar. This is the Jesus with whom they have walked and shared bread, who has offered compassion to the suffering and fed the hungry, even though he has also spoken words of judgment.

Peter’s fear, however, seems to be of another sort, a more mundane timid state of mind in the face of physical danger. Here again, as in the story of the feeding of the five thousand, it is doubt, doubt about what human beings can do by making use of the divine power to which they have access, which undermines the accomplishment of a task.

In the feeding of the 5000, it is a ministry to the hungry that is momentarily delayed, but here it is something that Peter himself has desired that is undermined. It was Peter who asked to join Jesus on the water. He did so, however, in full knowledge that he needed Jesus’ help in order to accomplish the feat, as we can see in the fact that he asks Jesus to command him to do it. ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ And yet, in the face of the wind, he loses heart and begins to sink.

Although he has clearly earned the title of “little faith”, he has confidence enough in Jesus to ask again for help: “Lord, save me”. Thus we might suspect that his lack of faith was less in Jesus’ ability to unilaterally perform mighty deeds than in the process of divine-human cooperation. This is an unwillingness to trust what he could do when empowered by Jesus. We should not think of this as a simple lack of confidence in himself.

To understand the reading in this manner is to challenge the tendency in our culture to overemphasize the power of the individual will: a bit of illusionary idolatry that we might call the “you can be anything you want to be” or “believe in yourself”. As important as it is to teach children to dream big dreams and make use of their capacities, it is equally important both to avoid creating unrealistic expectations and to dispel the illusion of self-sufficiency.

I have no doubt that I might have accomplished more in some areas of life if I had worked harder at them. I am also equally certain that no amount of effort on my part would have made me a star player in the Australian cricket team, a competent theoretical physicist, or a great musician, however much I might have desired to be such!

Faith requires of us to walk the tightrope of self-sufficiency verses total dependency by fostering a sense of interdependence. We are not what we are as a result of simple self-creation, nor are we the helpless products of genes, social conditioning, or divine direction. We are all parts of larger wholes that contribute to our evolution as who we are but which leave room for our individual decisions and actions. Social systems, from the immediate circle of families to whole societies, both open us to possibilities and limit our options.

In the end, we, like all entities in the universe, are parts of the universal whole from which our being and our power to act derive. The self-made individual is an illusion, but no more so than the passive cog in a machine beyond our control. Those who attribute everything to God or society or genes and those who claim self-sufficiency are equally wrong.

At the end of the story, the disciples worship Jesus and proclaim him Son of God, thus anticipating Peter’s definitive declaration later in Matthew’s gospel: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’

This confession of faith by the disciples, in the reading this morning, is presumably a response to all that they have seen Jesus do so far. It is now brought to a head by the dramatic events portrayed: the walking on the water, the rescue of Peter and the sudden cessation of the wind as Jesus and Peter get into the boat. It is, also, a clear advance over the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ miraculous powers when he calmed the winds and the sea in chapter 8: “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?”

The disciples have thus come to a much clearer understanding of Jesus’ identity, and that is a step forward in their faith development. However, just as in chapter 8, Jesus still makes the charge of “little faith” and will continue to do so. Although they have made progress in one dimension of their faith, they are lacking in others; and one of those dimensions appears to be a failure to believe what Jesus can do through them.

Peter’s failure might have been that he was thinking too individualistically. The desire to walk on the water with Jesus was, after all, Peter’s idea, not Jesus’! As well as that his request was only for himself, not his fellow disciples. Why did he want to do this? To prove his own faith as a matter of pride or simply to get in on the bandwagon of deeds of power?

His problem I think was a failure to accept one’s essential relatedness. The truth is that when we deny our relatedness, whether to God or our fellow creatures, we end up losing our individuality as well. Without access to the power that comes from outside us, our limited power is cut off from its sources. Conversely, when we deny the degree of power that we do in fact have, by thinking that others or God must do all the work, we also lose those connections: the power available to us has nowhere to go[i], no channel through which to work cooperatively.


[i] This sermon based upon material produced by R Pregeant found at

Sermon: The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (A) – 3rd August 2014

St Aidan’s Anglican Church Epping 8.30am

Readings: Genesis 28:10-19a    Psalm 139:1-11, 23-24   Romans 8:12-25   Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

It’s a big jump from the story of the birth of Jesus to the martyrdom of Stephen, but St.Stephen’s Day has been celebrated on December 26th, the day after Christmas, since the 5th century. Why so close to Christmas? Probably because he was the first Christian martyr. Of course he was not the first person to die for the sake of Jesus: the children of Bethlehem massacred by Herod’s troops sadly take that position. Sadly we still hear of children massacred in that part of the world in a culture of fear and violence and distrust. But it was Stephen who died as a follower of Jesus, bearing witness to the message and the claims of Jesus, and that gives him a unique place in the story of the church.

Of course, the church calendar is rather crowded around Christmas, and Stephen can easily get crowded out. And so now we have an alternate date, August 3rd – today – for commemorating St.Stephen the Martyr.

The sixth and seventh chapters of Acts tell us most of what we know of Stephen’s story. He was one of seven who were chosen to assist the twelve apostles in ministry as the early church expanded. He fulfilled an administrative and assisting role, so that the apostles could devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. An example of the body of Christ at work: different people with different gifts sharing in co-operation in different forms of Christian ministry.

Stephen was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” Clearly he was an outstanding servant of Christ: while he was initially appointed to help ensure that the poorer members of the church were properly provided for, he became known for his miraculous works, and also as a thinker and communicator. Indeed that’s what got him into trouble!

Acts tells us that he debated with members of certain synagogues: clearly his arguments were powerful enough to rattle his opponents. Stephen’s problem was that he was radical in his thinking, literally getting to the root of the matter. And by doing that, he found that many assumptions made by his opponents had no basis. That made him a threat to the system – just as Jesus had been!

People expect religion to provide security and comfort: reality is not always what they look for. Marx condemned religion as the opium of the people. He claimed that it dulled people’s awareness of the realities of life in an unjust world, and led people to accept things that they should see were intolerable. Religion sapped people’s energy for the struggle for justice. He did have a point. Christians have sometimes been justly accused of being so heavenly-minded they are no earthly use!

The Christian faith should not be like that. As someone has said, the purpose of the Christian faith is to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable. I suspect Stephen would agree!

As Stephen’s debating skills and his challenging message became better known. He found himself hauled up before the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews. The accusation against him was that he was speaking against the temple, the holy place, and against the law. He was understood to be saying that Jesus would destroy the temple and change the customs handed down from Moses and the prophets. And there was some point to these claims. The most powerful lies are not out-and-out whoppers, but those which have a certain amount of truth connected to them, along with a degree of distortion. There is generally less danger from an obvious lie than from the more subtle lie.

Most of Acts 7, a long chapter of which we heard the last few verses, is taken up with Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin. He takes his listeners through the Old Testament: Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, the prophets.

Now I suspect that I would have told Stephen not to push things too hard: his ideas were new and challenging. He should be sensitive and take things carefully. Don’t compromise of course, but take it gently.

But Stephen was not a disciple of Dale Carnegie: no “how to win friends and influence people” approach for him! A bomb needed to be set off, and Stephen was the one to do it.

And as the Sanhedrin listened, they realized that they were not simply getting a scripture lesson or a history lesson: there was a very clear slant to what Stephen was telling them. In one sense he was making clear a familiar lesson: the one thing we learn from history is that we never learn anything from history.

What was Stephen getting at? He had been accused of insulting the temple of God, and rejecting the Law of Moses. But what was he actually trying to say? There were two important points.

The first message is that God cannot be tied down to particular places. Stephen demonstrates from the Old Testament that God is a God on the move. He spoke to Abram in Ur, hundreds of kilometres to the East. He guided Joseph in Egypt, and revealed himself to Moses at Mount Sinai. He journeyed with his people through the desert, where his presence was expressed through the cloud and the pillar of fire, and the mobile tent or tabernacle.

Stephen’s point was that God meets with his people wherever he chooses: he can’t be imprisoned in a temple or any building. He does not dwell in houses made with hands. However significant the temple was therefore, it was not indispensible. The prophets themselves had made clear that the temple was not to be treated as a guarantee that God would automatically always keep the Israelites safe. It was not to be viewed in an almost superstitious way. God did not need the temple – and actually they did not need the temple when it came to the crunch.

If God has an earthly home, it is amongst his people rather than in particular buildings. And that is relevant for us today. There were no church buildings in the first 2 or 3 centuries of the church. We take them for granted today, but buildings must always take second place. They are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

Church buildings can be useful and beautiful. They provide a setting and an atmosphere for us as we gather for worship. They can point to the message of Christ. They can remind us of our Saviour and point us to the presence of God.

But ultimately we must remember that we can meet with God anywhere: the point of coming to church is not so much that we go into a building, but that we gather with Christ’s community. We can be thankful for St.Aidan’s and St.Alban’s church buildings, and for the halls and other facilities that we have, which are so much loved and so helpful to us: but let us remember that God is with us wherever we are, that we can pray to God wherever we are. God is not tied down to particular buildings. And from Stephen’s point of view, that meant that the temple was not as vital as the members of the Sanhedrin thought. It was dispensable. And within 30 years or so, the Jewish people would have to rethink their understanding as the temple was destroyed in AD70, not by Christians but by the Romans. God is not to be tied down to particular buildings or particular places.

If that side of Stephen’s message was provocative, it was not really new. As Stephen pointed out, it was all there in the Law and the Prophets. In fact his other main point, which was even more provocative, was also a significant theme of the Old Testament. But it had a particularly pointed sting in the tail.

Stephen’s second point was that God’s people have consistently rejected God’s messengers. And so he guides his listeners through stories of Joseph who was sold as a slave by his brothers, but saved his family from famine. Moses, who was rejected by his people in Egypt, and so often rejected on the way to the Promised Land. The prophets, who were rejected and even persecuted by the people of Israel, to whom the Lord had sent them. There was a clear pattern: God’s people were quite happy to listen to people who told them what they wanted to hear, but they would react against those who challenged or rebuked or warned them in the name of the Lord. They were unprepared to have their disobedience, their unfaithfulness, their hypocrisy exposed.

And so Stephen comes to the crunch: what they did to the prophets of old, they did to Jesus. Their reaction to Jesus fits the old pattern: Jesus was God’s messenger, in fact he was the righteous Son of God. But they had not merely rejected his message: they had had him murdered. This was strong stuff indeed. Stephen is no longer merely explaining: he is on the attack, accusing them of murdering the Messiah, the Holy One.

It is no surprise that what the people did to the prophets and to Jesus, they did to Stephen. He had asked questions no one else had been asking, and coming up with answers none of them wanted to hear. And so Stephen was executed: he died with the words of Jesus on his lips, words of forgiveness and trust. And he saw Jesus standing at his Father’s right hand, waiting to welcome him into the kingdom.

We need radicals like Stephen to challenge us when we are too comfortable. We need to keep thinking, to ask old questions again and to ask new questions. Yes, sometimes the new answers will be wrong, and we will have to say so. But let us remember that God is still a God on the move, a God with new things to say, as well as old things to remind us about. Let us be open to his message, even if we find it challenging. For God may well bring us new challenges if we are too comfortable.

Following Jesus is not always safe and secure and comfortable, even in a country when thankfully martyrs are thin on the ground. We must still accept the risk of taking up our cross and following Jesus. Amen.

Paul Weaver