Sermon: 13th Sunday after Pentecost 14th August 2016

St.Alban’s Epping, 14th August 2016

 Rev. Paul Weaver


(Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-59)

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Words of the Psalmist as he goes through the experience of pain, abuse, abandonment. Words used by Jesus on the cross. And I’m sure Jesus used them with great meaning as he hung there in agony, identifying with the Psalmist’s pain, indeed with the pain of all humanity. In a deep sense, I’m sure he knew why he was going through this spiritual agony as he identified with the human race in our sin and brokenness. And yet that question – “Why?” – makes so much sense to us.

As we reflect on the suffering of our world, and have our own experiences of suffering, we also naturally cry out “Why?” Suffering and pain do not seem right. They don’t make sense. And if that is true for humanity at large, it is all the more significant for people of faith. “My God, my God, why?” we also ask.

In my ministry as a hospital chaplain, people sometimes ask me that question. “Why is God doing this? Why is God allowing this to happen to me?” I seldom try to give an answer. I suspect that no answer would satisfy a person whose pain is unreasonable.

My job is much more by the grace of God to be something of an answer, by giving them space to express that pain, that fear, that doubt, that anger, that confusion, and by accepting and supporting them in the reality of where they are. To ask “why” does not necessarily mean that we expect an informative theoretical answer: often we need something to give us strength not to give up on life, on meaning, on God; strength to keep going.

Our readings this morning open up different aspects of this issue of pain and suffering in the world. In Psalm 80, we hear the call of God’s suffering people, as they experience invasion and defeat. God has done so much for them in the past: they have been like a fruitful vineyard, like sheep cared for by the shepherd, secure and blessed

But now it seems that God has abandoned them to their enemies. Why? And the plea comes: “Turn again, O God of hosts. Restore us!” And their promise is that if they are rescued, they will never turn back from God, they will always call on his name.

There is almost a bargain being made with God: that’s not so unusual. “If you heal me, I’ll believe in you, I’ll be a good person, I’ll go to church regularly.” But behind this bargain is the sense that God is angry with his people: that he is punishing them for turning away from him, for failing to call upon him. And so they must turn back to him if his blessing is to be restored.

And that idea is reinforced in our reading from Isaiah, who also uses the image of a lovingly tended vineyard. But the choice vines planted and cared for its owner will yield no fruit. The vineyard is a failure, a disaster, fit only for destruction by the owner. A sad story, but it takes on so much power when the prophet accuses the people of Israel of being just like that failed vineyard. They should have been faithful, obedient to God, righteous in their dealings, bearing the fruit of justice and godliness, but instead they are full of violence and injustice and evil. They have virtually torn up the covenant they had with the Lord. And so the Lord will no longer treat them as his people, he will no longer protect them from their enemies, and they shall experience the destruction they deserve.

I guess few of us are comfortable with the concept of God as judge. But it is unthinkable that God is not judge, that he is disinterested in the reality of evil in this world, that he will not in his time put things right. It is unthinkable that we are not in any way accountable to him for the wrongs we do.

In fact, there is a form of judgement built into the whole way this world works. Time and time again we see that our sins and mistakes have consequences.

Legal systems of course seek to bring about just punishments for crimes. And then there is the student who refuses to work and fails the exam – the drunk drivers who are far more likely to have an accident or lose their licence – the person who eats far too much, drinks far too much, never exercises, and who is far more prone to health problems.

But of course these things do not work automatically. I often meet people with terrible illnesses who have taken good care of their health and lifestyle, while others who seem to ignore all the rules have long and easy lives. We know that the accidents caused by the drunk driver too often harm others far more than the irresponsible driver. Life is far from consistently fair. And yet we recognize that actions do have consequences.

And when scripture teaches that there will be a reckoning, a day of judgement, it makes sense. In this world, there is no form of judgement which is totally reliable, totally consistent, totally just: such a judgement is not to be expected on planet earth. Only God has the knowledge and wisdom, as well as the graciousness and love, to get it right when it comes to the crunch. And it is great to know that through Jesus grace and mercy, as well as justice, are at the heart of the equation.

Jesus himself was aware of the depth of pain and anguish he must go through as the cross drew closer. In today’s Gospel he called it a baptism, an overwhelming experience, an ordeal. And as he contemplated it, he warned his followers that they also would have their own ordeals to endure. Families might well be divided in their response to Jesus, and of course we hear today stories of people who become Christ’s followers, and are cast out or even attacked by their families or communities.

Here the pain is not a matter of judgement: it is one side of what it means to take up our own cross and follow Christ. Of course, some Christians endure an almost deserved form of persecution because of their own foolishness or arrogance, as they parade their faith or insensitively force the Gospel onto people: but there are also times and places where it is truly dangerous to be Christ’s faithful follower.

And on that theme the writer to the Hebrews reminds us that being faithful to God’s call will sometimes lead us to great triumphs, but it can also call us to great challenges. He mentions those who have been tortured, flogged, imprisoned, executed, cast off from their people because of their obedience to God’s call.

Obedience is not always easy or comfortable. God’s blessing does not necessarily mean that life will be easy or even pleasant. Churches that teach that God wants us to be wealthy miss that point.

The reality is that the life of the disciple always has its challenges, but those challenges take many forms. There may be triumphs or apparent failures; good health or ill-health; acceptance or rejection; peace or division. There is no uniform path for the race that is set before us. The goal of God’s kingdom is what we all share. But the call is to keep following Christ, to lay aside all that keeps us from faithfully following Christ, to trust him no matter what the circumstances.

We live in God’s world: there is so much that is good and beautiful, but there is also much that has gone wrong. The kingdom has not yet fully come. And we live as mixed-up people in this mixed-up world. We are made in God’s image. And whatever our weaknesses and failures, that image is still there within us. But we all still do fall short of what God would have us be. We are on the journey: but we haven’t made it yet, and sometimes we will stumble on the way.

So when pain and difficulty comes to us, there are no automatic answers. We may sometimes recognize the consequences of our own mistakes, or the failures of others. We may see it as part of the challenge of living a human life, or perhaps of living a Christian life. It may be the result of our faithfulness to Jesus, in a world which too often rejects the claims of the kingdom. Or we may see it as simply part of the ups and downs of life in this mixed-up world.

What our reading from Hebrews encourages us to do is to remember that others have gone through pain and suffering before us, and indeed there is a cloud of witnesses, all who have faithfully served the Lord over the centuries, who are cheering us on as we seek to live as Christ’s followers. We remember that Jesus himself has suffered, in fact has gone through hell for us: he is not only the Saviour, he is the pioneer who leads and calls us forward. He will always be with us, even when the way is dark and our cry is desperate, and he will lead us forward to that kingdom where our questions will be answered, and good shall indeed triumph; where love shall rule and we shall see our Saviour face to face.  Amen.

Paul Weaver

Sermon: 10th Sunday after Pentecost 24th July 2016


Readings:     Hosea 1.2-10, Psalm 85, Colossians 2.6-15, Luke 11.1-13

Rev. Catherine Eaton

‘Lord, teach us to pray.’

Probably all of us, at some point in our lives, have found ourselves floundering in the uncharted waters of prayer, or had times when our prayers have felt empty and lifeless.

While prayer makes up so much of the language of the church, I suspect many of us have been left to fend for ourselves on our journey of faith. There’s an assumption that when someone says ‘pray’ we all know what that means and how to do it.

Too often we’re left thinking prayer is about the words we say or the form or style of prayer we use. But fundamentally, prayer is about a relationship and therefore, it is about hospitality. It is about the space we create for God and the space into which God invites us.

Everything else flows from there.

Hospitality is a key theme in Luke’s gospel. Just last week we heard about Jesus’ visit to the house of Martha and Mary and the hospitality they offered him in their different ways. Jesus identifies Mary’s listening and contemplation as ‘the better part’.

Today we see Jesus modelling the same thing. We’re told, he was praying in a certain place, making room in his own life for ‘the better part’. He was taking time to attend to God, as Mary attended to him.

The disciples were waiting at a respectful distance for him to finish. Only then did they ask, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’

They would have seen Jesus taking time to be alone with God. They’d obviously seen John instructing his disciples. And perhaps they were witness to Jesus’ commendation of Mary for choosing the ‘better part’. They too now sought access to that deeper relationship with God.

So Jesus offered them what we know as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, the words we rattle off every Sunday. Here in Luke’s gospel, we find a shortened version, quite sparse and to the point, a far cry from the long, self-seeking prayers of the scribes which Jesus condemned.

The prayer begins with a radical invitation to intimacy with God as Father. But it’s not a cheap intimacy, because it’s set within the context of the holiness of God and of God’s kingdom.

It then places our own daily lives within that context – we are to ask only for bread for the day and to live in an atmosphere of forgiveness. It concludes with ‘and do not bring us to the time of trial’. This is not a prayer asking God to save us from suffering, but a prayer that the evils of the world will not overwhelm us and separate us from God and a place in the kingdom.

There are only 2 places in Luke’s gospel where this phrase, ‘the time of trial’, is used – here, in Jesus’ teaching on prayer, after Jesus emerges from his own time of prayer.

The other place is in the Garden of Gethsemane – but that time after Jesus returned from his prayer, he found the disciples, not waiting and alert, but sleeping. Echoing the Lord’s Prayer, twice he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’

This reminds us that the Lord’s Prayer is not just a simple set of words to be learned and glibly recited. It is a profound preparation for the disciples, and for us, for the times ahead. It is our invitation to God to enter into our lives, and an expression of our desire to enter into God’s life.

Jesus then tells a story to encourage the disciples to be persistent in prayer. Set in 1st century Palestine, those listening to Jesus would have been very alert to the rules of hospitality. Here we have 3 relationships – the friend who arrives unexpectedly and must be fed; the friend who has nothing to give him so goes banging on his neighbour’s door; and the neighbour who has just gone to bed and doesn’t want to get up. Eventually because of his friend’s persistence, he gets up and gives him what he needs.

This is all about both men trying to avoid the shame of a failure in hospitality.

The story is not implying God goes to sleep or just decides not to be bothered with our requests. It is saying – if these people, who are so self-concerned, will still give good things, how much more will God give us what we need.

This idea is echoed later in the gospel when we’re told if parents, in all their frailty, give the children what they need, how much more will our Father in heaven, our true parent, give us what we need.

Our task is to keep asking, seeking, and knocking. It’s not because God forgets we’re there or fails to give us what we need. It’s about our need to keep returning to God, to the intimacy of relationship.

It’s why at the end of today’s gospel after all this talk about bread and fish and eggs, we’re told ‘how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him’.

This seems out of the blue, but every time we come to prayer, even if we’re praying about a job interview, it is the Holy Spirit who energises our prayer and unites our hearts with God.

Ask and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

Every time we ask, we open ourselves up to intimacy with God – we are saying, I have a need and I turn to you to help me in this situation. Every time we seek, we are revealing to God our vulnerability, that space within us that only God can fill. Every time we knock, we are saying to God, please invite me in. Allow me to find my home in you.

It reminds me of the Rule of St Benedict which places a huge priority on hospitality – ‘All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.’

The stranger who knocks at the door of the monastery will find the door opened. The stranger who asks for assistance will receive. The stranger who seeks shelter will find the lighted window of the monastery, where the candle is always burning. This is how God always welcomes us.

Prayer is not about the words we say or the form of prayer we use. It is about the space we create for God in our own hearts and lives, that hospitable place for God in us, not a space full of words and wants and confessions and fears and distractions, even of obsequious praises, but rather an offering of silence and love, heart-space where God can come and be within us, a space where the Holy Spirit can pray through us, a place in us where God is welcome, and prayer can find its own way.

And prayer is even more about the space God creates for us. It is a hospitable place within God where we find ourselves at home, where God desires to be generous to us, a place where we are fed with daily bread and given a foretaste of the kingdom of God.

Prayer is essentially a mutual welcome and a mutual beholding between us and God. It requires an openness of heart – God’s heart and ours, and a mutual self-offering to one another.

So as we say the Lord’s Prayer later in the service, let us attend to the words and open our hearts in hospitality to the one who offers himself to us.


Catherine Eaton


Sermon: 9th Sunday after Pentecost, 17th July 2016

 St. Alban’s West Epping, 17th July 2016

 Rev. Paul Weaver


(Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-29; Luke 10:38-42)

“Who’s helping with the washing up tonight?” comes the call from the kitchen. After a period of meaningful silence, the question is asked again, louder this time. Answers start coming from different parts of the house, usually at least one from the vicinity of the TV. “It’s not my turn.” “I did it last night.” “I’ve got too much homework.” Perhaps someone says: “I’ll be there in a few minutes.” Usually the old chestnut pops up from somewhere: “It’s not fair. I always have to do it. They never do it.”

Those of you who had children before you had a washing-up machine will be familiar with the script. The only really variable part is the ending. Sometimes it’s the grudging co-operation of the one whose turn it actually is. Sometimes the supposed martyr comes and helps to keep the peace. For variety there can be a major battle, or the parents decide it’s not worth the battle and do the job themselves. When that happens, usually one of the children comes in to help just as the last dish is being put away.

As a parent of three wonderful but normal daughters, I have a lot of sympathy for Martha in the gospel story we just heard. There she is: Martha the hostess, with a very honoured guest in her house – Jesus, no less. She mightn’t be aware of those extraordinary things that Paul writes about in today’s reading from Colossians: she mightn’t know that in Jesus Christ the fullness of God dwells bodily; she mightn’t realize that Jesus reveals God to her, not simply because he is a great teacher and a miraculous healer, but because he is God himself sharing our human life: the very visible presentation of God, the heir and Lord of creation. But she is determined to give Jesus the special treatment she knows he deserves. She’s not going to put a cheap frozen meal in the microwave and heat it up. She’s going to do things properly.

But doing things properly requires effort. Time and work are involved in preparing a meal that is fitting for such a special visitor. And so of course Martha will need help from her sister Mary, especially since some of the disciples are there are well, which is pretty likely

But what is Mary doing? She’s just sitting there at Jesus’ feet with the other visitors, listening to what Jesus is saying, as if she is one of the disciples. Oh sure, Jesus tolerates women doing that, even though no self-respecting rabbi would admit a woman as a disciple. But surely Mary can see that there’s work to be done! Surely she can recognize that she should be helping, not just lounging around as if she has all the time in the world. If she wants to be with Jesus, there will be time for that later.

And so Martha fusses around, glaring sometimes at Mary, who seems to be totally oblivious to Martha’s frustration. Finally Martha can stand it no more. She comes across to Jesus. “Lord you must see that my lazy sister has left me to do all the work myself. Won’t you tell her to help me?” Oh yes, I’ve got plenty of sympathy for Martha – and so actually has Jesus. But that doesn’t mean that he is going to respond in the way she wants.

“Dear Martha, you’re so uptight about all those lovely things you are trying to do for me. But there’s only one thing that really matters.”

I don’t think he’s arguing about the virtues of a single course versus a banquet. He goes on: “Mary has chosen the most important thing on offer, and we mustn’t take it away from her.”

Martha wants to make an elaborate meal, and that’s very nice of her. But I suspect she hasn’t come to any particular arrangement about that with Mary. Martha has chosen to do things for her guest: Mary has chosen to be with her guest. And as things have worked out Martha has become too busy being busy. She is actually missing out on something more important.

Out of this little story, Luke wants us to learn something important about Christian priorities. To be a faithful follower of Jesus is not simply a matter of being a busy active follower.

Helping the needy and being involved in church activities and doing good deeds are all good and important things for us to be doing as Christians, but they are not the be-all and end-all of Christian discipleship. For fundamentally, being a Christian means being in relationship with Christ: and that relationship is not expressed simply by a catalogue of good deeds.

We know that, don’t we? Relationships are built on more than simply doing things for one another. Many wives and partners have walked out leaving the man mystified. He has been faithful, he’s never been violent, he’s worked hard to get money in to feed and clothe and house the family and even get a few extras, and he even does a few jobs around the house. “What have I done that’s so terrible?” he asks. And back comes the answer too late: “You don’t talk with me; you don’t listen to me; you don’t give me your time and your attention. I don’t feel that you are interested in me: there is no real relationship!” And of course there are many similar stories of estrangement between parents and children: parents doing so much for their children, but not actually relating to the children. The children so often feel unvalued, and from there unloved.

We can treat our relationship with Jesus in a similar way. The Gospel tells us that our acceptance is based on God’s forgiving grace: it is not our performance that brings us into relationship with him, but God’s love and forgiveness which we receive by faith. It not all about what we do for God. God calls us not only into service, but into relationship with him.

To take on board the lesson that Martha had to learn, we need to make time to give our personal attention to Jesus. We can do that through making time to read and reflect on the scriptures, and to lay our hearts before him in prayer. We can do that personally and individually, perhaps on a daily basis, which I still believe is a very helpful thing for us to be doing. There are any number of helps available to help us in our scripture reading and reflecting and praying. And of course we have our parish monthly sheet for prayer and reflection. We can also deepen our personal relationship with Jesus through our involvement in study and prayer and meditation groups, and by the personal way we take part in our services of worship. Jesus wants quality time with us, and he knows that such time will benefit us spiritually.

However, we need also to remember the context of this story of Martha, Mary and Jesus. Immediately before it we find in Luke’s Gospel the story of the Good Samaritan. The ones who failed in that story were the religious practitioners, the priest and the Levite. They did not show love to the one in need, quite possibly because it would interfere with their religious service, their devotion to God. But they missed the point. Worship means loving service, not just liturgical correctness.

I’m sure it is no accident that these stories are side by side in the scriptures. To those who are tempted to fill their lives with religious activity or perhaps religious inactivity, the message comes that we are all called to love our neighbour in genuine practical service, as the opportunity or the challenge presents itself. To those who are tempted to rush around busily doing things for God, the message comes: stop! Give yourself time to be still, to listen, to pray, to reflect, to personally develop your relationship with the one who loves us beyond our understanding.

So it’s not one or the other: it must be both. There is a balance within the Christian life, a balance between what we might call the devotional side and the practical side. If we neglect the personal side of our relationship with Christ, we are in danger of becoming like over-busy Martha, or like that pompous older brother of the prodigal son, who did much for his father, but hardly knew him at all. But there will always be the call to loving active service: the form it takes will vary from person to person. It will reflect our circumstances, our opportunities, our gifts, our stage of life. But there will always be ways in which we can positively serve Christ and our neighbour.

There is a genuine rhythm of life for the follower of Christ: indeed this might be the relevance of the fourth commandment for us today, with its call to do our daily work and fulfil our responsibilities, as well as the call to make time for the Sabbath rest, to pray, to worship, to personally give our attention to the Lord. In the midst of our day-to-day activities or even busy-ness, as well as our times of rest and relaxation, let us remember our need to make time to sit at the feet of the Saviour and receive the spiritual refreshment he offers.  Amen.

 Paul Weaver


Sermon: 7th Sunday after Pentecost, 3rd July 2016


Readings:     2 Kings 5.1-14, Ps 30, Gal 6.7-18, Luke 10. 1-12, 17-24

Rev. Catherine Eaton

Well it’s all been happening over the last week or so! We’ve had a Brexit, an ordination and an election! For 2 of these events, the question was all about who gets the power. The other questioned the nature of power itself.

There’s an old Sufi story about a stream which coursed its way down the mountainside, receiving the melted snows, flowing over the rocks, weaving its way through the landscape. When the rains fell it grew, spreading out across the fields, becoming a great river, moving wherever it chose. It seemed nothing could stop it. It knocked down trees in its path and flowed over the cliffs, carving its signature across the land.

Until it came to a place where the rains didn’t fall, and it began to shrink. Before it, lay the vastness of the desert. Never mind, said the creek. These sands will easily give way to me. I can cut deep canyons out of stone. I can overwhelm the great trees. How hard can this be?

But each time it ventured forth, the sands soaked it up.

The wind said to the water, there’s only one way for you to cross the desert. Give yourself to me and I will carry you across. But the water did not want to give up its unique identity and power. The water tried again and again, only to find itself disappearing into the sands.

The wind said again, if you try to cross, the sands will swallow you up and you will become nothing but a swamp. You can only cross the desert if you stop being who you are. Give yourself to me and I will carry you across.

Eventually the water stopped resisting, and lifted its vapours through the heat, giving itself to the wind, which carried it across the desert without effort. Soon small clouds formed, and there on the other side of the desert, the rain began to fall and the creek again flowed down the mountain, across the stones, and through the grasses, gathering in the melting snow………

You cannot cross the desert unless you stop being who you are.

This seems a perfect story for Namaan in today’s first reading.

He too resisted giving up his own self-importance. But until he gave himself to Elisha’s request and the waters of the Jordan, he could not be healed.

In this story, we see the fundamental conflict between the world’s notion of power and the true power of God.

On one hand, the mighty Namaan has been brought down by leprosy. The king of Aram mistakenly assumes the king of Israel was the one with the healing power, and that generous payment would get the result he wanted. This backfires and Namaan makes his way to Elisha’s house, expecting him to come out to heal him with great displays of power and public fanfare. When he’s met by a servant and sent to an unimpressive river, Namaan naturally reacts in anger. After much fuss, he eventually does what’s required and is made clean.

Yet throughout this story about the powerful, it’s the servants who are the main actors.  When Namaan and the King of Aram are at a loss, it’s a servant girl who tells them of the prophet in Samaria. Then it’s a servant who brings the instructions from Elisha to Namaan. Then after Namaan’s hissy-fit, it is his servants who convince him to do what has been asked.

We also see the contrast between Namaan and Elisha. Namaan is a kind of ‘look at me’ fellow, whereas Elisha doesn’t actually appear on stage during the story. He’s in the background, and very clear this healing is not about him, or even about Namaan. He’s willing to heal Namaan, not because he feels sorry for him, but so that Namaan, and those holding political power, will learn that there is a prophet in Israel, a sign that God is at work in their world.

Two very different approaches to power.

The 3 events of this week also highlight these opposite understandings of power.

In both our election and the Brexit campaign, we’ve seen the politicians strutting their stuff. We’ve watched the power plays, the routine speeches, the shifting ground, the familiar games and tactics, all in the effort to win the prize of power.

Yet at Chris’ ordination, we witnessed something very different. As Deacon, Chris committed himself, not to the quest for power, but to the role of servant – servant of God, servant of the gospel, servant of those to whom he is sent.

Today’s gospel reveals something of what this means.

In sending out the 70, Jesus passes on to them something of his own power.

Last week, Bishop Gary reminded us that God calls and God equips, so be ready. Here are Jesus’s disciples living out that reality. But it’s hardly what we would see as wise preparation – carry nothing with you, Jesus says. You are going as lambs, not wolves. You will exercise this power that I’m entrusting to you from a place of vulnerability.

Jesus says ‘carry no bag or sandals’. In today’s world he might as easily have said – carry no titles, no positions, no roles or status, no credentials or symbols of wealth, no fancy oratory or your inflated egos – nothing to give you the illusion of security or power.

This is about God’s work and the life of the kingdom. It’s not about you or your ambitions. It’s about the power of God hidden in vulnerability.

And he warns them – ‘Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you – beware the traps of your own egos. But rejoice that your names are written in heaven, as servants of the kingdom of God.’

He also instructs them, ‘Greet no-one on the road.’  Over recent weeks we’ve watched the endless meeting and greeting rituals of our politicians, with more than their fair share of rats, fluorescent vests and babies. And we’ve watched the message change to suit the situation of the day.

But Jesus says to the disciples, keep focused, go where you need to go. Bring the blessings of peace and say, ‘the kingdom of God has come near to you.’ If they welcome you, stay, if not, go. Don’t distort the message to get people to like you, or vote for you. God’s truth does not change.

This story of the 70 disciples is not just about a past event. Nor is it just for ordained people or wandering preachers without sandals. This is about all of us.

Last week Chris modelled for us what is inherent in our baptisms. We’re all called to be servants of the kingdom of God, and like the water in the Sufi story, we are to offer ourselves to the wind of the Spirit, to be carried to that place where our lives can be poured out like rain upon the earth, the beginning of small streams of hope, peace, and blessing in the world.

This morning, on the other side of the election, and in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, today’s readings and Chris’ ordination remind us of the true nature of power. It finds its strength in vulnerability and looks to God as its ultimate source. And we are left with the question: what really motivates us to action? Are we the Namaans of this world or the Elishas? Bearers of the message of the kingdom or seekers in the pursuit of worldly power?


Catherine Eaton