Sermon: Third Sunday in Lent, 19 March 2017, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 19th March 2017

“TRUE WORSHIP”

Rev. Paul Weaver

(Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42)

For many Anglicans over the years, the main Sunday service they attended was Morning Prayer, the first service in the traditional Book of Common Prayer of 1662. Only in the past 40 or 50 years has this service gone out of common use in favour of more modern services.

The Morning Prayer service was carefully designed in three basic sections. It had a penitential opening section where we were reminded from the scriptures of our sinfulness, we were exhorted to repent and to confess our sins, we shared together in words of confession, and we were assured that God forgives all who repent and turn to Christ.

The last part of the service was a time of prayer: some responsive prayers, some short collects of a more personal nature, and intercessions for the church and the world.

In between these was a section which focused on hearing and responding to the word of God. Of course, in addition to this basic plan there were often some hymns and perhaps other items, and at least on Sundays there would be a sermon!

As you may remember, that central section included an Old Testament and a New Testament reading, and some canticles, generally based on sections of the scriptures. At the end of this section the Apostle’s Creed would be said together by everyone, effectively drawing together the words of scripture into a statement of faith.

At the beginning of this section focussing on God’s word was Psalm 95, which was our Psalm for today. And its position directly leading up to the reading of scripture was very thoughtfully chosen.

The Psalm begins with an enthusiastic call to join in praise to God, singing out to the Lord, the rock of our salvation. There is thanksgiving and joy involved in this praise.

This is not a congregation of people mumbling away with their heads buried in their books, being very discrete in case someone else might hear them! This is enthusiastic praise. The Lord is a great God, and a great king above all gods. He is the Creator of the world. That’s exciting! He is worthy of our joyful and enthusiastic praise.

Last Tuesday at the Ecumenical Lenten Service, I pointed out that the various churches have their different traditions and styles of worship. I could add that even within Anglicanism, there is a variety of styles: traditional and modern, formal and relaxed, structured and charismatic.

That’s fine. God’s family, and even the Anglican Church, is big enough to provide for that. There are some styles of worship that work better for me than some others. But regardless of our preferences, we all need to take our worship seriously.

But we don’t need to be stuffy and apparently miserable about it. In our praise we acknowledge a great God, and his message for us, which is wonderful news indeed!

Moving to the middle of the Psalm I wonder whether you noticed a slight change of mood. The call is now to worship, bow down and kneel before the Lord.

Our word worship is linked to the word “worth”. The English word indicates that in our worship we acknowledge the worth, the importance or the significance of the one we worship. Hence in the Service of Holy Matrimony in the Book of Common Prayer, the husband is able to worship his wife – to express with his body how precious she is to him. He might think that she is divine, but not in the literal sense of the word!

Worship as “worth- ship” is a pretty good understanding of worship, but the scriptural word for worship actually has the idea of bowing down, bowing the knee, kneeling before one who is so much greater than we are. It sees the importance of humility in the way we approach God.

This word reminds us that we do not just blithely bowl into God’s presence. We recognize his infinite greatness and his holiness. And we recognize our ultimate dependence on him and our sinfulness in his presence.

And yet the Psalmist also reminds us that he is not just the Lord, he is our God. Yes, we need to be humble before him, but we are also reminded that He binds himself to his people, he is committed to his people, he cares for us. And so we can look to him in faith, trusting that he hears our prayers and is always working for our good.

But then in the Psalm we have another change to an even more serious mood in those last few verses, indeed some very heavy words of warning. “Today” says the Psalmist, “if only you would hear his voice.” Listening to God’s voice is what really matters. Don’t close your ears and mind and heart to what God is saying.

And to demonstrate his point the Psalmist goes back to that story we heard in our reading from Exodus. The Israelites wandering in the wilderness had started grumbling.

It was not long after they had been led out of slavery in Egypt. Not long after they had crossed the sea and been rescued from the Egyptian armies. Not long after they had first been provided with manna and assured that the Lord would continue to provide for their physical sustenance.

But they were grumbling anyway. “We’re going to die of thirst here in the wilderness,” they complained, failing so quickly to remember how God had continually and wonderfully provided for their needs.

When a new problem came up, they didn’t pray for God to help them: they complained and grumbled, almost as if they were putting God on trial: “Do one more thing and we might believe in you”. In the end, that faithless generation failed to reach the Promised Land. When the opportunity came to enter it, they thought that it might be dangerous, and they refused their opportunity. They died wandering around in the desert, and it was the next generation who actually reached the land of milk and honey.

What is the Psalmist’s point as the Psalm comes to its conclusion in this very serious way? We are not to be like those people who had so much done for them, and yet kept refusing to trust the Lord. We are to remember the good things God has done for us, and learn from them. We are to “listen to his voice”, as the Psalmist puts it. And the word for listening in the Old Testament is essentially the same word as obeying. If we truly listen to the Lord, we shall obey his call.

And that is really what worship is all about. It is indeed about joining in meaningful and enthusiastic hymns of praise. It is about being thankful for God’s love for us, and trusting in his love, and praying for his guidance and help. But it is also about listening to his voice: remembering all that he has done, and being ready to obey him.

This is why the Psalm is so strategically placed in the service of Morning Prayer, leading into the reading of God’s Word. It seeks to prepare us to hear God’s message to us. The message of the scriptures is not just placed there merely to fill a space or continue a tradition. It is there to be heard and taken seriously, and obeyed. If we are not willing to learn from the scriptures or to put into practice what we learn, we miss the whole point of the reading of scripture in our services. We are to hear – and obey.

And if the Psalmist made his call to people of Old Testament times, how much more important is it for us who are followers of Jesus, the giver of the water of life, the one who can take a mixed-up woman of Samaria or a thief dying on a cross or even a resident of Epping, and bring them new life and new purpose!

What then is worship? Paul sums it very helpfully in the twelfth chapter of his Letter to the Romans, where he says: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

For in fact, worship is not just about what we do at church: it is about our lives. Jesus gave his life for us. He calls us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice – in other words to live our lives for him, living as his faithful servants. Trusting in Jesus means seeking to live as followers of Jesus.

As we reflect on our Psalm this morning, let us heed its call not just to sing and speak and pray, but to listen and to obey, putting our faith into action, as those who have become God’s people because of his love for us in Jesus Christ, the giver of the water of life. Amen.

Paul Weaver

Sermon: Second Sunday in Lent, 12 March 2017, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 12th March 2017

“IT’S ALL ABOUT FAITH”

Rev. Paul Weaver

(Genesis 12:1-4; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17)

“Faith is believing something when you know it’s not true.” A fairly cynical definition of faith, which was attributed to a child when I first heard it! The Letter to the Hebrews has a different definition: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith goes beyond what we can literally see or touch or prove, and finds a deep reality to hold on to.

Actually faith is part of ordinary life. We put faith in our cars or public transport, and their drivers. We put faith in those who provide and prepare the food we eat. We put faith in our life partner, and the teachers of our children. We can’t check everything out ourselves. Life would be impossible.

I can’t prove that there is nothing bad in the sandwich I bought, but I eat it, acting in faith, based on my previous experience that sandwiches from the shop have normally been quite safe to eat. Sometimes they are even quite tasty!

I normally trust a bus driver, but if I see that he can’t be more than 5 years old, or that he is acting as if he is under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs, my faith will be put under pressure.

But what about Christian faith?

People have different reasons for holding a Christian faith. It may be to do with their upbringing or their experience, or their own personal reasons for holding onto faith. Perhaps they are just unwilling to ask questions about it. I hold onto my Christian faith because it makes sense to me: it makes sense of life, and the message of the scriptures makes sense to me. Like so many aspects of life, I can’t prove it beyond any question, but I have what I find are very satisfying reasons for holding onto my faith.

Faith is the theme linking our readings today. In Genesis we read of Abram’s faith. God spoke to him, and he trusted God, and he trusted God’s amazing promises. God promised Abram that he would make him a great nation, and that through him all the nations of the world would be blessed. But he must travel to a new home, to a land that God would show him. That would be a huge act of faith. He couldn’t see or prove that God would keep his promises, or even keep him safe, but he acted in faith

In fact, he never saw the complete fulfilment of God’s promises, but many centuries later, in that land God had led him to, one of Abram’s descendants died on a cross and rose from death, bringing hope and new life to all the world. God did keep his wonderful promises to Abram. Abram’s faith and his acts of faith were rewarded. Faith is not a theoretical thing, but it is expressed in our lives and our actions.

Our Psalm also expresses this theme of faith. “I lift up my eyes to the hills”, says the Psalmist. What will he find there? Will he find safety or danger? Will he find the high places, where the pagan false gods were worshipped? He won’t find his real needs met just by going up to the hills. No, his true help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth: the one who made those hills to which he has been looking. The Lord is always there, always awake and alert, always aware of what is happening. The Lord cares for his people, looking after their well-being.

Now that’s all very well, we might say. But would God’s care really stop him ever getting sunburnt? How could he be sure that he would never go crazy, something which the moon was believed to cause? Why would he never trip himself up or suffer any injury? Did the Psalmist live in the real world where there is pain and suffering, and where things go wrong? Of course he did. He used poetic pictorial language to express his faith in God, who was always ready to help him and his people. Did that help automatically mean that nothing ever went wrong for him, or that all his problems were magically solved? I’m sure he knew that it didn’t. But he used this language to express his conviction that no matter the circumstances, the Lord was there with him, was there for him, helping and supporting him even when things were tough. He knew that faith was no magic pill, no fairy godmother’s wand. Faith linked him up to the God who is there, the God who is with us and helps us in time of need, whose purpose is ultimately to bring us his rich blessing – even when his help doesn’t neatly and immediately solve all our problems and difficulties.

The apostle Paul in his Letter to the Romans also emphasizes that faith is at the heart of our relationship with God. Much of this letter focuses on the question of how we who are sinners can have a relationship with a God who is holy, and has nothing to do with sin. It is natural for people to ask “how good do I have to be, what good things must I do, to be OK with God?” Paul makes it clear that this is the wrong question, and always has been.

Paul goes back to that story of Abram – or Abraham, as he became. Was it because of his obedience to God’s call that Abraham became one of God’s people? No, says Paul, and he quotes from the book of Genesis to prove his point. “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” It was faith which brought him into a right relationship with God. It was faith which made him OK with God. His relationship with God and the blessings he received were not some payment or wage for services rendered: it was the appropriate outcome of faith. Faith is opening up to the blessings God offers his people. Faith recognizes what God offers his people, and says “I want your blessing, I trust that blessing is for me, I depend on you and look to you for that blessing.”

Paul wants us to see that the way we link up with God is not by trying to be really good or really obedient to his laws or really religious or even really regular at church. It is not even by making sure that your doctrine is correct and that you can demonstrate an outstanding knowledge of the Bible and that you are free from heresy in your theological understanding. It is simply trusting that God really does want to have a loving relationship with you, and accepting this wonderful privilege. Forgiveness is never something we can earn or deserve: forgiveness is always a gift. Faith opens us up to God’s forgiveness, which comes to us through Jesus Christ and his death for us on the cross. Faith links us up with God, and his generous love for us.

And then we have John’s account of that famous conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus tried to show that he took Jesus seriously as a teacher sent from God, but Jesus immediately cut to the chase. “You must be born again”, he said. “To enter the kingdom of God, you must be born from above.” If you heard John Barr from West Epping Uniting Church this week, you may remember him saying that being born again, or being born from above, was something God does for us.

It seems to me that Jesus’ powerful words have almost been hijacked by some people. Being born again is not necessarily about having a dramatic spiritual experience. Nor is it necessarily about being baptized or going forward at an evangelistic meeting. Being born again is about God giving us new life as members of his family: it is something God does for us.

And how does Jesus say that we receive this wonderful new life? “Everyone who believes – or puts their faith – in the Son of God receives eternal life.” Once again, faith is the key. We place our trust in the God whose Son Jesus Christ died on the cross to bring us forgiveness.

So here we have these four readings: each of them in their own way bringing out the importance of faith, of trusting in Jesus, of accepting God’s gift of forgiveness and new life, depending on Jesus.

Faith is trust, dependence, openness to God and the blessings he offers. Faith is not just believing that there must be something or someone out there. It is more than putting a tick alongside a list of doctrines. It is depending on Jesus, as Abraham depended on God. And like Abraham, faith for us leads to action. Real faith is always put into practice. If I trust that the food is safe, I will eat it. If I trust that the driver is competent, I will travel with him. If I trust in Jesus, I will follow him. If I trust in Jesus, I will seek to live as a member of his family. But when I again fall short, my faith is that God will still love me and forgive me, and stay true to his promises.

Faith is the key. And as we enter a new stage of our story here at St.Alban’s, and as we share in our Annual Meeting today, God’s call is to keep trusting him. He cares for his family in Christ, and he has great things to do for us here at St.Alban’s, and great things for us to do. Faith is the key. Let’s hold onto that faith, and put our faith into practice, trusting God’s continuing faithfulness as we follow Jesus. Amen.

Paul Weaver

Sermon: 1st Sunday in Lent, 5 March 2017, St Alban’s

Lent 1

5 March 2017

Rev. Jane Chapman

Gen           2.15-3.1-7

Ps   32

Rom          5.12-21

Matt          4.1-11

One does not live by bread alone, but

by every word that comes

from the mouth of God

 

Pass a bread and cake-shop, especially soon after the breads have been taken from the oven.  Sniff their aroma.  Let your mouth water.  There are few things lovelier than the smell of new-baked bread!

How can I, how can we, approach God’s ‘word’ with the same sense of expectation?  How can our sense of God’s word so speak to us that the mouths of our souls “water”, key to us that something both delightful and fulfilling is being offered to us?

And how, after all, can we learn truly to hear God’s word…i.e. not simply to hear the sounds, but to hear both truth and meaning?

Even new-baked bread, if that’s all that is on offer, can pall after a while.  But, for us, there is an inexhaustible source of nourishment in scripture: nourishment meant for us to seek, to taste, to savour…in all, to learn and go on learning how truly to find and then absorb the word of God.

I’ve used the term “inexhaustible” because our reading makes it very clear to us that we are called to listen.  This is our task, our work for and in the Lord, our call to an ongoing engagement with God – and, specifically, with God-in-Jesus.

It is Jesus who brings us the New Testament:  Jesus, whose task it is to teach us the meaning of listening to, and engaging with, God’s word on a daily basis; Jesus, whose life experience breaks open the “bread of Heaven”, such that hungry souls can be fed with the essence of loving which is the infinite totality of encountering Jesus as the One Who Is.

Thus the nurture offered to us is inexhaustible…and often, thereby, appears too rich a feast to sit down to on a daily basis.  But if that is indeed our experience, it is possible that we are taking available mouthfuls on a far-too-hungry basis.

God, inexhaustible, unfathomable, always available, can often seem too vast, too overwhelming for us to feast upon.  But surely we can nibble…and nibble-to-savour.  No big gulps.  No fantasy that we can actually capture the essence of God.  The Word, this God, this Creator and Master is full only of loving.  The loving is available at all times, under all circumstances.  It is not offered to us so that we can roast our spiritual tootsies in la-la land. The Words of God are those that hold, that call, that promise and deliver the joy and the obedience of loving.

Why do I call it the “obedience of loving?”  Because bread from the mouth of God sustains, and sustains in relationship, a relationship that calls us all into a world characterised by the ongoing experience of learning both to love, and to be loved.

And so, this bread from the mouth of God becomes for us, not only participation but a need, a daily need, a blessing characterised by closeness, by mutuality, by the slow and gentle mutual loving and exploration of the ‘Other’ (capital ‘O’).  Do not deny the experience, the pleasure, that you, that we, can give to God by closing yourself to the sustenance of living inside God’s Word and God’s world.

Never imagine that love, that blessedness, that life, and humour, and gentle surprise are not always open to you as the words God speaks in the quiet of your soul… should you, should we, remain open to that loving.  Bask in the togetherness with God.  Gather up what gratitude, or pleasure, or loneliness, or fear…or whatever is your experience…and open both the eyes and the ears of your hearts to encounter the blessedness of being fed in the depths of your heart by “every word that comes from the mouth of God”.

 

Sermon: 1st Sunday in Lent, 5 March 2017, St Aidan’s

 St.Alban’s Epping and St.Aidan’s West Epping, 5th March 2017

Rev. Paul Weaver

“DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE”

(Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-21; Matthew 4:1-11)

“No man is an island.” Those famous words of John Donne emphasize a profound truth. None of us is a totally independent person. As human beings we are inevitably connected to others. We need others. And our actions affect others. In debates about freedom of speech or Americans’ right to bear arms, people seem to forget that the freedoms I claim might have an impact on others, who have their own rights. Freedom in this world can never be absolute freedom. A truly human life connects us to other people.

But there is another way in which we are not independent. We are never independent of God our Creator. We cannot live a fully human life living as if God were not there, living as if God had no relevance to us, as if God’s ways and God’s purposes had nothing to do with us. Of course, plenty of people try to do that, but we just have to look at the state of the world to see the results.

We were made by God. We are ultimately dependent on God, and we are ultimately answerable to God. Why haven’t things worked out in practice?

Genesis 3 takes us to a fork in the road of human history. In the first two chapters we read of a perfect world where every human need is provided, and where humans are in close fellowship with God. Eden is unspoiled. There is beauty. There is activity, good things to do. There is relationship and love. Life is good. All is well.

Adam and Eve have great freedom, but that freedom is not absolute. They have one small restriction. The fruit of any tree in the garden is available for them, except for one tree. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is forbidden to them. In fact, if they eat its fruit, they will die.

Why is this? We don’t know the full answer to this question. But one part is clear. This restriction gives Adam and Eve a choice. They can choose whether or not to trust and obey God.

They have the freedom to make decisions for themselves about whether or not they will live in obedience to God. It is an awesome privilege, a wonderful blessing. Nevertheless this power to choose has risks attached: for freedom to choose includes the freedom to choose wrongly, and there is the possibility of going down the path of sin, to in a sense declare independence from God.

Of course, the opportunity to rebel against God also provides the opportunity to choose to obey him, to live with him in loyalty and trust and love. Humans have moral and spiritual responsibility. But how will they use it?

Into this picture comes the serpent. Later in the Bible, the serpent will be identified with Satan, the devil. But right now, he is a simply the creature who will bring things to a head. He takes Eve step by step down the path, and in due course Adam will join in. He gets them to question God’s concern for their well-being, and then denies God’s warning. “You won’t die. God wants to keep you in the dark. You know some things, but there is a whole world God is keeping from you. You know a little bit of what is good, but this fruit will bring the knowledge of good and evil, you will really know everything, you will be able to decide for yourselves what is right and what is wrong – like God! Don’t let God tell you what you can do. Put him in his place. Who is God to think he can boss you around?”

It was persuasive because Adam and Eve were distracted from all they knew about God, who had made them and provided generously for them in every way. The serpent exaggerated God’s rules to make him seem unreasonable. He denied God’s warnings to make him seem untrustworthy. He questioned God’s motives to make him seem unloving. The fruit looked attractive and delicious. And it was going to open their eyes to new things. Why not have some? And so Eve and then Adam ate the fruit.

Of course the story of Adam and Eve isn’t just the story of two people thousands of years ago, whether you take it literally or pictorially. It is also our story. For like Adam and Eve, we too have the choice to obey or disobey God, the choice of being loyal or disloyal to him. Like them, temptation is a reality in our lives.

As humans we not only choose at times to disobey God: we use very similar arguments to those of the serpent to justify our disobedience. God’s laws, we say, are unreasonable or out-of-date or irrelevant. Or they don’t apply in my case, or they’re too narrow, or no one else worries about them, or they’re too hard in our days, or this one’s not all that important, or I’m only going to do this once, or it’s not as bad as what other people do! There are so many excuses we can use for our disobedience to God, but really they are just variations on what the serpent said to Eve.

Our disobedience is a failure of loyalty to the one to whom we owe our very being. Our disobedience is a failure of faith in the one who truly knows what is in our best interests. Our disobedience is an act of defiance in which we tell God: “You are not in charge. I’m in charge of my own life.” Our disobedience is a declaration of independence in which we cut ourselves off from the one on whom we ultimately depend for life and purpose and everything.

What happened when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit? Well, they did discover new things. They knew good and evil in a new way. But was the knowledge worth having? It’s good to know that fire burns, but you don’t need to need to stick your arm in the flames to find out what it is really like. It’s good to know that driving when drunk is dangerous, but you don’t need to do it yourself to understand that reality. There are some things you understand best by doing them. Other things you need to know in your mind, and save yourself having to learn from experience. The knowledge that Adam and Eve gained was actually of no real value to them at all. In fact, it put up barriers. Now they wanted to hide from God, and even from each other. They experienced the reality of shame, and the sense of guilt.

God is God. Rejecting his ways and his call cuts us off from him, and from what are really the best things in life. But it doesn’t stop him loving us. He continues to call us to trust him, and to live in obedience to him.

And in Jesus Christ, he deals with our guilt. Jesus, as we are reminded in our Gospel reading, knows the reality of temptation, and understands our spiritual struggles. And on the cross, he identified with us in our sin and failure, and brought to us the assurance of forgiveness and reconciliation, reconnection with God.

Perhaps the temptations many of us face are less obvious than they might have been in other stages of our lives. The easy way, the comfortable way, not being willing to do something helpful we could do, the little compromise, the unkind thought we hold on to, or the unkind words we might say.

Whatever it might be, Lent calls us once again to take seriously Christ’s call to repentance, God’s call to obedience. But it assures us that when we fall short, when we again put up the barriers, God still loves us, he still understands us, he is patient and forgiving. May we as individual Christians, and as a church facing a new future, seek to walk with faith and devotion and a willingness to obey God’s call, following Jesus, who shows us all the best way to live. Amen.

Paul Weaver

Sermon: 8th Sunday after Epiphany, 26 February 2017, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 26th February 2017

Rev. Paul Weaver

“TRUST, GENEROSITY AND PRIORITIES”

(Isaiah 49:8-16; Psalm 131; 1 Corinthians 3:18-4:5; Matthew 6:22-34)

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourself treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Familiar words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, we will hear them again in a few days in our Gospel for Ash Wednesday. But they actually form the introduction for today’s Gospel reading, and give us a clearer sense of what Jesus was saying.

In this passage, Jesus is talking about priorities: about what really matters to us. Wealth and possessions may have their place in our approach to life, but they must always take a secondary place, according to Jesus. They can too easily usurp God’s place in our lives. They can get in the way of us doing what we know we should do. We have been hearing of footballers and sportspeople who allow the attraction of wealth to take priority, and get caught up with dishonest gambling or performance-enhancing drugs, when they should focus on playing as well as they can. We hear of politicians who seek donations dishonestly, to given them a better chance of winning the election. Doing what is right, and ultimately putting God first, must take first place over the pursuit of wealth. God’s priorities must take first place over the priorities of materialism.

Jesus talks about having healthy eyes: they enable us to see the world clearly, and show us the way ahead. He also refers to the unhealthy eye: literally this is the “evil eye”. Now the term “evil eye” to some people is about deep destructive power: perhaps it belongs in horror movies or exotic countires. But in those days, the “evil eye” described the outlook of someone who was mean and stingy, the person who was concerned with their own needs and wants, and did not care about the needs of anyone else. To be self-centred is to be spiritually blind, Jesus is saying: blind to the real way to live, blind to the call of the God of love. We are really not the centre of the world. It is really not all about us!

And so Jesus challenges us all. Whom do we really serve? Do we serve God or mammon?

Mammon is wealth and possessions regarded as if they were a god. Money can be a useful tool, but it is a dangerous and ultimately destructive master. An employee can have two jobs and two bosses, but slavery doesn’t work that way. Nor does true Christian faith. We are God’s slaves, God’s servants through Christ. We are full-time Christians.

The purpose of life is not to see how much money or how many possessions you can gather before you die. We will all still die, and all those possessions will ultimately mean nothing. And we see reminders so often that wealth does not necessarily make people happy, or give them a meaningful and satisfying life. Life is not a competition but a journey, with opportunities to learn and grow, to love and serve. God is our loving and wise Master through Jesus Christ. Money and possessions must always take second place: they too must be used in his service.

And a healthy attitude will help us to see the relevance of Jesus’ words about worry. Life provides plenty of opportunities for worry, and many of us are pretty good at taking those opportunities. We worry about our finances, our health, our family, our work, about the state of the world and the state of the nation. We worry about the state of the church. And of course we worry about all those different problems which come up from time to time. Worry is natural: our problems are clear enough, but we can’t see the future and we can only see part of the picture. And so we worry.

But Jesus challenges us about our worrying. Worry is unrealistic, because it fails to take into account the God who made us and cares for all creation. Worry is unhelpful because it achieves nothing: it won’t make us taller – or slimmer! It will shorten our life rather than keep us healthy for longer. Worry is unbelieving, because God already knows our needs and hears our cries for help.

Of course it is easy for me to tell us not to worry. We are all frail humans. But let’s remember that the one who said these words 2000 years ago had plenty of things to get him worried, and to give him the proverbial ulcer. The people around him really couldn’t understand what he was on about; even his closest disciples didn’t get it. And he had powerful opposition, opposition which would in time have him arrested and executed.

Jesus had plenty to worry about. And although he went through times of great pressure and at times said some very heavy things, he was also a man who clearly loved life and loved people, who enjoyed humour and loved a party!

So he gives this advice: get on with today’s problems, and don’t worry about tomorrow. In a sense, we might almost say to ourselves when we start to worry about things, “I’ll worry about that tomorrow!” That’s one bit of procrastination that is worth practising. Worry about it tomorrow, or the day after! Let’s get on with life today!

And of course, when Jesus tells us not to worry, he is not telling us to do nothing. Often when we worry, it gets in the way of the things we should be doing. When you start to worry about an examination, the best thing is to get down to study. If you are worried about a family member, pray for them, and consider whether there is something else positive you can do for them: a phone call, a visit, a quiet word of encouragement, or a bit of practical help.

Faith does not mean doing nothing. Jesus would be well aware that those birds of the air have very active lives: finding food, building nests, looking after their young. And when we pray “Give us today our daily bread”, we don’t just lounge back, waiting for the food to drop in our mouth. Trusting God to care for us means being alert to the ways we are to work with him.

Which leads me to a subject which I have felt is an important one to raise at this time. There are concerns about our Parish finances. Our income is not going in the direction it needs to be going, if we are continue on and even move forward.

I don’t want you to worry about that. But I do want you to pray, and to think, and perhaps to take action. In particular, we really need to increase our regular offertories. And a question that occurs to me is one especially for those who are regular parishioners. When did each of us last review our giving to the parish?

I’m not one of those clergymen who believes in telling people how much they must give to the church. And I am conscious that we all are in very differing financial circumstances. I suspect that many of us are very generous in our giving, as many of us are generous in our service to the parish and beyond. Remember how Jesus pointed out the extreme generosity of the poor widow with her two small coins.

But every now and again we all need to review our giving: how much, and what we support. Now that I have retired from full-time ministry, Sarah and I are moving into a new stage of our lives financially speaking, and we are at the stage when we need to review our giving to the church and its mission. We are thankful to be well provided for, but we are at the point where we need to look again at our approach to giving, and how we give.

Some of us will find it practical to use our parish’s bank transfer system, but regardless of that, let’s review how much we give – both to our church and beyond. We might support particular missions and worthwhile causes. There might be other ways we support people in need, and the mission of the church. But it needs to be reviewed from time to time.

The important thing is that we think and pray about our giving. And that we seek to be generous in our giving and our service. Pray for our parish, not only its spiritual needs but also its financial needs. We don’t need to worry, but it is good to take action when the appropriate time comes.

We are a community of people who are generally well provided for. God has been good to us. Jesus calls us to be faithful by being generous. Generosity flows out of our trust in the God who loves us, and our recognition of the love of God. First things first, says Jesus to us.

Let’s leave our worries till tomorrow, and focus on what is important to be doing today. Let’s remember that God is our generous provider who knows our needs and cares for us. Let’s keep in mind what a privilege it is to be partners with God in his wonderful plans for the church and the world.

Jesus calls us to be people who pray in faith. And as we pray, let’s be open to what God would have us do in playing our generous part in the answer to those prayers. Amen.

Paul Weaver

Sermon: Evensong, 8th Sunday after Epiphany, 26 February 2017, St Alban’s

SUNDAY 26TH FEBRUARY 2017

ST ALBAN’S EPPING EVENSONG

Dr Ruth Shatford

Exodus 24:12-18;  Psalm 2;  Matthew 17:1-9

Occasionally some sets of lectionary readings are not so easy to see as a piece, but in tonight’s selection, the Exodus reading and the gospel reading really form an almost elegant pair, with some aspects of the psalm highlighting points from each and forming a link between them.

Biblical writers have used various images to try to represent God to God’s people, doing the undoable.  The priestly writer spoke of the glory of God in terms of a descending cloud and a devouring fire.  These pictures rightly give us hints and a feeling rather than give such specific imagery that they would be guilty of trying to make God less than God, in a being we could fully understand.  The presence of God always remains somewhat elusive and as one commentator puts it, there is always a dynamic tension between divine self-disclosure and divine self-concealment.  There remains mystery even in the face of revelation.  He phrases it well when he says that the proximity of God creates a memory and an anticipation of certitude but always defies human appropriation.    The presence is foreshadowed and hinted at, but remains beyond our total grasp.

In the Exodus reading tonight, there are two definite strands or perspectives concerning God’s presence.  Although they may almost sound to be contradictory, there is the nearness of God and the sovereignty of God.  This text is a strong witness to God’s commitment to be intimately involved with His people, set as it is in the context of the communal meal to celebrate the sealing of the covenant, a meal where Moses, Aaron and 70 elders sat down to eat together before God.

But let’s put the reading into a bigger context still.  In Exodus 19 we have recorded that God is revealed in a display of awesome terror, thoughts picked up in the psalm, where thunder and lightning, as well as thick cloud on the mountain and a blast of a trumpet represent the presence of God, causing the people to tremble.  The references in this chapter to the Lord descending in fire, the smoke going up and the mountain shaking also express the theme of God’s elusive presence.   In interpreting chapter 24, we need to hold on to the burning terror of the theophany of chapter 19 but in balance with the presence of God in a type of the Eucharistic meal that is celebrated where a new, starkly contrasting avenue of communication has been opened to God’s people in the making of a covenant.

Moses proceeded up the mountain to be in God’s immediate presence and he stayed in the cloud for 40 days and 40 nights, idiom for “a very long time”.  In chapter 34, when Moses had had another encounter with the living God, we read that “his face shone because he had been talking with God”.  In our gospel reading, in Matthew 17, we see that Moses’ transformative encounter with God underlies the Transfiguration of Jesus, where His face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.  Jesus is echoing and embodying Moses’ encounter with the divine presence.

From the divine presence in the cloud, Moses received the law and commandments, forming a link between God’s presence that gives rise to the response of worship, and God’s covenant demands on his people.  The link is thus made between worship and the law.  The law is to be seen as God’s enduring presence with His people, and God’s presence is to be realised wherever the law is followed.

Let me move now to the gospel reading for tonight from Matthew 17.

Today is celebrated as Transfiguration Sunday.  When I was a young person in the Young Anglican Fellowship, our big annual celebration was the Feast of the Transfiguration, celebrated on August 6th.  I think that the transfer of this feast day has been done with a great deal of purpose and thought and I want to explain why.

The chapter that precedes tonight’s gospel reading is pivotal.  Late in chapter 16, Jesus says to his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  and continues with “But who do you say I am?”.  To this, Simon Peter answered “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”, to which Jesus responds: “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”.  Then we are told that from that time on, Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer… that he must be killed and on the third day, be raised to life.  Up till this point in Matthew’s gospel, the focus had been on the signs and debates of Jesus, his miracles and his radical teaching.  After this confession of Peter’s, Jesus became much more direct with his disciples and it was the beginning of setting his face towards Jerusalem.

So the Transfiguration came straight after Peter’s confession and seems to be crucial in preparing the disciples for the untrodden road ahead.  Others thought Jesus was one of the prophets returned.  Jesus now sought, in the light of Peter’s confession, to teach his disciples what it meant that he was the Son of God.  The people generally had thought that the Messiah would be a militaristic figure, who would lead Israel against her enemies and secure the kingdom of God on earth or even re-establish the glorious kingdom of Solomon.  Just a couple of chapters earlier, after the feeding of the five thousand, there was a move among the people to grab Jesus there and then to make him king.  Jesus overturned this popular idea with his disciples once Peter made his confession that Jesus was the Messiah.  The popular expectation did not seem to take account of Isaiah 53, where it was  foretold that the Messiah would die an inglorious death, apparently defeated by his enemies.

So it was in this atmosphere of what must have been some confusion among the disciples or at least in an atmosphere of trying to process and come to grips with what Jesus had said to them, that the Transfiguration occurred.    Six days after Peter’s confession, Jesus took Peter, James and John up to a high mountain where they witnessed an amazing sight.  Jesus was glorified right before their eyes and was joined by the long dead Moses and Elijah, lawgiver and prophet, both of whom were themselves recorded as having seen an appearance of God in their lifetimes, in like manner to the way the glory of God had been manifest as told in the Old Testament scriptures.  The voice the disciples heard said the same words as had been said of Jesus at his baptism “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.  Listen to Him.”

Recall the background for a moment:  the disciples had shared in Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Messiah.  They had a mistaken notion as to what that meant.  Jesus spoke of his impending death, which probably turned upside down their idea of his Messiahship and would have left them confused.  The transfiguration was a powerful confirmation of Peter’s confession.  It showed the three chosen disciples that Jesus was not just a teacher, nor a prophet, but was indeed, no less than the Son of God, the Messiah.   God’s words at this event strongly commanded that Jesus be heard;  the Transfiguration was a statement about the authority of Jesus, a demonstration by God that Jesus is Lord.    Against the background of the warning that Jesus would face an ignominious death, there was the encouragement given in the transfiguration that Jesus shared the glory of God and dare we say, the very nature of God.  This would of course, have fallen into place when after the resurrection and the ascension, the disciples recollected this event and could see its significance in a different way.  Although it is not recorded by Matthew in tonight’s reading, Luke’s version of this event tells us that Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah about his approaching death in Jerusalem.  References to Jesus’ death and resurrection surround the Matthew telling of the transfiguration and together these parts of the narrative make it clear that the event was meant to be interpreted in the light of those coming events.  Jesus told Peter, James and John not to tell anyone about the event until after his resurrection.  Jesus himself thereby placed this event in the context of his forthcoming death and resurrection.    The glory that lay in store for Jesus would not come through war with Rome, but here was a preview of it, the glory to be attained through death and resurrection.  I wonder if the disciples were able to think of this when Jesus turned his face steadfastly to Jerusalem to face the future they would rather not have known about.

The transfiguration was not a random event, but one precisely sequenced, as it were, to foreshadow the Messiahship he would embrace.

I now really appreciate the placement of the feast of the Transfiguration here at the end of the season of Epiphany and at the threshold of Lent and the journey to the death and resurrection of Jesus.  It not only makes good sense, but the Transfiguration teaches us so much about all these events.

May we be encouraged by these readings.  May we learn to not always need the cognitive and to impose meaning, but sit reflectively with the sense of the transcendent, contemplate the glory and the majesty of God through all our senses.  May we, like the disciples in Matthew’s version of the story, express reverence and awe at this event and as our cloud disappears, see only Jesus.  When they were overwhelmed, Jesus approached and touched them, encouraging them to rise and not be afraid.  This was a moment of profound grace for those friends of Jesus, being lifted from their smallness and inadequacy by him.  May we seek that grace from Jesus too, from the Jesus who leads us out to love and to serve, giving ourselves for and to others.