Sermon: The Festival of Saint Francis of Assisi (A) – 5th October 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 6pm

Readings:  Genesis 2:4b-9a, 19-22  Psalm 148   1 Peter 2:1-5  Matthew 6:25-33

Francis was born in Assisi in Umbria Italy in 1182, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. Francis received little formal education and during his youth was mostly preoccupied with having fun. As a young man, he was popular, charming, enjoyed practical jokes and was usually the life of the party. Because of his wealth, he generally picked up the tab and thus attracted a following of fun loving, rowdy young men and women.

When armed conflict broke out between the men of Assisi and a neighbouring city in 1202, Francis eagerly volunteered for the cavalry but wound up getting captured after the first big battle and spent a year in captivity.

Francis returned to Assisi hailed as a hero, but unknown to his friends he had undergone a transformation in his outlook during his captivity. Although he was once again the life of the party, he was now questioning the reason for his existence.

One day, in the church of San Damiano, on the plain below Assisi, he seemed to hear Christ saying to him, “Francis, repair my falling house”. He took the words literally, and sold a bale of silk from his father’s warehouse to pay for repairs to the church. His father was outraged, there was a public confrontation, his father disinherited and disowned him and he in turn renounced his father’s wealth. One account says that he not only handed his father his purse, but also took off his expensive clothes, laid them at his father’s feet, and walked away naked.

He declared himself “wedded to Lady Poverty”, renounced all material possessions and devoted himself to serving the poor. In his day the most dreaded of all diseases was something known as leprosy. It is probably not the same as either the modern or the Biblical disease of that name. Lepers were kept at a distance and regarded with fear and disgust. Francis cared for them, fed them, bathed their sores and kissed them.

Since he could not pay for repairs to the Church of San Damiano, he undertook to repair it by his own labours. He moved in with the priest, and begged stones lying useless in fields, shaping them for use in repairing the church. He got his meals, not by asking for money so that he might live at the expense of others, but by scrounging crusts and discarded vegetable from trash-bins, and by working as a day labourer, insisting on being paid in bread, milk, eggs, or vegetables rather than in money. Soon a few companions joined him. A separate order for women was formed, now known as the Franciscan Nuns or Poor Clares.

Francis had much love for animals with special fondness for the birds. He liked to refer to animals as his brothers and sisters. Legend has it that wild animals had no fear of Francis and even came to him seeking refuge from harm.

Dante in his Paradiso has the theologian Thomas Aquinas say of him:

“Let me tell you of a youth whose aristocratic father disowned Him because of his love for a beautiful lady. She had been married before, to Christ, and was so faithful a spouse to Him that, while Mary only stood at the foot of the Cross, she leaped up to be with Him on the Cross. These two of whom I speak are Francis and the Lady Poverty. As they walked along together, the sight of their mutual love drew men’s hearts after them. Bernard saw them and ran after them, kicking off his shoes to run faster to so great a peace. Giles and Sylvester saw them, kicked off their shoes and ran to join them …”

After three years, in 1210, the Pope authorized the forming of the Order of Friars Minor, commonly called the Franciscans. “Friar” means “brother”, as in “fraternity”, and “minor” means “lesser” or “younger”. This means that a Franciscan, upon meeting another Christian, is to think, “I am your brother in Christ, and your younger brother at that, bound to defer to you and to give you precedence over myself”.

Francis and his companions took literally the words of Christ when he sent his disciples out to preach. “Preach as you go, saying; The kingdom of Heaven is at hand. … You have received the Gospel without payment; give it to others as freely. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, no spare garment, nor sandals, nor staff.”

They would have no money, and no property, individually or collectively. Their task was to preach, as Francis said, “using words if necessary”, declaring by word and action the love of God in Christ.

It is believed that is was Francis who set up the first Christmas manger scene, to promote the Incarnation by imagination as well as intellect. The first crib was set up at Greccio, halfway between Rome and Assisi.

In 1219, Francis went to the Holy Land to preach to the Muslims. He was given a pass through the enemy lines and spoke to the Sultan, Melek-al-Kamil. Francis proclaimed the Gospel to the Sultan, who replied that he had his own beliefs and that Muslims were as firmly convinced of the truth of Islam as Francis was of the truth of Christianity. The Sultan who was deeply impressed but remained unconverted.

Francis proposed an armistice between the two warring sides, and drew up terms for one; the Sultan agreed, but, to Francis’s deep disappointment, the Christian leaders would not. The results are still being felt today. Francis returned to Italy, but a permanent result was that the Franciscans were given custody of the Christian shrines then in Muslim hands.

Back in Italy and neighbouring countries, the Order was suffering from its own success. Then, as now, many persons were deeply attracted by Francis and his air of joy, abandonment and freedom. What is overlooked is that these were made possible only by his willingness to accept total poverty, not picturesque poverty but real dirt, rags, cold, and hunger, and lepers with real pus oozing from their sores and a real danger of infection.

Many idealistic young men were joining the Order in a burst of enthusiasm and then finding themselves not so sure that such extremes of poverty were really necessary. When there were only a few friars, Francis knew them all personally, and the force of his personality kept the original ideals of the Order alive in them. Now that the Order was larger, this was no longer enough.

In 1220 Francis resigned as minister-general of the Order, and in 1221 he agreed to a new and modified rule, which he did not approve, but could not resist. He died on 4 October 1226. After his death, Pope Gregory IX declared Francis a saint.

For several centuries thereafter, his Franciscan order experienced continuous growth and is still active today caring for the poor, educating youth, and performing many other good deeds.

The Franciscan’s split into the Conventual Franciscans, who held a limited amount of property in common, and the Spiritual Franciscans, who disavowed all property. They taught that Christ and the twelve apostles had held no property. This view offended those who held property, and was declared heretical. In 1318, several Spiritual Franciscans were burned at the stake in Marseilles.

From the first known letter from Francis to all Christians:

“O how happy and blessed are those who love the Lord and do as The Lord himself said in the gospel: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your whole soul, and your neighbour as yourself. Therefore, let us love God and adore him with pure heart and mind. This is his particular desire when he says: True worshipers adore the Father in spirit and truth. For all who adore him must do so in the spirit of truth. Let us also direct to him our praises and prayers, saying: “Our Father, who are in heaven”, since we must always pray and never grow slack.

Furthermore, let us produce worthy fruits of penance. Let us also, love our neighbours as ourselves. Let us have charity and humility. Let us give alms because these cleanse our souls from the stains of sin. Men lose all the material things they leave behind in this world, but they carry with them the reward of their charity and the alms they give. For these they will receive from the Lord the reward and recompense they deserve. We must not be wise and prudent according to the flesh. Rather we must be simple, humble and pure. We should never desire to be over others. Instead, we ought to be servants who are submissive to very human being for God’s sake. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on all who live in this way and persevere in it to the end. He will permanently dwell in them. They will be the Father’s children who do his work. They are the spouses, brothers and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“The Canticle of the Sun” Attributed to St Francis.

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is yours, all glory, all honour and all blessing.

To you, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

 

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which you give your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you; through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy those who endure in peace,
for by you, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,

and serve Him with great humility.”[i]

 

 

[i] This sermon prepared using material found at http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/saintfran.html and http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/258.html

 

 

 

Sermon: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A) – 28th September 2014

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

Readings:    Exodus 17:1-7  Psalm 78:1-4, 11-16  Philippians 2   Matthew 21:23-32

Today’s readings pose questions of how our vision and God’s vision for our lives align. Is our vision of God’s care and salvation large enough or do we need to realign our vision more consciously with God’s inclusive salvation?

The hymn of Christ’s glory from Philippians invites us to reflect on the mysterious or evocative question, “what does it mean to let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus?” While the answer to this question will always remain beyond our reach, it joins what is always meant to be integrated: theology, spirituality and ethics. Indeed, all four passages this morning point to the unity of these three disciplines of faith, which ultimately shape our worship and lifestyle as followers of Jesus.

Paul encourages the Philippian community to have the same mind within them that Christ embodied in his ministry. Paul’s counsel is both personal and corporate. As individuals we are called to make Christ’s vision the centre of our experience. In addition, we as the “body of Christ” are also called to awaken to the deepest reality of the Spirit that enlivens our communal life. Similar to the “sighs too deep for words” that Paul describes in Romans 8, the mind of Christ enlivens the individual and the whole, guiding and directing first unconsciously and, then, consciously through worship, service and contemplation.

In line with the understanding of the Triune God, all of divine persons are present everywhere, shaping to greater or lesser degree everything. This means that the mind of Christ is inspiring you and me and all of us together even when we don’t know it.

Like most important theological issues, it is important that we open ourselves to many possibilities in understanding and experiencing the meaning of the mind of Christ. Trying to be absolutely correct in our theological clarity excludes layers of reality when we need to be most open to the many-sided nature of the manner in which God’s self-revelation takes place. Still, Philippians provides a few insights into our question, “what does it mean to let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”.

The mind of Christ is, first, global and inclusive. It is the mind in all things at their deepest and best. Rather than emphasizing the gulf between infinite and finite, the mind of Christ joins God and us at the most intimate level. There is always a “point of contact” in Christ’s presence in all things. Christ does not cling to God in contrast to the world in all its messiness and pain, but lets go of his divine otherness to transform our inwardness and save the world. There is no dualism of God and the world, or Christ and humankind, even though Christ is always more than we can imagine. Further, Christ in becoming one of us, fully taking on human life, embraces the world in all its joy and sorrow. Christ suffers with us and in his sharing of our lives brings forth the possibility of transformation, healing and salvation.

In Paul’s hymn Christ is shown as going beyond the dualism of divine and human and transcends the dualism of saved and damned and found and lost. Every knee will bow, every tongue will confess, that Jesus is Saviour to the glory of God.  The key word is every. Does this imply God’s universal call and our conscious response, which may or not occur, or something deeper, that everyone will eventually say, “yes” to God’s embracing love?

The Christ whose oneness with God reflects God’s oneness with creation seeks to save all creation. God’s joy is in inclusion, not exclusion; in healing not illness; in salvation, not damnation. Philippians 2 invites us to ponder a Christ based universalism in which Christ is in all things as their deepest reality and all things are in Christ as their ultimate destiny. The One, who is always more than we can imagine, guides and leads us to a realm of awareness in which we truly experience the mind of Christ in our unique and creative way as our deepest reality.

A community such as ours when conformed to the mind of Christ is awake to God’s presence in worship, everyday life, prayer and service. Like a healthy body, such a community seeks to be healthy in every part and in the whole. Such a community lives by practices that give rise to experiences of Christ’s inner presence and guidance; practices of perception in order to see Christ in all things; and practices of healing that seek transformation of community and culture, church and world.

Such perceptions inspire Christ-like acts of inclusion and healing within the church community and in the world. “When did you feel attuned with Christ? When did you see Christ? What enabled you to experience Christ within you as the hope of God’s glory in your life and in the world?”

The gospel asks another similar question, “Who belongs in God’s realm?” and suggests that one answer is “everyone”. The surprise is that those furthest away are the first to enter. “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you”. The banished belong in God’s realm of radical hospitality. Jesus’ community welcomes all; the righteous who need a conversion of heart and an awakening to God’s inclusiveness and the lost who can’t imagine that God would embrace them as beloved daughters and sons.

We all belong, and the surprising response to this question is found in pondering, “Who will be next to me in God’s everlasting reign?  Will the ones I might banish be in line ahead of me in God’s healing realm?” Some of us may find ourselves in God’s realm of Peace singing next to the most unexpected characters, and they in turn may be surprised to find us next to them.

“Where have we found healing when we were broken? Where did you find direction when we were lost? What gave you a future when you faced a dead end?” As we look at our lives, we are called to have, as Soren Kierkegaard said, a passion for the possible and to trust that the God of possibility has a vision, or many visions, for each moment of our experience. Each moment bears the imprint of God’s loving care and, in the future, that same care will present us with pathways of possibility appropriate to each step of the way. Life is still dangerous and perplexing, and failure is a possibility, but, still our task is one of openness to the vision God presents us one moment at a time.

Think for a moment where God is in our lives today, individually and corporately. In the interplay of listening and imaginative service, we can envisage God’s faithfulness and train ourselves to follow the wisdom we experience. While we experience God in surprising and unexpected ways, we may also bring God’s presence to our awareness by remembering and claiming special moments that shine a light on our lives. In so doing we will be reminded that in life and in death, God is our companion, guide, comforter and challenger. The One who breathed life and possibility into our lives will embrace us when we feel alone and without resources.[i]
[i] This sermon produced using material prepared by Bruce Epperly found at http://www.processtheology.net/resources/lectionary-commentary/yeara/2008-09-28/proper-21

 

 

Sermon: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A) – 14th September 2014

St Aidan’s Anglican Church Epping 8.30am

Readings: Exodus 14:19-31  Psalm 114  Romans 14:1-14  Matthew 18:21-35

Chapters 14-18 in the Gospel of Matthew concern life and relationships in the community of the church, the body of Christ. Last week the Gospel dealt with conflict. Conflict is never far from human experience and an understanding that is an essential framework for approaching the gospels. The gospels originate with Jesus and deal with the conflict between the way things are and the way things need to be.

Of the gospels, Matthew has the most to say about conflict; it is a significant sub-theme of the book. Though written fifty years after Jesus, Matthew’s gospel still reflects a context of struggle and longing. Hopes for a Messiah and fulfilment of prophetic promises run as a formula throughout Matthew’s gospel. Hope is realized in healing and community, but there is more to come. Political conflict frames Matthew’s story: Herod massacres the infants only to miss the King of the Jews, but Pilate makes up for it.

Sometimes people have the impression that since we claim to be Christians, we will live in eternal harmony, even before we reach heaven. People have expectations that all will be sweetness and light and things will just be perfect, peaceful and harmonious. Is that your expectation?

While most of us prefer agreement, probably few of us would believe that life would be lived without conflict. To miss quote Jesus, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there will be a dispute”. It would be a terribly dull and dreary life if we agreed on everything. For one thing there would be no growth. Where there is no conflict there is no life. In the real world we know and expect that we will have disagreements. In fact, many of the arguments that occur between groups in the church are frequently signs of progress and change. Progress and change will cause conflict. The future will be different and it will represent change. Even if these changes are acknowledged, it doesn’t reduce the reality of conflict and disagreement, and the potential for bruised feelings. In addition, of course, there are the inevitable conflicts that occur when we pursue our own selfish interests and needs.

Human beings have an amazing capacity for self protection. Our protective instinct helps us detect danger and warns us about people or situations that cause harm. This ability can over react when trust been betrayed or disappointed, making it terribly hard to trust once again.

This survival instinct is part of what makes it so difficult to forgive. Christians have a habit of tossing the notion of forgiveness around as if it were easy and cheap, undervaluing its costliness. This awareness makes Jesus’ command to forgive “not seven times, but … seventy times seven” overwhelming in its demand. When betrayal, rejection, or violation cut us to the bone, forgiveness often becomes something we desperately hope for and yet cannot find, no matter how ardently we pray for and sincerely desire it. It becomes clear that the pain and anger will run its own course regardless of what we will and while we are waiting for release it is dangerously easy to become consumed by the anger. 
 We need companions who will stand outside of our anger and pain, neither telling us to “give it up to God” (a piece of advice that only makes us feel worse) nor affirming our anger (which only increases it). Rather, they become our memory for a while, mediating for us God’s promise that the gift of forgiveness will come, however slowly.

Today many people are so caught up in their own little worlds. They have their own agendas that do not necessarily involve much concern for other people and even less about other people’s feelings. With all that’s going on in the world, there seems to be an even greater need for finding ways of diffusing tension and animosity between people and nations. The Church has to play a major role in this as it seeks to bring about the healing and peace that are needed in our world.

The message we have to hear, and learn is one of forgiveness. When Peter asked how many times he should forgive his brother, Jesus answered him saying that he should forgive his brother seventy-seven times. It is not an easy thing to do to even forgive once, but Jesus tells us that we should be prepared to forgive as often as is necessary.

If we are to survive any relationship, individual or communal, we must be prepared to forgive those who do us wrong. There can be no limit to our forgiveness, even when it seems most difficult to do.

Saying sorry or asking for forgiveness is not a sign of weakness, as some people might think. What it proves or shows is a willingness to make right what has gone wrong. How much better I feel knowing that when I sin and I ask God’s forgiveness that God will forgive me. It feels as if some great burden has been lifted from my shoulder and I feel whole again.

What we are being led to see is that we have to be forgiving of each other in as much the same way that we would want God to forgive us when we sin. We surely cannot expect God to be merciful to us if we ourselves cannot show mercy to those who wrong us, especially those who are members of this church. God will forgive us when we sin even if we commit the same sin every time. God does not place limits on the forgiveness he will give us so we also cannot expect to place limits on each other. In our own forgiving of people we cannot set limits on our willingness to forgive but we must try to be merciful and forgiving as is God. In giving forgiveness we bring about reconciliation not only between individuals but also at a community level. The object is to bring about the kind of relationships that reflect the kingdom of God.

In recent times the world has been faced with great outbursts of hatred, bitterness, and anger and the desire of various groups and individuals to cause great harm to others. Often these actions are done “in the name of God.” However, our God is not a God of hatred. Our God is a God of unquenchable love.

Bishop Desmond Tutu, formerly chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says to forgive goes beyond the unselfish devotion to the cause of others. He adds, “to forgive is a process that does not exclude hate and anger. These emotions are all part of being human.” He continues, “You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things. The depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.” This great man reminds us of our responsibilities. He stresses that, “When I talk of forgiveness, I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person. A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred.” Until we find in ourselves the capacity to forgive, we continue to be linked to the cause of our anger and our unforgiving emotions. Only as we forgive are we able to move on and become the more Christ-like person that God has called us to be.

We often think of forgiveness as something that someone who has done us wrong must ask of us! We should forgive the person who has wronged us before the hatred eats away at our ability to forgive. It will not be easy, but God gives strength. Alexander Pope said, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” This we must believe because God is the Divine. When we withhold forgiveness, we remain the victim. When we offer forgiveness, we are doing it only for our own well-being. Forgiveness allows us to move beyond the pain, the resentment and the anger. We always have a choice; to forgive or not to forgive. When we forgive we make the choice that heals.

We may never forget the hurt we have experienced, but we can choose to forgive. As life goes on and we remember an incident that was hurtful and caused great anger, we need to remind ourselves that with God’s grace we have already forgiven the one that hurt us. The wound has healed but the scar remains. Time does heal memories. Time can dull the vividness of the hurt and thus the memory will fade. We must never let the person who hurt us own us. Forgiveness finally releases us from the prison of our past to being liberated and at peace with our memories.

Such hellish acts as those of that of the 11th September, the bombings of Bali and London transport, the kidnapping of hundreds of girls in Nigeria and the activity of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, all these and others may take a lifetime of forgiveness. Every day, visualize your forgiveness as Jesus gives you strength. Visualize that God is real, that amidst this trauma God is still God. Visualize those who caused such destruction as sinful men needing the redeeming grace of God.

The passage from Romans carries a bittersweet message. “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” These verses proclaim that we humans have our life and being grounded in God. That is sweet, indeed! Then, comes the uncomfortable edge: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or why do you despise your brother or sister? For we all stand before the judgment seat of God.” Try as we will to divide ourselves into “we” and “they,” the truth remains that we humans all are related-like brothers and sisters of God. Hate and bitterness have no room in God’s family. We cannot deny that we hold others with hatred or bitterness.

Forgiveness involves more than absolution of guilt. It involves reconciliation of our past and the healing of our brokenness. It involves intentional work to heal and reconcile with one another whether it be in the church or society in general.

Such forgiveness remains troublesome until we allow ourselves to bring that brokenness into our struggle where the Spirit will intercede with us. God creates us and we then participate in God’s creating. God heals and reconciles us to God, one another and ourselves. Then we participate in that healing reconciliation. God awakens wholeness that invites us to share in that holiness.

Healing, reconciliation and forgiveness sketch a way of life of an ever-deepening friendship with God and with one another.[1]

 

[1] Sermon composed using the resources of www.sojo.net, www.dfm.org/worship-that-works/ and www.torch.org.

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

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

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

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Despite Juliet’s words to Romeo, names are pretty important.

At one level, a name is an identifying label. In the days which the Bible tells us about, names had real significance. Knowing someone’s name could open up a certain relationship. It could give you a certain power and influence over that person. Even today teachers will be aware of the value of knowing the names of their students. “That boy over there, stop talking!” is not likely to be as effective as “Bill Snoggs, shut your mouth!”

But beyond that, in the stories of the Bible, a name had a significance, a message. It was meant to tell you something about that person or to express a message linked to that person. Today we choose names because we like them: sometimes perhaps because of some association with our family or friends, or even our heroes. Generally the meaning of a name is of limited significance nowadays. I don’t think it was of great significance to my parents who gave me the name Paul, which means small – perhaps a bit of accidental prophecy – but called my brother Nigel, which means champion.

In the Bible, names and their meanings were very important. So important in fact that the ultimate response to the third commandment, not to take God’s name in vain, was that eventually people never used God’s name at all. God’s name was taken very seriously indeed. That’s partly why in different translations of the Bible you will find more than one version of God’s name. Perhaps it was the traditional Jehovah, but more likely it sounded something like “Yahweh”. And in our reading from Exodus this morning, we see something of the significance of God’s name.

It all happened in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula. Moses had fled there after killing an Egyptian who mistreated one of his fellow-Israelites. Pharaoh had found out about his violent crime, and so he left Egypt in a hurry to live in this desert land, cut off from his family and people.

Then something very strange happens to Moses. While he is tending his father-in-law’s sheep, he sees a bush that seems to be on fire. He goes closer and sees that it is on fire, and yet it is not burning up. The flames are not consuming the bush, and the leaves are not turning to ash. Very odd indeed! What is happening? Moses goes closer to investigate.

A voice comes from the bush, a voice of authority. “Moses! Moses!” I suspect that Moses was more than a little surprised. “Here I am”, he replies.

The speaker identifies himself. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Moses is terrified and turns away from this unexpected divine presence.

God goes on. “I know all about the suffering of my people in Egypt, and I am about to rescue them, and take them to their own land, a bountiful land, a land of milk and honey.” I’m sure Moses is pleased to hear this, and he’s probably thinking it’s about time too, after all those years of slavery!

But now comes the crunch. “So now, Moses, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.”

Now that is not exactly what Moses had in mind. Sure, it is forty years since he left Egypt, and he is probably not in danger from Pharaoh any more. Indeed, it may well not be the same Pharaoh.

But what a task! To persuade Pharaoh to release all these slaves, and then to get them organized so that they can leave, and then to lead them on a march that will take weeks if not months, to a land that he and they know virtually nothing about. Quite a challenge! And even more of a challenge when you are eighty years old, as we are told Moses was!

So Moses says to God: “Who am I, that I should be the person to go to Pharaoh and bring these people out of Egypt?” Moses is quite willing for the honour to go to some other person, and if he knew more of what the job would involve, he would have been even more ready to pass up this opportunity of a lifetime. “Who am I?” he asks. “You need someone better known or more experienced or younger or better qualified to carry out this task. Who am I to take it on?”

But Moses is asking the wrong question. It’s not a matter of how qualified Moses is – although God had actually prepared him in remarkable ways for the challenges he would face. So God says to Moses: “I will be with you. I will be with you.” And if the almighty God is with him, nothing that he wants him to do is impossible. As an old Youth Fellowship leader of mine used to say: “One plus God is a majority.”

But God then offers some encouragement to Moses. “I am going to give you a sign that I have indeed sent you to carry out this commission.” And what is this sign? “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

Now that’s actually not much of a sign. Because he won’t see this sign until he has successfully got the people out of Egypt.

“You’ll come back here with all the people, and then you will know for sure that I have sent you. In fact, you won’t see this sign unless you do what I’m telling you… Trust me, Moses”, says the Lord. “Put me to the test. Trust me enough to do what I command you. Then you’ll find out that I can be trusted.”

But Moses has another question. “When I tell them that the God of their fathers has sent me, they might ask me what your name is. What shall I tell them? What is your name?” As I said at the beginning, quite a significant question!

God answers by saying: “I am who I am.” Moses was to tell the people, “I Am has sent me to you.”

What then does Yahweh mean? It has something of the idea of being. God is saying something like “I am”, or “I will be”, or even “I cause things to be, to exist”. God’s name then indicates that he is the God who is, the God who is there, the one who is self-existent. It may also suggest that he is the one who brings things into existence: in other words, the Creator.

But God gives Moses at first a slightly more complex form of the name: “I am who I am, I will be what I will be.” It was a mysterious answer, almost not an answer at all. “I can’t be tied down to a simple description, a mere word”. God seems to be saying: “Try me out and you’ll find out who I am. Don’t try to put me into a box, into a neat little package.”

To really know who God was, Moses would have to trust God, trust him enough to do what he said. He already knew that the Lord, Yahweh, was the true, living, powerful Creator. He was discovering that he was the speaking, calling and commanding God. And he would learn that the Lord was a faithful, loving, forgiving and saving God.

Of course, our finite minds can never do complete justice to the truth about God. There is much mystery about God, but we are not by any means in the dark. The scriptures show us important truths about him. And God can reveal himself in unexpected ways, as Father John loves to remind us. But above all, he reveals himself in the person of Jesus.

Jesus revealed the surprising God: certainly in our reading, Peter found him very surprising. In Jesus we meet the God who came among us to share our life, the God who suffers with us and for us, the God who humbles himself to serve us, the God who calls us to love our enemies – not to seek to destroy them, as Paul reminds us in our reading from the Letter to the Romans.

In our baptism service at 10am, we will enrol baby Javier in the family of those who trust and follow Jesus, whose name tells us so much about him. Jesus, whose name means: “The Lord is Saviour”. Jesus who was indeed the Lord, coming to save his people. As we look forward to welcoming Javier to the family, let us ask God to help us to renew our commitment to the God who is, the God who is there, and to deepen our trust in the Lord Jesus, and to strengthen our commitment to live and to love as followers of Jesus, the Lord who saves. Amen.

Paul Weaver

 

 

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 http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yeara/2014-08-31/proper-17 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 http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/234.html and http://catholicism.about.com/od/apostles/p/Saint_Bartholomew.htm and http://www.historiclectionary.com/2008/08/st-bartholomew-sermon-luke-2224-30-82408/, by The Rev. Dustin L. Anderson and http://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/worshipandmusic/sermon-archive/following-st-bartholomews-example 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 http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yeara/2014-08-10/proper-14