Taming tongues

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For the last two weeks, we have been reflecting on the reading from the Epistle of James, and we continue with that today. 

 

In today’s reading, we come to one of James’ big themes – the way we control our speech. 

 

James uses two metaphors here, two word pictures.  He talks about horses, and the way horses could be controlled by using a bit, which goes in the mouth of the horse.  A small thing can control a mighty beast.  And then he talks about ships – obviously he is talking about ships in the ancient world – and the way the direction of the ship could be controlled by a rudder, a relatively small piece of wood that could be manipulated to alter the direction of the ship.

 

James says that our tongues are like a bit in the mouth of a horse and our tongues are like rudders on a ship.  A small organ of the body controls the direction we take and the things we say and do, and the way we are heard and regarded by others.  If we don’t control our tongues, all kinds of trouble can ensue.  James says it’s like setting alight a forest fire. 

 

Think about gossip – there can be positive and helpful aspects of gossip, when you are sharing information because of concern for someone or to enable prayer.  But gossip can be very damaging, spreading unfounded rumours, or to generate mockery and humiliation.  You don’t have to pass on every salacious story you hear about someone.  Keep control of your tongue.

 

Think about the way you talk to other people, particularly vulnerable people.  I heard of someone who was talking to refugees in a very demeaning way – it made me very cross when I heard that.  Sometimes people can be patronising to older people – talking to them as if they were idiots.  That just won’t do!  Sometimes people talk roughly to children.  That is not acceptable!  Keep control of your tongue. 

 

Sometimes we just say things without thinking, words that hurt others, and once you’ve said them, you cannot take them back.  I know I do this sometimes, especially when I’m tired.  And when I realise what I’ve done, I am very sorry.  I did a funeral once where a relative hadn’t responded appropriately when being told about the death in the family, and the two sides of the family had stopped communicating.  Keep control of your tongue. 

 

Other times we hear one side of the story about an incident, and we react hastily with anger to other people involved without listening to the full story.  That only makes the situation worse.  Keep control of your tongue – at least until you know all the facts. 

 

With our tongues we praise God and sing hymns; we encourage and build up our friends; we put into words great thoughts and wisdom; we tell the truth.  But with our tongues also we curse those whom we don’t care for; we create trouble and dissension; we demean and belittle others; we spread lies.  There are those who get a reputation for moaning and complaining about everything.  There are people you know will be talking about you in a bad way, because they complain about everyone else.  People get known for the way they express themselves in words. 

 

James uses more metaphors:  he says that a spring doesn’t produce both fresh and foul water, a fig tree doesn’t produce other kinds of fruit. 

 

It is not entirely straightforward – it never is!  Sometimes we need to use our tongues to speak unpopular truth to those in power.  On Thursday, 13 September, it was the feast of John Chrysostom.  His nick-name (Chrysostom) was “golden tongue”, and he was a great preacher.  He was made Bishop of Constantinople against his wish and he set about exposing corruption amongst the clergy and the Roman Imperial administration.  This didn’t make him popular and he was exiled twice.  He died of exhaustion and starvation in 407.  He used his role as a preacher to tell the truth, not to placate the religious and political authorities. 

 

I invite you this week to listen to yourselves, listen to what you are saying.  Do you speak intending to put others down, or build up your own estimation?  Then keep silent.  Will your words be helpful to others, kind and encouraging?  Then speak them.  Are you speaking the truth, even though it may upset people? Then say it.  Not many people can control their tongues all of the time.  But we should strive to have better care of what we say.  Tame your tongue!

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Passion for the Poor

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Last week, we were looking at the practical advice on Christian living given in the epistle of James, and we will continue with that today. 

 

The first paragraph of today’s reading is really important because it offers one of the strongest statements in the Bible about God’s preference for the poor.  God has a special place for those who are financially poor and struggling.  The poor are not those who are working and just about managing, or who have less than the average.  Rather, in the ancient world, the poor are those who have NO economic security, those who are destitute or very close to destitution, those who are really struggling to survive, those who are living hand to mouth.  Modern sociologists call it Absolute Poverty.  The poor are those who are generally not valued by society:  in the ancient world, they were not given any respect; in our own world, we are quick to call them scroungers and lay-abouts. 

 

The Jewish tradition was always strong on caring for widows and orphans, day-labourers and people who had come from other countries, and ensuring justice for them against those who would exploit them.  James builds on that tradition. 

 

There is a spiritual meaning to poverty.  Financial poverty reflects the condition of spiritual poverty that we all experience. We are ALL spiritually poor.  Not one person here can sustain themselves spiritually.  We are all utterly dependent on God.  When we see someone who is poor, someone who can’t cope, someone who is struggling, it reminds us of ourselves, that we are spiritually poor when we stand before our Lord. 

 

When we are financially secure, we think we are OK.  We have wages and pensions and we can afford the essentials and maybe, if we’re lucky, the odd luxury like a nice holiday.  When we’re doing alright, it is easy to forget just how much we need God. 

 

James is quite clear:  God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom of heaven.  James is absolutely passionate about this – you can feel his strong feelings pouring out of the passage. 

 

James starts by talking about how we treat people in church.  James says that we musn’t treat those who are financially well-off any better than we treat those who can’t afford the luxuries.  So when somebody comes to church smartly dressed, with an air of worldly confidence, we shouldn’t be guiding them to the best seats or offering them the best cake after the service or bringing their tea in the best china cups.  And of course, we don’t do that here.  In the past, from 1800 to 1960, people would pay an annual fee for their pew in church.  It was a way of fundraising in churches.  The more you paid, the better seat you got.  If you couldn’t pay, you could go to the free seats.  I’ll bet that wasn’t popular! It is likely that this is one of the reasons that poorer, working class people felt alienated by the Church of England. I am really glad to say that we don’t do that now, and as far as I can tell, it was never part of the practice here at St Chad’s. 

 

James recalls the law to “love our neighbour as yourself”.  When you show favouritism, you are not loving your neighbour as yourself because you are loving some neighbours more than other neighbours.  The rule about loving our neighbours isn’t about loving some neighbours, it’s about loving all neighbours. 

 

And then James returns to one of his key themes – that how we live and what we do needs to reflect our faith.  Our faith needs to shine through everything we do.  If we see a need in the community – for example, when someone is hungry or lacks shelter or warm clothing – and we do not respond when we have the means to help, then, James says, our faith is dead. 

 

These days, through television and newspapers and other media, we are exposed to need not just locally, but internationally.  Our responsibility is not just to the people who live nearby, but to the whole world.  Of course, there is no way we can address all the world’s problems and supply all its needs, but sometimes a particular situation will call out to us and we should respond.  It means also that we need to be discerning about where we put our financial and emotional resources when we look to help others.  But that shouldn’t weaken our responsibility for all our neighbours, wherever they live in the world. 

 

Helping others is not just about contributing financially to their needs.  It may be about volunteering in projects that help people – at the Foodbank or the Food Coop.  It may be about giving people attention, listening to them perhaps – proper listening can be one of the greatest gifts you can offer, and it’s quite rare.  It may be about sharing your skills. 

 

Faith is about our relationship with God.  It’s not about knowing or believing the right things, but about having a personal relationship with Jesus.  God loves us SO much.  He pours his love out upon us.  He gave us Jesus to show us how to live and to rescue us from our sinfulness.  God longs for us to love him and to follow Jesus.  Faith happens when we let Jesus into our lives and ask him to walk with us along the way.  Then we shape our lives around him, and we start to live his way.  That’s when our faith needs to shine out in what we do. 

 

So this is a challenge to you:  what does your faith in Christ mean to you?  What is your relationship with Jesus like?  And how does this show forth in your life?

Teach me, my God and King

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At Bible Class on Saturday of last week, Massood asked a question about how the Bible gave advice in practical living.  There was a great debate about this in Farsi, which I didn’t understand, but I take all questions seriously, so that’s what I want to talk about today.

 

At the moment, the New Testament reading on Sundays comes from the Epistle of James.  I love the Epistle of James because I made it my special study when I was on retreat in Fetlar 10 years ago.

 

James was one of those common names – there are lots of James in the Bible.  You might think it would be James the brother of John and son of Zebedee, but, no, he was killed by Herod Agrippa in 44 CE, which is too early for the writing of this encyclical.  The James who wrote this letter was almost certainly James the brother of Jesus who became an important leader among the Christians in Jerusalem after the death of Jesus.

 

The letter picks up many of the themes that Jesus talks about in his ministry, and develops them.  He also draws on religious writings in the Old Testament and other spiritual writings, and then he has a way of conveying wisdom in just a few words.  It’s like he has been studying all these sources and made them his own.  The letter incorporates much practical advice – the sort of real-life application that I think Massood is looking for.

 

In today’s reading, James offers lots of practical advice.

 

Firstly – he encourages generosity. Because God is utterly generous, we should be like that, whether that means giving money or hospitality or service or love and attention.  And we offer that through God our Father.

 

James has a description of God in this first paragraph that I want you to notice.  He talks of God as “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”  This is important in theology because it describes God as the source of all light – and he means moral light here – God is truly good.  And then it says that God is what God is, and God doesn’t change.  At the end of the service, we’re going to sing the hymn “Great is thy faithfulness”, and the first verse of that hymn is based on this statement.

 

Great is Thy faithfulness,” O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not
As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.

 

In the second practical point in the letter, James tells us to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger”.  This is good advice that we all need to consider every day.  Don’t commit yourself to words before you fully understand the situation.  When we respond with anger, that is often unhelpful, and is more likely to provoke the situation than to lead to a peaceful and productive solution.  It means you are less likely to be doing God’s work.

 

Then, James encourages us to “be doers of the word”, not just hearers.  When we become Christians, we need to live it, not just hear it.  Having faith in God and committing yourself to follow Jesus is great, but then you have to learn to live God’s way.  Discover what God is like, and then take on those characteristics.  And if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.

 

James then uses the image of the mirror, which is a metaphor he uses regularly in his encyclical.  He says you can look in a mirror in passing and immediately forget what you see, but looking at God’s law, you need to study it and learn from it.  Did you notice the words of the George Herbert hymn we sang – our second hymn?  The second verse is based on this part of the reading from James.  It was written 400 years ago, so it is in very old-fashioned language.  But George Herbert develops the idea.  He says you can look on glass – that means looking at a mirror – and you see the image of yourself.  But if you look deeper, you might catch a glimpse of heaven.

 

A man that looks on glass,
on it may stay his eye;
or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
and then the heaven espy.

But George Herbert then reflects on what God is like and what that means for us.
All may of thee partake;
nothing can be so mean,
which with this tincture, “for thy sake,”
will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
makes drudgery divine:
who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
makes that and the action fine.

 

And what Herbert is saying here is that however lowly we are, whatever humble tasks we take on, if we do it in God’s name, and do it in God’s way, and dedicate the tasks to God, then we are doing well and good.

 

And that process of hearing God’s word, looking at the life of Jesus, studying and reflecting on it, and discovering new aspects of the truth, is one of the reasons why we study the Bible and learn from the life of Jesus.  Just as James does, just as George Herbert does.

 

In the last section of today’s reading, James says true faith is characterised by caring for orphans and widows who are distressed.  In our day, that means caring for those who are poor and marginalized, for those who are struggling in any way, those who need extra care and support: people who have impairments, people with a diagnosis of mental illness, people with dementia, people who are escaping violence or danger.

 

The letter of James is a really practical book of the Bible if you want to learn about how God wants us to respond to his love for us and how to live our lives.  We will be having more passages from James over the next four weeks in the Sunday service, and I encourage you to read it and study it because it is full of helpful advice.  And then maybe, with George Herbert, we can pray “ teach me, my God and King, to see you in all things and whatever I do, to do it for you.”

Pray. Just pray.

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The Confirmation service on Tuesday was a wonderful occasion.  It was a real joy when Bishop Mark came and confirmed 11 people from this congregation.  And we had a surprise visit from Fr Tony from Wakefield Cathedral, which made it even more special. Fr Tony had baptised 8 of the 11 candidates when they were at Wakefield.   A number of people gave their testimony, telling us why coming to the Christian faith is so important to them, and that was very moving.  Fr Tony and his wife Lynne took photos of people as they knelt before Bishop Mark to be confirmed, and the pictures capture the looks on their faces – they were full of joy.  It was very special. 

 

At the end, we gave them all a little present from the church.  There were different things in the bags: for some people, we gave a prayer book to help them pray every day; for others, it was a holding cross, a cross you can hold in your hand to help you pray; and for some people it was a little angel figure, to help you remember to pray.  There was also a little leaflet with prayers.

 

So you see a theme coming through there – the gifts were about encouraging our newly confirmed members to pray and go on praying. 

 

And in the wonderful way that often seems to happen with the Sunday bible readings, they have something important to say about the things that are happening in our own lives. Coincidences often happen.  And a big theme in this week’s readings is prayer. 

 

The Old Testament reading tells the story of another very special service.  Solomon has just completed the building of the first temple to house the ark which symbolises the presence of God, where all the people can come and worship God and make sacrifices – which is the way they worshipped in those days.  King Solomon and all the priests and the people come together for a grand service to inaugurate the most beautiful building.  There is a procession, there is incense – lots of incense.  I imagine there were lots of candles, and musical instruments of all kinds.  You can just imagine it. 

 

Solomon prays a long prayer.  We only got a few snatches of that prayer in the reading – it is actually much longer.  You might want to read it for yourselves later in your own bibles.  There are a number of features of Solomon’s prayer.  

 

First – he praises God.  God has given us so much.  God loves us so much.  So we acknowledge all that God gives us, and we give thanks and praise.  Do you love God?  Tell him.  Can you see God’s hand in your life?  Thank him.  Do you rejoice in this wonderful world?  Praise him.

 

Then Solomon commits himself and the people to serving God, to walking in God’s way.  Those who were confirmed on Tuesday were committing themselves to following Jesus and serving God and the community.  There are many times in our lives when we renew our commitment. 

 

After that, there is a long passage where Solomon asks God to listen to the prayers of the people.  He asks God to hear the prayers, to forgive the people for all their sins, and to make life better.  In this prayer, Solomon sets out all kinds of circumstances when he is encouraging God to be merciful.  And the last paragraph in our reading today asks God to remember those who have come from distant lands.  Which is especially encouraging for those who have come from Iran and other places to grow in the Christian faith. 

 

Solomon is there talking about another form of prayer, which is repenting of our sins.  The wonderful thing is that whenever we turn to God and say sorry, God will always forgive us and help us start again. 

 

Then in the second reading we had from the letter to the Christians in Ephesus in Turkey, Paul encourages his readers to pray at all times, to persevere in prayer, to pray especially for the saints, for the Christians in every place.

 

And there is a message here for those who have been coming to church for years – please pray for the new Christians, for those who have come to faith relatively recently, for those who were confirmed on Tuesday.  On the back of the Order of Service, there is a request that you go on praying for all the candidates. 

 

And Paul asks for prayers for himself.  He was in prison when he wrote the letter.  He doesn’t ask to be free, but to be given more opportunities to proclaim the good news of Christ.  There is a message there about praying for the clergy too, that they may remain faithful – believe me, they do need prayer. 

 

Prayer is a really important part of the practice of our Christian faith.  When you love someone, you want to spend time with them.  You talk to them about your problems.  You tell them about your joys.  Prayer is like that.  When we love God who loves us, we spend time with him and talk to him. 

 

There are many ways to pray, and different forms of prayer suit us at different times of our life.  For me, a really important foundation of my prayer life is saying Morning and Evening Prayer each day.  Another really good technique is to spend a few minutes at the end of every day thinking about what has been good about the day, the times when God felt close.  Thank God for those moments.  And then recall the more difficult things about the day, when God felt absent, when life was a struggle.  Give those times to God.  Ask God to help you do things better next time. 

 

Whenever we pray, in whatsoever way we pray, God will always hear us.  It’s not like putting a penny in the slot machine – God will not always give us the things we think we want.  God has a wider agenda.  He cares for us and gives us what we need, not just what we think we want.  And God wants us to engage with him. Prayer is a two-way conversation.  God wants us to pray, all of us.  And when we pray ….. things just happen.

Bread of Life

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Today’s Gospel continues the reflection on the story we had two weeks ago, when Jesus fed 5,000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish.  In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus announced “I am the bread of life”, which made a clear connection between the miracle in the wilderness with the offer to us of the bread of life.  The key message of today’s Gospel is that the bread of life opens the door to eternal life.  Let’s think about what that means.

 

Think about the memorable meals that you have enjoyed.

 

On Thursday, I was invited out to lunch.  My friend has reproductions of two paintings by Brueghel on her wall, and these paintings mean a lot to her and she has researched and studied them.  One of them shows a number of fruit and vegetables, which were new and exotic when Brueghel painted them.  My friend gave us a meal that used the ingredients depicted in the picture, so we had tiny tarts of humous and raspberries or peas, lemon chicken, risotto of artichoke and white asparagus,  mangetout peas and a variety of tomatoes, gouda cheese and pumpernickel, with cherry tarts to finish.  It was a very memorable meal – the food was exquisite. 

 

Meals can be memorable in other ways.  Sometimes it’s the setting, the place that makes the occasion.  My husband Sheridan and I were once invited to a dinner of Irish historians at the Irish embassy in London.  I don’t remember what we ate, but they were very generous with the wine and there were a lot of speeches at the end. 

 

And meals can be memorable because of the people who are there.  Which is probably why I have a clear memory of lots of Christmas dinners with the family. 

 

You will have your own memorable meals. 

 

And that meal in the wilderness two thousand years ago must have been memorable.  Not for the menu – bread and fish, no frills, no fancies.  The location must have been interesting, an outdoor picnic in a remote place, but we are not told anything about the landscape or the beauty of the place.  Calling it a wilderness makes it sound dry and arid.  And the company?  Five thousand people – and that was just the men – plus all the women and children – was not exactly cosy.  Some of them might have remembered Psalm 78 where the people of God complain and mock God: “Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?”  And there they were in the wilderness, and food was provided, in bountiful quantities, enough for everyone.  And was this God’s provision?  Yes it was.  I wonder how many of them recognised that?

 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is uncovering more layers of meaning in that memorable meal.  He recalls the way that God fed the people of Israel in the wilderness – this is the story that Psalm 78 is also remembering.  When Moses brought the people of Israel out of Egypt and through the deserts, God fed them for 40 years with miraculous food.  They had enough to eat until they came to the promised land.  It was holy food because it came from God, but at the same time it wasn’t the kind of holy food that nurtured them spiritually, that brought them closer to God, that meant that God was dwelling in them.  Psalm 78 calls it the bread of angels, but the real bread of angels was still to come, the bread that Jesus’ offers as his body. 

 

Jesus is the Bread of Life, the living bread that comes from heaven.  Every time we receive Holy Communion, Jesus feeds us with himself, so that Jesus becomes part of who we are.  That is just so amazing!  Jesus wants to be part of us, and wants us to be part of Him.  At the Last Supper he gave thanks for the bread and wine and shared them.  He said “do this to remember me”, and so we do it, week by week, remembering Jesus, being fed by Jesus, being nurtured and sustained, becoming more like Jesus as we absorb his body and his blood.  The bread of angels is offered to us, a precious gift.  It unites us with Christ and it unites as a community who share this holy feast. 

 

There is another memorable meal I will never forget.  It was the 7th October 2001, not too far from here in Birtley.  In the morning, I had been ordained priest at Durham Cathedral and in the evening I presided for the first time at Mass.  It was such a privilege.  Almost 17 years on, it remains such a privilege.  I come with empty hands and I offer the greatest of gifts – the body and blood of Christ.  I am nobody, but the body of Christ is everything. 

 

Jesus says that whoever eats this bread will live for ever.  It is the bread of heaven, the bread of eternal life.  When we eat this bread we are committed to living under God’s rule to bring God’s everlasting kingdom to earth.  And we have the confidence that when our bodies die, we will live on. 

 

I pray that this will be a most memorable meal for you.  You are here to eat the bread of angels, the most precious food you will taste.  Here in this church, a pale earthly pattern of the glory of heaven.  Here, in the company of your brothers and sisters in Christ bodily present at this time and in all the ages past and in the years to come.  Here, the angels in heaven rejoice with you and give glory to God.  Here, Christ himself is giving you his body and his blood. 

 

Jesus says to us:  I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 

Kings, Rulers & THE Kingdom

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Sometimes people in power think they can behave any way they like, especially when it comes to people who are more vulnerable or people who are a nuisance or people who offend them or disagree with them or point out their failings.

 

We see this today in the way Donald Trump has been splitting up families of immigrants, and the way he has treated people who have experience of his appalling behaviour towards women. 

 

There is no sign that Trump recognises the wrong he has done.  In fact, he is full of self-justification.  He thinks he is in the right, that he is the best, that he has done nothing wrong.  He even stated recently that he has the power to pardon himself.  That was in relation to the special council Russia investigation. 

 

Herod, on the other hand, does seem to have a guilty conscience.  Mind you, what he did was pretty bad. 

 

Herod Antipas, the Herod in today’s Gospel reading, is the son of Herod the Great who features in the stories of Jesus’ birth.  Herod the Great was king by permission of the Roman rulers.  When he died, the kingdom was split into three and governed by three tetrarchs – and Antipas was one of these.  A tetrarch was not quite a king, it was the next level down.  In today’s Gospel, Mark calls Herod Antipas king, but actually, he wasn’t.  And the Herods ruled by permission of the Romans. 

 

On our holiday to Munich recently, we visited the fairytale palaces built by Ludwig II.  He was king of Bavaria 1864-1886, but he was subject to constitution.  All he had to do was sign documents.  He really wasn’t very interested in the art of ruling or diplomacy or leading the nation, but the longed for the power and the influence and glory held by his hero, King Louis XIV of France, the sun king.  He wanted to be a proper king.

 

The Herods were a bit like that.  They had some small power, but they longed for greater power.  They wanted to be religious rulers like David and Solomon with the support of the people behind them.  Instead, they were unpopular and hated by the people. 

 

The home life of Herod Antipas was less than exemplary.  One time, when he was visiting his half brother Philip, he fell in love with Philip’s wife Herodias and proposed to her.  So Herodias divorced her husband Philip and went off with Antipas, while Antipas divorced his wife.  It was all pretty scandalous, like the tabloid accounts of the sexual shenanigans of royals or presidents in our own day.  Antipas has stolen his brother’s wife, and that’s just not on.

 

John the Baptist spoke out publicly against the situation.  So Herod put him in jail.

 

But Herod had one saving grace.  He like to listen to John.  He didn’t always understand him, but he wanted to hear what he had to say.  He didn’t always like the message, but he knew that it contained a truth.  There was part of him that wanted that truth. 

 

Herodias, on the other hand, was having none of it.  Nobody was going to tell her that what she was doing was wrong.  She was going to have her revenge.  And she took it.  There was a drunken, debauched party for Herod’s birthday and she manipulated the situation behind the scenes and had her daughter Salome ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.

 

Herod could hear the two voices:  John’s voice – the voice he didn’t understand but he knew it made sense, the voice that cried out against him but held the truth.  And the voice of Herodias his wife – calling him into further evil in order to save himself from shame. 

 

According to the historian Josephus, Herod had John killed because he was afraid that John would be the focus of a rebellion against him.  And that may well be another dimension in the story.  Herod was trying to protect his kingdom and preserve his honour.

 

John the Baptist was killed because his message conflicted with those who held power.

 

Herod Antipas wanted so much to be king.  But his way of being king was to misuse power to control the truth ad to enjoy a lifestyle of pleasure and debauchery.  Ludwig II so wanted to be a glorious leader like his namesake Louis XIV, and the only way he could do this was to spend all his money and all the public funds he could lay his hands on to build amazing palaces where he could cut himself off from everyone else.  And President Trump – what does he want? – to be loved and lauded and looked up to. 

 

And then Herod Antipas starts to hear stories about Jesus. It’s early in Jesus’ ministry and people are trying to make sense of who he is.  Herod picks up some of the gossip that Jesus is a prophet, maybe Elijah returned to life.  But Herod’s conscience stirs and he thinks Jesus is John the Baptist returned to life.  He knows the execution of John was wrong.  And now he is afraid that he might get his comeuppance.  He is pierced by guilt. 

 

Guilt is not comfortable.  Guilt happens when we recognise that we have done wrong, when we have hurt someone, when we have pursued our own interests at the expense of others.  Actually, guilt can be really healthy, because it happens when we face up to the truth about ourselves.  Because then we can do something about it.

 

And the message of Jesus is that God will forgive us whenever we turn to him.  I wonder if Herod heard that message?  I don’t think so somehow.  God love us so much that he will always wipe the slate clean and help us start again.  We can’t do it for ourselves.  Trump thinks he can pardon himself in political terms, but he never can pardon himself before God. 

 

The kingdom that Jesus proclaims is where God rules, where God is king, not someone who puts himself forward as perfect, as the best.  The kingdom of God is where sins are forgiven, where God forgives us, where we forgive those who hurt us, where we have the confidence that whatever we have done, we are still loved and accepted by God. 

Sabbath rest

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In the first story of creation in the book of Genesis, right at the beginning of the bible, God made the world in six days, and it was very good.   On the seventh day, the Sabbath day, Saturday, God rested.  And the people of the Jews observe that day – as you might say – religiously.  It is a profound day of rest.  Local people have often told me how they are sometimes asked to turn on a light or do some small task that our Jewish neighbours are forbidden to do on the Sabbath.  And it is a really good practice to take rest seriously.  We sadly lost that discipline when Sunday trading was introduced in August 1994.  Now we have no excuse for rest and relaxation and enjoying the company of friends and family.

 

Today’s Gospel reading tells us two incidents that took place on the Sabbath.  In the first, Jesus and the disciples are walking through fields of corn, and as they go, they pick a few heads of grain and eat them.  The religious people are horrified.  This was one of those little tasks that are forbidden on the Sabbath.  The religious people have a good go at Jesus for letting the disciples graze on growing corn.  It’s in the tone of “call yourself a holy man and yet you let your followers disobey one of the important rules of our faith!”  they want to show Jesus up.

 

That story is then immediately followed by another.  In the synagogue, the place where they gathered to worship God and pray, there was a man with a withered hand.  Maybe he’d had a stroke, which left his arm and hand useless.  Everyone is looking at Jesus.  They knew that he healed people, but would he heal someone on the Sabbath?  And the conventionally religious people are looking for an excuse to criticise Jesus some more.  Some people take a lot of pleasure when others do wrong – it makes them feel ever so good about themselves, because they perceive themselves as being better than that.  Jesus knows what’s going on in their hearts, and he challenges them: “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do harm, to heal or destroy?”  No one says a thing.  There is no answer to that without condemning themselves.  So Jesus heals the man.  His hand is restored.  And the religious people are furious!

 

So Jesus is breaking the rules, which are quite clear in the bible: the Sabbath is a gift from God (Exodus 16), the Sabbath is a day of solemn rest and whoever works will be put to death (Exodus 31), over and over again, you find similar things are being said.

 

But Jesus turns it all round.  The Sabbath is good, the Sabbath is a delight – until you use it as a means of judging others or punishing others or saying that you’re better than the others because you can afford to keep the rules properly.  The Sabbath is good, the Sabbath is a delight – until you use it as an excuse for not helping those who are in need.

 

I follow a Jewish teacher[1] on twitter from the US, and every Friday evening, he signs off for 36 hours for his Sabbath rest.  It is a weekly reminder of the blessing of Sabbath time, of setting aside the busy-ness of life, and just being, rather than doing.  We really do need some of that in a world where the pace is rapid and the pressures are constant.  Another rabbi[2] on Twitter summarised the Sabbath like this:

  1. Avoid technology.
  2. Connect with your loved ones.
  3. Nurture your health.
  4. Get outside.
  5. Avoid commerce.
  6. Light candles.
  7. Drink wine.
  8. Eat bread.
  9. Find silence.
  10. Give back.

 

We really need to reclaim some of that.  People will do it differently:  My day of rest is a Monday, but these days I tend to spend it running after toddler granddaughters – which gives me great joy but is not hugely restful.  I know that the older I get, the less energy I have, and I have to take more breaks.  For Margaret and Brian, their Sabbath time is their holidays, which are an important part of their life, perhaps the only time in their busy lives when they can just sit back and enjoy themselves.

 

When I was ordained, I was given a book by Nicholas Allan, called Jesus’ Day Off.  It’s a children’s book.  I think it gets given to a lot of people when they are ordained deacons and priests.  Let me read it to you.

 

READ BOOK

 

It’s a reminder about the need to take time out and enjoy yourself, to have a balanced life.

 

Jesus criticises those who mis-use the Sabbath and turn it into a means for belittling others and denying help to those who need it.  In our culture with all its pressures, I don’t think Jesus would be telling us to work every hour God sends us and to fill our time with good deeds.  I am sure he would be telling us to smell the roses and taste fresh-baked bread.  Then you will have the physical and spiritual energy to live out the love of God.

[1] Lee Weissman

[2] Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

Meeting God

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How do you experience God?

 

Someone I know through Twitter encounters God in what she calls small beauties.  These are the little things, a cluster of wild flowers, a bird that comes close, a bee in the sunlight, a cat stretching in a warm patch, that keep her in touch with God.  They are a perfect point of Creation, reminding her that there is still great beauty in a troubled and troubling world.  For her, God is in everything, and each small beauty is a moment of grace.  It’s not just about God the Father Creator, because she sees Christ present at that moment of creation and Holy Spirit lights the fire.  The Holy Trinity is a dance that flows through everything.

 

Other people I know find God in great landscapes or sunsets – the big examples of creation.  When I worked in the NHS in Darlington, I took part in a Common Purpose programme.  One day, we were taken to a factory where they made bridges.  It was a huge building, like a cathedral.  It was the end of the day, and most workers had gone home, just a few left on the factory floor, and it was pretty quiet.  They were making two bridges at the time, a motorway bridge for somewhere near Manchester and a bridge for Japan that needed to withstand earthquakes and had to be accurate to a millimetre.  All of a sudden I had a powerful experience of God as Creator – not in the sense of pretty vistas and chocolate box images, but God as engineer, constructing things that served a purpose and which worked to enable connections and keep people safe.  And Christ was there, because what the incarnation means is that God is involved in all the stuff of human life.  And the Spirit was there, because that kind of creativity takes huge imagination and ability.

 

How do you experience God?

 

In the sermon at the royal wedding last weekend – yes, I am still talking about it – Presiding Bishop Michael Curry was talking about God’s Love, because God is Love.  And Love is at the heart of the Trinity, the way the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit relate to each other, the way God relates to the world.  This is pure, unselfish, sacrificial love.  Love that shows us how to live.  Love that changes the world.  Love that means that we don’t need guns or nuclear weapons.  Love that means that children will have enough to eat.  Love that means everyone is family.  There is power in that kind of love.  When we experience love like that, we find ourselves in the heart of God.  When we encounter the power of love, we meet the Holy Trinity.  Where there is love, God is there.  And God want us to keep that love flowing and growing.  That kind of love gives life.

 

For ten days from Ascension to Pentecost, we followed the novena for Thy Kingdom Come, and people met together in the chancel to say prayers and use the readings and explore the pictures that had been provided.  It was a powerful experience.  Earlier this week, someone else who had been following the novena at their church told me how they had experienced the presence of God calling them to serve in a very particular way.  Sometimes God just creeps up on us.

 

How do you experience God?

 

We meet God in gentle ways and in powerful dramatic ways.  Sometimes we barely even notice.  It is like seeing God out of the corner of our eye.  We can train ourselves to take more note and when we do, we can be amazed at what God is doing in our lives.

 

Today Sophie and Stash are going to receive Holy Communion for the first time.  I have been going to their house and working with them over many weeks, leading them through a course of study.  God is important to Stash because he made pets and animals.  For Sophie, God created the world and humans.  And they are now going to meet God in the sacrament of Holy Communion, which is another way of experiencing the presence of God.  They are coming close to God, and God will come close to them.

 

On more than one occasion, I have met people or had email conversations with people who had dreams or visions of Jesus.  Wow!

 

You experience God in different ways at different stages of your life.  And the God you meet is the Trinity.  And though it’s always God you meet, sometimes your experience is more God the loving parent, or creator, or it’s Christ who gets alongside us and understands what we’re going through, whom we find in compassion and caring, or it’s the Holy Spirit, inspiring us, dancing in us, blowing the cobwebs away and disturbing us.  And we call those different ways of knowing God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

 

It is amazing that we can experience God, and in so many ways!

 

We can meet God because God loves us so much and wants to be involved in our lives.  God wants us to engage, to be open.  God wants a conversation.  God wants a relationship with us.   And God doesn’t limit us to knowing him in only one way – God meets us where we are, in the middle of our lives, and speaks to us in whatever language we are prepared to listen.

 

So how do you experience God?  Think of all the ways and all the times in your life.  And give thanks because you can meet God for yourself.

 

And then I have one more question.  How does God experience you?

Appointing God’s workers

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In the reading from Acts, we are between Ascension and Pentecost.  Jesus has ascended into heaven.  Judas has taken his own life.  The apostles are down to 11.  Peter is with 120 believers, and he talks to them about appointing a successor to Judas, so that there would be 12 again.

 

The number twelve was important.  There were twelve tribes of Israel, so the number 12 was integral to the history of the Jews.  Jesus had appointed twelve apostles, and said that they would “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel”.  So Peter clearly felt that 11 just wouldn’t do.

 

The means they use to appoint the successor apostle is interesting.  They take nominations from the community.  The criterion is that those nominated should have been among the followers throughout Jesus’ ministry and had been there for significant events, especially Jesus’ resurrection appearances.  When two people have been proposed, Justus and Matthias, they pray for God’s wisdom and then they cast lots – maybe they rolled a dice, or used straws or some other method.  By casting lots, they were putting the decision into God’s hands.  And through that process, Matthias was appointed.  We don’t know anything about him and we never hear of him again in the Bible.  He does have a feast day – tomorrow, the 14th May – but the absence of information makes it difficult to relate to him.

 

If they had waited for the Holy Spirit rather than jumping in so quickly, the Spirit may have revealed Paul as the additional apostle – which is what actually happens, when Paul encounters the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus and becomes the apostle to the Gentiles.

 

The story raises the question for us about how people are appointed to take on roles and responsibilities in the church.

 

Let me explain first how people are selected for ordination as deacons and priests.

 

People who feel that God is calling will need to talk to their parish priest – or the chaplain if they were university or college students.  The priest will put them in touch with the Director of Ordinands – who is the person in every diocese who is responsible for managing the process of selection.  The Director of Ordinands will then put them in touch with a Vocations Advisor, who will work with the person who feels God is calling them.  The Vocations Advisor will meet with them regularly, helping them to think through their sense of calling.  The Church of England looks for qualities in 9 areas in candidates coming forward for ordination.

 

Eventually, the person will attend a Diocesan selection panel.  Here in Durham that means having interviews with three people who seek to discern the calling in relation to their education, their spiritual life, and pastoral care – both their ability to offer pastoral care and the ways they have of maintaining their own pastoral care.  When the Diocesan panel feels a person is ready to go through to the next stage, they go to a national selection panel, where they stay for 2 nights and have a number of interviews and procedures designed to help the team assess the candidate.  After that, the candidate might be recommended to start theological training, which takes two or three years.  After that, they can be ordained as a deacon for a year and then as a priest, serving first as a curate, working with a parish priest.  Yvonne is getting a curate who will be ordained this summer – and that is the process that he will have gone through over the last few years.

 

Here in church, we have to think carefully about who does what.  We had our Annual Meeting a few weeks ago, when we elected the people who serve as Church Warden or on the Church Council, and appoint those who serve as Sidespeople – their responsibility is to welcome people who come to church and make sure they have everything they need.

 

Those are the obvious roles, but there are other jobs to be done:  Brian regularly visits one of the Care Homes for older people to hold services; and a number of people help with Fun @ 4 – our monthly service for children and families where we do craft activities around a bible theme.  And every now and then, someone comes up with a new idea.  We also have rotas of people who read lessons, do the intercessions, assist with administering Holy Communion, and serve.

 

It is great when people come forward to volunteer for jobs and offer to help.  It is good for the church and it is good for their own development.  We are committed to “Safer Recruitment”, which means that we need to interview people who want to take on responsibilities within the church.  This is about checking out that people understand the responsibilities and that they will undertake them faithfully and according to the values of the church.

 

I am hoping in a few weeks time to start a course on different aspects of liturgy, which I hope many of you will attend.  This will be about giving knowledge and growing confidence in some of the roles around leading worship.  As people go through the course, the PCC will decide who should do what jobs: reading lessons, doing the prayers, administering Holy Communion, and so on.  We do need more people who are willing and able to do these jobs, so that there are enough people to share the work.

 

We do not cast lots, as the early Christians did, to find people to help with the work of leading and running the church.  We do need to pray about who we ask to help – to pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us and to give us the people we need to do God’s work here in Bensham.  Next week at Pentecost, we will be thinking about the gifts that the Holy Spirit pours upon individuals and upon the Church.  In the meantime – pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit into this place so that we might proclaim God’s good news and help to build God’s kingdom.

Them & Baptism

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In last week’s story from Acts, Philip baptised the man from Ethiopia in a roadside pond.  In this week’s story from Acts, there is another baptism.

 

The book of Acts tells the story of the early church, starting with the Ascension of Jesus – which we celebrate on Thursday, then the day of Pentecost, which we celebrate in two weeks’ time.  And then the first half of the book of Acts tells the story of Peter, and the second half tells us about Paul.

 

In the book of Acts, we get glimpses of how the early church operated, and we hear tell of a number of baptisms.  And I have to tell you that there was no consistent practice, because they were still working things out.  And also because the Holy Spirit was not going to conform to any sense of order.

 

Now the way we do things in the Church of England is that baptism is the way you become a member of the church; that is the act of first commitment to following Christ, whether you are making that decision for yourself, or whether the parents and godparents are making that commitment on behalf of a child.  In the early church, the bishop was responsible for baptising new Christians, and as part of the rite, the bishop would lay hands on the candidate and pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  As the church grew, the bishop simply couldn’t be available for every baptism, and so that rite was split.  Baptism – particularly of infants – was delegated to priests, and when the child was old enough to make their own commitment to Christ, they would come before the bishop at a special service and the bishop would confirm their faith and pray for the Holy Spirit.  So Baptism and Confirmation are really parts of the same process.

 

In today’s story, it all happens the other way round.  Christianity grew out of Judaism, and the early Christians were all Jews.  But then Peter is asked by a gentile, a non-Jew, called Cornelius, to explain the faith of Christ.  While he is talking to them, the Holy Spirit comes upon the people who are listening to them.  Nobody was expecting that to happen!  We will hear a lot more about the Holy Spirit over the next couple of weeks, but the first thing you need to know is that you can’t control the Holy Spirit.  Peter sees this happen and realises that he cannot deny what the Holy Spirit is doing, so allows Cornelius and his family to be baptised.

 

In this story, the Holy Spirit comes first, and the baptism confirms the action of the Holy Spirit.  In other stories, and in current church practice, it’s the other way round.

 

There is a question about how easy should it be to get baptised, and that is something I am still struggling with.  Families come along with babies and small children and ask for baptism, and the tradition has been to assume that the families want the children to be part of the faith of the family, and that they will bring the children up at Christians.  But very often, we don’t see those families again.  We try to be as welcoming and helpful as possible, to give the families a good experience of church, so that they don’t get reasons to hate us.  And then we just have to trust to the Holy Spirit.  It takes a huge amount of humility not to resent the families who just come because they want the party afterwards.

 

Years ago, I was having my hair cut.  The hairdresser was telling me that she was going to Christening.  She said how much she liked going to Christenings.  I saw an opportunity for a theological discussion.  “That’s interesting,” I said. “Why do you like going to Christenings?”  “Oh,” she said, “because I don’t normally go to the pub on a Sunday.”  End of conversation.

 

Over the last few years, we have had more and more Iranian people coming to church, which is great, and it is a joy to have them with us.  Many of you have already been baptised – mostly by Fr Tony at Wakefield Cathedral.  Sometimes people ask me for baptism.  I am told that the statistics show that 90% of Iranians who ask for baptism do so because they think it will help their case for asylum.  I don’t know.  To begin with, I would baptise people when they gave me what I perceived as some evidence of genuine faith.  As time has gone on, I am learning to delay baptism until I am more certain that their request for baptism comes out of a real desire to follow Jesus.  And now that we have the Bible class going, I would want people to attend regular classes.

 

There are cases in other churches where an asylum seeker has said to the priest, “I wanted to be baptised so that I could get asylum, but then I discovered Jesus for myself, and my conversion became real.”

 

As far as the Home Office is concerned, baptism does not necessarily prove genuine conversion.  Being baptised will not automatically give you residency.  I have baptised people who were then not successful in getting residency.  And when I go to the immigration court to support anyone, the court wants to know how many Iranians are still going to church after they have got residency – it is seen as a measure of how good I am at discerning genuine cases of conversion.

 

Confirmation can happen later, when you have obtained residency and when you feel you are ready to make that additional commitment.

 

In welcoming people from other countries into church, who started life following another path of faith, we are a bit like that encounter between Peter and Cornelius and his family.  We need to respond with generosity and love, a real genuine welcome.  And then we need to develop wisdom about how we help people grow in faith, and how we perceive when faith is genuine.  Because the situation here is more complex than Peter baptising Cornelius or Philip baptising the Ethiopian, because of the dimension of asylum.

 

Pray for those who come to church to be baptised:

  • For the families who bring small children, that they may genuinely want to follow Christ;
  • For those seeking asylum, that they grow into the true faith of Christ.
  • For yourselves and your own walk of faith, that you may grow in loving Christ and in loving your neighbour and your enemy.