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  • Sermon - 25 June 2017 - Chris Walker

    Sermon for Sunday 25th June 2017
    By Chris Walker, Licensed Reader

    As most of you know, Tony and I will be moving away fairly soon. One of the things that I am going to miss very much about our home in Bretton is my room at the end of the garden that functions as my study. If I sit on the right hand side, with the door open, I have a good view of the pond, which is put to good use by the birds for drinking and bathing during spell of dry weather.

    As I was mulling over today’s readings, Mr and Mrs Blackbird were making good use of the facilities. When they departed, a little sparrow flew down to take her turn. I was able to watch through binoculars, and to reflect on what an exquisitely beautiful thing a little bird is. I have no idea how many sparrows, or indeed varieties of sparrows there may be in the world, but I liked the idea that Jesus was at one time watching sparrows, too, and reflecting about the Father knowing the lifespan of each one. That God sees each hatchling, each first flight, each last fall.

    So, too, with us. Jesus tells us that every hair on our head is counted. That’s about seven billion of us on earth, and I’m fairly sure those with no hair are not excluded. We are known, we are marked, we are noticed, we matter. To God if not, sadly, always to each other. And what is initially comforting is, when we think further on it, perhaps less comfortable when we think that God the Father knows, marks and cares about all the ways in which my actions and decisions affect other whom he loves.

    The impact of my living, like a bird bathing in my pond, sends out ripples. Those ripples affect not only those closest to me, but those who make the goods I buy, and those who may feel the impact of my carbon footprint.

    So maybe this passage about sparrows and the hairs on our heads does not stand in quite such sharp contrast to the rest of the passage as seems to be the case at first glance. Jesus says some things that are difficult and perplexing, if not actually chilling to hear in today’s gospel. He repeats several times ‘don’t be afraid’, when talking about those who threaten physical violence against his hearers. We know that we face those in every age. We are quite used to hearing the words ‘don’t be afraid’, which is apparently the most frequently repeated command in the Bible.

    But here we also have Jesus saying BE afraid: ‘fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell.’ Former bishop and eminent biblical scholar, Tom Wright, urges us not to misunderstand Jesus’ words here. The ‘he’ that can destroy both body and soul in hell, the ‘he’ that is referred to is most assuredly not God the Father. Jesus knows that there is a strong undercurrent of anger about oppression and injustice and executions of Jews by the Roman authorities and the complicity of Herod. He knows, too, and foretells in other passages what the outcome of an angry uprising will be: the destruction of Jerusalem. We have seen the results of uprisings in Syria and Yemen: the appalling injuries, loss of life and homelessness and, now in Yemen, water and sanitation systems are so degraded that over 1,000 have died of cholera.
    Tom Wright says this: ‘But there were other, darker enemies, who had the power to kill the soul as well: enemies who were battling for that soul even now, during Jesus’ ministry, and were using the more obvious enemies as a cover….the demonic powers that are greedy for the soul of God’s people are using their (i.e. the people’s) very desire for justice and vengeance as the bait on the hook. The people of light are never more at risk than when they are lured into fighting the darkness with more darkness. This is the road straight to the smouldering rubbish tip, to Gehenna, and Jesus wants his followers to be well aware of it.’

    Wright’s translation of the word ‘hell’ in the passage is this word ‘Gehenna’ which, as I’m sure you know, was a real place,  a fiery dump outside of the city of Jerusalem. Jesus’ words carry implications for both the immediate future and for God’s final judgement. In physical terms, a violent uprising will result in the dreamed-of glorious city being reduced to  a smouldering ruin, which is what came to pass and may well have been witnessed by some of the younger people who were there to hear Jesus words that day.

    But the effect on our souls of being seduced by the desire to revenge and control is far worse: thinking to build God’s kingdom by violence and oppression does not result in a glorious city. If you are watching the dramatization of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, you will see it resulting in a very hell on earth. In real life, think of the Hitler’s Germany, think of people fleeing from areas controlled by Isis/so-called Islamic State. People who are disillusioned, volunteer soldiers who have found themselves trapped, overcome with horror and loathing at the truth that is exposed. Jesus warns us sternly that to follow that path will also result in our souls being exiled from the New Jerusalem, able only to watch from the dump of our own making: there is no place for human control and violence in the kingdom of God, as his final judgement will show.

    It is important not to end without being clear that Jesus is not advocating appeasement. Just putting up with and going along with the status quo for a safe and quiet life. Far from it. He knows perfectly well that his teaching will upset many people, and not only those in authority. ‘I have come not to bring peace, but a sword’. Friendships and family relationships will come under threat from divided opinions. Nonetheless, as new truth is revealed, standing up for that truth must be more important than keeping others happy. Jesus doesn’t spell out for us how to deal with this: can we assume that we are expected to do everything possible to continue living together? So many things divide us in this world: culture, politics and doctrine. We may remember Paul’s words in Romans 12:18 ‘If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with your neighbour.’ But never at the cost of your soul. As we make progress in our lives as disciples, we must not be afraid to change as God wants to change us, even if it ruffles the feathers of others.  Let the one to whom we surrender our souls be the one who counts the hairs on our heads, and let us live and speak as he commands us.

  • Sermon - 28 May 2017 - Pat Hemsley

    Sermon for Sunday 28 May 2017 (Sunday after Ascension Day)

    By Pat Hemsley, Licensed Reader

    April was quite a month. Firstly, it marked the eagerly-anticipated arrival of our new vicar, Jackie after an interregnum of some months. Then, of course we had a joyful celebration at Easter, long-awaited during the Lenten weeks of preparation. On a personal level, two of our grandchildren had birthdays in early April; these as you might imagine, were also long and eagerly awaited. Leo, reaching his 9th birthday, had the count-down marked out in weeks, days and, towards the end, hours and minutes. His life focussed very much on the “before” and “after” of the great day –especially as he knew he was having a new bike and the “after” bit was going to feature riding it during the school holidays. Jasmine, celebrating her 5th birthday measured her count-down in the number of sleeps beforehand–quite a good way of actually getting her to bed, it has to be said --- and her focus was on the day itself , which she knew would involve lots of presents and a bouncy castle party….”and you can come, too Granny and wear your party dress!”

    For any big event in our lives, those that we know are going to happen, it seems to me that at least part of the enjoyment is in the waiting for it --- the planning, the preparation, the anticipation. There’s a process of counting-down and of looking-forward ; of leaving something behind as we embrace the future.

    So on this Sunday, which falls between Ascension Day and Pentecost, that’s exactly where we find Jesus’ disciples. During their years with Jesus, they’d experienced many events that were totally unexpected, not at all anticipated. Others Jesus warned them about and tried to prepare them for – his death and his resurrection. But these were so far beyond their understanding, so frightening, that the only possible reaction was to ignore them, until they actually happened. Now, re-united with their resurrected Lord, believing in the impossible and beginning to understand finally his power and his glory, they witness his return to his Father… a scene wonderfully depicted in the stained glass of the window which faces us every time we enter this church.

    Whether or not the disciples knew that the ascension was about to happen, they greeted it, not with fear or sorrow, but with joy and amazement. Perhaps the reason for this was that they knew beyond all doubt that they now had other things, other great events to wait for, to prepare for. Jesus had promised a helper, the Holy Spirit who would clothe them with power from on high. Filled with the Spirit, they had a job to do; “You will be my witnesses,” Jesus had told them. And finally, they believed that Jesus would come again to complete his kingdom on earth. “This Jesus will come again” was the message of the angels as Jesus disappeared into the clouds.

    Filled then with hope and anticipation, the disciples returned to Jerusalem to wait and to prepare. They couldn’t know how long the wait would be, either for the gift of the Spirit or for the coming of the kingdom in the final return of Jesus. In fact Jesus had told them, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set.” They couldn’t measure it in count-downs or in the number of sleeps, but they knew that this time they had to be ready. And so they prepared in the best way they knew – they worshipped, and they prayed. They met together to support each other and they were alert to any signs that the great events were about to occur. And of course, ten days after the ascension, the first of the promises was fulfilled as the Holy Spirit came among them in wind and fire.

    The fact that the Christian family world-wide will celebrate that event next Sunday, at Pentecost, is because the disciples went on faithfully in the power of the Spirit to do what Jesus asked of them and to be his witnesses. While they counted –down to the promised heavenly coming of his kingdom (a ticking clock which lasted the rest of their lives) they continued to proclaim the coming of his kingdom on earth. The disciples handed on their task to the generations who came after, until now, of course, when the baton is placed firmly into our hands.

    Yes, we have events to prepare for, and a commission to fulfil. True, we are on a count-down and the clock is still ticking, but we believe there still remains time to anticipate, to plan and to get ready. Like all our Christian forebears, we don’t know God’s timespan for the final coming of his kingdom; we don’t know when Jesus will return in glory. What we do know is that the Holy Spirit can equip us to do the work of sharing the news of God’s kingdom on earth now. Following the example set by the disciples, we must meet together, we should worship and we must pray. And our prayer in the following days should be – “thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.

    This is the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples and it’s the prayer that our archbishops have asked us to use as we join with Christians of all denominations world-wide, marking the period between Ascension and Pentecost with an intense and unified movement of prayer. We have, in Jasmine’s terms, seven more sleeps until we celebrate the feast of Pentecost – and this year, we’re not only praying for personal renewal through the gift of the Holy Spirit, but asking that more and more people will feel its powerful presence and changing grace within their lives. We pray not only for the now, the immediate celebration, but we pray for the future also. We are asking for God’s kingdom on earth to increase as the Holy Spirit brings new life both to the church and community with joy, healing, reconciliation and hope.

    “Thy kingdom come” - it’s a huge ask, a huge prayer. And in view of the state of the world we might think it a hopeless ask, an impossible prayer. Yet as the first disciples were alert to the signs of change, so must we be; if we look, signs of God’s kingdom on earth are daily around us. We rejoice in the beauty of the natural world, the love that we share with those around us and in the Christ-like interactions that are witnessed in the darkest of situations. Yes, even in the unimaginable evil of the Manchester bombing and its aftermath this week, there were signs of the kingdom. Christ’s love and care was in the countless acts of kindness, in the unselfish behaviour of passers-by, in the bravery of the rescue services and the calmness and professionalism of policemen and women. It was in the care and concern demonstrated by the on-duty casualty sister… and in the unity of an elderly Jewish lady praying for the victims supported by her equally grieving Muslim neighbour. God’s kingdom is here on earth – and we pray that it may grow yet more and that we may play our part in revealing it to all those who have not yet heard of its message of hope and healing.

    So , in the words of a famous song “something’s coming, something good … I’ve got a feeling there’s a miracle due!” We have something wonderful to pray for and something wonderful to celebrate and we want to invite the whole world to join with us – and in their party dresses. ..or gear! As we prepare for and anticipate the event, both the one due to arrive next Sunday and the one due to arrive - well, God only knows when – let’s use our time wisely so that we ‘re ready whenever. Let’s pray together and individually, over the next few days and always, silently or aloud –but always with confidence and trust … Lord, thy kingdom come.