Mission that ends ends: preaching from Ascension to Pentecost

This is a sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Leamington for Easter 7(A), the Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost. (I am hoping it will be the first in a series of reflections inspired by readings from the Book of Acts.)

The text is Acts 1:6-14.

When we were finding our way round, when we moved to Leamington nearly two years ago, people kept telling us, “you don’t want to go to Coventry”. 

Apologies to those of you who live in Coventry. Never mind. People will be flocking to Coventry if they beat Luton in the play off final next Saturday, possibly taking the place of my team in the Premier League.

It was a punishment to be “sent to Coventry*. Being sent to Coventry meant people turned their back on you, refused to talk to you, shunned you. 

The origin of the sentence probably dates back to the 1640’s to the English Civil War. Royalist troops captured in Birmingham were taken as prisoners to Coventry which was a parliamentarian stronghold. They were not received warmly by the locals. That’s what happened when they were sent to Coventry.

Samaria from this morning’s reading is the Coventry of its day. “You don’t want to go to Samaria” would have been the equivalent for the Jewish people who found a way round Samaria rather than going through it. Part of the power of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that the hero is a Samaritan and that there was a Samaritan that could be called good.

But Jesus puts Samaria on the mission map, along with everywhere else that was considered off limits.

According to Luke, these are the last words of Jesus before his ascension: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Yes – to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth!

Before this, the disciples ask Jesus this question: Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? Jesus refuses to give a direct answer. It was an old question, reflecting the old troubles of nationalism brought on by too narrow a view of God’s love. 

Instead of a direct answer to their question, Jesus gives them his last word: a promise of power as witnesses, not just in Jerusalem and Judea, but even in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

These last words of Jesus are the first words in the beginning of the church’s missionary journey, a journey which takes us further that we could ever imagine, and a journey which undermines any boundaries which prevent God’s love reaching where God desires, to the ends of the earth.

To the ends of the earth – that is beyond the boundaries, the borders and margins of our current imaginations, undermining any attachment to nationalism, undermining the certainties and conservatism of our belief systems. Guy Garvey of Elbow sings (in Come On, Blue), love transcends anything that ever ends. Love transcends anything that ever ends, including the ends, limits, boundaries set by our imaginations and culture. 

Jesus’s words, to the ends of the earth, would be far too one-dimensional if we were only to think geographically about the extent of God’s mission, as if the first disciples had a map of the world at their disposal.

To the ends of the earth is about love’s reach. Think sociologically, think psychologically, not just geographically, think musically, think any way you can – to the ends of the earth, as far as your eye can see, and further – that is where the love of God goes, that is where the love of God comes again and again.

Think psychologically about the ends of the earth, those who are on the very edge, those in the darkest places, those in self harm’s way, those bombarded with cruel internal voices – this is where God’s love goes.

Think as peacemakers – or, better, live as peacemakers. Who have we made enemies? This is where God’s love takes us.

Think socio-economically about the ends of the earth. Who are in the margins? Who’s all at sea unable to make safety on land? To the ends of the earth – encompassing all ages, including children and young people (and it was good to hear about our partnership with Thrive from Ryan last Sunday), including those in their dying days. To the ends of the earth – encompassing enemies, strangers and those we’ve thought beyond the pale. Think the extent from cradle to grave, from prison cell to hospice bed, from palace to hovel, this is where God’s love goes.

To the ends of the earth is the scope of God’s love and the measure of God’s desire. Love isn’t just for Israel but for everyone in God’s creation. Love reaches far beyond our borders and boundaries, undermining those borders and boundaries, challenging wherever we draw the line between who’s ruled in and who’s ruled out, who’s right and who’s wrong.

The Book of Acts is often described as a book of beginnings. Our reading comes from the beginning of this book of beginnings. They are Jesus’ last words which become the first words of mission. To the ends of the earth – anything less doesn’t do justice to the desire and power of God. These are Jesus’ last words which last till the end of time, to the ends of the earth.

Acts reports the early days of mission, on the troubles Jesus’ followers got into on this journey. In the beginnings of this mission Luke shows us all the old certainties being cast to the wind, to the violent wind of Pentecost. He excitedly shows us people of all sorts being joined by the Holy Spirit, their differences and disputes being resolved by the wisdom and love which constitute God’s mission. 

He shows us what these first words of mission means as he spotlights the boundaries undermined by God’s mission and those affected by them. These include boundaries of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class and religion.

Love still struggles against the same borders and boundaries we see beginning to be undermined in Acts, which is why I suggest these days of our lives are still the first days of mission. 

This is the beginning where we have to cast our old certainties to the wind, one of the old certainties being that we aren’t fit for such a tall order of mission. Who am I for such a thing? We are bound by the voices which say we’re not good enough, we’re not clever enough and we know we’re not confident enough.

BUT. Luke tells the story of two men in white who ask the disciples, “why do you stand here looking at the sky”. The disciples had seen Jesus ascend, they’d seen him go. But they kept on looking where he’d gone, where he was no more. The two men in white redirect the gaze of the church. They’re saying, don’t look where he’s disappeared, look for where he comes again.

It’s seeing where he comes again which encourages us and heartens us. 

It is when we see him coming again as we break bread together, as we listen for his word in preaching, teaching and prayer, as we see the wonderful work of reconciliation that we become inspired for the joy of mission, and joined by

the Spirit who makes herself known as the strengthener, the encourager and the comforter, empowering us to reach beyond our comfort zone.

We never know how we are going to be turned out. There isn’t one way of joining mission. There’s no stereotype. 

Paraphrasing Paul, there’s a whole variety of gifts, there’s a whole variety of services, there’s a whole range of activities in the mission of God so some of us will turn out to be wise counsellors, others will become healers, others will have gifts for administration, some will become great encouragers, some will become teachers, or nurses, or the sort of heartening person we are always delighted to meet on our streets, or the shy person who thinks deeply and critically about the way things are. 

When praying in God’s mission none of us ever knows who we are going to turn out to be.

Going back to Coventry. The night of November 14th/15th 1940 must have seemed like the end of the world as 30,000 incendiary bombs were dropped on Coventry, destroying 43,000 homes, 71 factories, the city centre, 2 hospitals, 2 churches, killing 560 people and injuring over 1000 more. 

The Provost of the ruined cathedral, Richard Howard, witnessed Jesus’ words as he chalked his words Father, forgive them on the Cathedral’s sanctuary walls. 

He can’t have known how that would turn out to open up a whole ministry of reconciliation with what happened in Coventry as its capital. Nor could he have known that his words, (Jesus’ words) would be the first words of a missionary journey that has taken the Coventry Cross of Nails to the ends of the earth, to so many situations of conflict.

In those days, the days of prayer between Ascension and Pentecost, the disciples, the men and women gathered together, didn’t know how they were going to be turned out, and how their mission would turn out. Neither did Provost Howard. Neither do we as we wait and pray, with our eyes trained not on where Jesus has disappeared, but on where he comes again in the triumphs of love as well as our falls from grace.

Acts 1:6-14
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying: Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of[a] James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

Note: Acts 1:1-11 is read in churches on Ascension Day and Acts 1:6-14 is read on the 7th Sunday of Easter (Year A)

Redressing the power of kings – a sermon for coronation weekend

A sermon for Easter 5 (A) for St Mark’s, Leamington. May 7th 2023.

The Gospel reading is John 14:1-14.

Who has seen the most coronations? (The maximum is going to be 3, dating back to 1936). I’ve seen two and remember just one. Like many families we got our first TV to watch Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.

Our scriptures are very sceptical about monarchy, probably because these scriptures come from the heart of a people who have been repeatedly traumatised by imperial power. There will be a whole range of positions on the monarchy represented here this morning, from those strongly in favour to those of you who would line up with the anti-monarchist protesters. That whole range of positions can be traced back as far as the time of the prophet Samuel.

The memory of the people of God always goes as far back as the time they were held in Egypt, to the prince known as Pharoah and the memory of how oppressed, exploited and persecuted they were by him. He was always demanding more from them. More bricks, more bricks, more bricks to build his pyramids of power. This Pharoah isn’t named but that doesn’t matter, because, as one wise scholar of these scriptures says, “when you’ve met one pharoah, you’ve met them all”.

The people of God remember injustice, their history of persecution, their repeated exile, their holocaust – and they/we rejoice that God joins them/us in their/our struggle.

There was a time when Israel was governed by prophecy. Israel wasn’t like the other nations, until the elders came to the prophet Samuel asking him to appoint a king because (and this sounds really childish) everyone else has one.

This is 1 Samuel 8

All the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel saying: “you are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’

Samuel prayed about this, and he heard God saying, “don’t take this personally, they have not rejected you, they have rejected me from being king over them.” Then God told Samuel to warn the people about kings and their ways.

So Samuel warned Israel about kings – basically saying that they’re always on the take. “He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and be his horsemen … he will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields, grain, vineyards and orchards. He’ll take 10% of your grain in tax. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys. He will always be on the take, and will always be taking the best.

“Never trust princes” says the psalmist in Psalm 146. Never trust princes, nor any human power, for there is no help in them, speaks the psalm. There are so many people across the world lost, displaced and hated by the powers that be who know the truth of the psalmist – who this morning, like us, on this 5th Sunday of Easter, will be breaking bread, defying their princes as they commit their lives, their trust and their hopes to God, simply because, in the words of Psalm 146, it is the Lord their God who:

  • gives justice to those who suffer wrong
  • Bread to those who hunger
  • Looses those who are bound
  • Opens the eyes of the blind
  • Lifts up those who are bowed down
  • Watches over the stranger in the land
  • Upholds the orphan and widow
  • Turns the way of the wicked upside down

These are all God’s people – those who suffer wrong, who are hungry, bound, blind, bowed down, strangers in the land, widows and orphans – learning from first hand experience, and guided by the wisdom of ages that princes can’t always be trusted even though they are often charming.

That is why what we saw in yesterday’s coronation was a redressing of the power of kings. We saw King Charles being undressed and then being dressed up with the regalia binding him to the kingship of God, and binding him (and us) to those who have been let down by kingdoms and empires.

Here’s how they hemmed him in, how they redressed his power with prayer.

First they gave him spurs, symbols of military honour and chivalry, praying that he may be a brave advocate for those in need.

Then they gave him the kingly sword that it be not a sign and symbol of judgement, but of justice, not of might but of mercy.

Then the bracelets of sincerity and truth, tokens of the Lord’s protection.

Then the robe, that he may be clothed in righteousness and garments of salvation.

Then the orb, set under the cross, that the kingdoms of the world may be seen under the rule of God in the cross.

Then the ring

Then the glove, praying that he will hold authority with gentleness and grace.

Then the royal sceptre

Then the crown that he may be crowned in gracious favour

The whole thing was a dressing prayer for the king, praying for the power of God in his life, so that he comes into his power not to be served but to serve.

The meaning of the word religion goes back to binding. Religion means to be bound. In the coronation service we saw the king being bound by those who are leaders of our religious communities. Our bishops and other faith leaders binded the monarch, as they have repeatedly done over the centuries.

I’m not a chess player but I know the rule of the game is that the king cis bound to only move one square at a time. In fact, he can’t even move as far as the lowly pawn. He relies on the defence of his queen, his castles, his knights, his pawns – and yes, his bishops. The game is set up with the bishops sandwiching the royal couple.

Bishops are anything but straightforward. The rule is that they move diagonally, criss-crossing the board. In yesterday’s service we didn’t see them moving diagonally, we saw them moving diaconally binding the king to the gospel, binding him and his kingdom to the broken hearted, captives, the bruised.

Today’s gospel hasn’t been chosen because it is coronation weekend, though it could well have been. It is the gospel appointed for this Sunday in Easter. In it Jesus addresses those troubled by the state of things and all that they are having to endure. He says, do not let your hearts be troubled, trust in me. He is not talking to the troublemakers. He’s talking to the troubled.

In my Father’s house, he says, there are many dwelling places. This he says to a people whose land is occupied and who have been continuously displaced by others who have wanted their lebensraum or living room. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

My Father’s house is the kingdom. It is the place of longing as we pray for the kingdom to come on earth, as it is in heaven, and it is the place where God longs for us, for our be-longing. Different versions of the Bible translate the many dwelling places as many rooms, or as many mansions. The meaning is the same – that there is so much room that has been prepared for the troubled in heart. It is positively palatial.

This is the metaphorical space we enter as soon as we submit to Jesus as the way, and the truth, and the life, when as his beloved disciples we lay ourselves close to his heart, when we join with him in communion. And this is the place we come to when we pray, when we are troubled by whatever is going on which has a different way, truth and life.

Just as they do in chess, so in yesterday’s service (and I presume in their daily prayer) the bishops were walking diaconally the many spaces, the many rooms, the many dwelling places made ready for us by Jesus for the broken-hearted, the wronged, the bruised.

Maybe one or two of you are more used to coronations then me but I admit to being very moved and surprised by the binding of the monarch, and I ask myself why I am so surprised.

Is it that we have neglected prayer for the queen or the king? Surely our scriptures teach us to pray for kings because their feet are feet of clay. It is because they can’t be trusted that we need to pray for them.

Have we neglected to pray for our bishops, to bind them to their diaconal ministry of gathering the prayers of the people, to hearing and resounding their cries?

Have we neglected to pray for others who have all the power in the world to ruin us? Have we become indifferent to the gross inequalities of this nation and kingdom, much of which is rather close to the home of our king and his family?

When we pray in Christ we pray in the dwelling places made ready for us by Christ. There we may know what is on the heart of the King of kings, what is the prayer of the King of kings. Surely it is this: that the only way, the only truth, the only life for any kingdom is the way of Jesus, and any other way, truth or life is a travesty of justice.

When we pray in Christ we build capacity and room for others to breathe. This is our service. When we serve one another we join with Christ who came to serve, not to be served. These are the very foundations of the royal house Jesus shows those who are troubled in today’s gospel: a palace fit for the King of kings and all those he loves, in which there is so much board, so many spaces, and more than enough room for everything except any other way, truth or life.

As in chess the king needs the binding protection of our prayer, so, for now and for as long as he reigns we pray for/with Charles, for/with his family, for/with his advisers and ministers, for/with those who suffer wrong, for /with those who go hungry, for/with those who are bowed down, for/with those who are refugees, that together we may be saved from the ways of the wicked and the wrongs of the kingdom.

Taking sides on the road to Emmaus

A sermon for the third Sunday of Easter (April 23rd 2023) for Holy Trinity, Leamington, based on the gospel for the day – Luke 24:13-35 (text below)

Lovers in Arles by Vincent van Gogh

When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark

At the end of a storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark

Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
For your dreams be tossed and blown

Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone.

This Rogers and Hammerstein song has stood the test of time. It was originally part of their 1945 musical, Carousel. It is the anthem of Liverpool. It is also the anthem for Celtic and Borussia Dortmund, several Dutch teams, a Belgian team, and also became the anthem of support for medical workers, first responders and those in quarantine during the pandemic.

It’s an anthem which has stood the test of time. It’s seen us through the pandemic and saw Liverpool fans through Hillsborough and other tragedies. It was sung as a tribute to the Busby Babes at Manchester United’s first home game after the Munich air disaster in 1958 and was also used to support those affected by the fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade which killed 58. Some of you may have YNWA tattooed on your body somewhere.

This is a song with legs. Behind it is a truth with even longer legs. The last words of Matthew’s gospel are “Remember, I am with you to the end of time”. These are the words of the risen Jesus even though he has walked through the valley of the shadow of death. Remember, I am with you to the end of time. These are the daddy long legs behind the Liverpool anthem and all the songs of faith which have sustained so many on their long and difficult walks to freedom through storms of betrayal, injustice and pain.

In today’s gospel, Jesus, the I AM of “I am with you always”, joins two people on their way home from the festival in Jerusalem. He asked them what they were discussing, and Luke tells us “they stood still, looking sad”. They had reason to be sad. They had hoped that Jesus was the one to free Israel, but their own leaders and priests had handed Jesus over to be condemned to death by crucifixion

They walked on. They walked on with Jesus. They walked on, with Jesus listening to the hope that was in their heart and his response: his explanation of things in all the scriptures about him.

Here, as in other resurrection appearances, Jesus appears as stranger. They don’t know the one who has joined them is Jesus, and only discover his identity when he broke bread with them and reflected on the change of heart they felt as they walked with Jesus.

Jesus becomes known in the breaking of bread and through companionship. Companions are literally those we eat bread with. That is the meaning of the word companion.

When Jesus accepted the invitation of these two (Cleopas and the other whose name isn’t given) he joined them as companions, and they found him in the intimacy of companionship.

Was the revelation, and is the revelation, through the way the bread was taken, blessed, broken and shared? Was it, and is it, through the visibility of the scars and vulnerability. All of us will have our stories to tell about how Jesus has become known to us through the companionship of breaking bread together.

Through Ezekiel (Ezekiel 36:26) God promised God’s people a new heart – a heart of flesh instead of hearts of stone. When the penny drops, Cleopas and his companion say to each other with the benefit of hindsight, “Were not our hearts burning within while he was talking to us on the road?” Is this not the fulfilment of that promise? 

The road home from Jerusalem had been a road of desolation for the two of them – they shared their heartbreak with the one who joined them at their side and then found all the consolation they could ever have wished for, and more. It was with a fresh heart that they rushed back to Jerusalem and told the eleven what had happened to them on the road. We’re not told what happened next for them. We can only assume that their next steps were to walk on, with that fresh heart to their being, with hope at their heart.

I was leading worship in a strange church a couple of weeks ago. It was a service I had never led before. I sat in the church beforehand, on my own when someone joined me, sitting at my side. She was calm, a non-anxious presence, who quietly engaged me in conversation. I knew her slightly – enough for us to have a conversation about what matters to us. So it wasn’t small-talk. I immediately knew what she had done. Of all the things that she could have been doing, she had joined me, she had taken my side.

She will never know the effect of that simple action – taking my side. It was certainly heart-warming. It was immensely encouraging (encouraging literally means heartening). It gave me confidence. I knew I wasn’t on my own.

All of us, feeling vulnerable,
love it when others take our side,
when they sit with us, 
when they walk with us, 
when their heart goes out to us, 
when they make sure 
we never walk alone. 

When they join our side 
with a love that is patient and kind, 
that isn’t boastful or rude, 
that bears all things, 
believes all things, 
hopes all things, 
endures all things – 
well, (in the words of Andrew Lloyd Webber), 
that changes everything, 
doesn’t it? 

Is it not Christ
in such love
who takes our side
even as a stranger?

Isn’t it this love,
joining us at our side
who gives us new heart,
a heart-warming of flesh,
emboldened and encouraged?

Emboldened and encouraged
enough for us also 
through Christ and in Christ
to take the side of others
along their roads of sorrow,
even through the valley
of shadows marked Death

heartened to side with them
as part of the promise
“You’ll never walk alone”,
joined by the insistence of Jesus,
“I am with you always,
to the end of time.”

So, who is it  who has joined you on your journey, particularly when you have felt like Cleopas and his companion? Who has taken your side, particularly when you have felt forsaken? Who has stayed by your side through thick and thin? Who has loved with a love divine? These are the people who have encouraged us and given us fresh heart. These are the people through whom Christ lives his life in ways we often don’t recognise.

We give thanks for them and their presence in our lives – and we pray that we too may commit ourselves to Jesus’ risen life by siding with those Jesus sides with – those who are poor, or lost, or broken – in fact, everyone apart from the proud and self-satisfied – walking with them, standing up for them, taking their side, joining them.

Note: the information about YNWA is from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You%27ll_Never_Walk_Alone

Luke 24:13-35

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognising him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along? They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it s now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they indeed had seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see him.’ Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near to the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘stay with us because it is almost evening and the day in now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

The shocking truth of my feet: a sermon for Maundy Thursday

We decided we wouldn’t stage a “foot-washing” as part of our service this evening.

If we had included a foot-washing I am sure that we would have prepared for it very well. We would have asked for volunteers last Sunday. Those volunteers will have made sure that their feet were in good shape for tonight. In other words, to save embarrassment, all would be well planned and totally expected.

Whereas in this evening’s gospel the foot washing comes as a total surprise to the disciples as we can see from Peter’s reaction. “Are you going to wash my feet? …. You will never wash my feet.”

In other words, we might miss the point of the gospel if we had staged a “foot-washing”.

This is a well known story. It’s a story that needs to be seen through Middle Eastern eyes because shoes and feet have very different meanings in the culture of Jesus, Peter and the Middle East (to this day).

I owe much to Ken Bailey for these insights. He has written a book called Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes. Ken Bailey was brought up in the Middle East. He tells the story from his schooldays in an Egyptian boarding school when an American teacher threw a shoe at an Egyptian student because he wasn’t waking up. The student took it as an insult and reported it, and that resulted in the school being closed for two days. 

Shoes and feet are regarded as dirty and rude. Shoe and feet are four letter words in more senses than one. Some of those who hated Saddam Hussein and all he stood for pelted his fallen statue with their shoes as a way of registering their hatred and disgust. Shoes are shame. So those Saddam Hussein haters were in effect saying “shame on you” when they beat their shoes on the statue.

Worshippers leave their shoes outside the mosque when they go to pray because shoes are ritually unclean. They then bathe their feet and pray in long lines with the soles of their feet virtually in the face of those praying in the line behind them. 

Apparently you will be told to uncross your legs in some middle eastern churches – the reason being that you are bearing the sole of your shoe to others when you have your legs crossed, and that is considered rude and grossly disrespectful.

So perhaps you can see that performing a foot washing in any planned way tonight would scarcely be scratching the surface of what is going on in this passage.

The disciples didn’t have chance to pre-wash their feet, cut their nails or have a pedicure before Jesus was at their feet. Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet. Jesus takes the disciples by surprise and he is doing what no Jewish slave would be expected to do. Normally the Jewish slave would draw the water so that people could wash their own feet. 

This is humble service which would not have been expected from a servant. Jesus is going way above and beyond what a servant would do, and when he says to those who are disciples that he has set an example and that we should do as he has done for us. Jesus is not saying, “do for each other what is expected of service” – but go above and beyond what is expected.

This is a demonstration of costly, unexpected love.

It is no wonder that Jesus said to them “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.” That is because it is all about tomorrow, Good Friday, and the costly, unexpected love which gives itself utterly and to the end by dying for us on the cross. 

As well as being the perfect sacrifice, Jesus is also the scapegoat. He is the scapegoat to end all scapegoats, taking on all the iniquities, all the transgressions, all the sins of the people of Israel, of the people of his church – making atonement and addressing all that shames us. That’s tomorrow. But we can see tomorrow today in Jesus’ demonstration of unexpected, costly love in the washing of the disciples’ feet.

Jesus’ behaviour would have been troubling for the disciples. He was doing what he wasn’t supposed to be doing. He was transgressing the cultural boundaries between clean and unclean. It’s Peter who expresses their concern when he tells Jesus “You will never wash my feet”. That wasn’t because Peter was embarrassed by the state of his feet but because his Lord and Teacher was stooping so low to attend to something so very shameful..

But Jesus insists, while still leaving the choice with Peter. “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me”. To be part with Jesus is about being part of the body of Christ and about being part of his mission and church. To have no part with Jesus is about the inevitable distance that would grow between Peter and Jesus if Peter doesn’t accept the shame that Jesus has taken in hand in the footwashing and events of tomorrow, Good Friday.

There is, of course, an elephant in the room. 

The elephant is Judas. Jesus washes Judas’s feet as well.
He knows that Judas hasn’t come clean and has already betrayed him.
But still Jesus washes Judas’s feet in the same demonstration of costly, unexpected love.
These are not the beautified feet of the ones who bring good news.
These are the feet which will march off to the Roman authorities and lead them to the Garden of Gethsemane so that he can point Jesus out to them.
Being good was not the qualification for having their feet washed. Being good enough has nothing to do with it. It is nothing to do with being Goody Goody Two Shoes.

Our shame is in all that we conceal and in the act of concealment and hiding. 

This is what we’re like and what we’ve always been like, ever since Adam and Eve discovered their private parts and hid them behind fig leaves, and Adam went into hiding from God. 

The shame, its concealment, our feet, our shoes is what Jesus takes in hand in tonight’s gospel and in the goodness of tomorrow. We will only be part of Jesus and all he dies for and lives for if we allow him to stoop as low as we go, to the ground of our being and the soles of our feet to take our shame in hand.

On this night, when the moon was full, Jesus gave us a new commandment – to love one another. “Just as I have loved, you also should love one another.” In that room those first disciples had seen how Jesus loved them through an unexpected and shocking act of footwashing that took shame in hand with love. 

All of this happened in one room – with the disciples. The example of footwashing and the commandment to love became theirs to follow. 

What happens next, in the Garden, on this night of the full moon, highlights the disciples’ failures. They fail to keep watch with Jesus. They went to sleep, they scattered, one denied him, another betrayed him. 

None of us are good enough a-part from Jesus. It is by being a part of him that we become good enough. We are bad enough that we need Jesus to stoop so shockingly low to us to deal with our shame. We are bad enough that we need that new commandment of Jesus – to deal with our shame by loving one another.

The only way to deal with shame, with shame as old as time is with costly love. And the only way to be part of Jesus is to love the way Jesus deals with shame.

Ken Bailey, 2007, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes : Cultural Studies in the Gospels

PS. I’m wanting to also work in the idea that our feet turn once we are part of Jesus. Then our feet become beautiful. “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace …” (Isaiah 52:7)

Retracing our steps to our first vocation

Lent 2a

Draft sermon for March 5th 2023

Readings: Genesis 12:1-4a and John 3:1-17

I begin with a blessing written by Jan Richardson. Jan has written a blessing for every Sunday based on the readings. You can find them on her website called The Painted Prayerbook.

This one is called “Beginning with Beloved – a blessing

Before reading it I have to say that I never know how to pronounce “beloved”. How do you say it?
Is our confusion because we don’t use the word enough?
Is it one word or two? Beloved or be loved?

Here is the blessing:

Is there any other words
needs saying,
any other blessing
could compare
with this name,
this knowing?


Comes like a mercy
to the ear that has never
heard it.
Comes like a river
to the body that has never
seen such grace.


Comes holy
to the heart
aching to be new.
Comes healing
to the soul
wanting to begin again.


Keep saying it
and though it may 

sound strange at first
watch how it becomes
part of you,
how it becomes you,
as if you never
could have known yourself
anything else,
as if you could ever
have been other
than this.


Today is the 2nd Sunday of Lent.

Lent gets its name from the Old English and refers to the lengthening of the days during the spring following our wintering, as in “our days are lentening”.

Ancient wisdom has carved out these gifts of time for us. 

It is journeying time,

time for following the Way of Jesus,
for journeying through our difficult and dark age to the day of resurrection and a day without darkness when every tear will be wiped from our eyes, when death will be no more and when mourning and crying and pain will be no more. (Revelation 21 and 22).

Our readings feature Abram and Nicodemus. They are both setting out on journeys of faith.

God told Abram to leave his country, his kindred, his home.
He was 75 years old when he left everything behind for the sake of “becoming a great nation” and to be the blessing for all the families of the earth. 

(As an aside, it is interesting to note that in our moment of history when there is unprecedented migration that those who count themselves as “children of Abraham” – Muslims, Jews and Christians – owe their identity to Abram who made his name Abraham by leaving his country, kindred and home and became a migrant.)

Abram left his old life behind. He left his old age. He left his identity and he even left his name to become Abraham.

The meaning of the name Abraham is “Father of a crowd” or “Father of multitudes”.

God is the making of him and he becomes his name.

Nicodemus’s journey is very different. Nicodemus is mentioned three times in John’s gospel. This is the first – here he comes to Jesus by night. He may be a teacher of Israel but he doesn’t understand what Jesus is really talking about. He is in the dark.

How can anyone be born again? How can someone who has lived so much life be born again? How can anyone who has travelled so far get back to the beginning?
These are the questions that spring to his mind when Jesus tells him that those who want to see the kingdom of God need to be born again.

In the second passage (John 7:45-51) he is part of the ruling council which wants to condemn Jesus – but Nicodemus emerges from their shadow to stand out against them to defend Jesus.

The third passage (John 19:38-42) shows Nicodemus taking responsibility with Joseph of Arimathea for laying Jesus in the garden tomb after his crucifixion.
He is the last person to touch Jesus’ body before his resurrection – and as such he is celebrated as one of the Myrrhbearers by Orthodox Christians on the 3rd Sunday of Easter.

Like Abraham, Nicodemus is on a journey of faith. But Nicodemus’s journey is measured in light. Here we see him coming to Jesus in the dark. By the end of the gospel we see him in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. His movement is from the darkness of not-knowing into the light of knowing. That is how he is born again.

What is true for Nicodemus must be true for us as well. Jesus said, noone can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. We have to be born again to see the kingdom of God. But how? 

How are we born again, and how do we help others to be born from above?

I don’t know about you but I never made anything of the anniversary of my baptism – then I went to the trouble of finding the date and now have that in my diary. This week on March 11th I will have been baptised 72 years. I am sorry for what I have missed by not remembering it. 

Baptism marks the beginning of a journey with God when the church welcomes the new Christian, promising support and prayer for the future. It’s a new life, walking in the light of Christ for the rest of our lives. It’s a new life born by water and Spirit. That’s the theory.

Maybe Lent is an opportunity to retrace our steps to that beginning,
retracing our steps to that time the church started lovingly calling us by name,
when we became precious sister or brother to all the other people of God,
when we were commissioned alongside them,
committing ourselves with all Abraham’s children to grow in friendship with God,
in love for his people,
listening to the word of God and receiving the gifts of God.

If Lent is a journey, maybe it’s time to go backwards in order to move forwards.

Maybe Lent is the time to recall the voice that set us on the path of a new life. 
Maybe Lent is the time to retrace our steps to that beginning when we heard our name called in such a way as to save us, not condemn us – when we heard our name called in such a way as to save us from the old age.

Maybe Lent is the time of recalling ourselves in Christ who was sent into the world only ever to save the world, and never to condemn the world.

Maybe Lent is the time to listen to our name being called without a hint of a curse or judgement.
Henri Nouwen wrote in his book, The Life of the Beloved, “We are beloved. We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children and friends loved or wounded us….”

Maybe Lent is the time to search for our blessing.

Maybe Lent is the time to listen for the same voice that Jesus heard at his baptism, the voice from heaven which said: “You are my son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.”
“You are the one whom I love. With you I am well pleased.”

Maybe Lent is the time for us as church to be born again. It is hard for God’s word to be heard when the church is too guarded in blessing and too quick in judgements. 

In Lent we return to the beginning, to what we have forgotten about the making of us. We begin with the inscription of dust on our foreheads to remind ourselves that God makes life out of dust.
We retrace our often mis-taken steps so that we can begin again the journey of our life time.
We read our scriptures to retrace our blessing.

We turn to Abram (who is the beginning of our faith journey) and Nicodemus
We return to the beginning to see ourselves and others as God intends – as “beloved”.

We are never too old for this journey back to the beginning and then onwards with Jesus.
Part of the blessing is never being written off as too old.

Remember, Abram was 75 when he was told to leave everything, when he said good bye to his old age with its curses and judgements.

It’s always time to start again.

And it’s always time to be there for others who want to start again, 

to remind them by word and deed that Jesus’ mission is to save the world, not condemn it,
to reassure them that it is never too late for a fresh start
to bless them by re-calling them      “beloved”.

Tempters and resistance

A sermon draft for Lent 1a – February 26th 2023 at St Mark’s Leamington

Readings: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, one of the seasons of the church’s year. These seasons are gifts of time in which we can grow as disciples. There are 40 days in Lent as there are 40 days in the Easter season, from Easter to Ascension, as there are in the season between Christmas and Candlemas, and as many think that there should be during Advent. 

40 is just how long it takes to wait. In the Bible it is always 40 – years or days. 40 is the measure of waiting and testing. For example,

  • God flooded the earth for 40 days
  • The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years before entering the Promised Land after being freed from Egypt
  • Goliath mocked and taunted Israel for 40 days
  • Moses and Jesus fasted 40 days

Lent gets its name from Old English and refers to the lengthening of the days during the spring following our wintering – as in lentening days.

Ancient wisdom has carved out these gifts of time for us. What shall we do with this gift of time? 

Our two readings are both dramatisations
– the dramatisation of what it means to be human and loved by God. 
And Lent is a time for staging the drama. 

There is a beginning which is dramatised in the reading we heard from Genesis, which is reenacted on the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, when the dust from which we are made is inscribed on our forehead.
And there is an end in sight, the day of resurrection, and a day without darkness when every tear will be wiped from our eyes, when death will be no more and when mourning and crying and pain will be no more. (Revelation 21 and 22)

Lent holds the drama of the time between, the drama of the everyday and the here and now which, for us today is dramatised in the reading we have just heard about the temptations faced by Jesus.

The time between the beginning and the end is here and now, in the mean time when time can be very mean. 

These are the days of war, hunger, suffering, poverty, corruption, injustice. This is the mean time, a difficult age, a dangerous age when we get anxious about so much and when there is so much temptation. 

It is in this mean time  and in this difficult age that God shows his love for us.

There is no other time for God to show his love for the world.

The gift of Lent is the opportunity to look our time in the eye and face up to the challenge of how we are going to live in this mean time. 

What are our disciplines going to be as we live with temptation in the wilderness and wildness of our lives?
What is our resistance to evil going to look like? 
How shall we build resilience? 
What are the virtues we are trying to inhabit?

There is so much wrong and there is so much broken in our society.

That is what makes this mean-time and a difficult age.

There is temptation everywhere we look.

I know someone who hears the sound of children in the story we know as the story of Adam and Eve. He sees this as a story about growing up, of growing up from an age of innocence and discovering what it is like to be grown up.

We have a new granddaughter. She is two weeks old and she has a sister who is two and a half. The baby is totally innocent. She sleeps mostly. But we know she will soon grow into a toddler who tests boundaries and begins to know right from wrong (and we look forward to her living that life).
The terrible twos will turn into the terrible threes, into the terrible teens, and then terrible old age, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

There isn’t any age of our lives, which isn’t a difficult age.

Temptation takes different forms as we go through all our difficult ages. Temptation in old age is different to temptation for those who are younger.
Temptation when we are tired, run down or ill (which can lead to despair) is different to when we are feeling fresh and on top of things (which can lead to arrogance).
The temptation of those who are poor may be different to the temptation of the wealthy.
The temptation of those living desperately, with disaster, in, for example Ukraine, Northern Syria and SE Turkey is different to when their lives were more comfortable.

Temptation is contextual. We are all tempted differently.

One of our temptations is to trivialise temptation.
Another temptation we fall prey to is the temptation to individualise temptation – temptation isolates us, then shames us. We hide in our shame and focus on our self as the victim of temptation and as the one to resist temptation.

What is wrong is not individualistic but is societal, systemic and thoroughgoing and is of unimaginable scale.
But the tempters who prey on us are socially networked. 
They are in all our systems,

They are inside us – the voices we hear demeaning us and hardening our hearts. 
They are all around us.
They don’t have horns and a pitchfork. They are well groomed to groom us for their own selfish ends.

They come to us as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Tempters look just like us.

The powers in our lives aren’t always kindly intentioned. 
Think of those who try to scam us,
and the bots used to manipulate our thinking and undermine our democracy,
and the empire builders who groom us and use us to profit their purposes. 

They all come with their tempting offers. 

Even those who are kindly intentioned make unreasonable demands which often show that they don’t really understand us.
Work harder, look better, grow faster, spend more.
They’re all orders that disorder us – these are the temptations of our day and age.

These are temptations in our difficult age in which God, even now, shows his love for us.

I have painted a dark picture of our times – and I have done this deliberately because there are so many whose own interest is to persuade us that now is ok – that “we’ve never had it so good”. That is a temptation. The tempters would love us to believe that everything is hunky dory. That way they can get away with anything.

It is tempting to make light of our darkness.

The tempters would love us to believe that giving up chocolate for Lent is enough resistance to temptation. Hopefully we realise that such gestures are only token gestures and that they need to be first steps on the path to building resistance and resilience. 

But many of these gestures are things we take on on our own. And it is not good for us to be on our own in times like these, in mean times and our very difficult age.

If God created our relationships from the beginning to the end of our difficult age, then it is only through those relationships that we can resist. 

It is by being together as a church and as a family that we can resist. 

It is not good for any of us to be alone in our difficult age. 

It is often by talking things through with those who love us in our homes or church – with those who love us with a love that is divine – that we can make sense of things and find the heart to resist.

All of us are living through that “very difficult age”. It’s not good for any of us to be on our own at this time. 

God recognised that from the beginning and created relationships.

Together we can remind ourselves that the only effective resistance to temptation and tempters is through God, that it is only God who can deliver us from evil.
And so we pray, just as Jesus taught us – Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

This is our greatest act of resistance – to pray together. This is our greatest resistance to the tempters, the powers that be and the wrongs of the difficult age we find ourselves in, however old we are. 

And it is through this particular resistance that we find that God answers our prayer to be led from temptation and to be delivered from evil. That is how we come to know that God loves us – however difficult our age, however mean our times.

This is a reworking of Psalm 139 by Cara Heafey. She had LGBT Christians who may have been wounded by the church in mind when she wrote it. For me, it shows just an example of the importance of our scriptures as texts of resistance. It shows God’s love for us in our mean-time and these words spite the temptation to think that we are not good enough for God’s love.

I made you myself, carefully and lovingly.
I gathered your molecules together,
Scooping them out of the dust, warming them into clay.
I formed you, deftly
With the skill and vision of an artist
Into a unique creation.
A tiny masterpiece.
Your contours bear the imprint of my fingers.
Your imperfections and irregularities are a part of my design;
They are what make you beautiful.
I breathed life into you with my own breath.
To behold what I have brought into being in you
fills me with pleasure and pride.
As I cradle you in cupped hands, how could I feel anything but love?
It is my love for you that brought you into existence.
I know you more intimately than you could ever know yourself.
I know your thoughts before you think them, your words before you speak them,
The pattern and purpose of your days before you live them.
There is no point in hiding or pretending; don’t even try.Who told you that I did not love you?
Who taught you to be ashamed?
Listen to me. Hear the very words that I whispered into you
At the moment of your beginning:
“You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.
You are my beloved child, I will never let you go.
You are my beloved child; do not be afraid.”

God is our resistance.

Troubled Times and Mistaken Identities: sermon notes for Trinity 9

Readings: 1Kings 18:9-18 and Matthew 14:22-33

It is so odd seeing one another in masks isn’t it? It affects our communication because it hides so much of our expression. So much is communicated through the muscles of the lower part of our face. It also makes identification more difficult. I had thought that new guidance would have meant that I would be preaching through a mask this morning – I was thinking how difficult that is going to be.

The idea of masks fit both our readings this morning – because we have two cases of mistaken identity. People thinking that they had seen one thing, but had seen something else altogether.

The first mistaken identity is when the king, Ahab, meets Elijah. Ahab asks Elijah, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?”

Elijah replies to tell Ahab how wrong he is. He says to Ahab: “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord.”

So, who is the troubler? Is the troubler Elijah? Or is it the king who is the troubler? Is Elijah right in claiming that the king’s misrule – the lack of good government is the trouble with Israel?

From Elijah’s point of view (the point of view of scripture), it is Ahab and his wife, “that Jezebel” who had caused all the trouble for Israel by forsaking the commandments and by their fanatical religious persecution, rounding up the “troublemakers”, killing off the prophets and the opposition.

In our own troubled times we have similar identity parades – but with a different cast. People are paraded before us as troublemakers and are made our scapegoats. So within living memory, “Jews”, “blacks”, “gypsies”, those who are gay have all been paraded before us as the troublemakers – and final solutions have been devised to kill them off. But they haven’t been the troublemakers (however militant they may have become). They have been the troubled – and their troublers have been their accusers. The accusers, the persecutors, have been the real troublemakers.

Similar processes are at play when people are demeaned in today’s politics as “doomsters and gloomsters”, or “remoaners”. That is how opposition is dismissed in British society these days. That is how troublemakers are dismissed.

There have always been peacemakers who have been mistakenly identified as troublemakers. Nelson Mandela was despised by the media as a troublemaker. So was Mahatma Gandhi. So was Martin Luther King. So is Greta Thunberg by some. They are not troublemakers but instead have resisted the troublemakers.

John Hume died last week. He lived through that chapter of Irish history we refer to as “the Troubles”. For his political opponents he was regarded as part of the trouble. But he turned out to be a hero of those troubled times refusing to be swayed by the troublers. He was very much one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace of the Agreed Ireland.

Martin Kettle, in the Guardian (August 6th) wrote:

He was a political leader who was confronted with a deeply divided society. He was a bridge builder where flag-based identities and community suspicions loomed suffocatingly large. He recognised that building bridges meant talking to, and listening to, the extremes as well as the centre ground. He saw there was no future for a system in which one tradition exercised total power and ignored the excluded. He took the long view about the hard journey that had to be taken. And he never gave up on it.

Do you see how contemporary that exchange between Ahab and Elijah is? “Aren’t you the troublemaker?” “No, you are the troublemaker.”

The Ahabs do not want anyone rocking the boat. They are threatened by them  – not realising it is their monstrous rules which are rocking the boat.

We are living through very troubling times. So many of our landmarks have gone. We can’t touch those we have hold dear. We don’t know what’s going to happen to our jobs. Children don’t know whether they will see their friends in September. Poverty is alarming us. And the World Health Organisation is saying from a global perspective that we haven’t peaked yet. We have never been this way before.

And this brings us to the second case of mistaken identity.

In our gospel reading the disciples are all at sea. All night long the waves have been buffeting their boat. They are all exhausted – so understandably they don’t recognise Jesus when they see him walking towards them. They see him as a ghost, probably as the sea monster, the troublemaker responsible for their troubles and nightmare.

Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth and the disciples realise that when Jesus tells them who he is. He says: “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” Jesus didn’t refer to himself by his name, Jesus. Instead he said, “It is I” – this is “I AM”, the great I AM – the name by which God chooses to be known to the world.

This is no troublemaker walking on the lake, walking on the water. This is God walking as if a bridge through troubled waters.

This is the one Psalm 89 refers to as the one who rules over the surging sea and who stills the mounting waves. For Job, God alone stretches out the heavens and tramples the waves of the Sea. One commentator, Carol Works, says of this, that “God controls chaos with his toes”. Nobody else does that. And here as they see Jesus walking on the lake they began to see that this must be God – because only God does this.

Chaos is described in terms of “troubled water”. We go through “stormy times”. Nothing is “plain sailing”. We are “all at sea”. How many times do these sort of phrases come to mind in times of trouble? They come from deep in our collective memory – maybe from our birth, or even the waters of the womb.

Jesus calls Peter into troubled water.

“Come” Jesus said to Peter.

“Come” he says to all who would listen to him.

“Step into the water”.

“Get out of your depth”.

“Don’t stay in the shallows”,

“step into the depths, where there is danger, where there is trouble”.

“Join the troubled, don’t be spectators of them.”

“Sail the same waters as the migrants – hear their Sea Prayer (Sea Prayer is a poem by Khaled Hosseini)

“Join Elijah, MLK, Greta Thunberg resisting the evil currents of our culture”

“be prepared to be accused and persecuted as troublemakers”

Those who do are blessed. Jesus said:

 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matthew 5:11)

So Peter, the first disciple, responds to Jesus’ “come”. He steps out but becomes frightened by the storm and begins to sink. He cries out to the lifesaver who catches him (remember that Peter was called to be a “catcher of men”).

Other disciples follow. Into the troubled waters of our chaotic times we are called. We are not called to safety but to danger.

I wonder whether this gives us a different understanding about our baptism. What are the waters of baptism other than that stormy lake, or the waters of chaos over which the Spirit of God hovers at the beginning of creation, and hovers at our second birth in baptism – in our re-creation?

We are called into trouble, not away from trouble. We are called into deep water by the one in whom we have the confidence to save us and catch us.

What makes us shy away is we are short of confidence that we can cope. It feels like drowning. We too are people of little faith. But that is OK. Jesus still calls us. “Come” he says to Peter knowing his little faith. “Come” he says to us. “Come, don’t doubt that together we will tread these troubled waters, together we will build bridges. With you in me and you in me we will calm these troubled waters. Don’t be afraid.”

So Jesus calls us in these troubled times. He calls us to join Elijah, Peter. They are not the troublemakers – the trouble has already been made. He calls us in these troubled times and that becomes our vocation – here and now. The gospel reading was intended to hearten those who found themselves in trouble, to accept God’s call to step out in faith. It is the same for us. Peter was the first disciple – we follow as disciples.

We are not called to walk by on the other side, but to get involved. We may not feel that we are very good in trouble, or dealing with conflict. Maybe it is lack of practice. Maybe we have a lot to learn. Maybe we will get that sinking feeling. But Jesus holds his hand out to us at the same time he calls us “Come” – he does show us the way to walk through troubled times.

If we thought it was going to be plain sailing we have probably mistaken God’s call. And if we remain untroubled we may in fact be part of the trouble – a troublemaker.

A New Frame of Mind – some sermon notes for Easter 5A

Keep calm 2

Sermon notes for Easter 5A for St Thomas’ Ellesmere Port & St Lawrence Stoak

We often hear the angels say “do not be afraid”. Jesus takes up their heavenly strain. He says “Do not let your hearts be troubled”. It’s as if the whole heavenly host are trying to strengthen us and encourage us.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

The many dwelling places are places made ready for us to live in, places for us to dwell, abiding places, where we may be where Jesus is.

It is such a well known passage that some of us might know it by heart (it’s certainly good that we should take it to heart). It’s a passage which is often used at funerals – and that has had the effect that apply the passage to our post-mortem state. But what if this isn’t about when we die but is more about where we live?

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to crucifixion and resurrection. That is the preparation of a place for us – and it’s a place which is opened up for us in life, not just in our death.

Suddenly we are given a choice. Jesus is saying to us “your place or mine?” – the choice is between the place in which our hearts are troubled, and the place opened up for us by Jesus where we can be where he is. There is another space, another place for us to live.

Have any of you seen the sculptures by Anthony Gormley at Crosby? It’s called Another Place. It is interesting how the mood of the sculptures changes with different circumstances. Here is the calm – a warm day, just right for a paddle. There are other days, when the tide is high, when the sea is stormy, when these sculptures look like they are drowning, clinging to life.

Put a fence in front of them and the mood becomes very sinister, particularly as the fence divides us from them. They look like prisoners. Are they enemies? Is there a reason we need to be kept safe from them?

My point here is that we have another place – a dwelling place which Jesus has prepared for us where we may be also, day to day in which our hearts would otherwise be troubled.

This has come home to me only recently. I was asked to do a funeral. The person who had died had a really difficult life in which he had suffered from severe mental illness from an early age but had hidden it from everyone except his closest family. His children had to keep the secret. Neither parent could work. They were too proud to claim their rightful benefits …. You can perhaps imagine the very mixed emotions of the family when he died.

They chose the passage we have read this morning for the funeral, presumably for the hope they had for their father. But what if Jesus hasn’t just prepared a place for those who have died, but also for those who grieve? And not just as a consolation in terms of “there is a place in heaven” but in the sense that a new space is opened for us to move into in which we find a more compassionate understanding, a kinder understanding, a gentler understanding, a place generous and forgiving in which we can see our troubles in a new light.

This is a space prepared for those whose hearts are troubled. Those not knowing how to make ends meet. Those who don’t know where to turn. Those who are overwhelmed. Those who know their need of God and a world of his making.

We have a choice. We can let our hearts be troubled, or we can accept Jesus’ invitation and the Spirit’s urging to that other space – the space prepared for us.

This is a space we move into in prayer, or retreat, or moments that just open up for us in which we experience the strengthening and encouragement of God. Prayer and discipleship is how we inhabit the space Jesus has prepared for us.

Our reading from Acts (Acts 7:55-60) describes the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

StephenThe Tiffany window showing the Stoning of Stephen focuses on Stephen’s appearance. His face is shining. That is what those looking at Stephen noticed. “They saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” (Acts 6:15)

I would like us to take this in for a moment. This is what happens when we move away from the space that brings trouble to our hearts into that space where we see our troubles in a new light. One of our prayers this week was (the Collect for Julian of Norwich)

Most holy God, the ground of our beseeching, grant that as we are created in your nature and restored by your grace, our wills may be so made one with yours that we may come to see you face to face and gaze on you for ever.  Amen.

A person who survived Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl, has this to say:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

He remembers: “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread”. 

They made their choice in that misery, to not let their hearts become selfish, but to live charitably, even to their last piece of bread.

We also have a choice for the time being. We can choose one place or another. We can choose the place prepared for us by Jesus, or the place that is so troubling. It is the same life.  We don’t escape the troubles. After all, Stephen was stoned to death and Jesus suffered on the cross.

But there is a space that is opened for us to live with a different frame of mind, a different choice of attitude, that chooses to trust the one who doesn’t want our hearts to be troubled. It is on that that we need to dwell.

PS If you’ve read so far (thank you) you might be interested in this Blessing of Many Rooms by Jan Richardson

Training Champions of the Human Race

Yusra Mardini
Notes for a sermon for Christ the King, Birkenhead, August 14th 2016 (Proper 15C, Ordinary 20C, Pentecost +13)

Have you been watching the Olympics?  It’s too easy to watch too much isn’t it? What have been your highlights?

Did you see Yusra Mardini win her 200 metre freestyle swimming heat? Yusra was swimming for the Refugee Olympic team. She got such a cheer. She won her heat, though didn’t qualify for the semi finals because others had swum faster than her.

Yusra is 18 years old. She was born in Damascus, a Syrian Christian and represented Syria in 2012. Her family’s house was destroyed and the roof of her training pool was blown off. She and her sister Sarah decided to flee Syria last summer. They reached Lebanon, then Turkey, and then boarded a boat for Greece. There were 20 of them in a dinghy designed for six. The boat was soon in trouble with the motor failing after 30 minutes. There were only four swimmers in the boat: Yusra, her sister and two others. They had to get out and pushed and pulled for 3 hours until they bought the boat to shore on Lesbos and the lives of the people on board so saving the lives of all their fellow passengers.

Last August, after 25 days, she arrived in Berlin. She gets up at 4 o’clock every morning to train before going to school. That has been her training schedule. That is how she arrived at the Olympics.

Also in the swimming pool was Adam Peaty, our first swimming gold medal since 1988. He’s from Uttoxeter. He used to be scared of water. You couldn’t tell could you?

Besides his own dedication – his story is one of immense and sacrificial support by his mother, the rest of the family and his neighbours – as they have struggled to make the money to pay for the petrol to get him to his training.

His response to winning: “I’m proud to have pushed the boundaries of the human race.” Are we pushing the boundaries of the human race? And if we are thinking to ourselves how old we are, that we are too frail, there will be the Paralympians coming along next month to shame our outlook. And if we are thinking that we are unfit then we have to open our ears and hearts to the good news that God’s love helps us fit for the kingdom, not our strength.

Are any of you successful athletes? Or maybe you’re not medal winners, but you’ve got a life of achievement because of the work that you have put in – you’ve brought up children, you’ve supported a sick relative, you’ve ….

Or, perhaps more of us are conscious of our failings, the missed opportunities, inability to keep our resolve – losing our way in lives full of regrets. Me too.


Our first reading (Hebrews 11:29-12:2) gives honourable mentions to many people – to the prostitute Rahab, to Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets – those who administered justice, those whose weakness was turned to strength, those who endured torture, imprisonment and persecution – destitute, ill-treated, homeless. They are all commended for their faith.

The letter is written in the past tense, but the honourable mention is intended to embrace those who now administer justice, those who endure torture, imprisonment and persecution, those whose faith is commendable. They are all champions of the human race – and we are all encouraged to run with them for a podium finish – at the right hand of God. “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfected of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1f)


We have all been introduced to the pool in our baptism. It might be a long time since we swam in those waters but perhaps it’s worth casting our minds to our baptisms and the call to swim in those waters. That is the training pool for future champions – champions of the human race.

Those who get honourable mentions are commended for the race they ran even though they could hardly make out the tape. According to this letter to the Hebrews, God has planned something far better for us. I don’t know whether any of you have been to the dogs but the greyhounds race after the hare that has been set running. We have Jesus before us, to fix our eyes on, to follow.

Where Jesus goes, our eyes follow. That is where we set our sights. The highways and by-ways, the margins ………… “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Yusra Mardini, in an interview this week says that she has been overwhelmed by the support that she has had and that she hopes that she has “opened the world’s eyes to the plight of those who have been displaced” – which is where eyes will focus if they are fixed on Jesus because we know his time was/is for them and those like them who are strangers (even aliens) to the powers that be.

Jesus is the goal, but what about our training schedule?

The words of Psalm 90 shouted out to me this week:

The days of our life are three score years and ten, or if our strength endures, even four score; yet the sum of them is but labour and sorrow, for they soon pass away and we are gone (verse 10)

How soon life passes. Before we know it we are at the end of our days, and we can easily become overwhelmed by the sense of opportunities missed. Life runs away with us. In this context the psalmist prays:

Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom (verse 12). Numbering our days means making our days count, whether we have 3 days, months, weeks, years. How shall we use the time that we have? Shall we train them on the human race we run?

The psalmist continues (verse 15), Give us gladness for the days you have afflicted us, and for the years in which we have seen adversity – a simple plea for a better time than the times wasted or suffered.

Part of my own training schedule is to pick up a poem each day. For me it’s like a protein shake – it builds me up and gives me energy. This poem I picked up this week is by Annie Dillard and is called How we Spend our Days  It is about how we manage our time, structure our time so it helps us keep a good time and a winning time.

How we spend our days
is, of course,
how we spend our lives.

What we do with this hour,
and that one,
is what we are doing.

A schedule
defends from chaos
and whim.

It is a net
for catching days.
It is a scaffolding

on which a worker
can stand
and labor with both hands

at sections of time.
A schedule is a mock-up
of reason and order –

willed, faked,
and so brought into being;
it is a peace and a haven

set into the wreck of time;
it is a lifeboat
on which you find yourself,

decades later,
still living.
Each day is the same,

so you remember
the series afterward
as a blurred and powerful pattern.

So what about a training schedule? (And what would go in that schedule?)

What about aiming for a good time? (And what a good time for you be?)

How about championing the human race and the whole of God’s creation?




Seeing differently, seeing by heart – St John’s Day

A sermon for St John’s Day for St Alban’s, Broadheath


Is there anyone here named John …… or Jonathon, or Joan, or Jean, or Jeanette, or Janet, or Ian or Joanne or Johnson, or Jones ……?

We light a candle to you today, because it is your name day – it is St John’s Day.

Do you know what the name means?

It’s from the Hebrew, Yohanan, which means “Yahweh is gracious”.

What a lovely name to carry. (I often wonder how our names shape our outlook and who we are.)

John is the one (and there could be several people rolled into one – but let’s not complicate things too much), John is the one who proclaims Jesus as the Word made flesh, the Light of the world, and who was “the disciple Jesus loved”. He was one of the sons of Zebedee, follower of Jesus, with Jesus at the Transfiguration, with Jesus at the Last Supper, with Jesus in his agony in the garden, with Jesus and his mother at the foot of the cross, with Jesus as a witness of the resurrection and was with Jesus in the church in the proclamation of his gospel.

There is no birth story in John’s gospel. There’s no Bethlehem, Nazareth, shepherds, wise men or baby Jesus. Simply and wonderfully John begins his gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

That is a birth story of a different kind.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

That’s a different way of telling the story of Jesus’ birth


One of our most favourite paintings is the painting by Holman Hunt of the Light of the World – which pictures Jesus standing at the door of our dark lives, knocking. Holman Hunt painted the picture – John gave us the picture: a picture of the light which shines in the darkness – a picture of hope, warmth and tenderness.

As John talks about the Light of the world he talks about seeing. Time and again there is the invitation in his gospel “Come and see”. While the people in Matthew’s gospel are divided as sheep and goats, in John’s gospel the division is between those who see and those who don’t see.

Those who see don’t just see with their eyes. They see with their hearts. John uses three different words for seeing. There’s the seeing with the eyes, as in John 20:1 when Mary Magdalen went to the tomb and SAW that the stone had been moved from the tomb. That was something she noticed, that she saw with her eyes.

A little later in that same chapter (John 20:4) Peter looks into the tomb and sees the linen wrappings there. John uses a different word for seeing – it’s a seeing with the mind as when we say “the penny dropped”. It began to dawn on Peter. He began to understand what had happened.

Then finally, just a few verses on in that chapter, 20:8, the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, went in the tomb. “He saw and believed”.

So John describes three ways of seeing – with eyes, with the mind and with the heart. That’s why we can all see the same thing and come to different conclusions. That’s why when we have different commitments to the same conclusions. We see a lot of things but barely take notice, we understand other things and just a few things we know by heart.

Specsavers doesn’t help.

I knew a man who did see but then became blind. And he was greatly troubled by John’s gospel with its language of light and sight. The world became dark to him – the darkness spread from eyes to mind, from mind to heart, but the darkness did not overcome him. There came a time when he started to see by heart. He called it WBS – “whole body seeing”. Imagine his joy when that darkness lifted.

Specsavers may help us the mistake of stripping in the kitchen (with all its sharp knives) instead of the sauna, or help us to make sure we are snogging the right person on the train platform, but however many pairs of glasses Specsavers give us they are not going to help us make sense or make love with the world.

What is our sight like? The eye tests we get at Specsavers are no measure for what John is talking about. We may be able to read all the letters on the bottom line. That doesn’t guarantee our understanding. There is so much we see that we don’t understand. There is so much that we see that is just prejudice (blind prejudice).

We may have excellent eyesight. We may have three degrees, be clever clever with all the things that we see with our minds, but until we see from our heart we will never be able to read the love that is between the lines.

John tells the story of the man born blind who was helped to see by Jesus. The incident caused a great deal of trouble. Jesus told the man who had been blind “I came into the world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” To which, some of the Pharisees said “surely we are not blind, are we?”

But there are things that we don’t see aren’t there? For example, we tend not to see what is happening in the Jungle at Calais. And on the other hand, there are those who are so moved with compassion that they do see the suffering of others, as celebrated by the Christmas Number 1 by the Greenwich and Lewisham NHS Choir.

The Pharisees question is the wrong question. “Surely we are not blind, are we?” They don’t see, do they? The question that we should be asking is “How can we see?” or “how can we see by heart?”

John gives us an answer.

The disciples and Jesus had many meals together. They didn’t use tables and chairs – those of you who have holidayed in Turkey will have seen how people still eat – sat on cushions on the floor around a slightly raised table. John’s gospel refers to “reclining” at the table. In his account of the Last Supper

John 13:23: Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved. (KJV)

That’s where the disciple Jesus loved had his head, with his ear to Jesus’ heart – at the bosom of Jesus, so close he could hear the heart-beat, the whisper of Jesus in his ear: seeing by heart what Jesus also knew by heart because he too (1:18) is at the bosom of his father. NRSV translates that verse as “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.


The key to vision is being close to Jesus’s heart. The key to Jesus’ vision is that he is that close to his father’s heart.

The disciple who lay like this is not named by John. Some have said that it is John himself. It’s more likely that he chose to leave the identity open – so that all beloved disciples could read themselves into this story. John means us.

How can we see with the heart? The answer is by being close enough that we can hear Jesus’ heart-beat, close enough that we can see what makes him tick, close enough that we can feel the breath of his whisper on our skin.

That’s how we can see better. That is how we can see differently.

Or we could go to another gospel for an answer. We can go to the birth stories of Jesus, to the point of view of the crib, recognising God’s outlook from the vulnerability of a baby, and realising that we see our lives differently in the light of the light of the world, that we see others, even strangers and enemies in a new light, and that helps us to read the love between the lines that the world draws us to divide us.

Readings for the day: Exodus 33:7-11a, 1 John 1, John 21:19b-end

(The Greenwich and Lewisham NHS Choir singing “A Bridge Over You” – something that has been around for two years