A sermon preached by Mark Ward, Advent 2 – coming second and being ready

My oldest grandchild, Jacob, is about 5½. Halves are very important at that age. He likes playing games but he does not like losing. He’s getting proficient at counting so we are sometimes to be found playing snakes and ladders. He laughs uproariously when I go down a snake but strangely he doesn’t do the same when his counter does the same. He likes being first. When we are on the beach in Lincolnshire and he races his sister Hannah, 3½, he always wins because he’s bigger than she is, but I wonder what it will be like when he starts to race against people of his own size.

 

Cast your mind back to competitive times in your own life – did you enjoy being second – most of us don’t do we?

 

I’ve just had an experience of that. The Chief Executive of The Trussell Trust left and a consultancy firm was brought in to find a replacement. I had been asked by the trustees to look after the job in the gap between the last one leaving and the next being appointed. I’d rationalised that in all honesty I was about the only person in the organisation who could do so was me, because I was in effect the most senior person left and I understood how the whole thing ticked, but when asked if I wanted the job full time I said I didn’t think so. In fact no I did not.

 

Then one of our major donors sent me an email and said he would be backing me for C.E.O. at which point I had to tell him I wasn’t going to apply. He then rather forcefully, but at the same time, gently suggested I had come to the wrong conclusion and that I should go away and reconsider until I came up with a different answer. So what – you might say? If I tell you that he is the ex-chairman of Disney Worldwide, that might also explain why I went away to think about it. At about one minute to twelve on the appointed day I sent my application in. Well I was accepted for interview, I put a suit on, I even put normal-ish black shoes on, and off I went. It went really, really well, and I, who hadn’t wanted the job, began to think how it might turn out. Well it turned out that my trustees wanted a new face from outside who had already been a C.E.O. so in reality I was never going to get the job.

 

Let me take you back to the start – I didn’t want this job but now I felt like Jacob who had been on square 99 and was now at the bottom of the snake. It wasn’t fair, why interview me, why make me feel good and then push me down the snake, back to where I’d started. My sponsor, who it turns out had written a reference in my support was incandescent about how badly I had been treated and on one Saturday morning I spent half the morning calming him down and persuading him not to do a number of incendiary things he had threatened to do which I had reasoned would take me off the snakes and ladders board entirely. Strangely the process of calming him down brought me back to reality – I’d never wanted the job in the first place, so why was I so wound up about it now. And given they had now chosen someone else what could I do about it. I had two options – leave or try to keep the show on the road ready for my new boss to arrive in February. I’m currently attempting the second!

 

As far as I know, John the Baptist had no such ego to overcome. He knew his place in the world. He knew he was not the Messiah, but he also knew that he had been chosen for a task – to make ready for someone else, who was far greater than he. But that didn’t mean John was insignificant, it didn’t mean that God hadn’t favoured him, it simply meant that he had been chosen for a purpose which God knew was the right purpose for John. It was John’s purpose to challenge the people, it was his purpose to line all the ducks up ready for Jesus.

 

We have an image of John which may be more to do with bygone painters than reality. Robbie Coltrane’s portrayal of Hagrid in Harry Potter seems to conjure up the picture we have of John – wild hair, huge beard and some less fashionable clothing than was the current. I’m not sure he was quite that caricature but clearly he was different because he lived on the outside of society, according to an ancient rule whereby he lived away from people in the desert. He was undoubtedly different. We tend not to take notice of people who are the same as us if they start to say controversial things, but we do at least listen to those who are different to us, even if we don’t believe them. Take Donald Trump for example! It has to be said that Luke paints a rather more fearful picture of John than Mark. Luke says he called the people snakes and he told them that trees that did not bear good fruit would be cut down and thrown in the fire  – did they realise he was referring to them? He told them they had to start to look out for one another – if you have two shirts, give one to someone who hasn’t got one. He came to tell them that if they were to be ready for what was to come they had better sort their lives out, they had better put the wrongs right.

 

I’m in the middle of page four and this is the point where I always do that annoying thing where I say – so is this just a story from 2000 years ago which we can go home and forget because in 15 days we will all be cooing about a baby, stuffing ourselves with turkey and trying to look happy about the pairs of socks we have just been given? Well I’m hoping the last bit comes true for me otherwise I’m soon going to have to paint my feet, but you get my point – the challenge in today’s Gospel is for us too. And it’s a challenge in two parts.

 

The first is that we have to realise that we are not often chosen to be first. Most of us here, in fact all of us here are servants of God and servants of those around us. It is my place to serve you, it is my place to do whatever is called of me, whether it’s standing here or doing the washing up at a fundraising event. We haven’t been called to sit on the throne, by coming here we have accepted that the greatest thing we can do is to come second, because by being second we can do something for others in Jesus’ name.

 

The second thing we are challenged to do is to set the road straight before he does come to us. So here’s maybe a bigger challenge – is there someone you need to pick the phone up to and right a wrong, is there a grudge you hold that you need to get rid of, and is there something you should have done that you haven’t? I bet we all have something standing between us and God. I’m clearly not John the Baptist, in fact I’m probably far too well known to you to make you take any notice of me, but all he was, was a messenger sent from God, and in my own small way I hope I am too, I hope we are all messengers to one another. But it’s the message that’s the important bit and so I hope you hear it rather than me. Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his way. Amen

 

 

THE ADVENT ADVENTURE – A Sermon for Advent Sunday, December 3rd, 2017

Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37 (Lectionary Year B), 9.00a.m., St Giles, Godshill, preached by Canon Gary Philbrick.

‘What I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake.’’ [Mk 13:37].

I’ve sometimes wondered whether all sermons ought to open with those words – the Preacher’s hope!

They’re taken, of course, from the end of Mark 13, our Gospel reading for today, as we begin Year B in the Lectionary, the Year of Mark.  ‘What I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake’’.

Mark 13 is the so-called ‘Markan Apocalypse’, a sustained piece of apocalyptic writing, in which the Editor of the Gospel seems to gather up much of Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching.  Before our passage, there are sections on the coming destruction of the Temple, on the persecution of the faithful, and on the ‘Desolating Sacrilege’, a term used in the second century BC to refer to the Altar to Zeus which Antiochus IV Epiphanes set up in the Temple in Jerusalem around 167BC, and here in Jesus words, as reported in Mark’s Gospel, probably referring to the statue which the emperor Caligula planned to erect in the same place – he was assassinated in 40AD, before he’d got around to it.  It’s a complex chapter, written in a style which may be rather unfamiliar to us, and which can make us feel somewhat uncomfortable.

And in the passage we heard, there are two connected sections.  The first is a prediction of the end times, very reminiscent of passages in the Book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament – ‘The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken [13:24bf.], and the angels will gather the elect from the four winds.

And the second section, which follows on directly from the prediction of the end times, is what effect contemplation of the end times should have on us now.

‘Beware, keep alert’ [v.33], we don’t know when the end times will come, so we have to assume they will come any day.  Keep awake, don’t be found asleep when the time comes.

Paul Sinha has a programme on Radio Four called ‘History Revision’.  A while ago he was very amusingly talking about the history of football in South America.  When talking about some obscure explorer in the 18th century, he made an entertaining point – the world is about 4 ½ billion years old – and yet we can’t even be bothered with events which happened a couple of hundred years ago.

The world is unimaginably old, and it may last, you’ll be pleased to know, for about another 1.75 billion years – which should be enough to see us, our children and grandchildren out – but the day of the Lord may come for any of us, any day.  We just don’t know when it might happen.  ‘What I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake’.

Advent, the beginning of the next cycle of the Church’s Year is a good time to focus on these things.  It is a time when preachers traditionally preached on the Four Last Things – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell – not very fashionable themes these days, and, you might say, not very Christmassy, but they certainly reflect some of the important aspects of Advent.  As we prepare for the commemoration of the coming of Jesus at Christmas, so we also prepare ourselves for his second coming, whenever that might occur, and whatever it might be like.

Has anyone read ‘The Lollipop Shoes’?  Has anyone read or seen the film of ‘Chocolat’?  Both are novels by Joanne Harris, and ‘The Lollipop Shoes’ does for Advent what ‘Chocolat’ does for Lent.

Like many of her books, ‘The Lollipop Shoes’ is a little odd, a bit magical and mysterious.  Vianne Rocher, and her now older daughter, Anouk, and her younger daughter, Rosette, whose father is Roux, the traveller we met in ‘Chocolat’, have now set up a little choclaterie in Montmartre in Paris, and the events all unfold in the run-up to Christmas.  Quite good fun to read at this time of the year.

But it was a little passing comment that struck me.

‘Advent.  Adventure.  Both words suggest the coming of some extraordinary event.  I’d never considered the similarity before; never celebrated the Christian Calendar; never fasted, repented, confessed. Almost never, anyway’ [The Lollipop Shoes, Joanne Harris, p.259].

And she’s right – I’d never really thought about the links between Advent and adventure; and both words do suggest the coming of some extraordinary event.

And I think that linking those two words might be very helpful to us as we move into another Church Year, and as we prepare to celebrate Christmas at Church and at home.

Let’s think about them personally to begin with.  I asked the children in assembly at Breamore Primary School this week what they might do as part of their Advent Adventure, and they came up with some good ideas: buying a Christmas present for someone on their own, carol singing at someone’s house who might be a bit lonely; helping parents with the preparations for Christmas; and so on.

What about us?  To what might God be calling each of us to in the coming year?  I met someone on the street a while ago who was talking about leading the Intercessions in Church – he’d started doing this a couple of years ago.  I was quite surprised that he used the word ‘vocation’ to talk about how he felt about doing it.  Something as seemingly simple as leading the prayers had given him a voice to be able to say what he was feeling and what he wanted to lead us to pray about.  It was a very moving conversation.

This week we had a meeting with the latest batch of BCMs from the Partnership – BCM, Bishop’s Commission for Mission, a short training course for lay people who want to take a step forward on their journey of faith and ministry – including among them Peter here, who has done the Worship BCM, and Mary, who has done the Pastoral BCM, and will be joining in the team of those who lead worship and pastoral care here and across the Benefice in the coming months.

We are each being called to something by God – it may be something we are already doing that we might develop; it might be stopping one thing, and allowing another to happen; it might be something quite ordinary, or something we never thought we’d be involved with.  If we’re open to God in prayer, he will lead us to the place where we can best serve him.

And what about our adventure as the seven Churches of the Benefice, the Avon Valley Partnership?  Where is God leading us there?  In the New Year, our membership of the pilot project, the Benefice of the Future, should be confirmed.  And we’ll spend quite a lot of time and effort over the next three years reflecting and innovating and experimenting to see how a Benefice like ours, with seven Churches and four Parishes can be set free for mission, and be less burdened with structures and admin.  It’s quite an exciting experiment, and like all experiments, no one really knows where it is going to take us.

Whatever happens through the Benefice of the Future, another chapter in the history of the Church here will begin – another step in the great adventure which is the Christian life.

And wider things are happening as well, which are encouraging us to develop a sense of adventure in our life as Churches.  Those who are on the Deanery Synod will know that we are in the process of revising our Deanery Mission Action Plan from 2014, looking at our vision for the wider Church.  And alongside the Benefice of the Future, we will also be revising our Partnership Mission Action Plan, our pMAP, to reflect the new situation in which we find ourselves, and to see how we have moved on in the three years since the previous pMAP was agreed.

It’s an old saying: ‘If you fail to plan, you plan to fail!’  The Parish Mission Action Plan is a way of identifying our priorities for the next few years; where do we want to put our efforts, and to where is God calling us in our mission as a Parish?

It can all sound a bit complicated and bureaucratic, but essentially, it is a prayerful process of discerning where we are as a Parish, and where we might be in a few years’ time.

We’re on an Advent Adventure.  Personally, each of us, loved and called by God, each able to take some new step on the journey over the coming year; as a Parish, a new adventure beginning, as we learn to work together in a new way, across the Parish of Fordingbridge, and across the Avon Valley Partnership with Hyde, Breamore, Hale and Woodgreen; and as a Deanery and Diocese, as we seek God’s will for us as the Church in this wonderful part of the world which he has given us a our mission field.

A while ago, about the time that Robin Williams died, I looked at a few of his films, and I watched ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ again.  Robin Williams is a new English teacher in an American school where tradition is everything, as exemplified by the banners they carry in at the start of a new school year: ‘Tradition, Honour, Discipline, Excellence’.  All very worthy things in themselves, all things we might want to say about our Churches.  And yet, they are stifling the life out of the students at the school.

Robin Williams says in one of his classes, ‘We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute.  We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.  And the human race is filled with passion.  And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life.  But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for’ [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097165/quotes].

And we could widen the application of that – poetry, beauty, romance, and the love of God are what we, the Church, are here for.  We’re not here to be useful; we’re here to live out God’s love in a hurting world, to bring hope to the hopeless and comfort to the sorrowing; we’re here to bring light in the darkness and life out of death.

That’s our mission as the Church, and that’s what our Advent Adventure is all about.  AMEN.

 

500th ANNIVERSARY OF THE REFORMATION

A sermon preached by Canon Gary Philbrick at St Mary’s, Fordingbridge, on Bible Sunday, October 29th, 2017.

Col 3:12-17

Matt 24:30-35

 O gracious and most merciful Father, you have given us the rich and precious jewel of your holy Word; assist us with your Spirit, that it may be written in our hearts to our everlasting comfort, to re-form us according to your own image and increase in us all heavenly virtues; for Jesus Christ’s sake.  AMEN.

(A prayer of Edward VI, who died in 1553 (adapted))

500 hundred years ago on Tuesday, October 31st, 1517, an event took place which was to have an effect on Western European Church and society which is still being felt today.  It didn’t seem terribly momentous at the time, but looking back it was the trigger for what we now call The Protestant Reformation.

On that day, an academic theologian at the University of Wittenberg in Saxony, in Eastern Germany, nailed a poster on the door of the main Church inviting other academics to a discussion, a seminar.  His name is Martin Luther.  And what he is said to have nailed to the door that day became known as his ‘Ninety-five Theses’.

On the same day, the 31st October, 1517, Luther also wrote to his bishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg, protesting the sale of indulgences – monies paid on behalf of the dead to shorten their time in Purgatory.  He enclosed in his letter a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, the document he’d earlier nailed on the door of the Church.  At this stage, it appears that Luther had no intention of confronting the church, but saw his disputation as a scholarly objection to church practices, and the tone of the writing is accordingly ‘searching, rather than doctrinaire’.  Nevertheless there was an undercurrent of challenge, of protest, in several of the theses, particularly in Thesis 86, which asks: ‘Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?’

Luther objected to a saying attributed to Johann Tetzel, a notable pedlar of indulgences, that ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs’.  Luther insisted that, since forgiveness was God’s alone to grant, those who claimed that indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation were in error.  Christians, he said, must not slacken in following Christ on account of such false assurances.

[See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther#Diet_of_Worms]

In the letter to the Archbishop he wrote, ‘The first and only duty of the bishops…is to see that the people learn the Gospel and the love of Christ.  For on no occasion has Christ ordered that indulgences should be preached, but he forcefully commanded the Gospel to be preached.

Now, let’s pause for a moment, and look at one or two background events.

Until the Reformation, there was in the West just ‘The Church’.  Not the Roman Catholic Church, clearly none of the post-Reformation denominations such as Baptist, Methodist, Church of England, Lutheran, etc.  Just ‘The Church’.  And the Church was, in effect, defined as all of those Christians who were led by the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.

Admittedly, since the earliest days of the Church, there had been divisions, especially between Eastern and Western Christians, between the Greek-speaking and Latin-speaking parts of the Church, and, as the centuries went on, those divisions became greater until the Great Schism in 1054, when the divide between Eastern and Western Christianity was formalised by mutual excommunication, and there was virtually no communication between the two until the 20th century.

So, in the West, the Church was led by the Pope.  But for a few hundred years before 1517, there were those who saw that Western Christianity needed to be reformed.  A significant number of scholars and others, as they researched the Early Church, and especially as the invention of printing in its modern form in the previous century meant that it became so much easier to get back to the early sources – a significant number of people began to question some of the practices of the Church, its wealth and trappings, the lifestyles of some Bishops and monks, and all sorts of other things.

And one of the chief of those questions was indulgences – that practice of donations of money being made on behalf of those who had died, so that their deceased loved ones could be released early from purgatory.

Now, there’s a lot that could be said about all of this, and there has been a rediscovery in the past 50 years or so of how vibrant the life of the Church was before the Reformation in lots of places, and the whole history of the Reformation, and of the founding of the Church of England, is a lot more complicated than is often described – saying that the Church of England was founded by Henry VIII because he wanted a divorce is far too simplistic – there’s a lot that could be said, but I’m not going to say it now!

On the 31st of October, 1517, Martin Luther posted his ‘Ninety-five Theses’ on the door of the Church in Wittenberg, and the Reformation began.

Writing twenty-eight years later in 1545, Luther summarizes his Reformation pilgrimage in the Preface to his Latin Writings.  There he writes of the glorious discovery of the Gospel:

‘At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’’ There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely, by faith. . . . Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates’.

Note the relief when he says ‘At last’, and his soul searching, ‘meditating day and night’, and the absolute joy he experienced from a sin-cleansed conscience: ‘I felt that I was altogether born again’.

[See: https://lutheranreformation.org/resources/worship/free-reformation-worship-services-for-lutheran-churches/]

The Protestant Reformation, of which the Church of England and the whole Anglican Communion is a very distinctive part, has had a major impact on many different parts of our lives – from the idea of freedom of conscience, to an emphasis on the human rights of the individual versus authority, to the rise of the nation-state, the industrial revolution, the evangelisation of the world, and the decline of the control of the Roman Catholic Church over individual and state.

But at its heart was Luther’s realisation that a new relationship with God was possible, that ‘If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation’ [v. II Cor 5:17], and that this new relationship with God in Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit is unmediated, it is directly with God, that although others may help us on our journey of faith, or support us on the way, Jesus Christ is the only Mediator we need – not a priest, or a Bishop, or indulgences, or relics, or anything else.

Luther returned over and over again to the Letter to the Romans, and to the verses from Chapter 1, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith… For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’ [Rom 1:16-17].

Some parts of Roman Catholic theology in the sixteenth century gave the impression that it was by good works that we earned God’s favour – but building Churches, and giving alms, and going on pilgrimages – all good things in themselves, but not a way to earn God’s favour.  And still now, for many of us, what has become known as the ‘Protestant work ethic’ drives us on, and somehow we see God as a demanding parent, who always has such high expectations of us that we can never meet them, but whom we continue to try to please by working harder and harder.

At its very best, Protestant theology, as all good theology, teaches us that we are made by God, known by God, and loved by God as we are, and that we are justified not by what we do, but by what we are in his sight – beloved sinners, made righteous by the blood of Christ shed on the Cross and confirmed in the Resurrection on the third day.

Luther recognised that the fruits of this righteousness are good works, and that if we just bask in God’s love and do nothing about it, our faith is not worth the candle.  But it is the priority of God’s love which is important – made by God, known by God, and loved by God as we are.

Protestant theology has struggled over the centuries – sometimes becoming over-judgemental, sometimes condemning those whose life-styles don’t match up to their particular interpretation of the Bible, sometimes giving the idea that only intellectuals can enter the Kingdom of God, sometimes belittling other Christians who don’t worship in a particular way, or read their Bibles in a particular way, and especially by having a tendency to split over doctrinal issues, so that people are always going off and founding their own Churches for one reason or another.  Like the mediaeval theology which preceded it, Protestant theology has sometimes erred.

But at its heart, and why we celebrate 500 years later what Luther and his contemporaries did in shaping the Church in the West, and throughout the world, the Protestant Reformation opened a new way for Christians to be with God – justified by faith, not by works; relying on grace, not on the Law, and with an evangelical zeal, a Gospel zeal, to share their faith with others and to make the world a better place by the way they live, and the changes they bring about through lives of worship and service dedicated to God.

As we heard earlier at the end of our Epistle Reading from Colossians 3, ‘Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.  And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly… And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him’ [Col 3:14-17]. AMEN.

 

Sermon by Rachel Noel, St Mary’s Fordingbridge & Sandleheath Church, 3rd September 2017

May the words that I speak and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our Rock & our Redeemer. Amen

In case we’re ever lulled into the thinking that being a Christian is a nice, cosy, comfortable place to be – that we can just gather with our friends, with like-minded people to sing hymns and say prayers, and then go about our lives feeling reassured that we are OK… this passage from Matthew is a massive challenge to those illusions!

Sometimes it’s easy to choose to only see one side of a person… and I think this is particularly true of Jesus.

How many of us grew up with the Sunday school poster of Jesus standing near some trees, with animals all around him, looking very peaceful & gentle? (For those of you familiar with the Disney pictures of Snow White, also standing in the trees, surrounded by animals… there’s something vaguely familiar!)….

And this gentle Jesus image is reinforced by some of our songs – some of you may be familiar with Charles Wesley’s hymn – Gentle Jesus, meek and mild …. lull me, lull me, Lord to rest…. I shall life the simple life, Free from sin’s uneasy strife, Sweetly ignorant of ill, Innocent, and happy still..

(it’s OK, I’m not going to make you sing all 14 verses of it!)

Today’s gospel reading  is a wake up call… it’s a challenge to each and every one of us.

Jesus is talking with his disciples and trying to tell them what was going to happen. He’s shown explaining to the disciples that he must be killed and on the third day raised.

Peter is upset, and he responds-  “God forbid it, Lord. This must never happen to you.” (This seems like a perfectly reasonable response, when someone very close to him has just said that he is going to be killed!)

Is this just Peter’s concern about the personal loss of Jesus?

As well as the personal loss… could this also be Peter responding to his idea of what the Messiah must do… and for the disciples, they’re not yet ready to accept that it must mean death.

And Jesus reply here: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Wow…. I’m not sure this is the sort of language we might be tempted to ascribe to Jesus… especially the gentle Jesus in the woodland with the animals… if we were thinking about him as a leader of this small team of disciples…

Today… would he be hauled up in front of HR for bullying? “Get behind me, Satan!”… those are strong words… (it was only last week that he was proclaiming that Peter was the rock on which he was going to build his church.)

I’m guessing the disciples would have to be pretty resilient!

Each time they think they’ve understood… they’re suddenly silenced and made to realise that they’ve still not really got it.

 

Then we’ve got a selection of sayings from Jesus:

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

 

These are probably familiar words to you… we’re used to hearing them…

but I want to stay with them for a little bit this morning.

 

These words are so counter-intuitive… to the disciples then… but also to us now.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

We live in a society focused on the now, on the individual, on success.

If you read any self-help book, or listen to documentaries on the telly – self-denial is not the in thing.

The world at the moment seems to be built on social media, on the story of ‘self’… it’s filled with pictures, with selfies… showing success

Only this week, Louise Hay has died…the lady that wrote a lot about the power of positive thinking… that all we have to do is think positively… boost our self-esteem and all shall be well.

Jesus call here to his disciples… and to us… is not about joining in this game of self-esteem, of promotion of self.

However we have to be careful too, it’s not about self-hate here either… just giving up things also won’t make us Christian either.

This call to lose their lives… is a call to change our orientation – it’s not about self… it’s about turning to God.

A call to life, that isn’t about self… that’s radical… it’s completely & utterly lifechanging.

” For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

 

This is the whole gospel in a nutshell… and yet it’s so hard… as hard as a camel entering the eye of the needle!

 

Thomas Merton talks about the true self and the false self.

I wonder if part of the life we have to lose, is the impression, the illusion of ourselves that we have.

The False self is the person that we want ourselves to be… that we would choose to show other people, or kid ourselves that we are.

This false, private self is a projection… and for most of us, we spend most of our lives trying to maintain this image of ourselves.

And our sin comes from this false self, as we feed our self with our own selfish desires…. we fill our lives chasing pleasure and experiences that will build us up… we crave the feeling of feeling loved, of being special…

but in chasing that false self, in maintaining that false self…

sometimes it is really hard to let go of that illusion, of that image

to discover who we truly are.

 

This passage has got particular resonance for me, this year. As you know, I’ve had to live with some intense mental health problems.

At the height of the mania, I had become an extreme, intense version of my usual self… sometimes not being able to hold onto thoughts long enough to speak a whole sentence. (in contrast to now… where you may wonder if I have too many words!)

In that time, Thomas Merton’s True Self/ False Self took on new meaning for me, as I could no longer rely on my intelligence, my capability. Any competence or confidence that I would usually put on is lost to me.

But…In the quiet of night, stripped of all my defences, I had such a strong sense of God, of light and life, of peace… and all I could do is be,

is be who I am.

I couldn’t even rely on Descartes ‘I think therefore I am’… I couldn’t trust my thinking, or what I was getting from my senses…even that, I had to let go.

After Bishop Jonathan, Christine & Phil had taken me to hospital, I wondered if I’d said goodbye to all those that I love. In the darkest moments, I couldn’t even tell if I was alive or dead… is this what is meant by dark night of the soul?

And yet there was also such a gift of this mental health journey. In the intensity of the situation, there was also such peace, such liberation in those moments too. All the trappings of life, of status, of ability… they’re meaningless in those moments of life and death. All I can do is be present, be open to the moment, to choose life.

For me, those moments have been such a gift… a momentary insight into what these verses mean… as I had to let go of my own abilities, my own capabilities… my own sense of self and how I could solve the situation…

I had to let go of all of that… and in that vulnerability… to be open… to let God.

And there was such peace in that moment… of knowing that I am loved by God, I am accepted by God… even when I can’t do anything… that all I can do is bask in that love

 

I’m not suggesting that each of us should be looking to go through mental health problems….

but I think Jesus can use any of our experiences in life… and sometimes it’s the really tough experiences…

that in those times…we can see glimpses of him, and his calling to us.

 

I’m reassured by the role of the disciples in this story… these are the people that had been closest to Jesus for several years, travelling around with him, listening to his stories, knowing him as a person.

They’ve been sent out already, preaching and healing in the towns they come to…

And they’re still learning… learning what it means to be a disciple.

I’m reassured… because they don’t always get it right… Peter, who was called to be the rock, the foundation of the church… still gets it wrong… and he goes on to get things wrong again… but he keeps getting back up, and responding, following Jesus.

This is such encouragement to me… and hopefully to all of us… even the disciples got it wrong… they made mistakes… they fell, they turned away…

This life of discipleship can’t be learned in advance, from a manual…

We’ve got the bible to help us…

But our faith, our lives… can only be worked out as we live

As we live through the joyous times…

but also as we live through the difficult times…

each of us is called by God…

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

 

Will you choose that life?

Amen

 

Sermon by Rachel Noel, St Mary’s Fordingbridge, 27th August 2017

“Come Holy Spirit, bring us light, teach us, heal us, give us life. Come, Lord, O let our hearts flow with love and all that is true.” Amen (Hymn 408, v2, Margaret Rizza)

I’m really excited by our readings this morning, there is so much to think about from within these two short passages. (I will try not to get over excited and talk all morning!)

In our reading from Romans, we’re at the transition point in the book of Romans. Very crudely, the first 11 chapters address doctrine, and the next few chapters relate to ethics… how we put this into practice.

The first two verses of our Romans reading are really rich, dense Paul writing – and they set out a theme that Paul will unpack in various ways.

“I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God – which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

There’s something really tangible about this… we are to present our bodies as a living sacrifice…. and that is our worship… This isn’t just about thinking holy thoughts, or turning up to our holy club on a Sunday morning… he’s talking about sacrifice.

We are to present our whole persons to God, living real people, in a particular place and time… presenting ourselves to God, our whole selves.

And Paul tells us that this offering of ourselves is holy and acceptable to God… in other translations it puts this even more positively, not just acceptable, but pleasing, or well-pleasing to God.

And Paul repeats this in the next verse too, that our renewal, our offering of ourselves actually brings pleasure to God…. in earlier chapters he reminds us that as we are remade, restored in God’s image, that is pleasing to God.

Wow, how amazing is that! As we come together today, as we offer our whole physical selves in worship to God, that brings pleasure to our almighty God.

And that’s just verse 1!

Verse 2 is also packed, helping to start off this new section of Romans, with verse 1 emphasising the body, the physical; here in verse 2 it focuses on the renewal of the mind.

JB Philips translated this as – “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould.”

But this isn’t just about putting up barriers and resisting the pressure from outside… we’re not called to find some unsullied world within… that would echo various strands of gnosticism, the discovery of a hidden spark that just needs to be uncovered…

Paul is stronger here

In chapter 1, he reminds us that the natural state of the mind & heart are rebellious.

We are not called to simply live authentically and resist external pressure… there is far more action here, we are called to be renewed, to be transformed

so that what proceeds from the transformed mind does indeed reflect the image of God. (New INterpreters Bible Commentary, p705)

Paul is offering us hope, hope of a renewed mind, able to think for itself what will please God.

These two verses walk a fine balance between sacrifice and fulfillment, between an ethic of self-denial and one of self-discovery… we are invited to walk this path, of transformation and discovery of the new self that we are called to become in Christ.

We have the whole gospel in a nutshell, as grace fulfills nature… – but only by putting it to death – the living sacrifice… and then by bringing it to life again – the renewing of the mind. It is the pattern of death and resurrection laid out for us throughout scripture…

taking up the cross is the way to life

 

and no matter how long we’ve been following Jesus, for a day or a lifetime…. this is never easy… we keep having to make the choices, to offer ourselves before God, to give up ourselves, to give ourselves away, to be transformed in body, mind and spirit… knowing that God is at the heart of everything.

We’re reminded of the command to love God with all our heart, our mind, our soul and our strength… and that as we do this, it brings delight to our loving Creator.

 

(Jane Williams, Lectionary Reflections) Karl Barth, the great twentieth century theologian, in his commentary on Romans describes Christian ethics as – ‘the great  disturbance.’

This isn’t meant to be some nice, cosy advice from Paul, that allows us to continue living our lives unchanged – and perhaps just point the finger at others…

Discipleship is about presenting our real, physical selves to God… Present your bodies…

Paul isn’t asking us to present some idealised version of ourselves, with all the weaknesses hidden away…

He goes on to remind us that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and that they need to come together in Christian community. We don’t each have to have all these virtues… thank God!

Paul is saying that the whole community is to be shaped by the Messiah himself

We are called together, to help each other out. No one is called to be more important than any other, there is a unity in believers – and he then goes on to show how this may work itself out with some different gifts.

 

I wonder if this theme of Great Disturbance also applies to what is going on in our reading from Matthew.

Peter and the other disciples have been constantly having to revise their opinions of themselves, of others and of God… as they live in the unsettling presence of Jesus.

And now Jesus is putting them to the test..

He starts with the easy question… – what are other people saying…

Everyone’s always happy to chip in with that one – what do other people think… and the disciples all join in with the theories that they’ve heard about Jesus.

But then comes the crunch question

Who do you say I am?

(Jane Williams – Lectionary Reflections) It isn’t really a fair question. After all, the disciples are demonstrating, by their very presence, by all that they have given up, what they believe about Jesus.

Why is he pressing them now to formulate it? Jesus response to Peter gives the answer.

To know who Jesus is is vital…. that question is still just as important to us today… who do you say Jesus is?

It is not enough to believe that he is very important. It is not enough to believe that he is like the other prophets and messengers of God.

When Peter declares “You are the Messiah”, he is saying what has to be said. Jesus is the key to the whole of God’s relationship with what he has made.

And it is on the basis of that confession, that Peter is made the rock on whom the Church is built.

That’s huge… this is to be our defining characteristic – our knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Does that seem an adequate foundation for the church? Don’t we need more rules?

How odd that Peter’s sole qualification for the job – apart from the gift of a big mouth! – is that he can recognize the activity of God when he sees it.

And funnily enough, that’s what Paul is working for too… his call to the Romans… his call to us.

Be transformed, – body, mind, heart and soul –  so that you may discern what is the will of God.

Be transformed, so that you may discern what is the will of God. Amen

 

(Many references from New Interpreters Bible Commentary and Jane Williams Lectionary Reflections)