The choices we make – Sermon for All Age Eucharist

We all face choices. Big, important choices or small, trivial choices – life’s full of them. Here’s a choice: [produce 2 boxes, ask volunteer to choose one, offer option to change their mind, open boxes to reveal contents]. Not a particularly difficult choice perhaps, and not one with particularly serious consequences.

But we all face bigger choices too: where to live, what work to do, how to spend our money, who to spend our time with. In short, choices about how we live. And when we face those choices, how do we choose? Perhaps we weigh up the options, gather more information, ask for advice… but in the end we have to choose.

In our first reading today, the leaders of the tribes of Israel faced a choice: should they follow God, or fall in with the local customs and worship false gods? Joshua faced that choice too, and he makes his decision clear: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” And by his choice, Joshua leads the rest of the people to choose to serve God as well.

But a decision to serve God isn’t always easy. In our gospel reading, Jesus gives his disciples a choice: do they, like others among his followers, want to go away, to stop following him? It might be understandable if they did. Jesus has just finished delivering what must have seemed at the time like some of his most shocking, bizarre and unfathomable teaching to date – those long “bread of life” passages we have been hearing over the last few weeks – and his disciples are, frankly, baffled. “This teaching is difficult,” they say, “who can accept it?” And yet they choose to stay. Why?

Because Jesus offers them something more than an easy ride, easy answers, cheap popularity or cheap grace. He offers the hope, the promise, the reality of eternal life, life in all its fullness, here and now, and in the world to come.

And that is what Jesus still offers to us today, offers to all people. So much more than we deserve, or than we ask for. Jesus holds out to us the words of eternal life, the bread of life, his own broken body, and says to us all: “come, follow me”. And we do. Millions do. People for whom following Jesus will be far more difficult or more costly than we in our cosy western church bubble can imagine.

That is why Christians in the camp at Calais – people who have experienced horrendous torture, violence and exploitation, unimaginable hardship and destitution, people who have seen others, supposedly respectable people, turn their backs on them and refuse to help, time and again – that is why these people, these followers of Jesus, these our brothers and sisters, have built a church. You might have seen it on Songs of Praise last Sunday. These people have nothing, and almost nobody is willing to lift a finger to help them. And yet they have built a church, a visible sign of God’s presence, of hope in that place of despair. Because they choose to follow Jesus, who offers no easy answers, no pat words of comfort, but rather the challenge of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “costly grace”, which leads to eternal life.

And that challenge is for us too. Most of us will never face the sort of challenges endured by those migrants in Calais, but we do face choices. To turn a blind eye, or to take a long hard look at what’s really going on. To cross the road to help, or to pass by on the other side. To speak up for the voiceless, or keep silent for fear of making ourselves unpopular.

When I was a teenager, there was a fashion for wearing fabric wristbands with the initials WWJD printed on them – it stood for What Would Jesus Do? The wristbands have gone out of fashion, but the question never does. Take any choice you face, any difficult situation. What would Jesus do? Or perhaps more pertinently, but more challengingly – what does Jesus call you to do?

A friend of mine asked herself that question, or something like it, recently and it led her and a few others, including her teenage son, to drive to that migrant camp in Calais with a car full of sleeping bags and toiletries, and do what they could to help. A drop in the ocean, perhaps, but it was a choice informed by a lifetime of following Jesus, and a choice which looked beyond personal concerns – the “what ifs” or “what will people think” – to see the humanity, the image of God, in the other.

We are those people Jesus talks about in today’s gospel reading, those who eat his flesh and drink his blood, and in so doing abide in him. We are called to make choices which reflect that, which allow others to see and share the life that is in us because of our sharing in the body of Christ. Nobody said it would be easy. Jesus himself recognises that his teaching and his life has the potential to offend. But it also has the power – and it’s the only thing that does – to transform the whole world to the glory of God.

That we are called, at our baptism and in our participation in the Eucharist, to be part of that transformation is a great privilege and a great responsibility. May the Holy Spirit guide us all to make choices which reveal and reflect the awesome grace of God in Christ Jesus.

Amen.

Nursery rhyme prayers for Small Saints

Small Saints is an informal group of for babies, toddlers and children under 5 and their grown-ups. We meet for 2 hrs one morning a week for play, snacks, stories and worship.

We have taken to using lots of songs based on nursery rhymes in our worship, including some from www.nurseryrhymemass.org.uk and some from a fabulous and rather ancient book I have on long-term loan from our lovely pianist.

I’ve decided to refresh our repertoire for the Autumn term, and offer the following for anyone to whom they might be useful. Please share, use and adapt freely.

Grace before meals
(to the tune of Frere Jaques,
with leader singing each line and everyone singing it back)

Thank you God
Thank you God
For our food
For our food
For your love we praise you
For your love we praise you
Amen
Amen

Blessing and dismissal
(to the tune of Frere Jaques,
with leader singing each line and everyone singing it back)

God please bless us
God please bless us
As we go
As we go
Bless and guide us always
Bless and guide us always
Amen
Amen

Intercessions
(to the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat)

God we pray for N
Hear us when we pray
Giver her/him health and strength and hope
Bless her/him every day

With the older children (3-4 yr olds) I might invite them to think about what they want to ask God for and choose other words to substitute for “health and strength and hope”.

Saying “yes” – a sermon for the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Thank you to the people of St John’s, North Holmwood for their hospitality today. You can hear my sermon on their website (including special guest appearance from Bridget, aged 5, and some enthusiastic participation from the whole congregation):

http://stjnh.org.uk/sermons/feast-of-the-bvm/

On my holiday recently I played a new game. It’s called the Yes No Game, and the basic idea is that all you can say in answer to a series of questions is either “yes” or “no” – with hilarious results!

We’re going to try a version of that this morning, but this is the Yes Yes Game – whatever I ask you, you have to answer “Yes”. Are you ready?

[Invite volunteers to front. Ask them a few silly questions]

Now, for the next round I want everyone to join in:

Do you believe yourselves to be the people of God?

Do you believe God has a plan for you?

Do you want to be part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world?

Are you prepared to tell people about Jesus?

Are you ready to serve people in whatever ways they need?

Are you willing to welcome everyone, even the people who make you feel uncomfortable?

Will you do what God asks you to do?

Will you go where God asks you to go?

Are you prepared to risk everything for the sake of God’s kingdom?

I wonder if some of those were harder to say “yes” to than others? Some “yeses” are very hard to say indeed. Others are easier.

In our gospel reading today, we heard the beautiful words of the Magnificat, which Mary says in response to the news that she is to be the mother of God’s son, God himself, Jesus. It’s a rich, joyous response, one which has resonated with the church through the centuries. But at its heart, it is one long, praise-filled, joyful “yes”. Mary says “yes” to one of the biggest, riskiest, most important tasks in human history, and she not only says “yes”, but says it with words of joy, hope and praise.

“Let it be to me according to your word”, Mary says, in the passage just before this one. It’s an unconditional “yes” – a “yes” to whatever God asks. It’s a momentous thing to say. It’s also the motto of the convent where I have been staying on retreat this week. And in that context it takes on another layer of meaning – “let it be to me according to your word” say the Sisters daily, women who have given up their whole lives to the worship of God. That’s another kind of big “yes”.

While I was at the convent, we celebrated the feast of Maximillian Kolbe, a Polish priest who was sent to Auschwitz and there offered his own life in order to save another man, by dying in his place. “Greater love has no-one than this” says Jesus, but it’s an awfully big “yes” to give.

Now, most of us aren’t considering entering a convent, and none of us is likely to be asked to bear the son of God, nor – please God – to be required to give up our lives for others, so what do these “big yeses” have to say to us? All of us in our lives face choices. Some of them are big choices: where to live, what job to do, who to marry, which school to go to, or to send our children to. Some are small choices: whether to give to a particular charity appeal, how to respond to people begging in the street, how much time to devote to prayer, and when and how.

In all these things we have choice. And how do we make those choices? We probably weigh up various factors, gather the relevant information, ask the opinions of people we trust. And hopefully we also pray – ask for God’s guidance. And when we ask God to show us what God wants, God does – although rarely in the way or at the time we expected. But that guidance is no use to us unless we are prepared to say “yes” to God’s way.

And that can be a daunting thing. What if I ask God what I should do, and then I don’t like the answer? What if what God wants me to do seems too big an ask, or too unlikely, or makes me think – as Mary surely must have done – “who, me?!” Maybe some of that rings true for you too.

Well, it comes down to trust, to faith in the faithfulness of God. We know what God is like. We know from the Bible and our own experience and the experience of others. We know that God loves us and calls us by name. We know that God so longs for our salvation that God sent Jesus to live and die and rise again so that we can enjoy eternal life with God. We know that God has a plan for each and every one of us, a plan to give us hope and a future.

And so we step out in faith. We say “yes”, even when we’re not sure quite what we’re saying yes to. And sometimes those “yeses” are scary. Sometimes we wrestle with them. Sometimes we need to say “maybe” for a while before we’re ready to say “yes”. And so we need to ask God not only to show us what God wants of us, what God’s word is to us, but also to ask God for the grace and courage to say “yes”.

Amen.

Lighthouse 2015: The Space

This week I have been at Lighthouse High Wycombe, a big local ecumenical holiday club for children aged 4-11 (for more details see http://www.lighthouseadmin.org). My role at Lighthouse is as Special Needs Co-ordinator in charge of The Space, Lighthouse’s special needs provision.

Our two key policies in The Space are:

  • We never turn away a child because of their additional needs.
  • We enable children to participate in the mainstream activities for their age group as much as possible, while providing a safe space to retreat to when necessary.

Children with a range of complex needs are supported 1 to 1 by a wonderful, dedicated team of volunteers, most of them teenagers themselves. They participate in sport, games, craft, drama, singing and other activities. They make friends with other children and learn about Jesus.

This week I got a chance to share with the rest of the volunteers at Lighthouse a bit about why we do what we do in The Space. I was speaking about the story of Jesus healing the blind man in Luke 18.35-43:

“What I find remarkable about this story is not so much that Jesus healed the blind man, but that he stopped to talk to him – and to listen to him – in the first place. In Jesus’s time, people who had a disability were often outcasts, people nobody wanted to talk to.

But Jesus draws near to people, especially those people nobody else wants to draw near to. And when Jesus draws near to people, they are changed. They can see things they could never see before, they can do things they could never do before. They are made whole. They are healed.

I’m not just talking about people in the bible, I’m talking about us too, and the kids, and everyone. And I’m not just talking about physical healing, but being made whole in its widest, deepest sense.

Jesus changes lives. Calvin said on Sunday that he’s here because he wants the children to know Jesus. I’d go further than that. I’m here because I want the children to know Jesus, and be transformed by him. And that’s what I want for you too, wherever you are on your journey with God.  My prayer is that Lighthouse will be a place where people are transformed by Jesus, here, this week.

People often ask me why I run The Space, why I think it’s so important for kids with special needs to be included at Lighthouse. And it’s because of what I see Jesus doing in stories like the one we’re looking at today. Jesus includes everyone. The least, the last, the lost. The people nobody wants anything to do with. The blind man in today’s reading, Matthew the tax collector in yesterday’s reading. Jesus includes everyone, and so should we.

And why? Because God’s love is for everyone. God’s love already includes every single person there ever has been or ever will be. Because God is love, and everyone is included. You, me, the kids, the kids who use The Space, the people you love, the people you hate – absolutely everyone, no exceptions. Everyone is invited into God’s love, into the kingdom of God.

Jesus often told stories, parables, about what the kingdom of God is like. I want to share with you something about what I think the kingdom of God is like. This is a song by Adrian Snell, who writes music, and is also a music therapist at a school for children with special needs. The kingdom of God is like this:

And the kingdom of God is like this:

[camera facing audience]

The kingdom of God is like Lighthouse. Or perhaps better: Lighthouse is like the kingdom of God. A place where people can come, whoever they are, and be loved and valued, and listened too. A place where everyone is included. That’s what we want to share with the kids. So make sure you do something today that shows a child that they matter, to us and to God. They need to know that. And when you do those things, you’re not only helping the kids have a great week, you’re building God’s kingdom, right here, right now, today.”