An awfully big adventure – a sermon for the start of the school year

I’m going on an adventure.

It’s going to be a big one.

I’m not scared.

Who’s coming with me?

I wonder where we’ll go?

 

We’re going on an adventure.

It’s going to be a big one.

We’re not scared.

I wonder where we’ll go?

I wonder what we’ll need?

I wonder who we’ll meet along the way?

 

Have you ever been on a great big adventure?

Have you read a story about an adventure, or seen a film about an adventure?

 

Some of us went on an adventure last weekend. We went to Greenbelt, where we camped in a field, listened to music, watched acrobats, built shelters, debated issues, ate cake, and went to a communion service totally led by children. It was a brilliant adventure.

 

But we didn’t just go. We had to get ready. We had to think about what we would need – tents, food, cooking equipment, warm things, waterproof things, suncream. We had to prepare.

 

Some of you are getting ready to go on an adventure. Some of you are starting a new school, or nursery, or college. Lots of you are going into a new year, a new class, at school.

 

But you don’t just go on that adventure either – you have to get ready. You have to make sure you have your uniform, and your bag, and your pencil case. You have to make sure you know how to get to your new school, and what to do when you get there. You have to prepare.

 

All of us are on an adventure of sorts. We’re all going on the great big adventure that is following Jesus. We’re all on an adventure with God.

 

But what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel reading is that this too is an adventure we don’t just go on – we need to be prepared. And this time we need to be prepared not by taking things with us, but by being willing to leave things behind. To leave behind “all our possessions”, all the things we hold most dear, in order to set out on a new adventure with Jesus.

 

Of course, however much we prepare for an adventure, we can’t plan for everything. We will always meet with the unexpected along the way – that’s part of what an adventure is.

 

When we went to Greenbelt, we came across plenty that we weren’t expecting: talks that made us laugh, songs that made us cry, people we didn’t expect to meet. We didn’t expect that one of our group would be reading his own poetry in public for the first time. We didn’t expect a 3 hour thunder storm either, or that sheltering from the storm together would be so much fun.

 

When you start a new school, or a new school year – or any kind of new stage in life, come to that – there will be things that you don’t expect. Some will be good things: meeting new friends, learning new skills, trying new things. Others will not be so good: facing new challenges or problems, dealing with things that seem difficult or scary.

 

And with the great adventure of following Jesus, we must also expect the unexpected. However well prepared we think we are, there will always be some situation beyond our control, beyond what we had expected, which challenges us.

 

That is why I am thankful that we follow a God who doesn’t expect us to be prepared for every eventuality, but only to be prepared to follow, trusting that God will be ready for anything even when we aren’t.

 

When Jesus calls us to walk with him, he doesn’t ask us to make sure we bring everything we could possibly need. He doesn’t need to, because he already has – indeed, he already is – everything we could possibly need.

 

Jesus call us not to bring everything with us, but to leave everything behind. He calls us to trust that his provision, his grace, is sufficient for us, wherever the adventure takes us.

 

So, as many of you prepare for a new adventure, a new chapter in your adventure with God, remember this. Don’t be afraid. Jesus is with you every step of the way. And he already has everything you need – for the things you expect and the things you don’t.

 

We’re going on an adventure.

It’s going to be a big one.

We’re not scared.

I wonder where we’ll go?

I wonder what we’ll find there?

 

We’re going on an adventure.

It’s going to be a big one.

We’re not scared.

We know that God goes with us

Wherever we may go.

 

Firm foundations – a sermon for Eucharist with Baptism and Admission to Holy Communion

Colossians 2.6-15, Luke 11.1-13

[Look at what the children have built with the Megablocks.]

We need firm foundations. Before we start building, we need to make sure we’re building on something solid, something which can support what we build.

[Demonstrate what happens when you build Megablocks without firm enough foundations – they fall over.]

Firm foundations are important. And, as in Megablocks, so in life. What are the foundations on which we build our lives? That’s something which both the readings we heard this morning touch on. It’s also a suitable subject for a baptism and admission to communion service.

I sometimes have the pleasure of visiting families who are preparing for their child to be baptised. I often ask “What made you want to have your child baptised?” and the answer almost always includes some variation on wanting to give them a good start in life. And isn’t that what we all want for our children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, godchildren?

And it’s what God wants for us too – however old we get, we are still God’s children and God, like any good parent, wants what’s best for us. Our Bible reading today portrays God as a loving parent, always giving God’s children – us – the things that will be good for us and not harm us.

But it doesn’t always seem quite that straightforward, does it? Perhaps when you turn on the news, and it seems there is more and more violence and hatred and chaos in the world; perhaps when someone you love is ill or in trouble or no longer around; perhaps then it doesn’t seem enough to say “ask, and it will be given to you”.

That’s where foundations come in. Our first reading talked about being “rooted and built up in Christ and established in the faith”. And that is what we are here to celebrate today. In baptism, Emmanuel becomes rooted in the church, fully part of the body of Christ. But that isn’t the end of the journey of course – it is the beginning. All through his life he will, with the help of God and the guidance of his family, god parents and the whole church of which he is a part, continue to be built up in Christ. His identity in Christ, through his baptism today, will become a key part of the foundations on which his life is built.

And as Ashvin comes today to begin receiving the bread and wine of Holy Communion, we can see the fruit of his journey with God so far, as he too is rooted and built up in Christ. For him, as for all of us, communion will be one of the vital ways in which he continues to be built up in Christ, as his faith continues to develop and his journey with God goes on.

For all of us, our rooting, grounding, foundation in Christ is what builds us up – in the sacraments of baptism and communion, in prayer, in love of God, neighbour and enemy, in forgiveness.

Our faith does not let us get away from the mess and chaos and pain of the world, and of our own lives. But it does give us a foundation to build on – a foundation which holds firm in every season, whatever comes our way. That foundation is Jesus, whose body we are.

Being rooted in Christ, built on firm foundations, should not enable us to rise above the problems of the world. It should not enable us to pass unscathed through the difficult times in our lives. But it should enable us to remain in Christ, in whatever situation we find ourselves, and to live as people of peace, joy, love, and hope, as signs of Jesus’ love for all people. In short to shine as lights in the world to the glory of God – as we will pray at the end of this baptism service.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus gives his followers the prayer we now know as the Lord’s Prayer. It is prayed in every church, in every language, around the world, and has been throughout the ages. It is, if you like, the foundation of our shared life of prayer. It has been said that if you pray the Lord’s Prayer, you will have prayed everything that is necessary. It is a prayer to use in all circumstances.

As Ashvin and the other children being admitted to communion prepared for this important step, we explored praying the Lord’s Prayer not only with words, but also using our whole bodies. We’d like to invite you to share in that now and, as we do so, to reflect on the foundations on which your life in Christ is built.

[Lord’s Prayer body prayer.]

 

Mary, Martha, and the choices we make – a sermon

Here we have the story of two sisters: Mary and Martha. Martha is busy. She’s got guests. She’s cooking the food, serving the food, doing the washing up. There’s so much to do! And what is her sister Mary doing? Nothing! Not lifting a finger to help. Just sitting there listening to Jesus. No wonder Martha is annoyed – I think I would be too. Shouldn’t Mary be doing her share?

But Jesus takes a different view. “Mary has chosen the better part,” he says. Isn’t that what we all want – to choose the better part, to make the right decisions. But how should we choose? What is the “better part”?

We all make choices all the time.

[choosing game]

Some choices are trivial, they don’t really matter. But other choices are really important. Some will even change the rest of our lives. So how do we make those important choices?

We, like Mary, need to “choose the better part”. We need to draw near to Jesus, to listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying, to spend time in prayer trying to discern the will of God for us. And then, out of that contemplation, we need to choose and to act.

Good choices come from listening to Jesus.

Good choices come from single-minded – single-hearted – focus on God, without any distraction. That is what Mary is choosing when she chooses “the better part”. This is what we too are called to, and out of this devotion to God, out of prayer, all other choices should flow.

There are some big choices, some important choices – some life-changing choices even – being made here is morning. Oliver’s parents have chosen to bring him to be baptised. Steffan and Carys have chosen for themselves to be baptised. And Carys, Steffan, Sam, Leila, and Fraser have chosen to begin receiving the bread and wine of Holy Communion.

All of these choices have come from these children’s – and their families’ – desire to draw closer to Jesus, to follow God’s call to them, to live life guided by the Holy Spirit. The choices they make today are, very definitely, “the better part”. These choices to receive the sacraments of baptism and communion will, in their turn, enable these children to draw still nearer to Jesus as they continue to seek God’s will in their lives.

Learning to listen to Jesus, to focus fully on God, is a life-long journey. Choosing, and going on choosing, to follow Jesus is the difference which will make the greatest difference to every aspect of your life.

If you have not been baptised and would like to be – or would like to bring your child for baptism; if you would like to start receiving communion; if you have seen the notice about confirmation and are interested in finding out more about what that means and whether it is a choice you might want to consider; if any of these sound like you, come and talk to us. Talk to me, to Hugh, to Jackie, to any of the ministry team. Talk to us today. That applies to absolutely everyone.*

We will be so delighted to walk with you as you work out the choices which will help you live your life focused on Jesus – to live in peace, joy, love, hope.

And to everyone, all of you, at whatever stage you are at on your journey with God, I offer this challenge: How will you hear God’s voice? How will you choose to listen to Jesus? What choices is the Holy Spirit calling you to make?


 

*And it applies to people reading this online too. If this is you, find someone to talk to about it! Your local clergy will be delighted to hear from you, I’m sure. If you don’t have anyone local you feel you can talk to, feel free to get in touch online. 

St George’s Day sermon for Scouts (with optional dragon!)

Mark 10.13-16

I will be preaching this sermon with the aid of my (homemade) Chinese Dragon and some volunteers, and the points marked in brackets. However, it would work fine without the dragon, if you don’t have one to hand!

“It is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs,” says Jesus.

And he’s talking to you. Children. God’s children.

God’s kingdom is an upside-down sort of place. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Blessed are the poor, the meek, the broken-hearted. Nothing is how you expect it to be.

And in God’s kingdom children, young people – you – are the ones who lead us adults and show us how to do things. I think Baden-Powell probably knew that when he set up the Scouting movement.

You, like Saint George whom we celebrate today, are called by Jesus to live the way Jesus shows us.

[DRAGON]

For Saint George, as we all know, that meant killing a dragon. But what was important about killing the dragon? It was about freedom. The dragon was terrorizing the people, and by killing it Saint George set them free.

We are not likely to come across actual dragons in our lives. But we do come across things that stop people from being free. Poverty, hatred, fighting, prejudice… These are our modern-day dragons.

[PIN WORDS TO DRAGON]

And it is up to us – up to you – to slay them.

How do we slay these dragons? How do we fight against these evils that we see around us?

We can do it in all sorts of ways:

  • By giving to those who have less than we do.
  • By refusing to join in with teasing or bullying.
  • By stopping arguments and fights.
  • By treating everyone as equal before God, and not discriminating.

These are all things we can do in our homes, schools, at Scouts or Cubs or Beavers, and wherever else we find ourselves. And whenever we do, we will be making the world a bit more like God’s kingdom.

Through the power of love and peace and hope we can fight these dragons in our world. And through the power of God’s Holy Spirit at work in each of us, we can win.

[DRAGON FALLS OVER]

“Jesus took the children up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

Jesus blesses you. He blesses you, he calls you, and he sends you. He sends you into the world to serve others, in the power of the Holy Spirit and to the glory of God.

May he strengthen you to fight against what is evil in the world and stand up for what is good. And may you be prepared to respond to his call.

Amen.

Living with the smell of sheep – a sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday

Acts 9.36-43 ; John 10.22-30

“My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me.”

What an extraordinary thing to say! What a striking image Jesus gives us for his closeness to God’s people.

And alongside it we get this equally extraordinary story of Tabitha/Dorcas being brought back to life through the faith and prayer of Peter.

I want to add one more extraordinary thing to the mix. It’s a quote from Pope Francis. Just over a year ago, speaking of the role of priests, ministers, leaders of the church, he said: “You must be shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.”

So there we are: 3 extraordinary things, 2 references to sheep, but what does it all mean? And what has it got to do with us?

I wonder what it means to be a shepherd “living with the smell of the sheep”? I follow a couple of shepherds on twitter – mainly for the cute photos of lambs they post around this time of year – and that gives me some insight into the life of a shepherd… but it’s nothing like “living with the smell of the sheep”. To know what something smells like, you have to get really close to it.

Which is what Pope Francis was getting at when he preached that sermon – to lead well in the church, you have to get up close and personal with those you want to lead. Priesthood – in fact any role in the church – is, or should be, very much a hands-on thing.

And that is the sort of shepherd Jesus is. “I know my sheep” Jesus tells us, and that’s just what a Good Shepherd does – knows every one of his or her sheep, knows them intimately, gets close to them, close enough to live with the smell them.

That’s how Jesus knows us – more closely, more intimately than we can imagine. And it’s how he invites us to know him. We – each one of us – are invited to know and be known by the one who spoke the universe into being, who overcame death, who knows and cares for each sparrow and for the whole cosmos all at the same time.

We are invited into relationship with the one who is love, and that invitation is unconditional. That is the Good News.

That love, that relationship, that deep and personal knowing, that closeness is not on any level theoretical. It is a profound truth which touches every element and every moment of our lives – if we’ll let it.

Think how close you have to be to someone to know their smell. That is how close Jesus comes to us, and how close we can come to God, through Christ.

“My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me.”

Jesus speaks to us, Jesus knows us, Jesus calls us each by name to follow him. It is up to each of us to hear, to listen, to follow. That is our calling. Today is Vocations Sunday, when we celebrate all the many and varied things God calls us to, but this is as the root and heart of all vocations: we follow Jesus. Everything else comes from that.

And when we do choose to follow Jesus, extraordinary things happen. Peter, who featured in our first reading today, was an ordinary sort of person. But he followed Jesus, and when he did, extraordinary things happened. We see just one of them in today’s story – there were many more.

When we choose to follow Jesus, when we recognise ourselves as sheep of the Good Shepherd, so well known and loved by him, then extraordinary things happen to us too, just as they did to Peter. Prayer answered in ways we could never have imagined. Hope restored. Relationships mended. Love and grace found in the most unexpected places.

All this Jesus longs to give us. He is the Good Shepherd and we are the sheep of his pasture. Let us follow him.

Amen.

 

Bombs, Betrayal, and the Glory of God: Sermon for Wednesday of Holy Week 2016

Isaiah 50.4-9a; John 13.21-32

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

On Sunday the crowd shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna!” which has come to mean “Praise!” but literally means “Save us!” –  a plea and a prophecy.

And on Tuesday the bombs went off. Dozens dead or injured in Brussels. But not just Brussels: Homs, Baghdad, Kabul. Thousands of places which never make our news headlines. We don’t even know their names. And still there are those who make Jerusalem a battleground.

From cheering crowds to death and destruction. That is the narrative of Holy Week. It must have seemed like a tragedy, a catastrophe, an outrage – all those words we hear on the news when the next bomb goes off – an absolute failure. And it would be a narrative of failure, if that were the end. We know, of course, that death is not the end, failure is not the end. And sometimes, especially when we are faced with almost overwhelming sorrow and grief, it is so tempting to rush on to the resurrection – the glory, the joy, the hope that makes all the suffering ‘worth it’.

But we aren’t there yet. This week, and especially as we approach Good Friday, we take time to sit in the place of darkness and desolation. “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light” – perhaps we have to become the people who walk in darkness before we can truly see the dazzling beauty of the Light.

Today is the day when our gospel reading focuses on Judas. Why? I think it’s about not ducking the difficult stuff. Someone asked me recently whether, when I’m talking about Easter with very young children, I talk about death. “Of course,” I replied, “It’s part of it.” It’s a vital part, and so is betrayal. The story of salvation is incomplete, indeed it doesn’t make sense, without these aspects of darkness.

We live in a culture which wants to brush aside the things of darkness – to ignore them or – worse – to find someone to blame. Because once it’s someone else’s fault, it’s not my problem. That’s what our culture would tell us.

But it isn’t what Jesus tells us. Jesus doesn’t say “not my fault, not my problem”. Jesus says “not my fault, but my beloved people, my brothers and sisters for whom I weep, and for whom I would do anything – absolutely anything – to put things right.” And Jesus says that not just to you and me, our friends and family, to the church.

No – Jesus says this to everyone. To those we would so love to hate – the people who have lied to us and cheated us, the people who have hurt us, and – yes – to the people who planted those bombs. Even to the one who he knows will betray him – even to Judas – Jesus says “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.”

In this Holy Week we face the enormity of the agony, the pain, the betrayal that is pivotal to the story of our salvation. And there is no ducking it, no skipping ahead to the glory of the risen Christ.

Jesus suffered and died for you. And Jesus suffered and died for the person you would least want him to do that for. There are no limits to the sacrifice, no limits to who is included in redemption.

Jesus did not die so that the chosen few, or even the chosen many, could join some exclusive club and live with him in heaven when they die. The enormity of his suffering is too great for that.

Jesus died to set the whole world free, and in doing so turned the whole world upside down. If we are truly an Easter people, everything we do has to be coloured by the death and resurrection of Christ.

Everywhere you look – in the newspapers, on TV, on social media – there are people calling for a violent response to violence. “Kill the terrorists”, “shut the borders”, “ban the hijab.” That is not the Christian response. That is not the response of an Easter people. That cannot be the response of people who follow the One who broke bread with his own betrayer, who washed the feet of the one who would send him to a violent, painful, tortured death.

Each morning this week at Morning Prayer we say “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.” It is an invitation to dwell in the dark places of this Holy Week journey, not to rush through them in pursuit of the light. It is an invitation to see in Jesus not just the one who breaks every chain, even the power of death, but also the one who suffers with us.

God is not only in the moments of joy, but also the moments of sorrow. God is not only in the light, but also in darkness so thick it seems endless. God is not only in the resurrection, but also in the crucifixion, torture and betrayal. And it is here in today’s gospel– not in a burst of light, but in the grim depths of betrayal – that Jesus says “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.”

We do not have to wait for the resurrection to see God’s glory. We do not have to make, or pretend to make, everything all right before we can rejoice. It is not only when we are led out of darkness into the marvelous light that we encounter the glory of God. In the eepest darkness, in betrayal and pain and loss, God is already being glorified.

The power of Christ in us is that glory, joy, hope, love are not confined to the high points of life. Through the suffering of Jesus on the cross, God has carried these gifts of grace into even the most desolate times and places.

We are called, as children of God, to seek and proclaim the love and grace and glory of God in all seasons – in the winter of life as much as the spring. We are called to respond to every disaster – from the personal to the international – not with despair, nor yet with some vague reassurance that “it will all be all right in the end”, but with the deep conviction that even in the darkest depths God is making all things new. Especially in the darkest depths, God is bringing the whole creation to new and eternal life.

That is what it means to be an Easter people. To see with resurrection eyes is not to put on rose-tinted spectacles – that is not what God calls us to – but rather to look fear, failure, destruction and death full in the face, and still to say “love wins” “love is stronger”. That is why we sing with the angels and the whole company of heaven, in praise and in plea “Hosanna – praise God! Hosanna – save us! Hosanna!”

Amen.

 

 

Being transformed into the likeness of Christ: a sermon on the Transfiguration

Preached at All Age Eucharist 07-02-2016. Reading: Luke 9.28-36.

May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O God our strength and our redeemer. 

Today’s reading, the transfiguration, is all about transformation. Some of the children have brought some Transformers to show us. [Children show and explain about Transformers.] Transformer transform from one thing to something else completely, like from a dinosaur to a robot. But the sort of transformation we see in our reading today is not like that. Jesus is not being transformed into something different from himself, but something which is somehow more like himself.

At the front here we’ve got something to help us think about this different kind of transformation: some magic painting, the sort where you paint it with water to make the colours appear. If you would like to come and try doing some while you’re listening, please do – we’ll have a look at them at the end.

So the transformation Jesus undergoes at the transfiguration is something different. This is something so strange and awesome (in the proper sense of the word) that the writer of Luke’s gospel is at a loss to describe it. “The appearance of his face changed” we are told. But how? What happened to it? What did it look like? How did the disciples feel when they saw it? We don’t know, but we can wonder. And the mystery of not knowing invites us into the mystery of the transfiguration itself.

In the mystical events of the transfiguration, Christ’s body is transformed by the glory of God. But what of Christ’s body in the world today? We are the body of Christ. He has no other hands but ours, no other feet but ours. We are – all of us – called to be members of the body of Christ, his church, in the world today. And still the body of Christ is being transfigured, changed, renewed, by the glory of God.

God is continually transforming God’s church to be more and more like Jesus, if only we will be open to that transformation. You might have noticed in the last few weeks our new welcome sign outside church “All are welcome… come as you are”. That’s a sign of how God is transforming God’s church in this place – even a few years ago, I don’t think we could in all honesty have put out that sign. But as we seek to be Christ’s body in this place, we are learning to express the radical hospitality and love of God for everybody. And we are still learning, and still being transformed.

At a national level too, new projects are born out of a conviction that God’s call to the church is one to transformation into something which better reflects the all-encompassing love of Jesus. This week saw the launch of the LGBTI Mission, a project working towards the full acceptance and affirmation of gay people within the Church of England. That’s something I’m very much involved with, and happy to talk more about after the service with anyone who’s interested.*

God is continually transforming God’s church, but we have to be open to that transformation. In the story of the transfiguration, notice that it is when Jesus “went up on the mountain to pray” that this extraordinary transformation took place. It is God’s role to transform God’s people, but it is our role to put ourselves in the path of God’s grace, through prayer, through listening, through openness to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the church in our time.

God remains unchanging, but we, God’s people, are continually transformed to become more like Jesus, so that we can reveal more of Jesus to the world, just as Jesus himself was transfigured on the mountain to reveal more of his true self to his disciples. And this change, this transformation, starts for us, as it did for Jesus himself, with prayer.

So let us pray that we may be continually changed and transformed to be more like Christ. Let us pray that the body of Christ in his church will go on being transformed and renewed in his likeness. And let us pray that by God’s grace we may show the world more and more of who Jesus is, until the whole church is showing the whole Christ to the whole world, and we can truly say: “All are welcome, all are loved, all are called into God’s kingdom – who ever you are, what ever you’ve done, wherever you’re coming from: come as you are, and be met, loved and transformed by the living, risen Jesus.”

Amen.

Now let’s have a look at these water painting pictures that some people have been working on. [Children hold up paintings.] The pictures haven’t changed – they’re still pictures of the same things – but we can see something more about them now than we could before because we can see the colours. In the same way, Jesus at the transfiguration is changed in a way which doesn’t make him into something different, but helps us see more of who he is.

 

*For more information about the LGBTI Mission, see http://www.lgbtimission.org.uk