Saturday, 17 June 2017

Trinity 1 - church anniversary

Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7,  Matthew 9:35-10:8
It is good to be here today, to help you to celebrate your 100th anniversary as a United Church.
As we were thinking about some of the events of 100 years ago in the all age talk, earlier, you may have been wondering how different the world of 100 years ago really was to our world today.
At a time of violence and uncertainty and upheaval – during the first World War – people had to make a decision to act in faith, with hope for the future, to bring good news to the people around them by forming this church.
I see from the website that your strapline today is “Knowing and showing the grace of God” – and in our world of continuing violence and uncertainty and upheaval you, too, need to act in faith and reach out in hope.

Abraham is something of a by-word for faith. Yet in the reading we heard, we arrive at a bit of a crunch point for Abraham.
He has travelled, at God’s bidding, from Ur of the Chaldees to Haran and then out into the desert, towards Canaan.  Throughout his travels God has spoken to him and promised to be with him wherever he goes, and to bless him with many children. Now here he is at the Oaks of Mamre and he sees three strange visitors.

He could, perhaps, have let them walk by and the story might end right there. He could have given them basic hospitality, as any desert-dweller would in the heat of the day: and that’s what he says he is offering – water to wash their feet, rest in the shade, a little bread … But in fact Abraham goes over the top – he orders Sarah to take three measures of flour and bake cakes – that’s enough for about 200 pitta sized ‘cakes’; he gets a servant to kill a calf, he serves the visitors himself and he stands by as they eat.

Abraham offers his whole attention, and in return he is offered news of a great blessing. Sarah will, at last, have a child. And she laughs in disbelief – but later laughs with joy and names her son ‘laughter’ – Isaac.

I wonder if this story makes you smile rather wryly – if God is so ready to bless Sarah, who was thought to be past the age for bearing children, why could God not bless us more here in Wells, with more people, better ideas, a new chapter of life?
Have we let God just slide past us somewhere and not opened our ‘tent’ to him, or have we not done enough to entertain the God-given presence in our midst?
If God is blessing us to know and show his grace, what will that mean for the people around us, especially for a fearful and hurting world? How can we offer good news to those around us?

The other reading we heard was Jesus proclaiming the kingdom of God and then sending out the twelve apostles to do the same.
“Go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”.

Jesus doesn’t offer his disciples a comfortable life, a place to rest and call their own, he wanders this earth and tells them to do the same – so that all people may hear the gospel, the good news of God’s kingdom. Jesus sends them out, and later when they return he teaches them using parables.

Remember Sarah’s three measures of flour, which she takes to make bread to welcome the angel of the Lord?

Jesus tells his disciples this parable.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who takes three measures of flour – and hides in it some yeast, which leavens the whole of the batch”.

The kingdom of heaven is like this, says Jesus – like yeast, working in secret to make the whole loaf good.

Here is my yeast - safe in its tub – lid securely on, nice and dry and usually kept safely in my cupboard. Keep the plastic cap secured tightly, say the instructions on the tin.
It also says on here ‘making you a better baker’ – but not if I keep it in the tin it isn’t. While it’s safe & contained it can’t do a thing, Jesus says – it needs to go out, to be mixed in, to be hidden and dispersed if it’s going to do its work.

As we celebrate today it might be tempting to pat ourselves on the back for surviving for 100 years as a united church, let alone for making a difference to the lives of people in Wells.
This place, this ‘tin’ has served you well and you are right to celebrate.

But this celebration is also about asking where Jesus is sending you. You need to be taking good news into a world which desperately needs it. I don’t know where you’ll end up doing that, for the sake of the kingdom, but I pray that wherever you are you will be yeast, lightening the world around you, making a difference for the kingdom, changing in God’s hands so that you will all be better witnesses of the God you have known here.

When Abraham was in Canaan, south of Haran, he kept meeting God, hearing God’s voice, recognizing God’s presence. He took stones and made altars to show that God was there, at Shechem, at Bethel, and at Mamre.
God was in every place he went: God was everywhere.

God is in this place: you have known it and felt it and celebrated it week by week over many years, and I pray you will continue to do so for many more years.

But do not doubt that God is waiting for you everywhere else in this wide world – and know that the love of God the Father, the Son & the Holy Spirit will be with you, today and always, here and everywhere, now and forever.

Go and share the good news of God’s love
Go and be good news for your community
In Jesus’ name.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Pentecost 2017

We’ve got a story to tell.
What do you think it is?
Take a few minutes to just share ideas with a few people around you. What is the story to tell? How could you share it with other people?

Every now and again in my Christian life I learn something that makes me think ‘why have I never thought of that before?’. A friend sent me her sermon, written for this Sunday, for Pentecost, to read. In it she had said that the disciples were “gathered all together to keep the feast of Pentecost – and that’s a feast that’s about celebrating the giving of the Law”.

That was my light-bulb moment. The story of Easter doesn’t start with “it was Easter” the story of Christmas doesn’t start with “it was Christmas” but the story of Pentecost starts with “it was Pentecost”.
Pentecost was already a thing – it was the Jewish festival that came 50 days after the Passover. If you’re sitting there thinking ‘well, yes, I knew that!’ – why has no-one ever told me before?

And yes, thanks to my other friend, Wikipedia, I know now that Pentecost was also known as Shavuot or the Feast of
Weeks, and since part of the purpose of the festival was to give thanks to God for the Law, the tradition was to spend the first evening of the festival in all-night study of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures ( our Old Testament). The other tradition is to read the whole of the book of Ruth.
You knew all this? Why did no-one tell me??

The disciples didn’t just happen to be together in that reading we heard from the second chapter of Acts – they had gathered to thank God for the Law, to read the Scriptures, to celebrate what God had given his people.
Then.. pow!

When they think they are in for a nice, orderly, sensible celebration of the God who has acted in history – God’s power shows up. The Holy Spirit turns their expectations upside done and inside out & makes Pentecost a celebration of what God is doing now – bringing the church into being, converting frightened, bewildered followers of Christ into living breathing, prophesying, witnesses of the God who is doing a new thing.

The disciples become the church and are given the power to communicate with people in their own language – to spread the Good News of God’s love in Jesus to all points of the compass – North to Mesopotamia, South to Egypt, East to Asia, West to Rome.
The story of the God who is born among us in Jesus to live with us and for us, to die at our hands to show us the depth of his love, to be raised from death to bring us everlasting hope – that story of God’s kingdom of hope and joy and redemption is for everyone, and the disciples are driven out by the power of the spirit to take the message to the streets of Jerusalem and right across the world.
The week before last I was worshipping in Mbare Uniting Presbyterian Church in Harare – I was lucky enough to be on a visit to Zimbabwe with the URC’s Commitment for Life project and Christian Aid. The worship was joyous.
Three choirs, each one marvelous; percussion instruments that just kept popping up in different places to get the rhythm just right; people dancing, swaying, clapping and cheering…and right at the front six of us from the UK doing our best to keep up.

The most amazing point of the service for me was the prayers just before the sermon. Everyone praying together – in their own time, according to their own needs and inspiration, in their own language, at their own volume – but mostly, if I’m honest LOUDLY.
I have once heard it attempted in this country – but when we are British we might mumble a bit for a few moments, so long as we think no-one is listening, and quite quickly the prayers subside so we can get on with the rest of the service.

The prayer in Mbare went on.. and on.. and on. And eventually the choir started singing, but the praying didn’t subside , so we went back to praying for another few minutes, until a second time the choir started singing and this time everyone joined in with the singing quietly, and the prayers subsided, leaving a deep sense of expectation that God was truly in this place, and we were ready to hear the sermon.
A mighty noise, the raising of many voices, a deep hush – it was awe-inspiring.
The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost must have been all that and more.

So what are we doing this morning? Are we just listening to the Bible story – the story from nearly 2000 years ago – and giving thanks to God for what he did then? Or are we prepared to risk the chance that God might show up, that the Holy Spirit might come here and now and turn our life and our church and our worship upside down and inside out?

I have a confession to make at this point. I like my worship – ordered. It’s all very well in Zimbabwe, it was a bit like a holiday, it was different and exciting and nice for a change. But I like to know where I’m going in a service – I like to know how long it’s likely to be, whether I have a chance to eat a sweet in the sermon, I like to know where to sit and when to stand and I like it best when I know the hymns. And the Holy Spirit at Pentecost says – tough!
God’s power cannot be confined to just one way of doing things, the good news certainly can’t be locked up in the church, there will always be new things happening in God’s kingdom.

Just as I learned something new about the meaning of Pentecost this week and thought ‘why did no-one ever tell me?’  there are people around us every day of our lives who find the concept of faith in Jesus a mystery. Why does no-one ever tell them?

The Holy Spirit shows us that we need to find many languages to speak.
Not just, literally, different tongues – but other ways of communicating about God’s love – through works of charity and mercy, through fighting for justice through praying for peace.
I could understand very little of what the congregation in Mbare were singing – but the smiles, the clapping,  the dancing for joy, told me everything I needed to know. In the poverty of Zimbabwe, where drought is becoming more common and the rains of Summer more violent, because of global warming, people knew God’s love and rejoiced in it. They danced down the aisle to put what offering they could afford in the basket at the front and then they danced out of the church to share their joy with everyone around.

On the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit came, Peter reminded people of the prophecy of Joel.
God promises to pour out his spirit on all flesh – men and women, young and old, slaves and free. There will be visions, and dreams and signs… and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
How easy was it, earlier in the service when we talked about ‘having a story to tell’ and what it might be?. Did you notice that the young people found it easier to come up with answers? ‘Your sons and your daughters will prophecy’.

We see how the Spirit works in different ways, through different people, in different tongues. God comes in power to break down barriers, to send us out with Good news, to turn our churches inside out so that all people can hear the good news and be saved.

Are you ready? Me neither. Let’s go! And see where the Spirit takes us.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Easter 7 - where's Jesus?

Acts 1: 6-11     John 17: 1-11
I think there is a question that many people have been asking this week, and it is relevant to our Bible readings, too. Where’s Jesus?

On Monday night we first heard the news of the bomb going off in Manchester, and all week the police have been investigating and trying to make sense of what has happened. So many lives lost – and so many of them young lives, children ready to be picked up by their parents at the end of a pop concert. And where is Jesus in that? In the carnage and the fear and the desperation – where’s Jesus?

Well, we have glimpsed Jesus in some places, haven’t we – in the story of Steve, the man who is homeless, but was outside the Arena & went to help people who were bleeding, without thought for his own safety; in the speech given by Fawzi Haffar, from the Manchester mosque who said ‘this act of cowardice has no place in our religion – or any religion’; in the cafĂ© which immediately started giving a free ‘brew’ to anyone who needed it. In the midst of terror there is also human kindness and love, and where love is, God is – Jesus has been seen on the streets of Manchester.

And yet… we wonder whether Jesus could not have been more present at an earlier stage: clearing the area before the bomb went off, thwarting the plans of the terrorists in some way, even melting the hard heart of the bomber himself.

There is no satisfactory answer we can give when the grieving heart wants to cry out ‘where was God?’ ‘where is Jesus?’. Anything we say risks sounding like a hollow platitude. But the hope and joy of Easter can bring us the lasting light that God’s resurrection love is unstoppably present, even in the darkness. Because we are at the point of the Christian year when we see the initial thrill that Jesus is alive again begin to mature into a realisation that he is present in a new way.

Last Thursday, 3 days ago, was Ascension day – the day when the church remembers that the resurrected Jesus was seen by his followers going back into heaven – back to the place he came from in the first place.
But Jesus has promised that we won’t be alone, because he will send his Holy Spirit to be our Counsellor and Guide. Yet we know that Pentecost won’t come for another week : we will be celebrating it next Sunday.

We have celebrated the risen Jesus, but now his resurrection body has gone back to the Father and we have to wait for the gift of the promised Spirit.

We wait because that’s what Jesus first followers had to do. It’s what the angels told them to do when they found the looking blankly up into heaven after Jesus had gone.
The book of Acts tells us that they went back to Jerusalem and devoted themselves to prayer – ‘they’ being the 11 remaining disciples plus ‘certain women, including Mary his mother and also his brothers’.

Then Simon announces that they must replace Judas (who has committed suicide) with another man who has been part of the company and seen all that Jesus has done: they draw lots to choose between Justus and Matthias, and Matthias is chosen.

But surely as well as drawing lots and praying there must have been a lot of story-telling or reminiscing, of reminding each other what Jesus had said and done and all the things that had happened – all that they had witnessed from the time of John the Baptist until the ascension itself.

Perhaps one of the things they talked about was that last supper, when Jesus seemed to have so much to teach them. We have been hearing various parts of John’s account of the Last Supper in our Sunday readings since Easter, and we had another chunk of the teaching today.

You might almost feel as if you want to draw a diagram:

Jesus says
Father, glorify your Son, so that your son may glorify you,
since you have given him authority over all, to give eternal life to all
that they may know you and Jesus Christ whom you have sent…
The words you gave to me I have given to them...
They know that I came from you & you sent me…
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world and I am coming to you.

I wonder if the disciples pondered long and hard about the ascension – they saw Jesus go up into heaven – the final proof that he came from heaven in the first place. Jesus and the Father were one, as he said.
But they now have a task to fulfill – sent out into the world to be the witnesses for the world of what has happened.
Heaven has touched the earth – God has come in human form to visit his creation: how can they possibly convince the world about Jesus?
The answer is, of course, that they can’t ! No amount of trying to explain the relationship of Earth to heaven, of the Father to the Son, of the amazing message of love shared with God’s people; no amount of diagrams or hand-waving is going to convince people that this carpenter’s Son from Galilee was someone unique.

The disciples will be witnesses, but not in their own strength. Before they can go out they have to wait: not just to build up their human strength by getting back to 12 disciples, and remembering the stories of Jesus’ life but they will need the power which will come to them from heaven. The resurrected body of Jesus went up into heaven, and the power of the Holy Spirit will come down.

The disciples must have used this time to change the way they were used to thinking about Jesus. For three years he had been their friend and teacher – flesh and blood alongside them. Then came the seeming calamity of his death, and then a new way to see Jesus with them – the risen Jesus.
Jesus was still with them, but in a new resurrection body – not always instantly recognisable as Jesus – but real, living, touchable. Now they are in a new phase of knowing Jesus – he is the ascended Jesus – his risen body back in heaven with God the Father. But soon they will know Jesus’ presence in yet another new way, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Without the ascension we would always be looking for Jesus as a thirty year-old, bearded man. But now Jesus is released from his body, set free into the world, so that the power of the Holy Spirit can bring the reality of Jesus’ presence into all times and all places.
Jesus is alongside us, within us, empowering us… in Manchester,

Jesus shows his followers that he can be with them in many different ways: as friend, teacher, healer, victim, victor, resurrected one, ascended Lord, power from on high. And Jesus can be all this to us, too.
In our lifetime of following Jesus it may well be that our view of who Jesus is and how we encounter him might change, especially when life’s events challenge or frighten us.

May the incarnate, resurrected and ascended Jesus be with us and may his Spirit come to strengthen us to grow in knowledge of Jesus Christ, and to be witnesses to his love and to God’s kingdom of peace for all people.
And do not let your hearts be afraid: for Jesus is with you. Here. Here's Jesus.