Sunday, 10 March 2019

Lent 1: If...

Audio version here 

Luke 4.1-13

“If you are the Son of God…” says Satan to Jesus in the wilderness. He says it twice, tempting Jesus to turn stones into bread and throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple, but that little word “if” is there in the second temptation too, when Satan promises him all the kingdoms of the world “if” Jesus will worship him.

“If”: it’s such a small word, but it opens up alternative universes, different futures. “If” says that things could be different from the way they are – for better or worse. It opens the doors to new possibilities. If we turn right instead of carrying straight on we might find ourselves in a place we never expected to be.  If we decide to stay at a party instead of going home early, we might meet someone who changes our lives. If we say yes to that job opportunity, instead of no, our lives might change completely. That little word “if” implies that we’ve got a choice to make, that things could turn out differently from the way we thought they would. Nothing is written in stone as long as there’s an “if” around.

Jesus’ experience of temptation in the wilderness is all about confronting the “ifs” in his future. If I do this, believe this, act in this way, then what? He has to make choices between alternative visions of how his ministry might be, which will lead him in very different directions. Satan’s questions force him to weigh up those options, to decide what it might mean for him, and for the world, if he truly is the Son of God.

He’d spent thirty years growing up in Nazareth, playing among the wood shavings in Joseph’s workshop, learning the skills of a carpenter. He’d learned the customs and attitudes of the people around him, their way of life, their assumptions. Most people then, and many now, would have expected that their lives would be much the same as the lives of those who’d gone before them. They didn’t expect to have many choices.  Life was precarious if you were an ordinary first century Jewish person man, living in an occupied country; it was enough  just to get by, to avoid trouble, to  scrape a living. There were no careers advisers telling you that you could “be anything you wanted to be”. A carpenter’s son would become a carpenter. A fisherman’s son would become a fisherman. If you were lucky, you’d get married, have children and begin the whole cycle all over again.

But something was niggling at Jesus, the sense that things could be different, that he was different, called to follow a different path. At the age of twelve, his anxious parent, realising they’ve lost him on the return journey from Jerusalem, find him in the Temple, debating with the religious leaders. “Didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?” he asks. He’s realised that, however much he loves and respects Joseph and Mary, there’s a world opening up before him which his parents could never have imagined. His future isn’t going to be about making furniture in Nazareth. 

That’s confirmed dramatically when John baptises him, just before this story we’ve heard today, and a voice from heaven tells him “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. But what does this mean? That’s what the Spirit leads him into the wilderness to find out.  “If you are the Son of God…” Satan says to him, as he offers him some versions of the future that probably look quite appealing. Turning stones into bread – what’s wrong with that? Being kept safe from disaster by God - that sounds fine too! Surely these are the kind of superpowers that any self-respecting God would give to his son. But Satan gives himself away in the second of his temptations. His version of the Jesus’ future depends on Jesus worshipping him. The kingdoms of the world can be his, “if” he worships him.

The future is up for grabs as Jesus struggles with temptation in the wilderness. That what all the “ifs” in it suggest.  His ministry could go in any number of directions. He could create a kingdom like all the other kingdoms of his time, a kingdom where might is right and the weak are left to fend for themselves, where leaders are in it for their own power and glory. That would be the easy way, the way of all the other kingdoms he saw around him. But Jesus, in that wild place, has wild thoughts, “ifs” of his own to counter Satan’s.

What if the poor and the marginalised were given pride of place? What if they came first in the queue instead of last? What if children’s voices were listened to as carefully as adults? What if women were treated with respect, as equals, not as property? What if success wasn’t judged by how much money people had, or how famous they were, but by how much they loved others, how easily they spotted God’s likeness in them, how little they needed, and how thankful they were?

“What if” life was like that? Jesus thought to himself as he sat in the desert. It would probably be painful and costly and frightening, but wouldn’t it be wonderful too? Could he bear that pain? Could he choose this future over the one that Satan offered him?

We who say we follow Jesus are often tempted, as he was, to take the easy route too, to follow the train tracks of the world, trundling along looking for all the usual trappings of power and glory, as if we had no choice. But, praise God, there have been people in every generation ready to as those “what if” questions afresh, uncovering once again the vision of Jesus’ kingdom. St Francis wondered “what if I gave up all the riches I have and lived out Jesus’ message alongside the poorest of the poor? Campaigners for the abolition of slavery like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, William Wilberforce – asked “what if” people of every colour believed that they were sisters and brothers? In this week when we have celebrated  International Women’s Day, we might ask “what if” women throughout the world could be who they are called to be, offer their talents in every field of life, without having to face discrimination, trolling and outright abuse? On a personal level we might ask “what if I could change and grow, think differently about myself, live more simply, more lovingly? What sort of future might that open up for me?

Out in the wilderness, Jesus asks wild questions just like these, as he struggles to choose between alternative futures, alternative visions of who he could be and what he could do.  It all hangs in the balance as Satan tries to convince him to choose the future he offers, but in the end Satan shoots himself in the foot, because he doesn’t seem to realise that Jesus’s relationship with his Father is so close that it’s completely obvious to him that Satan’s suggestions bear no trace of the family likeness, no hint of God’s voice.  He suggests ways forward that are all about self-enrichment, self-aggrandisement, self-protection.  “If you are the Son of God… choose these”, he says to Jesus. But the God whom Jesus has grown up listening to would never call him in this direction, and Jesus knows that too well to be taken in.

My daughter – an inveterate traveller - once told me that she had been about to get on a night bus in some dangerous corner of Central America when she suddenly heard my voice in her head telling her it wasn’t a good idea, so she didn’t. Phew! We know the voices of those we are close to, the way they think, the things they are likely to do. Their voices echo in us, and if we respect them we pay attention to them. Jesus knew his Father’s voice, his Father’s priorities. His ability to resist Satan is rooted in his relationship with his Father.

If we are going to be able to choose life-giving futures for ourselves and for our world, it will be because we have nurtured our relationship with God, our life-giver too. In this season of Lent, we’re also invited out into the desert, into the place where there is space - and provocation - to think, to ask “what if?”, to dare to imagine that the future can be different from the past, different from the way others tell us it will be, different from the way we have convinced ourselves it will be. But to do that safely and wisely, we need to have learned to recognise God’s voice amidst all the clamour of the world, to have nurtured that relationship with him, through prayer, through Bible reading, through service of others, through coming together for worship. It’s not something that happens in an instant. It takes time – the theme of our Lent studies this year. It takes steady commitment day by day if we want to “know him more clearly, love him more dearly, follow him more nearly” as the prayer of St Richard, which the choir will sing later, puts it.

Jesus was given a choice. If he was the Son of God, what would that Sonship look like? We are given a similar decision to make.  If we are children of God, as God says we are, what does that mean for us, how will people know, what difference will it make, how will it shape us and the world we are part of?


Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday can be a bit of a hard sell. It’s easy to attract people to a lovely Christmas carol service, or a joyful Easter service all full of chocolate eggs and spring flowers. Ash Wednesday doesn’t seem to have much to recommend it though. “Come along and remember all the stuff you’ve done wrong, and by the way, we are all going to die! Dust you are and to dust you shall return!”

But here we are. Something draws us here. Perhaps we are the kind of people who are never happy unless we are miserable, the kind of people who like giving ourselves and others a hard time? But no. I know you, and you know me, and that’s not how I would describe us at all.

The truth is that for those who “get” it, Ash Wednesday is rather a relief, because it’s the moment when we remind ourselves that it’s ok to be human, to be mortal, frail and fallible. We don’t have to be superheroes. God loves us as we are. That doesn’t mean that we don’t want to grow, to heal, to be transformed.  But we don’t have to pretend. We don’t have to look happy and shiny if we aren’t.

Ash Wednesday  is a serious day, a day when we can take ourselves seriously, and know God takes us seriously too – we matter to him, and the way we live our lives matters to him – but there is, or ought to be a joy in that seriousness. We can be honest about our failings because we know that God loves us, failings and all. We don’t have to earn his love, and nothing we can do will destroy it. In a world where so many people, so often, feel they have to put on a face, sell themselves, talk themselves up, it is really good news when we can find a place where we can just be as we are.

And if we begin Lent with joyful seriousness, with the real conviction that we are absolutely loved, then when we get to the resurrection morning, Easter Day, we will find that the new life it promises is also more real. If we live Lent with joyful seriousness, when Easter comes we will find in it serious joyfulness, joyfulness which reaches down into the depths of our being.

So it may sound odd to rejoice on Ash Wednesday, but I always find that I do, and I hope that you will too. It’s good news that we are dust, because that dust is beloved dust, precious dust, dust which God in Jesus inhabited and blessed, and blesses still.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Beloved Sons: Sunday before Lent

In today’s Gospel reading we meet two pairs of fathers and sons.

“This is my son, the Chosen; listen to him” – there’s the first pair. God speaks from heaven to Jesus’ baffled disciples.  They don’t get it. They haven’t got a clue what has been going on as they have seen Jesus shining with glory, and Moses and Elijah, figures from Israel’s ancient history, talking with him.

Peter has thoroughly embarrassed himself in his confusion by opening his mouth before his brain is in gear. “Shall I build you some tents?” he blurts out. We’ve probably all been there – not at the Transfiguration, of course, but in some other situation where we didn’t know what to say or do, so we just said or did the first thing that occurred to us, something banal and, on reflection, rather stupid. Faced with the spectacle of heaven breaking through to earth, Peter reaches for something, anything, that is familiar; in his case, a bit of DIY. But as soon as the words are out of his mouth, it’s obvious that he has got it wrong.
I mean… how does he plan to do this anyway? They’re up a mountain. Did he bring a pile of 2 by 4 and a tarpaulin, just in case?

But who can blame him?
Jesus doesn’t appear to. There is no rebuke, no “Now look what you’ve gone and done, Peter”. Although the vision vanishes and the cloud comes down, there’s no sense that this is a punishment, or that it is because of what he has said.  It is just that this was never meant to be an experience that was permanent. It is a spectacular moment, to be wondered at rather than clung to. Peter may feel he’s made a fool of himself. We may wince at his rather crass suggestion, but Jesus doesn’t seem to mind.

There are words of rebuke in the Gospel reading, but they come later, when we meet the second father and son in it. A man has brought his child to Jesus’ disciples to be healed. He’s probably one of many sick children in this needy crowd – sick children and desperate parents were two a penny in this pre-modern society as they still are in many parts of the world. There was very little anyone could do to cure or treat illness.  The child has what would probably be diagnosed as epilepsy today. But, in Jesus’ absence, the disciples haven’t been able to heal him, and they seem to have washed their hands of the situation. Notice that they don’t come to Jesus themselves and say, “we couldn’t help this poor family. Can you do something for them?”  It is left to the man himself to call out from the crowd.

The rebuke Jesus issues is really aimed at his disciples, who have failed this family. “You faithless and perverse generation,” cries Jesus, “how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”  It is a cry of frustration and pain as much as of anger. It didn’t bother him that Peter, John and James didn’t get what the Transfiguration meant; it does bother him, though, that after all they have seen, his disciples don’t get what  his ministry among the  poor and the sick is about.  

To understand  his rebuke, we need to remember that people at the time of Jesus didn’t have the same problem we would about the possibility of miraculous healing. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have a problem; it was just that their problem was different from ours. We struggle with the biological, scientific possibility of miracles.  They assumed that all healing came from God anyway, and that if he wanted to he could heal anyone he liked – they had no issue with that. The question for them was whether God wanted to heal, and who he wanted to heal. If this boy was sick or demon-possessed, according to their way of thinking, it was because either he or his parents had done something wrong, which had let the demons in. If he wasn’t healed, it must be because God didn’t want him to be. It wasn’t that they didn’t trust God’s ability to heal; they just assumed that if he didn’t it was because the child or his family had deserved their fate . So, when their prayers for this child hadn’t worked, they gave this father and son the brush off. God obviously didn’t want this child to be healed, so why should they waste time on him either?  

But to this child’s father, that wouldn’t do. On the mountain, God had cried out from heaven “This my Son, my Chosen” – this is someone special, someone beloved – “listen to him”; but to this desperate father, his son was just as beloved, just as special, just as precious, and he knew it was just as important that his voice, the voice that shrieked out in his convulsions, was also listened to. He wasn’t having it that there was no hope, and neither was Jesus.

Jesus is angry with his disciples because they were not only saying that they didn’t care about this boy, they were behaving as if God didn’t care either. They were saying that God had rejected him, handed him over to the demons that tormented him.

As you may have noticed, if you followed the reading on your pew leaflet, there was actually an option to leave out this second story this morning. It’s in square brackets. I didn’t because it seems to me that they are meant to go together.

Two fathers, two sons. The first set are famous. Everyone’s heard of them.  . God Almighty and the Word made Flesh, the Saviour of the world, the Messiah, the Chosen One. This Father and Son are enthroned in glory, celebrated in music and art, prayed to, sung about. The other father and son were anonymous, unknown, slipping back into the crowd after this miraculous healing, with no hint about what happened to them next, and yet, if you had been them, this event would have changed your life. Joy had been restored to them. They had been given back their lives and their future, and all because Jesus had seen the beloved child within the cruel distortion of the illness that had held him in its grip for so long.

It is very easy for us to be impressed by the wonder and the glory of the Transfiguration. It’s a big shiny story, quite literally. It’s amazing, stupendous. And yet, on its own, what difference does it make? The disciples who were there didn’t understand it.  “They kept silent, and in those days told no one of any of the things they had seen”, we are told. Much later, they came to see it as evidence for Jesus’ divinity, but at the time, it just baffled them. It was as if the light of God’s glory was so bright that they really couldn’t see it at all, as if the cloud that surrounded them was so thick that they couldn’t find any way of comprehending what it meant. On its own, it is a great story, but it can leave us saying “so what?”

It’s when we see it next to this other story, of this other father and son, that it challenges us as it should. What does the glory of God really look like, it asks us? What does it really mean? Can we see it when it isn’t big and shiny, when it isn’t giving us an emotional high? Do we have the faith to look for God’s glory in the mundane, daily stuff of life, in the plains and the valleys as well as on the mountains? Can we see it in the insistent demands of this troubling father who won’t take no for an answer, in the people and situations that are inconvenient for us? Can we see it in the longing of ordinary people like this pair simply to live with ordinary dignity;  the family that come to the foodbank because they can’t make ends meet, the refugee who just wants his children to be safe, the addict struggling to stay sober and clean, the homeless person who is just trying to get through another night on the streets?  Can we see God’s glory in mess and muddle and pain? Do we have the faith to look for it in failure, in despair, in darkness, in death, in a man executed shamefully on a cross, or lying lifeless in a stone-sealed tomb?

Jesus saw God’s glory in this convulsing child. He saw him as someone made in God’s image, a beloved son, a chosen one, like him, someone who deserved to be valued not only by his father but by everyone else too, a child worth saving, worth helping. His anger was for those who refused even to contemplate the possibility that God might be present and at work in him, the people who took one look, made one failed attempt to heal him, and wrote him off.

The story of the Transfiguration is always the set reading for the Sunday before Lent, at the point when we are about to set out on a journey that should challenge us, if we make it properly. We travel from the hill where Jesus is transfigured, shining, acclaimed by God, to the hill outside Jerusalem where he will die apparently forsake by his father, in shame and agony, overwhelmed by evil, just as this child has been overwhelmed by his illness. But Jesus looks again at him, and sees God at work where no one else but his devoted father has done. Lent invites us to look again - at Christ, at ourselves, at the world around us - to look for God’s glory, to trust in his fatherly love, not only in the bright lights and the sunny uplands, but everywhere, in everything, and everyone.

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Where is your faith? Second Sunday before Lent

Audio here 

Genesis 2.4b-9,15-25, Luke 8. 22-25

“Where is your faith?” says Jesus to his stunned disciples in today’s Gospel story after he has stilled the storm which is about to engulf their little boat. “Where is your faith?”

I was struck by Jesus’ question as I read this story, because it is rather different from the question Matthew and Mark have him asking in their accounts of this strange event. Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels share a lot of stories in common. They are called “synoptic gospels”. Synoptic means “the same eye”, or perhaps “seeing from the same perspective”. But they aren’t identical, and the little differences in the way they tell the stories matter.

So, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus asks “Why are you afraid – have you still no faith?”  The disciples in Mark often seem completely clueless. Perhaps that’s a bit unfair, but it’s meant as an encouragement to his readers, and to us. If they struggled, no wonder we do!  Matthew gives them a bit more respect in his telling of the story “Why are you afraid, you of little faith”. They have faith, but not much. But Luke takes a different tack completely. As Jesus looks as his terrified followers, the question he asks here is where is your faith?” They have faith, he says, but where is it? What have they placed it in? Why wasn’t it there for them when they needed it, as the wind howled and the waves crashed around them?

We have no way of knowing what Jesus actually said, of course, but I like Luke’s version, because it seems to me that human beings are usually full of faith.  We have to be. There’s precious little we can really be sure of in life. We have faith that the sun will rise in the morning and that it is still there, even when it is hidden by clouds.  We have faith that we will be paid at the end of the month, or whenever we get our wages, otherwise we wouldn’t go to work. We have faith that the food we buy contains what the label says it does. We usually have faith that most people are telling us the truth, as far as they know it. Even if people may have lied to us in the past, and we know that  have lied to others too, we still tend to assume that people basically mean what they say and say what they mean.

Life would be very cumbersome if we had to have proof of everything people tell us. How can we be sure, for example, that those who will serve us coffee at the end of this service haven’t laced it with cyanide? I very much hope they haven’t. They’ve never done so yet. But we can’t be sure. The only way we could prove it was safe would be either to send it off for testing – and then, can we trust the testers? - or to drink it and see if we all keel over. Apologies to the coffee makers for using them as an example…but you get the point. We live by faith, trusting in all sorts of things for which we have no evidence whatsoever, but Jesus question reminds us that we need to think about where we place our faith, and in whom.  

So, where is the faith of Jesus’ disciples? What do they trust in as they begin to face this storm? They’re fishermen. They’ve been sailing these waters all their lives. As the story starts, they surely have faith in their own skills and knowledge.

They probably have faith in each other too.  Maybe, as the storm began to build and each one privately realised that they didn’t know what to do, they consoled themselves with the thought that one of the others did. “Simon’s an old hand, he’ll be able to cope and give us a lead!. Andrew’s resourceful. He’ll come up with something!”

Maybe they believed that God wouldn’t let anything bad happen to them. Maybe their faith was in the religious ideas and cultural assumptions they’d grown up with. They were good people. They went to synagogue. They cared about others… Maybe they thought that ought to protect them against misfortune.

Maybe, like so many of us, they’d put their faith simply in the assumption that “it will never happen to me”. We all tend to think we are immortal until illness or accident hits us or those close to us.

Wherever their faith was, it didn’t seem to be helping them much as they faced the storm in that tiny boat. Their skill and knowledge wasn’t enough to keep them safe. None of them turned out to have a cunning plan, or any plan at all, come to that. All those good things they’d done didn’t seem to be enough magically to protect them against disaster.  This was happening to them. They weren’t immortal.

So eventually they did the only thing that was left to them. They woke Jesus up, and asked for his help.  “Master, Master, we are perishing!”  Finally, they put their faith in the place it really needed to be; in Jesus, and in their relationship with him. They didn’t tell him what to do. They didn’t know what to do, so how could they? They just told it like it was - “we are perishing!” and left it up to him. They decided that they could trust his love for them, that whatever he did, it would be for their good and certainly better than whatever they could do for themselves.

As St Paul put it in his letter to the Romans (14.8) “We do not live to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die we are the Lord’s.”  

This story is an important reminder of what faith really is. It isn’t just or even mainly about a set of intellectual propositions, like those we recite in the Creed. Faith isn’t believing things about God; it is about living in relationship with him, trusting in his care, knowing and showing that we believe our lives are richer and better with him in the picture.  

We know how this works from our human relationships. We don’t decide to trust a partner, a friend, a parent, a child because we believe a long list of things about them. We decide to trust them because we discover that life is better with them in our lives than not. We don’t demand proof of their love every day – that’s usually a sign that something has gone fairly drastically wrong in a relationship. We just come to a point where we have taken enough risks with them to know that we want to take some more.  We trust their love and rest on it. We allow them to have a claim on us, because we recognise that they are “flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone”, as Adam said of Eve, people whose lives are inextricably woven into ours.  

Essentially, faith isn’t a noun, a thing that you’ve either got, or haven’t got, it’s a verb, something you do, something which can only really be known  and seen in action.

We express our faith in our coffee making team by drinking their coffee, without checking it for cyanide first! We express our faith in those we love by opening up to them, assuming they’ll want to know how our day has been, how we’re feeling, what we’re thinking. We express our faith in God by living as if he matters to us and we matter to him, by listening for his voice, by pondering his words, but also by crying out to him in anger and doubt and questioning when we need to. Read the Psalms and you will find plenty of that. Shouting at God is fine. In a sense it is a sign of trust, a sign that we expect something of him, just as we would of anyone who cares about us. We may not know what he will do, what he will call us to do, where he will lead us, but you don’t cry out to someone unless you believe they love you enough to care and to respond.

Where is your faith?” asks Jesus of his disciples. Where is your faith?” he asks of us. What do we put our trust in as we face a stormy world – and is it something which ultimately can bear the load? That’s the question this story raises. There’s nothing wrong with having faith in ourselves, in our skills, in our knowledge and experience. There’s nothing wrong with having faith in those around us. But the message of this story is that if we expect these things and these people to be able to bear all our burdens and solve all our problems we’ll be disappointed.

I watched a little video on Youtube this week . I wish I could show it to you, but we don’t have the technology – I’ll put a link to it when I post this sermon online. It shows one of those little trust exercises that people are so fond on of inflicting on one another on training days. A willing victim – sorry volunteer – is told to stand on a chair and shut his eyes. All he has to do is to fall when he is told to. His friends, he is told, stand ready to catch him. He climbs on the chair. He closes his eyes. We see them gather silently behind him, their arms outstretched ready. “One, two, three…fall” he is told. And he falls, in complete trust, forwards. They had forgotten to tell him which way. They had assumed one thing. He had assumed another. “No! “ they all cry as they watch him fall… but it’s too late. I live in hope that it was staged, but I genuinely don’t know.

We live by faith. We have to. But let’s make sure that faith is placed where it should be, in God. Let’s make sure we are, literally, practicing it, doing it, by listening for his voice day by day, pondering his words, calling out to him in good times and in bad, so that when we fall, as we all must sometimes, we know which way we should fall, and where the arms are that will catch and hold us safely, when no others can.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Full Stop : Fourth Sunday before Lent

Today I’m going to preach about a full stop. Just one little, tiny dot in today’s Gospel reading.

That’s probably cheered you up no end, because it sounds as if it will be a short sermon – but I’m afraid that may not be the case, because this particular full stop contains the whole of the Good News of Jesus Christ. If we can grasp what this full stop is about, we have grasped the Christian faith.

So where is this wonderful piece of punctuation?

It’s between the first two sentences which the fisherman, Simon, says to Jesus. “Master, we have worked all night long, but have caught nothing - There’s the full stop -  Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

Simon, of course, will eventually become Peter, St Peter, the Rock on whom Jesus will build his church, one of its first and greatest leaders, but all that is in the future. At this point Simon is just an ordinary working man, one of many fishermen who earned their living around this lake. He’s doing ok for himself. He’s prosperous enough to own his own boat, but not so wealthy that he doesn’t have to work in it himself. He’s mending his nets on the seashore when Jesus comes along. Jesus is right at the beginning of his ministry but he’s already attracting a crowd. In fact, so many people want to listen to him on this day that they are “pressing in on him”, says the story. No one can really hear or see him clearly. So he asks Simon to take him out in his boat a little way from the shore, so he can use the boat as a platform to preach from. Simon is happy enough to help – he can mend his nets just as well in the boat as sitting on the sand.

We aren’t told what Jesus says to the crowd, what he is teaching. We aren’t told whether Simon is really paying attention to it – he wasn’t one of the crowd who’d sought Jesus out that day– though presumably he can’t help overhearing it. When Jesus finishes whatever it is he has to say, he turns to Simon. What is he going to say? “Thank you for the loan of the boat? Could you row me in to shore again now?”   But no, Jesus says to Simon “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Now, if I was Simon, at this point I would be thinking “Who does he think he is?” Jesus may be a good preacher. He may be a halfway decent carpenter. But he isn’t a fisherman. What does he know about fishing? Why does he think Simon is going to accept fishing tips from him? It would be like me turning up at Stonepitts Farm and telling Martin how to grow strawberries. He would be daft to take my advice, because I don’t know anything about strawberry farming.

And anyway, Simon happens to know that there are no fish to be caught. He’s tried. “Master,” he says “we’ve worked all night” – we fishermen, we who actually know what we are doing, as opposed to carpenters and preachers who don’t - “but we’ve caught nothing”.

But then comes that full stop. A pause.  A moment when, perhaps, Simon realises what he has just said. He, an experienced fisherman, has caught nothing. All his skill, all his hard work, have come to nothing. There is not so much as a minnow for supper, let alone any fish to sell. The full stop isn’t just on the page, it is right there in Simon’s life, a failure, something beyond his power to change.

We all come to a full stop at some point in our lives – most of us come to one many times over.

We come to a full stop when the relationship we are trying to mend can’t be mended, because the other person doesn’t want to mend it. There is nothing more we can do.
We come to a full stop when our business runs into difficulties because of global political and economic forces that are beyond our power to change.
We come to a full stop when illness or bereavement strike us out of the blue, and all our plans for our lives crumble into dust.
Full stops come in many forms – small ones and big ones – times when there is no solution, no magic wand, nothing we can do, try as hard as we might.
And eventually death itself brings us all to a full stop. No one escapes it.

It doesn’t matter how skilful we are, how powerful, sooner or later life reminds us that we are not all-powerful, and never can be. There are limits to what we can do – limits of time, energy, ability – and we can’t get past them, no matter how clever or dedicated we are. There’s a common mantra around these days , often repeated to children, that “you can be whatever you want to be, if only you believe in yourself and try hard enough.” It’s an appealing idea, and of course no one should squash anyone else’s dreams and aspirations. But sadly that mantra isn’t true. We can’t be whatever we want to be. I might want to be an Olympic pole vaulter, but at 58, and built more for comfort than agility, I think I can cross it off the list of possibilities. Not everyone can be a famous footballer or rock star or brain surgeon or rocket scientist. You’ve got to have the aptitude, the basic natural ability, as well as the opportunity and a dose of good luck. It’s not just about self-belief. And even if we achieve our dreams, sooner or later we have to let go of them again, like Andy Murray, who spent so long working to get to the top of the tennis world, but is now having to face the fact that his body won’t let him stay there. It’s not the end of everything, not the end of the world, but my guess is that it feels like a pretty big full stop for him.

For Simon the fisherman, the full stop comes in the form of empty nets. “We have worked all night long, but have caught nothing.”  It may just turn out to be a one night failure, but what if there are no fish the next night, and the night after that? How long will it be before he and his family are in serious trouble? It’s a dilemma which faces many people today, subsistence farmers, zero hours workers, people who can’t be sure where the next meal or the next pay packet is coming from, or whether it is coming at all.

James Tissot. The Miraculous Draught of Fishes. Brooklyn Museum
This is Simon’s full stop moment, a moment when he has to confront his own limitation, but because of it his life changes completely. Simon can’t do anything to make the fish appear and yet this preacher in his boat seems to think that he can. And something about him , about the preaching he’s overheard that day perhaps,  convinces Simon that he can put his future into Jesus’ hands, that he must put his future into Jesus’ hands, that there are no other hands that can hold him and lead him in the way he needs to go. “We have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets”  says Simon. This self-sufficient, “can-do” man discovers that he “can’t-do”, that he isn’t all-powerful,  but also that he doesn’t need to be, and that God never meant for him to be. It’s not easy for him to accept this -  most of us struggle to accept help.  “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” he cries when the enormous, miraculous catch of fish is finally landed. It’s not just the catch that is too much to take on board; this holy encounter is too big for his mind as well as his nets.

In the Old Testament reading, Isaiah has a similar, transformative, full-stop moment when he is confronted with God’s glory. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips…”.

St Paul’s full-stop moment came on the road to Damascus, when God confronted him with his own hatred and prejudice, which was leading him to persecute the followers of Jesus. “I am the least of the apostles” he says in his letter to the church in Corinth. But, like Peter and Isaiah, he found that his full stop was the beginning, not the end. He lost his grip on his own life, but that enabled him to fall into the hands of God, who gave him a whole new one.

The word Paul uses for that discovery is grace. Grace is God’s gift of himself to us. We can’t earn it or deserve it, but it’s there for us, at all times and in all places.  Like Paul, Isaiah and Simon, we often only discover it when all else has failed and we find ourselves at a full stop, but the more we learn to look for it and be open to it, the richer and fuller our lives can be and the more that grace can overflow from us to others.  “Put out into the deep water” says Jesus to Simon, not just the deep water of the lake, but the deep waters of love and joy and peace and purpose to which God calls him and calls us all.

I said at the beginning that this little full stop around which Simon’s life turns is really all we need to know. In it we find the whole of the Gospel, the good news of Christ. It reminds us that we are frail and fallible and mortal, people who get it wrong, mess it up, fail and fall, but that when we do, we fall into the hands of God, who, in his grace, holds us and heals us and guides us into new life with him.   

As our collect today put it:
O God, you know us to be set
in the midst of so many and great dangers,
that by reason of the frailty of our nature,
we cannot always stand upright:
grant to us such strength and protection
as may support us in all dangers
and carry us through all temptations;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit
one God, now and forever. Amen

Sunday, 3 February 2019


Luke 2.22-40, Malachi 3.1-5, Hebrews 2.14-18

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

I can’t believe it’s February already many people are saying, it seems like it was only Christmas yesterday, where did January go? With the snow and cold weather this week it feels like we are truly in the grip of winter yet Candlemas marks an important point in our calendar and is an underrated festival in my view. Its timing is symbolic of change, it’s one of those pivotal points in the Christian year between the crib of Christmas and our preparations for lent. Hold onto that crib image and the new born Jesus as we scroll forward from the time of his birth.

The official feast day for Candlemas is 2nd February, obviously this is the Sunday nearest. The Church of England rules for the Christian year state that it is a principal feast day like Ash Wednesday or Ascension day for example, yet it is one with which we are often less familiar. We may also know it as ‘The Presentation of Christ in the Temple’.

Traditions grew based around light, perhaps the light of Christ revealed in the temple mixed with pagan recognition that we are half way between the shortest day, moving away from the season of darkness, and the spring equinox, and this date was adopted as the day when a church would bless all its candles for the year, obviously important when there was no electricity, hence the name Candlemas. Candles can only share their light by burning themselves away, resonating with self-sacrifice, service and love.

Including Christmas day we are now 40 days on from Christ’s birth day. Some of you probably know that Jewish law considered a woman unclean for 40 days after she had given birth to a boy and for even longer after the birth of a girl. During this time the mother would have been excluded from the temple. At the end of this they were brought to the temple to be purified, and also brought the child to present him to God and give thanks, after which the woman would be permitted to join in worship once again. As we strive to make this church a place that is welcoming to everyone it’s hard to hear how the temple at the time of Jesus excluded so many through its various rules and we are reminded to keep in mind how we can make others feel welcome.

So here we have Mary, mother of Jesus attending the temple for her ritual purification 40 days after the birth of her son Jesus. Luke emphasises the humble state of Mary and Joseph as they bring the offering designated for the poorest: two turtle doves or pigeons rather than a lamb. While they offer these sacrifices for their son, it’s a sobering thought that he will grow up to offer himself one day as the sacrificial lamb upon the altar of the cross.

As Christ is presented in the temple there is a strange mix of the ordinary and extraordinary. It’s quite possible that this routine ritual was being observed by several couples who have come to dedicate their babies at the same time, as we sometimes do with christenings. Every parent feels that their child is special but one is clearly more special than the others who are somewhat upstaged by what happens next!

The extraordinary is made real by Simeon and Anna. Luke gives them credibility and respect, a sort of character reference describing Simeon as ‘righteous’ and ‘devout’ and stating that ‘the Holy Spirit rested upon him’. We hear how Anna worshipped in the temple ‘with fasting and prayer night and day’. They are each of a good age and there is a sense that they are the people who could be relied upon to recognise the ‘Lord’s Messiah’ if anyone could. They had been waiting, watching, longing and preparing patiently over the years. 

Simeon, a total stranger, takes Jesus from Mary’s arms and begins to proclaim loudly about him. ‘My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’. 

Simeon and Anna are able to sense the incredible power emanating from this little baby and realise that God has filled the temple, Simeon’s reaction is to praise God, light and hope have been born into the darkness, he’s effectively saying that nothing greater could happen in his life, to the extent that he was now ready to accept death peacefully as a fulfilled and joyful man. Anna starts sharing the good news with those seeking the Messiah. 

Of course the words of Simeon have been incorporated into our ritual worship, as the Nunc Dimittis, from the Latin, ‘now you dismiss’. Said regularly at Evensong they become familiar words of comfort, one commentator describing them like a cup of Ovaltine before bed, creating a mood of contentment before the final rest of the day. But when we recite these familiar words we should remind ourselves of the reality and emotion of the events. 

But we should also remember that Jesus’ parents must have been disturbed and frightened to hear that many will oppose their son and that struggle and pain were in the future.

As we reflect on Simeon and Anna there’s encouragement here for us to keep a patient faith alive. We can all struggle to maintain a vibrant relationship with God at times, and there’s the temptation to drift or just fall into a pattern of worship which is as routine as the weekly ironing. Yet with patience, persistence and mutual encouragement we are far more likely to recognise God at work in each other, know that his love for us is real and that he is with us in our hard times.

After all Anna and Simeon have not stumbled across God by chance, it’s clear that they haven’t lost their hope even as they began to recognise that the years ahead of them were few.

It’s hard to imagine a starker contrast than that between the enduring faith of Simeon and Anne versus the post exile Jews which the prophet Malachi describes. No longer trusting God’s justice and doubting his covenant love, they began to lose hope.

They have totally lost their way and degenerated into a form of worship which had no real meaning, they no longer took the law seriously, tithes were ignored, the Sabbath was broken, intermarriage with pagans was taking place, and the priests were corrupt.

I guess many of us may have had a memorable moment when we receive truths which are hard to hear about what we have lost or our lifestyle, a wakeup call which points out the potential consequences if we don’t change and here we find Malachi doing exactly that and he doesn’t hold back.

The imagery is about separating the bad from good with a great heat that leaves only the pure silver and gold remaining. The ‘fuller’ would beat and tread clothes using alkaline substances to clean them, highlighting the effort that can be needed to become clean again, perhaps not an image so strong for us now we throw a capsule in the washing machine and wait for the bleeps to tell us that all is clean.

Who is the Lord who will suddenly come to his temple that Malachi speaks of? If it is Jesus and his presentation we heard of today which took place over four centuries later then ‘suddenly’ we hear spoken of makes more sense when understood as ‘unexpectedly’, just when you least expected it or had even given up hope.

The challenge of Candlemas, then, is a challenge to find the presence of God in our midst, to look for his love at work among us at home, at work, at school even in church.

As we move closer to Lent now is also a great opportunity to decide how we might use the season to break habits that stop us seeing God at work in each other, might we even learn to be a little more ‘Simeon like’ in our faith, patience and expectation?

So there are several strong messages in our bible readings today but it feels as if they cluster around central messages about our need for enduring faith and an acceptance that God’s time is so immense that we can struggle with this at times, but thinking about our own church might help.

Even though we didn’t have a sermon last week we kind of did really, even if they didn’t realise it, as we were reminded by Vanessa, Mark & Gesiena of our need to show enduring faith in the way we play our part in this church.

A little while back I was reading some old parish newsletters which you may have seen at the back of the church. In one from the 1960’s, when I was born, an appeal was made for all in the congregation to prayerfully consider their giving, people were leading groups, worship patterns were being discussed and much tea and cake was being consumed.

I am extremely grateful to these people as without their devotion I can’t be sure whether I would have found the faith that I now have and I almost certainly wouldn’t be standing here spouting now. Of course many others who have followed have also come to know of God’s love for them here but I wonder how often we look back in thanks that the previous generations had enough faith and love to keep all this alive for us.

Thus it has been for 800 years. Now it’s our turn to enjoy all that we are offered here and keep it going for the next generation. All else we can trust to God’s timing.

Kevin Bright  
3rd February 2019


Monday, 28 January 2019

Giving to Seal Church - Stewardship Sunday

We handed over the "sermon slot" this Sunday to a team from the PCC, who told us more about how the money we collect at Seal Church is spent and outlined the growing demands on our finances. 
If you would like to know more about giving to Seal Church, there is more information on our church website here. 

Vanessa Griffiths, our Treasurer outlined the situation in the following talk: 

I have been coming to Seal Church for about 12 years now and joined the PCC nearly 2 years ago as Treasurer.
·         Basically this role means overseeing the finances of our church.
o   I have an enormous spreadsheet where I record money in and out and allocate it to the various bank accounts we hold, making sure everything balances!
o   Each year I prepare the year end accounts which are then audited and presented at the annual PCC meeting in April.
o   I also hold the cheque book!
·         I’m greatly assisted by Mark Turner, who does our gift aid or tax rebate claim twice a year, plus Denise Firth and Sally Bright, who count and bank the money each month.

We’ve taken over Anne’s sermon slot to talk to you on behalf of the PCC about where the money goes - how your current contributions benefit and maintain our church, the projects we need or want to do and how you could contribute further and the different ways to do this.

Our church
Firstly, I’d like to remind us of all of what a beautiful church we are!
·         By beautiful I don’t just mean all of us (!) but of course this beautiful Grade I medieval building where we all meet together to worship God each Sunday.
·         We are a welcoming church and we have a strong sense of being part of our church family, helping each other out when we’re in need but also getting involved in fund raising events for our church.
·         We are an active church too and play an important role in our local community; such as The Talking Village at Birch’s and Lavender Fields, Friday Group, Children’s Choir and Music groups, KYN bringing the church and village together.

I’m sure we are all very proud to be part of this wonderful church serving God and our community.

However, it’s not surprising that this church, which nurtures us and our community, also needs nurturing itself. It’s old – over 800 years old in fact - and it needs money spending on it to keep it going; to keep a dry roof (literally!) over our heads!

I love being in a church which illustrates the finances
with actual cake, rather than boring pie charts...!
Many thanks to Jenny Elliott - it was delicious! 
The costs involved are significant as you would expect; however, before I talk numbers, the PCC want to say A Big Thank you to everyone for all your contributions, both to the finances in whatever way you do this, as well as the many other ways in which you support our church / church community. Your generosity makes our church what it is today and keeps it going.
And one particular way that keeps us going and which we do really well in this church is…..baking cakes!

So how does the cake fit in with finances ? Well, we are using this as a hopefully easy, and definitely tasty way, to show you the main areas of expenditure in 2018.

It cost £ 1,450 per week last year to run our church (including the churchyard, church hall and vicarage); that’s over £75,000 for the year.

So back to the cake, let’s look at how the costs break down:

1.      Diocesan Payment or Pledged Offer (which every church in the Diocese pays) was 67% or 3/4 of our overall costs (£47,060). What are we getting for this? Essentially
o   it’s Anne i.e. her salary (£21,750), her pension and also the vicarage …. yes she does go home sometimes! That’s nearly 90% of the amount we pay.
o   the rest is our contribution to the wider church community; for future ministry (e.g the selection committees which Anne is involved in), training (Nicky Harvey now fully ordained), and to provide other assistance and support as we may need it.
This cost is likely to rise steadily each year
2.      Running costs (24% or £18,000) such as heating, lighting but also costs to support the services like the music
Again, these costs are budgeted to rise some of which are specific for 2019 (Anne’s sabbatical) others because energy costs are going up for example.
3.      Charitable Giving (7% or £5,500) examples of these are donations to Seal School, Sevenoaks Area Youth Trust, Sevenoaks Christian Counselling
This is an area we are reviewing in our budget as it may no longer be sustainable.
4.      Maintenance Projects (6% or £4,800).
These can represent general maintenance as well as major repair works. These may seem quite low but we offset the roof works by specific fund raising ( the successful ‘Folking for the Roof ‘) and also by using funds from the Loan fund (we pay £200 into this fund each month). However, this is one area which is challenging because of the age of the building; t is constantly in need of care and attention and this often involves significant costs. When there’s not enough money we have to prioritise what we can do.

Gesiena, one of our churchwardens, then outlined some of the repair work and projects we plan to do this year - replastering areas around the font and the North Wall and fixing the chandelier and font cover hoists (required because of insurance demands that hoists otherwise need inspecting, with costly scaffolding, every year). We are also planning to install a Tea Station, with washing up and storage facilities, in the North Aisle, and have a grant from Marshall's Charity to help with the cost of this.

Mark Turner, who organises our Gift Aid tax refunds each year told us about the variety of ways in which we can give. You can find out more on the website here, or pick up a leaflet in church.