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