Get Around GodSpeak

 

Follow Me on Pinterest

Read Up
  • Unreconciled?: Exploring Mission in an Imperfect World
    Unreconciled?: Exploring Mission in an Imperfect World
    by Ann Richards, Mission Theology Advisory Group

    This book is the reference resource for the 2012 Lent courses at All Saints Ealing and St Martins West Acton. The focus is about making our theology of reconcilaition personal not just a matter of Christian duty. It is all too easy to pray for reconciliation for war torn countries "out there". But what about the reconciliation needed "in here"? What about the Unreconciled in our homes or on our doorsteps who feel left out, unheard, wounded or ignored? How can the local church offer the gift of Christ's reconciliation to those whose problems we are not even aware of?

  • Why Sacraments?
    Why Sacraments?
    by Andrew Davison

    A very thorough overview of the 7 sacraments and their relationship to the doctrine of the incarnation. Davison's writing is accessible, scholarly and succinct. 

  • Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style
    Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style
    by Aidan Kavanagh

    Essential source book for any liturgist. Kavanagh unpacks basic very profound principles informing healthy Echaristic worship.

  • Why Go to Church?: The Drama of the Eucharist
    Why Go to Church?: The Drama of the Eucharist
    by Timothy Radcliffe

    How the Eucharist brings us into slow work of faith, hope and love.

  • Creating Uncommon Worship: Transforming the Liturgy of the Eucharist
    Creating Uncommon Worship: Transforming the Liturgy of the Eucharist
    by Richard Giles

    This book highlights the great richness, variety and imaginitive potential of modern sacramental worship. A must read for liturgists.

  • The Art of Worship: Paintings, Prayers, and Readings for Meditation (National Gallery London)
    The Art of Worship: Paintings, Prayers, and Readings for Meditation (National Gallery London)
    by Nicholas Holtam

    An excellent collection of spiritual reflecions on selected artwork in the National Gallery. This is Nicholas Holtam (one time Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields and now Bishop Salisbury) at his best.

  • Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams
    Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams
    by Mike Higton

    A must-read for anyone who wants to understand the fundamental principles behind Rowan Williams' theology.

  • The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger
    The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger
    by Richard Wilkinson, Kate Pickett

    A compelling statistical study about equal societies and the broad based social benefits enjoyed in these nations. The numbers are easy and so is the read; but the implications are hard to swallow.

  • The Shattered Lantern: Rediscovering a Felt Presence of God
    The Shattered Lantern: Rediscovering a Felt Presence of God
    by Ronald Rolheiser

    What does authentic Christian spirituality look and feel like? This book explores these very relevant themes and will leave you deeply enriched.

  • Tradition and Imagination: Revelation and Change
    Tradition and Imagination: Revelation and Change
    by David Brown
  • Discipleship and Imagination: Christian Tradition and Truth
    Discipleship and Imagination: Christian Tradition and Truth
    by David Brown
  • God and Enchantment of Place: Reclaiming Human Experience
    God and Enchantment of Place: Reclaiming Human Experience
    by David Brown
  • God and Grace of Body: Sacrament in Ordinary
    God and Grace of Body: Sacrament in Ordinary
    by David Brown
  • God and Mystery in Words: Experience through Metaphor and Drama
    God and Mystery in Words: Experience through Metaphor and Drama
    by David Brown
  • Poet and Peasant: Literary-cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke
    Poet and Peasant: Literary-cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke
    by Kenneth E. Bailey

    An outstanding study of the parables. Kenneth Bailey's profound insights into the Middle-Eastern culture of Jesus' day will revolutionise the way you see the parables. 

Tuesday
Jan102017

In remembrance of Freda Pepinster, 12 September 1924 to 28 October 2016

“I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes,” Matthew 11:25.

We have already heard about Freda’s great love of the natural world and the beauty of poetry. As Jesus suggests in that reading from the Gospel of Matthew, the instinct to be available to something more, what you might call the transcendent, in the everyday moment is anything but conventional. Indeed, it is an openness to Christ himself, who we believe is constantly communicating the joy and gentleness of God’s grace to us – “rest for the weary soul, an easy yoke and light burden.”

Freda shared in that self-effacing indomitable spirit of her generation. Her character would have been tested in a crucible of social, political and economic upheaval, an age where history seemed to be turning in on itself. It seems to me that the life we celebrate today is one of resilience, good humour and quiet determination.

So, perhaps I should go further to say that Freda’s delight in the beauty of God’s creation began with a deep reverence for the beauty of human dignity. A passion for the common good, that “all who labour and are heavy laden” should have that dignity enhanced and protected. And let us do this with a smile.

I would say that this is more than simply the product of a warm, wise and outward facing temperament. It is faith - an instinct to the hopeful higher things in a manner that is well earthed. To quote Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore: “Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.”

So today, above all things we give thanks for Freda’s participation in a reality much greater than that which meets the eye, the reality of the dawning of the world to come. It is into the loving embrace of God’s gentleness that we commit her soul today. To quote from Wordsworth’s Daffodils, a poem she recited to Catherine very boldly in her final years:

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance. 

Amen.

 

 

Tuesday
Jan102017

In remembrance of Ernest Suffern, 24 December 1927 to 4 December 2016

Psalm 23, like most of the psalms, is not just sacred scripture. It is a song. So the words, poetic and beautiful as they may be, were actually written to be sung. This is certainly a recognised custom for Jewish families as they sing it at the third Shabbat meal on Saturday afternoon. And of course, we have that very famous metrical version of the psalm to set the tune called Crimmond – singing “The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want."

The reason I go on about singing is because Ernest Suffern was, among his many other qualities, a passionate singer. He was very familiar with Psalm 23 and indeed Crimmond. It seems that his singing career began at an early age when he was chosen to be one of the Ovaltineys. This was a children’s club established by the brand Ovaltine to promote the drink in the United Kingdom. I am told on good authority that Ernest was part of the group of children who helped to sing the jingle for the radio show. And it went something like this: 

We are the Ovaltineys
Happy girls and boys,
Make your request we'll not refuse you
We are here just to amuse you.
Would you like a song or story
Will you share our joys?

“Make your request we’ll not refuse you…Will you share our joys?” reflects something of the character of this wonderful man. In an insert for the parish magazine entitled “And the song goes on!” the then Vicar’s wife, Valerie Reddington, writes about his courage and strength whilst undergoing treatment for lymphatic cancer. “In spite of his condition,” she remarks “Ernest was determined to honour a singing engagement he had set up with his group to make money for the church hall project. Those of us who went to this delightful evening 'Alma and friends' will remember the moment when it was Ernest’s turn to sing, and how he joked about his breathlessness.” He and Valerie were kindred spirits when it came to music-hall entertainment and the variety show.

It seems fitting that we should remember Ernest as one who tried to live his life as song of joy for others. In this way the light and love of God shone through him very brightly. ”Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” could well describe his approach to life and the basis of his faith.

So I think he would have identified approvingly with the image of Jesus the shepherd sung to us in Psalm 23. The Lord who tenderly but stoically nurtures and protects his flock, with them unceasingly night and day in all of kinds weather and all types of threat. It is especially poignant because, as we have already heard, there where many dark valleys for Ernest and Edna to endure. The loss of their son Colin Paul was possibly one of the darkest.

But Ernest would want to point towards the mountain tops, “my cup runneth over” he would be singing with gusto. In our conversations he would talk of his many great joys. His long and satisfying service in the British Council. His pride in his son Neil and his beloved grandchildren. And how he was the luckiest man in the world when he met the beautiful Edna, the love of his life and his wife of 63 years. They have been inseparable and will remain inseparable by a love that is stronger than death.

On Christmas Eve this year Ernest would have been 90 years old. It is a significant birthday that will now be celebrated with the whole host of heaven in glory. For those of us who remain on this side of eternity, we will remember a man of genteel manners, humour, generosity and determination – a person of the type of character that is fast becoming a lost generation. Whenever we hear a melody that lifts the spirit and brings a smile to the face we will the share in that joy he sang about as an Ovaltiney - ”Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” Amen.

Tuesday
Oct182016

Called to Perseverance not Preservation - Vision Sunday 2016

St Barnabas, Ealing. Vision Sunday, Sunday 16 October June, 2016. Readings.

 

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

If I were to coin a governing principle for the life of the local church I might say something like this: we are not called to preservation but perseverance. There you have it. Let tweets be tweeted. Of course, the encounter with the resurrected Christ in our gospel reading today does a much better job at conveying the power of this message than any slogan could. Jesus appears to his disciples and as with the other post-resurrection appearances they do not, at first, recognise him. This group of disciples return to their former occupation of fisherman and decide to set out to fish in the Sea of Tiberius. They catch absolutely nothing throughout the night. Then Christ asks them to cast their nets to the right side of the boat. This time, not only do they get results but the catch is so large that the nets strain to hold it.

The Gospel of John does not record the reaction of the disciples to Jesus’ prompting, but it does recount that he asks them to acknowledge they have caught nothing. I think it’s fair to surmise that these men felt it would probably make no difference whatsoever to the state of affairs whether they cast their nets to the left or the right of the boat. I would also think that by this point they would have been exhausted and most likely somewhat exasperated by the request. And yet, they comply. At the prompting of this compelling stranger something makes them persevere. 

There is an even deeper poignancy to this moment. Everything that they thought they had received from or understood about Jesus had been shattered by events in the preceding days. They had abandoned and betrayed their teacher to the malign agenda of the temple authorities and the ruthless machine of Roman imperial rule. The messiah had been executed. The bright hope of change, of a better future had been snuffed out. What was there left to do? “Nothing but to survive, to revert to form. Let us go fish. But even this leaves us empty handed.” The mood must have been shot through with shame, desolation and confusion.

The turning point in this story is not necessarily John’s sudden epiphany that this the Lord. The transformation begins earlier with the surprising willingness of the disciples to comply with an illogical command from a stranger who seemed familiar but was as yet unrecognised. The resurrected Jesus not only points the way to a seemingly impossible future, it is through both his presence and power together with the cooperation and perseverance of his followers that it is realised. In my mind there can be no better vision for the local church. We are the hope of the world not because of who we are or what we think or even necessarily what we do. We are the hope of the world, because the one who was dead is now alive and he is with us and makes us his own. He is with us even when we don’t feel it or recognise him and he guides us into a future of abundant life and renewal, justice and peace for all creation. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the well-known German Lutheran pastor who was imprisoned and later executed by the Nazis for being associated with a plot to assassinate Hitler, said this about the calling of the church:

“It is not we who build. Christ builds the church. Whoever is mindful to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it, for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess, he builds. We must proclaim, he builds. We must pray to him, and he will build…It is a great comfort which Jesus gives to his church. ‘You confess, preach, bear witness to Me, and I alone will build where it pleases Me. Do not meddle in what is not your providence. Do what is given to you, and do it well, and you will have done enough…”

An authentic and life-giving vision for the church is one that helps us to resist the delusion that we can usurp the work of the Saviour – unwittingly or otherwise. In our time this most often takes the form of anxious preservation. We are not called to preserve an institution or to prop-up a vaguely Christian form of the rotary club, what Bonhoeffer would identify as, “the building of temples to idols without wishing or knowing it.” First and foremost, we are called to be with Christ, to belong to him and to persevere with that belonging and responding even when all else seems lost. And this is where we began: the vocation of the local church is not preservation but perseverance with the good news that Jesus Christ is present, that Jesus Christ is the good news, that Jesus Christ is Lord of today and tomorrow.  

Our usual form at this time in our calendar is to consider a draft budget for the upcoming year. That exercise helps to refocus our minds on what we want to be achieving in the next 12 months and whether or not we have achieved the aims we set out last year. It also a habit of reminding ourselves to review our giving. But this centenary year offers us the golden opportunity to reflect on the quality of our emerging vision for the next decade and even century. This will eventually take a more concrete and pragmatic expression in our developing Mission Action Plan – a road map if you like. The PCC and Ministry Team, together with ongoing feedback from you have been working hard on discerning and distilling a way forward, listening to the promptings of Jesus Christ. We will meet for an away day in November which will be exclusively focused on mission planning. In January during Epiphanytide – the season in which the church celebrates the spreading of the good news in the world at large – we will refine and then launch that plan. Today, let us reflect together on what it means to be a local church with an authentic Christian vision – a Christian community persevering to live out and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ for the next generation.  

At the Willesden Clergy Conference from which Deacon Jill and I have just returned, the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, outlined four attributes of the church’s calling. They are abundance, humility, hope and audacity. All four of these are echoed in the encounter between the risen Jesus and the disciples on the beach in John 21. All four are ways of making explicit the unspoken vision we have for our local church and indeed our world – because for Christians the two are inextricably connected. 

Abundance

“…they were not able to haul …in (the net) because there were so many fish.” (John 21:6)

We could translate abundance to mean generous blessing or even the gift of resources.

(Write down) Where do you experience abundance or blessing in your own life? Where do you experience abundance in the life of our church?

So often in the church we begin by focusing on scarcity rather than the generous provision we already enjoy. This is a habit that has sadly taken hold of us at St Barnabas at times. By pointing this out, I am not trying to minimise the pain we have been through in our recent past nor I am suggesting that we should take proper management lightly, financial or otherwise. Both would be a simplistic denial of our reality and our calling. However, our instincts are more often than not fine tuned to what we don’t have or to an anxious prediction of what might happen rather than on what we do have and are being given. The latter is a springboard for a future, the former is a script for a depressing self-fulfilling prophecy. If we are obsessed with our lack could we hear the voice of the saviour saying “cast your nets to the right hand side”, would we be even willing to take the risk?

The time has come to acknowledge and to celebrate that we are a very blessed parish church – blessed in finances, blessed in the gifts, talents and generosity of our people, blessed by our location and community. Thanks be to God.

I am delighted to be able to celebrate with you this morning that we have finally paid off our organ loan. Thanks must go to the perseverance and hard work of Hugh Mather and the generosity of all those who have supported this project. As a result of this, I am also delighted to celebrate with you that we will not only return to paying full common fund in 2017 but will be able to give in excess of it. We are once again a net contributor to the mission of the Diocese of London. 

If we are co-operating with Christ to build his church, we should be patiently expecting his generous provision but if we convince ourselves that we know best, that we are going to charge of this, then we have chosen to take the place of our Saviour.  Our calling is about perseverance not preservation.

Humility 

“Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” (John 21: 4- 5)

If we find our identity as the church in the resurrected Christ then he will draw us into confronting the stark reality of our situation and then in response to it, lead and share with us in the ordinary service of love. In this way we participate in the kingdom of the servant king. Humility of heart and mind and purpose.

Jesus does not make a dramatic entry into this scene as a hero figure, the proverbial knight in shining armour; he stands on the beach and simply meets the disciples in the midst of their situation before guiding towards the future he as prepared for them to share in. 

While we have much to celebrate and give thanks for at St Barnabas we too need Christ to keep us mindful of the absolute reality of our situation. The percentage of people attending Church of England parishes dropped below 2% of the population this year but the national census in 2011 showed that 59% of population identify as Christian. What are we doing to grow and nurture the next generation of Christians in this part of West London? This church like many others, relies heavily on the generous time and talents of many older or retired people. What are we doing to raise up the next generation of lay leaders in our parish? We recently received the results of a 5 yearly buildings inspection report from the Diocese. Whilst our buildings are in good condition, the report showed that including the restoration of the apse painting and a host of various smaller works a sum of approximately £180000 should be spent in the next 5 years. How can we responsibly maintain, enhance and evolve our physical plant – these buildings – to enable our witness and mission? Every year we host the night shelter for six weeks. How are we serving our local community in ways that aren’t just recreational but also transformational? How are we allowing the local community to serve us?

(Write down) Can you think of a time you were touched by another’s humility?  Can you name one way that we have succeeded and one way that we have failed to be humble as a Christian community?

Hope

 “That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ “ (John 21:7)

An opinion piece on the rising crisis of human isolation this week reminded me about the state of suffering in our world. Written by George Monbiot, it lays the blame for our current social pathologies (plagues of anxiety, stress, depression, social phobia, eating disorders, self-harm and loneliness) at the feet of neo-liberalism. He says pointedly: “Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.” By “everywhere” he means government, the education system, the jobs market and the media.

The question for us is: do we really believe that the local church is good news for our neighbours? You see, whilst I applaud Monbiot’s passion for pointing out the alienation exacerbated by particular political or economic ideologies, the answer to the deep ache of loneliness so prevalent throughout human society is not simply more or even differing systems of ideas. To echo the reaction of the apostle John on the beach, “It is the Lord!” Are we a sacramental community that proclaims and reflects the joy of that recognition because we know that in the presence of the risen Christ peace, healing and flourishing for all creation is unfolding? In other words, do we dare to be a people of resurrection hope? This is not optimism or wishful thinking but witnessing to the resilience of the crucified and risen Christ standing in the midst of our suffering and despair. Do we dare to persevere for a future that is not already evident?

(Write down) What is one way that the church is good news for our local neighbourhoods? Where have you found signs of hope in your daily life?

Audacity

“So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.” John 21:12

To quote the Bishop of London, “there is far too little ambition in the Church of England.” If we belong to the risen Christ, the one who is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end why are we frequently so introverted and timid about his kingdom? Can we dare to dream big dreams for God or more to the point could we imagine that God in Christ is using us to fulfill ambitious things for his kingdom?

“The Spirit of God comes to us from the future,” says theologian Ray Anderson. Like the disciples on the beach, we cannot fully see the future in God’s terms, we may not even think there’s one at times and this can paralyze us. We pray “Your kingdom come”, not ours. With that conviction in our hearts and listening for the cues from one who is eternally present in all time, we cast out the nets expecting to be surprised and sometimes even astonished.

(Write down) How can we be ambitious and confident for the God’s kingdom in our neighbourhood? Has God been nudging you to take a particular risk even though you can’t see the future?

For us at St Barnabas, we have seen how God has already been at work through a spirit of unexpected hospitality and we should be audaciously expectant about this work of the Holy Spirit in the years to come. On the beach, Jesus takes the fish the disciples have caught and then shares a meal with them. They are guided, welcomed, blessed and fed for the work ahead. So may it be for us.

The people of God are not called to preservation but perseverance in the things of God. A local church that sets its gaze on the risen Christ and reminds itself constantly that it belongs to him, calling itself back to that cosmic identity and salvation cannot help but be good news for the world.

In a sermon given on the night before he was assassinated Martin Luther King Jr said the following:

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

“Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.” (John 21:4-6)

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

 

 

Tuesday
Aug162016

Hosting the Wild Word of God - Centenary 2016

St Barnabas, Ealing. Centenary Jazz Mass, Sunday 5 June, 2016. Readings.

 

"Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you." (1 Kings 17:9)

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

Writing to the parish on the Golden Jubilee in June 1966, the third vicar of St Barnabas Church, Fr Nevill Hetherington, points out: "It has often been said that it takes 100 years to build a ‘Parish’.“

Well, I wonder what the "Rev Nev", as he was affectionately known, would make of us today. We have, of course, officially already turned 100. The church was consecrated on 3 June 1916. Looking around, I don't think we look too bad for centenarians. But, can we now at last claim to be a proper "parish"? 

It does seem appropriate to reflect on our calling as the parish church in Pitshanger Lane on this most important birthday. What does it mean to the church, the people of God, in this place and time? And what then of the next 100 years? I'm sure we will all agree with Father Hetherington's later observation in that same letter when he says "…building is still going on and progress will, I pray, never cease". 

It just so happens that the story of the prophet Elijah and the widow of Zarephath offers us plenty of rich material with which to reflect on the call and work of God's people. So, turn with me to that reading from 1 Kings in your service books and let's unpack something of what it offers.

I’d like to make just two preliminary remarks before we look more closely at the text:

  1. We find the prophet Elijah in the wilderness in this story. In Scripture, the wilderness signifies a time of testing and unexpected gift. Moses, Abraham, Elijah, John the Baptist and, indeed, Jesus enter the wilderness to be tested, to be stretched, to meet God.
  2. In 2 Kings 1:8 we are told that Elijah emerges from the wilderness as a wild man. In the storytelling of ancient cultures, the wild man is the embodiment of a threat to civilized culture and the status quo. He is dangerous. Some of the theological implications of the wild prophet Elijah is that the prophetic word of God cannot be tamed, it presents a risk to those who will play host to it. We return to this point a little later.

Turning then to the text. The word of the Lord comes to Elijah telling him to go to Zarephath – "I commanded a widow there to feed you." From this we expect that he will be openly welcomed and graciously hosted by the widow God has commanded. What transpires is quite different to that. At the gate of Zarephath the prophet encounters destitution and dejection. The widow of Zarephath is not primed to be the instrument of the Lord as we would have thought. She says in verse 12:

"As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die."

This moment of tension is actually just as miraculous as the events in the rest of the narrative. The widow in her destitution, against all common sense and reason, takes the risk to show hospitality to a wild man of the desert. In so doing, she inadvertently becomes the host of the untamed prophetic word of God. And it is in this way, through risk and vulnerability, that she ultimately responds to the command of God to fulfill her calling. The consequence is the miracle of abundant provision for all of them. The presence of the untamed prophetic word brings transformation and life. In verse 16 we read: "the jar of meal was not empty, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah." 

But does this mean that there is to be no more suffering, no further crisis to endure? No, disease and death come among them. Now the widow regrets her willingness to host the wild man of God. Has the untamed word of the Lord come to bring judgment and punishment for her sins? After all, is this not what we all sometimes expect of God’s presence?

But the prophet refuses to leave or to let God off the hook. In a moment of beautiful poignancy, Elijah asks her to hand him her son "from her bosom" and he lays him on his bed. And then he has words with God. Verse 20: "He cried out to the Lord, ‘Oh Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I'm staying, by killing her son?’" And then he holds God to account. Verse 21 “O Lord my God let this child's life come into him again."

Once more the prophetic word of the Lord brings the miracle of life. However, we should not be too distracted by the wonder of the risen dead or indeed the bottomless jars of meal and oil. The most profound work of the powerful word of God is that in both cases communion is restored; relationships are forged or healed. In both cases the prophet holds the covenant word, the God who is relationship, to account. In the first miracle this holding to account is implicit: "I have commanded a widow than to feed you," – the prophet expects this promise to be fulfilled. And then the holding to account is explicit in the second miracle, when Elijah practically insists that God restore the life the widow’s son in order that relationships may be healed.

The story of the prophet, the widow and the resurrected son, reminds us that the work of God's people is the risky and frequently demanding business of learning to build communion with seemingly scarce resources.  The presence of the untamed prophetic word asks us to open the gates of our hearts, like the widow, to become the host of the wild man from the desert. The theologian Carolyn J Sharp says:

"When we dare to a host the prophetic word, we are transformed. For we encounter a God who delivers the powerless, a God whose word yields inexhaustible abundance, a God whose compassion is stronger than death."

But of course for us, the wild man from the desert is much more than a prophet. He is the saviour himself, the untamed Word made flesh. Just like every generation of Christians, the first question we must ask ourselves is this: are we prepared to take the risk to host the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ? By instinct and through study of the scriptures we know that responding to this question with our very lives is neither pain, nor risk free. In fact, quite the opposite, a lot of the time it can be difficult, cumbersome and even heartbreaking. And yet, our deepest longing is to cry out “Yes! Yes, come and make your home with us. You, the wild man from the desert who is God, who eats with sinners and heals on the Sabbath, we will be your hosts even though we are terrified! Come restore us to our true selves.” 

You see, when we welcome the prophetic word of love into the most vulnerable places and spaces of our lives, we realize just like the widow of Zarephath, that God's power has come among us not for judgment but for life. And we make that gift most visceral, when standing with the neighbour and, most importantly, with the stranger in the midst of their suffering, just like the prophet Elijah and Christ himself. That’s the work of learning to be in communion. When we allow God to speak through our own desperation and suffering, when we find in the devastation, the untamed presence of love. That’s the work of being in communion, building relationships. And that is how we become much more than people who just memorialize the meal of Christ, the Eucharist, every week. We become people who live the Eucharist, who are swept up in the current of Christ’s unexpected hospitality every day. Broken bread, wine outpoured, for each other and the world – a living sacrifice. That’s the good news.    

There's a wonderful scene in the movie The Way. A bereaved father played by Martin Sheen arrives at a bed and breakfast on his pilgrimage along the Camino Way. A group of people are enjoying lunch on the verandah. As he is walking past a man stands up and says brightly "We have been expecting you!" The father is taken by surprise. He says "But you didn't know I was coming." The man responds "You are a pilgrim no? We are always expecting you. We are all pilgrims here."

As we look to the next 100 years, can we keep saying yes to the untamable word made flesh again and again?  I think we can, we are and we will. And because this movement of God is ongoing and uncontainable; because it is risky, cumbersome and even painful at times, the work of being "parish church" – a place of communion that exists for others as much is itself – will, to quote Father Hetherington again, "never cease". We say “yes” to the unpredictable, untamed Word made flesh so that we our lives may say to the neighbour and the stranger "Yes, we have been expecting you. We are all pilgrims here."

Some final words from the theologian Carolyn J Sharp: 

"Elijah's prophetic word points to the One who is the way, the truth and the life. Host that word, know the truth and live." 

"Go now to Zarepath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have come commanded a widow there to feed you." (1 Kings 17:9)

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

Sunday
Sep072014

Introducing the 7 Sacraments

St Barnabas Ealing, 12th Sunday after Trinity. Readings can be found here

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.  

You may be wondering why I have chosen the reading of the prodigal son to introduce a sermon series on the Sacraments. “Is this not about forgiveness and restoration?” you might be asking yourself. Well, yes it. But it is also much more than that. In fact, I want to draw attention to what many biblical theologians would consider to be the two fundamental movements conveyed in this powerful parable - that of free will and grace.  

The movement of grace seems evident here but the two clues to the extraordinary depth of the father’s forgiveness can easily be missed. In verse 20b it says “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” The biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey argues that In Middle-Eastern culture it would have been unthinkable for a father to run towards a son who had effectively treated him like he was dead by demanding an early inheritance. The very idea that this same father might even be looking for a traitor son would have been considered both mad and foolish. The point is that the father is on the look out despite being rejected by his son in almost every way possible. He is eagerly awaiting his return and when he sees him coming rushes towards him, setting his own dignity aside. 

The movement of free will is also clear in the parable but it is worth emphasising. Whilst the reprobate son decides to take his inheritance early, abandon his father and then squander his wealth, he also decides to return to his father. Granted, his motives may still have been largely self-serving but he does exercise his free will in returning.

And so it is through the remarkable meeting of grace and free will that we see the purposes of God revealed or what Jesus otherwise calls “the kingdom”. What flows from it is the restoration of relationships, dignity and a peace which passes all human understanding.  

This then, is where I want to begin as we unpack the meaning of the sacraments. As the theologian Andrew Davison suggests in his book Why Sacraments?  “the sacraments are occasions in which we encounter Christ. Or, since the emphasis should rest on him, not on us, the sacraments are occasions when Christ reaches out to us.” In light of our parable this morning, we might say they are occasions in which Christ sees us coming and runs towards us. We, for our part, exercise our free will to respond to or at the very least make ourselves present for these gifts.  Fundamentally then, Christians of the West and East believe that the sacraments are the means through which the transforming power of God’s grace is encountered, particularly in the context of the church. You will note that I said thee Church - that is when two or three are gathered in Christ’s name - not the church building. 

The Book of Common Prayer defines a sacrament “as the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” This well-known phrase highlights two key components of the Church’s understanding of the sacraments: the material or outward dimension and the spiritual or inward dimension. This is very important to get right. Like the incarnation of Christ himself, the material and spiritual aspects of the sacraments cannot be separated. Throughout the history of the Church many questioned the need for the physical aspect of the sacraments - particularly in the reformation. Is this not about being ‘ritualistic’ rather than an authentic follower of Christ? Worst still, why do we need this stuff to mediate between us and Christ when the faith is really about a very personal, direct and internal experience? 

The answer to these questions come from scripture and the ministry of Christ himself. The roots are to be found throughout the Old Testament. Faith in the one true God is played out in the interaction with physical things: the sacrifice of a lamb on an altar, the painting of door frames with blood, the circumcision of first born males, the dividing of a sea. But in particular, as Christians we believe that Jesus is Emmanuel - God among us. Jesus is constantly demonstrating the nature and purposes of God not least of which is his own messianic calling through interactions and metaphors that make use of the tangible. He heals lepers and the dead by touching them. To heal the blind he spat on the ground to make a muddy paste. He turned water into wine. He draws in the sand to psychologically disarm an angry mob. He rode on a donkey. He compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed, a pearl of great price and yeast. He calls on his followers to be salt and light. He ate, slept, laughed, cried and died on a brutal instrument of torture. When he rose from the dead on the third day the heavy stone in front of his tomb is physically rolled away. Mary Magdalene does not encounter a ‘spiritually’ resurrected Jesus, but a physical one. And indeed, in our parable today, the father calls for his estranged son to be dressed in the fine things of a nobleman - a ring, a robe and new sandals. The fattened calf is slaughtered and a feast prepared. The unseen reconciliation of father and son is made visible through the signs of favour and celebration. More than that, it is actually facilitated or mediated through it. Remember, it is not the return of the prodigal son that scandalises the older brother but his father’s lavish celebration of his return. 

On the other end of the spectrum is the claim that we don’t need the sacraments of the church because God is in all of creation. We simply have to take a walk in nature or enjoy a good meal to encounter God. This conviction emerges from a good place. As Christians we hold dear to the idea that creation is holy and wholesome. However, this general sacramental awareness is grounded and nurtured through the specific sacraments of the church. If we choose to dispense with these rites, we are effectively abandoning the way Christians have collectively shaped communal experience for thousands of years.

In addition, there is a streetwise toughness to the 7 sacraments. They direct us into the awe-inspiring recognition that God is in the present moment and then beyond it to the hopefulness that is promised through the suffering and resurrection of Jesus. God isn’t just with us in the here and now, he is constantly redeeming us in this moment and our future. The incarnation is not an end in itself, it is the means of God’s saving work.  

So the sacraments recruit the material and spiritual in a way that actually prevents sharp distinction. Andrew Davison explains it in these terms:

The Christian tradition will not let the ‘spiritual’ be simply spiritual or the ‘material’ be simply material. It shows this by constantly taking material things and dragging them into church (babies, love and marriage, bread and wine, the dead) and by constantly taking spiritual things and enacting them materially.

Attentiveness to the human condition with all of it’s messiness and wonder is at the heart of Christ’s life, teaching and very being. This is why the profound spiritual questions of sin, suffering, forgiveness, freedom, well-being and eternal life are infused with the seemingly mundane substance of the sacraments - actions, bread, wine, water, oil, ash, songs and words.    

This of course echoes what I highlighted at the beginning about the parable of the prodigal son and the sacraments. Christ rushing to meet us, harnessing the very stuff of our existence. Above all the sacraments demonstrate to us over and over again that the one almighty God, maker of heaven and earth, shapes salvation in terms we understand by sending us Jesus Christ - to live with us and like us, to suffer as we do, to die as we one day all will and then to rise again. Through the power of his sacrifice we believe that we will too.   

So important are the 7 sacraments to the Church that we believe that some give indelible shape to our souls and others sustain or repair that identity. In fact, there is nothing in the joy and suffering of the human condition that the sacraments do not transform, heal or nourish.  

Of the 7, we believe 4 impart a particular character (or imprint) of Christ. Baptism incorporates us into the people of God - the body of Christ. It cannot be undone or redone. Confirmation, as its name implies confirms the work of the Holy Spirit begun at our baptism. We are given the mark of an adult member of God’s household. In marriage two individuals are grafted together through the Holy Spirit. In ordination, the call to serve the people of God is recognised and that character consecrated by the people of God through the bishop. In all 4 of these sacraments the Church holds that our identities are changed for good. The remaining 3 sacraments nourish or repair us. Principally through Holy Communion we are forgiven, fed, watered and sent out for mission. In anointing we became available for the healing of mind, body and spirit according to God’s purposes. In confession, we speak the things that hold us back from accepting the grace of God and then are restored to our heavenly father.  

In the meeting of grace and free will we experience the sacramental provision of God who is running to meet us in his son Jesus Christ. He is constantly reaching out to us in ways we understand, through signs that affirm, transform and repair the deepest realities of our hidden selves. 

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him… “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.