Category Archives: Preaching

One World Week – On Seeing Things Differently

Following on from my previous post, I’ve been giving some thought to what it means to be the Church in a messy world and turbulent political landscape. The following is a sermon (so quiet on the Tory-bashing, alas!) for One World Week (the texts are Micah 6:6 – 8 and Luke 4:14 – 30):

 

I’m a big fan of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ for my sins, and I’m there on a Saturday night, week-in, week-out, glued to the television. One thing I dislike about the programme, though, is that they always seem to invite one or two people to take part who seem to be there basically for people to laugh at. Apparently, after the first show of this series, in which the contestants were paired up with professional dancers, one of the judges told Robin Windsor, dance partner of Emmerdale actress Lisa Riley, that they had no chance, presumably as she’s a larger person. Thus, when she proved that she can really dance, it was fantastic to see; just like when Susan Boyle wiped the smug smile off Simon Cowell’s face when she began to sing, that first dance challenged lazy stereotypes and forced people to look at things in a fresh way. Our two readings today are, in their various ways, about Israel being challenged to look at things in a different way, to re-think what being God’s people in the world was all about.

When Jesus had been baptised in the river Jordan, the same river that Israel crossed to enter the Promised Land, the Holy Spirit told him that he was God’s beloved Son. Immediately after, he was thrust into the wilderness by the same Spirit to face up to what that meant – he was Israel’s Messiah, and his mission was to re-define what it was to be God’s people, breaking down national barriers, among others. That was bound to lead to trouble, because it would mean challenging not just the ideas of ordinary people, but also the powerful religious and secular authorities of the day. After this time of preparation, which brought together all those years of prayer, thought, studying the Scriptures and wrestling with God, he was ready to begin his ministry.

Jesus returned to Galilee and went about preaching in the synagogues, gaining quite a reputation for himself. One day, as he’d done many times before on the Sabbath, he stood up in his home synagogue in Nazareth and began to read, this time from a scroll of Isaiah’s prophecies. He went straight to the place where it said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to tell the poor the good news. He’s sent me to announce realise to the prisoners and sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free”. When he’d finished reading, he gave back the scroll, sat down and declared, “Today, this is being fulfilled right in front of you”, to the amazement of the congregation. These were words of complete and utter grace, pure and simple. However, the good mood wouldn’t last for very long…

A work colleague of mine supports Manchester City – I suppose somebody has to! – and just before the last match of the season, he fully expected his team to lose and so throw away the title. His experiences of many years had taught him that City had a habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. At first glance, it might seem that Jesus managed to do just that in the synagogue that day. He’d had the crowd in the palm of his hand when he said that he knew they were all waiting for him to perform a spectacular act, like they’d heard about from his time in Capernaum. One can imagine the buzz of anticipation among them. However, he talked instead about prophets not being accepted in their home towns, and God choosing to rescue Gentiles through Elijah and Elisha when he could’ve helped Israelites. The people were furious – so furious that they chased him up to the mountain top on which the city was built and tried to throw him off, but he managed to slip through the crowd unnoticed. What was going on?

Well, expectation was rife in Jesus’ day about the coming of the Messiah, whom they imagined would be a sort of military leader who would violently shake off the rule of the hated Romans and plant Israel firmly at the top of the pile. Given the nationalism that underpinned most people’s thinking, it’s not surprising that the crowd reacted very badly to Jesus’ words. In the face of their hopes and dreams, he was telling them that God wasn’t just interested in one nation, but in the whole world. His message was about grace for everybody, rather than violent judgement for everyone outside of Israel. In quoting Isaiah 61:1 – 2, he was pointing to a broader vision of the Messiah’s role, and ultimately he was laying the foundations for the counter-cultural world of the Kingdom of God. Israel was going to need to think again about who it was and what it was for – what did it mean to be God’s people living God’s way?

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One World Week is both an exciting opportunity, in that it’s a chance to come together and explore key issues in our world, and a deep challenge, as it asks hard questions about the Church. Are we a people who seek to break down barriers, to welcome all into God’s family, to shine the light of hope into the world’s dark places? By the way we live our lives, do we help to free the prisoners, give sight to the blind and bring liberty to the oppressed? This isn’t an easy business; after all, it ultimately led Jesus to the cross. It involves being willing to take risks and build relationships with people who’re in some way ‘different’ to us, which can be scary, but that’s the challenge that God lays down to us. Just like Israel, the Church cannot hope to be all God made it to be if it turns inward and becomes a kind of exclusive club, but instead it needs to look outwards for signs of God’s Kingdom work, role up its sleeves and join in.

Our Old Testament passage offers a vision of what it means to live God’s way. Micah was one of the minor prophets, and his ministry took place mostly in the latter half of the eighth century BCE, before the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians; his writings thus span six decades of God’s people struggling with their calling to be a blessing to the nations. In our reading, Israel is represented as a worshipper wanting to know how to please God, and assuming that this can be done through sacrifices and offerings. However, sacrifices were meaningless if the life of the people didn’t reflect God’s life; unless their actions and words matched up, it was empty worship. Micah was trying to point Israel back in the right direction; true worship means seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.

Bringing this all together shows that God’s deep longing is for his people to take the risks required to make his Kingdom visible in the world through the quality of our living, individually and as a community, and in doing so to break down the barriers that prevent there really being ‘one world’. There’s no point in gathering together every week for worship if that worship isn’t the catalyst for lives lived seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. Here are three thoughts on what this might look like in practice:

Firstly, Jesus did perform spectacular acts that gained him a reputation as a miracle-man among some, such as the crowds in today’s reading, but actually, most of the stuff he did was pretty small-scale. Much of his ministry was comprised of lots of little acts, the power of which cannot be underestimated. It’s easy when faced with big problems like those we see on the news every day, to give into despair and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed. However, we follow a Messiah who was prepared to be vulnerable and who made his selfless love known primarily in the small things of life. Never underestimate the power of small acts of kindness.

Secondly, Jesus wasn’t afraid to ask the big questions, and challenge those in authority. He unsettled the social and religious ‘status quo’, not just by meeting people’s immediate needs when he could, but by pointing out the underlying structural issues that caused those needs to arise in the first place. In our day, it’s the equivalent of asking why food banks are needed, rather than simply being pleased they’re there. This does mean getting political, though not necessarily party-political, and whether it’s getting involved in campaigns for social justice, going on protest marches, letter-writing, spending your money ethically or simply thoughtfully exploring the issues, it makes a difference.

Thirdly, Jesus made sure that he took time out to rest and to be with God. There’s always the danger of both burnout and of losing sight of God. Jesus’ relationship with God was the catalyst, inspiration, source and end point of everything he said and did, from the powerful and dramatic to the small and subtle. A living faith means putting things into action, but it’s still a faith – we need to depend on God for strength and energy, direction, and hope when the going gets tough, as it will.

Social action matters because God and all he has created matters. There’s no such thing as a waste person in the Kingdom, but there is light, hope, love and the possibility of transformation. One World Week is as good a time as any to begin put this vision into action…

Learning to Party with God

Inspired by reading TractorGirl discussing Nehemiah, this is my sermon for Sunday,  on learning to party with God:

Partying with the Community of God

Nehemiah 8 : 9 – 12, Mark 3 : 31 – 35

 

A few years ago, I lived in the beautiful city of Bath. Legend has it that it was founded by a Celtic king, Bladud, who was cured from leprosy by its waters. Centuries later, the Romans built a spa town there, named after both a local deity and one of their own gods. Sadly, Aquae Sulis was abandoned when the Empire collapsed. Yet in time, the city regained prominence, and Edgar, the first king of all England, was crowned there in 973 AD.  However, Bath as it is today was built mostly during the Georgian period, with Bath Stone quarried by Ralph Allan. The Abbey, the site of Edgar’s coronation, is the third such building to have stood on that spot,  and was heavily refurbished in the 1880s. Moreover, the façade of the famous Roman Baths is actually Victorian.

Bath’s story illustrates how easily things can be forgotten if we’re not careful; most of its Celtic and Roman past was only rediscovered by archaeological work carried out during the nineteenth century.  History had to be re-learnt, and stories of old brought to life once again.

Something similar happened to the people of Israel when they returned from exile in Babylon. They were held captive for roughly seventy years, and all apart from possibly the oldest in the community had forgotten much of their pre-exilic past, including it seems the teachings of the Law, which had defined them as a people, and shaped their relationship with God. That heritage needed to be unearthed, just as much as the bricks and mortar of Jerusalem needed restoring.

When Nehemiah saw the ruins of the city, he set about having the wall rebuilt, in the face of a good deal of opposition. Once security had been established and the people had resettled,  his attention turned to restoring Israel’s worship and spiritual life. On the first day of the seventh month, Nehemiah gathered the people by one of the city gates and, with the help of several of the priests, began to read from and interpret the Law of Moses to them.  This unnerved the populace, because it highlighted the shortcomings that led to their exile in the first place, and they began to weep.  However, Nehemiah told them to stop, and instead to go away and celebrate. This wasn’t a time for tears; Israel had to re-learn how to have a party! Why, you might ask?

Well, festivals were a hugely important part of Israel’s national life; they reminded them of what God had done in the past, particularly his bringing them out of slavery in Egypt, and of his goodness to them in the present. Pentecost, which we celebrated a fortnight ago, has its origins in the Jewish festival of Weeks – their harvest festival. These events helped to lay bare what it meant to be the people of God. It was vital, therefore, that Israel learnt to reconnect, after the years of austerity in Babylon, with that rich heritage.  The God who’d brought them out of exile wasn’t interested in laying on the guilt, as Nehemiah realised, but instead in encouraging them to live his way, so that they could have life to the full, and through them, all the nations would be blessed.

That call to be part of God’s community and to live his way is there in our Gospel reading, too.  Jesus’ family had been unnerved by the numbers of people coming to him for healing, and no doubt influenced by the scribes who were ready to brand him demon-possessed, thought he was going mad. When they tried to pull him away from the crowds sitting at his feet, Jesus declared that anyone who does the will of his Father – that is, lives life God’s way – is part of the family. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that they are no longer servants, but his friends. In both cases, and whichever language we prefer, we’re being invited to enjoy an intimate relationship with God, made possible because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. That grace sets us free to live life to the full, and to be God’s community in the world, so that others might know his love too.

However, it can be all too easy to lose sight of this, because the Church often acts like it’s forgotten how to celebrate, how to bring God’s story alive, so that we can be swept up by it, and be ready to help write another chapter. It strikes me that learning how to let ourselves go, and really enjoy God, is something vital and urgent that we need to focus upon. The Diamond Jubilee provided an opportunity for people to come together, share stories and build relationships. That’s exactly what we need to do; after all, we have an amazing story to tell.

Now it’s your turn to do some work. I’d like you to turn to the people next to you, and spend a few minutes talking about a time when you’ve experienced God at work in your life. It doesn’t matter if it was a happy or sad occasion, or whether it happened yesterday or many years ago. If nothing immediately springs to mind, then feel free to talk about something that happened to someone you know. Either way, let’s spend a few minutes sharing stories of God’s goodness.

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I hope you found that encouraging. Being comfortable talking to each other about our faith and our experiences is important, because often we don’t do that and so miss out on such a lot, and because we’re likely to feel more confident talking to people outside church about our faith, and why it matters to us, if we can do so in a ‘safe space’, if you will. It’s a first step to learning how to really let ourselves go and celebrate with God.

However, it also matters that we don’t fall into the trap of glossing over the difficult bits of our stories. God doesn’t need us to make him look good, nor is he somehow disinterested in the complications and the muddle of everyday life.

Bath makes a great deal of how Jane Austen lived there for a time; there’s even a heritage centre dedicated to her. The reality, however, was that she hated Bath, which she felt was basically a cattle market.  She was sick of being made to intend endless balls,  in the hope of attracting a suitably wealthy husband! When Queen Victoria visited the city at age sixteen, she was apparently told by a charming young child that she had dumpy legs! She resolved never to visit Bath again, which she didn’t, and she hated it so much she used to pull the blind down whenever she was on a train passing through it. More seriously,  Bath has a serious homeless problem, and the South-West edition of the Big Issue was started there to try to address the situation. These stories are just as much part of Bath’s history as the ‘good stuff’ I told you about at the beginning of this sermon. Leaving them out would give a false picture.

The bottom line is that we have a God who knows full well what it’s like to be human, because he’s lived among us. He’s not a distant and disinterested God, but instead one who wants all people to be part of his community, to be his brothers, sisters, close friends, and to party with him. The Life with a capital ‘L’ that Jesus came to bring is a foretaste of that we’ll experience in the great heavenly party, when God restores the heavens and the earth. Will you be going?

Afternoon Tea at Tiffeny’s, and other randomness

It’s been a busy couple of months, but as I now have the internet working at home and the rare luxury of  a free evening, I’ve decided that it’s about time my blog came back to life again, so here’s an update on life:

 

  • I think I’m over my mini crisis of faith, and have actually found a degree of settledness and peace. I guess I’ve finally grasped that it’s ok just to be me, and not to try and push myself into other people’s boxes, because it doesn’t work. I can’t pretend I’ve got my prayer life magically sorted, but I feel relaxed with God, which is a huge step forward.
  • I’m now a graduate of he University of Durham. The day was amazing, and it was great to be able to enjoy it with my partner, parents and friends. I still can’t quite believe I finally made it, and how different I was when I started the whole thing compared to where I am now. I’ve changed so much for the better…. God is very good.
  • I’m now a Methodist Local Preacher – don’t ask me how that happened! I had my first service early last the month, which went very well, and I’m off out with my mentor in Stony Stratford in a week and a half. It’s exciting and scary, but mostly it just feels very right and very ‘me’ somehow. The bit that scares me is the way the whole ordination thing seems to be inching its way back onto the agenda at unexpected moments…
  • The banking world is pretty much the same. I’m now at the stage where most of the stuff from my predecessor has been gone through, documented and tidied up, and I can begin working on my own projects, which is  a good thing.
  • I’ve almost (finally) finished two papers based on my PhD thesis, which I hope to send to my supervisor soon, and then to get published. I miss the world of maths, and want to keep the door open for getting a post-doctoral research position. It’s been nice getting back to grips with it all 🙂
  • I’ve joined a gym, and am seriously working on getting fit.
  • Most importantly of all, Tractorgirl and I have now been together for eighteen months, and I love her more than ever.

At the weekend, I went on a retreat with some friends from Bang! and had a very random dream about a friend of mine directing and presenting a daytime television show called ‘Afternoon Tea at Tiffeny’s’. I might float the idea to the BBC one day…  In the meantime, here’s a couple of graduation pictures:

Me with my parents
Tractorgirl and me chilling after the graduation dinner

On preaching and space

Having spent an interesting hour or so trying to figure out if the University thinks I am student of either the undergraduate or postgraduate variety, or indeed even a student at all (don’t ask – it’s one of those complicated aspects of my life at the moment!), I decided to check out some blogs I used to read regularly but have stopped doing since life got busy.

When I did so, I came across this post by Ben Myers about preaching. The gist of it seemed to be that ‘perfect’ sermons or homilies don’t really leave much room for God to act, and that preaching is by nature an act of vulnerability as without the Holy Spirit, no amount of brilliant exegesis or homiletics can enable people to hear God speak. This got me thinking about a seminar I attended recently where the chaplain of St John’s College, Kate Bruce, talked about the use of the imagination in preaching.

I take it as axiomatic that a sermon is not a prepared script, but actually consists of a particular person speaking in a particular place and at a particular time to a particular group of people. In other words, a sermon is an event (which maybe begs the question of why I’ve posted my sermons on here… ) rather than just the words on a page. The obvious corollary is that the sermon is a two-way process. The congregation have work to do as well as the preacher, and active listening and engagement is required, otherwise the whole thing is pointless.

Thinking about the sermons I’ve heard over the years, the ones that stick in my head have all been those where I have been given the chance to use my imagination. As an example, one of the canons of Durham Cathedral once discussed whether God really has a ‘treasure map’ for our lives and we have to make the right choices at the right points or else miss out on being the people we could be – a wrong turn being fatal. I’ve found myself coming back to this idea over the past few months when pondering the future.

What was good about the sermon, it seems to me, was this creation of imaginative space, in which one was given guidance as to how to make use of the new possibility opening up, but nevertheless left to figure out how to make best use of it for oneself. I think of it a bit like being taught some basic dance moves and given a studio, but it being entirely up to me to put the dance together (or indeed, just to go with the flow of the music and see what happens, which I think is a bit like the idea about the missio dei understanding of what mission is – God in Christ is at work through the Spirit and we’re invited to join in).

This process, it strikes me, requires taking a risk. Risk on behalf of the listener, because stepping out into an imaginative space means one might be changed by the experience, which incidentally I think is the biggest reason we hide from God, because life to the full involves a disregarding of worldly security blankets and this is a painful process (I know for one that I find it very hard to let go and trust God – Luke 12:22-31 is very sobering). Risk to the preacher, because this imaginative space can only ever really be a place of transformation, of new life, if the Holy Spirit is at work there, and we can never force this to happen.

I think this is what Myers is getting at – as preachers, we need to be prepared to take the risk of failing, of all our endeavours falling flat, because it’s only when we are prepared to be vulnerable that God can have room to speak. This isn’t an excuse to be lazy and never prepare, nor does it mean that we should not give our best, but it does remind us that putting God in the ‘box’ of a neatly packaged, perfectly delivered sermon risks stifling the divine creativity longing to turn our mortal words into a vehicle through which the life and love of the Kingdom can become that bit more visible. It also made me think – is being complimented on a sermon a good thing?

In summary, when preaching, try to let go of ego and give people space to imagine, to dream, and for God to create, renew, transform.

What do you think?