Saturday, 27 December 2014

Backwards to the future

Sermon for Sunday 28th December 2014 Christmas 1
Revd Alan Horner was a Methodist minister who inspired many people during his time as a circuit minister, superintendent and district chair (including chairing the Methodist church in Scotland). I was privileged to know him in his retirement when he lived in Milton Keynes and was involved with the Living Spirituality Network. Over the Christmas period I have chosen some poems written by Alan to share with you as we consider together the wonder of Christ’s coming among us. Today, I would like to share with you a poem called

Backwards to the future

We row backwards,
only seeing where we have been -
the wake of our passage,
the rings in the water,
the small splashes of the oars -
not seeing where we are going,
simply pulling as we are pulled,
trusting our direction, destination,
and unable to look without losing
rhythm, speed, grace;
while those with us,
with their own dreams,
join in the drag and drip of oars,
sharing the journey.

Alan Horner

I find Alan’s image of life being like rowing very helpful. We in the West tend to think of the future as ahead of us and the past behind us. Other cultures think of the future as behind us, because we cannot see it or know what it is, and the past ahead of us, because we know what it looks like. That makes a great deal of sense, but what Alan’s rowing metaphor adds is a sense of movement. We don’t stand still and look at the past. We are always moving into the future – backwards. And it is important that we concentrate not on the imagined future, but on the present. We will reach the future smoothly and safely if we concentrate on what we are doing now – on the quality of our rowing and the people who are sharing the rowing task with us.

Of course, when rowing certain kinds of boats – the sort used in racing, for example, there is one person in the boat who is facing the direction of movement, seeing where the team is going. That person is the coxswain, and for the purpose of this metaphor, I invite you to imagine that the cox is Jesus. Jesus came, the word made flesh, in order to make this human journey with us. He got into the boat (literally on some occasions, I know, but please stay with the metaphor for me!) – he got into the boat with us to share in our journey, and he remains in the boat that is our life through his Holy Spirit. If we will listen to him and follow his direction, we will travel the right way.

Allowing Jesus to be our guide in this way may bring unexpected new vistas into view. The shepherds never expected, I am sure, to see a host of angels or to find themselves in the presence of the child who is God. But listening to the instruction of the God, given through the angel, changed their lives – they travelled on from their visit to Mary and Joseph’s child, praising God and telling everyone what they had seen. Likewise, Mary, growing up as an ordinary young woman in Nazareth, would not have seen how her future would turn out. If she had known, saying yes to God would have been so much harder. Mary knew when she agreed to bear God’s son that it would not be an easy path to walk, but if she’d known the detail, seen just how much fear and hurt and pain were connected to the decision she was making, would she have agreed? Perhaps she would, but I thank God for sparing her that knowledge and allowing her only to see and experience what she needed to at any one time. Mary had to deal with the hardships and the joys of the present moment, and she treasured in her heart that view of the past, holding on to the special and wonderful things that she saw and learned.

So for us, as we prepare to head into a new year, we too can treasure the things that we have learned and found joyful in the view that we can see – the view of our past. We too can trust that the coxswain, Jesus, will guide us wisely into our futures and give us the strength we need to deal with whatever is coming when we need to – and not before. And we too can focus on the present moment, playing our part as we row into the future, trusting our saviour and listening to his instructions for us.

A picture with the paint still wet

Christmas Eve sermon 2014
Revd Alan Horner was a Methodist minister who inspired many people during his time as a circuit minister, superintendent and district chair (including chairing the Methodist church in Scotland). I was privileged to know him in his retirement when he lived in Milton Keynes and was involved with the Living Spirituality Network. Over the Christmas period I have chosen some poems written by Alan to share with you as we consider together the wonder of Christ’s coming among us. Tonight, I would like to share with you a poem called

A Picture With The Paint Still Wet.

The Word became flesh
and has his portrait painted,
but not hung in a Gospel Gallery,
gazed on by the multitudes
for a fixed fee. His
was a picture with the paint still wet,
changing with the changing light,
open to interpretations, all correct,
depending on where the viewer stood.

The Virgin Birth was a stroke
of genius, an inspiration of eternity,
unique in its conception,
delicate in its portrayal,
showing the seeming simple
life of obedient faith.

Bethlehem background
might have been predicted,
being the home town
of that most honoured king,
himself a son of God,
though wayward with it,
the singer of God's praise.

He was a shepherd too, of sheep
and of God's nation flock,
but shepherds were but common folk,
at home in sheepfolds
or in sheltering barns,
no airs or graces, though sufficient grace.

Angels and stars were messengers
in that ancient world, where
all such forces were servants
of the most high God,
and served to indicate
the face of the divine,

the source and end of true wisdom
for all who love the truth,
whatever their religion, race,
and unlikely gifts. Such are
the Magi, also in the canvas,
moving across the screen, adding
their own flavour, colour to the whole.

That the paints run and the lines blur
is not a matter of surprise. This
is not the stuff of science or of history's
assumed or proven fact. This is not prose,
but poetry, with its own power
to reach the heart, which static pictures lack.

Alan Horner

When the paint is still wet, a painting can still be changed. A line can be blurred, or lifted, or a tip of the canvas can cause paint to run and blend – deliberately or not. It is still a changeable image, with almost a living quality. Alan’s suggestion in his poem is that we think of the story of Christ’s birth in the same way. Even now, more than 2000 years after the event, the story is still new and immediate, still with potential to change as the still wet paint blurs or is blended. God has not finished his painting.

But, we might think, the story is the story. It happened, all that time ago, and the story we tell does not change. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem, fail to find a comfortable private room where Mary can have her child, use a manger as a cot, and are visited by shepherds with stories of angelic visitors. We know this story well. How can it change? How can the paint still be wet?

The change, of course, is in us. Alan in his poem reminds us that from different angles we see the picture differently, interpret what we see differently, and as Jesus remains as alive and as fresh as ever, we see his picture catching the light in different ways, as wet paint does. Some of us look from the vantage point of morning light, clear and strong - perhaps so strong that our morning preoccupations shine against the wet paint and stop us from enjoying the colours. Some of us see the picture with its colours made golden by a setting sun, perhaps dazzled by the way the gilding on the halos and the magis’ gifts reflect the light back; some of us see the picture through the gloom of depression or trouble, unable to see the details. But we are not tied to seeing the picture in that way every time we look at it. Jesus came into the world to show us God’s love and bring us God’s salvation. That is an offer of change, not in God, but in us. So we can ask him to show us the picture in a new light. We can ask him to use the divine paintbrush to help us to respond in love, and to grow as followers of Jesus. For every one of us, as we see the picture in new ways – perhaps one day seeing how we can share in the awed worship of the shepherds, or another day seeing how we can join in the great ‘yes’ to God’s work said by Mary – we can be changed. If we allow God to put us into the painting, to treat us as part of that picture with the paint still wet, we can be coloured and recoloured, blended and changed.

The Word became flesh and invited us to follow him, to love him, to be a part of his picture. It is a picture with the paint still wet, unfinished, growing, inviting. Will you allow the poetry of God made human to reach your heart? Will you risk allowing Jesus to paint you into the picture, and to change you, starting tonight?

Thursday, 11 December 2014


Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18

The third Sunday in Advent is often called Gaudete Sunday. It falls near to the point when Advent observance steps up its daily attention to preparing for Christmas with the inclusion of the 'O Antiphons' in daily offices. Gaudete, or Rose Sunday, was widely observed in the medieval period, fell out of favour following the Reformation, but has been revived in some churches recently. The name Rose Sunday comes from the use of the colour pink, which we most often see in the pink candle included in the Advent wreath, and sometimes even see in rose coloured robes worn by the clergy. The change for one week to rose points to a theme which colours, in more ways than one, the solemnity of Advent. The purple of Advent signals to us, as in Lent, that this is a time of year for an emphasis on prayer and fasting, for avoiding indulgence and for considering how we can grow in our discipleship. They are all things for doing all year round, but it helps to be reminded sometimes, because it is easy to get caught up in the daily affairs of life and to put our spiritual lives on the back burner.

Gaudete Sunday is very much a part of this reminder to us of our spiritual priorities, but with a particular emphasis. Gaudete means Rejoice, or be joyful, and most people associate the word with the rousing Latin Christmas Carol made popular by Steel eye span (though I still cherish being part of a carol service at St Paul's Cathedral and hearing the choir singing Gaudete as they walked, holding candles, down the nave of the darkened cathedral.)

Of course, some may resent the imposition of a day that tells you to rejoice. You know the feeling. Something has happened that affects your mood negatively. You've lost your wallet, or your dog has died, or got a lower mark than you expected in the exam even though you revised like mad, or you've been overlooked for that promotion you were sure you deserved.... And then some so-and-so says 'cheer up!' No thanks.

But this morning we heard St Paul telling the church in Thessalonica to rejoice always. Did he really think that on the bad days, when someone was ill, or the authorities were cracking down on Christians, they should 'Cheer up'? Well, not quite. Of course if something goes wrong there is going to be disappointment or anger or fear or sadness.  The temptation can be to make those feelings the main theme of the story. The Thessalonicans could tell a story of struggle, persecution, infighting (with all the personal unpleasantness that brings), and loss. Dwelling on those things would have been a sure route to depression, decline and failure as a church. Who wants to go to a miserable church, or hang out with miserable people? There are different ways of telling a story, which motivate or damage, build or destroy. The way to motivate and to build is to rejoice and give thanks. It doesn't mean pretending to be happy when you are not, but always being open to the positive, seeking it out and describing it.

For example, when I reflect on the life of this Benefice, and the work I have to do here, I could tell a story of financial struggle. We don't have enough money coming in. That's a fact. We don't make enough money between us to pay our parish share, and that is a problem - one that must be overcome. And then there's the burden of the buildings. Those lead roofs! The hassle of sorting out repairs after lead thefts, with all that that will cost. And then, five churchyards, with all the hassle and work that sorting them out brings... I could go on. But I won't, because it would make us miserable, and it would be missing what is really important. 

The real, joyful story of Living Brook knows and acknowledges the difficulties I've just described. And it accepts that as part of a bigger, joyful picture of Jesus building his church in our communities. A story which in 2014 saw quiet communion going weekly and growing as a haven of peaceful prayer, and Toddler Praise also going weekly and growing as a place for very young children to learn about Jesus. It saw three motivated people taking on training for new forms of ministry, a wider group stepping up to the mark as part of the leadership structure, and a new youth fellowship form and flourish. It saw a pastoral care group established and a regular collection for the Food Bank. It saw hundreds of pounds raised for our charities and a lot of money raised at many fun events for our churches too. This year saw the appointment of Living Brook's first curate, and we will need to pray for her in the coming months as she completes her training and prepares to join the exciting and vibrant place that we are in. This is a wonderful Benefice and God is doing amazing work. On days when it is hard, I tell myself this story, a true story of Jesus and his people - if you like, I count my blessings. How can you hear this story and not be awed by the way God is working amongst us? And I've only scratched the surface! There is much to be encouraged by, even in hard moments, much to be thankful for and much to pray for - the difficult stuff like finding parish share and the celebratory stuff like praying for Deborah.

Paul's instruction is as important for us to heed as it was for the Thessalonicans, not only today, but every day. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 

Friday, 5 December 2014

The Gates of Heaven

Recently most of my posts have been the texts of sermons, which I am trying to be in the habit of sharing as a way of making them accessible to those who are unable to be in church for any reason, or want to think more about what they heard, or who just like reading sermons! This week my Lay Reader is preaching, which will be a treat for the congregation at 11am, and so I've had time to think more generally.

At the moment I'm indulging myself in reading a book by one of my favourite theologians, Paula Gooder. In her book 'Heaven', she writes about how in ancient Israel the Temple in Jerusalem was understood as the place where God dwelt, literally, in the Holy of Holies. The Temple therefore was a symbol of God's presence, of God's favour for Israel and indeed of God himself. It was where his people went to encounter Him. The veil of the sanctuary which hid God's presence was like a gateway to heaven, the veil or raqia that divides heaven from Earth, mortal life from eternity. Passing through the veil into the Holy of Holies, and into God's presence, was to enter Heaven- to be in the place where heaven and earth come together.

The New Testament speaks of Jesus as the gateway, the way to the father; cf John 14:6 'Jesus said to him: 'I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.' As Jesus died, the veil in the Temple was torn in two. The Holy of Holies was open to all, no longer reserved only for the High Priest, but flung open by the great high priest Jesus. In Jesus the presence of God is revealed, and the way to God is manifest. It was no longer necessary to go to the temple, because God's presence was to be found not in a place but in a person. Jesus. The temple had no further purpose and was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD and not replaced. God is no longer to be found there.

Jesus, ascending to heaven, sits at the right hand of the father and continues to be our way to the father's presence. Before his death Jesus spoke to his disciples of the work he would do, saying 'I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it' (Matthew 16:18). This saying was the focus of our thinking at the Peterborough Diocesan Ministers Conference last week. The church is Jesus's church, and Jesus is both architect and chief builder on the project. The church is not a building like the temple, nor an institution like the temple hierarchy, but a gathering of people who seek to follow Jesus and to live out his commands. 

Jesus replaces the temple, and so in Him we find our way to the dwelling place of God. He is the symbol of God's presence, of God's favour for all who follow him, and of God Himself. There is no longer a veil separating people from God, but rather an invitation to encounter the Father through Jesus the Son.

The church that Jesus is building is, Paul tells us, his body, of which he is the head (Ephesians 4:15). As his body, the church finds itself in the onerous and honourable position of being that place on earth where people can come to encounter Jesus, and through Jesus, God the Father. 
The church, as Christ's body, succeeds to the place of the Temple. Jesus is building in us a place where all people should be able to encounter God. No veils, no curtains, nothing to hide God or shield us from Him, or Him from us. Instead, coming to the church should be the way to meet Jesus, and it should allow Jesus to make each person who comes to be another building block in the church He is building. 

As each person becomes a building block, they become part of the active and real connection to God, the sanctuary of God's presence that Jesus is making of us. We stand at the gateway to heaven, in the place where the veil used to be, and so for those who approach us we are, in a way, the gateway to heaven. This is what Jesus surely meant when he told Peter that he was giving him the keys to the kingdom of heaven. We know the way, and we can direct people to it,  unlock the gate, usher them in, make them welcome. Or by our behaviour we can prevent people from finding a welcome and from encountering the Father and the Son. 

Jesus intention is that we will welcome people. The gates of hell- the only other place to go apart from the gates of heaven - will not prevail against Jesus' church. He told Peter that. Jesus does not want people going through the gates of hell and away from Him. He tore down the barrier between Earth and Heaven. The temple priests had to keep people out of the presence of God, worshipping from the other side of the veil. Our job as the church is to show people into the presence of God, to be a gate - the very gate of Heaven- that is open and unlocked, and to usher them through into the presence of Jesus.