This week at St John’s we began a series of four sermons thinking about our mission statement. The first sermon has the title: We are a worshipping community. The preacher is allowed to depart from the set readings for the day but as it happens God was able to use this week’s set gospel reading which is the story of Jesus healing ten lepers – but only one returns, praising God, to thank Jesus.
Popular music is full of unanswered questions! And many of them ask somewhat deep and philosophical questions about the meaning of life, the universe and everything. And I know many of you think you already know the answer to the life, universe and everything (Chorus of ‘42’ from the congregation!)
Who let the dogs out? Who? Who? sang the Baha Men. Who indeed? We never find out.
Should I stay or should I go? sang the Clash. A question many of us try to answer – especially when we’re at a party we don’t want to be at!
They get even more esoteric and though-provoking. Take the Smiths who ask: How soon is now?
Or Queen, from the classic song Bohemian Rhapsody: Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? I think it’s definitely real life! But there’s always the possibility some of you may be living in a fantasy world!
My own favourite song with unanswered questions comes from the hand of the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature – Bob Dylan of course – which begins by asking, but not answering, the question: How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? Dylan never tells us, except to say that the answer is blowing in the wind!Continue reading
Last Sunday we heard of the amazing miracle of the turning of water into wine – the first miracle of Jesus, according to John’s gospel, at a wedding party in Cana of Galilee
All through Advent we in the Church get ready for Christmas with a period of penitence and abstinence. I suspect we all found it very difficult, while most of the country was already in a celebratory mood, to do without such things as alcohol and meat – at least on Wednesdays and Fridays if not every day. You did fast during Advent, didn’t you? (No – it seems they didn’t given their response but that’s all right – I didn’t either!)Continue reading
It has been said: Always expect the unexpected!
It was in fact Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher who died around 425 BC, who first coined the phrase: he wrote: If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail.
I’m not quite sure exactly what he meant by that – certainly not by the second part of that saying! He seems to have made a habit of being deliberately enigmatic. He also came up with such gems of philosophical thought as:
There is nothing permanent except change
and – see what you make of this one: The way up and the way down are one and the same.
Always expect the unexpected!
Oscar Wilde emphasised the importance of expecting the unexpected by updating that quote from Heraclitus. Wilde, in his usual manner, said: To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect. Continue reading
The gospel for the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany this year was the wedding at Cana. Here’s the sermon preached at St John’s by Mother Anne-Marie.
I walked her home and she held my hand
I knew it couldn’t be just a one night stand
So I asked to see her next week and she told me I could
Something tells me I’m into something good!
You have to be a certain age to remember Herman’s Hermits, but that song “I’m into Something Good” gave them their first number one in 1964. The young lad in that song had read the signs. “She danced close to me like I hoped she would”, “She stuck close to me the whole night through” and “I walked her home and she held my hand”. All the signs that he was into something good! Continue reading
Here is the second of this week’s sermons on the gospel reading for last Sunday from Matthew – the somewhat problematic story of Jesus rejecting a plea for healing from a Canaanite woman because she is not one of the lost sheep of the house of Israel. In the end, though, she persuades him to change his mind. This sermon is from Father Jerry who was preaching at St John’s.
If you were unfamiliar with the name before this week then – unless you’ve managed to avoid the news – you’ll now know all about Charlottesville, in the State of Virginia. White nationalists, heavily armed, marched to protest over the removal of the statue of General Robert E Lee, the Civil War general who had led the Confederate forces during the US Civil War. His statue was being removed because some saw it as wrong to continue to honour someone who had supported slavery. A major reason for the US Civil War was the desire of the North to abolish slavery against the wishes of the South, and slavery was abolished at the end of the war in 1865.
Others, civil rights protestors, turned up to oppose the march by the white nationalists, and violence ensued. The politics of the Civil War still live on in the United States. And at the heart of it all issues of inclusion and equality.
Britain had abolished slavery almost 60 years earlier than the US. And here the name of William Wilberforce and his work in abolishing slavery are forever linked. Continue reading
Not an easy gospel reading this week. It’s the story from Matthew’s Gospel of a Canaanite woman who wants healing for her daughter from Jesus. Jesus, though, doesn’t want to give her what she wants because she is not one of the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He rejects her – but in the end, she persuades him. Two sermons this week as Father Jerry was preaching at our own church while Mother Anne-Marie was preaching at our neighbouring church. And those who manage to read both sermons will see that when we are both preaching we discuss the message beforehand! This one is from Mother Anne-Marie.
Last weekend a quiet university town in the United States, Charlottesville, Virginia, was engulfed in terrible violence and the outpouring of disgusting racial hatred. Emboldened white supremacists took to the streets, carrying offensive banners and uttering vile slogans. The counter demonstrators gathered in a Baptist church for a dawn prayer meeting before taking to the streets to counter the racial hatred. Many ministers and priests of the Christian church were amongst those opposing this outpouring of racial abuse. Continue reading
Last Sunday the gospel reading was the feeding of the five thousand, followed by Jesus walking on the water. The feeding of the five thousand is one of the few miracles to appear in all four gospels. We had the version from John.
To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect, said Oscar Wilde.
Which might explain why the disciples, living as they did two thousand years ago, spectacularly failed to expect the unexpected even though the unexpected is what kept happening.
On the website Yahoo! Answers, a site where you can ask questions on any subject in the hope that someone else has the answer, someone posed the question “Do you always expect the unexpected?” To which someone else replied:
“Technically it’s impossible….I mean you can’t expect the unexpected… as the word unexpected means you didn’t expect it… so if you expect the unexpected, it’s no longer unexpected is it? Because it becomes expected… so anybody that says they do expect the unexpected are lying as it’s impossible…”
Which clears that up! As far as that person is concerned you can’t expect the unexpected. They’d have got on well with the disciples. Because you might have thought that the disciples, having seen what Jesus has been doing, would have learned to expect not just the unexpected, but the downright impossible! Already by this point in Jesus’ ministry, according to the writer of John’s Gospel, they have seen him turn water into wine, they have seen him heal an official’s dying son from a distance, they have seen him heal an invalid at the pool of Bethesda. By now they should have been ready to expect just about anything.
And yet it seems that although they had seen what Jesus could do they still couldn’t get their minds around the reality that the impossible was possible when Jesus was involved! That the unexpected kept happening. Constantly they found their faith in Jesus being out to the test – deliberately put to the test – by Jesus.
And in our gospel reading this morning we see two impossible situations where the disciples – and in a very real sense, we too – have their faith put to the test. We see Jesus’ disciples face two impossible situations; will they respond in faith? Will they trust that Jesus has everything under control, even though it may not seem so?
Jesus is followed by a massive crowd to a remote place, and we are told that Jesus tests Philip by asking him where they can buy bread for all these people. He knows what he is going to do, but he wants to find out how Philip will respond to the situation. Note that there is no indication that these people are actually hungry – but Jesus has decided to feed them anyway. Philip responds to the test in a very human way: he considers the finances and concludes that it is totally impossible as they would need a huge amount of money to feed everyone, more than half a year’s salary. Quite where he thought they could by food from is a mystery – they were in a remote place! Then Andrew chips in, mentioning that he has found a boy with five barley loaves (the cheapest, least palatable bread) and two fishes (probably pickled fish of some kind,) but states this small amount of food would be little help in feeding the crowd.
Both disciples look only at their own resources to deal with the problem and, as such, believe it to be irresolvable. Jesus shows them that what is impossible for them is possible for God and proceeds to feed the entire crowd so amply that there are twelve baskets of food left over: more than there was to start with!
Afterwards, Jesus goes off by himself to get away from the crowd. Being well acquainted with the temperamental nature of the Sea of Galilee, the disciples realise that they can wait no longer if they are to cross before a brewing storm breaks. And they set off across the sea leaving Jesus behind! Why? We don’t know. What were they thinking? Anyway, three or four miles in, after hours of hard rowing, exhausted, with conditions deteriorating and still only halfway across the lake, they are clearly in trouble.
Again, they are in a truly hopeless situation: all alone and believing Jesus to be too far away to help. Indeed, when Jesus does approach them upon the water they fail to recognise him and are petrified. They may have recently witnessed him miraculously feed more than five thousand people, but they still seem to struggle to believe that he could be there to help in their desperate situation. Once Jesus has reassured them it is him, however, and he is on board, another miracle occurs: the boat immediately finds itself ashore!
Well, what are we to make of these two miracles – feeding thousands with five loaves and two fish, walking on water in the middle of a storm and then bringing the boat and its occupants immediately to their destination?
Well, both these miracles are really about the same thing. Have the disciples learned to expect the unexpected where Jesis is concerned? Have they come to realise who Jesus is and what he can do? Have they come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he can do anything? And – more to the point – the writer of the gospel is really asking the same questions of those for whom he wrote, and of us here today.
For the point of the feeding of the five thousand is not that five thousand people are fed. It is that Jesus is testing his disciples to see whether they have now realised that the unexpected, the impossible, can happen. “What are we going to do to feed these people?” he asks.
And the point of Jesus rescuing the disciples in the storm is that the disciples have not learnt to trust in Jesus in time of need. And when he comes walking across the sea to them in the middle of a storm, they fail to recognise him. And he has to say to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”
Jesus tests the disciples. Have they learned that with Jesus they can expect not just the unexpected, but they can expect what those without faith would think impossible? In today’s gospel reading they are not yet there and they didn’t get there until after the resurrection. The writer of the gospel, though, is putting the same test to those for whom he is writing his gospel. Those who will read his words – or more likely hear them read – and who live in the light of the resurrection. Do you have the faith to believe that Jesus can work miracles, that Jesus can use his power to overcome the natural order of things, that Jesus can do the unexpected in your life?
We face the same test. In our gospel reading Jesus dealt with a crowd needing food and a boat of disciples at sea in a storm by – in both cases – doing that which seemed impossible. Do we, as his followers today, pass the test? Do we believe that Jesus can deal with the seemingly impossible problems that beset us – in our world, in our nation, in our own daily lives?
Jesus didn’t respond in ways that the disciples expected – and that can often present a problem for us. Of course, it is far from easy to keep exercising faith in situations such as when we lose our job, or are diagnosed with a terminal illness, or our marriage breaks up, or a loved one dies, and so on. For Jesus doesn’t always respond in the way that we might, at one level, want. He doesn’t wave a magic wand and make everything go back to how it was. He often responds in unexpected ways.
As with the disciples, he is there, ready to support in the ways that he thinks best, and help us find a way through. And faith is about understanding that Jesus, even when things seem impossible, can do the unexpected and help us through, and it’s about trusting him to do it. Faith – as I said a couple of weeks ago – Forsaking All I Trust Him.
It was in difficult and seemingly unsolvable situations times that Jesus took the opportunity to try and inspire faith from his disciples, because those times should have forced them to look outside themselves and seek God’s help through Jesus. It was clearly important to Jesus that his disciples had a growing faith and if the disciples needed to develop their faith, so must we.
So may we encourage our faith to grow, putting it into practice each day by choosing to believe that Jesus can and will help us, no matter how difficult our situations. Br trusting in him, trusting that Jesus can use his power among us: for what is impossible for us, is possible for Jesus!
I’m going to finish with the words of Saint Paul which end our extract from his letter to the Ephesians, a prayer that reminds us that God can do so much more than we often think he can! It’s a prayer that we used it regularly during worship at the Church Army College when I was there, and it has become one of those prayers that I know by heart and use at opportune moments. This is the version from the Common Worship prayer book.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or conceive, by the power which is at work among us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all ages. Amen. (Eph.3.20-21)
Which is Paul’s way of saying: Always except the unexpected! Continue reading
Here’s my offering for last Sunday. The gospel reading is the story of the ten lepers who are healed by Jesus, but only one of them says thank you.
Why do people find it so difficult, these days, to say ‘thank you’?
Take Christmas and birthdays, for example. When I was growing up it was taken for granted that you taught your children that saying ‘thank you’ was essential – even when you had to say it for things that you didn’t actually want. It was the polite thing to do, and it was expected. It was, as my parents used to say, the ‘done thing’. What was not the ‘done thing’ was to tell your parents exactly what you wanted for Christmas or birthday presents. These days everyone makes sure beforehand that you know exactly what presents they want, which to my mind rather takes the fun out of giving. When I was young you simply had to wait to find out what you were getting – which of course just increased the temptation to go looking beforehand while your parents weren’t around to see what they had bought. My father used to hide the Christmas presents in the loft, which was inaccessible without a step-ladder, so there was no way a small child could investigate – rather sneaky on his part, I thought. Continue reading
Here’s my offering for last Sunday, the gospel reading being Luke’s account of how Jesus sent out the seventy.
Holidays are supposed to be relaxing. So why does getting ready for a holiday seem to be so stressful? Trying to decide what to pack and what to leave behind. Deciding what things might prove to be indispensable. Making sure that you’ve got all the right clothes. Then trying to fit it all into the luggage.
When our children were younger we regularly had holidays in North Wales. The problem with holidays in this country, and particularly in Wales, is that you can never be certain what the weather will be like. So you have to pack clothes for hot weather, cold weather, wet weather – and it all has to go in somewhere. And the children could never quite grasp the concept that the space in a car is limited. A car isn’t like the Tardis, and you can’t pack your entire wardrobe and all your games and your portable TV so you can watch it in your bedroom and your entire family of cuddly toys. Trying to fit everything in was a nightmare. We were even known on occasion – and I’m almost embarrassed to say this – to give in and take two cars because it was easier. We could have done with something like the luggage in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, a chest which had infinite room inside and ran around after you on its own legs. Continue reading
This week we had a family service with all our uniformed groups on parade. It was a fairly informal talk and mainly preached from a few notes. It’s not possible to post it, but I realised I had completely forgotten to post last week’s sermon, so here it is. The gospel reading for the day was the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant.
Mothers are full of pearls of wisdom. A survey by Clinton’s Cards last year discovered that on average mothers pass on 41 pearls of wisdom to their children. I hope you all listened to the pearls of wisdom that were passed to you as you were growing up. When asked people remembered being given such good advice as:
- No 33: Don’t eat cheese before bed.
- No 28: Don’t leave the house with wet hair.
- No 20: Watching too much TV will make your eyes go square.
- No 11. Always wear clean underwear.
Such things might seem rather flippant. And you may remember growing up and being given such good advice! I have to say that the one recurring instruction that I remember being given by my mother isn’t in the list: Do as you’re told and don’t ask questions! She would have made an excellent Roman centurion!
Amusing though those pearls of wisdom may seem, many of the pearls of wisdom given by mothers and recorded by Clinton’s are universal. And it would seem that somewhere along the way they have been picked up by the Roman centurion we hear about in today’s gospel reading. Remember that he is an officer in an army occupying a particularly difficult province in the Roman Empire. The Jews didn’t much like Romans and the Romans didn’t much like the Jews. He was someone who knew full well that he was in a position to be like my mother: Do as you’re told and don’t ask questions. And yet here we have a centurion who is clearly aware of and lives by – perhaps unusually for someone in his position – some of the motherly pearls of wisdom that appear at the top of the list:
- No 15: Treat others how you wish to be treated yourself.
- No 10: Treat people with respect.
- No 5: If you don’t ask you don’t get.
- No 1. Always try your best.
Treat others how you wish to be treated yourself – he has a slave whom, we are told, he values highly. He cares for him and when he takes ill he wants to do something about it. He could have thought, ‘I’ll get another slave,” but he doesn’t. What he does is seek to have the slave made well.
Treat people with respect – which he does in a remarkable way. Remember, this is an officer in an army of occupation. And yet not only has he treated the Jews with respect, he has built them a synagogue. And the love he has shown for the Jewish people has resulted in the Jewish elders supporting his request.
If you don’t ask you don’t get – and the centurion must have known that he had no right to ask and no right to expect that Jesus would respond to him, a Gentile. And yet he has enough faith in this Jewish teacher to know that Jesus has the power to heal his slave. And he’s only going to find out if Jesus will do it by asking.
Always do your best – and that’s clearly how this centurion is trying to live. He has tried his best in spite of the difficulties of being a Roman soldier trying to keep order in a difficult situation to not just get along with the local people but to help them. He is trying his best to find healing for his slave. This was clearly a highly unusual man given his role. So unusual that even Jesus is surprised by him, and he comments on his great faith – faith that he hasn’t found in his own people.
We hear in our gospel reading how the centurion sends the Jewish elders to Jesus with the request that Jesus come and heal his slave. They support his request, urging Jesus to come and help. And yet when Jesus is near to the centurion’s house he sends his friends out to meet Jesus. Perhaps he did this because he assumed that Jesus, a Jew, wouldn’t enter the house of a Gentile because of the constraints of the Jewish Law. And he sends them with a message: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”
Today, I want you to think about those words of the centurion, and to imagine that he is passing a pearl of wisdom on to you. He spoke those words through his friends with complete faith that Jesus would answer his request. A little later in our communion service we too will use words based on that request. And the pearl of wisdom that we have from the centurion is that as we approach the altar to receive Jesus in the bread and wine, is to ask with the same level of faith as the centurion for healing from Jesus and believing that he will do what we ask.
For those words, of course, have found themselves in a slightly altered form in our communion service. Traditionally they were: Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed. In Common Worship they have been simplified to: Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.
We probably just say the words each week automatically. But today I want you to think about them: Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed. Each of us knows that we are not worthy to receive Jesus, just as the centurion knew that he was not worthy. And yet Jesus still comes to us and gives himself to us. As you prepare to receive Jesus in the form of bread and wine today, think about what healing you need in your life. We’ve all got things that we know Jesus needs to sort out – physical, spiritual things that need his healing. And as you say those words – only say the word and I shall be healed – believe that he will heal you. Have the faith that he had.
Learn from the wisdom of the centurion. Reach out in faith. And know that as you reach out your hands to receive the bread and the wine, the body and the blood of Jesus – or as you bow your head to receive a blessing – that Jesus has truly come to you. He has come under your roof and spoken words of healing right to your very soul.