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 love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all. (St Paul – 2 Corinthians 5.14)
A month ago most people in this country – and most people worldwide – hadn’t heard of Michael Curry. And then he stood up to preach at a wedding. Bishop Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate of our sister church the Episcopal Church of the United States of America in less than fifteen minutes became, as the Daily Telegraph put it, “the royal wedding preacher who stole the show.”
And what did he do that made such an impact around the world, as well as at the ceremony? Well, he simply talked about love. Just that – love!
He said: We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world.
The power of love, the redemptive power of love. Supremely of course the redemptive power of the love of Jesus on the cross, a love that is there for all because Jesus died not just for some people but for all people. For absolutely everyone without exception. Continue reading
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
It was, of course, Easter Day last Sunday. And here is the sermon preached by Mother Anne-Marie.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! Come on, you all know the joyful answer: “He is risen, indeed. Alleluia!” It is spring, well maybe it is spring – we remain ever hopeful. The daffodils are blooming, and the blossom is just beginning to come out, there are Easter Eggs to eat, and the Lord is risen. There are no notes of sadness, worry, grief, or fear in our greetings to one another this morning.
But how different it was early on that first Easter morning as Mark tells us in our gospel. The three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome, didn’t greet one another with such great joy. There were no alleluias, no happiness in their hushed whispers. They were grieving and devastated. They had seen their beloved Jesus, their teacher, stripped of not only his clothes, but every possible shred of human dignity, executed in the most horrible way, and laid in the garden tomb late on the Friday.
And then sunset had come, the Sabbath was upon them and they could do nothing. Continue reading
This Sunday we kept the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It actually falls on the 15th and in common with many churches we celebrated it on the 14th. Here’s what I said:
Given the increasing shortage of priests you’d think that the Church of England would be falling over itself to welcome anyone who was foolhardy enough to offer themselves for training for the priestly ministry. But I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you that that is not the case. I’ve known quite a few people over the years who have expressed interest. Some got put off by the pay and conditions of service. Some realized that it just wasn’t for them. Others made it as far as the selection process. Only a handful were actually chosen to go and train to be priests.
The problem is it’s not easy knowing whether someone is called to be a priest in the Church. For the Church is not like other careers. It doesn’t matter how highly qualified you are or how able you might be – the Church has to decide whether God actually wants you to be a priest regardless of what your other qualifications might be. Important, of course, for the church to be able to discern the kind of people that God is calling. So the Church provides a very helpful 24-page document entitled Criteria for Selection for the Ordained Ministry in the Church of England.
And the introduction to the guide covers such aspects of the selection procedures as:
- The vocation criterion
- Gathering evidence
- Assessing potential and risk
- Developmental and non-developmental issues
Riveting reading. And the guide goes on to cover various aspects of a person’s makeup: spirituality, relationships, personality and character, leadership and collaboration, faith and so on – and I particularly like this one – quality of mind.
All important stuff, of course. I wonder whether God’s ever read it? Continue reading
Last Sunday in the Church of England we kept the feast of Saint Luke the Evangelist, who wrote the gospel that bears his name as well as the Acts of the Apostles, and who also accompanied Saint Paul on some of his missionary journeys.
During my childhood one of the most popular toys to be introduced was Action Man. For those of you who have no idea what an Action Man is let me briefly explain. It was introduced in the UK 1966 – a fully pose-able action figure about a foot tall of a soldier, sailor or airman complete with uniform. When they first came out just about every boy wanted one. I have to admit that I never had one – and to be honest I never really wanted one, but I think I must have been unique. But for a while they were top of every boy’s wanted list. Except me, obviously.
Over the years they started to introduce additions to the range. In time, in addition to the soldier, the sailor and the airman you could get a tank commander, lifeboatman, space ranger, jungle explorer – the list just grew. One model that they never introduced – I can’t think why – was evangelist action man. I think they may have missed a trick there, but clearly they didn’t know anything about Saint Luke.
Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Luke the Evangelist, and I want you to think of Luke as an Action Man. And to help us do that our readings, very conveniently, all have something to teach us about action – about being busy – about our response to God, God the Creator, who himself is always active. Luke’s writings, in particular, are full of action, and highlight how a life of action is part and parcel of being a follower of Jesus. Luke himself was to accompany Saint Paul on some of his missionary journeys.
In the reading from Acts we see Paul and Timothy urged by the Macedonian – traditionally believed to be Luke – to cross over to Macedonia to preach the gospel. And it’s clear that this is the point at which Luke joins Paul for the first time – just look at how the writer starts by talking about ‘they’, but immediately after the vision switches to ‘we’. Luke in action right from the start! A reminder of the call to all of us to get involved in the preaching of the good news of Christ.
Then there is the reading from the second letter to Timothy, from Saint Paul. Paul is older now, an old man calmly facing death – he knows he is going to be taken to Rome, he knows the result of the “arranged” trial there long before he even starts on the journey. He looks back over a ministry packed with action – and he still would like to fit in some reading, and some further writing up of his memoirs – if only Timothy will bring the books and his notebooks he left in Troas.
Above all the Gospel makes us conscious of the need for action in the service of God; Jesus is shown sending out thirty-five couples of disciples, telling them to prepare the way before him. Luke is the only evangelist who mentions this episode; it seems to go in with his special interest in activity. He is very strong on action.
It is in Luke’s gospel that we have the parable of the Good Samaritan, who was certainly a man of action; the story of Zacchaeus, who so badly wanted to see Jesus that he was prepared to make a fool of himself and climb a tree. It is also Luke who gives us the stories of Gabriel coming from God to announce the news of a birth to Mary, and of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, and of the birth of Jesus himself among the animals. Since Luke never knew Jesus and since only Mary could have known the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus it has been the tradition since the early church that Mary knew Luke and told him these things. Saint Luke likes to portray people who ‘do’ things. And part two of Luke’s gospel is of course the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which tells us everything by its name.
These are not just examples to follow. All three readings are deeply theological. That is, they give us the reason why we should be people of action. The reason is, that this is the way we respond to God, who is also active in the world – God does not simply sit back and let things follow their own course. It was perhaps best put by Saint Teresa of Avila, whose feast day was last Thursday. She wrote:
Christ has no body on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through
which he is to look out into the world;
yours are the feet with which
he is to go about doing good,
and yours are the hands with which
he is to bless us now.
Probably she was talking to a priest when she first said that but she might just as easily have been talking to any Christian man or woman.
But when the writer of 2 Timothy says “Do all the duties of your calling” he means more than that. He means prayer too – and this is where we often slip as Christians. When we are under pressure, when time seems short or life particularly difficult, the first thing that often starts to go is prayer. We think that God will understand and forgive. So he does. But that is not an excuse. Prayer is not for God’s benefit, it is for ours. One of the best definitions of prayer that I know also comes from Saint Teresa:
Prayer is knowing, remembering, considering,
that I am always in the presence of God,
who is closer than breathing,
Closer than hands and feet.
If we are too busy to take that to heart, too busy to pray, we are letting go of the very thing that make us Christian – our relationship with God through Jesus.
Luke may well be an Action Man. But he is also equally concerned about prayer – because Luke also knows the value of being properly prepared for our action. Any Action Man – soldier, sailor or airman, knows the need for proper preparation before going into action. So it is with Christians, and for us that means prayer. Luke is always showing us Jesus at prayer. And he is the one who gives us that story about Martha, who rushed around, and Mary who chose the better part and sat at the feet of Jesus and listened.
Our prayer life is absolutely crucial. Each of us needs to ask ourselves – are we praying enough – at home – or with our brothers and sisters in Church? Could we pray more? Could we spend an extra few minutes each day in prayer? For prayer must undergird everything we do for Christ. It is for our sake and the sake of the work we are doing as Christ’s body in this place.
Now, to finish, this is the point at which I should ask you all to be, like Saint Luke, an evangelist Action Man. But clearly that would be sexist. I don’t think that they ever introduced an Action Woman figure, and I don’t think Barbie quite fills the bill.
So – be an evangelist Action Person. That’s the message that comes out of our readings this morning. That people who follow Jesus need to be active in the spreading of the gospel, the good news about Jesus. Be people of action for Jesus, with everything you do undergirded with prayer. Continue reading
This week the gospel reading is the passage from early on in John’s gospel where Jesus throws all the moneychangers and traders out of the Temple. No doubt they all wondered why he behaved in such a way. The New Testament reading is Saint Paul talking about the foolishness of the cross. Both passages highlight that God acts in a way contrary to the world’s expectations.
Here’s what I said.
What do you look for in a new vicar? Don’t worry, I’m not planning on leaving just yet! But I want you to think about what qualities you would expect.
It’s the policy in some churches of other denominations, when a congregation is seeking to appoint a new minister, to ask them to come and “preach with a view”. What this means is that the elders will be able to see a prospective minister and hear them preach with a view to them becoming their pastor. And, of course, if they don’t like what they see and hear, then they try someone else. I wonder how churches that do this would have reacted to Saint Paul turning up as one of the applicants.
How would Paul have fared? Well, Paul was under no illusions about himself. He knew his limitations. He was very good at expounding arguments when writing, but he knew that he wasn’t a particularly good preacher. No preaching from notes in those days – not even any written preparation beforehand – and he simply wasn’t very good at standing up and speaking. Neither did he look the part. And in these visual days we all know how important that is, for example, to politicians and the like. You need to look good or the cartoonists will have a field day!
And Paul knew precisely what people in the church at Corinth thought about him for he tells us in his second letter to Corinth how they describe him. And they describe him, he tells us, like this: “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” One early document that is not in the New Testament describes him as “bald-headed, bow-legged, strongly built, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, and with a rather large nose…” Any church that invited Paul to “preach with a view” would no doubt be left thinking that while his application was well written, he didn’t look the part and his preaching was boring, and he simply wasn’t what they wanted. I doubt he’d get the job.
Yet, while Paul was fully aware of his own shortcomings, he also knew that God had called him to be an apostle. And he saw his own lack of oratory as a symbol of how God works in the world by overturning the world’s wisdom and replacing it with a gospel that seems to many to be sheer foolishness. What a good job that when God was looking for an apostle to the Gentiles he didn’t first of all invite Paul to “preach with a view”! But of course that’s not how God works, is it? God simply does not do things the way the world does – far from it, he positively chooses to behave differently.
And today in our gospel reading and in our New Testament reading we hear how God doesn’t play according to the rules – or at least according to the world’s rules. For the way God works in the world is counter-cultural. And we’ll come back to that in a moment.
Let’s begin with our second reading. We hear Paul writing to the church in Corinth. And it’s interesting that life Corinth wasn’t really much different from life in London or any other great city today. It was a city with a reputation – a reputation for fast money and fast living. It overlooked two seaports, one facing east and one facing west, and consequently the overland route from one to the other brought countless travellers and traders through the city, people seeking to avoid the treacherous sea journey around the southern tip of Greece. It was full of delights for the passing traveller – from the lavish banquets at the sanctuary of Asclepius to the somewhat questionable rituals at the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, with its thousand slaves attending to the needs of the visitors.
And Corinth’s class of nouveau riche was growing fast and pocketing the profits. It was a city of good living and – for some – good money. And many in the congregation in the church at Corinth seem to be wealthy, upper class, educated – and proud of their knowledge of wisdom, proud of their understanding.
And Paul’s message to them is “Forget it! Forget all this wisdom! God overturns the ways of the wise and acts foolishly in the world.
I said earlier that the way God works in the world is counter-cultural. God does not act according to any society’s cultural expectations. He overturns those expectations and acts in a way that, when you examine it, is often disturbing or shocking to those who do not believe.
Recently the Church of England has been criticised by many outside the Church for not reflecting the views of society over equality. This was seen over the debate about women bishops, and many were critical of the Church and said it needed to realise that it was out of step with society as a whole. We now have our first woman bishop, and it was the right decision – but it was the right decision because it was what God wanted, not because it was what society wanted. Take a good look at the Bible and you soon see that God doesn’t do things because society says it’s what it wants.
A more recent example is the recent report issued by the house of bishops about poverty in this country. Many criticised them for – as they saw it – meddling in politics. Yet it is not the Church’s role to say what people want to hear and to keep quiet about things people don’t want to hear, but to convey God’s message even when that is uncomfortable and unwanted.
For it is not the case that the Church should be in step with society, but in step with God. And one of the problems with God is that he often acts in ways that are completely out of step with what society wants or expects. And Paul shows us that in this extract from his letter.
Once in a while it does us good as Christians to take a step back and recognise just how odd – and indeed, just how shocking – our faith appears to those who do not believe. For the claim of Christians is that God does not act according to societal norms. He doesn’t act how people think he ought to, but overturns what Paul calls “the wisdom of the world”, shows it to be foolishness, and in its place gives us the cross. The cross – something that itself is, in the world’s terms, “foolish”.
Think about it. Our faith as Christians is based upon an event that in purely wordly terms doesn’t make any sense. We Christians believe that the single most important event in history is the humiliating and degrading death of a poor Jewish itinerant preacher at the hands of an occupying power. For this is the point at which we believe God acted to bring the gift of salvation from sin and the gift of eternal life to those who believe. The central symbol of our faith is the equivalent in modern terms of a hangman’s noose or an electric chair. No wonder Paul calls it “the foolishness or our proclamation, the foolishness of what we preach.” The central act of God in human history is not a demonstration of power but a demonstration of weakness, the death Jesus on the cross. Like it or not from a purely human point of view it’s an odd way for God to behave, and it still seems odd to many people today. Yet, Paul says, God overturns the ways that the world thinks are right and does things that seem ridiculous. Through the foolishness of the cross, he says, God decided to save those who believe. God overturns the ways of the world and behaves in a way that makes no apparent sense whatsoever. That’s how God does things.
In our gospel reading today we also hear about things being overturned. In this case, of course, it’s the tables of the moneychangers and the traders in the temple. Now, I’ve no doubt that none of them thought they were doing anything wrong. What they were doing had been going on for years. The Romans weren’t bothered by it. The religious leaders were happy about it. The people needed to exchange their Roman money for Jewish coins to pay the temple tax, and they needed to buy their sacrificial animals somewhere! It was the way of things. What was the problem? Where was the harm in it?
But Jesus wades in, risking the accusation that he is getting involved in politics, in matters that do not concern him, and throws them all out. This is not God’s ways of doing things is his message. It might be a system that seems to work and that everyone seems to be happy with – but no matter. Jesus throws out the whole Temple economic system that people relied upon and tells them they’ve got it all wrong. His Father’s house is not to be a marketplace. God’s ways are different.
In fact, the Temple was the place where originally, in the holy of holies, the tablets of stone that recorded the Ten Commandments had been housed along with the Ark of the Covenant, in which the people believed God became present among his people. The Temple was a place where people recalled God’s commandments about how to love God and one another, and where they encountered his presence among his people on earth. It was God’s house and Jesus was shocked by how it was treated.
There is, in the cleansing of the Temple by Jesus, a parable of the way we need to allow Jesus to act in our lives. In overturning the tables and cleansing the temple he reminds us all that sometimes we all need to allow him in to overturn those things that are getting in the way, to cleanse us from things that are wrong, to throw out old and familiar ways that we cling to because they are comfortable. There may be things in our lives, things in our society, things in our culture, that in themselves seem perfectly harmless – but they are getting in the way of us living out the gospel in our lives and of allowing Jesus to rule over our hearts. Lent is a time for allowing Jesus to clear out the clutter in the temples of our hearts and refilling them with prayer.
For God’s ways are different. And through the apparent foolishness of a death upon a cross God calls us to follow his son by leading lives that reject the wisdom of the world and embrace the apparent foolishness of living gospel-filled lives – lives where Jesus is at the centre.
We need to let in the God who overturns wisdom and the ways of the world and who doesn’t stick to the world’s rules. We need to embrace the foolishness of the cross. This Lent may we learn once again to be used by God to bring his foolish message to our world.
Last Sunday we kept the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul. Here is the sermon from Mother Anne-Marie.
My very first car was a second hand Morris 1100 – solid, reliable and British. I had it for two years. Then I moved to London as a newly qualified social worker and realised I could get a loan for a brand new car. The job involved a lot of driving with visits to foster homes on the Kent Coast, therapeutic communities in the south west, and children’s homes in the Welsh mountains. I wanted something a bit more “trendy” than my Morris. Other social workers at the time drove Volkswagen Beatles or bone rattling Citroens. I wanted a bit more comfort that the Citroen deux chevaux, but I knew I wanted something foreign. I went for a Renault 5 – bright yellow it was – and so began my love affair with Renaults. Continue reading