Saturday, November 29, 2008

Advent Waiting

A short introduction to a joint Advent Carol Service - held on Sunday 30 November at the Church of the Ascension (our neighbouring parish).

The season of Advent marks the beginning of the Church's new year...the date from which our lectionary starts. (A lectionary is a list of readings which are set for the whole church). So I should wish you a Happy New Year really. It's a strange choice, on the church's part. Logic, as Mr Spock would say, would dicate another weekend for the start of the Church's year - perhaps Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost (thought of as the birthday of the Church).

But when the Church first agreed that Advent was the start of the year - they knew what they were doing. God's spirit was, I think, leading them to quite a profound view of the rhythm of life, and the rhythm of the church's year.

Waiting is something we all have to do from time to time. We wait for the dinner to be cooked, we wait for that new job to start, we wait for that wedding, that birthday, that major event in our family's life...or for the arrival of Christmas once again.

Waiting does us good. It teaches us to live in the be aware of what is to come, even to anticipate it with joy. But we learn, too, that life goes on, and that God is at work in us even on the darkest of winter days. By waiting we learn to curb our desires, to be content with what we look for God and for happiness among the day to day - and not to invest all our hope in some future event.

All of us know what it is like to say 'if only such and such would happen...then everything would be alright'. And all of us know that hollow feeling of disappointment when what we have yearned for doesn't actually satisfy us. If you are fortunate enough never to have experienced that, then ask the millionaire lottery winner...who yearned to win their millions...and then found that having them did nothing to alter their bad relationships, or their addictions, or their general dissafisfaction with life. Ask the child who strained towards Christmas, looking forward to it with every fibre of their being, and then found that Mum and Dad still argued, and there were no batteries for the toy. Ask the compulsive shopaholic who imagines, from time to time, that just one more dress, or one more pair of shoes, or one more computer game will bring them them happiness they crave.

The present Archbishop of Canterbury describes the Christian faith as having a 'now and not yet' quality about it. We live our faith in the day to day, seeing the Kingdom begin established all around us through the every day actions of love which take place between all people of good will. But we also see the places where the Kingdom is not yet... and with the prophets and apostles of old, we yearn and we wait for 'thy kingdom come, thy will be done'.

Tonight (website note: at the Advent Carol Service with our friends at the neighbouring parish of the Ascension) we will be hearing the stories of waiting once again. We will be reminded of Abraham who had been promised much by God, but who had to go on with the day to day job of living obediently while he waited for God's promises to be fulfilled. We will be reminded of the prophets, and their Jewish followers...who looked forward with longing to the coming of the Messiah. We will think about the Mother of our Lord, who had to wait through the nine months of her pregnancy, and then the early years of her Son's life to see what the Angel had told her come to pass.

As we listen again to these stories, we shall be alert to the 'now'... to this holy moment of coming together, as people of God from two different traditions but united in love. We shall be alert to the activity of God in our lives, in our parishes, and in our world. We shall be alert to the dance of God, dancing the beat of the rhythm of life. We shall be alert to the voice of God - announcing and assuring us of his coming among us with grace and with power. "I am coming." "I am coming".

Amen! Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus!

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Last, the Least and the Lost

Matthew 25:31-46: The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. For Sunday November 23rd (the Feast of Christ the King)

Here's a video I made of this reading some time ago. Some of the images in it - especially scenes of The Judgment - will help understanding of the sermon!

If I was Dr Who, and if I had a Tardis, I could take you back in time ...about 700 years...into the darkness of the Middle Ages.

In most churches of that time was something which would have made you gasp...if you were not used to such things. There, suspended above your head - usually painted on the wall - was often found a depiction of the Day of Judgment. Such pictures usually followed the same pattern. They showed Jesus, sitting on a throne, - the King of Kings - with all of humanity divided on either side of him.

On his right were the of saints and good people who would be welcomed into heaven...the sheep of today's gospel reading. But on his left would be the 'goats' - those evil-doers who would be condemned to eternal punishment.

These pictures of the Last Judgment were a pretty unsubtle message to the great mass of churchgoers. Many of them, of course, could not read - and grand murals of the Last Judgment were designed to get a clear message across: watch out, or you might find yourself on the wrong side of the throne!

Some of the artists who painted these last judgments, all over the world, were a pretty cheeky lot. There are still some famous ones which, for example, portray well known politicians of the time as being among the goats. And there are even some which showed bishops and priests as being among those who were condemned to hell! Cheeky so-and-so's! Thankfully, especially for us priests, the majority of these Last Judgment paintings were covered over during the Reformation!

But there are still enough of them around, in medieval churches across the land, to remind us that when the Scriptures refer to Jesus as our King - the King of Kings, in fact - they mean business.

Let's just think, for a moment, about what it means to live under the reign of the King of Kings. Perhaps it might help if we were to shift our language a little. Very few people in this modern world know what it is like to live under the real power and authority of an actual Monarch. Perhaps it might help us to say that we live under the 'government' of God. We who call ourselves followers of Jesus choose to place ourselves under his rule. We choose to follow his government...his laws and ways of doing things. That's what it means to be a citizen of heaven.

But Scripture has a way of challenging us - even we who have signed up to the 'God-party' living under the Government of Jesus. Passages like today's gospel - and those medieval church paintings which were drawn from it - they give us cause to wonder whether we've truly grasped the full implications of what we have signed up for. This passages drives us to ask how fully we have grasped the reality of living under the Government of God. It asks us to think about how we have behaved towards the weakest members of our society - the sick, the hungry, the stranger and those in prison. Or what we might call the 'last, the least, and the lost of our society'.

I generated a little controversy last week, when I publicly questioned the City Council's attitude towards Travellers (or Gypsies as we sometimes call them). I got really angry to see a quote in the local newspaper from our City Council Leader, in which he was reported as saying "We don't want Travellers here". And that was after the Government has asked local authorities to look for sites where Traveller communities can put down roots, and become members of local communities.

You see, I think that a society is judged by how it treats the weakest of its members. And Travellers are treated, by us, like Samaritans were treated by the Jews. And how the Jews were ultimately treated by the Nazis. They are the scapegoats...the ones we blame for litter and though if we got rid of Gypsies from our City, then all the crime and litter would disappear as well! So I wrote a letter to the the vain hope that I might persuade our politicians to think again.(To see what I wrote, click here)

You see, according to the Gospel, Jesus is to be found precisely among those people who are the last, the least and the lost of our society. When we shun those who are not like us...those whose way of life we disapprove of...are we not in danger of shunning Jesus himself?

It can be a little overwhelming to read the story of the Sheep and the Goats. It can make us wonder whether we are ever doing enough to help the last, the least and the lost. Especially when we see poverty, sickness, loneliness all around us in our own City...and on our TVs.

It is right, of course, that we should each ask ourselves the question, all the time. Am I doing enough? Could I do more to feed the hungry, visit the sick, and welcome the stranger? But we must not go overboard with worry. Jesus himself, in the story, says "just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me". One of the least of these...

We are members of the body of Christ. As we work together, each one of us doing what we can to touch the lives of even one of the last, the least and the lost - then we are doing what we have been commanded to do. Working together, each of us making our own contribution, however small, we CAN change the world. We can, by God's grace, establish the Government of God in our own city streets.

This is our vocation. This is what we are called to do - we who are the citizens of heaven. The word 'vocation' has the same root as the word 'vocalise'... it means a call... a cry from our King of Kings that we are invited to respond to. It is for each of us to pray and to explore with God and with one another what it is he is calling us to do - as part of his Holy Government Policy of bringing peace and justice to the least, the last and the lost.

Every one of us has a vocation...a calling. For most of us, that calling will be one that is lived out through our daily lives, in our workplaces, schools, and families. But for some there is a different calling... a vocation to become a priest, or a deacon, or a reader; someone who is set apart for a particular task within the church... the task of leading, encouraging and where necessary challenging the church and its people.

The Church of England is currently experiencing a shortage of such people. There is a need to set apart more people who can take on that role of preaching, teaching and leading. So I'm going to finish with one last challenge for you to contemplate...

Could it be that God might be calling you...yes be set apart for the task of being a priest or a deacon or a reader in the Church? Is that something that you have been wondering... something that perhaps God has been prompting you to think about? If it is, then let me encourage you to get in touch. Let's think and pray together about how God might be calling you - whether he is calling you towards the priest-hood, the diaconate, or towards any other form of vocation. All of us have a vocation...a calling. But sometimes we need the help of others to crystallise that calling into something definite... something we can act upon.

But something we can all be certain of is that all of us - all of us who live as citizens of the Government of God - are called, all the time, to keep on loving and reaching out, to the last, the least and the lost.


Monday, November 17, 2008

Vicar Tom Battles Evil

Just to keep alerting you to The Thoughts of Tom (my secondary, fun, not-so-serious-as-a sermon website)...go there now to see an 18 second animation by our church's resident animator, Steve Bodle. Apparently, a super-fat Vicar can even fight evil with the power of his tummy!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Good Samaritan

The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10): Preached at a baptism service for five of our church's young people on 16 November 2008

In a few minutes we will be baptising these five children into the Church. But why are we doing it? What's it all about? I mean, its a bit of an odd thing to do isn't pour some water over someone's head in the name of God?

Well, perhaps the first thing to say about baptism is that it is a very ancient practice. We know that for at least 2000 years, Christians have been doing this simple thing to each other. It stems out of a command that Jesus gave his disciples before he left them to carry on his work: "Go into all the world and make disciples - baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:18) Jesus himself was baptised, in the River Jordan. So baptism is something that we do out of obedience to Jesus. We do it because he told us to...even though we might not understand it very well.

The second thing we can say about baptism is that it is a sign, a symbol - of something much deeper than what we shall see on the surface. (Note for website only: The technical term for this, within the church, is the word "sacrament" - which, according to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, means something that is an 'outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace".)

We see signs all around us, don't we? In the last couple of weeks, many of us have been wearing poppies - as a sign that we are grateful to those who have given their lives for our freedom, and a sign that we care for those who have been injured, or left without a family member because of war. Do you see what I mean? The flower, on its own, means nothing. A poppy is a poppy - a pretty red flower...nothing more. But because we understand that it symbolises something more, something deeper - then the poppy takes on a whole new meaning.

So what is it that baptism is symbolising? Well, pretty clearly, it's a symbol of washing and cleansing. Christians believe that baptism is an essential part of the process of having our sins washed away.

But what is sin?

Sin is anything that gets in the way of us truly becoming the people that God created us to be. It's the bad stuff, the general rubbish and clutter of our lives, that comes between us and God. It's a difficult word, isn't it? We have somehow got used to thinking of sinners as being those people who do the very worst things. Murderers, thieves, rapists, and so on. But that's only partly true.

Scripture tells us that 'all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God' (Rom.3:23). We've all 'fallen short'. I'm a sinner...and I hope that you'll forgive me for saying this... we are all 'sinners'. I'm not insulting you...honestly! I'm just using the word in the way it was meant to be used! None of us, if we examine ourselves honestly could ever claim to be perfect. And that's the dividing line. We are either perfect, like God. Or imperfect...and therefore sinners.

But God never gives up on us. God is always reaching out to us, and offering us the chance to become more and more like him. He offers to take away our sin, and helps us to become more and more God-like. More like the people, created in God's image, that God intended us to be.

Baptism is a part of that process. It's an outward sign that God is at work in us. It's a sign of our saying 'yes' to the process of becoming more like God, and less of a sinner. For the children here who are old enough to understand what is going on, its a sign that they are saying 'yes' to becoming more like God...and that they are willing to let God touch them, and draw them deeper into himself. For little Sarah - who will probably scream when I pour water on her head - it's a sign that her parents, on her behalf, are saying 'yes' to God as well.

But why would we want to do that at all? Why would we want to become more like God? The story of the Good Samaritan, that we just saw on the screen, is a pretty good example.

In that story - which Jesus told - a man was going on a journey. While he was walking along, minding his own business, he was set upon by a group of thugs. It's rather uncomfortably similar to the murder of Brett Carpenter on our own City streets in this last week, isn't it? (Website readers: see this link for more details.) The story of the Good Samaritan has all sorts of things to teach us.

For example, it teaches us about the need to stop judging other people because of their race, or their background. Samaritans were hated by the Jewish people that Jesus was talking to. But Jesus showed them that such hatred was pointless. A Samaritan was just as capable of being a good neighbour as anyone else.

The story of the Good Samaritan shows us a different way. It shows us that it is possible to live a life that is based on giving, instead of getting. The Samaritan in the story simply gave...of his time, his money, his medicine, his bandages... without looking for any reward. Except the satisfaction of simply doing good. I wonder what our society would look like if all of us lived that way. It's just possible that if more people embraced Jesus' way of living, that this world would be a far happier, far more sharing, far less destructive place for us all to live in.Ultimately, that's what these children and their parents and God-parents are signing up to today. It takes courage to stand up at the front of a church in the way they are going to do in a few moments. And it takes courage to say "yes" to God's way of living...and "no" to doing things the old way. It takes courage to embrace God, and reject sin. It takes courage to step out on a journey of faith...and that is courage that I welcome and applaud.

Now - let's do some baptising!

Friday, November 14, 2008

No Room at the Inn for Travellers

Click on 'The Thoughts of Tom' (to your left on this page) to see a letter I have written today to my local Newspaper.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Laugh? I nearly died!

You've got to see the latest entry on 'The Thoughts of Tom'. Get ready to laugh your trousers off! Go to The Thoughts of Tom.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Remembrance Sunday

This Sunday I will not be preaching a sermon. (Comments expressing relief from any parishioners will be deleted!) Instead, we will be watching a video I've put together, as part of our Remembrance Ceremony.

The video I shall be using is below. Please note that this page will only be available for a short while, as I do not hold the copyright for some of the material I have used. It is offered in respectful memory of those who gave (or were forced, by conscription to give) their lives in war. If anyone who owns the copyright to these images, or soundtrack, wishes me to remove this video, please email me - and I will immediately comply.

If I had delivered a sermon, it would have been one which suggested that Jesus' solution to the problems of the world (i.e. love one another) is still, after 2000 years, very far from being implemented. A topic for continued prayer - and action - by all people of good will, I suggest.

Saturday, November 01, 2008


A Sermon for the All Souls Service of Memories; to be held at St Mark's Church, Derby Road, Portsmouth at 3pm on Sunday 2nd November.For Sunday Morning's Sermon, see the posting below this one!

Readings: Psalm 130 & 1 Corinthians 15:20-22 &51-58

“Memory, my dear Cecily, is the diary we all carry about with us”. So, says Miss Prism in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”. And we know what she means, don’t we? We are who we are, to a greater or lesser extent, because of the memories that we carry about with us - especially the memories of those we have loved, those whose lives have touched us in some way.

The word “remember” has its root in the old word for body parts - members. To “re-member” someone is therefore, essentially, to put that someone back together in our mind.

And that, I hope, that is what this service will help to accomplish for many of us here today.But the effect that this act of remembrance will have on each of us will be different. Some of us will remember our loved ones with affection and pleasure, quietly celebrating their effect on our lives, thanking God for all they meant to us. They will be, to some extent, a fulfilment of the old adage that “God gave us memories so that we can have roses in winter”. Some of us will be content to rest in the certain, Christian, hope that God, the Lord of the living and the dead, offers eternal life through Jesus Christ.

But for some of us, the act of re-membering will bring unexpected emotions to the surface. Natural, completely understandable, but nonetheless difficult emotions. Feelings, perhaps of anger towards a God who apparently took away our loved one before what we thought was their time. Perhaps there might be unresolved grief which bubbles to the surface. Perhaps there are old wounds relating to our loved one - wounds which have not yet healed. Perhaps we worry about what comes next? What about life after death?

What might our response to such feelings be? - the warm and appreciative ones, as well as the more complex, difficult ones?

Psalm 130, which we heard just now, starts with words that many of us may recognise as our own:

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy”.

As many of you will be well aware, the Bible is a collection of writings assembled over many generations - it contains stories, metaphors, history, myth, song and poetry...all of which combine to offer us, if we will but grapple with it, a clear understanding of the God that Christians serve.

Ours is a God who listens to, and understands, our most heartfelt cries - the cries which, as Psalm 130 says, come from the depths of our innermost being - and from the depths of depressions and sadness too. Ours is a God who wants to be with us through all that life throws our way - so much so that he came, as a man, to live among us. Through that time he spent on earth, he experienced all that we experience. Not because he somehow had to do that in order to understand us...but rather that he wanted us to know that he understands...and to be able to trust him completely.

The shortest verse in the Bible, and perhaps one of the most eloquent, is the two words “Jesus wept” - recorded of an event in which Jesus himself was bereaved at the death of his friend, Lazarus. But as that story, and the story of his own resurrection powerfully demonstrated, Jesus had within him the power of God - the power to transform death into life...the power to raise first Lazarus, and then himself, from death itself.

The Christian God is the God who transforms death into life. “Listen”, says the Apostle Paul in the second of our readings, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery: we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed - in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye”. And so, he goes on, exclaiming “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

How are we to respond to that exclamation? Especially, perhaps, when we feel bereft - depressed - lost - because of the death of our own loved one? We don’t feel much like making that kind of exclamation ourselves do we?

Well, I want to suggest to you, that’s where the Christian hope, offered to us in the pages of the Bible, really comes into play. The message of the Bible is absolutely couldn’t be more clear. We all have a clear live alone with our grief, mourning the end of life with no hope...OR...we can hold on to the promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ offered to us in the Bible, written by people who have experienced God for themselves, rejoicing in the plain truth that this life is just the starting point. Eternal life waits for us, through Jesus Christ... if we will but respond to his amazingly graceful, loving, call.

That’s what the Christians who gather here each Sunday are doing. Some of our practices may seem a little odd, some of our prayers and songs - a little old fashioned. None of us is perfect, and every one of us is grappling with life, death, memories, experiences. But each of us is expressing our ‘yes’ to the call of Christ...our ‘yes’ to his offer of life. When we gather around the Lord’s table we “re-member” the historical event of the Cross, and the resurrection to new life of our God.

And we say, with our lives and by our actions - “Where, O death, is thy victory? Where, O death is thy sting?”

So, today, we re-member our loved ones. We thank our loving heavenly Father for all that they meant to us, all the ways that their own life and love affected us. But we are also open to the call of God that we should, in the Apostle Paul’s final words “give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord”. We live as people who re-member those who have gone before, but also as people who look forward to the eternal life which is ours to share with them in Christ.