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. 

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Encourage one another

A dying man had made a great deal of money in his working life, but he was determined to keep it for himself. Before he died he left his wife clear instructions that she was to bury all his money with him when he died so that he would have the use of it in the afterlife.
After he died and had been placed in his coffin, the funeral director was just closing it up when his widow popped a box in beside the body.
A friend, watching the proceedings, turned to her and said: ‘surely you wouldn’t be fool enough to bury all that money with your dead husband?’
‘Well, I promised him,’ said the loyal widow, ‘that he would be buried with his money.’
‘You are really going to bury him with all that money?’
‘I certainly am,’ she replied. ‘I got it all together, put it into my account, and put a cheque in the coffin. If he can cash it, he can spend it!’
(Joke attributed to Mark Bailey by David Pytches)

Of course, the parable of the talents isn’t really about money. But imagining money buried in the ground (not necessarily in a coffin, of course) does remind us how wasteful it is possible to be. Money that has been buried does nothing; is no good to anyone – and paper money would rot away. If we don’t use the gifts and abilities that God gave us in His service, then we are doing the equivalent of burying them in the ground.
Sunday readings at this time of year tend to focus on the future: they are the passages about being ready for when God comes to change things, to bring the new heaven and the new earth into being. Jesus and Paul today are reminding us to be ready. We don’t think about this aspect of following Jesus very much. Perhaps that’s because the warnings of what will happen if we are not ready, or not found to be serving and following God faithfully, are – frankly – alarming. Jesus is not being gentle, meek and mild when he speaks of throwing a servant into the outer darkness. We get so alarmed by that part of the message that we miss the good bits. Because actually it is very good! Jesus is coming back, one day. And when he does, we who follow him will be able to join him and will receive eternal life. Those who have used the gifts that we are given in his service will be commended.
We are all able to use our gifts in God’s service, every one if us, no matter how old or young we are. Some of you have served the Lord faithfully in many ways for a long time, and perhaps a few of you feel that you are too old, or too unwell, or too bound by responsibilities as carers or at work, to do any more now. But I say to you that you are never too old or too infirm to do what St Paul asked the Thessalonians to do as they prepared for the coming of Jesus. Paul said: ‘Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.’
Recently I visited a dying man. As we talked – and talking was very difficult for him- he spoke words of encouragement to me and thanked me for visiting. For him, the return of Jesus is absolutely imminent. He is old, unwell, but still wanting to show love and encouragement to others. I know that he prays for me and many other people, as well as saying words of encouragement. I also receive encouragement and prayer from many other older members. Those members may not be able to do the practical things any more – the cleaning, the coffee making, the visiting, the teaching, or any of the other things that many of us do together to help our church to grow. But those central things, which strengthen and enable every one of us, to pray and to encourage – we can all do them, every single one of us.
Prayer and encouragement are an investment which leads to growth. If you pray for the church and its members, and use every chance you have to encourage and build up the others in the church, then you won’t be burying your gifts, you will be growing not only your own but other peoples gifts too. People who have been encouraged and supported achieve so much more. I know two girls who were encouraged by a 95 year old to believe they could do anything for God. So at the ages of 6 and 4 they decided that they wanted to hold a Bring and Buy Sale to raise money for underprivileged children. The adults around them encouraged them to do it. The 95 year old booked a space in the church building. Other church members made sure that the event got into the church newsletter and photocopied the posters that the girls designed. Others were there with the girls on the day. This was in 1999, and those children raised £60. Today in 2014 those girls, now adults, are still actively following Jesus. Being encouraged and prayed for by other church members, especially the oldest ones, still sustains them as followers of Jesus.

So as we look forward to the return of Jesus, I encourage you not at any time to bury your gifts, and thank you that you use them so well to serve Jesus and build your church. And I join with Paul to say to you: ‘encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.’ 

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Saints and spirits

Once we pass the autumn equinox and the nights get longer, thoughts seem to turn to darker subjects. Fireside stories spoke of human fears and how we hope to drive them away. In the days before the Enlightenment and the rule of science over all knowledge, people commonly believed in unseen powers and spirits, in witches and ghosts and poltergeists. They believed too in good spirits, Angels and other beings sent by God to guard us and fight off the evil ones. But if you met a spirit, how would you know if it was good or bad? Appearances wouldn't help - the Hallowe'en costumes today's children wear don't represent older ideas of evil spirits at all. Evil is subtler than that, it is the great deceiver, the great liar, getting into your home through guile and persuasion and promises of wonderful things.

Evil, whether we still believe in ghosts and ghouls or not, is no easier to discern today than it was for our medieval forebears. It is still the master of charm and of convincing lies. That is why so many young people have been deceived into following people who have evil intentions. Those teenagers who join Islamic State, or who find themselves trapped in extreme sects of other kinds, have believed the convincing stories of leaders who make them feel needed and valued. They may not have been abducted dramatically by werewolves or whatever other Halloween stories people scare themselves with, but they are just as lost.

St John tells us that there is one sure way of telling an evil spirit from a good one. The test still works: those who are not for God are against God. A spirit that is good, John says, will agree that Jesus Christ was born and became flesh and blood. God became human, as base and vulnerable as every one of us. An evil spirit will deny Jesus, or suggest that Jesus was only ever a spirit being, not a human. Jesus is fully human and fully divine, says John, and we can only tryout for good those who can say so. Others will lead us away from the truth, from God.

This test does still work. We may not see it in terms of spiritual warfare - or at least not in the way that our ancestors did. Their legacy, the chaos of Halloween activities followed by the peace and reassurance of All Saints tide - good triumphing over evil -  remains surprisingly strong given the scientific approach we take most of the time. But on the whole we don't expect spirits to be appearing in human form and trying to tempt us away from faith. What does happen, all the time, is that real ordinary humans do precisely that. Of course, most of them aren't outrightly evil, though we can't deny that every generation does produce a share of properly evil people. Hitler, Bernard Munyagishari (leader of the Hutu militia during the genocide of Tutsis), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of Islamic state in Iraq.

Most people aren't like that. But that's the danger. Just as a medieval fireside story involved spirits who convinced you they were human and kind and on your side before leading you into behaviour that separated you from God, so today the people around us with their human priorities will lead us away from God. They tell us it won't hurt to miss church 'just this once' to go out or stay in. How many times does 'just this once' happen before it becomes a habit? They embarrass you, so that you're not comfortable saying grace before meals or praying in front of people- or anywhere really. They tell you that you can be a Christian without going to church. Well. Maybe for a while. But soon the habits of prayer and the things you learned in church slip away, and your Christian friends aren't there to help you. The test of someone who is really on your side, who will help you towards God, and not away from Him, is that they truly believe that Jesus Christ is really human and really divine.

I'm not telling you to drop every friend you have who isn't a Christian. No, not at all. As I see it, we need first to be as wary as a medieval on a dark night, praying and making sure that the people around us do not, however unintentionally, draw us away from faith. Rather, the challenge for the saints- and yes, that's us (not just the rugby team) - is to draw the unbelievers towards God. Since our happiness lies in following Jesus, we should be sharing that happiness and showing people the way to God.

In the fireside stories the evil ones were cut down with the sword or struck by lightning or disappeared by prayer. That makes a reassuring ending - no more evil. But in real life the only one of those weapons available to us is prayer, and we use it to heal and help, not to kill. Pray for the people you know who don't believe in the truth of Jesus, and try to be a strong influence to change them. It takes courage sometimes, but it is the way of grace. Look around you. Who isn't here today? Some aren't here because they are unwell or on holiday. But what about the others? If you know someone is missing because they are persuaded not to put God first, because they are tempted by influential people who don't follow Jesus, what can you do to help them back? How can you encourage and support them to re prioritise?

In real life the battle of good v evil may not be as exciting as Hallowe'en followed by All Saints Day, but it is more real and as vital as it ever was. All Saints- and I mean it, that really is you- are called to fight the battle and proclaim Jesus Christ, the man who is God.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

This is the word of the Lord

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. What nonsense! The bruises and cuts of my childhood are long since healed, and yet it has taken most of my life so far to get over the hurt of some of the words that were said to me. Words wield so much power, don't they? We are surrounded by the words of journalists and politicians, of dramatists and novelists. Small phrases carry the weight of big meaning. Today on the whatsapp group used by my wider family (whatsapp is a way of keeping in touch at almost no cost, useful when part of a family is overseas), the phrase that will appear repeatedly is 'happy birthday', because today my eldest neice is 11 years old, and also my eldest daughter is 21 years old. Those happy birthday messages carry wishes of joy, reminders of love and family commitment. The words will make a difference to the quality of the birthday for those two people today.

Words hurt or heal, bring hope and encouragement, or frustration and trouble. The phrase that most makes me sink inside is 'can I have a word?' Somehow such a word is never good! I've listened to, and unfortunately had to say, such hard words this week. Sometimes hard things must be said, but in such cases the challenge is to use them in a way that becomes life giving- to take the hard situation and speak into it a better way. This week we also celebrated the marriage of Roger and Alice. Their marriage was made official by the speaking of words: good, loving and committed words. When times are hard, they will be able to remember those words and take strength and determination from them.

The first phrase I learned in New Testament Greek was ἐν {en} ἀρχή {ar-khay'} ἦν {ane} ὁ {ho} λόγος {log'-os}. 'In the beginning was the word', the opening phrase of John's gospel. John was writing of the creative force of God, speaking words - 'let there be...' - that brought our world into being. God's creative use of the word is of course more powerful than any human speaking- none of us can make something physical merely by saying the word! Nevertheless, our words make worshippers of us, and make covenants between us. They make rules that protect or inhibit, and they can make learning happen. At our best, we use words creatively by listening to The Word, to Our Lord Jesus Christ, and learning from Him.

In our reading from Nehemiah we see a people who have followed their own selfish ways instead of obeying God, and who have suffered the consequences. Finding a copy of the scriptures, unread for generations, the people are challenged to change and to live better lives, following God, not the false deities set up by local rulers. They are challenged to live in a way that is loving and respectful to all- not exploiting others for work, sex or money, but seeing all people as children of God. This lesson is at the heart of the law, summarised by the exhortation to love God first, and then to love our neighbours as ourselves. This is the word of the Lord, the creative word that gives life and value to every human being. The people of Judah were transformed on that day by God's word. Jesus reminds us that God's word is eternal and unchanging. It remains as vital and life giving for us as it was for Nehemiah and Ezra, for John and the early church.

Today, Bible Sunday, I urge you to keep up the habit of regularly reading God's word- or to start a new habit, beginning perhaps with Mark's gospel. Don't just read though- allow God's creative word to challenge you and change you; to draw you into worship and into action. Words make a difference. Just as saying 'happy birthday' or 'I love you ' or 'well done!' makes a positive difference to certain people every day, so God's word, when it is truly heard, changes hearts and minds and attitudes. The Bible remains a living word, because our God uses it to speak creatively to us. Let us be open to be challenged and changed by the Logos- by Jesus- and then use our own words carefully too, to bring life and love to all who hear us.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Faith, love and patient hope

Sunday 19th October 2014.  Trinity 18.  

Last Sunday I went to Mass at a church in Pretoria. As people arrived and the music group tuned up, I prayed for you in the services that you were celebrating in each of the Living Brook churches. The parish priest, Fr Bogdan, was celebrating his first Sunday masses after returning from a holiday visiting family in Poland, and spoke of how he had prayed for his church in his absence too. And during the service he baptised a little girl - while he was baptising baby Kesia, I was thinking and praying about Aidan, who I have the privilege of baptising on my first Sunday back from holiday too. I prayed for Aidan, and for all of Living Brook, that you will grow in faith and love and hope.

Fr Bogdan and I, in praying for our people when we are away from them, followed the example of St Paul. In our reading from Paul's letter to the Thessalonians this morning, Paul (who was probably writing form Corinth), wrote that he was praying for the people there, and his prayer was 'constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ'.

For the Thessalonians, the work of faith and love and steadfast, or patient, hope, was lived out in a society that didn't support a life following Jesus Christ. In the Roman Empire many gods were venerated, and the message of Paul that there was one God and Jesus is his son was subversive. Giving up all the other gods was going way against the grain. It was like asking a businessman to give up his car and his laptop, or a teenager to give up snapchat. And there was an even bigger problem. Among the gods was Augustus, predecessor to emperor Tiberius. The emperor was revered as the son of god, and effectively worshipped as a god in his own right. Jesus was being put in the divine place of the emperor - a very dangerous thing to own up to in public. This new Jewish God, and his son Jesus were claiming to be senior to the gods of Rome. Jesus himself had established that he was senior to the emperor when he was asked in the temple about taxes. Give to the emperor what is the emperors, he had said, and to God what is Gods. If we believe that God really is the creator of all, then what is Gods includes what is the emperors! The emperor himself, as a human being, belongs to God, and anything paid to him is owed in turn to God. This message was dangerous in Jerusalem, and even more so in Greece. No wonder Paul needed to pray for the faithful people of Thessalonica. There was a lot of pressure not to follow Jesus.

The same is true for us. Following Jesus is hard. Our society does not support the way of faith, love and hope. Britain hasn't always been a Christian country, and sometimes it seems that the priorities of our culture more reflect its pagan roots than Christian ones. In the northern Kingdom of Bernicia, where Northumbria is now, the faith was first proclaimed by an Irish monk from the Iona monastery called Aidan. The King, Oswald, made Aidan bishop and abbot of Lindisfarne - the founder of a new monastery there. Aidan, like Paul had in Greece, travelled and proclaimed a controversial message: one God, whose son died to bring us hope and eternal life. Aidan founded churches. He freed Anglo-Saxon slave boys and educated them for the church. He taught ordinary people how to pray, fast, and meditate on the scriptures. St Bede tells us that he was respected for his love of prayer, study, peace, purity and humility, and for his care for the sick and the poor. On one famous occasion, Aidan was riding home on a horse given to him by King Oswin of Deira, when he met a poor man - and gave the man his horse. To imagine what a gift that was, compare it to this: if you had a really lovely car, an expensive 4x4, say, would you be willing to hand over the keys to a poor person you saw at the side of the road? It would be the equivalent action. Aidan lived without riches (apart from his brief horse ownership), though he could easily have had them, because he wanted to live the way of Jesus. It wasn't the way society did things then, and it isn't now. Praying, living in faith, loving God and neighbour, persevering in patient hope, these qualities go against those of our power hungry, wealth dependant society.

My prayer today for our Aidan, and for everyone in Living Brook remains the same: that you will be strong in faith in God our Father, and his Son Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit; that your love for God and for each other will grow and be a sign to others of the truth of the gospel; and that you will always persevere in patient hope, no matter what opposition you have to face.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Of one mind.

I'd like to read again the opening of today's reading from Philippians, using the translation by Tom Wright.
'So if our shared life in the king brings you any comfort; if love still has the power to make you cheerful; if we really do have a partnership in the spirit; if your hearts are at all moved with affection and sympathy - then make my joy complete! Bring your thinking into line with each other.'

I think that sometimes when we hear the titles of Paul's letters, we imagine a very large audience for them. In one sense there has been, because millions have read them over two thousand years. But Paul wasn't expecting that to happen. Although he knew that the letters might be passed around between local churches so that more people could hear what he had to say, he was still addressing one particular church. And those churches were small. They were probably about the size of Piddington or Hardingstone church on a Sunday at 11. They met in private houses, gatherings of a number of families within a town which did not share the faith.

So let's imagine that it is a church of forty people or so that Paul is addressing. And let's imagine that it is one of our churches, rather than one in first century Philippi. Paul is telling us, our little group of people, that what he really wants for us is to bring our thinking into line with one another.

Now he is not saying that we should all mindlessly share the same opinion. He is not saying we should stop thinking for ourselves, that we all have to like bananas and vote for the same political party. He is not saying we should share the same views on whether Scotland was right to vote no, or whether parliament was right to vote yes when it met on Friday. We are likely to differ, even if only on detail. That's not the point. So let me offer an analogy.

Many of us in Living Brook support, or at least take an interest in, our local sports teams. We don't for a moment imagine that when the fans gather at St James or Sixfields to watch the Saints or the Cobblers, that every fan shares the same politics or even the same preference for filling in the interval pie. But what we can expect is that the fans will share one common focus. Every Cobblers fan wants to see Northampton Town putting away more goals than the other side; every Cobblers fan's mood today is affected by the result against Morecambe yesterday, while every Saints fan is interested only in the result against Bath. At the stadium, whatever the shape of the ball - and forgive me if you prefer the Ryder cup, or the tennis or the cricket, hopefully you can transfer the analogy - every fan has one focus. My team to win. My team to keep the ball at the other end of the pitch. My team to score more than the other team. One focus that turns this great crowd of people into a community. No matter what else they might think, no matter what they do, what their families are like, what colour their skin, what level their income, what length of time they spent in education, that community of people is bound together by a single interest, something that transcends the differences between them.

This is what St Paul looks for in us. Whatever our differences, we should be bound together in a joyful unity because we have one common focus that transcends all else. And that common focus is Jesus. Jesus Christ, our Lord, the presence of God in the world, who lived a human life and died a human death in humiliation and pain because of his love for us. Our bond should be as strong as the bond between sports fans when their team is leading in a cup final match. All the time.

It doesn't matter, Paul reminds us, whether there are small things that could come between us. Whether the brand of coffee drunk after services isn't a personal favourite, or someone made a mistake which affected you adversely - well, we're all human, and things happen, but this should not affect our unity as Christians. We don't always manage to be perfect for each other. And we certainly don't always agree about things. But on this we do agree. Jesus Christ is our Lord and our Saviour, and not only ours but the whole world's, and that is something everyone should know. And everyone is much more likely to believe it if they look at us and see a group of people strongly united, joyfully and delightedly united, behind the common cause of following and proclaiming Jesus Christ.

That is what Paul wanted for the Philippians, and I believe it is what he wants for every church that has come together ever since. Living Brook included. And it is what I want too.

So if you want to make my joy complete, bring your thinking into line with one another. And make that thinking in line be thinking about Jesus, who is at work among you and who will give you the energy and the will to follow him and to do what pleases him, with one heart and mind, if only you ask.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

I waited for the Lord

This morning the choir sang a lovely anthem by Felix Mendelssohn for us, which is a setting of two verses of psalm 40. I don't talk about the psalms anything like as often as I should, so I'm taking this opportunity. The psalms are a wealth of poetic song passed down through so many generations. When we sing psalm 40 (or any psalm), I find it really marvellous to think of Jesus singing the same song - albeit in a different language and a very different musical style. The psalms show us how to praise and how to express sorrow and desperation. Psalm 40 is one of the psalms that reminds us exactly where our priorities are - or should be - and where God is in them.

In this psalm, as with many of the psalms written by David, the author has been in a place of danger or trouble, and recounts how God helped him out. In the first verse, which the choir sang, David has been praying repeatedly and waiting for God to answer. The choir sang 'I waited for The Lord, he inclined unto me, he heard my complaint.' This is a translation of a translation of a translation, since the psalm was written in Hebrew and Mendelssohn set a German version to music. Some of you, especially those who, like me, grew up attending BCP Matins and Evensong with a regular chance to sing the psalms, will remember the Authorised Version: 'I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry.' The Hebrew word translated as waited is a strong word, suggesting a long wait - hence the patiently here, or the New Jerusalem Bible offering this: 'I waited, I waited for The Lord, then he stopped to me and heard my cry for help.' In another modern version,  The Message, translator Eugene Peterson picks up this even more strongly: 'I waited and waited and waited for God. At last he looked; finally he listened.'

We live in a culture where we have come to expect instant results. Governments are rejected if they don't solve economic problems or bring peace between warring parties within days. We decide we want a product and can order it online and have it on the doorstep the next day. Increasingly, people look for instant gratification, instant action and don't take time to think about what is really best. And we've come to expect God to fit in with that way of behaving too. If a person prays in the morning and does not receive and instant answer then God is he accused of abandonment, not caring or not existing at all. But people of faith know that this is not how it is with God. God's timing is not the same as ours. God exists beyond our sense of clock time, and God sees what we cannot. So while sometimes God might respond instantly, even miraculously, to prayer, equally sometimes God keeps us waiting.

I knew in my heart that God had called me to be a priest in the Church of England at the age of fifteen. I prayed about this every day, wanting to be sure that I really was understanding the calling correctly. At the age of 22 I tested this vocation, and for reasons that would embarrass the C of E now, I was told to go away and do something else, and never to consider the priesthood again. But I knew in my heart what God was calling me to do, and in the hurt and confusion I kept praying, I knew that if something is Gods will, then God will bring it about even despite the desk ions of those who represent Him here. At the age of 29 I went back and tried again - God had made it impossible to avoid the issue. I was 34 when I was finally ordained. It was a long wait, and for much of that time I had no idea whether God would ever answer my prayer, for some of that time I really hoped that he wouldn't. When I finally had the meeting with a bishop that set the date and confirmed my future, the sense of being touched by God was strong.

Those who wait patiently for God will receive God's blessing. That is the message of the first verse of psalm 1. David writes that God inclined to him, or stooped down to him. That action, the stooping, is an action of blessing. When I bless a congregation I make the sign of the cross, but I'd be more accurately representing the full giving involved in blessing if I stooped to the ground. That's impractical of course - you wouldn't hear or see what I was doing if I started bending over like that, and I don't think my dodgy knees would cope with it either. But can you for a moment imagine that action? When. God responds to our prayers, and especially those we pray for years and years in hope, he is stooping down to us and listening. If you spend years praying for a relative to come to know and love The Lord, the day will come. If you spend years praying for a solution to any kind of problem, it will come. David's life was threatened from many quarters - by King Saul, by the Philistine enemy army, by the competition for power that came from his own sons - on more than one occasion he was forced into hiding to save his life. Sometimes he was on the run for months. But God heard his prayers and brought him to safety, in God's own time.

Mendelssohn chose one other verse from psalm 40 to include in this anthem: the fits half of verse four. The choir sang: o blessed are they that hope and trust in The Lord. The full verse, in the AV is: 'blessed is that man that maketh The Lord his trust, and respecteth not the proud, nor such as turn aside to lies.' Eugene Peterson's contemporary translation offers us: 'blessed are you who give yourselves over to God, turn your backs on the word's "sure thing", ignore what the world worships'. This beatitude shows us that God will bless, or stoop down to help, those people who consistently trust in Him. If we keep on trusting in God, He will answer our prayers. Maybe not in a way that we understand - the ways we understand are so often the ways of the works we inhabit and not the ways of God. But God will hear and help us in the way that is best for us, in away that really blesses us.

Through the years when I prayed as I went to sleep, 'Lord, if it is your will, please let me be your priest', I could have pursued other things. I could have found much better paying work, or an option that gave me much more personal freedom. I could have planned and led my life in a way that my wider family would understand and accept. I could have stopped clinging on to a hope that had been rejected and 'got on with my life'. In other words, I could have done things in a way that contemporary society would understand. I could have lived a 21st century life, and I could have admitted what some around me said was right: that if there was a God, He didn't answer prayers and He wasn't interested in me. But that didn't fit with what my heart and the scriptures told me. When I was eventually ordained, I had a lot more experiences under my belt than I could possibly have had if I'd been ordained in my early twenties. Those experiences make me a much better priest than I would otherwise have been. God knew what He was doing when he made me wait.

Psalm 40 tells all of us that often we have to wait, a very long time, for God's blessing, but that that blessing is given to those who trust in God and do not get distracted away from God by the precepts of the society they live in. For me, singing psalm 40 is singing a personal story, and not only the story of my call to ordination: that's just the one I've chosen to share with you today.
Perhaps you too have stories of times when you have patiently prayed for a long time and have been blessed by God when the time was right. I encourage you to share those stories, if they can be shared, with each other - over coffee after the service perhaps. Those of you who are praying for something, who perhaps have been praying for a long time and are still waiting and wondering, hear those stories and be encouraged; encouraged to keep on trusting God above all else, because God will bless you when the time is right.

And do read the psalms, or sing them, just as Jesus did. They helped Jesus, and they still help is today. You could do a lot worse than looking up psalm 40 when you get home, and joining with the psalmist's prayer. Psalm 40 ends with a verse that we all so often find ourselves praying in our own words. These are the New Jerusalem Bible's words: 'Poor and needy as I am, The Lord has me in mind. You, my helper, my Saviour, my God, do not delay.'

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Why so many sermons?

Those who look at this blog will have noticed a number of sermons appearing recently. There will be more of that, as part of an experiment led by one of my parishes to explore more ways of connecting the housebound, hard of hearing and visually impaired to the church community. Blogging my sermons makes it accessible to the internet savvy, and puts the sermons in a place where certain internet savvy church members can copy them, increase the type size, and print them for those who find it easier to read than to hear. We are going to be experimenting with audio versions too, recording sermons and other service sections so that housebound members can hear what they've missed at home.

Writing sermons in this form, and typing them, is a discipline I'm having to adapt to. Until now, I've preferred to write my sermons longhand (still do, to be honest - I think better with a pen than a keyboard). Often I write mere bullet points, or even nothing at all, keeping it in my head. That's no good for those not present and able to easily follow though, so a new discipline is required, and the blog seemed to be a useful tool as I try to change the habits of a lifetime.

So please bear with the sermons. You may even enjoy some of them!

In the meantime, follow up from a recent sermon, #WeAreN. Canon Andrew White is unwell with Hepatitis B. Please keep him in your prayers.

Thursday, 21 August 2014


Sunday 24th August 2014
Sometimes the title or name you give to a person has major implications, for that person and for you. For example, from the day I called Paul husband, our relationship changed  and became more committed, more intimate and more public – that new name or title was given in front of a church full of people, after all. The day I was called deacon, the day I was called priest, the day I was called priest in charge, each of those days changed the way others saw me and the way I saw myself. Responsibilities attached themselves to me, the expectations  others had of me changed. It’s happened to all of us, whether the ‘who are you’ is answered by the word ‘Dad’ or ‘Lance-Corporal’ or ‘Assistant Manager’ or ‘Class 2 teacher’ or ‘barista’ or ‘new sixthformer’ or ‘Grandma’… you get the idea – when these names are given to us, we take on the tasks, responsibilities, authority and dignity (or not) of the role.
The one title I can be sure that every one of us shares today is perhaps the most important one that we have. Christian. The word was a first century invention in Syria to describe the people who followed a man with a title: Christ, or Messiah. Simon Peter gave Jesus that title first, and was rewarded with a title of his own – Peter, the rock. The Christ is a title for the son of God, the one sent by God to save humanity. There is no greater title, and thus no greater responsibility, authority or dignity – it is greater than any King or Emperor. Christians are the followers of Christ, and to them comes the responsibility of living in the way that Christ taught and sharing His teaching with others. It is no small calling, no ordinary title. Every one of us who is privileged to call ourself Christian lives with the great promise and joy that knowing Jesus gives, but also lives with the knowledge that others may look down on us and condemn us for our faith.
You’ll be aware, I am sure, of the effect that the title of a follower of Christ has for fellow followers in other parts of the world. In some parts of the Middle East followers are referred to as Nasrani – or Nazarenes, a reference to Jesus being a Nazarene, a man from Nazareth. In the way that we generally use the cross as a symbol to identify ourselves by, Nasrani followers of Jesus also use the Arabic letter N to identify themselves. Right at the moment, to be Nasrani in Iraq is to be persecuted. Following Jesus in the way of persecution is one of the things that can happen to all followers of Christ, but for most of us in the West, we don’t experience it beyond comments at the water cooler or the verbal rejection of others who say they don’t do God. In Iraq, the Islamic State movement, ISIS, is actively persecuting those who don’t follow their brand of Sunni Islam. Nasrani followers of Jesus have come home to find the N painted on their houses as a marker to ISIS troops – this is a house where you can enter and offer a choice to the inhabitants: pay a high tax and convert to Islam, or die. Nasrani’s have been forced to flee their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They have seen relatives murdered – children and women as well as men – and they are seeing the vulnerable, elderly and children, die of thirst and exhaustion in the desert where they are seeking refuge. Those people are being persecuted for wearing the same title that we do – they have the same priorities as we do, the same devotion to God and commitment to living in the way of Christ. They are Christians, we are Nasrani.
So for us here, in a place where we are safe, the responsibility that comes with the title Christian includes a responsibility to our Nasrani sisters and brothers feeling persecution in Iraq. Some of you might be thinking that there is nothing you can do. We aren’t all wealthy, and the Middle East is far away – a matter for governments, not for us. But the wonderful thing about following the Messiah of the world is that there really is always something we can do.
The Church of England has a website about the situation in Iraq and what we can do about it with some very helpful links. If you are internet savvy, look at it: The Church has also produced potters to remind us what we can do, and I’ve got posters today for each of our churches. It has three words at the top: Pray. Act. Give. These things we can do to support the Nasrani’s and all who are persecuted for their faith.
Firstly, pray. We can all do that. Ask our Lord to protect and help all who are persecuted for bearing the title of Nasrani, of Christian. Pray that food and other supplies will get through. This week one of the doctors working with refugees sent a message about a young boy called Fahad who is very anxious because school should be starting again soon and he does not know where, if at all, he will be able to go to get his lessons. It’s something we can take for granted for our children. So let’s pray for Fahad and the other children who don’t have access to their schools any more. Follow the news and pray for the situation as you understand it, in Iraq and wherever people are persecuted for their faith or beliefs.
Secondly, act. Churches and individuals are being encouraged to write to their local MPs urging them to press the Government to increase Britain's humanitarian efforts for all those affected by the crisis and to ask for asylum to be granted to a fair number of those who will be unable to return to their homes. Our MP, Andrea Leadsom, is more likely to press for helping refugees if she hears from lots of us. And we can also act by showing publicly that we share the same title that those who are being persecuted have. We say Christian, they say Nasrani, but it amounts to the same thing in the way that the titles Christ and Messiah amount to the same thing. They are being persecuted for being Nasrani, and that is why the Church of England urges its members to say with them, we are Nasrani. We share the same name, the same calling, the same Lord.
Thirdly, give. I know that not everyone has money to spare, but even a tiny bit helps – and those of us who do have a bit more can give a bit more. It is often difficult to know who to give to. How do we get money to the right people in this sort of situation? That’s where being Anglican can be a real help, because within the Anglican communion there are ways of doing things that get straight to people in need. Last week I was able to give directly to a hospital in Gaza by doing it through a fund administered by the Diocese of Jerusalem. When it comes to supporting our sisters and brothers in Iraq, the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf directs us to an organisation run through St George’s church in Baghdad, - the foundation for relief and reconciliation in the Middle East. Canon Andrew White – often referred to as the vicar of Baghdad – set this foundation up, and at the moment they are directing funds to relief operations in the north. Those of you who use social media could ‘like’ Andrew White on facebook in order to follow what he and the foundation are doing to help. (It was from Canon White’s facebook status’s that I got the news and image of Fahad, for example). Christian Aid have an Iraq crisis appeal, so if you prefer to use a locally based aid charity, give to them.

Jesus said, who do you say I am? The title made a difference. So does ours. We are Christian, we are Nasrani. Let’s make sure that it makes a difference to us and to those in need today because they follow Jesus, the Christ. 

Friday, 15 August 2014

Wild dogs, pet dogs and sheep.

Matthew 15: 21-28
Around the edges of Jerusalem there used to be many wild dogs. They lived off the scraps and carcasses thrown onto the rubbish heaps, especially around Golgotha. They engaged in desultory hunting, usually going for easy prey: in the shepherd’s fields between Jerusalem and Bethlehem the weaker sheep and young lambs were easy pickings if the dogs could get past the shepherds. Not surprisingly, the Jewish people had a low opinion of dogs. These curs were flea ridden, vicious and unpleasant scavengers. People the Jews saw as enemies to their faith or their way of living came to be referred to as dogs. Gentiles, especially the likes of the Canaanite neighbours in the north of Galilee and Lebanon, were often called dogs. Some still worshipped Baal, the god whose followers had committed genocide against the Jews in Elijah’s day, and other Gentiles worshipped multiple Greek or Roman gods, which was just as bad. The opponents of Israel were dogs, unwanted, to be kept out of God’s holy places.
Gentiles didn’t necessarily see dogs in the same way. They knew that the Jews despised them and the ones who had dealings with the less polite members of the Jewish race would have heard the nickname. But for some Gentiles, especially the ones influenced by the fashions of the Greeks, dogs were not all bad. There were guard dogs, especially around Roman owned farms. And pet dogs were becoming popular, especially among the ladies. Lap dogs were company during the long hours when husbands were off in the Forum or enjoying the company of their friends. Pet dogs were beginning, in some homes, to be seen as part of the family. In Greek, people distinguished between unpleasant wild dogs – the ones scavenging in the city rubbish – and pet dogs by using a diminutive form of the word. Pet dogs were effectively referred to as puppies. They were not the same as the wild dogs that no-one really liked.
I’m telling you this because it helps us understand the difficult conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel. Jesus was trying to get a holiday break, and this woman was stopping him from getting the break he wanted with his friends. Remember that Jews saw Canaanites as no better than those wild dogs, a personal threat, and at that moment this woman was a threat to Jesus’ peace and was trying to get, if you like, entry to God’s holiest place – the presence of Jesus. Canaanite women were a reminder to Jews of Jezebel, Elijah’s great persecutor and the instigator of the genocide of the Jew. Her eventual fate was a fall to her death, and her body consumed by wild dogs. There is an example of a good Canaanite woman in the Old Testament too, but somehow people generally thought of Jezebel first. This woman probably pestered every healer who came by. The disciples just wanted her to go away. In Greek – as the common language it is possible that Greek was spoken at least by the woman – the conversation is almost rhythmic. She says ‘Kyrie Eleison’ and the disciples say ‘Apolyson’. Lord have mercy. Get rid of her.
Jesus assured the disciples that his job was to protect the sheep of Israel. As a shepherd, he was not about to allow any wild dog to attack or hurt the sheep – to damage his mission. But he still engaged her in conversation. It is not fair, he told her, to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. But here’s the interesting thing in this very insulting comment. He used the diminutive. He didn’t suggest she was a wild dog, rejected by the Jews, but a pet dog – less important than the children of the family, but still part of the family. All the same, you feed your children first and you don’t give the dogs the children’s food. And – sharp as a knife – she replies, ‘yes Lord, even the pet dogs eat the crumbs that the children drop.’
She isn’t going to settle for rejection, even if she has been acknowledged as an adopted family member – a pet. Jesus may be testing her, or trying to tell her to go away, but she will not go away. She does want the same food as the children, not something else. Only what Jesus has to offer is good enough – but the leftover scraps will do. Leftover scraps will heal her daughter, and leftover scraps will allow her to taste of the living God.
Now, if you are following the gospel readings at home – or even if you aren’t, have a look at home at the wider context of this reading. Today’s passage, from Matthew 15, happens very soon after the story of the feeding of the 5000, and not long before the story of the feeding of the 4000. One of the remarkable things about both of these miraculous feeding stories is that there are a lot of scraps left over. Jesus ensures they are collected up- he doesn’t permit waste. Matthew is making a point, and he wants us to remember that point as we listen to the Canaanite woman’s story. God is generous. He feeds his children and there is always more – always plenty left over for others. Yes, Jesus came for the Jews, but there is far more of God’s love and generosity than the Jews need – the rest is for the Gentiles. Those who come in faith can receive and they are receiving the same bread, the same love, the same healing. The Jews may fear sharing God with others, may think that by doing so they are letting wild dogs in, risking another genocide, another Jezebel. But actually, most Gentiles are like this Canaanite woman – and the unnamed one who housed the prophet Elisha. They have as much faith and love as any Jew.
Indeed, Jesus told the persistent lady that she had great faith. He frequently told his disciples that they had little faith. This lady’s faith was so great that she didn’t need to see her daughter being healed or to bring her daughter with her – if Jesus said she was healed then she was healed. The only other time we see something like that happen it is another Gentile, also praised by Jesus for great faith, the centurion whose servant Jesus healed. When it came to faith, Jesus’ Jewish followers had a lot to learn from the Gentiles that they saw as dogs.

 Later in this service we will say the words Lord, have mercy – actually we sing them, Jesus lamb of God, have mercy on us. When we sing them, spare a thought for that Canaanite woman of such great faith, whose persistence and determination to share in God’s generous gift ensured healing and salvation for herself and her daughter. And then, as we share bread together, the children’s bread as Jesus called it, remember God’s generosity and perhaps spare a prayer for those who God would like to join us at the table; those perhaps who feel that they can’t come – that somehow they aren’t welcome – like the dogs unwelcome in the holy places. How can we – how can you - share the message that they are welcome, they are wanted, they are part of the family and that there is plenty enough bread for everyone to share? If people perceive that the churches message is ‘apolyson’- get rid of her – how can we change that perception and make sure that everyone knows that there is a place for them? Because that is the message of today’s gospel. All are welcome, and there is enough for all.