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.