Saturday, 31 January 2015

Passing on the light

I've mentioned Walter Smith and his sister Lena before, including in my last blog. In my mind they were always old, but I see them through the lenses of a nine year old, the age I was when I first met them, an age at which everyone over 25 is old. Actually, they were probably in their early sixties when I first met them. I was the new girl in the church choir, and they were choirmaster and church organist. There was a new baby as well as two other small children in my family home, so to help my Mum out the Smiths would time their walk to church so as to meet me at the point where I had to cross a main road, and after choir they'd see me safely over the road again. At choir, Walter introduced all the silly jokes about hymns 'most highly flavoured gravy' was a favourite, and allow us to sing them and get the joke out of our system before the service. He'd stop us as we practiced hymns and ask use what the hymn was about, and make sure we knew what the meaning of the singing was, as well as what the notes were. His gentle approach meant that we not only became capable choristers but also became worshippers. He quietly shared his faith with us, through teaching us hymns, psalms and anthems, and supported and encouraged us as we grew up to become people who could take a lead and share faith in our turn. Lena gave practical support and calm friendship. When as a teenager I ran a childrens music club, Lena was there when I needed her to play the piano or the organ to accompany the children's songs.

Luke's account of the presentation of Christ in the Temple bring together two remarkable older people who for me have the same sort of qualities as the brother and sister who were so helpful to me as a child. Simeon and Anna had reflected on their experiences and all that they had learned of God in their lives, and through prayer and experience were open to hear new and marvellous things from God. Their steadfastness and encouragement, even to face the hard things that might be ahead, were hugely important to the young couple and their 8 day old child. Mary remembered what the two people said to them, and considered their words, perhaps finding strength from their certainly about the baby's future calling in the hard days that followed.

Anna particularly is a wonder to me. Luke tells us that she had been in the temple constantly since becoming a widow many years before. This suggests that she had stayed in the temple area praying throughout a period when it was rebuilt on a massive scale. King Herod the Great, desperate to assert his right to be King of Israel (a right he didn't really have) chose rebuilding the Temple in its grandest ever form as the way to prove that he really was a good Jew and was loyal to the country. The building project lasted years, and Anna would have been watching the new Temple rise and Jewish rituals renew themselves in this grand setting throughout that time. And yet, it wasn't to the wonderful new building that she looked to see a glimpse of God, but to a child. She and Simeon understood that the light that would bring hope to all people, Jews and all the other nations, would not come from the large and impressive lamps in the Temple, but from a person, the Messiah, the Son of God.

Anna and Simeon, in their years of experience and prayer also understood that God very often chose to reveal Himself in children. The greatest leaders of the Jewish people were identified when very young: Moses, saved from the death imposed by a jealous King by that kings own daughter, was set aside for leadership when only a baby. Samuel, the last and greatest of the judges of Israel and a great prophet of God, was dedicated like Jesus, to God's service as a baby, and began receiving the word of God at the age of seven. David was a little older, but still a child, when Samuel first anointed him as a future king. All of these children needed time to grow up and learn what their calling meant, but the call was clear as children and those children were to be listened to and taken seriously. Since that was how God called leaders before, Simeon and Anna had no trouble recognising that the greatest leader of them all, the messiah promised in huge scriptures, would be revealed to them as a baby. They were there for that wonderful moment when the child was dedicated to God's service, a calling he would grow to understand through childhood, and live out as an adult.

Each of those biblical children were guided by adults, sometimes - like Simeon and Anna- much older than themselves. Moses was returned to his birth family and always kept in touch with them, even when living in the King of Egypt's palace, (we know this because later in life when God asked
Moses to go and act on his call, Moses was in contact with his brother and sister, and able to get their help), and his mother and the other adults he would have known were important to him. Perhaps the adults in the King's palace were also influential, for example in showing him the qualities needed to lead a nation. Samuel, like Moses growing up away from his parents and only seeing them occasionally, was guided by the priest Eli, who enabled him to listen to God and become God's servant at a very young age. David was guided by Samuel, who became a guide to him as he grew up and learned what it would mean to be a king.

I think that pattern still holds good. God calls children into active service. They are not the church of the future, they are his chosen and called people right now. But if they are going to be able to live that calling out, they need to be guided, supported, prayed for and loved by the adults around them. So adults, we need to be able to make part of our service of God the job of looking for those children who God calls to be a part of his church, and to encourage, pray for and help them. Children, you need to know that you are called by God, and your call is real and important now. Listen to the adults who help you, and with their support get involved and do whatever God is calling you to do.

Adults, yours may be only a passing meeting with some children, as Simeon and Anna's was with Jesus. Use those moments and know that you may be as old as Anna - older - you could still be an important part of that persons story. Or you may see a child regularly, as their teacher or club leader or choirmaster - the influence that your prayer, word and example will have will help to shape and enable a servant of God.  So pass on the light that you have received from Christ and help the children to carry it forward.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Being Ananias.

Perhaps one of the most amazing miracles that God does is when He completely transforms a person's character. Never mind water into wine or healing leprosy- changing a person's fundamental beliefs and behaviour is a much greater challenge! We do tend to think that people can't change, but God really can do anything. This Sunday we remember the conversion of St Paul, an event which really shows what God can do! Saul, as he was at the beginning of the story, was legalistic and authoritarian. He studied hard under a very well respected rabbi, Gamaliel, and rose to a position of power in the faith. Saul used that power to hunt down and arrest and even have executed those he saw as opponents to the only true faith. Saul was acting from a position of deep and studied conviction, acting to defend the Lord his God from those who he saw as blasphemers. In some ways, there is a comparison to be made with those today who, out of real religious conviction, declare jihad against those who they believe to be blasphemers and bad influences to others against their faith. Saul would go to any length to purify Judaism and remove contagion. The revelation that he had got it wrong, and that his activities did not just persecute Jesus followers, but Jesus Himself, was an enormous shock to Saul.

In some ways, the more challenging person for us as we consider this story of Saul's transformation is Ananias. After all, conversions like the one that happened to Paul are rare, and those of us listening to the story in church pews are not likely to be candidates for this kind of conversion, because at the least we are already open to Jesus's message, and at best we are people who know and accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all aspects of our lives. But while Paul's example may not be one that most of us will follow, Ananias is an example that God is much more likely to ask us to follow. Ananias was not a great or famous leader (as far as we know), and what he did for Paul was quite simple, in a way. Paul was not eating or drinking, but was existing in a state of shocked reflection. Ananias did what Jesus asked him to do: he prayed for Paul, baptised him and made sure that he had something to eat and drink. Then he made sure Paul recovered his strength and introduced him to the rest of the fellowship. Like Ananias, we might be asked to help or support someone who has decided to change their lives and follow Jesus. Occasionally, supporting that person might feel as crazy and foolish as supporting Saul seemed for Ananias: a person whose life has been lived in such a way that spending time with them would seem risky to anyone other than a fellow disciple of Jesus.

More normally for us our Ananias role is to support people who have turned to Jesus in a much less dramatic way. Perhaps they have been gradually considering the faith all their lives, and are now realising that Jesus should play a more important part of their loves. Or they have had a moment of encounter. Not the blinding light of the road to Damascus, but significant to them: a request to become a godparent, perhaps, or the sense of hope and need of comfort found when dealing with a family funeral, or a need to make sense of life at a moment of midlife crisis. Whatever started the journey, each of us can only take the steps forward towards baptism and learning how to follow Jesus if we have an Ananias alongside us. Saul's new friend made sure he ate, and brought him into the company of the local church. All of us can care for another person in this way, looking out for their well being, inviting them to services and socials and coming with them to make it easier. Yes, Ananias also baptised Paul, and we don't do things quite that way these days, but you might well support someone who is preparing to baptism by prayer or even going to the Pilgrim course with them, or by introducing them to me!

I believe that most of us, if we think about it, would be able to name a collection of Ananias figures who have helped us in our own faith journeys. Even those of you who, like me, have attended church all of our lives, will have people who influenced and cared for us. In my case, my Ananias's include Walter Smith, the choirmaster in the church where I grew up, who saw me safely to church and told me stories about what the hymns meant, and teased me with a funny nickname; then there was Jean Liddicoat, who prayed for me as a teenager, listened to my youthful angst while she did her ironing, and gave me the confidence to go to the youth fellowship meetings; and Fen Strange who when I was learning about leadership in student days helped me to understand and support a student older than me with mental health problems. The list could go on. Like Ananias, these people came into my life for a while, and then were gone as I moved on in my discipleship.

So who were your Ananias people? As we pray today, perhaps you might give thanks for them. And here's today's challenge: who is God sending you to, to be an Ananias? Who needs you to pray for them, to encourage them, to believe in them even if no one else will, to help them have the courage to be disciples in a world where following Jesus goes against the grain? God might send you to help someone you don't know, maybe even - as Ananias to Saul - someone you fear or dislike. But a bit of practical support, prayer and some kind words will help that person become a follower of Jesus. And no one is too old or too young for this ministry! We can all offer prayer and encouragement. Let's pray that Jesus will show us who he wants us to support today. It might just be the next apostle Paul!

Saturday, 10 January 2015

The news headlines

When God created the universe, breathing life into it all by his Holy Spirit, there was no preference for one nation over another. He made all with the same care, the same love. When he called Abram out of Ur to settle in Canaan and become father of a chosen people, that was not a rejection of the rest of the planet's inhabitants, but a message for them. God revealed himself through Israel with the intention that all nations would learn of him through Israel, and respond to him. This intention came to fruition in the person of Jesus. John the Baptist pointed everyone he met towards Jesus, the Son of God, present at the creation of the universe and bringer of God's saving love to every people. So the Jews baptised in the Jordan by John were part of Gods family, but the Greeks baptised in Ephesus by Paul were just as equally valued by Jesus and included in God's love.

This last week - Wednesday especially- seems to have been particularly violent and difficult, a week in which people with their own agendas have attacked innocent and undefended people. I have found myself concerned with the way that these events have been reported. The Jews of first century Israel would have been largely unconcerned with goings on in Greece, and would not have been willing to consider 12 people from Ephesus as worth their attention, and would not have wanted to include them in their care. St Paul was going very much against the prevailing mood - even amongst followers of Jesus- in working with Greeks. A first century Jewish news service would not have given much space to news from Ephesus, unless it somehow affected or attacked them.

Our news services seem to behave in much the same way. Now, I don't want to give the wrong impression. The events in France this week, the attack at Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent attacks and deaths, are sad, unnecessary, evil. To remember those who have been hurt, to stand by them in prayer and support, is important. But the priorities in reporting, especially on radio and tv, have been biased by our tendency to prioritise the local and the celebrity. We've been told the names of cartoonists who died in headlines, but I wonder how many of you would recognise the name of Frederic Boisseau? I had to search for his name, so I don't blame you if you don't recognise it. Frederic was 42, married with two children. You didn't hear about him in the headlines because he was the caretaker. I am grateful that at least one journalist considered him important enough to find out about. I believe that God values Frederic's life just as much (no more, no less) as the famous satirists and cartoonists who died, and his innocence in death is in some ways even harder to bear, because he did nothing to provoke a gunman to take his life.

While all this was dominating our locally focussed, Eurocentric news, and our Twitter feeds were filling with comments and 'je suis Charlie' statements (I understand that even the Arc de Triomphe is carrying that phrase in lights now), Islamic terrorists were killing others elsewhere in the world. If you rely on tv or radio you won't have heard much, if anything, of the other events, and that is sad. Because every life matters, and the betrayal of God and community by terrorists working in the name of Islam is just as bad whether it happens on our doorstep or somewhere far away.

On Wednesday 37 people were killed and 66 injured in a bomb attack using a minibus parked near a queue of people waiting to enrol at a Police Academy at Sunaa in Yemen. Did this news pass so many people by because it happened further away? Because the victims were mostly Muslim, so not like us? In offices in London editors were deciding that Charlie Hebdo's victims were of greater significance than Sunaa's, but I don't think God will have seen them as less important. The church issued prayers for France. Did it not write prayers for Yemen because violence happens more often there? The grief at loss of mother, brother, daughter, uncle is no less wherever you are. These two events happened on the same day. If you look at the Church of England website you will find prayers for Paris - and quite right too. But nothing for Yemen.

And also on Wednesday another group who claim to operate in the name of Islam, Boko Haram, went on a killing spree in Nigeria. The town of Baga, population 10000, has been razed to the ground, along with a number of nearby villages. At least 2000 people were killed, bodies strewn on the ground like litter. Thousands more, going wherever they could to save themselves, were stranded on nearby islands without any kind of supplies. Help cannot be got to them because of the forces of Boko Haram preventing others getting into the area. Many, many more might die before the crisis is over, and many many people are not accounted for. About 10000 people are believed to have got into neighbouring Chad, facing lives as refugees, having lost everything bar their lives. Perhaps you heard or read something of this, but it happened on the same day as the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and anyway, we are used to hearing news of Boko Haram's outrages : they aren't a novelty, so somehow they don't grab the attention. So perhaps you didn't hear. The prayer writers for the Church of England's website certainly seem to have missed it. The website headlines only offer prayer for Paris. Nothing for Nigeria, despite the severity of its situation. And yet, I believe that Jesus values every one of those 2000 people just as much (no more, no less) as the 17 killed in Paris.

I encourage all of you to read and pray more widely than the radio and TV headlines might direct. Look for the wider news of the places that might matter less to ordinary British people and to editors in their news offices trying to guess what British people will be interested in. Jesus cares about every single life and death, no matter what the nationality or religion or political stance of the person. He cares as much about the plight of the victims in Nigeria and the refugees of Boko Haram as he does about the people of Paris. He cares as much about the victims of the Yemen, and the people I have not mentioned because the length of this sermon would be just too long - those freezing in unusually cold weather in the Middle East, for example, where tens of thousands of people living under canvas having been driven room their homes in Syria, having already lost loved ones to terrorist violence, are now having to deal with freezing rain and low temperatures in situations where they don't necessarily have coats, jumpers or proper footwear. That hasn't made the top headlines this week either, and it would take a very slow news week for it to get there.

Read as widely as you can. Pray widely - you don't need the Church of England to write a prayer for you. I have every confidence that our leaders in the church are praying for all these places, and I hope that you will too. If you are not sure how to pray, keep it simple. Name the places and ask God to have mercy or to give his help - like a personal verse and response - I'll lead you in the sort of thing in a moment. If you are able to write letters of support or take other action, do that too. Charities like World Vision or the Foundation for Relief in the Middle East are working to get warm blankets, food and clothing to the Syrian refugees, and help to those in Chad. As followers of the Son of God, we are called to take an interest in the whole world, not just our bit of it; in all people, not just the celebrities. There are journalists out there reporting the news that we need to hear about, but we may have to dig deeper to find it, and to open our hearts purposefully in order to see the whole world, made and loved by God, and not just the bit of it that we most enjoy.

Prayer response: Lord, please help them and comfort them.

All those hurt or grieving by the attacks in France this week
All those hurt or grieving by the attack in Sunaa this week
All those hurt or grieving by the attacks in and around Baga this week
Those made refugee by the attacks in Baga this week
Those refugees suffering in the cold in the Middle East
Those suffering who we don't know because their news has not reached us, but are known to you, Jesus.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Twelfth Night

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

Twelfth night

Now is the ebbing, now:
the cards collapse;
the bald tree lies shorn of baubles;
the lights laid low in their unbright box;
candles are cold; figures
no longer in focus return to rest.
Only the gifts remain.

The angels are 'gone away';
the shepherds 'returned';
the Magi 'departed another way';
and Joseph with Mary fled.
She must not mind, but mind
her son, pondering these things.
Only this gift remains.

Alan Horner

Only one gift matters. Not the gold, frankincense or myrrh. Only the child in which the presence of God is with us. Jesus, the man who showed us what God's love looks like by his words and actions, his dying and his rising; He is the only gift who lasts beyond time and is given to all of humanity. He came not only for Mary, for Bethlehem shepherds, for Eastern Magi, but for us, right here and right now.

Mary pondered these things, and we continue to do so. Pondering isn't enough though. Mary followed her son, supported him, prayed and joined the church that continued his task of showing God's love to the world. We succeed to her task. But what does that mean for us?

At this time of year one of the most popular Christmas carols is 'In the bleak midwinter'. I confess, I'm not a fan myself - the historian in me objects to the transplanting of the nativity into a British setting, the insistence on treating historical inaccuracies as truth. But I will forgive all of this for the sentiment of the last couple of lines. What can I give him? Give my heart. The gift of Jesus remains, and that gift demands nothing but wants the best that we can offer in return. God loves us and wants us to love Him. God wants our hearts.

As we live out our love for Jesus, we can do that by seeking to follow Him, and there are many ways that we can do this and encourage others to do so too. You do it by prioritising worship and prayer - just as you are now by being here today - and encouraging others to do the same. You do it by serving others. I am very aware of the love that is shown amongst members of the church communities here in Living Brook, and I'm glad of it. I was talking to Iris just after Christmas, and she told me how very thankful she is to all the people who show her kindness by helping with practical things and by checking to make sure that she is ok. I am thankful to, to everyone who shows such kindness to Iris and all of our community. Keep on doing all that you are doing. Some of you may feel able to develop this caring approach, and be supported as you do so, by joining the Pastoral Support Group.

Following Jesus, and living a life that gives him our hearts, is not always an easy matter. Today we are going to join in a tradition established by our Methodist sisters and brothers, and included in Church of England liturgies as part of Common Worship. It is called the Renewal of the Covenant, and gives us an opportunity to reiterate that giving of the heart, setting out what it means for us to offer that gift in response to the great gift that Jesus has given to us.