All posts by Lesley Crawley

I am a priest in the Guildford Diocese, I am particularly interested in inclusivity for all in the church and clergy wellbeing. I became a Christian when I was 14 which was a shock because I previously scoffed at all faith, spirituality and religion. I have a bachelors degree and doctorate in Engineering. I have worked in Engineering Management, Research Science and have been a University Lecturer in Engineering. I am married and have three sons, four step-daughters and a grandson. My favourite place is Southwold and spend as much time as I can there, I enjoy walking and sitting in coffee shops, I also play Bridge. I love psychology, I am fascinated by people and what makes us thrive.

Sermon on Mark 8:31-38 (Lesley)

Mark 8.31-38dali_christ_of_st_john

31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

So we heard from the Roman’s passage Paul’s big message – you can be righteous, or right with God through faith.

I looked back to when I preached on this passage six years ago and at that time I was actually studying theology, indeed I was studying Paul, so that was quite helpful because I clearly seemed to know what Paul was on about at the time!

Although there was a line in the sermon that said that we skipped Romans 4 because our lecturer said it was too difficult for us to understand!

Anyway, the thing that Paul was so fabulously excited about was that we could be right with God through faith… this was his conversion experience…. He had been a Pharisee, and not just any Pharisee, but one that had zealously been persecuting Christians and having them stoned…. And the reason for that was that he thought that everyone, every Jew, had to be obeying the Law perfectly in order for them to be right with God. In order for God to bless Israel, in order for God to release Israel from captivity to the Romans, everyone had to follow every law in the utmost detail. And they weren’t doing it. Especially the Christians, they were being heretical proclaiming a man, this man Jesus to be God.

So you can imagine the migraine this gave poor old Saul as he was, trying to control EVERYONE. It is hard enough to control ourselves…. I have certainly caved in on some of my Lenten disciplines already and they are truly piffling compared the Jewish Laws.

And then Paul realised, and then Paul found the penny dropping, that we could be made right though FAITH. And what a relief that was.

So what is faith? For Paul it meant surrender to God. Giving in to God. Stopping trying to control, stopping trying to have things our way, stopping trying to understand, and falling into the loving arms of God. Stepping out perhaps

(Indiana Jones video)

Sometimes, in Bibles it is translated as “to believe” because we can’t say “to faith” in English like you can say it in Greek, but to believe is such a poor translation. It suggests intellectual assent rather than giving your whole body and soul to God. And anyway, I think sometimes we surrender to God even though in our mind we can’t believe, we “faith” anyway.

Hence, central to our faith is the image of Baptism – trusting others as they dunk you under the water, giving in, surrendering, submitting to God. And for Paul, he felt we had to die to the old ways, die to the Law and be resurrected as new people, people who surrendered to God.

In the Gospel we also hear of a similar idea – Jesus says we have to take up our cross and follow Jesus. It is a sort of surrender, but I don’t think it necessarily means that our lives will be nasty and painful… not at all. I think that the cross is a symbol of release of burdens.

Like the bit in the Pilgrim’s progress where Christian loses his burden:

Up this way, therefore, did burdened CHRISTIAN run; but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back.

He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a Cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as CHRISTIAN came up to the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble; and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.

Then was CHRISTIAN glad and lightsome, and said, with a merry heart,

“He hath given me rest by his sorrow,
And life by his death.”

My gran had a big, beautiful, illustrated version of the Pilgrim’s Progress, and I did once try to read it because my Gran told me to. Now I look at it again it is no wonder that I couldn’t – the language was so alien to me, but so was the content – I had no understanding of faith.

However, years later, I too had an experience similar to that of Christian. I was at Uni when I heard an evangelistic talk where the preacher was thinking about the words Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished”. I was convinced it wasn’t for me and so I let my guard down, and was enthusiastically agreeing with the speaker in my heart hoping that it would enable others to understand the truth of God’s love for them. The speaker was saying…

‘..when Jesus died on the cross he said the words ‘it is finished’. These words were often used on grocery bills when people paid their tab. In other words Jesus said ‘it is paid for in full’. Now, imagine all of your sins listed like a grocery bill. All your sins, the ones that you feel are forgivable and the ones that you are so ashamed of, all of them.’

I was so absorbed in what the speaker was saying that I did as I was told and listed all the things I was ashamed of, even the unmentionable, unforgivable ones.

The speaker continued..

‘..now, imagine Jesus stamping the bill with a seal and on the seal are the words ‘paid for in full’.

I could see all my sins listed, and a big red wax seal… paid for in full. I was amazed and tearful; I suddenly felt that Jesus’ death had mysteriously paid for all my sins. I had become crippled by shame and in those moments I felt able to walk again.

Of course, it needed surrender, it needed faith, but somehow, by doing so I gained a new life, I gained a sense of being right with God. The clouds cleared and I felt like I was dancing in the sunshine.

I pray that this Lent all of us might experience this realisation that Paul was so excited about, that surrendering to God mysteriously brings us close to God. Amen

Ash Wednesday Sermon (Lesley) John 1:1-8

Deutsch: Christus im Hause des Pharisäers, Jac...
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John 8:1-11
but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about sin, in preparation for this sermon…. And a memory came back to me that characterises sin for me. I was eighteen and an engineering apprentice. We had to learn how to weld and used various techniques, and it all went pretty smoothly, but the final type of welding required very, very high electric currents. I was with my friend Audrey and we were in a booth that had a metal table and a metal cage around us. The idea being that the welding stick had a high voltage that was earthed when it touched anything metal. So we were wearing protective clothing with a visor that was so dark that you could literally see nothing – it was pitch black and I stood in the total blackness in the booth waiting for her to begin welding. I did see one flash on the table and then after that there were flashes of light from over my head, to the right, to the left, back on the table, then over in another corner… all over the place – accompanied by crashing and banging. I was terrified. I couldn’t run because I couldn’t see and I couldn’t take the visor off because of the flashing arcs of light that would blind me. When Audrey had finally stopped she told me what had happened. She had accidentally welded the welding stick to the specimen, and then she was trying to shake it free, in the process she managed to crash it into the cage in various places and everywhere it made contact with the metal it earthed and so the arcing started.

Why is this like sin? Well because I think what happens to me, and sometimes to others, is we have some issue that is perhaps unseen, a bit like getting the welding stick stuck to the specimen. Let’s say that issue is crushing unworthiness, or fear of the future, or a bad marriage, or a deep grief, or perhaps a desperate shame. But you don’t see any of that, you don’t know about it because it is hidden so deeply. What you perhaps see is me grumpy with my kids, super sensitive about certain things, you see me overworking, or eating too much, or you see me sullen in meetings… All these things are like sparks flying all over the place, and sometimes these are the things that we focus on as sins… but they aren’t ever going to be solved because they aren’t the real problem. The real problem is what happened in the darkness, the wrong thing got welded..!

Turning to the passage, I have struggled more and more with it as the years have gone on. I’ll try to explain why.
For a start Jewish Law says that people can only be accused of adultery if they were caught actually in the act. The law also said that both parties were guilty. So why is only the woman accused of it. Where is the man? It isn’t as if he wasn’t there when the Pharisees turned up. Why did he get away Scot free? Well presumably because being a man he was worth more than her. But what sort of betrayal is this? Betrayal of justice, betrayal of love….?

Or is it worse than this. Is this whole thing a set-up? After all it is only the Pharisees who accuse her… and it seems very convenient that a bunch of Pharisees catch a woman in the very act of adultery in close proximity to where Jesus is teaching so that they can publicly test him and force him to choose between obedience to the Law and the mercy that characterises him. Perhaps she was forced to commit adultery?

Then she was brought before Jesus. The text tells us that Jesus was sitting down and that she was forced to stand. My guess is that as they brought her straight from the act that she was naked, which is why Jesus mostly seems to be leaning forward, bowing his head, drawing in the sandy soil and protecting her modesty.

It is a horrible scene of betrayal and humiliation, all with the aim of catching Jesus out. As a woman and as a priest I have heard horrific stories of abuse and humiliation such that I don’t think I can be shocked any more. For me, these stories wash over my consciousness as I read this story and I am transfixed and appalled by the scene that has developed.

Perhaps you too know stories of shame and humiliation. I confess that as I read this story I have a growing anger towards the Pharisees. We don’t know whether the woman has transgressed in this way or not. But what about the sins of the Pharisees? What about the way they let injustice rule and they let the man go? What about the way they are publicly humiliating this woman just so they can continue their vendetta against Jesus? If they were concerned about her sin and thought Jesus could help then why not let her be clothed and go to him privately? Anger begins to burn in me.

But of course I am doing exactly the same thing as the Pharisees. They are drawing tighter and tighter circles of sinfulness around her and I am doing the same to them.

Jesus is different. He drew an expanded circle of sinfulness that included everyone present and then an even more expansive circle of forgiveness in the words “Neither do I condemn you”.

Once we judge someone then it is difficult to hear God over the clamour of our own ego. Once we have judged then it is difficult to change our minds without losing face. We are called to be open and expansive, not to judge, that we might be able to discern God in amongst our everyday lives. To do this we need a soul that is at peace, not one that is awash with judgement, anger and pride.

But two questions remain for me:

“Is the woman really guilty?” I find myself asking – I’m still struggling to get away from this judging mentality. Jesus said “Go and sin no more” – does he think she was caught doing something wrong? And how could he possibly know if he was clothed in the same humanity that we have, how could he know without asking more questions?

Well, the truth is of course that all of us sin, including her. All of us fall short, and we flail around creating sparks here and there… perhaps some of us have deeper hurts that drive these things and we need to find the courage to deal with them.

I heard a story about a woman who said to her Orthodox priest that she thought confession was useless for her – she didn’t do all those disgusting things that other people do. The priest replied that she should tell this to her husband and children and come back in the morning to tell the priest her decision on whether she wanted to confess. In the morning she came back a different person… and with a very long list.

It is easy to let pride get in the way of our relationship with God. This is why in every mosque, when they do those beautiful mosaics, they always have some flaw in the pattern somewhere – to remind them of their humanness, their brokenness, their incompleteness.

My second question is why the woman remains there once all her accusers have gone. Jesus is sitting down, the woman is standing there, possibly naked…. the text says that everyone goes – including the disciples and all the people who Jesus was teaching. They all slip away and the woman is alone with Jesus. What has happened to her? At the beginning of the story she was dragged along and forced to stand, now she is there voluntarily.

Somehow, in all her nakedness and vulnerability, being with Jesus is safe. Knowing that she was a sinner and an accused woman, she still remains.

I find this surprising, and then I wonder why.

I wonder whether I can be naked before God, real and vulnerable.

Is that an issue for all of us… and if so why?

I wonder whether this Lent we can hear the words of Jesus “Go and sin no more” but also hear the words “neither do I condemn you”..?

Sermon on John 1:1-14 (Jennifer)

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...
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1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

In the beginning……..

During this last week we have been reminded of at least two reasons to celebrate 2012.

It’s 200 years since Charles Dickens was born.

And it’s 60 years since Princess Elizabeth became our Queen.

In order for us to appreciate these occasions
and to celebrate them fully
it seems necessary to go back to the beginning of these events.

We have heard that Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth,
that he experienced poverty in his childhood.
That his father was locked in the Marshalsea prison for debt,
and that he was put to work as a boy in terrible conditions in a factory.

And because of this beginning,
Charles Dickens used his narrative genius,
his brilliant character portrayals,
and vivid sense of humour,

not only to give us a series of gripping good reads,

but also to raise awareness of the dark, murky, side of Victorian England,
and to help bring about social reform.

This week we have also seen, pictures of the young Queen, on hearing the news of the death of her father, flying home from her holiday in Kenya.

Dressed in black, she is met at the airport by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and the members of her Government.

We have once again seen pictures of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation,
when she dedicated herself in service to God and her people,

And because of this beginning, 60 years later, we can thankfully celebrate this faithful dedication to our country.

In today’s readings we are invited to go back to the beginning

to be reminded of all that we celebrate here in our worship today.

In the beginning God created……

So begins the Bible….

The Old Testament reading from Proverbs is full of light, beauty and joy
as the voice of Wisdom talks about rejoicing in the world at the very beginning of creation.

“Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.”

One version of the Bible uses the word “playing” and speaks of Wisdom being God’s darling and delight.

It speaks of a new creation where everything is as it should be and anything is possible.

A world created with wisdom,

Personified as a desirable woman,
holding the symbol for life in one hand
and riches and well-being in the other.

An image of order, justice and righteousness.

God’s beautiful creation we can surely celebrate today.

The tragedy is that things are no longer as they were at the beginning,

Unspoiled.

There is darkness around us:

in the damage we have done to our world;
in the tragedies and disasters we hear about daily;
in our own lives and in the lives of others.

But God seems to have taken this into his planning as well!

In the beginning was the word…..

So begins John’s Gospel

Unlike the other Gospels, John begins not with human time, but with eternity. .

Here we find wisdom personified as Jesus
the eternal word of God.

Jesus who embodies wisdom in his person and his teaching.

This Gospel message is that even in our battered world the light of life and beauty still shines
– the darkness has not overcome it.
– God still delights in the human race, in each one of us.

And it’s in the nature of love, in the nature of God,
to want to enjoy fellowship with us,
to want the very best for us.
For us to become children of God.

So he comes to live among us, to draw us to himself in Jesus.

In Jesus we see what God is like in human form – concerned about people’s lives and welfare;
willing to forgive and heal;
always ready to offer a new start,
with new possibilities opening before us,
as it was in the beginning.

And if God delights in us then surely it matters to him how we respond .

Cardinal Basil Hume says, in his book “Mystery of the Incarnation”, that we mustn’t worry about whether or not we have love for God.
We just need to remember the simple truth that God is in love with each of us.
It’s an amazing thought – that each of us can say “God is in love with me” “God delights in me”.

It’s a mustard seed of faith which grows and begins to change us and our lives.

It’s not something that happens overnight.

We’ll probably each of us spend our whole life receiving God’s invitations
and we’ll probably miss a few because we can’t or won’t watch and listen.

Or maybe we’ll recognise the invitations but are afraid of saying “yes”, because that would mean having to change and grow
and change and growth are very often uncomfortable or downright painful.

But we are not alone.
Jesus, the Word and Wisdom of God made flesh, is with us.

He is our light and his life is the life that will never die.

No darkness in our lives can overcome that light

Sometimes though, it does seem as if the darkness is all there is
and that’s when we need each other.

Our own light may go out for a while leaving us lost in the darkness.
But being part of the body of Christ means that someone else nearby is carrying a light
and can hold that up for us until our darkness passes.

Then it may be our turn to hold the Christ light for someone else.

There is darkness around us: but in that darkness a light shines and refuses to be overcome.

A light which offers us new hope, new strength, new courage and new starts.

The light of eternal life.

God delights in us: there is no darkness that can overcome that light.

So here and now in 2012, let us celebrate God’s love for us,
his delight in each of us,
His light which cannot be extinguished by any darkness of this world.

Sermon on John 1:1-14 (Lesley)

Image of Jesus, the Divine Word.
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1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Light and Darkness

I must confess that I struggled with this sermon all week. I had a hunch that I wanted to speak of light and darkness… and eventually I realised why I was struggling to preach on this… it is the concept of darkness – what does it mean, and are the models helpful?

So the passage speaks of light shining in the darkness, and the darkness not overcoming it… but what is the darkness?
Is the darkness evil? Perhaps, but for me, I find the concept of evil doesn’t help me very much, it tend to make me fearful, or paranoid. Sometimes it makes me project all my problems outwards instead of dealing with the root cause which is probably me. Sometimes I find Christians a bit illogical – they will say that you can tell something is worth doing because it is very difficult and the devil is clearly attacking it…. And then about other things they will say that you can tell that the Spirit is blessing it because it is so easy. I end up wondering if the Spirit or the Devil has anything to do with it or whether it is really their own desires….

Is the darkness sin? Perhaps, but for me, I find focussing on my sinfulness can leave me feeling guilty and worthless. Of course, there are times when I feel convicted of something that I have done wrong and I change my ways, I make amends, I confess what was hidden, I know God’s love and forgiveness and I feel so much better. “Better out than in” is an expression that comes to mind, but perhaps that is not such a nice expression….
But there are other times when I find that I just mess up a bit every day. I find a flash of anger and I shout at the kids, a flash of resentment and I get shirty with my husband, a moment of stupidity and I hurt a friend, a time of business and I neglect my own needs. For me, every day, there is the sincere desire to be the wife, mother and priest God has called me to be, and every day I mess up. I love that quote by Samuel Butler that “Life is like playing a violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.” I feel like I am a slow learner… but is that really darkness?

Another possibility is that darkness is unbelief. But, I also find this concept of darkness unhelpful… because I think doubt is critical for growing in faith, and I believe that too many churches try to suppress doubt, saying that it is either sin or from the devil…

You see, most of us, at some stage in our faith journey experience agonising doubt. It feels like we have lost our faith. It is a period of questioning, exploring, falling apart, doubting, dancing around the real issues, sinking in uncertainty, and indulging in self-centeredness. People around us think we are utterly lost. This sudden uncertainty is normally precipitated by a crisis, it makes former truths look like sham, we can’t make any sense of God and we can find no new direction, every route we take only results in more questions. Faith is no longer a support for us, it crumbles before our eyes, we feel remote, immobilized, unsuccessful, hurt, ashamed, or reprehensible. Prayer doesn’t work, church doesn’t work, whatever formula we previously had is now useless.

This is a stage of faith and at the end of it, we hit something that some researchers call “the Wall”. It is impossible to go over, around, or under the Wall. One can only go through it. For me, when I had this experience, I called it “the abyss”… a sense of letting go of faith and of God and falling into the utter darkness. We don’t know it at the time, but it is the point where we integrate the spiritual part of ourselves with the rest of us, where we face our own and other’s demons… it is so unpleasant that we only enter this phase when we are forced to because of a crisis.

The only end to it is when we fully and completely surrender to God’s will, even though we don’t even know whether God exists, and even though we remain in the dark. After the Wall we are never the same…. Is this darkness? I don’t think so.

And so what is the darkness? Let me digress for a moment.

A few of us watched a video by a preacher called Rob Bell up at St Mark’s the other day, and he had a concept of faith that is like a rhythm. And this song, this rhythm has been playing since the dawn of time, it is a song that moves us, and people throughout the ages have heard this rhythm and played along with it… and when we do something mean or we gossip or we steal or we lie, it is discordant… and when we see something kind or loving, it lifts our souls because the person is playing the song, the song that is within our soul. And it can be that people who say they have no religion play to the sound of the song, and others who are very religious confuse us because they seem to be hitting all the wrong notes…. And the song just keeps on playing.

I think this type of idea fits well with the passage that St John wrote…

In the beginning was the “Word”… what on earth does that mean? Well it has strong resonances with the passage in Genesis… In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth… the passage takes us back to the beginning of time, when the song was playing, even before anything was created… But why “the Word”? What does that mean? Again, it takes us back to Genesis, where things come into being when God’s intentions are spoken. St John chooses to call Jesus “The Word” rather than “The Son” because in a sense, “The Word” makes Jesus and God more closely associated than “The Son”, after all many fathers and sons are quite different in nature. The Greek word translated “Word” in this passage is Logos, and it was common in both Greek philosophy and Jewish thought of that day. In the Old Testament logos was personified as the instrument of God’s will and in Greek philosophy logos described the intermediate agency by which God created the world.

I see “The Word” as God’s breath, God’s intention, God’s song, God personified.

The passage then tells us that in the Word was life and light and the light shines in the darkness… the song plays whether others are playing it or not… it resonates through everything.. through us…

Now John the Baptist came as a witness to the light… and that is the same for us. Our job is to try to listen to the song and to try to play in tune, even if we aren’t joined by others.. we need to keep playing. And we are the priesthood of all believers – each of us has a priestly duty to try to listen as best we can for the song, listen for God, look for the light and then to order our lives to that rhythm.

It is my belief that we are most ourselves when we are in tune with God. We are Children of God – it isn’t that we have to repress our personalities, or put a Christian mask on… when we are most in tune with God we are most ourselves. I don’t think that when we are in tune with God we are all clones of Jesus either, we are all created differently, unique, each like a different instrument in the orchestra, playing our little bit as best we can…
And so what is darkness? I believe that it is the places in our communities, in our families and in our hearts where that tune doesn’t seem to reach. It isn’t the odd wrong note, more it is the places where fear or hatred or hopelessness dominate. But we have hope – we need to keep playing the song.. and we have hope – in the words of St John “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” or in the words of Desmund Tutu:

Goodness is stronger than evil;
love is stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
life is stronger than death;
victory is ours through God who loves us.
Amen

Sermon on Mark 3:13-19 (Lesley)

English: Jesus calling Simon Peter and his bro...
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Mark 3:13-19

Jesus Appoints the Twelve

 13 Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. 14 He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach 15 and to have authority to drive out demons. 16 These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), 17 James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), 18 Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

Jesus chose twelve people to be his apostles, to be his closest band of disciples, those who would do what he did. Those who would learn from him closely, like the disciples of a great artist or a great violin maker; those who would watch and listen and listen and watch and become like the one that they were following.

There is a great tradition of rabbis doing this, of training others to follow in their footsteps, but first they had to make it all the way through school.

The Jewish people sent their boys to school. They would memorise the Torah – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy…. all off by heart. This was called Beit Sefer. At the age of 10 the best ones would stay on at school, those who had managed this feat. However, most would go off and learn their father’s trade at that point. I think Jesus was still at school aged 12, because we learn about his visit to the Temple, when he was left behind, and how amazed the rabbis were amazed at his questions and his understanding. Presumably he was asking them about the scriptures.

Those that stayed would go on to memorise the rest of the Hebrew scriptures – Genesis all the way through Malachi, off by heart. This was called Beit Talmud. They would stay at school until they were fourteen or fifteen, and then most would go and learn their father’s trade. However, the very best, who had accomplished this would carry on with their learning. I imagine it was many, a tiny percentage.

These few would go and find a rabbi and become a disciple – I disciple doesn’t just want to know what the rabbi know he want to be like the rabbi is. This was called Beit Midrash. Now the rabbis had different understandings of the scriptures, different interpretations, and that rabbi’s teachings were known as that rabbi’s ‘yoke’. So if you wanted to follow a particular rabbi, you wanted to take on that particular ‘yoke’. So, aged fifteen a boy would find a rabbi and go for an interview. He would be grilled, and at this point most would fail, however, if they were really impressive, then the rabbi would say ‘come and follow me’. And then the kid would leave his family and his village and his friends. Each rabbi would travel, and go from town to town, teaching the scriptures, followed by his disciples. By the end of the day the disciples would be covered in whatever the rabbis would have stepped in. And so there was a saying ‘may you covered in the dust of your rabbi’.

I believe this is what happened to Jesus. I don’t think he was ever a carpenter. He was the best of the best of the best at school – he knew and understood the scriptures like no other lad. I believe he left Nazareth aged fifteen, and he was a disciple until he was thirty, which is the age at which they were expected to find their own disciples.

However, when Jesus called his disciples, he called fishermen like Simon Peter and Andrew and James and John. People that were no longer in school – they were learning their father’s trade – they were not the best of the best of the best.

In this passage Jesus chooses the twelve for three purposes:

1. to be with him

2. to send them out to preach

3. to drive out demons

There could only be twelve that were close enough to observe Jesus closely enough to become like him. To live with him, listen to him, watch him, be with him…. To do what he does. And then those twelve would make disciples, passing on the message, the “yoke”.

This has passed on to us now. We are called to be with Jesus. We have the ability to be with him through the Holy Spirit and through the Holy Scriptures. But we also need to learn from each other, learn from those in whom we can see God acting. In each community of Christians we all have gifts and we can learn so much from each other, if we are close enough and real enough and open enough.

It is a tremendous honour to be disciples of Jesus. Let’s see if we together can be covered in the dust of our rabbi Jesus, let’s see if we together can be transformed such that we can know Jesus and do what he does.

Amen

Note: much of this comes from Rob Bell’s Nooma video “Dust”

Sermon – John 1:43-end (again) – Lesley

Byzantine icon of the cursing of the fig tree.
Image via Wikipedia

John 1:43-end

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you,* you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

The operative phrase in this passage is “Follow Me”. It is an exciting passage, right at the beginning of John’s Gospel and Jesus is calling his disciples…. but what is ha calling them to?

They are called to be part of a loving, growing, spirirtual community, centred on Jesus.

As we are. The ripples that started way back then, distant in time and space have come and overtaken us too. We are called to part of the same loving, growing, spiritual community… and we call it “church”.

Church is not a building

Church is not services

Church is us – this community – we are church.

Church is exciting – Jesus said we would see great things – church is healing, it is challenging, it changes us.

Church is a place where we are free to be ourselves.

Let’s face it. Nathanael was a bit mouthy. What would I say to my kids if they said “Aldershot, can anything good come from Aldershot?”

No guile, but tactless too.

But Jesus commends him, he knows him, he loves him, he speaks words of affirmation over him – in Christ’s church Nathanael is free to be himself.

I was on retreat at the weekend and I think God was challenging me about this.

How authentic am I? Am I free to be myself in church? Are others?

I began to get a general feeling that things go unsaid….

I watched a film the other day where a twelve year old boy called Gabe in Manhattan finds his first love and the film is beautifully observed, all the pain and trauma he goes through. And his parents are divorcing but living together with Gabe in an apartment, and Gabe turns to his dad for love advice, he says:

Gabe: Dad, what’s the deal with girls? I mean, why are they the way they are?

Dad: You’re talking to the wrong man.

Gabe: Well, how come all love has to end?

Dad: Let me tell you something about me and your mom. Once upon a time, we really loved each other, but as time went by, there just got to be all these things, little things, stupid things, that were left unsaid. And all these things that were left unsaid piled up, like the clutter in our storage room. And after a while, there was so much that was left unsaid, that we barely said anything at all.

Gabe: Well, why didn’t you just say them then, dad?

Dad: I don’t know, Gabe. I kind of wish I had.

In the end his dad does say some things and the marriage is restored. But it got me thinking about myself and in particular the way people are in churches, is there a lot of stuff unsaid, and what would happen if we said some of it?

This can affect our marriages, our churches and our relationships with God. I became a Christian when I was 14 and I was full of joy, full of hope, delighted to be part of the community that is the church. But I had a no-go area where I wouldn’t let God in, a bit like some couples have no-go areas, subjects over which they always fight,so they don’t go there…. But it can be like a disease, slowly infecting the rest. And that was how it was with me and God… slowly I lost my joy until when I was 19 I was really just a nominal Christian… until I had a spiritual experience where I could confess this thing, for it was something about which I was deeply ashamed.

And in our communities we have a magic gift that Jesus gave us to help our communities, our marriages, our relationships heal…

..and I’m not going to say the Holy Spirit, although we have that too

..it is the teaching on forgiveness.

Central to Jesus’ teaching.

Central to the Lord’s Prayer

“Lord forgive us our sins” and that is what we need so often, it is what I needed as a teenager

“as we forgive those who sin against us” – this is what heals our communities.

Forgiveness is like having broken glass in our hands (clench fist)

It hurts so much we can’t look at it, we can’t open our hand…

And if anyone comes near to us we go “Grrrr” because it hurts so much.

But to get better we have to unfurl our fingers and look at the wound and take out the pieces of glass, and sometimes we need someone to help us…. And forgiveness can take a long time, it can be a long and painful process because there may be many shards in there and it is no good to just get one shard out and leave the rest in…

But then it feels so good when we can use our hand again.

And this community, this church is meant for fruitfulness….

If we go back to the passage we find that Jesus says that he saw Nathanael under the fig tree, and as it is John’s Gospel we can probably take all the details as symbolic in some way. The fig tree represents Israel in the scriptures. The unique thing about the fig tree, unlike all other trees, is that the fruit appears before the leaves. My mum had a fig tree and although the fruit appeared before the leaves, it took all summer for the fruit to ripen. But the point is that as soon as you see leaves on the fig tree you can look and see the fruit ripening too.

I believe the fig tree is a sign of Israel because the Jews were not just meant to be showy about their religion, not just observe the feasts and worship and pray, but they were also to bear fruit – to love one another and reach out to the poor and the widows etc.

Hence when Jesus sees a fig tree without fruit he curses it. Our religion, our feasts, our festivals mean nothing without us bearing fruit and loving one another and the stranger in our midst.

So what does it mean to you, to us when Jesus says “Follow me”? What is he calling us to?

And are we free to be ourselves, in our churches? Are they, are we loving like Jesus sufficiently that we can be known and loved as we are?

And do we forgive, do we need to know that God forgives us? Do we have areas where we need to forgive others?

And can we be fruitful as a church? Can we respond to the call on our lives to love God and love others too?

Amen

Sermon – Mark 1:4-11 (Jennifer)

Jesus baptism site - River Jordan 015
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Mark 1.4-11

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

 The baptism of Jesus.

 Aren’t there times when we all feel like a fresh start

– a new beginning.

Our New Year’s resolutions – slim down, eat less, exercise more,

Give up smoking,

These are relatively straight forward,

though sometimes difficult enough to put into practise

But what about those more difficult issues

Life isn’t perfect, we’re not perfect.

We make mistakes, we have regrets,

There are time when it would feel wonderful to leave all these behind us – in the past –

and start again.

One of the great comforts and joys of the Christian faith

is that we know and love a God who by his very nature is forgiving

who allows us

encourages us

to let go of past failures and begin again.

And because this is what our God is like,

this is how he would have us be as well.

‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’

During every regular act of worship there is an opportunity to remember our failures before God

accompanied by assurance of His forgiveness.

When we are very troubled we can seek a private opportunity for the consolation of confession.

And indeed the very moment of the start of our life in Christ is a moment of new beginnings

Of turning away from evil – towards Christ

Of being washed clean in the waters of Baptism.

For each of us these are very personal, precious moments

moments between me and my God.

But just think, as we say the words of confession together,  aren’t we also to consider our failings as a community,

To bring these before God and to find a better way.

At the time we read about in today’s Gospel it seems that a vast number of the Jewish nation were seeking a new way.

People went out to John in the Judean desert from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.

Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the river Jordan.

Not one or two people, but almost the whole nation.

There’s practically no reference to any form of baptism in the Old Testament

So at this time baptism was a very recent development.

We know that the Jews of the Qumran community, made famous by their writings we call the Dead Sea Scrolls, living beside the Dead Sea not far from John,

attached great importance to ritual washing.

They viewed the Temple worship of Jerusalem as corrupt.

And refused to take part in the Temple sacrifices.

They compensated for this by immersing themselves daily in a communal bath – in a spirit of repentance for cleansing of sin.

It’s not really surprising then to find John the Baptist,

just up the road,

demanding Israel’s repentance,

signified by a once for all baptism in preparation for the coming judgement of the Messiah.

John was what we would now describe as a “hellfire preacher”.

He demanded total immersion from his followers,

which symbolised that inward purity and repentance which would deliver them from immersion in the coming river of fire.

John was thought to be the last of the old prophets who preached about the coming day of reckoning,

and who visualised it as something utterly terrifying.

The images of purification are always of refiner’s fire,

as though the badness and evil could only be burned out of people’s souls.

Hence the medieval images of Hell.

The people revered John’s preaching,

and although some left him to follow Jesus,

he still had plenty of disciples of his own at the end of his life.

In fact his following continued long after his life,

some, called Mandeans, survive to this day.

So John’s baptism was a turning to God baptism

‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’.

A conversion baptism

– this link between conversion and baptism remains constant throughout the New Testament.

Jesus was one of those who came to John for baptism by total immersion.

And this seems to have been a transforming moment in Jesus’ own life,

for it was after this that he began his own ministry in Galilee.

Indeed, St.Mark, with his characteristic immediacy, starts his Gospel with this very moment in his account of the Life of Jesus,

he doesn’t record anything before.

At this moment St.Mark describes the heavens as “rent asunder”, torn apart,

using this identical phrase again at end of Jesus’ ministry,

when Jesus is hanging on the cross and the curtain of the temple is torn apart.

At the same moment a dove,

a symbol of the Holy Spirit borrowed from Genesis,

from the creation of the world when God’s spirit hovered like a bird over the waters,

is seen hovering over Jesus.

It is tempting to suppose, as many modern commentators do, that this experience awakened in Jesus a consciousness of his unique relationship to God, and of his vocation as Israel’s Messiah.

This may be so, but it is not a safe interpretation.

– it is a conjecture inspired by a modern desire to enter into the psychology of the religious experience of Jesus.

In the texts we’re never given any hint of the way Jesus’ mind works.

This is not what the Gospel is dealing with.

The message to us here, lies in that Epiphany word – Manifest

God in Man made manifest

Manifest – to reveal – to show clearly

For this moment of baptism is primarily about revelation.

Here we have revealed before us

Jesus the Son of God.

And look at the wonderful trinitarian imagery

God the Father in heaven

Sending his Son Jesus into the world

Empowered by the Holy Spirit coming in the form of a dove

Here we have God’s supreme fresh start

That which we find in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Let us pray

Lord of all time and eternity,
you opened the heavens and revealed yourself as Father
in the baptism of Jesus your beloved Son:
by the power of your Spirit
complete the heavenly work of our rebirth
through the waters of the new creation;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sermon – John 1:43-end (Lesley)

English: Icon of Jesus Christ
Image via Wikipedia

John 1:43-end

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you,* you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

Do we really think that we are ok?

Do we feel lovable?

Do we feel worthy?

Do we feel acceptable?

In this Gospel passage the most obvious attribute that Nathanael has is his scathing prejudice against the town of Nazareth and all that comes from it.

But Jesus saw Nathanael differently.

He says ‘Here is truly an Israelite with no deceit’.

Or guile, sometimes the word ‘deceit’ is translated as ‘guile’ – sly or cunning intelligence.

Now the listeners would know this was a compliment – their forefathers didn’t have a great foundation in being free from guile – Jacob stole the birth right from his brother Esau, and his grandfather Abraham passed his wife Sarah off as his sister. In fact the whole human race is tarnished with guile as Adam tried to blame Eve in the Garden of Eden and Eve tried to blame the snake.

I guess the fact that Nathanael was willing to speak his mind about those who come from Nazareth has the flip side of not being cunning or deceitful.

Jesus saw the positive side. He saw the worth in the man. He accepted him immediately. He enjoyed the encounter.

Taken aback Nathanael asks how Jesus knows him and he replies that he saw Nathanael under the fig tree. Now John’s Gospel is alive with signs and symbols, so the fig tree probably means something… there are a few possibilities:

Being under the fig tree is a phrase used by the Old Testament prophets to be an image of peace of the day of the Lord, in Micah 4:3-4 it says:

They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.

So in that case perhaps there is a suggestion that Nathanael is secure and at peace in the Kingdom of God.

The fig tree also represented Israel,why this should be, I don’t know. But the unique thing about the fig tree, unlike all other trees, is that the fruit appears before the leaves. So there is a suggestion that all the religious observance, all the worship and incense and ceremony and the like, is like the leaves – it isn’t the important thing – it is only the aftermath of the bearing of fruit.

In this sense, Nathanael is a true Israelite – he doesn’t have all the tidy morality or the embellished piety that we might expect of a believer – he just comes up with the fruit – “you are the Son of God” he declares to Jesus.

Did we expect Jesus to chide Nathanael for his prejudice or to commend him for his lack of guile? Do we expect God to condemn us for our failings or to spot that which is commendable in us? It seems to me that God loves us just as we are, and in being loved we change into better people, like Nathanael changing from cynic to believer in the space of a few minutes.

It is a bit like the story of the wind and the sun arguing about who was the greatest:

“We shall have a contest,” said the Sun.
Far below, a man travelled a winding road. He was wearing a warm winter coat.
“As a test of strength,” said the Sun, “Let us see which of us can take the coat off of that man.”
“It will be quite simple for me to force him to remove his coat,” bragged the Wind.
The Wind blew so hard, the birds clung to the trees. The world was filled with dust and leaves. But the harder the wind blew down the road, the tighter the shivering man clung to his coat.
Then, the Sun came out from behind a cloud. Sun warmed the air and the frosty ground. The man on the road unbuttoned his coat.
The sun grew slowly brighter and brighter.
Soon the man felt so hot, he took off his coat and sat down in a shady spot.

Can we see God as the sun? Shining love upon us until we feel safe enough to remove the protective overcoats and masks and coping mechanisms? When you come to Jesus in prayer remember that it is the real you that the Lord loves. Amen.

Sermon – Luke 2:15-21 (Jennifer’s Christmas I Sermon)

English: Our beloved Lady Saint Mary with Her ...
Image via Wikipedia

Luke 2.15-21

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
21After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Wonders of the Universe!
Dr. Brian Cox!
What an amazing series,
And we were able to watch it again this week.

I enjoyed it possibly even more than the first time through.
It is just one of those subjects that compel us to return again and again.

The sheer magnitude of the numbers, of space, time, matter,
just blow our minds.
They are beyond our comprehension.

One of the joys of this series for me is the way Brian Cox and the team behind the programs use illustrations from our planet earth,
Familiar television images,
to make more comprehensible the wonders of the universe that are so hard for our imagination to grasp.

The picture of a glacier breaking up into the sea
To illustrate the forward motion of time.

The way space/time is curved by the gravitational pull of the fabric of the universe illustrated by the beautiful peaks and troughs of a snow covered mountain range viewed from above.

One of the wonders of Our God that we celebrate at Christmas time is that the Creator of the Whole Universe comes to live among us here on this little planet earth.

What’s more, he is born as a vulnerable little baby with only an animals’ manger for a cradle.

The paradox of our faith, God becomes human.
We just can’t get our minds round it.

2000 years ago, when the angels appeared to the shepherds and told them to go to Bethlehem to see “the Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
The shepherds didn’t wait.
They didn’t doubt their own senses, but went straight away to Bethlehem and found the baby.
The meeting with baby Jesus had such a profound effect on them that they couldn’t keep it to themselves but spread it to the whole town.
Everyone was amazed.
And it wasn’t the encounter with the angels that set the shepherds talking to everyone they met,
but the encounter with the baby.
You might have expected the visit by the angels to have filled the shepherds with such awe and wonder that they couldn’t help worshipping God.
After all, it isn’t every day that you’re visited by a heavenly choir who relay a direct message from God.
But although you might easily see a baby every day, it was actually the baby that set the shepherds aflame for God.

So even at that time,
when Jesus was newborn and completely helpless and vulnerable like every other newborn baby,
incapable even of smiling because he was so young, there was still something so special about him that it made the shepherds spread the word concerning him and return glorifying and praising God.

The shepherds could perhaps be described as the first evangelists, as they were the first people to tell others about Jesus.

Mary, by contrast, said nothing. She treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart,
which is perhaps fairly unusual behaviour for a mother.
Many mothers can’t wait to sing the praises of their children, and tell anyone who will listen all about their child’s remarkable qualities.
But for Mary it was too important and too deep to be casually tossed around in idle chatter.
Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart, using them as the precious basis for all her future thought and way of being.

So Mary too was changed by her encounter with the baby.
When the baby was eight days old, Mary took him to be circumcised as the Law demanded, and at his naming ceremony named him Jesus – Emmanuel, God with us –
Jesus – Emmanuel, God with us
Just like those incomprehensible wonders of the universe are made more real for us by illustrations from our familiar earth,
So we find that the Supreme Mystery that is Our God
is made more real for us
by the Birth, Life, Death and Resurrection of a simple man – Jesus of Nazareth –
someone just like us, familiar to us all.

And there is more –
Jesus is not simply an illustration of what God is like,
he is God with us.

Just as we have come to appreciate more clearly the physics of the material universe and use these powers to enrich our lives,

So as we, like Mary, treasure up all these things
and ponder in our hearts
The Word made flesh and dwelling among us
The name of Jesus, God with us, gives us power,
power to become the adopted children of God, and call him Abba, Father.