Welcome to part time priest. Bits of life come together - priesthood, part time worker, mum, wife, person. Not really part time ontologically, obviously, but I do have other things to do, quite apart from being...and one of them is enjoying sharing ministry experiences and reflections with you.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

How to convert a sheep

All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. (Matt. 25:32-33).

I feel a bit sorry for goats. They get a bad press in the reading for today from Matthew 25. 

Jesus tells of a separation into groups at the end of time - akin to sheep and goats. The 'sheep' are those who are welcomed into eternal life and the 'goats' are...let's just say they don't quite make the cut...

The sheep and goats reading coincided with a baptism in church today so there was a double challenge: what does the parable mean and what does it say about Christ and belonging. It certainly upsets the notion that all those welcomed by Christ were those who confessed his name in this life...

In all age services, I normally find once the visual aid is in place, the rest of the talk writes itself but this one didn't come so easily.

Our cupboard of once loved children's cuddly toys had produced two sheep. I went into town to buy a toy goat. There was Monty the Penguin in John Lewis; and various cows, rabbits, giraffes, kittens, bears and ducks. But no goat. It must be the horns. They're just not very cuddly. I did find a lurid pink goat in Mothercare but it was one of those toys made to stimulate babies with multi coloured rattly and scrunchy bits all over it, and hooves that went clip clop. And it was £13.99.

So I bought some cream felt and went home to modify a sheep.

And so, armed with Gertie the Goat (whose cotton wool beard fell off in stages throughout the course of the baptism) and Shelley the Sheep, and with much assistance from various conversations on Twitter, I ended up with the following:

Who can tell me the difference between sheep and goats?
I’ve done some research on this and according to The Daily Vet, ‘goats are from Mars and Sheep are from Venus’

Who knew?!
Yes, The Daily Vet goes on to ask: ‘did you know that not all small ruminants are created equal? There are some pretty big differences between sheep and goats.’

Would you like to know what they are?

‘Sheep are technically grazers, meaning they prefer munching grass low to the ground. Goats, on the other hand, are known as browsers, meaning they often choose to select leaves, shrubs, vines, and weeds, often found at the tops of plants, higher off the ground’. (http://www.petmd.com/blogs/thedailyvet/aobrien/2013/sept/goats-are-from-mars-sheep-are-from-venus-30886)

And lastly (this might be useful, so listen up)

If you ever get into the position where you’ve made a goat or sheep angry, here’s one last difference that might be useful to know. Rams (male sheep), when aggressive, will butt head-on while bucks (male goats) will rear up and come down with their heads. Believe me, you do not want to be on the receiving end of either one of those heads!’

Does anyone here want to look after Shelley the Sheep or Gertie the Goat while we think about a story Jesus told?
Jesus told a story where there was a big difference between sheep and goats.
It might seem a bit unfair that goats come in for some criticism (to put it mildly) while sheep are blessed in the story.
The goats are sent away and the sheep are welcomed into eternal life.
We know that in the parables, Jesus uses every day pictures to show us spiritual truths.
So what’s going on with the separation of the sheep and the goats?

Jesus says to the sheep, well done; I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked, and you gave me clothing; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me’.
And the sheep are puzzled: they say to Jesus – Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you something to eat; or thirsty and we gave you something to drink; and when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’
They’re puzzled, because they don’t remember seeing Jesus in any of these states. Jesus didn’t go to prison, did he? He didn’t wander about with nothing to wear; there’s no record that he was sick and needed healing…
But Jesus says to them, whenever you did these things for ‘the least of these who are members of my family’ you did them to me.
And the poor old goats?
They were the people who saw all this need – people going hungry and thirsty, and naked and sick and in prison, but they did nothing about them.
Jesus says, in effect, in ignoring others they ignored Him.
The goats were not people who did bad things necessarily – they just neglected to do good.

Throughout history there’s always been a debate about God and goodness.
Do you have to believe to do good?
Which is more Christian: a food bank or getting baptised?
In this story we have Christ and action intimately connected.
In having this service of baptism, we are all making that connection.
In baptism, parents and Godparents are saying – we believe and we want to do something about it publicly, and we know this means certain things for our lives.
And along with them, as we make promises at the font, we recall our own identification with Christ, and what it means for our lives.
We all affirm with our words that we want to live the Christ life – saying no to sin and yes to following in the way of self giving love, on behalf of the world Christ came to save.
Because belief and action go together.

It may surprise you to know that only 1 in 7 babies are brought for Christian baptism these days - that’s about 14%.
It means that to make a stand for Christ is quite a counter cultural thing to do.
That’s why we promise to love and support those who are baptised, so they can know the strength of being in a Christian family as well as in a natural family.
And we pray, along with parents and godparents, that as they grow up they will find their path to making a difference in the world.
We pray that they’ll discover the Christian life is about combining belief and action, and we pray we will discover this a church too.
Because when all’s said and done, we want to be in that group who got on with loving the ones in need, and who, in doing so, inadvertently encountered Christ.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Kingdom economics

Sermon for Second Sunday before Advent.

1 Thessalonians 5:2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.

Matthew 25:29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 

We have a great scripture sandwich to digest this morning.
The bread, or outer layers, is the overarching fact that Christ is coming back, as we heard in our reading from Thessalonians.
The Anglican Church names the period of time between All Saints and Advent 'Kingdom Season', when we especially reflect on the reign of Christ in earth and in heaven.
Last week at Remembrance we looked at the parable of the ten bridesmaids, waiting for the return of the Bridegroom – five were ready and five weren’t.
And today, our reading reminds us again that the Lord is returning. His kingdom is at once present and ‘not yet’.
So that’s our overarching framework for today’s readings.
The filling of our sandwich, if you like, is the gospel.

Here a Landowner gives talents (coins) to three different slaves.
The first has five talents and he makes it grow – five more accrue.
Well done, good and faithful servant.
The second has two talents but he makes those grow too, to four.
Well done good and faithful servant.
The 3rd (there’s always 3, right? It makes for a great story; and we know it’s going to go badly for the 3rd…)
The 3rd slave had a different approach.
‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid.
What did this servant do? He hid the talent in the ground. He still has it, he can give it back, but it hasn’t grown into anything.
Now this servant hasn’t done anything really wrong, at first sight; he’s not gone and murdered anyone; he’s not committed adultery or slandered his neighbour.
It’s more a sin of omission, than commission.
He was afraid, and he hid his talent.
It doesn’t go down well. He’s described as worthless and meets a sticky end.
And then there’s the haunting verse 29: ‘to all those who have, more will be given (…) but from those who have nothing, even what they do have will be taken away.
It’s not very Christian is it?
Aren’t we more used to saying ‘everyone should have a fair share?’

It may be of interest to ponder the following thought: in the Christian life we often talk in terms of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’; we should give more, we should pray more; we ought to love more, serve more, read the bible more, etc.
How about if we look at things in a different way – how does the kingdom actually work?
Because the kingdom, that is, the rule of God in our lives – is operating under its own principles whether we like it, or notice it, or not.
Whatever we think we ought to do, or others think we ought to do, the kingdom is operating already.
When we read that difficult verse 29, ‘to all those who have, more will be given (…) but from those who have nothing, even what they do have will be taken away’, what we have here is a description of how the kingdom operates.
The kingdom operates under spiritual laws.
Just like temporal law, kingdom law operates whether people realise it or not.
It’s a bit like when people fill out their insurance claims forms and claim the accident was nothing to do with them when clearly they brought it on themselves by their own actions.

These are some of the things people have claimed on their insurance forms:
‘a pedestrian hit me and went under my car’
‘I had been driving for 40 years when I fell asleep at the wheel and had an accident’
and my favourite:
‘I was taking my canary to the hospital. It got loose in the car and flew out the window. The next thing I saw was his rear end, and there was a crash.’ 

As in the earthly kingdom, so in God’s rule in our lives: what we sow, we reap.
Because the kingdom is operating right here, right now, in our individual lives and in our life together.
Whenever we give something to God for him to use, whether it’s time, talents, money or our hearts, He makes that thing grow so we have more of it.
But if we hold back from God, we eventually lose the ability to reach him at all.
If you pray, you develop a hunger for prayer.
If you don’t, you lose your appetite for it anyway.
Spiritual blessing has a habit of multiplying.
One blessing leads to another, which leads to gratitude, which leads to you being a blessing, which leads to more blessing, more gratitude, more generosity, and so forth.
Prayerful people are people who over time, have spent time praying. They’re not more holy than anyone else; they’ve simply invested themselves in it.
People who can rightly handle the Word of God and who draw on it for strength and wisdom in life, are not naturally gifted a reading the bible they’re just people who have given time to it.
People who are kind and compassionate are that way because they have set their minds in that direction and grown in kindness and compassion.
What you reap, you sow.
Conversely, if we miss the chance to give of our best to God, we don’t stay the same, we actually become diminished. What little we have is ‘taken away’.
It’s the law of the kingdom.

I don’t know if you’ve ever come across CS Lewis’s The Great Divorce…
It’s one of his classic spiritual writings.

In it he imagines a man going on a bus journey from a place which might be hell, to a place which is probably heaven (or they might be two hypothetical places which people are still able to chose or not chose). 'Hell' is a series of drab, grey streets in which an endless stream of people move in, quarrel with their neighbours, move as far away from them as possible, till the city grows and grows, around a vacuum, with no one having any proper relationships.
In contrast, as the bus journeys to heaven, everything gets real-er and real-er – when they get there, the grass is too hard to walk on a first, and the flowers cannot be picked – they’re as hard a diamonds.
The people on the bus find this real place a bit much, but some stay and decide to make the effort to acclimatise to this harder, but real-er life.
Some are disgusted with it all and return on the bus to the grey place.
In heaven the flimsy grey people who have decided to stay get more and more substantial, if they work at being real and shedding their crutches of self righteous importance.
It’s a fascinating book about the consequences over a long period of time, of our choices regarding God.
Because ultimately that is what our reading is about.
What we sow, that’s what we reap.
The only things that last into the next life are the things that have grown out of the Christ life, with Him as foundation.
As we grow together in the body of Christ, serving and loving one another as best we can, I leave you with this from Stephen Covey:

Sow a thought, reap an action.
Sow an action, reap a habit.
Sow a habit, reap a character.
Sow a character, reap a destiny.


Sunday, 9 November 2014

Poppies at Remembrance

'Blood soaked lands and seas of red', Paul Cummins.
Remembrance Sunday Sermon

1 Thessalonians 4: 13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 
Matthew 25: 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Last week we made a family trip to see the Poppies at the Tower of London.
I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to go and see this installation – evocatively named ‘Blood soaked lands and seas of red’, by artist Paul Cummins.
Since August 3rd each day 1000s of ceramic poppies, with steel stems of between 1 and 50 cms in height, have been ‘planted’ inside the dry moat at the Tower – they now cover an area equivalent to 16 football pitches.
You look down from the railings around the moat to see, not green grass, but red poppies – a sea of crimson that appears to float around the base of the Tower in waves.
It’s quite a sight. Each of the 888, 246 poppies represents a British or Colonial fatality in the First World War and at £25 each (and all already pre-sold) many millions will have been raised for the Royal British Legion.

Why has the poppy come to represent the War dead and Remembrance?
It is a powerful symbol of life lost – red blood – and fragility.
It was Lt. Col. John McCrae who immortalised them in his poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, written in 1915 after the death of McCrae’s friend and fellow soldier, Alexis Helmer, who died in the second battle of Ypres.
According to anecdote the poem was discarded after McCrae was dissatisfied with his attempt. But someone retrieved it and it was published in Punch at the end of the year.
After his poem was published, the women of devastated France began making poppies and cornflowers for the war graves.
A Mme Guerin of the YMCA saw that the poppy could become a universal symbol and took her idea to London, where it was adopted.

Poppies grow best on broken ground' and they flourished in Flanders. Today the poppy remains a universal symbol of bloody death, remembrance and defiant rebirth. It carries with it sadness that men can kill on a scale that we must never forget. It takes this little flower to tell us this. It has become the soldier’s most reliable friend, enduring in times of war and peace. And it unites the country like no other.’

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
John McCrae, May 1915

The Christian faith has a framework within which death takes its place and is not the final word.
‘If it for this life alone that we have hope, we are more to be pitied than all people’, said the apostle Paul.
We are caught up in a sweep of history in which Christ holds our beginnings and our endings.
The early Christians had a better grasp of eschatology (that is, the things to do with the wrapping up of history) than we do today.
So Paul can say, in our Epistle, ‘we do not want you to be uninformed…about those who have died, so that you may not grieve, as others do, without hope.
He’s not saying we do not grieve – of course those who lose loved ones grieve - especially when they are cut down before their time.
But we do not grieve without hope.
The plan of salvation in Christ has a universal stretch extending back through history, through war and rumours of wars, right up to the present day and beyond, to include our own individual places in it.
When we hear the bugler play the Last Post, we recall that there will be a Last Trump from our God too: ‘For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the Archangel’s call, and with the sound of the Last Trumpet, will descend from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise…’

So how do we live in the meantime?
We live with gratitude for those who lost their lives, and continue to do so, in other conflicts around the world, for our freedom.
We live in faith that death is not the end and that e are not without hope.
We live in readiness for Christ’s return, or for our own end, whichever comes first.
We live as informed about Christ – not as those who are caught on the hop, like the foolish bridesmaids of our gospel, who seemed unaware that the bridegroom was coming back.

The poppies at the Tower will be taken away in 2 day’s time.
We can be proud that in our nation Remembrance is alive and well, 100 years after the outbreak of the Great War, and that charities such as the British Legion still support the victims of war.
May we work and pray as those who can make a difference in the world, who long for peace and reconciliation, and who, in the strength of Christ, model those things in our own lives.

We end with a prayerful reflection on the poppy and a request that God will shine his light on us today and always.

'Poppies bring vibrant colour into dark places.
Poppies remind us that our false certainties are frail beyond measure.
Poppies bring memories and reminders
Of past hopes; present dangers and future fears.
As we bring our darkness, bring our certainties, bring our memories
Into the presence of God, The Creator, The Christ, The Comforter,
We seek healing; we seek blessing; we seek peace.
We remember the colourful, frail and human lives cut down in time of War,
And we seek faith in God Who suffers in our broken-ness
And walks with us through The Valley of the shadow of death
Into the wholeness and promise of Resurrection.

Lord shine your light upon us so that we may may see your compass to guide us'.


Material in quotation marks provided with the kind collaboration of friend and fellow Christian Colonel Guy Horridge, Airborne Forces.