Friday, 28 November 2014

Keep awake!

Mark 13: Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ 

I wonder what your relationship is with sleep.
For some it’s blessed relief after the business, or busyness, of the day.
For others it’s something that’s troubled – difficult to get into and difficult to sustain, full of tossing and turning, with restless dreams.
Some fall seamlessly into 8 hours of the deep and dreamless, while others struggle to get 3 or 4 uninterrupted hours at a time.
How much sleep do you need and how much are you getting?
Someone wise has said that ‘the amount of sleep required by the average person is five minutes more.’
Some other, wise quotations on sleep are: ‘people who say they sleep like a baby usually don’t have one.’
Hemingway said, “I love sleep. My life has a tendency to fall apart when I’m awake.”
An eminent doctor said “You’re not healthy unless you’re sleep is healthy” and Anthony Burgess remarked, “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Snore and you sleep alone.”

My favourite personal anecdote about sleep took place when our eldest was a toddler.
It was a hot day and it was tea-time. He was sitting in the high chair after a big tea when Daddy came in from work.
Some of you know Chris has recently got a Bishop’s Permission to preach and is going to undertake some training to this end in the new year.
In those days, Chris was new to preaching and he had written a talk that he was preparing to give in church.
He’d sweated hard over this talk and he decided to try it out on me, at the tea table.
Our toddler was happily finishing his sandwich, and seemed content to carry on sitting there, and so Chris began.
He was very proud of that talk – he’d put a lot of effort into it and had thought through the bible passage carefully and thoroughly.
He began. I listened.
It was an idyllic family scene.
In those days we only had one toddler and he was pretty settled, sitting happily in that high chair, although it was a hot day…
It’s quite helpful to read a talk out loud, and Chris was getting into his stride.
Five minutes elapsed. It was a good talk.
Ten minutes and he came to his final, serious point.
He hadn’t looked up from his paper, but now he did, with a hopeful look on his face.
“What did you think?” he asked.
I said something encouraging. He turned to our happy toddler, and as a joke, asked, “What did you think?”
Our well fed toddler, having been ignored for ten whole minutes, though he was sat in a stiff high chair and was normally quite active and wanting to run around after tea, was absolutely fast asleep.
We both dissolved into helpless laughter.

Hoping that the same effect is not achieved at the end of this talk, let’s ask ourselves why it is we are asked to stay awake in today’s gospel.
Of course it’s the beginning of Advent, and we’re reminded that Christ is returning.
Mark records that Jesus taught about the coming of the Son of Man at the end of time, and the first Christians lived in expectation of this event being fairly soon in the future.
May years have passed and we still wait.
But just because it's been a long time, we don’t give up the expectation, and part of Advent is about recalling this hope yearly, and asking ourselves, how should we live in the light of it?

Three times in the gospel Mark records Jesus as saying ‘keep alert; keep awake.’
Because ‘about that hour (that is the hour of the return of Christ) no one knows.’
‘Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.’
‘Therefore keep awake, for you do not know when the mater of the house will come.’
If you know a burglar is operating in your area, you don’t become complacent about security; you tighten it up.
Because you know you need to be ready, you act in certain ways.
You tighten up the windows; you lock up the shed and double lock the front door at night.
We’ve all seen the films where someone’s trying to penetrate a high security setting, like James Bond or Johnny English, and first you see them approaching the CCTV, wondering how that's going to go, and then there’s a shot of the security guard…
He’s usually a big guy, not terribly bright, and ah, what a surprise, he’s fallen asleep (or been drugged with a sleep potion).
Whoever it is creeps past the camera and gains entry right under their nose.
When that guy wakes up and sees the CCTV footage he’s going to be in for big trouble.
Keep alert! Keep awake!
It’s the message of Advent.

So, given Christ is returning, how should we live?
How do we keep awake, spiritually?
If someone said to you, what’s it like to be spiritually awake, what would you say?
How would you describe a spiritually awake person?

Here are three suggestions for keeping awake spiritually (you’ll have your own I’m sure).

    Be prayerful.

We had an interesting discussion at PCC about how prayerful we are as a church.
We asked the question, to what extent do prayer needs of our community reach our ear and then reach our worship on Sundays?
Could we pray for each road in our parish, as they do in some churches?
How do we feel about midweek prayer groups, honesty in prayer and praying for ourselves?
When did you last read a book about prayer?
What strategies do you have to be a prayerful person?
Do you know God’s guidance in prayer; have you learnt to discern his voice?
Can you sit for five minutes in silence, in the presence of God, and know his loving gaze upon you?
When did you last offer to pray for one of your neighbours?

Be informed.

It’s a bit like Have I Got News For You.
If we don’t know what’s going on in the world, how can we pray for it?
As a little barometer, here are some current or recent stories: how well up are you on them?
What are the hot topics in the UK at the moment?
*Child sex abuse scandals
*Black Friday

    Finally something that we need Christians to do deeply, wisely and theologically: 


Reflecting on the news is a step deeper than merely consuming the news or even praying about it.
It involves being prophetic.
How does God see our nation? What is really going on spiritually?
So with immigration: what is fact and what is opinion?
How do the newspapers sway our opinions?
How does Jesus view the stranger?
What do the Scriptures say about the stranger, the poor and the weak?
In which of our MPs do we see the fruits of the Spirit? Are they people of good character; are they wise?
Child sex abuse scandals: What kind of country are we where large numbers of children are routinely abused and civic bodies fail to notice or do anything about it?
Where is repentance?
How do we value children in our own community?
Black Friday: why is it that people will crush each other underfoot in supermarket queues to get £20 off a coffee maker? What are our values? What could the Church’s contribution be to this?

 How do we stay awake?

1. Be prayerful. 2. Be informed. 3. Reflect.

During this Advent time, may God give us grace to stay awake and to grow together in these three things. 

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’. (

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.