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2014 Trinity 19. Evensong sermon

Trinity 19. Evensong.

My youngest son, Charlie, has a number of posters on his bedroom wall, but his favourite is his Lego Mini Figures poster. On it there are about 50 different Lego figures, including a lion tamer; a nuclear physicist; a rock guitarist; a cowboy; a spaceman and a surf-boarder.

All the different figures are clearly identifiable from their clothes, their outfits and their props. Each one has a particular set of skills and qualities that you would identify with their particular job or activity.

As children, I’m sure many of us here had people who we looked up to, perhaps even people we considered to be heroes in our lives, role models who inspired us either through their personality or through the work that they did.

Some people have pictures of previous prime ministers on their study walls, others perhaps of famous sports men and women whose courage and dedication is a source of inspiration to them.

There is something about the qualities of a particular role that captures our imaginations and inspires us to improve our own game; to measure ourselves against how we see someone we respect and admire.

For example, we can look at a picture of a volunteer doctor working with Ebola victims out in Sierra Leone and identify qualities such as courage; selflessness; compassion and professionalism.

It might challenge us to think about ourselves and our own qualities, to measure how far short we might be falling in displaying the same sort of qualities in our own lives.

Well, when Paul was writing his second letter to Timothy, he used the exact same method in order to encourage and inspire him.

In order to help Timothy, as a leader of the church, to rise to the challenge of being the best Christian leader he could possibly be; in order to illustrate the qualities that he would need to face the challenges of leading a community in the way of Jesus Christ, Paul identifies three different role models for him:

  • The soldier;
  • the athlete;
  • and the labouring farmer.

Paul takes each one in turn and draws out the particular qualities that he sees in each of the roles that he identifies. They are the first century equivalent, perhaps, of our Olympic Gold Medallists; our volunteer doctors, or the injured troops who took part in the recent Invictus Games.

So Paul begins with the image of the soldier in the midst of a campaign. This would have been a very familiar image to the Greeks and Romans of the day, and Paul applies it to all Christians, but especially to Thomas and other Christian leaders, drawing out the particular qualities of a soldier that he believes should be seen in the Christian life.

Paul reminds his readers that a soldier doesn’t get entangled in everyday affairs; a soldier’s work must be focussed and concentrated, unimpeded by life’s trivialities.

That’s not to say that, as Christians, we should live in a different world, disconnected from those around us, but instead that whatever we do, however we live, we should do so first and foremost as Christians, witnessing to our faith every single day, not just on Sundays.

He then moves on from the image of the soldier to the image of an athlete.

Again, he is using a very clear and striking image in order to draw out the particular qualities that should be mirrored in the Christian life. Just as the athlete must be dedicated to their chosen sport and must have great self-discipline and self-denial; so too the Christian life requires dedication, self-discipline and self-denial.

When you think about the life of the professional sports person, the relentless practise, exercise, focus and dedication: it’s not for the feint-hearted.

I remember when Rebecca Adlington won Gold at the Beijing Olympics she was interviewed afterwards about her training regime. She explained that when she was at school she would be woken up at 5, driven to a training session before school, another one after school and she did her homework in the car. She would train for four hours a day, six days a week, and all on top of keeping up her school commitments.

It is that same level of dedication and commitment that Paul is applying here to the Christian way of life.

There must have been times when Rebecca just wanted to stay in bed, or just wanted to go and see her friends; when the easy way must have been so appealing.

And it’s the same with us as Christians, when it seems that it would be much easier to take the easy option, when doing the right thing is to do the hard thing.

Then we come to the third role model that Paul applies to the Christian life: that of the labouring farmer.

Again, another image that would have been instantly recognised and understood by his readers. So I wonder what qualities Paul sees in the labouring farmer that he might be applying to the Christian life?

Well other than the obvious quality of hard graft, farmers know perhaps better than most the importance of waiting.

In the farming world there is no such thing as quick results. Just as farmers must sow the seed and allow it to germinate, to take root, to show the first signs of new life before flourishing into full grain; so too we must carefully and patiently sow the seed of our Christian faith into the hearts and minds of our hearers.

We too must allow those seeds to take their time to produce any fruit.

We should not be disheartened or despondent if our attempts to grow God’s kingdom here on earth, here in the town of Uckfield appear not to bear fruit initially.

In our modern day, instant on-demand lives, our expectations for rapid results can leave us wondering whether what we’re doing is having any affect at all.

Take our work with children for example: our weekly worship in the schools, our newly-started Junior Youth Club, the Junior   Church initiative beginning in the New Year.

All these are fertile fields where the seed of God’s Word is being planted and tended, but like the farmer’s crops, we must be patient and allow those seeds to become established, to ensure the conditions are right for healthy growth, and, in time, to watch as the signs of new life begin to break through the cracks in the earth.

So in three or four brief sentences, Paul uses the image of the three role models: the soldier, the athlete and the labouring farmer, to tease out what it means to live a life dedicated to Jesus Christ.

There is little in the way of comfort on offer and no hint of an easy ride. Paul is being quite stark about what such a life entails. But one thing binds all three of these images together:

  • For the soldier it is the thought of the final victory in battle;
  • For the athlete, the glory of being crowned as the winner;
  • For the farmer, the hope of the bounty of the harvest.

Each must accept the self-discipline and the hard work required in order to achieve the end goal. It is the reward of that end goal, that vision of the ultimate reward that justifies all the hard work, and provides the incentive needed to carry on, to persevere, to run the race.

Although Paul’s letter is addressed primarily to Timothy and the leaders of the Church at the time, there is much in it that we, as Christian soldiers, as labourers in God’s fields, as those running the race to receive the crown or the medal, can and should be challenged by, and encouraged by.

But amidst all the talk of self-discipline, self-denial and hard labour, we mustn’t forget what this is all for; we mustn’t lose sight of that which drives us, that which motivates us to keep going when at times it would be much easier to take a different route;

that of the glory and joy of a full and fruitful relationship with God, through the love, the hope and the privilege of serving his Son, Jesus Christ.

2014 Trinity 16 - Wicked tenants in the vineyard

Trinity 16. 5 October 2014

I want to start by telling you a story. It’s a story about a lady who had arrived at the airport to travel for a business meeting. When she arrived at the airport, she discovered that her flight had been delayed by several hours, meaning that she would have a long wait in the lounge area.

Accepting the situation, she decided to buy herself a magazine to read while she waited, and a bag of fresh warm doughnuts to eat while she waited for her flight.

So she sat down and began to read her magazine.

A young man came and sat down next to her. Neither spoke to the other, and the lady took her first doughnut, as she settled in to the article she was reading.

Much to her surprise, though, the young man next to her also took a doughnut. She thought this was a bit odd, but didn’t say anything, and over the course of the next couple of hours, much to the lady’s annoyance, he carried on helping himself to the doughnuts.

It came to the last one, and by this time the young lady was incensed, unable to believe that he had so blatantly helped himself to the doughnuts. The man took the last doughnut, broke it in half and left the other half for the young lady.

Well that was it. The lady picked up her bags and her magazine, and stormed off in a rage to the boarding gate where the flight was now ready for boarding.

Pleased to be in the plane at last and about to begin her journey, she opened her handbag to get something out, and there she found the bag of doughnuts she had bought, untouched and still unopened.

She was so embarrassed and ashamed! She realised that despite her anger and outrage at the man’s actions, it had been she who had been in the wrong all along.

What must he have thought of her, helping herself to his doughnuts! The man had shared them with her without complaint, even breaking the last one in two to share with her. It was too late to apologise. They had gone their separate ways.

Well the reason for telling you this story is because it might be considered to be a modern day parable; a story that is told in order to provoke thought, or to help teach an idea or concept.

Jesus used parables all the time in order to teach his disciples and to challenge the leaders of the day to think about their behaviour. The word ‘parable’ comes from a Greek word that means to compare two things side by side.

It’s thought that the parable was a common form of teaching used by Rabbis at the time of Jesus, so it should be no surprise to us that Jesus used them so widely in his teaching, including in them everyday settings, objects, events and characters in order to reflect daily life in Palestine.

The gospel reading we heard this morning was an excellent example of just such a parable, a story told by Jesus to provoke a new way of thinking, a new way of understanding.

It’s actually a very hard story to hear, with its accounts of beatings and murders, but by telling this story of the appalling behaviour of the tenants of the vineyard, Jesus is seeking to challenge the actions and behaviours of the chief priests and the Pharisees; those who saw themselves as the leaders of the Jewish nation.

He is taking ideas and visual images that would have resonated loudly with his listeners.

The image of the vineyard that Jesus uses would have been well-known to the Jews, referring, as it does, to the passage from Isaiah that we also heard this morning.

The Chief Priests and the Pharisees would immediately have recognised these parallels, and would have suddenly realised that Jesus was re-telling a well-known story, but casting them as the perpetrators, placing them at the centre of the shocking and brutal behaviour of the tenants.

It’s almost as if Jesus is holding up a familiar painting, a well-known national treasure that his audience would immediately recognise, and talking about what it depicts, its history and its main characters.

To begin with, the chief priests and the Pharisees who are looking at the picture are on familiar territory, they know what the picture means, they understand what it depicts. Then suddenly, the rug is pulled out from under their feet.

As Jesus is talking, the image changes in front of their eyes, and they suddenly see it in a completely new way. It’s like one of those magic eye images when something new suddenly and unexpectedly comes into focus.

Jesus uses the power of the parable time and time again, to bring into sharp focus new ways of seeing, new ways of understanding what had previously been understood for generations.

Jesus takes this well-known theme of the vineyard from its historic setting in Isaiah, where the tearing up of the vineyard and the pulling down of its walls represents the downfall of the nation of Israel itself, and applies it in a new, contemporary way that speaks to the situation of the day, where the emphasis is no longer on the vineyard itself, but on the cultivators, the tenants, and their shocking treatment of the servants and the owner’s son.

By telling this story of the slaves who were sent for the fruit of the vineyard, and telling of their brutal treatment at the hands of the tenants, Jesus is masterfully allowing the art of the parable to unfold in the minds of his listeners.

The vineyard is the nation of Israel; the owner is God; the slaves are the prophets who God sent and who had been abused by Israel; the tenants are the religious leaders of Israel; and the owner’s son is none other than Jesus himself.

By drawing this parallel of the death of the owner’s own son at the hands of the tenants, Jesus is bringing into sharp focus the clear message that he is that son, and that he is to be beaten and killed at the hands of the religious leaders.

He is claiming for himself the truth of his identity as God’s Son, and bringing the leaders up short as they suddenly recognise themselves in a familiar story from their scripture.

Not content with what he has achieved by changing how his audience now see a once familiar image, the sands shift further under the feet of his listeners as he proceeds to take another familiar image and re-paint it in such a way as to alter the focus entirely.

He takes the image of the stone that the builders rejected from its original context in Psalm 118 where again it refers to the rejection of the nation of Israel, and re-paints it in front of their eyes.

The stone is no longer to be understood as the nation of Israel, but as Jesus himself.

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.

The cornerstone is most likely to have referred to the highest stone in an arch, known as the headstone or the keystone. The keystone in an arch is the wedge-shaped stone at the apex of the arch which is the final piece placed during construction and which locks all the other pieces into position, allowing the arch to bear weight.

It’s a brilliant piece of engineering, and without it, the whole arch would fail catastrophically and collapse.

Once an image of the rejection of Israel, the cornerstone is now repainted as an image of Jesus himself; although rejected by the leaders of Israel, he might just turn out to be the most important person in the world.

So going back to the lady and her doughnuts, our challenge when we suddenly see ourselves or our behaviour in new ways, and we realise how we have behaved; when the sands shift under our feet and we are jolted into a new way of seeing, a new way of understanding;

our challenge is to respond, not as the Chief Priests and Pharisees did with anger and fear, wanting to arrest Jesus for rocking their comfortable lives, but to see the truth about ourselves, to acknowledge our short-comings and to repent.

And it is Paul who gives us the perfect example of how to do this in the reading we heard from his letter to the Philippians this morning.

In it, we hear him telling his readers all the things that had made him the perfect Jew: he was circumcised on the right day; he was a member of the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew born of Hebrews; and he was a zealous Pharisee, blameless under the law.

If you had a tick list of what made the perfect Jew, Paul ticked every single box. His CV was seriously impressive.

And yet, as a result of his encounter with Jesus, his entire world view was turned upside down. The new world image that Paul was faced with was so different, so contrary to everything he had been teaching before, that he couldn’t see anything for three days.

It’s almost as if he needed the three days’ blindness to enable him to re-focus, because after meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus, he literally saw everything from a totally new perspective.

In that reading from Philippians that we heard today, Paul is acknowledging the truth about himself, about who he was and all who he had persecuted; and unlike the chief priests and the Pharisees he acknowledges his wrongdoings and he repents, wanting to be more and more like Jesus Christ instead.

In doing so, he sets out the model for the Philippians to follow, a model that we too should follow.

When our understanding changes; when we see ourselves or our behaviour from someone else’s perspective; when we realise we’ve got it wrong, Paul shows us that we should face up to the truth, that we should ask for forgiveness and seek to be more Christ-like, and that we must press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ.


2104 Trinity 15. Evensong sermon

Trinity 15. Evensong sermon.

There is a story about a lecturer at a Theological College who informed his class that the subject of his next lecture would be the sin of deceit. He told them that, by way of preparation for the lecture, they were all to read the 17th chapter of Mark’s gospel. And so the following week at the start of the lecture, he asked for a show of hands as to how many of his class had done the required preparatory reading for the lecture. They all dutifully raised their hands. ‘Thank you’ the lecturer replied. ‘It is to people like you that today’s lecture is especially addressed. There is no 17th chapter of Mark’s gospel!’

Well I’m sure we’ve all been caught out in similar ways at times in our lives, when it has seemed easier not to tell the truth.

Sometimes it seems the truth is just too complicated, and it’s much simpler to lie or to twist the facts; it’s sometimes called ‘being economical with the truth’.

One of my favourite films is called ‘Little White Lies’.

It follows a group of very close friends as they go on holiday together. Just before they leave, one of them is almost killed in a road accident, which acts as the catalyst for each of the little lies and secrets that are so much a part of each of their lives to unravel.

Beneath the often entertaining and amusing outcomes of each of the little lies coming to light, there is a darker undertone of the consequences of what happens when the truth is substituted for something that, although perhaps close to the truth, is fundamentally not the truth.

Well, in our second reading this evening, the author of the letter is addressing a much more serious lie than the ones I’ve been talking about; the lie that Jesus is not the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God.

This is the first of three letters attributed to someone called John, and there is some debate as to exactly who the author of these letters is, with some even suggesting that they might not all be from the same person.

But this first letter is widely thought to be written by the same John who wrote the fourth gospel.

To understand the reasoning behind this letter, it’s helpful first to understand something of the context within which it was written.

It is thought that the letter was written around the end of the 1st Century, when the Christian faith was 50 or 60 years old. By this time, many were now second or third generation Christians, and the initial thrill and excitement of the Christian faith had, to some extent, probably subsided.

Like any new craze, Christianity had lost some of its initial wonder and novelty, and was becoming more a thing of habit. People had begun to grow used to it.

One result of this was that some Church members found some of the standards demanded of the Christian life a bit of a burden and were tired of having to make an effort.

It was much easier to be ‘of the world’ than it was to be holy – something that still rings true today.

Christianity had demanded new ethical standards according to which lives were to be conducted; it had introduced a new standard of moral purity, a new kindness that extended beyond family and tribe to strangers and outcasts; and a new spirit of forgiveness towards those who had wronged you.

It wasn’t easy, and even less so once the initial thrill and excitement had begun to wane.

As such, there was pressure on many Christian groups to incorporate ideas from other philosophies as part of the faith. Again, it’s not hard to find modern parallels of this.

Many people, who were once church members, had decided it would be easier to withdraw from the demands of the Christian faith and engage instead with other philosophies, an early form, if you like, of what was to become known in later years as Gnosticism.

These gnostic-like philosophies made a distinction between the spiritual (which they saw as good) and the material (which they saw as evil).

This often led to corruption and immorality, because of their belief that nothing the body did could tarnish the purity of the spirit. This also led to a denial of Christ’s human nature, which they held to be either imaginary or at least only temporary.

They reasoned that Christ, being spirit, could not have died, and they denied that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God.

And so this letter was written by John to reclaim the fundamental truths of the Christian faith.

It is written in a strong but tender way, appealing to his readers as ‘little children’, yet leaving no room for misunderstanding.

In the extract of the letter we heard just now, John begins by asking the striking question, “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?”

His answer is even more striking – “He is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son.”

In this question and answer, John is making it clear to his readers that the ideas and philosophies that are so prevalent in their culture, are in fact cutting out the heart of the Christian message.

He is emphasising that it is impossible to know God unless we first know Jesus. Remembering that this letter is almost certainly written by the same John of the fourth gospel, this emphatic reminder has loud echoes of that assurance of Jesus’ in chapter 14 of that gospel where Jesus says:

“I am the way and the truth and the light. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Jesus is the way; he is the truth; and he is the light; only through Jesus can we come to know God.

That is the fundamental truth that John is looking to reclaim in this letter.

He is appealing to what they have known from the very beginning, to the truth that was given to them by Jesus himself.

Remember, John was an apostle and so he had known Jesus. He must have despaired at this schism or division that was appearing in the Church, reaching as he was the end of his years, and probably the last surviving apostle.

He needed to reclaim the truth for the Church and dismantle the lies that could so easily tear out the heart of the Christian message.

Now the untruths that John was addressing in this letter had huge implications, both for the individual and for the Church as a whole.

He can see the effect that this false teaching is having and wants to encourage people to hold fast to the truth of the gospel.

In the same way that the people of the time were influenced by these dangerous untruths, by those who found the Christian message too challenging, too hard, too uncomfortable, so too we need to be mindful of the need to hold fast to the truths of our faith.

It’s always slightly dangerous territory I think to stand in the pulpit and talk about truth and lies. But I suppose it is one of the purposes of preaching, to do as John was doing in his letter, and to reclaim the fundamental truths of our Christian faith.

That need to reclaim and to reaffirm the truth of our faith is the reason we say the creed. After we sang the Nunc Dimitus this evening, we stood and said together the Apostle’s Creed; a statement of what we believe, an affirmation of the truth of our faith.

And it’s just as important that we affirm the truths of our faith today as it was at the turn of the first century, perhaps even more so.

The influence of gnostic philosophy may not trouble us much today, but there are all too many other ideas and philosophies that seek to undermine the truth that lies at the heart of the Christian message:

And so as we go about our daily lives this week and in the weeks ahead, as we live in this community alongside friends and strangers, may we hold fast to the truths of our Christian faith.

When we are challenged by the apparent injustices in our society; when we hear accounts of atrocities in our world that rock the foundation of all that we know and understand; when others are bemused by our faith in a God who they perceive as standing by while so many suffer; we must hold fast to the truths of our faith that John is reminding of us here;

Jesus says, I am the way and the truth and the light. No one comes to the Father except through me.