Lord, I am not worthy Trinity 1

We all know that there are times when life is just hard.

Sometimes life feels like something is beating you up, draining you of your life, bringing you to the limit of your despair, to the end of your resources, where you’re holding on by the tip of your fingers. Nothing has worked to help the situation, and nothing can be said to make things better. There is nothing else.

It could be fear, pain, loss, illness, tragedy, exhaustion, or a whole host of other things that have brought you to that place, and it seems like all is hopeless.

This is the place where the Centurion from today’s gospel is, because his much beloved servant was ill and dying and there was nothing he could do, he’d tried it all.

We do not know the Centurion’s name. We know he is a man of great authority who demands the respect of the soldiers under his charge. He gives orders and they are followed. He says ‘Come’ and they ‘Come’, ‘Go’ and they ‘Go’. But you can’t order an ill person to be healed and healthy. He probably tried it.

We also know that the Romans were seen in a bad light by the locals being the invading political enemy and unclean non Jews. They were maybe second only to the Tax Collectors, who were just scum.

But there is something different about this Centurion.

He’d heard about Jesus. He’d heard the things Jesus had taught about, and heard the stories of miracles that followed Jesus around. And so, in hope, and faith, he seeks out a greater authority then his own, and send some of the Jewish elders to speak to Jesus and ask him to come, and heal his slave.

The man who is so use to giving orders and making things happen, hands over all authority to a preacher he has only heard of.

We learn a little more of the Centurion at this stage, because the Jewish elders speak to Jesus and start making a case for him. You quickly get the picture that this is not your ordinary centurion. They tell Jesus that he is worthy, because he’s immersed himself in the culture of Capernaum. He’d show much love for the people there. He’d shown much love for their God too, so much so he has built a new synagogue. And when his slave had become very ill, the Jewish elders had no problems with trying to help him out.

And so Jesus, on the authority of their witness, and inclined also to help, made his way over.

But on the way the centurion seems to have had some sort of realisation. Inviting a holy Jew into a gentile house, making him unclean was not a good thing to do. And so he sends friends to intercept Jesus on route with a message,

‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed’.

This was the convincing factor for Jesus. He was so amazed at this message of great faith in the authority Jesus worked with, a profession of faith he had not heard in all Israel, who were meant to be God’s special people. And so Jesus spoke, and the servant was healed.

These last words of the centurion are the defining factor of this story, which takes it from pedestrian to extrodinany. Such great faith, from a gentile, and a roman, Jesus found this amazing.

And these words of the centurion have had a much longer impact then I’m sure he intended them to. These words have carried through the centuries, and are as powerful today as they were then. They have found their place in our own liturgy, or orders of service, just before we receive communion, reminding us of Jesus’ authority to make us clean and whole with just a word from his lips.

As I read through this gospel, I pondered how my own faith would compare to the centurions. Would Jesus be amazed at my level of faith? Somehow I don’t think so, because, like the people Israel, in my familiarity, I sometimes forget to be amazed at God. I forget to be amazed that he would create this world and everything in it, and love us so much that he gave himself in Christ.

This morning I share in Christ’s amazement at the faith of the Centurion. And I take his words as my own ‘Lord I am not worthy, but only say the word and I shall be healed’.

Because whether you are starting out on the journey of faith, like our baptism candidates are today, have no strong faith to speak of, in the depths of despair or are the holiest Christian here today, we are all, equally in need of Christ’s help and healing to make us whole.

 

‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed’.

Today’s gospel (as well as being the longest gospel I’ve ever had to sing) is one of the most famous of Jesus’ parables. It has been used time and time again and reinterpreted for different genres of expression, Kipling wrote a poem about it. Scott Joplin turned it into a ballet. Britten and Debussy set it to music. Rembrandt painted it.

It is so well known and loved by us that I’m sure I hardly need to say anything at all…….but I will all the same.

Because when a story becomes well loved, we can stop seeing the details.

One of the things I love about this parable is the dynamic between the characters, how they interact with each other and how we can interact with them.

In all good stories there are different types of characters, we have the hero, a role we’re familiar with in stories, then there is the protagonist around whom the story revolves, (sometimes these are the same person, but not always) and then there is the anti hero, generally my favorite character, because they are the ones who are flawed, who creates disruptions and conflicts, in the story and in your own feelings, they’re often the characters you like but shouldn’t. And of course there are support characters who help the story move along and the extras.

So, who is who in our parable?

Lets get the easy ones out of the way first, we have the servants and the pig farmer who are support and extras.

So then we have the father and his two sons. And now things become a little more tricky because who is placed in each role depends on how you read it.

It could be the younger son coming to his senses, seeing the light, and returning home.

Or, it could be the older son being shown that bitterness against his brother is no way to live, and that everything that the father owns is his anyway so he too should rejoice.

Or it could be the father, after searching for his child, giving the response of complete joy and forgiveness at his younger sons return.

What do you think?

You may change your mind when you consider the parables that have gone before because Jesus tells two other parables to the Pharisees at this time. We’re told that the Jesus is talking to the Pharisees and the scribes and they unhappy at Jesus’ friendships with sinners, they grumble when they come close to hear Jesus. So Jesus tells them a series of stories to get them understanding why he spends time with them.

I give thanks the lectionary compilers didn’t include these other two parables this morning. They are the lost sheep and the lost coin.

All lost things will be found, and in these other parables it is made clear that the shepherd who found his sheep and the woman who found her coin are the heroes of those, so, the father who found his son must be the hero.

So now we have our hero identified, we can put the others in their place. We have the protagonist around whom the story revolves as the younger Son, who goes away, blows everything, and comes crawling back.

And then my favorite, the anti-hero, the older son, who puts the twist into the story at the very end.

Because if this story was just about sinners repenting and coming back to the father, the story could end when the younger son returns home.

But Jesus goes on to tell us about the reaction of the older Son, who is resentful and bitter towards both the Father and his brother.

“Listen, all these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours, yet you never gave me anything.

But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after wasting your property gets the fattened calf and a party to go with it”.

The older son feels hard done by, deserving of reward for his years of faithful service but going without. But he is blind with jealousy and misses the fact completely that he already has everything in his possession, everything that the father has is already his. His wealth and property and love are already in his possession, but he just can’t see it.

 

Jesus doesn’t tell stories for our enjoyment, so the question is, where are you in this parable?

Are you a lost child, feeling unworthy, too sinful for the love and forgiveness of the father? Are you painfully making your way back, searching for the right path to lead you back?

Are you a slave to faithful work, but without the joy of the reward? Or are you full of jealousy for those around you who seem to be given better gifts?

Where is your relationship with the Father? Are you on speaking terms? Are you shouting or scared to talk?

This reading is important because it makes us question, our sinful actions and need for repentance, and also about the attitude we practice our faith with.

This is a calling, in the middle of Lent, for some further self assessment, and perseverance for the journey so that we can be the children that return confident, and with joy for each other too.

 

 

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Lent 2

 

In these words of Jesus we hear the voice of God’s lamenting, we hear the sound of God’s heart breaking for his children who reject his love.

Throughout the Bible we can trace the story of God’s relationship with us, the only creatures made in his own image, made from his love and for his love.

We see how he entered time & time again into covenant relationship with his people, just as he did with Abraham, promising his protection & his blessing.

Time & time again he sent prophets, his messengers, to warn of the folly of turning away, of thinking we can live without him, yet every time these warnings were rejected.

How could this be?

How could the people of Israel have been so foolish, so un-naturally rebellious, especially when God had protected them & rescued them so many times?

As Jesus turns his face resolutely towards Jerusalem he does so in the full knowledge that he too will suffer rejection, that the religious establishment is already planning how to silence once & for all this uncomfortable prophet with his uncompromising message of God’s love & forgiveness for all people.

We might well wonder why Jesus did not take the warning & return to Galilee, lie low for a while, perhaps even return to the desert until danger passed. Surely the temptation must have been strong.

We know that his human instinct shrank from the mental & physical suffering that lay ahead.

Yet he knew also that God’s love for his rebellious children would only be fully revealed when he absorbed our hatred, our greed, our anger on the cross.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets & stoning those who are sent to you! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, & you were not willing!”

 

But if it’s hard to understand why the Jews, God’s chosen people, rejected his freely offered love, even harder is it to understand why we still reject that love so clearly shown & offered to us from the cross.

For God still longs to gather us to him as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. His covenant with us has not been broken, and through good and bad.

And yet we, like the Jews are still reject him, how often, when we are in need of his protection, do we seek security in the false gods of fame & fortune, of worldly prosperity & success even though we know that these things so quickly fade away & can never satisfy our deepest longings.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets & stoning those who are sent to you! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, & you were not willing!”

God’s lamenting cry still rings in our ears because we too are not willing to trust our worries, our pain, our sinfulness to the forgiveness & protection of God.

So this Lent let us pause & listen to God’s invitation, “Come to me all who are weary & heavy laden, & I will give you rest.” for even now God bids us to come, to trust.

Rather than some empty promise that nothing bad will ever happen to us, God’s promise assures us that whatever does happen to us, whatever pain or problems may plague us, whatever fear we may face, whatever sin may assail us, we will never be defenceless or alone.

For we stand under the protection of God’s wings, strong in his covenant with us, shaded by his forgiveness, and strengthened by His body and blood.

Temptation – Lent 1

I’ve always found it a source of comfort that we have our gospel for this morning, the temptation of Jesus, because if in his humanity he was faced with temptation, then it’s ok for me to struggle with mine.

However it wasn’t until a few years ago, when I had the opportunity to see the Judean wilderness for myself, that I came to appreciate how difficult the physical wilderness there is.

This limestone desert is well-named Jeshimon- the Wilderness of Desolation.

And it’s a warped and twisted landscape, shimmering with the heat. The rock is scorching to the touch as if there were some vast furnace beneath it. It’s hard to see how anyone, or anything could possibly survive for even one day. Let alone 40 days.

Yet it’s here that many of the Bible’s prophets, including John the Baptist sought solitude.

In today’s gospel we’ve heard how Jesus, guided by the Spirit, went into this wilderness knowing that in this raw, untamed place, he would be alone with God.

Jesus wasn’t the first, and certainly wasn’t the last, to realise that when we need to come to terms with our inner being, when we want to free ourselves from everything that crowds us in and prevents us from being still, then it’s good to withdraw for a time.

Many have been drawn to a wilderness for that very reason. And in our own day, many people still seek out retreats of solitude.

For in the wilderness we’re stripped of all the things that protect us from ourselves and from our mortality. In the wilderness we find God but we also find our demons.

Jesus went to the wilderness to be rid of all the comforts he’d known.

Standing on the brink of the start of his ministry, for forty days and nights he stayed dedicated to the task ahead, the unflinching life of self-giving, the life of obedience even unto death
When John Milton, in his epic poem, Paradise Regained, wrote about the story of Christ’s temptations in the Wilderness, he let his imagination run free.

And if you have a fancy for 17th century poetry, this is a good one for Lent.

At one stage it’s described that Satan is faced with what for him would be for him a disaster, the prospect of Jesus’s life and ministry being a success, as the beloved Son of God, so he calls together a council of demons to work out how best to stop Jesus in his tracks.

The Council rejects a whole series of possible temptations as far too easy for Jesus to detect. The best way of subverting his mission, they conclude, is to tempt Jesus into quick fixes and short cuts. We should pay heed; we’re prone to the same kind of temptations.

First Satan tempts Jesus to use his powers to turn the little limestone rocks that litter the Wilderness into bread.

That doesn’t seem an unreasonable thing to do. Surely there is no harm in using his God-given power to provide food for the hungry?

Didn’t the Lord’s own mother praise the God who “fills the hungry with good things?” and is this not the same Jesus who will transform a boy’s lunch into a meal for 5,000?

But to have done so in these circumstances, Jesus would have been taking gifts he’d been given for the service of others and using them to serve himself.

Jesus countered this by reminding us that food and possessions are not the only things we need to live our lives. ‘One does not live by bread alone’

Next, Jesus battles with the temptation of power.

Seeing all the power and wealth in the world and the enticement to pursue glory and authority, fame and wealth is still attractive today.

There must have been some temptation for Jesus to respond to the evil oppression of the Roman occupation with a show of supernatural force must have been enormous.

Jesus was very aware of the Jewish expectation that God would send his messiah to vindicate his people, to free them from tyranny & the yoke of oppression.

At his Baptism God had confirmed him as his beloved Son- he knew that he was the longed for Messiah, with all that title meant for his own people.

But he refused to use evil to overcome evil.

Instead he chose to confront both religious & state oppression with the ultimate power of His love, the cross.

Finally having been defeated on this front Satan now tries a different approach.

Let’s try a circus act; give people a bit of excitement. No need for a safety net, after all that word of God you’re so fond of quoting says if you’re the Messiah you won’t even stub your foot on one of these stones.

Jesus responds “You shall not put God to the test.”

To test God is to refuse to trust him, to fail to take the risk of true faith in response to his love.

It’s a temptation that is still around. Many want God to perform “magic” and liberate us. This is why there is a hype around certain churches and tele-evangelists who offer the high energy excitement of spectacular so-called miracles

Attracting people, yes, but what’s bringing them is what they can get out of it.

And it is very different from having true faith in God who calls us to be at service for one another.

We are only a few days into this season of wilderness. And if you haven’t started some form of discipline this Lent, it’s not too late.

Lent is a time for self examination and for re-balancing. It’s our time to enter the wilderness so we can be faced with the things that distract us, and separate us and tempt us.

It won’t be easy, facing our demons never are, but this is the task that is put before us, so that we can be strong in our own ministries, strong in our own discipleship, and strong in our own relationship with God.

How are you going to use this time of wilderness?

 

(Image from http://www.gracevine.com/sermon/the-temptation-of-jesus/)

Family service: Baptism of Christ

Stuff needed: Fishbowl with water, sponge, plastic toy, cup, bath bomb, and a table to put them on.

It wasn’t long ago that we were celebrating Jesus being born, and now, today we are remembering his baptism, but Jesus isn’t a baby in this story from his life, he is an adult, and he has come into the desert, into the wilderness to his cousin John, who we know a John the Baptist to be baptised.

Now, I hope you were all listening to our gospel story, because I’m going to ask you some questions later, but first, I want you to think a little bit about water.

Water is a really interesting substance, because it reacts with things differently.

Like these bits here, (sponge, cup, plastic toy) other than getting them a bit wet, there is no long lasting effect.

But some things are drastically changed by water.

We need water to live. Around 60% of our bodies are made of water. And plants also need water to live. What happens to a plant when you don’t water it??

It goes brown and crispy and dies.

There are other things that react dramatically to water. Take this (bathbomb) when I drop this in the water it fizzes and changes the colour of the water, and there is nothing you can do to change it. It’s changed forever!

Now water has an important role to play at this stage of Jesus’ life.

Remind me, who did Jesus go to see in the desert? John the Baptist.

And John had been telling people that they needed to change their lives, he showed people that by the things they were doing wrong, they were making themselves dirty and separating themselves from God.

And so he helped them to say sorry and to become joined to God by taking them into the river to show that they wanted God to wash away the things that separated them from God.

And one day, John saw Jesus coming, and John knew who Jesus was, he knew he was God’s Son, and that Jesus was much more powerful that John could ever be. John said that he isn’t worthy even to undo Jesus sandals and that when Jesus came, he wouldn’t just baptise with water, but that people would be baptised with the Holy Spirit as well.

And that’s what happened. Our gospel said that when they’d all been baptised, Jesus as well, the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit descended from heaven, and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased’.

And we hear something similar from our Old Testament reading today for us, when the Lord says

I have called you by name, you are mine.
 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

… you are precious in my sight,… I love you.
The baptism of Jesus is important because it shows us not just how important Jesus is, but how important we are too. We share in the baptism of Christ, so that we are baptised not just in water but also by the Holy Spirit, and that through this act, we too belong and are joined to God. And we are changed, like this (referring back to the bath bomb) forever.

Sermon Epiphany

I hope you all had a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all. I certainly hope your seasonal plans went a little better than mine, which were delayed and then cut short by the recent storms. Getting to and from my parents’ home in Anglesey was a scary journey, with winds and flood and closed roads.

All of this came to mind when I was thinking about what to preach on because if you read the Christmas story, the theme of journeys feature quite strongly.

Indeed throughout the Scriptures we see that God’s people are always called to be on the move and this applies especially to the people in the story of our Lord’s birth who are called to travel in the most difficult of circumstance, more difficult I might add then Storm Frank.

During the variety of nativity plays of the season, we saw Marys and Josephs and Donkeys marching up and down the aisles making the journey to Bethlehem seem like nothing at all. But which of us would dream of undertaking a 100 mile journey when one of you is so heavily pregnant & with no better means of transport than a donkey? Especially with no accommodation pre-booked at journey’s end?

Our crib under the nave altar may look quite cosy under its warm spotlight, but those who have visited Bethlehem will know of the steep stone cut steps and the narrow opening to the cave which is believed to be the birthplace of Our Lord. We shouldn’t let our carols mask the stark reality of Mary & Joseph’s desperation in bringing their special child to birth in a damp, dirty hole in the ground.

And in today’s gospel reading, and in our celebrations today, we have another long and dangerous journey coming to its conclusion as the wise men have travelled following the guiding of a star to worship the new born King and to offer their gifts, gifts so unusual and inappropriate for a baby- reveal their deep understanding of the significance of the child they seek.

It’s a wonderful story that opens up so many possibilities but is tantalising in its lack of detail, which is perhaps why it has been so embellished by artistic imaginations over the passing years.

Such as TS Eliot’s wonderful poem “The journey of the Magi” with its opening lines

“A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of year for a journey

And such a long journey

The ways deep, the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.”

 

The poem speaks of the Magi’s temptation to turn back, of their regret at swopping their creature comforts- “The summer palaces on slopes, and the silken girls bringing sherbet”- for the stark deprivations of the journey.

“At the end we preferred to travel all night, sleeping in snatches,

with the voices singing in our ears that this as all folly”

If the journey itself wasn’t bad enough, it was made worse by their visit to Herod. “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising & have come to worship him”.

We may question their title as wise men at this stage, is it ever wise to ask a monarch with the murderous paranoia of Herod, ‘where is the child, who is not your own, whose reign will eclipse yours?’

And at journey’s end they are left questioning “were we led all that way for birth or death?”

The Magi’s inadvertent alerting of Herod to the Messiah’s birth leads directly to the Massacre of the Innocents and causes the Holy Family to set out on yet another journey into the unknown, to flee Herod’s violence and live as refugees in Egypt until Herod’s death.

There are so many questions and issues around the Magi that we can barely scratch the surface of what those long ago travellers have to teach us.

But one of them is the message that God is always leading us forwards, often to places and situations where we need to grip our courage and our faith close to us. God is constantly calling us forward to embrace new challenges & new adventures of faith and leading us ever closer to his kingdom.

This goes for the church as well as us as individuals.

As Jesus says later in Matthews gospel, we are to ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness’ to look for Gods Kingdom and all these things will be given to you as well because God will guide you. So our job is to travel with him, and be on the lookout for the next direction to go.

And we can be certain that just as he was present to guide the Holy Family to safety and to lead the Magi to the Christ child, so he will guide and protect us in our journey through life.

So may the courage and obedience of Joseph and Mary in undertaking the task of parenting the child who was the long-awaited Messiah, and may the courage and perseverance of the Wise Men in Journeying so far to seek the child born King of the Jews, inspire and encourage us as we begin this New Year to follow wherever God may lead