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Sermon: The Voice in the Wilderness

If you spend any amount of time looking at Christian souvenirs, DVDs and magazines, sooner or later you will see the words “who do you say I am?” emblazoned across them.

These words were spoken by Christ in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and Mark. Christ says “who do you say I am?” and Peter says “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” This is Peter’s confession of faith.

The reason the phrase “who do you say I am?” is so important is that the question goes straight to the heart of who Christians are. To be Christian, we have to confess our faith alongside Peter.

And that confession of faith must not be empty words, spoken without believing. Otherwise it’s just a vocabulary exercise. To confess like Peter, we have to sincerely believe that 2,000 years ago the Son of God was born as a fragile human baby.

The belief that God stepped directly into human history, in Jesus, should be the biggest wake up call we ever have. Imagine if the moon came down from the sky, tucked you into bed and read you a story. How would you feel? Shocked in a way that you’d never get over, I’d imagine.

And that’s the response we should have every time we hear what God did in baby Jesus. God came to live on Earth with us. That is not news we should ever get over or get used to.

There’s a reason why Muslims (fellow believers in the God of Abraham and people with whom we have a lot in common) find certain aspects of Christian belief so shocking. It’s because it is. God coming to live among us, is like the moon and the sun and all the stars coming down to live among us, but even more shocking than that.

This shock should stir us into action. It certainly stirred Jesus’s cousin, John the Baptist. In today’s reading we find him out in the wilderness, preaching and preparing people for Jesus’s ministry. You have to wonder, how well did Jesus and John know each other as boys and younger men? What did John experience of the young Jesus that caused him to dedicate his life to him? Alongside Mary, John is one of the first believers.

John’s faith in Jesus put fire into his preaching. John said.

“I am the voice crying out in the wilderness. ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.'”

Do you know how strong your cry has to be to be heard in the wilderness? The people came in their hundreds to listen to John and to be baptised by him; including Jesus himself.

What faith John had, what very strong faith!

Jesus asks “who do you say I am?” That question belongs to Jesus alone.

People ask John a question that will be asked of us too. It’s a question that will be asked of all Christians. It’s a question that has led many Christians to be martyred for their faith.

That question is, “who are you? What do you say about yourself?”

As Christians these two questions sit on either side of us like book ends. Your answers makes your faith what it is.

Who are YOU? And who do YOU say Jesus is?

When asked who he is, John gives a simple but deep answer. He says he is the voice preparing the way.

He doesn’t tell them his age, his marital status, his career achievements. He doesn’t tell them what he owns or what his dreams are. He places all his identity in God. He IS in the human world what he IS in his relationship to God.

And if we really do believe alongside Peter and alongside John, we shouldn’t be defining ourselves by worldly things either.

We are not our jobs, we are not the success of our children, we are not home owners or car owners. We are not even mothers or fathers or sons or daughters. We are not husbands or wives or spinsters. We are not Britons or immigrants. We simply ARE creatures living in relationship with God. And that should be all that we need to say about ourselves.

Christmas is very much about gifts these days. And the gift that God gives to you is the freedom to simply be a living creature in his Creation, always connected to Him by love.

You don’t need to worry about what anyone thinks of you. It is simply enough for God that you are you. You are enough.

Sermon for 3rd Sunday of Advent. Claire George

A wonderful weekend!

On Friday a reggae night was held at the Battle of Britain Club to raise money for St Laurence’s. The Upfront Reggae Band played and was greatly enjoyed by all. The evening raised over £1,900 for the church. Many thanks to Debbie and her family for organising the night. Thanks also go to the businesses and individuals who donated to the evening. We don’t at present have a full list but will thank them when we can.

On Saturday afternoon St Laurence’s Christmas tea party was held in the Church Hall. Although not as well attended as had been expected, it was a lovely fun afternoon. We played pass the parcel, sang Christmas songs, and enjoyed each other’s company. Gifts were given to some of the volunteers who have helped the church throughout the year. A big thanks to Jaysen, Grant, Luke and Kim, without whom the party would not have been possible.

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Self Help Africa

Today Matthew from development charity Self Help Africa came to the 10am service to talk about their work.  Here are some of the things we learnt.

  • Half the farmers south of the Sahara are women
  • 69% of folk south of the Sahara work in agriculture
  • Economic growth in agriculture helps the poor twice as much as growth in other industries
  • Self Help Africa works in Zambia, Uganda, Malawi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Togo
  • In 2013 93% of donations were spent on programmes in Africa, 6% on fundraising and 1% on governance
  • Irish Aid was Self Help Africa’s biggest donor in 2013, donating 37%

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The Desert Fathers

The desert fathers and mothers were early Christian monks and nuns who went into the Egyptian desert to be closer to God. In the 4th and 5th centuries they lived alone or in communities in a harsh and hostile environment.

They were pioneers whose lives were recorded in a number of texts, which then inspired the founders of European monasticism.

I started reading about the desert fathers about a month ago. I wasn’t all that keen to read about them to be honest. I wanted to learn about Christian spirituality and I thought I should tackle the fathers because they have classic status. If the personages of Christian history were cars, the desert fathers would be Porsches and Ferraris.

I expected the fathers to be severe and obscure. To my great surprise they are straightforward, simple and really rather sweet. They spent most of their lives alone in prayer. Much of what we know about them comes from records of their meetings with each other.

Christians believe that God is love. Not in an abstract sense, like saying England is a lion or Britain is a bulldog. We literally believe that God is full of perfect love. We believe that spending a lot of time in prayer encountering God should help a person to become more loving.

The fathers’ lives of prayer showed where it mattered, in their treatment of one another. Even though they tended to prefer solitude, if one of them was sick they all went to visit and help. They had their personality quirks of course, but they tried to be kind.

In our modern age we often think of spirituality as an experience. When someone says “I’m a very spiritual person” they sometimes mean that they have lovely feelings and float about in a kind of chilled out ecstasy.

Nobody should look down their nose at that kind of spirituality. Life is tough, brutal even, and most people would benefit from learning how to have lovely feelings. There is also the very real spiritual experience of sensing transcendence. When you sense transcendence you feel that there is something in the world that is bigger than everything and supporting everything. This kind of experience can make you feel happy or it could make you feel uncomfortably awestruck.

The desert fathers wouldn’t have used phrases like “developing my spirituality” or “getting in touch with my spiritual side.” I don’t know how they talked about themselves, but I’m confident that our way of doing things would seem self-centred to them.

Unless I’m much mistaken, for the fathers “spirituality” was a much more straightforward affair. It was about following the teachings of Jesus and about seeking enough silence to give God the chance to speak to their hearts and souls.

The men and women of the desert remind us that we all need to make time and space for prayer. They believed that prayer was so important they lived in the boiling hot desert to avoid anything that might distract them from it.

Our lives today are full of distractions. Our jobs, our attempts to find jobs, our relationships, our children (if we have any) and all the fears we carry about what people think of us or whether we have enough status.

Yet there is no one who can’t make time to be silent in God’s presence. We can do it in the bathroom or while travelling to work. We can do it for five minutes each night after we turn out the lights. Everyone has time to be silent in God’s presence.

CG

Sermon: Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s

imageIn today’s passage Jesus’s enemies want to catch him out. They ask him whether it’s lawful to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor. They hope he will say no so that he gets in trouble with the Romans.

And maybe, they also hope Jesus will say yes. Then he’ll lose popular support among those followers who want him to be a freedom fighter for Israel against the Roman Empire.

Whether Jesus says yes or no, it looks like it’s win win for his enemies. They must have thought they were being very clever.

But Jesus is too sharp for them. He doesn’t answer the question they asked. He changes the angle of the conversation – something God is rather good at doing if you talk to him regularly enough to let that happen.

Jesus asks for a coin, points to the picture of the Emperor on it, and says give to the Emperor what is the Emperor’s and give to God what is God’s.

That’s God for you. Always there with a fresh and unexpected way of looking at things. Always surprising.

Many people think the coin was a Tribute penny. On one side it had a picture of Livia, the Emperor’s mother, dressed up to represent Peace. On the other side it had a picture of the Emperor Tiberius, with the words “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.”

You can’t get much further from Jewish belief than that coin. It had images on it, which weren’t allowed in Judaism. It had words on it saying the Emperor Tiberius was the son of a god, that Emperor Augustus was that god.

And all this imperial pomposity, this silly human vanity was held in the hand of the real Son of God. When Jesus looked at the way Roman religion made gods out of human beings, did he ever feel he was watching children playing at dressing up?

Jesus lived surrounded by Romans. Maybe he saw temples dedicated to the Emperor Augustus. And even though Tiberius didn’t have divine status, maybe Jesus knew that there were temples and statues and priests dedicated to him too.

Augustus’s fame and glory was spread across a vast empire. It was part of the elite establishment culture.

The life of Jesus and his helpers was so different.

They were poor, misunderstood, outside the elite, and local. They weren’t celebrated from Britannia in the North down to Egypt in the South. Although of course one day they would be. And that’s God for you, always turning things around in unexpected ways.

The world expected the divine message to come through a person with the pomp and magnificence of an Emperor. It came through poverty and humility. It came through people who lived at the bottom of society, far away from worldly power. Eventually it came to ordinary people everywhere, through the Holy Spirit.

At this time the Roman Empire could be called the villain of the story, but it’s because of its security and stability that the early church is able to spread.

And after years of persecuting Christians, the Romans eventually adopt Christianity, enabling it to spread everywhere.

I’ve no doubt we’re in this church today because of the Roman Empire. In time God used them for his own purposes, as he can use anybody and anything. God is always surprising and unexpected.

So, back to Jesus and the coin.

When we read this story we can’t tell from it what tone of voice Jesus used or what his body language was. Was he casual, contemptuous, laughing, dismissive?

It’s frustrating that we don’t know, but also unexpectedly useful.

When you get home, read the story, close your eyes and imagine how Jesus is in this story. Do you see him as angry, brusque, sarcastic, gentle or laughing? Why is that?

Be aware that how you imagine Jesus’s body language and tone, says a lot more about how you imagine God than what God is really like. God is always unexpected.

In my imagination Jesus is gently good humoured in this coin conversation. He has a secure and certain faith in God’s love. He’s not threatened by the Roman religion. He isn’t going to be sidetracked by their pomposity.

He’s got his eye on what’s important, and that’s why he says give to God what is God’s. This is bigger stuff than some vainglorious emperor’s portrait on a coin. That’s just a nothing. Away with it, let us think no more about it.

That’s how the story plays out in my imagination. And to be honest, it speaks to me. As I’m sure is the case for many Christians, the attention I give to the positive love-based mission of God is far too easily sidetracked by petty side squabbles and disputes.

And when you go home and imagine the story of the coin in your own way, look to see if your imagination speaks to you too. Imagining Gospel stories is an ancient form of prayer, and helps each one of us to learn things that are unique to us.

The life of faith is complicated because God is always surprising. None of us should ever think we’ve reached an end to what there is to learn. God danced an unexpected dance with the Romans, and he dances a very unexpected dance with us.

Claire George

Equal marriage and the Church

imageThe Church of England’s stance on equal marriage is in the news again thanks to a new book by the Bishop of Buckingham.

Long known in Anglican circles and on social media for his kindly and very open support of LGBTI Anglicans, Bishop Alan Wilson is now taking the debate into the public arena.

In More Perfect Union? and elsewhere, Bishop Alan shares his view that Christian arguments against equal marriage do not have a sound Biblical basis.

He also explains that there are several types of Biblical marriage that nobody in the Church would agree with today. In the Guardian the Bishop writes:

Nor is it clear what we should mean by “biblical marriage”. Generally speaking, Old Testament marriage customs and mores reflect the social mores of the people in the story …

In Genesis 38, Levirate marriage comes on the scene. This is the involuntary marriage of a man to his brother’s widow in order to continue the line … Deuteronomy institutes another involuntary form of marriage. A virgin automatically becomes the wife of her rapist, who is then required to pay the victim’s father 50 shekels for the loss of his property rights. Unlike other Old Testament marriages, these are held to be indissoluble.

In Numbers 31:17–18 we find another form of involuntary marriage. A male soldier is entitled to take as many virgins as he likes for his wives from among his booty, but must kill his other prisoners. In Deuteronomy 21:11–14, marriage is made by selecting a beautiful woman from among the spoils of war, shaving her head and paring her nails. These marriages are dissoluble if she fails to please, but the woman is no longer saleable. Throughout much of the Old Testament, marriage does not require sexual exclusivity …

None of these arrangements, except perhaps that enjoyed by Adam and Eve, would be recognised as marriage today. Pretending that the church’s present stance is biblical is not going to fool anyone who doesn’t want to be fooled, and fewer and fewer people do.

Leading church history academic the Revd Dr Charlotte Methuen, responds to Bishop Alan with this book review on the Thinking Anglicans blog. She says:

The style suggests that this is a book written in haste, and it certainly speaks to the moment. But that is necessary, and right: and it is much to be applauded that a bishop of the Church of England has chosen to speak out on the question of equal marriage.

At the weekend The Sunday Telegraph reported on a letter signed by 300 Anglicans in support of any Church of England bishops who may wish to come out.