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Category Archives: Sermons
Once upon a time there was a gardener who was constantly perturbed that grass always grew abundantly everywhere except on his lawn, which seemed to be a haven for moss. Not only did this fact disturb him but each Spring he would commence an unequal battle in his tiny garden, usually full of optimism that this year will be different, that something would grow that thrives on more than just neglect or that could be harvested at a time other than the 2 weeks when the gardener was holiday in August. The gardener remained optimistic even though it appeared he had learnt little from previous years where he had adopted a similar approach with little success!
“It is a new beginning again as Spring is here bringing with it the promise of a new start: a new beginning,” said the gardener who surveyed his garden with a spade in hand.
You see this gardener had a very strange idea of how to keep his garden. He would make a good start each Spring, clear his small patch, dig it, manure it, and plant numerous seeds and plants but then, rather than continually tending his patch, he became somewhat distracted by other interests that kept him from his garden. There was the FA Cup Final, the joy of looking after his grandchildren, the unseasonable weather, the need to shop and buy stuff, friends who came to call as well as his other jobs and the fact that he was too tired to face the prospect of getting out in the garden.
Soon the seeds and plants began to grow but so did all the weeds. There was no time for pruning the fruit bushes or digging up the weeds, the grass on the lawn soon passed 6 inches and started to seed. There was an abundance of foliage but little evidence of fruit as the summer progressed. Numerous weeds choked the plants he wanted to cultivate. The slugs and caterpillars moved in stripping many of the plants of their health and vitality. A mole took centre stage in the lawn leaving ample evidence of subterranean activity.
Meanwhile the gardener continued to pursue his other interests paying little regard to the garden even though he walked down the garden path many times each day. It was as if the garden had disappeared from his consciousness.
Then early one morning in the autumn having enjoyed a leisurely summer doing not a lot in the garden, the gardener stepped out of his house and paused to look at the garden. It was a mass of brambles and ivy. He could make out some of the plants he’d planted in the Spring, but many of them had simply not made it. They had been choked by the weeds or eaten by the insects.
“How did this happen?” he asked himself.
Then he had a moment of self-revelation, came to his senses, and realised that being a gardener was not just a bolt on to life – it was about life itself, that the garden needed constant tending and care. If the garden was not the top priority then weeds would grow, insects would eat everything. He lamented the lack of pruning. He could see with his own eyes that his garden looked very green but there was little or no fruit. It might look healthy if you glanced at it quickly – plenty of green stuff – but closer observation quickly revealed the true state of the garden.
“I have been a fool again,” thought the gardener. “I have neglected my garden for another season and I will reap what I have sown because of my neglect. There is hardly any fruit or plants that I want in my garden. It has been overtaken by weeds.”
Jesus’ words came into his mind “Seek first my kingly rule, my integrity, and all these things will be yours as well”. “This garden is my life,” he thought. In that moment he was thankful that despite the mess that confronted him he knew he was offered a new beginning. He could only transform his garden if he transformed his life – root and branch – he determined that he would not pass up this new beginning; there was time still to produce fruit, even though it was late in the season.
“The church is like a swimming pool. Most of the noise comes from the shallow end.” (John Shelby Spong, Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell ) (This reference not verified)
Well I don’t think I share the progressive liberal views espoused by Bishop Spong but I do share his view of the metaphor of the church as a swimming pool with most of the noise coming from the shallow end. I first heard this quotation, not attributed to Bishop Spong, but to the late Archbishop Robert Runcie and was repeated at a conference I recently attended. It seems the idea is still circulating no matter who said it first and it is worth pondering.
Its true babies make a lot of noise if they need feeding or changing and the idea of spiritual milk and spiritual meat are not unknown to us. Neither is the idea of being mature in Christ. If only people could grow up spiritually. It’s rather incongruous to see adults behaving like children, still on Janet & John (sorry showing my age here) and not able to do joined up writing yet in Christian terms. Where is the engagement with prayer or Bible Study or a thirst for spiritual things? Where is the dynamic looking out for the needs of others?
Of course, it could be argued that people are not getting the sustenance they need to grow, that they are fed a diet that is nothing more than juvenile junk food but it could also be true that most people are highly resistant to the idea of change, growth and development.
This is nothing new. Just take a look at our reading from Acts 11 to discover just how difficult it was for the early church to get their heads around the fact that God’s love was for everyone: Jew and Gentile. It needed a paradigm shift in their understanding before the penny dropped and they realised God was saying something quite new, something that was outside their comfort zone, but something that they simply could not dispute because they saw the Holy Spirit at work in those they thought were beyond God’s love.
Perhaps if they had been a little more attuned to Jesus’ ministry they may have noticed some clues: his association with those who were despised, the poor, the ritually unclean…and women! (shock & horror!). He was accused of eating and drinking with them and having them as his friends. Not the sort of people you’d want to be members of your club and to top it all, in John’s Gospel, Jesus commands us to love God and our neighbour as we love ourselves. This is not just a suggestion – it is a command – it is obligatory.
In the broken world in which we live it is perhaps hard for us to come to terms with this vision because there is so much that is clearly not right with this world. It is John in his Apocalypse who helps us as he envisions a new heaven and a new earth where Jesus is Lord of all – the Alpha and the Omega; where death is no more and faith is not required because God will be in our midst and no faith is needed for what the eye can see. Things will not always be as they are now – whether that is in terms of how we see the decline of belief in Christ to the way society is moving generally.
My grandson Alex ( aged 4 and three quarters and that ‘three quarters’ is very important to him) is learning to swim. Each week he goes for lessons. He is still at the stage of building up his confidence with buoyancy aids, arm bands, and floats as he tiptoes along in the baby pool or the shallow end of the pool – at some point he will gain sufficient confidence to launch out and take those first unaided swimming strokes. He will trust that he won’t sink if he takes his feet off the bottom of the pool and launches out with his first few ungainly swimming strokes.
I think that often many of us are like Alex desperately trying to keep our tiptoes on the bottom of the pool, lacking the confidence to launch out into the deep with God. Real confidence in God is masked by a great deal of noise from the shallow end. There may be a great deal of splashing and activity but little real God-confidence and trust. Let’s not fool ourselves.
Perhaps you may care to think about what your buoyancy aids are and whether you want to move a little further into the deeper water of faith, trusting God that underneath are the everlasting arms and that if you take you feet off the bottom you won’t sink.
One of the most emotional post resurrection encounters is the one that takes place between Jesus and Peter on a beach on the Sea of Galilee. The lead up to that encounter is instructive. The disciples had gone back to their old jobs; perhaps they thought the adventure was over so they returned to the familiar but without apparent success. They fished all night and caught nothing – that is until a stranger on the shore told them to throw their nets again with extraordinary results: 153 fish in total were caught – and not one fish is lost, as miraculously the nets are not torn. All are safely gathered in.
Whilst Simon Peter realises that it is Jesus who is on the shore there is something unfamiliar about this person as Jesus is not as the disciples remembered him. There is something familiar yet unfamiliar about him. He is not a ghost; he sits and eats breakfast with the disciples and when breakfast is over he asks Simon Peter a question.
In our English translations we lose the power of what Jesus is saying. Jesus says, “Peter do you agape me more than these others?” Agape is the Greek word, which is all about self-forgetful love, the love that Christ demonstrated on the cross by dying for us. So Jesus asks Peter do you love me in this sacrificial, self-denying way more than the others? Peter’s answer “Lord you know that I love you” should be translated as “Lord you know that I am your friend”. Peter isn’t making the commitment to self-sacrificing love. He calls Jesus his friend. Neither does he answer Jesus’ question as to his capacity to love more than the others. That remains unresolved.
Yet despite Peter’s reticence Jesus commissions Peter to “Feed my lambs”. He is entrusted to look after those who are young in the faith. Perhaps this is the easiest of tasks as feeding young ones spiritual milk may prove to be less demanding that some awkward questions from those who are adults. So Peter is drawn in. He acknowledges his friendship with Jesus and is commissioned.
A second time Jesus asks “Peter do you agape me?” This time the comparison with others is dropped. It is a straightforward question: Do you love me? Again Peter gives the same answer: “Lord you know I am your friend.” Peter again misses the opportunity to speak in terms of undying love that is agape. Yet Jesus still commissions him again, extending his commission to “tend my sheep”. The terms of his commission have been expanded. Now he is given a role guiding the whole flock, a position of far more responsibility rather than one confined to looking after lambs.
The third time Jesus asks Peter the question he no longer says to him if his love is the agape love of his first two questions, but he adopts Peter’s wording and simply asks “Peter are you my friend?” Having failed to get Peter to express an agape love Jesus settles for pressing Peter as to whether he truly is his friend. Peter is clearly annoyed at this pressing and acknowledges that Jesus knows everything about him including his capacity to name Jesus as his friend. Peter is commissioned a third time by Jesus. This time his charge is to “feed my sheep”. This is the most demanding of the three commissions. Looking after lambs is a partial job; guiding the whole flock is one of responsibility but not one of ultimate responsibility, but feeding the flock is the greatest challenge of all. It is about nurturing the flock and looking after it to see it thrive individually and collectively.
Jesus appears to have given up asking Peter if he has the capacity to love him completely selflessly. Being Jesus’ friend is enough. Jesus knows who he is dealing with. The man who had denied him three times is restored three times. He calls himself the friend of Jesus with repeated assurance and Jesus accepts him at face value. He will not press Peter to be anything other than his friend.
As Jesus lowers the stakes from “do you agape me more than these?” to “do you agape me?” and then finally to “Are you my friend?” Peter’s responsibilities are increased from feeding lambs, to guiding the flock and ultimately to feeding the flock.
For us we are almost certainly in the same boat as Peter: unable to love our Lord with the same love, which he has shown us. Jesus, the Son of God, demonstrated the agape of God by dying for us but we can say, in the same way as Peter did, that we count ourselves as Jesus’ friends. And that is good enough! As friends of Jesus we will receive a commission from him to live out our lives as his disciples. Our task is to follow Jesus. It really is that simple yet also totally absorbing. We probably won’t get the Damascus Road experience or the privilege of a beach walk with our Lord yet we can still stand up and call ourselves friends of Jesus.
Jesus has the same question for each one of us: “Are you my friend?” If so, live it.
Easter 2013 Sermon. St Paul’s Yelverton & Princetown United Church. St Luke 24.1-12, Acts 10.34-43, 1 Corinthians 15.19-26
It has been a joy to travel around our Schools this Easter as the children present the Easter story, which was full of enthusiasm and joy as they sang their hearts out – and the best thing of all – there wasn’t a mention of Easter Bunnies or Chocolate – despite the material age in which we live the children had concentrated on the original story of Easter: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Now I am sure that today they are tucking into their Easter Eggs with vigour as well but they had been reminded of the true reason for our Easter celebrations.
St Luke climaxes his orderly account of the life of Jesus with a chapter devoted to the resurrection and today we heard the first part of that chapter, the experience of those women who travelled to the tomb fully expecting to spend their time anointing Jesus’ body. But to their surprise two men greet them, who tell them that Jesus is not there, but that he has been raised to life. Surprise, surprise – the disciples find this hard to believe – and I am guessing that if we were faced with people telling us that someone had been raised to new life we also would be just like the disciples – sceptical in the extreme and wondering if they were off their heads.
Now this scepticism has persisted throughout history. Was Jesus really raised to life again? That is the pivotal question we have to address as Christians. St Paul takes a great deal of time to address that very question when writing to the Corinthian Church. He states his argument like this: if the dead are not raised then Christ cannot have been raised. And if Christ was not raised we are wasting our time as Christians because we are following someone whose claims are untrue. As well as presenting the argument in negative form Paul then goes on to assert that Christ has been raised and because of this we can see that he is like the first fruit of the harvest, which promises so much more.
Despite the cold weather I was amazed to see that I have rhubarb in my garden that is ready to pluck and eat. Everything else looks particularly dead but I have rhubarb! This is the first fruit of the year and promises so much more. Now all we need is some warmth!
In the same way, Paul argues that the resurrection of Jesus is the first fruit – a sign of what is to come for us. If Christ has been raised then we too will be raised. We are not completely bonkers to believe this and Paul asks us to look for the fruit and marvel at what God has done in Christ.
Now this sense of overwhelming gratitude works its way out in the lives of the disciples who are convinced by what they have seen. St Peter, the man who denied Christ three times, becomes one of the chief spokesmen for Christ’s resurrection. Luke records a number of his sermons in the Acts of the Apostles and today we heard the one he preached at the house of Cornelius. The message is straightforward: the good news is for everyone – Jesus has been raised from the dead – you can trace the story of Jesus through God’s activity in the Old Testament and then you can look at the life of Jesus to see all the good things he did. He died on the cross but God raised him to life. Peter and the other disciples are witnesses to this truth, which they feel compelled to share with others, to pass on the good news that we can have life in all its abundance thanks to what Christ has done for us. Death is not the end. There is hope for the future as well as for this life.
And that message of hope has been entrusted to us as faithful followers of Jesus Christ. We have the message of hope for our broken world.
And that brings me back to those children with their joyful enthusiasm for the good news and the Easter Services I have enjoyed so much. What happens to us so that we lose that sense of joy and thankfulness? You may say that we grow up – and that is certainly true but in growing up if we grow away from God then I think we have made some wrong choices in life and that is why Easter offers us all the opportunity to regain some joy in our lives, to come as thankful people to God and to rededicate our lives afresh to Him. Put away the cynicism of old age and recapture the joy of Easter. It’s never too late to rekindle our love for God and to give thanks for all that Christ has done for us by his life, death and resurrection.
We are being encouraged to tweet our Christmas Sermons. Those interested can find it here: http://www.westdartmoorbenefice.co.uk/rotas-bulletins-readings-sermons-etc/sermons.html