Choices and Consequences

apple logo

I wonder how many of you own an iPad or an iPhone, or perhaps an Apple Mac computer.  Although the book of Genesis does not say what the fruit on the tree of knowledge of good and evil was, for some reason the apple seems to have been adopted as the fruit – and so we have Eve’s pudding and men in particular have an Adam’s apple. And then there’s Apple computers with their logo of an apple with a bite (byte?) taken out of it. In the film The Matrix, the lead character, Neo, acquires various skills and abilities simply by downloading them via a computer interface – much as we download ‘apps’ onto our phones or tablets. There are so many useful apps – ones which track what exercise you take or help you with a diet, providing so much information and analysis. On the radio the other morning, there was a discussion about university courses being available on the internet so that people could study for a degree from home and what people might be missing out on by doing so.

Learning via the ‘apple’ route appears far easier and cheaper (the internet university modules are free) than years of studying books in a classroom, doing extensive research or practice. Adam and Eve give in to temptation – with spectacular consequences. Jesus resists temptation. We are rarely tempted by the ordinary, the ugly or the boring routine.

Temptation is always presented to us  as something attractive, something which will give quick results, a shortcut to a desired outcome, something which will improve our lives – whether it’s the knowledge of good and evil via a piece of fruit, or some labour-saving device, wrinkle-banishing beauty cream or alluring perfume – we are susceptible. It’s not that these things are wrong in themselves.

Eve was tempted by fruit – good, nourishing, by the gift of knowledge. In our gospel reading, the devil tempts Jesus with making food, winning influence, getting people’s attention.

Temptation often takes the form of an easy option rather than a hard one. One option might involve cutting corners to get where you want to be – or even where God wants you to be – while the other option involves completing the course, regardless of the terrain, to get where you need to be. And so competitors are tempted to take a shortcut in a cross country race on foot or horseback.  The problem with cutting corners is that you often fail to learn anything from the experience and/or we wonder what satisfaction there could possibly be in winning a race, knowing you have cheated. As an extreme example, the person who gets a friend to take their driving test for them may have a licence but will lack the skill to drive and be a danger to themselves and others.

Jesus’ example of resisting the temptations he was faced with in the wilderness shows that overcoming temptation not only makes us stronger but is bound up with issues of integrity, morality and mission.

It is a question of doing things God’s way rather than our own.

Doubtless we could think up many different ways in which we might grow our churches on this peninsula. Psalm 127 : “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain”. We face choices between many good things – all the good things we could achieve in our communities.

But unless it is God’s way, it will ultimately not succeed. And so we must pray continuously, every step of the way so that God’s way will be made clear to us. Prayer must be at the heart of all that we do and decide as we look to the future. For that reason, the team clergy decided some weeks ago that we would offer the opportunity for us to pray together for that vision of the future to become clear.

The first of these weekly meetings is this coming Tuesday evening (11th March) at 6pm at St John the Baptist church, Butley. It will be for no more than 30 minutes and will be at the same time and in the same place (nearest the geographical centre of the benefice) every week. If you feel unable to come in person, please consider making time to join us in prayer in your home or wherever you happen to be. Resources will be provided.

As well as meeting in prayer, there is also the opportunity – open to all – for us to explore our vocation as a church in learning and discussion. Please put in your diaries now the first 4 Thursday evenings or Friday mornings in May when there will be a series of meetings led by the Rural Dean, Clare Sanders and the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and New Ministers, Mark Sanders.

The Thursday evening meetings will be at 7.30 in Boyton Village Hall and each session will be repeated on the Friday morning at 10am in Barts Hall, Orford.

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Good to be here

It’s good to be here in church! At least I hope it is.

It’s good to be here with our friends, our families, with the family of the church, with God.

These days, there are so many other things we could be doing – shopping, gardening, sleeping, playing sport. But we have chosen to be here. Like Peter, James and John, Jesus has called us to this place so that we may glimpse his glory, his true nature as the Son of God.

It is good to come away to a special place, away from all the distractions of daily life; somewhere where we can forget for a while that the car needs washing, there’s homework to finish, the lunch to make. These things we can leave behind as we come to this special place.

No wonder the disciples wanted to build three dwellings to preserve that sense of special-ness.

Mount Tabor - the mountain of the transfiguration
Mount Tabor – the mountain of the transfiguration

If you have ever visited Mount Tabor,  the mountain of the transfiguration in Galilee, you will know that those dwellings – indeed a large church with separate chapels for Elijah and Moses have indeed been built. You can marvel at the beauty of the church with its elaborate decoration or wonder at the incredible view from the top of the mountain. Both acknowledge and declare God’s glory.

 

The Church of the Transfiguration
The Church of the Transfiguration

The early Christian church met in each other’s homes or in the Jewish synagogues and it was only in the time of the Emperor Constantine who was converted to Christianity that Christians were free and encouraged to build churches which were the best and most beautiful they could afford and which used their talents and artistic abilities to their full.

We are so fortunate to have these beautiful buildings to worship in. The churches of this peninsula, this diocese have been built and maintained for the worship of God and to His glory. It was a difficult decision to select just 100 treasures to include in the book produced to celebrate the centenary of the diocese. There were many others which could have been included, many of them from this peninsula.

Yes, it’s true we can worship God anywhere – in a garden, down at Shingle St, on top of a mountain. But our churches are special places. They are not just ancient buildings to be preserved but places where we glimpse God’s glory. They are places steeped in prayer, they are places of transformation; places where we can gather together in worship and be transformed by the person of Jesus Christ into his likeness, his image, together. The apostles and new believers of the early church were ‘united in the breaking of bread and the prayers’. They worshipped together as we do today; they broke bread together as we do today. Jesus meant his followers to meet together for worship.

Jesus took his disciples away to a special place for an experience which enlightened them and he brings us here today so that we can glimpse something of his light and warmth and glory before we begin the more austere time of Lent, with less singing in our service, the removal of flower displays from many churches. A time of wilderness.

Jesus took his disciples away to a special place and the tradition of pilgrimage – of going on a journey, perhaps to a special place – is well-known in Christianity as in many other religions. Often with pilgrimages it is the experience of travelling, of journey – with others or with our own thoughts that is valuable rather than arriving at the special place.

Here on the peninsula, some members of St Felix church at Rendlesham have begun a series of pilgrimages to our various churches – walking, cycling – not all churches at once but in stages over a period of weeks or months. They are inviting anyone who wishes to to join them on that pilgrimage and they are hoping to produce a booklet with each church being the destination on a particular Sunday. More details will follow.

The final, and arguably the most important aspect of pilgrimage is coming home again. There is the journey, the arriving but also the return and we return, hopefully transformed by our experience – whether it is an experience of a long pilgrimage or an hour in church on a Sunday morning. We return home – as the disciples did – different people to when we started out. We return transformed by our experience, our encounter with God and with one another.

We leave behind the special place, the special encounter but the one thing that should stay with us is the voice from heaven which commands us to listen to Jesus . The special places are important; we should value our buildings but not at the expense of listening to Jesus. His voice, his command, his will, his guidance must be our top priority.

Lord, it is good to be here in your presence.
Help me today to glimpse your glory in the little things,
that I may know you are close and rest in your presence,
your beloved child.
Amen.

 

Outside the box?

Give him your cloak also

If you’ve been watching the winter Olympics you’ll be aware of some controversies that have arisen. I’m thinking particularly of the ladies figure skating where there was confusion over the top placings and no one could understand why the Russian won and not the South Korean. And then why was British speed skater Elise Christie eliminated again after so much bad luck? Obviously the competitors and judges need to understand the rules, but do the spectators need to understand them too to appreciate what’s going on?

Even in our technological age, with so much at our fingertips, it’s not unusual for us to feel that we’re not in control, that we don’t have ownership or even influence in the situations that we find ourselves. In our gospel reading today, Jesus shows us how we can turn situations around, take control by doing the unexpected, going beyond what is asked or required, making those who might seem to have the upper hand, stop and think.

Sports men and women are challenged not just to embrace the rules and spirit of the Olympic Games, but to push themselves further than they or others thought possible. Jesus trains us to: turn the other cheek; go the extra mile; love your enemy; and to be perfect (that is, whole or complete).

Most of the nominees for best film at last weekend’s BAFTA ceremony were stories of going beyond, that we might find love for both neighbour and enemy: 12 Years a Slave battles with themes of slavery, abolition, personal dignity and the fight to stay alive; Philomena is the story of an Irish woman trying to find the child she gave up for adoption; Captain Philips explores the relationship between abductees and pirate kidnappers; Gravity tackles feelings of being lost, aloneness and hope of rescue. British director of 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen, said: ‘Right now there are 21 million people in slavery. I just hope that 150 years from now our ambivalence will not allow another film-maker to make this film.’

The stories of individuals who make themselves vulnerable in the face of the expectations of others can lead us and our wider community to find hope in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity. Like great Olympians or movie screen heroes, we are called to strive for something better, both individually and as a church.

People were intrigued by Jesus (what he said and did) and this provoked them to ask questions.
In the same way if Christians today adopt values and practices that are different from normal this will provoke questions and lead to natural evangelism – which is more genuine and effective than any schemes.
The Church must become a Sign of the Kingdom – but this will only happen when the members are prepared to be different and take risks.

Last week, I spoke about the challenge of reconciliation, of being instruments of peace in our communities. This ‘going beyond’, stepping ‘outside the box’ means being prepared to be different, to upset the apple cart, not going with the flow. It may be uncomfortable, it may make you unpopular. But we will be following in the steps of Jesus.

 

Also in the last week or so, there have been reports in the media of what various bishops have said. The bishops of the church of England ruled out the blessing of same-sex marriages whilst on the same day the (RC) Archbishop of Westminster criticised the government’s welfare reforms for leaving people in destitution. Which is closer to what Jesus might have said? How can we best announce God’s equal and unconditional love for every single person. The church will not be seen to be relevant to people’s live, we will not convince people of Christ’s love, of his ability to meet their deepest needs while we are seen to be preoccupied with fund-raising and maintaining buildings. I’m sorry if that shocks or offends you. I’m not saying that we don’t have a responsibility to care for buildings and to meet the costs of ministry but if we want to grow the church, if we want to make disciples for Christ, if we want to share the good news we have to think about what really matters to us about our faith, what is at the heart of the gospel and be prepared to go the extra mile, to go beyond what is required of us. As Jesus pointed out, there is nothing special about being kind to our families and friends, nothing special about giving to charity, nothing special about helping those have met with apparently undeserved misfortune, victims of crime and so on. But loving your enemies? Praying for those who harm you? Helping those who appear not to be helping themselves, who have committed crimes or are addicted?

Keeping the rules is easy. Remember the meeting between Jesus and the rich young man. He claimed to have kept the 10 commandments – no problem there. But Jesus showed him that he needed to do more than that, to follow the example of the good Samaritan who was himself despised and excluded; to go the extra mile.

By going beyond what is asked of us we can both challenge society’s expectations and fulfill God’s.

 

 

A prayer, using the Winter Olympic slogan ‘Hot, Cool, Yours’, to accompany a time of reflection

Hot is the fire that burns within me in the face of injustice:
against those who seek vengeance;
against those who strike the weak;
against those who steal from the poor;
against those who ask for too much.
You are the Lord, my God.
Turn me to face your way,
for I claim to be a child of God.

Cool is often the response I give in the face of inequality:
when I fail to speak out against oppression;
when I fail to stand up to the one who bullies my neighbour;
when I fail to campaign for the poor;
when I fail to turn towards those who everyone else has turned away from.
You are the Lord, my God.
Turn me to face your way,
for I claim to be a child

Yours is the Kingdom
which defies society’s expectations.
Yours is power
which enables us to risk going beyond rules.
Yours is the glory
reflected in each person who turns from darkness to light.
You are the Lord, our God.
Turn us to face your way,
for we claim to be your children.  

Amen.

Anger management – called to reconcile and be reconciled

Last week we looked at the role of the church as salt and as light in our communities. How we could make a difference in both an unobtrusive and perhaps a more open and obvious way. This week we consider one important aspect of that role – arguably the most important, the key role of the church of Christ. That is the role of the church in healing and reconciliation. Jesus is described as the ‘one who will bring healing to the nations’. Paul in his letter to Titus writes of Jesus ‘The grace of God has dawned upon the world with healing for all mankind’. Reconciliation and healing lie at the very centre of the Christian faith; they are central to our understanding of the cross – salvation means ‘healing’. One of the introductions to the sharing of peace at the eucharist reminds us that ‘Christ is our peace; he has reconciled us to God in one body by the cross. Jesus came to save, to heal, to bridge that divide, that gulf between God and human beings – and to help us be reconciled with one another.

On Wednesday, I was privileged to attend a talk by a Muslim gentleman to the children at Bawdsey school. He began by explaining how the words ‘muslim’ and ‘islam’ come from a common root, from the Arabic word for ‘peace’. A ‘muslim’ is one who is at peace with himself, with others and with nature. So far from the image which is portrayed on our television screens. It is perhaps ‘human nature’ that the ‘bad examples’ are the ones which grab our attention. It comes as something of a surprise – even to me who should know better – just how central peace is to Islam. So too with Christianity. We speak, sing, of the Prince of Peace, of Jesus who came to preach peace to those who are far off and peace to those who are near; the One who will bring healing to the nations. Yet we are challenged by the current situation in the Central African Republic, in Northern Ireland, by all those stories in the media about conflict and division between Christians and situations where Christians seem to be doing little to bring reconciliation and healing.

Reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel, yet everyday experience, underscored by even a tiny knowledge about Church history, proves that it is easier to talk about it than to practise it. Following his inauguration, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, acknowledged the difficulty of ‘managing discord gracefully’.

The church – we, here on this peninsula – need to develop a role in healing divisions, bringing people together, in managing discord gracefully rather than encouraging division and separation. Not just within the church but within and between our communities. Through prayer, God the Holy Spirit will lead us into transforming situations and people. We need to make that connection between what we do and say, and who we are, in church and when we meet others at work and at meetings of other organisations. It IS challenging!

It is arguably ‘natural’, but not always helpful, to lose one’s temper after experiencing a perceived injustice, or on seeing someone we care about being wronged. Today’s news items are full of people who have lost their temper over a range of significant issues. Whether their anger achieves results is a matter for debate. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus points out the dangers of losing one’s temper and the way it can be counterproductive both for God’s purposes and ours.

It is not always easy to remain calm in the face of some calamity or injustice. For instance, those caught up in the severe weather that is wreaking havoc in parts of this country, are naturally distraught when they see their previously ordered lives suddenly turned upside down. We have witnessed a lot of anger from those who believe the Government and the related agencies have not done enough to prevent the flooding, and then alleviate the problems that they have caused.

But several individuals and groups, while still being angry at what they perceive as a lack of coherence in the government-led response, have taken matters into their own hands and sought to build their own flood defences, as well as rescue those in danger. It is so encouraging to see farmers in this part of the country sending fodder and bedding to help those who have been so badly affected.

On the other hand, the government and the various agencies have been arguing that they have been doing all they possibly could to resolve the recent problems. This is evidenced by the number of visits made by the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers to the affected areas.

As a general rule, those who do lose their temper, usually excuse their heated response (afterwards), as ‘letting off steam’. Others even suggest that their rants were acceptable under the circumstances, and far better than resorting to some form of violence. In today’s reading we see Jesus making the connection between actions and words, especially with regard to the sentiment of our words. Words that are said in anger cannot be simply explained away as ‘blunt speaking’ or ‘harmless’ in comparison to a physical action. There is little doubt that at times words can wound as badly as an incision from a knife.

Unlike Jesus, our anger is often not redemptive, and our rage over some perceived wrong usually results in bitterness and hurt rather than reconciliation or some other form of positive resolution. Jesus says that if someone is looking to offer their ‘gift at the altar’, he or she should be reconciled with their brother or sister before offering this gift. The best place for our anger, especially if it has no righteous dimension, is to lay it at the ‘altar’ or the foot of the cross, for Christ to deal with it.

For  most people, anger is usually a more everyday, self-centred experience. How dare he/she behave/speak/drive like that, challenging my self-esteem, my self-image? Then we come up against Jesus’ words here and feel guilt alongside anger. We ought not to behave like this …

Approaches to anger management offer skills and techniques to handle violent emotions in ways that are socially acceptable. But, for Christians, the primary resource is God’s grace, empowering us to deal with both anger and guilt. ‘I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do:

says Paul (Romans 7.19), Anger is a powerful force. Being on the receiving end of someone else’s anger can be scary. Being so angry ourselves that we might lash out, or shout, or lose control is perhaps even more frightening – and we don’t want to talk about it, because we are ashamed. However, getting to grips with our frightening feelings is part of growing up into Christ. We first have to look into our hearts and be honest about our lack of control over our emotions. Jesus is not saying pretend not to be angry. He is saying deal with it – before someone gets hurt. If we bottle our feelings up until the pressure explodes, we are not modelling grown-up living.

There is a danger of presenting the gospel as a call not to Jesus but to the way of niceness. Conflict is difficult, but managing it is an essential part of living and growing together. The community that prioritises harmony above creativity and challenge will often ultimately fail to thrive. One of the reasons that churches lose teenagers so successfully may  be that we cannot deal with their challenging pursuit of penetrating questions. As models of ministerial leadership are transformed, it is vital that congregations take responsibility for dealing with the emotions provoked by change.

Our present review of mission and ministry on this peninsula presents us with an enormous challenge. For many the changes may be difficult to come to terms with. But reconciliation is about growing into new life and new relationships, not smoothing over the surface so all is sweetness and calm.

The work of reconciliation is demanding and costly; it means taking up our cross and dealing with rather than avoiding conflict. But our example and our reward is Christ himself. It is not our own strength but God’s that transforms us and enables us to discern God’s will (Romans12.2), to be instruments of peace.

 

Salt and Light

 

salt and light

Do you make your own bread? I wonder if you’ve ever forgotten to put the yeast in? The result is pretty disastrous, isn’t it? But what if you forget to put the salt in? Maybe not quite such as disaster but salt-free bread doesn’t taste very good, does it? These days we’re always being warned not to have too much salt in our diets and, indeed, the amount of salt in many processed/prepared foods is pretty alarming – we do well to check the labels. But salt does a lot more than bring out the flavour of food. Too much salt may raise our blood pressure but the effects of too little salt are equally, if not more, devastating. Too little salt in our bodies can, for example, cause permanent muscle damage. We add it to bread dough not just to make bread taste better to stop the yeast being overactive; we add it when boiling potatoes not just to improve the flavour but because it causes the water in the potatoes to come out of them and so softening them.

Salt has cleansing, antiseptic properties; it was so valuable as a preservative in the time of Jesus and for many centuries after, that it was used as currency. Salt is so important, so essential to life and well-being that not only has it been used as currency but it has sparked uprisings such as the El Paso ‘salt wars’ of the 1870s in America and protests such as Gandhi’s salt march – a non-violent opposition to the heavy taxes imposed on salt by the British Raj in India.

Too little or too much salt can lead to big problems. Too much salt can ruin your meal; it’s unpleasant to drink – making you thirstier than before at best and making you sick at worst. Yet strangely enough, if you have been running or doing some other very active sport, a drink with some salt in it won’t taste salty or unpleasant because your body knows its need to replace the salt it has lost through perspiration. How very cleverly we are created by God!

When the amount of salt is just right, then we hardly notice it. It’s the same with light – that other image that Jesus uses in our gospel reading today. If there isn’t enough light, we can’t see where we’re going or what we’re doing. If there’s too much light, or it’s shining right into our eyes, then we’re dazzled and can see either.

It’s a question of balance, of getting it right. And so Jesus compares his followers, his disciples to salt and to light. Apart from needing just the right amount of salt or light, there is a significant difference between the two which Jesus highlights. Salt is generally the hidden ingredient. It’s not noticeable either to the naked eye nor in terms of taste. It just enhances the flavour of the food. The right amount is not noticed at all – only its absence or too much.  What does this say to us as a church community, as present-day disciples of Jesus Christ? Are we the salt of the earth that enhances our local community?  Just suppose for a moment that there were no disciples of Jesus Christ – no church – in in the place where you live. Leaving aside the question of the physical church building for the moment, what would be missing if there wasn’t a Christian presence here? Would it matter? Would something be missing? And if so, what? Would people notice the ‘lack of seasoning’? How would our community be different if it wasn’t for the people of this church?

If we look back to our first reading, where Isaiah describes the sort of commitment, the sacrifices that God requires of his people, the sort of difference we the church are called to make – to loose the bonds of injustice, share food with the hungry, welcoming the homeless, – and those more difficult demands – not pointing the finger, not saying unkind things….. These are the sort of things that are going to add flavour to our community, to our fellow human beings. And look at the promises God makes, the rewards which will result from this behaviour: our needs will be satisfied; we will flourish like a watered garden; we will be peace-makers, repairers of the breach, restorers of the streets to live in.

Although the right sort and intensity of light is unobtrusive, Jesus makes the point that, unlike salt which can be hidden, mixed in, light needs to be out in the open to be effective. It has to be in a position where it can be effective.  At our recent ‘Messy Church’, adults and children made a collage showing their homes as ‘beacons of blessing’

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– light streams from the doors and windows of houses making them noticeable, inviting, encouraging. Jesus says, in those words we use at the offertory in the Prayer Book service, that we should let our light shine – make all those things that Isaiah encouraged obvious – so that people would give glory to God. Here, unlike the salt, Christ’s followers should stand out, should shine out. We are the light of the world! Jesus in John’s gospel describes himself as the Light of the World but here, in Matthew’s gospel, he tells his disciples that they – we – are the light of the world. How do we enlighten the world. Do we enlighten the world? Do we light up our own community?

There’s something of a contrast here, isn’t there – between the salt which is unobtrusive, hidden, subtle, self-effacing and the light which is like a city on a hill, shining out. Both are effective, both are encouraged by Jesus. It’s not a case of “either or”, but “both and”. We are the church, the body of Christ in this place both in the way we are present alongside our family, friends and neighbours, living a life of faithful discipleship, and when we declare our allegiance, our faith in more obvious ways, when we speak out and stand up for those who are treated unjustly.

There is one last point I want to make about the image of salt and that is that it doesn’t take much. Only a pinch of salt is needed. And I hope that thought might be a comfort and an inspiration to us when we look around and think that we are too few to make a difference.  Remember the words of the Dalai Lama – ‘If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.’

May you be as salt where there is staleness;
light where there is darkness;
truth where there is unbelief
and love where there is great need.
And may you know the blessing of God the Father,
Son and Holy Spirit,
close to you each moment and each day.
Amen.

This week, when you switch on a light or taste salt, use this moment to pray for God, and ask him how you can show his love to others.

Candlemas – Shine as a light in the world

presentation

According to yesterday’s newspapers, we can expect another month – at least – of stormy, wet weather. Given that today is sunny – in this part of the country anyway – this fits in with the folklore that if Feb 2nd is cloudy and dull, winter will be over soon but if it is bright and sunny, there will be more bad weather to come.

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won’t come again.

In the United States, on February 2nd, they observe ‘Groundhog Day’. The theory is that if a groundhog comes out of his winter burrow on that day and sees his shadow, he will be frightened and go back underground; winter will continue for a few more weeks. If there is no shadow (i.e. it is a cloudy day), winter is indeed over and the groundhog will stay outside. Like many of our sayings about weather (‘red sky at night’) it is probably based on experience and may have an element of truth.

I wonder if you have seen the film ‘Groundhog Day’? The story is about a grumpy TV weather forecaster, Phil, who is sent to report on what a groundhog (also called Phil!) does on Feb 2nd. Having made his report, he is prevented from leaving the town by heavy snow. He is then caught in a time-loop in which the day repeats itself over and over again. His response varies from frustration to taking advantage of the situation – stealing, being rude because he never has to face the consequences – to desperately trying to escape by attempting suicide. Only when he uses his experience to save lives and to befriend people, to be a blessing to them, is the loop broken and time moves on – much to his relief.

Today, Feb 2nd, the church celebrates the event described in our gospel reading, the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem according to the Jewish custom of the time – to dedicate the first-born male child to God and to mark the return of the mother to normal society after the birth. The elderly Simeon greets Jesus as a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of God’s people’. Light has come into the world but there are also shadows of events still to come.

Why Candlemas? Well, it was the day of the year when all the candles, that were used in the church during the coming year, were brought into church and a blessing was said over them – so it was the Festival Day (or ‘mass’) of the Candles.

Candles used to be more important than they are now, and not only because there was no electric light. Some people thought they gave protection against plague and illness and famine. For Christians, they were (and still are) a reminder of something even more important. Before Jesus came to earth, it was as if everyone was ‘in the dark’. People often felt lost and lonely and afraid – and still do, of course. As if they were on their own, with no one to help them. Then came Jesus with his message that he is with his followers always ready to help and comfort them. He is a guiding light to them in the darkness. Christians often talk of Jesus as ‘the light of the World’ – and candles are lit during church services to remind us of this.

At the end of our service today we will light our individual candles, symbolising our response to our calling to take the light of Christ out into the world to combat the darkness and fear and loneliness that people feel. When Christians are baptised or confirmed they are frequently given a lighted candle and encouraged to ‘Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father’ because they have passed from darkness to light, they have stepped into the light of Jesus, the light of the world. Of course, we may well still experience darkness and fear. Becoming a Christian does not provided immunity from such things but when we belong to the body of Christ, the church, we can hope that others will shine on us, will reflect the light of Christ, light a candle for us.

But our responsibility as the body of Christ – Christ’s hands and feet and voice in the world – goes further than this. As a church, we are called to continue Christ’s work of bringing light into the dark places of the world. Yes, we can ‘do our bit’ on our own, we can be ‘you in your small corner and I in mine’ but how much more effective we will be if we work together! Think of a birthday cake with candles. Ordinary sized cake with, say, 5 candles dotted around the side. Pretty, attractive. Now suppose you are celebrating a significant birthday as some of us are this year…. Ordinary sized cake but someone decides to decorate it with the appropriate number of candles and light them all. What happens??? Melt-down! A conflagration! Wow!

That’s how to get noticed, how to provoke a response, how to bring a shining light into dark places – places of fear, of deprivation, of injustice. How might we do that? And just as Jesus the light of the world was not all harmony and sweetness, we too may find that standing up for what we believe may prove uncomfortable for us and for others, a stumbling block, a sign that is opposed.

Today is a day when we look both backwards and forwards. It is the mid-point, in terms of the calendar, between the winter solstice and the official beginning of spring on March 21st. It is the point at which we put Christmas behind us and begin to look forward towards Lent and Easter. It has become the custom in recent years for the church to continue to celebrate Christmas, to keep Christmas decorations up until Candlemas. But now our focus shifts from celebrating the birth of Jesus to considering his suffering. On the other hand, the darkest time of the year is now behind us, the days are getting noticeably longer; the light is coming. We no longer need those artificial twinkling lights; the real light has come into the world. Simeon and Anna, in our gospel reading look both back with gratitude that the saviour of the world has come and forward to what has still to be accomplished by Jesus’ death and resurrection. It seems a long time since Christmas but this is our last opportunity to look back at the infant Jesus. The special words spoken by Simeon and Anna tell us yet again that he is no ordinary baby. So many things have been giving us clues through the story of the nativity – a star, angels, the special gifts offered by the wise men and now all of that is put into words. This baby is the light of God’s salvation, a light for all the world.

But even as we look back at the baby, Simeon’s words to Mary make us look forward to the cross. He gives the first hint that the way to salvation is not going to be easy as he tells Mary that Jesus is going to challenge people and make her very sad.

So we too, in these churches of the Wilford peninsula can look back with gratitude for all God has done for us and the gifts he has given us. But we look forward too with varying degrees of excitement and trepidation as we set out on this journey to discover where God is calling this church and to carry His light out. I hope that we can say ‘For all that has been, thanks be to God; for all that shall be – Yes!’

“Come as you are”

Come as you are

Today we continue to consider where God might be calling us to by looking at what it might mean to be a church – a Christian community rooted in a particular place, on the Wilford Peninsula. The ‘modern’ parlance encourages us to ‘be church’ and talks about ‘being church’ but that is an awkward and unattractive phrase. If we can speak of being a church or being part of the church, it is clear we are not talking about the physical building – stone and mortar. We are familiar with speaking of ‘the worldwide church’ or the ‘Church of England’ without getting confused about whether we mean an actual building. So why, when we talk about ‘our’ church, or even the church in our village  – do our minds – and those of other people – immediately form a picture of a familiar and much-loved building? Perhaps because it is easier for us to identify with and feel a sense of belonging to something which is real, which is located in time and place. We are physical beings; time and space and place are important to us; that is how God created us; that is why He came to join us here in time and space in the person of Jesus Christ; that’s why Jesus instructed his followers to remember him and to draw close to him by eating physical things – bread and wine. The church – whether it’s the church on the Wilford Peninsula, in Suffolk, or the Church of England – cannot survive without expressing itself in time and place.

Even in the early church – the church, the community of Christians, in Corinth, the community of Christians that Matthew wrote his gospel for – even before church buildings were built, Christians struggled with how to live out the gospel, how to be true and faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

In today’s first reading from Paul’s letter to the Christians at Corinth, we find that all is not well – even though in the first 9 verses of the letter Paul mentions their faith and the gifts that they have been given by God. But there is division amongst the Christians of Corinth as we discover as we read further into the letter. Being human, they are forming allegiances to different leaders and forgetting their primary allegiance to Jesus Christ. Of course we will find some ministers and preachers more inspiring than others – that is human nature – but we must still remember that all are servants of Christ and, like John the Baptist last week, are (hopefully!) pointing away from themselves and towards Jesus and saying – there, there is the Lamb of God, He’s the one you should be following. And so Paul brings the Corinthians back to the central purpose which is to make known the Good News, the gospel. Part of the intercessions from last week’s worship resources asked that God would enable us to be ‘good news’ in our community; to embody the gospel. How can you do that – be good news?

St Francis is alleged to have instructed his followers to ‘preach the gospel – use words if you have to’ – implying that it isn’t just what we say; not just a case of telling people the good news – whether it’s standing on a street corner, in a pulpit or in a one-to-one conversation. Actually, that’s the easy bit. And probably the least effective. We are called to BE good news. How might we do that – as individuals in our daily lives? as the body of the church on this peninsula

‘What do you do?’ is often the first question people ask when meeting someone new. It can be difficult or even painful to answer, for example, if your role is difficult to explain to outsiders, if you’re unhappy with your work or life, or especially if you are unemployed. But more often than not, it’s a convenient way in towards finding out about someone’s day-to-day life, as long as you meet the answer with compassion.

In the media this past week there have been a number of stories touching on how people end up in the jobs and roles that they do – and what keeps them out of others. I caught part of a discussion on the radio about prostitution and whether it was a ‘choice’ for women or whether they were forced into it by circumstance. Both National Service and the royal family have also been in the news in the context of the advantages and disadvantage of freedom of choice when it comes to employment.

In the passage from Matthew’s gospel, we are introduced to four men – Simon and Andrew, James and John – for whom the answer to the question, ‘And what do you do?’, would have been simple. They were fishermen. We don’t know whether the profession suited them or what they thought of it, but when it comes to the question of what led them to it, we can guess that James and John had followed their father Zebedee into the family business. The story was probably similar for the other brothers too. For some of us, our future seems mapped out from the start. Prince Charles is expected to follow his mother into full royal duties at some point, while at the other end of the spectrum those growing up in jobless households may expect the same fate to befall them. Breaking free of such expectations can be enormously difficult. When the kingdom of heaven is near, however, things can change unexpectedly, as it did for those four men in Galilee.

‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ wasn’t the place you would expect the Son of God to go to choose people to help him bring in the reign of the kingdom. It was a place ‘in darkness’ (Matthew 4.16) and held in ‘contempt’ (Isaiah 9.1). Jesus opts to base the first stage of his ministry among despised and marginalised folk. A fisherman’s son from Galilee was unlikely to have had the networks or privileged education to get a glittering career in government or the priesthood, just as a child growing up on an estate or in a jobless household might find the odds stacked against them entering many professions today.

Sadly, opportunity isn’t equally distributed in the world. But Jesus chose men from Galilee. And in the kingdom of heaven, all of us are called to come, just as we are, fisherman or prince. The opportunity of the gospel is for everyone. We don’t need special qualifications; we don’t have to change before we come – but we do have to be prepared to be changed.

Jesus begins his ministry not at the centre, but on the margins- the Jews of Galilee weren’t considered “proper Jews”. We see him healing those who are ill – illness was often considered as punishment by God. Again Jesus is on the edge and the margins. How do we minister to the people on the edge and margins of our villages?

But we are told large crowds followed him, and these people came from the centre of faith and the margins – Jesus unites them. How does our church act as a centre of unity, of bringing people together?

James, John, Simon and Andrew may have enjoyed being fishermen. But on the other hand it may just have been what they were obliged to do to make a living. We don’t always get to have as much control over our lives as we would like. But whatever our circumstances, we can choose how we react and respond to those circumstances. Indeed, it is often through faithful perseverance in difficult circumstances that we grow (see also Romans 5.3-5).

Whether it was by obligation or choice that they had become fishermen, Jesus recognised something in those four men that equipped them to do something else too, to ‘fish for people’. Sometimes, even if we cannot see it yet, the things we are called or obliged to do today are helping us to get ready for what God will call us to do in future. Whether that is a high-profile task like leading our people, as faced by Catherine Samba-Panza in the Central African Republic, or just the everyday challenge of trying to treat those around us with grace, trying to be good news, we can all pray to hear and obey the call to follow Jesus, right now, today, as we are, no excuses.

We are called to ‘Come as we are’ as a church community too. ‘As we are’ with the resources – both in terms of buildings and skills and people – that we already have. No wishful thinking, ‘if only…. the church didn’t need repairing/we had more money/more people came to church/we had a full-time vicar/etc. etc. A wise archdeacon who is now a bishop used to say ‘God has given you all the resources you need for the work He wants you to do’. Come as you are and join in Jesus’ ministry to proclaim the good news of God’s love and bring His healing to those around us.

Looking to the future – ministry and mission on the Wilford Peninsula

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