I have seen the Lord

Sermon Easter Day 2023
St Margaret’s West Hoathly

I wonder what you enjoy most about Easter Day? Apart from being here in Church this morning, of course! Is it the Easter Egg hunt, or the roast lamb you may be preparing? The people that will come to visit, or marking the end of Lent and returning to whatever it was you had given up?

What I love most doing on Easter morning is to go and see a sunrise somewhere. Not so much today, unfortunately, but anticipating this, I went up to the South Downs earlier this week – not quite the same, but still.

Although scientifically, what we see as a sunrise is in fact the earth spinning around its own axis with about 1000 miles/hour, there is a real stillness and anticipation in that moment just before dawn. In the stillness, in the waiting, it feels like something is happening. And then, just as the sun appears deep red above the horizon, I know that something has changed, and at this moment I come closest to sensing the freedom that lies in being fully known and loved. 

The Easter story is one of transformation. As I mentioned on Maundy Thursday, it is a journey from oppression to freedom: the oppression of sin and death to the freedom of life in Christ, a life in God’s love. And if we are to take the story seriously, we realise that each year, we are on that journey too. We too are part of the story that seemed to end on Good Friday, but we now realise continues in us today.

This morning in our Gospel reading, we hear the account of Mary standing weeping outside the empty tomb on the first Easter morning. It is one of the most intimate encounters in the Bible, and I wonder if it is how we might experience our most intimate moments with God too? 

As Mary is standing beside the empty tomb, I wonder what it is that she mourns? Of course, the loss of a dear friend, someone in whom everyone could see the good, if only they took the time to look.

Maybe also she mourns a loss of faith in the people around her? Whether it was the crowds, the authorities, the disciples or she herself, ultimately everyone had some part to play in Jesus’ life ending on the cross. But maybe her tears are ultimately because in this moment, in every way, she has lost her Lord. She has lost her faith in a God who can let something like this happen, and Jesus’ own promise that things would be different with him.

Maybe that is what Mary means when she responds to the angels who ask her why she weeps: ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him’. Jesus, her friend, her Lord, the one she trusted is gone; and with that the foundation of who she believed she was: she, his friend, his companion for life and beyond. ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him’.

It is a feeling that I suspect some of us might recognise. That at times in our lives, we may have asked the same question. If this was the God in whom I believed, surely it cannot be thus? In the light of immense suffering, untimely death or when life overwhelms us. ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him’.

After her question to the angels, which remains unanswered, Mary turns around. Once more, is addressed by the same question ‘Why are you weeping?’ And now, her answer is more direct: ‘if you have taken him away, tell me, and I will take him’. Although she doesn’t know it yet, this time her question is a cry to God, to Jesus himself. ‘If you are the one who has done this, tell me, and I will go and find him again.’

It is at this point that everything changes. And it only takes one word: ‘Mary’. Suddenly, through her grief, her questions and her desperation, Mary hears her own name in that familiar voice, and immediately she knows: here is Jesus. Here is the one who knows her by name, who knows her even better than she knows herself. And it is in that recognition that she replies: ‘Rabbouni’, teacher. She has seen the Lord.

Through this exchange, made of only two words, we realise that the Easter story is different from any other story, a story with a beginning but no end: this is the story of the God who will never stop loving us, the God who himself bore the cost of our freedom, and the God who will come and find us.

For some moments, Mary and the early disciples thought that they had lost Jesus, that their understanding of who they believed him to be, and of who they believed themselves to be, had come to an end on the cross. But now, this morning, everything is transformed, because Jesus is risen and is there, ready to meet them, and to continue to love them.

Their pain is transformed into joy, their questions into a deeper understanding, and God’s silence into a new and greater awareness of his love and presence. Their journey through Good Friday and Jesus’ journey through death, have left their marks, as we still see in the wounds in Jesus’ hands and body. 

And so we see that Resurrection is not a return to life before, but an arrival at life transformed. As we journey through life, we also will find ourselves marked and scarred, but today we celebrate that we can have confidence that we too will arrive transformed, finding our freedom in Christ. That we also will hear God speaking our name and that with Mary, we too will come to be able to say ‘I have seen the Lord’.

That is what we will do in a moment, when we will renew the vows made at our Baptism: we remember and celebrate that we too are called by name, and made God’s own. That even – and maybe especially – in those moments when we cannot see through our tears, when our faith seems absent, the risen Christ will come and find us. It is then that we realise that there has never been a time and there will never be a time when his love for us will end. 

That is what is means when this morning we proclaim once more: Alleluia, Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

The journey to freedom

Sermon St Margaret’s West Hoathly
Maundy Thursday 6 April 2023
Exodus 12.1-14, 1 Corinthians 11.23-36, John 13.1-17, 31b-35

I wonder how far along you are with your Easter preparations? Is there still some planning or shopping to be done, or is everything ready to go? One of the real joys of the Easter weekend is the ability to host or visit family and friends, as not only the schools have broken up, but also for most people it is a four-day weekend. There is something hugely powerful about gathering around the table for a shared meal, and I suspect that this has been the case throughout the generations in virtually every culture. 

Jesus and his disciples have arrived in Jerusalem to do the same. They have gathered to celebrate the Passover, one of the most important Jewish festivals. We hear about the origins of the festival in our reading from Exodus. For the Jewish people, the Passover is the time to remember how God struck the land of Egypt, their oppressors, to force Pharaoh’s hand to give the people back their freedom.

For Christian people too, the celebration of Easter is one of freedom from oppression: freedom from the oppression of sin and death. For the Jewish people, on the night of the Passover, their journey into freedom begun. It was a journey that would take them forty years. Although for us Easter is only three days away, if we are to take the story seriously, we too have a journey to make before we can be ready.

What is true for the entirety of the Gospel story, is particularly true for the last few days of Jesus’ life on earth: it is a story that is about us. It is too easy to think that it was Judas who betrayed Jesus, Peter who denied Him, and the Romans who crucified Him. Instead, we need to ask ourselves the question: when did we betray, deny and crucify Jesus?

Trying to answer that question honestly and truthfully is possibly one of the hardest challenges in the Christian life, as it confronts us with our weakness, with the wrong decisions we have made, knowingly and unknowingly, and we might feel utterly unlovable, trapped in a situation of our own making.

I wonder if this is what Judas felt as soon as he knew that he was going to betray Jesus? After his conversations with the authorities, did he feel that there was no way back? And after that faithful kiss, Judas assumed that he was beyond redemption and could no longer live with himself; for him, he felt there was no hope, no way in which he could be free ever again.

Maybe we too know of people who feel like this, who feel that they are beyond redemption? People who have given up on themselves and assume that others will do the same, that indeed God will give up on them too. People who end up in a spiral of self-destruction because they cannot live with what they have done.

For Peter, it was different. Maybe, one could argue that his sin of denial wasn’t as great as Judas’ sin of betrayal. But I don’t think that this was the essential difference between the two of them. I wonder if the greatest difference between Judas and Peter is that Peter could somehow still believe in Jesus’ love for him. That no matter how often he got things wrong, he was able to let Jesus love him, wash his feet, and ultimately forgive him.

For each of us, that is our journey from slavery to freedom. A lifelong journey, but each year particularly acute on these most holy days. It is a journey towards a greater trust in God’s love for us, and with that a greater awareness of our lacking love for him. Our freedom does not lie in always making the right decisions, but our true freedom lies in the knowledge of God’s never-failing love for us.

It is a journey that each of us will have to travel on our own: and each of these journeys will be unique. Yet, that doesn’t mean we have to travel alone. In the last hours of his life, Jesus gives his disciples, gives us a command. It is the reason why today is called Maundy Thursday, after the Latin ‘mandatum’ commandment. 

The commandment is this: that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. And if God’s love for us is hard to accept, so also is it hard to truly accept our love for one another. We see that tonight in our service: it is not easy to have your feet washed, and I have to admit that last year, when I was in the congregation, I did not. Because it makes us vulnerable, because by doing so we are making a statement: I trust you to love me. 

Whichever way we spend the next couple of days, whether it’s travelling or preparing to host; whether it’s in Church or at home, I would urge you to find some time away from any distractions and to take a few moments to place yourself in God’s presence. Maybe tonight in the Garden of Gethsemane, or tomorrow at the foot of the Cross. 

To bring ourselves into God’s presence. Our frail, vulnerable selves, in the presence of God’s infinite, unconditional love. And to watch and wait, together with the Church throughout the world, so that we too at the end of our journey, might find ourselves redeemed by the risen Christ. 

How to find Paradise

Sermon Holy Trinity Hurstpierpoint 20 November 2022: Christ the King
Psalm 46 & Luke 23.33–43

‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’. When I hear the opening line of today’s Psalm, Psalm 46, I always have to think of Martin Luther. It was one of the Reformer’s favourite Psalms, and it is recorded that in his darkest moments, Luther would say to his friends: “Come, let us sing the 46th Psalm and let them do their worst”.

Luther himself wrote and composed a hymn paraphrasing this Psalm: the famous Reformation hymn ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’. Many of us will have sung it at some in its English translation ‘A mighty fortress is our God’. Luther’s theology and therefore a lot of Reformation theology is very much inspired by Paul’s theology, but it is less known that Luther’s personal transformation began when he lectured in Wittenberg on the Psalms. Given Luther’s life,  in which he himself needed to seek refuge a number of times, it is no surprise that this Psalm became one of the most influential in his life.

Read more: How to find Paradise

Whether it was in the time this Psalm was written, whether it was during the years of the Reformation, or whether it is now, Psalm 46 says it as it is: the world is in chaos. In verses two and three, this is described in vivid language: mountains, normally an icon of stability, are moved into the sea and the waters roar and foam – I don’t think many of us made it out to the coast in the storms of this past week. 

Amidst this chaos, this noise, there is a river: calm and quiet – God is in the midst of her. This image is repeated in different words in the next few verses. Again, there is the description of chaos and violence: the nations rage, the kingdoms totter – but yet, the Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our fortress. 

Whereas the first part of the Psalm, one could say, is very much about the present: God is with us in our chaos, the last few verses can be read as a prophecy: this is the final battle between good and evil, in which evil is destroyed. Instead of reading these verses as history, ‘look what this Old-Testament God has done’, they are better read as a similar genre to the book of Daniel, or the book of Revelation: a vivid description of the end times, in which God’s kingdom will come to earth.

The problem with descriptions of the ‘end time’ is that none of us really know what this will look like, and any human description will fall short of the reality of God’s kingdom. Yet, each week, each day, we pray: ‘thy kingdom come’. It made me wonder: what do we imagine the kingdom of God to be like? And maybe even more so: how long would it take for us to recognise it, and would it live up to our expectations?

That brings me to the second half of this sermon. Apologies, it is a little bit a sermon of two-halves today. Our Gospel reading this morning speaks about God’s kingdom as well: Jesus is mocked to be the king of the Jews. And as he is crucified he promises one of the criminals who is crucified with him says, prays, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus promises him: ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’. 

So what could this kingdom, this paradise look like? I think that I had a glimpse of this paradise a couple of weeks ago, during half-term. I was fortunate enough to go diving in the Caribbean. When I was imagining the corals, the sea life, the beaches and the sunshine, I was pretty sure that this would be pretty close to paradise.

And indeed, the sea life was beautiful: swimming amidst thousands of damsel fish, turtles and corals of every colour is beautiful. It really made me thankful for the beauty of God’s creation. But was it paradise? No, not really. Because despite the beauty of the underwater world, everywhere on the island itself were new buildings being built to make even more money, ruining the countryside. And amidst all the lovely food and luxury that I was enjoying, there was also a lot of poverty: neglected roads, and clearly a lot of people who had no access to the wealth of some.

What maybe struck me most was the antagonism, maybe even hatred between people. Those who had been on the island since generations, and the ever growing influx of people who settled there in early retirement to enjoy the sunshine and the sea. In so many ways, this was not anything like the kingdom of God.

But yet, I had a glimpse of what paradise looked like during half-term. Not in the Caribbean, but in Wales. Just before my holiday, I went with the choir on a trip to Pembrokeshire. We sung Evensong in St David’s Cathedral, and then a couple of concerts in local churches. The last day, the choir gave a charity concert in a tiny church in Mwnt: no running water, no electricity and with about 60 people in the congregation, the church was packed.

The money we raised was going to a local charity that supports people undergoing cancer treatment. Working in deprived, rural Wales, they make sure that taxi fares to the hospital are paid for, and that people have pyjamas to wear when they have to stay in hospital after their surgery or treatment.

At the end of the concert, it is fair to say that about three-quarters of the people in the church were in tears: there was something incredibly special about this moment. Someone came up at the end to thank the choir, and she said: ‘They say that Mwnt is a place in which heaven touches earth. I think that today we crossed that boundary’. That was enough to make sure that no one left the building with dry eyes.

That, to me, is what the kingdom of God might look like. That moment when we are able to still ourselves for a moment, and we know God’s presence in the midst of our chaotic world, and our often chaotic lives. That moment when we know when we are able to hear God’s voice ‘Be still, and know that I am God’.

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, the end of the Church year. Next week, as the season of Advent begins, we start to turn to our celebrations of the birth of Christ, the king of the kingdom of God. 

Maybe therefore the best way to know what this kingdom might look like it to look at its king: not born in a palace full of silver and gold, but born in a stable. Not a crown with pearls and diamonds, but a crown of thorns. Not being served by a great household, but the servant of others. Wealth in relationships, rather than wealth in material terms.

That is also what we are about to celebrate in our Eucharist: the simple elements of bread and wine become tokens of God’s kingdom as we pray and eat together, giving thanks and remembering the life and freedom that we have been given in Christ.

So as we seek the kingdom of God, we might realise that we have found it before we know it. After all, the Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our stronghold. Amen.

Their lives given for our freedom

Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2022
All Saints’ Church Highbrook

Today, throughout the country and the Commonwealth, we gather around war memorials and in churches to remember those who have lost their lives in conflicts past and present. 

Although our poppies and war memorials bring into focus those who died during the First and Second World War, there are still many who risk their lives every day to fight for peace and justice around the world. In 2021, 7% of households in England and Wales included one or more persons who had served in the UK armed forces. That is almost two million people who put themselves forward, risking themselves, to serve others. 

Not least thanks to medical advancements, the number of deaths has drastically decreased. More men lost their life in the Battle of the Somme than in armed conflicts in the past 70 years. But this does not take away from the fact that still many lives are markedly changed by the experience of war and violent conflict.

Read more: Their lives given for our freedom

And of course for many of us, our lives would not have been the same had it not been for those who fought in wars of the past.

Probably you have noticed by now that I am not English. I grew up in The Netherlands. This time last week, I was travelling back from a visit to family and friends. Seeing the famous ‘bridge too far’ in Nijmegen, made me realise once more that I owe my freedom to the people whose names are on the war memorials around which we gather today. 

Had it not been for those who left their country to go to France, Belgium, The Netherlands; to fight for our freedom, I would probably not have been able to travel freely, not been able to speak but certainly not learn Dutch in school. The world would have been a very different place.

And maybe that is what I find most remarkable about those we remember today: that their sacrifice was so often made far away from home and loved ones, that they fought and died for the freedom of others. They gave their lives, so that we may live in freedom.

With that freedom comes a responsibility. Not only to not forget those who made this possible, but also to use that freedom well. In our Gospel reading this morning, we hear about a freedom that comes with forgiveness, as Jesus tells the parable of the Unforgiving Servant. We hear of a man who owed a great debt. When he pleaded with his lord, he had pity and forgave him all his debt and set him free.

As soon as he was free, the man met one of his fellow slaves who owed him just a little. However, instead of treating him as he had been treated, he did not forgive him his debt, but had him thrown in prison until he would pay. Instead of using his freedom to set someone else free, he wanted what he deserved. 

The parable is as challenging to us, as it was to its original hearers. We live in a world in which we are told that we need to stand up for ourselves, so that we get what we deserve.

Jesus here is turning everything around. Instead of fighting for what we deserve, he suggests that we should use our freedom to set others free. I think that this is an incredibly powerful message on a day like today when we remember those who have given us our freedom. A summon to us to use that freedom to give others theirs.

What that looks like will be very different for each of us, and we might well disagree what it looks like for us as a nation. The idea that we need to use our freedom well, is not a political statement about our involvement in conflicts abroad. But it is a fact that with our freedom comes a responsibility. Freedom brings choice: we can decide how we use our time, our money and our talents.  

One day a year, we stop for two minutes silence to remember. But to really honour those who gave their lives, we remember by how we live our lives. For Christians, the way we live our lives includes remembering the sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the Cross, giving us our ultimate freedom through the forgiveness of our sins.

Whatever decision we make, is it one that is made from a position of great thankfulness for the freedom we have been given? And do we therefore wish that freedom for others too? 

Let us remember and give thanks, today and every day. 

The example she set

Sermon Holy Trinity Hurstpierpoint 11 September 2022: Trinity 13
Psalm 51. 1-11 & Luke 15.1-10
Preached at a time of national mourning following the death of HM Queen Elizabeth II

For many of us, on our minds and in our hearts this morning is the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, and we continue to keep her family in our prayers as they grieve. We pray particularly for our King as in this time of mourning, he takes on the responsibilities of his office and duty.

Our late Queen was a person of deep personal faith, which she expressed on many public occasions. It inspired her leadership and life: a life of great devotion and commitment to the people she served. In this period of national mourning, there will be more specific times to remember, reflect and give thanks for her life.

To avoid saying what has been said or will be said, here, I would like to look at the Sunday readings, and specifically Psalm 51, as a reflection on our late Queen, on kingship, but at the same time as a reflection on how we model our own lives. Because one of the great truths of Christianity is, that when we celebrate a particular life well-lived, we do this in the knowledge that we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body. In the particular, we celebrate the universal.

We read in the introduction to Psalm 51 that it was written by King David. Almost half of the Psalms are attributed to David, and some of them, including this morning’s Psalm, refer to specific episodes in the king’s life. David is celebrated as one of the great Kings of Israel, both in the Jewish and Christian tradition. After Saul, he was the second king of Israel. He was the youngest son of Jesse, tasked with looking after the sheep. After his anointment by the prophet Samuel, he joined the court of King Saul to play the lyre. One of the most famous stories about David is his victory over Goliath, the Philistine – a well-loved Sunday School story.

However, his life was not just one of heroic acts and humble service, and this morning’s Psalm is testimony to that. The Psalm was written after the prophet Nathan had visited David, after the King had committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. Not only that, to conceal his act, David had Uriah killed in battle, so that he could take Bathsheba, now a widow, as his lawful wife.

We read that the child born to David and Bathsheba dies after seven days, despite David’s pleas to God. However, and we may be surprised by this, after the period of mourning, they have another son, Solomon, who will succeed David as King and become known for his wisdom.

Listening to and looking at this story, we might feel it is not quite right to remember David as one of the great kings of Israel. And some might use this as a reason to criticise religion as it seems to condone and justify these kinds of behaviour. However, looking at Psalm 51 might give us an insight in what is really happening here, and the key words here are repentance and forgiveness.

The Psalm opens with David’s cry to God: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions”. These words both convey a sense of the King’s need for forgiveness, as well as God’s mercy and power to heal. 

When we look around us, particularly when we look at those in authority, we might feel that there are too many who don’t see that need for forgiveness. Who, instead of lamenting their deeds, try to justify their decisions and actions. But what happens when we look at ourselves? What is our deepest prayer when we reflect on those things we have done wrong?

When we pray deeply and truthfully, I suspect that most of us will sense, just like David, a need for forgiveness, a desire to be made clean, to hear the joy and gladness that are hidden by our sin – by the things we have done wrong. 

Here, in this Psalm, we hear that David already realises that real forgiveness can only happen when we know and accept God’s love and mercy. We cannot look at ourselves and the things we have done, unless we look at ourselves through the loving eyes of God. We can only really know our sins, if we know God’s forgiveness.

In our Gospel reading this morning, we hear that Jesus takes that even a step further. The passage we hear this morning is directly followed by the parable of the Lost Son. In Jesus, forgiveness is a given: God gives, even before we ask: God is waiting for us, not to fall down on our knees, but to accept and to live in his love.

It is precisely that knowledge and understanding that makes David one of the great Kings of Israel. Not his heroic deeds define him, but a true knowledge of his dependence on God, and his prayer to live out God’s purpose for his life. In the eleventh verse of this Psalm, David pleads with God not to be cast away from His presence: ‘do not take your holy spirit from me’. I find those words incredibly moving: please God, do not give up on me entirely.

That prayer brings us back to today. Both our late Queen and our new King expressed their belief that it is God’s purpose for them to serve their people: it is not a choice, but a commission. The choice does not lie in whether or not to take up this office, but the choice lies in how to fulfil it. Precisely this is one of the most criticised aspects of any hereditary monarchy, but to me it manifests one of the most important truths of the Christian faith: namely, that we are chosen. Not only some of us, but all of us, we are chosen and have been given a purpose.

Despite our imperfections, our frailty and our limitations, each of us has been given a purpose, which is not ours to choose. Our choice lies in how we live that purpose, and one aspect of that is what we do when we know we’ve done wrong. Do we look away, or turn away? Or do we acknowledge and accept? Do we dare to pray and believe that God’s spirit will not be taken from us, even when we have fallen short and are guilty of what we have done? Do we dare to not only accept the consequences, but also God’s forgiveness, even when others cannot forgive us?

As in the coming week we remember our late Queen, we pray that we may do so with great gratitude for the example she set before us. Not because of her heroic acts, or her perfect life, but because she was faithful to her calling throughout her life. Because she showed us an example of true commitment to her God-given purpose, and we pray that we may have the wisdom and the courage to do the same. Amen.

Peace be with us?

Sermon Holy Trinity Church Hurstpierpoint 14 August 2022: Trinity 9
Hebrews 11.29-12.2 & Luke 12.49-56

There are many aspects of my ministry that I really enjoy, but preaching is certainly one of my favourite things. Actually, it is not the preaching itself that I particularly like, but I love preparing a sermon. Because it is a way to really engage with Scripture, and trying to listen to what God is saying in this place, at this time. Often, I discover something new about God myself, something that I didn’t know before, or something that I suddenly know on a deeper level.

And especially this week, I was really looking forward to writing a sermon. Firstly, because I could return to a reasonable length sermon, after having been told to preach for at least an hour when I was in Zambia a few weeks ago. But also, because I had just returned from a retreat in North Wales, spending a week with the Jesuit community at St Beuno’s. In their spirituality, rooted in the teachings and practice of Ignatius of Loyola, the personal encounter with Jesus is central. And, as one of the brothers said on the last day, the hope is that this encounter makes us a little more open, a little kinder and a little gentler.

So with great expectation I turned to today’s readings, to see where I would find this gentle and loving image of Jesus. Well, the Lectionary clearly wasn’t on my side this week … There is a lot to say about today’s readings, but we don’t see the image of the Good Shepherd or the little baby Jesus readily appearing. Today’s readings speak about judgement, conflict and persecution. For many of us, they are challenging our Sunday-school image of who Jesus is. But it is good to be challenged, so let’s see what these passages may have to say to us in this place at this time.

I’d like to start with the letter to the Hebrews. We continue today where we left last week, with a series of examples of people and peoples who achieved things through their faith. However, what they achieved through their faith, we may not particularly aspire to in the 21st century: the destruction of cities, victories over foreign armies, and let alone the sacrifice of a child. The crucial verse to understand this is the opening verse of Chapter 12: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” 

This verse explains that yes, we should indeed take courage from all that God has done in the lives of our ancestors. However, it also points out that we need to run the race that is set before us. Our challenges are different from those of which we hear in our reading. One of the greatest differences between us and the people Israel, is that we trust in the universality of God’s love in Jesus. No longer is there a distinction between God’s chosen race and those who are outside, there is no longer an us and them in the same way. Indeed, in Paul’s letter to the Galatians we read that there is neither Jew nor Greek, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

But wait, Jesus doesn’t particularly speak about unity in this reading from Luke’s Gospel either. On the contrary, he says that he has not come to bring peace, but rather division. And indeed, one way in which this reading has been explained is that there is now again a division between people: some Christian traditions maintain that there are people chosen by God, and others not. Other Christian traditions strongly emphasise the division is between those who have confessed a believe in Jesus, and those who have not. 

I find both explanations at odds with what I believe about God, both on a theological level, but also much deeper. Indeed, one of the reasons is mentioned in this very passage: the division of the household. My parents are not churchgoers and have never been. Because of their upbringing and personal experiences, they feel that the church has very little credibility. But yet, I don’t believe that they are fundamentally different from who I am: they are as much human beings, created in God’s image and love, trying to make sense of what they believe and who they are.

So where is the division? When we look closer to the text, Jesus says, I have not come to bring peace to the earth. The Greek word for earth here can also be translated as land. So one way of understanding this passage is that this is not a prophecy, but a reality: the division between faiths, understandings of God, and understandings of our humanity is real, and the Christian faith – a belief in Jesus – is a part of those divisions. It is indeed one of the reasons people use for turning away from religions: the divisions and conflict they have caused in human history.

And it is not just between religions, or between those of faith and those without that divisions exist. Anyone who has seen any news about the recent Lambeth Conference knows that also within Christianity, even within the Anglican Communion, divisions run deep. Maybe that is the division of which Jesus is speaking: a very human division. That means that the peace he is speaking of here, is also a human peace – a peace on earth – he is not referring to God’s everlasting peace: the peace for which we long, the peace we share in our service a little later, and the peace we see glimpses of in prayer, service and worship.

So when we see these divisions amongst ourselves, we should not attribute them to Jesus, but rather accept our inability to understand and to know fully. Ultimately, it is not Jesus who is the cause of these conflicts, but we are. Through our limited understanding shaped by our culture and tradition, or at times through our self-centredness, we find ourselves disagreeing painfully, sometimes with disastrous consequences. 

Maybe that is where Jesus is referring to when he calls the disciples, when he calls us, hypocrites: we can forecast the weather – and so many other things – but we cannot understand our own motives, nor how we are complicit in the conflicts and crises of our time.

One of the ways to counter our short-sightedness is to remember that we are not alone, to remind ourselves that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We are not the first generations to experience all this, but we stand in solidarity with those who have gone before us, those in whose lives God has been at work. That gives us comfort, not to become complacent, but to know that there is hope, to know that through faith we can find the perseverance to run the race that is set before us.

One last thought on that race, I suspect that one of the things on our minds is the current drought and the alarming signs of climate change. There is no time to be complacent, and we need to change our behaviour. But, this drought itself is no reason to despair and give up: in any historic account, we read of droughts, and the terrible effects they had. We are not the first, and I trust that with the appropriate action, we won’t be the last.

So with confidence, let us run that race that is set before us, in this place at this time. Always looking to Jesus with sure and certain hope that he will be with us, and he will never let his people go. Amen.

All is vanity?

Sermon St Wilfrid’s Church and the Presentation Church, Haywards Heath
Trinity 7: Ecclesiastes 1. 2, 12-14; 2.18-23, Luke 12. 13-21
31 July 2022

For those Churches following the three-year Lectionary, a cycle of set readings for each Sunday, this is the only time in those about 150 Sundays that a reading from the book of Ecclesiastes is chosen as the Old Testament reading for the main Sunday service. In many ways, this is not a surprise, as Ecclesiastes is one of the most controversial books in the Bible. Indeed, if you would read this morning’s text without knowing its source, you would not necessarily have guessed that it is part of the Bible, but it could have been written in our time by someone disillusioned with the world around them. 

Yet, Ecclesiastes is part of the Jewish Wisdom literature, and the Christian tradition has received it as part of the Old Testament. The writer refers to himself as the ‘Teacher’ or ‘Preacher’, and Jewish interpreters have associated him with Solomon, as he refers to himself as ‘King over Israel’ and elsewhere ‘Son of David’. 

The first words we hear in our reading this morning, are the opening words of the book: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The Hebrew word that is translated here as vanity is the word hevel, which literally means ‘puff of air’. It’s the same word that is at the root of the name ‘Abel’, Cain’s brother, whose life was cut short like a puff of air.

So when we hear this morning that all is vanity, we could also say: all is just a puff of air, or maybe paraphrased even more liberally: what is the point of it all? And indeed, if you read Ecclesiastes as a whole, this seems to be the pervading question: what is the point, and why do we strive?

It is a question that most people will ask themselves at least once in their lifetime. I suspect that often this question comes up at moments of crisis or loss: when something happens in our lives that makes us question what we took for granted. When someone we love is diagnosed with an incurable illness; when we hear of a tragic accident, or when we are betrayed by those closest to us. At these moments, we can ask ourselves as well: why did we even try?

To me, it’s a great consolation that a text like this is part of our sacred Scripture. It shows that being a Christian, being a Jew, doesn’t mean that there is no doubt, no grief, and no questioning. These difficult questions are what make us human, and a belief in God does not ask us to pretend they no longer exist or apply to us.

In our Gospel reading this morning, we see another way paraphrasing that all is vanity, as Jesus explains in the parable of the rich man, or – as we hear – the rich fool. The parable is a clear warning, not against being wealthy as such, but against defining one’s life by one’s possessions: ‘for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’

It is a warning that is as acute for us, as it was for the original hearers of Jesus’ message. The problem with greed is that there is never enough. I think it’s not entirely unfair to say that our whole Western culture is based on this concept: all around us we are told that we need more. In our time, this more, is not just more possessions, although this is a part of it. It is also more power, more influence, more ‘likes’ on the many different types of social media, and more experiences: places to visit and things to do. Jesus’ warning here is not against these things per se, but against the real danger that more means never enough, and we easily lose perspective of what is really important.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who finds myself often thinking about ‘what’s next?’, rather than enjoying the moment. When I’m at work, I find myself thinking about the next break, and when I’m on holiday, I find myself planning the next few weeks at work. When I’m cycling, I find myself thinking of my next meal, and when I’m eating I begin to plan my next day. Just as with greed, the desire for more possessions, this pattern of thinking is based on the idea that life would be better, if … And, I would be a better version of myself, if …

But here, Jesus says to us: ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’. What if today would be our last day? Would we make the same decisions? Or would we suddenly realise what really matters? It is quite a good spiritual exercise to think what you would do if you had only one more day to live. I’m pretty sure that most of us wouldn’t go shopping, but would have more important matters to address. 

So what does it mean, when Jesus mentions being rich towards God? Being rich towards God expresses itself both inwardly and outwardly. Inwardly, that we realise that what defines us is being made in God’s image, with the gifts and talents he has given us. Realising that all that we have, including our life, is a gift, and that we should live it with thankfulness and respect. Respect towards ourselves, but also towards others, as each person is equally made in God’s image. 

If we are able to order our inner life in this way, how we live will follow. We will treat others with respect and dignity. We will be more able and willing to share what we have when we acknowledge that we have not earned things on our own accord, but that we have been given all that we have and all that we are. Living a life rich towards God, is the only way we can live a truly rich and fulfilled life. It won’t be a life without hardship, pain, loss, and difficult questions, but it will be a life worth living: a life with substance, a life in which not everything is vanity.

This all was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago, when I was on a trip to Zambia. We spent two nights sleeping under the stars. As I was looking up to the Southern Cross and saw the Milky Way, I realised that this was the most beautiful way in which I had ever spent a night. It didn’t need a fancy hotel, or even a comfortable bed, but only the realisation that here I was, looking into the vastness of the night sky and knowing that I am too a tiny part of God’s wonderful creation.

And therefore, I have to disagree with the author of Ecclesiastes that all is vanity. When God spoke and created, it was not just a puff of air, but from his breath the universe came into being, and we have a part to play. Together with those who went before and those who will come after, we have been created out of love and been given a purpose. Yes, it is a tiny part to play, but not insignificant. So let learn to be thankful, and ask, not for more, but to be shown ever clearer what is means to be truly rich: rich towards God, and rich in hope, faith and love.

Love one another

Address Hurstpierpoint College Leavers’ Service
1 Corinthians 13 & John 15.14-17
25 June 2022

The exams are over, the hard work is done, you have packed up your room in St John’s and the summer lies ahead of you. Today, our Prize Giving and Leavers’ service and next week’s ball, mark the end of your time here at Hurst, and the end of your time as a school pupil. And with that, you are no longer a child, but an adult. 

Of course, I’m not saying that you were still little children by the time you arrived in the Sixth Form, – although some of you arrived here in the Pre Prep as little children – but leaving school comes with sudden freedoms, and sudden responsibilities. No more school uniform, with rules on hair styles and footwear, no more clearings or detentions for being late or work not handed in. No more assemblies or indeed Chapel services where you have to be, even though you don’t see the point of it. From this point onwards, a lot of the choices are yours now.

And that is a great feeling: you can choose. It is up to you where you go, what you do and, in some sense, who you become. That is indeed a great freedom, but also a great responsibility, and I hope one that you have been prepared for by your time here at Hurst. To me, school is not about exam results, not about Grade 8 music exams, winning the netball finals, or playing county-level cricket, although they are all great achievements, and rightly celebrated, as we did earlier. However, the most important thing about your time at school is that you are ready to use your freedom.

That is the reason why I chose this morning’s readings. In our reading from John’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples that they are no longer servants, but friends. At this point, it is no longer about being told what the rules are, but now, it is about knowing what the rules should be. Life is not about obeying laws for the sake of them, but wanting to follow a pattern of living, because you know it is the right thing to do.

That is precisely the point you are at now too. You won’t get a clearing any longer if you are late, but you know it’s right to be on time, because someone else is waiting for you. You have learned what it means to be a good person, and that means you know what is right and what is wrong. Although, that is of course not entirely true. Learning to make the right decisions is actually a life-long journey, and we are all still on it.  

But the most important part of this reading from John’s Gospel is the second half, where Jesus says: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.’ It is the message that is at the heart of the Christian faith that with all our freedoms and choices, we have already been chosen and appointed. Another way of saying this is that we all have a purpose in life, no matter where or when we were born. Each of us here have a purpose, and it is our journey to find and live that purpose.

What that looks like will be different for each of us, that is the joy and the privilege of the freedom we have. We live in a time and place where we can make those decisions for ourselves, and it is good to be reminded that this is not the case everywhere. Think only of Ukraine, where for many the end of their school time is the point when they will be conscripted, and for many young people their education has been interrupted and has been left unfinished.

Although, as I said, what we will end up doing will be different for each of us, there is one thing that we all have in common. That is that whatever we do, we don’t just do for ourselves. Our Gospel reading finishes with Jesus saying: ‘I am giving you these commandments so that you may love one another’. Whatever we end up doing in life, we do it with care, consideration and indeed love for the other. That, ultimately, is our purpose in life, in whichever way we live it, to love one another.

I would like to finish by some words from the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. He writes that: ‘Love is a cosmic force. Love is responsibility of an I for a You: in this consists what cannot consist in any feeling – the equality of lovers, from the smallest to the greatest.’

We will only be able to find our true purpose in life if we dare to love one another, to really care for the people we encounter, from the smallest to the greatest.

So as you go from here to continue your journey, my hope for all of you is that you will find and embrace your purpose in life. And we would love to hear from you, in two, ten, twenty years time. To tell your story, interwoven with the stories of those who were here before you and those who will come after. The story of what has made you who you are, which is the story we share and the story we live. Amen.

The journey ahead

Hurstpierpoint College Senior Chapel Address 
Saturday 26 June: Leavers’ Service, John 21 9-19

Upper Sixth, it is good to see you here together once more in Chapel to mark the end of your time here at Hurst. For some of you, this is the end of two years of Sixth Form; others of you started here in Shell, and some of you have been here since you can remember in Pre Prep. No matter how long you have been here, today, you all finish together. After a year that none of us have experienced before.

It was certainly a challenging year, and not what any of us had hoped or expected. But you rose to the challenge. You continued to learn, even if we could not be in the classroom; you continued to look out for each other, to make friendships, even though we had to be in bubbles; you continued on the sports fields, without being able to tackle or pick up a hockey ball; the choir continued to sing, and you produced a house-film, an end-of year production, even without an audience to cheer you on. 

There may have been a lot of things you haven’t been able to do, but when you think about it, there has been so much you have done, you have learned and experienced. In Mr Schofield’s language, not only have you ended up with a bucket full of data, your bucket is also full of experience far beyond tests and data. 

Today, you are leaving this place, not only with a bucket full of data, a goodie bag full of gifts, but hopefully also with a sense of who you are and who you want to become. A sense of purpose that will guide you through your life, shape the decisions you will make and will determine what difference you will make to those around you.

As you leave school, no longer will you have to do what is expected of you, but you will now have to set those expectations yourself. You are no longer aiming to achieve your challenge grades, but you now have the freedom to set your own challenges. That is exciting, but can be daunting at the same time.

Of course, even after you leave today, you are not on your own. Unfortunately, you cannot take Mrs Browne or your tutor with you, who were there when you needed them to be, but you will continue to meet others who will guide and help you. For many of you, not least your parents and your family. Their experiences and stories will help you to understand your own, and indeed you will add your own chapter to the story of which we are all a part. 

One of those stories we hear this morning in our reading. We hear of the encounter between Jesus and Peter after the Resurrection. Some of you may remember the context: Peter has denied Jesus three times before his Crucifixion, and like any of us who have ever betrayed a friend, feels guilty and ashamed. 

However, when they speak, there is no blame, but only understanding. There is no going back over the past, but only a looking towards the future. Three times Jesus asks Peter, ‘do you love me’, and three times Peter answers ‘yes, you know that I do’. Then Jesus says: ‘Follow me’. 

This is the start of a new beginning, a re-orientation, and Peter realises that he has found his true purpose. To do so, to find his purpose, there were three things that Peter did, and I am confident that if we do the same, we will find our purpose too. 

The first thing to do, and maybe the most important one, is never to give up on yourself. No matter how much you feel you have disappointed yourself or others, no matter the mistakes you feel you have made, there is always the chance of a new beginning. It may be hard, and you may not immediately see how, but never think it is too late, because it never is. 

The second one is to be honest to yourself. What is it you really want, what is it you really love? At the end of the day, success is not being about better than others, wealthier than others or more liked than others. 

Success is when you come home at the end of the day and you can say to yourself: I have made a difference, and I have enjoyed it. Whether that is because you have contributed to the latest scientific research, because you have given a performance in front of a great crowd, or because you picked up the shopping for your neighbour, it doesn’t matter. You have made a difference by being you.


Lastly, as I already said, you cannot do all of this on your own. So continue to listen. Not to the voices that are loudest, but to those that are most genuine. Not to the voices that tell you what to do, but to the voices of those who gently ask you ‘is this really you, is this really who you want to be?’

So, three things: never give up, be honest and listen carefully. Together with the experience and skills you have, you will be able to make a difference to those around you, a difference to the world.

On this day as you prepare to leave, it is fitting that we come together in Chapel to celebrate the Eucharist. Maybe even more so today than on any other occasion, the bread of Communion we are able to receive, is our food for the journey ahead. 

One more experience we share, like so many others you have shared in the past few years. I hope that what we share today and have shared so far will continue to nourish you, and I look forward to hearing your stories when you return.

Go and bear fruit

Holy Trinity Church Hurstpierpoint
Sunday 9 May 2021, Easter 6 and Christian Aid Sunday
Acts 10.44-48 & John 15.9-17

Today is Christian Aid Sunday, the start of Christian Aid Week. Many of you will remember receiving of giving out envelopes as part of the annual fundraising campaign. Christian Aid was founded in 1945 by British and Irish churches to help refugees following the Second World War, and have supported poor communities worldwide ever since, not just by bringing practical relief, but also by campaigning for fairness and justice.

Currently, the main focus of their work is combatting our climate crisis and its consequences, as well as trying to protect the most vulnerable in the world against the devasting effects of the global pandemic. Their work is not party-political, but shows that to be a Christian is to care about those whose plight is greatest.

That brings us straight to our readings this morning. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles, in which we hear of the universality of God’s love; and the passage from John’s Gospel, part of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, for me possibly one of the most moving parts of Scripture, so that is where I would like to start. 

The passage follows directly the reading we heard last week, in which Jesus spoke of the vine and its branches. Many scholars agree that these two readings are one unit, in which today’s passage is a commentary on what it means to be the branches of the true and living vine, what it means to abide in God’s love and how we do this. 

Jesus summons us firstly to keep his commandments: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love (…) so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” These commandments are not there for God’s sake, but for ours. 

In an increasingly secular world, more and more people are astounded that people are still willing to commit to a religion and follow the laws that come with that. Why would you voluntary submit yourself to an authority who puts restrictions on your life? The answer lies in this passage: these commandments are not limiting our freedom, but they are here to make our joy complete, to set us free; free to bear fruit.

The greatest of these commandments, we hear once more today, is to love one another, as Christ has loved us. These words too challenge a modern, secular perception of religion: that it is all about trying to appease God, that we are here in Church trying to be ‘good’ people, so that God may love us. 

No, it is exactly the other way around: God’s love comes first, and we are asked to respond in love towards one another. There is nothing we can do to deserve God’s love for us, that love has already been given; God’s love is unconditional. All that we do is a response to that unconditional love: that is what it means to abide in Him.

This idea of our response, rather than our initiative resonates throughout today’s passage from John. “You did not choose me, but I chose you” – again, it is God’s initiative, our response. When I was training for ministry, this was the text that accompanied the icon in our Chapel, and as we prepared for our ordained life, we were asked to reflect on what it meant to bear fruit that will last. “And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”

Before asking ourselves that question this morning, what does it mean for us to bear lasting fruit, I would like to come back to the fact that it is Christian Aid Sunday. Therefore, before looking at ourselves, I would like to think about what this question might mean for the women in Burkina Faso, for example, who risk their lives on a daily basis just to get clean water for their families and children? God chose her, as much as he chose you or me, to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.

Or how would these words be heard by the many children recently orphaned in India? How, amidst the pain, suffering and loss, do they hear God’s call? How will they be able to experience that complete joy of which we hear today?

Those are challenging questions, and I know that I am one of those people who doesn’t ask myself that question often enough. However, the only way in which we ourselves can bear fruit is by helping others to do the same. We cannot claim a life fully lived if we have forgotten those around us. We cannot claim that the global pandemic is over until everyone will be able to receive the vaccines and the treatments that are available to us. We cannot claim that we have solved the climate crisis, as long as others are still at risk of devastating droughts and floods, without access to clean water and food.

As Christians, we believe that each person is made in God’s image. That God’s unconditional love is given to each of us. “The gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles”, as we hear in the Acts of the Apostles. “Even on the Gentiles”, those people so unlike those who were associated with a proper and good life; those people so unlike those with whom we share our lives. Even they have received that gift of the Holy Spirit, even they are appointed to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.

The risk of saying all these things is that we feel guilty about what we have and what others don’t. That we feel guilty when we receive a vaccine, or when we enjoy a lovely meal or a holiday abroad. Or that we get angry at those who seem to criticise our choices. But that’s going back to the idea that we deserve, or need to earn, what we have. Instead, what we need to realise is that all that we have, has been given to us in the first place. It is our response that matters.

Being able to give, being able to share is the privilege we have, we all have. But it looks different for each of us. The women in Burkina Faso, the children in India, the people of Holy Trinity Hurstpierpoint, we have all got something to give, something to share. Our job is to find out what it is we have to give, as individuals, but also acknowledging our common humanity.

Giving is not about just putting some money in an envelope, although it can certainly be part of it. Giving may also be giving of our time and skill; giving something up so that someone else may have it. Sharing our experience and wisdom with the next generations: there are countless examples of how we can give. 

What they all have in common is that in that giving, we give something of ourselves: it makes a difference, not just to the recipient, but also to us. To go back to the image of the vine and its branches: in giving, in sharing, we allow ourselves to be pruned. Not by cutting into the living branches, but by finding out those that need to be cut for us to bear real, lasting fruit. That’s something we often only really find out when we try, when we take that step that comes at a cost. Only then can we be truly free and truly bear fruit and truly be the people God chose and made us to be.