The power of a story

Written for the Marlborough LitFest edition of Tower and Town.

Oct2019_500When I was asked recently what I had been reading theologically, I had to admit that most of the books I read over the summer had been novels. Some were recommended by friends, others I had picked up because they looked interesting and not too heavy for a summer’s evening. I don’t think that was the expected answer, but I suspect I have learnt at least as much from reading good fiction as I have gained understanding by reading more academic works.

Although I am by no means an expert, for me a good book tells me something about myself, and the world in which I live. In one way or other I can identify with the characters, or recognise some of the scenarios which are brought to life. One particular book that has stayed with me is ‘The Cut Out Girl’ by Bart van Es.

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From crisis to blessing

The parable of the dishonest manager

St Mary’s Marlborough, 22nd September 2019
Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity: 1 Timothy 2.1-7 & Luke 16.1-13

crisisIf you feel that this morning’s parable in Luke’s Gospel is a little bit confusing, you are certainly not the only one. For centuries, Christian theologians have been puzzled by the structure and meaning of the story of the dishonest manager. I even consulted my German compendium on Jesus’ parables, which doesn’t happen very often, witnessed by the eight-year old bookmark I found … Some themes are obvious: the parable has something to do with honesty and our attitude to wealth, but its overall message is by no means entirely clear.

It is even not clear where the parable ends. In the translation we heard this morning, the parable ends at verse 8, concluding the story by saying that the dishonest manager is commended by his master. However, an alternative, equally plausible, translation could be that the parable ends a verse earlier, and that the Lord, in other words Jesus himself, comments on the actions of the manager.

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God’s economy

Sermon St George’s Preshute, 15th September 2019, 8am
Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity: Luke 15.1-10

lost coinIn today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells us two familiar parables: the lost coin, and the lost sheep. Deliberately trying to provoke, or at least to startle, He starts by saying “Which one of you would not …”. I’m not sure about you, but when I’ve lost something not so essential, I usually just wait for it to turn up again. If I can’t find the pen I was using, I’ll grab another one lying around. Unlike the woman in our reading this morning, I would certainly not spend hours looking for a missing coin, if I had nine others lying around.

This also applies for the shepherd. We may understand someone going to look for a vulnerable, fluffy, lamb. However, in the time that the parable was written and originally heard, shepherding was a profession like any other. It was part of the job to lose a sheep here and there, and certainly not something worth risking a whole flock, as it meant risking one’s livelihood.

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Setting each other free

Homily St John the Baptist Mildenhall, 8th September 2019
Twelfth Sunday after Trinity: Philemon 1-21 & Luke 14.25-33

onesimus-mosaicPaul’s letter to Philemon, which we hear this morning, is one of the shortest books of the Bible. We have just heard most of it, apart from the final few verses. Most scholars agree that the letter is authentic and written by Paul in prison, either in Ephesus or in Rome.

The letter is addressed to Philemon, who has been assumed to live in Colossae, given the overlap of personal names in this letter and Paul’s letter to the Colossians. The traditional and most common interpretation of the letter is a literal one, in which Paul appeals to Philemon on behalf of his slave, Onesimus, whom Paul has met in prison. Onesimus has run away from his master, and been baptised by Paul in prison, and is writing to Philemon to welcome him back, not as a slave but as a brother.

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Welcoming each other’s gifts

Sermon St Mary’s Marlborough, 1st September 
Eleventh Sunday after Trinity: Hebrews 13.1-8,15,16 & Luke 14.1, 7-14

trinityI have to admit and apologise that this week my mind has been not so much on preparing a sermon for Sunday, but I have been preoccupied with finalising the arrangements for the Get There! holiday club. Both of these problems, of course, could have been solved by better and more thorough planning, but equally, it was a good distraction from what is happening politically at the moment.

Looking at this morning’s readings, one could say that they present us with a practical rather than theoretical model of what it means to be Church, of what it means to be followers of Christ. It is a model very much based on hospitality, and not just welcoming those we know, but also those we don’t necessarily know very well.

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Our freedom through God’s love

Sermon St Mary’s Marlborough, 25th August 2019
Tenth Sunday after Trinity: Jeremiah 1.4-10 & Luke 13.10-17

Last week, rather by coincidence than anything else, I found myself watching the film The Lion King, which was recently produced making you feel you are watching real animals rather than an animation. It being our favourite film as I was growing up, I was rather familiar with the story, but nonetheless moved by its profound simplicity, and of course its beautiful music.

lion king

As in so many Disney films, we see the story of good and evil, with which we are so familiar in our human lives, acted out in the lives of fictional characters or animals taking on human features. The Lion King in particular teaches us about the difference between good and bad stewardship – a topic that is maybe even more relevant today than it was twenty-five years ago.

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Uncomfortable signs of the present time

Sermon St John the Baptist Mildenhall, 18th August 2019
Ninth Sunday after Trinity: Hebrews 11.29-12.2 & Luke 12.49-56

NYC: Extinction Rebellion Day OneGiven this morning’s readings, it would be so much easier if I was able to preach a good ‘fire and brimstone’ sermon. Ten minutes, or maybe more like twenty-five minutes of telling you how it is clear that we are a doomed generation and that God’s wrath is waiting for us. However, despite a promising start in the more conservative circles of the Dutch Reformed Church, my experience of God has been one of a God who loves us, and who gives us hope, strength and comfort when we most need it.

So, there is a bit of a challenge this morning, as our readings speak about torture, sacrifice, fire and division. How can we make sense of them, and yet hold on to the promises given to us as well? Before looking at our readings specifically, it is worth reminding ourselves of the promise we were given at the birth of Jesus. We believe in a God who was born as baby, bringing peace to the world. However, as much as Jesus was the promised bringer of peace, he was also the fulfilment of the prophets: standing in the tradition of Isaiah, Jeremiah and many others.

Also, and crucial for our understanding of this morning’s readings, Jesus was given the name Emmanuel: God with us. Jesus did not come into the world to fix it for us, but to walk alongside with us. In the Incarnation, God wanted to share the life of humanity, so that we could share in His divinity. So, God with us, not God for us.

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