Tag: Gift

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.

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.

Welcome!

A sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany

6 January is the day on which the Church celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany. It is also the last day of the Christmas season. Many of us will have already taken down our Christmas decorations, or will do so in the next couple of days. Christmas is behind us, and the new year lies ahead of us.

magiThe Gospel reading set for the Feast of the Epiphany is the reading of the wise men visiting Jesus: a scene we often associate with the Christmas story itself. Indeed, it is the Christmas story in Matthew’s Gospel, who does not include shepherds or choirs of angels as in Luke’s version, but narrates the story of the Incarnation here. Hence, the Christmas story as we often hear it in nativities and see it in cribs is a conflation of the two different Gospel accounts.

Matthew does not tell us very much about these wise men. We know that they came from the East and followed a star. First the star leads them to Jerusalem, and later, on instruction of the scribes and Pharisees, the men follow the star to Bethlehem. It is a significant detail of the story, revealing Matthew’s purpose in telling it this way. The wise men are foreigners, non-Jews, gentiles. They do not know the stories of the Jewish faith, nor the God as revealed in the Jewish scriptures. But that does not mean that they don’t know anything about God, as they can see Him in the world around them. Hence, they follow the star.

Continue reading “Welcome!”

How to celebrate

Sermon 24th November 2019, St Andrew’s Church Uxbridge
Christ the King and Admission to first Communion
Colossians 1.11-20 & Luke 23.33-43

It is very good to be here with you this morning, especially as we are here to celebrate the first Communion of a number of young people of this parish, and their families. It was particularly nice to be welcomed by a lovely breakfast, and it fits rather well with what today’s service is all about!

I’m sure that in your preparation sessions you have been thinking already a lot about Holy Communion and what it means, so I may be repeating some of what you already know. So as you are the experts in a way, I’d like to start with a question to you specifically, but it is also a question to all of us: what do you do when you celebrate something? What do you do when there is a birthday, or Christmas or Easter, or maybe a wedding or a Baptism?

last-supper

I would like to suggest that there are four key elements to each celebration: gifts or presents, food – like this morning –, stories and other people. These four aspects are not a bad way to understand Holy Communion too, so let’s look at them briefly.

Continue reading “How to celebrate”

Thank you, please

Sermon St Mary’s Upavon & St Matthew’s Rushall, 6th October 2019
Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
Lamentations 1.1-6, 2 Timothy 1.1-14 & Luke 17.5-10

Saying ‘please’, ‘thank-you’ and ‘I’m sorry’ is probably what most people learn from a very young age. It is showing respect to one another to acknowledge that someone has done something for you, or when you’ve made a mistake. However, when and how often we say these things, is partly cultural.

I  grew up in the Netherlands, where we definitely say these things less often than here. If, for example, you would say ‘thank-you’ to a bus driver on leaving the bus, chances are that you have terribly offended him or her. After all, driving you safely to your destination is surely just their job? So on a very basic level, I can emphasise with Jesus’ words in the Gospel reading today, when he tells us not to expect any gratitude after completing what we ought to have done in the first place.

rushall.jpg
St Matthew’s Rushall: not a bad place to think about thankfulness!

Continue reading “Thank you, please”

The mission of the seventy

Sermon St Mary the Virgin, Bishops Cannings, 7th July 2019 10am
Third Sunday after Trinity: Galatians 6.1-16, Luke 10.1-11,16-20

seventyToday’s Gospel reading from Luke speaks about the mission of the seventy, or the seventy-two, depending on which sets of manuscripts are to be believed. The  precise number doesn’t matter theologically, as both indicate an expanded scope from the mission of the twelve disciples, which is recorded by Matthew and Mark, as well as by Luke.

Through the text we are invited to reflect on the wider mission of the Church, and our own particular role within that. Of course, our situation now in 2019 is very different from the time and place in which Jesus lived and worked, so we need to be careful to look at this passage too literally. However, there are a few key themes which apply to us as much as to the seventy-two who Jesus sent out in Luke’s Gospel.

Continue reading “The mission of the seventy”

“I do not give to you as the world gives”

Sermon St George’s Preshute, 26th May 2019
Sixth Sunday of Easter: Acts 16.9-15 & John14.23-29

The Easter season is drawing to an end, with Ascension Day this coming Thursday and Pentecost ten days later. Our readings this morning invite us to start moving our focus from the celebration of the Resurrection to the reality of living in the knowledge of that Resurrection; the reality of living the life of faith, both as individuals and as a Christian community. He, I would like to reflect on what this may look like for us today. As we do so, our focus will be on the unexpectedness of God’s gifts to us. As Jesus reminded his disciples: God does not give to us as the world gives.

last supper.jpg

We have already seen in our readings over the last few weeks from the Acts of the Apostles, that the life of the early Church was not always easy, but punctuated by moments of grace and hope, unexpected conversions of individuals, such as Lydia this morning, and unexpected moments of insight of what it means to be a body of believers, such as Peter’s vision to include the Gentiles last week. Continue reading ““I do not give to you as the world gives””

Holy Saturday: Thank you

Thank you
Holy Saturday 20th April 2019

Only a very short reflection and a poem today, this day of silence between Good Friday and Easter Day.

IMG_1376

When I went out for a walk on the downs this morning in the glorious sunshine, there was one thing I really wanted to do: I wanted to say ‘thank you’. For what precisely, I didn’t know; to whom precisely, I didn’t know either. The closest I may get in articulating it, is wanting to say thank you for the gift of life, to say thank you to the God who created and redeemed me. And that is what I look forward to celebrating once more tomorrow.

The following poem by E.E. Cummings puts this sense of gratitude into words:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

“i thank You God for most this amazing” by E.E. Cummings, from 100 Selected Poems. © Grove Press, 1994.

Trust, expect and be generous

The Feast of the Epiphany
A reflection for at the start of the New Year

epiphanyOn 6th January, we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord. It is the twelfth day of Christmas, and so traditionally the last day of this season of celebration. Epiphany literally means manifestation or appearance. The Gospel set for this day is the well-known story of the journey of the wise men, who after having followed a star find and recognise the child in Bethlehem, bringing with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

This is Matthew’s version of the Christmas story: no stable, donkeys or shepherds, but instead a star, wise men and gifts. It is a story full of signs and significance all pointing towards aspects of Jesus’ identity: a star signalling the cosmic significance of his birth, the gift of gold indicating his royal status, and myrrh to foreshadow his suffering.

Continue reading “Trust, expect and be generous”

The last day of term

Address for the Lower School
Marlborough College Chapel, 12th December 2018

end of termHere we are, on the last day of this term. It has felt like a long term, and the lists we just had, were a good reminder on how much we have achieved in these last few months; of how much you have been giving to this College community over this last term. As I said at the carol services, I think it is worth repeating, that at Christmas we have an opportunity to celebrate who we are, the gift we are, and to say thank you for this. Maybe in many ways, not unlike the lists we just had.

Continue reading “The last day of term”