Tag: Identity

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.

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.

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.

Image

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.

Candles of Hope

Hurstpierpoint College Senior Chapel Address
Friday 29th January 2021: Candlemas, Luke 2.22-40

On 2 February, in the Church year, we celebrate the Feast of Candlemas. Traditionally, this has been the end of the Christmas season, the day that even the most persevering amongst us put away their Christmas lights – or maybe not this year. It is also the service in which we bless and give out lots of candles, as I am sure many of you who were here last year will remember. As we all know, this year is different, and we cannot be together in one place. However, I hope that most of you received a tea light from us this last week. Some of you may have already lit it, but if you haven’t, today may be a good opportunity to do so.

Why people will be lighting up their windows with torches, candles and  lamps this weekend - Bristol Live

Lighting a candle is a universal sign of comfort, and of hope. Many of us will have been into churches and lit a candle to think of someone dear to us, or to remember someone who had died. As a nation, we have also been lighting candles to remember all those caught up in the global pandemic: again, a sign of comfort and hope.

Today, I would like to extend the image of the candle as a sign of hope a little further – maybe a little too far for some of you. In our reading just now, we heard how Simeon proclaims Jesus to be one who will give light to those who sit in darkness: the image of Christ being the light of the world. That is also the image represented by our Paschal candle, which we light every year for the first time on Easter Day.

As Christians, we believe that each of us carries with us that light too, that each one of us is uniquely created and loved by God. That each of us is unique, and each of us is to be valued and celebrated as a human being, is of course not only a Christian belief: it is not even distinctively religious. I would go as far as that the belief that everyone is to be respected and celebrated it is a necessary condition for humanity to live well, and to live well together.

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Who are you?

Hurstpierpoint College Senior Chapel Address
Friday 11th December: Advent 3, John 1.6–8,19–28

Although we’re not quite there yet, it is fair to say that we are nearing the end of term, and nearing the Christmas holidays. There are still two-and-a half days of lessons left, and for some of you some last tests for which to revise. Yet, the Christmas trees have been decorated, Secret Santa gifts have been bought – or will have been by Monday – and the list of things to do before Christmas is slowly getting shorter.

In this time between preparation and celebration, I would like to take the opportunity today to take stock. Not so much looking at what we have done or achieved, as there will be plenty of time for that next week. But I do like to reflect on the past few months using the question we hear asked to John in our reading this afternoon: Who are you? What do you say about yourself? Those are questions we all encounter at some point, and it is good to give them some thought.

John the Baptist’s answer that we hear in our reading this afternoon is that he is the voice crying out in the wilderness. He is the one who is proclaiming what is to come after him: Jesus, the Messiah, the Saviour. Those words ‘a voice crying out in the wilderness’ seem to indicate a loneliness, yet there is certainly also a sense of purpose with John. He knows who he is, and that is why he does what he does.

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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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Before and After

A reflection for the Easter season

empty tombThe news over Holy Week and Easter was dominated by two devastating events: the fire at the Notre Dame and the horrendous Easter Day shootings in Sri Lanka. Now, at the beginning of May, both these events seem to have disappeared almost completely from the news headlines. On one level, this is understandable, as there is not much more news to report. However, it also makes us realise how quickly major events disappear to the background, unless we ourselves have been personally afflicted. Particularly when tragic events involve a loss of life, the lives of those who are left are changed forever, but for many others life carries on as before.

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‘You do not always have me’

Sermon All Saints Church All Cannings, 7th April 2019  
Fifth Sunday of Lent: Philippians 3.4b-14 & John 12.1-8

Today, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, marks the beginning of Passiontide as we are drawing closer to Holy Week and Easter. The reading from John’s Gospel this morning almost cannot be any fuller with themes that foreshadowing the events to come. To fully appreciate the richness of this text, it is important to remember is that John’s Gospel was the last of the Gospels to be written, probably towards the end of the first century.

IMG_1366John’s purpose is to articulate the belief that Jesus was the Son of God, who was born in human form, died and rose again. He is trying to understand and to help us understand what it means for the Scriptures to be fulfilled as the Word became flesh. In contrast to some other parts of Scripture, I would like to suggest therefore that the theological background of this particular passage is more important than its historical context, and so that is what I would like to focus on this morning, hoping that it will give us a better appreciation of what Jesus may have meant by that last – easily misinterpreted phrase – ‘You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

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‘You are the light of the world’

A reflection on what it means to be a light to the world

Weston HallDoing a bit of last-minute research in advance of Shell Chapel later today, I discovered that the British Museum was one of the first buildings in the UK to be lit electrically. Candles and oil lamps would have been too dangerous and their smoke would have damaged the artefacts. This means that before the lights were installed in the late nineteenth century, often the building had to close early because it would get too dark to see anything.

It sounds like a pretty obvious point to make, but not matter how many or how beautiful artefacts or pieces of art a museum has, without adequate lighting it will be very hard to see and appreciate them. A further Google search taught me that there are innumerous businesses selling dedicated museum lighting nowadays, something one could probably have guessed, but had never occurred to me.

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What you wear is who you are?

A reflection after four weeks of different uniforms

As I’m not really the person looking forward to nine weeks of holiday, the last five weeks I have been working for Marlborough College Summer School. Although I still don’t quite know what it means, my official role was ‘Operations Manager’, and my code name for radio communications ‘Goldfinch’.

purple shirts

My role was a new one this year, and it effectively meant I fitted in somewhere between the art technicians, support team and, more tangentially, the office staff. Each team has a different colour polo shirt, so that they are easily recognisable when people have queries (and the occasional complaint!). I haven’t quite made it to having a pink shirt yet, but in the morning I had the choice between a purple and a black one. To make it even more confusion, on the days when I was having a more specifically priestly ministry, I would be wearing my clerical shirt. Usually I was reminded of this during breakfast, when people looked at me in a slightly confused way. Continue reading “What you wear is who you are?”