Saturday, 30 January 2010

Opening up to love

I have used "prayer flowers" to help adults pray creatively. Sometimes by colouring, sometimes by writing, sometimes as a labyrinth activity or, simply, by meditating with the paper flowers. The petals are folded into the centre and then floated on water. It never fails to amaze - or delight me - when the petals open up, offering our prayers to God.
Roots on the web suggest this as a children's activity this week, and have supplied a bigger template for the flowers.
We're celebrating all age worship tomorrow, so I thought it would be fun for everyone to create their own prayer flower which they can either take home or float on the baptismal font.
The focus reading will be 1 Corinthians 13, Paul's letter about love. It will be good to take that passage out of the usual wedding context and ponder a bit about the love that God has for us and how much we're open to exposing ourselves to that intensity of love. Being open to love and be loved is as big a risk as being open to prayer.
We love because, first, God loved us - words we use at every baptism.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

These people, today

Readings: Nehemiah 8 v 1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Luke 4 v 14-21

The priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding… He read from it … from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.

Nehemiah 8 v 1-3

As I read over today’s Old Testament reading, it took me back to my youth fellowship days when, as a fairly young teenager I was involved in a couple of “Bible Reading Marathons”

We’d meet at church early on a Saturday morning and read the Bible, all taking it in turns, for 24 hours, culminating in the reading at the Sunday service.

There was regular food and rest through the day but always a handful of folk in the sanctuary keeping the readings and readers going.

During the day, adults from the church would pop in and out to lend their support and encouragement.

It actually seems a bit bizarre now but that was our efforts at fundraising for mission – a Bible Reading marathon.

Our reading from the book of Nehemiah this morning tells just a little of the story of the Jews rebuilding their lives on return from exile.

For many years they have been banished from their homeland, often separated from loved ones.

When they are finally able to return, their city is in ruins as is their whole way of life.

Living in exile, their younger members in particular have picked up on customs and practices that are unfamiliar and there has not been the opportunity to teach and live according to their heritage.

It is only once the city is rebuilt and the temple is restored that efforts can turn to re establishing religious custom and culture.

That is why the people stand in amazement listening to the word of the Lord.

For the older folk there, although it may have been some time since they have heard it, there is joy in listening to words that were once familiar.

There is at once pleasure and nostalgia.

For the younger folk, previously unthirled to the word, there is mystery and beauty in the language of their forebears and, it would seem, a challenge, calling from them a response.

What a wonderful picture of the power of the word of God.

A challenge for us today might be to ask ourselves:

When is the last time we felt such a response to the word?

When was the last time we recognized its beauty or felt called out by its challenge?

“and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.”

A people starved of that word on which their whole culture was built, that word that shaped their heritage, riveted by the reading of the age-old text.

Hungry to hear more.

the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.

When we hear the word, what does it stir up in us?

As we hear it read Sunday by Sunday, perhaps even more often, what does it mean to us?

I’ve long been a fan of words – aren’t most ministers?

Never say in one word what you can say in five!

Anyone who has been in my study will know how much I love books.

But I like to know how words came to be, how phrases came into common usage.

I used to trawl through books to find out the origins of sayings:

Phrases like “giving someone the cold shoulder” or “turning a blind eye” or “pulling out all the stops”.

Now it’s really easy to find meanings or common usage.

A quick search on the internet.

And it’s amazing the way meanings change over time.

For instance – cool – a term not used so much by young folks now but one that we might have used replaced the term bird.

That’ s how we get birdie in golf – one under par – a good shot – cool.

Meanings evolve and even change:

That Easter hymn – There is a green hill far away, without a city wall – referred to a green hill outside the city wall, not missing the wall.

Or the old prayer: prevent us O Lord in all our doings.

Why would God want to prevent us – surely we do some good?

But Prevent meant – go before.

Go before us Lord makes so much more sense.

I love the bit in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll when Humpty Dumpty describes his philosophy on definitions:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’(Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll)

Perhaps, we’re a bit like that when it comes to Scripture.

It means whatever we want it to mean, whatever suits us.

We’re so used to hearing it that, far from being riveted to it like the exiles returning home of whom we read in Nehemiah, we treat it lightly and, at best, barely hear it or, at worst, make it mean whatever we like.

Jesus returned to his home town and read from Scripture. He read a text with which his elders would be so familiar.

But Jesus put a whole new spin on it.

“Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” said Jesus.

“Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”

And what was that scripture?

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

Good news.





The people heard very familiar words.

But in a wholly different context.

Because Jesus said to them: Today this Scripture is fulfilled.

It wasn’t about history.

The present was what mattered.

Just as it matters today.

No matter our heritage.

No matter our history.

What matters is how we live out our Christian life today.

We are called to preach and to live

Good news.




And favour.

And to do that today.

Whether we know the familiar scriptures inside out or whether we feel out of our depth.

Whether we’re bored listening to them.

Or whether we hunger for more and are rapt with attention.

It’s what we do with Scripture today that counts.

It’s the world around us today that we are called to serve.

And that means that our past, however wonderful pales against the demands of being church in the world today.

Because still Jesus calls us to serve the poor.

This sanctuary and this people can tell a wonderful story.

A story of growth and fun and love.

The story of Christian witness in this community is one worth celebrating.

But it is a story that belongs to the past.

And the challenge in today’s gospel is to resurrect that witness for this day and for these people.

To see this Scripture fulfilled today by our love and actions in the community we serve now.

To capture the Spirit of God that was the driving force in days gone by and to harness that Spirit to drive us forward now.

That was a spirit that was prepared to take risks, that was prepared to welcome all, even those who were different.

It was a spirit that persuaded folk to pitch in and achieve wonderful things together because everyone was committed, everyone responded and there was work to be done.

Still there is work to be done.

And the urgency is just as great.

So what holds us back today?

Are we tired?

Are we afraid to take risks?

Are we content or too comfortable?

Jesus said to them: Today this Scripture is fulfilled.

That word of the Lord is just as powerful today as it was in Jesus day.

The word of God should be as riveting for us as it was for the exiles returning home.

The mission that Jesus sets before us is every bit as urgent.

As urgent as it was when this community here was growing up.

And the Spirit that achieved wonderful things in the past is every bit as powerful to achieve great things for God today.

Our tiredness, our jadedness, our less than enthusiastic response hold back the mission of God here in this place.

What will it take to know once again that Today, Scripture is being fulfilled in this place.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

Today, let us here fulfil this Scripture. For the glory of God.


Sunday, 17 January 2010

Pray,Listen,Respond in love

Here is my offering for this Sunday, still based on the lectionary gospel but very different from what I'd imagined earlier in the week before disaster struck:

Reading: John 2 v 1-11

Sunday 17th January 2010

Readings: John 2 v 1-11

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

I’m sure you’ve all been extremely moved by the daily news coverage of the earthquake that hit Haiti earlier this week and the resultant aftermath of death and destruction.
It’s hard to imagine how Haiti, already one of the poorest countries in the world, can ever survive such a catastrophic event.
Everything, there, it seems is caught up in grief and confusion.
It’s hard to get any firm idea of the number of casualties involved and the numbers that are being reported are simply mind boggling and, it seems that though governments and citizens all over the world are pitching in offers of help, actually getting aid in situ is proving extremely difficult.
In the face of such devastation and impotence to make a difference, how do we, people of faith, respond?
The prescribed gospel for today was the one we read in John – the miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee.
In some ways, it seems such a frivolous text, especially when set against the perspective of such world disaster.
Jesus changing water into wine.
Although running out of wine at a wedding in a culture so grounded in hospitality must have seemed like a disaster, we might well wonder how such comparative trivia might speak into the awful reality of world events today.
Jesus response to the diminishing wine problem was one of out of proportion extravagance.
Surely, today that seems almost obscene.
And yet, in this gospel today, there is much that speaks of possibility, of potential, of abundance and of grace.
In this, the first miracle or sign recorded by John, Jesus looks around him and uses ordinary people to transform ordinary things into wonderful gifts.
His miracle was achieved quietly, without fuss.
Many who were present were unaware of what had happened.
But those who saw, believed.
Amidst all that is emerging from Haiti at present are miracles and wonders, signs of incredible grace and extravagant giving.
Hilary Clinton referred to the disaster as one of biblical proportions.
A disaster on that scale needs a response to match.
The Disasters emergency committee appeal has so far commanded a response of 12 million pounds.
People are responding practically and prayerfully.
But that doesn’t stop us asking why?
Events like this always raise so many questions.
But, perhaps instead of asking Why? We might ask instead: what can we do?
We will never be in a position to prevent natural disaster.
Earthquake, famine, flood are forces that even we, with all our skill cannot keep at bay.
But what we can do is respond with compassion and with love.
And not just in times of disaster.
Countries like Haiti have such poor infrastructures to begin with, they are at the bottom of the heap in economic terms, so disadvantaged when there is more than enough to go round.
It is to those situations that we must respond before crisis hits.
We believe that Christ came to bring life in abundance.
For all of God’s people.
Yet here we se God’s people crying out, not for fine wine but for the extravagant simplicity of clean water.

Yesterday, I came across a report form Matthew Price, one of the BBC’s reporters in Port-au-Prince:
I was crouching by some rubble, talking to Jeanne-Charles, a pretty woman, composed and kind. She wasn't sure she could speak to me. "I'm very shaky," she explained. Still we did chat, and it all came out.
The night before, one of her colleagues at the Good Samaritan Mission of International Nursing, where Jeanne-Charles works, had received a text message.
It was from one of her staff members, who when they sent it, was lying somewhere beneath the flattened mass of concrete that until last Tuesday was a five-storey building housing the mission.
The text message read: "There are 25 of us alive in here, we are hungry and hot."
In all, Jeanne-Charles told me, there were more than 200 people who had died in that building. That for days they'd been trying to get to the others who are trapped inside. A few had been brought out. But without equipment they could do little more.
As she struggled to keep her tears back, she gave me a list of everything they need - and they need everything. Bulldozers, diggers, medicine, doctors, food, water, shelter, money.
And then she asked me a simple question. "What can you do?"
It wasn't the first time in these gruelling days that I'd been asked such a question. There was the smart, polite, elderly man, for instance, who waited until I'd finished talking to someone else and then gently tapped me on the shoulder and told me his wife had died. "What will you do?" he asked.
Or the woman sitting with hundreds of others all huddled in a makeshift camp, who'd lost her family, her home, her possessions, her job, and yet who still managed to smile. "Do you have an umbrella," she wondered, "to keep the sun off?"

What will you do?
Although we can see the scale of the rescue effort being mounted and of the pledges of aid and monetary support, to the people on the ground it often seems as though no one is helping. Their expectations are being fulfilled.
For so long they have know themselves of such little value that they have no reason to hope that things will be any different but only a hundred times worse in the face of disaster.
Abandoned in life and in death.
It will take a miracle to penetrate such hopelessness.
But isn’t that what grace does?
Grace brings abundance into poverty.
Creates miracles out of the ordinary.
Shows up signs of potential and possibility.
Transforms lives and communities and nations.
Dare we hope for such miracles today?
Are we prepared to play our part in bringing about such abundant grace?
What will you do?

Here is another account – From a mother who, with her husband was working, and continues to work in Leogane, even nearer the epicentre of the earthquake than those in Port au Prince.

At night we sleep in the yard behind the hospital where thebandstand was. It has fallen, as has the Episcopal school. Three are 200-300 people who sleep in that field at night. They sing hymns until almost midnight, and we wake up to a church service, with hymns, and morning prayer, and the apostle’s creed.The evening sky is glorious.
In the field there is a real sense of community.Of course, we are the only blancs there.A group from FondWa arrived in Leogane today and will sleep theretonight.
Janine the head cook brought John and me spaghetti from her home in Darbonne 8 miles away.
We shared with the group from FondWa.
They have some money so they went out and bought rice, etc, and we will eat tonight.People have shared with us and we are getting a chance to feel how theHaitians really live.
I have never understood joy in the midst of suffering, butnow I do.
The caring I have seen, the help we have received from the Haitians, the evening songs and prayers. Are wonderful. The people will survive, though many will die. Please pray for us.

What will you do?
I love the part in the story of Jesus turning water into wine that his mother Mary plays.
She tells Jesus of the problem, is seemingly given the brush off, but says to the servants anyway: do whatever he tells you to.
She doesn’t take no for an answer but prepares the ground for the miraculous to happen.
Sometimes in all our efforts and in our prayers, it seems that we achieve so little.
And yet change happens.
And grace abounds.
But we have to be ready, when we persist in asking God to act, that God might well demand of us, becoming instruments by which our own prayers are answered.
As well as asking, we must be ready to respond and not just in crisis.

And so today, our gospel of an extravagant response to a problem of oversight speaks profoundly into a world overwhelmed by the forces of nature.
God nudges us as we nudge God:
The words of Mary echo throughout the world:
Do as Jesus tells you.
In that, will we find healing for our broken world.

Let me share with you this video: Pray, Listen, Respond with Love.
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Tuesday, 12 January 2010


This week's gospel reading is John 2:1-11, the story of Jesus changing water into wine. I get the distinct feeling that he isn't quite ready to be rumbled. He says to his mother: "Woman, my hour has not yet come." But other plans are afoot and, certainly in John's gospel this is the first of the signs that Jesus is something special - from another planet might be one way of putting it. Despite his reluctance we can see him, in this disaster aversion at a wedding being drawn into the light.
I have a load of questions about this story. I probably won't preach them on Sunday, so I'll air them here instead:
If his time had not yet come, why did Jesus respond anyway?
The jars that came to be filled with wine were used for the ritual washing/purification practices. How was that custom fulfilled when Jesus requisitioned the containers - that was important too for the folks there.
Why such an abundance?
What bits of our ritual would Jesus mess up or transform into the absurd.
Is there a tie up to our gospel last week - the baptism of Jesus by John? Jesus had to go out into the wilderness to see John - put himself out there. Is this coming out of the closet at a wedding in a similar vein?
Lots of food and drink for thought.