StJohn&StStephens-logo

peace

Sermon from Sunday 11th October 2020 – Trinity 18

Philippians 4:1-9: Rejoice Always

 

I am going to be looking at our epistle reading today, from Philippians, rather than at the parable of the wedding banquet.  I really like the letter to the Philippians, in that it is so personal, and Paul clearly likes the church there.  When he wrote the letter, Paul was (most likely) under house arrest in Rome (Acts 28v16).  There had been a Jewish plot in Jerusalem to kill him, which ended up with him being taken into custody by the Romans, and when he appeared before the Roman governor of Caesarea, he had appealed to Caesar, and been taken to Rome (Acts 23-28).  The Philippian church had sent a gift to support him (4vv10-20), and this was a thank you letter, and to let them know how he was.

 

The letter is generally very encouraging, and does have some wonderful bits in it.  In 2vv6-11 there is the marvellous Christian hymn about Jesus that starts: Who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…  We have been working our way through Romans in the past few months, and that feels much more like a theological treatise.  It is good stuff, but hard work, quite difficult to follow.  Philippians is much more personal and accessible.

 

Our reading is the final page of the letter: parting greetings and instructions.

 

Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. 

 

This is an extraordinary statement for a Christian leader.  It would, as Sir Humphrey says in Yes, Minister, be “brave”.  You hear people say “Do as I say, not as I do”, but this is “Do as I do”.  It is a challenge, and one that I find humbling as I deliver this sermon.  But it speaks of the way faith should spread into our whole lives, changing us, making us more like the Lord.  We will not always succeed in being like Jesus, be then God’s love and forgiveness is always there to come back to.

 

The church in Philippi was not perfect.  Two women, Euodia and Syntyche are having some sort of dispute.  We do not know what it was about.  Interestingly, Paul does not take sides, but urges them to be of the same mind as the Lord.  And he asks the others in the congregation to help them do this.  Again, there is clear affection there too, as the women have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.

 

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 

 

This is another glimpse of how a love for Christ can spread into all parts of our lives.  IN EVERYTHING, by prayer and supplication (and in a minute we shall look at Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS).  God is always with us, and we should cultivate an awareness of God with us, and a response to it.

 

We had an interesting discussion with friends last weekend about church: what it should be, and where it will go post COVID.  One point that came out strongly is that Christian life is most definitely not just about church.  Attending church, in church or on Zoom, is one expression of faith, but should not be the only one.  Church may be a starting point for faith, but not the end.

 

For me, there have been some positive features about the coronavirus lockdowns.  I am no longer speed three nights a week in Bristol to work in the office there.  But because I have no commute, either to Bristol or in Bristol, it is easier to fit in some quiet time with God in the morning, before I start work on the computer in the bedroom.  Regular prayer is a good thing.  We can make it into an ought, and sometimes it will feel like an ought, but it can be very precious and sustaining.  It will take different forms for different people.  Within the church, I know of people who take a time to read a devotional book, study the Bible, pray as a couple, spend 15 minutes just being silent, listen to the Pray As You Go podcasts, meditate on a gospel story; and there will be many others.  Hard work sometimes, apparently unfruitful sometimes, but over the long term, a source of strength and a way of letting God in.

 

Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I will say, Rejoice. 

 

I came across an unpublished poem by G.K. Chesterton:

You say grace before meals.

All right.

But I say grace before the play and the opera,

And grace before the concert and the pantomime,

And grace before I open a book,

And grace before sketching, painting,

Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;

And grace before I dip the pen in the ink. 

 

John Stott was an Anglican priest who was, for many years, at All Souls, Langham Place, in London, though with an international ministry.  He was the Queen’s Chaplain for most of his life, and many of you will be familiar with him through his books and talks over many years.  He was also a keen birdwatcher.  In my quiet times this week I have been using a book written by him called, The Birds, Our Teachers.  Since I am also a birdwatcher, this appealed to me on several grounds.

 

In the introduction he says that he considers that Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 6v26, Look at the birds of the air, means that all Christians should be birdwatchers, which seems perfectly reasonable.  The book talks of lessons that we can learn from birds, a study he calls ornitheology.

 

Stott quotes a Ghanaian proverb, Even the chicken, when it drinks, lifts its head to heaven to thank God for the water.  [www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNrijjpkNAE].  This view of chickens is a good reminder of giving thanks in everything.

 

Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 

 

Mark talked in a sermon the other week about deciding not to watch the news because it was so negative.  What you concentrate on will be what your mind is full of.  So consciously turning towards that which is good, which can mean doing good rather than avoid anything upsetting, is another way of turning ourselves towards God.

 

And the reward: And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. 

 

Jeremy Thake,

St. John & St. Stephen

 

 

journey

Lessons for the Journey – Sunday 27th September, Trinity 16A

Exodus 17:1-7

Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

In the Lectionary we’ve been in Exodus for a few weeks now. This morning is no exception. The alternative was a short passage from Philippians, which is a message about being of one heart and mind, and in Matthew’s gospel we have an exchange between Jesus and his accusers on the subject of authority.

At first the readings don’t appear to have much in common, but I think there’s a lesson in each for us at this time as we simultaneously emerge from lockdown and head perilously close to it again.

So I’ve called this talk: Lessons for the Journey. In Exodus the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness, and this seems rather a good description, I think, of what it’s felt like to be church in the last six months. We’ve had to leave what we knew of as normal, without really knowing what our destination will be. It is certainly difficult to make plans whilst in this in between stage, so do keep praying for the Church Wardens, Christine and myself as we navigate this period, with the help of Tanya and the music leaders and IT gurus amongst us.

The escape from slavery in Egypt is one the foundational stories of the Old Testament, but it’s about a lot more than gaining physical freedom. There must be some human tendency, I think, to forget the gains we have made and the blessings we have received. It seems that as soon as we get what we longed for, we want to go back to what we had before.

The Israelites had longed for freedom; they’d no doubt prayed for it over many generations. And God heard their cry and sent them deliverance in the form of Moses and Aaron, to get them out of Egypt.

But it seems no sooner were they out of Egypt, they wanted to return. ‘The people complained against Moses, and said “why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our livestock and children with thirst?”’ This was one of the first of a catalogue of complaints against Moses that would continue for 40 years.

As Danielle Strickland has pointed out, in her book about Exodus, you can take the people out of Egypt but you can’t take Egypt out of the people. The Israelites’ wanderings in the desert turned into a long lesson that God was trying to teach them: that is, where God leads, he always provides. The wilderness taught them the very hard lesson of trust. I’m not sure they even got it by the end.

And perhaps that’s a good place for us to start in terms of lessons for our journey. Many people feel like they’re in the wilderness at the moment. It’s an in between time – we’re not out of the woods yet as far as Covid goes – but at the same time, we’re in a different place than we were six months ago. I’m not sure if to you it feels worse or better than in March when all this began…

Being in between demands a spirituality that can thrive in a liminal space. Liminal comes from the Latin ‘limen’, meaning a threshold. A liminal space is where you have left the shore of the old place, but have not yet arrived at the new place. You have to let go of what you had before, but before you can embrace what is coming, you are living with neither one thing nor the other. That was me this time last year as I spent exactly two weeks not technically being the minister of either Whitchurch or St John and St Stephen’s! Being in liminal space can be daunting, but it can also be liberating.

In the wilderness the Israelites were free outwardly, but it would take a lot longer to become free inwardly. They had lived in subjugation for so long, they had forgotten how to take responsibility for their own moral actions, and they complain to Moses like children. Instead of trusting God’s provision they feel God has abandoned them to an early grave.

As we are in between what we remember as normal, and what things are beginning to feel like now, we are also in liminal space and need to trust that where God leads, he also provides.

I wonder, what has been your experience of God’s provision?  Do you feel that you need to take matters into your own hands when it comes to a crisis, or do you find it easy to trust that God will provide? I don’t know about you, but my experience of God’s provision is that sometimes it feels as though it’s a bit last minute; it doesn’t necessarily look like how I imagined it would be, and it tends to emerge piecemeal rather than ready-made.

But emerge it does, and often when we are listening to one another and sharing what we really need from each other. This is what we’re trying to do as a leadership team as I meet weekly with Christine, Ian and Rosemary.

Our church family is being moulded through this crisis. New IT skills are emerging (painful though it may feel sometimes!); we are making new connections with people who have not felt able to come to church in recent years, and we are thinking about a more diverse worship offering.

I wonder how your spirituality is developing in this time? Maybe you can find someone to talk this through with. On Tuesday a group of us met to be trained as encouragers/mentors so that eventually you will be able to have a one to one conversation with someone who’s mature, about your walk with God, and it might prove quite life changing in this liminal time.

So to briefly look at the other two readings: and here’s one thought from Philippians and then one from Matthew. “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

Boris Johnson read this passage at a recent Battle of Britain Commemoration Service (slide).

This is basically our country’s mantra at the moment, straight from the bible! Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer has said it is our ‘collective responsibility’ to manage the present Covid upsurge and Boris Johnson has said we must ‘Act now together’. The gift of the church to the world is that we know where the impetus to consider others before ourselves comes from. Its origin is not a begrudging sense of duty, but nothing less than the self-emptying of Jesus Christ – technical term: ‘kenosis’. If Christ, who was divine, emptied himself of power in order to serve others, we can take our example from him.

Which leads us finally to Matthew, and the true nature of authority. Authority is also a hot topic at the moment. It is alluded to in each of the three readings; in fact you could say it’s the thread that ties them together. In complaining at Moses, Exodus makes it clear that the people were really complaining at God, and rejecting his authority. They do the same when later they ask Samuel for a king to be set over them, like the other nations have. And the moral of that story was: be careful what you wish for.

Christ’s authority is predicated on his self-emptying. Only by going down, can he go up, as it were (to use the language of Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upwards). Death precedes resurrection and only Christ’s sacrificial death disarms the principalities and powers. Yes, every knee will bow: this is the wish of all tyrants that every knee would bow to them, but only Christ will legitimately receive universal homage.

In Matthew, Jesus is challenged to defend his authority. “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” is the Pharisees’ question. He answers with another question and a parable. In effect the three readings pose these three questions: Was Moses’ authority from God? Was John the Baptist’s authority from God? Was Jesus’s authority from God? The answer in all three cases is yes. But only those with obedient hearts were able to perceive this. That’s why following God is less about ‘can you answer these questions correctly?’ and more about ‘is your heart in the right place?’

It’s like a man who had two sons, says Jesus: their father asked them for help in the vineyard. The first said okay, but didn’t go. The other initially said no, but later he went. Which one is heading into the kingdom, is the question. The Pharisees didn’t recognize God in John the Baptist and they don’t recognize God in Jesus. And they’re the religious ones! All is not as it seems in the kingdom, and all is not as it seems with regards to authority.

Authority is being tested in our public life as never before. The safeguarding of our common life in this country depends more than ever on people being obedient to political authority. It’s something we may not have given much thought to before Covid, but when our personal and social freedoms are limited by rules pertaining to the virus, the authority of our leaders, and our own obedience, is really tested.

We don’t easily follow leaders who seem, for whatever reason, not to deserve our obedience. That’s why when public trust in leaders is low we’re in trouble. As well as structural authority, we recognize authority based on experience and then inner authority, which is harder to define. The crowds followed Jesus, not because he had authority bestowed upon him by an outward structure, and not even because he had the relevant life experience, but because he had that inner authority – wisdom-authority. The word ‘authority’ in Greek is ‘ex-ousia’ meaning out of one’s being.

We tend to recognize spiritual authority when we see it in someone. It’s often not vested in the loudest person, but in the one listening, the one waiting for the right moment to offer a pearl of wisdom. It’s not something we can manufacture; instead it is born out of lives joyfully submitted to Christ.

So, Lessons for the Journey: Firstly we need a spirituality that is able to deal with liminality. Secondly in our present crisis, it is noteworthy that being unselfish is suddenly very much in vogue. And finally, the kingdom is indeed, as Peter pointed out last week, a topsy-turvy one: like Christ, we have to go down before we can go up. Spiritual authority comes from an inner attitude of humility and obedience to Christ. This is only kind of authority with which we can speak or act as Christians at this time.