Monday, 26 August 2019

Standing up straight & praising God

Preached as sermon at Croydon Minster on Sunday 25 August, Tenth Sunday after Trinity.

‘When Jesus laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God’ (Luke 13.12)


This morning’s gospel reading tells us about an encounter that is both beautiful and disturbing at the same time.

Beautiful: because in it a woman who has been bowed down for eighteen years regains her stature and dignity of herself in in the sight of others.

Disturbing: because the reaction to this act of restoration and healing sparks indignation from those who should be most joyful that another human being has her dignity restored.

The woman typifies those who are bent over and weighed down, physically yes, but psychologically or spiritually too. This isn’t just physical: how often are the physically afflicted spiritually upright?!

This crippling aliment, described as a ‘spirit’ by St Luke, but not defined by him, has oppressed her for eighteen years.

The period of eighteen years will have had interesting connotations for the people gathered in that synagogue on that Sabbath Day.

In the book of Judges it was for eighteen years that the Israelites had to serve the foreign king Eglon of Moab (Judges 3.14) and for eighteen years the foreign Ammonite kingdom ‘crushed and oppressed’ the Israelites (Judges 10.8). The number eighteen is associated with oppression and being crushed down.

Intriguingly also, according to the Jewish numerological tradition, the number eighteen also signifies ‘life’, ‘alive’ or ‘living creature’.

So a woman oppressed for eighteen years, becomes a newly ‘living creature’ who can stand up straight and praise God.


The fact this took place on the Sabbath Day is also deeply resonant and filled with meaning.

Observing the Sabbath is a good thing. A day of rest, a day when the pace of life changes, a day to know the gift of life; a day to honour God our Creator: it is telling that our society in all its turmoil and dis-ease neglects Sabbath.

But we miss the point of Sabbath if, like the synagogue leader, we cannot show mercy and loving kindness on that day. If we cannot show it on that day can we ever show it on the other six?

The Creation begins on the first day as God says ‘let there be light’ (Genesis 1.3) and unfolds over six days. The Sabbath is the seventh day of the week when God rested, seeing that all was good.

Yet the creation is marred and disfigured. People are oppressed, bowed down externally and internally, physically and mentally, and in the words of the hymn ‘Just as I am, without one plea’, we come to Jesus, the Lamb of God,

…tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings within, and fears without’

We, like the woman, come to him now. And he beholds her; he beholds you; he beholds me.

To Jesus Christ we are not problems to be manged we are living creatures, who are loved, to be restored to life, to be released from all that bows us down.

So this act of restoration on the Sabbath Day anticipates the eighth day of creation, the first day of the new week, the Day of Resurrection, the Day of Life, the day of the New Creation, a day that has dawned today.

In the act of restoring that woman to dignity the crowds came to see that God’s priority is the lifting up of people from the dust, the gutter and into life.

The action of baptism is the Church’s sacramental sign that raises up men, women and children sharing in the raising up of Christ through his Resurrection.

‘If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God’ (Colossians 3.1)

Being baptised is an act of restoration and with this gospel reading we learn how we might approach God and our neighbour.

As Christians we should not be able see another person without beholding them as Christ does. In a brief walk outside this church we will see many people bowed down in spirit: Christ raises them up when they are freed from addiction, poverty, pain and we respond to them with kindness, hospitality and love. That is a sign of the Kingdom of God.

And what of our approach to God? This question comes not least in relation to the first reading today concerning the awe and majesty of God which perhaps prompts us to fall to our knees in reverence and humble devotion. Kneeling is a right and proper posture in God’s presence: just as how we bow reverently before the cross; bend our knee in genuflection at Christ’s presence in the sacrament; or kneel to receive Christ in Holy Communion.

But that is not the only posture of a Christian. Christ says, ‘stand up’ to the woman, ‘reclaim your dignity as a daughter, a child, of the Most High. Our Eucharistic Prayer says, ‘We thank you for counting us worthy to stand in your presence and serve you’ (Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England, Prayer B). Standing as a posture of prayer bespeaks dignity, presence and attention.

In church standing when a priest enters is not about doing the priest honour but rather saying that together with the priest we are the church, ‘a royal priesthood, a holy people’. Worshippers are not spectators but participants.

We are citizens of the Kingdom not consumers of it. As Jesus says, ‘Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’ (Luke 21.28).

Of course kneeling or standing is not easy for everyone, or not for prolonged periods of time. But even in sitting we can sit in an anticipating way, a receptive, attentive way, with open hands and relaxed shoulders; or we can choose to button up, with our arms folded, and sit as if at a show.

Liturgy is not a performance; we are all ministers of it. Never allow your posture to turn you into a spectator whatever is going on in front of you, because in worship we are in the presence of the Living God, just as the letter to the Hebrews describes:

…since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12.29)

It is for this that we are made, to praise and glorify God in the gift of life given to us by birth and renewed in baptism: ‘When Jesus laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God’ (Luke 13.12)

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Move on from the weather: worship; pray; love.

A sermon preached at Croydon Minster on the Ninth Sunday after Trinity (18 August 2019). Reading: Jeremiah 23.23-29; Luke 12.49-56.


I don’t know about you, but just about every conversation I have had recently has begun with the major topic of the day – not Brexit, not Trump, not even England’s performance in the cricket or the return of the Premier League  – but, yes, the weather!

And haven’t we had a great deal to talk about: unseasonal deluges and, only a few weeks ago, a heat wave and record temperatures.

Of course, the weather has become a rather more serious business than it used to be because of the related climate issues that it highlights.

That said conversation about the weather is often a distraction. An item on BBC Radio 5 last week explored how when we talk about the weather it is often a social nicety before a proper conversation; but it can also be a way of avoiding a deeper conversation altogether. Certainly inhabitants of the British Isles have plenty of weather related topics of conversation.

In this morning’s gospel reading Jesus rails against superficial conversations about the weather and dodging the questions that go deeper.

54 Jesus also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

We read some signs, usually meteorological ones, and ignore the ones that point to the heart of things.

There are huge questions here: how do we interpret the ‘present time’? What are the signs of the present time that we should be noticing?

Let’s just remind ourselves that the gospel passage began with stark words that still have the capacity to shock: Jesus speaks of fire coming to earth; of stress; of division; of setting people against one another.

We can set this alongside words of John the Baptist, our patron saint, (who denies being the Messiah) and says: ‘one who is more powerful than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’. (Luke 3.16b) Or in Jeremiah: ‘Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?’ (Jeremiah 23.29)

But what of this division that Jesus says he has come to bring?

There is a great shaking up going on: disruption and turmoil. This is not ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’.

Jesus, like the prophets before him, is presenting a direct question in dramatic terms. The question is ‘what are the relationships that are most precious to you, and what do they look like?’

Is it your biological relationships? Is it the people you identify with because of race, class, political outlook, religious belief? Or is it the person who is different, disturbing or disfigured?

Taking discipleship seriously, being a follower of Jesus Christ, means we have to face those questions if we are to play a part in heralding the coming Kingdom of God.

This present time sees divisions based on suspicion, oppression, rampant nationalism, supremacism, casual racism, greed. Our time sees people left behind because of an inability to find a home in ‘mainstream’ society, unable to live life to the full because of anxiety about debt, housing or having a meaningful job. That’s true globally, nationally and locally.

How do we interpret all that?

Allegiance first to Jesus Christ means we see all our relationships in a different way. Jesus is clearly not about smashing up our precious relationships with those whom we love, but he is saying that the love we share for our family should spill out beyond and not be restricted just to them. As he says in regard to his own nearest and dearest, ‘My mother and my brother [and my sister] are those who hear the word of God and do it.’ (Luke 8.21)

Doesn’t all that move us away from talking about the weather?

Jesus, like the prophets, disrupts and shakes us up. That is deeply uncomfortable, but it is the beginning of turning our hearts back to the LORD and his Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God and the renewed creation is a Kingdom ‘of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit' (Romans 14.17) says St Paul.

And we know that the Holy Spirit is not the spirit of division and enmity, but rather of binding men, women and children of all 'tribes and peoples and languages' around the throne of God (Revelation 7.9).

From the disruption and division of which Jesus speaks emerges - like gold from a crucible - the precious, foundational essentials of life in the Spirit.

So how do we respond?

We worship. We pray. We love

We worship. As followers of Jesus Christ we patiently gather in worship at the altar of God where we find that we are brothers and sisters of one another, and of the saints who have gone before us, especially when we are of different tribes, peoples and languages. Our worship, echoing the worship of heaven, models the relationships where love spills out to all around us and a symphony of praise swirls to the throne of grace.

We pray. Not to avoid the realities of the world but to be instruments of transformation, being open in prayer to be transformed by Christ, so that we can live as those who read and interpret our present time and act in Christ’s healing and reconciling name.

We love. We love when we are loved. Love is always transformative; transforming relationships, situations and ourselves. And, as St Paul reminds us, when all is shaken up, divided and stripped away, God’s love never ends (1 Corinthians 13.8a).

The message today: move on from the weather: worship; pray; love.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Going Beyond Merriment: The Banquet of Life

A sermon preached at Croydon Minster on Sunday 4th August 2019, Seventh Sunday after Trinity. The readings were, Colossians 3.1-11; Luke 12.13-21


The ‘Parable of the Rich Fool’ is a wonderfully vivid portrait of the way a life can totally lose sight of the deepest priorities of what it means to be human. It features a comfortable, overfed, over-wealthy, rich man who sees nothing more to his padded life than to ‘Eat, drink and be merry’.

This man has it all; in fact he has more than he can possibly want. And it’s pretty clear where his priorities lie.

It is a parable for our times.

The parable asks us to reflect on what really sets the bearings in our life; what is our hope and destination?

Will the many things we have, and the comforts we enjoy, blind us to the needs and pains of our world and her people?

The ‘eat, drink and be merry’ approach of the man in the parable is about self-adoration, self-satisfaction and self- gratification: ‘haven’t I done well? aren’t I marvellous? dash everyone else.’

For those us who were alive in the 1980s, it sounds a little like the character, created by Harry Enfield, called ‘Loadsamoney’ who just sneeringly bragged about how much money he had and waved wads of cash in the face of everyone else.

The ‘Loadsamoney’ character of the parable disregards everyone else and sits back to eat, drink and be merry. All that matters to him is a dogged pursuit of personal preferences and fulfilment. In that outlook other people are then either just tools to extract more money from or people to be pitied because they haven’t got what I’ve got.

The parable tells us about ourselves, or at least where we might find ourselves going if we take our eyes off the deeper, richer priorities of being human: of loving and adoring God; of seeking the Common Good; of seeing the legitimate and good generation of wealth as a means of creating a banquet in which all can share and no one be overlooked.

It has a personal and a societal dimension. It explodes the approach of ‘me, me, me’.

That self-absorbed approach to life was taken to its most horrific extreme in a story from the news last week: a mother who put her pursuit of eating, drinking and being merry above the care of her children and led, shockingly, to her killing them because they got in the way of her lifestyle.

Now that is a gross extreme, but a salutary example. How do I, how do you, prioritise our comfort, preferences and desire for security in relation to other people and indeed to our world and environment?

After all, since the industrial revolution our western world has effectively said ‘we’ve got everything we want, we have the comforts that previous ages don’t have so let’s eat, drink and be merry.’

It’s an approach that has led inexorably to the devastation of nature, the eradication of many species and as is becoming clearer and clearer towards a climate emergency that puts our own species under threat. We’re killing the environment in the pursuit of material comfort and security or just a bit of fun.

Politically there is a grave and current temptation and danger for our leaders to wish away complexity, to put their preferences over the Common Good and then to try to simplify real challenges by using the optimistic ‘eat, drink and be merry’ approach that says surely all will be fine.

The ‘me, me, me/eat, drink and be merry approach’ has not served human society and community well. The parable asks us to reflect on the priorities of our own lives and how we connect to other people: family, friends and wider community.

So where does all this take us?

Jesus promises abundant life (John 10.10); St Paul speaks of ‘taking hold of the life that really is life’ (2 Timothy 6.19).

The wonderful twist to all this is that we can ‘eat, drink and be merry’ when we are directing our lives to the feast of life, the banquet of heaven, from which spills out generosity, care for the weak, loving the creation rather than devouring the poor, the weak and anyone or anything who gets in our way.

What we are doing now in celebrating the Eucharist is the antidote to all of this and reframes the rich man’s phrase:
we eat the bread of life;
we drink the cup of salvation;
we enter into the joy of the Lord.

Life shaped in this way means that eating, drinking and being merry is a vision of a banquet to which all are invited, welcomed and fed.

It means that when we celebrate the Eucharist we are not self-indulgently consuming our own private, spiritual feast, that disregards everyone else, but we are participants in an action that tells us and the world what abundant life looks like.

We are anticipating the banquet of heaven, but making it real here and now!

This way of life puts away the old self, as described in our first reading; it cultivates habits that open us up to others and doesn’t shut them out; it reminds us that we are not self-made creatures worshipping ourselves; it reminds us not to exploit the creation or other people.

It is a strikingly different vision of the world from prevailing contemporary notions: that I am the master of my fate; that no one else can possibly impede me and what I want; that the way I see the world is the way the world is.

Through this banquet; through this eating, through this drinking we go beyond merriment -we go deeper – and enter into the abundant life and joy promised by the Lord.