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Trinity 5  St James’, Weybridge  16th July 2017  10.00am

There is no condemnation

Keith Elford

Romans 8.1-11

Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

 

A few weeks ago, I was walking down the busy Cornmarket in the centre of Oxford when I witnessed an encounter that has stayed with me.  A group of young Christians were giving out booklets and trying to engage passers-by in conversation, with the purpose of proclaiming to them the Christian message.  Observing one such conversation, I heard a middle-aged lady say, “But I don’t like being called a sinner, I don’t appreciate it at all”.  I heard the young man who had accosted her start to protest that we are all sinners but I had moved out of earshot before I heard any more.  I wonder where your sympathies lie as you consider this episode?  Perhaps you are like me – when confronted by earnest evangelists in the street I tend to keep my eyes down and hope to get past as quickly as possible.  And I felt for the lady, who, understandably I think, felt offended at being characterised by a stranger, out of the blue, as, if you like, a ‘bad person’.

But we can’t get away from this sin business.  Over the last many weeks our epistle readings have taken us through Paul’s letter to the Romans and sin has been a major theme.  It’s not the most accessible stuff and we usually put the focus on the Gospel, but I thought it was time to give it some attention. In his letter to the Roman church, Paul gets as close as he ever does to an extended, systematic account of a theological theme.  Today we reach the high point of his argument.  Let me set out some of the story he tells as it affects us today.

We are all sinners

Notwithstanding the feelings of the lady from Oxford, we are all sinners.  I wonder how you feel about it?  And what does it mean?  Well, it means that we are all flawed, imperfect; all prey to drives and feelings that damage us and, when reflected in action, damage others.  This separates us from God – and from others.  We choose things that make for death, depression, unhappiness, or which harden us against the feelings, needs or even a real awareness of the existence of others. 

Paul is partly concerned to explain how faith in Christ fits with the Jewish inheritance of faith and practice in which the law was central. He emphasises that the Jewish law is a God-given part of Jewish identity, but that it cannot deal with what causes sin. This distinction is still important. We can keep the rules but it doesn’t deal with who we are. A lot of people today distinguish between good people and bad people and characterise themselves as good.  Bad people commit great and obvious crimes, like murder perhaps, Good people do their best, have never done any harm to anyone and so on.  This ‘us and them’ approach is very comforting for those who see themselves as the relatively righteous ‘us’ but it doesn’t stand much examination and is certainly not Christian.  This is not to say that there is a moral equivalence between ignoring your neighbour and murdering them. But the Christian view is that we are all fundamentally the same: we are all characterised by similar drives and weaknesses.  For some it issues in much worse behaviour, but it is all deadly.

Well, if that’s how it is, who can stand?  And, the answer, of course, is no-one.

We can’t help it

Perhaps you feel that this is all most unfair.  We can’t help this. After all, God seems to have made us this way. It’s not our fault.  And St Paul agrees.  In the passage that precedes today’s, he sets out the dilemma that applies even to the Christian: “The good which I want to do, I fail to do; but what I do is the wrong that is against my will”.  Sin is an addiction, an illness, if you like.  And, if you feel that God should perhaps take some responsibility for the situation, that is exactly what the death of Christ is about.

God loves us and comes to our rescue

And so we arrive at the climax of Paul’s argument.  God comes to our rescue.  There is no condemnation.  Though we are Christians, we are religious, we still sin.  But God does not condemn us and therefore neither should we condemn ourselves. He says we’re OK.  More than that, we are special, loved, each uniquely valuable to God. And furthermore, his Spirit is at work within us, to change us from the inside. 

And so we have a paradox, a tricky balance. Sin is a very serious business.  But we should not spend too much time on it. We should live lightly.  We should live as if we believe in God’s endless love for us.  And, above all, we should not allow ourselves to get into the worst trap of all – self-condemnation.  For that only reinforces the negative patterns we fight against.  Feeling bad about ourselves only ties into a negative cycle of failure.  As Anthony de Mello says, God is much less interested in your feeling bad than in your changing.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that the seed that falls on the good ground bears fruit.  Maybe we become good ground when we become sufficiently self-aware, sufficiently tired of making poor choices, to be open to this message of grace and transformation.  And maybe sowing the seed is less about delivering unwelcome messages to random passers-by on the street than about demonstrating what that unconditional, transforming dynamic of grace looks like in the way we interact with each other and others.

I close first with a quotation from Julian of Norwich.

In heaven we shall see truly and everlastingly that we have grievously sinned in this life; notwithstanding, we shall we see that this in no way diminished his love, nor made us less precious in his sight. The testing experience of falling will lead us to a deep and wonderful knowledge of the constancy of God’s love, which neither can nor will be broken because of sin. To understand this is of great profit.

And then Pope Francis’ personal credo:

I am flawed; I am a good and gifted person; I am called to offer my gifts to God and the world

 

Sermon - Sunday 25th June - 10 am

Theresa Ricketts

Today is one of those Sundays when, if you’ve read the readings in advance and you’re putting together the rota, you might choose to be away. Whereas there are parts of the Bible and indeed the gospels that contain words of comfort and encouragement, these are very different. The words Jesus speaks here are of conflict and discord; of difficult choices and division.

 

So how do we make sense of them? I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you here will be spending some of the rest of the day with family. And if you aren’t, you may be speaking to them. You will, I’m sure, relish those relationships which work, the support and encouragement to be gained from close family. Some of you will have worked hard to make more awkward relationships work – to get on with people you might not naturally choose to spend time with. And you will probably consider that effort worthwhile. Yet here is Jesus speaking of man against father, daughter against mother and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. Why, we might wonder, have we bothered to work so hard at those relationships?

 

Well, the first thing to say is that not every word in the Bible is to be taken literally. Jesus was fond of hyperbole – of exaggerating to make his point. It was a common and effective rhetorical device – and remains so today. If someone had turned to you this Wednesday and said, “it’s boiling hot”, which of you would have reprimanded them because it was not in fact literally boiling? Similarly, as I was reminded only this week, it was a common aspect of Hebrew story-telling, which Jesus adopted, to highlight differences by contrast, just like that final sentence of today’s reading: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

 

Important though these observations are, it is impossible to get away from the challenges presented to us by the words in today’s reading. This passage follows directly from last week’s, and is the continuation of Jesus’s advice to his disciples as he sends them out to do God’s work. He certainly does not anticipate that they will have an easy time of it, and he is urging them to remain focused on God. And of course Jesus would know. He lived out the challenges that he predicts. And that is perhaps the beginning of our understanding. The life of Christ himself embodies the conflict and division he is describing, not because Jesus wanted conflict and division, but because of the messiness of people. The message Jesus brought was one of love and forgiveness. He was not a violent man and taught above all that people should love the Lord their God with all their heart, with all their mind and with all their soul, and love their neighbours as themselves. Yet this message met with hostility. Those in power felt threatened, to the point of putting him to death.

 

And so Jesus’s warning to his disciples is of the possible consequences of being his followers, of walking the path he walked. If we are to follow Christ, to put Christ first, to believe in love, forgiveness, justice, equality – and to embody those beliefs – there is likely to be a cost. One example, perhaps, is the churches’ response to the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. From 3 am on the night of the fire, the church of St. Clement’s was open, sheltering those who were escaping the blaze. The church became a refuge and a place where food, clothing and provisions were gathered and given out. But just as importantly, members of the surrounding churches spent time listening to the stories of those who had been involved. Being present in the middle of tragedy, pain and grief, listening and praying when there was no answer to be given, was the initial response.

 

But as we all know, the pain, anguish and grief fairly soon gave way to anger. The Bishop of Kensington, Graham Tomlin, had been present from the start. As tensions rose, he walked an interesting and important path. He heard people’s grievances, their desire for answers, their need for reassurance, their sense of injustice and inequality, and knew their voices needed to be heard. The social tension that has flared up is a response to a situation that cannot and must not be ignored. Yet he was not afraid to be part of a delegation that met with the Prime Minister at Downing Street, seeking to find a path that could bring about justice peacefully. At a time when Theresa May has probably never been less popular, it cannot have been easy to seek to bring people together. To try to encourage those who had lost everything, who were in deep distress and felt they have been ignored for too long into meaningful conversation rather than violent protest. When the meeting concluded, Tomlin himself did not sound in the least triumphant. He knew that voices had been heard, but remained unsure whether actions would follow.

 

The Bishop of Manchester played an equally significant role following the terrorist attack at the Manchester Arena. He joined and at times led the calls for a peaceful, loving response. He was seen with leaders of all faiths, coming together, offering a visible sign of unity in the face of terrorism, of love in response to hate, of reaching out to our fellow humans in our diversity. It is not an easy path to walk when the headlines of many of our daily newspapers prefer to encourage division and hate.

 

But what about us? What do Jesus’s words mean to us, in our daily lives, when we are not, for the most part, faced with responding to such dramatic situations?

 

What Jesus is telling us is that the path of love, forgiveness, justice and truth is not an easy one to walk. It will not always make us popular. But he is urging us to do it nonetheless – to believe that it always matters. When I was teaching, the challenge was often between the push for results and the needs of the pupils. Of course these need not be in conflict, but it can sometimes feel like more energy goes into pushing a few children from a grade D to a grade C than attending to the various needs of individuals. How hard is it to justify time spent listening to a child’s distress, or their friendship problems, rather than putting on another revision class? Did I have the courage to raise concerns with those who employed me?

 

You may experience similar dilemmas. Increasing demands to work long hours set against time spent with the family. And of course for many of you these are not just personal choices, but will be about the tone set in the organisations you work for. Which path do you walk? Are you able to speak truth to power when you fear the consequences?

 

And in our media age, there seem to be so many pressures to conform to certain kinds of lifestyle. Do we have the courage to stand out from the crowd when it matters most? To live out what we believe?

 

Today’s gospel reading is painful and challenging. It speaks of the cost involved in discipleship. But it reminds us of something else as well. That the God we believe in knows us inside out – every hair on our head has been counted. And the one we follow is with us in our struggles, loving us, holding us, never ever letting go. This kind of discipleship is life itself.

 

Sermon - Sunday 18th June - 10 am

Theresa Ricketts

The resignation of Tim Farron as leader of the Liberal Democrats this week has provoked significant comment, particularly in the Christian press. The reason is clear. In his letter of resignation he stated: “The consequences of the [press] focus on my faith is that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader.” Responses have ranged from a sense of outrage that the press should hound a faithful Christian from political office, to suggestions that this is really a cover for underwhelming results in the recent general election.

 

I am in no way qualified to comment on Farron’s reasons for standing down, but what interests me, as a Christian, is the process of discernment that appears to have taken place. In 2015 when Farron was elected leader questions were asked about his faith, but he believed that there was “no dichotomy between his political and spiritual beliefs”. His letter of resignation suggests that this is still the case. But what he has been working out over the past 2 years is whether it is his vocation to remain leader of the Liberal Democrats. And the conclusion he has drawn is that it is not.

 

Regardless of whether I believe he has made the right decision – or indeed whether he believes he made the right decision when he stood for the leadership two years ago – I find something heartening about the process that has taken place in seeking to discern God’s will. All those of us who profess any kind of faith are to some extent engaged in this process – in working out, on a daily basis, what it means to be followers of Christ. Where it leads us in terms of relationships, friendships, work, spare time activities, everything. And what I like about Tim Farron’s example is the way in which that process can involve changing our minds, making a different decision, taking a different fork in the road, trying something and allowing our experiences, coupled with prayer, to form part of our ongoing decision-making process.

 

This morning’s gospel reading is all about what it means to be followers of Christ, his disciples. We hear first about what Jesus himself was doing – teaching, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom and healing – and then we hear him send his twelve disciples out to do the same. It’s an awesome task, and in the subsequent verses he elaborates further: “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

 

But detailed though this commissioning is, it doesn’t exactly suit 21st century Britain. I believe we are still called, like those first 12 disciples, to be followers of Christ, and that it means something important for our lives. But the ways in which we seek to discern what exactly that means for each one of us – our own unique, individual calling – is complicated and challenging and changes over time. And in fact we get a sense of this even within Matthew’s gospel. Here in the tenth chapter the exhortation is to, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Yet by the time we reach the end of the gospel – the reading we heard last Sunday, the commissioning of the disciples in chapter 28, the command is to, “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Discerning our calling is an ongoing process which may change over time.

 

Earlier this week I spent a couple of days with a friend in Leicestershire. We met as teachers – she is a Classicist, an exceptionally gifted teacher and one of the most intelligent people I know. And now she has a beautiful 18 week old baby. We got very limited time to talk, so I am speaking more from what I observed than what I really know, but there is something extraordinary about the way babies control a household and leave people who have made successful careers and are respected in their fields feeling somewhat baffled and perplexed. Much of it is, of course, down to hormones and lack of sleep. But what my friend is being called to as mother to her new daughter marks a significant shift in her life, presents challenges she probably never expected, and is also the source of great joy.

 

There are times for each of us when our vocation – what we are called to – “happens” more than it is specifically chosen. That may be through the surprises that decisions like parenthood bring. But it can also be through the need to care for older relatives, or indeed to live with our own physical limitations or illnesses. At these times we are more likely to be involved in seeking to discover where God might be in the middle of what is happening, seeking to draw on the knowledge that God is with us even – and perhaps especially – when the going gets tough. It can be in the hardest times that we discover the most.

 

But there are times, too, when the discernment of vocation is more active and deliberate – like Tim Farron’s decision to stand as leader of the Liberal Democrats, and indeed his decision to stand down. As most of you know, I will be looking for a new job in the coming year. One of the comments that I find the most challenging is the suggestion that God has something in mind for me. It’s not that I don’t believe that God is and should be involved in the process of my next move, it is more that I am very aware of my own part in the decision-making process, and my own capacity to get things wrong. You see, at the end of the day, like any of you looking for jobs, what I will be doing is looking at the various jobs on offer, reading the job descriptions and person specifications carefully, and writing applications. There will then be an interview process, during which the parish seeks to find the person they believe God is calling to be their vicar, and I seek to decide whether this is where I am being called. Perhaps the most significant difference between this and other job applications is that prayer is an explicit and clearly central part of the process – for everyone involved. But I suppose what I’m trying to say is that, if we take our vocation as followers of Christ seriously, it is pretty important that prayer should form an important part of our decisions, too.

 

And, on the brink of an uncertain time myself, wondering where God may be calling me, I find the example of Tim Farron reassuring, and I hope you do, too. Discovering God’s call on our lives is an ongoing, life-long process. It is exciting and can also feel quite daunting. We will make mistakes along the way. But the one we are following remains firm and sure and true, loving us in our triumphs and disasters, knowing all our gifts and talents, and believing in us when we dare not believe in ourselves.

 

Sermon - Sunday 28th May - 10 am

Theresa Ricketts

This has been an extraordinary week. And a week in which I have heard more wisdom coming through the airwaves than I have heard in a very long time. Like the words of Ian, a Scotsman who moved to Manchester 17 years ago. In an emotional interview with the BBC on Tuesday, standing outside a blood donation centre which was full to the rafters with people offering to give blood to meet the need of those injured in the terrible bombing of the Manchester arena on Monday night, Ian expressed his love for the city of Manchester and its sense of community. “I don’t care who you believe in, where you’re from, this city’s for everybody.” He spoke of the need to pull together, to be united, and commented that he would be walking around smiling at people to show support. “It’s all I can do”, he said, “We’ve got to look after each other now.”

And then there was Charlotte Campbell, the mother of one of those who died who attended a vigil in Bury because she simply didn’t know what else to do. In everything she said her shock, disbelief and devastation were clear. And yet the words she spoke were astonishing. First she simply thanked people for being there and offering support. And then she said: “Please, stay together, don’t let this beat any of us, please. Don’t let my daughter be a victim.”

I think what has been most extraordinary this week is the outpouring of love in response to the terrible events in Manchester. Instead of the familiar headlines scapegoating different groups of people, seeking to divide communities along various lines – religion, those who voted in or out in the referendum, those who support different political parties – this week has been, first and foremost, about our shared humanity. About our refusal to be divided. About the power of love and unity which always, always defeat hatred and violence. When asked on Tuesday whether we should be getting angry about terrorism, two Coronation Street actors spoke instead of the way people were coming out to help one another. “Love has come through, not hate. We have to remember all the good things people are doing and not concentrate on the hate.”

At this time of the church year I often find myself wondering how to make sense of the various different events, and more importantly how they connect with our lives today. Christmas, in a way, is so easy because we can all relate to the birth of a baby. In a time of austerity, Lent isn’t beyond our comprehension, either, and it can be a helpful time to take stock and reflect on where we are. Easter morning is such a welcome celebration after Lent – and of course it arrives in springtime when our gardens are bursting with new life.

But today we celebrate Ascension Sunday, the day Jesus ascended into heaven; next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, the sending of the Holy Spirit; and the Sunday after that is Trinity Sunday when we try to pretend that we understand what it means for God to be three and one at the same time. I don’t mean to be flippant, but it feels a little like I am being bombarded by a few too many concepts that simply don’t help me to make sense of the world in which we live.

And that, of course, is where I am wrong. Listen to the end of that first reading we had from Acts of the Apostles: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Ascension isn’t about where Jesus is – if we keep trying to make sense of him coming down and going up we will be paralysed into inaction just like the men of Galilee were at that moment. No, ascension is about who Jesus is, and that is as relevant to us today as it was to the first disciples. Jesus, as the Gospel seeks to demonstrate, is the Messiah, the anointed one, God incarnate, the Word made flesh. And the question we are called to engage with daily is one that Dietrich Bonhoeffer formulated from his Nazi cell: “Who is Christ actually for us today?”

For people of faith, events like those of Monday evening in Manchester can present so many challenges. As well as the questions about religious extremism, there is also the challenge presented by human suffering when we believe in a loving God. And yet the overwhelming reaction to Monday’s tragedy was an outpouring of love. Who is Christ actually for us today? I think we have seen something of Christ in the nurses and doctors who went into work that night whether or not they were on shift; in all those people who have embraced their neighbours as fellow human beings, regardless of their religion, race, ethnicity or whatever; in the rush to donate money as something that can be done; in the commitment to stand united and to meet hate with love.

But there is something that has been nagging at me all week. And I think it links a little to the wonderful Ian from Scotland that I quoted at the beginning – his decision to go around the city smiling at people. What has been nagging at me is why it can appear to take such a horrific tragedy for us to actually recognise our shared humanity. As I stood outside the station in the pouring rain last week, collecting money for Christian Aid, I watched a sea of human beings caught up in their own worlds in various ways, mostly attached to their phones. Don’t get me wrong, some people did speak to me, and a few expressed distress at the sight of me cowering under my umbrella. And I also know that there are genuine day-to-day concerns which distract and preoccupy us.

But it shouldn’t only be at times of disaster that we engage with that question “Who is Christ actually for us today?” Because actually, that is what life – and discipleship – is all about. When we do it, we know it. Just ask those who have been assisting the homeless man here in Weybridge, who have discovered more than they probably ever thought they would about what it means and feels like to be without a roof over your head, but who in doing so have had their understanding of humanity, life and the world expanded.

We are all of us, in big and small ways, seeking to understand what it means to be followers of Christ. Let’s not wait for disaster to strike to engage with our fellow travellers. Christ is out there, in all sorts of people we may encounter. Let’s take time to notice. To ensure that on a daily basis love conquers hate and unity beats those who would divide us.

 

Sermon - Sunday 14th May -  10 am

Theresa Ricketts

When I was in my early 20s and wrestling with questions of God and faith, one of the books that had the most influence on me was entitled “But that I can’t believe!” It is a short book by John Robinson, who made something of a stir in the 1960s with his better known book “Honest to God.” As you can imagine with a title like “But that I can’t believe!” the book was encouraging the reader to engage with their understanding of God and faith – from doctrines and creeds, to lived experience – and ask questions about what made sense and what didn’t.

For me there was something liberating about being given permission to ask questions about what various aspects of doctrine might mean, rather than feeling like I was being asked to swallow six impossible things before breakfast. It’s not that I don’t think church teaching is important but rather I have found it more helpful to approach concepts and ideas from the perspective of possibility rather than certainty. And crucially I think that for some of us this is how our faith becomes more fully a part of our lives, rather than just something we do on a Sunday.

This morning’s gospel reading is a case in point, containing a number of passages that can be understood in very different ways and therefore require us to apply ourselves in our search for meaning.

For many of us this will be among the most familiar readings from John’s gospel since it is regularly used in funeral services, offering comfort and reassurance that our ultimate future rests with God: “In my father’s house there are many dwelling-places.” This reassurance can be of enormous significance, particularly for those recently bereaved.

But Jesus was not only seeking to offer comfort for the hereafter. John’s gospel is profoundly incarnational – it is about life in the flesh, here and now. God’s dwelling-places are here on earth amongst us, too. Jesus is the Word made flesh – the embodiment of God’s word who pitches his tent among us and gets his hands dirty. Life here and now matters so much that God became one of us to assure us of God’s presence and show us how to do it.

Context is important here, too. The previous chapter contains the story of the Last Supper, and in John’s gospel this includes the narrative of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and exhorting them to do the same for one another. Familiar though this story is for us now, at the time, it was unsettling for the disciples – you will remember that Peter in particular found it difficult to accept that Jesus should wash his feet. Just after the meal Judas leaves to betray Jesus and Jesus speaks of his own death, as well as predicting that Peter, too, will betray him. It’s no wonder that the disciples are troubled, and so the reassurance that Jesus offers is for here and now.

This chapter forms the beginning of what are known in John’s gospel as the farewell discourses. But although Jesus knows that he will die, his fervent desire is that his disciples should continue to live and continue the work he began. However impossible they may believe that to be, he is clear. They know God because they know Jesus, and they know what to do because of those relationships.  Just as Jesus tells them that they know exactly where he is going, what God’s dwelling-places look and feel like, because they have known him.

And what about those words, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”?  They can send a shiver down my spine for both good and bad reasons simultaneously. They are on the one hand beautiful words of reassurance and relationship, but I have also heard them used to justify exclusion of those with different beliefs, or who are simply asking questions about their faith. But it seems to me that Jesus wasn’t seeking to be exclusive with these words. Indeed if Jesus is identifying himself as “the way” then surely those who follow in his way – who take special care for those on the margins of society; who love their neighbours as themselves; who practise forgiveness – are all included, whether or not they would explicitly identify themselves as followers of Christ. What’s more, Peter was about to deny knowing Jesus, and there is no suggestion that he is somehow excluded for his mistakes.

So as he prepares for his own death, what matters for Jesus is to ensure that God’s work will continue – and the way that will happen is through us, even if we do get in muddles and make mistakes along the way. The suggestion here is once again encouraging and daunting – that even greater works will be done following his death.

For Jesus what we do matters – it matters here and now. Moreover, God’s work is being done here and now, wherever Jesus’s way is being followed.

I was at a study morning on Monday which was trying to equip us to feel confident in the face of the New Atheists – the likes of Richard Dawkins who seem to suggest that having faith in God is for the foolish and/or insane. The final sentence of this reading is the kind that the likes of Dawkins play as a trump card – “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” How do we get out of that one, because let’s be clear, we probably all have experiences of prayers going unanswered. I’ve heard a number of supposedly logical arguments that have tried to explain their way out of it, but somehow none of them really help. You know the sort of thing: “Ah, but God moves in mysterious ways.  All things work together for our good, we just don’t realise it”.  The sort of phrases that sound like we’re scrabbling desperately to let God off the hook.

Well, the truth is that I don’t know why Jesus made this statement, and I don’t fully understand what it means. But that doesn’t stop me believing that God is present in our lives in deep and caring ways, and neither does it make me either mad or an idiot.

For me, being prepared to accept that there are some things that we can’t explain or don’t understand is the very opposite of foolishness. But – and there is a but – our confidence in living out our faith does mean that we need to engage with and think about what it is that we actually believe. It’s impossible for something to be the foundation of our lives unless we take the time to find its truth and meaning. And in the end, if following Christ provides us with a way, truth and life, if we look for where God is at work in the world, and if our desire to understand more keeps us asking questions, then our lives will speak for themselves.

 

Sermon - Sunday 23rd April - 10 am

Theresa Ricketts

“You’re joking! Not another one! Oh for God’s sake, I can’t honestly, I can’t stand this! There’s too much politics going on at the moment. Why does she need to do it?”

Don’t you just love Brenda from Bristol, whose reaction to news that we are to have a General Election on 8th June went viral on social media this week. And of course the answer to the question “why does she need to do it?” is obvious, isn’t it? I mean, I listened to Theresa May’s statement outside Number 10 on Tuesday morning, and she was very clear about her reasons. And then for the next day and a half, until the vote was actually taken in Parliament, I listened to countless other people telling me why there is going to be a General Election. There’s only one problem. It seems that everyone knows why. There appears to be very little hesitation as one person and then another explains the reasoning. It’s just that the reasons aren’t the same.

It's no wonder we’re confused. Somehow we have developed the habit of stating opinions as fact, so we are losing sight of where truth actually resides. There is information everywhere – and more opinions than we could ever want – but it can feel like we actually know less and less. After all, we knew, didn’t we, because the pollsters told us, that people would vote to remain in the EU, and that Hilary Clinton would be elected President of the United States. Hmm.

Today’s gospel reading is all about knowing. Well, knowing, believing, understanding and truth. And it raises important questions about how we know things. The disciples – those who are in that locked room on that first Sunday evening – know that they have seen Jesus. They know that it was Jesus who appeared, who showed them his wounds, who offered them God’s peace and who breathed the Holy Spirit on them. And Thomas – who wasn’t there – doesn’t know. He doesn’t believe them. And to be fair, why should he? In terms of evidence, all he is asking for is what the other disciples have already received – sight of Jesus and his wounds. And that is what he gets. Jesus appears again, and invites Thomas to put his finger in the wounds on his hands and his hand on the wound in his side. And he believes.

Thomas’s words are so important here. “My Lord and my God”. We tend to think that Thomas’s belief was linked to seeing Jesus. Indeed Jesus’s own statement about those who do not see and yet believe highlights this aspect. But Thomas’s words suggest something more. They speak of depth of relationship which has resulted in trust. Thomas believes when he sees Jesus because he has come to know Jesus over the last years and trusts him. When we last encountered Thomas, Jesus was speaking about what was going to happen to him, in his usual enigmatic terms:

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’

You will remember that Thomas comes out and says what probably a whole load of other people were thinking. No, Jesus. We don’t know the way. Tell us the way. And Jesus’s response – I am the way, and the truth, and the life – probably doesn’t answer all of Thomas’s questions. I would be surprised if he didn’t remain confused and puzzled. But Thomas has the courage to confront Jesus with his doubts and Jesus engages with his questions, deepening and strengthening that relationship, leading him into deeper understanding and faith. And it is that relationship which forms the basis of Thomas’s statement of belief in this morning’s reading.

Earlier this week I was at Mount Browne, Surrey’s Police Headquarters, for one of the bi-annual get togethers for volunteer chaplains. Chaplaincy is well regarded within Surrey Police, so much so that for the first time, funding has been approved for a four year period. And, as those of you involved in any kind of organisation will know, that means our work needs to appear in the Business Plan, which is part of what we were discussing on Thursday.

So far, so understandable. After all, public money undoubtedly needs to be accounted for and put to best use. What is more difficult is the fact that the impact of chaplaincy isn’t easy to measure. Moreover, in a world which values effectiveness very highly indeed, chaplaincy probably doesn’t fit our models and expectations. You see in chaplaincy there is a strong theology of presence. What I mean by that is your role as a chaplain is often just to be there, for people to know that you are there, and while you are there, you build relationships. But if you think about an organisation like the Police, chaplains are slightly incongruous. There is already a strong culture within the police force, which often means there is good support among officers. In order to deal with the situations they face, Police Officers also often adopt techniques to protect themselves emotionally. A chaplain sitting around asking people how they feel all the time isn’t likely to be helpful.

And yet – big and small – there are undoubtedly times when chaplaincy has a big impact. From conversations with individuals about stresses at home, to wider support when an officer dies, the role of chaplains is significant. And its significance and impact is always dependent on the relationships that have been built. On being a person who can be trusted. On being a person who has got to know officers, who has not got in the way when it’s unhelpful, who has been prepared to join in the banter, or indeed on occasion to be ignored. Trust isn’t built quickly or easily. It takes time – in some environments a lot of time. And it’s what means people will talk to you when it really matters.

So if knowing and understanding are really based on relationships of trust, perhaps that is what we are called to invest in.  And this is the difference between truth, as in the sort of truth that Thomas comes to understand through the depth of his relationship with Jesus, and the sort of truth that the world wants us to get, by blinding us with facts.

It is clear that in the coming weeks we are going to be bombarded with all sorts of information, but will rarely feel any wiser. But there are things that we know. I know, for example, that God’s love extends to each and every one of us – and everyone else, for that matter. And if our knowledge and understanding are likely to be increased through relationships of trust, it surely makes sense to seek to develop such relationships. It is so easy to read headlines about different types of people – asylum seekers, benefit cheats, those living in social housing – and assume that they tell us the truth. But perhaps we need to get to know a few more people. To understand their uniqueness. To engage with their humanity, whether we like them or not. And by engaging deeply with people, and bringing our questions to God in prayer, we will undoubtedly grow in our knowledge of God’s love and truth, which is eternal.

 

Sermon - Sunday 2nd April - 10 am

Theresa Ricketts

I wonder if you read a story in the press a couple of weeks ago about a judge who, when sentencing a man to six years’ imprisonment for raping a young woman in Manchester City Centre, felt compelled to issue a warning to young women, begging them to protect themselves from predatory men who gravitate towards drunken females. Her comments sparked considerable controversy at the time, eliciting condemnation from such organisations as Rape Crisis, who claimed that her comments risked placing the blame for rape on the women.

Of course these organisations have worked tirelessly to change attitudes and ensure that the blame for rape lies fairly and squarely where it should: with the rapist. That such acts can never be acceptable, regardless of the behaviour of the victim.

And yet it was interesting to hear this week from the victim herself, a courageous nineteen year old, who has waived her right to anonymity to say that she actually believes what the judge said was right. In the interview she explained that at first she had felt a sense of responsibility and that she was being judged, but in the judge’s comments she did not hear condemnation, but rather concern and sage advice.

I think perhaps it’s not dissimilar to the way we teach our children to be cautious about who they can trust – the whole “stranger danger” message. It isn’t anything to do with excusing those who abuse children, but rather recognising that the world in which we live has dangers. Megan Clark appeared to be saying that if she had listened carefully to the judge’s words before the events in Manchester City Centre, perhaps she would have behaved differently. Not because the rapist’s actions were justified, but because she may have been better able to protect herself from the risk.

It can be so important, can’t it, to realise that we can all hear things in different ways. That our circumstances and points of view affect what we hear. Our experiences, too. And if we are prepared to listen to how others hear something, we perhaps end up with a more rounded perspective, a greater and clearer understanding.

I wonder how you hear the story of the raising of Lazarus. Is it one of those miracles that sits in your “I can’t believe that could have happened” bracket? Or perhaps it is a story in which you take great comfort – a sign of God’s compassion breaking into the world in a very real and tangible way.

What I have realised as I have read the story over and over this week is that it works on so many levels. So regardless of our first impression, it warrants deeper consideration. Moreover, because of the issues it deals with, we may hear it differently at different times in our lives.

How does it feel, for example, to hear that Jesus’s initial response to Mary and Martha’s plea was to wait? What have been your experiences of waiting? Do you hear this differently if you have had a specific time of waiting – perhaps for important test results; perhaps not knowing if a loved one will pull through; perhaps less serious, but nonetheless affecting – waiting for exam results, or hearing about a job interview, for example. Somehow people who know the pain of waiting are understood here – by Mary and Martha. I just love those words of both sisters: “Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died.” Isn’t that the cry of so many of us in the face of grief. How can God allow this to happen? Couldn’t it have been prevented? Our agony is known and understood – right here, by Mary and Martha. We are not alone in our pain and disbelief.

And what of those fumblings of the various characters as they try to understand?

  • The disciples who don’t get it that Lazarus is dead. Who remain fixated by dangers that they can see rather than understanding the bigger picture.
  • Martha, who is trying to make sense of the concept of resurrection – what does it mean? Is it only about the end of time, or can there be new life, here and now? What does Jesus mean?

Which of us does not find ourselves grappling with what our faith means sometimes, how it helps us to make sense of the world, and how sometimes it doesn’t seem to make any sense at all? That sense of something more, those glimpses of God’s love, set alongside our doubts and the reality of suffering?

For women reading this story and indeed all those who have fought for women’s equality both within society and the church, there are powerful words here, too. Mary and Martha are pivotal characters. In Luke’s gospel Jesus welcomes Mary’s decision to listen to his teaching rather than carrying out domestic chores. Here it is Martha who declares Jesus to be the Messiah. For those who argue women were not among those closest to Jesus, these words suggest otherwise. Jesus overturned expectations including, it seems, in relation to the role of women.

I began by speaking of the case of Megan Clark and Judge Lindsey Kushner and I am going to close by mentioning a documentary you may have seen this week about Rio Ferdinand, the footballer whose wife died of breast cancer nearly two years ago at the age of 34, leaving him to bring up their three children. There was much to commend this documentary, but what struck me in particular was the importance of hearing people’s stories. Ferdinand met a number of widowers to hear their experiences, what had helped them and what hadn’t, as well as meeting children who had lost parents and the oncologist who had treated his wife. It was clear that certain comments resonated, while others didn’t and Ferdinand himself was able to acknowledge that he could not have had the conversation he had with the oncologist 6 months earlier.

There is nothing that we read or hear without interpretation – and that interpretation will depend on so many different things about us and our experiences. This is true of everything – including the Bible. We hear the same stories over and over, but they never are the same stories, because we are not quite the same person each time we hear them. And if we are brave enough to hear and engage with the interpretations of others, our understanding will be richer still.

Whatever it is that the story of the raising of Lazarus says to you today, hold onto it. And when you next hear it I wonder what more will be revealed.

Sermon - Sunday 12th March 2017 - 10 am

Theresa Ricketts

I was at a training course on Thursday and at the beginning of a presentation we were given a one sentence definition of faith. Unfortunately I can’t actually remember what the definition was, but it was one of those sentences that took a lot of thought just to understand, let alone decide whether I agreed. It raised more questions than it answered. Which is rather apt, because whether or not faith can be defined in a single sentence, it takes a lifetime to live out, and in my experience involves confusion and wrestling as well as moments of revelation and discovery.

Which is why I love the story of Nicodemus. His story is, to some extent, my story – and perhaps yours as well. There is something about this gospel reading that leaves my head spinning, much as I imagine Nicodemus felt.

So let’s look a bit more closely at what was going on. The reading begins with Nicodemus going to see Jesus. We are told that he is a leader of the Jews, and there is that wonderful additional detail, that he went “by night”. Scholars argue about whether there was a practical reason for the timing of this visit – evening tended to be the time for religious debate; or perhaps Nicodemus didn’t want his peers to know that he was going to see Jesus. More important, perhaps, are John’s continual references to light and darkness throughout this Gospel. The darkness suggests a lack of understanding, that things aren’t clear. Nicodemus’s search for the truth is much like groping around trying to find something in a poorly lit room.

Sounds familiar.

When Nicodemus begins his exchange with Jesus, he addresses him as “Rabbi” – he recognises his status as a teacher, though we cannot be entirely sure of his level of respect. We’re used to the Pharisees trying to test Jesus – is that what Nicodemus is doing, or are his questions genuine? We cannot know – and neither can we know whether Jesus’s response would have been any different whatever Nicodemus’s motivation. What we do know is that Jesus does not turn him away, he engages in a conversation. And for me that is quite important because, if I’m honest, in my lifetime I have at times been beyond sceptical in my attitude towards God and faith. And what Jesus shows is that God’s existence isn’t dependent on our faith – Jesus keeps on engaging, keeps on loving through our questions and our doubts.

The actual exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus is pretty hard to understand. Right from the start Jesus is keen to challenge a misconception. Nicodemus says: “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” But somehow Jesus seems to suggest that it is not signs and wonders that are evidence of God’s presence. Rather, he talks of the need to be born from above. In Greek there is an interesting word play here, because the same Greek word means “again” and “from above” – which may explain Nicodemus’s comment about re-entering the mother’s womb. Given that Jesus didn’t communicate in Greek, it’s unlikely that this word play formed part of the original exchange. But what can we take away from what Jesus is saying?

Jesus seems to be referring to something transformational. Faith isn’t about being seduced by a miracle worker, it is about a transformation of our whole selves. Being born of water and the Spirit – so not born again in a literal sense, but rather being transformed body and soul. Seeing, perceiving and understanding in a different way.

But – and this is why I love the story of Nicodemus so much – there is nothing that suggests this is either easy or instantaneous. I’m not trying to suggest that it never is – we have the example of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus in this vein. But Nicodemus comes to faith slowly. Indeed in this passage I’m not sure that he really comes to faith at all. He – like us – walks away somewhat confused. However, there are glimpses of meaning. At the same time as admonishing Nicodemus for his apparent lack of understanding, he says: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” Can you recognise that in your walk of faith? Moments of sensing something of God – of feeling God quite close – of knowing its significance, and yet not fully knowing either where it came from or where it might lead.

I think of my mum describing moments when we were children – there were three of us – and for some reason we were all contented, playing happily, maybe independently, maybe together, not bickering. Not because we had been given wonderful gifts or taken to amazing places, but simply because, at that moment, everything was just fine. You might be able to think of similar examples – unexpected days or moments when things just seemed to work. When God felt close.

As this reading draws to a close, Jesus makes reference to what is to happen to him – being lifted up like Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. We, with the benefit of knowing the story of Jesus’s death on the cross, are probably in a slightly better position than Nicodemus to understand this reference. And then, of course, that most wonderful and much-loved passage of all: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It cannot fail to send a shiver down the spine.

It is this sentence that sets the context for all our struggling with faith. This is why we do it. Because somehow, for reasons we find it quite hard to explain, we know in some way that we are loved and cherished children of God. Loved in our whole, complex, earthly, messy selves – the selves that Jesus took time to know, to be with, and to love even to death. In a book I was reading this week a character described people as like embroidery. You know how on the one side of the fabric there is the beautiful image, and then on the other there are threads everywhere – nearly finished off, perhaps, but the picture is often very hard to decipher. That’s like us, isn’t it? The world sees the picture on one side, and just a few of those people closest to us know some of the mess that lies on the other side. And God knows the whole picture – both sides – and loves us.

I don’t know about you, but as I was reading the Gospel this morning, when I got to that verse I could almost feel myself exhaling with the relief of reaching something familiar, something beautiful, and something so central to my faith. And that sense of relief – that sense of resting in what we know deep in our hearts – is so important in our journey through life.

But – and there is a but – the struggle we have been through with Nicodemus is important, too. The struggle is set in the context of God’s overwhelming love for the world. But the struggle is real nonetheless. Faith is about our lives – how we live, who and what we put first. And Lent is a good time to reflect that.

Nicodemus will appear twice more in John’s Gospel. In a few chapters he will be engaged in a discussion with other Jewish leaders, reminding them that the law requires a person to be heard before they can be judged. So having first approached Jesus by night, now he is beginning to speak out – and he receives criticism for it. And at the end of the Gospel, he joins Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’s body for burial.

Nicodemus shows us that the walk of faith is not easy. That it is a life’s commitment. That our understanding develops over time. And that it is always set in the context of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness.

 

Sermon - Sunday 19th February 2017 - 10 am

Theresa Ricketts

When I was at university, a friend of mine was struggling with depression, and I remember walking into her room one morning and on single sheets of A4 paper she had written the letters of that Latin phrase “carpe diem” – seize the day. There was a tremendous poignancy about seeing that bold statement on her walls. For many of my contemporaries, university had a strong sense of living life to the full and indeed to the limits, but of course for someone whose days could be filled with darkness and despair, it was more a statement of hope than likelihood.

 

When Jesus talks about not worrying about our lives, though, I’m not sure he is talking about this kind of carpe diem mentality – or at least certainly not the way it was experienced by a lot of young people when I was at university.

 

So what, I wonder, is Jesus getting at in today’s gospel reading?

 

Earlier this week I spent half a day in Send Prison – as a guest, I should point out. There are around 300 women in Send, serving sentences from a few weeks to life for a wide range of offences. For a number of years, Send has run the Sycamore Tree course. The course is named after the story of Zacchaeus. You remember the one. Zacchaeus, the tax collector, who has swindled countless people out of enormous sums of money, climbs a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Jesus sees him in the tree, asks him to come down, and goes and has a meal with him. Zacchaeus changes his ways, repays those he has wronged with four times what he took and gives half his money to the poor. The story forms the basis of the course not because it comes from the Bible – the course is not religious – but because it contains the important people in any crime: perpetrators; victims; and the community.

 

You will be aware that our legal system is based on what is generally called retributive justice. The focus is on the crime. A crime has been committed, we need to find out who did it and punish them accordingly. Regardless of whether we think that’s the right way to deal with offending, there are two specific problems. The first is that it largely ignores the victims. We watched a DVD in which the parents of a young man who had been killed in an act of violence described what it was like to sit through the trial feeling powerless and ignored. And the second problem is that reoffending rates are extremely high. So whatever we think about the idea of punishment, by itself it is an ineffective way of preventing people from returning to crime.

 

And this is where the Sycamore Tree course comes in, because it is based on what is called restorative justice. Restorative justice seeks to bring those harmed by crime and those responsible for it into communication. In the context of the Sycamore Tree course, this means that the women spend six weeks exploring different aspects of their lives and behaviours. They discuss the ripple effects of crime, so that even those who initially believe that there is no victim to their crime begin to understand its consequences – for those directly affected, those indirectly affected and for society as a whole. At least half of the women have children and the consequences of their incarceration for those children is only too obvious to them. In week 3 they hear from a victim of crime, further encouraging them to recognise the consequences of their behaviour.

 

By week 6 they are invited to make a personal apology. The reason I was there is because for this session guests are invited in from the community to hear those apologies. The apologies took the form of letters, poems, pictures and simple statements of regret and remorse. There were tears and anguish and a real desire to change.

 

So what on earth has any of this got to do with our gospel reading? Well, quite a lot, I think. As often happens, I had read this passage early in the week, and so as I went into Send I was wondering what on earth it could mean to the women I was going to meet that they should not worry about a thing. And of course the Sycamore Tree course certainly doesn’t seem to have as its foundation any notion of not worrying. Rather it encourages the women to take responsibility, recognise consequences and make a commitment to change their lives.

 

But you see I don’t think that Jesus was really advocating a “don’t worry, be happy” approach. The key I think is that verse right towards the end: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

 

When I think about those women I met in Send, they have everything to worry about. As their release dates approach, they have to face questions about where they will live, how they will find work, how they will remain sober and free from addictions, how they will stay away from abusive relationships, whether they will be able to look after their children, how they will be treated by others in society. I could go on, but you get the picture. But what the Sycamore Tree course is about is something more fundamentally important. The hope is that by focusing on what really matters they might just have the resilience to make things work. What really matters is that they understand and take responsibility for what they have done; that they show genuine remorse and a commitment to change. And all of this is underpinned by a belief that they are children of God who are loved and forgiven. And the evidence is that it works – that those who take part in the Sycamore Tree course are less likely to reoffend.

 

And if focusing on what really matters – on the Kingdom of God – is important for those women in Send, it is important for us, too. There are so many things to worry about – employment, pensions, children, elderly relatives, our own health – and they are inevitably going to cause us concern. But our primary focus should be on the Kingdom of God – on love and forgiveness; on our relationships with one another and with God. Those are the foundations on which everything else is built. It’s not that it stops us from having worries, but it sets those worries into a context. I expect each of you will have had one of those times in life when peripheral worries fell away – a bereavement, perhaps, or having to cope with caring for elderly relatives and grandchildren at the same time. While those are not times any of us would choose, sometimes they can help us to see and focus on what really matters, just as those women in Send cannot escape coming face to face with themselves and the consequences of their actions. At those most difficult times, we draw deeply from the well of God’s unconditional love for us all and our trust that God will provide the secure foundation on which we can all build the next piece of our lives.

 

Amen

 

Theresa Ricketts

Sermon – Sunday 22nd January 2017 – 10 am

Turn around, says Jesus, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Turn around – that is the best definition we have for the word repent. Turn around and follow me. What, I wonder, does that actually mean. What does it mean to turn around and follow.

We were in Café One earlier in the week, and Brian referred to this story as the Tommy Cooper model of discipleship. Jesus says follow me, and the disciples follow “just like that.” And let’s be quite clear. You may, like me, take great comfort in stories like that of Moses, who found every excuse in the book when God asked him to lead his people, giving in only reluctantly and after lengthy persuasion. I certainly find it reassuring to know that I am not the only person who hasn’t found the call of discipleship easy.

Where I think we go wrong, though, is in trying to think that our excuses for failing to follow are anything other than just that: excuses.

Let me try to explain what I mean. If repentance means turning around, I would suggest that the turning around is a turning around to face God. To orientate our lives towards God. A conscious decision that God will come first in our lives. Before anything or anyone else.

But before you get up and walk out of the church, saying that you’re not going to put anything before your husband/wife, children, parents, or whoever else you hold dear just think about it for a moment. Because you see I’m not sure that’s what God would ever be asking you to do. Loving God is not in conflict with loving your partner, children or indeed anyone else. If God’s nature is love, we will often find that the truest way of following Christ is through our most loving relationships.

The thing is, though, it is about faith. It’s about placing our trust in God. Believing that in putting God first, our lives, and the lives of those we are closest to, have the greatest chance of being lived to their fullest.

What’s difficult, I think – and I certainly speak for myself here – is realising that we don’t always know best. So when I say that we make excuses for failing to follow, what I mean is that it doesn’t just stop with the concern that we might be being asked to put God before our family and friends. As soon as we begin that kind of thinking, it’s not long before we’ve decided exactly what that looks like – the kind of job we need to have for the lifestyle we consider to be best.

I’m not for a moment trying to suggest that any of us can survive without a roof over our head and food to eat. What I’m asking is where is God in your decision-making process? That’s what I really mean by turning around and putting God first. It’s a commitment to place God at the heart of our decisions. Of course those decisions may be about jobs, education, financial commitments, places to live. But Jesus’s call to repentance, to turning around, is to place God in the middle of our lives.

All of which begs the question how?

Would that I had an easy answer to that one! However, I’m going to give it a try. You see, that, I think, is really all about discipleship. That is the following part. What I really love about this gospel reading is the fact that the disciples don’t go through an interview process. Jesus doesn’t have their CVs in front of him. He doesn’t shortlist. He hasn’t asked anyone to try to sell themselves in a covering letter. He isn’t much interested in their qualifications. And he certainly doesn’t ask to explain why they’re the best people for the job.

Jesus calls ordinary people. People like you and me. He calls them just as they are. And he asks them to do just one thing. To follow. It’s as simple – and as extraordinarily difficult – as that. Our calling is to follow. And it is in following that we work out our vocation. It is in following that we discover what following actually means. It is in following that we discover what we have to change and what has to stay the same. Where we can put our skills to use, and where we might need to learn new ones. Jesus’s disciples are very much like apprentices, learning on the job. Except that what they are learning is how to be most fully themselves, and in so doing to serve God and the world.

Of course following Jesus today looks a little different than it did to those first disciples. We can’t walk alongside Jesus in the literal way that those first disciples did; we can’t listen to his teaching from his own mouth, hear him proclaiming the good news to those who followed him, watch him healing the sick. But if those are the things that the first disciples did as they followed, it surely gives us a clue as to what we should be doing, too. We may not be able to hear Jesus’s teaching from his own mouth, but we can read what the writers of the four gospels tell us Jesus said. We can engage with modern day interpretations of those teachings – through sermons, through reading, through attending talks, through documentaries.

And most importantly of all, we can engage in a relationship with Jesus in prayer. And before you say it, no-one knows how to pray. It’s a mystery to all of us. But given that relationship requires communication, I’d start with a bit of that. Some talking and some listening. The latter can be a bit disconcerting, but I do think it’s important. I’m not one of those people who has heard God speak to me directly – and I don’t know whether to be glad or disappointed about that. But I do think that listening is important, because God really does relate to us. Exactly how is pretty hard to define, but I believe it’s real.

And before you think it was so much more straightforward for those first disciples, don’t forget that they got it wrong, too. Following Jesus isn’t a means to an end, it’s our life’s work, and quite often we take a wrong turning along the way. Which is why repentance isn’t a one off, either. Sometimes we need to turn around again, regain focus, realign our lives with God at the centre. But just like with any relationship, the time we spend in God’s presence is never wasted. The relationship grows ever deeper, drawing us closer to the very core of ourselves.

Amen

Sermon – Sunday 11th December 2016 – 10 am

Theresa Ricketts

Last week – appropriately as we baptised 8 people – we met John the Baptist, the one preparing the way, the one who points towards Jesus. We were given that wonderful description of him, wearing clothing of camel hair with a leather belt around his waist, eating locusts and wild honey. We’ve heard it so often that it doesn’t surprise us. But it should. Clothing very rarely warrants a mention in the gospels, and yet here we have a description of what John the Baptist wore. Why? Because it was unusual. It made him stand out. It was worth commenting on.

Probably there are two specific reasons for commenting on this apparel. First, it has echoes of Elijah, that great prophet of the Old Testament who wore a garment of hair with a leather belt around his waist. And second because it marked out an ascetic lifestyle.

And so this week we find Jesus pressing the people in the crowd to understand the significance of John the Baptist. He is determined to make them understand – but to get there by thinking for themselves. “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” is his opening question. If people were surprised to find John the Baptist, dressing in camel hair and eating locusts and honey, he wants them to think carefully about what they were expecting.

Twice more he asks them: “What then did you go out to see?” And as he asks, he almost goads them. Is this what you were expecting? Someone dressed in soft robes? Really? Because you know, don’t you, that those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What did you really go out to see?

And of course in the end, Jesus answers his own question. You went into the wilderness to see a prophet. And make no mistake, you saw one. And not just a prophet, but the prophet who prepares the way for the Messiah. You had a preconception of what the prophet would look like.  And you were wrong.

And the way in which Jesus challenges the people in the crowd on this feels very important, particularly in Advent, and perhaps also particularly this year. The world is seriously in need of prophetic voices, and Advent, a season of watching and waiting, of preparation, is surely a good one to ask ourselves where we might find today’s prophets.

There is certainly no shortage of voices, clamouring for our attention. What do you think? Are they our prophets? The ones dressed in designer clothes? Or robes of office? Or perhaps political rosettes? Or dresses fit for the red carpet? The ones with access to various forms of media, regularly making the front pages?

The suggestion from today’s gospel reading is that we will find the prophetic voice in the most unexpected places. Where is that today? Who are today’s John the Baptists?

If you’re expecting me to answer the question for you, I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed. The point of spending time in preparation, watching and waiting, is that we have to do the work for ourselves.

I suspect, though, that the ones we are looking for won’t be reaching for the microphone. They won’t be joining the throng, trying to shout louder than everyone else. I wonder whether today’s challenge is that the prophetic voice must be one that isn’t seeking to be noticed because almost everyone else is.

Who is it that we are failing to notice, who might just have some wisdom to share? Who may have a vision that could turn our worlds upside down, yet show us the way. I wonder whether it’s people who have nowhere to call home, through poverty, or because they are fleeing violence. Perhaps it’s young people who self harm, or older people who are unable to leave their homes. Maybe it’s the people who are “Just About Managing” who everyone seems to want to represent but whose own voices seem surprisingly quiet.

For me, I think of the quiet dignity of those who are nearing the end of their lives and the families who sit silently at their bedsides… people holding onto life by a thread, whose hopes and fears are real and speak to the heart of what it means to each of us to be human.

Or think about those elderly, disabled people rescued from Aleppo this week by the joint efforts of the Red Crescent and the Red Cross… Prophetic, unnoticed acts of heroism for people whose very shattered existence shows the perilous path that too much of the world wants to walk, instead of embracing a message of hope and peace.

I don’t know whether taking some time during Advent to answer that question of Jesus, “What did you go out to see?” will mean that we find the prophetic voice of our own time. What I do know is this. That it is always worth taking the time to hear people’s stories. To hear the stories of those whose voices are not ordinarily heard.

Part of the travesty of the “Just About Managing” badge is that it denies people’s individuality. It assumes that we can put people into boxes and understand the world in grand, sweeping generalisations, and we can’t. Each person has a story to tell. Each situation is different. Each voice that we hear gives us a deeper understanding of the world in which we live, its complexity, its beauty, its ugliness, its richness. Each time we hear a different perspective we are obliged to reassess our own position and ideas. We are challenged to see more of the truth that makes up our society and our world.

During Advent we prepare ourselves to remember the birth of Christ among us – the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth. In our preparations, we can’t hide from that truth. Neither Jesus nor John, the one who prepared the way, were what people expected. And neither were they what people wanted. But in both John and in Jesus, people found what they were looking for.  They just didn't recognise it.

It’s challenging isn’t it? To realise that what we are looking for may not be what we think we want. But look and listen; watch and wait. Dare to believe in God’s unconditional love for you, just as you are, holding you tight in your searching and discovery.  And be ready to be surprised.

Amen

Sermon – Sunday 23rd October 2016 – 10 am

Theresa Ricketts

When I was teaching I remember an interesting phenomenon that occurred every New Year. Sometimes it began pretty early, and sometimes not until March or April. It was around that time that the first members of staff who would be moving on in September would be going for interviews and being offered new jobs. And what always interested me was the way it affected everyone else. Gradually news would spread about who would be leaving, where they would be going, what their new posts would be, and people who had seemed perfectly contented in what they were doing would begin to become unsettled, unsure.

I remember it because I could feel the way it happened to me, too. However settled I had thought I was in what I was doing, however confident I was about the direction I was taking at that time, the decisions people were making around me raised questions in my head. Should I be aiming for promotion? Why were people I had joined with leaving already? Should I be more ambitious? I’m a better teacher than them, aren’t I, and they’ve just been made Head of Department!

We are social beings. We are all affected by people around us. But this parable warns us against the ways we can unhelpfully compare ourselves with others. The dis-ease caused by people getting new jobs was not necessarily a bad thing. Questioning what we’re doing and why can be helpful. But it can be so easy to fall into the trap of living a life to look good to others – being so affected by what other people are doing that we have no confidence in ourselves, in our own contribution, our own vocation and the places it takes us.

The problem with comparison is that it prevents us from being ourselves – and by implication, it also runs the risk of preventing others from being themselves. There is a good reason that you will never find two identical human beings. We weren’t made that way. Our differences, our uniqueness matters – it is an important and beautiful part of creation. It’s not always easy. Any parent who has learnt how to make sense of the ways of their first child will be only too happy to tell you how frustrating it is that their second doesn’t respond the same way. But they will also tell you that they wouldn’t want it any other way – that our individuality is an essential part of life.

And before we pat ourselves on the back too firmly, knowing that we have heard this parable many times before, and that, thankfully, we don’t fall into the trap of the Pharisee – we, after all, have learnt to be humble – just play that back to yourself. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: Pharisees, religious bigots…” The reason that this parable matters today as much as it has always mattered is because it speaks to us as much as it spoke to the Pharisees. Innately it is a trap we are all capable of falling into – of looking at other people and deciding that at least we’re better than them.

But, as with so many of Jesus’s parables, there is more than a call not to compare ourselves with, or judge, other people. Listen again to that opening sentence: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” The difference that Jesus is wanting to highlight between the Pharisee and the tax collector is not that the tax collector is righteous and the Pharisee isn’t. It is the fact that the tax collector knows that he is not righteous. He recognises his dependence on God. He knows that there is nothing he can do to earn salvation, or indeed God’s love and forgiveness. Those things are a gift freely given. A gift that call us into relationship with God.

Some weeks ago I went to listen to Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor from Denver. Much of her ministry is profoundly confessional, her experiences as a tattooed ex-drug addict who can swear like a trooper being highly relevant to her all she believes. She says that while some people might hope to find an example of holy living in their priest, if she is an example of anything, it’s an example of what it looks like to be desperately in need of God’s grace. And that’s what lies at the heart of this parable. The tax collector recognised his need for God. He wasn’t interested in how he fared in a comparison with the Pharisee, because that didn’t matter. Both of them are equally loved by God. And both of them are equally in need of God’s grace.

There is much in our culture which encourages us to believe that we should be the masters of our own destiny. That we can achieve whatever we want to achieve, the world is our oyster. And while I have no problem with dreams and aspirations, or indeed with hard work, these ideas lead so easily to a sense of who we ought to be. And who we ought to be is never who we are. The remarkable thing about God is that God loves who we are. Who we really are. In all our messiness. In all our failures. In all the things that we kind of wish we weren’t and spend a lot of time pretending we’re not.

And the reason that Jesus told this parable is that what the tax collector knew was that he was dependent on God’s mercy. And most importantly, that because of God’s mercy and grace, God could get amazing things done, even through the likes of him, as sinner.

Do you have those moments of seeing God at work in other people? Brian and I commented on one the other day as we sat in Café One and watched a couple of young teenagers helping Nick, who is blind, across the road, and engaging in a conversation with him. Neither of those teenagers is perfect – they’re flawed human beings like the rest of us. But also like the rest of us, beautiful things can happen through them. What the tax collector could see that the Pharisee could not is that life really isn’t about our ability to be saintly. It’s about God’s ability to work through our humanness.

Amen

Sermon – Sunday 16th October 2016 – 10 am

Theresa Ricketts

Towards the end of one of my favourite films, “Out of Africa”, there is a scene that reminds me a little of this morning’s gospel reading. The Baroness von Blixen is about to leave Kenya, having lost all of her money in a failed attempt to farm coffee. Before she leaves, she is determined to secure some land for the Kikuyu people whose land she bought and has now lost in the middle of her debts. When the new governor arrives and she is introduced, she falls down on her knees and begs him to ensure that land is found for the Kikuyu, refusing to get up until she receives his assurance.

You can imagine the scene. Kenya was part of British East Africa and status and etiquette were everything within official circles. A woman – and specifically a Baroness – being seen to beg was embarrassing, humiliating even. All everyone wanted was for her to get up and behave properly. And yet as far as she was concerned she had lost everything, so it cost her very little to beg.

The gospel reading as translated doesn’t really do justice to what this widow was doing. We are told that she keeps bothering the judge, but a more literal translation would be that she was giving him a black eye. She was bothering him big time. She was determined to get justice and wasn’t going to be put off. She went on and on and on and on. And it was embarrassing – for her and for the judge. Remember that at this time widows were regarded as the most vulnerable members of society. They should be finding a suitable family member to protect them, not putting themselves out there in the name of justice.

It is this extraordinary tenacity – this determination to keep on going, never to give up until justice is delivered – that hits me with particular force at the end of Prisons Week. This week I have been involved in two conversations with members of the Send chaplaincy team. Lesley Mason, the prison chaplain at Send, oversees a large group of volunteers who are involved in leading courses and mentoring, among other things. There are courses on living with loss, forgiveness and restorative justice. The participants choose to be involved in the courses and from the all that I have heard engage fully. For those of us who believe in God’s forgiveness, some of the most challenging stories are those of women who struggle to forgive themselves.

The way the Prison Service operates means that there are times when women are simply transferred to another prison, instantly removing the pastoral support they have been receiving. I was told about one woman who on release following an 8 year sentence was driven to Birmingham, and when they stopped at a service station she could do nothing but sit at the very edge of the food court and sob, unable to make sense of the choices available and the way things have changed since she has been inside. And for those of you who don’t know, on release from prison, the women receive £43. That’s it. Some of them have a place to go; some don’t. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure how far I would get with £43, or for how long.

But it is not the inadequacies of our justice system that I want to focus on – important though they undoubtedly are. Rather, it is the tenacity and determination of those volunteers who simply don’t give up in their support for the women in Send. Time and again they are faced with the deficiencies of the system, but they keep believing in what they are doing. They keep investing their time in people. Each time they meet with someone they pay them some small complement, reminding them that they are still worthwhile human beings, loved by God. They continue to believe that rehabilitation is possible; that people are less likely to reoffend if they have faced up to what they have done and have support in taking a different path.

I wonder what it is that matters that much to you – that you believe in that much. I wonder what it is that you would continue to fight for, regardless of the cost to you.

For some of you, the focus may indeed be on challenging inadequate systems, refusing to accept that change is impossible. My first job out of school – in my year out before university – was in a solicitor’s office. Most of my work was secretarial, including typing up the statements of those people my boss was defending in court. I remember so clearly how important it was for me to realise that those young people who turned to crime had often spent their childhood in children’s homes, or moving from one foster home to another. I never thought that an excuse for their offending, but as a nineteen year old, I also knew that I had never had to face the challenges they faced. I had parents who loved me and supported me. However aware I was that there are plenty of people who experience hardship and don’t break the law, I don’t know what my response would have been to those circumstances. And I also couldn’t ignore the fact that their behaviour was a reflection of problems within our society as much as individual choices. The statistics speak for themselves. 23% of the adult prison population has been in care and almost 40% of prisoners under 21 were in care as children (only 2% of the general population spend time in prison).

So if your tenacity leads you to challenge the structures of our society, to strive for an inclusive education system, to campaign for justice for children in care, like the widow, please don’t give up. Keep blackening the eyes of those people in a position to change things, and if you work in those sectors, keep believing in the importance of what you do.

Of course there is something about the simplicity of this morning’s parable – and indeed many of Jesus’s parables – that is deceptive. It is almost breathtaking the way we simply take for granted that the widow is seeking justice, and we are told that the judge neither fears God nor has respect for his people. In our own lives and experience it can be a fine line between determinedly fighting for justice and bashing our heads against a brick wall. The ability to discern where our tenacity and gifts are best used is as important as the determination itself.

Returning to Out of Africa, the Baroness von Blixen’s commitment to get land for the Kikuyu was the result of a change own perspective, from believing that she owned the land and the people on it, to understanding that people – and often things, too – are not really ours to own. This change of heart made her plea all the more authentic and meaningful.

It can be so easy to feel powerless, to feel like the victims of a world that isn’t as we would like it to be. For those of us who have plenty, it is equally easy to simply keep quiet for fear that we might lose out. But we are not powerless. What we do and say matters. What we believe in matters. And each time we, like the widow, continue to strive for justice when the odds are against us, something changes in the world.

Amen

Sermon – Sunday 25th September 2016 – 10 am

Theresa Ricketts

I’ve been into London a couple of times this week. I know that many of you commute daily, but I wonder whether you, like me, experience a dis-ease when faced with the homeless people on the streets of London. On Monday this sense of dis-ease was heightened because I was listening to a talk by Rowan Williams entitled “Who is my neighbour?” We are all called to love the Lord our God and love our neighbours as ourselves, and as Jesus made very clear, we can’t define who our neighbours are to suit our own purposes. And so, as always when I am in London, I was faced with that dilemma about what it means to be a good neighbour to those people in front of me. Please don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there is a clear and easy answer. I have heard talks from organisations which warn against creating a subculture by giving individuals money, and yet I also know that not all individuals benefit from the various organisations working with the homeless. I know that how I vote matters, yet there always seems to be a gap between those things that need funding and the amount available to fund them.

But today’s gospel reading brings us closer to home. Lazarus was at the gate of the rich man – right there in the neighbourhood. When Rowan Williams was speaking about “Who is my neighbour?” he suggested that we should seek to be aware of those people to whom we can bring life. For the rich man, Lazarus right at his gate was a man to whom he could bring life.

And for us, too, it is right here in Weybridge and its surrounding areas that we are called to bring life to others. To be a beacon of light, love and hope.

This Sunday marks the launch of the Diocesan Mission Strategy – Transforming Church, Transforming Lives. And that is exactly what it is asking of us. That we are a transforming church that transforms lives.

For many of you the idea of a Diocesan Mission Strategy may raise questions. So this morning I’m going to give you a flavour of what it’s about and invite you to ask questions of Brian and me in the coming weeks.

As you will know, the church divides the country into Dioceses, each with a Diocesan Bishop, and then the Diocese is subdivided into parishes like Weybridge. The local nature of each parish is essential, so there is no intention here to suggest that one size can ever fit all. Rather, the hope is to encourage and challenge us all by recognising that what we do is never in isolation. What happens here in Weybridge matters across the Diocese, just as what happens elsewhere should matter to us.

And for those of you who were listening carefully, heard the word mission, and are now hyperventilating at the thought of being asked to go out and tell people about Jesus, let me remind you of my favourite definition of mission: seeing what God is doing and joining in. That is exactly what we are called to do as a church, and while some of us may get a little queasy at the term “mission”, that’s what we’re talking about.

To give you a little background, the Diocese has had a strategy for many years. When Bishop Andrew arrived in the Diocese, he visited each deanery, meeting both clergy and lay people. There were then a series of consultations, both meetings and questionnaires, asking people about their vision, and asking what helped and hindered local churches in their work.

What has emerged, following lengthy discussion, is the Diocesan Mission Strategy entitled Transforming Church, Transforming Lives. It lists 12 transformation goals that we are working towards as a Diocese.

There are two important things to remember. The first is that, in Bishop Andrew’s words, this is a framework, not a blueprint. What he means by that is that it makes sense for churches to be asking the same questions, but that the answers we find will depend on our local contexts.

The second is that you, like me, may look at a list of twelve goals and feel a little overwhelmed. But that is where I want to suggest that this strategy is first an encouragement and second a challenge.

Let me explain. Twelve goals do indeed feel overwhelming. However, if you go away and read them, you will realise that actually we have a lot to feel positive about. The work we have been doing on the St. James’ Campaign is exactly what this Strategy is all about. We spent a long time 18 months ago thinking carefully about our priorities as a church, and what it means to be a church here in Weybridge. This is absolutely central. Our work is already very much in line with this strategy.

I am going to take just a couple of examples – but you will be able to think of many more. One of the goals is “Cultivating Community Partnerships”. Right at the start of the St. James’ Campaign, one of our pastoral assistants decided to speak to a variety of partners in the community, and from those conversations she identified that a service for people suffering from dementia and their carers could make a big difference to our community. And so the All Our Yesterdays service was born. And now, once a month, somewhere up to 60 people gather here, carers and dementia sufferers, worshipping together, eating cake, and finding a place here.  But that wasn’t the end, because at the same time we were working with local businesses, and our existing connections with care homes and the day centre meant that all of these groups have now come together to work towards Weybridge becoming a Dementia Friendly Community.

A very different example. In the last few weeks many of you will have received packets about the Planned Giving Scheme. A number of people have worked exceptionally hard to research this scheme and identify the reasons it will help us to manage our finances better. They have put together information so that the transition to the new scheme is as straightforward as possible for those wishing to make it. Unglamorous though this may sound, one of the goals of Transforming Church, Transforming Lives is “encouraging generous giving”.  And for good reason:  Everything that happens here is dependent on your generosity. If we believe in what we are doing, and especially if we want to do more, we really do need to think carefully about our giving – and there are people helping us to do just that.

So, if those examples are the encouragement – the signs that we have already made a really good start – let’s also hear the challenge.

I would like you to go away and read the 12 goals. And then I want you to think carefully about our next steps as a Parish.

As many of you will know, our priorities in the St. James’ campaign are currently to increase storage in the Parish Centre and create a servery at the back of church. But there can and must be more. When you leave church each Sunday, what is that thing that you keep thinking “if only there was….” or “if only we did…”?

Or when you’re out and about in Weybridge, when have you suddenly thought “the church should be involved in that…”?

It may be that nothing immediately springs to mind, and that is why the 12 goals are actually very helpful – because they will give you some inspiration.

And here’s the important second step. Please don’t simply think that having the thought and telling Brian or myself has discharged your responsibility. It’s not quite enough simply to have the thought and tell Brian and me. It would make an enormous difference if you didn’t just leave it there. If 150 people come to us expecting us to deliver their good ideas, we’ll sink. Whatever it is that feels important to you, see if you can take it just one step further. Speak to someone else. See if they agree. Try to think about what the next step along the line might be.  How might you be part of something new?

Now of course we all need support. We’re none of us trying to do any of this on our own – we absolutely must work towards goals together, and Brian and I will do all we can in every way, from sharing ideas to taking action. But this is about all of us. We don’t know whether, in our gospel reading, the rich man felt inadequate to do anything for Lazarus. The point is, he didn’t even try. He did nothing.

So let’s not fall into that trap. Let’s do something. Let’s be encouraged that everything we have been doing over the past years has been heading in a positive direction. And let’s decide what comes next. Let’s see what God is doing and join in.

Amen

Sermon – Sunday 18th September 2016 – 10 am

Theresa Ricketts

As many of you know, I am rather a fan of Friends, the popular American sitcom that aired in the 1990s about six 20-30 something friends. In one episode money becomes a source of contention. Three of the friends are earning good salaries and the other three less so. It seems that there is always an expectation that they will be able to go out to nice restaurants, and when it comes to birthdays, they don’t just buy a gift, but have a party or go out as well. For three of the friends this way of life is fine; for the other three it is becoming unsustainable.

In the course of the argument that unfolds, one of the characters says, “I guess I don’t really think about money that much” to which another replies, “That’s because you have it.”

The final sentence of today’s gospel reading is heard so often that it is easy to ignore it: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Indeed, it may be that for some of us it feels like something we don’t need to worry about very much – we don’t serve money, after all.  We don’t make a God out of it.  But it can be easy to assume that we don’t fall into the traps other people fall into, taking money for granted, and not thinking about the consequences for those who don’t… And so it’s still important for us to ask what Jesus might be saying to us. To hear his challenge.

It’s a challenge that the dishonest manager can see coming, because he knows that his life is about to change radically. 

The manager is about to lose his job for dishonesty – he has been summoned by his employer. He knows that he can’t do manual labour, and he has no desire to beg. The context here is important. In the Roman-occupied Galilee of the first century, rich landlords and rulers were loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and to disinherit peasants of their family land. This was in direct violation of biblical covenantal law. The rich man, along with his steward or debt collector, were both exploiting desperate peasants.

So, when the manager summons his master’s debtors and offers to reduce their debts, he may only be reducing the exorbitant level of interest, or he may be removing the interest altogether. Either way, though, he recognises his need to develop relationships with these debtors, since he is likely to need to rely on them for mercy in the near future. We may wish to question the pragmatic nature of his conversion to relationship, but it nevertheless puts people’s needs at the heart of the economy. 

I was visiting a friend earlier this week. Her home has been recently extended and she has a beautiful open plan kitchen and living space. When I said how beautiful it was, she told me that a lot of the kitchen had been fitted in exchange for a website – her partner is a web designer.

Although most of us do not find ourselves in quite that kind of situation, there is something wonderful about how that exchange was really about people developing a relationship with one another rather than paying for services. And that, I think, lies at the heart of this parable. It is among the most opaque of Jesus’s parables, but what he seems to be getting at is the importance of relationship, even within our economy.

This parable serves as a bridge between the stories of the Prodigal Son and the Rich Man and Lazarus (of which more next week.) In both of those stories there is a reversal of status – the Prodigal Son squanders his inheritance, but is restored by his father when he returns home; Lazarus suffers the humiliation of poverty, but find himself enjoying the heavenly banquet when he dies.

In Luke’s gospel, reversals of status are at the heart of what happens when Jesus and the kingdom of God appear, and this reversal of status takes place in this parable, too. The dishonest manager does something with the rich man’s wealth that changes the existing order of things – that benefits himself, yes, but also other’s by reducing their debts. And in doing so, he creates a new set of relationships, based not on the vertical relationship between lenders and debtors, but on something more like the reciprocal and egalitarian relationships of friends.

And somehow, perhaps, that may speak to us. Some years ago, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine. She is a consultant engineer, and was explaining to me that on the completion of a recent project, she had received extravagant thanks from her client – verbose emails and gushing telephone calls. As she explained I remember her saying that she couldn’t understand why she was being thanked so warmly, after all, they had paid for what she did.

If you think of that situation from the other point of view – the perspective of the client who was impressed and delighted with the work completed on their behalf – I must admit that I am pleased that they made such an effort to express their thanks. Because that is relationship. That takes a situation beyond the transactional into a different sphere. And that, I think, is just a little of what Jesus might have been getting at in this parable.

And establishing relationship can be challenging.  Earlier this year, Amnesty International launched a video entitled “Look beyond borders”. If you’re interested, you can find it on the Amnesty International website. The video is a 4 minute experiment – people are challenged to look one another in the eye for 4 minutes. The idea is to break down barriers between refugees and Europeans, because if you look someone in the eye for 4 minutes, you cannot fail to see another human being. There is a connection, even an intimacy. There is shared embarrassment. If one person smiles, so does the other. If there are tears, you cannot fail to be touched. This is the beginning of relationship. And Jesus encourages us into relationship. Always. He encourages us to see the human being, not the salesperson, or the cleaner, the gardener, or the chief executive, but the human being.

It’s not always easy. I imagine that you can think of a few people you would definitely rather not look in the eye for four minutes – I know I can. But that’s part of the point, because they’re human too. And if we are to serve God, we really need to try to see the world as God sees it – with love, compassion and forgiveness in our hearts.

Amen

Sermon – Sunday 10th July 2016 – 10 am

Theresa Ricketts

“And who is my neighbour?”

An elderly gentleman in a wheelchair was trying to use the facilities, just across the car park from this church. Whether he didn’t have a radar key for the disabled toilet, or it wasn’t working, I do not know, but he was at a loss.

Now, if I were a storyteller, I would describe the young man in a smart suit, who noticed the elderly gentleman out of the corner of his eye and walked swiftly on to get his coffee, or lunch, or attend his next meeting. And then I’d describe the person who was already cutting it fine for an appointment at the podiatrist, so couldn’t stop. And the truth is that I didn’t see these people – it may be that on this occasion there was no-one who just passed by, or simply didn’t notice.

But what I did see was the Bulgarian who cleans cars. He noticed and went over. Gently, not aggressively. Who took the time, in spite of the language barrier, to try to find out what he could do. He held the wheelchair so that the gentleman could get up. He held out an arm to steady him. He waited.

And on this occasion, that is when the priest showed up, unable to do anything but thank God for the wonderful kindness she had witnessed.

Which of these, do you think, was the neighbour to the elderly man in the wheelchair?

At this point in our national history, the question “And who is my neighbour?” has never been more relevant or important. Whether we agree or disagree with the decision taken in the recent referendum to leave the European Union, we cannot ignore either its consequences in terms of the increase in hate crimes across the country. And neither can we ignore some of the circumstances that contributed to the decision. The poverty in large parts of our country, and especially in the north. The growing sense of disenfranchisement, and perception that policy decisions take a London-centric view. The erosion in so many places of a sense of community. The lack of identity which can result from unemployment and the growing diversity of our population. Some writers suggest that nationalism becomes popular when other aspects of identity are weak, and while I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that nationalism is a bad thing in itself, it undoubtedly has negative as well as positive manifestations.

“And who is my neighbour?” If this question has never been more important, what can the story of the Good Samaritan teach us?

What I love about this story is the way in which Jesus, once again, doesn’t actually answer the question. Let’s look at what is happening. The lawyer wants to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. He wants to know the rules. He wants to be able to tick the boxes so that he can know for sure that he is saved.

And Jesus begins by saying, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” So far, so good. The lawyer can answer this question. The box is getting closer to being ticked.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.”

That’s it. Job done. Love God, love neighbour. And as Jesus says, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” Simple.

But the lawyer isn’t satisfied yet. He needs to be sure. There isn’t room for doubt. So he needs to know who his neighbour actually is. Who are the people that he needs to love as himself? Are we talking about geographical neighbours – the people who live next door? Are we talking about family and friends – is that our neighbours.

And that is the point at which Jesus tells the story. Because the truth is, it’s not that simple. If the question is, “And who is my neighbour?” the answer that Jesus gives invites us all to consider who might our neighbour be? How far might the net stretch? If it’s a question of showing love, who could we be asked to show love to?

And to that extent, the events of the past weeks shouldn’t change our answer at all. The lawyer in the story might have wanted a clear answer to define who fitted in the “neighbour” box and who didn’t – who should be loved as himself and who shouldn’t. But Jesus invites us to consider whether our love could stretch just a little further. And with that in mind, members of the European Union are as much our neighbours today as they were three weeks ago. We are called to love them just as we have always been so called. Just as we are called to love the people of America and Australia. Just as we are called to love the people we work with. Just as we are called to love the people who voted the opposite way from us in the referendum.

This is discipleship. To be faced each and every day with the question, “And who is my neighbour?” and to seek to find the answer Jesus would have found in the situations we find ourselves in.

And if that sounds too hard, take heart. Some days it might be easier than you think. Some days, our neighbour will be the lady round the corner who needs a lift to the hospital; the person in the next door flat who needs a couple of things from Waitrose. We’re not always going to find ourselves walking from Jerusalem to Jericho and stumbling across a man who’s fallen into the hands of robbers.

And take heart, too, from one final story. There was a class of girls in Reception – just 5 years old – who were enjoying Sports Day. By the end of the morning all the medals had been awarded and the children were sitting on the grass. One little girl was especially sad at not receiving a medal. And beside her was one of her classmates who had won two well-deserved medals. On seeing her friend upset she promptly took off one of her medals, put it around the little girl’s neck and put her arm around her.

If a 5 year old can do it, I suspect we can at least give it a go. Keep on asking yourself, “And who is my neighbour”, keep seeing the opportunities to show God’s love in this beautiful, complicated world. Hear the story of the Good Samaritan and go and do likewise.

Amen

Sermon – Sunday 13th March 2016 – 10 am

Theresa Ricketts

I wonder if you can identify your own response to today’s gospel reading. Can you imagine, for example, watching someone who appears to be extravagantly wasteful, and in your head thinking the money could be better spent. Or are you more likely to see extravagant generosity in Mary’s actions and perhaps resent those who don’t seem able to enjoy the good things in life. Or do you find yourself puzzled and perhaps uncomfortable with that statement of Jesus that “you will always have the poor with you.” What does that mean? Does it mean we no longer need to do anything about poverty? Is Jesus throwing the towel in? And why is this man who has constantly put others first throughout his life suddenly seeming to dismiss those on the margins of our society?

Whatever your initial response to this reading, I want to think about it in terms of whether we live out what we believe. To put it another way, whether we walk our talk. What the way we live our lives – the things we do, and the way we do them – tells other people about what we consider to be important.

Let’s start with Judas, criticising Mary’s actions because he sees the wastefulness of pouring expensive nard onto Jesus. The point being made here isn’t that it’s wrong to think in that way. You, like me, will probably know people who live a frugal existence, for one reason or another. People who live off small incomes so have to make the money go a long way; people who give as much as they can away, either to family or in charitable giving; people who avoid extravagance on environmental grounds – I often think of my dad, who long before there were recycling collections from our homes would carefully wash every pot that he could find a recycling bin for and walk them all down to the various collection points, in his bid to protect the environment.

It’s not Judas’s point against wastefulness that is the problem. It’s that he simply doesn’t believe it. That’s not how he lives at all. We are told that he is a thief, and we know that he is about to make 30 pieces of silver through bribery.

And crucially, of course, he is missing the point. Because Mary’s actions have nothing to do with wastefulness. Whether she knows it or not – and if she does, it is probably only subconsciously – her actions are preparing Jesus for his death. She is anointing him. Her actions are about something that goes way beyond the financial cost of the nard. This is a deeply meaningful moment, a moment of relationship between Jesus and Mary. I was in the hospice recently, and there was a discussion about contacting a family member living in Australia, and of course that is one of those moments when, on one level, the cost of the flight becomes irrelevant. Flying half way round the world to visit a dying relative is not a question of money – or indeed the cost to the planet of aviation – but is a question of relationship.

So if this reading is telling us something about living out our values, I wonder what values your lives reflect. I wonder what people would understand about your priorities from the way you live your life – from where your time is spent, and how.

Of course I’m not suggesting for a moment that this is an easy question to answer – or indeed that there aren’t different ways of answering it at different times in our lives. Just because our family, for example, is our main priority, doesn’t mean that we can spend all of our time with them – indeed our love may be shown by providing for them and ensuring some kind of stability.

But I still think we should allow the gospel reading to challenge us. It is so easy to get caught up in the path we have set ourselves in life. To allow the voices around us to feed our fears and anxieties, rather than necessarily being prepared to stop and question what we actually believe.

Earlier this week I was at a Police Chaplain training event. One of the presentations was about Child Sexual Exploitation – which I can assure you I am not going to preach about. However, there was an interesting side discussion which arose. The police officer giving the presentation said that her daughter did not have a mobile phone, and that she would get her one when she goes to secondary school, but there would still be a rule that the phone stays downstairs in the house. Her point was that a child can be in contact with literally anyone over the internet or on a phone, and given that you wouldn’t allow a stranger up to your child’s bedroom, why allow them to have a phone up there? In response to which another parent said that developing a relationship with your child is the important thing, so that they feel that they are trusted, rather than simply setting rules. And I think what I ended up realising is that there isn’t a right or wrong answer to this situation, but the question is more about why you are doing what you’re doing. The world of technology is one of many things that makes parents’ lives increasingly difficult, but that makes it all the more important to think about the decisions we are making. It’s not easy; we’ll make mistakes; but it’s important.

And that, in a sense, brings us to that puzzling comment of Jesus that “you always have the poor with you.” This was not a statement of self-importance, still less of acceptance of the status quo. The particular reference was meant by Jesus to remind his hearers of Deuteronomy which states: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’” Hardly a statement of acceptance, but rather of responsibility. However, it is also a statement that reminds each one of us that we are not God – that we cannot solve all of the world’s problems. Which is important because it encourages us to focus on what we can do – on the differences we can make – on the people whose lives we can change. That evening when Mary anointed Jesus, she was not concerned with what other people said or thought of her. She believed that what she was doing mattered. For each of us, too, what we do and how can say so much about what we believe to be important and who we put first.

Amen 

Sermon – Sunday 28th February 2016 – 10 am

Teresa Ricketts

I wonder how often you stop to think about what God is really like. About the nature and attributes of the God we worship. That’s a huge question, I know, but I think it’s one that we can’t escape when thinking about this morning’s readings.

You see these readings present me with a huge dilemma because when I read any number of commentaries about them, I am faced with a picture of a God in whom I simply can’t believe. A God of punishment. A God of putting people to the test. A God of last chances. And that is not the God I encounter in prayer, or so often through the words of Jesus. It simply isn’t a God I can believe in, worship, praise and put my trust in through thick and thin.

So if that is what some commentators find in these readings, I wonder whether it is possible to read them differently, whether you can find in these passages a God you can believe in.

It is hard not to hear in the reading of St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians a suggestion that we will be punished for our bad behaviour; and that God puts us to the test. But it is important to remember that this is a letter written to a particular group of people at a particular time. Paul was writing to the Christians in Corinth to specifically address behaviour that he believed was contrary to the Gospel. He was not setting out his entire theology, but rather responding to specific issues.

It is also worth realising that Paul was a human being – a remarkable one, without doubt – but a human being nonetheless, who was constantly wrestling with himself and God in his attempts to understand what it meant to follow Christ. When I read his letters, I am often struck by a very particular challenge that he appears to encounter again and again, and it may be one that you recognise, too. Paul believes that living “in Christ” – that is the phrase he uses – is something radically new and different. Remember that Paul had a very dramatic experience. Having been a persecutor of the early Christians, he believed he came face to face with Christ on the road to Damascas, and from that point onwards was a committed follower of Jesus. Everything had changed for him. He saw that in Christ there was love and life, and he was determined to tell people the good news, that they too could believe in the strength of that kind of love.

But in spite of that extraordinary experience, he also knew that he was a human being. That sometimes he got things wrong. That his feelings were not always completely in line with the gospel. And that presented him with a tremendous challenge.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had that awful experience of someone confronting you with, “How can you claim to be a Christian, and be so unkind, unloving, unforgiving...” But that’s the challenge, isn’t it. However much we believe that God’s love has the power to transform – however much we see that daily and pray that we can be part of that transformation – sometimes, we get it wrong. We are unkind when we didn’t have to be. We want what we don’t need. We harbour grudges and jealousies.

And Paul experienced that, too – both as part of his own journey, and also as he watched those early Christian communities, and their behaviour towards one another. And his response was admonishment and a call to behave in accordance with what they professed to believe.

But our failure to live up to the example of Christ doesn’t mean that God is a God of punishment. It doesn’t mean that we are punished for those failures. And there are two particular points I want make here. The first is that if we want to encourage people to behave well, it is quite human to suggest that there will be punishment if we don’t – regardless of whether that is true. And the second is that I believe that where we are at our most able to show love, kindness, generosity and grace, we are at our most fulfilled. Which means that where we are feeling negative feelings towards other, it damages us. And that’s not because God is punishing us, but simply because it’s not how we were made to be.

So what of the Gospel reading?

Well, I want to encourage you to realise just how radical this reading is. Because it’s suggesting that there isn’t an elite class of people who are closer to God, but that all of us can be in relationship with God. And yes, it does say that what is required is repentance – which means turning around.

But that’s obvious, isn’t it? Because we all make mistakes. And if we don’t acknowledge that and take time in our lives – whether daily, weekly, or somewhat sporadically – to acknowledge where we are going wrong, to say sorry, and to turn around – then our lives become dominated by the mistakes, rather than by the possibility. The reason that we confess our sins weekly at church isn’t because the church is obsessed with sin – and certainly isn’t because God is obsessed with sin. It’s simply a recognition of the fact that we make mistakes and a desire to accept forgiveness, knowing that in that act of repentance, of turning around, our lives are transformed.

And the parable of the fig tree? Well, the first point to make is that in the early first century it was common to believe that the end of time was imminent, so there was a greater sense of urgency in making the good news known.

But listen to that extraordinary love, warmth and kindness. For three years the tree hasn’t borne fruit, but still the gardener – Jesus, we presume – suggests, nurturing it for another year to give it another chance. And I don’t know about you, but I reckon that if it still hadn’t borne fruit the next year, Jesus would still be suggesting to the man that he would nurture it for one more year, longing for it to bear fruit, and believing that if it knew how much he loved it, the fruit would definitely appear sometime. And in a whole field of fig trees, a field of people like you and me, then year by year, loved and nurtured, one or two more of us would realise that this extraordinary love was real, and living in that love, would become fruitful and fulfilled.

 

Sunday 17th January 2016 at 10.00 am

Theresa Ricketts

 

Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

Earlier this week, I was involved a discussion about whether life is more about the journey or the destination. One person said that she felt that the concept of journey is very popular, that whether it is in her work or among friends, she is being encouraged to focus on the fact that life is really all about what happens along the way.

Which I found very interesting, because my experience in schools as a teacher was that there can be a great deal of pressure on both teachers and young people to focus on what they’re going to achieve. Teachers are judged increasingly according to whether students achieve the grades that have been predicted; there can appear to be more focus on “five A* to C” than on what children have actually learnt and discovered, how they have grown, during their time at school.

And if we expand that into our working lives it can often feel like we are judged according to whether we have been promoted or given a pay rise. When I listen to people talking about their working lives it can sometimes seem that everything is judged according to whether it will sound good on a CV. A friend of mine was involved in recruiting a young graduate recently who spoke eagerly about his considerable client facing experience – selling bike parts in Halfords.

This story of Jesus at the wedding at Cana helps us to think a little more carefully about the connection between journey and destination. When Jesus’s mother tells him that the wine has run out, he gives her pretty short shrift. His response is all about destination – his time has not yet come. Yet what is fascinating is that no sooner has he voiced those words, than he takes action, asking for the stone water jars to be filled with water, which duly becomes wine. So it seems that although his time has not yet come, the journey is significant, too.

And that, surely, helps us at least a little in our own lives. I don’t know whether you are the kind of person who likes to set goals and work towards them – whether your motivation comes from aiming for the next thing – or whether you tend to take things as they come, motivated perhaps by consistency and reliability, preferring to experience change as incremental. But whichever is your preference, there is significance in both journey and destination. Where we think we might be going affects what we do along the way; what we do along the way can alter where we are going. And of course one of the challenges in life is that, whichever our preference, neither the destination nor the journey are entirely under our control.

That complexity in the course of our lives appears to be recognised and accepted in this story. It seems at first that Jesus has no time for his mother at all – why is she bothering him with this now? This isn’t part of where he’s going at all. And yet somehow he doesn’t allow himself to be so distracted by where he is going to ignore the calls along the way. Whether he would have responded differently if it had been someone else asking we can never know – though we do know that on numerous occasions he allows himself to be distracted by his disciples and even the crowds that surround him, even returning from quiet prayer time to heal and teach people. It is sometimes as though Jesus needs the promptings of others to undertake new things, or to see things differently, like through the conversation with the Syrophoenician woman or the woman at the well. Jesus appears to be prepared to accept that his relationships and interactions with other people will change the course of his life, will have an impact on what he does, probably even that he will discover more about his vocation from other people and the course of events.

And that is true for us, too. However goal orientated you are, I can’t imagine any of us have not found our goals modified by what has happened on the way towards them, including perhaps the needs or prompting of someone else. And some of us might go even further to say that sometimes achieving our goals has proved disappointing, whereas the times we have allowed ourselves to be distracted have been some of the best of our lives.

But of course Jesus is not distracted entirely from his destination – his hour has not yet come, but it will come. That does not change. And although he allows himself to be distracted – he allows the course of events to unfold – the distraction is used to good effect. And somehow it has its roots in God – God as the foundation of Jesus’s ministry. Whatever we make of this miracle, its purpose within John’s gospel is to reveal the identity of Jesus as God, and to show us something of God’s nature – a God who is generous, who loves abundantly, even extravagantly.

And perhaps that is something that can help us in the course of our lives. Because whether we are always looking to the next goal, or prefer to see how life unfolds, what matters more than anything is our identity as children of God. What we are engaged in above all throughout our lives is discovering all that it means to be made in the image and likeness of God, and to be loved in all our precious uniqueness. And of course how we can best respond to that. So the questions we should ask of all that we are engaged in – whether we see it as part of a journey, or an annoying distraction from our destination – is how what we do reveals our identity as God’s children, responding with love to the love we are freely given.

I’m not pretending for a moment that it’s an easy task. But it’s life itself. And perhaps you, like me, gain encouragement from those moments when you can see how it works. When I think about my visits to St. James’s school, I know that the teachers must inevitably be aware of the need for children to achieve certain levels in their various assessments, but I also encounter individual children who are discovering daily how to interact with one another, what they are good at, what they enjoy.

Tomorrow morning a group of people will be embarking on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and that concept of pilgrimage is such a helpful one when trying to make some sense of the relationship between journey and destination. It is of course relevant and significant that this is a trip to the Holy Land, to walk where Jesus walked. But it is as much about the fellow travellers, and the internal transformations that will happen for individuals, the group as a whole, and indeed us as a parish. Pilgrimage is not a one off concept but rather embraces journey, destination, relationships, discovery and places God right at the centre of our lives.

Amen

Sermon – Sunday 27th December 2015 – 10 am

Theresa Ricketts

“The disciple whom Jesus loved”. John did like to use that phrase, and we often assume that he was describing himself. I’m thinking of writing my own autobiography along the same lines – the daughter whom Nick and Marion loved, that kind of thing. I wonder how long it would take to really get up my brother and sister’s noses. And we can imagine, too, that perhaps the other disciples were not always altogether thrilled when John referred to “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”

And yet, of course, if you asked my Mum and Dad whether they love me, I’m pretty sure they would say yes, just as Jesus would undoubtedly say that he loved his disciple John. But just as my Mum and Dad would quickly follow that up by saying that they also love my brother and sister, so too Jesus would say that he loved all his disciples – and indeed continues to love them. Because you see that is the good news. You are also the disciple whom Jesus loves.

Which is a message that the epistle reading seems to pick up on. The letter refers to: “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” This epistle probably was not written by someone who met Jesus in person, but the letter writer was able to refer to their own experiences of God and Jesus, just as each of us is, and however inadequate and incomplete they may seem, they are still a valid part of our understanding of God. As we seek to make sense of God – and indeed life itself - in whatever faltering way we can, our own experiences should not be overlooked or underestimated.

I wonder if you are familiar with some of the many different types of personality profiling available. You may, for example, have come across Myers Briggs, or Belbin team roles. Some management tools like to refer to different animals or colours, both as personality types and ways of working. These can be extremely helpful tools, helping us to understand ourselves and one another better, giving us a little insight sometimes into why people respond in the ways they do. Where they fall short, of course, is that they are tools that offer insight, but are not the full story. To think that the entire population can be classified into 16 types is clearly absurd – there is so much more to us than that.

What I find reassuring about the stories of the various disciples is their humanity. I don’t know why it was that John kept having to refer to himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved, but it didn’t make Jesus love him less. Peter in this reading seemed to be a little annoyed at John, and throughout the Gospels we hear of his wonderful depth of faith and terrible betrayals, and yet still he was loved by Jesus.

Each one of us approaches our life and our faith in different ways, and that’s ok. No two relationships are the same – and that’s what we’re engaged in when it comes to faith. You may like to read and seek to understand, or you may prefer to sit in silence; you may enjoy uplifting worship, or you may prefer to be actively engaged in doing things for the community. Each is valid and loved.

One of the things that I enjoyed this year in the run-up to Christmas was seeing the various ways that the story of the nativity can be told. I saw a story of a robin who had 7 vests and gave them all up to people who needed them, only to find himself with none to keep him warm – so he was given a red one. A story of generosity, kindness and warmth. I also saw a story of a school caretaker who stayed up all night to paint beautiful baubles for the school Christmas tree to tell the real story of Jesus. This time a story of faithful service, love and the search for truth. If we think of the various characters in our nativity scene and imagine how each of them experienced the birth of Jesus, we would have so many different stories, each holding a part of the truth.

And that is so important. Because there are two aspects to the beauty of our uniqueness. The first is the call to be ourselves and the reassurance that we are loved. The second is the recognition that others are loved too, just as they are. And that if we are to know God, we will come closer if we stop to hear the stories of others – however much they may challenge us - as well as our own.

At the end of this week we move into a new year. I don’t know whether you are someone who likes to make new year’s resolutions, or whether you avoid them like the plague. Doubtless the newspapers will be full of ways to be a “new you” in 2016 and the gyms will be cashing in on those who resolve to lose weight or get fit.

If we are to learn anything from the story of John the Evangelist, it is that whether or not you will be making New Year’s resolutions, what remains the most important is to continue to discover the wonderful unique person you were created to be. It sounds so easy, but please take heart. I don’t think John had to go round referring to himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved because he was altogether confident and assured. Holding that balance between confidence in ourselves and the love God has for us while still knowing our failings isn’t easy. But what we discover is life itself.

Amen

Sermon – Sunday 22nd November – 10.00 am

Theresa Ricketts

 

I wonder what picture springs into your mind when I use the word “king”. When I put the word into the computer and asked it to generate images, I was faced with a page of pictures of men in crowns, often carrying a sceptre, sometimes seated on a throne and dressed in very fine clothes. The images evoke power, status and wealth. They are men not to be messed with, they are men who rule from on high. And if you listen to that passage Helen read to us from Daniel, that might be the image that comes to mind.

So I think it is safe to say that if people were expecting a King as they generally understood it, Jesus probably came as something of a surprise. And indeed today, the feast of Christ the King, is a day to remember that in Christ, the notion of Kingship is completely overturned. All of our assumptions about what leaders look like and how they behave are transformed in Jesus of Nazareth.

Let’s just take a few examples. First, the birth of Jesus. Born to a carpenter and his fiancée, not somewhere clean and posh, but rather in a stable, among the animals, with humble shepherds their first visitors. Not, perhaps, an auspicious beginning.

And the people Jesus mixed with during his life were not the rich and powerful, but rather those on the edges of society. In the words of Matthew’s gospel, the tax collectors and the sinners. Those who acknowledged their need of forgiveness and salvation, who recognised their frailty and humanity.

I sometimes wonder what Jesus would make of the many books on leadership that fill the shelves of bookshops and WH Smith. Does Jesus fit our models of leadership?  The man who taught using parables that don’t provide us with answers or tell us what to do, but challenge us to enter into situations, to believe in the power of love to overcome hatred, to take responsibility for our actions but recognise that we are not in control of everything that happens in the world.

And so when we get to today’s gospel reading, Jesus himself engages in a conversation that Pilate simply cannot grasp. Is Jesus a King? Is he proclaiming himself to be a King, and therefore liable to be put to death? And Jesus refuses to answer. Because Pilate simply cannot understand the kind of kingship lived out by Jesus. He cannot see that the Kingdom of which Jesus speaks is not like any Kingdom we would understand here on earth. That Christ the King is not a king we would recognise as such here on earth. Jesus tries to explain it to Pilate – if my Kingdom was of this world, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over. And yet, as we know, Jesus would be put to death. Because what he stood for was something entirely different.

Because in the kingdom of God, the first are last, the meek are exalted, and the hungry are filled.  In God's kingdom, it's the ordinary people who come first - you and me, perhaps, and those who struggle to make ends meet, or to feel particularly successful.  That phrase from Revelation says it all, doesn't it? Christ the King loves us, first...frees us, second...and then makes us into his Kingdom.

Which is extraordinary really, because so often our worldly definitions would say the opposite. 

Who, I wonder, are the people you most respect? The ones who have had the most influence on your life? It may be that you've had a particularly visionary boss at one time or another. Someone who really transformed your business, or school, or hospital, wherever you encountered them. But I bet if you stop and think about it, it was not their ability to wield power and influence that made an impression. It was something else. The thing I most admired about one of my bosses – who was young and extremely capable – was his ability to help each member of the team to identify their own strengths. His ease with his own abilities enabled him to support others in finding theirs. And within that same team, my colleague stopped me in my tracks one day, by noticing the words I was using, and telling me to stop putting myself down. Instead of focusing on himself, he took the time to build me up, and help me to see my potential. To be given a gift like that is to be given riches beyond price. And seeing the potential in the smallest, least significant, most lost of people, is what we see in Jesus time after time after time.

And none of those things are gifts that Pilate - or often far too much of the world out there - recognises and values.

And if we are to live in loving response to the King who makes us his kingdom, then our calling is to understand and share in his values. To worship God by noticing the image of Christ we see in one another. Being gentle with one another, bearing with each other's foibles and weaknesses, and building one another up gently - not with false, unfounded platitudes, but with gentle words of encouragement that enable us to see glimmers of God's love in ourselves as well as in each other.

It has been hard to hear the news or discuss current affairs over this past week or so with any kind of hopefulness, but in a few small things I have taken heart. The first is that there has, on the whole, been an absence of a gung ho attitude towards the threat of terrorism that faces us. Action is undoubtedly being taken, but there is a sense of caution, even on the part of our leaders. A recognition of the gravity of the situation, of the tremendous challenges we face, and of the lack of easy answers. And in the middle of that, among both leaders and the people of various nations, there has been a sense of solidarity. A strong desire to recognise our shared humanity. To identify with all those who are shocked and horrified by acts of terror, of whatever nationality or faith.

It’s in recognising our shared humanity that we allow the light of God's truth into the lives of everyone: the truth that says we're loved more than we can ever know, and worth more than our bank accounts, our real estate, our jobs, our position in society can ever tell.

And what therefore do we see in Christ the King? The true face of God. The face of love and healing and forgiveness. The face of gentleness and peace. And the face of longing. 

The longing for us to go and show those things to others, every day of our lives. 

Amen.

 

Sermon – Sunday 8th November 2015 – 10.00 am

 

Theresa Ricketts

 

I wonder how you hear that story of Simon, Andrew, James and John becoming followers of Jesus. Perhaps for you it’s one of those “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” type stories, by which I mean something about different people in another time. Something it’s hard to relate to. Of course at that time in that place it was possible to give up a job to follow Jesus. Or we could add our 21st century values. Fishermen?Not many GCSEs needed for that job. No wonder they were happy to give it up.

 

Or by contrast you might be more inclined to admire the strength of faith required to give up everything – job and family – to follow Jesus. You might even wish that you had that strength of faith – that you could be that sure. Long to be one of those people who met Jesus in person because maybe that would have convinced you.

 

One of the realities of the gospels is that they simply don’t tell us everything. They are predominantly about Jesus, so details about other people are limited. And their purpose was to convince people that Jesus was God – that in Jesus people met and experienced something so extraordinary that they were compelled to convince others that they had encountered God.

 

All of which means that stories like this one of the call of Simon, Andrew, James and John are decidedly incomplete. We have no idea what was going through their heads at the time Jesus turned up at the Sea of Galilee and asked them to follow him. The agonies they might have gone through. The frustrated, abandoned families left behind. Zebedee might not exactly have been thrilled, might he? One minute he’s got his two strapping sons working with him, the next they’re gone. Thanks a million, Jesus. We also know that the path of discipleship was not plain sailing – and that the disciples weren’t always admirable in their behaviour. They all fell asleep when Jesus needed them most; Thomas expressed doubt in the resurrection; Peter denied he was a follower of Jesus. And almost all of the disciples were to become martyrs in the early church.

 

But what I want to suggest is that, incomplete though these stories are, they are our stories. In fact in some ways it is their incompleteness that can help us to make them our own.

 

Each one of us is trying, in our own way, to be a disciple of Christ. However faltering that may be. And what you will know is that the path looks quite different at different times, as well as each one of our paths being unique. One size certainly doesn’t fit all. And however it is that you read this story might help you to think a bit more about your own discipleship.

 

A few weeks ago I was on a course, and we were talking about the theology of work – whether our day jobs are part of our discipleship. There are lots of passages of scripture that suggest that our work can be vocational – that what we do at work and how we do it is part of how we follow Christ. Well we know that, don’t we? But what became interesting in our discussion was how it is that we actually figure out what it is that God is calling us to do. The process of discernment really isn’t straightforward. While a few people have direct experiences of hearing voices, for most of us discerning God’s call is more about weighing up aspects of our experience and praying about it. What we’re good at and what we enjoy become part of the equation; what other people tell us – about what we’re good at and how they see us; when things are difficult, we might pray about whether we’re supposed to be standing firm in a difficult situation or moving on to something different. Where is God in this situation? And what we also know is that sometimes we get things wrong. We decide to move on when perhaps we should have stayed, or vice versa. But we also discover things about God out of our bad decisions as well as our good ones.

 

So if we return to the gospel reading, why not spend some time in prayer imagining what was actually going through the heads of Simon, Andrew, James and John when Jesus asked them to follow him – not to mention Zebedee. Because it might help you to think more about your own response to God, and your own understanding of what God might be asking of you.

 

One reason that I like to ponder this story is the very simple fact that it sounds so easy – and that is the very opposite of my experience. And you might understand that feeling, too. Sometimes it’s circumstances that can make things feel difficult. Back to Zebedee, the story might be very different if he needed 24 hour care. For each of us, our understanding of our discipleship – of God’s call on our lives – is made in a particular context. For many of us that call includes bringing up children, caring for friends or relatives, supporting a family. Understanding our vocation is set within a real context – all of which is part of God’s world. None of those things makes us any less a disciple of Jesus.

 

And of course the other side of that reality are those times when we suddenly see things differently. When something happens that shifts our perspective, or at any rate leads us to question our priorities or the path we’ve been on. Sometimes those jolts can be welcome; often they are not. But they form part of the framework in which we seek to understand our lives and all that we are called to. On this Remembrance Sunday, as we think of those who have lost their lives in conflicts, and those people left behind, we are only too aware that at some times in our history, decisions have been taken out of individuals’ hands. We also know that sometimes it is easier to make sense of the path we are on in retrospect, rather than at the time. Back to the gospel reading again, we don’t know if Simon, Andrew, James and John were happy or reluctant fishermen. If Jesus’s call was welcome, or if inside themselves they felt an enormous sense of resistance.

 

Wherever you are in your discipleship, I hope you might realise that today’s gospel reading is your story. Whether you long for greater certainty or clarity; whether you feel constrained by circumstances; whether you prefer to keep your head down and hope that nothing comes along to disrupt the path you’re on; or whether your world is in the process of being turned upside down. Take heart. The path of discipleship isn’t easy and is rarely obvious. But you’re not alone. In our unique ways, we’re all engaged in the same process of trying to figure out what we’re called to do and where we’re called to be. We mess up from time to time along the way, but as we stumble on, God continues to be right there beside us.

 

Amen

 

 

Sermon – Sunday 25th October 2015 – 10 am

Theresa Ricketts

 

I am a great lover of romantic comedies. I couldn’t tell you which is my particular favourite, though with Christmas coming up plenty spring to mind – have you seen The Holiday?  Kate Winslet, Jude Law, and the snow filled streets of leafy Surrey.  They’re how life should be, aren’t they? I mean, there are challenges along the way – but we can laugh about those – the odd bit of discomfort here and there – perhaps the necessity to kiss a few frogs on the path to Mr (or Miss) Right. But it all turns out well in the end, and we live happily ever after.

 

That’s the way it goes, isn’t it?

 

Except as soon as I put it that way, you and I know that it isn’t the way it goes. That’s not life, it’s a fairy tale – entertaining, perhaps, and sometimes there are truths contained within the story, but definitely not the reality of what we experience on a daily basis. And of course they are just a snapshot. A romantic comedy selects one small part of two people’s lives – the falling in love part – and stops when they get together.

 

The thing is, romantic comedies aren’t trying to present a rounded picture – their purpose is entertainment.  But they doreflect rather a distorted view of life.

 

I don’t know what you were like as a child, but I remember when I was a child my greatest desire was to be an adult. Except I don’t exactly know when that happened. Was it my 18th birthday? Or when I left home? Or when I got my first job? Or bought my first flat? Or maybe I haven’t actually got there yet. Somehow as a child I felt like I was working towards particular goals when everything would fall into place – qualification, job, partner, family – but whether or not we achieve those things, what they never feel like is the end of the story.

 

So why on earth am I saying all this in relation to this morning’s reading? Well, it’s because I think the story of Bartimaeus may well be a story for each one of us. But how we relate to the story will be different for each one of us, and will continue to be a work in progress, with the constant possibility of fresh insights and understanding, throughout our lives.

 

When I first read this passage, what jumped out at me was Jesus’s question to Bartimaeus“What do you want me to do for you?” I wonder what your answer to that question might be. It’s huge, isn’t it, and yet I think that it is a question we are constantly asked. Of course at certain times in our lives the answer may seem quite obvious – there may be a particular challenge that we are constantly bringing to God in prayer – a difficult relationship; an aspiration that isn’t being fulfilled; a friend or relative who is sick or suffering.

 

But the question is one for us all. When we come to God in prayer, what is it that Jesus can do for us? What would help us in our daily walk with God? How might we understand God’s will for our lives more clearly on a daily basis – in our work, at home, wherever?

 

And if we think that the answer for Bartimaeus was obvious, perhaps we need to think again. This man was a blind beggar and it makes sense that he should want to see again. Except that the consequences of seeing again would change his life forever. Of course it would be wonderful to be able to see the beauty in the world, the colours, the intricacies of people’s faces, of plants and flowers. It would also mean that within the society of his day he would no longer be seen as an outcast, forced to beg for his survival. But if we think a bit deeper we will also realise that in asking to see again, he was also taking a risk. The story doesn’t tell us for how long he had been blind, but however hard it was, it was a life he had come to know, and by seeing again, he would have to find another means of survival. And as well as all of the beauty in the world, he would also have to see its ugliness as well. I’m not saying it makes the choice less obvious, but like with the romantic comedies which conveniently stop when the couple get together, we need to remember that for Bartimaeus this isn’t the end of the story. In fact given that once his sight is restored he follows Jesus on his way, we know that some of the things that he will see first include all that was to happen to Jesus once he reached Jerusalem.

 

But if it was “what do you want from me?” that captured my attention on the first reading, as I spent more time with this story, I was equally struck by the word of the crowd to Bartimaeus: “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” And sometimes, I think, that’s what we need to hear, too. Bartimaeus was a man of no significance at all. He was an outcast. The disciples and crowd didn’t expect Jesus to take a second glance as he made his way to Jerusalem. And yet he did. Because actually each of us is called, in one way or another, regardless of our own sense of insignificance, and the challenge is actually in hearing that call in the middle of our own crowded lives; finding the time and space to recognise and notice where it could be that God is calling us, in bigger or smaller ways, and being prepared to listen and respond.

 

One of the things that I love about this story is the way in which the story of Bartimaeus and the story of Jesus collide. If we are tempted to forget that we are only seeing a moment in time in the life of Bartimaeus – that being able to see again is in a sense the beginning of a new chapter – what is very obvious is that this episode is an interruption for Jesus. He is on his way to Jerusalem, and his followers aren’t particularly keen for that progress to be interrupted. And yet – as is often the case with Jesus – we see that somehow he doesn’t allow other people’s ideas about what he should be doing to stop him from being interrupted. It is something about realising that our own plans for our lives are only part of the story – the interruptions and how those plans are revised and shaped along the way are just as important.

 

In our own lives, we are often holding together the need and desire to make plans alongside a recognition that sometimes our plans are not realised, or in their realisation they simply aren’t what we expect. Somehow in this story we might remember in the middle of that messiness to notice where God might be found and to understand that the interruptions on the journey are as significant as the destination.

 

Amen

 

 

Homily – Sunday 4th October – 6.00 pm

 

Theresa Ricketts

 

Do you have staff appraisal at your place of work? Even the Church of England has got hold of it (and please don’t get me wrong, it tends to be practised in good organisations.) But I have spent a lot of time seeing some of the challenges it raises. Year after year, someone I know well would achieve consistently outstanding appraisal reports, except that in one area – communication skills – they would be marked as satisfactory. And year after year, that was all they could hear in the report – and they heard it as a criticism. And I know people who, regardless of their outstanding reports, still live in fear that somehow they’ll slip from grace. That they’re really only one step away from being fired.

 

When I hear this evening’s Gospel reading about the disciples being sent out, what I hear above all is the sense of sitting lightly to the trappings of this world. Of being unencumbered. Of being clear about their purpose, but taking little. Of arriving without expectations and allowing the response they receive to speak for itself.

 

And somehow that feels like such a helpful way to approach life.

 

I’m going to return to the example of appraisal. You see, it’s a very valuable tool. It gives people feedback about their work and their progress. It offers suggestions. It formalises time for communication between managers and their staff and can thereby provide the opportunity for some constructive conversations, which often improve morale simply because that time is an indication of being valued. So if we can sit relatively lightly to appraisals, they have the capacity to improve our working lives.

 

And yet they are also only as good as the people involved in the process. And more than that, we each bring our own baggage to the process. If we crave approval and the manager is seeking to offer constructive advice for progression, we could easily feel disappointed and undervalued. Personalities inevitably play their part. The extent to which managers fully know all that their staff do is enormously varied. I could go on.

 

And if that is true of appraisals, it is true of so much in life. If the trappings of this world set our frame of reference, something has gone wrong. If we value ourselves according to how much we earn, whether people speak well of us, whether people like us, we are in dangerous territory. And that is not because those things are entirely irrelevant – they are inevitably a part of our lives and our experience. And of course in hearing what people say about us and how we come across to them we receive important feedback that helps us to see ourselves clearly. But somehow it is necessary, too, to be able to sit a little lightly to those comments. To be able to hear them, evaluate them, and then decide whether they require further action, or gently setting aside.

 

Making such judgements isn’t easy. How we distinguish between valuable feedback and unhelpful criticism is never easy. But if we can sit a little lightly to the trappings of this world, we may be just a little better able to try.

 

Amen

 

Sermon – Sunday 27th September 2015 at 10 am

Theresa Ricketts

 

Oh dear, today’s Gospel reading sounds like something of a blood bath. Eyes ripped out, hands and feet torn off. It’s all rather brutal. What on earth is the point Jesus is trying to make?

Well, let’s start by listening carefully to the words that he uses. “It is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell”; “it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell”; “it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell.” So what we are being asked to consider are those things that enable us to enter life, or the kingdom of God, and those which send us to hell – a place of nothingness. So we are being asked to reflect on what it is that makes us most fully alive. What it is, perhaps, that nourishes our soul. All that brings us such a sense of wholeness and fulfilment that we can’t help but share it with others, to bring life to them.

And that is why the language that Jesus uses is so strong and inflammatory, because this matters. It matters a lot. This is about life itself. Yes, I do think it is about eternal life, but I also think it is about what makes us alive here and now – and what doesn’t. And the call is to choose life – and ensure that others can do the same inasmuch as we are able.

And I think that the reason Jesus emphasises the wrong in putting stumbling blocks in front of little ones is because he is trying to say that actually those things that give us life are really quite simple and obvious. Even a child can see them – and by implication, often a child sees them more clearly.

So what is it, I wonder, that gives you life? That makes your heart sing? That enables your soul to soar? That makes you desperate to draw others into that life force, to share that sense of awe, wonder and growth.

And what is it that stands in your way?

I was at Woking Hospice earlier this week, in a meeting about spiritual care. It was a fascinating, sensitively handled and thought-provoking discussion, and it really made me think. What I became aware of was the intention to take a holistic approach to patient care – and how this is actually more subtle and challenging than it sounds. For those responsible for spiritual care, for example, one issue that has become more sensitive in today’s society is people’s perception of religion. For those who have actively rejected a formal religion, it can be hard to realise that they – or others like them - still have spiritual care needs. And of course each patient has multiple needs, so for those whose primary focus is on medical care, taking the time to adequately assess spiritual needs can seem a low priority. What I hadn’t appreciated was the fact that it is often those staff who serve the meals and do housekeeping work who end up facing some of the most significant spiritual conversations, simply because they are there often when people are at their loneliest and most afraid.

It was particularly interesting to hear a member of staff responsible for staff training describe the positive response to the spiritual care training course. What she suggested was that it opened people’s mind to what spiritual care could actually be about – that it is not narrowly based in religion, but is really about everything that makes us feel whole and alive. She described the opening activity in which people are invited to cut images from magazines that show things that represent something important or significant in their lives, often things that they enjoy. Someone else spoke movingly about a patient who had said they didn’t go to church, only to describe later in the conversation a deep and meaningful prayer life. Sometimes language – perhaps the language of God and religion - or an assumption that someone who does not attend church doesn’t have religious needs can be the stumbling blocks that are inadvertently placed in front of those seeking God – however they might understand that.

Of course our own daily lives are probably somewhat different, but if it is taking time to go for a walk in the country, hear the birds singing and watch the autumn fruits appear that makes your heart sing, surely taking the time to do that sometimes is worthwhile. And similarly in the working environment, if it makes a difference to take the time to talk to someone, rather than moving straight to the next task, that probably matters. And for me that is part of why we are reminded not to put stumbling blocks in front of little children. I don’t know how many of you have spent much time in primary school classrooms, but at that age, it really is quite amusing to see just how hard it is for any teacher to get them to focus on the task at hand. Now please don’t get me wrong, there are important reasons why teachers spend quite a lot of time helping children to do just that. But what is lovely about watching a group of children is realising that what makes each of our hearts sing really is very different. Some children will settle to a task with great interest and independence; some will want to work with other children on the task; and some will be much more interested in the child who’s hurt his finger on the other side of the classroom than the task they’ve been set. And although it is right to help children to explore, learn and develop skills and competencies at school, remembering all that makes them the most fully alive is important, too. And if our two hands are guiding our children towards the path we want for them, rather than the one they will discover for themselves, perhaps we should cut one of them off – metaphorically speaking, you understand.

Now there are times in life when finding what it is that nourishes our soul is very difficult indeed. Whether it is physical or mental ill health, or the ill health of those closest to us, or other factors entirely, sometimes the opportunity to look to all that gives us life doesn’t really seem possible. And that is when the words of James need to be heard very carefully. Because it sounds rather like James is saying that if we are suffering, the answer is prayer, and that prayer will be answered. And you and I know that that simply is not true – certainly not in the way we might understand it. Some people suffer greatly and pray fervently and they do not receive the healing that they and their families long for. But James reminds us that that experience doesn’t make the prayer pointless, and I love the suggestion of bringing others from the church to pray too. If the Christian story tells us nothing else, it tells us that Christ is alongside us in our suffering, loving us, and the call is to do the same for one another.

But let us return, finally, to the Gospel reading. Because not all of the reading is the blood bath I mentioned earlier. In the opening section, the disciples tell Jesus that they have tried to prevent people from carrying out healing because they are not acting in the name of Jesus. And the answer Jesus gives is wonderful. He says that whoever is not against us is for us. If we are all aiming for what is life-giving, for what gives us wholeness, for what nourishes the souls of ourselves and one another, then whether we do that because we call ourselves Christian, or for other reasons, may not be all that important. God is probably being served either way. And we are glimpsing something of the Kingdom.

Amen

 

Sermon – 20th September 2015 – 10:00 am

Theresa Ricketts

As the middle of three children, I think I have a bit of sympathy with the disciples. I suppose I wouldn’t quite have said that I wanted to be the greatest, but I had a longing to be special. And if I’m honest, I don’t really mean special in the sense of, “Oh yes, dear, but you’re all special.” Sometimes it didn’t quite feel enough.

And I think perhaps one of the great challenges of human existence is holding together simultaneously the fact that I am utterly unique, that there is no-one else like me, that I am a one off, distinct, alongside the fact that so is everyone else. In the context of sibling rivalry – and of course elsewhere – it can come as quite a blow. So when I hear about the disciples arguing about which of them was the greatest, I can kind of understand where they were coming from. They probably wanted to feel special, too.

And this, perhaps, is where the wisdom of James can help us just a little. I often struggle with James because he can sound so pompous and self righteous, but the care he takes in what he says here makes a great deal of sense. What he criticises is bitter envy and selfish ambition, boastfulness that is untruthful. But what I don’t hear in there is the suggestion that any kind of ambition is wrong. He talks of living a good life, doing works with a gentleness born of wisdom. What he seems to be saying, I think, is that each of us has skills and talents, unique gifts to be used wisely and with understanding. That each of us will make a contribution to this world that no-one else will. But somehow that fact is not to be a matter of division or selfishness. That our gifts are to be used graciously in the service of others and should not be the source of conflict or envy.

All of which, I suspect, sounds a lot easier in theory than in practice. And yet I think we see examples of it all the time. The work so far on the St. James’ campaign has involved a large number of people being prepared to bring their wide variety of different skills and talents together in order to achieve something bigger. It’s not a competitive enterprise, and doesn’t require anyone to be greater than anyone else. Indeed the whole point is that we need people’s differences. And so we have one small team working with the architect on the proposed physical changes to the buildings; another group drawing up a business plan; others engaging in discussions with local services and the community to work on joint projects; experts in marketing considering how we communicate via different media; others looking at possible funding sources – and no doubt I have forgotten many others. The problem with wanting to be the greatest is that it becomes easy to forget that we are all that much greater if we work together.

And Jesus has some quite intriguing advice for his disciples. Three specific things. Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. And whoever welcomes a child in his name welcomes not only Jesus, but also the one who sent him.

So what are we to make of these things? Perhaps the most straightforward is that of being servant of all. That, surely, is something about being prepared to give of ourselves in the service of others.

The question of being last is a little more complicated. Whatever Jesus meant, I really don’t think it was about having an unholy scramble to see who could get to the back of the queue. In fact that makes it no different from being first – only one person can be first, and only one can be last. What makes more sense to me is simply the idea that he is turning received wisdom on its head. Those things that we consider to be important – or perhaps more specifically that give us status – in this world are not the really important things at all. And it is possible to have what is really important even if we have no status at all. Indeed what Jesus seems to be suggesting is that it is easier.

And that brings us to a question about why Jesus talks about welcoming a child. What is it about our capacity to welcome children that is so important? It is as though children are seen as particularly close to God. Perhaps it is something to do with a child’s vulnerability, their need. Or it could be something about their perceived innocence, not disillusioned by the world or sucked in to the ways of the world. I can often find it so refreshing when I take school assemblies to hear the clarity with which children can say what is kind and what isn’t. Only last week some of the children at St. James’ school described to me how children could sit on the buddy bench if they wanted someone to play with, and other children will go and talk to them and invite them to join their game.

I’m not trying to suggest that children are capable of no wrong, but Jesus is clearly pointing to something that we can learn from children. Perhaps it’s their capacity to live in the moment, to experience the joys and sorrows of now, rather than regretting the past or seeking to control the future. Perhaps it’s the fact that children don’t think they’re in control, whereas adults so often think they are.

And perhaps there is one other thing. In our care for children, we often find ourselves helping them to discover more about themselves, what they enjoy, what they’re good at. And perhaps when Jesus talks about welcoming children, he is suggesting that this capacity to help one another to see in ourselves our different skills and talents is really very important. Because so often it is through the eyes of someone else that we can see ourselves more clearly, and thereby help one another to take our unique places in the world.

There is something interesting about all that has happened in the political sphere since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader last week. We have seen some fundamental political questions re-opened because a new voice has entered the arena. We may not agree with him – indeed we may strongly disagree – but sometimes we need someone to challenge us into articulating why we don’t agree. It’s just possible that a new voice will encourage all of us to think more carefully about what’s really important, and in doing so to realise that living alongside one another in our differences and graciously learning from one another is more important than who is the greatest.

Amen

 

Sermon – Sunday 30th August 2015 – 10 am

Theresa Ricketts

 

I’m going to give you a brief insight into my life. Please don’t judge me. You see this here is the lectionary, and it’s where you find the daily readings. So the two readings that you’ve just heard this morning weren’t plucked out of thin air by Brian and myself, but they are set by the Church of England. It’s one of the wonderful things about being part of the church, because not only do we worship often at a similar time to thousands of people across the country and millions across the world, but we are also hearing the same Bible passages. We are in communion with so many more people than just those of us gathered here.

But back to the confession. For many years, as soon as the new lectionary came out, I would turn to the page with my birthday and find out what the reading was on that day, just to see if it was something I particularly liked, or that might speak to me. And now, when I’m preaching, I find myself eagerly anticipating what I might have as a basis for my sermon.

So let me tell you right now that this week, as I opened this lovely lectionary with excitement and anticipation, my heart well and truly sank. Because in today’s readings there is so much that can feel to me to be either irrelevant, or to remind me of some of the directions that the church has taken that simply don’t help me in my life. So what are we to make of it?

Now I realise that as soon as I express my prejudices about these readings, there will be some of you wondering what I could possibly have against such solid teaching. And that’s important to remember. Brian was preaching last week about our uniqueness, and it is in sharing our responses to scripture that we surely begin to enter into a deeper understanding.

What I hope to do this morning is to share my own response to these passages, in order to encourage you to do the same.

My initial negative response to these passages stems from what feels deeply negative to me. The reading from the letter of James is a weighty rant, which seems to suggest what behaviour is expected from a “good Christian”. And if I’m honest, it feels largely unattainable. “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” Please don’t get me wrong. I in no way disagree with these laudable aims. But when I’m flying off the handle, I’m not sure it would help to be reminded that it didn’t produce God’s righteousness. And of course it is important to reflect on these behaviours and to be aware of the damage that can be done to people if we do regularly fly off the handle. But by the same token, if our entire lives are dedicated to trying never to be angry, this world would lose a great deal of energy, drive and enthusiasm. Because for some people, a passion for life sometimes has as its flip side a tendency to get angry. But if all their energy is focussed on not getting angry, there’s none left to motivate.

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” More sound advice inasmuch as I don’t think any of us would disagree that caring for widows and orphans in their distress sounds like a good thing. What it means to keep ourselves unstained by the world is a little more complicated, because to suggest that somehow our faith sets us apart from the world and means that we should be detached from it seems to run counter to the incarnation – to the fact that God chose to become human in the form of Jesus, to live among us and to experience all that human life has to offer.

And initially I didn’t find the Gospel reading a lot more helpful. First some historical information about ancient practices in the Jewish world, followed by a long list of evils to be avoided. I wonder whether we should write a list to pin on our fridges and mark at the end of each day whether we have avoided each evil intention. Or perhaps a scale of 1 to 10 – I didn’t murder anyone today (hooray), but the desire to was strong – so a 4 today. Must try harder. Flippant, I know, but does it help us in our everyday lives to measure our successes according to whether we avoided a list of vices. And if we don’t avoid them, what are we to do?

I share these reactions to the readings because sometimes I think it’s important to acknowledge that what we read in the Bible challenges us. That it often doesn’t make sense. That it can feel to what we believe and experience in our relationship with God.

And that’s ok. Because that’s where the dialogue begins. The dialogue with scripture, and the conversation with God.

Once I’ve acknowledged my initial response, and had a good rant at God for the way the lectionary readings fell this week, I can start to think a bit more. There must be something in here. And I must have reasons for my criticism, as well as continuing to search for deeper meaning.

Of course it doesn’t take long to begin to see something of value. My main frustration with these passages is the sense in which they apply a religious strait jacket, which makes it feel a little like faith is simply a series of rules of good and bad behaviour, whereas God gave each of us the gift of life, and each of us is unique, so surely we give glory to God through our unique gifts and a life fully lived.

And perhaps that is what the opening line from our reading from James means: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Perhaps a generous act of giving could mean when we give something of ourselves – when we use those gifts we have been given to the glory of God.

And what of that passage from today’s Gospel: ‘“Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”’ Perhaps this is simply a reminder that what we say and do matter. A reminder not to focus on irrelevant practices, but rather to take responsibility for the impact we can have through what we say and do.

Of course it’s perfectly possible that you never experience the challenges that I do when faced with scripture. But if you do, I hope that you might be encouraged to look beyond – but not to ignore - your initial response. It is so easy to find the Bible daunting. To believe that we should be able to understand it immediately and if we can’t there’s something wrong with us. To think that no-one else has the same challenges that we do when they read something that on face value doesn’t seem to match what they actually believe. But hopefully you’ll now realise that there is at least one ordained person in the Church of England who regularly wonders what on earth these passages mean. And you’ll engage in a dialogue with the text – and perhaps with other people as well – to try to hear what God might be saying.

Amen

Sermon – Sunday 16th August 2015 – 10.00 am

Theresa Ricketts

 

Today’s gospel reading is the kind of thing that has the likes of Richard Dawkins, that fierce critic of all religion, rubbing his hands with glee. I can almost hear him now, deriding the nonsense of ritual cannibalism.

And let’s be clear, at the time that Jesus was saying these words, their shock value was high. The people of Israel were used to ritual cleansing, and kosher food. Eating blood was forbidden on account of the life of an animal being in the blood. When Jesus spoke about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, he expected a response.

But given that we receive the bread and wine as representative of Christ’s body and blood each week, these words of Jesus are surely worth taking time to explore. What, I wonder, does it mean when Jesus says that true life comes from eating his flesh and drinking his blood? What does it mean for Jesus to abide in us and us in him?

I have been reading a book by the priest and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor, in which she describes being invited as a guest speaker to answer the question “What is saving your life today?” It’s clearly an enormous question. But it’s an interesting one to grapple with for a while. I wonder, for example, what you immediate response would be. Of course this would be profoundly different depending on our circumstances. When we are ill in hospital – or indeed a loved one is – what is saving our life is the medical team.

But if the situation is less immediate, how do we begin to answer the question? Because in a sense it can be seen as a question about the things that give us life. And although on a practical level that may be our food and drink, we would perhaps also include our work and other interests. Those things that inspire us and drive us, that motivate us.

And my guess is that it wouldn’t be long before we arrived at relationships. At people. At the way our life simply would not be the same if it was not for the different people we know and encounter. What keeps us alive – fully alive – each day are those people we love and who love us. And the difference people can make is extraordinary. When we’re lonely or depressed, sometimes it can literally feel that our life is saved by the one person who notices us, who smiles, who knocks on the door because they haven’t seen us for a while, who takes the time to care.

For Jesus to abide in us – and us in him – then somehow we come to recognise that we simply would not be fully alive without the Christ light burning in us. Exactly what that means is undoubtedly beyond me to explain – even to really understand. But sometimes I do get glimpses of what it looks like, or what it feels like. It is something that draws us into seeing and experiencing the world a little more as Jesus did – and does. And it is always about people.

There is something important about the idea of Christ abiding in us, and us in him. We often use the language that says “we are the body of Christ” – and that means that all of us, today, are part of Christ’s body, alive in the world. Jesus became fully human and lived among us. He chose to experience all that human life had to offer – its pains and sorrows as well as its joys and delights. His life was in no way set apart from people, but right in the midst of them.

And if that is the path he chose, then surely if Christ abides in us, and if we’re all part of his body, then we must share something of his outlook. 

The news this week has driven me insane on numerous occasions. It was on Wednesday when the report about the Yarl’s Wood detention centre came out that I remember being particularly outraged. Because what was reported was that a government official had described the report’s findings as disappointing. Now it’s disappointing when you had hoped it would be sunny but it rains. Or when the shop doesn’t have the skirt you want in your size. When human beings are living in fear of sexual attack and pregnant women are being kept in detention for months on end – when an inspector’s report suggest that the state of a place in which people are residing is of national concern – well, disappointment doesn’t quite cut it.

These people are human beings. Part of the body of Christ. And they are suffering. And we are diminished by that suffering.

This news came not long after the Daily Express had expressed their indignation and outrage at the Songs of Praise programme coming from Calais. Why, I wonder. Because don’t tell me that their excuse – the money it cost – holds water because you and I both know that travelling to Calais often costs less than travelling to Manchester. So why were they so outraged? Could it possibly have something to do with the fact that if we actually hear the stories from people’s mouths, spend time in their presence, we have to recognise their humanity. We have to acknowledge that our salvation – and indeed our life – is bound up with theirs. That if they are suffering, so should we be – and indeed so do we.

These are not easy issues, and I am not pretending for a moment that they are. Part of my frustration this week has been a sense of my own helplessness to respond to such enormous international situations. What can we do?

And what I want to suggest is that the first thing we can do is to be aware. To resist the temptation to pull up the drawbridge. To refuse to turn and look the other way in the face of human beings who are suffering.

And the second thing is to recognise that no one of us can make the whole difference. These are not problems that we can solve alone. But by the same token, the things that we individually do form part of a bigger picture. Each of us is a part of the body of Christ. What we do, how we respond matters, just as the response of every other individual matters. If we choose to experience the suffering of others as something which reflects on us, that makes a difference.

So as we receive holy communion today we can pray – perhaps in fear and trembling – to know a little more of what it means for Christ to dwell in us. And hold before God those other parts of Christ’s fragmented body whose suffering pains us all.

Amen

Sermon – 2nd August 2015 – 6 pm St. James’

Theresa Ricketts

 

There is something about today’s readings that leaves me feeling a little as though my breath has been taken away. They are what I think of as “big picture” readings, as well as being “big” in every way. In the letter to the Ephesians, if feels as though St. Paul has taken the biggest chunk of theology he could find and dropped it at our feet. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” It’s extraordinary, and profound, and I wouldn’t disagree. But it’s almost as though each clause could be explored individually, because in each small phrase lies mystery and questions.

And as if that’s not enough, we move on to Jesus, hardly at his most simplistic, stating, “I am the bread of life.” Wow. What does that mean? What is Jesus trying to tell us about himself?

Last week, I went on a Godly Play training course. For those of you who have not come across Godly Play, it is a way of telling Bible stories. It is often used in Sunday schools, and usually with children – though certainly not exclusively. Each Godly Play session is very much like a church service, beginning with crossing the threshold, and entering a safe place to learn, discover and explore, and finishing with a mini “feast”, sharing food and drink together symbolically, like the Eucharist. The story is told using three dimensional wooden characters, and the storyteller focuses their attention on the story characters, rather than making eye contact with those listening. The story is followed by a series of questions which all begin “I wonder”.

The philosophy of Godly Play is that all children are able to connect with God, and the idea is to give them a safe place to explore and develop their spirituality, helping them to find a vocabulary to express what they discover.

And what I found during the three days of the course is that we were constantly moving between enormous, big picture thinking, and small details.

For example, each one of us had to tell a story, and in order to do that, we had to find the right materials, learn how to move the characters and memorise as much of the script as we could. This was all about the details.

And right at the other end of the spectrum, we had a teaching session about children’s spirituality, in which we were presented with some of the thinking behind Godly Play. The trainer suggested that there are four big questions in life: identity – who am I, who are other people, how do we relate; freedom – to what extent are we really free, and should we be; mortality, and the reality that our time here on earth is limited; purpose – what is life all about. And through play and story, Godly Play gives children a safe place in which they begin to explore those huge questions. Which is pretty mind-blowing really – but important context for the individual stories that we were telling.

There is something pretty disconcerting about having to move rapidly from big picture to small picture. It’s as though we have to struggle to regain perspective. While the focus is on telling the story and moving the characters, the anxiety is often about forgetting the words or getting the order wrong. How can I possibly remember those things as well as holding in my mind the bigger picture – the way in which this whole process is supposed to be enabling children to explore their emerging spirituality.

And yet, disconcerting though it feels, the big picture is actually essential to each of the stories, they way they are told and the language used. What I began to realise was that if I understood the bigger picture – the reasons for choosing certain language, for telling the stories in certain ways, for asking particular questions – memorising became much easier, because it actually made sense. Moreover, even if I made mistakes, they were more likely to be in keeping with the spirit of Godly Play.

This need to move between the small and big pictures is actually an enormous part of our lives. Last week I was in the Police Station and one of the things being discussed was the statistical information. As you can imagine, statistics are gathered in all sorts of areas, but some are more significant than others in terms of reporting – and rightly so, because it is obviously important to prioritise resources in those areas of greatest need. But what inevitably happens is that targets are set, and procedures put in place to meet those targets. No problem there – so long as there is a constant awareness of the overall purpose. Because that is what provides the check and balance, so that the procedures don’t interfere with the organisation’s purpose.

And if this is true in our working lives, it is also important in how we live out our faith. It’s so easy to find ourselves living compartmentalised lives, focusing in on the small picture of each part. And of course this is often important because in order to function effectively on a daily basis, we can’t always be asking ourselves enormous existential questions.

But – and this is an important but – sometimes it is important that we do ask those enormous questions. Or perhaps more specifically, sometimes it is important to check in with ourselves to find out whether what we are doing on a daily basis is in line with what we believe. Because somehow our commitment to follow Jesus must surely be evident in the decisions we make in our lives.

In our Gospel reading today, people are asking Jesus for signs and miracles, but he gently keeps telling them that they’re missing the point. The feeding of the five thousand wasn’t a trick, it was about something deeper. And the way Jesus explains is to say “I am the bread of life” – so somehow, if we are followers of Jesus, our lives need to allow space for Jesus to nourish us.

The epistle reading uses that wonderful image of us as the body of Christ – each of us with our individual gifts, all necessary to make the body work properly, and all dependent on one another. In so many areas of our lives we know how true that is – our dependence on others; the beauty of each of our gifts; the transformation that occurs when those gifts and skills are brought together.

There are obviously times in all of our lives when concentrating on the small picture makes sense. Sometimes when it is all we can do. Moving between the big and small pictures can be exhausting, and sometimes our energies are needed elsewhere. But sometimes it can help us to focus our energies if we are able to take that time to remember the bigger picture, our greater sense of purpose, to check that we haven’t lost sight of the one we are following.

Amen

Sermon – Sunday 26th July 2015 at 10.00 am

Theresa Ricketts

 

So what does it mean to be a disciple of Christ? Our reading from Acts of the Apostles paints a rather grim picture of what was the fate of St. James – he was killed with the sword. And most of the apostles suffered a martyr’s death.

But let’s face it, however much we may hope and pray that our faith would be deep enough to pay the ultimate price if necessary, our daily lives, thankfully, are not lived on that basis. But what challenges do we face, on a daily basis, as we try to live as a disciple of Christ?

When I taught history, I remember engaging in lengthy discussions with A-level students about the Reformation, and in particular about the question of whether salvation could be earned through good works, or was a matter of faith alone. Now of course a Reformation is a time when wild claims are made on both sides and often distort the standpoint of both sides. But the question has been an important one throughout Christian history: can we earn salvation through good works, or are we dependent on the grace of God?

And at that point, we get caught up in all sorts of pickles. Because neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant has ever actually claimed that we earn our own salvation – indeed Pelagianism, which suggested exactly that, was rejected as a heresy of the early church. But if we have come to know something of God’s love and profess a faith, does that mean that our behaviour counts for nothing?

And that, really, is the nub of the problem – of the problem of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.  Is discipleship about trying to live a “good” life, or is there more to it than that?  We can, if we choose, set up a whole structure of aspirations towards living lives of “good character” – but is that really what it’s about?

St. Paul is not always my favourite character within the New Testament, but one of the things that I do enjoy as I read his letters is the way he wrestled with exactly this question in the early church. You see Paul’s letters were written to early Christian communities. And as you can imagine, the people who became part of those early communities must surely have had a very strong sense that in Jesus they had met God on earth, either personally, or through the stories others told. That’s the only explanation for the strength of their desire to share what they believed - because the early church faced persecution, so professing a faith in the resurrection of Jesus was not for the faint-hearted.

And having had his own conversion experience, Paul was clear that being a Christian – or in those times a follower of the Way – meant something significant.

And what I love reading is Paul’s utter exasperation as those early communities, which he hoped would be beacons of light to those who had not yet found Christ, in fact often became places in which people argued and bickered, took advantage of the generosity of others, and found divisions rather than unity.  Despite the strength of their belief, they were still fallible.

In Paul’s letters we see how his theology developed, explaining that somehow through faith Christians are “in Christ”, which means that there is a new creation. And yet however much he wanted to believe that those who followed Christ were dead to sin and had risen into their new life in Christ, what he saw time and again was that they were still very much human beings, capable of being mean and unkind as much as generous and loving.

And that’s something of what we see in our Gospel reading, too. James, son of Zebedee the fisherman, had been called with his brother John to follow Jesus, and had done just that. And yet here we find his mother wanting her two sons to sit at Jesus’s right and left hands in the kingdom. To somehow be exalted over others. To have a position of status. Which seems to entirely miss the point of what it means to be a follower of Christ. And yet, again, is deeply human.

So how are we to live as disciples of Christ?  How are we to live with ourselves and one another?

At its core, I believe we are called to live with that very tension of being drawn into a relationship with God and Christ; of knowing something of God’s love, and seeing how it manifested itself in Jesus; of seeking to follow Jesus; and of knowing, too, that we get it wrong; that sometimes we are mean and horrible; that sometimes we put the wrong things first. And to be honest enough to live with and recognise that tension is, I think, the start of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

Last week I had a decidedly unedifying argument with a close friend of mine. The details are unimportant, but we both said things we didn’t mean – hurtful things. In the aftermath, as we worked through what had happened, we both expressed surprise – even shock – at the things we had said. Things which were the very antithesis of the sort of people we think we are. Somehow it became a deeply humbling experience to recognise that we were capable of saying things that we would never want to be thought to have said.

And that, for me, lies at the heart of discipleship. Because it is right there, when we see ourselves as we had hoped to never see ourselves, that we begin to understand our need for forgiveness. That we begin to identify our own salvation alongside every other human being who makes mistakes – rather than somehow trying to set ourselves apart. That we stop deceiving ourselves with the stories of our own success and turn to the God whose love can transform even us.

Discipleship is an act of courage because it is an acknowledgement of our own vulnerability and weakness at the same time as being a willingness to take responsibility. To profess a faith and to seek to follow Christ is to open ourselves up to all sorts of criticism because, like it or not, we simply don’t live up to the example of the one we follow.

But it is in the very act of acknowledging our own weakness, our own need for God and for other people, that we begin to grow into that love, that we begin to live “in Christ” as St. Paul put it, that we feel and experience those transformative moments when we glimpse something of God’s kingdom – whether it’s in finding a strength within ourselves that we did not know we had, or in the grace to receive kindness from others, or the willingness to enlarge our understanding of the world as we hear of the experiences of others.

Last Monday the children from St. James’ School came here for their end of term service. The Year 6 children spoke about what they had gained from their time at the school and their hopes and dreams for the future. It was lovely to hear all the aspirations of those children, but what I really treasured were the references to accepting one another’s differences and the individual children finding out more about themselves and one another. Because, important as those aspirations undoubtedly are, being human is sometimes also about living with the reality that we can’t always live up to admirable characteristics we might hope to have.  And that’s when the life of real discipleship begins.

And of course as we walk the path of the disciple, as we seek to follow, that tension remains, and each time we think we’ve made it, we realise that we haven’t – but only because there is always more to discover, because God’s love is so much bigger than we can imagine. And so instead of being categorised as a success or a failure, we are loved, forgiven, transformed and redeemed.

Amen.

What should we do?

Sermon – 12th July 2015

Theresa Ricketts

Mark 6: 14-29

 

It’s a quite extraordinary story that we hear in our Gospel reading this morning. The strange description of Herod being so bewitched by his wife’s daughter that he promises her anything she asks. Except that the one thing she requests is the head of John the Baptist on a platter, because her mother bears a grudge against John, who apparently refused to support her marriage to Herod, her previous husband’s brother.

Whether or not we believe the almost absurd details of the story, it’s positioning here in Mark’s Gospel, is meant to point us towards the fate of Jesus himself. We are encouraged to make a link between John, who pointed the way to Jesus and suffered death at the hands of Herod, and what is to befall Jesus.

But if that is the big picture, I think that the story itself raises significant questions. Questions about what we should do, how we should behave.

You see Herod ends up putting John the Baptist to death because he has made a promise to his wife’s daughter that he will give her whatever she asks. And while we might want to question whether his motivation to keep his oath is more about saving face than necessarily about morality, none of us, I think, would suggest that keeping our promises is a bad thing.

Last weekend, before I was ordained priest, I took an oath of allegiance to the Queen, an oath of canonical obedience to the Bishop of Guildford and made a declaration of assent. I took none of these lightly and there would rightly be repercussions if I were to break them. Our word matters.

And yet the request Herod’s wife’s daughter made – to have the head of John the Baptist on a platter – filled Herod himself with horror. He feared John, we hear, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. This was a man for whom Herod had deep respect; who, he believed, spoke God’s word. He had been protecting him while he was in prison, so the idea of putting him to death terrified him. It would, quite simply, be wrong.

So what should he do?

I wonder how many times we find ourselves in similar positions. Of course I don’t mean in a literal sense, making a decision between beheading a respected man or breaking a promise. But in the sense of facing conflicting demands or priorities, even conflicting moral paths, and not knowing which path to take.

On Monday, I spent the day at Ashford hospital attending an induction day. There were about 50 of us there, including clinical and non-clinical staff, as well as volunteers, so as you can imagine the information was generic and broad-brush.

Nevertheless, I found myself asking some serious questions about what I was being told. For example, I was introduced to the 7/11 principle. I wonder if you have heard about it. Apparently, it takes people 7 seconds to make their decisions about what they think of us, and that decision is based on 11 factors. So what I was being told was that I needed to make a good impression in that first 7 seconds. Smiling a lot seemed to be part of it; looking and sounding as if I cared.

Now please don’t get me wrong. It is easy to be cynical about management speak and I was encouraged by much of what I heard during the day. A great deal of effort is being put in to increasing staff morale in hospitals, recognising the impact this has on patient experience.

But I did want to question the focus on this first 7 seconds. Because of course it is true that we make assessments based on our early experiences. And of course it is important to make sure, as much as possible, especially within a hospital setting when people are nervous and anxious, that that experience is a positive and reassuring one. But we all make mistakes, and more importantly we are all actually there for longer than 7 seconds. Sometimes we need to realise that the snap judgement we made based on a grumpy first 7 seconds doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s possible to apologise. It’s possible to do a consistently good job to reassure people that they are actually getting a good service.

So which is the right path? To encourage the staff to focus on the first 7 seconds, or to look a little deeper.

I think the thing that surprised me the most during the day was the sense that people needed to be shown how to be caring. I know many people in the healthcare professions, and each one of them naturally cares about other people. So why are the conditions in which they are working draining them of that natural capacity to care?

What gave me hope were those moments when the management speak quietened down. Moments like when the Chief Executive, herself a registered nurse, appealed to her new staff to speak to her about their concerns. And those who work there know that plea to be genuine because she knows that her time speaking to staff is not wasted in terms of its outcome on patient care.

A second example. A friend of mine was told this week by his boss that they had good news for him. Some of his responsibilities for delivery management would be taken away to enable him to focus more on fee earning project work.

Except that the previous day the Human Resources manager had spent time in conversation with him, discussing his management approach, because she could see the positive difference between the attitude of the staff under his care and other parts of the organisation.

So which is the right path? My friend is undoubtedly capable of carrying out fee earning work, and where the delivery management turns to number crunching, his time is arguably not well spent – certainly in terms of the cost to the organisation.

On the other hand, according to Human Resources manager, those who are currently delivering the projects are doing so well because they are well managed.

I should say at this point – as you will all no doubt be aware – I don’t know how to manage a successful business. While the Church of England can watch congregations declining and only very slowly realise that something probably needs to be done, there is no such luxury in the private sector. If the income dries up, staff can’t be paid and the organisation folds.

What’s more, I also know that no-one runs a business solely with an eye to profit. We are all affected by the people who surround us, and the welfare of workers is always a concern to employers.

What I want to do, though, is recognise that sometimes we are all faced with difficult decisions. There are times when different paths are available to us, and we face conflicting priorities. And it is at those times when it seems to me we can learn from each other: when the church, as it is finally beginning to realise, can learn from the business sector about efficient and effective organisation; about communication; about balancing the books. And perhaps the business and public sectors can learn from the church something about deeper truths and purpose which transcend the desire for graphs which go inexorably upwards.

And at those times, we are called to remember each individual who is impacted by our decisions; to look at both the big picture and the small picture; and dare I say to seek God’s guidance as we ask the question, “What should I do?”

Amen

 

Sermon - Sunday 28th June 2015

Theresa Ricketts

Mark (5:21 - end)

A couple of weeks ago I returned to Westcott House, where I trained for ordination. It was the final day for this year’s leavers, all of whom are about to be ordained deacon, and so I had a lovely opportunity to catch up with some friends.

As you can imagine, I found myself bombarded with quite a lot of questions because at this stage they simply don’t know what to expect of life as a deacon. But I think the question I found the hardest was the one accompanied by pleading looks: “Do you think our training here has equipped us for what is to come?”

Well, the good news to those ordinands is that right here, right now, a year to the day since I was ordained deacon, I am about to refer explicitly to some things that I learned at theological college. So fasten your seatbelts and hold on to your pews.

I don’t know how many biblical scholars there are among you, but today’s Gospel reading is known as a Markan sandwich. Yes, you heard me correctly. A Markan sandwich. As in, two slices of bread with some filling in between.

In the reading, we hear two separate stories, that of Jairus’ daughter, and that of the woman with haemorrhages. And the second of those two stories is sandwiched between the first. The story of Jairus’ daughter provides the bread and the story of the woman with haemorrhages is the filling.

Who cares, you may well be thinking. But the thing is, this was a technique used by Mark on a number of occasions for a particular purpose. Because the decision to sandwich one story in between the start and finish of another was meant to link those two stories together. In fact, the meaning of the story of Jairus’ daughter is only really made clear in the light of the story of the woman with haemorrhages.

So let’s take a look at these stories and see if we can make some sense of them. Each story provides a sign of Jesus’ power – to heal and to raise from the dead. And in fact these stories follow two other signs of power, the stilling of the storm that we heard last week and the healing of a demonised man.

But once we start to look at these two stories in more detail and recognise the links between them, we see that they are more than just evidence of Jesus’ power and authority. Consider the main characters of each story. In the first we are introduced to Jairus by name – something which is actually unusual in the stories told in Mark. We are also told that he is one of the leaders of the synagogue. This, then, is an important man, whose identity is known. A man who commands respect.

But what of the woman suffering haemorrhages? She is completely unknown. But more than that. Not only are we not introduced to her by name, but her condition would have made her unclean. She would have been an outcast. Not only that, but she was penniless, having spent all that she had on treatment that did not work.

So here are two people who could not have been in more different situations, and yet they both recognise their own need. Each one of them approaches Jesus – Jairus openly, and the woman secretly. And Jesus recognises their need, and responds. But notice the subtlety of the message. Because yes, Jesus responds to both of these people. But the story of Jairus is put on hold in order to attend to the woman with haemorrhages. Imagine how shocking that would have been. It’s like leaving the Queen waiting while you attend to the homeless person. The message of this story is that all are equal to Jesus; no-one’s need is ignored; and those who are at the edges of society are worthy of particular attention. The woman is not allowed to remain anonymous – indeed Jesus refers to her finally as a daughter.

But there is more. Did you notice that the number twelve appears in both stories? The woman has been suffering for twelve years, and Jairus’ daughter is twelve years old. Twelve is a significant number in the Bible – twelve disciples; twelve tribes of Israel. I could go on. There is a sense in which the number signifies completeness – the woman’s suffering is complete, having suffered for twelve years. And twelve was the age at which a girl would enter into womanhood.

And did you hear who it was that Jesus took with him when he raised Jairus’ daughter? Peter, James and John. You will know that these were the three disciples who were with Jesus at the time of the transfiguration. For those listening to these stories, the presence of those three would have been significant – something important and memorable was going to happen; something, perhaps, that identified Jesus as God. And notice also the importance of touch in both stories – Jesus needing to lay his hands on Jairus’ daughter and the power of the woman touching Jesus’ cloak.

So why have I chosen to analyse these stories in this way this morning? Well the first reason, of course, is to reassure my teachers at Westcott that I did learn something, and my friends who are about to be ordained that just occasionally something that you’ve learnt at college can be of use.

But there is another more important reason, and that is to do with the nature of story, and the nature of the Gospels. You see the Gospels are a unique literary form. They cannot be pinned down as biography or history. The Gospel writers undoubtedly intended to convince their various readers that in Jesus they had met the living God. And if we, nearly 2000 years later, are to have any chance of making sense of the Gospels, we need to be prepared to dig into the stories that are told, and into the ways in which they are told.  To think about the Gospel stories in the same way that we ponder the things we hear or read about in our daily lives, or in the light of the way we tell our own stories to one another.  Remembering that there is always more than one way to look at things – that the emphasis might change or the order of events be slightly adjusted in order to make a point. 

There is no such thing as an obvious meaning, or the right reading, of the Gospel stories. But by the same token, there is a great deal of scholarship available to inform us about the possible readings of the various stories and to help us to get a glimpse of how these stories may have been heard by early Christians – the power and significance of the various details.

And although for many of us there may be a significant desire to pin down the definitive meaning of various stories within the Bible, the reason it remains relevant is that we are constantly called to hear the stories afresh, to seek to understand the context in which they were written as well as the context in which Jesus lived, to engage with them with our own ears, minds and hearts, and to dare to believe that somehow, through these words, God continues to speak to us today.

Amen

 

Sermon – Sunday 21st June 2015

Theresa Ricketts

Mark (4:35 – end)

 

I love this morning’s gospel reading. It is so wonderfully familiar, and the description is so graphic. It is one of those stories that you can really enter into, really imagine what it might have felt like. There are even those little details that make it feel so real. Jesus, in the back of the boat, his head on a cushion, sleeping. The violence and terror of the storm. The fear of the disciples – wondering how Jesus could remain asleep; deciding at last to wake him; watching as he put things right; and then completely gob-smacked. The panic is over. They are out of physical danger. All is outwardly calm.

 

But is it really all that calm? The end of this story does not see the disciples content and certain, reassured of an easy path through life. It sees them with questions, perplexed, not sure whether they can really believe what they have just seen and experienced. Awe-struck.

Two of the big themes of this story are identity and faith. And by the end of it we don’t have all the answers. We are left with questions and yet also possibilities.

Mark’s Gospel is full of questions about the identity of this man Jesus, and this story, about a quarter of the way through, invites us to ask exactly that question: “Who is Jesus?” The narrative opens with Jesus suggesting that they go to the other side of the lake, and the disciples agreeing. We are told that the disciples took Jesus with them in the boat, “just as he was.” What, I wonder, does that mean? When they awaken him, they address him as “teacher”, and then finally they ask the direct question, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Of course the implication is that in Jesus we meet God – God with us. But are you convinced? The Gospel writer is doing everything he can to persuade you, showing us what we might expect of God if God were to come amongst us, but the disciples aren’t yet convinced. They’re still unsure. They still have questions.

And so to the question of faith. Jesus asks the question, “Why are you afraid?” Daft question, we might think, after all there’s a raging storm out there and the boat isn’t that big or sturdy. But this isn’t a surface level question – because it’s linked to the matter of faith. “Have you still no faith?”

And perhaps that is where we, like the disciples, begin to realise that we have more questions than this story can answer. Because the question for me is, “Faith in what?”

You see what I don’t believe is that this story is a promise and guarantee that if we believe in God – whatever that might mean – all the storms of life will be calmed. However appealing that might be, it is quite simply unbelievable. The evidence of yours and my lives doesn’t support it. There are tempestuous times in life – whether issues of health; of relationships; of natural disasters; or the many other examples we could all come up with, faith does not guarantee us an easy path through life.

In fact if we look briefly at the epistle reading, that is exactly what Paul recognises. The early Christians faced hardships, beatings and imprisonments as well as experiencing patience, kindness and genuine love.

So if the faith that Jesus is talking about doesn’t mean that we think all life’s questions are answered and all our struggles are over, what does it mean? And that, for me, is the crux of the story. Because what Jesus does is to remain with the disciples. He is there, right alongside them, as the storm rises. And it is that presence – the presence of God with us no matter what is happening in our lives – that is the promise of faith. And it is not only the promise, but it is also the call. Because just as God is with us, so we are called to be with God and with one another, because, of course, we often know God’s presence through the presence of others.

And if that seems disappointing in comparison with the idea that our stormy waters are over, I want to suggest that far from being disappointing, it is the most precious gift of all, because it is possible.

The question Jesus asks his disciples is, “Why are you afraid?” And of course the answer in their case is glaringly obvious. There’s a frightful storm, and their lives are in danger. But why are you afraid? Because all of us are, in our various ways. Afraid, perhaps, that our health is failing; or the health of someone close to us. Or afraid that our children won’t get into the right school; or afraid that our job isn’t as secure as we might like, or that important relationships are failing.

And one of the challenges of our fears is that they often set us against one another. Not always, but often. If someone else gets the job, we can’t; if someone else’s child gets into our preferred school, that makes it less likely that our child will.

And the beauty of what we are being offered by God is that God’s presence is not scarce. It is abundant. God’s love for us is without limit. If God is with one person, it’s not because someone else has been abandoned – God is there, too. God’s love for one person doesn’t mean that there is less love available for someone else.

Even in our own lives, we recognise this quality of love. Those of you who are parents will know that the arrival of a second child doesn’t mean that there is less love available for the first. Any of us who have been in love will know that somehow we have more love to offer to others from the foundation of a loving relationship. In the context of love, there is not scarcity, but abundance.

And so as we recognise and acknowledge the inevitable fears and anxieties that arise in our lives, the answer Jesus gives us is that God is with us. Always. That God’s love reaches out to us in our deepest fears as well as our greatest joys. And as St. Paul says, there is no restriction in our affections, so “open wide your hearts also.”

Amen

 

Sermon – 24th May 2015

Theresa Ricketts

It was the summer of 1991, I was 15 years old, and I went to stay with my granddad in Liverpool. I took the train from Reading, and was met at Runcorn station by my granddad, and the rest of the family – my parents, brother and sister - were driving up at the end of the week to join us. But for a few glorious days, I was going to be the centre of attention and do everything I wanted to do. And so I did. Liverpool had been my granddad’s home throughout my childhood, so I knew it well, but I was also determined to find places that we hadn’t seen before, so I carefully set about our itinerary, choosing National Trust properties and other places of interest to visit each day, my granddad driving and me directing. The weather, unusually, was beautiful, and we had a wonderful time.

And the reason I am telling you this story is not because it is in any way exceptional, except for one thing. It was to be my grandfather’s last summer. He was 77 years old and had smoked 40 a day for years, so he had had a good innings, but we were still shocked. And of course the week I had spent with him took on added significance in the light of what happened thereafter.

And what is important there is that two distinct stories have emerged about that summer. The first is the gushing story of what a wonderful time granddad and I had together, how proud he was of me, how special those days together were. And the second contains my own personal recollections, of which I am less proud. My teenage frustration as my granddad got me to pose in the gardens of Speke Hall and took an age to take the photograph, fumbling with the shutter, while I stood feeling embarrassed and on show, blocking the path. The sheer terror whenever we got into the car because noticing red lights appeared to have become an optional extra in my granddad’s driving, as had finding the right lane, the right gear, or a suitable speed.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus says: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” What I want to suggest is that the truth of the summer that I have just described relies on both parts of the story – the time with my granddad was wonderful, and it was also frustrating. Both aspects are essential to guide us into the full truth.

And that is important because it helps us, I think, to understand the ways in which the Holy Spirit works in our lives. It helps us to begin to understand the ways in which we can allow the Holy Spirit to guide us into that deeper truth that lies beyond what we see immediately in front of us or what we hear at first listening.

You see Jesus understood that being told what to do simply doesn’t work. It denies the complexity of life as it really is. In ancient Israel, Pentecost was celebrated as the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. But laws just don’t cut it when we’re trying to figure out how to live. That is recognised even in the Old Testament. Next time you’re bored, have a look at Deuteronomy. We get the Ten Commandments telling us largely what not to do. And then heaps and heaps of statutes and ordinances pile on top. Thou shalt not kill is, of course, a perfectly reasonable suggestion. But should our response be different if the killing was accidental? If the person killed was doing something particularly horrible at the time? If the person doing the killing was not in a fit mental state? It simply isn’t possible to write laws for every eventuality. And more importantly, simply living according to the laws doesn’t cut it if we want to live life to its fullest.

Enter Jesus. He didn’t deny the importance of the law, but rather recognised its limitations. And so his teaching was largely in parables. Why? Because he wanted to encourage us to enter into a fuller story. To enter into a situation with real people, who have real feelings and with whom we develop real relationships. Situations in which it is not always possible to draw straight lines, clear boundaries. Situations in which there are countless variables and endless possibilities.

Because Jesus knew both that in a physical sense he would not be around forever, and, more importantly, that the way we discover truth is not by being told what truth is, but rather by experiencing it – discovering it - for ourselves.

Think of the lawyer in that most familiar of parables, the Good Samaritan; he wants to know how to inherit eternal life. The answer? Love God, love your neighbour. But who is my neighbour? Good question, says Jesus. But don’t think you can get away with it that easily – get a quick list of the people who could constitute neighbours, and love them. Job done. Instead, enter into this story of a man walking down a road and set upon by thieves. You neither know the man, nor do you like him – in fact in your eyes he’s not the right sort at all. But is he your neighbour? Could he be? He is, after all, a fellow human being. He’s right there in front of you. He’s in need. You decide. How are you going to live? How are you going to decide which people could be your neighbour, to which people you are called to extend your love. And in making that decision, pray; call on the Holy Spirit for guidance.

We discover truth by entering into the situation and seeking guidance from the spirit of truth within and around us – the Holy Spirit. How often have you been told something that has only become true for you in the context of a lived experience? The penny drops as you realise exactly what it was that someone meant.

I wonder if that is some of what is being described in that Pentecost experience, that wonderful story of a room full of people filled with the Holy Spirit, suddenly able to understand one another, to speak the same language, to see where each other is coming from. Those moments of truth in relationships are surely Pentecost moments. In the same way as we can ask the Holy Spirit to be involved in our lives as we seek to answer that question “and who is my neighbour?” – looking beyond the confines of our nearest and dearest and daring to wonder whether we are called to show love to the most unlikely folk.

Once we enter into real stories, real situations, and dare to be completely honest about our own feelings and motivations; where we seek to understand the truth of that situation better, all that is going on in the lives of the people involved; and where we seek God’s guidance and grace through the Holy Spirit; there we will surely find ourselves guided into greater truth, guided into lives that more fully reveal God’s kingdom.

 

Amen

 

Sermon – 10th May 2015 – 10.00 am

Theresa Ricketts

John 15:9-17

 

The chapel at Westcott House theological college in Cambridge is deliberately plain, the walls whitewashed. At the west end is a gallery for organist and sometimes musicians. There are plain wooden pews – a little more comfortable than our own – but not quite enough for the ever-expanding student body. Depending on your perspective, you might describe the chapel as intimate, austere, peaceful. As tends to happen in theological colleges, there have, from time to time, been heated debates about whether a cross or crucifix should hang on the east wall behind the altar. To date, it has remained plain.

Except, that is, for one thing. Towards the left hand side of the west wall about 5 feet from the ground there is an icon. The icon is of Jesus and he is holding a Bible. At the time the icon was commissioned, the then students of the college were asked for choose the words to be written on the pages of the Bible. And the decision was those words we have just heard from John 15: “You did not choose me but I chose you.”

I share this image because those are words that lived with me for 2 years, and shaped me considerably. At times they could feel almost like a threat, while more often they felt like calm reassurance. And of course they are very apt for those training for ordained ministry.

But the thing is, they are not just words for me. They are words for all of us. And I wonder how much time you spend thinking about what it means that God has chosen you. The word “vocation” is so often used with reference to the clergy, but each and every one of us has a vocation. Each one of us is called to an utterly unique role in the world. Only you can fulfil that calling, and without you something would be missing. And please don’t think I am talking about jobs here. I am talking about everything that makes up the person you are.

On Tuesday this week, I spent a day at Mount Browne, the headquarters of Surrey Police in Guildford. Having been commissioned as a volunteer chaplain for the local police here in Elmbridge, I was fortunate enough to spend a day finding out a little more about various departments within the police force.

During the morning we heard about the Police Dog unit. The dogs are incredibly well trained and we marvelled as they scampered around finding concealed knives, stopping right beside the weapon yet without making contact to preserve vital forensic evidence, and all in return for the reward of a game with their favourite ball.

What struck me the most was the uniqueness of the dog handler’s role and the passion of the officer for his particular line of police work. He cares deeply for the animals entrusted to his care, taking responsibility not only for their physical needs, but also for their behaviour, since he is the one held accountable. He described the potentially isolated nature of the job, recognising that it is not for everyone, but giving an insight into the ways in which it suits him. And, in the middle of discussing some of those aspects of his job that we would perhaps rather pretend don’t happen, such as the recovery of bodies, he was able to explain his personal sense of commitment to giving families some kind of closure in some of the most distressing situations.

I felt as though I was in the presence of someone who knew something about the person he is called to be, who is living that out as best he can.

The afternoon session was delivered by the Officer Safety Training team. Although I have to admit to a little excitement at seeing a taser in action, what impressed me most was the way in which the officer explained the National Decision Model. Because suddenly it became very clear to me that as part of their job, police officers are aware that their lives could end up at risk. We were shown the ways in which officers are required to justify their responses, depending on the behaviour of the subject, and the clarity of decision making required in the most dangerous circumstances clearly is not for everyone. We rely on a police force that is made up of individuals who feel called to this kind of role.

And where my role as a chaplain fits in is in providing a safe environment for officers to talk about anything that is on their minds, whether it’s personal circumstances that could impact on their work, their response to an operational situation, concerns about job security, or anything else. Hopefully to enable them to continue to fulfil their calling, bearing the fruit described in our Gospel reading. And so suddenly my vocation and theirs become intertwined in subtle and complex ways, as we both seek to respond to our callings alongside one another.

And so I wonder what it is that you are called to do and be? What the unique role is that you will play? I am sure that many of you have found many aspects of what it means to be you, or how God is calling you. But somehow it feels like a question that we should always be asking, that we should always be checking out.

The signs of what we are called to may come from the most unlikely places, and of course we all have a role in helping one another to explore our vocations. How often it is that others can see in us the possibilities that we haven’t recognised in ourselves.

It is so easy to become caught up in a target-driven culture, in measuring ourselves and our children according to the amount we earn, the size of our houses, the type of car we drive, our GCSE and A level grades or SATS results. I remember vividly the look of surprise on one set of parents’ faces when I began our session at parents’ evening by saying how kind and helpful their son was. Of course they cared about how well he was doing academically – and so they should – but finding our vocation in life involves our whole selves, and all aspects are important.

Because each one of us is chosen by God, chosen to be the whole wonderful and unique being we were created to be, and if we can live out some of that in our lives we will indeed bear much fruit. A bit like those police officers, the gifts we’re given will find their way out in all sorts of situations, some run of the mill, some more dramatic. Or amongst the sea of people who gathered in the chapel at Westcott House day by day, all of whose ministries would be completely different, reflecting the people we all are.

But all of us are chosen by God. Precious, special in God’s eyes, and with our own unique part to play in the world.

Amen

 

Sermon for 10 am on Sunday 26th April 2015

Theresa Ricketts

John 3: 16

 

Those are challenging words, aren’t they? “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”

I wonder how many of you, like me, stand accused by such a statement? Whether it’s walking past – even seeking to avoid – those who are destitute, perhaps even convincing ourselves that there’s nothing we can do, or that they are not really in need. Or watching disasters on a global scale – the thousands of refugees drowning off the coast of Italy; ongoing warfare in the Middle East – and feeling completely powerless. Or closer to home, seeing the increasing number of people dependent on food banks and failing to take seriously those factors that leave people even in this affluent part of the country going hungry.

This question in the first letter of John is meant for us, and we should feel challenged.

One way of tackling the challenge is to start from the other end. Instead of looking at those occasions when we see a brother or sister in need and refuse to help, let’s consider those times when we do help. And let’s start by thinking about those times when helping comes naturally. Of course this will be different for each of you, but I know very well that for many people here, when your own children are in any kind of need, you help without a second thought. And let’s be honest, that certainly doesn’t stop when your children have grown up. And sometimes that help comes at significant personal cost. Whether it’s agonising about how to help our children to make friends; continuing to show love in the face of tantrums; welcoming your grown up children back into your home; walking beside them as relationships break down. In each of these things we see a brother or sister in need and we offer help, selflessly. In each of these things, God’s love abides.

And for those of us who do not have children, there are other times when that kind of selfless offering comes naturally, whether it’s in the support we give to our parents; dropping everything to spend time with a friend; being there as a partner faces unemployment. In each of these things we see a brother or sister in need and we offer help. In each of these things, God’s love abides.

In our gospel reading Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And this theme is taken up in our epistle: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” But what does that mean? Because let’s be honest, on a practical level, most of us are thankfully not going to be asked to choose between our own life and someone else’s.

But I think what both Jesus and John are getting at is that laying down our lives is a natural response to love. When we love enough, our own life – our own needs, desires, possessions – somehow take second place, indeed almost become irrelevant, as we give of ourselves to help the one we love.

Our closest relationships are the most incredible gift to us. Of course that is innately the case, because they are ideally where we feel most ourselves and thereby come to know ourselves better; where we come to know the strength of someone’s love for us; hopefully where we find ourselves able to respond naturally, freely and easily to that love.

But they are also a gift because they are the closest glimpse that we get to the nature of God’s love. It is, I think, at those times when natural instinct leads us to respond with wholehearted love, regardless of the personal cost, that we come closest to knowing something about God’s love.

And if that is the gift, here is the challenge.

“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help.” In our closest relationships offering that help comes naturally. In other circumstances it comes a lot less naturally, but we are still called to help. We are called to take the gift we are given of glimpsing the nature of God’s love, and use it to inform the way in which we relate to other people. If we are to take seriously the call to love one another, we should surely be grappling with what love looks like, and extending that behaviour to other situations. In today’s readings, that love is described as being prepared to lay down our lives for one another. To pray, perhaps, that our instinct to care for the other will begin to transcend our own self interest.

And so maybe when we see someone destitute we won’t cross to the other side of the street; we’ll at least smile, or say hello, recognise their humanity and ask ourselves whether there is anything we can do to tackle the problem of homelessness, through giving time or money. When we come to cast our vote on May the 7th, we’ll consider the extent to which the plans of the various political parties reach out to those poorest and most vulnerable in our society, looking to the needs of our neighbours, rather than simply our own self interest. And perhaps more importantly, we will continually challenge our political leaders, who make their decisions on our behalf, to live up to the promises they have made, when they concern the common good. And each time we wrestle with these questions, that we hold situations and individuals before God in our prayers, sacrificing our own peace of mind for a recognition that solutions are not easily found, we start to take some of the care we have for those closest to us out into the wider world.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting either that this is easy or that we will always succeed. Because learning what it means to be prepared to lay down our lives for others is genuinely a life’s work (and more.)

However, there will undoubtedly be times when we will succeed. And there will also be times when we find ourselves faced with choices when we can genuinely see where our own self interest lies, and what an instinct to care for the other might look like. Whether that happens in personal encounters, or while making broader decisions in meetings, at elections or elsewhere, perhaps we can continue to be challenged by those words of John: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”

Amen

 

Sermon – 22nd March 2015 – 10.00 am

Theresa Ricketts

Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

 

What on earth do you make of this morning’s readings? How on earth are they of any help to us, here and now, in Weybridge, in the 21st century? I wonder if, like me, your reaction was one of confusion, bewilderment, even frustration.

Here we are, facing a society which looks with increasing scepticism upon the church, exploring what it means to be church, here in Weybridge, the part we play in the local community, our mission and purpose in the world. And we are faced with words which talk of bearing fruit only if we die and having to hate our life in this world in order to keep it for eternal life.

How is this helpful?

Amen.

Except that’s not quite good enough, is it? You would – quite rightly – feel that I had let you down if I expressed my sense of frustration and offered nothing in the way of hope. But I must also be honest with you, and say that I find these readings profoundly difficult. And, more importantly, that they can be read in ways that quite simply don’t reflect my understanding of the gospel, of the good news of Jesus Christ.

You see, I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of this life, here and now. In all that we experience. The beauty of creation. The joys and frustrations of our fellow human beings. The excitement and challenge of relationships, of all that life has to throw at us. For me, if all that we have to hope for is the hereafter, something has gone spectacularly wrong. And while I can accept the failings of humanity, I also believe in the strength of light and love, offering hope and possibility in even the darkest situations.

Do I hate my life? Absolutely not. It is the most extraordinary gift, which challenges me every day, but which I cling to ferociously.

So if that’s not what I take from the gospel reading, what might it mean? The case has often been made that loving our life means loving the trappings of this world – wealth, possessions, things that can seem to take on disproportionate importance, preventing us from engaging with what really matters – people, the world around us, relationships.

But what if the challenge is greater still? What if loving our life too much means an over-attachment to the way we always do things. Clinging to what we know, what perhaps provides comfort and security, but failing to see that it no longer serves its purpose.

There is a wonderful tale from my Mum’s family about the New Year ham joint. My Mum’s grandmother would religiously cut off a section of the joint before placing it in the pot to boil. When my Mum’s Mum was hosting New Year, she asked her mother why it was that she needed to cut this section off the joint, and was told that it was the way it was done. Dissatisfied with the answer, she asked her grandmother, who explained that her pot had never been big enough for the whole joint, so had always had to cut a section off. It wasn’t necessary at all.

A trivial example, perhaps, but we are creatures of habit, and in a world which appears to be changing somewhat faster than we can keep up with it, the way things have always been done becomes somehow reassuring. But asking ourselves why we do things is important, too.

In the consultation events that have taken place so far, we have been challenging ourselves and one another to ask the question, “What is the church for?” Because unless we face up to that question, then we cannot possibly decide what church looks like, here, in Weybridge, in the 21st century.

And we need to dare to be radical in our thinking. Because, you see, church is about the good news of God’s love, here and now, in this place. And if that is the case, the light of that love needs to be shining out of this place and entering people’s lives. And please don’t think for a moment that I don’t see that happening, because I do. In the care individuals show to one another; in the mutual support offered; in people’s generosity with their time and talents, both here in the church and its environs and in the community beyond.

But what if there is more? A couple of weeks ago, on a Saturday morning, the church had about 25 children running around, hearing a Bible story, and doing some craft activities and a treasure hunt. All while their parents could have a drink and cake, draw breath, and chat to people who had time to listen. This is the church of the 21st century, without a doubt.

And surely the possibilities don’t end there. I sometimes wonder whether the teenagers going home from school, who all seem to end up in Starbucks, could be equally interested in having their coffee, or milk shake, or hot chocolate here in church, perhaps with some music and a chilled atmosphere. I don’t know, but it’s got to be worth a thought.

And what about our hospitality to those who drop children at the nursery, or the countless Mums and nannies looking after children during the week, and at weekends. What sort of space can we offer? How can we show God’s love to our neighbours? And let’s not forget those who are retired, and those who work.

What, I wonder, can we try? What would you like to try? Because really that’s what the consultation is all about. It’s not simply a theoretical exercise, it’s also about asking ourselves what could the church become, and then being it now.

For me the value of our gospel reading is in the image of the grain of wheat, because you see it doesn’t die at all, it sprouts and bears fruit. And each of us is full of ideas and potential, and we are already putting those to good use.  But if we come together and share our ideas, allow some of our old thinking to fall to the ground and let our new ideas be watered, and water each other’s, then the fruit we will bear will be very exciting indeed.

Amen

 

Sermon – 22nd May 2016 – 10.00 am

Theresa Ricketts

 

This week I attended a training course about mission. Now there’s an opening sentence to strike fear into any congregation. Oh no, the curate’s been on a course again. I wonder which wheel she’s been reinventing this time. Followed by the “mission” word. Doesn’t that mean that we’re going to have to risk losing all our friends over lunch as we tell them about Jesus? Great.

Except that the good thing about courses – and I suspect about sermons, too – is that you can tune in and tune out. And one thing I tuned in to was a phrase that I have heard before to define mission. It says that mission is about seeing what God is doing in the world and joining in. I quite like that. And more importantly, I know it happens, and I know it matters.

As well as being Christian Aid week, this last week was Dementia Awareness Week, and you may have seen and read some of the coverage, raising awareness of an increasing issue in our society. And of course where there are challenges, we find God at work in the world. Other people may not call it God – or indeed want to recognise it as God. But where those who are in pain or distress are comforted, God is at work. Where those who might be marginalised from society are recognised and valued, God is at work. Where people are challenged to see others with their hearts full of love, just as God sees them, God is at work. And of course we have joined in with that work. The service held here last Wednesday afternoon was one way in which we saw God at work in our community and joined in – making a small but significant difference to people’s lives.

I was also inspired by a visit from the Diocesan President of the Mothers’ Union this week. Some of you may know that our Mothers’ Union here is in a period of transition, but I sensed a real commitment to seeing where God is at work and joining in. That joining in may be through prayer; it may be through practical service, like making and serving refreshments; it may be through joining in with activities like those being offered by Claire Reed, our Artist in Residence. In her inside-out project, we are invited to take inspiration from anything inside the church, like the colours or patterns of the windows, transfer those ideas as artistically or not as we like onto a triangle of acetate – that’s clear plastic – to resemble a spire, and then those triangles will be displayed on trees outside the church building. And if people choose to use the acetates to decorate a tree in their own garden or place of work, they will be invited to take a photograph of both the process and the final result which will form part of the final exhibition here in church. So we are making the walls of the church permeable through art – creating a natural flow in and out. And as Claire described this, I could see people wanting to be involved, trying to make sense of the concept. What I find encouraging about this kind of joining in is that it doesn’t put us at centre stage – we know that the part we play is often quite small. But the whole endeavour is nevertheless changed because we are part of it. And of course we are changed, too.

Mission is a tricky concept. Historically it reminds us of missionaries going out into foreign lands and converting people to Christianity. While some good came from it in terms of healthcare and education, we recognise today that it was often culturally insensitive to say the least. And today mission has often come to be seen rather narrowly as telling people about our faith.

But the word “mission” actually means being sent – we are sent out by God. The Bible rarely speaks about mission, but when Jesus commissioned his disciples, he sent them out to baptise in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and to make disciples of all people. Well, I’ve got the baptism covered in about an hour’s time, which leaves us with the challenge of making disciples. But that is where I come back to the idea of seeing God at work and joining in. Because where God is at work, there is some sense in which people are following Christ, and if we join in – and encourage others to join in – hopefully we will have more disciples.

Now please don’t hear me wrong. I’m not trying to say that it isn’t important to share our faith with people. And I am certainly not denying the importance of teaching about our faith – of enabling people to meet Christ through word and sacrament. But what I am saying is that we share our faith through our actions as well as through our words. It is as important to show people Christ as to tell them about him.

I love the beginning of today’s Gospel reading: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” It reminds us that knowing God is a lifelong process – well, more than lifelong. We spend our lives trying to know God better – through prayer; reading scripture; questioning our life experience and where God is in the middle of it. And when Jesus says: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth” I think he is really describing what our lives are all about – that ongoing and continual conversation with God, seeking to know God better. And when I say conversation, I do mean argument at times, too. And that, I think, is the nature of conversation and relationship. Just when we think we are more enlightened, something happens, or something is said, that knocks us right off course again. Relationship isn’t linear – we draw close and pull away; sometimes we skirt around one another; but we do grow to know one another better.

And on Trinity Sunday we celebrate God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A God defined by relationship. And a God who invites us into relationship. Relationship with one another and relationship with God. Within the Godhead that relationship is fully integrated, perfect, like a graceful, elegant dance. For us, it’s perhaps a little more like a barn dance, when we’ve had one too many – and that’s probably on a good day. But we enter into it nonetheless. And we do so above all in faith, and hope. Daring to believe that God is at work in our world and that the more of us who join in that work, the closer we will come to knowing perfect love.

Amen

 

Sermon – Sunday 29th May 2016 at 10 am

Theresa Ricketts

This week I received a letter from the Church of England Pensions Board. Exciting stuff. It was all about additional voluntary contributions – or AVCs, as we like to call them. I’m sure you’re all familiar with this kind of thing. I have a number of choices. I don’t need to make any additional payments, but then my pension won’t actually be sufficient to live on when I retire. If I make additional contributions, I can choose the from either the “lifestyle” or “freestyle” options, each with different levels of risk. And I also have to decide how much extra to pay each month.

 

So why on earth am I telling you this? Don’t worry, I’m not seeking pension advice. But the thing is, this is the nature of our world at the moment, isn’t it? I am faced with a series of choices. I needn’t pay any more – and of course the advantage of that could be that I can simply enjoy spending my money here and now. But, as we all know, that could leave me in a very difficult position when I am no longer able to work full time. But even if I make the sensible, informed decision, no one can guarantee me that when I come to retirement, the stock market won’t have crashed, leaving me with next to nothing anyway. It’s unlikely, but it’s possible. And of course no pensions adviser on this planet can guarantee that I’ll still be around to see my retirement.

And it’s not just pensions. We face equivalent dilemmas in all sorts of aspects of our lives. Like trying to choose schools for our children. We carry out all our research and seek to make the wisest decisions, taking account of all the factual information and our own knowledge of our child, but in the end we can’t guarantee that they’ll make friends, work hard and thrive. I’m sure you can think of all sorts of other examples. However much we are encouraged to believe that life is about choices and that we must take responsibility for those choices, some things are beyond our control.

In a culture that emphasises freedom and choice, faith in some ways bucks the trend. It can appear to be something of an anomaly. Just how much of an anomaly is demonstrated by the centurion in this morning’s gospel reading.

The centurion is a gentile – he is also a member of the ruling authority – the people who will put Jesus to death. In Luke’s telling of this story, he sends some Jewish elders to put his case to Jesus, and their case is interesting. They seek to persuade Jesus that the centurion is a worthy man – that he has shown love for the Jewish people and has built a synagogue for them. But the centurion himself doesn’t believe that at all. What he understands that they don’t is that he isn’t worthy. Not because he’s a gentile, but simply because none of us are worthy. If we are seeking to prove ourselves and our worth, we’ve got it all wrong.

What the centurion has, quite simply, is faith. And that’s what Jesus recognises with amazement. Because faith has never been an easy option.

The way that the centurion demonstrates his faith is to recognise the similarity between himself and Jesus – that they are both people “under authority”.  The centurion has a commanding officer; Jesus knows he is answerable to God.  And the centurion, understanding what that feels like, believes in Jesus.  He has faith.  And faith really is about placing our trust in God.

That really is quite a hard concept, because we actually spend our lives being cautious, perhaps sceptical and even a little untrusting. I don’t know about you, but I quite often pick up the phone to have a voice I don’t recognise cheerily saying, “Good morning, Theresa, how are you today?” to which the immediate response inside my head is, “you don’t know me, and I suspect you don’t care how I am. What are you selling?” Let’s be honest, there are good reasons for our caution. There are all sorts of scams out there, and all sorts of sugar-coated ways of taking our money.

But God isn’t like that. In Jesus we find, as the centurion could see, someone who is actually worthy of our trust. A place where our loyalties can safely and legitimately lie. Early in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is described as speaking “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” The authority we see in Jesus is not a way of controlling people. It comes from his own understanding of God’s love for all of us…but Jesus still leaves us the space to work life out for ourselves. 

That, of course, is part of the challenge. Sometimes it would be easier to have a set of rules to follow which would guarantee that everything would work out fine. And of course churches do indeed have their doctrines to help guide us. But in reality an act of faith is rarely about certainty. For us it is more likely to be a willingness to enter into a relationship; to dare to believe, and in so daring, to make a commitment to discovering more. To seeking to understand. To seeking to know God better.

In so many ways faith defies logic, and yet somehow by daring to believe, by daring to live as though it might just be true, that there really might be a loving God, sense and meaning and truth emerge. The authority people experienced in Jesus was utterly compelling – it grew from his personal interest in them, and it made them want to follow.  And we still find that today. Where we experience warmth and love and kindness not because we deserve it but as a gift freely given, we know its strength to heal and restore. And where we offer that same gift, we are somehow made whole.

There are times in my weeks when I am utterly in awe of the faith I see in others. Sometimes it is people clinging on to hope in the darkest circumstances; sometimes it is bolder and more sure than I often feel myself. But what I often find is that in the act of faith, in daring to place my trust in God, in seeking to do as Jesus taught, transformation happens – often in small ways, but where love breaks through nothing is the same again.