Sunday, 3 September 2017

Sermon for Trinity 12: Sunday 3rd September 2017

MORECAMBE PARISH CHURCH


Matt 16: 21 – 28


I wonder if you have ever overheard or been part of a conversation when you thought: ‘goodness that’s a bit over the top’. If you can pause for a second and not get swept up in it, you might ask yourself: ‘Where did all that come from?’


Well that’s a bit of what’s happening here when Jesus tells Peter to: “Get behind me Satan” v23. If you were here last week, listening to Anne’s sermon on the verses before these, you may be able to guess the answer to “where did all that come from?”


In case you weren’t, Jesus had asked his disciples: “who do people say that the Son of man is?” They give various answers – John the Baptist, one of the prophets. Then he cuts to the chase: “Who do YOU say I am?” Peter, always the first to reply, gave the right answer: “you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”


But Peter’s moment of glory doesn’t last long, because as soon as Jesus tells his disciples what is going to be required of him, how he is about to walk right into the trap set for him in Jerusalem, where he will suffer and be killed and be raised from the dead, Peter explodes: “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Now does it make sense why Jesus seems so furious with Peter?


It is simply too much for Peter to imagine his wise young teacher coming to such a quick and bloody end, especially an end that can be avoided. Why walk into a trap when you can turn around and walk away? Why take a risk you do not have to take? Surely, Jesus,  you could heal a lot more people, preach to more people, set a lot more people free if you’d just stay out of harm’s way; take the safe option.


It strikes me as I read Stephen and Marie Shin’s last prayer letter that you could say the same to these link missionaries of ours. Aren’t there people in this country who need them to share the message?  Why take 2 little boys to this dangerous country? Why take a risk they do not have to?


We’ve all at least heard of people who have done risky things for the sake of others – running into a burning house to see if anyone is still alive. And less news-worthy stories of someone with a full time job who spends their free time helping that project with asylum seekers or the homeless.


We can admire such people but something in us is often afraid for them, especially if we know them well. Part of us like Peter wants to protest, “God forbid! Isn’t there an easier way to do what you want to do? Do you have to take such risks? What if you get hurt?”


Peter has a way of saying what the rest of us are thinking. But when he does say it, he gets this explosive answer from Jesus. “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”


What a shock! What did he do wrong? As far as Jesus is concerned it was the voice of the ancient Accuser, the Tempter, who from the beginning of time has offered human kind alternatives to the will of God – easier alternatives, safer alternatives, anything that tempts us to be something other than what God has called us to do and be.


In Jesus’ case it was the temptation to play safe, to skip the trip to Jerusalem and find an easier way to save the world. And it must have been a very real temptation for Jesus – or else I don’t think he would have silenced Peter so harshly.


But Jesus goes on to say something perhaps even more disturbing: “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. We know that Jesus had to go to the Cross for us, so then why do we have to take up the cross?


It's probably something we would rather Jesus hadn’t said. So we try to get round it: let’s leave all this taking up the cross stuff to the early disciples and maybe a few more heroic people. It's quite hard enough to get up in the morning and face the challenges of the day, thank you very much.


Maybe we've been put off this verse by hearing some say: “this difficulty in my life is the cross I have to bear” but we don't see much of following Jesus in it. Or we may have seen someone denying themselves the smallest pleasures in life but when we see their souls poisoned with negativity, we think ‘surely that's not what it's about’.


And it isn't! The key to this verse is what Jesus has said about himself in v 21 “on the third day” he will “be raised to life” His taking the Cross led to Resurrection – to LIFE. And for us, taking up the cross, also leads to life, real living.


Peter wanted Jesus to save his life. He couldn’t bear to think of that beautiful life being spilled, wasted. What he didn’t realise was that Jesus’ supply of life was never-ending; and the more he gave of himself, the more he had to give; that when Jesus was raised from the dead, his life would be poured out, through the Holy Spirit, into all the world and into us.


The secret of Jesus’ hard words here is that the way to have abundant life is not to save it but to spend it, to give it away, because life cannot be shut up and saved anymore than a bird or a butterfly can be put in a box and stuck on a shelf. It has to be set free in order to live - and fly.


If we let our fear of suffering and death keep us from sticking our neck out, from taking the risks that make life worth living, we will save our own lives, yes, but we will lose something very precious - living a life that matters, a life for Christ’s sake.


There is quite a lot of pain involved in living this life especially in a world that counts on our fear of death to keep us in line. To follow Jesus means receiving our lives as gifts instead of guarding them as possessions. It means sharing the life we have been given instead of bottling it up for our own consumption.


But a life that pours itself out for others, without hardly thinking about it, knows that there is always more life where that came from, and even when our own lives run out God will have more life in store for us, because our God is a God who never runs out of life.

Sue Kiernan.

3 Sep 2017

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Sermon for Lent 3 2017: The Woman At The Well

MORECAMBE PARISH CHURCH          19 March 2017


The story of the Woman at the Well has a very odd ending. We are left in the air. She had brought her townspeople to meet Jesus and many of them believed in him v 39, so much so that they persuaded him to stay longer. But the woman - what about her? We are not told if she believed that he is the Saviour of the world or whether she was left dithering and undecided.

And the story of the journey of the people of Israel is also full of dithering, indecisiveness. For a short while after they came through the Red Sea all was hunky- dory. Their pursuers had drowned, they were delivered and all was happiness.

But it wasn’t long before difficulties made them miserable and grumpy. They were short of water, and when they do find some, it is bitter. They grumble and complain to Moses about God. God shows Moses how to turn it sweet and drinkable; back to happiness.

A few miles further on they are hungry. They’d probably finished the supplies they’d brought from Egypt, so what do they expect to find in a desert? They grumble and complain to Moses about God. So God rains down bread from heaven in the form of manna, to be freshly baked every day. And quails were driven in on the wind for supper; back to happiness.

But they get sick of it and are miserable and grumpy again.
By the time we get to the chapter we had read to us, Moses is tearing his hair out. Wouldn’t you be? They’d run out of water again. Guess what? They grumble and complain to Moses about God - again. No wonder Moses says to the Lord, v 4 “what shall I do with these people?”

So God had him strike the rock of Horeb and water came out. Even the name they gave the place reflected their attitude: ‘quarrel’ and ‘test’. These fractious people had not really decided to trust God. They would only trust God if He did everything they wanted.

So when a new challenge is given them it throws them into a panic and they pick a quarrel with Moses. ‘Let Moses do the believing in God for us!’ They were behaving like infants, refusing to make the decision for themselves. They had all these opportunities to trust God and they just dithered and wouldn’t commit themselves to this God who had done so much for them.

Back to the Woman at the Well! You would have thought that given half the chance to talk to Jesus face to face, she wouldn’t dither. But the conversation is full of avoidance. All the way through she is trying to put Jesus off; keeping him at a distance, keeping the conversation jokey.

Jesus has broken all the customs of the day for a Jew. He asks a favour of a Samaritan, a race despised by the Jews, and a woman at that. And what’s more, a woman of questionable morality – why else would she come on her own at midday instead of with her community in the cool of the morning? Jesus is breaking down all the barriers of race and gender and social norms. So perhaps it’s not surprising she puts her defences up.

She’s resorts to what she’s good at - the quick repartee:
“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” She comes off the page as cheeky, even flirtatious.  And Jesus at first responds with warmth and humour but everything he says has a serious point to it. She resists his seriousness, cleverly turning what he says into a debate about their mutual ancestor Jacob. Anything to keep the conversation away from her own personal circumstances!

But Jesus won’t let her get away with it – every time she tries to turn the conversation away from the personal, Jesus brings it back. “Go call your husband!” (v 16)
She finds herself being confronted with what she has been so carefully keeping from him and she has to name her shame: “I have no husband”. The superficial way she usually converses with people is gone. She’s left completely exposed before the only person who has ever shown real understanding and acceptance for who she is.

She can’t bear that penetrating gaze for long and switches back again to discussion, to keeping it all at the level of the mind – a safe place to run when the gaze of Christ becomes too personal. But Jesus wants our hearts as well as our minds.

“God is Spirit” says Jesus to her “and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.” The Spirit has a way of getting behind our defences and showing us the truth about ourselves and the truth of God’s unconditional love, poured out like living water slaking our thirst for reality.

But she’s not ready. For one last time she clings on to the safe, the impersonal. “I know the Messiah is coming – he’ll tell us everything.” But it’s something that belongs to a time in the future; it can’t change anything for me now.
 And then, to this Samaritan woman, to this outsider, this nobody who hasn’t shown any evidence of believing him, Jesus says the same words that God used in revealing himself to Moses in the desert: ‘I AM’, I AM He. I am the one you’ve been avoiding but the one you are really looking for. And for a moment all her defences come crashing down.

What will she do? The moment of truth is here, the Truth about everything, is now standing there right in front of her, demanding a decision. And she runs away. She runs to find people who will make the decision for her.

For the first time in her life they listen, they give her the respect she’s craved for so long. They go to find this Messiah for themselves and they believe, (v 42) no longer because of what she said but because they’d heard for themselves and know “this is truly the Saviour of the world.”

Perhaps she just can’t believe that her life can change - just like that, that she is being offered salvation so easily, so freely. We are left wondering - did she allow the waves of God’s grace to overwhelm her, or did she do what the Israelites did and refuse the invitation to trust? We will never know.

But we can end the story for ourselves.  How will we decide? Keep Jesus at a distance or respond to the offer he makes: “the water I give will become in you a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” v 14

Sue Kiernan



Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Magazine Article: Marriage and Same-Sex Relationships report

This is the article I wrote for the magazine about the House of Bishops report on marriage and sexuality. Since then, the report has been debated, and the Synod voted not to 'take note' of it, which means there is now a commitment to do more work on the issue.

Dear Friends

As I write this, the General Synod of the Church of England will be holding a ‘take note’ debate about the House of Bishops report called ‘Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations’, known as GS2055.

Questions around sexuality and marriage, and the church’s official stance on homosexual relationships has been headline material since at least the 1980s. In 1991, the Issues in Human Sexuality report1 stated that sexual relations were only appropriate within heterosexual marriage, yet the church should welcome and value LGBT people. It was accused of double standards, as it was more tolerant of gay relationships amongst the laity than the clergy. However, when the law changed to allow people of the same gender to enter civil partnerships, and subsequently to marry, new questions faced the Church, including:
  • Would marriage of same-sex couples be allowed in church?
  • Would there be any official provision for blessing/dedicating civil partnerships or civil marriages of same-sex couples?
  • Would clergy be allowed to enter civil partnerships or marry a partner of the same gender?
When the law changed, it remained illegal for the Church of England to carry out such ceremonies, and clergy are not allowed by the Bishops to bless marriages of same-sex couples2. We are allowed to pray with them, but no official prayers are provided. Gay clergy are allowed to enter civil partnerships, as long as they comply with the church’s teaching, but have been disciplined for marrying their partner, as it is seen by the Bishops as undermining the church’s teaching on marriage.

For the last 2 years, ‘Shared Conversations’ brought people together from all viewpoints, to enable open and honest discussion of faith, marriage and sexuality. It was hoped that a new way forward might emerge. The latest report has been prepared for the Synod from those conversations.

In the event, GS2055 restated the 1991 line on sexual ethics and marriage. It asked for a gentler tone in how these issues are discussed, and suggested clarification on what prayers clergy may use with couples. Criticisms of the report are that it says a lot about how difficult this issue is for the bishops, yet it doesn’t seem to say as much about the experiences and struggles of LGBT people in the church. It could be stronger on acknowledging the presence and contribution of LGBT members of the Body of Christ. As some have noted, it refers to welcoming them, but they don’t need welcoming into something they are already part of. This suggests there is still ‘us and them’ thinking in the group who write the report.

3 questions come out of this for me:
  1. Have we studied the questions, scriptures and discussions around these questions?
  2. Have we listened to Christians who identify as LGBT, currently struggling with these issues?
  3. How do we live together peaceably in fellowship when questions like this divide us?

May God give us humility and openness as we continue to learn together.

Mike Peatman



Footnotes

1.Issues In Human Sexuality. A Statement by the House of Bishops of the General Synod of the Church of England. December 1991. Church House Publishing. Chapter 5 can be downloaded here.
2. The House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage can be viewed by following this link. Sections 12, 19-21 and 27 of the Appendix are particularly relevant.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Sermon for Candlemas, 29 Jan 2017

MORECAMBE PARISH CHURCH 29 JAN 2017

LUKE 2: 22 – 40 CANDLEMAS


Introduction

Can you guess who I’m talking about? ‘They are becoming a strain on public services’, ‘they are guilty of bed- blocking’. Oh and by the way, ‘the church is full of them’!

It is true that we are becoming a nation of older people!

There are more people aged over 60 now in the UK than there are under 18 years old. Over half a million are over 90! My mother is among them – she was 90 just over a week ago.

So have we outgrown our usefulness? Are we just a nuisance? I include myself - as I’m one of the post war baby boomers that our government is so afraid is going to push our country’s resources over the edge.


The old in the Christmas story

This is very different from Jesus’ day when the average life span was 34. So the fact that there are there are some very old people in the scripture we’ve had read to us is intersting. In fact the whole Advent and Christmas story is about old people whom God expected to prepare for, and be changed by, something very new.

At the beginning of the story in Luke are an elderly couple – Zechariah and Elizabeth. They are given the task of bearing a child to herald the coming of Messiah – John the Baptist.


Then the Shepherds - they were not children in teatowels, not if it meant being out in the fields overnight.

The Wise Men would have been old, otherwise in their culture they would not have been called wise.

According to legend, Joseph was old. He certainly seems to have departed this life by the time Jesus is 30.

And lastly, at the conclusion of this season of Epiphany, we have our 2 elderly characters for today – Simeon and Anna.

So it seems God has not finished with us oldies yet! In fact we are to be “the midwives of the new thing God is doing” 1 , getting alongside the younger generation and enabling the birthing of what God wants to do next.



Simeon and Anna by Jan Van't Hoff


Simeon

Let’s see if we can discover how these two old folks did that. First Simeon:

He was “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.” What does that mean? Well I’m sure it didn’t mean (put hands together and look pious!) It did not mean he was so religious he was no earthly good.

It’s a bit like this:

Simeon, I think, was the sort of man you wanted to be with, to hear talk about the God he prayed to, because his faith was infectious; he made your heart sing. Know some older people like that?

And then v 27 Simeon was sensitive to the Spirit. “Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came in to the Temple”. He was so used to saying when he woke up in the morning, “will it be today Lord that I’ll see what you’ve promised?” that he not only went to the Temple that day at the right time, but amongst the crowds of people who would be there, he spotted the ones God had chosen. When the parents brought in the child Jesus Simeon recognised him and took him in his arms.

What do you think was in his heart as he looked at that Child? Joy, gratitude, “at last”! And humility – in the opening words of his prayer you sense him saying: how could I have been the one to see this promise of the ages fulfilled? I can die happy now!

Simeon was also open-hearted to everyone. He didn’t see God’s plan as only for his own nation, the Jews. He saw the responsibility of God’s people to welcome the Gentiles – everyone else in the world; he saw that God loves all nations, all peoples, equally and that his Messiah who we know as Jesus, would open the gates of heaven to all.

Lastly, Simeon saw that living generously, open-heartedly like that would bring opposition from those who wanted to keep God for themselves. Those who were the religious elite would not take kindly to having their intensions and pretensions, their petty-mindedness and mean-spiritedness revealed. They would eventually crucify the One who lived like this. And this would mean immense suffering for his mother. Simeon saw it all and did not flinch from saying it as it was.

Are we older people like Simeon?

- the sort of people others want to be with, to hear talk about the God we pray to?
- the sort of people who are sensitive to the voice of the Holy Spirit so we go where he wants, when he wants?
- the sort of people who welcome everyone
- the sort of people who do not flinch at the suffering that comes as a result of following our Crucified Lord?


Anna

And then there’s Anna. We may not know Simeon’s age but we do know Anna’s. She was exceptionally old for that time in history, 84!

She’d been waiting a long time for God’s promise to Israel to be fulfilled. She wasn’t looking backward, she was looking forward to his redemption (v 38). It’s not clear whether, when it says ‘she never left the Temple’, it meant she lived there. Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem was a vast complex – maybe she did have a room there. But she didn’t spend time feeling sorry for herself in her old age.

This was one extraordinary woman. She not only prayed, but she fasted. She took prayer very seriously – you have to if you are prepared to fast as well. It’s not easy fasting, especially when you are older, but there are different ways of doing it.

I was talking to someone from another church, not in Morecambe, the other day and they are fasting for several weeks so that they can pray in a more concentrated way for their community.

It doesn’t mean for them that they abstain from food altogether, but they are eating more simply, and that is helping them listen for what God has called them to do at this time.

Another thing about Anna is that she talked to everybody she met about: “this Child”. She had learned while she spent time in the presence of God praying, to articulate her faith.

Many of us find that difficult – but as we get older and don’t care quite so much what other people think, perhaps we can spend more time in praying and thinking and reading about what aspects of the message will make sense to the people we know so that we can share it more meaningfully.


Conclusion

So let’s believe God has not finished with us oldies yet! We are called with Simeon and Anna to be ready, waiting, available, open to being the midwives of the new thing God is doing, enabling the birthing of what God wants to do next.


- Sue Kiernan


Notes:


1 John Bell

2 Illustration taken from Frederick Buechner

Monday, 16 January 2017

Sermon for Epiphany 2 - becoming disciples

Sermon for Epiphany 2

January 15, 2017.

John 1:29-41


When an organisation has been in existence for a long time, it’s easy for it to lose sight of its priorities – what it was set up to achieve. It can get so consumed by its day to day activities that it loses sight of what it is there for – the vision that created it.

Last Saturday some members of our church council met to reflect upon the vision for our church. Vision can be a hard word to get your head round – it’s like a slippery bar of soap to get hold of. What does it really mean, and how do you get a vision?

A friend of mine has a great definition for vision for organisations and groups. He says vision is the ability to remember the purpose of the work. What are we really here for, and how do our plans and ideas line up with that?

It’s a wonderful coincidence, therefore, that today’s passage is all about the fundamental purpose of the Church. You may remember that in Matthew 28, at the end of his ministry on earth, Jesus tells his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. It’s the great mission statement for the whole church. And here in this passage at the start of his ministry, we see the first people become disciples.

But what is a disciple? Aren’t they specially qualified expert? Well, no they’re not. The word disciple means learner. A disciple is not a finished product. They are people who have decided to follow Jesus, to learn from him, and to get to know him better and that is a lifetime’s process. You and I, if we call ourselves Christians, are all disciples. That’s not being presumptuous, it’s saying that we don’t know it all, but we have decided to follow Jesus, and we’ll spend the rest of our lives learning what that means.

Now our passage naturally splits into two halves – the first half is about the one we follow, and the second half is about following.

The passage is packed with titles for Jesus – Lamb of God, Son of God, Rabbi, Teacher, Messiah, Christ. There’s a lovely 35-40 minute sermon we could have on that, but I’ll spare you this morning! John the Baptist uses two crucial titles here, which explain why Jesus is a compelling person to follow, and why his command through the ages to us to help others to become disciples is worth attending to.

At the end of this first section (verses 29-34) John says Jesus is the Son of God – in other words, Jesus is unique. He is God entering our world, immersing himself in our experiences. Have you ever heard someone complain about politicians or perhaps the boss of a company, saying they don’t know what life’s really like:

“They’ve never done a proper day’s work”.
“They don’t know what it feels like to live here.”

What they’re saying is that the person hasn’t stood in our place, felt our pain, experienced our hardships, walked in our footsteps. John here is making the amazing statement that God is indeed doing that – he is standing in our place, feeling our pain, walking in our footsteps, because he has come in Jesus. And he knows Jesus is the Son of God, because he has witnessed the Holy Spirit descend upon him.

But at the beginning of this passage in verse 29, John said something else which is also amazing. Here is the Lamb of God. Lambs were slaughtered in the Jewish religion. At Passover it would have been on an industrial scale. Sacrificed lambs were either burned as sacrifices, or at Passover eaten as part of the sacred meal Jews share in their homes for that important festival. Either way, it is a reference to sacrifice. He’s saying that God through Jesus will go to any lengths, even suffering and death, to open up his love for us, to reassure us to our value to him, and to make his love known. Any lengths for us to become his friends.

Now I think that is a very compelling opening for any group of Christians to start thinking about vision.

Then in part 2 (verses 35-41) people actually become disciples. Now when people like me start talking about faith-sharing, or to use that big scary word evangelism, my hunch is that many of us here might want to opt out in our heads in some way. “I’m not academic”, “I’m not clever”, “I’m not outgoing”, “I’m not good with words”.

I’m not a gambling man – I’ve never even bought a National Lottery ticket, but I would bet that everyone here has a friend. Yes? I bet that at some point you have introduced someone to a friend. Bert, I’d like you to meet my friend Sid. Beryl, come and meet my friend Cynthia. And you get chatting. How long have you been friends? Where did you meet? Were you at school together, etc.

Look at this passage – it’s not in a religious building, and it’s not at a religious service or ceremony. No Temple, no synagogue, no church, no cathedral. John says – look here is the Lamb of God, and the two follow Jesus. Well it’s all right for John, he’s a bit special. But look further down. All Jesus does is ask them to come along to where he is staying and spend time with him. And one of them was Andrew. Now we know Andrew is just a fisherman – no theology degree, no clever words. All he does is go to his brother (Simon, who is renamed Peter, by the way) and brings him and introduces him to Jesus.

If any of us can introduce someone to a friend of ours, then we’re already most of the way there. Sharing our faith is simply introducing someone to a friend of ours – Jesus.

When I was a teenager, I wasn’t a natural churchgoer. I wasn’t interested in going to church for its own sake – although I know some people are for the music, or the social life. However in the youth group I went to, people introduced me to Jesus as a friend – by talking about their experiences, their answers to prayer, by grappling with the Bible stories about him, by sharing their questions, their struggles and their joys. I met people whose lives were informed by, inspired by, and shaped by the life and teaching of Jesus and that – He - excited me. They showed me uncommon generosity and hospitality, which surprised me and made me wonder why that was. That’s when I started attending church regularly, because I wanted to share fellowship with others who followed him, and learn alongside them. It wasn’t always easy (still isn’t!), but I knew I needed to be there. Someone had introduced me to their friend.

So, today’s reading asks us all firstly whether we are disciples. In other words, are we people who have decided to follow Jesus and who are engaged in a lifelong journey of learning about him, getting to know him better, and living lives inspired, informed and shaped by him. That’s quite personally challenging. And if we are, then we are called to introduce others to this person who has become so important for us.


And the test of any vision we might have for our own church community is that it serves these aims – does it help us to be disciples, and does it help others to become disciples. And if it does, it will change us, our church, our community, and possibly even the wider world.

Mike Peatman