Readings: Ruth 1: 1 – 18 and Luke 15: 1 – 10
“Your people will be my people and your God my God.” Often when we read Scripture there are times when some words just seem to leap off the page. And for me these words from our reading this morning in the book of Ruth do just that. And they are spoken by Ruth, a foreigner and an outsider to the Hebrew faith, to her mother in law, called Naomi.
And so what I want to do this morning is offer a few reflections on this story of a relationship between a daughter in law and mother in law and look at how God is at work within it
And something that occurs to me in the book of Ruth is that the author intends us to understand that the names of the various people in the story have a special significance. And names in the Bible are often meant to express something of a person’s being and character.
And so let’s start by looking at Naomi. In Hebrew her name means ‘Sweet or Pleasant’ but when we are introduced to her in this first chapter her life seems anything but pleasant. She is a woman who is hurting – everything has gone wrong for her – she has lost everything that meant anything to her – the very bottom has fallen out of her life. And what’s more she’s living in a place where she doesn’t belong. She’s living in the land of Moab where she’s a foreigner.
In fact, if we go beyond our reading to verse 20 she says I don’t want to be called pleasant anymore because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. The actual text says: “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.” And I’m sure it’s a feeling many can identify with; and how life can very easily lose its sweetness when everything seems to be going wrong and is falling apart. Those times when we might begin to wonder whether God is real or whether he cares – even though he is real and he does care and feels our pain.
Let’s turn now to Naomi’s husband. His name is Elimilek. In Hebrew it means ‘God is my King’ but sadly he’s a man who fails to live up to his name. The text tells us that when there was a famine in the land of Israel, Elimilek flees with his family and goes to live in the land of Moab – a land riddled with idolatry and the worship of false gods.
And I think what the author wants us to understand is that Elimilek’s decision was not only an unwise one but also a disobedient one as far as God is concerned.
It’s like saying “God is my King but when the heat is on I run to Moab.” His name might mean: ‘God is my King’ but in reality what we see is someone who is prepared to compromise his faith and throw in his lot with those who worship idols rather than count on the grace and generosity of the true and living God
And for us today, as followers of Jesus, what God is still looking for is those who are wholehearted in their devotion to him and remain committed to him even when the going gets tough.
And it’s in this move to Moab where things start to go wrong for Naomi. She’s away from her home in Bethlehem in a strange land – away from the Promised Land of Israel. And it gets worse. Her husband dies in Moab and Elimilek leaves her with two sons to raise, Mahlon and Kilion. And as they grow up in Moab, they get to know the Moabite girls and each one marries a foreigner.
And just when you begin think things cannot get any worse, they do. You lose your homeland, you lose your husband and then you lose your children. And the bitterness in Naomi’s life reaches its peak when the boys who would carry on the family name both die without having any children. And what it means is that Naomi will have no one to look after and support her as she grows older. It also means the family line will die out which was quite a significant thing in Old Testament times.
But what Naomi doesn’t see is the way God is at work in her life in the background and which only becomes evident to her later on. And that’s often the case with us when we are going through difficult times we can become so distracted by the circumstances around us we fail to see how God is at work in the background. And this for me brings to mind something what the Apostle Paul says in one of his New Testament letters. He says this:
‘We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’.
And something very touching in the book of Ruth is the way we get a sense of God’s intimate concern for the affairs of very ordinary people and their circumstances of daily life. In fact, one of the main messages of the book of is that, whether we are aware of it or not, God is continuously at work within us through the worst of times, even in tragedy.
Well Naomi decides to return home and so she and her two daughters in law, Ruth and Orpah head back on the road to Bethlehem. But before she gets too far Naomi says to the girls: “Look, go back home, find a new husband, and have a family. I‘ve nothing I can offer you that will give you any hope. It will be better for you both if you go back home.” And Naomi says this out of love for the girls but it causes floods of tears as the three of them have experienced so much pain together. And after reflection, Orpah finally decides that it would be best for her to go back to her family and so with sadness she kisses Naomi goodbye.
But the reaction in Ruth is very different, she embraces Naomi and clings to her and won’t let her go and we get these amazing words. And I’m reading them this time from the Message translation – she says this:
“Look, don’t force me to leave you; don’t make me go home. Where you go, I will go and where you live, I’ll live. Your people are my people, your God is my God; where you die. I’ll die, and that’s where I’ll be buried, so help me God – not even death itself is going to come between us.
And to me the more you reflect on these words the more amazing they become. Ruth’s commitment to her mother-in –law is simply astonishing. Firstly, it means leaving her own family and land. Secondly, it means for her, as far as she knows, a life of widowhood and then it means going to an unknown land with a new people and a new language. And then she says “where you die, I’ll die and that’s where I’ll be buried.” In other words, she will never return home even if Naomi dies.
But the most amazing commitment of all is this – when she says: “Your God will be my God” or “Your God is my God” as it says in the Message translation. Somehow or other Ruth has come trust in Naomi’s God, the Living God we worship, in spite of all Naomi’s bitter experiences.
And so what Ruth is saying is: “I’m sticking to you in all the activities of life and I’m sticking to you in every important relationship of your life. And what’s more I’m also making this commitment to God as well.”
And once Naomi realises that Ruth has her heart set on staying with her, she gives in from trying to stop her, and the two travel on together to Bethlehem. And it’s at this point, as God inspires this foreign girl from Moab to show her mother-in-Law such love and grace that we see Naomi’s life beginning to change. And what was once bitterness is starting to become sweet again.
And it’s in Ruth, whose name in Hebrew means something like ‘friend’ or ‘friendship’ that we see what Naomi couldn’t see – and that was God working things through in her life, even when everything seemed to be going wrong and falling apart.
You know love is more than a feeling – it’s a commitment – and for us, as followers of Jesus -the love and commitment Ruth shows to her mother-in-law is the sort of commitment God is looking for in us – commitment – both to him and to one another. Commitment can, of course, be costly but we know it is worth more than anything in this world because of God’s commitment to us. And it’s through what Jesus did for us on the cross we can enter a relationship with the living God who promises never to leave us nor forsake us. And it’s in Jesus we can find forgiveness and newness of life.
Well there’s a lot more of the story of Ruth which we have not time to go into today – and which you will have to read when you get home. But as a bit of a spoiler let me say something about the end of the story. Ruth marries a man called Boaz (a relative of Naomi’s on her husband’s side) and they have a son.
Now let me read you what it says from the Message translation. It says this:
‘The town women said to Naomi, “Blessed be God! – He didn’t leave you without a family to carry on your life. May this baby grow up to be famous in Israel! He’ll make you young again! He’ll take care of you in old age. And this daughter-in-law who has brought him into the world and loves you so much, why, she’s worth more to you than seven sons!’
And that baby, of course, became the grandfather of the great King David and if you turn to Matthew chapter 1 you will see that Ruth became the great, great (many times great) grandmother of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And speaking of grandparents I can say that Janet and I know just how excited and joyful Ruth must have been feeling at these events as we too are looking forward to soon becoming first-time grandparents. And with that perhaps I should finish. Amen
Philip Newell (Reader)
Sermon preached at St Laurence’s on Sunday 31st March 2019
Sharing our Faith
Readings: Colossians 4: 2 – 6 and Luke 10: 1- 17
We are looking at sharing our faith this morning and so I’d like to turn to some words of Jesus from our Gospel reading and they’re found in verse 2 where he says:
‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into the harvest field.’
And Jesus says this as he’s about to send 72 of his followers out on an evangelistic mission. They are to go in pairs to towns and places where Jesus is about to visit.
Now it’s important to bear in mind these were just ordinary lay people like us who had responded to Jesus and made a commitment to follow him. They were quite distinct from the 12 disciples. They were followers from a much wider group. And in a way, as his followers today we are their successors. And like them we are called to be ambassadors for the Lord Jesus and to be ready to share our faith with others.
And, of course, sharing our faith is about pointing others to Jesus. And I suppose I should mention John the Baptist at this point – as it’s the tradition of the Church on the third Sunday of Advent to remember what he came to do. And that was to point people to Jesus. But I’m not going to say any more about John today. But I am going to talk about pointing people to Jesus.
Let me share with you a story I first heard a number of years ago when I was attending a weekend retreat led by the Evangelist Canon J John. And it’s one that’s stayed with me over the years and it goes something like this:
‘Now it came to pass there was a group who called themselves fishermen. And in the waters all around them were many fish. In fact, the whole area was surrounded by streams and lakes filled with fish. And the fish were hungry.
Week after week, month after month, and year after year these who called themselves fishermen met in meetings and talked about their ‘call to fish’, the abundance of fish, and how they might go about fishing. They carefully defined what fishing means, defended fishing as an occupation, and declared that fishing was always to be the primary task of fishermen.
They loved slogans such as ‘Fishing is the task of every fisherman,’ ‘Every fisherman is a fisher.’ They built large, beautiful buildings called ‘Fishing Fellowships’. The plea was that everyone should be a fisherman and every fisherman should fish. One thing they didn’t have time to do, however; was to go out and catch any fish.
They formed a board to promote the idea of fishing in far-away streams and lakes but its members did not fish. Training centres were built to teach fishermen how to fish but the teachers only taught fishing, they did not fish.
A panel was established to invite special speakers on the subject of fishing. And after one stirring meeting on ‘The Necessity for Fishing,’ one young man left the meeting and went fishing and the following day he reported he had caught two fish. Amazing! He was told that he had a special ‘gift of fishing.’ He was honoured for his excellent catch and scheduled to visit all the big meetings possible to tell how he did it. He was also placed on the Board as a person having considerable experience. But in order to have time to tell about his experience to all the other fishermen, he gave up fishing.
‘Well it’s a modern day parable but how true it is. As followers of Jesus we are encouraged to share our faith. Jesus called his disciples to be ‘fishers of men’ but the reality is that as modern day disciples we are bit like the fishermen in the story. There are not many of us out there doing any fishing.
Now I’m quite familiar with the thoughts that immediately spring to mind when we start talking about sharing our faith with others. And they go something like this: ‘Oh I couldn’t possibly do that.’ ‘I’d find it too embarrassing’; or ‘my faith is a private matter’; or ‘I wouldn’t know what to say’ and so on with endless variations along the same lines. And I think there is something a little fearful at the back of them.
But then there are other things we love to talk about and sacrifice for. And so for example, if we are passionate about football (and I say football but it could be anything); it’s something on which we’ll be happy to sacrifice our time and our money and emotional energy upon. And if we are a fan we’ll like to talk about it endlessly to others.
And so do we have a passion for Jesus I wonder? Do we love to talk about him? Have we been set ablaze with a love for him? And does that love we have for him create a desire within us to share it with others?
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury says this: ‘We share the good news, not because it’s a duty….but because we are consumed with knowing how wonderful Jesus is – we want to talk to others about him.’
As many of you know I was involved in street evangelism with the ‘Healing on the Streets’ team for a number of years. And often, as we were about to go out on to the street, I’d tend to get a little anxious worrying that people would think we were absolutely crazy – standing out there on the street in the town centre or down near the Sands inviting people to receive prayer. But in the back of my mind were always some words from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans where he says: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel because it’s the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.’ ‘I am not ashamed’ says Paul and we should not be either.
Actually when we got started and out on to the street itself it was quite exhilarating listening to people’s stories and having the privilege of praying for them. It was quite exhausting and draining at times but when we’d finished the session we were, in a way, a bit like the 72 that Jesus sent out in Luke’s gospel. When they reported back to Jesus and he was asking them how they got on they were saying things like: ‘it was great seeing what God was doing. He did this and he did that.’ And it was a bit like that for us too when we did a debrief after a session on the street.
The evangelist Luis Palau says this: ‘Evangelising is not as hard as sometimes we think it is, if we are willing to go out on a limb and obey the Holy Spirit.’
And I’d go along with that although it probably means being prepared step outside our own personal comfort zone.
But then how do we share our faith without appearing a bit weird? It’s a good question. Well I think the Apostle Paul gives us some help on that in our first reading from Colossians. And if we turn to that what we see is Paul giving a very balanced, gracious and thoughtful approach to how we might reach out to others who do not yet know Christ. And he makes three important points.
Firstly he says: ‘Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.’ And you know there are a countless number of Christians who will be quick to tell you that the reason they came to Christ in the first place was because someone spent time praying for them. And that could even have been over a period of many years. But it was that ongoing prayer that eventually brought them to Christ.
Secondly he says: ‘be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.’ And do we make the most of every opportunity to share the love of Christ with someone? And I don’t mean trying to force a conversation around to something we think we should say. But there are times when opportunities do present themselves where we can share something of our faith. And it’s a shame if we miss these opportunities as they may never come again.
And then thirdly he says: ‘Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” And what this says to me is that we have to be graceful and respectful in how we respond to others about our faith and avoid being judgemental. But not to be ashamed of letting others know that we are a follower of Jesus.
Sharing our faith is just talking to others about Jesus – being ready to give a reason for the hope that’s within us. There’s no prescribed method or way of doing it. It’s just sharing what’s important to us – ‘This little light of mine I’m going to let it shine’ if you remember the old children’s chorus.
Well I’ve already mentioned Justin Welby once. And so let me finish these few reflections with one more quote from him which I’ve taken from the Church of England website. And he says this: ‘The only way anyone knows of God’s love is because someone tells them. There is no greater privilege in life than to see God at work in changing lives.’ And I’m sure that’s something we’d all love to see happening in the parish here. Amen
Philip Newell (Reader)
Sermon preached at a service of Morning Worship at St Laurence’s, Scalby on Sunday 16th December 2018.
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Bishop David on Giving
St John the Evangelist was on his death bed, surrounded by his devoted disciples. ‘Master,’ the pleaded, ‘Give us a word before you die.’
‘Beloved,’ John croaked, ‘Let us love one another, for God is love.’
‘But you’ve said that already,’ they complained.
‘There is nothing more to be said,’ John gasped with his final breath.
‘You shall love the Lord your God, lock, stock and barrel, and your neighbour as yourself,’ Jesus declared. ‘And after that, no one dared ask him any more questions.’ An enviable reputation which folk like Teresa May would bust a gut for. Love God, love your neighbour, love yourself: after that, what more could be said?
Except I don’t think we are very good at loving ourselves. My experience of walking alongside thousands of people over the years is that folk tend to be very hard on themselves, judge themselves very harshly, and feel they are simply unworthy of being loved. In part the blame lies with Christianity, always lecturing us that we are miserable sinners. In part it’s a cocktail of guilt peddled by the world, that we have been very naughty, have broken it and we jolly well ought to fix it. Whatever it is, be it climate change, or nuclear proliferation, or pollution, or simply the latest food fads. I am made to feel bad about driving a diesel, bad about eating meat, bad about eating eggs, on and off, bad about heating my home, bad about leaving Europe, bad about staying in Europe, bad about being a priest, very bad about being a bishop. You are almost made to feel bad about being good.
Whereas Jesus commands you to love yourself. Who are you to defy Jesus, to ignore his explicit command? Take yourself off to a quiet place and indulge yourself, take a long, hard look at your life. Run the film of your life, all the glorious moments, and no life is devoid of glory, as well as all the knocks and wounds which you have managed not just to survive, but to rise above. As well as all the knocks and wounds you’ve dealt out: be gentle with yourself, think on all the stresses and tensions you were coping with, which made you snap. Hear Jesus throughout, saying ‘Love yourself.’ In all those situations, so personal to you, think of Jesus beside you, loving you so much. Christ loves you so much he can’t take his eyes off you.
I recall visiting a very gracious lady who was paralysed with gloom and remorse about the way she had treated her late father-in-law, who had lived with her and her husband in his declining years. She hadn’t beaten him up or anything, she just regretted the times when her patience had snapped and she had told him off. I got her to describe an average day with dad, and to be honest he sounded like the most miserable, curmudgeonly git ever created. ‘Dorothy,’ I blurted out, ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself. You deserve a medal. I’d have throttled him after half an hour.’ She burst out laughing, but it was a moment of liberation, a moment when she laughed and loved herself rather than hating herself.
She made a massive career-change and went on to be a matron of an old people’s home, and was the kindest most patient matron you could ever find. She even kept an eye on my dad in his final years when we were far away in Cardiff. When you dare to obey Christ’s command and love yourself, and what’s more feel you are loved and cherished by Christ, then that love overflows.
And letting it flow clears the way for more love to flood in. Dam love up and it goes sour, just like God’s gracious gift of manna went sour in the wilderness when the Israelites hoarded it. Be generous, be profligate in loving your neighbour, so you can be freed up to love yourself. Giving is a tangible mark of that. ‘There will always be someone in need,’ our reading from Deuteronomy stressed. ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ Jesus declared. The poor need us
to open our hands. But more than that, we need them, to break our hearts, break through our walls of self-protection and make us generous.
Are you a Gollum or a Jesus? In the Lord of the Rings, Gollum, originally the most beautiful of creatures, comes across the One Ring and makes it his own, his precious, hiding away, wasting away in the dark and dank, paranoid, killing anyone he suspects is out to steal his treasure. Jesus, although he had everything, clung to nothing, became as lowly as a servant, emptied himself of all but love and was bathed in eternal light. How sour the name of Gollum sounds. How sweet the name of Jesus sounds! Sweet or sour, the choice is yours. Love God, love your neighbour, love yourself, and let love flow.
Laura was a eight year old dancer, fawning upon Pharaoh as he performed a pastiche of Elvis Presley in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, staged by our primary school. Laura got more than carried away with her Sha-waddy-waddy dance and all eyes in the theatre were on her rather than on a by-now distinctly piqued Pharaoh. If history teaches us anything, Pharaohs are best not to be piqued!
The audience laughed, at first gales of laughter of the liberal tolerant sort, ‘What a card this Down’s Syndrome child is!’ Laura’s parents had bravely opted to have her educated mainstream. But then the mood changed to one of total amazement, that any child was capable of giving herself so utterly, in such a lock, stock and barrel way. Here was no less than a latter-day David, who had danced with sheer joy before the Lord when his army had finally taken Jerusalem, even doing cartwheels before his band of adoring maidens, doubly excited because underwear had yet to be invented. His wife Michal had despised him for putting his heart and soul, mind and strength into his gyrations.
No one in our audience despised Laura; quite the contrary, the theatre was as one, everyone deeply moved as they witnessed such energy, such giving in totality, which simultaneously thrilled and shamed us, we who mete out our enthusiasm in ounces when God measures it in tons.
Love God, love your neighbour, love yourself, and let love flow.
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d anything.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
WIDOW’S MITE 21 OCT 18
About 20 years ago my mother became very ill with a rare type of brain tumour. So rare that the Doctors admitted they were quite stumped about how to treat her. It was an agonising time for my sisters and I and my father as we saw my mother’s health deteriorate week by week.
One day, after work in London I popped into the very prestigious and famous book store Foyles, and because, I suppose, my mother’s condition was always on my mind, I found myself browsing in the medical section.
Imagine my surprise when I came across a small paperback book of about 60 pages whose title was the name of the rare type of brain tumour my mother had and whose contents outlined various ground-breaking research and treatment options.
I flicked through the pages and knew I just had to have the book to help us as a family understand more about my mother’s condition and perhaps even assist the doctors. I started to walk towards the cash desk to pay when I thought I’d better check the price for this slim volume. There in pencil on the inside cover was the figure. £175. £175! 20 years ago. For a paperback! For a moment I hesitated. This was silly money. I couldn’t really afford it.
But it was only for a second. I loved my Mum and would give all that I had to try to make her well. £175 to help her was cheap at twice the price. I bought the book. Took it to the next meeting with my mum’s consultant who took it away and studied it and explored various new treatment options as a result. I have never told anyone in my family how much that book cost as money was never the issue.
And I’m not telling you this story now to big me up but to illustrate the fact that I, and I am sure you too, know all about sacrificial giving for our loved ones.
If there is something our nearest and dearest needs, or that would make them very happy, most of us find ourselves being generous to a fault. Caution is thrown to the wind. We go beyond what would be prudent to give, even beyond what we can easily afford to give. We may be prepared to dig into our savings, put life goals on hold for the sake of the one we love.
We are all familiar with the concept of generous giving. And we recognise it as a noble, sacrificial, thing.
Now, let’s think by contrast, about how we go about giving money to other causes – ones we’re not that personally invested in for instance a charity that doesn’t excite our interest that much, or a whip round for a not very popular colleague’s leaving present. We don’t mind giving a bit, but the amount we end up donating is relatively small and comes out of the surplus we have after we’ve taken care of not just our needs, but also our wants, and the naughty but nice treats on top.
What we give to these causes is from the bounty we have. It doesn’t hurt, indeed sometimes we hardly notice the amount that has gone. It is still giving, and good as such, but not in the same order as the sacrificial giving we were thinking about earlier.
In our Gospel reading today Jesus looks into the hearts of His hearers then and now. He contrasts the widow’s modest but sacrificial offering with the larger but less “costly” gifts of the richer worshippers that day. Jesus taught a lot about money and possessions– more than 10% of his sayings were on this topic more than He said about sex, or hell, or salvation.
In his teaching He argued that how we chose to handle our money, ultimately given to us by God, said something about our relationship with God. And He called His followers to look beneath the surface of their giving to what it said about their spiritual health.
So this morning I invite us to consider how we decide how much we give to God – both to the church and other causes we feel called to support. Do we fish around in our purse or wallet when we come to church and give a bit of what happens to be there that day? Or do we plan our giving and commit to give week by week whether or not we’re there, either through envelopes, standing orders or such like?
Thank you if you do give a planned amount regularly as of course the church’s outgoings are the same week by week whether or not we’re there, and it is very useful indeed for the finance team and PCC to know how much money is guaranteed to be coming in regularly.
But even if we give in this planned, regular way our Gospel reading poses a further more challenging question. What does the amount we are giving, proportionate to what we have, say about our relationship with God? When I say giving to God I mean to causes He has put on our hearts. In my experience this almost always includes giving to the church we’re a member of, but it very often extends beyond that to other needs and issues He has drawn us to.
Are we giving generously, even sacrificially to God perhaps cutting back on our luxuries to give to what God has put on our heart? Or are we giving from the metaphorical equivalent of the crumbs that have fallen from our table small amounts that are hardly missed, if we’re honest?
How we decide what we give, and how much that is proportionate to what we have, is of course just between each of us and God. It is no one else’s business and we are not answerable to anyone but God. But we cannot cheat God. He knows how much we have. He knows how much we could spare to give if we chose to do so. How much we would be prepared to give for a loved one.
And the irony is not lost on Him if the amount we choose to give Him is nearer what we’d give to a not very popular work colleagues leaving gift, than what we’d give to someone we care deeply for.
I have to admit I feel uncomfortable sharing these thoughts with you as it is very un-English to talk about money and I don’t want to offend anyone, or put anyone on the spot. But the teaching I am sharing this morning is Christ’s teaching and I feel its important we address these issues together.
St Augustine said; “Find out how much God has given you and from it take what you need; the remainder is needed by others.”
I pray that God will give me and us all soft, open, hearts, to hear what he is saying about what we need and what we should give. And that having heard from Him we will do His will.
Dismantling Dividing Walls
Readings: Ephesians 2: 13 – 22 and 1 Corinthians 12: 12 -27
Well something I’m sure we all find challenging at some time or another is adapting to change. And yet we live in a time which seems to be one of constant change. And it’s the same for the Church too as we seek to reach out to a changing world with the unchanging message of the gospel – the good news of Jesus.
And, of course, a big change for us here was when we become part of the North Scarborough Group ministry not all that long ago. And I suppose in some ways it’s something we’re still getting used to – and yet having said that I think there’s much to celebrate in what has been achieved so far. But then, there’s still some way we can go in building stronger ties across our churches and reminding ourselves of our place within it all and also committing ourselves to working and going forwards together.
Well I’ll be developing some of these thoughts a little more later on but first of all I want to place them within a wider context.
And so let’s start with some words of Jesus when he says: “Come, follow me.” And something we see in the gospels is Jesus calling people to follow him. And as the gospel story unfolds we see him taking a ragtag group of followers, who at one stage seem to have lost the plot, and then, as they journey with him, we see him moulding and shaping them into a group of people who could be entrusted with taking his mission to the ends of the earth.
And the Christian life itself is often likened to a journey – a journey that begins when we come to Christ and takes a life time to complete. And I suppose the person who made this most clear is John Bunyan who in prison (for his beliefs) had a dream which became a book called the Pilgrim’s Progress. And it’s an allegory of the Christian life – a journey in which the central character ‘Christian’ begins the way of salvation and eventually arrives in the celestial city having had many dramatic adventures along the way.
And it’s not surprising really that the Christian life should be likened to a journey as the early followers of Jesus were originally called, followers of ‘The Way’ which meant the road or the journey. And didn’t Jesus himself say: “I am the way.”
And in much the same way as our individual Christian lives can be likened to a journey – when we come together corporately as the Church we’re also on a journey. But let us be clear by what we mean by the Church. As I’m sure you’ve heard many times before, the church is not really the building but the people, the fellowship of believers – living stones as it says in the New Testament. We are the Church. We are the body of Christ in this place, in this locality with a calling and the enabling of the Holy Spirit to continue with the mission of Jesus and to be an ambassador for him.
And St. Paul uses this metaphor of a body to show that the church like a human body is made up of many parts which are all dependent on one another to function efficiently and healthily. As St Paul says:
‘the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary those parts of the body that seem weaker are indispensable’
And so we too – each one of us, all have a part to play in supporting and encouraging each other in the body of Christ; and to build each other up in the faith. We are all part of one another – all part of one body. And if we are together the body of Christ, we need one another, not only for the health of the body as a whole, but also to enable each individual to function at their full potential.
And so as a fellowship of believers we are journeying together. But as in any journey it’s one in which things can happen along the way and we can slow down or even come to a standstill. We can even go backwards or if we are not careful stray from the path and lose our way.
And there’s quite a vivid example of this from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress if we can go back to that for a moment. And it’s where ‘Christian’ and his companion near the end of their journey and they reach the edge of the Jordan River. And from where they are standing they can see on the other side the heavenly city. But at this point Christian’s friend says, “I’m not going through the river and he turns and walks down a side path, hoping there’s another way to the heavenly city.” And Bunyan writes, “And in my dream I saw there’s a road to hell even at the gates of heaven.”
Well we need to keep on going and keep our eyes focussed on the Lord Jesus. And it seems clear to me from Scripture that God’s desire is for us to keep moving in the direction in which he is leading. ‘Let us keep in step with the Spirit’ is what Paul says to the churches in Galatia.
And for us here at St Laurence’s if we are seeking to keep in step with the Spirt there will be times when God will call us into places and situations we’ve never been before: places and situations which will create not only new opportunities but new challenges as well. It’ll not always be easy but when he calls we need to follow where he is leading.
And there’s a fascinating image that often comes to mind when I think of the different stages in my own personal journey of faith. And it’s in the Old Testament story of the Exodus as God leads his people across the desert to the Promised Land. In the text it says:
‘By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light.’
And when the people were camped this cloud would rest above the tent of the tabernacle but when it lifted it was a sign they were to pack up and move to the next stage of their journey and into a new place and a new situation. And if we think of it in modern day terms that cloud speaks to me of God’s presence amongst his people.
And it was not long ago when we, at St. Laurence’s moved into this new stage of our journey as we became part of the North Scarborough Group Ministry. I like to think of it as if the cloud of God’s presence lifted and moved us into a new set of relationships with new opportunities and new challenges. A coming together with others but still all one in Christ. And we find an echo of this in our reading from Ephesians when Paul speaks of Jesus bringing Jew and Gentile together and making them one in him.
And if we go back to the Old Testament nation of Israel for a moment – these were a people given a special calling by God. Abraham and his descendants were called to be a ‘light to the Nations.’ But somehow over time they strayed from the path and by the time of Jesus had lost their way. Instead of being a light to the rest of the world they had built dividing walls to separate themselves from everyone else. An example of this could be seen in the temple in Jerusalem where there was an inscription on the wall warning those who were not Jews to go no further into the temple courts – as if they did, they would only have themselves to thank for their death, which would inevitably follow.
Dividing walls – and that’s what walls do – they determine who’s in and who’s out; who’s included and who’s excluded. And there are not only physical walls we can see with our eyes but also the invisible walls of the heart. And it’s walls that keep people apart and it’s walls that make people suspicious and distrustful of one another: yet there’s something about human nature that wants to build walls.
And we catch something of this in a poem by the popular American poet, Robert Frost called ‘Mending Wall.’ And it’s the poem mentioned in the last issue of ‘parishlife.’ And it’s really a metaphor for the things that divide people. In fact, it’s one that President Kennedy quoted from when he inspected the Berlin Wall in June 1973. And what the poem does is to describe two neighbouring farmers who routinely each spring meet up to patch up a rock wall after the ravages of snow and ice over winter have broken it down. Together the narrator and his neighbour, between whose properties the wall runs, patiently put the wall back together stone by stone. But as they do this, the narrator begins to question the point of the wall in the first place as neither of them keep any livestock that are going to stray and they both grow different crops. He sees no reason for the wall to be kept at all. The neighbour doesn’t really have an answer to the question, yet will not be swayed from keeping the wall. He simply keeps trotting out something he remembers his father saying: “Good fences make good neighbours.”
But that then takes us to the heart of the reading we had from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus as there can be walls within churches and between churches. And these can be some of the most difficult. As for Ephesus this was a mixed church made up of Jews and Gentiles – two very different groups of people at one time separated by culture, ethnicity, religious practices and beliefs. And yet, in this new Christian community they are brought together through their new found faith in Jesus and into a new identity
It’s no longer a case of who’s in and who’s out; who’s near to God and who’s far from God. Through the cross of Jesus, the dividing wall that used to stand between the two has been torn down
And this speaks very much to our world today. While it may be the inclination of humankind to put up walls; it’s the inclination of God, through Jesus to pull them down. And God’s purpose is for inclusion, not exclusion, it’s to bring us closer to him and to one another.
And as I was reflecting on what this morning’s readings might be saying to us in the North Scarborough Group today – some well-known words of a hymn, we often sing, kept coming to mind – the one that says:
‘Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live. A place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive. Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace; here the love of Christ shall end all divisions.’
And we live in an area of rich diversity don’t we, and that is reflected in our churches. Yes they are all different with different needs – yet we are all one in Christ Jesus. This is who we are – the body of Christ in this area and ‘if one part suffers’ says Paul ‘every part suffers with it’ and therefore we all need to support and encourage one another and to build each other up. To draw alongside and to give practical help where one might be struggling
And wouldn’t it be good if each one of us could seek to reach out across the group and also to other churches to build new relationships and friendships. And so let’s together build a house where love can dwell.
And if we are to keep in step with the Spirit isn’t that what we should be seeking to do – to build the household of faith in this area of North Scarborough.
a house where love can dwell;
a house full of grace, friendship and forgiveness;
a house where all dividing walls have been dismantled;
a house full of people who are passionate about Jesus; and
a house where all are welcome. Amen.
Philip Newell (Reader)
Sermon preached at St Laurence’s, Scalby at a service of Holy Communion on Sunday 14th October 2018
Letter from Lynn Hellmuth concerning her future at this parish
Trinity 13: Luke 10:23-37
And if I need to do more, I will do more.’
St Laurence`s – 18th February – Lynn Hellmuth
1st Sunday in Lent
It was recognised and affirmed on Tuesday night in the presence of God and His people.
It is the foundation, the preparation, for all that may follow.
It is this essential first phase of ministry that we embark on now.
Please join me.
In your way and in your time that’s how its going to be in my life.
And in your perfect way I`ll rest my weary mind
And as you lead I’ll follow close behind
And I will wait and I will not regret the time
In your time there is rest
There is rest.