12th February - Third Sunday before Lent: 1 Corinthians 3, 1-9 & Matthew 5, 21-37
Does anyone here belong to the perfect family? You know the one that never quarrels or bickers, the one that doesn’t include one, two or even three difficult characters? Has anyone here, sat back and breathed a huge sigh of relief when various members of the family have left after say a Christmas get together? I thought not!
Last week, I suggested that as Christians we should be distinctive in two ways: first, through what we say, remembering that as heirs to the prophetic tradition we are mandated to speak loudly in the face of anything that smacks of injustice. I secondly suggested that in order to be ‘salt and light’ we need to relate to each other in radically distinctive manner. Our evangelical witness is a combination of both how we relate and what we say. Our words are reinforced through our behaviour and our behaviour legitimises our words.
Today’s readings speak specifically to the emerging Christian community about what it means to live well together, as ‘God’s servants,’ working together in ‘God’s field,’ and ‘God’s building.’ St Paul is adamant that our witness is to be collective, corporate and communal. And, above all it is to be entirely Christ centred, for only by acknowledging that we are a community focused on Christ, nourished by Christ and devoted to Christ can we begin to make any difference at all in the world.
To be a Christ-centred community involves putting a stop to gossiping and quarrelling, doing all we can to avoid petty divisions, recriminations and cliques and, to commit to leaving alongside one another in peace – even though we know that other people sometimes get to us, tire us and irritate us. It is a big ask, yet an ask worth answering if we are serious about mission and evangelism.
Jesus suggests that we should not dare to approach the altar unless we are prepared to put aside all division. That is why the sharing of the peace is so central to the liturgy of the Eucharist. The effect of the Eucharist is contingent on our commitment to live peacefully, in full communion, with each other. It is also contingent on us owning up to our own shortcomings and attitudes, and the good news is that we all have them! None of us it transpires is perfect, however we choose to present ourselves. Today’s gospel reading makes that perfectly clear!
So how are we to learn to live in harmony with each other, for surely we can’t do so through sheer effort and grim determination? Grim determination cannot lead to the joy of a fully developed communal life; can it?
I would want to suggest there is possibly only one way and that way is called Jesus. We need to look to Jesus and His example, but above all we need to go to the cross and look at it and fully absorb its message.
I would like to finish by reading a poem, one that I think captures all that I have tried to put into my own words. It reads as follows:
When I look at the Cross
I can see the love of God.
But I can’t see competition.
I can’t see hierarchy.
I can’t see pride or prejudice
or the abuse of authority.
I can’t see lust for power.
I can’t see manipulation.
I can’t see rage or anger
or selfish ambition.
I can’t see unforgiveness.
I can’t see hate or envy.
I can’t see stupid fighting
or bitterness, or jealousy.
I can’t see empire building.
I can’t see self-importance.
I can’t see back-stabbing
or vanity or arrogance.
I see surrender, sacrifice, salvation,
humility, righteousness, faithfulness, grace, forgiveness,
love! Love, love…
When I stop at the cross all
I can see is the love of God
So can I simply encourage you to do one thing this week: pause and look at the cross and let it teach us a thing or two about love and what it means to live well together as ‘God’s people.’
Rev. Andrew Lightbown
4th Sunday before Lent: Isaiah 58, 1-9 & Matthew 5, 13-20 (Gospel)
‘Will you turn it down?’ Can I ask if any of you has ever asked that of your children?
Maybe you have even stood at the bottom of the stairs and yelled it?
Or maybe when someone in your family or friendship group has gone on and on about something you have said something like, ‘please do dial it down a bit,’ or asked them to wind their neck in.’ I know I have.
But, here is a problem. Scripture does bang on and on remorselessly about various things. The prophets do so and so does Jesus. In fact it gets worse for if we are to take Scripture, as God’s revealed word seriously, we are mandated to also speak out.
Listen again to the first words we heard today from the Old Testament reading: ‘Shout out do not hold back!’ As people of faith we are not supposed to be silent on those issues that stand contrary to God’s values. Was Jesus quiet? Not really. Was Jesus passive? Did Jesus say to his followers ‘don’t worry about what’s going on around, it’s all in God’s hands, just trust, say your prayers and all will be well?’ No. He told the apostles and the disciples to go out and proclaim the good news, to work to set the prisoner free and, to be as ‘salt and light,’ in the world.
The notion of challenging the forces of power, political and religious, was woven into the tapestry of the emerging Christian community in two ways: how it lived its corporate life as a radically different community, and how it spoke into a deeply corrupt, broken and unjust world. To be Christian, from the very start, has meant courting unpopularity and risking our reputations. To be Christian means standing in solidarity with the oppressed and rejected; the Beatitudes and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats tell us this in a fairly straightforward fashion.
If we are to speak, the question then becomes simply this: ‘what are we to speak of?’ I could, of course, answer that we need to speak to individuals about their need to repent and to come to a personal faith in Jesus. And, we do need to do this; of course we do. But, if we are to be true heirs of the prophetic tradition, we need also to speak out against the structural injustices in society.
The prophets didn’t speak to individuals they spoke to the nation. Jesus, who is the self-described fulfilment of the prophets, for sure touched, affirmed and, healed individuals, bringing them into relationship with God, effecting true and radical conversion experiences, but he also spoke out against deep structural injustices and, the abuse of power by the powerful, whilst asking his followers to model a new way of living well together as a community. Let us never forget that he was put to death by a toxic combination of political and religious power!
I would like to suggest very strongly, from the very depths of my heart, that the pursuit of justice is something the church needs to take very seriously in this age. The church needs to attend to its own internal relationships, just like the early Christian community did and it also needs to speak loudly into the public square.
Jesus launched his ministry by quoting from the prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah’s words shaped, nourished and informed Jesus. They must do likewise for us. Isaiah and Jesus both warned against religious hypocrisy, hence the notion of the unacceptable fast.
Religious piety is all well and good, and it is something to be strived for, but it must always be underpinned by kingdom values, values that must be proclaimed both in word and in deed, so that we can be both salt and light.
Let’s listen once more to the words of Isaiah to the faith community, recognising that Isaiah, as a prophet is God’s megaphone:
‘Shout loud and do not hold back! Announce to my people their rebellion……….is not the fast I choose to loosen the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke.’
We, as Christians, need to be salt and light and we also need to be God’s megaphone. This is our moral imperative.
Don’t be quiet in the face of injustice and cruelty. Don’t be quiet when people are discriminated against simply on the basis of who they are, where they were born, their gender, ethnicity, sexuality or economic status. Don’t remain silent when power is abused, instead ‘shout loud and do not hold back,’ so that in time ‘every yoke may be broken and the oppressed may go free,’ and something of the Kingdom of God experienced as will later pray ‘here on earth as in heaven.’
Rev. Andrew Lightbown
Candlemas Sermon: Malachi 3, 1-5 & Luke 2, 22-40
As I am sure many of you will know this year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses on the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg. There can be no doubt that Luther’s reformation principles were instrumental in Thomas Cranmer’s decision in 1549 to write his first Book of Common Prayer. And so, it feels right that we should celebrate and worship using the BCP this year. We will be reflecting further on Luther, the good bits and the less than good bits, throughout the year.
The 1549 Prayer Book, it is fair to say, was not received with universal acclaim. There were riots in the west country as the men of Somerset & Cornwall felt that the Prayer Book was being imposed on them. Others felt the 1549 Prayer Book was too catholic. Cranmer therefore revised his initial work and a second prayer book was published in 1552.
The 1552 Prayer Book, which was the source document for 1662 Prayer Book, was far more protestant. Cardinal Newman and his collaborators, or co-reformers, believed that Cranmer’s true intent was the 1549 Prayer Book, their analysis of which gave birth to the Anglo Catholic movement. Anyway this is all a bit by the by.
What we can say, however, with absolute certainty is that Cranmer would not have approved of the way that the Prayer Book is used in cathedrals and churches today. For Cranmer hymns, anthems, choir robes, supplementary intercessions and possibly even sermons written by the vicar would have been an absolute ‘no no.’ He wouldn’t have liked the way that we have reformed or reclaimed the Prayer Book for our own use and context. Traditions must however must be allowed to live and breathe, otherwise they are of no use.
My words for today as you might have picked are reformation and reclamation, or re-claimation. And, these two words are highly relevant to our understanding of Candlemas. Candlemas is also known the Purification of the Blessed Virgin and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. We can view the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple as mere historical acts or as an insight into Jewish religious rituals. But, I believe we need to also read them through the lens of allegory and in so doing allow them to reform us and reclaim the message of Jesus Christ, in the process allowing ourselves to be reformed. We also need to understand the relevance of the likes of the prophet Malachi alongside Simeon and Anna for us today.
Let’s start with Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets, and in so doing we should also remember that Jesus great claim is to be the fulfilment of the prophets. Malachi is concerned that the life of the temple should be characterised by compassion and justice leading to relief for the widows and orphans, and a general commitment to healing and reconciliation. Malachi suggests that the people of the Temple need to reclaim these values so that the Temple may be both reformed and purified. Malachi hints that purification rituals in themselves are hollow without a commitment to live by and model kingdom values. The church’s purity today is revealed by how it lives not just by what it does. An exclusive focus on doing and performing was in many ways the sin of the Temple, the sin Jesus came to cleanse and purify. We must make sure that this doesn’t become our sin.
Turning to the gospel Simeon provides us with the radical understanding that salvation is for all. Jesus is to be light for everyone. Religion for the first time is to be truly hospitable and inclusive. Access to grace and mercy is no longer just for the Jews, it is for all. Do we sometimes in our worst moments want the Christian religion to be reserved for people like you and me?
Anna reminds us of the importance of patience and joy. Are we prepared to be as prayerful and trusting as Anna? Do we regard Jesus as a source of great joy? Are we like Anna prepared to allow ourselves to dance and sway, (even in Matins?) Are we like Anna infectious in the exercise of our faith?
So the question for the church as we celebrate Candlemas is straightforward:
Are we prepared to reclaim again and again the great religious traditions of compassion, justice, healing, reconciliation, patience, prayerfulness, trust and joy? Because if we are, our faith and common life will be infectious. We will be in Simeon’s terms light; light for all.
Rev. Andrew Lightbown
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