John the Baptist was a sensation. Soon everyone knew of this wild man out of the desert, dressed in a camel hair tunic, with a leather belt, and with a funny diet, locusts and wild honey. The fiery preacher who went for the tax collectors and soldiers and religious leaders, and called all to repentance. Some of the more learned may have noted that the great prophet Elijah also was described as wearing a garment of animal hair, with a leather belt. People poured out of the towns and villages to see and hear, and many did repent of their sins and were baptized in the river Jordan. Again, the more learned would think of their ancestors who had crossed the river Jordan to escape from slavery and enter the promised land.
You will know that for centuries the Jews had been waiting for a messiah, and the whole question of what they meant by messiah is too complicated to go into now. But at different times they had hoped for a king who would bring in a time of peace, or a warrior to free them from oppression, or they had hoped for a saviour and redeemer, as some of the prophets had foretold.
In Isaiah we read God saying “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine”. And there is the promise of a child to be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
John was called the Baptiser. There is the curious little story in Acts 19 when Paul meets a little group of Christians in Ephesus and asks them if they have received the Holy Spirit, and they reply, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit!” So Paul asks them about their baptism, and they say they were baptised by John’s baptism. Then Paul has to tell them that John only came to lead them to Jesus, and that in baptism in the name of Jesus they will receive the Holy Spirit. We might guess that, in remote villages, there were many other groups who had heard the message of John the Baptist, and believed in him as the latest and greatest prophet – but had not heard or understood that Jesus was the fulfilment.
It is easy for people to get stuck at some point in the growth of their faith. Those people in Ephesus got stuck at belief in John the Baptist. There is a phrase I hear increasingly about ‘the baby Jesus’, as in “I’ll ask the baby Jesus to help you”. It is used mockingly by people who only know Away in a Manger with the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay. Who have only taken in the story of Jesus as enacted by children in a school Nativity play. For them, Christianity is a sweet, soft, cuddly idea for simple people. They have no idea of the challenge of Jesus Christ, who overturned accepted ideas about sin, and about God, and about the law. Jesus who accepted a cruel death for our sakes, and rose again, and sits at the right hand of God on high.
Some of us have been coming to church for many years, but we are also in danger of getting stuck at some stage in our belief, not stuck with the baby Jesus idea, but stuck because the stories in the Gospels are so familiar, (It’s easy to think ‘Oh I know that story” and sit back), stuck in our prayers at a particular stage, stuck in habits and attitudes. We may pray “Give us this day our daily bread” just as a part of the prayer, while in some African countries it is said as a desperate plea for food. When we pray that God’s will may be done on earth, we should be jolted into thinking that means in our country with its inequality, its greed and lack of belief We can get stuck in the familiarity of the words.
John the Baptist was a sensation, and as well as the crowds who came to hear him, he had his own band of disciples. Then Jesus came along. Andrew, one of John’s disciples, heard him proclaiming that Jesus was ‘the Lamb of God’, and immediately Andrew left John and followed Jesus. Then he told his brother Simon Peter, and brought him to Jesus. Yes, John’s whole mission was to tell people that the Messiah was coming, but still, humanly speaking, it must have been hard to see his followers turning away to another.
John’s mission was to point to Jesus as someone much greater than himself. All true Christians leaders do that. They may say, “Listen to me! because what I am saying is important.” But never “Follow me!” John the Baptist came out of the desert, and he was a firebrand, rebuking authorities, urging people to repent, but our lasting image of him should be as a signpost, pointing away from himself and towards Jesus.
John was a great man of God, but Jesus said he was ‘least in the kingdom of heaven’. John knew and preached the rules, “Repent, be baptised, lead good lives, prepare the way”. Splendid. And true. But John never knew the love, mercy and self-sacrificing death of Jesus and his marvellous resurrection. It is a most amazing thing that it is possible for you and me to know more about God’s love than the greatest of the Old Testament prophets ever knew.
John knew the justice of God, the holiness of God, God’s hatred of sin, but no one could call John’s message good news, it was basically and fundamentally a threat of destruction. It took Jesus and his cross to show the length, breadth, depth and height of the love of God.
Jesus did not act according to some old prophecies and he did not always keep to the old laws. His preaching style was not like John’s. Jesus was not ‘wielding the axe of judgement’ nor ‘sorting out the wheat from the chaff’, and warning of the ‘fires of judgement’. Jesus certainly spoke words of warning, he strongly denounced those who led others astray, and those who imposed old laws about the Sabbath. He could be angry, and he even overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple.
Jesus was, truly, the dear little baby we think about at Christmas, who managed nevertheless to impress shepherds and wise men, as well as causing angels to rejoice. In due time, he taught by words and actions how a human could live completely in accord with God’s will. As the good news spread, people began to see him as the Messiah, the Saviour, God’s own beloved son, the friend of sinners, the one who could forgive sins. And, as Paul wrote, Jesus is the image of the invisible God.
Enjoy Christmas, the carols and cards, the nativity plays, the happy times with friends and family, always remembering the reason for the season, Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Maureen Lampard, LLM
“No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”.
I was on a coach tour of Bulgaria once and to pass the time on a long drive the local courier sent a clipboard around asking if we had questions about the Bulgarian culture and so on. Eventually, it was returned to her and she announced she would now answer the questions. “And the first question is this…”, she said, “…Are we nearly there yet?”. Of course the whole coachload of Brits erupted in laughter and someone had to explain why.
But it’s a good question. It’s a good question for the start of Advent and it’s a good question for us as a church. Advent, of course, heralds much more than a time to prepare for Christmas. It also looks forward to the second coming of Jesus at the end of time, a time when the long-hoped-for kingdom of God will come in all its fulness. And there are three things we learn from our gospel reading.
First, we don’t know when it will happen, secondly, life will go on as normal right up to the last minute just as it did before Noah’s flood, and thirdly, it will divide people, with some being lost just as they might have been if they were swept away in the flood.
So the answer to ‘Are we nearly there yet’ is simply ‘We don’t know, but we live in hope’. So in the meantime, and this is Jesus’ point, we need to be ready. We need to be praying, reading and studying the bible, celebrating the Eucharist together, making changes to our behaviour, helping the world around us to change, building the kingdom. Essentially, that is the calling of the whole church.
And for this particular church community, there’s another layer. For we also don’t know the day or the hour when our new vicar will come. We don’t know if we are nearly there yet, but we live in hope! now I want to explore how ready we are – are we keeping watch?
Over the Summer, as part of our work during the vacancy, we invited you all to provide some feedback on our state of readiness as a church community. We asked for comments on four questions:
So first, the things we think we do well….
Improvements to make…
How we could make a bigger difference in Wycombe…
Barriers to doing these…
Overall, there’s lots that is great about All Saints, and we’re already trying to address some of the points raised. Before we can advertise for a new priest we need to prepare our Parish Profile, which tells potential applicants what we’re all about, and this feedback will be included as an honest sharing of our situation. So, practically, we are planning for our new vicar, and spiritually, as a church, we are on a journey in Advent as we look in hope towards Jesus’ return in glory and toward our celebration of his nativity at Christmas.
But are we nearly there yet? We don’t know – but it may just be that the Second Coming happens before the New Vicar. So let’s make sure we’re watching for that and are ready!
Let’s pray our vacancy prayer:
Generous and loving God, in this time of vacancy we thank you for our blessings, and for all who build up this community and work with others for the common good.
By your Holy Spirit inspire our vision, and give us patience and courage as we await the new priest you are calling to High Wycombe. Though Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Derek Lancaster, LLM
Last week we celebrated our annual patronal festival of All Saints, or All Hallows as it was traditionally, which actually falls on November 1st and hence the evening before is All Hallows Eve or Hallowe’en.
And just as Halloween recalls the spooky darkness, and indeed the more serious presence of evil in our world, so All Saints recalls the light. Jesus said he was the Light of the World and every time we gather here, we re-commit to walking in that light.
And just as we might need inspiration from others for our Halloween celebrations so also it’s rather easier to walk in the light if you can see for yourself the example of others who’ve gone before.
This week, and for the next couple of Sundays before we get to Advent and turn our thoughts towards Christmas, we’re going to be hearing about three saints. A Saint has been defined as someone who has lived a life of ‘heroic’ virtue – that is, they have done extraordinary virtuous things with readiness and over a period of time. They’ve truly walked in the light of Christ.
You see, Jesus calls us to raise our eyes above and beyond the day-to-day and to have a bigger vision, a vision of a world where the darkness of evil is banished and God’s path of love prevails. A vision of heaven, to be sure, but a vision also of a better world now – together making what Jesus calls the kingdom of God. And the saints show us how we can make that bigger difference in the world and grow that kingdom.
So to this week’s saint, and it’s a woman who lived long ago in the seventh century – Frideswide – she has a statue down there in the nave. She’s a local saint, and the patron saint of Oxford.
Frideswide, or originally, Frithuswith, was a saxon princess who became a nun who chose to spend her life dedicated to God and to prayer for the world. She’s remembered for successfully running away from a prince who wanted to marry her – Algar of Leicester pursued her even though she was a nun who had taken a vow of celibacy and refused him. She prayed for God to protect her, and God struck the prince blind. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the prince begged forgiveness and she granted it, after which his sight was restored. She founded a monastery in Oxford, and that eventually became our present cathedral – and I think next year we’ll have to organise a parish visit to see her shrine which is now the focus of a modern pilgrimage.
Frideswide’s name means ‘strong peace’ and, as I say, she dedicated herself to a life of prayer for others – that’s what monks and nuns do, monasteries are like powerhouses of prayers for the rest of us, and we have monks and nuns in the church of England too. She is celebrated as a saint because of her prayerfulness, which sometimes led to others being healed, and because of her dedication to following God’s path – that is, to walking in the light – especially in times of adversity.
That trust in God is an example we can all follow, I think. But though down the centuries monks and nuns, and indeed all Christians, have prayed for a better present world, they and we also pray for more than that.
We have always looked forward to a time when Jesus will return and reveal the fulness of God’s glory to the whole earth. We don’t know when this will be – in the early church they assumed it would be soon, but clearly it didn’t happen so we continue to look for it. When Jesus comes, as the church teaches, there will be what is called the ‘general resurrection’. It’s what Jesus was talking about in that rather odd reading we just heard about marriage, and it’s what we mean when we affirm our belief in the ‘resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’ when we say the creed.
That’s when wars will cease, and sorrow and tears will be no more, and strong peace will reign. Time itself will end, and we shall all experience what the saints who’ve gone before us already experience – the full glory of heaven where the only relationship that matters is our relationship with God. We won’t be hanging about on a cloud with a harp, but we will be in a state of joyful, loving bliss where we know God fully and are fully known.
Now that’s what I call a big vision!
So of course we want to do all we can to bring about peace and joy and justice in the meantime – to walk in that light Christ has shown us. In Saint Frideswide’s time, Christianity was spreading in our country and she and many other Christians were showing the pagan world a better way to live. She challenged the assumed power of men in a powerful way and struck something of a blow for equality even in the seventh century. We might assume that women then were downtrodden, but she was far from the first powerful and effective Christian woman, and many have followed - yet even so, inequality remains one of the great injustices of our own time.
And as we ourselves journey in the light of Christ, we have all sorts of opportunities in this community of ours to share the inclusive love of God, to stand up for those who are oppressed, and to give a voice to people who are suffering from poverty, from sickness of mind or body, or from violence at home or elsewhere.
Frideswide lived a life of heroic virtue. We may not quite be able to match that, but we can all manage to grow in what are called the theological virtues of faith, and hope, and love – that is, to place our trust in God, to commit to building the kingdom, and to love our neighbours and our enemies.
Imagine a world where faith, hope and love were widely visible in society – where kindness, patience and humility prevail over envy, anger and pride? Wouldn’t it look rather different? How might High Wycombe look? How might Ukraine look? Or the Migrant Centres near the south coast? Or the Church? Or even our simple day-to-day transactions like buying things in shops or commenting on social media?
Well, it’s only possible with the help of God – we are too prone to failure and falling short to do it without regular prayer and a continuing and growing relationship with God. That’s why we gather as a Christian community – to ask for that help, and to share the journey as we walk in the light of Christ, just as Frideswide did all those years ago.
Please pray with me…
Sovereign God, who called Frideswide to be a leader among her people and gave her grace to be their servant, help us, following our Saviour Christ in the path of humble service, to see his kingdom set forward on earth and to enjoy its fulness in heaven. Through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Derek Lancaster, LLM
Our series on saints during this kingdom season began last week with Frideswide, a 7/8th century local saint. This week I’m going to look at the life of a modern saint. In what were for many years empty niches above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey, there are now statues of 10 modern martyrs. They come from different continents and many denominations. The individual martyrs are intended to represent all who have died for their faith. It seems appropriate on this Remembrance Sunday to focus on one of these.
Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish priest. He was born in 1894. From an early age he had a particular devotion to the BVM. He joined the Conventual Franciscans. He obtained a doctorate in Philosophy at the age of 21 an a Doctorate of Theology when he was 28. He was ordained priest in 1918 and he went to India and Japan, where he and other brothers founded monasteries. In 1936 ill health forced him to return to Poland, where he became involved in publishing journals, some of which were controversial. He provided shelter for refugees, including hiding many jews in the monastery. During this time he was allowed to continue his religious publishing. He was arrested in 1941 and eventually sent to Auschwitz where he continued his priestly ministry, hearing confessions and celebrating Mass.
When a prisoner in his own block escaped, 10 men were chosen to face death by starvation as a warning against any further escape attempts. He was not one of these, but he volunteered to take the place of a man who had a wife and family. After the men had been starved for 2 weeks, only Kolbe and 3 others remained. The guards wanted the bunker emptied, so they were killed with an injection of carbolic acid. Kolbe died on 14 August 1941 and was eventually canonised in 1982 as a martyr by Pope John Paul II. The Anglican church commemorates him on the anniversary of his death.
In an act of great love he offered to take the place of another man wo did survive the holocaust. In our gospel reading Jesus speaks of coming destruction and persecutions. Jesus has some warnings for his disciples, urging them not to be deceived by those claiming to be the Messiah. It is a time to stand firm and wait. He encourages them to stand firm in the face of persecution, seeing this as an opportunity to witness to God’s love, assuring them that the Holy Spirit will give them the words they need.
Today Christians are still persecuted for their faith in many parts of the world. Today we are living in challenging times, but like the disciples, we have that same assurance of God’s presence with us and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We too must stand firm and wait to hear Gods’ word to us.
The Revd Jackie Lock, Associate Priest
Luke 6:20-31, Ephesians 1:11-end
Do you like to be happy? Surely the greatest question we can ask ourselves. There have been many books written on the subject. How to be happy, how to lead a good life. People tell us lots of ways we can achieve that in this life.
Some say it is through money, especially being rich. Clifford Thurlow the journalist says “Money does buy happiness. Money equals freedom, the highest form of happiness. Money equals pleasure. The more you have the more pleasurable life is.”
The problem is that Clifford also says the poor are deluded and that they are there for the rich to take advantage of. He also assumes that the purpose of life is to maximise pleasure and minimalize pain. Hedonism. The problem with this approach is that aside from the fact that it puts maximising pleasure before God, Clifford links pleasure with money and that’s wrong. You can have pleasure and happiness with no money, you can be rich and be miserable. In this world a reality of existence is also that no matter how much money we have, how many things we have, we cannot avoid pain and suffering. It also doesn’t resonate with attempts to be Christlike, as Christ suffered pain, was crucified, and suffered death into which we too are called to be crucified with Christ so that we no longer live but he lives in us (Galatians 2:20).
We can also turn to quick fixes to try to make us feel better. W.C. Fields once said “I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food”. I know when I feel bad Ice Cream can cheer me up but, eating to make me happy doesn’t last, and generally after eating it I go back to feeling bad again. Its something I need to keep working on. I know though that worldly quick fixes for happiness whether that be food, alcohol, shopping, are only temporary.
There is a difference between eating to make you happy and eating because you need to. Certainly, in the Christian tradition the breaking of bread and the sharing of fellowship around a table is vital. Let us remember that Jesus himself was accused of being “a glutton and a drunkard” (Luke 7:34), but it was a malicious false charge. We shouldn’t look to food and other worldly things as a substitute for true happiness which can only be found with God. Equally God calls us to self-control and away from gluttony as it makes us worldly and not godly.
In a similar way adrenaline junkies, those who love high risk sports and activities are also being worldly. I guess the same can be said of those who play computer games, but it depends on your relationship with said games. Some video games glorify things such as violence and lewdness, perhaps not so good. Others can become addicted or obsessed with computer games, again perhaps not so good. The point is that if you are looking for thrills to make you laugh, to make you happy in life, then sadly the game will end or you will become bored with it, equally when the high risk sport or activity is over the adrenaline will wear off. Then we are back to being unhappy again.
Finally, there are those who think being famous brings you happiness. A Greek called Pericles once said, “Famous people have the whole earth as their memorial”. The problem is fame is fickle and there is no lasting happiness in it. We hear of many who are famous saying their lives remain unfulfilled and empty. Social sciences also teach us that popularity does not correlate with happiness. That is because fame is worldly, temporary, and fickle. If we try to obtain worldly fame, then I’m afraid as time passes so will our happiness.
Why am I telling you all this?
It is exactly these things Jesus tells us to avoid if we want to be happy. In contrast to this Jesus tells us that:
The beatitudes tell us to set our hope on Jesus. In him is true riches, true sustenance, and true joy. This is our inheritance as members of the household of God. As saints. If we hold fast to this, then we can be happy and we can lead a good life. As an inheritance we are also called to not squander it but share the good news with a world which continues to seek the happiness that is right there in front of them.
Dear Father, help us to remember that we can never find happiness by seeking the things this world has to offer. True happiness can only be ours by following your son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Revd Gareth Morley, Curate
1 Timothy 6.6-19
It’s such a joy to welcome E and N together with their parents, godparents and friends on this very special occasion. It is a celebration for us here at All Saints as we gather as a community and part of the world-wide church. We are here to support them as we learn together more about what it means to be a friend of Jesus and to become more like him.
Our first reading is part of a letter of St Paul to a young disciple called Timothy. Paul met him on his travels as he was preaching about Jesus. He was obviously very impressed with Timothy and invited him to accompany him as he visited various towns. He was a mentor to Timothy, very much a father figure, maybe even a bit like a godparent. What we have here is some of the advice he gave him in order to help him teach others about the Christian faith.
It struck me how similar this to the promises and commitments that Ni’s and E’s parents and godparents will make shortly on behalf of their children and that we will make as we promise our support.
And essentially, it’s all about priorities and relationships. Who or what is the most important thing in our lives. Paul tells Timothy not to rely on monetary riches. However he’s not talking about money itself, but how we use it. It’s the LOVE of money that is the cause of so many evil things – very pertinent at the moment given the Government’s latest budget, which offers little support to those most in need.
We see Paul guiding Timothy in his ministry to the church in Ephesus. These are the words of a wise and older man, who clearly cares deeply about Timothy, as a parent would. Paul lists some of the qualities expected by those who embrace the values of God’s kingdom – love and gentleness, faith and endurance; a willingness to ‘fight the good fight’ – a military metaphor, one which suggests absolute loyalty to the commanding officer, but here Paul means God and Jesus Christ.
Above all this is about our relationship with God whose love is unconditional; it’s about deepening that relationship, so that we can have a deeper understanding of the values of God’s kingdom. And that requires time and effort like any relationship. This is something we can do together. We can read the Bible together and share our thoughts. We can worship together and share bread and wine together. We can pray together. We can work together to serve those in our community who need some support. I know many here already do these things, quietly and unobtrusively wherever they find themselves. Many of us learnt during the times of lockdown that we need each other. We were not created to live in isolation, but to serve one another.
For E and N, this is the beginning of an exciting journey. It’s a lifelong journey. Some of us have been travelling somewhat longer. Whatever stage we are at, it is a journey that leads to life in God’s kingdom.
The Revd Jackie Lock, Associate Priest
Exodus 32.7-14 & Luke 15.1-10
Following her death on Thursday 8 September, we all mourn the loss of the Queen who meant so much to so many. She has been a presence in our lives, and for many this has been for our whole lives. She was the Servant Queen who put her service in the hands of God.
In a radio address in 1947 on the occasion of her 21st birthday she said “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong. But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join it with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share it.”
In this declaration she conveyed her steadfast intention for her reign to be selfless and one of faithfulness to her vocation as monarch. She showed in this declaration that she would be empowering others, listening to others and respectful to others. This she did throughout her whole reign, keeping true to her declaration.
This servant Queen was also a devout witness through her leadership of this country to the King that she served, Jesus Christ. She often expressed in words and action that this was the way she chose to live her life. In 2002 she said “I know just how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning. I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God.”
She was someone who was virtuous. She was also a faithful witness who expressed the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in her faith which she expressed in 2011 saying “Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves – from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general (important though they are) – but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.”
She was challenged in her faith though, as all of us are, but she remained devoted to God, as she was devoted to this nation. In 1980 she said “In difficult times we may be tempted to find excuses for self-indulgence and to wash our hands of responsibility. Christ stands for the opposite... we need to go out and look for opportunities to help those less fortunate than ourselves, even if that service demands sacrifice.”
In our Gospel reading we hear of Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them. The principal message of this reading is not about the meal itself but rather the profligate love that Jesus expresses. This notion of profligate love is rejected by the Rabbis and in fact sits in contradiction to a prayer of first century Rabbis which said “I thank the Lord my God, that you have set my portion with those who sit in the sanctuary and not those who sit on the street corners. I rise to attend to the torah, and they rise to futile things.” And the prayer goes on, with continuing derogatory comments about the poor. What Jesus calls us to is to love our neighbour, not shun them. Not to think ourselves better or act with indifference and disregard.
This was not the way the Queen lived out her vocation as monarch to the nation. She was selfless, respectful, virtuous, steadfast, faithful, empowering, devoted, committed, hardworking, loyal and a Servant Queen. She also, let us not forget, had a great sense of humour. From James Bond at the Olympics to Paddington Bear at the Jubilee, from off-mic quips to an outburst of hysterical giggles when a swarm of bees disrupted a military review at Windsor Castle in 2003. She was a steadfast witness to the work of God in her life and is an example to us all of what it means to be a ‘good and faithful servant’ of our Lord Jesus Christ.
With the Queens passing something that we all now must adjust to is that we have a new monarch, his most gracious Sovereign Lord, King Charles III. His reign will not be the same. For each monarch brings their own uniqueness, so it will be different. For we are all uniquely made in the image of God with our own gifts. We also must relearn the national anthem, which we will sing for the first time at the end of the service with the words ‘God save our gracious King, long live our noble King.’ This is because as our King begins his duty, we should commit ourselves to support him as we did Queen Elizabeth. Praying for his vocation as monarch. That he be imbued with wisdom, knowledge and understanding to govern well.
Equally over the coming days we should all be surrounding the whole of the Royal Family with our love and prayers as they mourn the loss of their mother, grandmother, and great grandmother. As we ourselves mourn the loss of our Queen in our own way. Moses said to God in our reading from Exodus “God, remember those who served you” to which we ask God the same “O God, remember our monarch who served you”. We have prayed all our lives: God save the Queen. So now we entrust Her Majesty to her Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Gracious God, we give thanks for the life of your servant Queen Elizabeth, for her faith and her dedication to duty. Bless our nation as we mourn her death and may her example continue to inspire us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Revd Gareth Morley, Curate
Philemon 1-21 & Luke 14.25-33
Well, here we are gathered again for the new term. It’s great to have our choir back, and if you’ve been away, welcome back! We have a busy term ahead with lots going on so there’s much to look forward to.
During August, we’ve been gathering feedback from you about how we’re doing as a church and there have been lots of really useful and interesting comments. The feedback will really help us to identify some priorities for action as well as celebrating our strengths as a church community. The exercise we’ve been doing is very similar to the sort of thing many of us might have encountered at work or in other leisure organisations. For example I’m sure gyms often consult with their members about how they might develop in future – not that I’d know, of course.
But a church community is rather different, I think. For a church is much more than a way to pass our leisure time, or our time at work. It’s really about how we get to know Jesus and become more like him, and share the good news of the change he makes in our lives with the wider world.
In the gospel passage we just heard, Jesus is being followed by large crowds. Doubtless everyone was excited to see what he was doing, and hopeful that great change might happen – the Roman oppressors would be overthrown, and everyone who was ill would be healed, and everyone would have plenty to eat.
But this is another tough-love-Jesus passage. Jesus tells us it really isn’t as easy as all that. ‘Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple’. I know our text says ‘the cross’, but the original has literally ‘the cross of himself’, so it’s clear Jesus is referring to the burden each of us is to carry.
Everybody knew what the cross meant. They understood crucifixion – that awful torture the Romans used to punish criminals. If they hadn’t actually seen a crucifixion, certainly everyone would have known the sheer horror of it. Jesus is suggesting that the folk in those large crowds need to understand that the way forward is not an easy one. It’s full of challenge, and even peril. I bet they went a bit quiet when they heard what he said.
So here’s the question? How are you doing with your cross today?
Maybe your cross is weighing you down with some heavy thing that you’re carrying – suffering of some sort, fear, anxiety, worry? Or the pain of some past oppression?
We all carry some of this – perhaps more at some times than others, but always something. So how’s it going for you today? And what are you able to do about it?
We all have some choices – we can sigh and shoulder the heavy load but continue to be more and more bowed down by it. We can try to carry on regardless, to suppress the burden and lock it away and try to pretend it isn’t there – sometimes that works for a short while, at least. Or we can run away and leave it behind, make a new start and hope it won’t catch up with us.
But Jesus doesn’t simply say we are to take up our cross. He says we are to take up our cross and follow him. It’s that choice to follow that makes us disciples of Jesus. It moves us from being curious explorers of an exciting new lifestyle to the realisation that being a follower of Christ means giving up all that we’re holding on to.
Why? Because Jesus’ promise of life in all its fulness comes when we let go. When we let the rain of God’s love pour into our thirsty souls, like the dry grass being renewed by fresh and living water. Following Jesus involves a deep and personal surrender.
Well, that doesn’t sound easy, does it?!
It’s not, really. It needs trust, and some courage – and our burdensome crosses are really distracting and that makes it hard to focus and get to that point.
But the good news is that we don’t have to do it alone. Jesus began a whole church to help and support us.
You can see this a little in the story of Onesimus that we heard in our first reading this morning – a runaway slave encounters St Paul and the early church and is converted. Instead of the death penalty from his master when he is sent back, he is to be welcomed as a brother, for the master, Philemon, now runs a church at his house, and is asked by Paul to help and support Onesimus as an equal part of the community. As Paul says elsewhere, in the Body of Christ there is no inequality – slave or free, male or female, Jew or Greek but all are one in Christ Jesus.
As I’m sure you who have made that commitment could testify, being in the Body of Christ may not mean our crosses evaporate suddenly, but it does mean that we share one another’s burdens and that makes it a whole lot easier. Somehow, our burdens are then lightened by the experience of a living faith in Christ.
You probably know the hymn “Brother, Sister, Let me serve you”, which actually sums up what I’ve been saying rather well. At first reading it may seem like a rather gentle hymn about being nice to one another, but actually I think it speaks powerfully of how we can serve and support one another on that journey with Jesus. Apparently the third verse was written first, in 1976, and the others followed a year later:
“I will hold the Christ-light for you in the night-time of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.”
May this indeed be both our commitment and our joyful experience as we go forward together at All Saints. Amen.
Derek Lancaster, LLM
Hebrews 12.18-29; Psalm 103.1-8; Luke 13.10-17
Just for a moment, imagine yourself as a toddler, maybe an inquisitive toddler. You are strapped into a pushchair, in a crowded space, perhaps in a lift; it’s full of tall people who must seem like giants. How do you feel? What can you see? Not very much; maybe just legs and feet. So I wonder what view of her surroundings that unnamed woman in our story had. Maybe just her own feet and the ground in front of her. She probably couldn’t see what was happening and who was speaking to her. ‘You are set free,’ Jesus said to her. Suddenly a whole new world was opened up to her as she stood up straight. She began to praise God; and she continued praising God because her life had been radically transformed. I wonder if she used the words of today’s psalm; she would have known them. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all my being bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.
Jesus was doing what he was sent to do. We heard it earlier in this gospel, when Jesus read from the prophecy of Isaiah in the synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free”. Then he announced that this prophecy had been fulfilled in him. Just imagine the reaction to that statement!
But Jesus’ action didn’t go down well with the leader of the synagogue. Let’s look at what’s happening here. It was the leader’s duty to uphold the Law. He offered a clear reminder of the requirements of the Law. Jesus had healed this woman on the sabbath, and in his understanding of the Law that counted as work, which was forbidden. The sabbath was a day for rest and renewal; it was precious and had to be observed. And if exceptions were made, well potentially that was the thin end of the wedge. And he kept making this point to the crowd. He believed he was right. And I guess we all have things which we believe are right and feel the need to take a stand on.
But Jesus, referred to here as the Lord, spoke with authority. He countered this accusation with a very Jewish argument. If it was permissible (and it was) to take animals to a source of water on the sabbath, then surely it was permissible to set this woman free from her affliction on the sabbath. He wasn’t breaking the Law; he was interpreting it in a more compassionate way.
This story is not primarily about the healing of a differently abled woman, though that is important. Maybe this unnamed woman represents all of us, with our limited perspective and interpretation of the accepted norms of society. Maybe we are that woman. Maybe we are like the leader of the synagogue.
What does this story of a healing on the Sabbath tell us about God? It tells us good news
- that the Law was given by God out of love to free us from tyranny whether that is self-inflicted or inflicted on us by others.
- that God forgives us when we get it wrong and offers us the chance to try again
- that the Law does not have the last word. There is always room for exceptions when compassion and love are needed.
This is about setting people free – phrase that Jesus uses twice in this short reading. That phrase would have reminded those present how God set the people free from captivity in Egypt.
Let’s look at what Jesus actually did on the occasion. First, he noticed the woman’s need. She did not approach him with a request for healing. It was far more likely that she had slipped in at the back of the synagogue, not wanting to cause a fuss. He took action. Grace was at work here, a gift which was freely given. He showed mercy and compassion. He wasn’t breaking the Law; he was interpreting it a more generous way. That is what the kingdom of God is about. So it was a joy yesterday that All Saints as an inclusive church joined the Wycombe Pride march to show that God’s love includes everyone regardless of their sexuality or gender. And the 150 cup-cakes we gave away went down well too! Thanks to those who made them.
Who needs setting free today? All of us! First, we need to ask ourselves what do I need to be set free from, and trust that the Holy Spirit will give us a whole new perspective on our life and will transform us into people who praise God for all the blessings we receive. Then we may be able to notice those who are overlooked in our society today, those who are struggling, those who are persecuted for their beliefs or their sexuality, those who suffer injustice from those in authority. I’m sure between us we could make a very long list.
Let us pray that as followers of Jesus, we notice those in need and take action.
The Revd Jackie Lock, Associate Priest
In my recently-retired state, I now have a little time to see some breakfast tv before getting on with the day and it strikes me just how much we Brits love a hero. Almost every day there’s at least one in-depth item telling the story of one form of hero or another.
Naturally in recent weeks, it’s mainly been Commonwealth Games athletes, but in normal times we have people climbing mountains or doing multiple marathons, or some other form of amazing endurance like rowing a very long way or similar. People have always been inspired by heroes such as Captain Tom, or little Tony Hudgell, or the three dads who walked to raise money for suicide prevention.
And whilst a hero who is heretofore unknown is much to be admired, it seems they attract even more admiration if they are famous, whether for working as an actor or being a footballer or rugby player.
Leaving aside the important question about what the government should fund versus what we should support through charities, there’s no doubt that these endeavours do a lot of good in raising awareness and in providing much-needed care.
In a world of war, climate change and political shenanigans, it’s good to have people we can look up to for their honest work on our behalf.
At the heart of their heroism are two key things, I think – commitment to a particular cause, and the perseverance to put the effort in to support it and deliver the prize.
And worthy as those prizes are, the promise of God is of a much more significant and life-changing prize for all humanity – the promise of the time when society will work the way God works, in humility, and in love for neighbour and enemy alike. That promise of the Kingdom of God, which Jesus has begun by dying and rising again for us.
But we hear in today’s gospel that that does not come about easily. The passage we heard isn’t, perhaps, what we’d expect – Jesus being a nice teacher who teaches us a nice way to be nice to one another. That would be the easy way out. Jesus could have preached peace and love after the manner of a sixties hippie and not upset the authorities, but that’s not the Jesus we read of in the gospel.
See, Jesus knew that the path he had to tread would lead only to the cross and that it was necessary to go through that to reach resurrection, and so reveal God’s plan not just to Israel but to the whole world.
Throughout Christian history that has created division, as Jesus said it would. From the earliest accounts of arguments between the disciples about who was allowed into the church, through riots about exactly how Jesus was human or divine, to rows about exactly how we are made right with God, to discussion about who is allowed to lead the Eucharist, and in these days, to who is allowed to marry whom in church.
How are we, then, to interpret the present time?
Well, just like our public social heroes, we need both commitment and perseverance. For God’s justice to prevail and all humanity to be drawn into God’s love, we need to continue to show how effective and how life-changing it is. We can preach the words of the bible all we like, but if people don’t see Christians acting together to promote love of neighbour and love of enemy and make a difference in their communities they see straight through us and rightly call us hypocrites, as Jesus did those whose actions didn’t match their words.
It’s a tough love, is the love of Jesus, and committing to it is far from easy. It requires perseverance.
But as the writer to the Hebrews says, we have the example of the saints before us to follow – they have run the race, they’ve climbed the mountain, they’ve persevered in the faith. People like Oswald, George, Sebastian and Edmund in our Lady Chapel window, or the holy women in our south window in the nave such as Bridget, Winnefrid, Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale, Mary Slessor.
The saintly heroes of the church did all they did because they were fully committed to kingdom values. They wanted to do more than raise money to help fix a gap in provision or support research, they wanted to show how knowing Jesus had changed them and could change those they helped. They pointed, always, to Jesus as the pioneer of our faith and to the glory of God he reveals.
It seems to me that the signs of the times require us to do the same. We need to work alongside our community to reveal God’s love for it. We need to persevere in what we already do as a church, and find resources to do more. Let us run that race that is set before us in these challenging times.
Derek Lancaster, Licensed Lay Minister