Sermon: “Be wise. Let God’s love be your hope”

Sermon preached at Newcastle Cathedral on Sunday 4th August 2019.

Texts: Ecclesiastes 1.2,12-14 – Colossians 3.1-11 – Luke 12.13-21.

Today’s Gospel is not about people who failed to lay up treasure in heaven because they were rich. Today’s readings urge us to trust not in our own strength, but to know the love of God which is wisdom, to burn brightly with the love of God, to live that love in our lives, and to let God’s love be our hope, now and for ever.


 

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Once upon a time, I asked a foolish question. I asked a Franciscan brother to teach me how to pray. He smiled, and gave me a book. The book taught me many things about prayer. How to sit, how to stand, how to breathe, what to think… and I followed its instructions to the letter. Again and again… I sat, I stood, I breathed, I thought… I huffed and I puffed, and I blew myself heavenward… and the house of God was barely touched. I was left standing outside – hungry, tired and frustrated.

I huffed and I puffed… and I began to realise that maybe this wasn’t the way to get into the house of God. Sitting, standing, breathing, thinking. I went back to the brother, rather annoyed. He smiled and took the book back. And said, “Now, sit… and just listen.” I was not going to learn how to pray… by my own effort. That wretched book had taught me that. Sitting, standing, breathing, thinking… prayer wasn’t something I could work towards like that.

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This morning’s Gospel is a dangerous one for Christians… because we read it and with not too much reflection the message seems relatively obvious.

A man who wants Jesus to help him get an inheritance. Fair enough. But Jesus tells him a parable. The rich man who has so many crops he tears down his barns to build bigger barns. He’s made it. His moneybags are literally bursting at the seams. Soul, he says to himself, relax, eat, drink, be merry!

But he doesn’t realise that even as he plans to enjoy his riches… his life is drawing to its close… and he hasn’t made the investment that really counts. So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.

 The meaning seems clear. Don’t spend your life working just for wealth, which others will enjoy when you die. Spend your life working for God. Lay up treasure in a heavenly storehouse. Earn your angelic platinum max card with the bank of heavenly righteousness.

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And the letter to the Colossians offers a very handy investors’ guide for those who set their minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 

How to earn your credit? Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed. Get rid of anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language. Do not lie! Do all this and you will get access to the first class lounge, for the best of the best… with the free drinks and the complimentary meals that are always slightly smaller than you’d have liked.

Work hard… do this… and you’re brilliant!!!! You’ve made it!!!

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But into this glossy brochure for the aspiring pharisee… pulling himself up to his feet as if he is about five pounds heavier than he actually is, making what an outside observer would have thought was a heroic effort to cross the room… lollops the Bible’s Eeyore.

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

 Shut up, Ecclesiastes! We’ve almost got them to sign the dotted line. // Come this way, people of God. Be better than everyone else. Work hard for your place in heaven!

What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation. Even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

People of God… do you want to sign up and begin investing, to be the best and earn your place in heaven! Or do you want to hear what old Eeyore Ecclesiastes has to say?

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The teacher, gloomy old Eeyore, in Ecclesiastes wants his treasure house to be in the right place, and filled with good and lasting treasure. Almost as if he has read today’s Gospel, he doesn’t set out to make money or build an empire. He tries to store up something a bit more spiritual. I applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. He seeks to know, to be the best travelled, the best read, the best argued… he seeks to understand all things on earth.
And when he understood them, he saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after the wind. His learning has taught him this, that everything we do, even our learning and our understanding, will pass with us. Even the most learned brain, the strongest hands, will die. And then another will have to start learning, start building… all over again.

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But is his time wasted? Has his learning about humanity been for nothing? No. Even as he learned that his study was ultimately vanity, his own pride, his own desire to know everything… he learned something better.

He learned WISDOM.

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Now, Wisdom is a strange thing. It seems to be something we are meant to chase after. It’s a good thing to be wise. And yet the moment we think we’ve got it… is always the moment we are farthest from it. The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

And yet wisdom for Christians and Jews is a very particular thing. Wisdom is not a general air of always having the right thing to say. Wisdom isn’t about having big bushy eyebrows, a knowing smile and an air of mystery.

Wisdom is a very practical thing. A wise person is one who sees things as they really are. A wise person is one who has had the scales fall from their eyes. And that wisdom, that seeing things as they actually are… enables us to live as we really need to live.

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Proverbs tells us that The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. It doesn’t mean that to be wise we need to be terrified! And to be terrified of God is not what Jesus or the Old Testament Law are getting at. In fact, quite the opposite.

But for the Old Testament, wisdom starts with knowing God, everyday and in everything… seeing God’s hand in all that is done under heaven. It isn’t airy fairy. It is gut wrenchingly practical. When you see God in everything, God loving his children in everything… then the world becomes a very different place to live in. For the wise person, their whole world has been shattered by one thing… the knowledge of the love of God, shining like sun dust as it breathes through all that is.

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And it changes us, this new way of seeing ourselves and the world. When St Paul gives the Colossians a new way of behaving, it isn’t for the sake of their being better people, or earning more heavenly reward points. Set you minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, he says, for you have died with Christ in your baptism, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. And one day, when Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him, shining in glory.

So treat each other well, grow in holiness, do not do what is evil to one another and yourself… because in the renewal God has worked in you, there are no longer differences among us… but Christ is all and in all!

If you knew how much you are loved, Paul says, and what God has done for you and is doing for you still… and for all those around you… your life would look very different. Your life would shine.

He writes to the church in Ephesus, and listen carefully for the new way we are to see the world as Christians, I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…’ (1.17)

Wisdom is something we know… when we know the love of what God has done for us in Jesus… we see it in the eyes of our heart… and we have a new hope… a hope built on love, and on the promise of our loving God.

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The man who asks Jesus for help to get his inheritance does not lack wisdom because he is too focussed on wealth. He lacks wisdom because he can’t see the love that God has for him, standing right in front of him in the person of Jesus.

The man who stores up his wealth in great barns does not lack wisdom just because he stores up wealth. But because he thinks that is what will make his soul happy, what will give his soul hope.

Neither of these people see the love that God has for them. Neither of them know the God who is love… and so neither of them has wisdom.

And so they are enslaved.

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They are enslaved to the things of this world. Not that the things of this world are bad or dirty or wrong… but the things of this world can never really give us hope.

Money, food, clothing… Consider the lily, or consider the birds, how they neither toil nor spin, and yet God feeds them. And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

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No, worrying (enslaving worry) won’t get us anywhere. Loving will.

Knowing God’s love for us is the most wonderful thing that can happen to any of us.

It’s a wonderful treasure stored up for eternity, yes, but it’s a wonderful treasure for each of us to enjoy now as well.

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When I really fell in love for the first time, it was like being plugged into a deeper part of myself, a part I’d never really known I lacked.

And when I began to know God’s love for me and all that is… that was like being plugged into all of reality. Spine-tingling. Bright-burning. Life-changing reality.

For Christ is all-in-all. And we who believe are in Christ.

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I couldn’t be taught how to pray. I couldn’t work at the mechanics and get there by my own effort, by my own self-improvement. Prayer only became real for me… when I began to learn just a little taste of wisdom. When my eyes were opened, and my heart began to shine with the love of God.

We Christians are called to live differently, to look different, to seem different to those around us. Not because we fear an angry God who lays down rules for us. But because we have had a taste of the love of God. And that taste burns on our tongues and down deep within us.

This is the treasure stored up for us by God within our hearts.
This is the fire the Spirit of God lights up within us.
This is the love, the life God feeds his people.

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Shine, let your light shine before those you meet. Let that love burn brightly, and let it out as often as you can.

But remember, this treasure you have burning within you, you have in a fragile, clay jar. Don’t beat yourself up when you fail to burn brightly with that love.

Let God’s love for you be your hope, who sent his only Son, that all who believe in him may never die, but will have the light of life, to the end of ages, and for ever. Amen.

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Sermon: The Hospitality of Abraham, Mary and Martha, and God’s Gift of Grace

We can’t earn God’s love. And we don’t need to. God has already given it in his Son. Abraham, Martha and Mary encounter God, and love and an openness to grace is what enables them to discover new life.

Sermon preached at Newcastle Cathedral, Sunday 21st July 2019


 

Have you done enough to earn God’s love?

Do you think you’ve done enough to earn God’s love?

I hope a part of you – perhaps all of you – is scandalised to hear a Christian sermon start with that question. It is of course the worst perversion of the Christian faith… to suggest that we in any way need to EARN God’s love.

And yet, there’s a little part in each of us, that just sometimes says, I’m not good enough for God, I’m not worthy. He can’t possibly love me.

 Or more dangerous, that voice that says, Yes. I’ve made it. I’m an AMAZING Christian. Isn’t God proud of me.

Look at everything I’m doing, the way I live my life.
Look at how many times I go to church.
Look at how often I say my prayers.
Look at how much… I doooo for God.
Isn’t He lucky!

And today’s readings seek out those tendencies in each and every one of us. They square up to us and say… NOPE.

NOPE! You can’t earn God’s love, and you don’t need to earn God’s love. Because he has given you his love, already. He has given you Jesus.

Stop. Listen. Learn to love and to live.

*****

The story starts with the book of Genesis, as all good stories do. God has made a covenant with Abraham, the father of the Israelites, the father of all who follow God. Abraham and his son have been circumcised as a sign of that covenant. And Abraham gets on living a nomadic existence with his family, his livestock, his tent.

And one day, Abraham is sat in the door of his tent at the height of midday… and he sees three men standing near him. My Lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Strange. There are three of them. But Abraham for some reason addresses them as one, Lord.

Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Do you remember Jesus washing the disciples’ feet at the last supper? Do you remember Mary and John keeping watch under the tree on which Jesus died?

Let me bring you a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant. Well, you’re here at a Eucharist, the sacrament of bread and wine, so I don’t need to point out the importance of a little bread… to refresh us.

But my point is this. At first glance it looks like Abraham is showing hospitality to these three guests. Stop and think, and it might seem that Abraham is showing hospitality to God, the Trinity; Father, Son and Spirit.

But is that what’s really going on?

In the famous Icon of this scene, the hospitality of Abraham, you can see the three figures sat at the table, but you can’t see Abraham. The three figures are welcoming Abraham in, welcoming us in to sit at the table with them.

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When Abraham gives them the water, who really gives the water of life? When Abraham refreshes them by washing their feet, who really makes who clean? And when Abraham offers them bread, who really gives the bread of life?

I’ll give you a clue… it isn’t Abraham who is the giver of all gifts.

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This isn’t a story about being hospitable, about welcoming in strangers. And neither is the Gospel reading.

I have heard many sermons in my time which go like this. Mary and Martha are different. Mary listens to Jesus but Martha is distracted by the tasks of the world. Which are you. Do you pay attention to Jesus? Or are you distracted by the world?

And I think that’s ok, but it doesn’t really do the passage justice.

It doesn’t do Martha justice, either, if I’m honest.

First, she isn’t just distracted by the cares of the world. Luke says she is distracted by something very specific. She’s distracted by diakonia… ministry. It’s where we get the word deacon from today. Martha isn’t distracted by looking up the latest fashions. She’s distracted by something which is really important. Ministering to others.

But second, does Jesus actually criticise her because she is distracted by her work? Jesus says, Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. You have need of only one thing. Mary, who is sat here listening to me, has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.

 

Martha, if you think about it, is doing exactly what Abraham was doing… offering the Lord some refreshment. But the difference is their attitude. Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Martha says. Tell her then to help me! Martha’s problem, the thing she has missed, is that what God really wants, what Jesus really wants from her and from us… is love.

The psalms put it rather well, and put these words in God’s mouth.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
or drink the blood of goats?
Rather, offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving
and pay your vows to the Most High. (Psalm 50.12-15)

Martha thinks that Jesus really needs feeding with food, and she offers her service grudgingly. This isn’t love and honour, in the way that Abraham showed love and honour when God visited his tent. Martha is worried and distracted not by her work, but by her bitterness. And bitterness, feeling hard done by, is always a difficult place to be when you want to show love.

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Abraham served his Lord, and he served God in Love. Martha tried to serve God, but her attempt was thwarted by bitterness. And Mary… Mary doesn’t serve God at all. She just… sits there…. but she sits there… in openness and love.

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Has God ever visited your tent? How did you respond?

Lots of people tell stories of times they served an unexpected guest, and it felt like they had served an angel. One priest tells of a homeless boy he met. They shared a meal at Burger King. He nipped out to the loo, and when he came back the boy had disappeared. Had he ministered to an angel sent by God?

Maybe we haven’t all had experiences like that. But that doesn’t mean God hasn’t visited our tent.

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The first chapter of John’s Gospel describes the coming of God in Jesus like this. And the Word became flesh, and lived among us. Jesus, God the Word, taking on humanity and living among us. But the word John uses to describe living among us has a deeper meaning.

He says this, and let your mind’s eye create a picture: And the Word became flesh, and pitched a tent among us. In Jesus, God has pitched a tent among us. God has come to our home, and made His home here too, with us and alongside us. The letter to the Colossians puts it beautifully. In Jesus, walking on earth among us, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. God pitched His tent among us, and it pleased Him. 

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So what should we do? Should we make like Abraham and Martha to scramble to serve our God who lives among us?

No. Remember Abraham. It wasn’t Abraham who was really being hospitable. It was God, God giving Abraham the bread of life and the water of life and the washing of salvation.

If you think the Christian faith is about doing enough to earn God’s love… then you’ve completely missed the point.

We don’t serve God. God serves us.
We don’t need to feed God. God feeds us.
We don’t need to provide for God. God provides for us.
We don’t need to protect God. God heals and holds us in our brokenness.
We don’t need to sacrifice to God. God has already sacrificed himself for us.

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At this and every eucharist, God invites us to God’s own table. And we approach it and pull up our chairs to the feast. With Abraham and Nicholas, and Mary and all the saints who have ever been. And each other, the saints who are.

God offers us the bread of life here. Will you be like Mary, open and loving?

And if you don’t feel you can, will you hope, will you ask… to be like Mary… Lord, make me open and loving.

In us is so much that wants to earn our place, or be proud at what we have achieved… or which is bitter, and guilty… and hurt and angry and tired. And that makes us often very bad at loving.

But God says… nevertheless…
Come… sit down… and taste.
With me you will find all things.
With me… you will learn love.
With me… you will discover… life.

By Faith, Not Works: a sermon for Newcastle Pride

Sermon – Eucharist for Pride Festival
20th July 2019
2 Corinthians 3.4-end; John 8.1-11
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I bring you great tidings. Hark! The church is in crisis! There’s no way forward. We’re at each other’s throats! Gone are the wonderful days of old. Chaos reigns. People of God, despair!!!!

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Now, that’s probably over egging it. But I bet all of us, especially queer folk like me, have felt like this in the church from time to time.

The overriding narrative in the Church of England, and in other denominations too… is that queer people, those of us who don’t easily fit society’s gender and sexual expectations… spell at the best confusion, and at the worst darkness.

Chaos reigns! People of God, despair!

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Well, I for one refuse to accept that narrative. Coming to faith as an openly gay person, my sexual identity, my desires and relationships, were not a cause of confusion, and they certainly weren’t a cause of chaos.

Each one of us has a different journey of faith to navigate… but fundamentally the discovery of the gift of faith is the same for each of us….

A child of God finding, realising and nesting in the home that was prepared for us from the beginning by our Lord.

Narratives that see queer folk as a problem aren’t good and true for us. And they aren’t good and true for the church.

What narratives might free us? What narratives might offer us hope? What is the narrative in which I am one for whom Christ died and rose again, and not just a problem to be solved.

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I have known many churches that say they believe the Gospel message is offered for all. They confess proudly that the Good News is for the transformation of all people, that there is no corner of the created world which Christ cannot redeem and make holy.

Well, queer people put that confession to the test.

Do you really think God gives eternal life to all who have faith in Jesus, as a gift, without a price, as grace? Or do you believe we have to earn it?

Sometimes, it feels like queer people have to do an awful lot to earn our place in the church, to earn the assurance that others can get much easier.

Sometimes, it feels like we have to prove our faith, not to God who already sees it, but to our fellow Christians… who seem to do their best to make us feel inferior.

Sometimes, we may let it get to us, and wonder if we really do have to leap through hoops, to earn God’s love. To pretend to be something we are not… because Jesus’ grace, Jesus’ love, isn’t strong enough to make me holy.

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To this, St Paul says, no.

The Old Testament Law was a start. It tried to teach God’s people how to love God and it tried to teach them that God loved them, even when they betrayed that love. But Jesus has fulfilled the Law. God’s children are freed from its demands, its judgment, its condemnation… even its death.

The Law is good for teaching us how to love our God and how to love one another. But it cannot condemn us.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

All of us who have been baptised and confess Jesus as our Lord, live in the Spirit. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, when we look on Jesus in word, prayer or sacrament, see the glory of the Lord. And it transforms us.

God does not change who we are. God loves who we are. And died for who we are.

But God sets us alight in holiness, and frees us to live lives of deeper love, more fervent faithfulness.

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I wonder how many times you’ve heard the story of Jesus and the woman caught committing adultery.

She is guilty, plain for all to see, and the Law says she should be stoned to death.

But Jesus and the woman… talk.

Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” Jesus has shamed the scribes and the pharisees into leaving her alone. But Jesus is not finished.

She said, ‘No one, sir.’ Now, that word, translated as Sir, is important for christians. She says, “No one, kyrie.” She says, “No one, Lord.”

She confesses Jesus as Lord in the same words that we use. Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy. Ho Kyrios mou, kai ho Theos mou. The words St Thomas used when he put his hands in Jesus’ side. My Lord and my God.

She calls Jesus her Lord, this woman caught in one of the worst offences against the law, and he responds… Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.

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She has called Jesus her Lord, and she is forgiven. She is freed from the condemnation that hung over her. Her faith… not her works… have set her free.

Her faith has set her free, to a new life, of loving better, loving more truly. Her faith has set her free, to learn without fear how God is calling her to be more faithful still.

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I think that queer people call the church to remember the battles of the past. The battles to recognise that we are saved through our faith, not by our works. Our faith sets us right, not any attempts we might make to earn God’s love.

If you have faith, the Spirit lives within you. Take the Law seriously – explore how it speaks to you about God’s faithfulness, and about what it means to be faithful in love to God. But do not fear.

If you confess Jesus as Lord, be at peace. Be assured of your place in Jesus’ heart. Grow in holiness because you can. Not because you must.

If you confess Jesus as Lord and seek to follow him as a disciple, love boldly, your God, yourself, your neighbour.

Remember the confidence that Jesus has won for you. And live in that confident, peaceful and joyous hope, all your days. Amen.

Preaching the Resurrection of the Dead on Remembrance Sunday

Resurrection of the Soldiers - Stanley Spencer

I always find Remembrance Sunday a difficult one to preach. It often gets passed around clergy teams like a hot potato. We find it difficult to honour individual bravery and sacrifice, whilst also trying to serve current servicemen and women who have lost colleagues and friends, all while maintaining a message which is distinctively Christian. How do you preach the Gospel in the shadow of the Empire? How do you hold the collective grief and trauma of the nation and world caused by war, all whilst acknowledging that I am not one of the ones called to defend the weak when things get tough?

Many preachers are faced with this challenge, staring them in the face… and blink.

But the readings this year don’t leave you much choice. PREACH THE RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD, they cry. So that I will. One day, when Christ comes, the graves of Flanders will open just as my own, and we will all rise to meet our Lord together.

Do you claim his promise for yourself, and life in confidence and hope?

You can read the sermon here: 11th November 2018 Remembrance Sunday Newcastle Cathedral Sermon (and for interest last year’s Remembrance Sunday sermon is here: 12th November 2017 Remembrance Sunday).

(The image is Stanley Spencer’s Resurrection of the Soldiers)

Ginsberg does the Beatitudes

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A brilliant and talented friend of mine writes fairy-tales on the beatitudes. I am not so brilliant. But fortunately, I can crib from other people’s genius when it comes to preaching.

The Gospel this Sunday evening is the beatitudes from Matthew 5. Blessed be the poor in spirit… etc. I was tempted to riff on Simon and Garfunkel’s Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on. But Allen Ginsberg just goes so much deeper in his poem Kaddish, written over a long period after the early death of his mother after long mental illness:

In the madhouse Blessed is he! In the house of Death Blessed is he!

As a Franciscan I seek to live a blessing of St Francis: Let us bless the Lord God, living and true. Let us always give Him praise, glory, honour, blessing and every good. Blessing God and knowing all things blessed is bloody hard. Only by God’s grace do we have any chance of living it out.

Download the sermon here: 02-09-18 Evensong Beatitudes

Will I break the lectern?

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Tomorrow is my last Sunday at Holy Nativity, and I have had a wonderful time. But I have been wrestling all month with how to pitch my last sermon. In the end, I’ve gone for a lectern-thumping confession of faith. The Gospel tomorrow is from John 6, and I couldn’t stop myself:

Many of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Lord, give all your people Peter’s faith. Strengthen us for your service, and throw us into your field.

Download the text here: Sermon 26th August 2018 Last Sunday at HN

For the conversion of the nations: A sermon for Epiphany

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This Christmas at Holy Nativity, I have preached several sermons on the truth of the wonderful revelation in Jesus Christ that God who is Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer of His people is offered to us in the form of the tiny child of Bethlehem.

At Epiphany, this truth begins to bite. Little Jesus, meek and mild, who became a tiny child… is none other than the Lord and God of all… and He calls all people to worship Him.

“God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, bring in that day when all people will worship you, when your kingdom comes and your will is done.”

Download the pdf of the sermon here:

Sunday 7th January 2018 Epiphany