Herod and the Magi

Matthew 2: 1-8

That’s another Christmas come and gone. We’ve heard the Christmas story and sang the Christmas carols; and we’re still singing them because it’s the Christmas season. But what are we supposed to think and believe about the Christmas story? Are we to take it literally and say we believe every little detail? How about the choirs of angels in the sky singing praises to God as the shepherds make their way to Bethlehem? … and then presumably flying off back to wherever they came from? Well, no! We can’t take that literally, it must be symbolic. The Christmas story is full of symbols, or picture language, and we have to look beyond the symbols to find the underlying truth.

We know that the ‘background’ to the Christmas story is historical: the land, the people, and the Roman Empire: but the meaning of the story is spiritual; and that’s what we have to get hold of. We don’t read the Bible for history lessons; we read it to discover spiritual truths that we can live by today in the 21st century. We don’t want to get stuck in the past, having to say we believe what we don’t really believe, just because it’s in the Bible. It’s the meaning of the story that will be the word of God: and maybe shake us up a bit; or at least ‘waken us up’ to what God is saying ‘through all the changing scenes of life’.

Historically 1st century Palestine was part of the Roman Empire. King Herod was ruling with the permission of Rome. But Rome didn’t trust him, any more than the people trusted him. He was a bad lot, concerned only with keeping himself on the throne. He was deadly jealous of anybody who might be plotting against him. He simply had them killed, without a second thought, even members of his own family. Our Christmas story goes on to say that there were three travellers who arrived from the East; astrologers who read the stars and believed that a King was about to be born who would change things radically for the good; and be an ideal kind of king. They themselves were kings: but they knew they weren’t ideal, although Herod thought he was! So he didn’t like what he heard! Another King! A rival for my throne! And his wicked mind began to look for ways to deal with the situation. He told them, “Go and make a careful search for the child, then come back and tell me, so that I can bring some kind of birthday present myself.” Indeed. I wonder what he had in mind?

Now this is where we change into the spiritual mode, from the written word to the spiritual meaning. The words spoken by Herod, which he meant for evil, can be understood in a different way. This kind of thing often happens in Bible stories. People say or do one thing, but God uses it for another purpose. And what Herod said to the Magi with negative thoughts in mind, can be seen in a positive light. “Go and make a careful search for the child,” and that’s the living word of God to all people at any time. Go and make a careful search for the Christ child, so that you can live life to the full. Quite the opposite of what Herod had in mind.

The child we are to ‘make a careful search for’ is the Christ Child. So where do we look? Not in any history book. Not in the past. You look into your own heart, into the person that you are. Paul knew this and in one of his letters he tells us about, “Christ in you, the hope of a glory yet to come”, (Colossians 1:27), the Christ Child in you. The spiritual message of Christmas is about INCARNATION, which means ‘in the body’, your body. Everybody’s body, heart, mind and soul, that’s where God desires to live. We are told to ‘search diligently’, diligently, to make that discovery. Put some effort into it; mean business. Finding the Christ Child is the same as finding your true self as a child of God and getting to know who you are. Finding your best self and becoming that person in the way you live your life. This is not a one off event, not just for Christmas! It’s a process that needs to keep going all the year. Looking for your best self, which is Christ in you, and then living in the light which that brings. Thank God for Christmas!

Simeon and Anna

Luke 2: 22-38

Understanding the Christmas story is not just simple and straightforward, because there’s a big gap of 2000 years between then and today; between ourselves living in the 21st century and people living in Biblical times. There’s a different way of thinking about life and God and religion.

The Biblical story of Christmas comes straight out of the Jewish way of life; Jewish culture and Jewish religion. All the first Christians were Jews and so the story of Jesus birth was soaked in Jewish beliefs and practice. Jesus himself was a Jew and brought up according to the belief and practices of Jewish worship and culture. It was required that he be circumcised by the priest in the Temple eight days after birth. And then the ‘first fruit’ of any harvest from the fields, the garden or the farms, or anywhere else, was to be offered back to God, the Giver, in thankfulness for God’s provision. And so the ‘first fruit’ of a marriage, the first born, also belonged to God and was offered back to God. Jesus was the first fruit of Mary and Joseph. But the first child could be redeemed at a price, and the price was five shekels. Then there was the ‘purification’ of the mother and more offering to be made. A whole lamb or for poor folk who couldn’t afford it, two turtle doves or two pigeons instead, which is what Mary and Joseph brought, showing that they weren’t too well off; and incidentally, showing how badly religions have treated women, where certain bodily functions, and even giving birth, were regarded as unclean.

I was in training for the ministry in the 1960s and taking a service in a local church, and somebody quietly told me that there was a women there wanting to be ‘churched’, that is, the Christian equivalent of purification on account of a recent birth. My jaw dropped, what on earth could I do! I don’t remember what I did, but I must have done something, maybe I should have asked for a leg of lamb or two pigeons, but I didn’t think of that at the time.

Anyway, back to the Christmas story. For Mary and Joseph there was a lot of coming and going between home and Temple to fulfil all the requirements of the Jewish Law. But then something unexpected happened. And very often that’s God’s chance to get a word in edgeways. They met Simeon and Anna, and through this meeting we can dig a bit deeper into that underlying truth that we need to discover. Anna had been a widow for years and now spent a lot of time in the Temple praying and hoping for ‘something to happen’, or as the story puts it, waiting for God to set Jerusalem free. Simeon was also a man of prayer and it says that he was looking for the consolation of Israel, which is just another way of telling us that both Simeon and Anna were looking for the same thing. They were looking for the fulfilment of ancient promises, for what Simeon called ‘the consolation of Israel’ and Anna called ‘setting Jerusalem free’; which is really what we’re all looking for in one way or another. Peace on earth, and goodwill shown to everybody. They saw the baby Jesus and somehow that was a trigger, something lit up in their minds. But what did they actually see? They saw a little baby: and all little babies look the same (except to their mother!). And certainly they didn’t see a circle of light round the top of the baby’s head. Haloes and all that religious stuff that we can do without, came hundreds of years later with the church in Rome and European painting. Any light that was there was in the mind of Simeon and Anna, and in that light, call it the light of faith, they saw their hopes for Jerusalem and Israel being fulfilled.

Neither of which happened then or since. In fact the state of Israel and the city of Jerusalem is in as big a mess as ever it was. So what’s going on in this part of the story? In this passage we’re not dealing with a historical event; this is the Bible, not a science book, not a history book, and we need to be looking for spiritual insight. Simeon and Anna were doing what we all do, which is to imagine the coming of the ideal, the perfection, the fulfilment of all that is best. By imagining it we see it: and we project it onto somebody and into some situation where we see it being worked out and bringing about that ideal situation, for which another word is ‘salvation’ or wholeness; where there is the peace of God which passes all understanding. We see it: we hope for it: we pray for it: we live for it. And for Christians, Jesus has become that ideal; that embodiment of that hope of God and Man united; of God’s will being done on earth.

We’re not there yet; but we must never give up hope; and we still need Christmas to remind us of it and keep us going for another year.

Donald Horsfield, 28th December 2014

Meditation on Spirit

Romans 5: 1-5

What, if I asked you, do you think might be my favourite word in the whole Bible? Some of you will know me well enough by now to think that the word could be SPIRIT, and you would be right. It is the word SPIRIT. And I’m going to offer you now, let’s call it a meditation on the word SPIRIT. And I shall do it by picking out a few significant verses from the Bible.

Spirit is not an easy word to define. The ‘Holy’ Spirit of the Christian religion used to be called the Holy Ghost. Well, I’m glad we don’t say that any longer! The Christian ‘spirit’ is not about being haunted by any ghosts! Although I am reading a book at the moment about a man haunted by ghosts … Ebenezer Scrooge! Spirit is one of those words which if you try to define it too closely it disappears – you lose it altogether. The word ‘spirit’ refers to a certain dimension of life not to be defined in words, but to be experienced in reality.

So what kind of experience is it? We look now at our first significant verse from the reading we’ve just heard, verse 5, “God has poured his love into our hearts by means of the Holy Spirit who is God’s gift to us.”   So according to that, it’s a gift and it’s an experience of having love in your heart. If you have love in your heart then God’s Spirit is there. Our deepest need as human beings is to be loved. Not the romantic, head in the clouds, ‘swooning-over-someone’ kind of love. Not the kind of love that is generally portrayed in popular songs, films and magazines. God’s love is something different, it goes deeper. The need to be loved is the need to be recognised as a unique and valued person. It’s the need to be accepted and affirmed as someone who counts, who matters, who is precious.

This kind of love is everybody’s deepest need, because it is ‘liberating’: it sets a person free from all kinds of fear, which are ghosts, and do haunt us. Fears that come from feeling worthless; being riddled with self-doubt: no self-confidence: afraid to be anything or think anything lest it be wrong. This love will affirm us in who we are and help us to be that kind of person. This kind of love that we all need, can be given to us by other people: but they too, whoever they are, are in need of the same: so we’re all in the same boat. And we all need some other resource beyond ourselves. And that is what God is there for. God is love: God is necessary, and essential, as the provider of our deepest needs. We have to learn how to open ourselves: open our hearts to the loving Spirit of God. There is a point of contact within each one of us: our own spirit, that is, our real self, who we really are deep down. And this is where a second verse comes to help us, because it says, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is FREEDOM.” (2 Corinthians 3:17) The Spirit will set you free from whatever fears may be haunting you. Free to be yourself in a new way: your best self: at one with the Spirit of God in your heart.

And there’s more yet. Another verse tells us, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” (Acts 1:8) What kind of power is that? What kind of power do we need to live a life ‘in tune’ with God the Eternal Spirit, whose love has been poured into our hearts? Well it certainly isn’t worldly power; not military power; or political power; or financial power. It’s something quite different. I would call it the power of PERCEPTION. Enabling you to see what you haven’t seen before, and to see not so much with the eyes of your body but with the eyes of your understanding. It enables you to ‘see through’ the deceptions of the world: to see the ‘value’ of everything and everybody in spiritual terms. In other words you begin to see with the eyes of God: and you are not ‘taken in’ by worldly deception: and what the adverts are telling you. It will also enable you to ‘see through’ some of the deceptions of religion; where people have been and still are being ‘brainwashed’ into believing things without thinking honestly about it. We need to be more ‘honest to God’ and to ourselves. The real purpose of religion, is to help us ‘see through’ the symbolism to what lies behind and in that way discover our oneness with God.

The Spirit will give us the power of perception; to see the truth and then find the power to do the truth in the way we live our daily lives. It will call for courage; the ‘courage to be’: the courage to be yourself; your true self. ‘The Courage to Be’ was the name of a book (by Paul Tillich) that influenced me in my younger days; pointing me in the direction of ‘becoming’; moving on and becoming the person you have it in you to be; and God wants you to be.

Another thought comes to me, that the Spirit gives us the power to be gentle. That’s a paradox isn’t it? But then ‘life in the Spirit’ is full of paradoxes. Being gentle means being PATIENT, TOLERANT, giving people SPACE and ENCOURAGEMENT to respond to the Spirit in their own way: to move at their own speed: to explore their own spiritual experiences and make discoveries for themselves. Be gentle with yourself and in your dealings with others.

Let’s have one more text to fill out our understanding of this wonderful Spirit who comes looking for what belongs to God. Paul’s letter to Corinth says, “The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God’s purposes.” (1 Corinthians 2: 10) So the Spirit poured out is now busy in the world, looking for everything that belongs to God, especially people. Finding them, setting them free from their fears, and encouraging them to ‘keep moving’ into “the hidden depths of God’s purposes.” The Spirit says to members of the Church, ‘Come on, join the search; in the Spirit you’ve got what it needs – love in your heart: freedom: perception: courage and gentleness. Start with yourself: still plenty to discover there! But be involved as best you can in the world-wide search until God’s purposes are fulfilled. Amen.’

Donald Horsfield, 7th December 2014

One God, one faith, one baptism

Ephesians 4: 1-6

Some churches have what might be called a Banner Ministry. Depending on the size and shape of the church and the talents of the members, banners are created to hang on the walls or be suspended from the roof with a colourful design or a Bible text or some icon to stimulate the mind and lift the spirit. In Kenilworth where I was minister for a while, one of the banners showed an alarm clock ‘going off’, with the words, TIME TO WAKE UP. Another one showed the world, our globe as seen from space, our planet, mother earth that has given us life, that we live on and depend on, with the words underneath, GOD LOVES ONE WORLD.

At the heart of our Christian faith is the belief in ‘one God who loves this one world’. And it’s the word ONE that I want to think about first: one God, one World, and as we heard in the reading, one Faith and one Baptism.

The number one is a fascinating number. I wish I was more of a mathematician so that I could understand it better. But I’ve never been good at numbers, even though I started my working life as a scientist, of sorts! I soon discovered that in science I could only go so far without maths, and that I was more naturally ‘in tune’ with the Arts – with languages and literature. The Arts are a bit more ‘flexible’, giving you space to manoeuvre. Science is very precise and doesn’t allow you to break its laws without paying a high price. Try breaking the law of gravity, or the laws of electricity, and you’ll soon find out! Well, eventually I found my way into one of the Arts called theology and here I am now as a minister of the church. But even here there’s no getting completely away from mathematics, and especially the number one. But that number doesn’t belong exclusively to maths: it is also a theological word because at the heart of my faith is the belief in one God, one Faith and one Baptism.

God is one, but not one in a numerical sense, not number one. Not ‘one’ rather than two, or three or more, which was the kind of thing people believed in the past, but we’ve moved on since then. Today, here in church, we’re not ‘counting’. We’re not doing sums. We’re doing theology – a word which means ‘the knowledge of God’. So it’s not helpful to think of God as ‘numerically’ one. It’s far better to understand God as ONENESS itself – unity, wholeness, completeness. To think of God as ‘the Spirit of Oneness’, the invisible energy or power holding everything together in the universe and wanting to see that ‘oneness’ revealed in the lives of people. And we can do it because we are somehow mysteriously and closely related to God, and made in God’s image and likeness, as we say; God’s children, as it were, with the desire for that oneness planted deep within each one of us.

Thinking of God mathematically as ‘one’, like the number one, is really a mistake which has taken us down the wrong road and led us astray. If God is one God like the number one, then which God is it? Is it Jehova, or Baal, or Allah, or Buddha or Krishna? In the name of these Gods, world religions have been battling for supremacy and still are: fragmenting the world rather than creating one world – a mistake! Even within the Christian tradition battles between different traditions have been going on – Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Evangelical, and the oneness of God and the world gets fragmented. At present we are living in a mad, chaotic, divided world. I sometimes feel like saying, “Stop the world. I want to get off!” I don’t want to be part of this madness, but there’s nowhere to go, except to God who still loves and wants One World.

And so did Jesus. He didn’t step off the world: he stepped into the world, at the deep end, believing in and committed to, the Oneness of God who is, “Father of all, works through all, and is in all”. Think of Jesus parables about God looking for what’s got lost: the lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost (prodigal) son. God as the Good Shepherd yearning for completeness and looking for that one lost sheep until it was found. The Oneness of God was the message Jesus lived and died for; but that doesn’t mean that Christians can make any exclusive claims for their own religion. According to the prophets Isaiah, Amos and Micah, God knows all about religious practices and is not impressed. All the world’s religions need to abandon old, numerical ideas about God, and stop battling for supremacy; it’s one of our big mistakes, desperately in need of correction.

The reading we’ve just heard tells us of one God, one Faith and one Baptism. One Faith? Now which Faith is that? Is it the Christian Faith? No! Not if by ‘faith’ we mean ‘religion’. Faith is not religion. Faith is not a statement of belief. According to our scriptures, God doesn’t have a very high opinion of religion! The one faith we need is TRUST, trust in the Oneness of God who is Father of all, works through all, and is in all. Faith is the trust and the hope that God’s will, will be done on earth and that the ‘one world’ which God loves, will happen even though we can’t see it happening except by faith: trusting that the power and beauty of ‘oneness’ will eventually embrace the whole of everything.

One God, one Faith, one Baptism. This one baptism, which we all need to have, is ‘total immersion’ into the one Faith, in the Oneness of God. Total immersion, completely committed, being involved in whatever way we can, even if it’s only praying, longing, and hoping, for the coming of that One World, where all people will be one, in the oneness which is God.

Donald Horsfield,  16th November 2014

REMEMBRANCE is not enough

Micah 4:1-4

So far this year we have been saturated with what happened 100 years ago between 1914 and 1918 – an event we now call the FIRST world war because there was another one just a few years later – the SECOND world war: and there have been lots of others since then all over the ‘civilised’ world, although what there is ‘civilised’ about making war, I don’t know. And next Sunday we have the annual Remembrance Day service … LEST WE FORGET … because if we forget we are likely to go on making the same mistakes. But obviously, we have forgotten, because we have gone on making the same mistakes.

The purpose of this sermon is to say as clearly and as forcefully as I can that ‘remembrance is not enough’. If we only remember that we won the wars by killing more of the enemy and destroying more of their country than they did of ours, the only victory is that of violence itself. And today violence has become a way of life for the whole world with more civilians, women and children being killed and disabled, than the soldiers themselves. We have not remembered well enough or deep enough to make the difference that is needed.

The word ‘RE-MEMBER’ literally means … putting members together so that they can relate in healthy, happy and wholesome ways; so that peace and prosperity can be experienced by all … in a truly civilized way.

How then should we remember the wars that have been fought? We should remember with sadness. Sadness at what the poet Wilfred Owen called the Pity of War. Remembering the loss and the waste of life; remembering the horrors of warfare with young men lying dead, riddled with bullets; choked by gas; blasted to pieces by bombs, just when their lives are beginning to blossom. Sadness beyond words. True, there should be a note of thankfulness in our remembering, that the fighting and killing in the first and second world wars did come to an end: but it should not be a celebration, because there are no winners in war. The only victory in any war is that of violence itself. And as a result of that victory, violence has spread around the world since then. That’s what we need to remember. That violence is not a remedy for solving the world’s problems; it is part of the problem. So in the light of that we need to remember with shame and frustration at our own stupidity in feeding violence by continuing to fill the world with weapons of war: with more and more sophisticated means of killing people: destroying homes, schools and hospitals; and enabling terrorists to shoot down ‘civilian’ aeroplanes out of the sky with hundreds of people on board.

And all this is going on, after 2000 years of Christianity and other religions preaching brotherly love, peace and justice. Just empty words if not followed by the right actions. And what are the right actions? Our Scriptures say that, they will turn their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; neither will they learn war anymore. That was the prophet Isaiah discerning what must surely be the word of God to the people of this world. Is that what we’re doing?

The hundreds and thousands of those who died in the FIRST world war will be saying to us, did we die in vain? You told us this would be the war to end all wars. You have not remembered deep enough. Recent events show us clearly the position we are in. When the plane was blasted from the sky over Ukraine killing 298 people including 80 children; Britain and America imposed sanctions on Russia who, it was thought, had provided the missile which shot the plane down. Impose sanctions? What were those sanctions? That we would stop sending military equipment to Russia! I couldn’t believe my ears! Why are we selling military equipment to Russia in the first place? And to Israel, whose bombardment of Gaza killed over 2000 people with whole families, women and children being wiped out, written off as collateral damage! And underlying that question is the deeper one, why are we making and selling guns, tanks and missiles to anybody at all? British companies export over five thousand million pounds worth of armaments every year: and somewhere in the world people are being killed or maimed by those weapons. There’s something gone wrong with our remembering. It doesn’t go deep enough to change the politics; the economics and the Arms Industry.

It seems that the human race is destined just to keep remembering in a shallow kind of way, and so to keep on repeating the same mistakes; confirming the opinion of the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes in our Old Testament, who said, there is no discharge from the war (8:8). Implying that this is the very nature of our life on earth, to be either fighting a war or preparing for the next one. Do we believe that? Does our religion have anything to say about it? Are we destined to be fighting wars until there’s a nuclear war; which of course would solve all our problems by destroying the world altogether – the ultimate victory of violence. Someone has said that war is our solution to the problem of peace; which may sound cynical, but it holds a truth, a nettle we need to grasp, painful though it might be.

Why should peace be seen as a problem? Because living in peace, and creating the conditions for peace, is very demanding and very costly. It means looking deep into our own motives; examining our beliefs, our values and priorities: and making changes. We say we want freedom, justice and peace for all the world; but we have not been willing to pay the price of making it happen. And now in the middle of the mess that we’ve made of the world, it’s not going to happen overnight. Nobody is going to wave a magic wand and make it happen. We have to start remembering better, and be willing to pay the price. It will mean, for one thing, dismantling the arms industry; and using our resources to promote peace and justice; providing health and education and employment for all our brothers and sisters around the world. Lifting people out of poverty; putting a smile on people’s faces because life has become good; and they can say it’s good to be alive.

It will also mean changing the ways we’ve all been brainwashed into believing that violence is just the way things are; and we can’t change anything. God is in the business of change! Changing people’s minds and behaviour; so that we can see what needs to be done, and then do it. Giving us the wisdom, the courage, the persistence and determination to stick at it and pay the price; believing that the world can be changed; and that God’s will can be done, on earth.

Donald Horsfield, 2nd November 2014

Woman

Genesis 2: 15-25,   Mark 7: 24-30

I guess you’re all familiar with that bit of feminist graffiti – “When God made man she was just practising”.

Well, let’s look at that old story of the Garden of Eden and see just how the image of woman emerges from it. In the second creation story in Genesis 2, God creates Adam from dust, breathes life into him and plants a garden round him for his delight and sustenance and Adam becomes a gardener. Then, so that he won’t be alone, God sets about making all the creatures which are brought to Adam to name. But he perceives that still Adam is lonely so he gives him an anaesthetic, removes a rib, fashions Eve from it, and Adam responds, “This one at last is bone from my bone, flesh from my flesh,” and he names her ‘woman’. Note so far, Eve is created after Adam, she was created from Adam, she was created for Adam.

So the two live together naked and unashamed until that wily serpent tempts Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. He assures her she won’t die as Adam has told her but rather become like God having the knowledge of good and evil. It would seem the serpent’s facts were fairly accurate. Adam is easily persuaded by his partner to eat the forbidden fruit – they don’t die but become sexual beings and are cast out of the garden.

So Eve is not only derived from man and made for man she is now the agent of man’s downfall. The author of this story is of course reflecting the social mores of his own society in the 7th century BC and the story itself is then used by succeeding generations to show that it has been God’s purpose from the beginning that woman should be subservient to man, supply his needs and can be blamed for seducing him from the path of virtue.

Paul is a bit contradictory in his statements about women but in Corinthians 11 he says men should not cover their heads because they are the image of God and the mirror of his glory whereas women must cover theirs because they reflect the glory not of God but of man. It’s difficult to reconcile this with that other great statement of his about equality, “In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, no male or female.” How can he forbid women to speak in the ekklesia after meeting Lydia that leader of the first church community in Macedonia and, in his letters, appearing to affirm women as elders. It may well be that other hands edited Paul’s letters as they circulated but we are stuck with what we have in the scriptures and throughout the history of the church the Pauline pronouncements and the Genesis story have mainly determined the place of women. There were early church fathers who weren’t at all sure women had souls. A seventeenth century cleric defined women as ‘vessels for use’ designed to satisfy the needs and desires of men. Women who stepped outside this role were seen as monstrous – remember the English burnt Joan of Arc as a witch.

Well the 20th century saw some big changes, though the Catholic Church is still struggling to catch up and there are some notable exceptions also in the Protestant community. Some years ago in the Qld Synod of the Uniting Church I heard an address by David Pawson an English Baptist writer and broadcaster whom I’d met a couple of times when I was minister of a URC/Baptist church in London. There was an enthusiastic group of evangelical students there especially to hear him. He told us amongst other things that it was clear from scripture that a woman should hold no place of leadership in the church; that she could come to God only through a man and if she were not married, a man needs to be appointed to fill that role. At the end of his address, after one innocuous question by a man, he was whisked away to another appointment and the chairman had to face an angry deputation of women elders and ministers asking why he’d been invited.

Fortunately extremes like that are not met very often these days but the separation of male and female roles and the ridicule, rejection and punishment meted out down the centuries to those who stepped outside them is a source of shame for Christians. And we have to acknowledge that this is yet another example of the church being dragged unwillingly into change by the world.

This rigid differentiation of male and female also lies at the heart of the persecution of gay and lesbian people down through the ages. Any deviation from those clear roles was deemed to be a dangerous threat to be stamped on. If only we’d followed the example of that young prophet from Galilee who broke the rules; talked to a Samaritan woman, befriended prostitutes, learned from a Gentile woman and had no word of condemnation for those whose sexuality was different from the norm.

I’m going to read now an account by Kathy Galloway of a service in Iona Abbey which I found quite moving.

“During Community Week on Iona a group of mostly young Abbey and MacLeod Centre staff volunteers planned and led an evening service on the theme of gay and lesbian sexuality. The liturgy offered up to God in repentance and sorrow the exclusion, persecution and even death suffered by gay and lesbian men and women in many places and at many times. And in a litany of celebration, those present were invited to remember and give thanks for those gays and lesbians whose lives had graced the world. The names of many famous writers, artists, musicians, sports men and women, politicians, philosophers, philanthropists were read out – Tchaikovsky, Bernstein, Whitman, Auden, Virginia Wolf, Eleanor Roosevelt… the list went on. The congregation was asked to add the names of people they themselves knew.

Then something remarkable happened. Names came from all parts of the church – so many that when the leaders thought they were finished, they had to begin again. And people began to give not just names but testimonies, speaking of friends, relatives, sons and daughters dearly loved and celebrated, often in the face of great hostility and prejudice. It was as if something had been released, and a silence had been broken. Gay and lesbian men and women had come into the house of God and been named, not in condemnation or pity but in celebration, as full members of the human body.”

We give thanks for the pioneers of women’s liberation – for those suffragettes who engaged in civil disobedience, were imprisoned, force fed and humiliated. We give thanks for those pioneers of gay liberation who came out when that provoked scorn, condemnation, loathing and violence in many circles, including Christian ones. But the struggle in many parts of the world has really only just begun. And we Christians who follow the one who broke long established rules, who wasn’t afraid to be different and who befriended the despised outsiders, need to give our full hearted support for that struggle, especially, maybe, because there are still many of his followers who place the Genesis, Leviticus and Pauline pronouncements above the example of their Lord..

I believe the liberation of women and gays that’s taken place during the last few generations is the work of the Spirit. But we can be certain that there are still blind spots in our understanding of human sexuality – that we can’t be complacent, assuming that the Spirit has revealed all she has for us. So let’s pray for openness and that quality of listening that discerns the voice of the Spirit from among the many and confusing voices of our generation.

John Robinson, farewelling the pilgrims on the Mayflower, said, “I am persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth from his holy word.” We would want to add “and from his Spirit abroad in the world.”

John Cribb.
John, a retired URC Minister, conducted our Service on 26th October 2014

Prayer of a man in exile

Psalm 42 verses 1-8 with alterations to v.6 & 7 as in the Authorized Version

The writer of this psalm had obviously been ‘going through the mill’. I don’t mean the cotton mill; although growing up in Lancashire before Fred Dibnah knocked all the chimneys down, I know that work in a cotton mill was not all that worker-friendly. We could say that the writer of this psalm was going through the ‘grinding mill of life’, where you can get broken and need putting together again. You can lose hold on life and get tossed about by forces that you don’t control. I think that’s where he was: and of course it’s the human condition; and to a larger or smaller degree, we all know something about it; we’ve all been ‘through the mill’ and maybe some are still going through it. When it does happen we tend to think that we’re the only ones going through it: so it’s always a relief to find that somebody else is in the same boat (if I may change the analogy for a moment). And that’s where the psalmist was: and I think we can identify with him.

So what was he going through? It looks as if life had become empty of all pleasure and happiness: bereft of all meaning and purpose. Everything drained out of him, leaving just a shell of what he used to be. And perhaps worst of all, his faith in God had taken a battering. He says that tears are his only food; and tears are bitter and salty; and made him even more thirsty for that ‘stream of living water’, which was now out of reach. “All the time my enemies ask me, where is your God?” Where is your God now that you need him? And certainly for us those ‘enemies’ are not people as such: they are the ‘enemy within’. And we all have them – self-doubt and fears, robbing you of the calm and courage to believe in yourself. He starts thinking back to the ‘good old days’ when he was one of a happy group of people: member of a choir perhaps, because he remembers the singing and being uplifted by it all.

Remembering the past; that’s what we do in this situation, hoping it might lift our spirits; but if our imagination has gone dry, it makes it even worse by contrast with the present. “My heart breaks,” he says, “when I remember the past”. He cries out, “I long for you, I thirst for you, the Living God.” Longing for that refreshing stream to wash over him and lift him out of the depression he’s fallen into, but it’s all gone dry.

What do ‘we’ do when this happens? When ‘we’ start falling apart? Of course there is help from different sources, but the kind of help we really need is what you might call ‘preventative medicine’, so that the condition of the man in psalm 42 doesn’t happen at all: and that’s what I’ve been leading up to. To prevent ‘going into exile’ as it were, we need to develop a healthy, wholesome lifestyle, where you look after yourself as a person of BODY, MIND and SPIRIT. And we’ll just have a quick look at these three aspects of who we are, with reference to this psalm; BODY, MIND and SPIRIT.

BODIES. We are given our bodies at birth and we can’t do much about it: we’ve got to live with what we’re given. I could ask, regretfully, why I did stop growing when I was five foot six tall: and all my mates went on to be six foot or more? And why did my hair start falling out when I was eighteen; just when I needed it most to make an impression on those delightful creatures sitting on the other side of the dance floor? Well, when I get to heaven I shall go straight to Customer Services, and ask for some compensation! But meanwhile I have this body to live in: and I want it to last and keep me going for as long as it can. I know it’s deteriorating and I wish I’d been more careful with it earlier on: but I’m being careful now; eating less to live longer; and drinking more water! But bodies don’t last forever. Things happen – arthritis, cancer, broken bones, blocked arteries – there’s an endless list of malfunctions. And that gives rise to two thoughts. First of all, I thank God for the increasing knowledge of how the body works. I thank God for medicine, hospitals, surgical skills and nursing care. We’ve all been in need of those; and if we haven’t, we have cause to be even more thankful. And secondly, to recognise that we are more than just our bodies.

We have MINDS by which we can understand our bodies and exercise some control over them. We could say that the body is like the vehicle in which we are travelling through life; and the mind is the steering wheel. With our minds we make decisions; what to say, what to do, where to go. Shall we turn down this road or go along that way? The mind is invisible but very real. It’s the nerve centre of the body. It picks up signals that the body sends and interprets them. At present my fingers are going stiff and knobbly; what’s going on? Ah, yes, it’s Arthur-Ritis: and my mind tells me to keep my joints moving; avoid acidic food; eat plenty of fish, and hope for the best!

But the mind itself needs looking after. You have to fill your mind with good thoughts, just as you feed your body with good food.   Minds can get ill just as bodies can: and mental illness is more prevalent today than it has ever been. People are losing their balance ‘mentally’, and where does the vehicle go then, when the steering is not working properly? “Who can minister to a mind diseased?” is the cry of Macbeth. And the answer comes, “therein the patient must minister to himself.” But don’t leave it too late. Preventative measures are the best way to preserve your mental health. St Paul had a bit of wisdom to share with the Christians in Philippi (4:8) where he says, “Fill your minds with those things that are good and deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely and honourable.”

The writer of this Psalm was definitely ‘down in the dumps’. Down but not out! He was making a kind of ‘last ditch stand’: and he said to himself, “Why am I in this mess? What did I do or not do? What can I do now? And he looked a bit deeper into himself; and he found something there. What did he find? And here I’m going to quote from the old Bible which is better than the new translations. He found that “Deep calls to deep as the waves of sorrow pour over my soul”. And another word for that DEEP is the word Spirit, the Spirit of God deep within each one of us.

Body, mind and spirit, is how best to understand ourselves and our life on earth. Look after the health of your body and mind as much as you can; but be even more concerned with your spiritual health. Mind and body are only for the duration on this earth. Your real self, made in the image and likeness of God, lies deeper; in the spiritual dimension of who you are, where God calls to the deep places in your life and assures you that you are precious, loved and wanted. While you are able to, enjoy your body as much as you can. Let your mind take you on adventures and explorations into Goodness, Truth, Beauty and Love. But underneath, deeper still, are what the Bible calls the Everlasting Arms of God, holding you safe for all eternity.

Revd Donald Horsfield,  19th October 2014

Figs, Olives, Grapes

Luke 13: 6-9, John 15: 1-10, Galatians 5: 22   the fruit of the spirit is

The three big biblical fruit were all used as symbols of the good life; representing the ideal situation where every family could live in peace and harmony sitting under their own olive tree, eating figs and watching the grapes growing in the vineyard … heaven on earth; a time of peace and prosperity for all. Sadly this is still a dream and a hope; we are still praying … thy kingdom come on earth … a dream and a hope but also something to be actively involved in. The Kingdom of God is not going to descend from the sky. It has to come up from the earth: from seeds that have been planted like figs, olives and grapes. The kingdom has to come through people: through the work of those who are concerned about God’s will being done on earth. And so it’s the Christian Church and the disciples of Jesus who should be in the forefront of that involvement.

Let’s look at the olive first. The “olive” branch has become a universal symbol of that peace which the world needs and which so many people now in despair are longing for. In the Bible the olive tree is a symbol for the healing of the nations and it takes us right back to the story of Noah and the flood. Noah floating about in the ark sent out a dove to look for dry land. When it returned it was carrying a few leaves from an olive branch, raising Noah’s hope of finding land. Then the dove flew away and was never seen again – symbolically leaving Noah ‘holding the baby’. That is holding the olive branch and therefore carrying the responsibility for peace in the world that would emerge when the flood subsided.

But instead of that, what’s happened? The flood has never subsided! What are we doing? We ‘talk’ of peace but we are forever preparing for war. The world today is saturated with guns, bombs, tanks, missiles and other weapons of war. People are being killed by weapons that ‘we’ have made and sold to whoever will buy them. All that matters is money in: and if that’s not the worship of Mammon, I don’t know what is. One of the saddest, most heart breaking sights that I’ve ever seen on television was the Israeli bulldozers in Palestine ripping up and destroying groves of olive trees in order to build a thirty-foot wall; separating Jews and Arabs who both have this same story of Noah in the sacred scriptures.

The olive tree is rich in symbolism. Oil flows from its fruit; olive oil to soothe and heal; to feed and nourish; oil to lubricate what has become stiff and unmoveable; oil to smooth the contact between people with differing beliefs, pointing to a unity greater than their diversity. Over the years skilful grafting and management of olive groves means that the trees can now live for hundreds of years; far longer than the lives of those who destroy them. The olive tree stands in judgement of our failure to find a way of living in peace with one another on this one earth.

Let’s have a look at the figs. Throughout the Bible, including the teaching of Jesus, the fig tree is there as a symbol. It stands for the people of Israel who regarded themselves as the people of God. The prophets told them that God is looking for fruit in the lives of his people; for figs on the tree. The prophet Jeremiah (8:13), speaking in God’s name said this, “I want to gather my people in, as a man gathers his harvest: but they are like a fig tree with no fruit; even the leaves have withered.” Jesus himself was a prophet in this tradition. He too spoke about fruitless fig trees which we heard about in the reading. But there’s another story of Jesus cursing a fruitless fig tree, and the next day it had withered and died. (Mark 11: 13f, 21) The story is there in Mark’s gospel and it needs thinking about. It’s completely out of character with the Jesus we know. Jesus doesn’t go around cursing anything, fig trees or people, he’s more concerned with helping and healing and encouraging those who feel that their lives are fruitless; lifting them up like the good Samaritan and taking care of them; certainly not cursing them. So what do we make of a story like the cursing of the fig tree and some other stories of a similar kind?

A few weeks ago Alan Shires took this service and he introduced us to the word MIDRASH. It’s a Hebrew word that means ‘story-telling’. The Bible is full of it. Stories were told to illustrate truths about God, showing how people could live good and fruitful lives. Jesus himself used this method. He called his stories ‘parables’ – stories with a meaning that you had to find and follow in order to lead you deeper in your relationship with God. In fact we could say that the whole Bible is a kind of midrash or parable. ‘All things come in parables’. I‘ve said that before, and I’ll keep on saying it. So don’t get bogged down in thinking that you have to believe everything in the Bible literally. You don’t: you can’t: you mustn’t! It’s the underlying spiritual meaning that you need to get hold of. And the one meaning of all the fig tree stories is that God wants to see fruit in the lives of his people; the fruit of the spirit of God within you. “By their fruit you will know my disciples”, is what Jesus said. And ‘fruit’ is the name of the game. That’s what religion is all about.

So let’s move on to the grapes. A bunch of grapes is a beautiful sight. A vineyard is a peaceful place where grapes are grown and harvested, to be eaten or dried into currants, sultanas and raisins, or fermented to become wine, of which you can take just a little for medicinal purposes! Lots of the teaching of Jesus uses this symbolism of grapes, the vineyard and the wine. He tells folk, “Don’t put new wine into old wine skins: they’ll only burst and you’ll lose the lot.” New wine is for new wine skins; and new wine is the product of God’s Spirit flowing through us, from God the Eternal Vine to which we are connected by our faith. New wine skins means that we need new ways of containing, that is, ‘understanding’, our relationship with God; new ways of thinking and talking about Jesus, God and religion. New wine needs new wine skins, and we’ve got to find them.

In the reading we heard, Jesus is depicted as the Real Vine into which we have been ‘grafted’ so that his life can flow through us and we can bear the fruit that God wants to see. It’s the fruit of the SPIRIT and we should have the list of what they are in our heads and remind ourselves of them regularly. They are – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control. Be fruitful and multiply. The world is in desperate need of the OLIVES of PEACE: the FIGS of RIGHTEOUS LIVING: and the GRAPES of GOODNESS, TRUTH AND LOVE. God help us!

Donald Horsfield, 5th October 2014  

The Lord’s Prayer (i)

During this service I want us to think about the Lord’s Prayer, first of all in a general sense and then in more detail. Let’s hear it from Matthew’s Gospel 6: 7-13.

It is of course the most well-known and widely used prayer in the whole of the Christian religion. Many of us learned it as children, kneeling down by the side of our beds, before we climbed in for a night’s sleep. It is regarded by many as ‘the perfect prayer’, saying all that needs to be said in just fifty-six words. There are actually three versions of the Lord’s Prayer. One in Matthew which we’ve just read; one in Luke’s Gospel which is even shorter, only forty-one words; and then there’s the one we use every Sunday which is a bit longer because the church has added to it the words, “for thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.” So we don’t have the exact words that Jesus used: and anyway he didn’t speak English; he was talking in the language of the people of his own time and place. From the reading we hear that Jesus was telling them, don’t use a lot of words when you pray. And I’m sure you can understand how much that appeals to me (a man of few words).

When I was a teenager going to church twice every Sunday, there was a part of the service called – the long prayer, that is, the intercessions, when whoever it was could, and often did, go on and on sometimes for ten minutes, and in effect preaching another sermon. Had they never read Matthew chapter six? “Don’t go on and on,” Jesus said, “thinking you’ll be heard the more you say!” And anyway, “God already knows what you need before you say anything.”   So why do we bother praying at all? Well, I’ll come to that in the next part. But let’s stay with this for a moment.

In the King James Bible, the Authorised Version, that we don’t use today, the translation of this passage about going on and on is, “Do not use vain repetition.”  In other words, don’t keep saying the same thing over and over again. Hmm! Food for thought there, is there not? Isn’t that what we do? Every Sunday we repeat the same words of the Lord’s Prayer. How ironic is that! We use this prayer to do exactly what Jesus said not to do!

Does anyone know of the Frenchman called Emile Coue? He was a doctor and a psychiatrist: and he’s famous for just one phrase that he got his patients to use to help them to get better from their mental illness. He told them to just keep repeating this over and over again: don’t think about it, just say it, like you do the Lord’s Prayer in church. Ugh! That hurts! “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” That’s what he encouraged them to keep saying over and over again. “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” This was a form of auto-suggestion: doing it like that, it would bypass the mind and sink down into the subconscious where it could activate the healing process. And there’s a lot to be said for that form of therapy. But it is not the way we should say the Lord’s Prayer.

We could even ask, “Should we be repeating the Lord’s Prayer as often as we do?” Perhaps we ought to give it a bit more space so that we have to think a bit more deeply about what we’re saying? If we look closely, the text in Matthew’s Gospel is not telling us to say ‘this prayer’, as if there were no other prayers. Jesus is telling his disciples that this is a pattern, a model, to give some guidance on ‘how’ to pray as disciples build their own prayers. “Do it like this; after this fashion”, so that our prayers are indeed ‘our’ prayers, with ‘ourselves’ in them. God is surely looking for that personal touch, a depth of honesty in our praying. We’ll look a bit deeper into this in a few minutes time.

The Lord’s Prayer (ii)

Romans 8:26-34   from Good as New

If we ARE going to continue using the Lord’s Prayer in our services – and I’m sure we will (although I might get into trouble for raising the question!) – nevertheless, we don’t want to be doing what Jesus called ‘vain repetition.’ So from time to time we need to stop, stand back, and think about what we’re saying. Now I’ve been here with you for seven or eight years and we haven’t done that yet, so it’s about time we did; and that’s what I’m now going to do.

First of all, we need to look at THIS prayer in the context of prayer itself. Why do we pray? How should we pray? And most of all, who are we praying to? Prayer is one of the ways that we respond to ‘being alive’ in this amazing, wonderful and mysterious universe. And we say that we are praying to God, which raises a lot of questions about who or what God is – but just recently I’ve come across a very helpful and useful way of understanding the word GOD. God is the Great Mystery of being alive … just that, to me, is very illuminating – God is the Great Mystery of being alive. You’re alive: I’m alive. And on that basis we are involved in the Great Mystery of being alive. We are part of it: and as a result we can get to feel and know our connection with it. And through prayer we are making that connection. That’s why we pray: it’s a natural response to being alive in this mysterious world that we live in: wanting to be connected to, in communion with, the mystery of our existence. Surprisingly perhaps, in the Lord’s Prayer, the word God is not mentioned at all. We can only talk about God in symbols and signs, pointing to that Mystery which is beyond words. And the opening symbol of the prayer is OUR FATHER.

Now I’ve already mentioned that there are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer, one in Matthew and one in Luke. The one in Luke, which is shorter and simpler, doesn’t have the word OUR: it just begins directly with the word FATHER, and, so scholars tell us, it was probably closer to what Jesus actually said. If so, people using the prayer after the time of Jesus will have added the word OUR – and that’s OK; it’s doing something very important. It’s bringing everybody together, making COMM-UNITY, ‘OUR’ FATHER. We, us, everybody included, the one human family floating on the sea of life in a flimsy barque, where we can get washed off at any time. We’re all together in the same boat; and that’s a very important truth we should never forget. In spite of our differences in language, culture and creeds – we are one human family, and this prayer links us together with that one little word OUR.

OUR FATHER… but fathers need mothers to create children. They don’t do it by themselves. So in our thinking of God we need to expand this symbol to include MOTHER. Indeed to include the whole feminine side of life in our understanding of God. This is something that was left out when religions began to develop, with men in total control: and it’s only now that we’re waking up to the reality of the situation and doing something about it … women bishops … thank God. Female Pope … next time!

OUR FATHER, WHO ART IN HEAVEN. How are we to understand those words? Is it telling us where God lives? Of course not! We’re dealing with symbols here because there is no other way; but we don’t want to get caught in the trap of thinking that the symbol is the reality – it’s only pointing towards the reality beyond words. And the word ‘heaven’ or ‘heavenly’ is pointing to that which we regard as ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’. A dimension of life we can only dream about and long for: but just occasionally have a foretaste of. We might say for example, “that was a heavenly meal; or a divine performance; an experience which transported you to a higher realm; a Mahler symphony perhaps; a song by Clifford T Ward; or seeing your grandchild walking proudly to first day at school; or whatever ‘does it’ for you. These are all experiences which are pointing to something beyond reach of description … and that’s what the word ‘heaven’ is there for.

HALLOWED BE THY NAME. What name is that? God doesn’t have a name: or rather God has a hundred names (and more). Every language has its own different name for God, and not one of them is ‘the right one’. The word God, or Allah, or Jehovah or Krishna or Buddha, or whatever it is, can only point to the one who cannot be named. So what does this mean ‘hallowed be thy name’? In the Hebrew tradition in which Jesus was brought up, a person’s name was not something you wrote on a birth certificate. They didn’t have birth certificates! It was intended to show what the person given that name was really like. It was meant to reveal their true character and personality. People changed their names as they moved through life – Jacob became Israel because he wrestled with God (a good thing to do!), it’s what the word Israel means. Simon became Peter, the Rock Man. Petros=Rock. The word ‘hallow’ means to show respect, not for the name itself, but for what the person who has the name stands for. To hallow the name of God means to recognise and respect what the name GOD stands for – which is what? Well, it’s not about watching your language (we should do that anyway). It’s not about not using GOD as a swear word. A good swear word, used at the right time and in the right place, is perfectly acceptable. Some of you will remember the Revd Chris Walker, leading our worship a few weeks ago, using three swear words never heard in this church before, in reading that letter from the trenches in the First World War. And that war and those trenches, and the things that were happening there, were enough to make God himself swear; and he probably did (and probably still is doing). Holding sacred, and hallowing the name of God, is to respect what God stands for, which is an end to war; a dismantling of the whole industrial military complex and using our resources for health, and healing and wholeness. Salvation if you like, that’s what God stands for. And for those who say this prayer regularly, it means showing the reality of God in the way you live your life; standing for what the name of God stands for.

THY KINGDOM COME, THY WILL BE DONE. The whole of Jesus’ life and teaching focussed on the coming of God’s kingdom. He wanted to see it as a reality in people’s lives, and in the structures of society that governed people’s lives. This is what Jesus lived for; the whole of his teaching was about that Kingdom. And his method was using parables: telling stories from everyday life. The ‘kingdom’ is not about God being a King (the world has had its fill of kings with their ‘divine rights’ and terrible deeds. One of them started the First World War, Kaiser – another Caesar – who said he was doing what God wanted!)   The word ‘kingdom’ is just another ‘symbol word’, pointing to the truth that the Kingdom of God is where the presence of God is real and vital and makes all the difference. And where is that? Well, there’s only one place, and that is in the human heart and mind and will. Jesus told them, “The kingdom is not coming with signs to be observed; the Kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20f). It’s a different kind of ‘coming’. It’s actually you coming to accept the truth of what Jesus is saying, “The Kingdom of God is within you. Find it and live in it.” It’s not coming from somewhere outside; it’s already there within, waiting to be recognised and lived in and put into practice.

THY WILL BE DONE ON EARTH. This prayer, that we say so often, is a very personal prayer. If you say these words and really mean them, you’re going to be involved; because this phrase means, thy will be done in me … in the person saying the prayer … in this little bit of earth called ‘me’. The prayer is both personal and ‘down to earth’ because Jesus was saying both of those things; touching people in the depths of their hearts and challenging them to live up to what they were saying they believed.

Thy will be done on earth AS IT IS IN HEAVEN. A quick look again at the word ‘heaven’; it’s one of those symbolic words that we have to use when we’re talking about God. It’s not a literal place: not a paradise somewhere up in the sky. It’s a word pointing to the ideal that we are aiming for and longing for, when life on earth will make God smile and stop swearing!

And so we pray; inspired by the spirit within; living in hope with faith and love. Believing in, and working for, the coming of that kingdom when there will be “daily bread” for everybody to eat and be thankful; and not just food for the body, but food for thought and spiritual growth. When there will be forgiveness, given and received by those who fall short of the Kingdom’s high ideals; when the Spirit of God will be there to illuminate our minds, enabling us to see temptation and avoid it; when evil will be recognised for what it is; and there will be deliverance for us all… FOR THINE IS THE KINGDOM, THE POWER AND THE GLORY, FOR EVER AND EVER. AMEN.

We don’t need to ‘stop’ saying the Lord’s Prayer, we just need to ‘start’ thinking more about what we’re saying and live in the light of it.

 Donald Horsfield,  21st September 2014

The Word of God   part 1

2 Samuel 12: 1-7a

I think we all remember going to school. And there are lots of teachers in our congregation who will remember it more than the rest of us, because they went to school more often. A teacher friend of mine on retirement, whenever he went past a playground full of children, would heave a sigh of relief that he was no longer in there supervising!

September is the time for ‘going back to school’; the beginning of another academic year. We are a church, and not a school exactly, but we are still disciples in the learning business. And on this first Sunday in September it’s appropriate to be reminded of ‘the curriculum’. So that’s what I’m going to do – in two parts; one from our Old Testament and one from the New. And the subject for today is THE WORD OF GOD.

We’ve just heard a story from the Old Testament, from our Bible, the Scriptures, which generally speaking we regard as being ‘the Word of God’: and it certainly can be: but we just need to be a little bit careful about that! So we will be careful as we look at and think about the story that’s just been read.

King David had taken a fancy to Bathsheba who was the wife of Uriah, one of his army officers. Kings, so David seemed to think, can do whatever they want (and our own king Henry the 8th would have agreed with him) – so he arranged for Uriah to be abandoned in the heat of battle where he would surely be killed – and he surely was! Then David took Bathsheba for himself. But, be sure your sins will find you out, even if you are a King. The prophet Nathan somehow knew what was going on and he confronted the King with the story that we heard, about a rich man who had more than enough, but robbed a poor man of one of the few lambs that he had. David listened to the story and got very angry. He exploded in moral righteousness, “I swear to God, the man who did this terrible thing will pay for it.”  ‘YOU ARE THE MAN!said Nathan’. And that was the word of God to David. It was a ‘living word’ that went straight to his heart. He saw, not only what he’d done, but what kind of a person he was to have done it.

The word of God is always a ‘living word’; and that’s a bit different from words in a book. The Bible itself consists of words, in black and white, written on pieces of paper. And I want to say that, personally, I’m a lover of words written on paper, and certain parts of the Bible are totally ‘inspiring’; living words helping us to come alive in a new way. ‘Inspiring’ means ‘spirit-filled’, life giving, speaking directly to us, awakening the spirit within each one of us and bringing us closer to God. But not everything in the Bible is like that. So when we read the Bible we need to be listening for that ‘living word’. We shouldn’t say, “This is the word of God”. We should say, “Listen for the word of God, to you”. We also need a ‘discerning mind’.

There’s a section in our Hymn Book called GROWING in FAITH. And one of the hymns in that section has the words, “Give to me Lord a thankful heart and a discerning mind.”   We need both so that we don’t get trapped into thinking that just because something is in the Bible, it’s the word of God. Another prophet, Jeremiah, saw this very clearly and we need to take note of what he said. Using his inspired imagination Jeremiah thought of God writing a ‘new covenant’ (that’s a Bible word for our relationship with God). A new covenant, not like the one given to Moses written on stone, and it’s not written on paper either, it’s written on the human heart (Jeremiah 31: 31-34). A living word that makes you and me come alive in a new way. This means our relationship with God is very personal, and when heard it can be quite dramatic! It certainly was for King David! But it doesn’t have to be. The living word of God is heard, not much with your ears, but with your heart. And it will influence what you think and say and do. And eventually it will make you into the person God wants you to be. It did for David, who became the ideal king of Israel; and the same ‘process’ can be at work in each one of us. We’ll leave it there and then have a look at the New Testament.

The Word of God  part 2

John 1: 17;   Matthew 5: 38-48 (merciful instead of perfect in v.48)

When we turn to the New Testament we see that things don’t change very quickly. Old ideas have a strong grip on people’s beliefs and behaviour. In spite of what Jeremiah and a few other prophets had said about the ‘new covenant’, written on the human heart and not set in concrete on stone tablets, this was very slow in making its appearance and influence in the lives of those people who called themselves ‘the people of God.’ The ‘old covenant’ was still there and rigorously enforced by the ‘old guard’, the Pharisees and the Temple authorities.

It was into this situation that Jesus was born and brought up. It’s interesting just to note the connection with King David. Jesus belonged to the same tribe of Judah, the same family tree. And no doubt Jesus would have known and thought about the story of David and Bathsheba and what Nathan said to him. And he must have known about Jeremiah and the new covenant and that could be why he never wrote anything himself, perhaps knowing the dangers of words hardening like the material they were written on. That his thinking was more in line with Jeremiah where the word of God was a more personal ‘living word’, spoken directly to the heart of whoever was listening. “If you’ve got ears to hear, listen to this”, Jesus would say, and then he’d tell them a parable that they had to think about with a discerning mind, listening for a living word that spoke straight to where it matters. It’s as if Jesus was telling them that, “your ‘ears’, have got ears”, so that you can listen at a deeper level for the living word which will be the word of God to you.

This is what Jesus said to the people, “You’ve heard what was said in the past (referring to the Old Covenant written in stone) – but I’m telling you something different. Not an eye for an eye; just don’t take revenge at all on someone who does you wrong. If you have any enemies, love them until they become your friends.” Jesus was appealing to something deeper than what the lawyers could understand. Lawyers need something in black and white, some authority they can refer to. The trouble with any Laws written in black and white is that they can become fixed and immovable, and then harmful and unjust. They’re not flexible enough to recognise the subtleties and delicacy of different people’s experiences. The Old Covenant had 10 Commandments, the fourth one of which was about the Sabbath, a law that had become hard as concrete, harder in fact! Jesus summed up his position in these words, “The Sabbath was made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath.” In other words people came first, because God loves people not words written on pieces of paper. Words themselves can become weapons that we shoot at one another. Or they become like blocks of stone with which we build our defences and hide behind them. The Word of God cuts through all this because it’s a living word that goes straight to the heart.

There’s a lovely verse in our Book of Hebrews (4:12), where it tells us that, “The word of God is alive and active; sharper that any two-edged sword; cutting all the way through to where the spirit lives, exposing the thoughts and desires of our hearts.” John’s Gospel, looking back on the life and teaching of Jesus says, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” How personal is that. Jesus himself as a living word speaking deep truth that can cleanse our hearts, illuminate our minds, and set us free to be the kind of people God wants us to be.

And to crown it all John says, “The law was given by Moses but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (1:17). Grace and truth are different from laws written on stone or on paper. If we are still living under the Old Covenant, trying to make sense of a God who is all wrapped up in the words of the Bible, or the Koran, or any other set of so-called Holy Scriptures, you’ll just get yourself confused or become a fanatic, (God help us!), or give it up altogether. Instead be listening for the living word of God that will tell you about forgiveness, love and compassion, joy and peace. It will respect your freedom but it will also challenge you to look for the best, and try to achieve it, in the way you live your life.

Donald Horsfield,  7th September 2014

Augustine

“Eternal God, you are the light of the minds that know you;
You are the joy of the hearts that love you;
You are the strength of the wills that serve you;
Grant us so to know you that we may truly love you;
So to love you that we may fully serve you;
Whom to serve is perfect freedom.”

This prayer was written by a man called Augustine who later became known as St Augustine because of the person that he was; what he said and wrote. He was born in the year 354 and lived till he was 76, which was good going in those days. Augustine was born in North Africa in what today would be Algeria: but then it was a province of the Roman Empire: that’s when the Roman Catholic Church was all powerful. It was also a time of great controversy: the Church was spreading its influence and crushing all opposition. The present Pope seems to be much more open and friendly. Augustine’s mother was called Monica and she was a Christian; but Augustine himself was what you might call a ‘worldly person’, indulging in city life especially when he moved to Rome.

Nevertheless, perhaps under his mother’s influence, he began to feel that God was ‘after him’. So the chase was on and Augustine had to run faster and faster to get away, but all the time knowing that he should turn around and admit defeat! Well, many years later after he had been ‘caught’ and spiritually awakened, he wrote his life story in a book called CONFESSIONS, which you can still read, and probably buy for a penny from Amazon. I read it in my early days when I wasn’t exactly running away from God but searching for the truth about God, which I am still doing! In the book he confessed that even before he was ‘caught’ he did believe in God, but his prayer as a young man was, “God grant me chastity and self-control, but not yet!”

What happened to Augustine was what happens to so many when they have a conversion experience: there is a swing from one extreme to another. Augustine became a rather militant leader of the Roman Church, out to win converts, and a bishop into the bargain, and anybody who disagreed with him was in for a rough time! If he was here today, he would be giving me a rough time, but there’s a lot of good stuff too that he has to share with us. We could read his books and some of his words are well known, and deserve to be. For example he said, “God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they rest in You,” a deep truth there. Then there’s his prayer (see above), which we opened the service with and about which I will say a lot more in a minute or two.

Augustine’s Prayer

Augustine’s prayer is full of good things; lots of spiritual wisdom and insight; nourishment for hungry souls, like our own! I hope that we are all hungry; wanting to move into a deeper knowledge of God. The prayer begins with the words “Eternal God”. So whatever God is, and we don’t really know, this prayer is saying that God is eternal: which means that God is not confined like we are to the limitations of Time. And that’s good news for a start! God is not like us, somebody, somewhere, with a beginning and an ending ‘in time’. We ourselves are ‘prisoners of time’, if you like; there’s no escape! But God is not a prisoner of time. The prayer is saying that God is timeless, eternal. That somehow, God is greater than time; beyond time. It’s good news indeed. It’s what we need to know; that even though we are trapped in time, God is not; and so maybe, if we can ‘connect with God’, we too can be liberated from the grip of Time; set free from our confinement.

Augustine thinks that we can make that connection with God, or rather make the discovery that the connection is already there, if only we knew it. The prayer goes on to tell us how we can get to know it. The wisdom of this prayer, the best part of it, lies in making it clear to us that the way to discover this connection with God is through our humanity. That even while we are trapped in time and confined to our bodies, we can discover for ourselves that which is timeless, eternal, God. So the prayer is not asking us to think about God as some distant being sitting on a throne in the heavens, issuing orders and running the show from ‘outside’. There is no outside; there just is, what is; and God IS. God is closer to us than our very breathing; intimately involved in who we are. What does the prayer say? God is the light in our minds; the joy in our hearts; and the strength in our wills – and you can’t get any closer than that! So we’ll look at each one in turn.

“Eternal God, you are the light of the minds that know you.” We’ve all got a mind. It’s a fairly mysterious part of us; it’s where we do our thinking; weighing things up, and making decisions. It’s more than just our brain. The brain is a physical object in your head. Your mind is a more spiritual part of you. Your mind is all about who you are as a person. So what kind of a person are you? That’s the question God is interested in; and more than just interested. God really wants you to be the best person you are capable of being. And not only ‘wants you to be’, but has made provision for us to use our minds and work out ‘how to be’ our best self. The answers are there, we have to find them. Knock and the door will be opened.

Your mind is for KNOWING. So what do you know? Many things: but on different levels. We know it is Sunday today. We know the days of the week. We might know the names of the planets going round the sun. These are all facts that you could learn from a book. And you can train your mind to remember them. You can know facts and figures. But there is also, ‘knowing’ at a deeper level. You can know at a personal level. Knowing people is different from knowing fact and figures. Knowing someone is about ‘relationship’. You can even ‘know yourself’, have an inner relationship with yourself, and God is particularly involved with this deeper level of knowing. God is the light in your mind that will lead you and guide you and enable you to know what’s good for you. It will shine a light on the path that will get you there.

But there’s more to us than that. We have a mind, and we also have a heart. Your heart is the physical object inside you pumping the blood round and keeping your body alive. But we can use the word ‘heart’ in another way: referring to your inner self, to who you really are. The mind does the thinking, the heart does the feeling. We should think with our minds as clearly and rationally as we can: but we should also listen to our feelings. Be in touch with your feelings and keep a balance between the head and the heart. Not always easy to do that, and this is where Augustine’s prayer can help us.

“Eternal God, you are the joy of the hearts that love you.” Loving God can activate your inner self and fill you with joy. Joy is the fruit of loving. Just provide the conditions and the fruit will grow. In loving God and being loved and sharing that love with others, joy will rise up in your heart. This is not the same as happiness. It lies deeper than that. Happiness comes and goes, but the joy of a loving heart will keep you connected to, in touch with, the eternal, timeless God.

And there’s more yet! We have a mind; we have a heart; and we have a will which must be exercised because, “God is the strength of the wills that serve him.”   The light in the mind and the joy in the heart will generate a will to serve; and God is there in that experience. For us here on earth God IS that experience. The Spirit of God within us enlightening our minds; pouring joy into our hearts; and strengthening our wills for service. Augustine surely got it right –

“Eternal God, you are the light of the minds that know you;
You are the joy of the hearts that love you;
You are the strength of the wills that serve you;
Grant us so to know you that we may truly love you;
So to love you that we may fully serve you;
Whom to serve is perfect freedom.”

Donald Horsfield,  3rd August 2014

A Missionary Tale

It was in 1960 that I left my job as an industrial chemist and went to Northern Congregational College to train as a minister in the Congregational Church. I spent five years in that college, and in one sense they were the best years of my life. I was young and fit and eager to learn: but how do you learn to be a minister? Book-learning is OK, but you don’t learn to be a minister by passing exams. The best way, in fact the only way, is to learn by doing it. It’s a bit like learning to swim. You can’t learn to swim by reading a book. Jump in at the deep end and you’ll learn to swim; but have someone standing by, just in case!

Those five years passed very nicely and very quickly, but the spirit within me was restless. I felt the need for more space and freedom. I didn’t understand what this feeling was all about: I guess I didn’t know myself too well. You don’t at that age. The result was that I wrote a letter to the London Missionary Society and said that I was feeling the call to go overseas as a missionary. I went down to Livingstone House for an interview, and the LMS took me under their wing and supported me throughout my training with occasional visits to Selly Oak where David Goodall’s father was in residence. Then in 1965 I flew out to Australia for a couple of months in Sydney, then on to Papua New Guinea and the beginning of nearly twenty years swimming at the deep end.

In those days a term of service in the LMS was four years followed by three months furlough back home, going round the churches with ‘missionary tales’, and going to big occasions at Swanwick Conference Centre in Derbyshire to stir up enthusiasm for the Missionary cause. Some of you may well have been to those meetings at Swanwick.

Just the other day I had a phone call from Leigh-on-Sea in Essex. A man called Roger Buxton had been visiting friends in Church Stretton, and driving past our Church, he saw my name on the notice board. Memories came flooding back of the Swanwick LMS Conference of 1969 where he and I, two young men, had long talks together. So when he got home he rang to tell me and to reminisce. He is now a member of the United Reformed Church in Leigh-on-Sea, and he actually sent me a copy of an article that I’d written for the LMS magazine and that he’d kept. And when I read what I’d written then, I thought about all the changes that have happened since then to the whole Missionary Movement, and to the Church, and to me personally. And that’s what I’ll be saying more about in a few minutes time.

World Mission

John 4: 23-24;   Romans 8: 14-17 (‘children’ in v.14);   Romans 11: 33-36

In the month of June in the year 1910 in Edinburgh, there was a World Mission Conference. The result of that meeting was a unanimous and enthusiastic decision to “evangelise the whole world in this generation.” A ‘generation’ is regarded as thirty years, so by 1940 the aim was to have converted the whole world to Christianity, or at least to have proclaimed the Gospel to everybody in the world! How realistic was that? Not very! Within a few years of 1910 Christians from Germany and Britain would be slaughtering each other in hundreds of thousands! Nevertheless, through that Conference, fervour was stirred up in the Churches which began sending out more and more missionaries to the far corners of the world. The London Missionary Society, supported by Congregational Churches, was influenced by that Conference. Some of us here will later have been caught up in the fervour, reading of missionaries in News from Afar, and collecting ship-halfpennies for the John Williams ship to sail round the South Sea Islands. In 1965 I myself, newly ordained, went out to Papua New Guinea with the London Missionary Society. I was one of the last LMS missionaries, trailing far behind the likes of John Williams himself, David Livingstone, James Chalmers, Bert Brown, and Eric Liddell of Chariots of Fire Fame, all of them LMS missionaries.

But in 1965 the winds of change were blowing. Nothing stays the same all the time; and certainly the world in which we live changes. During the 20th century, where we have lived most of our lives, more changes have happened that at any other time in the history of the world. Some of those changes were catastrophic: like two world wars; atomic bombs; and continuing expansion of the Arms trade, creating the world of violence that we live in today.

But, thank God, there have been some good changes as well. Certain diseases have been eradicated.   Levels of health and social security and education have all improved. We are more aware of belonging to a global village. I know that we are not here to have lessons in Sociology! Nevertheless, as a Church, we need to be aware of the changes that have happened, are happening, and need to happen in the future. One of the things that has happened is the disappearance of Missionary Societies. The whole missionary era has come to an end. As far as our Church is concerned, the LMS has become the Council for World Mission, no longer based in London but in Singapore, where it is involved in building that global village – the sharing of resources on an equal basis, between all those Churches created by the Missionary Movement, recognising that we are all part of one family with things to give and to receive.

The underlying question about all these changes is – does the Gospel message itself need to change to keep up with a world that is continuously changing? That’s a fair question and we need to think about it. Does the Bible not say that God doesn’t change; that “God is the same yesterday, today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8) Well maybe it does, but ‘our understanding’ of God is not like that. That does change and needs to change!

Let me give you some examples. In our Bible, in what we call the Old Testament, there are some very peculiar, unworthy, and dangerous ideas about who God is; what God says; and what God does. Ordering his people to go and utterly destroy some other people without sparing anybody or anything (1Samuel 15:3). We ‘have’ moved on a bit from that idea of God; and we have our own ‘new’ testament, but even there we need to be open to change. On Thursday 29th May this year in the Church calendar, it was the Day of Ascension when the Bible tells us that Jesus went up to heaven and the disciples saw him disappearing through the clouds (Acts 1:9). Going back to God where God lives, somewhere up there. There was a service on that day from St Martin-in-the-Fields which I heard on the radio. The preacher was Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, a Roman Catholic priest; but liberated enough and brave enough to raise this question, “What if we’d been there at the time, in an aeroplane or a balloon up at 10,000 feet; what would we have seen passing by?”   The point he was making was that for us today, in the world as we know it, such an event as the Ascension is just incredible. And that we need to see the Gospel story, especially the beginning and the ending, Christmas and Easter, in a new light, and understand them in a new way.

Change is needed in our attitude to the Scriptures and in our understanding of the God portrayed in those Scriptures. Even the Bible itself knows this! That’s what the Spirit of God is there for, to initiate change and lead us on deeper in our understanding, deeper into the truth about God who is always ahead of us beckoning us on: not something we can totally possess and wrap up in doctrine and creeds. I must give you another example from the New Testament: an example of the need for change and development in our understanding of God. Paul in one of his letters, and in spite of the wonderful things he has to say about ‘love’ in 1 Corinthians 13, also says to the Church in Galatia (1:8f), “if anyone tells you anything different from what I’ve told you, let him go to hell.” And there are lots of other references in Scripture to the same fate awaiting those who are considered, for some reason or another, to be unacceptable. And unfortunately, this threat of being sent to hell for all eternity was part of the message of the first missionaries, and for many of them at that conference in 1910. And even for some today – part of the motivation and the urgency of the Missionary task – to save people from that fate. Even in the 1960s it was part of Billy Graham’s message where he dramatically stated that, “Christians should be willing even to crawl over broken glass”, to deliver this message of salvation to those destined to go to hell.

I refer back to Timothy Radcliffe’s sermon which was really about the changes that need to take place in our religious outlook, in our attitude to the Scriptures, and in our understanding of God. Meditating on this story of the Ascension, he said that Salvation is not ‘escaping from’ the world, shooting off into the sky to some imaginary paradise. It’s about discerning God’s presence IN the world, transforming the world through the power of love, enabling the people of the world to become what we have it in us to become. And what is that? What is our potential? What do we have it in us to become?

But before I answer that, let’s just deal with the question of what happened to the body of Jesus if he didn’t go shooting off into space. If God is not ‘somewhere up there’, then we don’t need a story of the Ascension. God is Spirit (John 4:24). Spirit is everywhere. Spirit is eternal. And our faith is that Jesus is one with God, spiritually and eternally alive. And that too is our potential for we too are God’s children. It’s what we have it in us to become. And the life and teaching and spirit of Jesus are the way, the example for us to follow. The spirit within us can be activated; can come alive in a new way. Even if it’s fallen asleep it can be awakened and revived, and begin to live with a new sense of oneness in God.

This can be good news for everybody regardless of any religious connections or none. But it’s a message that should be heard by everybody. There is a spiritual quality that should be seen in the lives of those who are disciples of Jesus. There is a job to be done. There is a need, and a desperate need, for a new kind of missionary to be working together with God in the world today.

Donald Horsfield, 6th July 2014 

My Birthday

Today is Sunday June 22nd.  June 22nd is on a different day every year. I don’t know what day it was on in 1937 but that was the day I was born. And I don’t remember leading a service of worship on my birthday before – but I suppose I must have done – anyway it means I’ve got something to say about it today!

There is a question that I’ve pondered from time to time and it’s this – where did I come from? I know I wasn’t found under a gooseberry bush: and the stork didn’t bring me either! What I DO know is that there was a bit from my father and a bit from my mother which mingled in her body – and that’s where I came from. I’m grateful to them for giving me life; and I’m glad to be thinking of them on my birthday. But where did they come from? And where did their parents come from? And how far back can you go asking that question? Can we go back to some mysterious ‘beginning’ – not just of people but of everything? Well … no we can’t do that! We can only make up stories which might help us to understand ‘the Mystery that we’ve emerged from’, and that we still live in.

If we’ve all evolved or come from one single source, some mysterious beginning, does it not mean that in some way we are all ‘connected’? Branching out from the root on the tree of life? YES, it most certainly does! And that’s what I want to ponder more about on this birthday of mine. Through my parents, I have a greater and wider connection with everybody, with the whole human race and with the Universe of which I am a part. So that’s where I came from. It’s where everybody and everything comes from.

But we need another word for this mysterious Beginning: because we want it to be personal in the sense of our being connected to it. And the best word we have for that ‘connection’ is the word GOD. Remember the opening words of the Bible, “In the beginning GOD.”   God is our word for that mysterious beginning. And on my birthday I want to celebrate my connection with God, and I’ll be saying more about this in the next part of the service.

Feeling after God

Acts 17: 22-28

We now know that it’s my birthday today. I’ve been here on earth for 77 years and so next year I’ll be 78, and for 50 of those 78 years I will have been a minister in the Church. First of all in the Congregational Church, then in the United Church of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, then back to the Congregational Church, this time in New Zealand and then finally in the United Reformed Church, ending my ministry here in Church Stretton.

In my 50 years of ministry there must be one word that I’ve used more than any other … not that I’ve counted … but there’s a high probability that I’ve used the word GOD thousands of times. And for most of that time I never bothered to stop and ask, “What does the word God mean”?  I just took it for granted like everybody else in the Church. But then, at last, at long last, it caught up with me: and for a few years now I’ve been thinking about – nay, like Jacob of old, wrestling with, this question of what the word God means. And since coming to Church Stretton it’s been in the forefront of my mind – and I want to share with you now what GOD means to me.

Let’s have a look at the word itself. It’s only a little word, just three letters G O D … God, but it’s got an ‘awfully’ big meaning! Where do we start? We have to begin with where we are, here on earth; the world that we were born into; with our ability to ask questions … why, where, when, how? We want to know where we came from, where we’re going to and how everything works. So we learn what Science tells us about the world we live in. The word SCIENCE just means KNOWLEDGE. But we also have to listen to the ‘still small voice’ that speaks to everybody in the depths of their hearts.

Science tells us that we live in a Universe, where all things are connected because everything (including ourselves) comes from the same source. We know that the Universe is evolving, forever changing, forever on the move, but it’s still a Uni-verse. There is a Oneness holding everything together, interconnecting all things, filling the whole of creation with energy, life and movement.

How are we to understand this Oneness from which we all come? Well, it’s a Mystery that even science can’t explain. But if we look deep enough into ourselves, we can ‘feel ourselves’ to be part of it, connected and interconnected, part of the Oneness. We can ‘feel it’ because the life that is in us is part of the Life Force that is throbbing throughout the whole of Creation, holding everything together, and our best word for that oneness is God. This brings me to a verse from the Bible that we heard in the reading (v.27), where it says that “God made people in the hope that they would feel after him and find him.”

Now I’ve said many times, and I need to keep saying it because we are ‘prisoners of language’, it’s how we communicate, we are locked into words. But we don’t need to be trapped by taking words literally. They are only symbols pointing to something beyond reach of words. The ‘word’ GOD is not God, it’s only a word – we have to FEEL AFTER the meaning. We have to accept the limitations of the language we speak. When we refer to God as He or Him, Father or King, it doesn’t mean that God is a Man. It means that words can only point to something beyond words. We need to understand the ‘word’ GOD with a greater freedom. Do a bit more exploration. So with that in mind we look at our text – what is it saying to us? “God made people in the hope that they would feel after him and find him.”

Feeling after God, that’s what we should be doing, it’s our birthright! Not just thinking about God (do that by all means but it will only take you so far), go deeper! This is a lifetime’s work and even that won’t be long enough, although ‘time’ doesn’t really come into it. What is important is that it’s your search. You are to be feeling after your salvation, your wholeness, and discovering that ‘in God you live and move and have your being’, connected to, one with, the Eternal.

God has no grandchildren. A second-hand God, even a religious God, is a poor substitute for the real thing. Learn to ‘feel your way’ through all your experiences. Trust yourself and strive to be your ‘best self’ as you feel your way, learning and growing, keeping the process moving. And if your religion is helping you, that’s all to the good. But if not, well, have a word with your Minister, that’s what he’s here for!  A ‘good religion’ will not make you feel like a helpless sinner destined for destruction just because you don’t conform to religious requirements. It will affirm you as a precious and valuable part of creation. It will encourage you to enjoy being who you are. It will tell you of your connection to other people and to the rest of Creation, and therefore to God.

All religions of course are organised. They have to be. And in the kind of world we live in, we need organisations to marshal our forces and concentrate our potential in the right direction. Religion is not an end in itself and must not become a burden or a tyrant (as can happen). It is a means to an end – fulfilling God’s hopes that we might feel after him and find him.  Jesus himself was a man who was ‘feeling after God’ through his own experiences. He had his ups and downs, just like we do, learning and growing as he went. And as Scripture says, “He left us an example that we should follow in his steps.”  “Find the presence of God within yourself,” he said, “feel after it, find it, and live in its light. Rejoice in the life it gives you, then reach out into the world around. Connect with others, in love, compassion and concern, until God’s hopes are fulfilled, when the whole world will have found that ONENESS which God desires.”

 Donald Horsfield, 22nd June 2014

The Spirit of God

Genesis 1:1-2, 2:2b-7;   Ephesians 2:18-22

I want to say something now about “The Spirit of God”.  My thoughts are based on a Bible verse tucked away in the 2nd letter of Timothy (1:17) where it says, “The Spirit that God gives does not make us timid but rather fills us with power, love and self-control.”  The Spirit that God “gives” is the Spirit that God “IS”, because God gives himself.  I say ‘himself’ because that is our convention.  It doesn’t mean that God is masculine.  It’s just the way we use words in the English language: and God is beyond words in any language – so we just have to be careful and not start thinking of God as a man, (or even a Superman).

The Bible never goes into any detail in defining what God is (an impossible task anyway).  But the best word for thinking about God is the word SPIRIT: God IS Spirit.  It’s right there in the opening words of the Bible … and it runs all the way through … INSPIRING: EN-LIVENING and AWAKENING … LIFE and MOVEMENT throughout the Universe.  The Bible opens with the Creation story; and a wonderfully inspiring story it is.  We heard a little bit of it in the reading.  It tells of the Spirit that is God calling the world into being and breathing life into everything that moves … and everything DOES move.  You may think that the so-called material world is solid enough but we now know that there is movement down in the depths of everything.  There are molecules … electrons and sub-atomic particles … whizzing round in constant motion.

But it’s people that God is particularly interested in – having created them in such a way that they, that is WE, are capable of relating to God ‘in the spirit’, – the spirit that is within each one of us.  There is what we could call a ‘spiritual potential’ at the heart of every living person.  We can learn to ‘live in the Spirit’ and develop that spiritual relationship with God.  Within the Christian religion Jesus is our ‘man-of-the-Spirit’: one who was inspired by the Spirit; led by the Spirit; living in the Spirit; and dying in the Spirit.  Death is just what happens to our bodies; Spirit is eternal.  And this is the best way to understand the meaning of Easter.  It’s Jesus living on in the Spirit … his body having served its purpose.

And that brings me to my text which tells us what ‘living in the Spirit’ will mean for us.  “The Spirit that God gives does not make us timid but rather fills us with power, love and self-control.”  So first of all there’s no room for timidity.  Now of course we all have our own unique personalities.  Some of us are extrovert, outgoing, self-confident.  Others are more introvert, quiet and shy, followers rather than leaders.  But whatever our predominant personality traits, if we are living in the Spirit there should be, underlying who we are, a certain confidence because we are standing on the firm foundation of faith and trust in God.  The very word con..fidence means with..faith.  You can face the world con..fidently because the one you are trusting in has overcome the world.  So there’s no place for timidity in the Christian life!

Having got that settled, the Spirit can now spread her wings and begin filling you with power, love and self-control.  What kind of power is this?  The Church has often been confused about it and got it mixed up with worldly power.  Look back over the history of the Church and see where it has been involved with “military” power and “political” power; pressurising people to conform; creating hierarchies of wealth and domination.  Worldly power far removed from the teaching and example of Jesus.  Jesus told his disciples, “Worldly leaders may have power of some sort, but that’s not your game.  If you want to be great, become a servant.  Show your power by serving others.”  Spiritual power is not worldly power.  Worldly power operates by force; spiritual power by persuasion.  Spiritual power confronts evil, injustice, lies, cruelty, oppression, and exposes them for what they are.  When Jesus was ‘on trial’ before Pilate, it was actually the power of Rome that was ‘on trial’ before the innocence of Jesus.  The Roman Empire eventually collapsed, as all worldly powers do, but only to rise again in some other form.  The world is still waiting to be transformed by the power of the Spirit.

Living in the power of the Spirit, you soon realise that LOVE is the currency to be spent.  It is different from money!  The more “money” you spend, the less you have in the bank.  The more love you spend, the richer you become.  Jesus has lots of good things to say on this subject.  “Give and it shall be given unto you … life does not consist in the abundance of possessions … love is for giving, not hoarding … God is the Spirit of Love, and whoever lives in love, lives in God, and God lives in them.”  Living in the Spirit is learning to live in Love … and it’s a continuous lesson.  Every day you can learn something and belonging to a Christian fellowship as we do, provides more opportunities for learning, growing and “spending” that love.

And finally, the Spirit that God gives produces, what may come as a surprise, self-control!  What’s that got to do with life in the Spirit?  Everything – because of that little word ‘self’, which needs to be controlled; because if it isn’t, the whole spiritual endeavour can lose its power.  There are many aspects to our ‘self’ that we need to understand.  The “spirit of the age” appeals to one aspect of our self.  It tends to say to us, “Whatever you want, you can have it, now!  You don’t need to wait; you don’t even need to pay for it – use your credit card.  If something feels good, do it.  Do what you want and let the world look after itself.”  Bad advice!  In this way you actually ‘lose control’.  Instead of driving, you are being driven, and not down the ‘straight and narrow’ either!  More likely down that ‘broad road’ that leads to somewhere else.

The secret of life in the Spirit is to surrender your ‘self’ to the Spirit of God.  You won’t lose anything by doing so.  God will hand you back a new self, a transformed self, a better self, with no timidity: but with the power of love flowing through you.  Your ‘best self’ now in control, and people seeing what a fine person you are!

Donald Horsfield, 1st June 2014

The Race Set Before Us

1 Corinthians 9:19-27

The letter to the Hebrews in our New Testament is not one that we read very often, because we’re not Hebrews!  The letter is written especially for Hebrews, or Jewish people.  It’s quite technical and not easy for ‘gentiles’ like ourselves to read or understand.  Nevertheless it’s got some gems in it that sparkle with light.  I’ve chosen one of those as a text to focus our thoughts on this morning.  This is it, Hebrews 12:1. “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us”.

So what is this race that is set before us that we are encouraged to run with perseverance?  It seems that whether you are a ‘sporting type’ or not, with a keen competitive spirit or not, we are all in a race of some sort.  So we’d better know what it is.  Everybody has some sort of ‘inner drive’ which may be ‘more or less’ competitive.  Everybody would rather be a winner than a loser, or at the very least, you do want your team to win.  This ‘desire to win’ can easily become corrupt and even destructive.  The sporting world of today is anything but ‘sporting’, with its drug taking, accepting bribes, fixing matches, taking dives, and wanting to win at any cost.  The competitive spirit itself is not corrupt. It’s what we do with it.  Are we driving or are we being driven?  This question is not just related to sport.  It’s there in every area of life, people competing for what’s available, and where there will always be winners and losers.  But we just need to stop and think a bit more about this.

At one time a few thousand years ago, prehistoric people, our forebears (and we mustn’t forget that – we are their descendants) they needed this competitive spirit more than we do today.  They were hunter-gatherers competing for survival in a fairly hostile environment.  There was no gold medal for the winner, just survival for you and your family.  And if you lost, instead of having a meal, you became a meal!  Today we are not prehistoric people.  You could say that we are post-modern people, whatever that means.  At least it means that times have moved on and always will be moving on.  We could think of our appendix.  Do you know where your appendix is?  We’ve all got one unless it’s been removed!  But nobody knows what it’s there for.  It may have been useful to our ancestors who had a different way of life and a different diet.  But now we don’t need it.  We just forget about it. Leave it alone and hope it will leave us alone!  I’m drawing here a parallel with the competitive spirit.  We don’t need it like our ancestors did.  But it’s still there and we do need to understand it and control it.  We need to be driving, not being driven.

But the competitive spirit is still driving people in the sporting world, in political life, in education and in many other different aspects of life.  The present conflict in the Middle East goes back to biblical times when one group of people believed that God was telling them to do some ethnic cleansing in Canaan.  But that was an excuse; people often use God as an excuse for their own purposes.  They were being driven by the competitive spirit.  They were competing for land and power and wealth.  It’s a pity there was no-one around at the time to condemn them and say that any God who commands ethnic cleansing also needs to be cleansed.  Where were the prophets in those days?

We need to see this competitive spirit in the light of another kind of spirit which is also with us, in everyone.  It’s the Spirit that has set before us the race that we should be running with perseverance.  This race is not fuelled by the competitive spirit.  It’s not hungry for gold medals or victory at any cost, annihilating your opponents and calling them enemies.  The race that we should be on is fuelled by the Spirit of God within each one of us: a still small voice urging us towards cooperation rather than competition.  What kind of race can this be where we cooperate with the other runners rather than compete against them?  Who can tell us or show us what this race is all about?  Well, I didn’t complete the text.  There’s a bit more.  It goes on to say, “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith.”  The words ‘looking unto Jesus’ mean that we have to do some hard thinking about the implications of his teaching for our life in the world today.  What you’ve learned about Jesus in Sunday School is not enough.  We should be wrestling with the Spirit.  It’s a struggle; there’s work to be done, to get to the heart of the Gospel message.  To do that it’s necessary to make a distinction between what Jesus said and what others said about him.

Jesus’ favourite title for himself was Son of Man, and that’s ‘man embracing woman’, everybody, the human race.  Did I say race?  Is that not what we are looking for, another kind of ‘race’?  Not one fuelled by the competitive spirit, but by the spirit of co-operation?  Yes!  And this is it!  The human race.  This is the race that we are all in, and our text is calling us to run this race with perseverance looking unto Jesus.  ‘Looking unto Jesus’ because for us Christians he is the fulfilment of what it means to be human.  And we need to persevere because we’re not there yet: it’s a continuous, lifetime’s task, bringing our humanity into line with the example set by Jesus.

To be fully human is to be living as people of God.  That’s what we’re here for.  We do this together, inspired by the spirit of cooperation.  If we want to win the human race we must remember there are to be no losers.  Even the one lost sheep is to be found and returned to the fold.  We are to persevere in the human race.  Not to condemn it as sinful but to discover the treasure hidden within.  Not to opt out but to fulfil its potential and discover that through our humanity we can find Divinity.  The Son of Man is the Son of God.  The people of Man are the people of God.  The competitive spirit will not lead us there!  We must grow out of it, or at least learn to control it.  We must drive and stop being driven.  We must run the human race with more understanding, more perseverance and determination, finding new ways of co-operation, ways of compassion, of sharing, of justice, partnership and peace.

I was much encouraged by the Bishop of Oxford who once said on the radio, “I am a Christian but before that I am a human being.”  Implying that we’re not in a religious race, where one religion will win and be superior to the rest.  We’re in the human race where, if everybody doesn’t get the accolade, nobody will and God will be the loser.  The Principal of the Muslim College in London and a Jewish Rabbi were discussing the Middle East crisis and they both agreed, “People are more important than land or place or religion.”

And that needs to be said again and again and again.  It’s the human race that we’re in.  We need to run that race with perseverance, not according to the competitive spirit, but according to the spirit of co-operation, being motivated by the Spirit of God within each one of us.

Donald Horsfield   

 Resurrection

Here we are on Easter Sunday morning with that word RESURRECTION to think about.  And we do need to think about it because words often need reviving and refreshing so that they become meaningful to us.  Our situation today is quite different from what it was a long time ago.  The word ‘resurrection’ has actually died, or at least gone to sleep, and is itself in need of resurrection, of reviving and refreshing.  So we’ll see what we can do.

The word we translate as ‘resurrection’ actually means waking up and getting out of bed; standing up again and getting on with your life after you’ve been asleep.  You can see the connection, can’t you.  People die in their sleep, the sleep of death.  Everybody dies.  We all, in one way or another, fall into the sleep of death.  Will we wake from that sleep like we do each morning from our night’s sleep?  That’s the big question.  Where can we look for an answer?

In two places!  First of all in the natural world that we live in and are part of.  Look at Nature.  What’s the pattern we see?  BIRTH … DEATH … and COMING TO LIFE AGAIN.  That which was born in the Spring bears fruit in Summer and Autumn, dies in winter only to be ‘resurrected’ the following Spring, to wake up and burst into life again.  That’s the pattern of Nature, the pattern of God’s Creation, and it goes on, as far as we can see, ad infinitum.  We are dependent on it and part of it!

Jesus himself often pointed to this parable of nature – a seed must be planted in the ground … a symbolic death … only to rise again to new life in trees and fruit and flowers.  Birth … Death … and Resurrection is written into Creation, of which we are a part and to which we belong.  But yet, we as human beings are aware of another dimension to life.  Not totally separate from Nature, in fact intimately connected.  There’s something deeper waiting to be discovered.  And that is the Spiritual Dimension.  There’s more to you than just your body!  And it is this spiritual dimension that Jesus and other religious leaders are concerned with.

Jesus throughout his life and teaching was “opening up” this dimension, revealing its power to give life, to revive and renew, to wake up!  Jesus was not in the business of changing God’s mind about anything, especially about punishing sinful people.  “God was in Christ”, not somewhere else waiting for a sacrifice to change his mind.  Jesus was in the business of ‘revealing’ God’s love to us and inviting us to enter into this spiritual dimension of life that he called ‘the Kingdom of God’.  ‘Resurrection’ is waking up to this truth.  It’s not about human bodies coming to life again and floating around doing things and then floating off up to heaven.  It’s about waking up to a new awareness of our relationship with God.  It’s about the coming to life of your True Self, of who you really are, a child of God, one with God the Eternal Spirit.  Resurrection is NOW.  We can wake up at any moment and move into that new dimension of life.

 The Seamless Robe

Mark 16: 1-8, Ephesians 3: 14-19

So here we are, Easter Sunday.  We might say that Easter Sunday is the most important day in the Christian calendar, the focal point of the life of the Church.  That’s what we’ve been brought up to believe.  But if we do say, along with the Creed, that we believe in the Resurrection, we need to stop and ask what do we mean by that and what difference does that belief make to the way you live your life, if any?  Just saying that you believe in the Resurrection, or anything else, is not going to change the world.  And it wasn’t part of the Gospel message that Jesus proclaimed.  Jesus didn’t go around talking about his own resurrection.  Jesus’ message was about the Kingdom of God.  That’s what he proclaimed.  He said that the Kingdom of God is here now, it’s among you and within you but you have to find it and live in it.  And that can change the world.  This is what Jesus lived for and was prepared to die for.

The death of Jesus on what we call Good Friday was the fulfilment, the climax of his ministry.  He couldn’t give any more.  He gave his all for what he believed.  We shouldn’t regard his death as a mistake or as a disaster that had to be put right by the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.  The focal point of the Christian faith is not the Resurrection, it’s the Cross.  The Cross and all it stands for is the power house of the Christian Faith.  What we should really be thinking about today is the whole Easter Event, the Easter Happening. It’s not about ‘forgetting’ Friday’s death in the light of Sunday’s resurrection.  It’s about understanding Friday’s death from where we are now on Easter Sunday.  So that’s what we’re going to do.  And we’ll think particularly about the SEAMLESS ROBE that Jesus was wearing on that Friday and presumably was what he regularly wore as he travelled around.

The soldiers on duty that day could have the clothes of the ones being executed, it was one of the perks of the job.  The seamless robe of Jesus must have been a fine piece of work, perhaps lovingly made by one of his followers, many of whom were women.  Perhaps a mother whose child had been healed, or Mary Magdalene whose life had been transformed by hearing and responding to Jesus’ teaching.  That robe would have been hand-woven, all of one piece.  It couldn’t be cut up without spoiling it so the soldiers threw dice to see who would get it.

Now as we all know the stories in the Bible are full of symbolism, analogies, pictures and parables, pointing to some truth which is relevant at all times and not just in the Palestine of those days.  “I have a truth to bear witness to”, is what Jesus said to Pilate (John 18:37).  And as far as Jesus was concerned it was the truth of that spiritual dimension of God’s presence, or Kingdom, here to be found.  And if Pilate had listened to the Spirit within him he could have found it just as we have.  Let’s look for the symbolism in this seamless robe.

Some of you may have seen the film called THE ROBE.  I’m sure I did in my cinema going days.  It was Victor Mature who put it on, this robe that belonged to Jesus, and the film is all about what happened.  That sounds like a bit of Hollywood magic, and we don’t believe in magic!  But we do believe in symbolism and in its ability to enlighten our understanding and point us in the way we should go.

Paul uses a lot of symbolic language in his letters.  He tells us to ‘put on’ the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 13:14, Galatians 3:27), to ‘put on’ your new self and ‘be’ that self in a new way as a disciple and follower of Jesus.  We are encouraged to ‘put on’ compassion, kindness, humility and patience: put them on like a robe and wear them like your clothing in daily life.  Put them on prayerfully each day when you get out of bed.  Symbolism, yes!  But very meaningful if we follow it.

Symbolically it’s very appropriate for Jesus to have been wearing a seamless robe because his life was seamless, all of one piece, not a lot of different bits stitched together.  His life was ONE, held together with integrity, with single-mindedness and sense of purpose.  He had an all-embracing vision of ONE GOD, ONE WORLD, ONE PEOPLE, living as one in what he called the Kingdom of God.  That vision on which Jesus kept his gaze took priority over everything else and influenced everything he did.  It was a seamless life that he lived.  His philosophy and general outlook sprang from this vision.  He taught his disciples to seek it first, believing that everything else would fall into place.

The seamless robe symbolises a seamless life with God holding everything together, (Ephesians 4:6) where there is no division between sacred and secular, or science and religion, not even between God and humanity.  Another preacher from this pulpit recently told us that ‘the glory of God is to be seen in human life lived to the full’.  Once again John’s Gospel highlights the truth for us where Jesus says to his disciples, “I am in the Father, and you are in me, just as I am in you”, a seamless relationship.

Coming up in a couple of week’s time is Christian Aid Week when we become aware on a more practical level of the seamless connection between what we say we believe and what we do.  Our faith in God must flow seamlessly into concerns for justice and peace, the abolition of poverty, an end to the Arms Trade which is money wasted in preparing for war that could be used to build schools and hospitals and for other peaceful purposes around the world.  Thank God for Christian Aid!

Our faith in God is not a separate piece stitched on to us and likely to become unstitched and fall off.  We too must try to live a seamless life aware of God’s presence and God’s requirements in and through everything we do: how we spend our money, pursue our leisure, think our thoughts and say our prayers.

At the Cross Jesus was stripped of his seamless robe.  But it was only the ‘symbol’ of a seamless life, his ‘life in God’ which could never be taken from him.  And in some way which is beyond our understanding at present but not beyond reach of our faith, we say that Jesus will always be ‘alive in God’, the Eternal Spirit, in whom we all live and move and have our being.  Jesus was never more alive than the moment of his death, “into thy hands I commit my spirit”.  The first disciples tried to figure all this out in the context of the beliefs of the time and so we get stories of bodily ‘resurrection appearances’ and of Jesus finally ascending into the sky, (like a space rocket as the Bishop of Durham once said!)  Some have taken all this literally rather than symbolically and they are now waiting for Jesus to return just as he went riding on the clouds (1 Thessalonians 4:17, Mark 13:26, Revelation 1:7).  Others have even worked out the actual time of his return and got ready for it and made fools of themselves, left standing on some hill having given away all their possessions.

We need to be more mature and more realistic in our thinking.  The Mystery of who, or what, God is will always be there.  It’s not a Mystery to be solved.  It’s a Mystery to be entered into by feeling our way into that spiritual dimension and living in faith and in hope and trusting that all will be well.  But in the meantime, we have the life and teaching of Jesus about seeking first the Kingdom of God and learning to live in it.  We have the Spirit to inspire and guide us. We have the example of a seamless life lived in God and with God, and the invitation is for us to follow.

       Donald Horsfield,  20th April 2014

Why go to church?

Our notice board says that we are a questioning church, so let’s have a question!  “Why do we go to church?”  Why does anyone go to church?  I suppose there would be many answers to that question if you went round asking people.  You might even get some who say – “I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it.  I just DO, it’s good for me.  Yes, that’s why I go, it does me good.”

You would get some people who HAVE thought about it, and they might say – “I go to church because I AM the church, along with everybody else, all of us together, we’re all part of one body,” which is close to saying, I go for the friendship and the fellowship.  It’s important to feel that I belong, that I’m part of something worthwhile.  Belonging to a church can be very beneficial to those who belong and to the community that we live in.

Of course another answer would be – “I go because I believe in God”, who has things to say to us about who we are and how to be ourselves, how best to live our life in this world which God has given to us.  Another very popular response would be – “I go to church to re-charge my batteries.”  Now in these days of digital technology, which many people have, there are batteries which need recharging all the time.  As human beings, of course, we are not ‘digital’, although we do have fingers and toes!  So what is it that keeps us going?  What are we recharging when we come to church?  And the answer is – “you are recharging ‘yourself’”.  Your battery is your inner spirit, it’s who you are.  That’s where the energy comes from to keep you going.  And here in church we get in touch with the Eternal Spirit that we call God.  And we are even now plugged-in, we are in touch and being recharged.

 Wilderness Experiences

Exodus 17:1-7, John 4:5-10

Today is the 5th Sunday in Lent.  Next week is Palm Sunday, and then it’s Easter again.  And round and round we go, the years roll by.  Sometimes the going is smooth and easy and life is good.  We get up in the morning and we say – “it’s good to be alive” – and we get on with whatever we’re doing.  But sometimes we have to travel through what could be called The Wilderness, and that’s not so easy.  We don’t get out of bed with the same liveliness and expectation, and we might even think of staying in bed all day!  But if ever that does happen you should still say to yourself – “it’s good to be alive” – even if you don’t feel like it.  That’s because the person being recharged, ‘you’, need to be in control of your feelings and not let them control you because they can lead you where you don’t want to go.  So where your feelings are concerned, enjoy the good ones, those that are positive and hopeful, but let the negative ones know that you’re in control and you’re not having any!

At some time or another we all have to go through what may be called ‘wilderness experiences’.  And sadly some people spend more time in the wilderness than the rest of us.  Life is NOT fair and that’s a fact we have to live with.  But deep down, deeper than our feelings, we should all know and believe and have faith that any wilderness is for ‘passing through’ and not for ‘living in’.  But as we DO pass through, we should also be learning so that there may not be a ‘next time’.  But if there is, you’ll be more prepared to face it, you’ll be wiser and stronger and you’ll be more sympathetic and helpful to those who are still passing through their own wilderness.  You can learn from a wilderness experience what can’t be learned anywhere else.  So let’s have a look and see what we CAN learn.

Wilderness experiences are where everything seems to ‘close down’.  Good feelings disappear and negative ones fill your mind.  You find yourself in what Pilgrim, making his Progress, called the Slough of Despond, hard work and heavy going.  This is why we read from the Book of Exodus, where the people of Israel were themselves travelling through a wilderness.  The story of the journey that they were on has been written down in the Bible, not to give us a history lesson (that’s not what the Bible is for), but to give us spiritual guidance and lessons on how to cope when we are travelling through the wilderness.

The story is that Moses had led the people to freedom out of Egypt, but very soon it seemed as if they were in an even worse situation.  Food and water were running out.  They were full of anxiety and fear saying that they were better off in Egypt and should have stayed there.  Moses had a tough job on his hands.  When people are depressed with negative feelings they often bring about the very thing that they fear most.  Having a more positive and hopeful outlook can also do the same.  Whatever we’re going through we can still have faith, hope and trust.  And Moses it seems, as a good leader, had enough of this for all of them.  And as a result, and a surprise to the people, some migrating birds landed nearby to be caught and eaten. And each morning they found some strange stuff which had settled on the bushes and which was sugary and they could eat it and be strengthened by it.  They called it MANNA which in the Hebrew language means ‘what is it’?  They didn’t know what it was or where it had come from.

But there was no water, and that’s even more important than food if you want to stay alive.  What could they do?  Help is often closer to hand than we realise!  In many wilderness places water is actually just underground, and Moses had what could be called ‘an inspired moment’.  (The story says that God told him what to do, but that’s just a figure of speech for some dramatic action.)  Moses had in his hand what is translated as being a ROD, a staff, a long and heavy stick, and he struck a rock with it, maybe in his anger and annoyance, and water began to flow from under it.  Now this is a parable for all who are going through any kind of wilderness.  The Bible is full of parables.  As Christians we live on parables.  They are there for our spiritual nourishment.  We break them open and meaning comes flowing out, nourishing, reviving, refreshing, lighting the way and guiding our feet through any wilderness we find ourselves in.  In effect Moses said to the people, “Look, calm down, relax.  Don’t even think about going back to Egypt.  Don’t despair, face your fears.  Look at whatever rocky ground you are going over and strike it with the rod of faith and life-giving water will come bubbling up to refresh you.”

In the Bible readings we also heard a bit of the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.  Now there was somebody most definitely in the wilderness.  She’d got her personal life in a ‘right mess’.  The cards were stacked against her in the first place, in that she belonged to a minority group called the Samaritans who were considered outcasts (heretics) by the majority of the Jews.  Although you will remember that Jesus told a story about a Good Samaritan who put the Jews to shame.  Just the kind of thing that Jesus would say!  We don’t know who this woman was, she has no name, and so she stands for anybody going through the wilderness.  Essentially her wilderness was of a spiritual nature.  It wasn’t water she needed, there was plenty of that.  At the time she was drawing it up from the well and Jesus asked her for a drink.  And this started a conversation from which her true situation emerged.  She was thirsty but not for the kind of water she was drawing from the well.  And to her amazement Jesus actually offers her a drink.  She was puzzled.  “How can you give me a drink?  She asked.  “You have nothing to draw the water with.”  “I’m not talking about that kind of water,” Jesus said, “I’m offering you something that could be called ‘living water’.  You don’t draw this from a well, or out of a tap, it can just start bubbling up inside you.”

And that’s what we need to know, whether we are in the wilderness or not.  What’s on offer is ‘living water’ because it enables us to come alive in a new way.  When God’s Spirit touches our spirit new life begins to flow through your whole being and any wilderness that you are in will also spring to life with flowers and fruit to surprise you like manna.  And more than that, streams of life-giving water will flow from you into dry and dusty lives of any who are still in the wilderness.  (John 7:38).

So, as far as wilderness experiences are concerned, it’s better not to have them if you can avoid getting into that predicament, and you can do that by keeping your batteries charged and carefully and wisely looking after yourself.  But if you do find yourself in the wilderness, there is help and guidance.  There is a way out.  There is living water to refresh any dry and thirsty soul so that you can get out of bed every morning with those words on your lips, “It’s good to be alive!”

Donald Horsfield, 6th April 2014 

Called Out

Genesis 1:1-8, 26a; Matthew 4:12-22

God has called and we have come.  That’s what God does.  God calls, people respond and things happen.  But not only do ‘people’ respond.  Before there were any people God called and the Universe happened.  Creation came into being and began to evolve.  Our creation story in the book of Genesis tells us that God called the universe into being, “let there be light; let there be earth and sky; let there be land and sea; let there be creatures on the land and in the sea.”  All this of course is picture language, symbolism, poetry, not to be taken literally.  How else can we talk about God and the beginning of creation?  It’s a way of giving us a start to our life on earth, giving us a context and a setting in which we can understand ourselves and the world we live in.  We’ve got to start somewhere!

We now say that over billions of years God has been calling, creation has been responding, or evolving until, fairly recently in cosmic time, people appeared who could respond in a more personal way.  We can see ourselves in the Genesis story.  It’s still just a story or a myth, but it’s beginning to merge into what we know as history, his-story, her-story, our-story, Adam and Eve and all their descendants until today, the human race.

And God is still calling, wanting or perhaps even needing, a response.  And among the human race there are those who have responded at a deeper level than most of us, and so they have become ‘guiding lights’, role-models for the rest of us giving insight and wisdom and guidance for us to follow.  The role-model we are particularly concerned with, who has been called ‘the Founder of Christianity’, is Jesus of Nazareth who went about calling people to listen and respond to the call of God.  He said to people, “If you’ve got ears, use them!  Listen carefully.  And not just with the ears on your head but with, as it were, the ‘ears of your ears’, that is, at a deeper level with your inner-self, your soul, your spirit.”  Hear the call of God there and respond from the depth of your being, from who you really are.

One of the hymns we often sing by Brian Wren, who happens to be a United Reformed Church minister, has the repeated line, “there’s a Spirit in the air, calling people everywhere”.  Not just calling Christians but calling to everybody, because it’s the voice of God calling to the whole of Creation, but particularly to people, that is to those who have the ability to make a personal response.   We can go back again to the Genesis story, “Adam, where are you?” God calling.  Adam had gone and got himself lost, and as descendants of Adam and Eve, we have the same tendency both as individuals and as the human race.  God is still calling, “People, where are you?”  “Where are you on your journey through life?  Have you found the meaning and purpose of why you’re here?  Do you understand who you really are?  Are you aware of your relationship with the Eternal Spirit who is calling you?”  Jesus himself was ‘tuned in’ to that call, finely tuned.  He himself had responded with a total commitment and on that basis Jesus became a kind of Transmitting Station!  He had heard God’s call and was perfectly tuned in so that through him the same call can go out, loud and clear.  “People, where are you?  God’s calling.  A response is needed.  You’ve got to move.”

In response to God’s call the movement needed is twofold; first of all, a movement OUT, and then a movement IN.  We’ve got to ‘move out’ of situations and ways of thinking that we’ve got ourselves into, which are holding us back, preventing us from growing and becoming the people God wants us to be, doing the things God wants us to do.  And this is where we turn to the life and teaching of Jesus our role-model.  As one of our Scriptures says (Hebrews 2:17f), “because he’s ‘been there’ and come through it, he can help the rest of us who are ‘going through it’.

Let me mention two areas where God is calling us OUT of a situation we are almost bound to be in.  And one is, out of our SELF-CENTREDNESS.   There is of course a legitimate self-concern.  We need to be careful and look after ourselves wisely in a dangerous world.  We need to be careful what we think and do and say, what we eat and drink, what we see and hear.  But we must not let any legitimate self-concern become selfish.  That is, where the world revolves around just you and your needs, and everything has to be for your benefit.  People have lived like that and so have nations, building empires and going to war, creating vast injustices and widespread poverty.  Selfishness is a root cause of much of the suffering in the world today and God is continually calling us out of it and into a wider concern for the common good of all people.  Jesus calls us out of such self-centredness in the memorable words, “Love others as much as you love yourself, for in this way you will be in tune with God whose very nature is love.”

Secondly, the call of God is to move out of our PREJUDICES.  We all have them!  And they are, of course, related to our self-centredness.  Prejudice means pre-judging in favour of our own position, whatever that is.  We must be right!  It would be too uncomfortable to be wrong!  What does Jesus say about this attitude?  “Take the plank out of your own eye before you look for the spec in somebody else’s.”  We tend to judge too quickly, on partial evidence, before we get the big picture.  The cure for prejudice is to have some HUMILITY.  For all of us, this is an essential spiritual ingredient.  A bit of humility will make you slow to judge others and you won’t have to be right all the time.  Some of you will remember the poem Richard Holloway quoted, standing right there on that platform.  “From the place where we are right/ flowers will never grow in the Spring/ the place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard/ but doubts and loves dig up the world/ like a mole, a plough/ and a whisper will be heard in the place/ where the ruined house once stood.”

God is calling us out of our prejudices, out of our selfishness, and out of the fears that go with them.  What are we afraid of?  We are afraid of being wrong.  We are afraid of losing what we possess.  So we build defensive walls around our certainties and we hang on to our possessions at all cost.  But Jesus says, “If you have that attitude, you’ll lose everything in the end.  Learn to let go of prejudice and self-centredness, and the fears that go with them will disappear as well.”  Then you can smile again and start living.  Then you will have a totally new outlook on life.  And this is what God is calling us INTO, life, real life, eternal life, a life of loving relationships where we are all one in the ONENESS of God.

Donald Horsfield,  23rd March 2014

Keep Moving

Mark 6:1-12, Matthew 6:24-34

There’s a very interesting bit of information in our New Testament, in the Acts of the Apostles, where it tells us that “it was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.” (11:26) 

It was just a nickname that was given to them because they believed that Jesus was the Christ, that is, the Messiah.  It means the one appointed and anointed by God, to be the Way, the Truth and the Life, for people to follow.  But it was a nickname that has stuck until today, and we are now a group of Christians.  But it IS only a name, and William Shakespeare reminds us that “a rose by any OTHER name, would smell as sweet.”  So the “name” is not the “reality”.

Let’s look at those words again, “it was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.”  The reality is that they were disciples of Jesus who incidentally were called Christians and could have been called something else.  And therefore, as Christians, we need to keep reminding ourselves of the reality that we are disciples of Jesus, in the 21st century.  To help us do this we have, among other things, the Communion Service, where the bread and wine are symbols of our identity with Jesus and of our desire to be true, faithful and effective disciples.

As you know a disciple is a learner, and you will remember from your school days that learning involves discipline, which is where the word disciple comes from.  Discipline is having a determination to get to really know what you are learning about.  And of course a good teacher is a great help, but they can’t do it for you.  A good teacher is one who plants the seed in your mind and leaves you to work it out for yourself, but with guidance and encouragement.  And that is what Jesus did for his disciples and still does for his disciples today.  And from the readings we heard I’ve identified three things that Jesus told his disciples they needed.  And they are these, Travel Light: Keep Moving: and Don’t Worry.  We’ll look at each one in turn.

He told them to travel light so that’s what we need to be doing, but to do it within the context of our own times and situation, which are different from what it was like in Galilee in Jesus’ time.  We don’t just take the teaching literally.  We look for the essence of it, get to the heart of the matter, and let that speak to us.  So when we’re travelling, if we want to be travelling light, it’s useful to distinguish between luggage and baggage.  Luggage is what you need to support you along the way, baggage is what you don’t need.  It weighs you down, you get distracted looking after it and you worry about it.

Now of course, I’m not talking about travelling with suitcases and going through security checks at airports.  I’m talking about the ‘spiritual journey’ that we are on as disciples of Jesus.  The baggage that can hold us up on that journey and hinder our progress is ‘mental baggage’, consisting of thoughts and feelings and fears that fill you with worry and anxiety and weigh you down.  Like for instance, constantly remembering mistakes you’ve made in the past, regrets for wrong roads you’ve taken, resentments you are still holding on to, all unnecessary baggage.  Let them go.  Be forgiven.  Forgive others, forgive yourself, so that you can travel light and make progress.

And that brings us to the second point, keep moving.  And once again I’m not talking about physical movement, although that’s always a good thing to do.  Get your little bit of exercise in each day, keep your limbs and your joints well lubricated, but do it gently and wisely.  You can be praying at the same time, physical and spiritual together, TUPELA WANTAIM, as we used to say in pidgin in my former life as a missionary in Papua New Guinea.  We’re on a spiritual journey.  It is ‘in the Spirit’ that we now live as disciples of Jesus.  We have ‘come alive’ in the Spirit, or better still, the Spirit has come alive in us.  The Spirit of Christ is one with God and has awakened the same Spirit within us and that Spirit is now our teacher, our Guide and Inspiration.  We still have lots to learn and so need to keep moving.

On this journey we’ve got a bit of luggage but no baggage.  We’re travelling light but we ARE travelling and need to keep moving.  If anybody thinks they’ve arrived they’re deceiving themselves and maybe others too.  That mentality lies at the heart of Fundamentalism, people thinking they have all the answers.  But much of that is baggage and needs to be discarded.  Keep moving by deepening your spiritual life through prayer, reading, thinking, being more aware of yourself, of who you are and what’s going on at a deeper level.  But also by reaching out to touch other lives in love and concern, but doing it with a lightness of touch.  Don’t be too serious about it, the Spirit has a sense of humour, how could she not have, having to teach people like ourselves!

So travel light, keep moving and don’t worry.  Those three belong together.  If you’ve got a lot of baggage, of one sort or another, that’s what you’ll be worried about.  You’ll be worried about losing it.   But if you haven’t got it, you can’t lose it!  And anyway, Jesus told his disciples, “what you try to save, you’ll lose anyway, so let it go, it’s only baggage.”   You see, if you’re still travelling, keeping moving, you haven’t arrived at your destination and you’re not in exclusive possession of the knowledge of God or the treasures of heaven.  So you don’t have to worry about guarding them, defending and protecting them or trying to convert other people to them.

You can be open, inclusive and questioning and moving on.  Travelling lightly, free from anxiety and worry, living a day at a time, and quietly trusting and hoping that all with be well.

Donald Horsfield,  2nd March 2014

Digging

Matthew 13:44f

This morning we’re going to be doing some digging.  If you haven’t brought your spade it doesn’t matter, we’ll find some other way.  Jesus was a country boy, and most of his stories and parables are about country life where you would see people going off to work with a spade over their shoulder.  He told people that the kingdom of God is something you have to find, and that you can just come across it while you’re digging in the fields or wherever you are and whatever you’re doing.

The ‘Kingdom of God’ really means ‘the presence of God’ which is always there wherever you are, waiting to be found.  And when you find it, it feels more like its found you because God doesn’t get lost.  We’re the ones who get lost and need to be found.  But the odd thing is, we get found by finding as we do the digging.  Where do we dig?  You dig into your own experiences.  It’s digging into yourself, digging into your own life, wanting to discover what it’s all about.  Then when you find what Jesus called ‘the pearl of great price’ that is, the Kingdom, or the presence of God, you realise how precious it is and you’re prepared to give all that you have to possess it.  Then you live in it and with it and through it for the rest of your life.

Now there’s another parable about digging that we need to take note of.  Three people were given money to invest.  Two of them put the money to work and made some more, which is what the money was given for.  The third man dug a hole in the ground and buried his money. So when the time came for reckoning, his money hadn’t made any interest, and this was a big disappointment to the One who had given the money in the first place.  Those who heard the parable then, and those who hear it now are invited, nay challenged, to see themselves in the same context.  Shall we invest and grow what’s been given to us or shall we play safe, dig a hole and bury it.  No!  We won’t do that.  We’ll do our digging to find the presence of God which will enable us to grow into what God wants us to be.

Dig Deeper

Luke 6:46-49

There’s just one phrase in that parable of the two house-builders that I want to look at.  “He dug deep”.  That’s the phrase I want.  He dug deep and built his house on a solid foundation.

‘Digging deeper’ is what we should all be doing.  Of course we’re having to ‘dig deeper’ all the time into our pockets as the prices rise, as the cost of everything keeps going up.  But that’s not the subject I shall be talking about, though I do need to remind you and myself from time to time, that the cost of keeping our church warm, doing repairs and making improvements, also keeps going up.  And it’s ‘our church’, our responsibility to make sure that there is enough money available for that to happen.  And if you haven’t increased your giving for a while, it could be time to ‘dig a bit deeper’.  But I’ll leave you to sort that one out with the Chief Accountant, and I don’t mean Alan.  So I’m not talking directly about money, even though all things are connected.  I’m going to be talking about ‘digging deeper’ into your spiritual life, into your relationship  with God.

I don’t know who it was who first said this, but we can be thankful that they did say it because it’s very true.  Not just ordinarily true, but very true.  And this is what was said, “We often think of ourselves as being a body, and having a spirit.”  But we’ve got it the wrong way round.  We are spirit, and we have a body.  The body is only temporary, it’s passing away, and don’t we know it!  During our short stay on earth, we live in and through our bodies.  But while we are doing so, we should be ‘digger deeper’ to discover who we really are and how we are related to the wider spiritual dimension of life, because essentially we are spirit.  We just have our body for a short time on earth.  So we need to be digging deeper into that spiritual dimension in which we live and move and have our being, that we call God.

If we don’t do the digging we have a tendency to get stuck on the surface where the body lives, and we get trapped in shallow thinking where money and possessions are the gods that people worship.  And we lose touch with our true nature as spiritual beings.  We need to dig deeper to establish a firm foundation and build our lives on something better than hoping you might win the Lottery.  Just think of that other parable of Jesus about the man who did win the lottery as it were, and then just sat back to survey all his possessions to eat, drink and be merry.  And Jesus said, “That man is a fool.”   He hasn’t got the wisdom to look deeper than his possessions, to discover the nature of his true self as a spiritual being and latch on to his relationship with God.

What is it exactly that we should be ‘digging into?’  We should be digging into ‘our experiences of life’, into our thoughts and feelings, our hopes and fears.  Also into what’s going on in the world around us, looking for some pearl of great price that demands nothing less than all we’ve got.  Some of our experiences will be positive and encouraging, good experiences so that you feel contented, at peace with yourself and with life generally.  But some of your experiences will be negative.  We are sinners after all!  That is we’re not perfect and it’s not a perfect world.  We make mistakes, some things just happen.  Life can be a bit stormy inside as well as outside.  And the house that we are building, our spiritual self, that is, can take a battering.  And there’s no escape from having to cope with life’s difficulties.  Such times have to be faced by all of us.  And it’s then we need to call on the resources that are available.

And one of those is FAITH, our belief and hope in something better.  And our religion tells us that another one is FORGIVENESS.  We remind ourselves of this everytime we say the Lord’s Prayer – forgive us as we forgive others.  Forgiveness is a necessary resource that we all need.  Accept it, be forgiven, be thankful for it and use it along with your faith, like a spade, to be digging deeper, digging prayerfully and diligently into the depths of all your experiences.

There’s a lovely verse in Psalm 42 where, unfortunately, the new translation is not as good as the old!  In the AV, Authorised Version of 1611, it tells us about “the deep calling to deep”.  And that’s God calling to you and me.  The depths of God, the deep things of the Spirit, calling to the depths within each one of us.  Calling us to dig deeper and to come closer so that our own spirit might become more aware of the Eternal Spirit and move deeper into it.  That deep awareness of our spiritual nature is the foundation on which we need to build our lives here on earth.  The basis from which we can reach out to explore and develop our relationship with God.

Religion itself is not the foundation.  Our religion is simply the context in which we do some of our digging.  Other religions have a different context, and that’s fine.  It’s the digging that’s important.  All religions should be encouraging their folk to dig deeper, to find that inner reality, which is our oneness with the Eternal Spirit we call God.  Digging deeper means living deeper, praying deeper, thinking deeper, feeling our way deeper into the mystery of God.

One last picture parable – the disciples had been fishing all day and caught nothing.  They were fishing in shallow water.  They should have known better!  Jesus said to them, “push your boat out into the deep water”.  And when they did, what a catch they got (Luke 5:44f).  It’s a parable!  Think about it.  And if we do it together, moving into deeper water, we might soon need a bigger boat to bring in the catch!

 Donald Horsfield,  16th February 2014

    

The Oneness of God

1 Corinthians 12:12-20, Ephesians 4:1-6, 12-16

We have recently had the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  And unity is a good thing to be wanting and praying for, but not just Christian Unity.  We need something bigger than that because we can’t agree what is ‘Christian’ and what ‘Unity’ would be like.  Christians have been arguing and fighting among themselves and splitting up into separate groups for hundreds of years, calling one another heretics and even killing one another.  It’s all there recorded in Church History and is still influencing our situation today.

The word ‘unity’ is not all that helpful because it doesn’t leave enough room for variety and diversity which are essential elements of any ‘unity’ that is worth its salt.  So I’m suggesting a change from the word ‘unity’ to the word ONENESS.  Let me give you an example where the idea of ‘oneness’, embracing variety and diversity, is much better than the word ‘unity’.

My first example is from the reading we heard about ‘the body’.  Our bodies are an absolute miracle of ‘oneness’, but with many and various parts all working together to keep you in one piece, as one person, having a basis on which to stand and face the ups and downs of life.  As individual people with bodies, we are part of a greater oneness that goes back to the very beginning of all things, to the creation of the universe.  The very word UNI-VERSE is itself another word for oneness.  We are part of the oneness from which everything comes, the oneness of all creation, of everything that is.  And we are all made of the same ‘stuff’.  For us humans that ‘stuff’ can be seen in our flesh and blood where we might ‘appear’ to be different from one another but, if we go deeper than looks, the basic stuff of all our bodies is the same.  We’ve just been put together in different ways.

So on the surface everybody is a bit different in colour, shape and size but essentially there is a oneness of the stuff of which we are made.  I was reading an article in the Radio Times about Kylie Minogue whose body was declared to be ‘an area of outstanding natural beauty’, but even her body is the same material put together in a different way.

Scientists believe that there is what could be called a ‘oneness’ holding the whole of Creation together; a power; a force; an energy; and they talk about it in their own scientific language.  And they are looking for it in their own particular way by subdividing and measuring and analysing.  But ordinary folk like ourselves, we too can talk about this oneness because everybody (even the scientists) are part of it.  We belong to it and the best word that WE have for this mysterious ONENESS that holds everything together, including ourselves, is the word GOD.

This brings me to our second reading where Paul is at his very best in helping us to think about this situation that we are in.  He says that, “there is one God, who works through all, and is in all”, which is a wonderful statement we ought to stop and think about, which we are doing.  But we have to interpret it in the context of the today’s world in the 21st century because that’s where we live.  We don’t want to be looking for ‘a’ God, (how could we even recognise ‘a’ God if we saw one!)  We need a different way of thinking about God.  Better to understand the text telling us that there is a oneness, which we call God, “who works through all and is in all.”

And there are other passages of scripture that are saying the same thing.  For example, “in God we all live and move and have our being.”  (Acts 17:28)  This is a way of understanding God that we can warm to.  It touches our hearts and engages our minds.  We live in God, and God lives in us.  But more than that, God is the Oneness holding Creation together, giving it life and energy, meaning and purpose, movement and direction.  And we can understand ourselves as being part of it, belonging to it, at home there!  In God.  One with God.  You may very well have had a taste of that, a foretaste, in your own experiences of life.  Treasure them if you have and look for them if you haven’t.

In that second reading (Ephesians 4:3), Paul urges us to, “do your best to preserve the oneness which the Spirit gives.”   He goes on to say, “there is one body and ‘one Spirit’, just as there is one hope to which God has called us.”  And there Paul is giving us another word to help us understand this ONENESS.  And that’s the word SPIRIT.  Our Oneness with God is IN THE SPIRIT.  God the Eternal Spirit can be experienced in a personal way because we all have that Spirit within us.  And this is where Jesus comes in because for us Christians he is supremely Man of the Spirit, an illustration and an example of how to ‘live and move and have our being’ as spiritual people, one with God.

As a human race, everybody, we need to find our Oneness with God.  It’s greater than any religious unity can ever be.  Religions themselves are divisive; Oneness is inclusive.  But if any religion does help us find a way into that Oneness, then it is doing what a religion should be doing, and it doesn’t matter what that religion is called.  May our Christianity be one of those religions!   

 Donald Horsfield,  2nd February 2014

Wisdom and Insight

Proverbs 4:1-9

Wisdom is a Biblical Theme.  One that we don’t often hear about, so we’ll hear about it this morning.  It’s like a golden thread that runs through the whole of the Bible.

In our Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures, there are three books that focus on wisdom: the book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the book of Job.  And in the reading we’ve just heard from Proverbs the point is put very clearly and directly, “getting wisdom is the most important thing you can do.”  So let’s see if we can get some of it this morning!

In the Old Testament, Wisdom is understood to be God’s Companion, who was there in the beginning; God’s Agent, the one who carried out God’s will in the act of creation.  The ‘Wisdom of God’ is really just another way of talking about ‘the Spirit of God’.  It is the presence and energy of God moving through all Creation and keeping everything ‘on course’.  Get God’s ‘wisdom’ into your life and you’ll be ‘on course’ too.

Wisdom is not the same as ‘cleverness’.  You can have ‘clever’ criminals who know how to rob a bank or steal your pin number, but you don’t have wise criminals!  Wisdom would prevent them from being criminals in the first place.  ‘Wisdom’ comes from God, ‘cleverness’ is something we do ourselves.  If you’re clever you can pass exams, but God is not bothered about people passing exams.  God is concerned with us being wise and having insight.  Did you notice in the reading how those two go together – wisdom and insight.  They are two sides of the same coin.  Insight is the application of wisdom as you make your choices how to live your life.

Our New Testament also has important things to say about wisdom.  Paul in his letters talks about God’s secret wisdom, (1Corinthians 2:7), which is closely connected with the life and teaching of Jesus.  We’ll hear some more about this in the next part of the service.

 Get Wisdom

1 Corinthians 2:6-10, 3:18-23

Let’s move a bit deeper into the business of ‘getting wisdom’.  From the Old Testament we have seen that wisdom is regarded as the Creative Power of God, and that it is highly desirable to be in touch with that wisdom so that we can have the ‘insight’ needed to live wisely and make the right choices to avoid being led astray by the foolishness of the world.

Talking of wisdom, the Book of Proverbs (4:6-8) tells us, “Do not forsake her and she will keep you; love her and she will guard you; prize her and she will exult you; embrace her and she will honour you …”, and so urging us to be ‘actively involved’, having wisdom as our companion on the journey of life.  But did you notice the gender?  It’s feminine!  A fact that has been largely overlooked, much to the detriment of the Church, and leading to the distortion of our understanding of God.  In the Church God has always been HE, but where has SHE gone?  The domination of the aggressive male, with warlike tendencies, has shaped our theology and influenced the society we live in.  The world would be a more peaceful place today if we’d had more wisdom.  So it’s about time we got some and started to listen to the feminine side of human nature, which women don’t have exclusively, it’s there in everybody.  It just needs to be recognised and listened to.

The first chapter of Proverbs tells us that, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”   The word ‘fear’ may not be the best translation of the original.  It doesn’t mean ‘being afraid’, although the Church has used it that way to control people by putting the fear of God into them.  The kind of ‘fear’ we need comes from being aware of the context in which we exist in this Universe.  That context is so great and vast, so high and deep, that we can’t find words to describe it.  Where do we come from?  Where do we go to?  What’s it all about?  It’s a mystery beyond the reach of our understanding.  But for convenience we use the word GOD for that mystery in which we live and move and have our being.  The word GOD at first is just a word, but it’s our word and we make of it what we will.  We have to decide what the word GOD means and in doing so, a bit of wisdom comes in very useful!

Wisdom is not something you get all at once, you have to grow into it.  It’s a learning process and it will involve having to change your mind now and again, changing your outlook as you are influenced by, and grow into, the wisdom that you get.  The ‘fear of the Lord’ that we need is a kind of Cosmic fear as you feel the awe and wonder and mystery of just being alive in this vast, wonderful and mysterious Universe.  You can’t find words, you are reduced to silence, you are invited to humble yourself before that which is greater than you are, but in which you are contained and can feel a part of: you belong, and that experience is the beginning of wisdom.

As previously mentioned, wisdom has a sister called INSIGHT.  They are twins, they work together, one leads to another, and that’s why the whole thing is a ‘process’.  Wisdom and Insight, Learning and Growing, and never arriving at any one place where you can sit back and claim that you know it all.  A bit of humility always goes with true wisdom.

And then the word GOD becomes more that just a word.  It becomes a relationship that you have with yourself, with others, and with everything that IS.  And working out that relationship is more than enough to keep you busy for the rest of your life, and beyond, because we can’t imagine that ‘process’ ever coming to an end.  And even if we could, we’re not there yet!  We live in the NOW of today and we must be vigilant, keeping alive our relationship with wisdom and insight.  And for that we need to remind ourselves of what it says on our notice board:  that our aim is to be Open, Inclusive and Questioning.  This means that we mustn’t get stuck in one position.  There is no teaching or doctrine that is final and conclusive.  Finality and Conclusion are not available.  Wisdom and Insight are available so that we can change and grow and move on.

One of the prophets of old, Isaiah, understood God to be saying this to the people, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways, but they need to be”.  That’s what we’re here for, and wisdom and insight are what we need to make it happen.  That’s our calling, that’s our challenge if we want to be God’s people.  Find God’s wisdom and use it!

Careful and selective reading of Scripture can be a help and a guide.  It can be an encouragement to keep the process going, moving in the right direction.  For example, the letter of James chapter 3 has this to say.  “Whoever is wise and living with insight will show it by the quality of their lives.  The wisdom that comes from God is pure, peaceable, humble and gentle, open to reason and full of compassion.”  But too often in history and up to the present time, the religious impact on the world has been the opposite of that, lacking in humility, not open to reason, not peaceable, gentle and full of compassion.  And the result is what we see going on in the world today.

There is a worldly wisdom that we could call ‘cleverness’, and we do need clever people.  But more than that we need people who are wise and who will use their cleverness along with insight into God’s purposes.  And for those of us who are Christians, Jesus is the focal point of Godly wisdom which can radiate out to influence all who will respond.  As we heard in the reading from Paul’s letter to Corinth, Jesus can be experienced as “God’s Secret Wisdom”, but it’s an open secret, and the secret is this, “Christ in you”.

The Christian life is about learning how to live ‘in that way’, so that ‘Christ in you’ is seen in who you are, what you say, what you do and how you live.  It’s a process of learning and growing.  We continue to need wisdom and insight, and that’s one reason why we come regularly here to church each Sunday. 

Donald Horsfield,  19th January 2014
 

First of the Year

Mark 2:23-27

“Behold I make all things new”.  That’s a good text to look at and think about at the beginning of 2014.  Within our faith, there is a strong emphasis on RENEWAL, things being made new, and it’s what we should expect and be looking for and ready to embrace.

But not everybody is.  It’s all very well being sure about what you believe but not if this prevents all things being made new which is the activity of the Spirit of God among us.  We don’t want to be quenching the Spirit, do we? We want to be ready to respond.

Jesus himself had this trouble.  He started his ministry going around sharing what he believed and the religious leaders said “What’s this?  A new teaching?  We don’t want to know.”  And they closed their minds and their hearts and we know what happened as a result.  But Jesus was not to be silenced and he kept on urging people to be open to the God who is always at work making things new.  He told them that you don’t put new wine into old containers.  And he said God has even got a new commandment for you.  You’ve got ten already but you only need one, because if you keep this one, all the others will look after themselves.  It’s very simple – LOVE ONE ANOTHER.  That will cover a multitude of laws and make all the difference to you and to the world.  Follow this new commandment as a way of life, he told them, and grow into a new relationship with God.

That was the new message of Jesus, although it had been hidden in their scriptures all the time.  Jesus just brought it into the light.  We all tend to be a bit suspicious of whatever is new and fresh and different.  So we need to keep coming back to it again and again and this is a good time to do it at the beginning of a New Year.

We are still in the twelve days of Christmas, but we’re also in the New Year.  So from here we can look back at the Christmas Story and maybe notice a few things we haven’t seen yet.  Like for example that the first thing they did with the baby Jesus was to wrap him up in swaddling clothes, which amounted to fastening him up so he couldn’t move.  Now I don’t know the best ways of dealing with new born babies, I left that to Haro, but I suspect that swaddling clothes are not exactly ‘in fashion’ these days with young mothers.  Anyway the Bible is not a text book on coping with new born babies.  In fact it’s not a text book on anything!  It’s a book of spiritual guidance with lots of parables and hidden truths for us to find.  It’s a book about the deep things of God; reaching into the deep places of our own lives.

I want to take the reference to swaddling clothes as a little parable which we can understand as the beginning of a tendency to keep Jesus confined and controlled, with not much freedon or room for movement.  The Church carried on this tendency, drawing boundaries to define who Jesus was and to keep him where they wanted him.  The religion that Jesus grew up in also had its own boundaries.  But Jesus didn’t like boundaries (perhaps he remembered those swaddling clothes!)  And when he grew up he became a ‘free spirit’, moving over the boundaries at the prompting of the Spirit within him.  And this got him into trouble with the keepers of the boundaries, the guardians of the religion, the temple and the traditions.

Like all religions, the Church has followed the same pattern, wrapping Jesus up in a new set of swaddling clothes called doctrines and creeds and statements of belief.  Nevertheless now as then, Jesus, man of the Spirit, will not be contained.  Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  And now that he is not limited to a physical body, Jesus has even greater freedom, total freedom, freedom of the Spirit itself.

What I want to do now is just to look back at some of the incidents in Jesus’ life that illustrate for his followers today, that is ourselves, how this freedom of the Spirit works out, so that it can be active in our lives.  We’ve already heard how Jesus introduced something new into the religious situation of his own times.  The ordinary people who heard it said, “Wow, this is a new teaching!”, and Jesus himself called it ‘new wine, a new covenant’, calling for a new understanding of our relationship with God.  A relationship not focussed on the old ideas of God that were written in stone like the ten commandments, not based on the hundreds of other laws which the guardians thought were so important, not focussed on the temple in Jerusalem which they regarded as somehow God’s dwelling place and the centre of the universe.  Jesus’ message really was new.  It had a freshness and a vitality that was somehow alive.  Jesus simply put people first and he said quite clearly that God was not concerned with religion at all unless it did put people first.

Well, the clash with entrenched authority was inevitable,and Jesus knew there would have to be a showdown in Jerusalem where the Temple was and where the authorities ruled from on high.  But that’s the Easter story, and we’re not there yet, so we’ll just look at a couple of incidents in the life of Jesus.

Of all the ten commandments there was one that stood out from the others, the fourth, which the authorities used more that anything else to control the lives of the people.  Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.  And from that sprang minute details of what they could and couldn’t do.

One day the Pharisees saw Jesus and his disciples walking through the fields rubbing ears of corn and eating it.  “You’re breaking the law!  Working on the Sabbath”.   To which Jesus brought out a sledgehammer reply which smashed the very foundation on which the Pharisees were standing.  “The Sabbath”, he said, and by implication all the other laws, “The Sabbath was made for people and not people for the Sabbath”.  In other words, people and their needs come first.  If you’re hungry and there’s food available, eat it.  People were here in the world long before laws were made, and the purpose of law is to enable life to flourish for everybody.

But we know that any law can become out of date, rigid and unbending, and cause suffering rather than promoting life that is fair and just and merciful – remember Alan Turing?  Jesus put people first because for him all people are the children of God and God can be thought of as a heavenly father who would hardly want his children stoned to death because they broke the fourth commandment.

And there’s the Temple and the whole religious ritual of temple worship with its animal sacrifices to avert the wrath of an angry God who would otherwise punish people for their sins.  Jesus told the authorities that they didn’t even know their own Scriptures.  “Go and ponder this verse”, he told them, where it says, “I don’t want your animal sacrifices, I want your love.  I don’t want burnt offering, I want people to know me and love me by loving others”.  Hosea 6:6

Paul had to learn this lesson the hard way because he was once a Pharisee.  This is what he said to the Christians in Corinth.  “Above all things, get hold of this truth.  You are God’s temple and the Spirit of God lives in you”.  1 Corinthians 3:6  That truth is still new and fresh and invigorating.  Remind yourself of it at the beginning of this New Year and then live in the light of it and feel the power of it to bring you safely through whatever the year holds.

Donald Horsfield,  5th January 2014