Sunday, 8 June 2014

Pentecost Sermon

Sermon for Pentecost 
(without my ad-libs!)

On Message or On Fire?

The day of Pentecost is the 50th and last day of the Easter Season, it is a celebration both of resurrection and of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the world.

In Church tradition Easter Sunday has had a focus on the newly baptised and those new to faith, Pentecost takes us further in the journey of discipleship, traditionally being a focus for confirmations, testimony and a commissioning of those in particular ministries within the life of the church.

Today is a day when we might look again at where our resurrection faith has taken us – we are reminded of the commissioning power of God’s Spirit that calls all Christians to a ministry of proclamation and prophecy.  Like those early disciples we are given a voice to tell the story of Christ’s resurrection and to share the reality of God’s inclusive love.

What was going on for the disciples on that day of Pentecost? Pentecost was and still is a major festival for the Jewish people, taking place 50 days after Passover as a remembrance of the giving of the Torah 50 days after the Israelites escaped from Pharaoh and Egypt.

Jerusalem would have been buzzing – bigger crowds than were in Westminster this week for the State Opening of Parliament! Pilgrims from all over the world would attend the festival and the streets and public squares would be full of the rowdy chaos of human living.

Somewhere in that city a group of Christ’s followers were gathered in one place. Some of them had, over the last 50 days, witnessed the living Christ, risen from the dead; others would have heard the story, told again and again by their friends. Some of them had witnessed Christ’s ascension into glory and both marvelled at the sight and yet felt the pang of loss and the fresh anguish of bereavement and confusion.

What had Jesus meant when he had said “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”?

So on a day when the whole city was alive with a festival spirit, yet the danger from the religious and political elite was still very real, it is not surprising that this group of Jesus’ friends would get together to share their hopes and fears, to admit to their confusions and argue about what it all meant. There would have been safety in numbers but also the solidarity of those who have been through traumatic and confusing events.

I think there may well have been heated discussions about what to do next, if they were open about seeing Jesus risen and ascended what would the consequences be? Should they get their ‘story’ straight – agree a message, a common narrative and would that be a cautious story, only told to a few safe people – after all they were all in danger if they openly declared their association with Jesus. How could they make sense of all that had happened in the garden, in Emmaus, on the seashore and on the Mount of Olives?

Into this story of human confusion, without warning, suddenly came a sound from heaven like the rush of a violent wind, divided tongues as of fire rested on each of them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit.

Unbidden, unlooked for, God intervened, it was as though the Spirit could not be contained a moment longer – pouring into the world in a new way, a dramatic and challenging way – burning with love and passion – bringing both order and chaos, alive with new possibilities and freedom.

In that moment, all thoughts of safety, of getting their story straight, of being ‘on message’ were burnt up in the searing heat of God’s life-giving Spirit. No safe narrative or human agenda, no political manifesto or religious doctrine could contain the love of God as revealed in Christ!

The quiet, whispered concerns of a haunted group of men and women were transformed into the coherent, inclusive message of God’s love for all people.

The international crowd heard the shouting and singing of this rag-taggle band of believers, each in their own language and they could not resist. They were drawn to the spectacle and intrigue of the occasion. Peter , never one to hold back – and on this occasion empowered by the Spirit - began to preach.

He told the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He placed that story centrally in the history and prophetic tradition of the Israelite people and he urged the crowd to the salvation offered in Christ. On that day about three thousand were added to the number of believers.

A group of people, some who were not particularly articulate, were transformed and released. Their religion was not to be a whispered rumour to be shared with a select few – it was to become a living faith, a movement which would flow to the very ends of the earth and to change history. Time after time when the story of God’s love for all people seems threatened with silence, the Holy Spirit gives a voice to the voiceless and the new life of Christ bursts again from the tomb.

This week many of us have remembered the 70th anniversary of D-Day – the Second World War was a time when life was trampled and hope seemed small and fragile. Both world wars and conflicts since have lead to a deep questioning of the possibility of a God of love in a world of suffering and chaos. Those questions are real and valid and ones people of faith have to face up to – and to offer simplistic answers is not good enough. Yet even in the midst of such conflicts, God’s Spirit has continued to touch lives and offer transformation. The following is a diary extract of a Dutch Jewish young woman, who later went voluntarily into a concentration camp to help others. Her name was Etty Hillesum and she later died in the camp aged 29.

“Tuesday morning, half-past nine. something has happened to me, and I don’t know if it’s just a passing mood or something crucial. It is as if I had been pulled back abruptly to my roots, and had become a little more self-reliant and independent. Last night, cycling through cold, dark Lairessestraat – if only I could repeat everything I babbled out then! Something like this:

God take me by Your hand, I shall follow You dutifully, and not resist too much. I shall evade none of the tempests life has in store for me, I shall try to face it all as best I can. … I delight in warmth and security, but I shall not rebel if I have to suffer cold, should You so decree. I shall follow wherever Your hand leads me and shall try not to be afraid. I shall try to spread some of my warmth, of my genuine love for others, wherever I go. But we shouldn’t boast of our love for others. We cannot be sure that it really exists. I don’t want to be anything special, I only want to try to be true to that in me which seeks to fulfil its promise. I sometimes imagine that I long for the seclusion of a nunnery. But I know that I must seek You among people out in the world.”

There is something in Etty’s words of the same Spirit-prompted courage that drove the disciples from seclusion into the City square at Pentecost. She writes of babbling in prayer aloud in response to an abrupt act of God in her life which leads her to a declaration of obedience and to knowing that she must seek God among people out in the world.

We are called to that same, outward looking, generous obedience that enabled the followers of Jesus to risk everything in order to tell the story of God’s love. 

The other story dominating the news over the last few weeks has been that of elections. Politicians getting their story straight – working out the message that they think will best articulate their vision of how the country or Europe should be run and woe betide the candidate or member of a party who is not ‘on message’. Cynicism seems to be the order of the day when we consider our politicians, yet I’m not convinced that’s entirely fair. Having met a number of MP’s, without doubt some only seem to be able to sell a particular view of the world based on their party manifesto, the conversations with those have left me cold or frustrated and in one case blazingly angry. However, the majority of politicians I’ve had the privilege to meet have been genuine, hard-working women and men who want to make a difference locally and nationally. They will support their party because they believe in the broad direction of policies but they also burn with a passion for justice and the well-being of communities and from time to time that passion will take them ‘off-message’ – those individuals are on the whole more attractive because there is an integrity and a connectedness between their words and their beliefs.

So where does all this leave us? Are we ‘on message’ or ‘on fire’.
We have heard this morning of people who, despite danger and the possibility of dire consequences, have been prompted by God’s Spirit to a courageous proclamation and a world-changing love.

How do we live as disciples in the light of Pentecost? Often as we grow up in the church or join a church later in life we will learn a set of behaviour and a particular way of describing our faith. We become comfortable and safe in our discipleship because we know the rules, we understand what is acceptable and what is not acceptable – this may not be a bad thing – it leads to order in church and to respect for others and helps us to understand the ground upon which our faith is built.

There is a problem though, if we become too comfortable in our patterns of worship and discipleship. It was risk that brought the followers of Jesus together on the day of Pentecost – they looked for comfort and security in each other’s company. Yet God loved them too much to leave them there – they were filled with God’s Spirit and led to an outrageous, dangerous way of life that turned them into outcasts, prisoners, victims of persecution – yet also led to a world-wide family of faith that still today is prompted by the Spirit to proclamation and love in action.

My worry is that often in church we are like the disciples before the Spirit was poured out – we look for comfort and security, we look to be with those who are like ourselves – we can become a closed shop, a private club with rules of our own that we understand, we can turn inward and love each other but forget about the world that God loves. We end up ‘on message’ when for God’s sake and the world’s we need to forget our own security and be ‘on fire’.

We become the opposite of Pentecost, expecting people to conform, to understand our language – both spoken language and the language of our actions. If the Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost was a dance of passionate love to which all are invited, we sometimes seem more like the wall-flowers at a dance, sitting on the sidelines moaning that we don’t like the music.

What do you need to risk in order to join the dance? What do I need to set aside and let go of to live in that more dangerous, outrageous place of loving which God is calling me to? What do you need to decide is less important than the proclamation of God’s love in word and action – what rules and limits have we as a church and as disciples placed on the Spirit of God?

The Spirit will not be confined by our way of being church, will not be daunted by our fear – the Spirit is still moving and dancing within the world today, still prompting us to join in. If we live in fear and in a restricted form of discipleship that is lost in rules and is daunted by the world beyond these walls then the spirit will break out in other places, will pour out upon men and women, will cause them to prophesy and old and young will see visions and dream dreams. We may find that we are left behind, huddled together in safety against a world gone mad – but where is God? God is there in the world, calling us to join in, to speak out, to let go.

Where is our hope in this? I believe God continues to pour out the Holy Spirit into our lives, our church and the world today. As Peter said in his sermon – everyone who calls on the name of God shall be saved. We know this, yet we do not always live as those who are confident. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will refresh us and renew us today and give us the courage to live as Christ’s people in the world. Amen.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

A glimpse of glory

Reflecting on Ruth Gee's Presidential Address, I was reminded of this poem from 'The Weaver, The Word and Wisdom. It may be of help to those attending Conference who find London a challenging place to be!

A Colour Catches My Eye

Lost in the hot crush of a heaving crowd,
I find myself frustrated by the tourist pace of casual, slow enquiry.
I am in a hurry.

I want to walk faster than this,
but the busy streets close around me.
I have a train to catch.

In the hustle of the holiday throng,
with a dozen different languages
rough on my ears,
I stand still.

Between the buildings a colour catches my eye.
A banner of flaming red,
scorched with yellow,
burns for a split second.

Brought to my ears
on an impudent breeze,
the sound of a samba band
beating to a rhythm of thunder and power.

From deep within my closed and worried throat
comes laughter,
uncalled for and unexpected,
bubbling up, brilliant with giggling joy.

I see myself lifted from sombre sobriety
to a state of intoxicated glee
that gives me a voice
and opens my eyes
to the reality of a city that is carnival chaos,
Mardi Gras magic and festival frenzied.

In a moment of grace
I know a new spirit,
moving my feet to a different rhythm
and my heart to a fuller way of loving.

Michaela Youngson

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

If only

A crowd of some hundreds gathered in the icy cold of the quad at Somerset House tonight to mark the possibility of changing the world.
Before the crowds arrived.
Charities, NGOs, faith groups and committed individuals shivered, texted, tweeted in solidarity as the new multi-agency campaign IF was launched by celebrities from business, screen, sport and entertainment. There's something almost uniquely British about the sound of mittens and gloves clapping in muffled appreciation of people preaching to the converted!

As Enough Food for Everyone - If was being launched in Parliament, it was also being live streamed from the more public event at Somerset House, the place we used to get our passports from. Passports are about identity and crossing borders - we need to be part of a new human identity with the ability to cross borders of the causes of hunger and that is what the IF campaign is all about.

These agencies, including MRDF, The Methodist Church, Christian Aid and Traidcraft (and almost 100 others) are working together to bring an end to hunger. In the hour we watched classy graphics and listened to guests remind us why this all matters, 200 children died of malnutrition. That hour and every hour and what is so heartbreaking is that it doesn't have to be this way.... if

... we work together in this campaign on FOUR BIG IFS...

IF we stop big companies dodging taxes in poor countries, so that millions of people can free themselves from hunger.

IF we make the right investments to stop people dying from hunger, and help the poorest people feed themselves.

IF we stop poor farmers being forced off their land, and use crops to feed people, not fuel cars.  

IF we force governments and big corporations to be honest and open about their actions that stop people getting enough food.

This new campaign is going to be on the scale of Make Poverty History, if we get behind it. There are key dates and events throughout the year when together our voices can convince Governments to make real commitments to save the lives of millions.

Here's Bill Gates, who sent a message to the launch:

Another Bill spoke at the launch - Actor Bill Nighy, who reminded us that many gathered there would never have believed that apartheid would end in South Africa, yet Mandela is free and that regime is long gone and that Nelson Mandela made a point of thanking the millions who marched, wrote letters, campaigned and got together to end that injustice. It worked then, why can't such action work now? In fact what else will?

Bonnie Wright (who played Ginny Weasley in the Harry Potter films) spoke about getting young people involved. She pointed out that her generation were born after apartheid, they don't have the experience of those marches and movements of mass concern. But they care and they have social networking and if they catch a vision and are helped to believe that working together changes things, they will get behind this.

What next? Sign up at to get news. I'm going to be looking for London Methodists who want to get behind this campaign, so contact me if you can help. 

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Waiting - A Reflection

Advent shines with anticipation as amidst the gloom of short days and drab skies a day of glorious winter sunshine breaks through. A forerunner to the light breaking into darkness, absolution announced by gracious creation shattering a penitential season.

In this pause, as heaven holds its breath, filling her lungs with the air needed to rent the skies apart with hallelujahs, earth waits, troubled, scarred and distracted.

Waiting, those whose hearts are breaking, relationships strained or shattered, left wondering what it was all about.
Waiting, those holding on to hear what the doctors might say, wondering how long before pain gives way to health or death.
Waiting, those whose jobs are at risk, wondering if they will be one of the lucky ones or if their world is going to become smaller and a struggle.
Waiting, those sleeping in sheds, doorways, shelters, refugee camps, wondering just how cold it will be tonight.
Waiting, those who lie awake listening to the sounds of unrest and rioting outside, wondering when peace will settle more deeply into their community.

Break into the waiting, Wonderful Counsellor
Break into the waiting, Prince of Peace
Hold those who are wondering,
Inspire hope in the hopeless
and disturb the comfortable.

Enter our longing, as we look for the glimpses of Immanuel, God with us.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Captain John Gravill

A brief account of the life of my ancestor, Captain John Gravill. He commanded the Diana, the last whaling ship to sail from Hull. He died 99 years before my birth, bar one day. He was a member of the Wesleyan Methodist Church and some sources suggest was a lay preacher. 15,000 people attended his funeral.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Reposted - a parable for the new Boss @ the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street

Matthew 18 a new perspective

The realm of heaven may not be compared to a Government that wished to settle accounts with it's financial institutions. One such institution had used the funds entrusted to it to lend to others who were unable to pay it back. The institution's account books looked at first glance to be very healthy but this was not true, the value on the books bore no relation to the capital supporting the institution's debts. Many who were owed money by the institution found that their account balances were worth less or worthless.

The Government was under pressure from the media and the public to support those who had lost their shirts as a result of the actions of the institution. The institution pleaded with the Government to be let off and to continue, arguing that to be punished for its actions would be disastrous as its creditors would loose out and the world would come to an end.

The Government rescued the institution giving it lots and lots of public money, letting it go and continue to trade in a similar way to that which had led to the trouble. The institution and its shareholders were happy.

A person who had borrowed money from the institution to buy a home was unable to pay. How did the institution (so recently in receipt of grace and oodles of tax=payer's money) act? It turned the borrower from their home along with the family.

How did the generous Government respond to this graceless and cruel action by the institution? It declared that this was not its problem, cut housing benefit, made it harder for the borrower to find work and continued to offer the institution all the support it needed, giving it until 2019 to change its working habits.

And the place of forgiveness in this story....?

Sunday, 25 November 2012

In Praise of Tuneful Dissent

"To speak the glories of God in a religious song, or to breath out the joys of our own spirits to God with the melody of our voice is an exalted part of Divine Worship. But so many are the imperfections in the practice of this duty that the greatest part of Christians find but little edification or comfort in it. There are some churches that utterly disallow singing, and I'm persuaded that the poor performance of it in the best societies, with the mistaken rules to which it is confined, is one great reason of their entire neglect. For we are left at a loss (say they) what is the matter and manner of this duty, and therefore they utterly refuse. Whereas if this glorious piece of worship were but seen in its original beauty, and one that believes not this ordinance, or is unlearned in this part of Christianity should come into such an assembly, he would be convinced of all, he would be judged of all, he would fall down on his face, and report that God was in the midst of it of a truth."
From a short Essay towards the improvement of psalmody, Isaac Watts.

Isaac Watts (1674 - 1748) is celebrated today by the Anglican Church (on the anniversary of his death). This is quite a reversal for the son of a Dissenter who was one of those exiled from the Church of England in the 'Great Ejection'. Isaac was at home in the dissenting tradition of his parents and was ordained as a non-conformist minister in 1703 (the year of John Wesley's birth). 

He is also known as the 'father of hymnody', able to write and speak in verse from a very early age his parents encouraged him to use the skill in relation to holy scripture.

I went today (somewhat unwillingly...) to Westminster Abbey for evening worship, where Watts was remembered. Three of his hymns formed the structure of the service, which was low church in its liturgical simplicity. Sadly, with no choir and most of the congregation being tourists who clearly never sing in church, the singing did no justice at all to his remarkable poetry nor to the great tunes Nativity, St Anne and the tremendous Truro.

It was strange being in the Abbey, just a few days after Synod and its institutional and systematic stumbling over its own feet. To hear the officiant talk about the 'Great Ejection' a few hundred yards from the site of this week's great rejection of women as bishops in the Church of England. Strange because of all the British cathedrals this feels the most over-stuffed with objects, like a Victorian parlour - busts to the great, the good, the deadly, the poetic - statues of dead men everywhere, accompanied by little naked cherubs in various states of joy, boredom or despair. How odd that Watt's memorial is there in a place that represents so much that the dissenters resented and wished to be free from.

Earlier in the week I attended Evensong at St Paul's Cathedral - in fact it was on Tuesday night, two hours before Synod heard the result of its debate and vote. Whilst some of the glories of that building leave me bewildered, it has a grace and beauty that stand as a tribute to Wren's genius to this day. It, in contrast to the Abbey, has a wonderful sense of airiness and space and the sight-lines are considerably better. The worship was gracious and the choir more than competent - I found myself lost in the Magnificat, holding all those women who bear Christ to the world today, in prayer. It was as if I (and others) were holding our breath during that service, waiting for a new birth, a fulfilling of a God inspired possibility and yet... no, the gestation is going to be longer and the labour more painful than is desirable or necessary.

Just in case you think that I've spent all week with my Covenant partners, I've done a lot of Methodist mingling too. More meetings than you can shake a stick at but also a visit to the ArtServe Conference where I spoke about my love of glass and my playing at being a glass-fusing artist.

ArtServe is formed in some ways by those who dissent and those who historically have held the tradition of hymnody precious within the life of the church. It is formed of the remnants of Creative Arts in Methodism and the Methodist Church Music Society. Artists, pushing the edges of articulating truth and beauty; musicians, contemporary and traditional - moving to the rhythms of God's creative Spirit and rich inheritors of the gifts of Watts, Wesley, Farrell, Bell, Pratt-Green....

Perhaps the wider church and, in this moment, the Church of England, might learn from such as Artserve, where those who move to very different tunes have stopped saying 'but we don't do it like that' and have begun to embrace and celebrate diversity as a gift and an imperative from the God who created us (male, female and in God's image).