Saturday, 28 December 2013

Christmas Presence

Here's an (attempted) written version of the all-age talk I gave during the Christmas Day Eucharist at St. Andrew's. It was a bit looser & more ad-libbed than this, but the key message was the same...


Who managed to open their presents before coming to church this morning? Did you get anything nice? Well, I didn't get the chance, so I brought mine with me – would you mind if I opened them now?

This ones nice & big! It's... a jumper & hat.
Hmm. I try to get excited by clothes...

Well, onto the second one. The label says “Merry Christmas – thought this would help you clean up your act!” It's...shower gel! I'm always a bit worried if I get this kind of things - are they trying to tell me something?!

Ah, last one – and it's such an unusual shape! I wonder what it is...a torch! Is this some kind of wind-up? Oh, here's a handle – it's a wind-up torch...!

Do you ever feel like the presents are more exciting when you don't know what they are? Don't get me wrong, these are great presents & I'm very grateful for them, but when they were wrapped up& hidden they held so much mystery & promise, and now I know what they are that's all gone.

I wonder how the shepherds felt when, after all the excitement of the angels appearing and filling the sky, they got to the stable? Maybe they had in their mind the kind of nativity scene we've seen around us over the last few weeks (or months) – glowing halos, a fluorescent, radioactive glowing baby, more angels? Instead, its likely they a very ordinary young couple: travellers, homeless, relying on the generosity of others to have a roof over their head, huddled together with a very ordinary looking little baby...

Perhaps they were disappointed at first glance. The wrapper had come off, but the gift seemed so much less exciting. And yet, when they saw the family, “they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.”1 The true worth of the gift of Jesus was not the outside appearance, but what his birth meant – and still means. God with us. The promised saviour is here!

The gifts I just unwrapped might not look exciting, but what do they represent. Maybe the hat reminds me of Jesus with me in my thoughts – his Spirit guiding my prayers – his comfort and his peace when I need him most?

The jumper could be Jesus in my heart, helping me to love the stranger, the poor, the refugee, the homeless – people existing just as Jesus did in his own life, on the margins of society.

The torch could remind me Jesus the light of the world, a lamp unto my feet and a light to my path. This one never runs out of power, you just keep winding it – Jesus light shines for ever!

And the shower gel...well, maybe this reminds me that Jesus would go on to die on the cross for me, and for you, to wash us clean from our sins “not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”2

The best present any of us have got this Christmas is Jesus. His love is a gift for today, tomorrow and the rest of our lives. We shouldn't just clear him away with the left-over turkey, or pack him up with the baubles until next year. He is willing to be with us every day, not just at Christmas – and that's a gift that money can't buy.

1Luke 2:17-18
2Titus 3:5

Sunday, 22 December 2013

♪ ♫ So here it is... ♫ ♪

This is the sermon I preached at both St. Andrew's & St. Peter's today (22nd December - 4th Sunday of Advent).


So, are you ready for Christmas? Are you prepared – or do you feel like there's still loads to do?

Well, however you are feeling about Christmas today, take a few moments to relax. Maybe close your eyes. I'd like us to use our imaginations for a bit. Imagine it's tonight – you've had a busy day, what with church this morning, then rushing to get dinner sorted so you can come back at 4 'o' clock for the Parish Christmas Celebration, then dash to St. Peter's at 7pm for the Traditional Lessons & Carols. You've had a glass of mulled wine and too many mince pies afterwards, and now, you're ready for bed. You drift off into sleep - and something happens.

An angel 'appears' – how does that happen to you? A voice in your head? A sense – a feeling – a physical presence..? However it happens to you, this is a real possibility – it's happened to plenty of others before.

The angel brings a message. You've recently found out something about somebody who you care for deeply – something that indicates they have broken the law, and hurt you in the process. You've decided to cut off your ties from them, but in such a way as not to expose them to shame & humiliation – at least, as best as you can. Yet this messenger says you are to stick by this person – not in spite of what they have done, but because what they have done is actually the right thing, no matter what others say. The explanation of the situation, of how it is really ok, is impossible - or at least you think is impossible - and God wants you to be part of it.

What's your gut reaction as I say that? He wouldn't ask me! He couldn't ask me! I would do anything for God (but I won't do that...)

It's interesting that Matthew chooses to tell this part of the story from Joseph perspective, unlike Luke who explains it all from Mary's angle. Joseph isn't involved in the conception of Jesus at all, yet Matthew makes him centre stage – why? Well, partly because, through Joseph, Jesus becomes part of the house of David, thus fulfilling the scriptures and adding weight to his being the promised Messiah. But more so, it is to emphasize a particular human response to God's word which Matthew sees as essential to Christianity.

Luke emphasises Mary's response to the angel – the response of a young woman, promised in marriage & old enough to know where babies come from, who knows what is expected of her when she is wed... and the consequences of what happens to girls who are seen to have done such things before they are married Yet she is somebody who is innocent enough, possibly naïve enough, to trust the angel’s words, to accept them wholeheartedly, and to allow God's will to be done to her.

Matthew, through Joseph, focuses on the active part of the human response to the incarnation. Three times Joseph is given instruction by an angel in a dream, and three times he must do something in response to the message. In this instance, it is to take Mary to be his wife and ensure the child is named Jesus. Later, he is told to flee to Egypt to save Jesus from the slaughter of the innocents, and finally he is told to return to Israel – each time, he obeys, seemingly without hesitation. But Joseph was just a man – and I imagine there must have been times it all seemed too much. When they were travelling to Bethlehem for the census & he was having to nurse his pregnant wife. When he could not provide proper accommodation for the woman he loved, and had to witness her go through the agonies of childbirth in a dirty stable.

Yet he chooses to stay faithful, to believe, as the Queen of Hearts does in Lewis Carroll's Alice Through The Looking Glass, at least six impossible things before breakfast.

So this coming week we celebrate the birth of Jesus, and the point when those impossible things became possible. And at that point, the story begins again. Go into any shop, pub, café & chances are the usual Christmas pop songs are blasting out – which is nice, except when they've had the same CD on since November! But, love or loathe them, maybe they are worth a second listen. You see, I think Slade were on to something. “So here it is, Merry Christmas! Everybody's having fun! Look to the future now, it's only just begun” sings Noddy Holder. And if we turn away from the commercialisation & celebrate a true Christmas – by which I mean observe Advent as a season in itself & celebrate Christmas over it's intended 12 days - then Christmas Day does indeed mark the point where we should celebrate the birth of the Saviour of the world, God's Word made flesh, Immanuel, God with us – then look to the future which has, indeed, only just begun. If we dare to allow Christmas to be a new beginning, if we welcome Christ into our world, either again or for the first time, and let him use us, inspire us, even love us – then it will be a truly new beginning.

Just as Mary's life was changed by her encounter with the angel, by welcoming Christ into her, and by sharing him with others, ours can be too. Her's is a very human story – and yes, there appears to be times when she was scared of the repercussions this would have for herself & the family - for example, when she and his brothers & sisters go to intervene when he is seemingly out of control (Mark 3:31-35). She's his mother – she wants to keep him, and the family, safe. But her overwhelming attitude is that of sharing him with the world – as a baby in the manger with the shepherds, as a young boy with the magi, at the temple with Simeon and Anna, etc., etc., because she knows who he is. She trusts. She believes. And she knows it is important for the world to know that. She even encourages him to do his first miracle, at the wedding in Cana.

Just as Joseph's life was changed by his encounter with the angel – by getting on and doing what God had called him to do, despite the social stigma it would bring, despite the danger, the challenge, the cost to his own ego... ours can be changed too. Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount by saying “Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven (Matthew 7:21).

Paul also challenges us, in his letter to the Romans, declaring our Lord is the one “through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name; including ourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.”

Dare we let Mary's story inspire us to let Jesus in, completely in, to let him turn our lives upside down, and to share him with those around us? Dare we let Joseph's story inspire us to go out on a limb for Jesus, to put ourselves in a counter-cultural, vulnerable place for He who came into this world to save us?

Christmas doesn't end with the birth of Jesus – it begins. Christmas starts with Christ. Are we ready, really ready, for Christmas..?

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Tomorrow's Sunday

Here's my debut article for the Sunderland Echo's 'Tomorrow's Sunday' column - published 14th December 2013.
Tomorrow is the Third Sunday of Advent, and many churches will be lighting a pink (or rose) coloured candle on their wreath. This candle always stands out against the dark, penitential purple candles in the other three spaces, drawing the eye when the whole is unlit. This is only right, as traditionally the third candle represents Joy – Joy that we are now closer to Christmas, Joy at the impending celebrations of the birth of Jesus, Joy that the wait will soon be over.

However, amongst all the busyness and stress that our commercialised Christmas now carries with it, it can be hard to find that Joy, let alone time to appreciate it. We get so weighed down by the pressure to make Christmas 'perfect' that we miss the point; so concerned with buying things to show we care we fail to show the people around us how much we value them.

So this Sunday, why not take a few moments to stop, draw breath and be still? Maybe pray if you can? Look around at what you have achieved, the stuff you have accumulated and ask if you really need to do more. Allow yourself to be thankful for what you have, and pray for those who are less fortunate. Then help your friends and loved ones do the same. Like the rose candle blazing in the darkness that surrounds it, let the love of Christ fill your heart with his joy, and his peace, as you prepare to celebrate the most special of birthdays.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Once upon a match day...

I preached this sermon on Sunday (27th October) at All Saints church. I'm not claiming to be a prophet, but the subsequent result of the derby match that afternoon makes me wonder if I was on to something..
Once upon a match day, a Newcastle fan was making his way to the Stadium of Light for the Wear/Tyne derby. Dressed proudly in his replica shirt he strode purposefully on, failed to look properly as he crossed the road and was knocked down by a car. He opened his eyes and found himself outside the pearly gates which, to his horror, were festooned with red and white scarves, bunting and flags. After all, as most of us here know, and Pope Francis seemed to acknowledge during the week, God is a Sunderland fan...

The Geordie stood up, puffed out his chest and marched up to figure behind the desk. St. Peter looked him up and down and spoke in a clear, measured voice.
“You're not coming in wearing that!”
The man stared back. “You have to let me in,” he began.
“I'm a good person. I deserve to go to heaven.”
“Why do you say that?” asked Peter.

“Well, I don't drink, smoke or swear, unlike most of the Mackems down there!” he replied. “I always give up my seat to a lass or granny on the Metro, and I don't do the bookies or look up dirty pictures on the internet like everybody else seems to.”

St. Peter seemed unmoved, so the man kept going.

“I even watch Songs of Praise sometimes, though not when Aled Jones is on 'cos he sold out and did that rubbish thing on ITV. And I'm generous!”

Peter raised a quizical eyebrow.

“Yeah,” said the Geordie, “Ask anyone, they've all seen how generous I am. I put a £20 note on the plate the vicar was holding when our Mandy's bairn got done – he saw it, he'll tell you! And I gave a tenner to a tramp the other day when I was with wor lass – she said I was dead soft, but was pleased I told him not to waste it all on drink, though he will anyway. That must be enough to get me in here.”

St. Peter stroked his beard and thought for a moment.

“I'll go and tell the boss what you've told me,” he said. “Wait here.”

A few minutes later, Peter returned. “I've talked to the boss,” he said.

The man smiled, knowing what was coming.

Peter looked him straight in the eye and said “He agrees with me – here's you £30 back, now sling your hook!”

The opening sentence of our Gospel reading makes it clear who the parable Jesus goes on to tell is aimed at: those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” People who, when they take a look at themselves, their lives, their overall behaviour, lifestyle, etc., conclude they are acceptable to God – that God will look favourably on them because of how they live and, by the same token, look down on those who do not do as they do, or live as they live.

But the interesting point is that his audience is unlikely to have been the Pharisees themselves. Aside from being incredibly offensive, and so out of whack with the way he often sought to teach them over dinner, it could have easily led those in the crowd who were not Pharisees to fall into the kind of behaviour he was condemning - “Ooo, he's having a pop at those Pharisees over there – I'm glad I'm not like them...!”

Rather, it was addressed to his disciples, not just the twelve, but the crowd of others who followed him around – something born out in the next part of the Gospel when he rebukes them for not allowing the little children to approach. He's not criticising all Pharisees, and he's not criticising the things the Pharisee says he has done – things like tithing and fasting are encouraged elsewhere. The issue is his attitude toward others. His list of those he is not like shows his misunderstanding of a God who, as those of you who came to our Harvest celebration may remember, requires His people to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God, as stated in Micah 6 verse 8.

But how often do we unwittingly fall into the same trap as the Pharisee, or the Geordie: the “at least I'm not like...” thoughts that creep in uninvited. We may not be as blatant in our boasting as those in our tales, but we can be, for want of a better word, proud of our perceived virtues when it comes to our treatment of others.

For example, our regular Church attendance of itself does not 'earn' us a place in heaven, because it is not something that can be earned. Rather our regular Church attendance helps us to grow, to hear scripture explained, to join together to seek God's will for us and our neighbour, to find the strength to look outside the walls of our building here, and our homes and seek to show the remarkable love of Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose again so we may have eternal life, to those who do not know him. In other words, to grow his kingdom on earth.

When a church congregation is a truly non-judgemental, safe space where people can come and learn to become a disciple of Jesus, it grows. We need to remember, as Archbishop Justin Welby recently said, that “the church is not a rest home for saints but a lifeboat for sinners.” Then, like the tax collector, we will find ourselves justified before our maker.

And this is the really shocking part of the parable – and deliberately so. Jesus is saying the tax collector, though still a sinner, is more open to God than the Pharisee, who to all intents and purposes is a very sincere, devout individual - purely for humbling himself: for seeking to take the plank from his own eye instead of jabbing around for the specks in the eyes of those around him.

This doesn't mean we are to consciously continue in sin – as we learnt from Paul in last weeks reading from 2 Timothy once you have a relationship with the living God this is not an option – but a reminder that none of us are spotless, none of us are better than the person next to us, or the young person having to stay in Centrepoint, or the single parent living off benefits, or whoever it is the Daily Mail feels the urge to criticize this week.

We all fall short. We all need God's grace. Our virtuous living becomes a millstone if it is used to exclude people from God's presence rather than as a way of drawing them into his kingdom.
Paul got this; he understood better than most the temptation to justify oneself for following 'the law' from his time as the most fundamental of Pharisees - something he alludes to in verse 16 of today's reading, where he echoes the plea of Stephen, whom he watched stoned to death for talking of Jesus while guarding the coats of those doing the throwing. So when Paul states that the “the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to” him when he dies will also be given to “all who have longed for Jesus appearing,” we can see how far he has come. When you take today's reading in context, as the conclusion of his letter, Paul appears to be saying to Timothy – and to us all - “I have fulfilled my ministry, during which the message was fully proclaimed so all the Gentiles might hear it – now you must fulfil yours, and do likewise.”

It is not up to us to judge who is worthy of a place in heaven – only God can do that, and he will. Our job is to help all around us into the lifeboat and let Him steer us to shore. And for those of us here who feel just like the tax collector: painfully aware of our shortcomings, unable to lift our eyes because of the weight of failure or guilt on our shoulders, questioning if God could ever love somebody like you...rejoice! Those who humble themselves will be exalted. Acknowledging our sin is the first step. Asking Jesus to help us change is the second. After all, if he can love somebody like me there's hope for everybody.

So please, this week take the pew sheet home and carve out some time, even just half an hour, to re-read the passage from Luke. Thank God for all he has done in you life, and ask Him to help you look with His eyes at all you come across that day. Then finish off by saying what has now become known as the Jesus prayer, the words of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

So maybe our story should have gone like this...

The Geordie opened his eyes and found himself outside the pearly gates which, to his horror, were festooned with red and white scarves, bunting and flags. He looked down at his black and white shirt, unable to lift his eyes, and thumping at the badge that symbolised his rebellion, his mistakes and his pride cried out “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Then all around him the light grew brighter. The black stripes on his shirt faded away, as did the red decorating the now-open gates. All was white and radiant, but somehow the brightest part was a man, dressed simply, bearing deep wounds on his forehead, hands and feet, now standing before him.

Holding out his scarred hand toward the weeping Geordie, with a voice soft and welcoming, he spoke.
“Follow me,” he said, “We need to talk...”

About Me

So (in the tradition of most meetings any of us have ever attended) state your name & a bit about yourself...

I'm Paul, husband of 1, father of 3 (with one on the way), Assistant Curate in the Church of England, serving the Monkwearmouth Parish. I'm a Norwich City fan & I like music, sport & films. The rest you can work out from the blog!

As you can (hopefully?!) guess from the C of E label, I'll be writing from a Christian perspective but all are welcome: whether you are of any faith or none, I hope you'll find something here for you.

Comments, conversation or questions would be great - and you can find me on Twitter @paulchild5 if that floats your boat.

Thanks for dropping by :-)

Here we go!

So I thought I'd try my hand at this blogging lark!
I'm guessing this will be a repository for thoughts, sermons, musings and brain-fluff - but I'm sure we'll find out as time goes on.

Feel free to comment, ask questions or groan at my lame attempts at humour, but do pop back from time to time - the kettle is usually on!
Thanks for dropping by :-)