Contact us at:
St. Stephen's Church
St. Stephen's Street
Worcester WR3 7HS
Please note that these are all personal phone numbers.
There is no phone in the church.
Reverend Andy Todd Curate-in-charge
Parish Administrator and Churchwarden
Tel: 01905 863537
Tel: 01905 616427
Missed a service or want to revisit a particular sermon? Below you will find some of our sermons for you to read. More will follow!
Sunday 3rd December 2017 – First Sunday of Advent - 8 am Sermon
New Testament Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Gospel: Mark 13:24-37
Advent is here (again), and we know what that means: a gentle countdown to Christmas, with plenty of warm, familiar images everywhere. “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire …”, that sort of thing. However far removed it may be from your or my real experience of this time of year, the images are comfortable and dependable: you know where you are with Advent.
You find a lot of the same thing in the Church, too. As we tell and retell the story of the events leading up to Christ’s birth, it can all feel very cosy and familiar, like a favourite old jumper, or a pair of comfy slippers.
So being faced with the stark warnings we have just heard Jesus give, right at the beginning of Advent, can seem a bit disconcerting. No comforting images here. “The sun will be darkened … the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Picture language, probably, for earth-shattering events, rather than a literal description of the end of the world, but that does not make it any the less unsettling.
The event which these cataclysmic happenings accompany is the mysterious “coming of the Son of Man”, for which Jesus encourages his hearers – both then and now – to be prepared.
What did he mean by the “coming of the Son of Man”?
At one level, he seems to have had something in mind which would happen imminently: “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Many commentators have seen the events a generation after Jesus’ death, when Jerusalem was besieged, taken and destroyed by Roman armies, as a fulfilment (or part-fulfilment) of Jesus’ prophecy. Certainly, that would have felt like the end of the world for those involved, and to Jesus’ followers would have seemed a vindication of some of his warnings to the people of his day, set as many were on a path of violent resistance.
But at another level, the Church has always believed that Christ would one day come again to complete the work of redeeming and healing the world: then he will be seen by all to be what we believe he already is - the King of All. That hasn’t happened yet, but it is fundamental to our hope as Christians that it will. We do not know when, but Jesus was clear that we need to be ready for it, like servants awaiting the return of their master at some point during the long night.
How to make sure we are ready? Paul offers some pointers in his letter to the Corinthian Christians, and it’s all about keeping focused on Jesus himself. In the few verses we heard this morning, Paul mentions Jesus no less than 6 times! Christ is to be at the centre of our understanding of the world, and of all history. Staying focused on Christ is the way for you and me to keep ourselves in the place where God can be faithful to His promises to us, strengthening us and giving us the gifts we need to be ready for Jesus’ return – and effective in the meantime.
So this Advent, amid all the warm fuzzy images, try to listen for the undertone of warning. The coming of God is not a comfortable, familiar thing; it shakes each of us and our very society to its foundations. Stay focused on Christ! Look for his coming more eagerly than a child waits for Christmas! That is the true meaning of Advent.
Sunday 26th November 2017 – Christ the King - 8 am Sermon
New Testament Reading: Ephesians 1:15-end
Gospel: Matthew 25:31-end
The International Court of Justice has made it into the headlines in Britain not once but twice in the past week or so: with the announcement that - for the first time in its 71-year history - the UK will not have a seat on its bench of judges; and its sentencing of Ratko Mladic to life imprisonment for war crimes during the Bosnian conflict in the 90’s.
Whatever you think of the rights or wrongs of the ICJ as such, it surely represents one of the really significant developments of the past century in the way human society orders itself. No longer is the international community willing to stand by and allow gross injustices against humanity to pass unchallenged.
In that respect, the ICJ points, I think, to a deep human longing for justice to be done and to be seen to be done – not only in the detail of our own lives, but at a global level, too. However elusive the idea of justice may be in practice, it seems to be part of our make-up to want to see wrongs righted and a sense of balance and order restored.
Today the Church reaches the end of its liturgical calendar. The year, which started last Advent with a sense of longing expectancy for the coming of God’s promised saviour, ends with the celebration of Christ the King, affirming that God has exalted that Saviour, Jesus, to the highest place. And part of that celebration is to affirm the hope that, in Jesus, God has begun and will one day complete the process of judging all that diminishes life, and of restoring right order to the whole cosmos.
The picture – it’s not really a parable – of the sheep and the goats is a graphic expression of that hope. It’s all about judgment, but perhaps the most striking feature of it, is the surprise of both the sheep and the goats at the criterion by which they are judged: how did they treat the “little ones”, the insignificant ones, the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner?
But the real point of the picture is not that the really important thing in life is to show kindness to others. Instead, I think it’s that it isn’t possible to make a neat separation between our relationship with God and how we behave towards our suffering brothers and sisters – certainly our fellow Christians, but all who suffer anywhere. When St Paul prays for the church in Ephesus that they may know God, this recognition is at the very heart of what he means. When you and I look into the face of those who suffer, we are seeing Christ’s face. And when one day we look into Christ’s face, we will recognise – with joy or with horror – the faces of the poor and suffering we either helped or ignored.
For the Church today, this is both a comfort and a challenge.
A comfort to our many brothers and sisters who today suffer persecution for their faith, that Christ is right there, alongside them.
And to any – maybe including you and me – who might have failed to recognise the face of our King among the poor and oppressed everywhere, a stark challenge: to remember that the Church’s calling, like its Lord’s, is to bring life from death, healing from hurt, and hope from despair.
Trying to get clear on exactly what that means in practice is no easy matter. How do you and I show solidarity with our imprisoned and persecuted fellow-Christians? How do we feed the hungry and clothe the naked? These are hard questions, which will demand our best thinking.
But when you and I, dear brothers and sisters, apply our minds and use our resources to do just that, we will find ourselves engaged in God’s work of bringing justice now.
Like so much of the truth to which Christ points us, it’s not an easy or a comfortable message. But let’s be clear that this is not some optional add-on for “serious” Christians. Hearing this challenge and acting on it lies at the very heart of what it means for you and me to make ourselves ready to meet our coming King.
Sunday 12 November 2017 10am
REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY 2017
The conclusion of this morning’s service is an act of remembrance for those who died in the two world wars. This is a national – or even international – day of commemoration, but it is equally as valid and significant as a local act of commemoration. St Stephens church has two war memorials – the outside one in the churchyard, and one on the wooden screen inside the church across the base of the tower. The names of 86 men are recorded on those memorials, the majority of whom were from families with a direct connection with Barbourne. That is, they were from our own local community, our neighbours.
World War 1 and the Second World War were once a tangible part of the history of most families, with parents, grandparents, uncles or other relatives having been involved in one way or another, and some of whom may have been amongst the killed and injured. Inevitably, time moves on and such memories are now not so vivid in the community. Those who had a connection – direct or indirect - with these more notable events have themselves passed away and the recollection of engagement, excitement, adventure, danger and loss are probably no longer talked about in the home.
Before we go on to this morning’s remembrance ceremonies I want to give a picture of who at least some of those men were, in the hope that our act of remembrance will help us feel close and relevant to those who died in the service of our country, to defend our values and our way of life.
Who are we remembering today? The men who are named on our memorials are quite a mix really. Ten were Regular soldiers or sailors, but the vast majority were ordinary clerks, labourers or technicians. The mix includes the sons of wealthy business families (the Spreckleys), sons of families with professional backgrounds (teachers, public administrators) and – by far the biggest group – ordinary working families. These families lived in streets right around this church (and perhaps some still do) and perhaps some of you here today are the present occupants of those houses - but may not know it.
Let’s look a little closer at this group of men. We have six sets of brothers:
There is a pair of brothers-in–law: Thomas Allport (of No.2 Court, St Martins Gate) and George Firkins (of 13 Millburn Street).
And Donald Hemmings, who was a casualty in World War 2, was the nephew of Frank and Percy Hemmings who died in World War 1.
Some of the men who died were fathers, heads of households, with a wife and children - such as
Others were lively teenagers or in their early twenties who were inspired to fulfil their patriotic duty, or were looking for a bit of excitement and adventure; such as Second Lieutenant Vere Talbot Bayly, who was killed 8 May 1916 age 19 on the Somme. Or were perhaps unwillingly conscripted into the service of the country, such as Private Ernest Bridges of 18 Wakeman Street, who died 11 May 1917 age 27 in Macedonia.
And the casualties are spread across a very wide age range. The youngest was 17 (RAF Private 2nd Class John Brant, of 20 Melbourne Street), and the oldest 48 (Corporal of Horse Edward Jaynes, with Queens Own Worcestershire Hussars, whose family lived at 14 Summer Street). Perhaps inevitably, the vast majority of casualties were in the age range 19-35. Some of these – selected at random – were:
Whereas most of these died as a result of injuries received in battle or through the sinking of ships, a number died of accidents, sickness and disease either in service abroad, as prisoners of war, or here in the UK. Never-the-less, however they lost their lives, all died whilst serving their country and all should be equally recognised and remembered.
And what did they do before serving in the military? As mentioned earlier, these men held a range of jobs before they entered military service but let’s note a few of these to better understand the range:
You might be curious to know where these men are laid to rest. Not surprisingly, many are buried in cemeteries or commemorated on memorials in France and Belgium. Indeed, Judy, Joy, Jan and myself visited several of these places two years ago. Judy has put together a presentation of that visit, which is on the display boards at the back of the church. There are burials or commemorations of our local men in other countries – Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Macedonia, Greece and Germany. But there are also 8 buried or commemorated in England, with 5 burials in Astwood Cemetery here in Worcester.
And perhaps we should also reflect on what these men were doing for the country – what regiments or branches of military service they were engaged in when they lost their lives. We have all heard of the Pals Battalions of the First World War, where workmates or school chums, or simply neighbours, were recruited into the same regiment so that they could have the same sense of togetherness during their service as they did at home. Sadly, that was a flawed idea and only one of those named on our war memorials (Charles Mellor) lost their life whilst serving in a Pals Battalion. Having said that, 34 of the 86 (40%) served in one of 12 battalions of the Worcestershire Regiment. Others served across a range of units including infantry, cavalry, artillery, Royal Engineers, the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and the RAF. Perhaps some of the more unexpected units represented amongst the Barbourne casualties are the Tyneside Scottish, the Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Essex Regiment and the Ghurkha Rifles.
In drawing this commentary to a close, perhaps we ought to bear in mind that the men who died were not the only casualties. For the married men wives were left as widows, and who had to carry on bringing up the children as best they could. And those seriously wounded also had to find a way back into society and – if possible – work. Today we should also think about those who were left behind to build new lives, and how the local community would have been there to support them.
The PCC has undertaken to restore the outside war memorial in time for the centenary of its installation – in 2019. If you are interested in supporting this project in some way please let Andy, Judy or myself know.
29th October 2017 - 8 am Sermon
Gospel: Matthew 22:34-end
Matthew 22:37 “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’”
Today the Church celebrates Bible Sunday – although, in a very real sense, the Bible is right at the heart of our worship every Sunday. Nearly all the liturgy is drawn from it. And of course, we listen to it being read several times, declaring confidently, “This is the word [or the Gospel] of the Lord”.
But when you stop to think about it, it is quite difficult to say exactly in what sense it is God’s word to us.
For a start, the Bible is unlike most normal books, and more like a collection of literature – written, too, over a very long time. It contains history, law, poetry, prophecies, and much else besides. Nor does the vast bulk of it seem to be much about God addressing Himself directly to you or me.
And some of it seems quite problematic. Some parts are, frankly, pretty sordid – including some of the stories involving the heroes and heroines. Other parts seem to condone or even encourage violence, ethnic cleansing, and other things we find similarly unpalatable.
What are we to make of it?
It’s a big subject, but I want to offer one suggestion this morning.
The Bible sets out for us the stories of how individuals, families and whole peoples have responded to the loving initiative of God. I think you and I are meant to enter into those stories, and see reflected our own struggles to respond to God’s love for us. We’re meant, in short, to see these stories – somehow- as our own story.
But some of the responses recorded in the Bible have been good, some bad, and some downright ugly. How are you and I to decide which are which?
The key is Jesus Himself. Christians have always interpreted the Bible as converging around Jesus. That’s been true of some of the detail – as when we just heard him interpreting an Old Testament passage about David as relating to him. But much more is it a case of seeing the whole sweep of the story of the Bible as leading to him and from him. He gives meaning to all that went before, and all that comes after him.
In particular, in him we see what a perfect response to God and others looks like – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” He is the light in which we are to read the rest of the Bible.
Jesus is the measure, the lens through which we interpret all the rest of the story. How do all these characters, from Adam to Zechariah, from Elizabeth to Paul, do in terms of loving God with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their mind? Does that love look like Jesus’ love?
Does our love look like Jesus’ love?
Seen this way, the Bible offers (as Rowan Williams puts it) “a gift, a challenge, and an invitation into a new world, seeing yourself afresh and more truthfully.”
The Bible is the word of God above all because it points us to the Word (capital W) of God – the one who reveals God for who and what He is - Jesus. And the first proper response to that word has always been, and will always be, to listen, to pay attention, to see our lives in His light.
And that is true of course every day - not just on Bible Sunday!
22nd October 2017 - 8 am Sermon
Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22
Matthew 22:21 “Give … to God the things that are God’s.”
What does money mean to you? What does it represent? What sort of emotions does it conjure up for you? How would you describe your relationship with it?
Let me tell you a bit about my own relationship with money, and see if you recognise any of your experience here.
My father worked as an architect, and did pretty well on it. We had had a nice house, a decent car, holidays abroad. But then came the property downturn of the 1990s, and work became scarcer. By the time he died, in my 20s, all he left to my mother, my brother and me was a small house, and a hefty mortgage! We felt exposed, insecure, vulnerable.
Even though I didn’t fully realise it at the time, that experience had a profound effect on me. I set about making sure I wouldn’t be in that position again. Money came to represent for me: security, independence, my ability to satisfy my needs and wants, and the needs and wants of those I care about. It came to represent my being in control of my own destiny.
And that in a nutshell is why my relationship with money is often a flashpoint in my spiritual life.
Because, at its heart, to follow Christ means to say “no” to my sense of need to control my own destiny, and to acknowledge that I am dependent on God for all I am and have – including my money. It is to see all things as God’s gift. It is to seek to put God first, in every area of my life, including how I spend the money I have.
Meeting with other Christians for worship; receiving the sacraments; prayer; reading the Bible – all of these are disciplines by which you and I seek to let go of our tight grip on our lives, and allow God’s grace to begin to transform us. Giving money to God’s work in the Church is another of those ways, and in some respects it is one of the most difficult. Not for nothing has it been said that the last part of a person to be converted is their wallet.
So this morning, an invitation: to reflect on what money means to you. Is it primarily about you satisfying your needs and wants, with some of what is left going to God? Or is it about giving to God first?
If you truly make it about giving to God first, then – like worship, prayer, reading God’s word – what you do with your money really can become one of the ways in which you place yourself in God’s grace. And, as many have found through the ages, and as I have found in my own stumbling efforts to live Christ’s way, that opens the door to God’s blessing in our own lives, and through us begins to overflow to others.
15th October 2017 - 8 am Sermon
Gospel: Luke 17:11-19
Luke 17:17-18 “Then Jesus said to [the one leper who had come back to thank him], ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has saved you.’”
Harvest is one of the times during the year when the Church focuses especially on giving thanks to God. As the hymn says, “We thank thee then, O Father, for all things bright and good.”
At one level, you might think that saying “Thank you” is simply a matter of good manners. I say ‘simply’, but of course manners are important social conventions. Saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, as children are taught from an early stage, are ways in which each of us learns to recognise and value other people in our interactions. Societies neglect such conventions at their peril.
Equally, you might want to affirm that saying “thank you” is about “counting one’s blessings”. Again, there is certainly something in that. It serves as a corrective against a tendency to focus on the negative, and a reminder that things could – usually – be worse.
But there is something deeper than either good manners or counting one’s blessings at work when it comes to the practice of giving thanks to God, and it is something to which both our readings this morning point.
The Westminster Catechism says, “Humankind’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Why are you and I here? Why were we created? To glorify God. You and I and every other person who has ever lived or will ever live is created to find his or her deepest fulfilment in giving glory to God.
This is not of course some act of supreme egomania on God’s part. God is perfect love, and beauty, and peace, and life, and good, so naturally all created things can only reach their true potential when they recognise and live out their total dependence on Him – in short, when they glorify Him. It is their true vocation.
The act, the discipline, of thanking God, of giving glory to Him, reunites you and me with that deepest vocation. We are never more fully human than when we give thanks to God, and see everything – including life itself – as a precious gift from God.
So, when Jesus looks at the (now-healed) leper at his feet, he recognises in this man’s “thank you” that a healing has occurred deeper even than the physical healing of the nine others. “Your faith has saved you” – not just brought you healing.
And St Paul, commending the church in Corinth for its generous gift to the needy church in Palestine, sees in that gift both glory to God and the enriching of the givers: “You will be enriched in every way….” (vs11).
Harvest is a time to reflect on God’s goodness and generosity towards each of us. It is also a time for each of us to reflect on how – whether? – our own lives reflect something of that same generosity in our dealings with others. And it is a time to reconnect with our sense of gratitude for all that is good in life, and for God’s sustaining love and forgiveness in all that is not good. Through stirring ourselves to thankfulness we, too, can put ourselves back in touch with our deepest vocation as humans - to give glory to God. And we, too, can once again hear Jesus’ words addressed to us: “Go on your way; your faith has saved you.”
Sunday 8th October – 8.00am Sermon for Prison’s Week
Matthew 21: 33-end
The gospel reading tells us about the ingratitude of workers in a vineyard established by a – benevolent – landowner and equipped with all a vineyard needs in order to thrive. Fences, a wine-press, a watchtower. Grand. When the time comes to settle up and give the owner his dues, all hell breaks loose. The workers won’t pay. Instead they beat and even kill the messengers sent to collect the rent, including, most reprehensibly, the owner’s son.
It’s a parable where the owner is God and the workers are those in religious authority who ought to be in loving relationship, and bring others into that same loving relationship - but have gone spectacularly off the rails.
They have been given charge of this excellent enterprise, this brilliant and productive vineyard - and they’ve blown it.
But just for a moment, let’s consider if the vineyard you work in isn’t productive or brilliant or well-equipped. What if nothing will flourish there because the ground is poisoned.
Welcome to the start of Prison’s Week.
A young man, call him Ted, was one of four children. His dad had left home ages ago and his mum struggled to keep the family together. One Christmas morning when he was 10, his mum gave him and his brother 50p and told them to go to the garage and buy some sweets. The garage was quite some distance and it took them a good half hour to walk there. Then they met some friends and one way and another it was a couple of hours later that they got back home. Outside, a police car waited for them. Their mum had phoned the police just before she left with their two sisters. No note, no forwarding address. She simply couldn’t cope any more; the boys were taken into care, ran away, took to thieving…ended up inside. Is anyone surprised?
Dan is a twenty-something mixed race lad. He was six when his mum’s new partner moved in – six and a bit when the abuse began, eleven when he was taken into care. When he was fifteen three things happened: he was sent to a Young Offenders’ Institution, he started to cut himself and he took to sniffing glue. As he ‘progressed’ from YOI to adult jail so his cutting increased – desensitised, he had to cut deeper to feel any release. He left his childish glue sniffing behind and got hooked on heroin. If he was out of his head on drugs the memories went away.
Ryan is almost thirty now. In his teenage years he was a bit of a tearaway. He came into prison age 17 for theft serving a sentence of under two years. Thanks to the IPP, imprisonment for public protection, scheme he’s still in prison 11 years later. Time and again he kicks off; he doesn’t get through his parole board; he kicks off some more. Surprised?
Jim is in his 60s. He had a house and a job and a settled life. What happened, I asked him, that you ended up living on the streets? ‘My son died’, he said simply. Unable to cope with his grief he watched his life go down the drain and was powerless to stop it.
None of these prisoners claimed that they were innocent of the crimes that brought them into prison. It is, they might say, a fair cop. It’s the background story, the parts of their lives’ picture largely unseen, that I suggest isn’t ‘fair’. Their vineyard was not well-equipped to produce good fruit; they were themselves crushed in its wine-press; they hit out at those who came for what they couldn’t pay.
In Prisons’ Week, let us consider those whose lives have been growing ground for criminality; whose experience of the world is of an unkind and unlovely place; who believe they are unlovable and unloved. This week, hold prisoners in prayer to God our Father – but when you do, remember that for many of them the word ‘Father’ does not conjure images of benevolence and love. So, yes, pray, always – but also embody God’s love in how you think of them.
1st October 2017 - 8 am Sermon
Gospel: Matthew 21:12-16
Revelation 21:10 “Then one of the angels carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.”
The Bible begins with a garden and ends with … a city. The story begins with God creating a garden, where men and women can walk with Him in the cool of the evening, and ends with God lowering the New Jerusalem from heaven to Earth as a place where He can again dwell with people.
In fact, the story of the Bible, the story of God’s dealings with humankind, could well be characterised as the story of how God comes to dwell with His people: with Israel in the pillars of fire and cloud; then in Moses’ tabernacle; then in the Temple; then in Jesus (“the kingdom of God is among you”); then in the Church as the Spirit of God dwells within His people; and finally in the New Jerusalem, filled to overflowing with the glory of God.
Of course, a lot else happens in between. But the story is about how God makes His world ready to be filled with His glory. Cities in the Bible often stand for all that is most corrupt and set against the ways of God, and the example par excellence in the book of Revelation is Babylon, the symbol of all that ruins the life which God offers. The New Jerusalem is the antithesis of Babylon: the reality of which Babylon is a parody: the city filled with God’s glory, from which the waters of life flow for the healing of the Nations.
So the picture of God’s final plan for humankind is not of a bucolic ideal, but of a community: bustling with life, which both attracts and sends out life to the whole world. In God’s new creation, both the city and the country are healed and transformed. Humans live together in harmony, and also exercise their God-given vocation as stewards over the Earth and all it produces.
This transformation can only ever be God’s doing: the New Jerusalem is lowered from heaven, not built by human ingenuity. But as always, you and I are called to be partners with God in bringing that future reality to pass - now. That is the point of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, standing against all that corrupts and obscures the image of God’s dwelling with His people.
As this church of St Stephen celebrates its Dedication festival today, you and I give thanks for the many ways in which, over the years, it has stood for the presence of God among His people, healing and transforming lives through worship and service. And we ask for God’s grace to put aside all that distorts God’s image, and to make it similarly a sign and a sacrament of His love for this generation and those to come.
Our prayer is that this church will be both a garden of hope, and a bustling community of fellowship, until the time comes for it to be swept up in God’s glory, in the New Jerusalem.
24th September 2017 - 10 am Sermon
Gospel Reading: Matthew 20:1-16
Matthew 20:15 “… Are you envious because I am generous?”
“It’s not fair!”
Which parent or grandparent hasn’t heard those words more times than they would care to remember?
Children do seem to have a particularly keen sense of what is fair and what is not.
But it’s not just children. Adults may not express it in quite the same way, but the sense of fairness is just as strong. I would say that a significant proportion of the stories which dominate the Media are largely about issues of fairness. Just think of the responses of other public sector professions when it was announced recently that the pay cap is to be lifted – but for only some workers.
The Bible has a lot to say about fairness, too. In fact, the so-called “golden rule” – treat others as you would have them treat you – could be seen as one of the clearest expressions possible of the principle of fairness.
So it is perhaps a little surprising that when Jesus shines the spotlight on fairness, it feels like he is turning the whole idea on its head.
As so often when he wants to make a point, he tells a story. The owner of a vineyard needs extra workers. So he goes to the market to hire some – not once, but repeatedly throughout the day. He offers the first batch of workers the usual living wage, and simply tells the subsequent hires that they will receive what is fair. When it comes to payment time, everyone from the first to the last receives the accepted living wage – no more, no less. Those who had worked all day are understandably disgruntled.
So, what is Jesus’ point?
I think the place to start is with the owner of the vineyard, whose behaviour is, to say the least, a little unusual.
To begin with, he has a steward, but instead of sending him to the market, the owner himself makes the journey in the heat of the day.
And he doesn’t go just once. He goes back again and again, at intervals through the day. Is he just really bad at working out how much labour he needs?
No, the answer – as the owners own words make clear – is that he is moved by compassion. He has seen the growing despair on the faces of the workers whom no one else wants to employ: the private anguish of knowing they will have to go back and face their anxious wives and hungry children empty-handed; and the public humiliation of being left behind when everyone else has secured a job. The owner has compassion on them: enough to go back himself, repeatedly, until every last one has been given the dignity of employment.
And then he pays everyone the same wage – and makes sure that the first workers he had hired see it. Did it strike you that, if he had stuck to the standard order of payment, paying the first to be hired first, he could have avoided any scene: they would simply have left with their pay in their hands, thinking all was as it should be? Clearly he wants to make sure they get the point.
And the point seems to be this: the owner wants them to understand that the measure of what is fair in his world is not the logic of the market economy, where people get a fair reward according to what they have earned, but the logic of the owner’s own compassionate generosity. Everyone has been treated fairly. No one has been underpaid.
Jesus is saying: that is how things are with God. Being part of His family is not a matter of striking a bargain with Him, or negotiating with Him. Don’t presume on His grace: it is always extraordinary. His grace isn’t something you can have more of, or less of. The thief on the Cross who repents at the 11th hour is as welcome in the Kingdom of God as the upright person who has followed Christ for a lifetime. That is the way things are in God’s kingdom, and your idea of fairness and mine needs to be challenged if it begins to blind us to that.
In particular that means that where the things of God are concerned there is no such thing as an “inner circle” of the great and the good. It’s all too easy for those who have tried hard to live good and upright lives, and have made sacrifices to do so, to begin over time to see themselves as somehow having a privileged place in God’s economy, to think that they are on the ‘inside’, and others are on the ‘outside’.
And that, I suspect, is what prompted Jesus to tell this story in the first place.
Perhaps he had in mind the Pharisees, the self-appointed gatekeepers of God’s kingdom. In their zeal to safeguard their sense of being God’s chosen people, they were only too quick to draw lines between those on the inside (themselves) and those on the outside (tax collectors and sinners). Jesus saw that the effect of doing this was to “box-in” God’s grace: and if the history of God’s dealings with His world shows anything, it’s that His grace can’t be boxed-in.
Or perhaps he was giving a warning to his own disciples: “Just because you have been with me from the start, don’t presume on God’s grace. With all your arguing about which of you will be greatest in the coming kingdom, you’ve lost sight of why I came: to seek and save the lost.”
To both these groups, and to others tempted to think the same way, Jesus says, “Stop! Look at the model of the generous landowner. He doesn’t give all his attention to an inner circle: he is out there, searching for the ones whom no one else wants, desperate to give them the benefit of his generous grace. That is what God is like. In His generous compassion He is always reaching out to those ‘outside’. Now go and do the same.”
And what of you and me?
Are we ever tempted to view this church as a club which exists for our own benefit, rather than to be the channel of God’s light and life to those who do not yet know Him?
Do we ever risk being so caught up in what goes on inside these walls that we forget that God is always “out there”, too, seeking after the ones no one else cares about, longing to give them the gift of His grace?
Are we ever resentful of others, who haven’t perhaps laboured in the way that we have for the Church, but get the benefit of our work – whether visitors, or others in the church?
Do we find ourselves thinking from time to time as if God owed us a favour, for our good behaviour or our devotion to Him? “God, how could you let this happen to me, after all I’ve done for you?!”
And what about our time and our money? Do we think of them as ours, or as opportunities for us to imitate this compassionate, generous God? Do we give sacrificially, at cost to ourselves – like the landowner who could have stayed at home but instead kept going back to the hot, dusty market, and who gave the workers more than he needed to?
And when we give, are we thinking of how we benefit those on the “inside”, the inner circle – or do we give without regard for “us” versus “them”, generously, like our Heavenly Father?
These are hard, searching questions. But that’s a large part of what you and I are called to do as disciples. To use our heads, to resist the temptation to drift into lazy ways of thinking and acting, and work hard at trying to see our world in the way God sees it.
God’s grace is not an easy, cosy thing. As Jesus’ little story shows, it can be disturbing, subversive. Sometimes it seems amazing. At others, it can seem infuriating.
So, whenever you hear the little voice inside crying out, “It’s not fair!”, ask yourself: is this the disgruntled worker in me speaking? And if so, try to listen instead for the voice of the compassionate, generous landowner – the God who is always searching for those who need His love. That generous, compassionate love is to be our pattern, our ideal: a love which doesn’t think in terms of “us” and “them”, but longs for all alike to share in God’s amazing, undeserved grace.
It’s fairness – but not as we know it!
17th September 2017 - 10 am Sermon (Praise Together)
Gospel Reading: Matthew 18:21-35
Matthew 18:21 Then Peter came and said to Jesus,“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”
It’s just a fact of life that things get broken. I have a collection of such things around the house: pictures with tears in them, shirts with missing buttons, broken pens, punctured bicycle tyres.
Fortunately, I also have a selection of things to help me mend them. Sellotape, needles and thread, glue, puncture repair kits.
But what happens when relationships get broken?
Relationships can be damaged in any number of ways. A friend speaks an angry word, or betrays a confidence, or lets me down. No amount of glue or Sellotape is going to help when that happens. When a relationship is damaged, what puts it right is - forgiveness.
It’s not always easy to say, “Sorry”, and it’s not always easy to accept an apology completely, but there really is no alternative: without forgiveness, the relationship will never be the same again.
Most people learn the importance of this fairly early in life. We discover that “none of us is perfect”, and without a willingness to forget and move on, we would pretty soon find ourselves seriously short of friends. Accepting an apology seems like straightforward common sense, and most people I meet try to practice this kind of common-sense, “forgive and forget” attitude, at least to some extent.
It’s would be easy to think that Jesus is talking about this kind of common sense in his exchange with Peter in today’s Gospel. But that would be to miss the point.
Jesus is talking about the kind of place the Church is to be: and in the Church, Jesus says, forgiveness is to be a matter of uncommon sense.
The measure of our forgiveness in our Christian family is not to be whether the person who hurt or offended me is really sorry, or whether they are a (multiple) repeat offender. In fact, there is to be no measure at all – no reckoning the number or seriousness of offences. Instead, the benchmark is God’s extravagant and undeserved love for and forgiveness of me and you; and there is nothing common about that.
Seen in the light of the vastness of God’s love for each of us, to hold a grudge against a fellow-Christian looks miserly, even ludicrous – like the servant in Jesus’ story who, having been let-off a gazillion-pound debt, calls in a debt for a few hundred pounds from a fellow-servant. The image is crazy, laughable even!
Or at least, it would be if it wasn’t so close to the bone.
When I was thinking about Jesus’ words this week, I remembered an incident which happened many years ago. Someone in another church – far away – did something which upset me. I doubt they even realised. But every so often, I find myself imaging how one day I’m going to get my own back at them for what they did, making them feel small just as they made me feel small. The incident happened over a decade ago, but I still feel the hurt and injured pride rising inside me every time I think about it.
Truth is, I haven’t forgiven that person “from the heart”; I’m just biding my time, allowing the sense of hurt to remain until I next want to bring it out and nurse it. Actually, I know deep down that I do not want to let it die. To let go of the hurt would require me to relinquish my sense of pride, my insistence on my “rights”. And I’m not ready to do that – not just yet, at any rate.
If I’m honest, I do this all the time. I carry around a sense of injury from various slights and hurts, some of them quite minor, some more major. But whenever I think about any of them, there it is again – that sense of injured pride, as strong as the first time I felt it.
Is Jesus’ standard of forgiving my Christian family from the heart, even when they don’t ask for forgiveness and maybe are not even sorry, an impossible ideal?
Nor does Jesus’ little story of the two servants seem to help much: the hurts which others have caused me don’t seem that insignificant, and I don’t much like the implication that I should compare myself to the servant with a debt of a gazillion pounds! That doesn’t really fit with my picture of myself.
At the same time I can see that these feelings do have an impact on my relationship with God. The hurt I refuse to let go of, my feelings of pride and wanting my rights – they seem to fill me up, so that I have less room for God’s healing love in my life – like a jug that’s so full of nasty, dirty slime that it cannot be filled with clean, fresh water.
So Jesus’ words are a standing challenge to me, day-in, day-out. I might think, “Oh, I’m doing fine: I haven’t fallen out with anyone in the Church.” But I need to be really honest with myself: have I really forgiven any hurts, perceived or real, or am I just biding my time, nursing the sense of wounded pride in secret? Have I really faced up to Jesus’ call to let go of my pride and my sense of my “rights”? Will I follow Jesus’ example, and find my sense of value in God’s love for me? Or will I insist on demanding my rights, and feeling offended whenever anyone does not recognise my importance?
And I also need to be asking God to help me to grasp the true measure of His love for me and the true extent of my need of Him. I need God’s truth to work its way into my experience. That is the work of a lifetime, but it starts with a decision not to settle for the lies of pride, but to see things as they really are.
Jesus’ vision for his Church is of a forgiven community which is also a forgiving community. There has never been a greater need for the hope given by such a vision than in today’s divided world. I pray that others will look at St Stephen’s, and see such a forgiven, forgiving community at work: a place where, not things, but relationships and lives are mended – by the uncommon grace of God and the forgiveness of each another.
10th September 2017 - 10 am Sermon
Gospel Reading: Matthew 18:15-20
Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
South Africans often call their country the “Rainbow Nation”. It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who apparently first coined the term, and it stuck. It seemed to capture something of the spirit of the land post-Apartheid: the people’s pride in their racial diversity, and hope for the future.
Shortly after I finished at University, I was privileged to spend around 9 months working with the Church of the Province of South Africa in the far North of the country. It was just at the beginning of the transition from apartheid, and I vividly remember the mood in the air - nervousness about what lay ahead, yes, but pride in the beauty of the land and its people, and hope for the future. When I returned some time later, I was still struck by the same fierce pride in their “Rainbow Nation”, however hard the intervening years have been.
Now, others are far better placed than I am to comment on the political history of the country. But one respect in which South Africa seems to me to have been something of a beacon to the world has been in how it has gone about trying to heal divisions and hurts from the apartheid years. There have been so many examples of countries which have tried to change regimes but have been torn apart because old wounds were never properly healed. South Africa’s approach was to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led by Desmond Tutu. Its remit was to investigate past abuses, but not solely with a view to punishment and reparations; it also focused on possible amnesties, and rehabilitation. The objective was to heal the wounds of the past, to give dignity to victims, and so to lay stable foundations for the emergence of the new state. South Africans took seriously the need not just to leave the past behind, but to achieve lasting reconciliation.
You don’t need to look far in today’s world to find evidence of the consequences where reconciliation doesn’t happen. On the large scale: acts of terror in all its awful forms; ethnic cleansing; officially-sanctioned repression of minorities. But it’s there on the smaller scale, closer to home, too: feuds between neighbours; broken families; and divided communities.
You find it in churches, too. I expect each of us knows of congregations split by feuds between individuals or groups, hostilities aired in the open or boiling away beneath the surface. It’s about these sort of damaged relationships within the church that I want to talk today.
You know how easily these feuds start. A heated exchange after the service over some minor issue; raised voices in an annual meeting. “The vicar thanked her for all her hard work – but didn’t say a word to me.” “She was so rude to me!” “Who do they think they are?!” “Our group gives up so much time to do this, and those others don’t appreciate us!” Does any of that sounds familiar?
Disputes often start over seemingly small things, but if they are allowed to get entrenched, they poison relationships between individuals, groups, even whole congregations. Those involved may think they are private matters, but they can taint a whole community.
People often try to paper over the cracks, pretending that there is nothing wrong – whilst carrying the anger deep inside. Or they avoid the other person or people altogether: out of sight, out of mind.
But denial is not the same as forgiveness. Denial is pretending that whatever it was that caused the hurt either didn’t happen, or doesn’t matter. Sometimes, of course, I might understand with the passage of time that what happened really wasn’t anything at all – in which case I really just need to let go of my anger. But if something did happen – something genuinely offensive or dishonest or immoral – then it needs to be dealt with. Forgiveness is not saying, “It was nothing” if it was, but is about saying, “We’re going to deal with this – and come out the other side loving one another.”
And so it is that we have just heard Jesus urging another way than denial or avoidance. He shows the path of true reconciliation.
But on first hearing, his advice might sound uncharacteristically harsh. “If the church member refuses to listen … let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” (Matthew 18:17.) Is this the same Jesus who made himself so unpopular for refusing to turn away anyone, even society’s undesirables?
But listen more carefully.
“If someone has hurt you,” Jesus says, “really hurt you, then first go and speak to them privately. Perhaps you’ll find it was a genuine misunderstanding. Or perhaps they’ll see your point and apologise. Or perhaps you’ll both see each other’s points, and both apologise! Only when you’ve done that, if they really won’t listen, go and talk to a couple of others in the church – discretely. But don’t just choose people who you know will agree with you: talk to people you can count on to tell you some hard truths if you need to hear them. Only if you are dealing with someone who has done something seriously wrong – and the whole church agrees it is seriously wrong – then the truly loving thing to do, for the good of that person and the whole church, is to distance yourselves from them. But again, that is only when the person stubbornly refuses to budge despite what the whole church is trying to help them understand.
In other words, Jesus’ advice absolutely isn’t an excuse for self-righteous or vindictive behaviour, or ganging-up on an individual or a particular group. Quite the opposite. It is what balancing genuine concern for the other person and for the protection of the whole church community looks like in practice. At every stage its guiding principle is genuine love for one another.
That becomes even clearer when you realise what Jesus has been saying before and will go on to say after these comments on reconciliation: the parable of the lost sheep, and his instruction to his followers not to forgive someone seven times, but seventy times seven. The whole context of Jesus’ teaching about reconciliation in the church is God’s “forgiveness beyond imagining” - radical caring for those at the margins, those who are going astray (which, by the way, includes each of us at one time or other!). No place for pushing my own agenda here.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about what Jesus has to say about reconciliation is what it assumes about the nature of the church. What exactly are we, as we gather together this morning? What is going on as we come together to seek God, to listen for what He has to say, and to share Communion together?
The answer – which is so shocking that you really need to pause a moment to allow it to sink in – is that we are the place where Jesus is present on this Earth. You and I together. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Not just in some vague, spiritual sense, like “Jesus is with us in our hearts and minds.” But – Jesus is here, in our gathering, in our coming-together-in-His-name, in this community. When we say a little later, “The Lord is here” – we should mean it.
Look around you, and take that in.
And if it’s true, then think what it means. This place, this gathering of people, this community today at St Stephen’s, is a holy place, it’s special. And it’s important – what we are engaged in together is how Jesus lives to bring healing to His world. This community, this together-ness, is precious, and worth protecting from anything which might spoil it.
And what tends to spoil it more than anything else, is the poison of unhealed resentments, and unreconciled relationships.
So if you and I want to take Jesus’ words seriously this morning, the first step is to ask God to show us whether there are any relationships we have with others in the church which need healing.
Now, to be clear: just in case you are wondering, “Has something happened? Is he talking about something here in particular?” No, I’m not referring obliquely to anything I’ve seen at St Stephen’s! One of the things that I genuinely love about being here is that there seems to be so little of this kind of division. But only you and I, each of us, really knows what we already carry inside. And, as I’ve said, these conflicts can start at any time: we should never be complacent.
So, we need to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves. And if we find any smouldering resentments, we need to ask for God’s grace to do something about it, to take the first step towards healing and reconciliation. Do it alone, or with help if need be; do it sensitively and with love – but just do it.
I promise you that, if you and I put this into practice – refusing to avoid the issue or to live in denial or papering over the cracks – then this will be a place where you and I will truly meet the Risen Christ, and our lives will be transformed.
Then this church of St Stephen will be a part of God’s Rainbow Nation: a place where God’s new community is formed; a light in the darkness of a divided world; and a beacon of hope to all. In short – a Place of Grace.
I hope you like the sound of that?
3rd September 2017 - 8 am Sermon
Gospel Reading: Matthew 16:21 - end
Romans 12:21 “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
I imagine that you, like me, have felt a sense of disbelief turning to horror as the tensions between North Korea and the United States have risen to boiling point in recent months. There seems to be almost a terrible inevitability about the escalation of rhetoric and action which now, as other nations have recognised, seem to have brought us “to the brink”. It really would be very easy to feel “overcome by evil”.
Amidst all the reporting of the crisis, one phrase caught my attention. As each side ups the ante, the reporter said, the other side “feels compelled to show their strength.”
“Feels compelled.” That phrase sums up for me the (literally) hopeless logic of the situation. Each side believes that it can only protect itself against the violence of the other side by using more and greater violence itself. The result is an inevitable escalation and perpetuation of violence – a “cycle of violence”.
The same logic plays out at many different levels of society - on a different scale perhaps, but still with predictably terrible results. From terrorism in all its many forms, to bitter and long-lasting feuds within families, it is all too easy to see evidence of the same tit-for-tat, “cycle of violence” mentality. Even in our own lives, I suspect that few of us can claim never to have been consumed by vengeful thoughts.
But, says St Paul, the cycle can be broken. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” If the one persecuting you is hungry or thirsty – feed them, give them something to drink.
Let’s be clear, this is not simply the logic of common sense. In our own relationships with those with whom we have to live and work, let alone at the level of international politics, it could be at best pie-in-the-sky, at worst dangerous nonsense.
But it is the logic of faith. It is only a real possibility where there is faith in the God of Jesus, who can and will bring good out of evil and life out of death.
It was exactly this faith in God that enabled Jesus to keep steadfastly to his calling to live out a fully human life – a life of generous love – even when that meant opposition, torture and death. And God’s response to Jesus’ trust in Him was – to raise him from the dead, and thereby to show you and me what is in store for all within God’s grace.
Jesus’ death was the sacrifice which shows both the futility of the cycle of violence, and that it can be broken. Rather than perpetuating violence, Jesus absorbed its force, and gave back goodness instead.
Faith in the God of Jesus is what makes it possible to break the cycle of violence. You and I cannot, I fear, do much directly to alter the outcome of the North Korean crisis (except, of course, to continue to pray). But, through our confidence in the God who raised Jesus from the dead and will one day bring justice and life in all their fullness, we can refuse to give in to the cycle of violence in our own lives. We can also resist it wherever we encounter it within our communities – locally, and even nationally.
And that, I firmly believe, is a large part of what it means for you and me to be engaged in working for God’s kingdom to come “on Earth, as it is in Heaven”.
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”