Talk Text: Northampton Civic Service 2016

Yesterday I had the great privilege of leading and preaching at the service to mark the beginning of the Mayoralty of Cllr Chris Malpas at All Saints, Northampton. I’m his chaplain for the year. I’m already finding the role fascinating and stretching. I thought I’d post the notes my talk was based on here, in case they are of interest. The readings were Micah 4:1-4 and Matthew 5:1-12

I wonder, do you still like to learn? We’re told aren’t we that it’s good, important, crucial even, to learn, continually. We live in an age of lifelong learning. Continuing Professional Development, or in my case, Curate Training and Continuing Ministerial Development, is all the rage. If you’re fortunate enough to have reached the stage where you’ve retired from work, you can fill your time with new experiences and knowledge in the University of the Third Age. The opportunities for learning are endless. Knowledge is power, we’re told, and who wants to be powerless in this day and age (or any day or age for that matter?). Knowing things, knowing that we’re right, and, all too often, ensuring that others know that we are right, have become key touchstones of our age. We’re not good at being wrong either. On Monday I prayed for the first time at a Borough Council meeting. From the wrong place. The Mayor was very gracious and said it didn’t matter, but I didn’t like feeling that I’d got it wrong and turned what should have been a sombre moment into a game of Where’s Wally or Where’s Chaplain? I’ve learnt for next time now!

Our first reading this morning from the prophet Micah talks of a time when people will go to the house of God and he will teach them his ways. His ways of peace, of disarmament, of a new way of life for all. Now, as rose-tinted as my spectacles may be, I know that not everybody who has come here this morning will set much stall by what the ways of God may be. However, I would hope that there are none amongst us this morning who would not seek for peace in our families and our communities, locally, nationally and internationally. The words in this reading, well known as they may be, about turning swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, are challenges for us as people who lead. What are the swords and spears, literal and figurative of our day? How can we lead in such a way that we set an example of a new way of living, one of justice, peace and joy, for all? It is not weak to act justly, to love mercy and to walk with humility, whether you believe you do so with God or not. To lead as a servant is one of the strongest acts a person can perform.

One of my favourite things about Jesus and his leadership is that he, like me, wasn’t fashionable. I mean, just look at me. But still, moving on, listen again to some of the key lines from the reading Mayor Malpas gave to us just now. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. You might think that’s all well and good, that leaves the earth for those of us who aren’t weak, fragile or vulnerable. But no, blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth, we’re told. Later, we’re told that the merciful shall obtain mercy, and that peacemakers will be called children of God.

It’s not the most strident or tubthumping of manifestos is it. Not the sort of thing to get those popularity ratings sky-rocketing. It’s all too easy for people who pursue peace and justice for those they lead and serve as weak, to be taken advantage of. After all, this happened to Jesus. He was unfairly killed, so that the authorities could silence someone they considered an irritating, potentially dangerous political revolutionary. Except, of course, that it was in dying, giving up all of himself, that he gave each and every one of us the opportunity to have a relationship with God. It is only in this relationship that our lives can find their ultimate fulfilment, only in this relationship that we can be the people that we were always meant to be. God invites you this morning, whether for the first time, or again, to accept his gift of life in all its fullness, today. Walking with God, the leader of all, every moment of every day is an opportunity to learn again the privilege it is to live the lives that we do and to follow his example in pouring ourselves out for the good and benefit of all.

Leadership, of whatever sort, is always a sacrifice. It is costly. Those of you who hold office in the Borough, the County, or in any other civic role, will know that you give up a great deal to be who you are, in the roles you have. Thank you for the service you have given, and for that which you will give in the coming year. I pray for you that will learn the ways of God this year and that peace, justice and joy may be the hallmarks of our town.


March 2016

March 21st 2016: Luke 22:1-23

You can follow today’s reading by clicking on this sentence.

As we enter Holy Week once again, the challenge for the reader is not to understand and explain what and why things happened, but working out which elements of the story we should particularly focus on this particular year’s journey to the cross. The scale and scope of the narrative and its consequences are too great for us to comprehend its entire breadth at all times, or at least they are for me. Reading the story of Judas deciding to betray Jesus this morning, the eye is drawn to the question at the passage’s end. These people had lived with and followed Jesus for three years. How could any of them betray him?

All of us have experience of committing to a person, group or institution and ending up disappointed. As those who welcomed Jesus in to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday felt let down by the lack of a strong and mighty saviour and disavowed him on Good Friday under pressure from the Jewish authorities, so it can be easy for us to decide that, as we haven’t got what we wanted from those we put our trust in, what we were promised, even, then we’re well within our rights, our entitlement, to go and find what we deserve elsewhere.

I often wonder about the emotional life of Jesus, about his feelings. We’re given small glimpses into it in the Gospels, but not on this particular occasion. Here’s one who has come to bring about a new covenant between God and his people, betrayed by those he loved, who he has taught, related to, lived his life with and for.

And yet for all our deal making and seeking to better ourselves without reference to him, or even perhaps whilst attempting to use him as a bargaining chip, Jesus went to the cross anyway. He chose to die, to lay down his life for his friends. That’s the call of the Christian life, to accept the gifts God gives us, and then to live in such a generous way that those gifts are shared as widely as possible. We are to lay down our lives, not seeking to protect ourselves or feather our own nests.

March 2016

March 9th 2016: Hebrews 10:1-18

You can follow today’s reading by clicking on this sentence.

‘I will remember their sins and lawless deeds no more’

Today’s is one of the most amazing passages in the whole of Scripture (in my opinion). Jesus gave a single offering for all sin, which was sufficient to satisfy the demands of justice. The law of love wins! All the offering and sacrificing we can do will not ever lead us to freedom, Jesus’s gift to us is the only thing that can do that.

And not only that, as the quote at the top of this post says, God promises that he will put sins and lawless deeds out of his mind. He will not remember them. This seems entirely contrary. I keep a record of my own wrongs, even though I shouldn’t. More than this, I am bad at keeping a record of the wrongs of others. Am I loving them? When we find ourselves living in times when injustice is meted out to the poor on an institutional scale and every reading of a news article’s ‘under the line’ comments section indicates a national hardening of heart towards those who are in need, there is a rising within me of a desire for justice (which I think is good) as well as a desire for the restoration for balance (still good, I think) and finally a desire for some kind of redress (this is where it gets bad, I think). We are to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. If, at any point I find myself claiming that I am less in need of the grace and mercy of God than those who vote for or implement unjust laws, those whose opinions I disagree with, however strongly, claiming that those things are more sinful and in need of mercy than I am, then I deceive myself.

We live in times when it is all too easy to be fearful. Just look at the political leadership situations in most of the most powerful nations of the world. But God is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear? We have a God who could remember our sins and lawless deeds, who could count them against us, who could do anything he likes at any moment. He chooses grace and mercy. Let’s do the same today.

February 2016

February 18th 2016: Galatians 5:2-15

You can follow today’s reading by clicking on this sentence.

‘…but through love become slaves to one another.’

It’s a big challenge this one. I’ve been wondering recently, how much of a sacrifice for the sake of the Church I’m part of leading is enough? Would it be where I live? The hours I put in? The parts of my life which shrink to accommodate it? The songs I lead? The things I teach on and the things I don’t?

And then a sentence like this one pops up.

We’re not called to relationship with God and one another for anything other than to serve one another. I am to serve the people I lead, as I seek to serve God, giving back to him from the abundance that he gives to me. That, as they say, is the whole ball game.

Not to say I don’t have to look after myself. Members of Emmanuel have been telling me for quite some time now that I need to look after myself, take care of myself, but I am also called, by Love, to do the sacrificial things, the difficult things, the frustrating things, as well as the joyful, the life-giving and the exciting things, that best serve my community, as the transforming power of the Spirit works in me, just as it does in others.



January 2016

January 26th 2016: Matthew 26:17-35

You can follow today’s reading by clicking on this sentence.

If you are in the practice of celebrating Communion with any kind of regularity, the words Jesus says in today’s passage will be pretty familiar to you. I’ve often wondered what the friends of Jesus, gathered round a meal, having heard him pretty darkly and cryptically talk about the future over the preceding days, would have made of what he said here. After all, anyone holding bread and wine, saying ‘this is my body’, ‘this is my blood’ might well be thought of as, what, strange? Frightening? Confusing? For us, for whom Communion is a part of life and culture, whether we’re regular churchgoers or not, we know what we’ve decided it means, or might mean. But what of those people who knew nothing really of what was to come? What about those people who are uncertain? It’s a funny thing, isn’t it? To say that bread is your body and wine is your blood?

I’m not going to spend ages here writing about what I think happens in Communion. What is spectacular for me though is that Jesus invites his friends, and us who follow after them to make him part of us as we eat and drink in remembrance of him. We’re invited in to union with him, fellowship, family, intimacy even, through this simple yet life-altering meal. If Jesus says ‘this is my body’ and I eat the bread, then somehow Jesus’s body becomes part of me. You could spend a lifetime trying to work that out no doubt, but as a starter for thinking things through it’s pretty potent.

And not just that, Jesus looks with confidence into the future. ‘after I am raised up’ he says. This isn’t something that has really jumped out at me until today’s reading of this story. The eye naturally goes to the prediction of Peter’s three-time denial of Jesus, but Jesus says here, as he does elsewhere, that he is sure of what is going to happen to him. He knows the outcome, even if  the actual human circumstances of his death eventually seem to overwhelm him. We as Christians follow a God who suffered, but did so with such certainty as to the end of the story. He would be raised. It’s very matter-of-fact in the telling here. I’m prone to saying ‘this might work’ or even ‘this prayer might be answered’, but Jesus sets the tone for our confidence in faith. He was in step with God. So we can be too. Just how much trust are willing to place in God today?


2014 Lectionary Ramblings Lectionary Ramblings

August 28th 2014: Acts 4:32-5:11

Read Acts 4:32-5:11 here

“Al the believers were one in heart and mind”.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been in a Church, or a community, like that! Sometimes we look wistfully at the stories of the early Church in Acts and imagine that they had something special which made them more likely to love one another, love God, be sacrificial, serve one another and so on. Aside from proximity to the events of the life of Jesus, I can’t see anything else. These men and women were still more than capable of making a mess of things, as we see towards the end of today’s reading. At the same time, they were still able to live “with one mind”. Wouldn’t it be great if we made a concerted effort in our Churches to work out what God was asking us to do, and committed to pursuing that, entirely together? It’s not as unrealistic as it might sound. They managed it in Acts 4.

As for each of us as individuals, we have a role to play in deciding to journey through life with people with whom we can be of one mind, as we love God, our neighbours and ourselves. Even as we sometimes disagree, we can set our mind on things of God, those around us, and things of eternity and contend that we will not let petty squabbles, selfishness and our own desire for recognition get in the way of the life to which we are called, and the love which it is our privilege to share.

2014 Lectionary Ramblings Lectionary Ramblings

August 15th 2014: Luke 11: 27-28

Read Luke 11:27-28 here

He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

Will we hear the word of God today? What will we think it is? Will we take it as our moral compass, our way of regulating the life of those around us and “calling to account” those with whom we disagree? Certain parts of scripture make a case for this cantankerous, and frankly entirely unappealing type of “faithfulness”. It’s as if we’re scared to be creative, to think for ourselves, to take responsibility, to live in a state of grace, and so instead we bind ourselves up in labyrinthine, contradictory rules and edicts, so that we can feel ever more guilty, ever more unworthy, and yet at the same time ever more morally superior.

What would it be like if the word of God we sought to obey was “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself”? Would we want to be the world’s moral police then? Would the height of our ambition be to prove which version of the Genesis creation stories were “true”? Would we justify our communities, our nations, blowing people to smithereens because they have “a divine right” to do so to get to a patch of land? I really don’t think we would. I think we would realise that to love is to sacrifice, to be humble and to put others first.

Jesus changed the world like that. We are following after Him. We can follow in His way.

2014 Lectionary Ramblings Lectionary Ramblings

July 28th 2014: Luke 20:41-21:4

Read Luke 20:41-21:4 here

We begin a new week with the reminder that Jesus, the Messiah, is nobody’s son but God’s. This will hopefully help us to remember the security of our trust in the life, works and authority of Jesus.

Verses 45 and 46, for me, have a particular resonance as I become used to being a curate. Just because we wear the clothes of Christian leadership and authority, we have no right to anything special. Don’t become a follower of Jesus, or a Christian leader, if you want respect, status and to be valued in the eyes of society. You might get all of those things for a time. Your Church might even like you (!) but actually we serve a great God who is jealous for His bride to be grown, nurtured and protected. That’s quite a task, quite a responsibility. All of us will answer for the fruit our lives have, or have not, produced. It’ll not matter a jot if we were popular while we were living, if the fruits of our lives and hearts were unjust, or self-serving. That’s bound to be a pretty uncomfortable, to say the least, conversation.

It’s no wonder, then, that Jesus comments on the “widow’s mite” next. Here is someone who, in seeking to honour God and seek His kingdom, gives all she has, without holding back, and without wishing to be seen to be doing right. Are we willing to do that today?