Tuesday, 30 June 2015

An ordination blessing

As always sermons are meant to be heard not read. But this was my small offering on Sunday morning when I was invited back to one of my old parishes to preach at the first mass of someone who came from my present parish!

It’s great to be back in Scholes this morning and I was chuffed that Steve asked me speak on such an important occasion. A few people in church this morning know me and some may also know that for the last 5 years I have been a member of General Synod, the church’s governing body.

At the end of each day we have a short service and one time I was asked to lead it. It was a bit daunting because as you can imagine most of the senior bishops were in the room including the Archbishops of York and Canterbury. Towards the end the service I could see that there was going to be a blessing and normally the most senior church person present would do that.

I began to think that this might not be me and so I turned to the archbishop of Canterbury and asked if he should do the blessing. He looked at the service sheet, looked back at me and said: ‘your blessing is as good as my blessing – you do it’. I responded ‘archbishop I’m not altogether sure that’s true’.

Of course we all bless people.  When anyone sneezes or when someone is kind to us.  Blessing is a part of our language. 

I am sure that those who have known Steve for many years will already know that the gifts he has have been a blessing to many many people. When a group from Christ the King went to Tanzania it was a pleasure to watch – and hear – how Steve’s gifts for music became a blessing to others. It helped forge friendship, build bridges and open dialogue. 

We are all blessed with gifts and when used in God’s service those gifts become blessings to others. Perhaps the difference with a priest is that pronouncing blessings is a part of the job. 

Blessings are written into the Church services we take.  As the Bishop said to Steve yesterday, with all deacons being priested: “may they declare your blessing to your people”.  The priest is not asked to hand out blessing as they like: “they are to bless the people in God’s name”.  For a priest it’s a privilege, duty and calling to do this.

As we heard from the Old Testament reading, blessing is an ancient activity.  Goodness knows how far back it goes in human history – I suspect long before the invention of writing.  In English the word we use for blessing is linked with the word for blood.  Blessing comes to us out of the pre-Christian activity of blessing altars with a blood sacrifice.  Like so many early cultures, including the people of Israel, physical sacrifice is connected to blessing.  When the priest sprinkled the blood of sacrifice on the people they were sharing in the holiness of what the priest was doing: they were blessed.  You’ll be pleased to hear that this isn’t – literally- part of our service today (well not that I’m aware of!)

The distinctive role of the priest is to pronounce blessing at many significant moments in people’s lives.  For over 20 years I have announced God’s blessings on the newly born; those getting married and those nearing the end of life.  At times people have brought things to be to be blessed: a piece of jewellery with special significance; a Bible; or perhaps something to be placed on the grave of a loved one.  I can tell Steve that this is both an important and immensely moving part of his new ministry.  Priests are invited to recognise and name the sacredness of these moments, and the things that signify important relationships, and everything that bring people closer to God.

Why does this matter so much? 

Well, I think ultimately blessing is something rooted in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Aaron the priest in our Old Testament reading lifted his arms to pray that God would shine on the people.  Those witnessing the Ascension we heard about in our Gospel reading, knew that they were being blessed by God directly.  Jesus becomes the blessing of Aaron – the living and breathing expression of what it means to be blessed: to be with God. Christians came to believe that Jesus was and is “the image of the invisible God”.  Jesus is God personified.  Those who met him in the Holy Land and those who meet Jesus today share in the blessing of God for his people.  God is with us in Jesus.

None of us can look into the future and say to which people Steve will announce God’s blessing.  They will be men, women, children – the rich and the poor, the old the young, the sick and the well.  But whenever Steve announces that blessing he is reminding people that God is with them.  With them in good times and hard times. 

Blessing says God is with us.  The role of a priest is to keep that reminder alive in our lives: to assure us that we are, and always will be, held in God’s love. 

As Steve embarks on this journey we pray for him and celebrate with him.  And we give thanks that in this service today Steve will announce God’s blessing to us – a blessing no less worthy than that of any other priest – or even an Archbishop.

Maggie McLean

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Jesus calms the storm

So the storm on the Sea of Galilee had pushed the disciples to their limit. In spite of their knowledge of boats and the Galilean weather, their boat is sinking. In desperation, they wake Jesus, not simply to warn him that his own life is in danger, but because they had nowhere else to turn.   
Their “Don’t you care that we’re drowning?” isn’t so much a question as a desperate cry for help.

But Jesus response is not what they expected. They’d seen Jesus perform miracles of healing and casting out demons, yet this act of control over the elements of sea stunned them. In an instant they are removed from the life-threatening situation and brought to a new place — not just of safety, but also of understanding, even if they cannot yet fully comprehend everything.

We may wonder about the mechanics of the miracles, and no matter how cynical one may be, or how little one believes miracles like those happen, deep down we expect that Jesus always will do something. And Jesus’ response can, and does, still take us by surprise.

Julian of Norwich wrote:
‘God said not, thou shalt not be tempted,
thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be afflicted;
GOD said: thou shalt not be overcome.’ 

Saint Paul wrote:
‘God is faithful, and he will not have you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.’

“Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Is what Jesus asks.

Because we are human; we struggle with our fears and our limits just as the disciples did.

Yet, if we remain open to the unexpected, Jesus will see us through, in spite of our doubts, fears, and lack of faith.

Ian Grange - 19 June 2015

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

New life means new growth.

Last week we spotted that just behind the vicarage fence there’s a woodpecker nest inside a tree trunk.  He knew it was there when he explored an endless squawking sound –young woodpeckers are tireless and noisy in demanding their food. Each day we get to see this cycle of relentless demand and endless feeding.  It won’t go on forever and one day the young chick will have grown enough to leave the nest.

Growth and change are at the heart of our Gospel and Jesus instigated change and new beginnings wherever he went.  In the reading from John 3 that change is focused at the personal level as Nicodemus seeks Jesus out and  Jesus speaks to him about new birth.  There can’t be any more dramatic image of change than that.  Those who put their faith in Jesus are called to be born again.  Over the centuries that’s been understood in different ways by the Church but all of those ways reflect the idea that this is about a new beginning.

The great thing about this is that new birth has to mean new growth.  It’s not that Christians simply change an old life for a new one.  The change Jesus talks about is a new start, a fresh beginning, a point of departure.  We can’t be a woodpecker never willing to leave the nest.  New life means new growth.  If we don’t move on and develop in our relationship with God our faith will stagnate and become worse than useless.

That’s a little of what I think Jesus is saying to Nicodemus.  It’s no good sitting on the side-lines or finding a bit of time in your day to sneak away to meet Jesus by night.  Jesus isn’t selling Nicodemus some new interpretation of the scriptures or a minor dispute about the Sabbath.  Jesus says to Nicodemus, ‘you need to immerse yourself in God’s Kingdom – you need a revolution in your life that’s so profound it’ll be like starting again”. 

As we think about our own growth in faith, and the challenge to the church to grow, I want to introduce  another image.  This Bible illustration by Tissot gives some hints of how growth and change is achieved.  The artist had spent time in the Holy Land in the 19th century and this picture represents the details he observed in his travels.  It is not a meeting where Jesus dominates Nicodemus, or uses power as a way to persuade.  Their two pairs of shoes in the foreground suggest a common respect for domestic tradition – as well as a hint that their meeting constitutes holy ground. Jesus is represented as an encouraging friend, reaching out his hand in reassurance and persuasion. Passionate to help Nicodemus understand but modelling a posture of equality and respect.

That seems to me a good model for us as we think of how we might help others grow in faith. A model of being immersed in our faith, eager to meet with others, but never overbearing or brow-beating.  Spiritually taking off our shoes, treating the place of encounter as holy and willing to leave our own place of comfort to be in God’s presence.

Maggie McLean