Thursday, 19 December 2013

Watching and Waiting Sometimes Even Saints Doubt: Matthew 11:2-11 and John the Baptist

People are interesting.  The biggest sales for newspapers and magazines are always related to people stories.  The magazines that sell best are gossip magazines.  We love our stories about celebrities.  We especially seem to like to find out that they are different.
This third Sunday in Advent we have a real pre-Christmas celebrity.  He does not figure much in the Christmas nativity, but he played a large role in the Gospels and in the life of Jesus particularly at the beginning.  Who is John the Baptist? 
      John the Baptist was first and foremost a forerunner.  He came to fulfil the scriptures in Isaiah and Malachi that one would come first to prepare the way for the Messiah.  He is, well, not the normal sort of forerunner.  He was not even a very normal religious leader for his day.  He dressed in camel hair shirts—not very comfortable from what I hear.  He ate natural foods, locust and honey, before natural foods were popular.  Most likely he was part of the movement known as the Essenes. They stood for purity in the temple and in the priesthood.  They wanted reform and they did not participate much in the ritual and religious life of Jerusalem, often keeping themselves outside the city to avoid contamination from the corrupt religious elite. (Qumran is a good example of an Essene community.)  Hence we hear about the people going out to John to be baptised.  Essenes were into ritual cleansing to symbolise their commitment to being holy and righteous.  So to prepare people for the coming of God’s special agent and the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, John baptised people in the Jordan.
John was also a prophet.  He foretold that God was coming to break into the routine of life in Palestine.  He prophesied that the reign of God was breaking into the lives of all around him.  He called people to repent, to change their ways to get ready for what God was doing.  His basic message was this, ‘Someone so great and awesome is coming he makes me insignificant.  If I were you, I’d get on your knees and get your life in order quickly’.  Strong words.  John was so dramatic with his funny clothes and his powerful preaching. 
We need to hear his message again.  He foretells of the one who lies in the manger meek and mild.  He warns us that this little child will rise up to confront us and to call us to God’s rule and reign in our hearts and lives, in our homes and churches, in our communities and nation.
Who is John the Baptist?  Jesus says he is more than a prophet.  Jesus says that he is the greatest among those born of a woman.  Jesus says he is the promised return of Elijah to herald the arrival of the coming Messiah.  Jesus says that John the Baptist is the fulfilment of scripture, the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel and the world.  Jesus honours John the Baptist with powerful words.
And when does Jesus say these kind and grand words about John the Baptist?  He says them not when all the people were clamouring to come out to the desert to hear his powerful sermons, not when the papers and news were all talking about the strange man in the desert warning the nation to get ready.  No Jesus says these affirming and impressive words when John was in prison, when John sends a messenger to Jesus to ask him, ‘are you really the messiah or was everything I said and did wrong?’ 
Who is John the Baptist?  He is one of us.  After growing up hearing of the miraculous and astounding birth of Jesus with angels singing and shepherds and wise men coming to greet him, John wonders, is this the one we’ve been waiting for?  After seeing Jesus heal the leper, the blind, the lame, the deaf, and even raise the dead; after hearing Jesus confound the scribes and Pharisees in parables and debate; and after hearing Jesus speak of the love of God to the poor and oppressed, John asks, should we look for someone else? 
John is one of us because like him, when we see the works of God in our midst in bread and wine, in the kindness of the stranger, in the innocence of the newborn, in the beauty and abundance of the universe, we doubt.  Like John, when we hear the stories of Jesus in the Gospel, of Paul’s teaching of salvation by faith, of the testimony of the one sitting next to us, we wonder if it is all true.
As we prepare for Christmas and the advent of God coming into our lives in surprising and unexpected ways, it is normal to doubt, to question.  But let us hear the words again.  Jesus said, Go and tell John the Baptist what you hear and see.  And so Jesus says to you and me today: remember what you have seen and heard; remember what God has done in our midst all these years in this church; remember the gifts we have received as we knelt at the altar, the gifts we have received from the stranger and from one another.  Today let us remember the one of whom the angels sing, the one the prophets promised would come, the one of whom the gospel writers proclaimed, the one about whom Paul and Peter and John wrote in their letters.  Let us remember the one who loves us even when we feel unloved and struggle to love ourselves…Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Shaun Speller writes about the FoodBank Tree at St Nicholas' Christmas Tree Festival, and considers our response to those in need.

This week at St Nicholas, we host the Christmas tree festival.
Nearly 70 trees, brightly and wonderfully decorated, by any number of groups in our local community. One of the trees makes what I imagine is a first appearance - the FoodBank Tree.

I suspect it will not have escaped our attention that Food Poverty is one of those unwelcome terms that occupies us today. The Trussell Trust, a christian charity responsible for founding many FoodBanks throughout the country, estimates that some 350,000 people used them in the last year, a threefold increase in the preceding period. They are springing up all over the country, and their use is on the increase.

So what do we make of them?

Well we can draw the political lines in the sand and argue over whose fault it all is - lack of personal responsibility, or the damaging effect of government policy - but that doesn’t really deal with the immediacy of the issue, and in fact risks ignoring those directly affected by it. And it doesn’t acknowledge that all of those 350,000 people have a story - a personal story that reaches beyond the categorization of the broad issue. You might want to take a look at some of those personal stories: real-stories.

In Matthews recounting of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Jesus has an
instant response to the crowd that have followed him and find themselves in
need of food.

Firstly, he has compassion on them; and then secondly, when
the disciples come to him and suggest that the crowd be sent away to find
food, Jesus says: “ They need not go away: You give them something to eat ”.
What’s Jesus saying here? There is no prevarication; no absolving of
responsibility; no reproach for the crowd. Instead he asks the disciples to be
part of a solution, rather than to pass on a problem that they think they are ill
equipped to deal with.

Shortly before embarking on a short term building project in Nepal some years ago, I was struck by the abject poverty and hunger that I was confronted with. Like the disciples faced with the needs of the five thousand, I asked my team leader what on earth do we do about it.
“ Well ”, he said, “ we feed one at a time, and then we feed the
next ”.

The point is this. Questions might be our first reaction, but need not be our
first action.
In Christ's physical absence we might do well to hear afresh the
words of Theresa of Avila:
“ Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ's compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”

Our hands, as with those of Jesus’ disciples, are the hands by which he may
bless others. As a community of God’s people, we have recognised the issue
of food poverty and are generously looking to offer our time and money to be
a tangible blessing to others. We would hope, beautiful though it may look,
that there be no need to display the FoodBank Tree again. But Christ calls us
to be watchful, and to respond, with the compassion that he had for those he
saw in need; that all his people might flourish as is his intention.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013


Ready and waiting: this is one of the themes of Advent.  The Advent wreath has four candles and we light one each week waiting and anticipating the day when the light of Christ is lit on Christmas eve.  Some say the four candles represent the four hundred years from the prophet Malachi until the birth of Christ. Did the people of Israel begin to think the Messiah was never coming, that the day of the Lord foretold in Malachi was not going to happen?  They waited four hundred years.  Here we are two thousand years and we are still waiting for the return of Christ.
Our reading from Romans (ch.13:11-14) reminds us that our salvation is nearer to us than when we first began.  Matthew (ch.24:36-44) writes, ‘you also must be ready for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’.  Are we reading and waiting?
You all know what it is like to wait.  Ever waited for someone to arrive, like the repairman who says they will come between 2 and 6pm.  You make sure you are home.  At 2pm you wonder if the door bell will ring or a knock will come.  You kind of know that you should not expect them; you know they usually come towards the late side of the time slot.  But you anticipate and wonder and hope that they might come at 2pm.  Then you get on with things, chores, cleaning, whatever.  Your ear is alert for that knock at the door, that bell ringing.  You do not go too far away just in case you don’t hear.  As it nears 3pm and 4pm you look out the window to see if the van is in sight.  After 4.30pm, you just get on with things and hope you hear the door if they arrive; your waiting is not active but very passive, thinking they might still come, but never mind.  At 6pm you wander near the door and wonder where they are and sit in chair expecting to hear them any minute. They must be coming now.  But it passes and it goes on to 6.15 and 6.30.  By now you are pretty certain they are not coming and you decide, oh bother, never mind.  I’ll ring tomorrow and find out what happened.  It gets to 7pm and by now you are certain they are not coming and you are preparing the meal you delayed.  Then the bell rings.  Were you ready and waiting?
We speak of the Christian life as a journey.  For most of us that journey begins at our baptism as a child, for others at a moment of what we call conversion or coming to faith.  For many of us, we grow up in a Christian home and the Christian faith is simply part of our lives.  Oh in our teenage and young adult years we may have not gone to church much.  But then after getting married or when the first child arrived and you had them baptised you went back to church more regularly.  For others, faith came as a kind of surprise and grabbed hold of you in later years, as a teenager or at university or older.  For all of us there is a time frame of some kind in which we began our Christian journey.  But the question comes, are you ready and waiting?  What does that mean to each of us?
Theologians speak of the three stages of salvation: justification, sanctification and glorification.  Justification is that time frame in which we come to faith, be it at our baptism and Sunday school or later as some point of conversion or confession of faith.  Sanctification, the second stage, is that process whereby we seek to live out our faith and grow in our discipleship.  The evidence is a transformed life.  Glorification is when our salvation is complete, often related to our death when we are united with Christ or at the end of time when Christ comes again and establishes the new heaven and the new earth.
Right now we are all in the phase of sanctification, awaiting our glorification.  Are we ready and waiting?  It is easy to get passive and nonchalant.  But to be ready and waiting is to be active in our anticipation, to deepen our Christian faith and life.  So Paul writes to the Romans to confront any passivity, ‘wake from sleep, lay aside the works of darkness, put on the armour of light’.  He reminds them that they should not let their lives be marked by sinful acts and to not gratify fleshly desires.
Our sanctification is a process of becoming more holy.  Now all of us are fleshly.  We need to eat and sleep.  We are all sexual beings.  We all are meant to enjoy life and the gifts of this life, like a good bottle of wine.  So what makes a life sanctified?  It is a life that is not marked by excess; it is not being captive to our fleshly needs and desires.  It is life that seeks what is good and holy and pure.  What do you think that means for you? 

In that way, in pursuing a life that is marked a balanced, holy life; that is marked by the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control—we show ourselves to be ready and waiting.  Hear again the call to sanctification, the call to be ready and waiting from St Paul: Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light;  let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

WHAT KIND of KING?  CHRIST the KING--Luke 23:33-43

The feast of Christ the King was instituted in the middle ages when kings and queens were the common form of rule in Europe.  It is the feast which ends the Christian calendar.  It seemed fitting to end the year with recognition of Christ’s rule and reign over all creation and over all our lives.  But what kind of king is Christ?
First, we need to recognize that kingship was central to Christ’s mission. Matthew, Mark, and Luke speak with one voice in telling us that at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus announced that the “kingdom of God” was drawing near.  A kingdom implies a ruler and realm. Then at the end of his life, the Gospels record an inscription on the cross, ‘This is the King of the Jews’.  But Jesus upended and undermined the whole concept of kingship. This world’s kingdoms are about power and prestige; Jesus was about service and humility. The rulers of this world are about coercion and violence; Jesus’ life was characterized by peace and reconciliation. Kings surround themselves with subservient aristocratic courts, servants and subjects. Jesus chose the lowly, the poor, and the unclean as his companions.
Secondly, we see what kind of king Jesus is by the sayings of Jesus from the cross. One of the powers of kings is to pardon those accused of crimes. The irony of the crucifixion is that Jesus was sentenced to die for claiming to be a king. However, even while being nailed to the cross, Jesus demonstrated that it was his executioners who were in need of pardon and he alone had the power to grant it. “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”  In pardoning those who were executing him, Jesus showed us the power of forgiveness. Forgiveness frees not only those who are forgiven; it also frees the forgiver. When we forgive, we release ourselves from the chains of anger and resentment. 
In another saying, Jesus speaks to the penitent thief and promises him that he will be with Jesus in Paradise.  Kings and rulers are usually surrounded by throngs of groupies or hanger-on-ers. One thinks of Louis the Fourteenth’s palace at Versailles, deliberately built to keep France’s nobles occupied in an endless round of meaningless ceremonies so that they would have no time to plot against the king. In contrast, Jesus surrounded himself with the outcasts and the marginalized. He crossed social, moral, and religious boundaries by accepting women as disciples.  He went against religious regulation and touched the lepers. His critics charged that he ate and drank with sinners, thieves and prostitutes. One Bishop remarked that Jesus does the same thing every time we celebrate the Eucharist!
Poignantly, the penitent thief pleaded, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus replied, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’.  “Remembrance” is central to Jewish thought. When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, Exodus tells us that God “remembered” the covenant he had made with the patriarchs. The kind of remembering that God did in Exodus and that the thief was asking Jesus to do is not the opposite of forgetting; it is the opposite of dismissing or excluding. The thief was asking to be included, to be made a part of Jesus’ kingdom. 
The Crucified and Risen Christ remembers not only us but also the forgotten, neglected and marginalized; he remembers us as we are – with strengths and weaknesses, the good and bad, successes and failures.  “Lord Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” prayed the penitent thief; but it is our prayer, too. Indeed, it may be the one of the most important prayers that we pray. Like the thief crucified beside Jesus, we pray that we may be a part of the great kingdom Christ is building in this world and the next.
A third way we see what kind of kings Jesus is, is by the way he is enthroned.  The way to Christ’s throne was not the royal enthronement of pomp and circumstance in a grand cathedral.  His enthronement was the crucifixion, the cross.  It was a shameful death, the death of one who was cursed.  His shame was our glory.  His curse was our redemption.  There was no royal robe, but he was stripped in disgrace.  There was no golden jewelled crown, but a crown of thorns.  This is our king, the son of God who chooses to be born in manager, to live a simple life of a labourer.  He came not be to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom.  He came not to command, but to obey his heavenly father.  He came not for fame and fortune, but to be rejected and despised by those in authority and power so that he might be our Lord and King.
His rule is never imposed or forced.  He comes in love to those who welcome him in simple faith.  His judgment is only against those who trust in their own righteousness and who live only for themselves; against those who chose evil and wickedness to oppress and harm others.  From the cross, God exalted Jesus to his right hand on high where he does not rule with force, but with love and patience, calling you and me into his outstretched arms.  Jesus is Christ the King.  He is a king like no other.  His kingdom is our hearts; his followers, the needy and despised, sinners like you and me.  He rules with forgiveness.  No one who comes to him in humility is rejected. His throne is a cross.  He invites you and me to turn to him in faith and to let him be Lord of Lord and King of Kings in our heart and lives, in our homes and in our churches.

Monday, 25 November 2013

The Parish of Harpenden Goes Digital

Our Parish Mission Statement says that we are “Connecting with God’s love in new and imaginative ways”.  For many, using the internet and social media as an everyday tool isn’t at all strange, but for some it will be a whole new aspect to church life.  We hope that by embracing technology and social media, we will be able to reach out to others not currently in our Parish community, but also to give you a new way of interacting with Parish life, and showing the world what we do.

We have a new Twitter account, Facebook page, Pinterest boards, Blog, and soon a re-launched website.  They will all focus on the Parish with info on individual churches on the website, and hopefully other forms of media will be involved later.  While much of the content will be generated by the clergy and readers, we want you to feel involved as well.

Please follow us on Twitter: @ParishHarpenden
Here we hope to post times of services and events, as well as interact with those in the community

Please “Like” our Facebook page:
Look here for more information and pictures, and let us know what you would like to see here.

Please follow our Pinterest boards:
Here we will be pinning pictures of the churches, a display of the remarkable kneelers at St Nicholas (they’re all unique), children’s artwork…..and any other images reflecting God’s creation within our Parish Community.  We would love your ideas and images.

Please read the Blog: (here - you've found it!).  The Blog is a place to find the thoughts of not only the clergy and readers - but also a place to enter into discussion about what is posted.

You will also find the Advent “Waiting” images across all the sites from December 1st.

Please join us on our digital journey.  We can’t do it without you.  Let us know what YOU want to see there, and help us reach into the community in a new and imaginative way.  It would be great if you could tell others where to find us as well.
Equally if you or someone you know simply doesn't understand any of this but would like to, we hope to offer some "social media clinics" to help you figure it all out, and have a go at engaging with our new online community.  Please let me know if you're interested in this.
If you have any activity associated with the Parish you want featured please email me at
Rachel Wakefield

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Parable of the Sower...What kind of soil are you?

Sometimes we say people speak in riddles.  By that we usually mean they are hard to understand in some way.  Jesus spoke in riddles called parables.  The reason he spoke in parables was to divide his listeners.  Those who wanted to understand would seek the answers to understand what he was saying.  Those who were not interested would not bother and just go their own way not caring about what Jesus was saying.  We see that in the parable of the Sower.  The disciples don’t understand but they ask Jesus what it means.
          The parable is about seed and whether it grows.  The seed, we are told, is the word of the kingdom.  It is the message of Jesus.  Let’s think for a minute about how we hear the word of the kingdom.  How it comes to us.
          First and foremost we hear the word proclaimed.  This might be a sermon in church; it might be testimony shared by a friend; it might be a message at a small group like a bible study.  People also hear the word of the kingdom by reading the bible or reading a book that tells the good news in some manner.  There are magazines and newspapers that share the good news as well.
          If you are a person of faith, how do you engage with the word of the kingdom?  Do you only hear it in church?  Do you seek out the words of eternal life in your daily life, even if daily by reading the bible or using some form of devotional tools?  Maybe you belong to a small group.  Maybe you read some kind of Christian literature.
          The heart of the parable though is not so much how the seed gets to you or about the sower.  It is about what happens when you hear the word of the kingdom and the soil. The parable discusses four different soils.
First soil: seed falls on the path/birds eat it: explanation--evil one snatches it away because they do not understand. 
This is about the reality that some people hear the word of the kingdom, the good news, the gospel and it does not take root.  They, out of indifference or defiance don’t let the seed take root in any way.  It never becomes part of their life.  The explanation relates it to understanding.  If you are not interested and you are wholly content in your self-contained world, then you do not bother to understand.  Faith requires that in some way the person chooses to engage with the word of the kingdom.  To accept it enough to explore it and consider it and weigh it as an option.  For many people their world view will not let them understand.  They are not seeking or searching.
Second soil: seed falls on rocky ground/not much soil/sun scorches: explanation--received it with joy immediately, when trouble and persecution comes they fall away.
Other people are searching, curious, wanting to find the answers to the big questions of life.  The seed immediately takes root in their life.  But it does not take deep root.  As soon as a question comes that they cannot answer or things get challenging, they move on and leave the word of the kingdom behind.  A lot of people are spiritual vagabonds.  They move from one spiritual idea to another.  Whatever makes them feel good and gives a sense of self-fulfilment, that is what works for a time.  The Christian faith is challenging.  It is not about self-fulfilment (though that is part of it).  It is ultimately about recognising God as Lord and God’s love given to us in Christ Jesus.  For some, it is attractive but requires too much commitment.
Third soil: seed falls among the thorns, thorns choke the plants: explanation--cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word and it yields nothing.
This seed, this word of the kingdom actually takes root and grows.  A person embarks seriously on the Christian path.  But eventually, something comes and uproots and replaces the word of the kingdom.  The cares of the world are not so much problems, but when something comes and takes priority.  For some people that can be a relationship.  They stop practising their faith because it gets in the way of a relationship with someone they are attracted to or in love with.  It can be a job and career which takes hold of one’s life so that it consumes one’s time and energy and life so that there is no room for anything else.  For others success or the desire for success and wealth become so important that the way of faith becomes a bother and a nuisance, a hindrance, a complication so that one abandons the Christian perspective.
Fourth soil: sSeed falls on good soil and brings forth grain: hears the word and understands and bears fruit. 
Clearly the ideal is the person who receives the seed with joy and does what is necessary to let the seed grow to bear fruit.  The key word is ‘understanding’.  Remember what the word disciple means.  It means learner.  To embark on a life of faith means that one has faith that seeks understanding.  One has faith that wants to understand more about who God is, how God acts, what a Christian should believe, how a Christian should live, how a Christian can serve others.
          The path of deep rooted faith means one engages with all that is there to help one grow in understanding; as our diocesan slogan says, to go deeper into God.     

          In conclusion, this parable has two questions for us to consider.  First, what kind of soil are we: a path where the seed cannot grow, rocky soil where the roots don’t go deep, thorny soil where the seed that grows is choked and dies or good soil?  The second question is, if we are good soil, what do we do to ensure that we bear much fruit? What are we doing to nurture our faith so that it grows and deepens and bears fruit?  The parable leaves you and me to go away and consider.