Monday 11 August 2014

Walking on water

Last Sunday's talk was about Peter walking on water, or at least giving it a good try. The story's in Matthew 14:22-33. Here's what we said...

I want to talk about your comfort zone. Peter and the disciples in the middle of this storm had a comfort zone. It was their boat. They were fishermen. They'd grown up in boats! They made their living from them, day in, day out.

So stepping out of the boat was leaving the comfort zone. I mean here they were, in the middle of a terrible storm, no Jesus with them, and suddenly they see what most of them take to be a ghost! What would you do? Who'd stay put?

I've heard sermons that rather belittle Simon Peter here – yes he started out fine, didn't he, but then he took his eyes off Jesus, he looked at the wind and the waves – all that's going on around him – instead of trusting in the Lord. So he began to sink… If only he'd listened to my preaching, if only he'd had my faith, he wouldn't have sunk. But Peter's really brave here – would you have stepped out of that boat? Your comfort zone?

When is the last time you stepped out of your comfort zone? It needn't be in a big way. Perhaps you took on a new role – you weren't sure how it would go. Perhaps you went to visit someone – maybe you took up last week's challenge to go and find someone who we might need our company or our help – remember when we ate the fourth bit of donut? Or maybe it was a big thing – you launched a risky business venture, you tried to put things right with someone you'd fallen out with.

Have a chat with your neighbour: when did you last step out of your comfort zone? Where was God in that? ... Anyone want to share? …

As you've noticed, we've actually acted out stepping out of our comfort zone. Opening up to another person about times when we've felt vulnerable – that's stepping out of our comfort zone. Being expected to talk to each other in church – that's stepping out of our comfort zone. 

But why should God want to take us out of our comfort zone? After all, we like it there! And we need to be there a lot of the time - but maybe not all of the time. I think God has three reasons:

1. Because God wants our faith to grow. Faith like a mustard seed is faith that can grow – seeds grow. Put it in God's hands and it will grow – because that's what faith is. It's not about trying to make yourself believe things you know aren't true. It's about trusting in God that He is at work in you. Peter responds to Jesus – "Lord, if it's really you, call me!" God doesn't ask us to do stupid things in the name of stepping out in faith. He just asks that we let Him take the lead in cosmic dance of faith. Faith cannot grow while we play wallflower. We need to get out there and exercise those faith muscles - or they will waste away.

2. Because our comfort zones don't last. Sooner or later, storms come. That's life. Nothing we have will be there forever. Only Jesus is forever – because of His death and resurrection.

3. It's because Jesus Himself is our comfort zone. How do you picture Jesus walking on the water? Scrambling up and down those mountainous waves? No, He didn't scramble, He walked! Peace spread over those waves around Him. Peace spread to Peter when Jesus took him by the hand. Peace spread to the disciples when Jesus got back in the boat. This is a peace that cannot be taken away, because the Prince of peace is forever.

So it's about swapping one comfort zone for another one – a better and more lasting one for one that sooner or later will succumb to the storms and sink. Which comfort zone do you prefer?

For further reading, try this title:

Thursday 7 August 2014

Ethnic Cleansing in Iraq

I am appalled to learn of the horrific violence being meted out to my fellow Christians and other minorities in Iraq simply for not being muslims. This is a systematic attempt to eradicate Christianity from a country where it has been present since the time of Jesus.

The first responsibility for this ethnic cleansing lies with the pack of murderers who are carrying it out, and the second with the wealthy regimes in the Middle East who actually approve of Isis and are bankrolling it to a staggering extent.

But the British and American governments deliberately went in and destabilised Iraq. Whether intentionally or in rash ignorance, they left it prey to these killers. They must surely bear their share of responsibility too.

I encourage everyone who reads this to write to the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and their MP and ask to know how the government intends to respond. Can they deploy clandestine forces? Can they take steps against those who fund Isis? What humanitarian aid are they going to offer?

Sunday 3 August 2014


St Andrew's was absolutely packed last Thursday as everyone who could came for Vicki's farewell service. A lot of people had to stand, others were in the Annexe, as close to the door as they could manage to at least hear what was going on. The choir were ousted from their changing room to squeeze still more people in. It's a huge tribute to such a wonderful lady that so many wanted to give thanks for her life and support her family. When you give love, you get it back. When you inspire others, they feel connected to you. That certainly was so for Vicki, who gave so much for other people, and now they came to give something back for her.

There were four vicars there - Simon Douglas Lane, Andrew Parry and John Harper as well as myself (not to mention Carolyn our Baptist Pastor). It just goes to show how much and for how long Vicki has been part of our church's life.

It was a very emotional service at times. For me that was especially when members of her family got up to say how they felt about her as their mum and grandma. It also came when we sang I the Lord of Sea and Sky, when I found myself thinking about how Vicki herself had echoed the words of the hymn in her own response to God and to His hurting people - Here I am Lord... Is it I, Lord?... I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart. Vicki all over, isn't it? But it was also an inspiring service as we sought to honour Vicki's great faith. She knew where she was going, didn't she!

Here's the Bible passage that was read at the service. It's from 1 Corinthians chapter 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

And here's what I said about it and about Vicki in the sermon. First I read a eulogy specially written for the service by Bernie and the family...

Thank you Bernie, you have really brought Vicki's younger self alive for us there, haven't you, for those of us who haven't know her as long as you. She usually had a bit of a twinkle in her eye, didn't she? I can see that was as true back then as it is now.

Well, other people have shared a bit about Vicki's family life in the lovely tributes we heard earlier, and Beryl will say a bit about her life in the church and community when she leads our prayers in a few minutes. So I'm going to say a bit about our Bible reading from 1 Corinthians 13. I hope you will agree as we reflect on it together that there is so much of Vicki in there…

For she knew that love isn't in fine sounding words – the tongues of men or of angels. She knew it isn't in grand but empty gestures – giving away all you have and surrendering your body to the flames. It's in kindness. It's in making time for people. It's in being there when they need you. It's in listening to them. It's in having a generous heart and a gentle spirit towards others.

There's a spiritual exercise some people do to see how they are progressing in the Christian life. You take out the word "Love" from this passage and put in your own name. Try it some time – Colin is patient and kind? H'mmm. Colin is never arrogant or boastful or rude? I wish. Colin is not easily angered, he keeps no score of wrongs? Ouch! Colin bears all things? Fallen short miserably again! No-one is perfect – as it says in 1 Corinthians, everything we know is only in part, the best we can see is just a dim reflection, through a glass darkly. Everyone, including Vicki, stands in need of God's mercy and forgiveness.

Yet surely Vicki ticks far more of those boxes than most of us. She is an example to us of how to live the Christian life, as the many people here who have been blessed by her kindness, her prayers, her thoughtfulness, her practical caring, her unfailing support, will testify.

There is another name we can put in there instead of our own, the name of the only person who ever managed to live out this wonderful Bible passage with complete consistency. It's the person Vicki herself loved and followed. Jesus is patient and kind. Jesus is never arrogant or boastful or rude. Jesus is not easily angered, he keeps no score of wrongs. Jesus bears all things. He does this because He is love incarnate, God Himself come to walk among us in human form. He is Vicki's life and inspiration.

And it's because God is love and has made this love known in Jesus that the greatest of these is Love. Because for Jesus, Love meant giving Himself to the uttermost for us on the Cross. He died for us, not because we are perfect and deserve His sacrifice, but because we are sinners and we don't. That sacrifice was the only way to bring us forgiveness and make a new start with His love inside us.
But God's love was stronger even than death. On the third day, Jesus rose from the grave. He was seen alive by many witnesses. Many of them gave their own lives to testify to Jesus' victory over the grave. So it's because of Jesus that Love endures for ever. As our Bible passage says: "these three things remain – faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." It's our destiny to live in God's love forever and ever. And, by His death and resurrection, Jesus is the way God has provided to do just that. This I know was the cornerstone of Vicki's radiant and magnetic faith, the inspiration for all she was and all she did.

Today as you all know is Vicki's 70th birthday. It was to have been a day of joy and celebration for all the family – sadly that was not to be. Yet a part of me pictures Vicky enjoying the best birthday party ever as she has gone to be with the Lord she loved so much. "You prepare a table before me… my cup is running over…" Heaven celebrates the culmination of seventy years well and faithfully lived.

The name Victoria means "One who conquers, who is victorious." I don't know how many of you know that Vicki did in fact defeat cancer once before, many years ago, when survival was far less common than it is now. Unfortunately this time things didn't happen the same way. Yet Vicki has gone to enter into that greater victory that her Lord Jesus has won on her behalf and on ours. Vicki I know would want me to ask you today: make sure that you take your place in His victory, by following in His footsteps, as she did. Then there will be all the greater rejoicing when we meet and celebrate together in Heaven's great party.

"And so these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love."

A last thought. Vicki's passing has left a great hole in our church. It was so strange to be in church today and look around and not see Vicki. I could picture her so clearly, sitting where she used to sit, talking and sharing with others, immaculately turned out as ever, smiling that lovely smile. But it's not only in that way that we miss her. She did so much to help and support us, to encourage us and befriend us. Who will take on those roles now? Perhaps the best way of all to remember Vicki is to live our own lives by the values she exemplified: to love God with all our hearts, and our neighbours as ourselves.

"Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master!"

God bless you, Vicki. Colin x

Saturday 2 August 2014

Buried treasure...

Jesus said, "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field. In his excitement, he hid it again and sold everything he owned to get enough money to buy the field -- and to get the treasure, too!" Matthew 13:44

Two pirates met after many years at sea. One seemed none the worse for his many adventures, but the other had a wooden leg, a hook instead of a hand, and an eye-patch.

"Whatever happened to your leg mate?" the first pirate asked. "Arrrr, well you see, we were in this sea battle. Along comes a cannonball and takes me leg clean off. Luckily we got a great ship's surgeon and he kitted me out wi this peg-leg, good as new!"

"All right then, but what about your hand? How'd you get that hook?"  "Ah-harrr! We were in a fight in a tavern, along comes a sailor with a cutlass and hacks me hand clean off! Lucky again there, the surgeon gave me this hook and pretty good it is too!"

"Well, what about your eye then, me hearty?" Arrr-ha-harr! We were sailing along as sweet as you please, when along comes a seagull and poops right in me eye!"

"Come on mate, a bit of seagull poop wouldn't take your eye out!" "Arrrr, but you see, I wasn't used to me hook yet..."

Why have a pirate joke when talking about the Gospel? What has last Sunday's reading got to do with pirates? Well of course it's because pirates hunt for buried treasure. In his parable, Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like treasure buried in a field. One day someone discovered it there, and was so keen to get the treasure that he sold everything he had to buy the field. 

What does this tell us about the kingdom? That the greatest treasure we can find is to know God and enjoy his love. And it tells us what we need to find that treasure trove too… We need three things to find it, mostly beginning with "M." So all aboard me hearties, let's go in search of hidden treasure!

Motivation. A few years ago a hoard of exquisite Saxon jewellery was found near where I used to live in Walsall. Remember the Staffordshire Hoard? The guy who found  didn't just stumble across it by accident! No, he went searching regularly with his metal detector and finally came across something worth all those hours. In the same way we ought to be motivated to find out what life is all about, what is our destiny, is there a God, what happens after we die – all the big questions of the kingdom. Because God says, "You will seek me, and you will find me, if you seek with all your heart." Why should God share His Kingdom with people who are not really bothered? Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean had a special compass that showed him what direction to find his heart's desire – the treasure.

Map: Of course all pirates have a map to tell them where to look on that desert island. Our map is God's word. It may be that we hear it from somebody who tells us how to draw closer to God. It may be that we tell somebody else about the treasure we have found. These are important parts of sharing God's word as we live it. But in the end it goes back to the Bible. Here it is that we find all we know about God's promises, His provision for our salvation, His forgiveness and His amazing love. The Bible is God's Map for our treasure trove.

X Marks the Spot: For Christians we want to draw the X like this: +. Because the Cross of Jesus shows us where that treasure is to be found. It is when we come to the Cross that we receive God's forgiveness, that we are reconciled to Him, that we enter His presence and become inheritors of eternal life. If we don't come to the Cross but try to get the treasure in some other place, we will come home empty handed – because the Cross marks the place where that treasure is to be found.

But interestingly we also need an X to mark where we are. When I went to Finland this summer there were maps put up in public places to show the way round. Unfortunately in one of them somebody had removed the sticker which showed "Olet tässä" - you are here. Without knowing where you are, the map is meaningless! In the same way, we must be honest with God about where we are if we are to receive His treasure. If we pretend that we are holy enough already, that we are doing God a favour by coming to Him, that we have somehow earned His love by our own efforts, we are not being honest. Because the Cross says that we all stand in need of mercy and forgiveness, that we are far from Him and that we can't draw near without God's help.

Conclusion: But that X also says something else – that however desperately we need God's mercy and help, He is even more willing to give it – so willing He even gave Himself for us on the Cross. Because this is one of those strange parables that we can take in two ways. Yes it is saying that God should be our treasure, the one who is worth so much to us that we would gladly lay down all that we have and our to have Him in our lives. But surely it is also saying that we are His treasure. Isn't He the one who in Jesus came to seek for us, and sought with all His heart: and when He found us, He gave everything to have us, just as the man in the story gave all he had to but the field: He gave His everything on the Cross, even laying down His own life so that we could be His. So brothers and sisters, we are His treasure. We are of infinite worth in His sight. Let's let His infinite love for us motivate us to seek to love Him with all our heart.