4th Sunday before Lent: Isaiah 58, 1-9 & Matthew 5, 13-20 (Gospel)
‘Will you turn it down?’ Can I ask if any of you has ever asked that of your children?
Maybe you have even stood at the bottom of the stairs and yelled it?
Or maybe when someone in your family or friendship group has gone on and on about something you have said something like, ‘please do dial it down a bit,’ or asked them to wind their neck in.’ I know I have.
But, here is a problem. Scripture does bang on and on remorselessly about various things. The prophets do so and so does Jesus. In fact it gets worse for if we are to take Scripture, as God’s revealed word seriously, we are mandated to also speak out.
Listen again to the first words we heard today from the Old Testament reading: ‘Shout out do not hold back!’ As people of faith we are not supposed to be silent on those issues that stand contrary to God’s values. Was Jesus quiet? Not really. Was Jesus passive? Did Jesus say to his followers ‘don’t worry about what’s going on around, it’s all in God’s hands, just trust, say your prayers and all will be well?’ No. He told the apostles and the disciples to go out and proclaim the good news, to work to set the prisoner free and, to be as ‘salt and light,’ in the world.
The notion of challenging the forces of power, political and religious, was woven into the tapestry of the emerging Christian community in two ways: how it lived its corporate life as a radically different community, and how it spoke into a deeply corrupt, broken and unjust world. To be Christian, from the very start, has meant courting unpopularity and risking our reputations. To be Christian means standing in solidarity with the oppressed and rejected; the Beatitudes and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats tell us this in a fairly straightforward fashion.
If we are to speak, the question then becomes simply this: ‘what are we to speak of?’ I could, of course, answer that we need to speak to individuals about their need to repent and to come to a personal faith in Jesus. And, we do need to do this; of course we do. But, if we are to be true heirs of the prophetic tradition, we need also to speak out against the structural injustices in society.
The prophets didn’t speak to individuals they spoke to the nation. Jesus, who is the self-described fulfilment of the prophets, for sure touched, affirmed and, healed individuals, bringing them into relationship with God, effecting true and radical conversion experiences, but he also spoke out against deep structural injustices and, the abuse of power by the powerful, whilst asking his followers to model a new way of living well together as a community. Let us never forget that he was put to death by a toxic combination of political and religious power!
I would like to suggest very strongly, from the very depths of my heart, that the pursuit of justice is something the church needs to take very seriously in this age. The church needs to attend to its own internal relationships, just like the early Christian community did and it also needs to speak loudly into the public square.
Jesus launched his ministry by quoting from the prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah’s words shaped, nourished and informed Jesus. They must do likewise for us. Isaiah and Jesus both warned against religious hypocrisy, hence the notion of the unacceptable fast.
Religious piety is all well and good, and it is something to be strived for, but it must always be underpinned by kingdom values, values that must be proclaimed both in word and in deed, so that we can be both salt and light.
Let’s listen once more to the words of Isaiah to the faith community, recognising that Isaiah, as a prophet is God’s megaphone:
‘Shout loud and do not hold back! Announce to my people their rebellion……….is not the fast I choose to loosen the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke.’
We, as Christians, need to be salt and light and we also need to be God’s megaphone. This is our moral imperative.
Don’t be quiet in the face of injustice and cruelty. Don’t be quiet when people are discriminated against simply on the basis of who they are, where they were born, their gender, ethnicity, sexuality or economic status. Don’t remain silent when power is abused, instead ‘shout loud and do not hold back,’ so that in time ‘every yoke may be broken and the oppressed may go free,’ and something of the Kingdom of God experienced as will later pray ‘here on earth as in heaven.’
Rev. Andrew Lightbown
Candlemas Sermon: Malachi 3, 1-5 & Luke 2, 22-40
As I am sure many of you will know this year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses on the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg. There can be no doubt that Luther’s reformation principles were instrumental in Thomas Cranmer’s decision in 1549 to write his first Book of Common Prayer. And so, it feels right that we should celebrate and worship using the BCP this year. We will be reflecting further on Luther, the good bits and the less than good bits, throughout the year.
The 1549 Prayer Book, it is fair to say, was not received with universal acclaim. There were riots in the west country as the men of Somerset & Cornwall felt that the Prayer Book was being imposed on them. Others felt the 1549 Prayer Book was too catholic. Cranmer therefore revised his initial work and a second prayer book was published in 1552.
The 1552 Prayer Book, which was the source document for 1662 Prayer Book, was far more protestant. Cardinal Newman and his collaborators, or co-reformers, believed that Cranmer’s true intent was the 1549 Prayer Book, their analysis of which gave birth to the Anglo Catholic movement. Anyway this is all a bit by the by.
What we can say, however, with absolute certainty is that Cranmer would not have approved of the way that the Prayer Book is used in cathedrals and churches today. For Cranmer hymns, anthems, choir robes, supplementary intercessions and possibly even sermons written by the vicar would have been an absolute ‘no no.’ He wouldn’t have liked the way that we have reformed or reclaimed the Prayer Book for our own use and context. Traditions must however must be allowed to live and breathe, otherwise they are of no use.
My words for today as you might have picked are reformation and reclamation, or re-claimation. And, these two words are highly relevant to our understanding of Candlemas. Candlemas is also known the Purification of the Blessed Virgin and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. We can view the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple as mere historical acts or as an insight into Jewish religious rituals. But, I believe we need to also read them through the lens of allegory and in so doing allow them to reform us and reclaim the message of Jesus Christ, in the process allowing ourselves to be reformed. We also need to understand the relevance of the likes of the prophet Malachi alongside Simeon and Anna for us today.
Let’s start with Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets, and in so doing we should also remember that Jesus great claim is to be the fulfilment of the prophets. Malachi is concerned that the life of the temple should be characterised by compassion and justice leading to relief for the widows and orphans, and a general commitment to healing and reconciliation. Malachi suggests that the people of the Temple need to reclaim these values so that the Temple may be both reformed and purified. Malachi hints that purification rituals in themselves are hollow without a commitment to live by and model kingdom values. The church’s purity today is revealed by how it lives not just by what it does. An exclusive focus on doing and performing was in many ways the sin of the Temple, the sin Jesus came to cleanse and purify. We must make sure that this doesn’t become our sin.
Turning to the gospel Simeon provides us with the radical understanding that salvation is for all. Jesus is to be light for everyone. Religion for the first time is to be truly hospitable and inclusive. Access to grace and mercy is no longer just for the Jews, it is for all. Do we sometimes in our worst moments want the Christian religion to be reserved for people like you and me?
Anna reminds us of the importance of patience and joy. Are we prepared to be as prayerful and trusting as Anna? Do we regard Jesus as a source of great joy? Are we like Anna prepared to allow ourselves to dance and sway, (even in Matins?) Are we like Anna infectious in the exercise of our faith?
So the question for the church as we celebrate Candlemas is straightforward:
Are we prepared to reclaim again and again the great religious traditions of compassion, justice, healing, reconciliation, patience, prayerfulness, trust and joy? Because if we are, our faith and common life will be infectious. We will be in Simeon’s terms light; light for all.
Rev. Andrew Lightbown
Sermon - Epiphany 3, 22nd January: Isaiah 9, 1-4, 1 Corinthians 1,10-18 & Matthew 4, 12-23
Let me start with a question? Has anyone been to the cinema recently and watched a really good film; or if not the cinema has anyone seem anything really good on T.V.? It strikes me that whatever Donald Trump thinks of Meryl Streep there are a lot of very talented actors out there, bringing a lot of really good stories to life.
Last Tuesday I was in London wearing my dog collar. I had arranged to meet my Spiritual Director at St. Paul’s. Whilst waiting for him I encountered hundreds of actors who were at St. Paul’s for the day for filming. A passer-by stopped me and asked whether I am ‘a real priest or an actor!’ I replied a real priest although I did make a bid, unsuccessfully, for a walk on part!
But, here is the interesting thing, through baptism as St. Paul suggests, we have all been cast to play our role in the story of God’s unfolding plan. The gospel tells us that the first characters to be cast by Jesus, the Director, were Andrew, Peter, John and James. Andrew, Peter, John and James were not big name stars, they were ordinary people, small people and very probably because they were fishermen smelly people! Yet, they were Jesus’ people, hand-picked and schooled in the story of real and transforming religion. Just as you and I have been hand-picked, baptised, grafted into the church whose only script is the salvation story. Our job is to carry on telling the story that the first apostles were schooled to tell.
Our script is the timeless script and, our story is the ultimate good news story, as St. Matthew declares. It is the story of salvation made possible through the cross as St. Paul insists in today’s reading. It is the story of liberation, freedom and increase in joy, as Isaiah stresses. It is the story that each one of us is asked to both inhabit and tell. And, the amazing thing is that we don’t need to be RADA trained! We need to do exactly what Andrew, Peter, James and John did: spend time with Jesus, learn from Jesus, believe in Jesus and His message, and then find our own way of telling the story in our daily lives.
Can we do it? In the words of Bob the Builder ‘Yes, we can.’ Amen
Rev’d Andrew Lightbown
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