REV. GRAHAM ALEXANDER
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Year A                                                Sunday  15                                       13th July 2014                                              
St Dunstan’s:                                  
Readings: Isaiah 55:10-13, Psalm 65:1-13, Romans 8:1-11, Matt 13:1-9, 18-23.

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,  Amen.

The parables of Jesus must surely rank as some of the finest teaching moments in the world’s history, and the parable we heard from the Gospel lesson today is no exception.  In his missionary work, Jesus had moved from the confines of the Temple and was now using the open countryside to proclaim his message.  On this particular occasion, he was sitting in a boat a little off-shore on the Sea of Galilee, A large crowd had gathered, eagerly awaiting his message. Looking around, Jesus spotted a farmer at work on the nearby hillside, and using this scenario, told the parable we heard today.  The success of a story as a teaching tool depends on how the listeners can relate to its content.  In his case, the people were more than familiar with the setting – many that morning, had probably walked through that very farm, using the regular well-trodden paths that meandered through the fields, noticing the areas of stony ground and those areas where the weeds were flourishing.  They could easily understand the basic elements of the story, and it seems that Jesus expected the people to draw their own conclusions as to the meaning of the story and then apply it to their own lives – he ends with the words: He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

It was only when he was alone with his disciples who had asked him why he taught in parables, that he explained the aspects of the story to them.  As hearers of the word, there are various responses and outcomes that can be expected. 
Those who hear the teachings, but choose to ignore them entirely, are likened to the seed that fell on the pathway – that seed has no chance of even germinating, let alone bearing any more seed. The lives of these people are closed to the workings of God, or are so wrapped up in their own interests that they cannot be bothered with anyone else.
Then there are those who do hear the teachings and act on them for a short while, but then become disillusioned with the demands made on them – they too, bear no fruit. 
Others hear the teaching, accepting it with great enthusiasm, but then find that the pressures of their life-style leave little time for this new activity, and so, they too, just disappear.
But there are those who react positively to the teaching – they accept the good news and the challenges, and mould their lives accordingly.  For them, God is foremost, and everything else has to fall in its place as directed by Him. 

As followers of our Lord, we are expected not only to be hearers of the word, but we should be telling others of the good news. For some this could be an exciting call; for others a daunting challenge, but part of our Christian calling is to share the good news with those we meet.  Again, we may start off with great eagerness, but then find that what we have to say, or what we do, is not appreciated, and we lose heart.  Like the farmer, we must keep on, and not worry about those moments or events when we appear to be rejected – not all the seed germinated and bore fruit, but there is always some seed that does come to fruition.  That is the truth we must hold on to in those rather darker moments.

At times, we do not know what effect we are having on a person. William Barclay, in his commentary on this passage, tells the experience of a man who used to attend a small church.  In this church there was a lonely old man, by the name of Thomas. Thomas had outlived his friends and hardly anyone knew him. After Thomas died, the man telling the story decided to go to Thomas’ funeral, thinking there would be very few people at the service. In fact he was the only member of the congregation to attend!  He followed the cortege to the cemetery, and noticed a soldier waiting at the gate. The soldier followed the hearse to the graveside, and when the burial ceremony was over, stood at the graveside, and saluted the coffin with all the dignity he could muster.  The man who had come from the church then walked with the soldier away from the grave. A gust of wind blew open the overcoat the soldier was wearing and revealed that he was a brigadier in the army.  The soldier turned to the man and said” You will perhaps be wondering what I am doing here. Years ago Thomas was my Sunday School teacher; I was a wild lad and a sore trial to him; he will never know what he did for me; but I owe everything I am or will be to old Thomas; and today I had to come to salute him at the end.”   Thomas certainly did not know of the influence he had had on that boy at the time, nor will we always know how we may affect that person next to us in the pew or on the road, but we must persevere in our quiet proclamation of the Gospel by our words, our deeds and our attitudes all the time. Which means we must keep a watch on what we say, do or how we treat others – not always easy!!

Another lesson for us, from the parable of the sower and the story just quoted, is that we must not expect results instantly!  We live in a world where we can contact our friends at any moment (that is when their cell phones are switched on!) and that every moment wasted is money wasted.  This is not the case with God’s work.  A hard lesson for us as believers is that of patient waiting – things will happen in God’s good time, and we must hold on to that hope. 

May God grant us the wisdom to understand His teachings as given to us in the Bible, and the strength to apply these teachings in our lives, to His glory and for the good of the people we meet.

Amen.


Year A                                                Sunday  13                                       29th June 2014                                            
St Dunstan’s:            St Peter and St Paul                      
Readings: Zechariah 4:1- 6a, 10b – end, Psalm   , Acts 12:1-11, Matt 16:13-19.

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,  Amen.

One of the unusual events in the Church’s calendar is this particular festival – that of St Peter and St Paul.  Each of these saints has his own feast day. We celebrate St. Peter’s great confession of faith in his Lord on the 18th January. As you heard in this morning’s Gospel reading, after asking the disciples what people thought about Him, Jesus challenged his disciples with the question: “Who do you say I am?” Peter’s response: “You are the Christ”, must have warmed Jesus’ heart, knowing that his message and teaching was beginning to be understood by his followers. On the 25th January, we celebrate the conversion of Paul – that occasion when Saul, as he was then known met the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus and had his life changed. So why do we have another day for these two men? The festival we are celebrating today is given to us to consider the faithfulness of these two men, considering both were condemned to death by Nero, the Roman ruler, and according to some legends, both died a martyr’s death on the same day!

The normal method of execution for non-Roman citizens was, of course, crucifixion.  Peter, being a Jew, spent some time in Rome preaching the Gospel of Jesus. Eventually, the Roman authorities started to clamp down on those people who were putting forward religious ideas and beliefs that went against the accepted Roman traditions because too many Romans were turning their backs on the official religion of the Empire – this was tantamount to treason in the eyes of the authorities.  Legend has it that when Peter was led out to be crucified, he asked that he be crucified upside down, believing he was not worthy to die the same death as his Lord and Master, Jesus.  This is why when we see paintings of the death of Peter, he is hanging upside down on the Cross. 
St Paul, on the other hand, was a Roman citizen by birth, and was spared such a gruesome death – he had the privilege (if we could call it that!) of being beheaded by a sword. Another legend tells us that his head bounced twice on the ground before coming to rest.  At each spot on the ground, a fountain sprang up, and later, on this place, the church of the Three Fountains, Tre Fontaine, commemorating Paul’s execution was built. You can visit this church in Rome to this day.

So, what lesson has this special day to give us?  We are called to be faithful in our belief and trust in Jesus as our Lord even to our death. In the face of all opposition we must stand firm and not let our faith in Jesus as our Lord be shaken by outside events.  How often have we heard people question the presence of God in a natural disaster, or other global tragedy?  Where was God in the sufferings of those caught up in an earthquake, or raging forest fire? we are asked. The almost too glib answer: He was in the middle of it all, is not always accepted by the onlookers to a natural tragedy. But that is the truth – God is in the situation, experiencing what is happening, in all its terrible detail. And if God is present in those global events, he is also present in our individual and sometimes, very personal ups and downs. It was this belief, that God was with them at all times, that gave St. Peter and St. Paul the courage to face their tormentors and still have the strength and courage to witness to their Lord.
 
How do we develop this unshakable faith, a faith that will keep us steady in the face of any adversity?  We need to believe that such a faith is possible. It was such a belief that helped the many people of Peter and Paul’s time to face their situations and even deaths with such calmness and acceptance. It is such a belief that has helped many more through the ages face their problems and find wonderful solutions to them.

This belief, this faith is not a dreamy, wishful thinking – it takes courage and determination and a lot of work but the outcome is a life of assurance, knowing that God our Father is with us in all our doings, and will guide us in His way for us. By making the prayer, first uttered by the Roman centurion so long ago, our own: Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” our trust in Jesus our Saviour is complete.

May we take courage from the events celebrated this day – the witness given to us through the ages by the martyrdom of St Peter and St. Paul,  - and in that strength, continue to be the living witnesses to our Lord as we are called to be.

Amen.


Year A                                                Sunday  4                                         
St Dunstan’s    The Presentation of our Lord in the Temple                2nd  February 2014
Readings: Malachi 3:1- 4, Psalm  24, Hebrews 2:14-18, Luke 2:(21)22-40.

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,  Amen.

Our Gospel lesson for today describes the three important ceremonies a boy and his parents had to undergo to be accepted as a member of the Jewish people.  The first of these ceremonies was that of Circumcision, an operation that had to be performed eight days after the boy’s birth, and so important was this ritual, that it could be performed even on a Sabbath day, when no other labour was allowed.  It was at this service that the boy was given his name, much like our Baptism service, when, in the earlier days, the priest asked the parents to “name this child”.  The Christian Church keeps this festival on the First of January, now known as The Holy Name of Jesus.

The second ceremony was that of the redemption of the first-born.  According to early Jewish law, the first boy and the first calf born was consecrated to God, and therefore belonged to God, and again in the early days, that child or animal was sacrificed to the god. This was probably the background to the intended sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham which we heard about a few weeks’ ago and the subsequent change to the law – the parents could pay the priests five shekels and effectively, “buy back” their son from God.

The third ritual which had to take place thirty-three days after the Circumcision, was the Purification after Childbirth.  The mother was regarded as ritually unclean for forty days after the birth of a son, and eighty days after the birth of a daughter.  Effectively, this meant that the woman could go about her daily chores and business, but was not allowed to enter the Temple during her time of “uncleanness”. At the end of the prescribed number of days, she with her husband would go to the Temple with two offerings: a lamb, to be offered as a burnt offering, and a dove, as a sin offering. For poorer people, a dove could be substituted for the lamb, which is what we heard happened in the case of Mary and Joseph, suggesting that they were not of the wealthy class, and had to watch every coin spent.

We see from these events that Jesus was born into a very ordinary, if poor, home, a home in which all the laws and rituals of the Jewish people were strictly and devoutly observed.

While Joseph and Mary were in the Temple for the final ritual, they were approached by two people who were deeply devoted to the observance of their religion, Simeon and Anna.  We know nothing about these two people other than what Luke tells us in his writings.  Both were elderly and both spent most of their time in the Temple, in prayer and worship.  Such people were known as The Quiet of the Land, who went about their daily work without fuss and spent much time in devotional exercises.  Although caught up in their private prayers and Temple worship, they were also looking for the coming of the Consolation of Israel, and the Redemption of Jerusalem – concepts that had messianic overtones. Unlike the more military or extremist Jews, expecting a conquering King or other powerful ruler who would lead Israel to great victories over her enemies, the Quiet of the Land had no dreams of violence, only a quiet waiting in prayer, in worship on God.

When Simeon saw the baby Jesus he knew that a promise given to him by God that he would not die until he saw God’s anointed One, had come true.  And so he breaks out in that beautiful hymn we know as the Nunc Dimittis – a hymn of quiet confidence and hope in God, a hymn that assures all peoples, not just the Jews,  of the salvation offered by God.  He further proclaimed that Jesus would bring division and unrest to the people by challenging them as to their understanding of his message.  This upset would also bring great distress to Mary – all of which we know happened, culminating in the Crucifixion and death of Jesus. 

This is the great theme of the Gospel: the Messiah, because he comes to lead Israel to her glory, must tread with her the path of suffering.  These prophecies apply to individuals as well – we may have to fall before we can rise; we may have to be humbled by failure before we can be raised by Jesus to the glory he wants to share with us.

Anna is described as a widow, at least 84 years old. Although she had known sorrow, she had never grown bitter; although old, she had never ceased to hope; and let us not forget that Israel was under the heavy boot of the dreaded Roman Empire. Like Simeon, her constant praying and worshipping had given her the strength to keep her where she was – living in quiet expectation of the coming of the Messiah. And that expectation was met on that memorable day. Anna could not keep this new-found joy and realized hope to herself – she boldly shared her experience with all who would listen.

What can we learn from the rituals and the experiences of these people who met the baby Jesus? 

The Good News is that Jesus came to live a life on earth to show us the way we should live. That way will not always be an easy way. At times there will be much pain and suffering, but we can take heart – Jesus has walked this road before and is walking this road with us now, in whatever we are experiencing, and will give us the strength and most importantly, the hope to see the hard times through.  We have been made children of God through our Baptism and our faith – we do not have to go through all sorts of rituals and ceremonies to be accepted as members of God’s kingdom. Jesus has already opened the doors of his kingdom to us, and we must simply accept the invitation to follow him, and live our lives as he wants us to.

May we, like Simeon and Anna, greet the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, into our hearts and lives with great joy and hope, and steeped in prayer and worship, rest in his peace.

Amen.

 


Year C                                                Sunday  25  
St Dunstan’s                                                                                                 22nd  September 2013
Readings: Jeremiah 8:18- 9:1, Psalm 79:1-9, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13. 

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,  Amen. 

What are we to make of the parable of the unjust steward?  Why was this strange story, which seems to praise the wrong-doings of a servant included in the Gospel? What lessons does this story have for us today? 

The various commentaries have all sorts of interpretations for this parable.  In those days, many landlords spent their time in cities and left the running of their farms or properties in the hands of a steward, a trusted slave, an estate manager, as it were.  The tenants were liable to the landlord for rent, which was often paid in the form of wheat, olive oil or other produce, rather than simple cash.  The steward could effectively determine just how much each tenant owed the farmer, and probably added on more, which he regarded as his just commission.  When the owner returned, perhaps on an unexpected visit, the books did not balance and the steward was fired.  What should he do?  By calling in the tenants and giving them apparent discounts, he could have been cutting what he expected, thereby losing his illegal commission, but making sure that the owner got what he expected, or, being the cunning rascal he was, cooked the books a second time, with the knowledge of the tenants themselves.  Whatever he did, he was looking after himself, and was hoping that when he had to leave the farm, the tenants, who now owed him a favour, would open their doors to him.  If any tenant did not help him, he could possibly have blackmailed the poor man into helping him!  Such is the mind of the rogue!

Jesus then highlighted a number of aspects and lessons may be drawn from each.

In verse 8, we are told that the “people of this world are more shrewd in handling their affairs than the people who belong to the light.” 

One interpretation of this is that when there is a crisis, we need to act swiftly.  When for instance, a business is going under, or something has been found to be wrong, the management calls meetings and hard decisions are taken to save the situation.  Do we as Christians act with the same speed and determination when our families or the Church is faced with a crisis?

We can also interpret this verse to mean that if only the Christian was as eager and ingenious in his or her attempts to attain goodness as the person in the world is in his attempt to make money and pursue comfort, the Christian would be a better person. If only we would give as much attention to the things that concern our souls as we do to the things which concern our businesses, we would be better people.  Consider how much time, effort and money we spend on our pleasures, our hobbies, our sport, and other interests as what we spend on our church activities. 

In verse 9 we are told to “make friends for yourselves with your worldly wealth so that when it gives out you will be welcomed in the eternal home”.  At one level there may be a hint of sarcasm here, but it may be stressing the point that we should use what we have to cement the friendships wherein real and permanent values lie.  There is a Jewish saying: “The rich help the poor in this world, but the poor help the rich in the world to come.”  It was a belief that charity given to poor people would stand to a person’s credit in the afterlife. A person’s true wealth was not in what the person had and kept, but what the person gave away.  Another lesson we may learn from this verse is that we should use our possessions responsibly.  We can be selfish with what we have, or we can use our wealth to make life easier, not only for ourselves but for someone else.  How many poor students are grateful to those who gave money for scholarships, which allowed them to achieve their dreams of going to a university?  Possessions are not in themselves evil, but they are a great responsibility, and the one who uses them to help others has gone far in discharging that responsibility. 

Verses 10 and 11 carry good advice and a warning: whoever is faithful in small matters will be faithful in great affairs; whoever is dishonest in small matters will be dishonest in large ones. We need to realize that we are the stewards of what we have while on the earth, and we need to exercise that stewardship with integrity.  What we eventually get in heaven will depend on how we used the things of the earth, and how we used the earth itself! 

Verse 13 lays down the rule that no slave can serve two masters.  Today we have people employed by one company during the day, and at night the person may be working elsewhere, just to earn enough money to survive.  The slave however, was owned exclusively by the master.  There was no “free-time” for the slave.  Every moment of the day, every bit of energy belonged to the master.  So, serving God can never be a part-time or a spare time job!  Once we choose to serve God, every bit of our time, every bit of our energy and effort belong to God.  God is the most exclusive of masters – we either belong to him totally or not at all.  This may be a daunting thought but we can take heart from some of the writings found in the Old Testament. Although God is the exclusive lord and master of his people, he will not, indeed, cannot, give them up or simply abandon them to their fate.  He will intervene because he loves his people so much.   And this is the message of hope we can hear too: although we may be going through hard times, we can rest in the knowledge that he still loves us with that unending love, a love that will last for all eternity. 

As we go into this new week, walking with our Lord, let us be aware of our responsibilities as followers of Jesus, and live our lives in accordance with his calling.  May we too, rest in the hope and joy that he is there with us, guiding and guarding us every step of the way. 

Amen.


Year C                                                Sunday  19                           

St Dunstan’s                                                                                                                11th August 2013 

Readings: Jeremiah18:1-11, Psalm 14, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-19, Luke 12:32-40. 

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,  Amen. 

Some three hundred years after the reigns of David and his son, Solomon, the Northern territories of the Holy Land were attacked by the Assyrians, and the Israelites who lived there, were taken into exile.  This was seen by the people living in the southern part of the land, in and around Jerusalem, as God’s judgment on their northern brethren because they had broken their allegiance to the Davidic line and more importantly, had set up their own centre of worship, thereby turning their backs on the one true God, whose altar was in the Temple in Jerusalem. For a while the people of the south lived in comparative peace under a number of kings and rulers, but in time, became more and more lax in their religious observances, even turning to idolatry and becoming more corrupt in their social ways.   During this time, a number of prophets made their appearance and warned the people that their wicked ways would soon lead to their destruction, as had happened to the northern tribes.  Not surprisingly, the people took little notice of such messages and warnings of doom, and instead, ridiculed the prophets and even on occasions, tried to kill them 

It was into such a time that Jeremiah was born and in such a time that he lived and preached his message.  It seems that he was aware of his calling from God from a very early age, because in the opening versed of this book we read Jeremiah quoting God as saying, “before you were born I consecrated you, I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah was faithful to his calling, and suffered for his unpopular message, being at times attacked and on occasion, even being thrown into prison. For forty years, Jeremiah tried desperately to save Jerusalem and the land of Judah from destruction by calling the people back to God, but in vain. If there is one thing we can learn from history is that people have not changed over the centuries – we need only look at what has happened in our own country to see that the messages and warnings of the prophets of God are not always accepted by the people or the authorities, and that they will often try to do whatever they can to silence those messages and warnings. 

Eventually Jeremiah was to see his warnings of disaster come true, when the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem in about 587 B.C. The Temple was sacked and destroyed. Most of the people were taken as slaves to Babylon, and the poorest of the poor were left in the ruins of their beloved city.  Jeremiah was also left in Jerusalem but later was taken to Egypt where he died. 

In the lesson this morning we heard how Jeremiah went to the Potter’s workshop and watched how the craftsman tried to shape a piece of clay into a bowl. As the man worked with the clay, he realized that there was something wrong with the clay and that it would not be suitable for his original purpose.  My sister, who is also a potter, was telling me a few days ago, that clay can become difficult to work and it will not always be able to be turned into the desired article. Jeremiah saw in this a lesson from God.  We and indeed all the people of the world are like clay in God’s hands.  He wants to make something wonderful with us.  If we are flexible, and let God mould us the way he wants to, then his will is being done in our lives.  If however, we try to resist his guidance and leading in our lives, we should not be too surprised that disaster overtakes us.  How often do we resist God, or ignore the words of advice or warning that come to us in so many different ways, and then discover to our sadness that we are in the middle of some awful situation from which we cannot escape?  It is said that the only time we really learn anything is when we have to bang our heads hard, and maybe God  has to bang our heads hard to get his message of love, joy and peace through to us for us to start living out that love, joy and peace in our lives.  Often, clay has to take quite a pounding at the hands of the potter before it becomes workable.  

There is another interpretation to this illustration.  We often want to go in a certain way, get a particular job or whatever, but we do not always realize that we may not be suitable for that job or position.  We then get angry and miserable because we feel we have been passed by, or not appreciated when someone else has been given the post for which we were applying.  When this happens we should remember this little story and if we believe we are in God’s hands, we should accept that he knows what is best for us and will make us into that which he wants us to be.  We, like Jeremiah, have all been called for a specific purpose in this world, and we must allow God, our creator to guide us to that purpose.  Then and only then will we really know his peace in our lives and enjoy real satisfaction in what we are doing.  We will be living in his kingdom, the kingdom that Jesus promised his followers. 

The message from the Gospel this morning underlines the teaching of Jeremiah, in that we may sometimes have to wait to see what God wants us to do.  We are urged to be patient, but we must be ready at any time to respond to his call.  That waiting, sometimes for many years yet being ready, demands the faith we heard about in the reading from the letter to the Hebrews.  Abraham was promised a son, but it was only when he was ninety years of age that that promise was fulfilled. 

We live in an instant age – instant coffee, instant messaging via cell-phones – everything has to be done by yesterday.  We are not a very patient people and the thought of waiting is not inviting. If we want to be followers of our Lord, we may have to undergo a change of mind-set, as the modern jargon describes it, and be prepared simply to wait for our God to act in his good time. 

God grant us the faithfulness of Abraham and Jeremiah, and the willingness to wait on God for the right time.  May we in the time of waiting, learn to do God’s will for us in our lives, that in the end we may bring Him glory and know his love active in our lives and in the lives of those around us.  May his kingdom be extended here on earth through our devotion and witness to Him. 

Amen.


St Dunstan’s 7.00am, 9.00 am.                                   LENT  1    Year C                                     17th  February  2013
   
TEMPTATION

Readings:  Deuteronomy 26:1-11,  Psalm 91:1-2,9-16,  Romans 10:8b-13,  Luke 4:1-13.

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

We are now in the time of the Church’s year we call Lent: forty days of preparation before we celebrate Easter.  These forty days are set aside for us to examine our lives and see just where we are falling short of the standards that God has set for us.  The forty days also recall the days that Jesus spent in the desert, preparing himself for his ministry to the people, and symbolically, these days also recall to mind the forty years spend by the Jews wandering in the Sinai desert, as they too, prepared themselves to enter the Promised Land. 

During their wanderings, the Jews had received the Laws of God, including those we call the Ten Commandments.  It was in this time that the Jews learned the basics of their religion, and so got to know something of their God.  Various warnings were given to them not to forget the God who had brought them out of Egypt, and who was about to settle them in a new land which promised abundant harvests.  Needless to say, as soon as the people entered their new homeland, they came in contact with the religions and practices of the local populations, and some of these proved more interesting when compared with their more austere beliefs.  The whole history of the Jews in the Old Testament is a sad tale of a chosen people slowly being reduced in numbers because they refused to obey the Laws of their God. 

In Jesus we see portrayed what God intended each person to be: one who is completely obedient to the Will of His Father.  The temptations Jesus experienced whilst in the desert were dealt with by referring to the scriptures of the day.  Scholars have interpreted these temptations as possible strategies considered by Jesus to spread his message.  By turning the stones to bread, all people would have food, and once their physical needs were satisfied, they may be ready to listen to his spiritual message. This idea, Jesus rejected.  Perhaps they would be drawn to him if he performed some fantastic feats, like jumping off the roof of the Temple, and not getting hurt.  This idea was also rejected.  A third possibility was to come to a compromise with the standards of the world, and water down his message, making it more comfortable to accept – more people would then be willing to listen to him, and follow the easier way.  This too was rejected when Jesus realized that that there was only one way to present the message of God to the people and that was the way of Love, a way not distracted by miracles nor by yielding to outside pressures.  Jesus was committed to God’s plan even if it led to his death.  And this we know is exactly what happened:  the authorities could not bear to see such goodness in this man, for his goodness showed up their weaknesses, and so they rigged the trial that led to Jesus being crucified.  That however, did not thwart God’s ultimate plan.  Because of his perfect obedience to his Father, Jesus was raised to life on the third day, and exalted to the highest place in heaven.  He was also given the authority to allow those who call on his name, those who believe in him, access to the joy of being with him in Heaven for ever

 There is a warning for us in the Gospel lesson.  Jesus had recently been baptised by John, and in that event had received confirmation of his call to his special mission.  He withdrew to the desert to plan his mission, waiting on God for guidance.  We should note that the first voice he heard was that of the Devil! When we have had what appears to be a wonderful religious experience, we must be careful not simply to respond to the first or even a later message we hear. Often these early “messages” may try to debunk our experiences as merely emotional upheavals, or even mental aberrances. If we do yield to these inputs, the Devil will have won a decisive victory in our lives.  Please, test each experience against Scripture and Common Sense, and also get some advice from an older Christian, someone you trust.

In the light of today’s theme, let us consider our situation:  How do we rate ourselves on a scale of obedience to God?  Are we truly keeping his commandment of Love for him and for one another?  It is little use during Lent, to give up sugar, or sweets or coffee, or smoking, or whatever, if that is all we are going to do.  We could rather be indulging in these “pleasures” and spend more time becoming caring people.  It has been said that one action is worth a thousand sermons, and in like vein, one action of love is worth a thousand cups of coffee given up for Lent!

If we are honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that we have fallen far short of the standards that God has set for us.  If we followed the Jewish religion we would have to make amends each year by means of fasting and prayers of penitence.  Praise God that we can simply, but sincerely, turn to Him and ask Him to forgive us of our wrongs, and by trusting in His love and power, we can know that our sins have been forgiven, and that in faith and joy, we may know God’s presence once again.

Let us then this Lent, make a conscious effort to look at the temptations we face each day, and call on our Lord to help us deal with them in the way he would want us to do.  Let us also, spend more time loving and caring for those who are in need, and in this way, prepare ourselves to walk in the way of Love set for us by our Lord Jesus Christ.  We may then eagerly anticipate the joy of Easter coming into our lives.

May God bless us as we seek to do his will for us these forty days, and after.

Amen.
 

Sunday 22 – Year A  -  28th August 2011

Readings: Exodus 19:1-9, Psalm 114, Romans 12:1-13, Matthew 16:21-28. 

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 One of the marks of a good novel or play is the presence of themes which run through the entire work and which hold the story together.  The various incidents that occur in the story arise out of the themes and are explained by the themes.

 Scholars of the Bible had detected and described many themes in these sacred writings.  Some of these we are already familiar with, such as the Love of God for his people, and the grand redemption for mankind.  There is another theme that links the Old and the New Testaments together, and that is the idea of the Covenant.

 To understand the meaning of a covenant, think of the agreement made between the groom and the bride at a wedding.  Each promises the other certain things, and in return, expects certain things.  The covenant is sealed in some ritual way, such as the giving and receiving of rings, and then the occasion is celebrated over a joyous meal.  The concept of a covenant was well known in biblical times.  There were covenants made between friends, such as that between David and Jonathan, covenants were made between nations, and a good example is the strange one made between the Israelites and the Hivites, as described in the Book of Judges. 

The basis of a covenant relationship was that each party would propose certain conditions which would be agreed to, on the understanding that if either broke the conditions or promises made, the other party had the right to carry out the punishments decided on in the covenant text.  The covenant was then sealed, usually with a blood sacrifice and a meal. 

The reading we heard from Exodus this morning is the beginning of the Covenant that God made with the Jews.  We know that the conditions included the well-known Ten Commandments, and that the Covenant was sealed with many blood sacrifices at the foot of the mountain.  At Sinai, God declared his plan for the salvation of the whole world to Moses, telling him that he was calling the Jews to be his instruments in the world.  They were to be a holy people, a nation of priests, dispensing God’s justice and mercy to all the world.  We know too, that throughout their history, the Jews broke the conditions they had agreed to.  Eventually when they were in Exile in Babylon, having seen the Northern tribes taken away some years earlier, and their own dear city of Jerusalem totally destroyed by their captors, they realized that they were now suffering the punishment due to them.  This punishment was not God wreaking vengeance on his people because they had disobeyed him. Rather it was the punishment meted out by a parent to a child in order to discipline the child, to pull the child back into line, as it were, to make the child realize just what was expected of the child and to accept the responsibilities and consequences of any future wrong actions.

 In the Eucharist we celebrate the Covenant made between Jesus and his disciples, and by our membership of the Church, we too are part of that Covenant.  The same elements are present: two parties, that is, Jesus and his followers, agree to certain conditions, which are summed up in the command: to love one another as Jesus loved us.  In return, Jesus promised to be with us forever.  The covenant was sealed by the meal we know as the Last Supper, and of course, by the shedding of Jesus’ blood on the Cross, the nest morning.

 Every time we take communion, we are re-enacting that covenant, we are renewing our vows to Jesus as Lord, and accepting that new commandment that he gave to us: Love one another as I have loved you.

 We are, in this act, also being ordained by our Lord, into his ministry of the reconciliation of the world to God.  Just as the Jews were fist chosen to be God’s messengers of Love to the world, so too are we called to be a holy people, a people set aside for a special task – that of proclaiming the Good News of the Love of God to those whom we meet and with whom we work or play. 

In the passage from St Paul’s letter to the Romans, we heard of various gifts given to the followers of Christ.  We must identify the gift or gifts we have and use them in this great work of drawing others into God’s kingdom.  We are called to realize that we form a community – individual members coming together, each contributing something unique to the whole body.  Paul also gives us guidelines as to how we can live out our commitment to Jesus:  let love be genuine, hate what is evil (but do not hate the evil-doer!), hold on to what is good, show respect towards each other ( something sadly lacking in today’s world!), work hard, do not be lazy, and so on – a list of suggestions that if we could only follow closely, would transform the church and the world. 

Jesus promised us that he would be with us in all our doings.  He will give us the strength and passion to carry out his will for us.  If we are prepared “to lose our lives for his sake”, we will find a richness and a sense of worth that we would not have believed possible. 

May we in the days ahead become more aware of God’s presence in our daily lives, and may we daily, learn to love him more dearly so that we may do his will for us and for the world with joy, in the spirit of his covenant with us 

Amen.   


Sunday 17   Year A    24th July 2011

Readings: Exodus 3:13-20, Psalm 105:1-11, Romans 8:26-30, Matthew 13:44-52.

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,  Amen.

“What is his name?” is a question asked by people throughout the ages, people wanting to get to know God.  In the story of Jacob wrestling with God, Jacob asked the angel, “What is your name?” The angel, or indeed, God did not give his name, but rather blessed Jacob and changed Jacob’s name to Israel. 

When God met Moses in the burning bush and commissioned Moses to go back to Egypt to lead the Hebrews to freedom, Moses hesitated, quite naturally, for it was a daunting task indeed.  Hence his question to God, “If I go to the Israelites and tell them that the God of our Fathers has sent me to you, and they ask me “What is his  Name?, what shall I tell them?”  Knowing the name of a person gives one a feeling of confidence in that person, even power over that person – ask any school teacher who is confronted with a class of excited youngsters how much easier it is to control them if the teacher knows each pupil’s name!  If Moses could name the God of his fathers, and the fathers of his people, he felt he would have a better chance of getting the people to follow him out of Egypt.  God was aware of this belief, and so would not reveal his name to Moses.  Moses had to go in faith back to Egypt, confront the Pharaoh and bring the Israelites to the Promised land.  Instead of giving Moses his personal name, God gave Moses the assurance that he, the One who Is who he is, and who will be who he is, would be with him in the task.  The title, “I AM” underlines the ever-present God with each of his children at all times – a real hope for us when we are facing difficulties or hard times.  God is with us in the situation: “I AM with you always.”

St Paul also asked the question: “Who are you, Lord?” when he met Jesus on the Damascus road. Jesus revealed himself to Paul, and like Moses, Paul received the same assurance that Jesus would be with him in the task that God had planned for him.  As we know, Paul became one of the greatest missionaries of all time, preaching the gospel to almost all the known lands of his day.  When he was arrested and tortured for preaching what appeared to be contrary to the official Roman religion, he was not dismayed.  He and his companions could sing celebration hymns even in the prison. He knew that his Lord was with him in that situation.  This assurance allowed him to make the startling statement we heard this morning – that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him.  When we feel that the world had turned against us, when everything seems to be going wrong, when we are really suffering either physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually, we can take heart in this truth: God is with us in those times, as well as in the good times, let us never forget, supporting us and guiding us through them, so that we may bring forth the fruit of his grace working in us.

Do we share this assurance that Moses and Paul enjoyed? Do we really know our Lord?  Are we living our lives, conscious of the presence of God in our lives each day, leading us, guiding us, comforting us?  In most cases, I am sure that we are not that aware of that great presence all the time, as we get caught up in the every-day running of our lives – the incessant ringing of the telephone, the pressure of our jobs, the demands of the children or other family members or friends, and a host of other activities that call for our attention throughout the day.                                            

Every now and then, we may see something that reminds us of God, be it a cross we or someone may be wearing, a church building we may drive past, a snatch of a hymn or religious song that pops into our minds, or some words we overhear.  We may then feel a stirring of our conscience that we should be praying more, studying the Bible more deeply, be getting involved with a church or charitable activity, and then the moment passes as we are distracted once again by the world around us.  Even in that situation, we must remember that God is with us, longing for us to keeping in contact with him.  We need to take the messages of the parables we heard more seriously.  When we do experience the “treasure hidden in the field”, that is the unexpected encounter with God, or find the “pearl of great price” after a long search, we must respond accordingly.  We also need to stock up our storeroom of treasures, those precious experiences of God, so that in moments of need, of spiritual dryness or whatever, we may go into that storeroom and bring out one of those treasures, that memory, that commitment which will then bring us once again, closer to our Father, who knows us and calls us by our name.

May we in the days ahead, become ever more aware of God’s presence in our daily lives, and may we each day, learn to love him more dearly, so that we may do his will for us joyfully.

God bless us all as we continue to grow in his grace, rejoicing in his love as we come to know him more and more.

Amen.  


Lent 5 Year A    10th April 2011

Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14,  Psalm 116:1-9, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-3, 17-45.

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

An intriguing question that could be asked on Palm Sunday is: “Are you prepared to be an ass for the rest of your life for Jesus?”  To put this question into context, look at the role the donkey played on that first Palm Sunday.  The animal was taken out of its stall by two strangers, a blanket was thrown over its back, and a third stranger rode on the donkey into the city which was filled with many shouting, ululating, cheering people – the noise must have been quite bewildering for the poor animal. Once the procession reached the temple, the strangers disappeared inside, the building, leaving the donkey to fend for itself.  I often wonder if anyone took the animal back to its owner and its stall! We are not told in the Scriptures what happened to the donkey. The donkey was used for a specific purpose at a specific time, and then apparently, discarded, with no reward for its work.  

Throughout the ages, there have been many people who have had parallel experiences. Just think of Simon of Cyrene, a stranger who was compelled by the Roman authorities to help Jesus carry his cross.  We do not know what happened to Simon along the way, or after the execution party had reached Calvary.  Did Simon go off, fuming at having to do something so horrible as carrying the instrument of torture and death of a perfect stranger?  Simon was probably in Jerusalem for a specific purpose, and he did not want his precious time wasted in this way.  Did he later learn that he had helped the Messiah in a critical moment?  Again, we do not know.  How many others, lets call them the “Unknown Saints”, have quietly helped someone in need without seeking anything in return?  Many unsung heroes and saints, in the widest use of the word, just do that which is right and necessary at that moment, easing the brokenness and need of another person’s life, and then move on. 

One person who wished to remain in the background simply doing what God wanted her to do, not seeking any recognition for her work, was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Teresa was born to Albanian peasants in Skopje, Yugoslavia, on 27th August 1910.  Whilst at school she heard about the work being done by the Jesuits in Calcutta, and volunteered her services for the Bengal mission. Just after her eighteenth birthday she was sent to the Loreto Convent in Dublin, Ireland, for initial training and during the years 1929 to 1948, she taught Geography at St Mary’s School in Calcutta. Teresa was a good teacher and a good administrator, at one stage, acting as principal of that school. In September 1946 she submitted a request to her superiors to live outside the convent and work in the slums of Calcutta. After undergoing some intensive training in nursing, Teresa opened her first slum school in the city, in 1949, and by the following year she had started a convent, and so the order, the Missionaries of Charity, was instituted.  Within a few years, branches had spread throughout India, South America, Rome, Tanzania, Australia and other countries.

 For her services to the poor, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel peace Prize in 1979.  She continued to care for those in need until she died in 1997.  Her death and funeral was accompanied by quiet grieving and silent rejoicing, so unlike the deaths and funerals of other well-known people, and this quietness and great dignity typified Teresa’s entire life –a small, energetic woman, walking the streets of Calcutta, taking in those whom the world had shunned because of their illness or situation, and caring for them until they died.  These poor people knew what brokenness and need was, and found some relief in the care and kind work of this amazing woman and her sisters in the Order, and who rightly may be regarded as a saint today.

 But there was another side to Mother Teresa, and one which was only made public some ten years after her death.

 Teresa had always been a spiritual person, even from her childhood.  She was always conscious of the presence of Jesus during her own schooling and her later years of teaching.  Within her order, she was a spiritual giant, giving her sisters and others who sought her advice and prayers, great comfort and direction.  Malcolm Muggeridge in his book “Something beautiful for God” gives glowing accounts of her simplicity, her humility and sincerity, as well as her unwavering strength and faith.  What was not realized at that time, was the deep darkness and loneliness Teresa was experiencing.  When Teresa decided to leave her teaching post to go out into the streets of Calcutta, she felt that she had been abandoned by God – she was no longer aware of his presence any more. In her letters to her spiritual advisers and confessors, Teresa often shared these disturbing thoughts. To quote one such letter: “If you only knew what I was going through – He is destroying everything in me. But as I hold no claim for myself, He is free to do anything.  Pray for me that I keep smiling at Him.” And another quote underlining her determination to follow the will of God, in spite of the darkness:  “There is so much contradiction in my soul.  Such deep longing for God, so deep that it is painful, a suffering continual, and yet, not wanted by God, repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal.  Souls hold no attraction. Heaven means nothing to me and yet this torturing longing for God continues. Pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything.  For I am only His – so he has every right over me. I am perfectly happy to be nobody even to God.

 ‘Feeling that the very pillars of her life – faith, hope, love – had disappeared must have been agony.  The darkness had dimmed the certainty of God’s love for her and the reality of heaven.  The burning zeal for the salvation of souls that hat led her to India had apparently vanished.  At the same time she clung steadfastly to the faith she professed and without a drop of consolation, laboured wholeheartedly in her daily service of the poorest of the poor.   Her longing to sense God’s closeness made the darkness the more excruciating. Yet she had attained a spiritual maturity that helped her humbly and ungrudgingly assume the last place and happily be “nobody even to God”’.  Such is the comment of the compiler of the writings of Mother Teresa, and published under the title: Mother Teresa - Come be my light.  This title reflects the call Mother Teresa heard from God at the outset of her ministry. 

Teresa had requested that all her private correspondence be destroyed on her death, but in its wisdom, the Catholic Church authorities decided against this, realizing just how these writings could help others.

At some point she had written: “If ever I become a Saint, I will surely be one of ‘darkness’.  I will continually be absent from heaven – to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”   

Like the donkey who was closest to Jesus during that eventful ride, but unaware of who it was carrying; like Simon who helped Jesus without knowing whom he was helping, Teresa continued her work, not knowing what the future held for her, but one thing is sure, Teresa indeed was a light for those in their darkness of brokenness and need, and can be an inspiration to others who also feel that they are living outside the light of Christ at this moment. 

 May we also see in Mother Teresa an example of what can be done for those who are living in the darkness of their brokenness and need, and heed the call of Jesus to Mother Teresa: Come be My light. May we thereby bring the hope and the joy of Jesus to others.  May we learn to smile at God in all circumstances.

 Amen.


Sunday 6    Year A 

13th February 2011

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:17-26.

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The readings we heard today must rank as some of the hardest to put into practice.  It may be a good idea for us to re-read them when we get home, and really think on them!

In the Gospel lesson, we hear the challenge Jesus issues to his followers that their righteousness must surpass that of the Scribes and Pharisees. Throughout the Gospels, the Scribes and Pharisees seem to receive quite a bit of tongue-lashing from Jesus, and as a result we then presume that these people were not the paragons of virtue they were supposed to be.  We must however, be careful here.  The Scribes and the Pharisees were two groups of people that took their religion very seriously indeed, and tried their best to follow to the letter, every law handed down by Moses.  No doubt, many of these men were good people in the best sense of the word.  There were however, some who took their beliefs and practices to the extreme, and it is possible that it is towards these extremists that Jesus was directing his harsh criticisms, because they showed more concern about keeping a particular law than caring for someone in distress.  The story of the Good Samaritan is a lesson against such extremism.

Jesus did not come to abolish this way of life, - something he was accused of teaching his disciples, by the way – he came to show how a life lived under the Law of God was to be lived.  Some people believed that in accepting the love and grace that comes from God, one can do as one likes, and throughout the history of Christianity, there have been groups of people who have preached this apparently wonderful free way of life, only to be condemned by the “established” Church as heretics.  The Church has, on the one hand, been entrusted with the transmission of the Gospel and therefore it must make sure that the message preached is in accord with Scripture and God’s will for his people.  On the other hand, times and situations change, and the Church must work its way through these changes. Even today, our Church is faced with conflicting ideas about various issues.  It is only through careful, prayerful consideration by all concerned that these thorny issues will be resolved.   

Jesus came to fulfill the law, to reveal to his followers what the Law was all about.  A problem with strict literal interpretations of laws is that every interpretation must be considered and any interpretation not covered then allows a loop-hole to be formed.  This is evident in the legal systems of countries, for instance.  A case against a “criminal” has to be absolutely water-tight for a conviction to be made – there cannot be any doubt in the evidence brought against the criminal otherwise the case can be thrown out of court. 

Jesus in his teaching is trying to show his followers what the spirit of the law is all about.  This is illustrated for instance in his comment on the commandment against murder: “You have heard it said: Do not murder. But I say to you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement.”  Anger is often the cause of murder, so Jesus points to the root of the matter and tells his followers that if they want to keep that particular commandment, they are not even to harbour angry feelings against another person. 

If we want to keep the Law of God as summed up in the Golden Rule: Love God and love your neighbour as yourself, we should firstly, be ready to seek peace and reconciliation with the one who has wronged us, or who has been wronged by us, as explained by Jesus’ comment about getting right with our brother or sister before we bring our gift to God at the altar, and, secondly, try to settle matters between ourselves and the other person, our adversary, before the matter gets to the law courts.  By so doing, our righteousness would then surpass that of those who follow the letter of the Law but do not consider the spirit of the law.

 Naturally we tend to baulk at these teachings – they seem to run counter to our sense of justice.  Why should I seek peace and reconciliation with the one who has wronged me?  Surely it is up to the other person to take that first step and apologize to me!  Why should I try to make amends when I am accused of doing wrong ( and I know I am innocent anyway) – let the other person try to prove his charges, after which I will sue him for false accusations and defamation of character! It is this attitude that Paul attacks in his letter to the Corinthians.  Those who claim to be spiritual Christians and are still caught up in this worldly way of thinking find that their spiritual growth is stunted.  He appeals to his readers to “grow up” as it were, to become more mature and indeed bigger in their thinking.  Let go the petty jealousies and unimportant differences that abound, and work with each other in building up the kingdom of God.  We are to look beyond our little circle and try to see the world through God’s eyes – its vastness and variety, its beauty and majesty, and see where we can then best serve Him. 

Again this is not easy because we do not like to forget the hurts and insults we may have suffered, nor do we like letting other people take credit for what we believe is rightfully ours, but if we are going to be the people that God intends us to be, we must take those steps that will lead to our spiritual growth  We must as the writer of the Deuteronomy puts it, love the Lord your God, walk in his ways and keep his commands, decrees and laws, then we will live and be blessed.

 We have the choice of life or death before us – a life filled with the presence of God, his guidance and his strength as we walk the way Jesus has shown us, or death of hope as we pursue our own selfish ways.

 May we choose life, and so live victoriously with our Lord in his love. 

Amen.


Sunday 2 Year A       2nd January 2011

Readings: Jeremiah 31:7-14, Psalm 147:12-20, Ephesians 1:1-6,15-18, John 1:1-18.

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,  Amen.

John 1:v 14: The Word became flesh and lived a while among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

These words from the Gospel sum up the meaning of Christmas. God the Creator, the Word through whom the Universe and all that is in it was made, came and lived among his creation, bringing his message of hope and salvation to a people then deep in hopelessness and despair.  At first it was believed by the followers of Jesus that this message was only for the Jews, the Chosen People of God,  However, as Jesus went about preaching the Good News, the realization that this message was for all people slowly started to take root.  God was bringing his plan of salvation for all people to a climax.  All people would be drawn to the Saviour, this Babe of Bethlehem was to be the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the Saviour of the world.

This is what was interpreted by the visit of the Wise Men – strangers from foreign lands came to the house in which the Child lay and offered him gifts: gold, symbolizing his royalty, incense, symbolizing his divinity, and myrrh, a sign of his death.  And it is this visit of the Wise Men, that the Church will celebrate on Thursday, the Feast of the Epiphany, the showing forth of the Christ Child to the Gentiles, and therefore, we too are called to see the glory of this Child.

It is significant that among the very first worshippers of Jesus were these outsiders.  They may have seen in this child a new hope for mankind.  From the story in Genesis, we know that God’s plan for his creation was that it should enjoy being in his presence at all times.  Unfortunately, something went wrong – humankind fell and so this intimate relationship was destroyed.  God then chose a group of people to bring his message of love and salvation to all nations, but this group looked inwards to their nation and themselves.  Instead of spreading the Good News to all, the Jews kept it to themselves, seeing as condemned those outside their special heritage.  It was Jesus who showed the people the true message of salvation and we must learn from this:  we must take God’s love to others, whatever the cost. We cannot keep this message to ourselves. One sure way of experiencing God’s love for us is to share it with others.  This may be one of the problems the Church has to face these days.  Those who are outside the Church may not always see or experience the wonderful love we claim to know because we who are in the Church may not always share that love with outsiders to the extent we should.  We prefer our own group, class, social order or simply, our own friends. It is not always easy to approach the stranger in our midst, but the stranger is as much a child of our God as we are!

 The early church must have displayed this wonderful openness and acceptance.  We read in the letters of Paul to the various congregations, how he praises the people for their love and generosity.  By sharing the riches of God’s grace given to them, those churches drew other people into the kingdom of God.  The people in turn, realized their hope in their God was secure, and lived their lives accordingly, joyously, in spite of the persecutions that occurred later. They had in fact seen the glory that the Gospel writer mentions in that verse quoted earlier.  

Where do we stand in our faith?  Can we identify with the Wise Men who brought such costly gifts to the Christ-Child in recognition of his origin and his great task?  I have often suggested that we should view the Eucharist service as a celebration party, and as such, the love of God flowing to and from us should be so intense that all should sense it.  Epiphany should happen at every service – the glory of God and the accompanying joy should be seen and experienced by all. At one of the home groups recently, the comment was passed that if the Eucharist is a celebration, why are we so somber and serious? Why are we not radiating happiness and joy when we come from the altar, having just received the bread and wine, the body and blood of our Lord, the symbols of His love for us?  I am not suggesting that we should be screaming with laughter, for this is a solemn moment, but solemnity need not be equated with misery! But, we need to be aware of this glory and then let it carry us through our more sad or difficult times.

 We also need to look for this glory in the people around us, and in the events, that are happening each day as a counter to all the bad news with which we are bombarded. There is so much negativity in the world today. We desperately need to balance this gloomy outlook with the positive hope that the Gospel message brings.

Perhaps we need to make a New Year’s resolution this morning. Let us come in humility to the crib, bringing our gifts to the Christ-child: the gold of our possessions, that he may use them to his honour and glory, and for the good of all; the incense of our worship and service, that he may know our constant devotion to him every day of the week, not just on Sunday; and the myrrh of repentance and joy as we in gratitude accept his saving grace so freely given to us. May we in our attitudes to others, and in our lives as such, demonstrate his love for us. May we too, in spite of all the negative things that are around us, and which tend to overwhelm us, start looking for the positive events in our lives, those moments in which the joy and glory of our Saviour can shine through, and uplift us and those around us.  May we become the beacons of light, of joy and of hope we are called to be in this part of God’s world.

God bless us as we go joyfully with Him into the New Year, secure in His love for us, and in sure hope for the future which he holds in his hands.

Amen.   


Lent 3

Forgiveness

Readings: Psalm 103: 1-12, Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, Luke 7:36-5

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today in our series of sermons, we are looking at Forgiveness. As Fr. Joe mentioned two weeks’ ago, this is an aspect of love which is very hard to practise. Too often we want to see justice prevail, a theme we will look at later in this series, or we want to see the perpetrator of a crime suffer as much, if not more than the victim. At present there is so much hatred, bitterness, anger and hurt in our country, and in other parts of the world. Only the power of forgiveness can heal these situations. This was the thrust of an article in The Star of Tuesday on the 23rd February. The author was raising the issue of the four Free State students who apparently had humiliated some workers on the campus, and were being offered places at the university by the new rector, as well as the Shabir Shaik and Eugene de Kok cases – three situations that have raised the hackles of many South Africans. He concludes his article by saying: Forgiveness is not easy. It is difficult to accept an apology and to say “I forgive you”. But we have to try anyway. To build healthy relationships, and to feel good about ourselves we need to learn to forgive” and, I would like to add, learn to accept forgiveness ourselves.

What do we understand by forgiveness? What do we mean when we pray: forgive us our sins (or trespasses) as we forgive those who sin (or trespass) against us? In the Lesson from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, we get an example of what it means for a Christian to forgive. Paul had been severely humiliated by a member of that community. As an authority figure, Paul had also insisted that the man be disciplined for his actions which the Corinthians felt had brought the whole group into dishonour. Discipline had been exercised but there were some who felt that it had not been sufficiently severe, and who wanted to take even more stern measures. Paul however felt that enough had been done – the man had been disciplined, and was now penitent. Any further punishment would probably undo the good that was being done, and perhaps drive the man and members of the congregation to do things that may best be described as satanic. Paul’s plea was that nothing be done which would allow the devil to get a hold on the man or any member of the Corinthian church. And that is the lesson we can learn from these verses.

Paul did not take the matter personally. When we are criticized, we need to hear what is being said and see if the words spoken have some truth and perhaps, help in them. Can we become better members of the church by considering what was said? If not, should the hurt even be remembered. There is a story of two monks walking along the road. They came to a river which was flowing quite strongly. The only way across was to wade through the river. An old woman was on the bank, hesitating – she was frightened by the force of the water. Without a word, the older monk picked her up and piggy-backed her across the river, putting her down gently on the other side. The two monks walked on, but the younger was quite upset. How could this old monk, with a reputation for holiness have carried that woman across the river – their rule forbade even touching a woman. He fumed and fretted over this for a while until he could not contain himself any longer and burst out: “How could you do such a thing? You know it is strictly forbidden for any monk to touch a woman?” Unperturbed the older man raised an amused eyebrow and said: “My dear fellow, are you still carrying her? I put her down an hour ago.” How long are we going to carry those burdens or hurts which are of no consequence? On the other hand, many of us like to hang on to the sins of others because it makes us feel less bad about ourselves, but if we forgive we may have to give another person his (or her) life back and be made acceptable in the community again.

Discipline must lead to correction, not be a means of vengeance. To quote one commentator: The Christian duty is not to render the sinner harmless by battering him (or her) into submission, but to make him (or her) a saint by inspiring him (or her) to goodness. Can we still trust a person who has done us wrong? Can we believe that the “wrongdoer” can change and become a good person? Are we willing for our lives to change? An ancient Chinese proverb says : Let him who seeks revenge remember to dig two graves. One of the miracles that took place in our country was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led by Bishop Desmond Tutu. People who had been hurt by those in power, were allowed to express their anger at the perpetrators being granted amnesty, but they also discovered that they could forgive the people. In no way did the forgiveness suggest that any one condoned what was done, but in forgiveness, both parties found a new freedom. That terrible burden of what was done was lifted from tired shoulders, and both parties could start to move on with their lives, as the saying goes. An incredible amount of healing took place in those weeks – results of which we are still seeing today. By carrying the hurts done to us, or done by us, we suffer the consequences, physically, mentally and spiritually. Forgiveness is the one medicine that can cure these ailments.

But as mentioned earlier, forgiveness is not easy. Corrie Ten Boom tells of the occasion when she was preaching about forgiveness in a church in Munich. At the end of the service she met a man who had been one of the German guards of the Ravensbrück concentration camp in which she and her sister were interred, and in which her sister died. As he stretched out his hand to greet her, she was loathe to take it. Here was the man who had jeered at her, had tortured her and her sister and was now wanting to shake her hand. Hatred overwhelmed her, body and soul. Then she recalled that Christ had died for him, and she silently asked God to forgive her for not forgiving him. As she then took his outstretched hand, it seemed as if an electric current passed through her arm and amazingly she felt a love for him for whom a few seconds previously she had hated so intensely. She realised that it is not on OUR forgiveness or on OUR goodness that the world’s healing hinges. When God tells us to love our enemies, he gives, along with the command, the love itself. It is only this kind of forgiving love that can heal our lives, our land today.

But we must choose this way. There are two symbolic doors on display – one closed, one open. Through the open door, the light of God’s forgiveness shines. We must allow that forgiveness to fill our lives, we must learn to forgive ourselves of our wrongs – don’t keep carrying that burden; accept the forgiveness that comes from God, made possible through the death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus, and so learn to forgive those who we feel have wronged us. Forgiveness is not a feeling, or an emotion, but an action, something done, and something which may have to be done repeatedly. We have heard the phrase: forgive and forget. We need to be very careful about this saying. If we forget, what happened may happen again!. We can forget the grudges, the prejudices, the bitterness, but we should not forget the event itself, simply to prevent a recurrence of it.

Let us in the strength and love that God supplies, move on into his world, carrying that love and forgiveness to those whom we meet, day by day, and so bring healing into this part of God’s broken world, then we can pray with sincerity, the words our Lord taught us: Forgive us our sins (trespasses) as we forgive them that sin (trespass) against us.

I close with a prayer of forgiveness, written on a scrap of paper, and left next to the body of a child who also died in Ravensbrück:

Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us: remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgement, let all the fruits which we have borne, be their forgiveness.

Amen.


References:

The Star, “Let’s forgive to heal the nation” by Rich Mkhondo, Tuesday 23 February 2010
Forgiveness – Sister Patricia OHP, March 1999
York Courses: The Lord’s Prayer, praying it, meaning it, living it.
Barclay, W. The Letters to the Corinthians (The Daily Study Bible)
 


PENTECOST   Year A   

Readings: Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:26-36, 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13, John 20:19-23.

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,  Amen. 

Our lesson from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles vividly describes the birth of the Christian Church – that occasion when the disciples were all gathered together in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, and something extraordinary happened. A rushing wind was felt inside the room, and what appeared to be flames of fire settled on the head of each person present.  They began speaking in strange languages, and even more surprising, threw off their fears of the religious authorities outside and went into the streets, boldly proclaiming the message that Jesus was alive.

 This is the event we celebrate and remember today.  All of a sudden, the disciples knew the presence of God in their lives in a new and wonderful way.  God was no longer a remote, all-powerful, vengeful Being who had to be worshipped because of a command passed down through the ages, but rather was the loving Father that Jesus had taught. The disciples realized that the Holy Spirit, the intimate presence of God, had come into their lives in a new way, and this experience had given them the power to spread the Good news of the coming of the Kingdom of God.. The disciples had, moments before, been terrified of the Jewish leaders, who were on the look-out for any signs of a resurgence of the teachings of the Galilean who had claimed to be the messiah, and now here were these men, telling the world of the great love of God, not only in the language of the land, but in those languages represented by the many visitors to the city.

 Just as an aside: Apparently it is a custom in Jewish households, that during the celebration of the Passover, the youngest child has to find a hidden piece of Matzoz the father had broken off from the central slab of bread used or the feast.  The child then claims his or her reward fifty days afterwards – hence the origin of our word for today : Pentecost.  Fifty days after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as the Paschal lamb supreme, God sends his special gift to the believers – his Holy Spirit.  Jesus had promised that he would be with his followers till the end of time, and in this way fulfills his promise, not only to those followers of old, but to us today.

 God as the Holy Spirit, comes to live in our lives, to enable us to know him in a way we never before thought possible.  When we ask Jesus to be our Lord and Saviour, and we acknowledge him to be king of our lives, then we too will be open to his power for us to do God’s will in his world.  This does not mean to say that we will all speak in different tongues or have the gift of prophecy or any of the other gifts or experiences that the first disciples had, nor may we have any of the experiences other Christians who too have been filled with God’s Holy Spirit. St Paul makes it clear in his first letter to the Corinthians  (Chapters 12,13, 14)  that these gifts and experiences are given by God to those whom he wishes, and that they are to use them for the building up of the Church as a whole –not just for their own personal satisfaction or comfort.  We must remember this point, for it has often been said by some that only if a person can speak in tongues, may that person claim to be “baptized in the Holy Spirit” the mark of a reborn Christian. A careful reading of the relevant passages in that letter will show that this is not the case.

 What is important is that we show the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.  Christ promised us his peace and his joy – peace and joy that would see us through any trial in our lives.  These are but two marks of the Holy Spirit’s presence. There are many more, such as love, patience, kindness, self-control, (see Paul’s letter to the Galatians) and I would be tempted to add such abilities as to be able to listen sympathetically to people, or to comfort those in distress, or some other action that shows he love of God ruling in our lives.  These are the marks of the Spirit-filled Christian – and if we claim to be such, then by bearing this fruit, we will at all times be true witnesses to our Lord. 

 The disciples were lifted out of their fear-ridden state, and fearlessly proclaimed the Gospel to the known world.  We are called to follow suit, and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus to all whom we meet, in our work situation, in our play, and dare I add, in our Church as well.  The place that we should most easily be able to love one another is here, in our church, and yet, we sometimes find it very difficult.  If we are to lead others to Christ, we must not be hypersensitive to criticism nor should we over-react to comments passed by those whom we regard as fellow-believers.. Rather let us hear what is being said and then respond as Christ would have responded.

 May we learn to love one another truly, and then indeed the world will stand amazed at what God is doing in this town.  We too will see our churches grow as did the early church.

 May God the Holy Spirit fill our hearts and minds with his power and wisdom and may we come to know him more deeply day by day.

 Amen.    
 


Advent Sunday 3 – Year

Readings: Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11, Psalm 45:1-7, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8,19-28.
 

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Our theme for today, the third Sunday of Advent, is John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah.  When we read the Bible, we are not told very much about this man.  We know that his birth was foretold to his father, Zechariah, by an angel whilst Zechariah was praying in the temple.  It was also foretold that his child would grow up to be the one who would announce the coming of the Saviour of Israel.  We also know that John was related to Jesus in that his mother, Elizabeth, and Jesus’ mother, Mary were cousins.  Mary was probably with Elizabeth when John was born, some six months before the birth of Jesus.  Of John’s childhood we know nothing, but we may suppose that he, like Jesus, was brought up to be a good Jew, who loved to study the scriptures of his people, and who came to know and love God very deeply. 

We next hear of John some thirty years later.  It may well be that he spent a few years in the Essene settlement that overlooked the Dead Sea.  It is possible that it was in this community of extremely religious Jews that John realized his call to proclaim the coming of the Messiah.  If this is the case, it will explain why John had such strange clothing and ate even stranger food, for if a member left the Essene community, he left with nothing.  The person would have to find something to wear, and something to eat along the way.  No sympathizer of the group would help a deserter! hence John’s clothing of camel skin, probably taken from a dead animal he found in the desert, and the meal of locusts and wild honey – easily found in that dry area.

And so we meet this fiery prophet at the shore of the river Jordan, dressed in the skins of animals, gaunt and unshaven, preaching a baptism of repentance, one of the standard Essene doctrines.  His words: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near” reflects the intense expectation of the Jews at that time for their Messiah.  Many people we are told followed John’s advice, including some who later became the first followers of Jesus, when John pointed out to them that Jesus was the Lamb of God, God’s chosen one.

In reading the description of John the Baptist in the scriptures we can identify two characteristics in the man: humility and authority.  John always knew his place – he was the voice crying in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord.  He was not important. He even told his listeners that he was not worthy to untie the strap of the sandal of the Lord – a task normally reserved for the lowest of the slaves of a household.  Yet he preached his message with authority.  He knew what he had to say, and he said it, in spite of the persecution and subsequent execution it brought him.

It was customary for ordinations to the Diaconate and Priesthood to take place on this day.  Like John, the basic task of these people called to this service is to prepare those to whom they minister for the coming of the Messiah, the Lord into their lives. This is outlined in the passage from Isaiah we heard this morning.  Two marks of the clergy and indeed of other ministers are those shown by john: humility and authority.  A servant of God cannot afford to put himself or herself above the rest of the people for then the minister is no longer their servant, for that is what the word ”minister” means, nor must the minister expect people to run after him (or her) for then the minister is accepting the honour due only to God.  But the minister, on the other hand must be a person of authority, for he or she has been commissioned by the Church to continue the task committed to it by Jesus – preach the word, heal the sick and so on.  But the ordained person must handle this authority with great care – it is not his or her personal power that the minister is exercising, but that which has been entrusted by the Church.  And that is an awesome authority!  I as a priest may not say just what I think from this pulpit, for then I would not be preaching the Word of God.  In like manner, my actions outside the church building must be such as to prove that I am sincere about what I preach. 

Just as ministers of the Church are called to be humble and to exercise their ministry with authority, so too are all the members of the church called to a similar task.  We are all called to prepare the hearts of men and women, boys and girls, to accept and receive the Lord as their saviour, and to make him King of their lives.  We can only be effective witnesses if people can see that Jesus is Lord in our lives.  We cannot in one breath say that we love the Lord, when in the next we are swearing at the bad driver ahead of us.  We cannot witness to Jesus one moment and in the next do something that convinces those around us that we are not sincere in our beliefs.  In other words, we have to be on our guard every moment of every day.  That is not an easy thing to do, for we often slip up when we are least expecting it, but that is no excuse not to keep on trying! 

May we then in this time of Advent, prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord in to our own hearts in an even greater and more wonderful way, and look to those who are searching for their Saviour.  May we serve them in all humility, and so be the forerunner in their lives, pointing them on to the One who can satisfy their deepest needs.

God grant us all the grace to be His ministers in his world in the days to come.

Amen.   
 


Sunday 6 – Year B

Readings: 2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 32, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Mark 1:40-45.
 

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

We have a variety of themes in the readings this morning, and as a result, a number of lessons may be learned from them.

In the reading from the Old Testament, we hear of how Naaman, an advisor to the king of Aram, a neighbouring tribe to Israel, was healed of a dreaded skin disease, possibly leprosy. He was told by the prophet Elisha simply to have swim in the river Jordan. It is interesting to note Naaman’s reaction to this instruction. He was an important official in the court of Aram, and I suppose he thought he deserved more respectful treatment from this country prophet, who by the way did not even bother to come out of his house or tent to see him! Elisha sent his servant Gehazi, with his message, seemingly conveying to Naaman that to Elisha, he was of no great importance to him. Naaman’s response to the thought of swimming in the muddy, sluggish Jordan river is also interesting. There were bigger and presumably cleaner rivers in his own country – surely he could at least enjoy his swim! To Naaman’s servant’s credit, he gently persuaded his master to follow Elisha’s instructions to the letter, and as a result, Naaman was cured.

Do we see ourselves in this picture at times? We may be in a difficult situation and along comes what appears to be an over-simple solution. How do we respond? Do we humbly follow that solution or do we look for excuses as to why it may not work, because our pride may have to take a bit of a knock if we actually did what we were told?

In the Gospel reading, we hear of another cure taking place. A man asks Jesus to heal him – to take away the effects of the same dreaded skin disease that Naaman had suffered from, namely, leprosy. In those days, a leper was regarded as unclean, and even had to ring a bell to warn other people not to come near him. Leprosy is still regarded as highly infectious, so no one would talk to, let alone even think of touching, a person with leprosy. Jesus, out of compassion for the man , reaches out to him in his pain and touches him. The disease disappears and the man is healed. Jesus then instructs the man not to tell anyone how he was cured, but to go to the priests to get a clean bill of health, as it were. Just like Naaman, the man could not simply obey orders – but I suppose if we had been suffering from a horrible, disfiguring disease, and then were miraculously cured, we too would not be able to keep quiet about it – we would want to shout the good news from the roof-tops for all to hear. Sometimes we get good news, or something wonderful happens to us, and we know that we should, at least for the moment, keep quiet about it. But the excitement clouds our judgement and we tell all and sundry, only to find that we have created a problem for someone else. That is what happened to Jesus. He could not continue with his teaching, his primary work, because the people were now clamouring for healings and to see more miracles happen in front of their eyes. Let us learn a lesson from this story and be sensitive to the situations of the people around us.

St Paul uses very descriptive language in his writings and the portion we heard from his first letter to the Corinthians is no exception. Sports, and Athletics in particular, were highly valued activities among the Greeks. The Olympic Games were started by the early Greeks in about 776 B.C. and so important were these games, held in Athens every four years, that even warfare was suspended for the duration of the games. The Isthmium Games, which ranked second only to the Olympic Games, were held in Corinth. So, Paul’s references to the races, the central feats of the Games, would help his readers understand just what he was saying in his letters.

The verses we heard this morning give us guidance as to how we should run our lives. We must run to get the prize. There is a sense of competition – life itself is a battle, and to be a good Christian on top of this challenge, is not always easy. Rather than being in competition with others, we have to fight for ourselves against the powers of nature – we have to keep ourselves fit and disciplined to cope with the needs of living. That involves keeping our bodies in good shape, so we need to watch what we eat and drink and in short, what we do with our bodies. (I will not go into all the comments on smoking, the use of alcohol and drugs – enough has been published about these things already.) But we may well ponder the question: How well are we looking after our bodies?

We also need to look after our minds. Are we keeping our minds active? Do we think for ourselves, or are we easily led by the comments of other people? Are we letting into our minds things that are not healthy and positive? (What books do we read, what movies do we watch?)

We need too, to look after our souls – we need to nourish them with good spiritual food and exercise.

We also need to have a purpose for, and in, our lives. It is always sad to see someone looking very unhappy or miserable, and when asked why, the reply is often: What is there to live for, I have no purpose in my life. My children have left, I have no one to love, and no one loves me. What therefore is the point of living? I may as well just curl up and die! At times I am sure most of us felt something like this, and then, we come to our senses, or receive an encouraging telephone call, and we feel that life is not so bad after all.

As Christians, we may have come to believe that it is wrong to feel depressed, that we should always be happy and joyful. That is not the case – Christians can feel sad and be depressed. Christians are human, and it is quite normal to have such feelings. We cannot always help what we feel, and feelings are neither good nor bad, but how we react and respond to these feelings is what counts. If we are troubled by these strong feelings, we can call on our Saviour to heal us, to help us through the dark times, and so transfigure these apparently negative feelings into something positive, and which he can then use in the growing of his kingdom.

With a healthy body, and I do not mean that we should have a perfect body, by the way, but one that we are comfortable with, a sound mind and a soul that knows and loves its Creator, we will be able to see that the purpose of living is Life itself, and we can strive to live the best life God wants us to have. We can also draw others to this great gift of Life, a gift that God gives freely to all. And in the end, we with countless saints, (don’t forget we are all saints in God’s eyes) will receive the crown of glory waiting for each one of us as we successfully complete the race he set for us.

May God grant us his joy and peace as we continue to open ourselves to him each day, and may he use us to extend his kingdom in the hearts of those we meet on our journey through Life.

Amen.


LENT 3 

Readings: Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1:22-25, John 2:13-22.

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

If you have ever walked the streets of Rome, you would have been struck by the large number of churches that may be seen there. Sometimes you need only cross the road to go from one to the other, a bit like the neighbourhood of our cathedral, by the way. Each building is unique in architectural design and artistic decoration, but all point to the religious devotion of a people steeped in the truths of the faith. Even to the casual visitor these are not just dusty old buildings, but have in and about them the spirit of worship and prayer that has been present since their foundations. These old buildings are valuable monuments and witnesses to the faith of the people through the ages, just as our local churches are witnesses to a living faith held by many today.

To the Jew, the temple in Jerusalem was the centre of their faith and indeed their life. The Temple was originally built by Solomon in about the year 950 B.C. As time passed, the religious ceremonies became more and more formalized and the building beautified. Unfortunately this building was destroyed by the Babylonians when they attacked Jerusalem and took most of the people into exile. For some fifty years it lay in ruins until it was rebuilt on a smaller scale by the returning refugees. The rebuilding of the Temple and of the city bonded the people together again – they had their city and their Temple again. Herod undertook to restore the aging building in 20 B.C., and by 27 B.C. it was described as the most beautiful in the city, loved and revered by all. You can imagine the distress caused by Jesus when he declared that the city and the Temple would be destroyed – which happened in 70 A.D. when the Romans razed Jerusalem to the ground.

What really upset the leaders on the day, described in the lesson we heard, was how Jesus challenged the money-lenders and merchants running their businesses in the Temple grounds. The Temple had a number of areas of worship: the innermost, the Holy Of Holies, which was entered only by the high priest, and only on one day each year; the Court of the Priests, where the daily sacrifices took place; the Court of the Men; the Court of the Women, and lastly, the outermost court, the Court of the Gentiles, the area in which non-Jews were allowed, but no further. It was in this area that all the trade was taking place that made Jesus so angry. It was a law that every male Jew had to pay an annual temple tax of about a day’s wages. This tax had to be paid in Temple shekels, not in foreign currency, which was considered "unclean". So, the money-changers were in the outer court, waiting to assist the worshipper which is all well and good. However, the rates of exchange were anything but good! "Bank charges", to use a modern term, the amount these men charged to change foreign money, and there were many different charges for all sorts of petty reasons, were exorbitant – has anything changed over the centuries? Other worshippers would bring animals to offer as sacrifices. By law these animals had to be ritually clean – no blemishes or flaws. Stalls were set up inside the court at which the people could have their animals examined, at a cost of about a quarter of a day’s wages, and if the animal was found to be unsuitable, it could be exchanged for a clean animal, again at a price. What probably happened was that no sooner was a supposed unacceptable animal accepted by the stall keeper in exchange for a clean animal, than it was offered to the next person as an acceptable one! More corruption! Furthermore, animals bought inside could be many times more expensive than those bought from the street stalls, just outside the Temple gates. With all the noise and trafficking going on in this part of the Temple, the non-Jews did not have a chance to experience worship in any deep sense. How could anyone pray with all that racket going on! No wonder Jesus got angry and drove the whole crowd outside the Temple walls!

What can we learn from this event in the life of Jesus? He chased the merchants out of the temple because they were desecrating the place of worship. There was worship but without reverence. We must be careful, firstly, that we do not fall into the trap of turning our worship services into empty rituals or performances. With all the ceremony of the Eucharist, as beautiful as it may be, we must keep our eyes on the one who is being worshipped. That does not mean to say that we can become all casual in our worship – anything goes is not OK. Our worship must at all times be carried out with great reverence, with dignity and order, as St Paul describes it, but done in such a way that each person meets God in the services and remember, God is a God of order and of peace.

Secondly, we are warned not to rely on our sacrifices. True we do not offer burnt offerings in the Church these days – the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross did away will all such activities, but we may be tempted to see our offerings of stained glass windows, of beautifully carved furniture or the gifts of other things, used in the church as "bribes" to God and the authorities. "I gave the church R10000-00 so I should have some say as to how it is to be run" may be the attitude of some believers these days. Offerings should be the offerings of a loving heart as aids to true devotion, but they must not become substitutes for true devotion either!

The third point to note is that the Temple was for the use of all people, all nations, to praise God, not reserved for the Jews only. The conduct of the merchants and money-changers in the Court of the Gentiles effectively prevented those seeking Gentiles from the presence of God. We may ask ourselves: Is there anything in our church, a snobbishness, and exclusiveness, a behaviour, a coldness, a lack of welcome, or sensitivity to the needs of the other which would keep the seeking stranger out?

These are some thoughts with which we may well consider as we move into the weeks of Lent. Let us realize our great calling in this world and work with our Lord. Let us ask him to cleanse our selves, his temples, here in this place, so that we may offer him the pure and holy worship he desires from his people. May we know him as that dependable companion on our way to the cross, so that others may find in us a reflection of Jesus, and a companion as they tread the stepping stones to the Cross.

Amen.


Fifth Sunday after Easter

Readings: Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17.

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

During the past five weeks we have had as our Epistle readings, extracts from the First letter of John. In this letter, John is sharing with his readers a vision of Christ, the God-Man who came to save the world from destruction and to point it on to a new way of life. He portrays Jesus as the embodiment of Love. Chapter after chapter, verse after verse, the writer examines this concept and the implications it has for the Church and the people.

The letter is a plea for practical Christian belief, not just an intellectual one. At the time of writing, various break-away groups were growing and attracting many people to them. These groups were teaching their followers, for instance, that all they needed was the knowledge about God to be saved, whatever that may have meant, the body was unimportant, if not actually evil, and therefore, such concepts as good morals, taking care of the body, relieving other people’s pain and suffering, did not matter. This naturally led to all sorts of distorted teachings, some of which are still with us to this day. The Letter of John is an attempt to counter some of these incorrect teachings. By focusing on the Love of God and the call for each person to obey Jesus’ command to love one another, John was underlining the practical side of our belief and faith.

Jesus is identified as the one who was to save all people from the ultimate consequences of sin; that those who accept Jesus as their saviour and lord, are made children of God, and therefore dearly loved by God; that, because of the love God has for us and has shown us in the actions of Jesus, we are to respond by loving one another, and as pointed out in the reading from the letter today, that this response to love one another is our way of fulfilling the great command of God. A word of warning, though. We must not confuse liking a person with loving that person. Liking someone is emotional a feeling. Loving someone is an action. One can love a person without liking that person, just as one can like a person without loving that person. If one likes a person and loves that person, that is a bonus.

In the Gospel according to John, we find the same emphasis on love. In the passage we heard today, Jesus is giving his disciples his great command: Love one another as I have loved you. Those who obey this command will find that they are living in a deep relationship with Jesus himself. He does not regard us as servants, but as friends – and if we think of all those messages on friendship that wing their way through cyberspace and end up in our e-mail boxes, we can appreciate just what Jesus is offering us, and indeed even more. He has promised us eternal life with him in the presence of God himself. One of the most exciting verses in that passage for me, is the promise by Jesus that we will know his joy, and that our joy will be complete. In a world that is wracked with so much bad news, the promise of joy must be attractive indeed, and that joy may be ours even in those hard times that do come to us!

The reading from the Book of Acts concludes Peter’s sermon to the Roman centurion, Cornelius and his friends. These non-Jews had been following the Jewish way of life with regards to prayer and charitable works, and had invited Peter to talk to them about Jesu

Peter understandably at first was hesitant as Jews did not normally have much to do with Gentiles. During the course of the discussions, the group experienced a Pentecost blessing of the Holy Spirit, much to the surprise of the Jewish people present. Peter then realized that God’s love was not limited to the Jewish, Chosen people only, but extended to all the people on the earth. He then instructed the members of the newly formed Church to baptize the Romans into the Faith and to accept them as fellow-believers. We need to learn from this that our Church dare not be exclusive. We have to be open to all comers who turn to Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, and accept them as brothers and sisters in Christ. This may not always be easy, especially when different cultures or even age groups(!) come in contact. But as the church crossed all sorts of barriers in those early days, it is crossing many barriers today. Pray that more and more people may come to the truth about Jesus and learn to accept each other as fellow-believers, no matter what the differences. This will also avoid the development of strange cults, by the way – a problem that has beset the Church from its outset!

As we go into the days ahead, looking to the Ascension and then Pentecost, may we be very conscious of the love and joy of God in our lives and in the lives of those around us, and may we in the strength of that love, open ourselves to each other that this land and indeed the world may see that we, as Christians, followers of Jesus, do love one another as he loves us.

Amen.


Sunday 12 - Year B

Readings: II Samuel 5:1-12, Psalm 48, II Corinthians 5:18-6 ;2, Mark 4:35-41.

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Having left the special services of Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and Trinity, we move into that part of the Church year that has always been seen as the time for growth. Our focus is now on how we must put what we learn from the readings into practical use, how we may grow in our Christian life as we deal with day to day issues.

The Old Testament reading tells us of the appointment of David as king of all Israel. Behind this short passage is a veritable saga of political intrigue and masterful manipulation which would leave our modern-day politicians still babes in the cradle. We are told that David had been king of Judah for about seven years when he came to Hebron to meet envoys from the tribes living in the northern part of the land who wanted to make him king of all Israel. These northern tribes had been ruled by Ishbosheth, a surviving son of Saul, and who had been put in that position of power by Abner, one of Saul’s generals. Abner had recently fallen out with Ishbosheth, and had decided to change his loyalty to David. Abner’s appearance in Hebron revived an old family feud between Abner and Joab, one of David’s generals. As recorded in the previous two chapters, we read of how Joab murders Abner, and how two captains of the northern tribes murder Ishbosheth. These captains then bring the head of their king to David, hoping to get a reward for destroying David’s presumed rival and enemy. For their pains they are executed. With no ruler to guide them the northern tribes accept David as their king. As another political ploy, David captures Jerusalem, a small village on the border of the two regions and makes this neutral town his capital. David ruled over all Israel for about forty years, becoming its most famous and beloved leader, in spite of the times he strayed.

It is interesting to note that although the Psalm acknowledges David as the king of Israel, he is still seen to be under God’s law and guidance, and that Israel regards God to be their supreme ruler and king. Only God can appoint a person to be the ruler of his people. Would that earthly leaders realize that they are only human and cannot be seen to be above the law of the land or beyond God’s law and love.

In the passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we are told how God initiated the great work of salvation, reaching out to his creation in various ways, as seen ultimately in the work of Christ. The history of the Jews is part of the salvation history of the world – God was at work in those many centuries, leading and teaching the people of his will for them. The Corinthians are what they are, according to Paul, because of what God has done for them. We today are what we are because of what God has done for us – this is the meaning of verse 21, when Paul tells the Corinthians that they, and therefore we, might become the "righteousness of God".

This was brought about "through Christ", the agent of God. God was working in and through Christ to reconcile the people to himself. This theme is central to Paul’s understanding of the Gospel message and the salvation of the whole world. As followers of Jesus, we are now called to share in this task, the task of ministry. It has often been said that the church should keep out of politics, but if we are to be ministers of reconciliation, we will have to become involved in issues that separate people from each other. Christ prayed that we may be one flock – we need to work together to realize that great prayer, not just in the realm of church life, but as importantly, in our everyday life where we meet so many different people.

This task may seem daunting, but then we can take heart from the Gospel lesson. In that story, the disciples, many of whom had grown up near the Sea of Galilee, and were used to the storms that suddenly swept that body of water, were quaking with fear while being tossed about on the raging water. As a complete contrast, Jesus was fast asleep in the rocking boat. He was quite sure he was safe. He trusted his disciples – after all, most of them had been fishermen all their lives and knew how to handle a boat in any kind of weather. Jesus also trusted his heavenly Father to keep him safe. He knew he was not alone. For some reason the fishermen were not so sure of their safety. Perhaps this storm was more fierce than any other they had experienced; perhaps they had lost their nerve and skills having been away from their profession whilst with Jesus on the road – we do not know. These men however, were panicking – they were all alone on a raging sea, battling out the storm, and to their consternation, Jesus was not even helping them – he was fast asleep! In fear and desperation they even rebuke Jesus – Do you not care? Why don’t you do something? – Save us! Are there times when we can identify with the apostles? Do we sometimes shout at God because we feel he has abandoned us to our situation? Jesus responds by challenging their (and our!) lack of trust: Why are you afraid? Once Jesus had calmed the storm, not only the physical one, but also the storm that was in their hearts, he questioned their faith. Although the disciples had been with Jesus for some time, they still did not know him or appreciate his power. In this event they saw someone who had power over the natural elements – it is no wonder that they were even more terrified.

When the storms of life hit us, we can turn to the One who will help us through those storms. Time and again, the kings of Israel turned to their God for help, and received it; the disciples found this help when they went out into the world to proclaim the Good news of God’s love and salvation for all people. Many through the ages have been strengthened in their times of need by the presence of their loving Father. May we learn to exercise our faith and trust in Jesus, in our God to see us through our personal storms and thereby make us effective witnesses of his love and grace to those whom we meet, bringing them the peace and reconciliation they may desperately need.

Amen.


Our Common Calling as Disciples of Christ

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

Last week we were introduced to St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The main thrust of this letter is to describe and underline the purpose of God for his people and his church as understood by the writer.  According to St Paul, that purpose is reconciliation, the bringing together of people of different origins, viewpoints and ideas, and then stresses the consequent unity of all people brought about by their common belief and trust in Jesus Christ.

 The verses we heard read from this letter this morning are addressed to one group of people, the Gentiles, who were regarded by the Jews as being forever outside the reach of God.  Indeed the feelings of the Jews at that time was so strong against the non-Jews, that it was regarded as a crime for a Jew to help a Gentile woman in labour, for by giving her aid at that time, the Jew would be assisting the birth of another Gentile – the cursed of God! 

By the time this letter was written, the Gentiles had won the right to be fully fledged members of the infant Church – a battle that had been long fought and hard won, spear-headed by the efforts of Paul himself, the disciple to the Gentiles. Yet feelings still ran high between the Jewish Christians and the Gentiles – and again we may be able to identify with either group.  The inclusion of other people with different ways of life, or different ideas can bring radical changes to one’s own life-style, and that is not always comfortable!   Both groups need to be aware of possible changes that may come about by the new ways, and sadly, neither group may be willing to give up its previous identity or individual way of doing things, for the sake of unity! 

Paul reminds the Gentiles that they were once “separated from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel, foreigners to the covenant, without hope and without God in the world.”

 When a person converted to Judaism, he, or she, was said to have been far away, and had now come near.  Our belief is that in Christ we may come very near to our God, and enjoy the relationship of God as our Father, which binds us all together as one big family.  In bringing the Gentiles into the fellowship of the Church, God, in the eyes of the Jewish believers, was doing something new.  He was not making a mixture of the two cultures, but creating a new something – the Church, the Body of Christ.  In Christ, these once excluded, despised, hopeless people found a new identity, just as the Jewish believers found a new identity in the fellowship of the Church.  Each was regarded as a fellow-citizen of Heaven, each a member of the household of God   Paul likens the people to the bricks of a building – together they make up the Church, the holy temple of God, in which God lives by his Spirit.

 It was this wonderful vision that the early Christians had of their Church, and it is the vision we should have as well.  Together we should present to the world something that is worthy of respect, something that is immensely attractive, something that is effective in our lives and in  the lives of those around us. 

 This is the challenge of this lesson, and that from the Gospel, for us to consider and respond to this morning:  Are we in fact being effective members of Christ’s Church?  Does the Church reflect all the great attributes, the joys, the support of the one great family of God?  A rather tragi-comic comment on our church in this light was made some time ago. It was said that we must be a happy family, as we are always fighting one another.  If we disagree with someone in the church, do we approach that person in the spirit of the love of God in us or do we react in a more “worldly” manner?  How we treat one another, and speak to each other should reflect our vision of God to others, and that vision should be attractive!

 The Gospel lesson also directs us to draw those outside the faith – the sheep without a shepherd.  People are searching for a meaning in their lives.  We the members of the Body of Christ should be able to help them find that meaning within our fellowship, our Church.

 My God open our minds and hearts to each other, and to those outside our special circles, and by giving us the true vision of His church, help us,  the Church become the effective agent for change, for Hope in this part of His world. Then we will be able to see the real beauty of the earth, the magnificence of God’s creation in all people.

 Amen.


TRUE WISDOM

In  the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

If we were to look for a common theme in the readings set for today, it could well be that of people’s search for wisdom in the world and their inability to see it when confronted by it. Throughout the ages, people have tried to understand, and thereby, control the forces of nature around them.  At times this has led to wonderful discoveries, such as electricity and nuclear power, but has also created various societies and beliefs involving magic and witch-craft, and dare I say it, CELL-PHONES! 

The Book of Job is well known, although its contents are not easily understood.  This book is an example of what is called Wisdom literature, a style of writing found in a number of books of the Old Testament.  In this text we read of a man, named Job, who was initially blessed with a large family and a large fortune.  He was known for his reverence for his God, his upright living and his concern for the underprivileged.  We then read of how Satan suggests to God that if Job were to lose his wealth, his family and even his health, he would turn on God and reject him.  For the purposes of the lesson to be learned, God allows Satan to do what he likes to Job, short of killing him. 

Job is found sitting in an ash-heap, a symbol of deep mourning, bewailing his fate and even being tempted by his wife to curse his God.  This last Job refuses to do.  His friends then come to be with him, “Job’s comforters” as they became known, and their discussions form the bulk of the book.  What follows is in fact a deep examination of the basic question “Why do the innocent suffer?”  Job is convinced he has done nothing wrong to deserve all the bad things that happened to him. His friends try to find any area in his life that would suggest otherwise.  But the more they try to show Job that at times he must have committed sin, the more Job protests his innocence and affirms his absolute trust in his God. God then enters the discussion, and challenges Job and his friends to consider the wonders of creation and all that the creation implies.  In the end, no answer has really been given to the question of innocent suffering, but the book closes with God restoring to Job all that he had lost, and more – a fitting reward for his faithfulness.  

The passage we heard read this morning was, according to most Biblical critics, inserted at a much later date – the style of writing and the content are quite different to the rest of the text.  It is in fact, a simple poem in praise of Wisdom, true wisdom as distinct from the wisdom offered by Job’s friends or Job’s understanding of Wisdom.  It starts by looking at the achievements of humankind in mining and agriculture, hinting at our search for the precious things of life, and then goes on to say that the real search is for Wisdom.  Wisdom however, cannot be found by mere mortals, it is “hid from the eyes of all living”.  The wisdom which humans seek, the principles by which things are ordered, the key which will explain the workings of the world, is known only to God.  This too is a reminder to us of the difference between the Creator God and his creatures.  We do not know and indeed cannot know all the answers to all things – to think otherwise is arrogance and a form of idolatry.  Furthermore, if we cannot understand the mysterious order of the universe, and just looking at the latest documents on the work being done in Switzerland at the large Hadron Accelerator, the universe seems even more mysterious than first thought -  if we cannot understand these simple principles, how will we ever control the created world? 

The chapter ends with a word of encouragement.  Even though we cannot attain this wisdom, we can begin to get a glimpse of it – “the fear of the Lord, that is Wisdom”. The fear of the Lord – obedience, commitment, awe, genuine piety – is not just the beginning of knowledge, it is wisdom itself.  We are therefore called to be faithful, obedient followers of our awesome God of that wisdom – and that has its moral dimension as well – for that faithfulness is the shown in our shunning all evil.  

When we turn to the letter of James, we find a more positive view on the search for wisdom.  The author compares two forms of wisdom: the earthly, which includes such attitudes as jealousy and selfish ambition which results in disorder in the community where vile practices become apparent, and the other type of wisdom, which comes from above and results in a life characterized by gentleness, being open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty and insincerity, and rooted in peace.  True wisdom is therefore a gift from God himself. 

The incident recorded in the Gospel lesson for this morning underlines the negative side of our search for wisdom.. The disciples had been travelling with Jesus for quite a while, but still could not accept his complete leadership.  Their commitment to their lord was as yet only partial.  They kept looking for some reward for having given up all to follow Jesus.  They were wanting to be feted by the angels when they got to heaven.  Jesus quickly brings them back to reality by comparing the importance of a young child with their ambitions and desires – if they really wanted to be his followers, they were to put away all pride, malice and selfish thoughts and be prepared to serve the lowest of the poor such as children, who had no legal standing in the community in those days.  If we want to be true followers of Jesus, to be recipients of the Wisdom that only God can give, we will have to become the people he wants us to be – open to his guidance and love, open to each other, willing to serve each other in love. 

May we, as we come to God’s altar this morning, desire that wisdom which he wants to give us, which will equip us for his service in his world, that in the end we may truly worship him and enjoy his presence for ever.

 Amen.   


JESUS OUR HIGH PRIEST

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The letter to the Hebrews is probably one of the most difficult texts in the Bible for us to understand these days, as it deals with ideas and customs of the Jewish people at the time of Jesus. Many of us are not familiar with the practice of sacrifice, nor are we always comfortable with rituals we do not understand. The passage from that book we heard this morning describes the calling and appointment of the high priest of the Temple – a position to which men were appointed and one which was not advertised in the local press. Only members of a particular tribe, the Levites, were appointed to this high post. They were essentially members of a separated group whose sole task was to serve in the temple of God.

To fulfill this office, the high priest had to be in touch with God and with the people. He was to be the voice of God to the people, and the messenger of the people, back to God. He had to bring the people into the presence of God. It was his task to deal with the things of God. It is as if the people had said: we are forever involved in the dust and heat of the day, spending our time at work, serving behind the counter, making the wheels of industry go round. We want you to be set apart so that you can go into the secret place of God and come back with a word from God to us. The priest was to be the link between God and the people. He was to be the one to offer sacrifices for the sins of the people, he was the one who opened the way for the repentant sinner back to God. But the priest also had to be one with the people, experiencing their world with all its ups and downs, living with the people, feeling for them, caring for them.

This is what the author of the letter to the Hebrews is claiming of Jesus, and as we come to know Jesus more and more, we see that these claims can be justified. Jesus is the perfect high priest because he is fully God and fully human. Because he has known our life, he can give us support, mercy and strength when we need it. He brought God to the people and he can bring us to God.

This is what the blind man must have sensed when Jesus passed him on the road. Here was someone who was called by God to be a special messenger of God’s grace. When the man persistently called to Jesus, Jesus turned aside and came to the man. He could see what the obvious problems were. The man was blind, desperately poor, and probably starving as well. Disabled people were shunned by the rest of society in those days and the crowd had tried to keep the man from meeting Jesus. The man’s loneliness must also have been seen by Jesus. Yet Jesus asks him: What do you want? The man answers Jesus directly – I want to see. This choice would enable the man to get a job, and become independent of the people who were giving him the scraps they could ill afford. He would be able to stand on his own two feet and be a man again. Jesus grants him his wish and the man goes off full of hope and joy. Jesus the high priest understood the man, and could have given him anything he wanted, yet he asked the man for a specific request. There is a lesson in this story for us: If we call on Jesus to help us, are we clear as to what we need, or will we um and ah about our needs and wants? Jesus knows our needs, our needs of material goods like clothes, food, shelter, but also our other needs like companionship, self-fulfillment, satisfaction in our work and so on. He can supply these needs, but we must recognize what is important and what we really need, not what we want!

The priest is also called by God, and sometimes the person being called does not want to hear that call! The life of a priest is not his own – he is there for others. Again, Jesus displays the qualities of the high priest to perfection. All the experiences and sufferings that Jesus knew, prepared him to become the redeemer and saviour of all. The salvation that Jesus brought is an eternal salvation – it keeps one safe in time and in eternity – there are no circumstances that can take a believer out of the hand of the Christ. And that is something we may well need to hear and take to heart in these times when we are bombarded by all the gloom that the newspapers seem to thrive on and present to us every day as the whole state of the world. Whatever may happen to us, however tragic or wonderful, we must hold on to this truth, that Jesus is there with us, sharing our experiences with us, strengthening us as we go through those good and bad times, and then know that in the end we will emerge stronger, wiser and more aware of God’s great love and mercy not only to us but also to those around us.

Jesus is our great high priesrt. We can then with confidence come to him for the help we need to live each day whilst on the earth, and rest in the sure hope that in the end we will be with him in his glory.

May we all know that peace and joy that only our Lord can give, and then go out into his world, carrying the good news of his salvation for all to those whom we meet in our daily affairs. May God bless us as we carry out the tasks God has called us to do.

Amen.


CHRIST THE KING

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

For the past five weeks we have had readings from the letter to the Hebrews, describing the priestly role of Jesus.  We have heard Jesus described as the great high priest, the gentle high priest, the eternal high priest, and the one who made himself the sacrifice for us, covering one aspect of Jesus, that of Servant and Saviour of all.  Our readings for today point to another aspect of Jesus, that of kingship - the theme for today, Christ the King. 

In many passages from the Old Testament we read of God being described as the King of Israel, the Lord of Creation and other such titles.  Once the people had settled in the promised land, their social structures changed and they elected their first king, Saul, so that they could be like the tribes around them, much to the prophet Samuel’s disgust, because he saw in that action a rejection by the people of the God who had brought them out of Egypt.  That people want to be like others is a characteristic of the human race which has caused much stress through the ages.  David was the second king, and under his popular leadership, he consolidated the people into a powerful nation.  His son, Solomon, inherited this united, thriving kingdom, and then used the wealth to build luxurious palaces and of course, the Temple.  His extravagance, and his use of conscripted, forced labour led to so much unhappiness, that on his death, the kingdom split into two antagonistic groups, that of Israel in the North, and Judah in the South.  After a number of leaders, in both areas, who had effectively let the two lands slide into ruin, or be defeated by foreigners, and even being taken into exile, the Jews were feeling that no human person could help them again.  It seemed that God had deserted them for their disobedience to the Covenant that was made so many years ago at the foot of Mount Sinai - God was punishing them by leaving them to their fate. 

However, even in those bleak times, prophecies, such as the one we heard from Jeremiah this morning, were being made that God would raise up a new king, one who would rule the people with justice and peace.  It was this promise that kept the hopes of the Jewish people alive through the latter part of their history, which, by the way, was also filled with further corruption and persecutions, and which, sadly, has continued to this day. 

That promise of a new king was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, the righteous king, as Jeremiah described him. We as members of his Church believe that he does rule over all things, as portrayed by the writer of the Book of the Revelation.  As Christians, his followers, we should honour him as our Lord, the Lord of our lives and the Lord of the whole world.  Keeping this in mind, when things become gloomy and we begin to feel that God is rather distant, we should remember that Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, that HE is in command, and that he does, in the words of that popular chorus, have the whole world in his hands, despite all the wriggling and squirming that goes on all the time. [Image of baby in arms of parent.]  We should therefore respect and cherish every part of his creation.  If we see Jesus as the Lord of Creation, as our King and as the King of the world, we should do what we can to ensure that his world is not being ruined by thoughtless actions or for monetary gain at the cost of our humanity!  

More directly, our response to Jesus our great high priest and our king should be the offering of our lives to him in all aspects; who we are, what we are and have, what we can do.  And our offering should be one of gladness and willingness, unlike the taxation imposed on the citizens of a country.  We are all familiar with the story of the feeding of the five thousand, but we seldom apply it to our lives.  When that little boy offered his small lunch of five barley loaves and two small fish, the general feeling among the disciples was one of futility: what is that among so many?  Yet when Jesus took what was offered, a miracle occurred.  In like manner, when we offer something to our Lord, he will take it and transform it into that which he will use to his glory and for the good of all, and often in a way we may hardly recognize. 

If we really want Jesus to be our king, if we accept him as our king and offer ourselves, our time, our abilities, our possessions to him to use as he sees best, we should not be surprised to find ourselves becoming more involved with other people or in other activities.  God needs each one of us to carry out his will for this land and all its peoples.  

As we open ourselves to him to lead us in his way, we will begin to know the peace that Jesus promises, a peace and even joy, in all the turmoil of our daily lives. He, Jesus, is our high priest, our Lord, our righteous and noble King and Saviour, to whom all honour and glory be given now and for eternity. 

Amen.   


 

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