First Sunday after Trinity 2.6.13 Luke 7.1-10

26 05 2013

Authority, Healing and Faith

We return to the gospel of Luke and as ‘ordinary time’ continues will be making a more linear journey through it.  We begin with a famous story that raises many issues for us today by touching on two of our obsessions, authority and health, and connecting both with faith

Luke 7.1-10

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ 6And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ 9When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ 10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.


To help give shape to the reflection here are three types of question: head questions, heart questions and hand questions. They are about our intellectual response, our emotional response and our practical or behavioural response. I hope that you will want to work at all three levels.

Head Questions

  1. What do you think the Centurion was expecting when he asked for healing for his slave?
  2. Can you list the Centurion’s virtues?
  3. How do you connect the Centurion’s understanding of authority with Jesus’ authority?

Heart Questions

  1. What was in the heart of the Jewish elders who acted as messengers?
  2. What did the friends who followed with the second message feel?
  3. How did the Jewish elders feel by the end of the episode?

Hand Questions

  1. How does this passage challenge your response to authority?
  2. How does this passage challenge your exercise of authority?
  3. How does this passage challenge your faith?


These questions are intended to challenge you to engage more closely with the passage and to hear and feel what it has to say to you.  That’s more than a five-minute task. And so is the follow-up, working out what you might want to say to others as a result of engaging with the passage with head, heart and hands.  Take your time.

New Year’s Resolutions for Preachers 2013

29 12 2012

Last year I put together a list of ten. I have polished it up a bit for 2013.

The  general message is to go for quality and connection.  Less really is more in preaching.  If people start to ask for more then you are really getting somewhere. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does…. So:

  1. Preach shorter.
  2. Preach less often.
  3. Get started on your sermon preparation earlier in the week.
  4. Pray for the gift of good words and let them flow naturally.
  5. Persuade someone into the pulpit who has never been there before.
  6. Actively seek feedback on both delivery and content. (Who do you  trust to give it?)
  7. Notice when you switch on and when you switch off when listening to or reading other people’s sermons.
  8. Watch the body language of the congregation when you or others are preaching. What makes them yawn? What makes them sit forward?
  9. Sometimes, but not always, preach without notes.
  10. Commit to growing in your ministry of preaching this year.

What would you add to the list?

Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity 30.9.12 Mark 9.38-end

23 09 2012

Salted with Fire

This passage seems to be driven by the disciples’ concern to draw boundaries in the right place. Jesus is less worried about this, ‘whoever is not against us is with us’.  But he does have sparky things to say about the distinctive holiness of disciples. The challenge is not to work out how to exclude but to be sure that we ourselves are fully alive – salted by fire –  in our participation.

Mark 9.38-end

John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ 39But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

42 ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

49 ‘For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’

Reflections and Questions

‘demons’ v 38

John knew what he meant. Jesus knew what he meant. But we don’t use this word like this anymore. We could say that a demon is  a form of ‘personal problem’. Yet that does not get to the heart of it. A demon is a negative  and destructive force from outside the self which has lodged inside the self

What examples can you suggest of ‘demons’?

‘stumble’  v43, 45

Jesus turns the argument round and the question becomes… might a disciple, a member, an insider actually be the problem, the cause of the stumbling of another.  Clearly they might. But the consequences are bad. This is the spiritual message for the insider: don’t get in the way of grace.

When did you last see someone stumble on the journey of faith? What was the cause?

‘salted’ and ‘salt’ v49.50

We can’t help remembering the effect of salt on our tongue when we read or hear this. Potato crisps and sea water spring to mind for me.

How do we manage both to be salty – and to be at peace with one another?

Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity 23.9.12 Mark 9.30-37

13 09 2012

Status Anxiety

The descent from the mountain seems to be very steep. Jesus tries to explain things; the disciples don’t understand; they fail to ask a question and begin a status row.  ‘Okay’ says Jesus, ‘you lot need to grow up and learn how to welcome real children’.

Mark 9.30-37

After leaving the mountain Jesus and his disciples went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

Reflections and Questions

‘they were afraid to ask him’ v 32

People often find that when they fail to understand they also fail to ask a question that will help them understand. That’s one reason why it is so important to make question-asking normal and easy.

What questions would flow from the congregation today if people were not afraid to ask?

‘arguing about on the way’  v33

Jesus saw them arguing – and perhaps thought it was a dispute about what he had been saying earlier, or maybe about the precise meaning of the phrase ‘The Son of Man’.  Sadly not. They were arguing about status.

Can you imagine people today, shortly after hearing some profound spiritual words, starting to squabble about status?  (I rather suspect you  can.) What will you say to them?

‘He sat down’ v35

Just when you thought Jesus was going to get on his high horse and give them all a rocket, he sits on the floor.

What impact do you feel this gesture has?

‘welcomes’ v37

The word ‘welcomes’ is repeated 4 times in one sentence: ‘welcomes… welcomes… welcomes… welcomes…’

A subtle point about hospitality being made here perhaps? How will you make it?

Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity 16.9.12 Mark 8.27-end

6 09 2012

Identity and Crisis

This is a pivotal gospel passage. A turning pont. It is all about transition and change. It involves honesty and truth, mistake and rebuke, openness and orders.  These few words really live – if we let them.

Mark 8.27-end

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ 28And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

Reflections and Questions

‘Jesus went on’ v 27

Jesus really is pushing forward now. The disciples are following and sharing in the journey.

Can you imagine discipleship without journey? Why not preach what you feel about that in your bones?

‘Caesarea Philippi’  v27

This passage is obviously about names and naming. The place itself had a name change. Philip named it after himself, usurping the dignity of the ‘great god Pan’ – it used to be called ‘Paneas’.

How much background is enough to help people appreciate the significance of the place of this encounter?

‘Messiah’ v29

‘Anointed One’. ‘Christ’. ‘King’. ‘The One’.

What did Peter mean? How fully did he understand his own words?

‘must’ v31

Not ‘may’, not ‘is likely to’, not ‘will’.  Rather, ‘the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ This is the context for the message to would-be disciples: that they must take up their cross. We are all in this together. Suffering is not optional. It is necessary.

This does not mean all suffering is good. How do you distinguish between necessary and unnecessary suffering as you reflect on your own life? what does this teach you about the nature of sacrifice?

Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity 2.9.12 Mark 7. 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

28 08 2012

Hypocrisy Guilt

We are back in Mark’s gospel. As today’s reading is an edited version of a passage I am showing the verses which the lectionary does not include in italics below. Just so that you can see what the congregation are missing.

Mark 7. 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ 6He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’9 Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” 11But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)— 12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’

17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’

Reflections and Questions

‘gathered round Jesus’ v 1

It’s the scribes and Pharisees who ‘gather round’.  And the words suggest a kind of intimacy, or at least real proximity.

How do you picture this scene?  What sort of intermingling to you imagine between the scribes, the Pharisees and the disciples? Might they have been sharing food, for instance?

‘they noticed’  v2

What a lot is revealed about us by what we notice – and what we fail to notice!

Might it be possible to recast this story in terms not of how people eat but what they look at, listen to or otherwise attend to?

‘you hypocrites’ v6

Jesus is not in word-mincing mood. He never is. ‘You are play-acting’ he shouts.

Hypocrisy is a real danger for anyone trying to be faithful to a tradition. And in today’s world, which prizes ‘authenticity’ so highly, many people have what you might call ‘hypocrisy guilt’. How might a good sermon both prompt, and minister to, hypocrisy guilt?

Edited verses

If you had been responsible for the Sunday lectionary, how would you have edited this passage?


Sermon Preached Durham Cathedral Eucharist 5th Sunday of Easter 6th May 2012

6 05 2012

Like New Year’s Resolutions for Preachers, posted January 2nd 2012, this  is not a sermon starter. It is an ‘extra’. This time however the extra is the text of a sermon.   It might make a welcome change.

It’s the Fruit that Count but the Roots that Matter  (John 15.1-8)

‘I am the vine,’ said Jesus. ‘You are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.’

Jesus expects his hearers to know something about plants. But we do not need to know very much. We soon get the idea of cutting out the dead branches so that the live ones can get some sunlight and produce leaves and flowers and fruits.  And we like the imagery of the bonfire of dead branches. The worthless dead stuff proving its dryness by crackling in the flames. It seems to make sense – tough sense, but sense nonetheless. You are either fruitful or you burn.

I have never grown vines.  But I have grown blackcurrants and gooseberries.

My relationship with these summer fruits got serious when we bought a few plants in the early 1990s.  We planted them in some freshly cleared area of the garden and they thrived.  A couple of years later we moved house, so I dug them up and took them with us.  In the vicarage garden they thrived once more. Eight years later we moved house again. They were bigger now but dug up a couple of the blackcurrant bushes and then planted them in a lovely sunny spot and, once again, they thrived.  And so happy did they seem that we did not think it fair to uproot them again and bring them to Durham. They seemed a bit too old for that sort of thing.

About three years ago we bought one blackcurrant bush and one gooseberry bush and planted them in our garden here. I have to say that they have not done at all well.  The gooseberry has fared worse than the blackcurrant and so this winter I moved it again and fed it a bit. ‘One last chance’, I said, having almost forgotten the taste of gooseberries.

You might think that the gooseberry bush is lucky not to have been put on the bonfire.  In a way it is, but it seemed to me that it warranted a second chance.  And in any case it was not dead. It was just struggling a bit – and probably because I had planted it in the wrong place.

Looked at negatively, our gospel reading today is about judgement and disposal. We think of the dead branches being pruned and incinerated. But looked at positively it is about bearing fruit, fruitfulness.

We read this passage in the Easter season and that perhaps is a clue to some of the spiritual meaning we can get from the text; for in Easter death is not what it once was.  The dead are no longer the dead.

The Choir have been singing Vaughan Williams’ anthems which use the words of George Herbert’s poem Easter.  The second verse draws our attention to the material of which string instruments are made: wood and string.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part

With all thy art.

The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,

Who bore the same.

His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key

Is best to celebrate this most high day.

The wood of the cross. We are invited to behold it on Good Friday.  And we should think of it again in Easter. All wood comes from tress, and by the time it is a cross it is dead. The cross is dead wood and those pinned to crosses are as good as dead.  The cross is not a place of living but of slow dying. Not a place of life but death. No wood is even deader than the wood of a cross.

And yet, as Herbert’s poetry shows us, the cross has a lesson for all wood; all wood – both alive and dead.  ‘There is more’, says the cross. ‘What seems like death is not death in the sense that we have come to understand death.’

And music, for Herbert, is a sign of resurrection. Musical instruments are made out of unpromising things, wood, gut and horsehair, but fashioned and deployed with skill they speak a new language.  It is the language of new life, the language of heaven. It is not for nothing that the angels are instrumentalists.  Their only activity is the making of beautiful praise from unpromising raw materials.  And such is our task too – but for us earthbound people – we would be saints who know we are sinners – the task God sets before us is not only the making of music and beauty and praise; it is also the making of justice, the speaking of truth and real deep heart work of compassion. And it also the mission work of reaching out in love to the lost and bringing them home to the community of music making, justice seeking, truth speaking, compassionately living people who are the followers of Jesus otherwise known as the church.

All these ingredients of the faithful living are important. It is not enough to say I am an ethical Christian so I won’t bother with the spirituality or I am an aesthetic Christian so I am exempt from the compassion bit.   Christianity is a spiritual package deal.  The menu is set. There is no à la carte in heaven, or for that matter on the path to heaven.

And so there is no escape for any of us from the question of spiritual fruitfulness or bearing fruit. It is not just an option which some may take up. The questions asked at baptism do not have more than one correct answer. There is never the chance of deciding between fruitful and unfruitful discipleship.

As branches of the true vine we cannot be relaxed if the sap stops flowing, if the leaves and the flowers and the fruits stop appearing. Christianity is a dynamic faith. It is about life – new life and abundant life, generous and life-giving life..  There is no desiccated form of Christianity. Lifeless Christianity is not Christianity at all.  The same can be said about joyless Christianity. But also self-important and pompous Christianity.  Nor can there be boring Christianity, Oxymorons all.

The parable of the vine invites us to think of the dryness of the branch that is me, its liveliness or its death, its fruitfulness or its desiccation.

However there is trap in this form of thinking.  While it matters that we are fruitful we don’t become fruitful simply by worrying about our lack of fruitfulness.  Christian fruitfulness is not produced by nervous effort or frantic activity.  Rather the cause of fruitfulness if found in that slightly antique word which we heard repeatedly in our reading –the word ‘abide’. ‘Abide in me’, said Jesus, ‘and you will be fruitful’.

This promise needs to be remembered whenever we think of the parable of the vine and its surgical removal of branches.  The parable of the summer fruit bushes is perhaps more helpful to us because it tells us that what matters is where we are planted. What matters is where we abide.

And so I want to offer you not a frightening message about judgment so much as encouraging message about spirituality. Christianity is a faith which encourages a humble self-forgetfulness. Our task as would be saints who know ourselves to be sinners is not to concentrate our attention on either our all too real sinfulness or on our incipient saintliness, but on God.

It’s the fruit that count but it’s the roots that matter. Our spirituality, our life in Christ, our prayer life is properly hidden in Christ with God.  It is not a performance, and while we fancy that this person is holier than that person you can never really tell form the outside any more than you can from the inside. But all that is beside the point. The point of faith is not spiritual self-knowledge but trust in God and the faith and hope and love that then begin to flow – together with the patience and the longsuffering, the modesty, generosity and kindness, the self-control and the joy and the peace.

Spiritual fruits –of course – and while we might desire them we should never neither strive for them nor beat ourselves up if we feel that we lack them – we all do.

Our spiritual task, our spiritual priority, is to find the ways whereby we can abide in Christ, rest in the Lord, be open to spiritual nourishment. And this not so that we can be or slip effortlessly into nirvana or to get a short-cut to heaven but so that we can life the new life of Easter in all its challenging, thrilling and dynamic dimensions.

The parables of the vine, the blackcurrant bush and the gooseberry bush return us, like all parables to the love of God and the risen life of Christ. They invite us to open ourselves to the Sprit which sees to it that what is dead and gone in us is removed and that what remains is fruitful in ways which are mysterious to us.

It’s the fruits that count – but it’s the roots that matter.