A Prayer for Ukraine

God of peace and justice,
we pray for the people of Ukraine today.
We pray for peace and the laying down of weapons.
We pray for all those who fear for tomorrow,
that your Spirit of comfort would draw near to them.
We pray for those with power over war or peace,
for wisdom, discernment and compassion
to guide their decisions.
Above all, we pray for your precious children,
at risk and in fear,
that you would hold and protect them.
We pray in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
Amen.

 

Birds

A ‘Thought for the Day’ for Black Cat Radio, February 2022

Did you take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch last weekend? I wasn’t able to, but I often have in earlier years. The idea is to count birds in your garden or a park so that we can get a picture of how birds are doing. Shockingly, we’ve lost 38 million birds from UK skies in the last 50 years, so it really is vital we do all we can to look after our birdlife.

I’m not at all an expert on birds but I do enjoy seeing them. I have bird feeders and a bird bath in the garden, and it’s really increased the numbers we get. It’s mostly sparrows and starlings, but also some blackbirds and the occasional robin or blue tit. It hasn’t taken much to get more birds into the garden, and they really brighten the place up. They also got me laughing when I saw a small starling squeeze itself with great difficulty in and out of a guard that was supposed to only allow entry to sparrows.

The natural world needs our help these days, with the problems of climate change and the loss of places for wildlife to live. This is important to many Christians because we believe that God made this world and loves it and has put human beings in charge of taking care of it. In fact, there’s a scheme to encourage churches to become more environmentally friendly, and lots of churches have taken it up. Churches are moving to environmentally friendly electricity, reducing water usage, putting up bird boxes and creating wild areas in churchyards.

All of us can help to look after the world we’ve been given and try to pass it on to future generations in a good condition. There’s a lot of natural beauty all around, and it would be really sad to lose it. Nature is also good for our mental health and that’s more important than ever these days.

I know it’s a bit late for new year’s resolutions, but there’s no law against February resolutions, so can I suggest seeing if we might all be able to make some change to help wildlife? Even just a saucer of water might make all the difference and help us fulfil our role as carers of the natural world.

Take care
Mel

Light in the Darkness

Christmas Eve 2021

This sermon is partly based on an article by Nick Baines, which you can find here.

Isaiah’s mad idea

Nearly three thousand years ago Isaiah wrote words that must have sounded like nonsense to his audience: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.”

It sounds lovely in a setting like this, but what about when we leave here and go back into everyday life?

Well, Isaiah was addressing people who were fearful about the future.

They belonged to a small territory which was always under political, economic, and military threat from neighbouring powers.

The question these people faced every day was how to ensure their security and freedom in an uncertain world, in which the future was often shaped not by themselves, but by others.

Each day was a bit of a gamble.

Isaiah, though, wants his people to remember who they are, what they’re about and where they’ve come from.

And, running through their story, was an apparently ridiculous idea that, however dark their circumstances became, the light of God’s presence couldn’t be snuffed out.

Not just God’s presence when everything was going well for them, but when the darkness descended, and the future seemed to be shutting down.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

 

A challenging time

This time last year I was here recording this service in a nearly empty church as we were in lockdown, at the end of a challenging year.

Then 2021 came along, promising much before delivering little.

Promises of a return to ‘normal’ gradually got forgotten as the world came to terms with continuing uncertainty and new Covid variants.

We continued to learn that human beings cannot control everything and are not invincible rulers of the world.

Infections, illness, bereavement, death, isolation can’t be organised according to convenience.

But the interesting thing here is that this is exactly the sort of world Isaiah wrote in and into which a baby was born in Bethlehem.

The story of Christmas is not essentially about making us feel comfortable, but, rather, about God joining us in our difficult world.

The real world we know and enjoy and endure.

Darkness is part of that reality and can’t be avoided.

This in itself sounds a bit miserable, but the Christmas story continues to surprise us.

For it invites us to look for the light that is there when the going is tough, and the gloom seems all-powerful.

One of the radical challenges the grown-up Jesus would bring to his people was simply this: don’t just look for the presence of God when all is well, your problems are solved, or you think all is going to be OK in the world; look for the presence – the light – of God even when the darkness persists.

In terms of Jesus’s first friends, this sounded like: “Can you spot the presence of God in your world even while you remain under Roman military occupation, your freedoms are curtailed, illness is all around and the chances of your children surviving infancy are pretty low?

 

God wins

This is why I think Christmas should be a great celebration.

It rejects the idea that darkness always wins.

It dares to see past appearances to angels bringing good news, a young woman giving birth to the Son of God under enemy occupation, shepherds dropping everything to come and see, foreigners setting out on long journeys to bring gifts and worship.

This isn’t some fanciful story just meant to make us feel good; rather, it takes the world seriously, looks tragedy in the eye, and still insists that this is where God is to be found.

The people who first heard the news that God had come into the world weren’t the ones you’d expect.

They were people whose work meant they couldn’t meet all the religious requirements that were expected of them.

They were foreigners and pagan stargazers who didn’t even come to the right place at first.

They were the local people of this small place called Bethlehem.

These weren’t people who had found all the answers, but they knew the daily struggle to survive in a difficult and confusing world.

And it was to them that God appeared in Jesus, interrupting the routine of the everyday and hinting that the darkness doesn’t get to have the last word after all.

And it’s to us that God appears now.

In darkness and in light God appears, to the tired, the confused, the worried, and the unsure, as much as to the confident, the eager, and the happy.

God is still here, constantly fighting with us and for us against the darkness, bringing light in unexpected places and in unforeseen ways, just as he did among the people of a Middle Eastern village.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us, and authority rests upon his shoulders.

Thanks be to God!

John the Baptist’s Guide to Changing the World

A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent

Many preachers like to ease their listeners into their sermons. They might use a prayer or some liturgical words. They might also use a joke or an anecdote or an observation from everyday life.

John the Baptist – not so much. His opening words are: “You brood of vipers!”. I’m sure it got people’s attention, but I don’t think I’ll be trying this approach any time soon.

If anyone else wants to give it a go, though, I’d be interested to come and see what happens!

One thing going for starting this way, though, is that people certainly knew where they stood with John. He also asks them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”. In other words, what are you doing here without any fruits of repentance? John then finishes his demolition job on the crowd by calling their ethnic and religious heritage based on descent from Abraham meaningless.

We sometimes skip past this last bit, but it’s huge. The idea of a covenant with God based on being a descendent of Abraham is central to the Hebrew Scriptures, to Israel’s identity, and to the Jews’ understanding of salvation. But John brushes this aside, because claiming the promises of Abraham without the faith of Abraham simply doesn’t work. John makes it clear that people can’t be complacent and assume they’re part of the in-crowd just because of their religious inheritance. Instead, they must show that they’re really living and breathing the faith they’ve inherited.

For us, it might be like a preacher telling us, “Don’t presume to say, ‘We’re baptized!’ Show your faith by your actions or get ready for the axe.”

So, after that admittedly challenging beginning, we may be left with the same question as the crowd: “What then should we do?”. On one hand this can be seen as just a straightforward request for information on how to meet John’s demands. For this, John’s answer is simple. We need to share what we have with those in need, avoid oppressing others, and be glad for what we have.

But on the other hand, “what then should we do” can also be a deeper question. How many of us have looked at the huge and pressing problems facing our world and wondered what on earth we can do about any of them? How many of us have faced personal circumstances or relationships that have left us wondering what we can do? I suspect we all have at one time or another. We know the crowd’s question all too well. It’s the question we ask when life is complicated and difficult, and the world has gone mad – or at least madder than usual. When we ask this question it’s often about feeling we’re up against something too big for us to handle. It’s about feeling powerless.

But, while fierce, John’s message isn’t one of powerlessness or hopelessness. Instead, John tells the crowd what they can do. He doesn’t tell them to change others but themselves. He doesn’t tell them to leave their jobs in order to do something huge to change the world, but to live their lives differently, and show something of God in that. This crowd of ordinary people couldn’t end poverty by themselves, but they could help others, and make a difference to someone else. They couldn’t change the unjust tax system, but they could be honest, and show a better way to do things to the local officials.

For those who want the world fixed right now John’s answers aren’t very satisfactory. But let’s be honest, even Jesus didn’t change the world at one stroke. He gave himself to the world one person, one relationship, one moment at a time. He loved the world to death and beyond. He showed a different way of being, a different way of living and relating, he offered different priorities and values, and then invited us to join and follow him. In doing all that he showed us what it means and looks like to be human, to be the dwelling place of God.

As we approach Christmas, we remember once again the birth of Jesus in a tiny village off the beaten track. A new-born baby in an ordinary family is practically the definition of powerlessness. Yet, from that tiny and unpromising beginning, God began the still ongoing work of changing the world, one person at a time. A work which has now changed millions of lives over 2000 years, and which will continue until everything is put right.

And this is work which we are invited to take part in, striving, in God’s power, to do what we can, where we can, one person, one relationship, one moment at a time, changing the world bit by bit.