April Sermons

One of the experiences we are able to have as ministry experience scheme participants is preaching in our placement churches. On the 7th April (5th Sunday of Lent), both Natalie and I were down to preach at our respective services. It’s something that’s still quite new to both of us, but especially for me – this was only the second time I have preached, following on from about a month ago. So for anyone who’s interested to see what we preach about when they let us loose on the congregations, here you go!

Natalie’s sermon was for the BCP Eucharist at her placement church, and her reading was John 8:46-end.

Our gospel reading today comes at the end of a chapter in John’s gospel throughout which Jesus has been teaching in the temple, and has been repeatedly questioned and tested. He continually responds in ways the accusers don’t expect: by questioning their sins when they bring to him a woman caught in adultery; using their own laws of testimony to witness to his identity and message; and causing them to think about their parentage, and whether Abraham is more important a father figure to them than God. Throughout it all, Jesus is trying to figure out how deep their faith runs.The part we’ve just heard reads almost like a comedy sketch, where two parties are arguing, but the only ‘counterargument’ is one person aimlessly contradicting everything the other says; everything Jesus says, there is a “yes, but…” waiting in response.

Jesus says: “I’m telling you the truth, why don’t you believe me?!”
The others respond: “Yes, but you have a demon.”
“Believe what I say and you won’t die, but you’ll be with God forever.”
“Yes, but Abraham died, so you must be lying.”
“My Father told Abraham that I would come, and Abraham rejoiced! Before Abraham was, I am.”
“Yes, but how can you know what Abraham thought? You’re committing blasphemy.”

Back and forth this goes throughout the whole chapter. Jesus is questioned and accused, but his concern is not with what the Pharisees say about him, but with what they say about his Father. Here, his concern is not that they think that he has a demon, but that they think he is dishonouring God.

It’s sad to say, but I’m sure that many of us have experienced times in our lives when we’ve been bullied, whether as children or as adults. It can be difficult to ignore hurtful comments about our appearance, or something we’ve done or said, but most of us are able to hold our tongues and ignore or brush I off what is being said. But when those comments are directed at a loved one, I imagine that most of us would find it much more difficult not to speak out against it. Jesus doesn’t respond to the comments about his having a demon with further insults, instead he seeks to defend the honour of his Father. “I honour my Father, and you dishonour me” he tells them.

So often in the gospels, conversations with Jesus centre on those asking the questions never quite being able to comprehend the answers, and our reading today is no different. The group who are questioning him take everything that Jesus says at face-value, often missing the deeper meaning of his words. What Jesus is trying to tell them is that through him they already have the key to eternal life: believing his teachings and following him is all they need to do. Yet they remain fixated on their ancestry and connection to Abraham. And when Jesus tells them that Abraham rejoiced when he saw what Jesus – his descendant – would do, the Jews become fixated on the physical limits of this statement. “You can’t have seen Abraham, you’re not even 50!” they tell him.

I think the responses of this group can speak to us today about the ways in which we can allow ourselves to be distracted from the personal and spiritual sides of our faith. We may now be 5 weeks into Lent, but we still have time yet before we reach Easter weekend with all its sorrow and celebration. Lent is a time of prayer and penitence, as we seek to draw closer to God. Often, we give or take up things for Lent – in the past I’ve given up chocolate, crisps, or biscuits, or taken up doing a good deed every day. But reading this passage in John’s gospel made me wonder whether we too can get fixated on the material and overlook the spiritual?

Jesus’ age is a real moment of distraction for the Pharisees. They can’t comprehend what he is telling them because they are too concerned with how a thirty year old man knew what Abraham said 2000 years before. When Jesus tells them “before Abraham was, I am”, he is identifying himself with God. “I am” is what God says to identify himself to his people – for example, when God appears to Moses in the burning bush, Moses asks “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you’, and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”, God replies “I am who I am.” By using it himself, Jesus is signifying his divinity – that he is both fully God and fully human; but they are too distracted by Jesus’ physicality to grasp his divinity. I wonder in what ways we – today – can be distracted from what God is trying to tell us?

For Lent this year, I wondered about giving up the things that I’ve given up in the past, but then realised that I had a selfish motivation behind this – I wasn’t thinking about giving them up to improve my Lenten discipline, but so that I could eat healthier and maybe lose some weight! There are other areas too where I worry that I am like the people in our reading – being distracted by concerns about whether certain biblical events really happened, spending time on social media when I’ve woken up early to pray, or worrying too much about what I’m saying when leading intercessions instead of actually praying them myself. These things have the potential to distract me from my relationship with God. I need to become more aware of the times when I do things in the name of my faith – like giving things up for Lent – which are actually for my own self-interest, rather than for building up my relationship with God. I believe that there is a risk that when we focus on the material things, on the things that can distract us from our relationship with God, we can overlook the deeper, more spiritual, things.

And so, my challenge to myself – and to all of us – is to not let the outward actions of our faith distract from our relationship with God. Let’s use the remainder of Lent to seek to draw closer to God in prayer, using this time to deepen that relationship, remind ourselves of God’s love for us, and build up the foundations on which the outward workings of our faith are built.

I did my sermon at both churches in my placement parish – Morning Worship at one followed by Holy Communion at the other. My reading was John 12:1-11.

So today’s gospel reading – the anointing of Jesus. I’ve always had the sense with this passage, that there’s something beautiful going on here, but I’ve never quite understood what. Whenever I’ve tried to picture it, tried to understand what it is about it that’s beautiful, I just get caught on the fact that to me, pouring perfumed oil on someone’s feet and wiping them with your hair is a bit weird. It’s not something that happens in our culture. Maybe you’re the same – after all, none of us are familiar with the culture of Jesus’ time. So what is going on here?Well, we’re told that Jesus is at a dinner party – that’s a familiar enough setting for us! It’s held at the house of someone called Simon the Leper – who, given his description as a leper, is probably a bit of an outcast, this isn’t high society we’re talking about. Jesus is surrounded by his friends and disciples, most of whom were people who society looked down on and shunned. Probably none of them were very rich themselves, certainly some of them were quite poor. And Mary comes along, with this jar of expensive perfume, worth about a year’s wages. And she opens it and she pours the perfume on Jesus’ feet, then wipes them with her own hair. If we put aside what might be our first reaction of thinking that this sounds odd or awkward, I think we can recognise it as wonderfully outrageous – Mary is breaking so many social rules and conventions, and in a society where women were expected to be meek and mild, unassuming, and generally keep out of the way, Mary bursts in to centre stage with reckless abandon and extravagance. Why?

To understand Mary’s action, I want to challenge us all to put ourselves into her place. You’ve known this man, Jesus, for some time. You know there’s something significant about him. You’ve spent hours listening to him teach. When your brother died you couldn’t bear to see him and when he asked to see you, you spoke out of your pain, and you said to him ‘if you were here, my brother would not have died’. He didn’t argue, he didn’t reason with you, he didn’t even defend himself. He wept with you. He shared your grief. And then, a miracle! He visited your brother’s tomb, told him to come out, and there was your brother, alive again after four days. Utter joy at seeing your brother turned to utter awe at this man who raised him from the dead – do you dare believe that this man is the promised messiah? Whoever he is, there’s something about God in him, and you can barely believe he cares about you. Why would he? You’re just you, unremarkable, ordinary – he’s the Lord! How else can you respond to his extravagant, unbelievable love for you, than by giving all you have, placing yourself at his feet and blessing him in any way you possibly can? What do the judgemental stares and pious outrage around you matter when you’re worshipping, yes worshipping this man who you believe might just be God?

But then Judas breaks the moment of Mary’s worship, he’s angry about this apparent waste. He points out that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor – a whole year’s wages could have done a lot of good. John’s gospel accuses him of saying this because he was a thief, but the point remains. Jesus doesn’t require us to spend lots of money worshipping him – so why did he defend Mary’s extravagance over giving money to the poor?

Jesus’ line of reason might sound harsh – there’ll always be poor people, help them some other time. I’m not here for long, so worship me while you still have the chance. But I think if we look at it a bit more carefully, it makes sense. Jesus isn’t denying the good of helping the poor. In fact, the word worship comes from the word worth – to worship is to affirm worth in another, praising or glorifying them because you recognise their overwhelming worthiness. If we take this understanding of worship as affirming worth, then I think that selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor would equally be a valid way of worshipping Jesus – affirming his worth by showing his teachings as worthwhile enough to follow. What I think Jesus is affirming is the uniqueness of Mary’s action. He’s not saying that Mary anointing him is the only way she could ever worship him, or intrinsically better than another way. I think what he’s saying is that Mary is in a unique position, historically, socially, relationally, where she is drawn to worship him in this way, and this unique way she is able to worship could be understood as her personal vocation of worship – she is called to worship in this way because of who she is. Sure, someone else could equally anoint Jesus’ feet – in fact in Luke’s gospel there is an account of a similar event where a different woman anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume. But it is only Mary who can worship him in this way, at this moment in time, for this purpose – anointing him with perfume less than a week before the Passover, in order to prepare him for burial. This was the unique way Mary was called to worship Jesus.

And that is not to say that her act of worship was better than someone else’s act of worship. We, living in Cornwall in the 21st century, cannot anoint Jesus’ feet with perfume to prepare him for burial. That is not the way we are uniquely called to worship him. There are many ways we might worship God – perhaps by worshipping here together on a Sunday morning, or maybe by showing God’s commands to be worthwhile by striving to follow them – loving our neighbour, acting to defend the oppressed in society, fulfilling the needs of the world around us. We might worship God by caring for the world God created and thereby deeming it worthy. We might worship by demonstrating God’s love to a friend, by listening and by caring. We might worship by praying with God. All these things and more are things which affirm and uphold God’s worth, and so they are worship, and so they are good.

And I believe there is a way that each one of us can uniquely worship, as Mary did by anointing Jesus’ feet. Not necessarily some way of worshipping that no-one else has ever done before – it is not the action which is unique, but the fact that it is us who do it. Each of us, with our individual personalities, experiences, minds, hearts, using all those things which God loves, each of us, can worship in a particular way which is made unique by our doing it. So how do we find this unique way we are called to worship? Mary didn’t spend years listing all the ways she might worship Jesus and try to decide which best fitted her personality, her abilities, or her context. Worship was the only thing she could do in that moment. Perhaps it is by copying Mary, by worshipping simply as we can, worshipping in the way we have to as we experience God’s reckless love for us, that we discern the way that we are uniquely called to worship. Maybe it is by worshipping and watching for God’s love being visible that we find where we can affirm God’s worth, find where we can experience God’s worth. Maybe it is by worshipping as only we can, using everything about ourselves that God has created and that God loves, that we can most authentically give worth to God. And I believe it is in those moments that we can most truly know the worth that God so lovingly affirms in us.


Living Alive

It’s been a busy couple of months in the Way2Community, from out-of-parish placements and opportunities to new experiences within my parish, and from a variety of areas of study and reflection to a weird and wonderful mixture of time spent as a community and as rest time. It seems like a long time since I last sat down to write a blog post, and yet it seems like these past few weeks and months have been rushing by and will continue to do so – I’m expecting to wake up one day and find it’s July already! But thankfully there is still about 5 months of this year for the Way2Community left, even if it feels like I must have been down here in Cornwall for more than 6 months by now.

So what have I been up to since my last blog post? All kinds of opportunities have arisen on top of the regular week by week activities I am involved with. The end of January brought snow to Cornwall – and chaos right along with it. The day we saw the most snow (though still not that much by my northern standards) was the day of Truro College’s careers fair, which I attended as a Way2Community member. A group of us from different denominations and roles within the church formed a stall bringing awareness to church ‘careers’ in all their variety, difficulties, and joys. We answered questions about different types of ministry, what each of us have experienced through our roles in the church, and why we are involved in ministry and church to begin with. I had some brilliant conversations with the students and was able to use my own experience to (hopefully!) encourage some of them in their own relationships with the church and faith. And upon arriving back home after the hour and a half it took to drive back from Truro in the snow, I concluded that I must be less introverted than I used to be since I wasn’t at all tired after spending two hours talking to a multitude of students, which I know just a few years ago would have exhausted me!

On the other end of the age range, we had the opportunity towards the end of February to lead a service for the residents of one of the local care homes, as part of the ministry of the local Churches Together. It was the first time for me that I had been in a care home, but the relaxed atmosphere made it feel more than comfortable for us to lead the service between us, supported by a few others from the Churches Together team. It was a short service with a small ‘congregation’, alternating hymns between a bible reading, a short talk which I wrote and gave, and prayers, and we will be doing similar services a couple more times across the coming months.

My more regular out-of-parish placement at St Petroc’s homeless society which I did once a week for four months came to an end in mid February. Most of my time there was spent helping out with the daily drop in they run for clients, but in my last week there, I had the opportunity to visit one of the houses they own, in which they are able to offer clients stable accommodation and offer support to gradually help clients become ready to move into independent accommodation. The house I visited was their largest, and is for clients with the least support needs, and so it was a fascinating morning spent observing how that is run and meeting a couple of the residents there. Over my time at St Petroc’s, and as I got to know the clients who I saw regularly at the drop in, I noticed that I became more confident and comfortable and that I found it easier to chat casually to the clients, rather than just the necessary conversation for practical matters, like signing people in as they arrived for the drop in. While I hope that I was never prejudiced against people experiencing homelessness, actually being able to get to know those people and their everyday experiences grounds them as people who experience disappointment, anger, joy, unfairness, rather than just as objects of pity or even support and understanding. Its been lovely bumping into a couple of the clients out and about since finishing my placement, and I hope I will continue to do so.

In my parish placement, I’ve been getting involved in a few new things as well as experiencing the seasonal or occasional services that have been taking place. On the last Sunday in February, I deaconed at the Eucharist service at Mabe for the first time, which involves leading roughly the first half of the service. This in itself is something I have done before, though in a very different context and style, so the actual experience of deaconing at Mabe brought a few new things with it. As deacon, I processed at the start of the service along with the priest and the choir, something I had never done before, and I wore a cassock and surplice, also for the first time. Wearing a cassock and surplice has felt very strange for me – even after adjusting one of the community’s spare ones to fit me, I still felt like a kid dressing up! I managed not to trip up or catch my sleeves on fire though, which I feel is reasonably successful for a first time wearing a cassock, and I’m sure that I’ll get used to seeing myself in one once I’ve worn it more than once. Another first time doing something for me was preaching last Sunday at both churches I am placed at in my parish placement. It was the first Sunday of Lent, so the reading was Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. My main point, or what hopefully came across as my main point, was that it is by the love manifest in our relationship with God that we are enabled to resist temptation – or that we are picked up and dusted off when we don’t. Although I have never stood up at the front and spoken for so long in one block before, it was the process of writing the sermon that I found more new and challenging, rather than delivering it. I’m preaching again in a few weeks, so I’ll get some more practise at the process of writing a sermon and hopefully it will become easier and more familiar as I learn.

Before getting stuck into my next sermon however, I aim to be making a start on my next essay in the discernment process. I finished the ‘What is a priest’ essay a couple of weeks ago, and decided with the DDO that instead of going straight onto the next essay, ‘Why are you an Anglican?’, it would be helpful for me to do a second essay, similar to ‘What is a priest’, but with a focus on monasticism. I’m going to write it as a more personal reflection on what it would mean for me to be a monk, since I have researched and written about monasticism itself more in the past than I had about priesthood. I am also in the process of arranging a placement in a monastic community in early June, where I will spend two weeks living alongside the community and participating in their rhythm of life. I hope this will give me a chance to experience the day to day reality of monastic life, meet some of the community and ask them plenty of questions, and have time to reflect on my own process of discernment.

Alongside all this busyness in the last couple of months, we’ve had plenty of fun as a community. We’ve had plenty of walks along the beaches nearby and along bits of the coastal path; we’ve played a handful of board games (in case my fellow community members hadn’t picked up on my competitiveness already, they certainly have now, after a particularly loud game of Carcassonne!); and between us we’ve nearly finished knitting a hat for the pillar at the end of our drive – on our walk to the care home back in February we walked along a street where every other house had been yarn bombed, and after discovering it was a project organised by a local artist who lived on that street, we decided we wanted to join in and yarn bomb our own house. Over the past week, my parents have been down from York to visit, and so we’ve had a couple of trips out all together. One evening, we went up to St Agnes Head in an attempt to stargaze, but as the weather wasn’t in our favour for that, we instead just enjoyed walking along the cliff top in the dark and wind. The next day, we got the train to St Ives and spent the day there, enjoying the views and remarkably blue sea, as well as the strong winds which nearly blew some of us away.

I think a fitting song to summarise these past couple of months is Live Alive, by (no surprises) Rend Collective:

I wanna live alive

Don’t wanna live a lie

I wanna live alive

And you make me alive

Don’t want to just survive

Be safe but half alive

This little light of mine

This little spark divine

I’m gonna let it shine

I am letting go of every fear

I am letting go of every lie

I am taking hold of every dream

You place inside

Into the wide open spaces

“You break us out of our cages

Into the wide open spaces

We are free

Free as a bird on the wind

Take us beyond our horizons

Leading us into your wildness

We are free

Free as a bird on the wind”

– Free as a Bird, Rend Collective

I have always loved big expanses of land and sky, the ground stretching out before me towards the hazy, distant horizon and the sun touching every inch. From the hill of the churchyard in my home church in York overlooking the houses and trees for miles around, to the gently swaying grasses and perpetual rising hills of Northumberland; from the streams weaving through the open valleys of the Yorkshire Dales to the sweeping views of the North York Moors where cloud-shadows dance across the heather.

Those wide open spaces give me a thrill, as if something wonderful is about to happen. The wildness and freedom brings God close, he becomes every breath of the wind rushing through the trees, the grasses, the valleys, and the clouds. And like a bird gliding on the invisible force of the wind, I have sensed God calling me here to Falmouth, where the wide open spaces of the north are joined by the endless waves of the sea, rising and falling and reaching out further than I can see.

For just over two years now, I have been considering a calling to serve in the church, though in what way, I am still unsure: ministry or monastery, or somewhere in between? And so, at 18, having finished A levels just a couple of months ago, I have moved 8 hours away from home in York to live with two others on similar journeys in Falmouth. To take time to discern where the wind of God’s spirit is calling me, to experience different forms of ministry in the church, and to practise the art of community, of vulnerability in sharing, of discipline in prayer, and of learning to fly in the direction of God’s voice.

So who am I? My name is Jem, and I’m one of this year’s new interns with the Way2Community. I enjoy reading, writing, playing violin, sewing and other crafts, wrapping myself up in lots of jumpers and blankets, and listening to music. My favourite book series is Anne of Green Gables, although I do also love Harry Potter (and in case the excessive jumpers and blankets didn’t give it away, I am a proud Hufflepuff), as well as so many other books. My favourite band is Rend Collective, which may be unsurprising given the quote at the beginning of this post. My favourite colour is teal, and I’m running out of favourites to list. I am non-binary transgender, meaning that I am not a man or a woman, but somewhere in between – and because of this, I use they/them pronouns (they tied their shoelaces). I just finished my A levels in York, having studied psychology, textiles, and English language. I also completed an EPQ, an independent dissertation worth half of an A Level, which I wrote on ‘Could the different traditions of Anglican Monasticism be unified?’

I have been here in Falmouth for two months now, and so am well settled in to the community’s rhythm: morning and evening prayer together everyday, shared household responsibilities, and Thursday mornings with communion and varying prayer activities – as well as my own weekly schedule. I’m getting to know the congregations of the two local churches I am placed at, and am starting to explore what I can get involved with in the parish during the week.  I have attended enough of my Introduction to Christian Doctrine lectures to be starting to feel familiar with theology – these lectures are my first taste of theological study, but I am beginning to feel able to work with the theories and arguments rather than only just managing to understand them. I’m over halfway through the Local Worship Leaders’ course which I am taking part in to build on my previous experience of leading church services at my home church, and have really been enjoying thinking more carefully about leading worship and what factors I should consider when planning worship in different contexts. I have started my placement at St Petroc’s homeless society in Truro, and though this has been a fairly new experience for me, the fact that St Petroc’s functions in a really straightforward way to meet the needs of the clients, has really helped.

I am also getting to know the area better and have been cycling around a bit – despite the wind and rain, the other day I cycled down to Swanpool beach to watch the massive waves crashing and the seagulls soaring in the gale (according to the rest of the community, my lack of hatred for seagulls proves I’m not Cornish!).

Everything has gone really well so far, giving me confidence that this is where God has called me. After all, God does more than we could imagine, more than we could dream or ask. As Mr Beaver puts it in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, “Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”