Sunday, 10 March 2019

Sermon for Ash Wednesday (Rev'd Anne Cunliffe) 6 March 2019

John 8: 1 - 11

I wonder what Jesus is writing in the dust?

In today’s gospel, we have a wonderful example of the mercy of God as Jesus forgives the woman caught in adultery.
Apparently, the story was missing from the earliest manuscripts of John’s gospel - it appeared later.

Some scholars have argued that the delay in accepting the story as part of the gospel reflects the difficulty many people had about Jesus’s response to this situation- about the way in which he readily and without question sets the woman free.

It was a response which was totally at odds with the strict penitential practices of the early church.

It reflects an old problem many people had with Jesus and have with God, there are those who find it impossible to believe in what Graham Greene calls, ‘the awful strangeness of God’s mercy.’

In the gospel story the woman is caught committing adultery - it takes two to do that! The man - he is nowhere to be seen. It seems he is quite happy to exit stage left and leave the woman alone in the hands of the scribes and Pharisees. Let her take the punishment!

These men know the law of Moses states, ‘if a man has intercourse with another’s wife, both of them, the man and the woman shall die; thus purging the evil from Israel.’

Though we might view it differently today, the minute the story begins our judgemental minds start working. Without knowing all the facts we can quickly make wrong assumptions about what has happened and what should happen.

As far as the scribes and Pharisees are concerned there’s no question about what must happen - the law is on their side - the woman must die. Yet they have violated the law by arresting the woman without the man.
In situations like this a kind of ceremony had to be done in order to bring judgement. Part of the ceremony required the priest to stoop down and write the law that had been broken along with names of the accused in the dust. This was often done in the dust on the floor of the Temple. Wherever it was done the marks must not be permanent. 

Jesus would also be familiar, as would the scribes and Pharisees of the words from the 17th chapter of Jeremiah and the 13th verse (pointing to the coming of the Messiah) ‘Lord, you are the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.’

I wonder what Jesus is thinking? I wonder whose name or
whose names, he is writing in the dust?

It appears his silence is important in this story – an uncomfortable silence with time for everyone to begin to feel uneasy – could they hear the voice of God inside them awakening them to their sinfulness?

When Jesus speaks his words are few. Jesus does not say the woman is innocent or that adultery is acceptable or no longer an offence against God - he does say, the first person to throw a stone must be sinless! 

Or to put it another way, if we are going to get serious about the law of Moses, we should all find ourselves guilty! One by one the woman’s accusers slip away...

There are no rules which if we observe them we stand right with God; there is only his generosity. There are no conditions, only his love. All are sinners: all may be forgiven.

Jesus is not saying to the woman her adultery does not matter. Of course it matters. It is an offence against love. But neither does he play on her guilt or her great fear. He simply assures her that whatever she has done and for whatever reason, she is not cut off from the love of God. The moment we want God, we have him; the moment we turn to God recognising our sinfulness we are met by his love and forgiveness.

This is what the Christian gospel is all about. It is not about keeping some set of rules, or about denying our real feelings or pretending to be other than we are.

It is about responding to a God who is revealed in the words and actions of Jesus, who brought joy to the poor, the damaged and the sinful because he lived and died to convince them of the certainty of God's unconditional love for each of us.

Has no-one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you. Go in peace and do not sin again.
In those few words, we see the transforming quality of the love of God in Christ.

As the nameless woman encounters Christ she has an amazing experience of his love - she moves through sin, suffering and the threat of death to the promise of new life.

Transformation for her; I like to think too that it began a journey of transformation for all who had witnessed this scene; yes, for all her accusers!

Transformation – seems to be the word I have been given for Lent. A transforming vision of God which Keith pointed us to on Sunday in relation to the Transfiguration of Jesus.

Transforming the lives of others as on our Lenten journey, we support the Water Aid Project, Jars of Change & play our part in transforming the lives of those who have no access to clean water enabling them to have water on tap for the very first time!
Transformation - Wherever we are in our life and faith right now may Lent be for each one of us a season of transformation allowing God to change us and make us whole.

Monday, 25 February 2019

Sermon for Sunday 24 February 2019 (2nd Sunday before Lent)

LUKE 8: 22 – 25

Living in Morecambe, I guess that, unless you were born here, you chose to come at least partly because of the sea. How many people moved here specifically to be near the sea?

And of the rest of us, if you have the good fortune to take holidays, how many choose a destination at the seaside? “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside”!

Well you can’t understand our gospel reading this morning unless you forget all that and think of the sea not as beautiful and inviting but as dangerous and fearful. Which is why, in our reading from Revelation 4 it describes heaven as “a sea of glass”. We still use that phrase. And later in Revelation, (21:1) it describes the new heaven and the new earth as, rather puzzlingly, being without any sea. “The sea was no more.”

The people of the Bible associated the sea with terrifying evil powers. The forces of chaos and evil lived in the sea and anyone who lived near it were afraid of its destructive power. They believed some primal force was behind the storms that could whip up out of nowhere and destroy everything in its path. In our days of Tsunamis that is a bit more understandable.

And so Jesus going to sleep (Mark’s gospel adds a nice touch “on a pillow”) is a picture of undisturbed contentment and peace. He’s completely chilled, as if he hasn’t a care in the world. He’s not afraid of the sea.

While Jesus calmly sleeps, a storm sweeps down the lake, swamping the boat with water. The sailors panic and cry out to him that they are in very real danger of drowning.
I wonder what they expected of him? Did they just think he should know beforehand if drowning was to be their fate? Or did they have an inkling that he might be able to do something and rescue them?

Luke doesn’t record the actual words of Jesus. But we have them in the other gospels and they sound like he is addressing a personal force: “Peace, be still!” No wonder the disciples asked each other: “who on earth is this?”  Who can speak to the created order and tell it to ‘shut up’? What kind of power is this, greater than the power of the wind and sea?

I’m sure the purpose of this miracle wasn’t just a random display of power – Jesus had been tempted with that kind of danger a short time before in the wilderness in his encounter with the Tempter - and had resisted. There’s something else going on here.

I believe he wanted the disciples to get the message that God alone rules the waves and God alone can defeat the demonic powers of chaos and evil. When the disciples call out “Who is this?” they were drawn to the inevitable conclusion that in the most real and powerful sense Jesus is God, Yahweh himself, present on earth.

And if this Jesus can calm the storm at sea, surely he can calm other storms that rage inside and outside of us? The early Christians who heard this story passed down, and then read it for themselves as the written gospels were circulated, were facing political hostility and the threat and reality of persecution.

In the face of danger, they may well have felt buffeted, in danger of going under. They may well have been wondering why Christ was so slow to act. Was he asleep?

They were being reminded that even if Jesus seemed indifferent while the boat of the church was being tossed around, they must have faith. As long as Jesus was with them, there was no need to fear. It was a clear message to the vulnerable church to hold firm to faith in times of trouble. Simply because Jesus is God, he is able to bring us through the storm.

You may have heard about Asia Bibi – the Pakistani Christian woman imprisoned on death row after she was accused by her neighbour of blasphemy more than 8 years ago. After a lot of campaigning by Christian groups in Pakistan, our own country and others, the original sentence was overturned last November. But it sparked protests from fundamentalist Islamist groups in Pakistan to the extent that she will have to her home country and seek asylum in another country. Her lawyer has already fled in fear of his life. This is one of many, many stories of modern persecution of Christians and our gospel account today is very comforting to them.

Whether through the tempests of persecution of the church or personal storms of illness, loss, betrayal, bereavement, breakdown – this miracle has strengthened countless millions of Christians down through the centuries and still does today. Christ’s words still have an extraordinary power to bring a great calm in times of turmoil and chaos, when we reach out in faith, however falteringly, that he is who he is, God with us.

So what is our storm, we who live in Morecambe by the sea?
Swamped with worries about the children, the grandchildren, nieces and nephews, elderly parents? Feeling we’re going under financially or with the pressure of work or the worry of not having any work.

Drowning under a wave of criticism or bullying?
Floundering after hearing bad news of an unexpected diagnosis in ourselves or someone we love.

And perhaps deepest of all, the fear we don’t often talk about - the fear of death and dying – which the disciples knew all about in their storm.

Being a disciple does not exempt us from any of these fears. They are very natural and very real. It’s what we do with them that counts.

Jesus says to us with all the love of his heart: “don’t be afraid, I’m here; I’m with you in your little boat; put your hand in mine; we’ll make this journey together and I will give you peace on the inside (in your heart and mind), even while that storm rages on the outside. Just trust me.”

So may the Lord Jesus give us grace to walk by faith through every storm of life keeping our eyes firmly fixed on him.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Sermon for Trinity 10 on 5 August 2018


EPHESIANS 4: 1 – 16

I have just received a letter from the Apostle Paul to Holy Trinity Poulton-le-Sands with St Laurence Morecambe. It got a bit delayed until Tychicus realised it’s usually known as Morecambe Parish Church.
Let me read you this morning what the Apostle says:

Dear friends in Morecambe:
I heard about the party – all that singing by the choir and soloists and the geriatric something or other. They told me about those 2 old geezers with their maracas trying to accompany Mike on the guitar. And that bloke called Michael Page who was all shook up or something – we didn’t sing that in my day so I didn’t quite get it.

And I heard about Mike’s message last week – I couldn’t have done better myself. All that about bread which you had again in the gospel this morning. And your presentation of that fabulous picture Linda had painted. And that Reader of yours feeling she’d made a fool of herself. Just tell her to get over it; she was probably expressing what many of you felt.

I know you’re going to miss your previous Rector, Mike, but you know, God is not leaving you; I know it’s scary going into a vacancy but God is going to be with you. He doesn’t leave his people to flounder, in my experience..

And thinking of you all there in Morecambe, it reminded me of some things I said to another church that was in a sort of vacancy in a place called Ephesus an awful long time ago. So that’s why I’m writing to you this week.

I had a lot to say to that church in Ephesus about all that Jesus Christ had done for them and about who they were in him. You’ve got that bit of the letter. And then I got onto talking about some practical things. And those are the things I want to say to you today.

1          Maintain the unity of the Spirit
The first thing is this: I want you to keep united. I want you to keep together. That’s going to take humility and gentleness and a lot of patience because unity is not easy.
It takes a whole load of effort.

There’s always something or somebody who wants to undermine it. A little misunderstanding and suddenly you’re not speaking to each other. You get tired I know in a vacancy because there’s so much more to do, so many more responsibilities. You suddenly realise what the Rector did behind the scenes, without anyone noticing and it’s easy to feel over-whelmed and then to get irritable with each other and before you know it something has been said that you regret and it’s very hard to take it back. My advice is, apologise quickly, put it right, don’t let things fester – maintain the unity.

I said before and I’ll say again: bear with one another, put up with one another – even those who really wind you up. Jesus has loved you and his Spirit living in you will help you love them. You may not feel very loving like you do to people you like. But do the loving thing; want the best for them and you’ll find that the feelings will eventually follow.

You know I, Paul, had rows with people when I was a young apostle. I was so furious with my fellow worker Barnabas because he wanted to re-instate a young guy called Mark that we went our separate ways (Acts 15: 37). But when I had time to reflect during my long years in prison, with God’s help we put it right and eventually Mark became one of my closest companions. (Col 4: 10 & 2 Tim 4: 11)

So maintain the unity because “you’re all called to travel the same road and in the same direction. . . . you have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all” Permeate everything you are and think and do with being One.” (The Message)

The other thing I want to say to you is that:

2          God has given you everything you need for this vacancy
I know some of my original letter to the Ephesians sounds a bit complicated but that’s because they were Jews like me and were familiar with what I was referring to.

You see the most important story to us Jews was the Exodus from Egypt and how afterwards when they were wandering in the desert, their leader Moses went up the mountain and came down with stone tablets on which the Law was written. We thought of the Ascension of Jesus as rather like that. Jesus had been through death and resurrection – a new Exodus, setting us free from bondage to sin and death. And then he had ascended to heaven and sent his Holy Spirit and now his Spirit was showering gifts on his Church.

Well let me tell you Morecambe Parish Church, Jesus is still sending the gifts of his Spirit on the Church - including yours. So if you’ve got the same Spirit as we had, you can serve like we did. It may be a different millennium but you’ll find ways that are appropriate to your generation.
In my day, God’s Spirit equipped and sent people like me into new situations all over the Mediterranean and we planted new churches. We were called Apostles. Some of you will be able to tell other people about Jesus in a very natural way so that they want to become Christians too. We called them evangelists.

Some will be able to speak truth to power; they’ll understand what’s going on in the world around you and say things that are just right on the mark. We called them prophets. Some will be able to open up the scriptures to you and make them live. We called them teachers. Some will be really good listeners and take care of your needs. We called them pastors. There are lots of other gifts God gives to the church – I wrote about them in other letters, but these are enough for now.

They have a very special purpose. They are to help you grow up, so you aren’t tossed about on a sea of opinions that haven’t much to do with Christian faith v 14.
These gifts are to help you get on with the ministry like Mike was encouraging you to last week, to keep up with the things already established and be alert for anything else God wants you to do.

It may be a vacancy but that doesn’t mean it’s a vacant lot in Morecambe! You’re not a vacant building; you’re a body. And just as the ligaments in your body link all your skeleton together, so you are linked to each other so that you pull in the same direction.

These gifts will make the body of Christ there in Morecambe strong, so that you become more and more united in purpose, more and more full of the knowledge of God, more and more like Jesus.

And so Paul ends this letter sending us grace and peace.                                                                                 

Friday, 20 July 2018

Magazine Article for July/Aug 2018

Dear Friends,

As this is our special two-month edition of the parish magazine, it will be my last contribution as Rector of Morecambe Parish Church. Many of you will now know that I have been appointed as Vicar of St Nicholas’, Beverley and Training Adviser to the Archdeaconry of the East Riding. My final Sunday here will be July 29, and my induction service at Beverley is on 30 August at 7-30pm.

As I explained in my sermon on Pentecost Sunday and also on my blog, I knew that after Debbie died, it would not be wise to make any big decisions for at least a year, if not two. It was important to be here to come to terms with what had happened with people who shared my sense of loss. As we got into 2018, however, I began to feel that my time here was drawing to a close. Around that time some possibilities for new posts came up, and to cut a long story short the Beverley post offered me a new start, and a job with some new aspects to it, which I look forward to engaging with.

I have been asked if my new church is Beverley Minster - it isn’t. The Minster is in the centre of the town and is the size of a cathedral. There is also St Mary’s, to the north of the market place. St Nicholas’ parish covers the most of the town on the east side of the railway line. It is a smaller congregation than MPC, and has very different challenges in terms of making connections with the community (there is no church school, for example). But there is a core of very committed people who I’m looking forward to getting to know and working with. They also said they are looking for someone musical, so I may be playing more in services!

In theory half of my working time is parish and half to the training role. The latter will include arranging training events and courses for church members, people in specific roles, as well for clergy as part of their ongoing development. There are also opportunities to help deliver some of the courses at the York school of ministry, which will certainly stretch my little brain! Keeping the two in balance will be a challenge, but I have done “dual-role” before in Coventry, so at least I know the pitfalls.

I’ll say more about leaving Morecambe later, but for now I just want to thank you all for your fellowship, prayers and support. The last 9 years has contained some very challenging times, as well as some wonderful moments of celebration and joy. Thank you for sharing that with me and the other Peatpeople.

Morecambe is a great place, and this community has character and resilience. As I said at Pentecost, I trust that God has already provided this church with what it needs for the vacancy, and that new opportunities and possibilities will come in this next chapter for you, as well as for me.

With all good wishes


Sunday, 27 May 2018

Magazine Article for June 2018

Dear Friends,

From time to time I get asked what the different seasonal colours use in church and on the vestments of clergy mean. It’s like so many things in church life. We take it for granted that things that are familiar for us are obvious to everyone, when in fact they’re asking what is going on and why.

Every now and then, it’s a good exercise to think about what church must be like for someone who has no previous knowledge or experience of it. For example, at some of our baptism preparation sessions, I show a short Youtube clip of the old Cadbury’s Smash advert with the plastic aliens laughing at the primitive earth people peeling and cooking potatoes.

Then I pose these questions: What would the aliens make of a baptism, and how might we explain baptism to them? (Best answers on a postcard to…)

You might prefer to think about some of the technical churchy language some of us can find ourselves using. For example, can we all identify an aumbry, a ciborium, a chasuble, or even a vestibule? Some church people, when talking about a communion service refer to the Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, so we’re speaking Latin even though our services are in English. And then we refer to the Eucharist, which contains the Kyrie Eleison, and all of a sudden we’re talking in Greek. No wonder newcomers can be confused.

In the middle of June, we’re being asked nationally in the Church of England to regard June 17th as a Sunday to invite people to come to a church service. That’s great – and I hope you do. But moments like that are a reminder to us all that to be truly welcoming to newcomers, we need to go further than just a friendly smile at the door. We also need to be befrienders, interpreters, and go the extra mile to ensure that people are enabled to participate as freely and as fully as possible in every aspect of our church’s life. Otherwise if we confuse people with words like legilium*, they might be making their escape through the narthex**, never to return to share in our koinonia***.

With all good wishes


* a legilium is a folding lectern or bookstand, often used by priests for the first part of a service, before being packed away

** the narthex of a church is a lobby area at the west end of a church building.

*** koinonia is the Greek word for fellowship, sharing or participation.