Sunday, 17 November 2019

Kaleidoscopic colour

A sermon preached on the Second before Advent - having been moved by Eliasson's exhibition at the Tate Modern and how his work makes us aware of our bodies and our place in the world, reading Jesus' warnings in Luke's Gospel resonated differently.   The texts were Malachi 4:1-2a, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

Is it possible that art can change the world?

The Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson thinks so.

He’s reputation is based on playing with our senses: he creates work of beauty - giant kaleidoscopes shedding colourful patterns on the wall; light installations which turn our bodies into a playful shadow displays.

He creates work which brings the natural world inside: the delicate beauty of fine mist falling, gently, as light casts a rainbow; the trepidation of stepping into a corridor of dense fog, seeing nothing ahead but being enfolded with a dazzling light shifting from yellow to pink and white.

But as one reviewer puts it: there is more to Eliasson’s work than cheap thrills and damp air.  

By drawing  on nature and creating multi-sensory phenomenon, he makes us aware of our bodies; but he also makes us alert to our place on this planet; his expanded studio addresses the questions facing us - renewable energy, climate justice, migration and melting glaciers. 

Eliasson’s work might be described as ‘sublime’: that is the utterly awe-inspiring point where beauty, wonder, fear and vulnerability meet. 

As Rosemary Waugh puts it in Time Out magazine: he captures power and beauty and humanity for one reason, that is: to make it explicitly clear that THIS – this glorious, miraculous planet with its winds, rains and rocks – is precisely what we’re systematically destroying by letting it melt, crack and fall apart. This is epic environmentalism and, yes, it’s sublime.

In Real Life, we become agents in answering the question: how do we live together?

How do we live together when we don’t know what the future holds for humankind? 

In today’s Gospel, we some were speaking admiringly of the beauty of the temple stones - their majestic proportions, hewn from the earth, carved by human hands, reflecting the light.

And Jesus’ response makes us acutely aware of our bodies, our senses, our place in the world: it is a moment of beauty, wonder, fear and vulnerability.

In that moment, Jesus addresses the way in which human history opens up before us. Each generation facing its crises as nations, empires and kingdoms rise and fall; as environmental upheavals loom and the cosmos brings forth its own portents.

Human agency participates in and magnifies this disorder; and yet we strive for peace; we’re motivated to respond to disaster with generosity. The shorthand for this time between Jesus’ proclamation of the nearness of God’s Kingdom and its fulfilment or consumption is ‘now and not-yet’.

We live in this realm of in-between times as the disciples did: Jesus speaks words which are discomforting to our ears. He names the human tendency to seek power. 

First many will attempt to lead followers astray by falsely claiming his name; second, the powers of earthly kingdoms will rise against each other with violence; third, the church will be hated because of his name. 

In short, Jesus is saying that the good news he shares of healing, hope, liberation and forgiveness will stand in contradiction to the idols of possession, exploitation, abuse and greed of every age. 

This takes us to the heart of spiritual conflict: Jesus is God’s Word made flesh, the truth that brings light into darkness. In him, the love of God draws near to us; naming all that diminishes - the idleness, indifference and selfishness. 

As children of God, Jesus reassures us that the works of darkness have no power over us. we are to resist them by placing our trust in the peace Christ brings; allowing that to shape our lives and our witness. 

Such resistance is courageous. It means that we must cultivate habits of self-discipline and endurance. 

First, we are not to be distracted by false teaching; those things which suggest there’s an easier way than that of costly love. Second, we are to stand firm as worldly powers exert their influence and kingdoms clash with each other. Thirdly, we must be remain faithful to our witness - even when friends and family disagree or turn against us.

In short, Jesus is saying that we must not lose our focus: to pray for peace and reconciliation, for justice and mercy. We are to use whatever gifts and resources we have to aid others in that struggle; to come alongside them to raise them up and give them dignity.

We can commit ourselves to that struggle in the knowledge that Jesus has already defeated suffering and death; love has won. As members of Christ’s body, any resistance or hope we offer is through his grace; and change we effect is through his power.

The epistle also speaks in robust terms about the need for such self-discipline. Paul’s naming of idleness implies a senes of living in disorder. The notion of being busybodies suggests that he’s concerned with those who are intent on meddling in the affairs of others; those who like to give the impression of being kind-hearted, but in reality offer little meaningful aid or support. 

To reframe the challenge of Eliasson’s interactive exhibition, how do we live together? It is in part by not growing wearing of doing what is right - however much other factors appear to conspire against us. 

When if feels as if all is melting, cracking and falling apart, our worship engages us with our senses, reconnects us with the natural world and makes us more aware of our bodies.

Throughout our liturgy we are reminded that our identity is in Christ: we seek forgiveness and share in peace. It is when the fruit of the vine and the work of human hands are taken and blessed, broken and given to us that we, are nourished as this one body. 

Though we are many, and though we will be sent out to live and work in many homes and places, we are united.  Though we are many our hearts are shaped by one love. Can the gift of this sacrament change the world? I believe so.

We are called to be people who reflect that love like a kaleidoscope - casting the shape and colour of God’s Kingdom in the world around us. We are to be people whose bodies bring beauty and kindness; justice and hope.

When we see what is sublime in our world, we are called to live with a lightness that resists consumption and exploitation. When the fog of political debate descends we are to speak with clarity of the one whose name is righteousness, who brings healing in its wings. 

As we long for the world’s salvation, we pray that the Sprit will stir us from apathy; restrain us from excess; and revive in new hope: that all creation may be healed in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

© Julie Gittoes 2019

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Vanity - life is but a breath!

Evensong 27 October: Ecclesiastes 11:1-end, 12:1-end and 2 Timothy 2:1-7

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.

Over the last two weeks, students from Middlesex University have been using the church yard as the back drop or context for short films on grief and loss.

Using their skills in acting and directing, they are seeking to say something about our mortality. 

Like the writer of Ecclesiastes they are exploring some of the most pressing and intimate questions we face as human beings: youth and ageing, anxiety and frailty; the inclinations of our hearts and the weariness of the flesh.

In these short films, mourners go about the streets, clutching their flowers, as dust returns to the earth. 

Breath returns to God who gave it. Is all then just vanity? Or is this our hope and consolation?

In life we are in the midst of death. 

We know not when the silver cord will be snapped or when the golden bowl will be broken, as Ecclesiastes puts it; we know only the jolt when the wheel or cistern breaks.

In our lives, we carry those moments of ‘breakage’.  We carry the personal sorrows, regrets and passing breaths; the moments that come too soon; that hurt too much. We carry the collective horrors too: of victims of terror or trafficking, of ebola or earthquake.

When we face the end of the matter, has all been heard?

Yet it is in the face of death that words of wisdom take on a different hue. 

We tell stories of last words; of Oscar Wilde’s complaint about the wallpaper or George V’s utterance of ‘Bugger Bognor’. Yet when asked, the most common deathbed conversations have been affairs of the heart: advice about relationships or careers, finding happiness and living without regrets.

Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse, recorded some of the most common regrets: wishing that I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself; wishing I hadn’t worked so hard; wishing we’d expressed our feelings; wishing we’d stayed in touch with our friends; wishing for happiness and laughter. 

Ware writes of the phenomenal clarity of vision that people gain at the end of their lives, and how we might learn from their wisdom. Perhaps her book of observations serves to accomplish a similar task to the writer of Ecclesiastes: how do we live well in the face of death?

Perhaps our health or your brings a freedom we don’t realise until we’ve lost it; perhaps we’re all to aware of the things we miss out on because of the demands of work. 

Ware also noticed the importance fo friends - the people who’ve known us deeply for years; or who were significant at particular moments.  How important it is to cherish them; to express our feelings and to find to be able to laugh; to find happiness in small things 

The writer of Ecclesiastes puts such human observations in different words. He notes that there are times and seasons; he cautions against idleness and yet invites us to delight in the pleasantness of the sun. Delight in the sun, because there will be darker days. 

In youth and in old age there are causes for rejoicing. The writer suggests that we follow the inclination of our hearts; whilst cautioning us to be mindful of God’s judgment. Rejoice and live - for all is vanity. 

Such vanity does not mean something worthless or futile; it doesn’t carry the connotations of pride or superficial concern for appearance. 

Vanity in Ecclesiastes is more like a breath or vapour: the thing which we try to grasp but which slips through our fingers. We cannot control or foretell our future; but we can live lightly and intensely moment by moment.

Perhaps that is a habit of living well that we can cultivate. To be present. To see what the moment demands of us.

Of course we all carry with us work and responsibilities, concerns and plans. Rather than abandoning them or laying them aside, we are to infuse them with love and meaning and purpose.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.

Dare we entrust our lives to God - in order that we might live more fully? The commandments contain the promise of life rooted in love of God and neighbour. Dare we chose this life? 

We do not know what the future holds: we fear living with regrets and yet can be cautious and hesitant. Yet living wholeheartedly releases us to find fulfilment moment by moment. 

God calls us to love - with all that we are: hearts and minds, souls and strength. Such love is our calling - being committed to the work entrusted to us, the people with whom we interact. This can be demanding - this is faithful loving, living life in the face of death. 

And we do this because God goes with us and before us through sorrows and laughter, through friendships and all our endeavours. Nothing is wasted or lost. All is vanity, a breath; and yet each and every breath is infused with the love of God. This is the commandment to love and live; to heal and build up; to care and be carried; to cherish and pay attention to small things.

Live lightly and intensely. Breath by breath.

God breathed life into our earthly bodies; and when dust returns to earth, that same breath calls us to eternal life. For Christ Jesus died and rose again; nothing can no separate us from the love of God. By the power of the Spirit, we are to love God; to keep the commandments. Until shadows lengthen and the busy world is hushed. 

As Paul instructs Timothy:  You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus; and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.

© Julie Gittoes 2019

And did those feet?

A sermon for All Saints Sunday Evensong.

The author Tracy Chevalier, writes that when she is researching a new novel, she often does what her characters do [she explores this in The Guardian]

In preparation for Girl with a Pearl Earring - about the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer - she took a painting class.

For her latest novel, A Single Thread, set in the 1930s, she learned some needlepoint, the craft of her heroine Violet Speedwell. 

Violet is making cushions and kneelers and during her summer holidays walks between the cathedral cities of Salisbury and Winchester.  

Chevalier also undertakes the literary pilgrimage as she begins the editing process. As she walks, she sees sights which would have been familiar to Violet - the prisons and the hospitals.

She notices the moments where life mirrors art: the place where Violet and Chevalier planned to sit, but where other walkers have already bagged the spot. 

She notices how very different life and art can be: the post-war suburbs the changed cropping patterns and the real-life layout of an imagined pub.

The novelist’s way echoes the desire to walk ancient footpaths and increasing popularity of cathedral pilgrimage sites. There is a desire to make connections and to make sense; to belong in a way which extends beyond the present moment.

Yesterday’s Guardian listed some of the well-trodden and lesser known paths:  St Finbarr’s Way; the Welsh Camino of St Cadfan; the ways of St Hilda, St Augustine and St Duthac. The ways the saints trod across Cornwall and Northumbria as well as the way to Walsingham, home to England’s Nazareth.

No wonder Dixe Wills opens her article with the words of Blake’s famous hymn, Jerusalem: And did those feet… a hymn which we will sing this evening.

Blake’s words invoke an ancient mythology that Jesus’ walked these mountains and pastures.

And yet the feet of God’s saints have walked upon this land; and the body of Christ still moves step by step through streets and woodlands.

To walk is to move at the pace of the Gospel: to walk that land takes time and risks interruption; place is measured by the human stride; we notice things, the changes and continuities.

This evening we gather as friends, as brothers and sisters, as strangers and pilgrims here on earth.  

We gather to pause to be caught up in this interlude of praise and prayer.  We bring with us the longings and fears that mark our faces; the hopes and sorrows that shine in our eyes. 

We celebrate that light shining forth in the lives of people across the generations who lived and died in deep attention to God and to others.  In the power of the Spirit, they bore witness to the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.   

We do not know all these saints by name. Yet the brightness of lives and their faithful prayers inspire us; their commitment challenged injustice and revealed the hope of a better world. We too are called to make known the glory of God's Kingdom.

The Saints we celebrate placed trust in God; they lived in and for his love - at moments of decision, moments of tenderness, moments of loss; in moments of contemplation and in the work the undertook.

Theirs is a holiness rooted in God’s love and forgiveness; a holiness that inspires and raises us up; it offers mutual encouragement.

Hebrews presents a list of very human saints: judges, kings, and prophets - those who sought justice, righteousness and mercy.  Gideon and Barak wrestled with doubts. Samson relied on his immense strength and was seduced by beauty. Jephthah and David wavered in faithfulness to God seeking their own gratification with dire consequences.  

Yet, God's Spirit restored them; they learnt courage, humility and wisdom.  Alongside them are the men and women who are unnamed and unknown to us, but who walk with us as God’s pilgrim people.  

In them we find hope; for God works through us despite our weakness.  They are commended for their faith, not their goodness.  In them, something of the light of God shines forth.  They are our companions. They inspire us to persevere when we waver or feel overwhelmed.  

Like them, we are to look to Jesus. He is a pioneer because in him, death is defeated; he is the perfecter of faith; he is our hope.  In his life, death and resurrection God’s Kingdom breaks in. 

Isaiah's vision is inspirational; but for it to become a reality we have to embrace the challenge of aligning our lives, our world with God's new creation. Through the Spirit, that same power is at work in us as we run the race set before us.

Isaiah speaks of the promise of new heavens and a new earth. Jerusalem is to be a joy and its people a delight.  Hopes will be realised and blessings will be poured out on all people.  No more distress, suffering, tears and death; no more exploitation and destruction. 

Instead God draws all things to himself in stability, refreshment and peace.  Our singing of Jerusalem is not an exercise in nostalgia or triumphalism. It can be something rather more hopeful and disruptive. 

Blake names the darkness and brutality that marks our landscape; and also a hope that heaven will touch earth. Beneath the text of his poem, he wrote a verse from Numbers:  "Would to God that all the Lords people were Prophets"

And perhaps that the bows and arrows, the shield and chariot are invoking: a spiritual armour which equips us to fulfil God’s purposes in the world. 

Each Evensong, we hear the honest cries of the psalmist; we hear the prophetic call to justice in Mary's song; we hear Simeon rejoice in the light of Christ.  Worship inspires us to build trust, to seek justice, to cultivate patience, to learn forgiveness.  Worship inspires with the beauty of holiness; holding the curious, the fearful, the joyful and the brokenhearted in abundant love.

As God's saints, we are not called to random acts of goodness but to intentional acts of witness.  Giving an account of the hope that is in us; the hope that creation will be renewed; that the signs of God's Kingdom are made known in love, justice and compassion.  We do that in the power of the Spirit praying within us; inspiring us; filling us with joy and delight, compassion and wisdom.

We are to embody Isaiah's vision - walking in the world as God's saints.  Be passionate, generous, forgiving encouraging and prophetically defiant.

© Julie Gittoes 2019

All Saints - life at walking pace

All Saints Eucharist: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18, Ephesians 1:11-23 and Luke 6:20-31

Pilgrim’s progress is not a byeline you expect to see in a weekend paper; but yesterday’s Guardian did just that devoting pages to ancient footpaths and pilgrimage sites.

St Finbarr’s Way; the Welsh Camino of St Cadfan; the ways of St Hilda, St Augustine and St Duthac. The ways the saints trod across Cornwall and Northumbria as well as the way to Walsingham, home to England’s Nazareth.

No wonder Dixe Wills opens her article with the words of Blake’s famous hymn, Jerusalem: And did those feet…

And the feet of God’s saints have walked upon this land; and the body of Christ still moves step by step through streets and woodlands.

To walk is to live at a pace where we notice what is around us; where we risk being drawn into conversation with others on the way.

Today we give thank for the saints; for the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us in our earthly walk of faith.

Across the generations, these men and women have sought to reflect the love of God by their teaching and their actions; by the way they’ve built others up; and by the way they’ve sought to make known the justice and compassion of God’s Kingdom.

They’ve kindled a flame of faith in us and in this land. They are our family. Some of them will be people who encourage or provoke; for some we will have great personal affection or devotion; others will be unknown, but for a name.

We are to follow them - to follow their example with boldness and with joy - as pilgrims here on earth.  Their lives witnessed to the life and hope of the Gospel, often in very practical ways. 

Some were called to administration and others offered hospitality; some sought justice for the poor and oppressed others were renowned for their wisdom and teaching. Some exercised power and influence in high office; others sought to be a blessing in homes and communities.

They are our inspiration as we work out that reality in ourselves and within the networks or relationships we inhabit. 

Today’s readings set out the patterns and habits which shape this life together. There is challenge and creativity in the words we hear.  

The words of scripture remind us that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Godself; in the power of the Spirit, the lives of the saints echoed that hope, shining as lights in the world. 

In our own generation, we are called to be lights in our own generation. And that can sometimes feel like a burden or pressure; that we are not good enough to fulfil that calling.

Perhaps then we can take encouragement from the words of Rassie Erasmus - the head coach of the Springboks. He describes the pressures of life in South Africa - the problems of employment or crime. 

Then he talks about ruby as a privilege rather than a burden he says: Rugby shouldn’t be something that creates pressure on you, it should be something that creates hope.

What if we were to substitute the word faith or church or discipleship for rugby: being a Christian shouldn’t be something that creates pressure on your, it should be something that creates hope.

To continue the rugby analogy, that doesn’t mean talking about it: it means living it, playing well and working together for a common aim. 

Our Gospel reading leaves us in doubt about the challenge of living in such a community. Jesus' teaching about blessing and woes are memorable. They are challenging and edgy. Jesus is laying the foundations of a renewed community - reaching out to the curious and already committed.

This is a community that exists among and for the most disadvantaged. Jesus is addressing himself to those who find themselves up against it; and those who’re passionate for change. He addresses himself to those who are looking for hope; and those who are under pressure.

This is a manifesto for all the saints: to hunger and thirst for righteousness; to be with poor, the hungry and the grief stricken. 

When we gather together around the altar, we are united with them in praise and pray; members of one body; transcending time and place.

But this gathering is but an interval in the scattered life of the church. For we will be sent out to love and serve; send out to walk in the world. Walking through Brent Street and The Boroughs into offices and schools, shops and concert halls, hymns and parks. 

As we walk, what do we notice and with whom do we meet?

Blessed are the motherless; the alone; those who haven’t got over it yet. Blessed are the street cleaners and health care assistants; blessed are underrepresented, the unemployed; the teenager who are anxious. 

Blessed are those seeking refuge and dreaming of a better life; blessed are those who campaign and keep others safe. Blessed are those who challenge the bullies; and those who show mercy and comfort. Blessed are those who weep and laugh; blessed are those who embrace and nurse.

The challenge to us resounds in our community of faith. Woe to us when we lack generosity or gratitude; woe to us when we court popularity.  And just when we get to the bit where we think we can relax and be comfortable, Jesus says, even in the face of insult, excessive demands and all that makes us defensive, we are to love. 

Our identity in Christ flows from our baptism and is deepened in prayer and praise. Our identity is nourished in sharing this sacred feast of bread and wine - the bond of our communion with Christ. Here the Spirit is poured out on us afresh. Here we are caught up in a process of transformation. Here we are renewed and inspired. From here we are sent out to live in faith and hope and love, as lights in the world. 

Wouldn't it be amazing if it could be said so us: we've heard of your faith and your love of others. For Paul reminds the Ephesians that the Spirit in them is a little bit of heaven now. He tells them to live  lives as God's people in a world which is imperfect and in need of transformation. 

If Luke reminds us that the gospel is about social, religious, economic and political justice; Paul reminds us that a church called to risk is called to pray. For a spirit of wisdom and enlightenment. Such wisdom is an awareness of a God and his will for our lives. The love of God is the beginning of wisdom. 

This wisdom enables us to see the world differently: to be attentive and response to the cries we hear and the needs we see. The words of Daniel speak of a time of great upheaval and tensions between the nations; he speaks of terror and uncertainty, and yet he also reaches out the hope and promise of God in the midst of disruption. 

The hope we share is not wishful thinking but an awareness that creation is being drawn together in Christ; we walk this land, we walk ancient paths and create new pilgrim ways.

Those paths are marked by the same love, justice and compassion those who walked before us. Our walking in this land is rooted in the love of our gracious God who in Christ is revealed as redeemer and through Spirit opens our eyes to grace. 

We, as saints among saints, are called to mirror the eternal dance of mutual love of the Trinity. Delighting in God and his creation, no one should feel worthless. 

In the smallest of fragments of bread we taste and see the fullness of God. Through the relative smallness of our lives and gestures, we share that fullness.

We are drawn into the company of God's faithful and flawed people. We rely on the Spirit to strengthen us.  At the point at which we face death, when dreams and fears are laid bare, new life breaks through. Perhaps all the saints remind us of that too. 

As we struggle with systems that oppress and show compassion for the marginalised and face mistrust with love, we won't be defeated. All things under Christ's  feet; he is the head over all things for the church; which is his body - the fullness of him who fills all in all. 

He is the fullness of God. We are in Christ. Empowered by the Spirit let us with all the saints in light shine as lights in the world. To the glory of God.

© Julie Gittoes 2019

Remembrance and Re-membering

A sermon preached at St Mary's Hendon on Remembrance Sunday. 

The readings were: Job 19: 23-27a, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17 and Luke 20:27-38

We opened the doors of the little chapel… [the priest] beckoned me to kneel with him in the front of the altar… I did not understand the precise meaning of what he was saying, but I could hear the compassion in his voice… He placed a wafer on my tongue and offered me the cup. He then placed this had on my head and prayed… it did not feel like a man’s hand but something much more powerful and profound, radiating energy… filling me with love.

These words are written by trauma surgeon David Nott in his memoir War Doctor detailing his voluntary work on front lines from Sarajevo to Syria. 

It encapsulates everything about the brutality of war: all that we remember today. It encapsulates the tragedy of lives lost; and moment of grace where lives are restored or re-membered.

Today and tomorrow, there will be moments when we fall silent and remember. 

Our silence speaks of our longing for peace and its cost.

We remember those who have seen active service in the theatre of war: those whose experience of conflict has cost them their lives; those who return suffering mental or physical trauma; those who mourn their friends. 

We remember men and women in danger this day as a result of war and terror:  the service personnel from commanding officers to the medics, the ground crew to special forces; the chaplains serving alongside them; the civilians, volunteers, humanitarians and peacekeepers.

We remember them with respect and with gratitude: our remembering calls forth from us a spirit of commitment. A commitment to the cause of peace and justice in the face on the anger and hatred of humanity.

From his place of brokenness our silence holds out this defiant hope.

Such hope isn’t mere optimism; it’s the refusal to allow death the final word.

It is a hope reflected in today’s readings. 

Such hope is expressed with conviction by Job.  Even in bitter pain, protest and lament, Job remembers God. The one who is with him; who transforms his flesh; who his eyes shall behold.

I know that my Redeemer lives.

Job places his trust in God - believing that ultimately God has the final word; that human beings are called into life. 

In a debate about the possibility of life beyond death, Jesus rejects the literalism inherent within this hypothetical scenario; and moves us beyond earthly limitations to reveal promise of new a creation that does not whither or decay.

God is the one who says “I am”; the Lord of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: the one who God of the living, not the dead; for to him all are made alive. 

This is a God who re-members.

Remembering all that has been and allowing nothing to separate us from love.

It is a remembering that brings together the broken and separated members of the human race.

God draws near to us in flesh of our flesh in Jesus: like us, his body aches and moves and touches and bleeds.

God draws near to us in broken bread: inviting us to touch and taste and see and remember.

And in this act we are remembered too: our divisions are brought together; our differences are diminished.

Because of what Jesus did in our past, we remember in the present and choose a new future.

We are gathered together in Christ, our living redeemer.

A wafer on our tongues; a cup offered; a hand laid on our head.

In these small things the powerful, profound and radiating energy of God’s love fills us.

As we remember in silence, we can choose to listen; to understand; to love.

In our silent remembering, may the Spirit be at work in us calling us to seek what is just and true.

As we remember, we stand firm, making Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians our own: Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

© Julie Gittoes 2019

Saturday, 2 November 2019


A sermon preached at the Eucharist on Bible Sunday 27 October: The texts were: Isaiah 45:22-end, Romans 15: 1-6, Luke 4:16-24

Each March, school children up and down the country dress up as their favourite fictional for world book day: parental creativity and resourcefulness means that Facebook and classrooms are full of recognisable Harry Potters and Matildas; Snow Whites and Peter Pans.

The delight of stories never really leaves us: whether it’s the latest John le CarrĂ© or the high
drama of Eastenders; the comfort of a familiar classic or the long awaited film.

We read to be entertained and challenged; to explore emotions and understand relationships. We inhabit other worlds; navigating the lives of others, from youth to older age.

Beyond the realm of fiction, there books which we delight in or inspire us with determination; there are books which speak to our distress and others which help us follow our desires.

Numerically speaking, the Bible is the world’s number one best seller. Like many of our own favourites, it’s full of dramatic stories and vivid characters. In its pages we find beautiful poetry, inspiring visions and profound wisdom. 

It’s been translated and learnt by heart over hundreds of generations, by men and women trying to make sense of life and of God. It’s been studied and interpreted in contexts very different from our own, by radicals and conservatives seeking after what is true.

This epic narrative begins in a garden and ends with a city. Our lives are enfolded by its words.

On Bible Sunday, we are invited to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest those words. For it is  not merely another piece of literature. It’s an invitation into the presence of the one who is life and love; it expresses the language of the heart.

They continue to address us - with a cry, a whisper, a song, a breath:

They declare that ‘God loves us’. 

They inspire us to ‘love one another’.

Prophets, poets, historians, letter writers, psalmists, evangelists: all of them address our questions and struggles. They name our deepest longings and our misdirected desires. 

There is familiarity and strangeness in these texts: hundreds of stories about human beings trying to make sense of the world as we reach out to each other and to God; stories of our hurts and failures, desires and relationships.

There is familiarity and strangeness in these texts: hundreds of stories of God reaching out to us when we dare to dream, when we cry in distress; stories revealing something of Godself to us in healing and justice, truth and beauty.

In the books of the Bible, God breathes 100s and 1000s of times:

In our first reading, we hear this assurance.

This love is God. This God is love.

Faithful: waiting for us to return to our first love.

Faithful: reaching to the ends of the earth.

Faithful: teaching us to walk in ways of justice, humility and mercy.

There is no other source of life and strength. 

You are loved.

Love one another.

In our second reading, we hear a snippet of a letter written to those seeking to walk this way of love in community; a letter written by one whose life had been transformed by love which dazzled with challenge and forgiveness and calling and faithfulness.

Paul writes to the Romans naming the distress being caused by the strong dismissing or taking advantage of the weak.There is sorrow and anguish and fragmentation when we please ourselves. It neither honours God nor our neighbour.

Paul writes to the Romans naming the delight that comes from knowing Jesus as God with us; the one who came not to be served but to serve; who reveals the depth of love divine in human flesh.

Paul writes to the Romans naming the desire to know and keep God’s commandments: seeking to build up our neighbours and to live in harmony with one another; glorifying God with one voice in worship and glorifying God in our deals with weak and strong.

Paul writes to the Romans naming the determination to love - not by human strength alone, but through the power of the Spirit at work in us and in the encouragement we find in scripture. The steadfast rhyme of love shapes our hope.

Delight in God.
Name your distress.
Desire God’s ways.
Be determined.


Such love isn’t an abstract concept.  It is something we grow into and make our own. Love is to be our appearance;  and what we see in others. 

Such love isn’t an abstract concept; it’s not a matter of words, but of the Word made flesh.

The one who was  conceived by the Spirit has baptised with the Spirit. Now that same Spirit leads him in the wilderness. The Spirit fills Jesus and the Spirit guides him. 

Before Jesus began his public ministry or arrived in his home down, he had spent time the desert, committing  himself to loving the world. Tempted as we are, yet without that fracturing of relationship, or selfish desire, we call sin.   In the weakness of our flesh, God loves in a way that it so real it hurts; so real it saves. 

Here in the human frailty of hunger and fatigue, Jesus faces the relentless psychological nagging of ‘if’.

If you are the Son of God do x or y.

Yet through the lens of those ‘ifs’ we see the power of love.

The love of God with us.

Satisfy your hunger: no, says Jesus, for we are sustained not by bread alone. I won’t love the world simply by gratifying physical desires but by going to heart of our needs and hopes.

Accept earthly power: no, says Jesus, seizing glory and authority in that way is not God's way of loving.  Love that coerces and dominates a response isn't real.   Attention to God in worship is the beginning of love; serving others by attending to their needs, that's real love. 

Perform a stunt: no, says Jesus, I won't take a short cut. I won't put God to the test in that way. Such love is superficial and fleeting: it doesn't forgive or heal; it doesn't challenge or embrace.

Three times, Jesus chose to serve God. He reveals a love that is our ultimate reality. A love that overcomes pain, sorrow and death itself. 

When Jesus went to his home town, he went to synagogue as we might expect.  He stood up to read. He began to teach; to speak of the fulfilment of scripture in and through him.

What had the gathered community expected? An endorsement of their way of life or their values; a shared interpretation of the law?  Might he have something to say about the threat posed by the occupying Roman forces? May be they wanted to bask in the fame of a local lad ‘made good’. When Scripture is read, do they - do we - expect a light to shine in the dark corners of our minds?

Jesus announces his ministry: proclaiming justice, advocating for commission, declaring liberty. Familiar words are heard afresh; salvation and hope are made real.

Words of scripture are fulfilled by God’s Word in our midst.

In this Eucharist we read, mark and learn the words of Scripture which unfold the story of God’s love for us. Here we practice love in community.  We received forgiveness and share peace.  We inwardly digest God’s Word in bread and wine, receiving what we are; becoming Christ’s body in and for the world.


Here we name the cries of our heart - cries of distress and desire. Here we delight in God faithful love and here pray that our determination to seek God’s Kingdom be renewed.

In the power of the Spirit we are sent out in peace to love and serve; bringing hope as we witness to the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

As you.
Are loved.

© Julie Gittoes 2019