Midnight Mass 2021

Sermon preached by Revd Lizzie Kesteven

I was walking down the Fishponds Road last week and wondering about the 5 senses that God has blessed humans with – sight, hearing, touch, taste or smell. Just metres from here on that road there is so much for all of them. The noise of the traffic and the chatter of people, the lights from the shop windows and the smile in people’s eyes. The taste and smell of coffee coming from the cafes. And the weight of heavy bags felt on my hands. Such gifts of senses. I have sometimes wondered rather morbidly that if I were to only have 4 of these senses, which would I choose? Or alternatively which one given the choice would I lose? Have you ever thought that? I think it might be different for everyone here. In my wondering I think then it would be the sense of sight that I would be the most reluctant to lose. I have so a deep and profound respect for anyone who manages life without physical sight.

The Old Testament reading from Isaiah today speaks a lot about sight. Isaiah says “for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion” and “before the eyes of all the nations” and again” all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God”.

Lots to see! Lots to look at in just a few verses.

Yet from the Old Testament this prophesy is rather remarkable. The Jewish heritage and traditions which form the foundation and bedrock of the Christian faith tells the story of the nation Israel’s relationship with God. It is a relationship which has its many ups and downs, covenants and renewals of faith. It has people such as Moses, Sarah, Jacob, and Rachel. It speaks of an intense relationship between God and Abraham. There are falling outs and making up. But in all of this the idea that a human could see God face to face was not possible. Moses makes it clear early on in Exodus that no one can see God and live. The people of the Old Testament hear God, can be in the presence of God, experience God and see Gods actions, wrestle with God, they can even have their own faces lit up by God. But to meet God literally face to face and live was not deemed possible. There is still a divide between the Creator of the world and the created beings that live in it.

Yet here tonight – as on every Christmas Eve – the night when Christians celebrate the incarnation, the dwelling of God in an actual physical flesh of a person. God in a baby. A baby who is God. Here on this night. We celebrate the change in the relationship between God and Us. The sheer magnitude of the claim of Christians in this statement is eye watering. Perhaps after 2000 years of saying it I can become more blaze about being able to physically see God, know God, and be invited to have a connection, a relationship with God. But the essence of what occurred 2000 years OK was more than just a key change in the music score of faith. It was an earth shattering revelation of how God intends to reset the whole thing. 

And God chooses to reset by crossing over that original divide that had Creator of the world on one side and humanity on the other. In the manger in that stable in Bethlehem the reset of the world is born. No longer will God be some elusive voice or spirit. The wind which we cannot see, the force which we cannot touch or smell, is seen clearly. In a child. Sharing the most fragile and vulnerable aspects of our very selves. A child who sees as you see, a child who requires the human touch that you and I need, the child who will taste and smell and hear and cry. God who once made themselves known in burning buses and wrestling angels is now known in flesh as a human being. One that we can all see. One we are invited to look at.

God takes on flesh. God is a person – just like you. Just like me.

So what difference does this night, the remembering of this night, make?

I suggest it is two fold

It means that every person that we encounter – however much we might know them, or not know them, however much we might like them or not like them. However much we might feel connected to them or not. They bear the face of God. Because God now has a face. And in that way how I respond to them needs to be from this point of reference. They bear the mark of God. Just as I do. The harder part might be not the seeing Gods face in others, but accepting that people see God’s face in us. That is a joyous thing. It also marks out the responsibilities that we have towards each other. One of the benefits of mass media and mass social media in this age is also that we can see that the face of God is not confined to how we might see it just on the Fishponds Road – but how that face of God looks in Johannesburg, in Laos, in Kabul, and in Rio. So the connections between us become deeper, more diverse and in that we too can become more empathetic. It raises our horizons and lifts our heads to the many different faces of God.

Tonight’s celebration of the incarnation of God, the way in which God took on flesh and dwelt among us also means that God is with us. Not outside or removed, or far away or distant. But here. That God understands what it is to bear the joys and sorrows of a human life. The scars and celebrations. The laughterand joy and the tears and frustrations. Jesus life, death and ministry testify to that. It is the story that Christians hear and speak of and seek to understand for the other 51 weeks of the year. And that is a re set. That is eye opening. That is the way in which we can grasp with full sight face to face the revolution that God brought upon the world in a manger, a long way from here many years ago. 

May we take that home this night so that we can live by it tomorrow.

Carols by Candlelight 2021

Sermon preached by Revd Lizzie Kesteven

Light a match. –

There is something fascinating about lighting a match. Something that has since the beginning of time has captivated humans about that ability to make fire. That first spark. The effort it takes to make sure that the rough surfaces connect in such a way as to create that initial spark. Sometimes several attempts are needed. And then seeing the flame eat away at the slim wooden splint. Watching it light the small space of darkness around it. Feeling its heat – and then knowing the right moment to blow it out before it burns your fingers.

The spark gives both light and warmth – and for that to continue then other items are lit from it – like our candles tonight – so that the light and warmth can be shared with others.

It is both fragile – the fear that the match will give out before we have used it. As well as being dangerous – 2don’t play with matches” always a slogan ringing from adult lips to children’s ears.

Fragile and Dangerous. Light and Warmth.

Stories – Shepherd/Kings/Holy Family – both fragile and dangerous. Seeing the light in the dark

The Christmas story, the baby in the manger, the kings, the shepherds, the angels and Mary and Joseph that we hear tonight and sing of in our carols also speak about both fragility and danger. Light and warmth.

The Kings Journey to the manger was fraught with difficulty. They could so easily have given up and turned back. The danger lies in their encounter with Herod a brutal tyrant who tries to use the kings for his own benefit. But the Kings preserve and in doing so bring to the manger the gift of colour and brightness. Their gifts indicate not only who Jesus is and will be – but they also bring light and warmth – just as any gift freely given with a generous heart.

The Shepherds whole lives are fragile and dangerous. They sleep rough at night always alert to predators who may wish their flock harm. And yet here they are at the manger. They too show us light and warmth – their very presence a reminder that God calls all people to his stable. That the outsiders, the ones least thought of, the forgotten, the lost and the poor are part of Gods story and welcomed into Gods home. That is a message of light and warmth.

The fragility of Mary and Joseph is perhaps obvious. Travelling that distance whilst heavily pregnant would have been hugely dangerous. And yet the fragility of their relationship is also present in the Christmas story – the disgrace that would have followed Mary around, the humiliation that Joseph might have felt – what conversations might they have had on that road to Bethlehem. Yet Mary and Joseph bring a message of light and warmth. They stick it out, they stay together. Joseph trusts Mary and Mary in turn trusts Joseph. Their trust brings with it light and warmth to the stable.

And as we look back on this year we have known as part of our human story a most fragile world. Everything has seemed breakable and at breaking points. People, plans, work, schools, hospitals, hospitality. We have known a fragility, that was also perhaps unexpected as we had hoped that this year would look so different to the one before it.

And yet in that fragile place God meets us. That is what the eternal truth of Christianity proclaims this night. That is the story that we celebrate at Christmas and that reaches beyond to Easter. It is a God who meets us and is with us. Emmanual. Not far away and distant. But near. Close. With. And in that bringing that light and warmth not just to the stable but to the world. It is not a message for the faint hearted, the good news of Jesus Christ , of God with us, is a dangerous one and one that many did not want to know or hear, and yet others died in order to tell it. And because of their hope and trust, because of their belief and courage we can stand today and sing that same story. Proclaim loudly that same truth of light and warmth. God is with us.

Prince of Peace. Emmanuel. King of Kings.

May we too know that light and warmth of Jesus Christ this Christmas. May we stand at the stable, and see the fragility of the baby in the manger and know the love of God that came to be with the world.


Advent 2 – 6th December 2020

Sermon preached by Rev’d Lizzie Kesteven.

Mark 1:1-8

Today we begin to look at a new gospel. Every year they rotate, and this year we get Mark. Mark’s gospel is the shortest, possibly the punchiest, some suggest the sternest, and it is almost definitely the first one to be written down.

In a time when there is lots of talk in our own world about risk, and how to manage and mitigate and balance that, then Marks gospel is perhaps a blueprint for risk. Writing it down was a risk and it would have taken courage and conviction.

 It was probably written between 60 and 70 AD. It was at a time when Christian communities were starting to pop up in all sorts of places across the Roman Empire. Saint Pauls work as a missionary, from his letters to many different places, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus suggest that Christian communities had started to grow. Mark was writing in the centre of this world. If he is the same Mark that we hear in Acts and also later mentioned in Colossians and the letter to Timothy, then this Mark knew Paul. He also by other accounts knew Peter. Mark was writing in Rome. A place where in very recent years Saint Paul and Saint Peter had just been executed. Christianity was now seen as a threat, perhaps only mild and irritating, but nevertheless a threat to the Roman Emperor. Enough for the first wave of Christians persecutions to begin. Nero had a particularly nasty habit of using Christians as burning torches to light up his parties.

Mark was writing in a risky time.

And in order to just make it really clear to people that he was a man of courage and conviction, he begins by making a very dangerous statement. He begins by saying

“The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God”.

It could be a fairly neutral start to a gospel yet at the time the only other person who was linked to that phrase was Augustus Caesar – who when he decided to re jig the whole calendar system based on his own birthday , -sent out a decree because it was believed that

 “The birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the gospel for the world…”

The similar phrase and wording was chosen deliberately by Mark. It wouldn’t have gone unnoticed, by Christians and Emperors alike. It is as if we are meant to hear and read that first line and take a sharp intake of breath.

Mark has just literally signed his own death warrant in the first 13 words of his gospel.

He was a man of courage and conviction.

He doesn’t stop their either. His first opening phrases for us all are ways in which he affirms his faith and belief. They are like a mini creed. He speaks of Jesus as good news, he speaks of Jesus as the Messiah, he talks about Jesus as the Christ. He then brings in the prophets and their words about preparing the way for the Lord and making the paths straight.”

We are in no doubt that Mark was letting us know, and telling the people of the day that this was not just any other story, or any other person. But that Jesus was the Christ who the Jewish people had been waiting for thousands of years.

It’s pretty pokey.

Strangely the rest of Marks gospel often has Jesus telling the disciples not to tell anyone who he is whenever they get ever so close to suspecting that he might be the Son of God. Mostly in the rest of the gospel Mark talks about Jesus being the Son of David – it’s a very human story. A very human Jesus. It’s a very humbling story. Yet here at the beginning. We get Marks ungarnished truth.

So why? Why write it down in the first place? Why did he need to?

Maybe as time passed it felt more urgent to have a written form of the words and stories people were learning. Perhaps he feared that it would be lost if it wasn’t written down. Perhaps the Christian community was growing enough that it became a time when they needed a clear and clarified version of Jesus Christ’s story, so as not to get muddled.

Whatever his eventual motivation. What we have in Marks gospel is a person who wanted to be clear about who Jesus was. And at that time it involved risk.

We don’t live in a country that makes it dangerous to share those words. Some Christians still do. Yet there is a way in which I feel encouraged by Marks example of courage and conviction. He was prepared to risk everything, so that other people might hear about Jesus, and not just hear but respond, through faith to become part of this small underground and persecuted community.

And although in this time and in this place here in Fishponds it is not a life threatening thing to be a Christian. It is still counter cultural. Christians are a minority and increasingly so. Therefore some of the things that we might rub up against – incredulity or ridicule, dismissiveness or even bafflement are ways which mean we have to dig deep and ask ourselves – what is this all about? What does this mean for me?

As we creep in anticipation towards the cradle, towards that stable, to peer inside and see that manger with that whole picture of shepherds and magi, Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus (a story that Mark doesn’t actually have in his gospel!) but as we do that – where will my courage and conviction be to say like Mark – that this event – this moment – changed the world. Not just to coo at a crib – but to worship and adore as so many carols put it. To look at the child and know that he grows to be the man who then teaches, heals and speaks of a world that is being invited to turn to God and understand and know that love, connection and relationship that is possible with the Creator of the world.

This week I wondered if we might encourage each other to pray for one other person. Just one. Keep them in mind, store them in your heart, think of them when out on a walk or when doing the washing up. Intentionally and unintentionally keep them close this week. They might be someone you know really well, they might be someone who is a Christian, they might not be. They might be someone you have only a passing acquaintance with.  And then wait. Wait for the Holy Spirit to tell you what to do next. You will all have very different experiences of that. But something will happen. You will know what to do with that – and I suspect that you will need both courage and conviction.

That is the extraordinary gospel that Mark starts us on today – I pray that we and others around the world delight, give thanks and rejoice in the words that he had the courage and conviction to write down.

Advent Sunday – 29th November 2020

Sermon preached by Rev’d Lizzie Kesteven.

Mark 13 – 24-end – Watch. Wait. Be Awake. Be on your guard. – Signs of the time.

1 Cor 3-9 – Thanksgiving – God is Faithful

I had an unexpected phone call on Thursday evening. I looked at the number on my mobile and didn’t recognise it. Normally when this happens it is someone asking me about an accident that I haven’t had. And depending on my mood at the time I either play along, or just get grumpy with them. As the call on Thursday was unusually late I braced for this sort of encounter as my finger swiped left to answer.

Yet to my surprise the woman on the end of the phone didn’t ask if I had crashed my car recently, or fallen off my bike or slipped at work. She introduced herself from a charity – Transforming Lives for Good – and offered to pray with me. Now maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, being a vicar, at this – but I was. Not many conversations start like this. Sometimes they might end in prayer but its rare for prayer to be the core purpose of the call. And yet there it was on a dark Thursday evening as we chatted about the charity and I excitedly explained how we had just received some funding to partner with them, that all they wanted to do was not check in about how the bid was going, or hassle me about progress, or give me another impossible deadline. But just to pray with me. It was a refreshing and rather beautiful moment. It was as if God was reaching down and bending close for a moment.

Today is Advent Sunday. It is the beginning of the Church’s New Year. We start a fresh new season at the beginning of advent. A season of prayer, fasting and penitence, similar to Lent, as we watch and wait for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. Advent literally means “coming”. Or as is sometimes whispered and sung in the Aramaic “Maranatha – Come Lord Jesus.”

So if it’s is the beginning of a season, the start of a new year. The time when we begin a different gospel – its Mark for this year – then why do we seemingly illogically start in the middle? Chapter 13 – And not with the beginning? Why do we hear Jesus speak about the “end times” with predictions of darkened days, when the moon will not give light and stars will fall from the sky”. It doesn’t seem like the best beginning for a New Year and Season. When I am looking for order and chronology, I am met with cosmic chaos that seems far removed from the baby in the stable that I am trying to think about.

Yet perhaps on reflection we need to start at the end, in order to make our way to the beginning. And the readers and listeners of Mark would have picked up the clear voice of Isaiah. The predictions and prophesies of the end times were a way of also signalling that there is to be a new beginning. New beginnings are often found in the seeds and the remants of a shift, or shattering of the status quo and the ordinary patterns. The Hebrew people throughout the old testament tell of a story of suffering, followed by salvation. Of an Egypt followed by the Promised Land. Of captivity in Babylon followed by a return to Israel. The prophets of the old testament, be it Isaiah, or Eekiel or Amos would tell of these times, and use similar cosmic images and symbols of stars and sun and moon to signal a shift, a change  – something new.

Jesus points to the fig tree and also the owner of the house to tell his people to be alert at this time of uncertainty and shift. And that is the overarching message of Advent – be awake – watch and listen for God. It is likely to come at the most unexpected time.

Paul in his letter to the church in Corinth brings us words which sound a different tone. They are right at the beginning of his letter – words which are full of thanksgiving and encouragement. They speak of enrichment and have a firm confidence in a God who is faithful. It is a heartening start to what turns out to be a challenging letter. Yet combined with the Gospel this morning the two passages collide in a way that should give confidence to all today.

God is faithful. The story of God tells us of that faithfulness. It does not shy away from the difficulties and challenges and suffering that life might bring, and this world is currently experiencing a great deal of that. It might feel that we are in a shifting world right now, with the sun and the moon and the stars being mis-aligned. The chaos of the world feels close.

Yet God is faithful. God was faithful to the cry of the Hebrews in the time of the Pharoah and to the Israelites as they wept at the rivers of Babylon. God was faithful in the sending of Jesus Christ to walk with us, to live with us, to be one of us. And God remains faithful today. Yet in the turbulence and the often overwhelming nature of today, I sometimes miss that faithful God. God tapping at the window in the corner saying   over here – and yet my head is stuck down looking at the ground.

I was tempted to ignore that phone call on Thursday night. I was in the wrong sort of mood. I was sceptical about who it might be and what they might want from me. Yet God spoke in the darkness, and lit a candle with the simple connection between one human being offering to pray with another. Seperated by distance, but connected through prayer – God stooped low and bent towards me and spoke words of calm in the chaos that seemed to surround.

As the nights draw in, and the days become shorter and the nights longer, as the darkness descends. Then I was reminded that it is only in the dark that the true majesty and healing of a lit candle can do its work.  That in the chaos – God is faithful and calls us to look at the light. May we watch and wait for the light of Christ this Advent.

Christ the King – 22nd November 2020

Sermon by Rev’d Lizzie Kesteven

Ezekiel – 34 – The Good Shepherd

Matthew 25 – Sheep and Goats

I suspect that I may not be alone when I tell you I have spent some time this week watching Series 4 of The Crown on Netflix. The Crown begins back in the 50’s and follows each new generation of royals and different parts of their stories. Series 4 which has been much anticipated is now in the 80’s and finally for me the series has caught up with a time in life that I actually remember. There is something rather fascinating about following the life of the Monarch and her family, even if it is as we are reminded its a fictional account, rather than a documentary.

Perhaps it is apt that this popular series about the Royal Family, a story which looks at power and kingship, at authority and rule, is back on the TV at the same time as this final festival in the churches year that we celebrate today.

The festival of Christ the King, is always the last Sunday before Advent. Advent, next week marks a new time in our seasons, a new year, a new beginning as we turn towards the crib and prepare ourselves, body and soul for Christmas. Yet today, this last festival of our year, the festival of Christ the King is a relative newcomer to the table. It was established as late as 1925 by the then Pope. A time in history when political powers were jostling over people and land, post the carnage that the First World War. It was then, and remains as today a reminder to us of , a rather brassy political statement by a Pope. A salutary poke to all those in leadership around the world, that there is only one ultimate authority and judgement that the church recognises and that is the Kingship of Jesus Christ.

It is also apt perhaps that the readings that we are asked to respond to today are ones that take a hard look at how we treat other people.

The prophet Ezekiel is always a good place to start any evisceration of those in power….and he does not let us down today. Ezekiel was also talking in a highly charged political environment and the prophet is not shy at going to town on his critique of the leaders of the day. They are held up as people who have not cared for their flock of sheep well. It speaks of those who have been greedy and taken what they needed and wasted what was left. It speaks of a sense of individual regard above that of what would be right for everyone. What does he say

“You pushed the sick ones aside and butted them away from the flock”

That is pretty damning.

So Ezekiels prophesy says that a new shepherd will come and lead the sheep. His words are ones which are definite and unshakeable. The Sovereign Lord himself will lead the flock to new pastures. He uses the words “I will” repeatedly – and it gives a sense of reassurance to those who are struggling, and that reassurance leads to a place of hope.

“I will bring them back…. I will take them out of foreign countries….I will lead them back to the mountains….I myself will be the shepherd of the sheep”

When the people cannot do it. God will.

It would have been these words and images that sprang to mind as people listened to Matthew’s gospel and account that we have today. The pictures of sheep and goats are straight out of Ezekiel. Matthew’s community, of Jewish converts would have known Ezekiel well. They are being given no doubt that the Jesus of Nazareth who has led a motley crew around Galilee for three years is presenting himself as leader of the sheep – as the new shepherd –  and in that way the ultimate authority on heaven and earth. They were dangerous political words to write in 70 AD and they were dangerous images to draw to peoples attention in 1925 when Christ the King Festival was begun. They still carry that edge and threat.

And yet acting on them – is precisely Jesus point. This is how to live. This is what I have shown you. Just as in the breaking of bread at the last supper Jesus Says “do this in remembrance of me” – here we have the words – “Do this and you do it for me” – and they are just as powerful. They form the backbone of the social gospel. They are still as revolutionary and all inclusive. DO this for anyone and you do it for me. Not do it for someone who looks like me, or thinks like me, or likes the same cat meme on facebook like me, or just the person that makes me laugh, or whose company I might enjoy. Its easy doing nice things for people we know and love. But Jesus says –

“Do this for anyone of the least important of these members of my family, you did it for me.”

The forgotton, the naked, the vulnerable, the hungry, the convicted, the sick, the despised. Those. And of course during his lifetime Jesus has been everyone of these. None of those experiences are things unknown to the Soveriegn Lord, whether that is in a stable, as a refuge, as a prisoner in front of Pontius Pilate or on a cross naked.

I have often been fascinated by the different images that come to be associated with different gospels – Luke is an Ox, John is an Eagle, Mark is Lion. I think that the images make is so much easier to identify the different gospel writers in stained glass windows, or pictures.

Matthew is the human face. And in that case here at the end of this church year, on a festival where we celebrate and affirm as Christians that Christ is the King  – then how right perhaps that we have these very human faces in our gospel reading.

They put us right up close to others and what being human can mean. We cannot remove ourselves from the human faces that we see everyday. Perhaps that is why the pandemic is so challenging to our human way of life – because we are called to step into rather than away….We are called to be with others rather than apart.

It is the being with others, as God chose to be with us, that Jesus’s life, death and resurrection calls us to. There is a bigger picture or large strategies and overarching policies that can be implemented and that will help many  – be that the critical reform and funding of our health, prison, and education systems. The need to continue to be generous in the sharing of our resources with others from around the world through generous management of our foreign aid budget. 

Yet also on a much more immediate level we are asked to look at the human face, of the people around us and consider their immediate need. Are they hungry? Are they thirsty? Are they sick? – What can I do this day with one of these people? And when we do – then we meet the human face of Jesus Christ. It really is that simple. That revolutionary. That political. That Godly. Amen

Bible Sunday – 25th October 2020

Sermon Preached by Diane Simms 10am at St.Mary’s Fishponds

Readings: Psalm 77 and Luke 15:11-32

Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so

Today is Bible Sunday.
They say that the hymns we sing have a deep and lasting influence on our
faith – on what we believe – about God and Jesus.
As a child, back in my Sunday School in the Church of Ireland we used to
sing this hymn. At the time I had no idea that the words were forming my
faith, the faith in Jesus I still hold today.

Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so

This simple children’s hymn captures in a few words the vital message of
the Bible. Which is this:
The Bible is the story of God’s love for me – and for you.
And Jesus shows us exactly what God’s love is like.

Another important point about this little hymn is that it teaches that the
Bible is trustworthy. It is a reliable source of information about Jesus and
God. I know Jesus loves me because the Bible tells me so.
Martin Luther, the theologian who inspired the Protestant Reformation
held a high view of the Bible as the doorway to God’s grace through faith.
Luther expressed this in a three-part saying: ‘Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide,
Sola Gratia’. By Scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone – we are
saved, through Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the reason we celebrate Bible Sunday. The truth is – we follow
Jesus Christ and not a book. And yet, we call this book the Holy Bible
because it it bears witness to something miraculous – the Word Of God
taking on human flesh in Jesus Christ.

Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.

The story of Jesus’ love begins in Genesis at the very first moment of
Creation. In the Nicene Creed we declare that Jesus is ‘of one being with
the Father, through whom all things were made’. Jesus is the co-creator,
the eternal word, God’s Voice. The voice that cried out: ‘Let there be
light!’ John echoes this view of Jesus as God’s voice at the start of his
Gospel when he refers to Jesus as the Word – the source of life and light.
Jesus is much more than a Word in print. He is the living Word who
speaks and acts. He heals and saves.

In recent decades Bible scholars have become enthralled with
understanding the Bible as one integrated narrative from Genesis to
Revelation. They view the Bible as the dynamic drama of God’s love in
action. God’s love is revealed through his wonderful deeds. The Anglican
Bible Scholar, Tom Wright, who was a previous Bishop of Durham,
describes the Bible as a five act play stretching from Creation to New
Creation. Here is rough sketch of his view.

Act 1 is Creation: In Genesis we meet a Good God making a good world. God who says ‘Let us make human beings in our likeness.’ The Bible begins by telling us that we are wanted. God didn’t have to make us. He loved us into existence and we have a purpose in reflecting God’s image in the world by caring for creation and each other.

Act 2 is the Fall, told in Genesis chapters 3-11. Humans rebel against God. They try to go it alone and build their own empires.

Act 3 is the story of Israel which stretches all the way from the call of Abraham through Moses and the Exodus, the Promised Land, the Exile in Babylon, and Return to Israel – up to the birth of Jesus.

Act 4 is Jesus – putting Israel and the nations right with God, through his living, suffering, dying and rising to new life .

Act 5 is the unfolding of God’s New Creation. Equipped with the Holy Spirit we in the Church are God’s partners working with him to bring hope and healing as we anticipate God’s New Heaven and New Earth.

This is the overarching story of the Bible – the story of God’s salvation which we love to hear again year after year at the St.Mary’s Easter Vigil service. The Exodus foreshadows the Resurrection. The dramatic crossing of the Red Sea tells of God’s rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s liberation of the whole of humanity from the slavery of sin and the sorrow of tragedy.

So where does faith come in? We latch onto faith by finding our place in God’s story of salvation. Where we are each coming from and where we believe we are going. I wonder where you found yourself in today’s Bible readings: yourself, your family, this church or community and our current world?

As we listened to the first half of Psalm 77 we heard the Psalm writer expressing a sense of disorientation. She dared to accuse God of forgetting her plight. She longed for life to return to the way it was before. But even in her sharply worded questions in verses 7-9 you can see that she knows that God is gracious, compassionate and merciful and she rightly expects to God to show his true colours.

This rant to God is called a lament and here in England, if we are nice polite people, we don’t take naturally to it. But we should! In these months of disorientation we can use the prayer of lament to shift our troubles and worries out of our heads and place them instead before God.

Jesus himself used the prayer of lament in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

And like the writer of Psalm 77 getting things off our chest leads to fresh hope and trust. We turn from looking down and inwards and saying “Poor me!’, to looking up and outwards to God. The turning point in Psalm 77 happens at verse 11. ‘I will remember the works of the Lord and call to mind your wonders of old time’.

As I already said – the Bible is a record and reminder of God’s acts of saving love in the past. We can hold on to those mighty deeds to keep us going in the present.. With good memories to cherish, lament can turn into gratitude. And gratitude for small mercies brings hope of bigger ones. Look, we are here together in church with a choir that is singing and an organ being repaired. Thanks be to God!

A couple of weeks back we prayed words of St.Augustine – in one of my favourite collects. He says this to God: ‘Our hearts are restless, till they find their rest in You.’ The writer of Psalm 77 goes on this journey from restlessness to rest, from dis-orientation to re-orientation. By remembering God’s help in times past, she recovers her attitude of gratitude and a sense of peace.

And finally let’s return to the Prodigal Son. I chose this reading for Bible Sunday because it is the Bible story supreme. A parable told by Jesus about God’s love. In this parable the storyteller and the story merge into one glorious harmony.

When people ask you why you go to church, you could simply say… ‘Let me tell you a story Jesus told..’ When you know this story by heart, it becomes so easy to show people the one true God Christians believe in. I might say something like this:

We have a God who knows we make reckless mistakes (like the younger son) – we’re mean-spirited (like the elder son). In our hearts or with our feet we leave home, get lost and drift away from our Father’s love. But then, perhaps someone close to us, something in us – God’s Holy Spirit – nudges us back to our senses. This reality check, this feeling of remorse, tells us things are not right and slowly we turn and we turn until once more we see clearly the face of our heavenly Father. He is running to meet us down the sidetrack we got lost on, with a smile on his face, eager to lead us back home. This God of second chances starts forgiving us and straightening us out. And as we glow in the warmth of his love our mean spirits and hard hearts begin to melt towards others who have wronged us. And we celebrate coming home to God where we belong together as God’s adopted children.

Let us pray

Storytelling God, you unfold the creation and call a people and send Jesus to draw us into your story and make us your companions forever. Be near to any who feel they’ve lost their way in these days and lead them home to you through Jesus Christ. Amen.

St Luke’s Day – 18th October 2020

Sermon preached by Rev’d Lizzie Kesteven


Today is the day that the church has typically over the last 1500 years recognised as the day to celebrate Saint Luke. He is perhaps one of the more familiar saints to people as he is the writer of one of the Gospels.

Luke is a bit of a mixed bag. It would I think be fascinating to meet him. We hear about him when Paul writes his letter in Timothy – a rather sad account of everyone who has deserted him and how only “Luke is with me”. However, that small snippet has been the basis on which most people believe that the person of Luke who wrote the gospel was a travelling companion of Paul’s. And this makes lots of sense, because Luke is also meant to have written the whole of the Acts of the Apostles – a detailed account of Paul’s journey.

On the one hand Luke is a meticulous writer. Known often as a Historian.  I love his first sentence in the gospel  – where he basically tells us that the reason he is writing is to give an orderly account.  Inferring that those who have written before haven’t done that – he is rather scathing perhaps of Mark’s gospel which he ironically uses a fair amount!

Many people have done their best to write a report”

Yet to be fair to Luke he has had a little more time to compose his words. He is detailed and precise in doing so. He writes a gospel of considerable length, then followed by Acts his sequel which takes up together nearly a quarter of the New Testament. He was amongst other things a prolific writer.

Yet this Historian perplexes me because he is also the most majestic of story tellers. It is in Luke that we get the story of the Prodigal Son, and that of the Good Samaritan. It is in Luke that we hear of the detailed unfolding of the events of Jesus own birth. It is with Luke that we walk the way of the Emmaus Road after the resurrection – where his story telling combines to retell the whole story of salvation. Luke tells us about Jesus and who God is with the most amazing stories. For a historian he is a pretty formidable creative writer.

Luke is also known for being the Patron Saint for Doctors and why you can often see him depicted in pictures and windows with a medicine box of sorts in his hands. Interestingly many people have noted how one of the strong themes that Luke brings to his writing is that of healing, not just physically but of Jesus bringing emotional and spiritual healing to those who ask. It is Luke whose gospel speaks strongly about Salvation being from Christ –and the word Salvation means to be “made well”.

Yet strangely perhaps– just as the Historian of Luke meets with the Story teller – so the Doctor in Luke meets with the Artist. As Luke is also the patron saint of Artists and Painters. He can be seen in the pictures of holding a classic pallet in his hand often painting Mary, who man believe he knew and met.

I wondered then – why it was that to celebrate this Saints Day that the church choses to hear from Chapter 10 of Luke. The sending of the 72. Why not have one of the unique stories – why not have the shepherds or the Emmaus Road. what is it about this account of the sending of others that is pertinent. We are because it’s Luke, drawn into what that might have been like for those who were asked by Jesus to go with no purse of bag or sandals even. That reliance on God – and the peace that brings to the households that you might encounter.

Maybe it’s because of that strong sense of peace and healing that is evoked in the passage and not just the encouragement of the 72 but the power of being able to heal the sick. For me it is that word that is key – The passage speaks of empowerment. Handing over of Power. Passing on of Power.

Now power is an interesting thing.

How we use power? Who has power? Who is powerless?

And in many ways Luke’s gospel centres on themes of power. He is the writer of Marys Magnificat – the raising up of the poor. He is the writer of the Samaritans and the tax collectors and the prostitutes. He himself was probably an outsider – a Gentile  – and it is from this place that he writes.  In fact there is a lot that Luke writes about Power and Gods’ desire in Jesus to see a power shift. Shift from those who have it to those that don’t. For the world to see Gods power and spirit and healing and peace to be possible for all people and not just a few.

We have seen in the last 9 months some of how power changes and shifts. Different groups of people have come to know the power of their voices. We have seen a shift of emphasis and status from bankers to nurses. We have also seen how people cling to power or use the power they have for their own benefit. There are power struggles happening this weekend between regional and national and devolved parties and powers, between nations.

Luke stages the gospel and the good news as the story not just of salvation but of empowerment. To those who felt they had none. We do not know who made up the 72 – but by any reckoning of Luke it will not have been the powerful. And yet in this God, through Jesus, gives them all of his own. He sends them in his name, with his power to spread the good news of peace and healing and to tell people that the Kingdom of God has come near. One of the compelling reasons that Christians can be confident of their conviction that Jesus is Lord, is the very fact that he became powerless. Knowing he was God, meant that only God could give it away.

This week perhaps then I would encourage us in Saint Luke’s words to think about power.

What power do we hold? What power are we prepared to give away? What would we like the courage to say or do? Who might we empower? Who might we raise up?

How might we also go light footed and open hearted to our neighbours and friends to whisper the words of peace and healing that God empowers us with and say – “The kingdom of God is near to you”. Amen

Dedication Sunday – 4th October 2020

Sermon preached by Rev’d Lizzie Kesteven

Matthew 21 – The Two Sons

“Let they feet tread softly, like a saint in Heaven, unshod. For to be alone in silence is to be alone with God”

This is a quote that I was given on a card by my Mum when I was 14. And being the slightly pretentious 14 year old that I was I stuck them to the front of my A4 History binder. I haven’t clue who wrote them. Anon is the designated author. Yet I know that there was something about walking and treading softly, something about that image of heaven and saints something about God and silence that struck a chord. I think the intention of the quote from my mother was to give what she saw as a rather chaotic and gung-ho teenager the permission to be quiet occasionally. Yet strangely I have always seen them more as a call to how to walk in God’s creation. I was drawn more to the treading softly, than to the silence – strange that!

Today’s gospel reading gives us a small snippet of a picture of two sons. Both who make a decision. One says he won’t do something and then does. The other says he will do something and then doesn’t. Jesus asks in effect – Who is the better Son?

The context for Jesus is bigger than at first glance. We are in Chapter 21 of Matthews Gospel – it near the end game – so to speak. In fact we are already in Jerusalem and Jesus has entered in triumph and already upset the money changers in the temple. Tensions are high. We are in the midst of Holy Week when he tells us about the Two Sons.

It’s easy to see the tension. The High Priest who Jesus is aiming this at are in two minds. They get asked about John the Baptist and they can’t answer. What they want to say might annoy the crowds, and things are pretty agitated so that would be counter-productive – after all they will need the same crowds on their side in a few days. But to agree with Jesus would then to be to accept a new order, a game change that John and Jesus are bringing about and that would mean a relinquishing of power.

Jesus hits it all home with his story about the Two Sons. Obedience isn’t about what you say you are going to do. It’s about what you do actually do.

And that’s the crux – the difficult bit. I can identify with both scenarios. We can be nuanced here – there might be many good reasons why one of the Sons didn’t follow through – perhaps he over promised and then couldn’t deliver – I know that feeling.

The story acts as  a salutary reminder to those at the time and us today that one of the hardest accusations that can be levelled at a person is the charge of hypocrisy. Practice what you preach. We see the effects of what happens if we all are like the second Son in a number of ways – we can see the damage it does to work places, to governments and to churches. It erodes trust. It makes someone or some institution seem unreliable.

As (last week) and today we think about our lives, and how to live them, in this creation season, then the charge of hypocrisy is never far away. It can be levelled at people in all sorts of ways. A famous Prince of this realm was criticised for raising awareness of climate change one day and then taking a private flight the following week. Greta Thunburg avoided the charge by trying to travel as far as possible by boat around the world. And yet let us be honest – There is perhaps a slightly unhealthy desire to catch people out – to be the person who points the finger and shouts “Hypocrite” – to take everything in their shopping basket out and examine it in detail for a slip or failure to live up to the exacting standard that has perhaps been set –  so that we then don’t have to listen to a message in the first place. We have to be careful with the word hypocrisy.

However, The parable of the two sons suggests that words and actions do need to match up. So how do we do that? How do we break the debate up so that it feels less like a small collection of people having to shout loudly about the need to do this, and then being judged and discarded if they are found wanting.  And it feels more like a lot of people getting on with their daily lives treading a little more softly, in a way that becomes almost unintentionally how we now live.

God’s creation is a marvellous and wonderful thing. It draws us in and it renews and refreshes us. It provides all that we need in order to flourish and grow. The good news of this creation season, and harvest, is that God has indeed provided us with everything we need in order to tread softly. We have amazing people who are working on renewables and the technology to do so. We have people who can design transport that uses less or zero fossil fuels. And businesses are re-examining in the light of Covid 19 the need to get people to travel across the globe for a meeting. We are truly and wonderfully made and completely up for the task of treading more softly. And in our own small ways, each one us knows the little that we can do that adds to the whole that makes that difference. In that way we will and can change the debate and be part of the good news that we are called to.


30th August 2020

Preached by Rev’d Janey Hiller

• Matthew 16:21-end
• Romans 12:9-end

We’ve come to a something of a turning point in Matthew’s gospel today. If we look back at last week – Peter had an inspired revelation about who Jesus was and the passage ended with Jesus telling his disciples to keep that knowledge to themselves – it says he ‘sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.’

Then, this morning’s gospel starts in contrast with knowledge being revealed – it reads: ‘From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’

So we’ve got this gear-shift from keeping things under wraps to things beginning to be revealed:

  • about Jesus’s purpose,
  • about Jesus’s mission,
  • And about what will need to happen to Jesus in order that they will be fulfilled.

One of the key characters in this story line is Simon Peter, and in that shift from last week to this week, there are some interesting contrasts in the way Simon Peter and Jesus interact.

First off, last week, in response to Simon’s revelation, Jesus renames Simon as ‘Cephas’, Peter – the rock – saying that rock would be the foundation stone of the church. But this week we have a very different type of rock – the kind of rock that you stub your toe on when you’re walking along – Peter – the rock – is now called a stumbling block.

A second contrast is around the source of Simon Peter’s inspiration. In last week’s passage Jesus blesses Peter for recognising him as the Son of God, saying the revelation was divinely inspired. This is not simply Peter drawing a human conclusion – rather it’s knowledge revealed to him by the Father. Contrast that with this week’s gospel where Jesus issues a biting rebuff to Peter. He effectively curses him – calling him ‘Satan.’! Then doubles that up by saying that Peter has set his mind on human things, not divine things.

So, Peter goes:

  • From blessed to cursed
  • From rock to stumbling block
  • From divinely inspired to carnal

It’s tempting to feel sorry for Peter – he just can’t seem to sustain these high-point moments. But more often than not, I’m inspired by Peter – because of his fallibility. We may not experience such profound contrasts in our walk with Jesus, but we are all fallible. We all have those times where words come out of our mouths and we wish we had a ‘delete’ button, or where we have an opportunity to act ethically and justly, but opt to preserve our own comfort, or we have the opportunity to trust, but choose to be bound by anxiety.

All of these little micro-choices we make on a day-to-day basis are just what it is to be human. It shows us that, even though we are able to touch divinity through Christ, we are all dust and flesh and we are making our journeys of faith both with a sense of awe and wonder as well as with a sense of trembling and fumbling and stumbling.

Back to the story.

The thing Peter is objecting to is the idea that Jesus is going to have to suffer. Not only to suffer but to be killed! Peter says, “God forbid it – this must never happen to you!” I can imagine Peter thinking about Jesus getting arrested and then leaping to his defence in much the same way that he did in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter has as a brawny physicality about him – a robustness that life as a fisherman would have nurtured – no doubt he would have sought to defend Jesus physically if he saw a threat.

But Jesus is pointing out that Peter’s got the wrong end of the stick. Rather than protecting Jesus by trying to prevent him from going through suffering, Peter is actually standing in the way of Jesus and his mission. He’s hindering the journey towards redemptive freedom that will ultimately come through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Jesus goes on to talk about what he expects of his followers on that journey. That they would walk with him in embracing the hand-in-hand contradiction of suffering and freedom. If Jesus had that path before him, then that same path lays before his followers too. Jesus says, ‘if anyone wants to become my followers let them deny themselves take up their cross and follow me.’

Whilst some religious and philosophical movements say the way to freedom is the elimination of suffering, Jesus’ way embraces suffering. It’s the mechanism through which he is able to fulfil the salvation of the world. Think about it – it’s actually incredibly bizarre! How can it be that suffering and death is the key that unlocks life?

Well, I think we can see a micro-version of that dynamic in our day-to-day lives. We form expectations about what is ‘ideal’ – whether it’s work, home, looks, self-expression – and we are prepared to make sacrifices to achieve those ideals. For example: a mum sacrifices staying at home to go out to work because she grew up in poverty and she doesn’t want her kids to go through the same. A young woman quits her secure well-paid job to pursue a dream of being an artist. I’m sure you can think of similar examples, perhaps even from your own lives.

So we’re familiar with the concept of delayed gratification – there is something in us that says that it’s OK to make sacrifices in order to achieve a longer-term or higher goal. That familiar principle plays out on a cosmic and divine stage in what Jesus is outlining to his disciples.

Following Jesus will involve sacrifice. It will involve us encountering suffering, it will involve us opting for forgiveness and reconciliation instead of grudges or revenge when we’ve hurt others or been hurt by them, it will involve holding faith when we wrestle with God-questions and yucky bible passages that we’d prefer didn’t exist, and it will involve persevering in love and kindness and grace for others who are ‘not like us’. All because we are called to be people who follow Jesus on a spiritual journey from suffering and loss to one of resurrection and life.

In the Lord of the Rings films, Frodo the hobbit is in possession of a ring which gives its wearer vast power. The evil Sauron wants to get his hands on it – no good can come of that – and it’s Frodo’s mission to carry the ring to the Fires of Mordor to destroy it. He endures huge suffering on the journey – both physically and mentally as he is tormented by the power of the ring affecting his mind and emotions. Climbing up the desolate, parched Mount Doom with his faithful companion Sam, they collapse in exhaustion. Frodo is unable to go on, but Sam gathers his last strength, and with tears streaming down his cheeks scoops Frodo up saying, ‘Come on Mr Frodo. I can’t carry the ring for you, but I can carry you!’ You can watch the scene here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqJGPzAwyV8

Now, we might not be climbing up Mount Doom, but we have been – and are – going through some tough times. Whilst some have been able to take the pandemic and lockdown in their stride, for many it has been like enduring suffering. Financial and housing insecurity, social isolation, limited access to health care, and anxiety about whatever and whenever our new ‘normal’ will become, have compounded pre-existing issues like domestic abuse, poverty, mental and physical ill-health. Aside from that, in the wider world, we hear stories about political upheaval and oppression, injustice and conflict, devastating weather systems and species extinction and so much more that speaks of a world enduring many aches and pains. And I’m sure there are those among us who feel like they are enduring rather than enjoying life.

We are, indeed, walking a road of suffering, as Jesus did.

But we do not walk it alone – we are carried by each other and by Christ. Our reading from Romans, urges us as a body to follow Christ’s example of mutual love together, to endure together, to nurture patience and perseverance together.

Despite Peter’s protests and misunderstanding, the message is that suffering didn’t have the last word for Jesus; resurrection did. And suffering doesn’t have the last word for us either.

In the Lord of the Rings book, the same scene tells of how Sam, when he collapsed on the mountainside, looked up at the sky – it reads:

 ‘There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.’

Much like that twinkling star that bolstered Sam’s hope, I too am encouraged to hope, in Christ, that the ‘shadows’ we are now in, are a ‘small and passing thing.’ That beyond the shadow of our present sufferings, there is light and high beauty for ever.

I’ll end with a prayer from Samuel Well’s book, Incarnational Ministry: I pray that: ‘Through the Holy Spirit, Christ, who releases us from the prison of the past through forgiveness, and from the fear of the future through everlasting life, may enable us to dwell in the present in faith and hope and love.’ Amen.