Sunday, 29 July 2012

Nothing Draws a Crowd like a Crowd!

They say nothing draws a crowd like a crowd... I bet you, if I stood out in the street with a few of you looking up at the sky pointing at and talking about something 'up there', people would begin to stop and look, wondering what was going on.

Similarly people are drawn to good news. Whilst many 'rubber neck' at a car accident on the motorway, we are repulsed by it. We actually don't like bad news.  When something good is going on in a community, news travels and people want to discover the truth of the claims they have heard.

As we read the Gospels, the good news of all that God is doing in Jesus travels, and people come in their droves to make up their own minds.  Are the miracles, the healing, the teaching that people have heard about all that they are cracked up to be? Come and see...

The same is also true as we read the stories of the earliest church in the Acts of the Apostles.  People are drawn to what God is doing in and through the lives of ordinary people - and the church grew because through them, others encountered God for themselves and were encouraged to follow and find out more.

God is still doing good things in and through His church and through the ordinary people who make up our congregations week by week. But as our Bishop Paul Bayes said recently,

"...We know there are at least 3 million people in England who would come back to church if they had an invitation. And we know there are hundreds of thousands of Christians who want to invite their friends."

On 30th September this year, we join many other parishes in the Church of England in inviting people back to join us for worship.

Back to Church Sunday has grown beyond all expectations since the first day in Greater Manchester in 2004. It is now the largest single local-church invitational initiative in the world, taking place in churches across denominations worldwide.
Seeking to unlock the potential in personal invitation, Back to Church Sunday is an opportunity to act together each year and take the simplest and shortest step in evangelism; inviting someone we already know to our church.  Back to Church Sunday has, and continues to have, a significant impact. Not only does it see tens of thousands of people come back to church on one Sunday in September, but it also sees many becoming regular attenders and active members of their local churches.

To make this work we need you! Soon in our churches will be some invitation cards. We ask you to think and pray about one person or one family that you would like to invite back on 30th September. Then in early September, take an invitation card, fill it in by hand, and take it round to the house of the person you'd like to invite. Ring their doorbell and as k whether you can come in for coffee.

Over your chat, tell them about the service on 30th September and ask them to come with you to church on that day. 'It's going to be good. I am going. Please will you come with me.'  Arrange to meet them at their home and come to church with them. Sit with them during the service and introduce them to others at the end of the service over some refreshments. It's really that simple. No scary bits. No complicated theology. Just the simple invitation to come with you to discover or rediscover Jesus for themselves.

In case you doubt how how worthwhile this is, here are some good news stories from across the church following Back to Church Sunday 2011:
'...I was thanked for sending the invite and told, “I have wanted to come back for some time and this just gave me the nudge I needed....'

Most noticeable was the increased number of children, which changed the atmosphere of the church.

'...She wouldn't let me not come!  I really enjoyed it.  Now that I'm back I will keep on coming”- the comment from the neighbour of a church member. The church member was 90, so no-one is too old to make a difference to someone else...'

Most of those who came back are now still coming, some weekly!

'The increase was about 50% or more on the usual congregation. One lady reported she did not like church but 'really enjoyed this.'

One man said, “If church is as good as this every week than I’ll be back.” He has been every Sunday since.

There is now a buzz about the simplicity of inviting others to come Back to Church. It has been great to see people praying for and inviting their friends and neighbours.

For one person, the invitation was something they had been waiting for.

One lady who came on Back to Church Sunday has remained with us all year and has become more involved in the life of the church.

Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd - please pray for one person/one family, invite them personally, come with them, help them meet others, because as you do, you are helping them meet with God Himself!

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Adopted - like a locket returned...

Susan Gamble was shopping at an Internet auction when she saw a U.S. Army Air Corps locket. Since her boyfriend collected World War I memorabilia, the locket caught her attention. The locket was from the WWII period, but it was gold and the bid was only three dollars, so she took a chance. She won.

A couple of weeks later, the locket arrived at Susan's Pennsylvania home. When she examined the locket she found an added bonus that wasn't mentioned in the Internet auction. The sixty-year-old locket contained two photographs: one of an attractive young woman and the other of a man in uniform. The photos appeared to be original to the locket.

Excited over her purchase, she showed it to her father who immediately asked her, "When did Grandma give you this?"  She answered, "Grandma didn't give it to me. I bought it off the Internet from an estate sale in Georgia."  As he pointed to the photographs, her father said, "Well, that is your grandmother, but that's not your grandfather!"

Susan's grandmother Elaine lived in Oklahoma. Susan and her father already had a trip planned to visit, so they took the locket with them. Elaine Gamble was shocked to see it. It was hers.

Elaine was nineteen in 1942 when she gave the locket to her fiance, Charles. His parents flew in from Colorado for the Saturday wedding. But Charles didn't attend. He left Elaine standing alone at the altar. A few days later he called. He was obviously drunk and then a woman came on the line to tell Elaine that she had stolen Charles. Elaine said, "I told her she could have him." It was her last contact with him until the arrival of the locket.

Susan graciously returned the locket to her grandmother. She has no idea who the seller was, but she described the whole ordeal by saying, "It's just beyond belief."

According to tradition, the letter to the Ephesians was written by Paul, who was imprisoned in Rome, about 62AD. Paul addresses hostility, division, and self-interest more than any other topic in the letter, so perhaps his primary concern was not about what to believe as a Christian, but but how to live as one.

In the section we hear today, Paul goes back to basics. He reminds the Ephesian Christians and us that God, in and through Jesus Christ: has chosen us to be His people, we are adopted, we are redeemed, our sins are forgiven, He makes known His plans for us and all creation, He offers us His inheritance and marks us as holy by the presence of His very self in the Holy Spirit. This all encompassing passage should leave us in no doubt that becoming a Christian is not about assenting to the virgin birth or Christ’s resurrection like it was some sort of political slogan. Becoming a Christian is about acknowledging the lengths that God goes to be in relationship with us are enormous. There were no lengths, no costs that God would not bear, no amount of time used that God would not go to to express His love for us and for us to love Him too.  Being Christian is living and loving in the light of these actions of a loving God.

Paul writes to the Ephesians that we are "destined for adoption." He uses that phrase quite deliberately because it describes the intimate love of God the Father, who aches with love.  He recognizes that His family is not complete.  He already has children but there are others still missing out from experiencing the love and care not just of any family but His family. Adoption is about bringing together a disperate family of ages, genders, races and sexes, all bound together, all encompassed by His love. Story: Martina and Richard...

Adoption here is a belief that we are supposed to belong to God and God will reclaim us. Just as the locket made its way back to the rightful owner through a series of unbelievable events, we discover our destiny as we make our way back to God through Jesus Christ in the unusual way of his death and resurrection. It sounds beyond belief, but it is really grace -- we are forgiven and brought back to God and this is what Paul means as he writes to the Ephesians and us using this phrase ‘in Christ.’

As adopted children ‘in Christ’, every experience is reframed, from our most bracing joys and cherished achievements to our besetting temptations, our most anguished regrets, and our most wounding losses. "In Christ" we are joined to the power and presence of God Himself and no longer have to make our way in the world alone without hope or meaning. "In Christ" we are knit to others who will cry over our dead with us even as they help us sing hymns of resurrection. At the same time, being "in Christ" is no sentimental togetherness. You’ve heard the expression ‘blood is thicker than water’ to describe family ties - Christ’s blood shed on the cross is eternally thicker, for through it, we are bound together with each other and with Him.  But like all family relationships this means sticking with each other, supporting one another in love through the good and not so good alike.

Do you know where your life is going?  Where you are headed? Do you know where you come from? Where you roots lie?  Friends we live in an age where many of us can’t easily answer those questions because of uncertainty at work, because our relationships are stretched, because we live in what many call a mobile population, because we may not know even the next generation up in our own families.  Many of us are looking to connect ourselves to the past - look at the rise in interest in genealogy - where do I come from? Even our family histories become something to study - what did you do during the war Grandad, it’s for my history homework...

Many of us are are looking to connect ourselves to the future - look at the rise in self help books and life and career coaching where is my life going? But at the moment it might be more pressing and fundamental than that.

Paul remind the Ephesians and us this morning that our lives past, present and future fluctuate and change but they only begin to truly make sense when see life not as about assenting to particular political slogans, or about decisions that may or may not affect our present, or even something we do alone, but life is something to be lived and loved because of a God who loves us no matter what, searches us out no matter where we’ve been or where we are and brings us back home.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Healing is God's Business

This morning we meet Jairus, a senior figure in the Synagogue.  He comes and kneels before Jesus and begs him to heal his daughter.  This is a man, by the sheer nature of his position in Jewish society will have had everything he ever wanted and the rest was at his fingertips.  We can only make assumptions about his thinking, but chances are - his daughter fell ill, so he will have tried the local quacks, they also will have prayed and nothing seems to have worked.  He will have heard about Jesus - who would not have heard about this man?  For Jairus, this is the family's last resort.  A man of position of humbles himself and begs Jesus desperately for healing because he know he can.

Sheila, the mother of a school friend of mine, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour.  Following her diagnosis she tried conventional medicine; she tried complementary medicine - both to no avail.  She refused to accept her situation; she believed that she could not die.  In complete desperation she turned to a form of spiritualism - and spent thousands of pounds on a healer who told her that she would be healed.  Sadly , Sheila was not and she later died bitter and deluded.  Jesus saw the same ‘I have tried everything’ sort of desperation in Jairus’ eyes.

This story is interrupted, rather rudely by another.  You begin to get a sense of what being Jesus in the crowd must have been like - as requests for teaching and healing come one after another - people vie for his attention.  Jesus stops the crowd, someone has been healed, he feels power go out of him.  The woman in question was, like Jairus,  desperate.  Having been hemorrhaging for 12 years - she was ritually, religiously unclean, a social outcast.  She couldn’t ask Jesus for healing, she could not speak to him, she could not even look at him, but she knew that Jesus could heal her.  She is so desperate that she risks making Jesus unclean by touching him.  We can only make assumptions about her thinking, but chances are - she fell ill, so he will have tried the local quacks, they will have prayed and nothing seems to have worked.  She will have heard about Jesus - who would not have heard about this man?  For this woman, Jesus is the her last resort.  A woman, a social outcast risks touching Jesus, longing for healing because she know he can.

Mother Teresa was once asked by a reporter, “What’s the worst illness you’ve ever seen.” Mother Teresa didn’t have to think for even a moment. The reporter thought she would say AIDS or leprosy. But she said, “The worst disease is that of being unwanted.”  Jesus crosses the same social and religious boundaries and shows that this woman is not only wanted, but she is loved, forgiven and healed.

Then, as Jesus prepares to go to Jairus’s house just as he is told that his daughter is dead and to let Jesus get on.  Jesus is not to deterred.  You can only imagine what would have been going through Jairus’s mind - why did he take so long with this woman when he could have been at his daughter’s bedside?  Nevertheless Jesus goes to the house, and goes to where Jairus’s daughter was.  He touches her gently, taking her by the hand and tells her to get up, raising her from the dead to the bewilderment and astonishment of those in the room.

Paul Brand, a doctor in India, touched a young leper and said, “My son, you are going to get better.” The young man sobbed and sobbed.  Paul said, “You don’t understand. You’re going to get better. We’ve discovered some new medications for leprosy and I’ve found the right one for you.” The young man sobbed all the more. His sister finally said to Dr. Brand, “He isn’t sobbing because of what you told him. He’s sobbing because ever since he got leprosy nobody has touched him.”

Jesus knows how oppressive illness is.  He has seen families who believe they are beyond hope.  He has sat and talked with those who society or religion say are unclean, to be avoided, ostracized - the outsider.  He has seen desperation in countless eyes.  These healings are not dependent on the faith of the individuals involved.  They depend only on the touch of the love of God, in his Son, Jesus.
The issue of healing is an emotive one especially when it does not seem to happen.  We assume at our peril that if after prayer we do not get better, that prayer has failed.  Look at that women, she had waited for twelve years to finally be free of her condition.  I say that, not to duck the difficult issue, but because our instant world expects instant results.  It expects God to act just like that ‘click!’  God does not answer to our beck and call, but according to his loving and gracious will.  Like Jairus and this woman, God only gets called in as a last resort, but all too often gets all the blame and none of the praise!

Healing is God’s business.  Jairus and the woman hoped that Jesus would and could act in love and compassion.  This is often how we react - we ask Jesus - politely because we are Anglicans whether he would mind awfully healing so and so...  we come to Jesus as our last resort or as a fail-safe to the work of doctors.  Yet as 21 century Christians, we know how Jesus responds to requests for healing in the gospels.  No one is turned away.

In desperation, many people are looking for meaning, for peace in our world, and for healing.   Christ offers that touch of healing still - as Christians, do we seek it as our last resort? Because we make it as our first port of call.  Other people heard of Jesus’ ministry as stories like this morning were told as gospel, as good news.  We can only do the same, if we have experienced it for ourselves.  Amen.