Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Living the Love of God

I’ve mentioned before here, and elsewhere of the value that I place on what some call Social Media - Facebook and Twitter and the like. I find it an invaluable way to keep with people that I know in real time, but also a very effective way to ‘meet’ like-minded people or discover something new from someone with a shared interest.

I also find these tools invaluable for the ministry and you’ll find me engaging in pastoral and parish work using those media - something I’m speaking about at the Beds and Herts Media Trust annual conference ‘Faith in Social Media’ at the beginning of June. The thing with Twitter is that you are restricted to communicating in only 140 characters. This can be limiting, but most of the time it forces me to think hard how I want to say what I need to in as little space as possible. Why use 50 words when you can use 5.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus seems to be doing the opposite - instead of using 5 words he uses 50. So then I wondered, what would this morning’s Gospel look like as a 140 character tweet? Condensing some of the words a little so ‘you’ becomes the letter ‘u’ and Father becomes ‘Fr.’  and so on - perhaps if Jesus tweeted these verses it might look/sound like this: I have taught my disciples all u lovingly shared w/ me Fr. Keep them safe so that they can B sent into the world u love to love it as u do.

Many of us find it hard to share something of our faith publicly with others at all, never mind in 140 characters. For some faith is something held in private not to be spoken of. For others of us, we might not even be sure where to begin - frightened that if we did talk about our faith with others, we wouldn't  be taken seriously or laughed at. Yet Jesus is clear in these verses in the latter chapters of John’s Gospel as He prepares to leave His disciples and face the horror of the cross - He’s shared with them all they need to know, they have seen the love that God has for people in action in and through Him, they know He is God’s chosen Saviour, but as Jesus withdraws it’s now their turn to take centre stage.

Jesus prays for protection for His disciples: that they may be a lovingly united; as God the Father is to Jesus His son in love and kept safe from the evil one.  Those of us who are parents or grandparents or aunts or uncles will recognise the long term scarring a visit to the playground in those very earliest years of a child’s life can leave, but not on the child but on the parent. With every clamber,every swing, every climb your heart rises higher in the your chest till you can almost feel it like it’s beating in the back of your throat. No don’t climb on that, it’s too dangerous. There is a point where you cannot walk alongside them as they swing on the monkey bars - they have to do it themselves. They have to risk falling. You cannot wrap them up in cotton wool. As Jesus prays for His disciples protection He is not seeking to wrap them in cotton wool, to settle them comfortably behind the door of the church building or to batten down the hatches. Rather He prays for their protection knowing that He will send them, and us out from our places of security into potentially places of emotional, social and maybe even physical danger to make known the love he has for all.

Here's the thing - God loves the world. In the midst of this quite complex prayer, the word ‘world’ gets mentioned 13 times by Jesus and in so doing we are reminded of something - God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him may not be lost, but have eternal life.  God loves this world and all that is in it - not as a holy and special place but the broken and all too often painful place that we know well. And yet God loves this world and the disciples of Jesus - rooted in a relationship with Him like the Father and the Son - so that the world may see and know that love for themselves.

Sophie Coles and Dave McDermott grew up yards from each other and went to the same school and the same university and are set to marry 10 years to the day after their first kiss. I heard their story yesterday as it hit the media. The couple were born on the morning 14 March 1989 in Leicester Royal Infirmary possibly in the same ward. It was like they were destined to be together.  We and everything else that is, was destined to be with God, who loved us from the very moment of our existence. We may find it very hard to love our world from time to time - atrocitys in Syria and such like make it very hard - yet God loves us and always has - and those who love Him are sanctified by Him - the same word is translated as hallowed in the Lord’s Prayer - made holy by Him, are sent into the world to serve it as it is - to love as He does, so that the world may be transformed one life at a time. God is setting us apart, yes us, to make Him known, so the question perhaps for each of us is not whether God is whether God will put us to work for Him, but how and where.

What is Jesus saying to us? As he prays for His disciples then, He prays for us too now. Jesus prays that we recognize, that we know, that we feel, that the resurrection we have been celebrationg these weeks of Easter is a way of life, a way of being in life, and not just his localized appearance in a garden, or in a locked room, or on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Why? Because our life here and now depends on it. Jesus wants us to live a life that is alive with resurrection, abundant with it, in fact. Because that’s what grace upon grace is all about.

How is God asking you to make this world, starting with our own community, our own friendship circle, a more loving and trusting place? Will it be through being a good friend to another, or listening to someone else’s struggle, or standing up for someone who is vulnerable, or doing an exceptional job at work, or volunteering to make a difference, or praying for those in need, or inviting someone to church to hear the truth about God’s abundant love for all of us. Who knows? What we do know is that God is at work in us and through us for the sake of this beloved world, and this week we are again invited to take part in God’s unfolding plans for the future.

As this passage shares a portion of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples, perhaps we might close with this prayer: Dear God, whose love knows no ending, we know this life is beautiful and difficult and sometimes both at the same time. We do not ask that you take us out of this world, but that you support and protect us while we are in it. We pray that you would set us apart in the truth we have heard here, that your love is for everyone, and we ask that you would send us out from this service to bear witness in word and deed to your grace, goodness and love. May we hear your voice calling us at home and at work, at school, our social settings, and the places we gather and volunteer, that we might feel and share your love. We ask this in the name of Jesus, the one set apart and made holy for us.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Following the God Shepherd - Vicar's/PCC Report to 2015 APCM

We heard this week again of the plight of those fleeing poverty and persecution in countries like Lybia. These people place their lives and livelihoods into the hands of others who they believe and trust will shepherd them to safe pasture. During 2014 3,279 people died trying to enter Europe. Including the estimated 800 who died last week, 1,710 people have died already this year. More than 21,000 have reached the Italian coastline alive in the first few months of this year. The death rate of those who leave home to come to Europe is more than 4 in 100.  These traffickers are far from good - placing their ‘flock’ into small boats in far from safe waters. These shepherds are out to fleece the sheep with no care for their flock whatsoever.

Some 4000 women and men are seeking election to the UK Parliament in a few weeks time. Personally speaking I’m finding harder than ever to know who to place my trust in for the good of our community, our nation and on the international stage. We want trustworthy leaders who will work for the good and well being of all. Jesus uses the languagee of shepherding to speak of the nature of God’s leading of us in Him.

In the chapters before this section of St John’s Gospel, Jesus has healed a man born blind, a healing which took place on the Sabbath which again brought him into head on conflict with the religious leaders of His day about the authenticity of His ministry. The healed man is convinced that the healing speaks for itself and validates Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus then goes on to use the language of shepherding to describe his ministry set not in laws and structures but in the love and compassion that God has for all.

The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  Just as a faithful shepherd will do anything to protect and keep the sheep in their care, so Jesus will go to the ultimate length, offering His life, for the safety and well being of the flock in His care.

One of the privileges of parish ministry is to be able to offer the care, support, love and compassion of Christ to people of faith and none within our parish boundary. Since last year’s APCM we have conducted 27 baptisms, 9 weddings and 33 funerals which continues the upward trend since 2011/12. Many people have received the love and care of Christ, often unseen, through the work of our Jairo our Curate, our Readers - Anne, Maggie and Helen, Lay Ministry team, and In Touch Bereavement support group in nursing and care homes, visiting the sick and housebound and taking home communions. I am very grateful for their invaluable ministry.

I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.  There is a mutuality in the relationship between Jesus the Shepherd and us the sheep, which mirrors the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son - it’s close, loving, transforming and life-giving. It’s a relationship we are beginning to see deepened in our lives, our relationship, our church communities and across the wider parish.

Since our last APCM we have sought to deepen and forge new transformative relationships - Tanzania project, letter writing project through Maple Cross school, continued close work with St Peter’s school and Maple Cross school through assemblies, church visits, and in St Peter’s case a Spirituality day launching prayer spaces in each classroom and a day on Lent and it’s vitality.

Our relationships with God have been stretched and deepened through Advent and Lent groups which were well received again, in Time to Talk - an opportunity to talk through an issue, to ask a question or to seek prayer once a week across the parish, and through a taster day on the ministry of healing and subsequent Forward in Healing course with a view to offer the ministry of healing prayer across the parish soon.

I am also excited to see groups and activities like the MU, the Food Banks and Play and Praise continue to thrive and make a difference to lives locally as we seek to reach out to others with the love of Jesus. I am v grateful indeed to all those who support and lead that sort of invaluable work.

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold… they will listen to my voice. Despite his healings, despite his preaching, despite all that he had already done and planned to do, Jesus isn’t done yet. He still has more sheep to reach, sheep that are not in this fold.

Since our last APCM we’ve had Jairo arrive with us and Helen licensed and what a blessing they are. We’ve had the privilege of Terence, Kate and now Vanessa on placement discovering the nature of parish ministry. To take that experience away and bless others with it.

If Jesus isn’t done yet - if there are others who need to listen to His voice and come into His fold - where does that leave us? Two things - we need to completely renew our Mission Action Plan and listen to each other and God and discern some new priorities in terms of mission and ministry. How can we reach out and speak to others to see them part of the one flock? Jairo will be driving this work with a few others. Please help and support when asked in that work.

Secondly, if we are to take Jesus seriously we need to prayerfully plan that others will come into His fold. What this means I think is we need to stategically plan for growth in our churches and in our outreach over the next 5 years.  We will see home groups launched in a matter of weeks - we are planning to launch 4 or 5 across the parish. These are the best place to form lasting friendships, to ask questions and to grow in faith.  This will also mean looking again at our pattern of worship and styles of worship ensuring that we have a service in each church at the same time each week as parishes with confusing patterns, as we have, are statistically the fastest shrinking. It will mean being bold and intentional in decisions we make - for example Easter Day at St T’s - would like another service like that at St T’s later in the month; also ensuring that Messy church is launched this year. With one person now exploring a vocation - I wonder is God calling any of you to to serve as a Reader or a Priest?  Also we are already in the very early stages of discussion with the Diocese about seeing whether we can see another ordained Self Supporting Minister become a member of staff joining our team. We also need to prayerfully ask and seek to answer - how can we help people learn about Jesus the Good Shepherd and experience His love for themselves? What resources need to be put in place to enable that? Who else can we partner with in our wider community to ensure that happens?

What is Jesus saying to us? If Jesus is not yet done in Mill End and Maple Cross, West Hyde and Heronsgate - are we willing to listen for his voice - not just in helping those outside the fold as He says - but to do so. Will be trust the Good Shepherd to be bold and intentional and go where he leads us?