All change

Pentecost 5c – Sunday 23rd June 2013
Luke 8: 26-39

Wow. Oldham is changing. I think it was four years ago now that the trains between Oldham and Manchester ceased as preparation work began on the Metrolink Tram System extension from Manchester to Rochdale via Oldham.

Mumps Bridge OldhamFor years the gateway image of Oldham had been the Seton Tubular Bandage Bridge at Mumps Roundabout … but that was demolished to make way for the tram.

A year ago the trams between Oldham and Manchester started running on the old rail route … whilst the new town centre route was being created. That creation is still ongoing, and the main thoroughfare through Union Street is unrecognisable. It has caused chaos. Shoppers have deserted the town centre because of the difficulties faced in getting into town, retailers have moved or gone to the wall. The price of change can sometimes be very high.

Will all the upheaval be worth it? I’m wholeheartedly behind it. I think it will be a tremendous boon for the town, improving transport links and ease of mobility, will enhance retail, leisure and business opportunities. I’m very optimistic … I’m all for change!

Many would not disagree with that sentiment … and with regard to the arrival of trams most would say change has not been quick enough. It slowness has taken its toll.

We often get caught in the middle of this change debate … should it be quick or slow, all or nothing?

This is why I love this passage from Luke gospel. Eugene Peterson in The Message version of the Bible quite wonderful entitles this passage “The Madman and the Pigs”. I shall enjoy preaching on this passage this weekend, the whole story enthrals me. And for me, the real story comes right at the end.

Later, a great many people from the Gerasene countryside got together and asked Jesus to leave—too much change, too fast, and they were scared.

How many times have you heard that said? Too much change! Too fast! Church Meetings, Town Planning Meetings, Football Clubs, the Hairdressers, you name a place, it’s been said there!

So Jesus got back in the boat and set off. The man whom he had delivered from the demons asked to go with him, but he sent him back, saying, “Go home and tell everything God did in you.” So he went back and preached all over town everything Jesus had done in him.

Change had to come at the right pace … so Jesus pushed off and left his man in place. And that’s the lesson for us all. We are God’s game changers. He is continuing to work his miracle in our lives and we have to tell others about it. We have to change things. We have to accept the change God wants to make in our lives, and we have to help change the lives of those around us. Fantastic stuff, can’t keep it to myself.

Got to go. Got a tram to catch.

Happy days

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It’s raining tears

Pentecost 4c – Sunday 16th June 2013
Luke 7: 36-50

“Do you see this woman? I came to your home; you provided no water for my feet, but she rained tears on my feet and dried them with her hair. You gave me no greeting, but from the time I arrived she hasn’t quit kissing my feet. You provided nothing for freshening up, but she has soothed my feet with perfume. Impressive, isn’t it? She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal.”

One of the most horrific events of recent times happened on Wednesday 22nd May at approximately 2.20pm when Drummer Lee Rigby of the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers was attacked by two men as he walked back to his barracks in Woolwich, South London. He was hit by a car before being attacked by knives, and dragged into the road where he died of his extensive injuries.

Amongst all the sorrow of the day, one of the most iconic images that will remain with me is that of the three women who confronted the two men who attacked Drummer Rigby. They went to his aid, they went to be with him. Perhaps it would have been dangerous for any men to have attempted this. But the compassion and courage shown by those three women is beyond description.

So many in this world walk by on the other side. With shame and regret I admit that there are many times when I do so. I look on with envy as there are many who display selfless acts of faith and generosity whilst I wallow in my own self-pity and self-imposed busyness. It’s raining tears. It certainly rained tears the day Drummer Rigby died.

I think this is a fantastic story from Luke’s gospel. And yet I find it so hard to read because I know it is so challenging, so convicting, so courageous. One thing I’m certain of, faith grows. It develops. It flourishes. It dies back. It revives. It changes. It goes in new directions. Mine is still only a short way into the journey. That’s why I’m so glad that faith and grace walk hand in hand. Women. So often they lead the way!

There’s very few words I can add to this story. Just the hope that we all find the confidence and courage to live out this gospel message.

Happy days

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A place of holy mystery

Pentecost 3c – Sunday 9th June 2013
Luke 7: 11-17

Creative CoffinsAs Rolf Harris would say, “Can you guess what it is yet?”

Top marks to all of you who said a coffin.

Yes! Each one of these pictures is an example of a coffin created by Ghanaian carpenter Joseph Ashong – pictured top with his trademark Lion coffin.

I saw this wonderful news story on the BBC last week as Joseph came over to spend a month at Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire as artist in residence. Over the years he’s made huge number of coffins for different people – Coke Bottles for Street Vendors, Chillies for Restaurateurs, Lions for heads of family’s. Coffins designed to celebrate a person’s life.

Here’s a question for you. What type of coffin would you choose?

I don’t think the coffin in Luke’s gospel was created by a forefather of Joseph Ashong. In fact, in the time of Jesus most bodies were carried to the grave on a stretcher or in a type of wicker basket just wrapped in a funeral shroud. That’s why when Jesus told the young man to get up, he sat up without banging his head!

What this story – and indeed, what the colourful, creative coffins of Joseph Ashong convey to me – is that death should not be feared. The gospel story reinforces the understanding that Jesus is the Lord of life and the Lord of death. He came to show us the way to life. He went to the cross to overcome death.

As is frequently quoted, there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. Death is an inevitability. And yet we often shy away from thinking about it, preparing ourselves for it, embracing it. Death is a moment to celebrate – to celebrate achievement, to celebrate life, to celebrate relationships, to celebrate love. It is part of our faith journey. And yet, whilst the gospel story reveals to us time and time again the wonderful healing power of Jesus we know the reality is somewhat different. Death is messy. Death is painful. Death is life changing. Death is total, complete and final separation. It hurts.

One of the most gut wrenching moments of my ministry came at a funeral for a 22 year old lad, and as his coffin was carried into the Crematorium Chapel the cry of his mother was the most heartbreaking sound I’ve ever heard. Where was Jesus to touch his coffin? To bring him back to life? To restore him to his family? I don’t have the answer to that question. I often feel a fraud.

But this story provides tremendous consolation, tremendous hope, tremendous understanding. A story often overlooked in the gospel narrative, a story overshadowed by the story of Lazarus in John 11. This story is so simple. No explanation, no dispensing of theology or belief or rationalisation. Just these wonderful words:

They all realized they were in a place of holy mystery, that God was at work among them.
(Luke 7:16 The Message)

Death is a holy mystery. Life is a holy mystery. But we can be quite sure that God is at work in us, around us, about us. We are held in the palm of his hand. He is the good shepherd, the loving, living God. Trust. Believe.

Oh yes. A football. It would need quite a big hole in the ground. But I think I’d like to be buried in a football-shaped coffin!

Happy days

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Put that light out

Pentecost 2c – Sunday 2nd June 2013
Luke 7: 1-10

Dad's ArmyIt was with great sadness that I read of the death of Bill Pertwee this past week. Bill Pertwee was best known for his portrayal of Warden Hodges in the popular BBC sitcom Dad’s Army. He was the perfect protagonist to the bumbling Captain Mainwaring and his hapless band of troops, and most mishaps fell his way. He would often refer to the Home Guard as “Ruddy Hooligans”, he would address Captain Mainwaring as Napoleon, and almost every episode included his catchphrase of “Put that light out”.

Of course, his repertoire and CV show that he was a very accomplish comic actor. Many have paid tribute to Bill Pertwee and mourned his passing on television and in the news papers this week.

Dad’s Army is a million miles removed from the great Roman Army. And yet that is where we find the inspiration for our faith journey this week, the faith found in a Roman Army Captain.

David Lose has written an article called Unexpected Faith this week on his Working Preacher Blog. He begins by saying:

By and large, I’ve typically read the story of Jesus and the centurion as a tremendous story about the nature of faith. To the question, “What is faith?” this story offers a clear answer. I mean, here’s a guy who so trusts Jesus’ ability to heal that he sends a servant to tell Jesus to just say the word. That’s right, he tells Jesus not to even bother showing up, but simply to give a command. Why? Because based on his position as a centurion, he knows what authority is and he believes Jesus has it. Now that’s faith!

But David Lose goes on to write that this Roman Army Captain is actually a completely unlikely and unexpected source for this story … like so many of the characters we find intertwined in the gospel story … persistent widow, good Samaritan, shrewd manager, etc. As David Lose says so eloquently:

God regularly shows up where we don’t expect God to be and never, ever stops delighting in surprising us.

We often think that we’ve got God worked out. What we should believe, how we should express it, what is right and what is wrong, what is in and what is out. And yet, there are so many unexpected and unlikely twists and turns to our faith. We are growing every day. We are learning every day. The journey is never over.

Do you wish you had a sure and certain faith like the Roman Centurion? Well, the good news is, you are who you are because God wants you that way. You might be more like Captain Mainwaring than the Roman Centurion but that doesn’t matter. God still has called you by name and has mighty plans for your life. You were made to show God’s glory, you were made to honour his name. Listen carefully to his calling, be obedient to his Word, offer yourself wholeheartedly, he asks nothing more. Faith as big as a mountain or small as a mustard seed is one and the same faith to God.

Oh, and don’t forget as you leave the office tonight: “Put that light out!”

Happy days

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How hard is it raining?

Pentecost 1c – Sunday 26th May 2013 – Trinity Sunday
John 16: 12-15

Oldham has a reputation for inclement weather. Completely justified, I must add. In our house, in preparing to start the day, the shout usually goes up: “How hard is it raining?” The most foolproof method to answer this question comes by looking out the window and looking over to Counthill School. If you can see the school it’s raining lightly, if you can’t see the school it’s tipping it down!

Counthill School grandly stands atop Moorside in Oldham, less than a mile from our house. Our children were educated there, in fact, Debby completed her secondary school education there in the days when they still had a sixth form college! It dominates the landscape with its majestic views over Oldham, Lancashire and Greater Manchester. It’s motto was Animo Atque Fid, which means courage and yet also faith.

One day last week the shout went up, “How hard is it raining?” One cursory glance from the dinning room window told me all I needed to know. “It’s torrential”, I replied. So imagine my surprise when I went out the front door to discover quite a pleasant spring morning! I rushed back to the dinning room, and sure enough there was no sign of Counthill School. So why wasn’t it raining? The answer was Counthill School had been demolished! The iconic clock tower no more. The grand frontage flattened. How are we ever going to know now whether to wear our light raincoats or our sowesters!

Counthill School Waterhead Academy

Counthill School actually closed last year. Merged with Breezehill School it became Waterhead Academy. It now sits on Huddersfield Road on the site of the old Orb Mill. We knew there would come a day when the old school was knocked down and the land readied for new housing. It was just a shock that it crept up on us like it did. And so, Counthill School is no more, mourned by meteorologists and old school pupils alike.

It’s part of life’s journey.

Jesus spent a tremendous amount of his time preparing his disciples for life’s journey. He knew that they would find the way ahead difficult without him by their side. That’s why the disciples were promised the Holy Spirit …

“…But when the Friend comes, the Spirit of the Truth, he will take you by the hand and guide you into all the truth there is.”

The gracious Spirit of God still takes us by the hand, still walks with us, still equips us, still journeys with us. Which is a good job, because we all have trouble navigating the path before us. When relationships break down, when jobs disappear, when finances become tight, when illness strikes, when a thousand and one other challenges come our way we need all the help we can get. And God provides it by sending his Spirit.

The impression is often given that the Holy Spirit is a gift for the Church. Exclusive. Completely. That couldn’t be further from the truth. God’s gift to you and to me is his Holy Spirit. He fills us with his strength, he equips us with his gifts, he leads us into his truth, he walks by our side, he holds our hand.

My prayer at the start of each and every day is always, Come, Holy Spirit, Come.

As approach Trinity Sunday we reflect that God is our Creator, our Redeemer and our Sustainer, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And even though I tell people to believe wholeheartedly that we are an Easter people, we also need to live a Pentecostal life. Filled by the Holy Spirit to repair our brokenness, to joyously lift our hearts and to prepare us for life’s journey.

Anyway, got to go. Just looked out the window … it’s another sultry, scorching Oldham day. Where did I put my Bermuda shorts? Oh yes, next to my umbrella.

Happy days

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A Triumphal Blog

Lent 6c – Sunday 24th March 2013 – Palm Sunday
Luke 19: 28-40

Two years ago I had the idea of beginning a weekly blog which would try and focus my mind on the forthcoming lectionary readings in readiness for the Sunday service later that week. A blog for members of my own congregation, for other Christians, and for ministers, pastors and worship leaders themselves preparing for weekly services.

My main inspiration is always from the gospel reading, but I try to put it into context with a topical news story or event that has happened to me.

This week I was overwhelmed with the number of influences I could call on:

  • The election of Pope Francis I
  • Ipswich Town footballer Tyrone Mings who bought a ticket for a ‘skint’ fan via a Twitter conversation
  • Comic Relief and a very inappropriate (and indeed offensive) sketch by Rowan Atkinson as Archbishop of Canterbury
  • The utter decimation of the England Rugby Team by a rampant Welsh XV

But no. Something more selfish. This is my 100th blog! 100 different takes on the gospel story and what it means to us. But how, I hear you ask, does this bear any relation to the Palm Sunday Reading knocking at our door this week?

Well, every version of the Bible, and every portrayal of this reading in the four gospels, has it down as The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. So this is A Triumphal Blog! Nothing more. Nothing less. God is good. How could I expand on that? Fantastic. Amazing grace.

And if anything could sum up my faith, my belief in God’s love and providence for my life, if I have anything to say that’s worth listening to, I would shout this from the rooftops:

Blessed is he who comes, the king in God’s name!
All’s well in heaven! Glory in the high places!

And you know, if I didn’t say it, “…the stones would do it, shouting praise.” Amen.

Happy days

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Honouring God’s presence

Lent 5c – Sunday 17th March 2013 – Passion Sunday
John 12: 1-8

Jesus said, “Let her alone. She’s anticipating and honouring the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you. You don’t always have me.”

Do you think Jesus was ever wrong? Ok, how about a little bit right and a little bit wrong at the same time? Yeah, me too. I don’t think Jesus got much wrong – in my humble opinion. But on this occasion perhaps he got things slightly askew.

First off, the little bit right. Passion Sunday precedes Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday precedes Easter Sunday. So we’re well on the way. We anticipating the climax to the ministry of Jesus. He’s preparing his disciples for his departure, the supreme revelation of God’s love for the world. Jesus is telling the disciples they will have to appreciate him now to understand him later. Ok, I get that. He got it right.

But the bit he got wrong was the “You don’t always have me” bit. In a purely physical presence he was right. He was off soon. The disciples better get ready. But in a long term strategy, missional outreach perspective he was way off the mark. You see, to quote Bryan Adams, everything I do, I do it for God. If I’m standing up for the poor, I’m serving God. If I’m reaching out to the lost, I’m serving God. If I’m supporting those who are vulnerable, I’m serving God. If I’m visiting the sick, I’m serving God. If I’m watching Comic Relief, I’m serving God. [PLEASE INSERT YOUR OWN EXAMPLES!]

And when I look into the eyes of those I’m serving, I see the eyes of Jesus. He’s still here. He’s very much alive. He’s walking and talking and breathing and everywhere I look. And so I’m honouring – not the day of his burial – but the very essence of his being. I’m honouring his presence. It’s what gets me up in the morning, it’s what gives me hope. Of course there are some days which are totally ME, ME, Me. I feel so like Judas. That’s just being human. But the example of those around me, and the poor – who are always here – soon pull me back into honouring God’s presence.

Jesus said, “Let her alone. She’s anticipating and honouring the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you. You don’t always have me.”

Ok. Perhaps Jesus wasn’t wrong. But you get the point I’m making……

Happy days

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