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16th March 2014 - Lent 2 Morning - Revd. Preb Maureen Hobbs

Sermon for Lent 2 - Morning
Genesis 12. 1-4a
John 3. 1-17

"God so loved the world" - words that are frequently hear. Words that are said at every funeral. Words that we cling to for comfort. God so loved the world....

But why? What is so loveable about this world? About us - humanity? When you look around at the mess we seem to have made of it! How come God still loves us and goes on loving, goes on sending his Son so that we might have eternal life.

Now you might want to stop me at this point and say - No - God sent his son - in the person of Jesus - in a once for all attempt to get through to idiotic human beings. That was it! And in a sense you would be right - but I think so too I am right in asserting that this is a process that goes on and on. For if you believe - as I do - that creation was not a once for all act, but carries on into our present and into our future too, then so does the sending of the Son and his crucifixion and resurrection too. They are ongoing events that supersede the constraints of linear time. Have I totally lost you yet?

Well, you would not be alone. Poor old Nicodemus was feeling a bit confused and bamboozled too. And he was no slouch. Nicodemus was a Pharisee - which means that he was an educated man - had spent years studying the Scriptures and the Law. Thought he had God taped, just where he wanted him. Safe and sound. But then along came Jesus. This strange young rabbi from some Godforsaken spot up north - Gallilee - that hotbed of hot heads! Probably speaking with a funny accent and definitely saying some outrageous things. Turning the accepted wisdom of the scholars on its head! Turning Common Sense on its head too - many would say. Half the time the things he said seemed to make no sense at all.... and yet, and yet there was something about his words. Something about the way he delivered them. Despite the northern accent he sounded so sure of himself. So confident. It made one begin to doubt all the accepted wisdom of the ages... What if he were right?

Nicodemus feels completely in the dark - which is why he chooses night to come to Jesus. Seeking understanding, explanation. Wanting to emerge from the shadows but fearing what his friends and colleagues might say and think if they knew he were here - speaking with Jesus the blasphemer and his rag-tag and bobtail pack of so-called disciples. Ordinary working men most of them - hardly a scholar amongst them! Some of them with decidedly dodgy backgrounds. Maybe not out and out criminals, but definitely on the margins of respectability. Best not be seen associating with them!

So Nicodemus comes at night, feeling confused and when he gets to meet and speak with Jesus, he ends up even more so. We don't know what difference this meeting made to Nicodemus - he disappears from the story at this point with no more comment - except that when he surfaces again, it is again night. This time one of the blackest nights and worst times in the world. A time when God himself seems absent from the world and his son lies broken and dead upon a cross. God so loved the world. Nicodemus so loved Jesus that he risked his life again to go at night with Joseph of Arimathea and take down the body from the cross; find a decent place to lay it to rest and begin the process of embalming the corpse so that the women would be able to complete the task later. In daylight, when they could venture out again.

Middle-eastern cultures love an argument - love a debate. They have that in common with my Irish ancestors. My Mother (who as far as I know had no Irish blood in her) always despaired at family gatherings. For when my father and my aunts and uncles, grandfather and great-uncles got together, there was bound to be - if not a row, then a robust discussion - about something or other! Politics, or Football, or Racing - and even sometimes Religion. And she would end up nursing a headache, not brought on by over-indulgence with the port and lemon!
But maybe the dialogue, the argument we overhear in this morning's Gospel is not just that between two people, Jesus and Nicodemus. As the reading goes on, it begins to sound more like the disputes that arose as Christianity began to emerge, first as a sect within Judaism and then as a separate entity. Family disputes can be fierce. And when adolescents grow up and begin to leave home there is frequently argument and debate...

Unless you ( the word is in the plural - all of you) are born of the Spirit - born again. It has often been thought that John's gospel teaches that Christianity fulfils and so takes over from Judaism. But even if that view does lie behind the writing of the fourth Gospel, it cannot be all in the conversation between Jew and Christian. |But we cannot simply ditch our Jewish heritage. It is woven too tightly into Christianity. Jesus came not to destroy the Law, but to fulfil it and demonstrate how we might all move into the light that is eternal life in God's presence.

'You must be born again' perhaps those words were indeed said once to the synagogues. But here and now, should we again hear them as a challenge to each and every one of us in the Church today? We need to talk - to dialog - with each other, with our partner church St Alban's Ashmore Park. We are going to be sharing some of our stories and family histories that relate to wartime as this year of commemoration goes on. Bringing them out of the dark and into the light. 'Closing the Gap' - real and perceived, between our two communities.

And God goes on showing us how much he loves the world - he invites us to share in his bread and his wine; his body and his blood - given once and given for all time that we might have life!

16th March 2014 - Lent 2 Evening- Revd. Preb Maureen Hobbs

Sermon for Lent 2 - Evening
Numbers 21. 4-9
Luke 14. 27-33

This week has seen the passing of a significant figure from our Political world - Tony Benn. And - like him or loathe him - no-one can be indifferent to his presence in this world. And even his political enemies have this week been paying tribute to a man, a politician, who managed to preserve his personal integrity - even sometimes perhaps to the detriment of his party. Conviction Politicians are it seems few and far between these days. And with the passing of Tony Benn - much as with the passing of Margaret Thatcher - we are all a little bit impoverished.

Now I don't know about St Luke, but I cannot help but feel that St Paul might have approved of Mr Benn. And in thinking about him (Tony Benn that is, not St Paul) we should not forget the influence of his mother, Margaret Wedgwood Benn, born Margaret Holmes. She was both a theologian and a feminist. A member of the League of the Church Militant, (a phrase I never like) but which in this instance was the predecessor of the Movement for the Ordination of Women - and in 1925 she was apparently told off by the then Archbishop of Canterbury for advocating women's ordination! Her response is not recorded - but I doubt somehow that she took this rebuke too much to heart.

His mother's theology had a profound influence on Tony Benn, as she taught him that the stories in the Bible were often based around the struggle between the prophets and the kings (in the OT) or between Jesus and the Apostles against the Religious and Civic Authorities in the NT... in other words between those who had power and those who possessed righteousness.

And we might well reflect that Tony Benn spent most of his life picking up the cross as he saw and understood it - and was not afraid to lay down the possessions of a privileged upbringing and a seat in the House of Lords, because he cared. He cared passionately about working people, ordinary people and about those who governed them and - as he saw it - sometimes took rash and foolish decisions. So he was not afraid to speak up and speak out - even when it made him very unpopular.

The image of a bronze serpent fending off the dangers from the all-too-real serpents that are afflicting the Israelites as they journey through the desert is also a powerful one. This is an image that persists to this day. The image of the snake wound around a staff or on a standard still stands as an emblem of healing and is recognized by all members of the medical profession. I often think that the significance of this story is that the people are asked to look up in faith - to raise their eyes above the level of the ordinary and the everyday - to believe in something bigger and better that can heal their problems and woes. To that extent it is both a theological and a political story.

|Moses prayed for the people. We too should pray for our leaders and for ourselves. That they may be guided by the spirit of integrity, truth, mercy and justice and that we may be guided by compassion and love of God.

During the weeks and months to come we are going to be collecting and listening to stories from within our community - and sharing them with stories from our partner church, St Alban's, Ashmore Park. Not just randomly, but - to begin with at any rate - focused on family memories and stories of wartime happenings - War and Peace in Town and Country. I (and Henry Ibberson and Iain Coleman who are working with me on this project) believe that we will find out some amazing things about ourselves as a worshipping community and about the wider community of Pattingham and Patshull as a whole. And that we shall find much in common with our urban neighbours in St Albans and the surrounding area too. We may also find ourselves in situations where we recognize the injustice and the powerlessness of people who have fewer advantages than do we.

Will we discover the courage to pick up the cross that we may find? To speak out boldly and defend the rights of the powerless to those who hold the power. Be they kings or presidents or prime ministers, heads of unions or international corporations, local authorities or parish councils.

I leave you tonight with this prayer - one that has always struck me as recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of the ordinary, extra-ordinary working man (and woman!)

Christ the Master Carpenter, who at the last, through wood and nails, shaped our whole salvation, wield well your tools in the workshop of your world, so that we, who come rough-hewn to your bench, may here be fashioned to a truer beauty of your hand. We ask it for your own name's sake.