The Civic and Parish Church of Bournemouth

Welcome to our Eighth Sunday After Trinity Webcast Service, Sermon and Message from the Rector – 2nd August 2020

Message from the Rector

Dear Friends,                                             

Welcome to our video service, which you’ll find here:

People sometimes say to me, ‘How do I get close to God?’.  

Now, immediately I feel inadequate to reply meaningfully.  I am a fellow explorer, seeking the way, not an expert.  Indeed, the people I respect most in these matters are very suspicious of anyone who thinks of themselves as an expert. Where have they missed-out on the humility built on 1,001 failures?!

That notwithstanding, there are a few ‘level one: basics’ that we can share with each other.

I begin with ‘being there’. You have to ‘be there’ for God – and keep on ‘being there’ – if you want your closeness to God to grow.  And God is personal and relational, so I have to make sure that I am ‘being there’, for Him to do something with, in both ways. That is, I must ‘be there’ regularly, personally, for a daily time of one-to-one prayer; and I must ‘be there’ in church, with others of the Body of Christ, ideally to meet Jesus in the sacramental mystery of Communion.  For closeness to God to grow within us, and around us, both bits of ‘showing up’ and ‘being there’ are essential. Other activities will also bring us close to God – and nothing so deeply as serving the poor and needy – but the list is long: reading the Bible with others comes near the top, so does involvement in the creativity of making music, drama, art and poetry and stories … I’m sure that you can fill the list out for yourself.  But, as I say, I’m a fumbling practitioner, no more, and what comes back to me, again and again, is the necessity of organising myself to ‘show up’ for God; to ‘be there’ intentionally.

I hear people say, ‘You don’t need to go to church to be a good person’.  No, of course, not. That’s self-evidently true; unless you are drawn to a goodness that is inevitably incomplete without God.  Are you? If you are, then it begins to sound like ‘closeness to God’ that you might be seeking.  Ah!  For that, you have to start ‘showing up’, and make it a habit.  ‘I don’t need to go to church to pray to God’, some say to me.  No, indeed, you don’t.  I also see that as a ‘no-brainer’; unless you want your prayers to have something to do with your relationships.  Do you?  Ah!  For that, ‘showing up’ in church, with others might help; getting to know and trust them, and sharing joys and sorrows together in the mystery of worship.  We have to ‘be there’ with God and each other, week after week, for Godly things to grow within and around us. If you ‘half commit’, and treat God on a ‘when I feel like it’ basis, or ‘when it fits in’, then don’t be surprised by a semi-formed relationship with God.  Like with our loved ones (if they are to stay as ‘loved ones’), we need to just ‘be there’ with God, personally and relationally – in daily prayer and weekly Eucharistic worship.

But, I hear you say, it’s so hard to remain attentive, both in daily prayer (all those distractions!) and in church (‘Not that you’re boring, Rector!’ – we all are at times).  Ah!  ‘Level One of Closeness to God’ says, ‘don’t confuse attention with intention’; it is the latter that is important. When I go to post a letter, (and I got back into doing that in the lockdown), the intention is there from writing it, putting it in the envelope, sticking the stamp on, and throughout the little journey crossing the Wimborne Road to the post box. My attention might be distracted on the way by Jasper stretched out across my study doorway, by the birds in our garden, by people walking on the pavement (Oh! Should I be wearing a mask? Step swiftly aside.) or by the traffic – and that’s just the outward journey! If I decide that I’m short of stamps and need to walk down Richmond Hill to the post office in WH Smith, then there are many more potential distractions. But, although my attention may wobble, my intention remains ‘to post the letters’.  So it is with prayer, and public worship in church, and with relationships.  We can’t maintain 100% attentiveness, but we can ‘show up’ and ‘be there’ and honour our intention.

On days that I know will be demanding I pray, ‘God, for tomorrow and its needs I do not pray; give me the grace and strength to follow you, just for today.’  Grace and strength in following God become the conscious intention. They balance each other, and we need both. These words of prayer are not ‘magic words’ and they do not prevent bad things happening, or me getting things wrong, but they do, I find, help in keeping me focused on ‘being there’ with my intention.

As I say, this is no more than ‘level one’, but if it helps that’s great.  One of you can write about the next level!

Enjoy the week!

Sermon – How does God take care of us?

(Jacob Epstein’s Sculpture – ‘Jacob and the Angel’ – Tate Gallery, London

I’m taking it as ‘given’ that God does take care of us; but that does not mean that we’ve ‘got God in our pocket’ – pinned down 

– doing what we want, when we want.

No – nothing so apparently easy as that;

Also, nothing so low quality, and long-term unsustainable, as each of us just ‘getting our own way’.  God delivers better than that! And that’s what I believe both our readings demonstrate.

First, there’s the continuing saga of Jacob – who has been shown over the past few weeks to have behaved pretty appallingly.  After deceiving his dying father and cheating his older brother, Esau, he ran away – and escaped for many years from the mess he had left.  Now he is on his way back to meet Esau for the first time since the betrayal.  And he is revisiting in his heart and mind all that happened between them – and to say that he is frightened is putting it very mildly!

Malcolm Guite’s poem communicates Jacob’s fear, mixed with self-loathing – as this toxic combination prevents him from sleeping: (4 slides with poem – read it)

Look at the slide of Jacob Epstein’s ‘Jacob and the Angel’.

As you can see in that very embodied sculpture, God holds us – with His love – whatever we have done, or not done – and he will not let us go.  

There is a sense in which we can never step out of that loving embrace of God – that very physical and affirming embrace, which wrestles with us until we begin to see the truth about ourselves, and about God.

So in answer to my initial question, ‘How does God take care of us?’ – part of the answer is that God provides for each of us, as He did for Jacob, a love that holds us, that ‘wounds and heals’ – and He invites us to wrestle with truth, with Him, not just all night, but throughout our lives.

And, like Jacob, our reward is not to get what we want, but to know God better – feelingly– and to be known by Him.  And God’s ‘knowing’ isn’t a factual knowing, it is a ‘knowing of love’, which is down-to-earth and practical.

Jacob had some practical ‘turning-around’ to do with his brother. That’s how love works!

That was looking at the first reading.  Now, turning to St Matthew’s Gospel (slide) , Jesus is shown as needing a break from the day-to-day practicalities.  His cousin, John the Baptist, had just been brutally murdered by Herod, and Jesus needed to process it – he needed, I’m sure, space in which to grieve – for they had known each other since they were toddlers.  

So he tries to get away – but the crowds go after him!  

Jesus has compassion, and talks with them – he is always captivating! – and then, before they realise that time has passed, the tummies begin to rumble – hunger kicks-in!

And we know the story of how Jesus feeds the 4 or 5 thousand, and there’s an abundance of food left. 

Matthew often overtly draws parallels between Moses, the greatest lawgiver, and Jesus. Here he shows that, as Moses led the people of Israel through the wilderness, and God fed them with Mannah when they needed food,

So God, through Jesus, feeds a massive crowd of 4 or 5 thousand people.

What’s going on here?  What’s it about?

Let float some possibilities for you to mull over:

  1. Maybe it’s about sharing.  Everyone finds sharing difficult.  Perhaps some of the crowd had brought food, but normally they would have kept it to themselves.  So those who had food would have been alright, but the rest would have gone hungry.  Might there be a global parallel there? – I just wonder.  And Jesus accomplished a miracle of sharing – no small feat!
  2. Maybe it’s about demonstrating that God provides abundantly – giving massively more than we need as a human family.  God provides abundantly – though not always in the ways that we ‘demand’!
  3. Maybe it’s pointing our eyes forwards to Heaven.  Jews expect the coming of the Messiah to bring about a great feast – a Messianci banquet of epic celebrations of the wholesome peace of God’s Shalom. We are told that is what the New Heaven will be like – and the feeding of the multitude proclaims that Jesus begins establishing that Kingdom of God here and now – before your very eyes!
  4. Maybe it shows that God can, and does, break into the structures of history – and break into the limitations of time and space – and that God just ‘does it’ – ‘Heaven shall not wait’ – the divine patience gives way to an imperative, and God just ‘does what is needed’!  Yahweh had done this in delivering the people of Israel from slavery. And that divine imperative of intervention is what happened, after the crucifixion, in the Resurrection of Jesus.

Summing-up:  God offers us plenty of wrestling and challenges, with assurance of the ultimate healing of love – of ‘knowing God, and being known and cherished by God’.

And we are also assured, lest we doubt it, of God’s abundance – over-flowing into a gracious sharing of super-abundance!

I love the picture (slide) of Jesus on the first Easter morning, coming from the tomb and laughing – not mocking laughter, nor yet hollow, cynical laughter – but sheer ‘joie de vive’!

And that resurrection laughter still echoes round the universe – and invites us to join-in!

Let’s end with these prayers

Give us the strength and perseverance, Father, to wrestle with you in prayer, as Jacob did. Keep me ready to discover different approaches, particularly those that conflict with the ways that you know I cherish.  Give me the grace to realise when I am wrong.  Move me forward in your love.  This we pray in Jesus’ name.  Amen

Prayers asking that we might share with each other the abundance of God’s gifts 

Prayers of thanksgiving for the rich 

abundance of God’s provision for us

For the sick – Rosemary Larkin, Andrew Smith  – the people of China, still devastated by floods – for those in the north of England as Covid 19 sickness reasserts itself there – for those with the responsibility of government – for Elizabeth, our Queen, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and all members of the royal family

For our loved ones who have died:  Ruth Drinkwater, Sue Hamilton, Keith Hollis.