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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

BREAD - All-Age Talk (KS2 and up)


Resources: 
A small table covered by a white cloth, bearing a plate, a glass and two securely mounted candles
Bread roll
Some reddish liquid in a bottle or carafe

Notes: 
The science, history and theology are a little simplistic, but sound in outline. 
There are a few slightly more complex words and ideas that younger listeners may not get. 
The interactive questions are optional. Feel free to adapt. 
Above all, make it lively.

I wonder if you can guess what I'm going to be talking about. I'm going to give you some clues. As soon as you think you know the answer, put your hand up but don't shout out. (Emphasise the underlined words in the clues):
  • You start by gathering seeds from a special kind of grass whose scientific name is Triticum.
  • You grind up the seeds into powder, then you mix it with water and a special type of fungus, to make a sticky paste. 
  • The fungus converts the natural sugars in the paste to gas, and the mixture swells up with a mass of tiny air bubbles, becoming soft & spongy.
  • Finally, you put the mixture in a low oven for an hour or two. Then you eat it. 
  • But most people don’t bother with all this. They just buy it from a shop.

Get them to chorus the answer,  then put the bread roll on the plate, and light the candles on either side of it.

Question: Who likes bread? What are some of the ways we eat it? (Optionally prompt for favourite sandwich fillings and related products like pizza and pasta. Be sure to show appreciation for all answers.)

Let me tell you something about bread. It’s the most common kind of food there is. But bread is more than just the world’s favourite food. It’s nothing less than the foundation on which modern civilisation was built. Does that sound crazy? Let me explain.

Before humans discovered how to grow wheat and make bread, they lived in tiny wandering tribes. It took all their time and energy just finding enough food to stay alive. But once they knew how to grow wheat and make bread, they began to settle down, to plant crops, and to build permanent towns.

Over time the towns grew into cities. It was no longer necessary for everybody to spend their time gathering food. The cleverest people had time to gather knowledge, to research more efficient ways of farming and organising the community. The long term results of that were science and technology and law and schools…and us.

So, bread is so much more than just the world’s favourite food. Bread was the great invention that allowed lots of other inventions to take place and made a global civilisation possible. It's no surprise then that bread is an important symbol to people. 

Question: Can anyone think of a Bible story concerning bread?.... (Feeding the 5000, Temptations, Last Supper, etc.)

Let me tell you what I think are the two most important Bible sayings about bread. The first is where Jesus says: “I am the Bread of Life”.  After all I’ve said about bread, about it being the foundation on which everything was built, don’t you think that is a remarkable thing for someone to say? 

Question: What do you think Jesus might have meant by that?

And then on the night before he died, at the meal known as the Last Supper, Jesus told his followers something very surprising: Whenever you eat bread or drink wine, he said, I want you to think of me. 

On the night before he died, he took the bread and broke it (tear the roll into several pieces and hold it out) saying, "This is my body, broken for you." (Put the pieces of bread back on the plate, then pour the 'wine' and hold it out) Then he passed the wine round the table, saying, "This is my blood, poured out for you." Then he gave them a command: "Whenever you meet together, do this as a way of remembering me." (Put the glass back on the table)

Just like there are many different types of bread, there are many different types of Christian around the world. But there's one thing we all have in common: When we meet, we still follow Jesus' last command: we share bread and wine together to help us remember all that Jesus said and did for us – especially his dying on the Cross. It’s our way of saying, "Jesus, you are the Bread of Life: the foundation on which our lives and our society are built. You’re as important to us as food and drink. We worship you and want to follow your teachings."

And there’s one particular teaching of Jesus that’s really important to Christians. As you all know, not everyone around the world gets all the food they need to stay healthy and happy. In fact, thousands of children like you are dying from hunger every single day from hunger. And Jesus says, if you care about me, you’ll care about the poor. You’ll make sure they have enough to eat, enough clothing and shelter to keep warm and dry.


Wouldn’t it be great if every time we ate bread, we remembered something: It’s not just our bodies that need feeding. We need to feed our minds and our hearts. For Christians, a big part of that is learning about Jesus and talking to him in prayer. But for all of us, whether or not we're religious, the key thing is to care for one another. 

Let's bow our heads in prayer...

Backup question (if there is time in hand): What sort of things can we do to help people who don’t have enough to eat?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE BLESSED? (The Beatitudes/All Saints/All Souls)

--> (Matthew 5:3-10, Luke 6:20-26)

One of the little thIngs I love about the Church of England is the Lectionary – the schedule of appointed Bible readings for each week of the year. At a previous church I attended, the Vicar chose the principal readings himself; some favoured passages came up over and over again, while others were never given an airing in all the years I was there. The Lectionary ensures that over time we hear the whole Bible on its own terms. That, to my mind, is a good thing.

All the same, I’m sometimes surprised by the choice of readings at important church festivals. This weekend is a case in point. However much it may be overshadowed by the over-commercialised monster-fest that is modern Halloween, this weekend we are celebrating the important festivals of All Saints and All Souls: giving thanks for those who have gone before us – the saints and martyrs, the pastors and teachers, and most especially our own ancestors and departed loved ones.

I can think of some admirable Bible readings to mark the occasion, but this morning the Lectionary takes a different tack: our main reading was from the Beatitudes: the opening section of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus - rather surprisingly - tells some very unhappy and afflicted groups of people that they are blessed. 

There is a connection to this special season of the year, but it needs a little digging for. And over the next few minutes, I want to tackle the following questions:
1.  What does it mean to be blessed?
2.  What sort of people does Jesus call blessed?
3.  What might Jesus’ words mean for us, particularly as we celebrate All Saints and All Souls?

So, what does it mean to be blessed? It’s an important question, because while the word has distinctly religious overtones, most people (even Christians) use it in a very indistinct sense. When we say “bless you”, what are we expecting to happen? When we say that something we’ve experienced was a blessing, what do we mean?

In the Bible, the world blessing most commonly denotes a very specific and elusive kind of happiness: a 360-degree sense of wellbeing and fulfilment that can only be experienced when certain very specific conditions are met:
 - when you and those around you are prospering both materially and spiritually,  
 - when you’re living at peace with one another,
 - and when you and your community are in tune with God’s purposes.

It’s similar to what philosophers have called the eudaimonia or the Highest Good. It’s the state of mind and being that God repeatedly promises to those who obey his commands. It’s the universal goodwill conveyed in the Middle Eastern greeting of shalom or salaam: peace be with you: peace with God, peace with yourself, peace with others. And while that’s not the only way the word blessing is used in English Bibles, it is clearly this traditional idea of blessedness that Jesus expected his listeners to have in mind as they digested his words.

So, if that is blessing, who can consider themselves blessed? Jesus took a view that was radically different from that of his contemporaries. The Temple authorities taught that if you were under God’s blessing, then it would show in material ways. So if you were successful, healthy and prosperous, that was proof that you were blessed. If in contrast you were poor, hungry, diseased, disabled or a victim of misfortune, that was a sign that God was looking away from you – and that could only mean that you had been disobedient to his laws. You were excluded from the spiritual life of the nation.

All the power structures in Jesus’ society were built on this precept. Power and holiness were validated by health and wealth. Jesus’ words and actions were thus political dynamite. No wonder he was seen as a threat to the established order; he was declaring God’s blessing on those whom the authorities declared unclean – and by a clear implication pronouncing a curse on the ruling classes.

Some commentators have made too much of the differences between Matthew’s account of Jesus’ words and Luke’s. The picture Luke paints of Jesus is more radical: “Blessed are you who are poor; Blessed are you who are hungry…” And he utters the curse on ruling classes that Matthew’s version only hints at: “Woe to you who are rich; woe to your who are well-fed.” By comparison, Matthew’s version can seem generally less political, more about people’s spiritual state: “Blessed are the poor in spirit... Blessed are the humble... Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.”

But it’s in taking the two versions together that we see the true horror of life in Jesus’ time: The people Jesus was reaching out to were poor in spirit because they were poor; their poverty precluded any hope of education or spiritual development. They were hungry for justice because they were unjustly hungry. They were denied comfort because they were disabled, disfigured or in mourning. In each case, their practical hardships excluded them from the community of faith. And Jesus’ message was, “Come to me. I will give you the spiritual connection you so urgently need. I will build you into a community in which together we can tackle your material hardships.”

Thus, for Jesus, to bless others is not just to wish them well but to draw them in: to help them experience the warmth of God’s love, to include them, to help them meet the practical needs that are prevent them from seeing God’s purpose fulfilled in their lives.

And it is in the process of blessing others we are ourselves blessed. How can we be more blessed? Certainly in praying and reading the Bible and coming to church; all of these we know already. But surely the greatest blessing we can experience is in following Jesus’ own example: in feeding the hungry (e.g. volunteering in a foodbank, sponsoring a child), in liberating the oppressed (e.g. joining justice & peace or advocacy group), in reaching out to the lonely (e.g. hospital or prison visiting), and in providing companionship to those who are in mourning.

The giving and receiving of blessings takes on a special meaning as we celebrate All Saints and All Souls. At our All Souls service this afternoon we will celebrate and give thanks for the blessings that our departed loved ones have been to us, and recommit ourselves to passing the same blessings on to new generations. It will be an emotional time for some of those present, but it was Jesus himself who uttered the words “Blessed are those who mourn”. And as we join together in thanksgiving and remembrance, many people will find it a blessing as they have done in the past.

Let us pray…



Wednesday, October 15, 2014

FRIEND, GO UP HIGHER: Pride and Humility

(Luke 14:1-11, Ephesians 4:1-6)

My wife and I don’t get to fly very often, and when we do we book as far ahead as possible - in the hope of getting decent seats. Of course economy class is much of a muchness wherever you sit. But on a long, cramped flight just a couple of inches extra legroom, or an aisle seat, or being able to sit together makes all the difference.

We’ve had our reservation messed around once or twice, but we’ve never had the experience of someone I know: getting to his seat only to find it occupied by somebody else – and that someone was very reluctant to move. If that had happened to me I don’t know how I’d have reacted. But my friend didn’t hesitate: he doggedly ploughed his way up the aisle against the tide of struggling humanity to speak to the cabin staff.

And of course, once he’d done that, the issue was speedily dealt with. A large and slightly intimidating flight attendant bore down on the culprit and said, “Excuse me, there seems to be some confusion over seating. May I see your ticket, please.” And the interloper was on his way in seconds.

I’d like you to try and imagine it’s you in the wrong seat. Imagine the impatient flight attendant standing over you. Picture your fellow passengers craning their necks to see what’s going on as you gather your bits and pieces together, grinning as you get your bag and coat down from the overhead locker and shuffle your way back to your allotted seat. Humiliation.

Jesus painted a similar word picture for the ambitious socialites at a banquet he attended. He saw them jostling for position at what we’d call the top table, and he gave them a very shrewd piece of advice: If you really want to impress, don’t make a beeline for the top. Sit somewhere lower down the pecking order. Then, when the final seating is sorted out, rather than being evicted from somebody else’s place, everyone will see you promoted.

Good social advice, but is there anything else to it? After all, it’s not particularly punchy as parables go. In fact, if the Gospel writer hadn’t said ‘he told them this parable’, then I wonder how many of us would have noticed that it was one! On the other hand, there is a twist at the end – just enough of a twist to make clear that this is about more than just etiquette: ”For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted”.

And yet, even that seems a rather commonplace thought, doesn’t it? A thought that’s expressed more punchily elsewhere in Scripture. “Pride comes before a fall” or “Blessed are the meek”. It’s such a familiar idea that we could easily miss just how pointed and punishing Jesus’ words are in this particular setting. And in order to see that, we need to go back to the beginning of the episode.

The story starts when Jesus goes to dinner with a senior religious leader on the Sabbath. He knows they’re watching for things they can pick him up on, and no doubt he’s looking for a chance to make a statement about his priorities. As it happens, there’s a man there with a distressing medical condition. Jesus knows how rigid his fellow-guests are about working on the Sabbath. So he asks an outright question. It’s effectively, “OK, what should I do here guys: follow the rules or do good for somebody.”

The sad thing is, when he puts it like that, he meets a stony silence. In their hearts, they almost certainly know what’s right. But no one will risk being the first to say it in front of their peers. So Jesus goes ahead and heals the patient. And can’t you just see them exchanging smug glances. “Hah!” they’re thinking. “We can tell he’s no holy man.”

So Jesus begins to reason with them. “Come on,” he says. “There has to be a limit. Suppose you saw a child fall down a well on the Sabbath, would you leave her there to die for the sake of your rules.” The answer is obvious, of course. But they can see that this is the thin end of the wedge, so again they stay silent.

And that’s the point at which Jesus draws attention to their jostling for the best seats. But it’s not the jostling itself he focuses on, so much as the pride and self-importance that drive it. Remember, he’s still tackling the misguided leaders who put rules before people. And here is what Jesus is saying to them:

You are so proud of your ancient traditions that you’re neglecting the amazing things God is doing right in front of your eyes. A time will come when the things of which you’ve been so proud will be revealed as worthless, and you will be humiliated.  In contrast, those who have humbly embraced what God is doing will be seen as the really important ones – the true heirs of God’s promises.

I wonder if Jesus sees a similar inversion of his priorities in the disagreements shaking the church apart today – the splits over worship styles, gender, sexuality and so on. He certainly valued the law and his people’s traditions, but not when they got in the way of healing and justice. And he demands that our first allegiance should be to him in person. He won’t accept second place to our religious or ethical traditions. He won’t be coopted by either traditionalists or reformers.

His words challenge us to think deeply about whom we are hurting, whom we are oppressing, whom we are excluding, and what it’s doing to our relationship with God, when we put our causes and traditions before him and before other people. And whatever we see as our justification for doing so, whether it’s Scripture or Church tradition or the guidance of the Holy Spirit, or an exalted view of human rights, we can expect to look back on our words and actions with shame when we see at last what our Lord and Saviour is really like.


The Apostle Paul cuts to the heart of the message in our reading from Ephesians, when he calls us to live in a manner worthy of our calling. Be humble and gentle, he wrote; be patient. Live in unity and peace. Because there is one body and one Spirit, one hope for all of us; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

WHY "DOUBTING" THOMAS IS SUCH A GREAT ROLE MODEL


(John 20:24-29)

These aren’t easy times to be a Christian. Of course, they’re hardly the worst of times, in this country at least. Unlike earlier generations of British Christians, we don’t face the risk of being imprisoned, tortured, even burned at the stake for our faith. Nonetheless, even in this relatively safe country, we do face risks. Plenty of people have paid the price for their Christian faith in the workplace, their social lives, even their family relationships.

The pressure on Christians comes from two angles: firstly from outside. It seems that one of the few things that unites the secular establishment with some of the diverse micro-communities that make up modern Britain is their shared antipathy to Christianity.

But for most Christians in our culture, the most disturbing attacks on our faith are those that come from the inside: the doubts, the questions, the uncertainties; the cumulative effect of pronouncements by scientists, philosophers, theologians, historians (sometimes even those within the church); attacks that are not always content with questioning the existence of a supreme being, and all too often challenge the intelligence or moral fibre of those who continue to believe.

What makes matters infinitely worse is the tendency of some churches to treat honest questions and doubts as a sign of weakness – something you should be embarrassed about, keep to yourself, or at best keep on a one-to-one basis with a trusted spiritual adviser. And the upshot? Large numbers of people are left with a burden of guilt, each asking themselves why everybody else seems to have so much more faith. I spent many years in an environment like that.

Good reason, then, to give thanks for the Apostle Thomas – an important figure in the early church to whom popular history has been rather unkind. Calling somebody a ‘doubting Thomas’ has come to have quite negative connotations – overtones that Thomas himself does not deserve. For few if any of us will ever be called to follow directly in the footsteps of Peter, or Paul, or John, or Stephen. But we could all do worse than follow the example of Thomas.

And the first thing we learn about Thomas from this story is that he thinks in a surprisingly modern way. Remember, he wasn’t around when the risen Jesus first showed himself to the astonished disciples. And when he hears accounts of the resurrection, he reacts in a very modern way. Coming back from the dead simply isn’t consistent with his world-view. It’s easier for him to believe that the other disciples are deluded or perhaps even lying than to rethink his understanding of the universe so drastically. And just as scientific modernism has conditioned us to do, he demands first hand experience as the price of belief.

The second thing we learn about Thomas is his courage and honesty. He doesn’t go along with the crowd. It would have been so easy to cover up his doubts for the sake of solidarity or for fear of rejection. But his integrity is such that he’d rather be disrespected, even ostracised, than live a lie. We’re not told if the others do in fact hold this against him, but it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that when Jesus appears again, he gives Thomas the evidence he’s demanded.

And the third and most important thing we learn about Thomas is his obedience and willingness to change when confronted by the truth. There’s strong historical evidence that he spread the Gospel as far eastwards as India, where a community of people known as St. Thomas Christians still survives to this day. There are differing accounts of his death, but the most plausible versions have him being martyred around the year 72AD – a faithful disciple to the end.

However, a question may be going through some people’s minds. Was Jesus happy with Thomas’ demand for evidence? Or when the Lord says, “Because you’ve seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” is it some kind of rebuke?

The commentaries I’ve consulted are pretty much unanimous. There’s no criticism of Thomas here. In fact he’s no weaker than his colleagues, all of whom owe their belief to an earlier encounter with the risen Jesus. And it seems that for serious students of Greek, which I’m not, the emphasis is clearly positive: Something that we could paraphrase as ”Now you’ve seen me you’ve become believers, and that’s great in itself, so think how much more blessed all the future generations will be when they believe without the physical evidence you’ve had.”

God certainly wants us to be assured in our faith; that’s why he sends the Holy Spirit. And for all I know, there may be people here who are hardly ever troubled with doubts and questions. But for the rest of us, as long as we’re sensitive in our choice of words, we can be open about our struggles without undermining the faith of others. In fact in my experience, honesty is the first step in receiving assurance; it will often help others be open about questions they are already struggling with, and that can be an important step forward.

Secondly, when we get a fresh insight into the truth as Thomas did, it’s up to us to respond as he did. We must be prepared to change our minds and our life goals. Of course we’re not going to see Jesus in the flesh – at least, not until we get to Heaven – and the kind of evidence we can expect to receive in this life will be persuasive rather than conclusive. All the same, God is amazingly generous in showing us his love and power, and it’s impossible to explain away the evidence that accumulates year after year in the life of even the most cautious believer.

And here’s the crunch. If we have the right to be honest about our doubts, we equally have a duty to be forthright about our certainties. Whatever lingering questions we may have, when the cumulative evidence stacks up to the point where we are convinced of some great Christian truth, we mustn’t let the doubts of others reduce us to silence. The response of Thomas to overwhelming evidence was “My Lord and my God”, and his obedience to the risen Lord drove him eastwards into adventures that the written records only hint at.

Jesus response to him was “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”. His response to us might well be, “Blessed are you who now believe – go out and make disciples.

PRESENT SUFFERING AND FUTURE GLORY


ROMANS 8: 18-23, 35-39

One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching RE and philosophy was educating children about the Holocaust – the dark period in recent European history in which some ten million people (more than half of them Jewish) were systematically eliminated.

It was what my students gained during these lessons, rather than the grim subject matter, that made it such a rewarding experience for me and for them. They were regularly torn between horror and anger, but what invariably triumphed was an uplifting sense of the goodness and courage and endurance of which ordinary people are capable under the most terrible circumstances.

The point is that we focused not so much on the processes and statistics of genocide – that would indeed have been horrific – but rather on the quiet heroism of so many people caught up in the horror. Anne Frank, Oskar Schindler, Maximilian Kolbe… all these stories filled my students with awe and admiration.

But the most powerful resource, and the one that always affected them most deeply, was “The Hiding Place” – a movie based on the autobiography of Corrie ten Boom. It offered little of what would normally appeal to teenagers in a movie – it’s a rather dated production with few action sequences, little explicit violence and no special effects. But the story and the leading characters gripped everyone regardless of academic ability or disciplinary record.

As the story opens, Corrie is working alongside her father and her sister Betsie in the family business – a watch and clock repair shop in the Dutch city of Haarlem.

When the Nazis invade the Netherlands and start rounding up the Jews for deportation, the family’s Christian faith leads them to work with the Resistance, using their home and their many contacts around the city to smuggle Jewish fugitives out of danger.

Of course the Ten Booms know from the outset that it will only be a matter of time before they are caught, and that in all likelihood they will die at the hands of the Nazis. And indeed they are quickly betrayed, and those who survive the raid on their home are taken off to concentration camps. By the end, every member of the family apart from Corrie herself has paid the ultimate price.

But the amazing thing about this story is that even young people come away from it challenged and uplifted. Because while it does have harrowing moments, it’s a story not of defeat but of victory; not of despair but of dynamic, life-transforming hope even when things seem hopeless. And the key to the film, the recurring message that comes through time and time again, is the passage from Romans that we have heard read to us this morning.

These exact verses are part of the Bible reading to which the family is listening at the time of their arrest. As a squad of soldiers pulls up outside their home, the camera cuts to the family gathered around the dining table with their heads bowed. The elderly father, Caspar ten Boom, begins to read aloud: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

He continues, all unaware of what is happening out in the street, and it is just as the front door is smashed in that he reads the famous words of comfort from later in the chapter: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Corrie and her sister Betsie need to keep this magnificent thought with them as we see them in Ravensbruck concentration camp: intimidated, frozen, starved, beaten, and in Betsie’s case worked to death from exhaustion and illness. But the miracle is that the more they suffer, the more in Christ they are convinced that there must be a higher purpose and a good end to their suffering. And their hope rubs off onto others, expanding the borders of the Kingdom of Heaven, as coincidence after apparent coincidence reinforces the evidence that God is at work even in the hellish confines of a Nazi concentration camp.

There are at least three levels on which these awesome words in Romans were given meaning in the story of the Ten Boom family:

·      Firstly, it was this knowledge of the unconquerable love of God in Christ Jesus that challenged them to risk their lives for others, and should likewise challenge each one of us to show his love to others in our homes and workplaces.

·      Secondly, they took to heart the luminous promise that opened the reading this morning: that our sufferings in this present existence are not worth comparing with the glory that we can look forward to. This confidence endured through all that they suffered, and gave them a sense of peace and a purposeful attitude that transformed the experience of those around them.

·      And thirdly, this self-same acceptance of suffering and loss as an inevitable part of our present existence enabled Corrie to look back on her ordeal without bitterness. Over the rest of her long life she travelled the world, visiting over 60 countries, preaching a message of hope, trust, and (incredibly) forgiveness.

As we kneel together at the altar rail on this “Sea” Sunday, focusing our minds on Christ’s body broken for us, and his blood spilled for us, it’s fitting to hope that may we be given the strength to endure the storms and billows of life in this suffering world. But may we, like the Ten Boom family, also be inspired to help others and freely forgive as God has forgiven us.

And finally, if anyone finds these words an encouragement, then God grant that we may tell others. Our stories of the power of the living Jesus to change lives have extraordinary power to draw people towards a saving faith of their own. It was Betsie’s dying words that inspired Corrie to take up her ministry of peace and reconciliation after the War: “We must tell people what we have learned here. We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still.” And the final whisper: “They will listen to us…because we were here."