Sermons from The Revd Canon Judith Allford
Sunday 17th September 2023
LEARNING FROM THE PERIODIC TABLE!
Romans 14:1-12 Matthew 18: 21-35
If I were asked what I find the hardest challenge of the Christian Faith I might well say “Learning to Forgive”. Hurts and slights, feeling misunderstood, misjudged, undervalued – those and many more are things which can be hard to let go. I remember reading some very precious words from the Irish missionary, Amy Carmichael, who served God in India for 55years. “It is the wrong done to the one I love that is hardest of all to bear” she wrote. Even if we learn to forgive the hurts that are caused to us, it is infinitely harder to forgive those that are directed towards those dear to us.
So I find reading, and certainly being expected to preach, on this morning’s Gospel Reading, very, very challenging. And I am right with Peter. Peter has undoubtedly been listening along with the other disciples, to Jesus’ teaching on learning to live together in Christian community. But Peter clearly has an issue of his own and at the beginning of today’s reading he brings it to Jesus privately. Now I think Peter is often judged unfairly at this point. Some commentators have said that perhaps Peter is trying to get into Jesus’ good books as it were – seven times forgiving someone, possibly for the same issue, sound a bit above and beyond. That sure should impress Jesus?
That seems unfair to me. Peter needed a personal chat with Jesus and it may well be that was because he was personally experiencing hurt, maybe even from within the company of the disciples, and he genuinely wanted to know how long he had to put up with that if you like. He knew about forgiveness – but how long did forgiveness have to go on? And I really get that too – and seven times is a lot – and if I could ever manage to get to seven times I’d feel pretty pleased with myself!
So I know that Peter will have been overwhelmed, chastened, challenged, convicted, by Jesus’ reply. Because I am too! And like Peter I know exactly what Jesus is saying – forget seven times and stop counting. It’s your responsibility as my disciple simply to go on forgiving.
And then Jesus reinforces His point with a shocking story. It begins with someone in genuine and desperate need. So heavily saddled with a debt they cannot repay that when the King begins to settle accounts he orders that this man, his wife, his children should all be sold into slavery to recoup the money owed. The man does what any one of us would probably do. He throws himself his creditor’s mercy and, in an overwhelming act of compassion; the one who has been wronged cancels the debt!
And the man who has just been forgiven goes to look for someone who has wronged him. Deliberately or unthinkingly, he makes no connection with what has just happens to him. He berates and even physically abuses his debtor and demands repayment of a far, far smaller debt than the one he has just had cancelled!
And his debtor does exactly what he had just done – he begs for mercy. But the one who had just been forgiven far, far more shows no mercy and throws his debtor into prison. Not surprisingly, the man’s colleagues protest to the King. And this time there is no mercy. The one who was unable to forgive, despite being forgiven so much, is thrown into jail until he can repay his unspeakable original debt.
And Jesus concludes: “That is how my heavenly Father will deal with you, unless you each forgive each other from your hearts”.
That is tough, tough teaching. So tough that when I re-read this passage in preparation for today I found myself thinking “I cannot do this”. And I still find myself thinking that now. And I look at situations where forgiveness seems almost inconceivable. How can Merope Mills, the mother of Martha Mills, who died two years ago at the age of almost 14, ever forgive those professionals whose negligence led to Martha’s death? I have no idea...
I believe Merope, brave, intelligent, loyal and loving as she clearly is, will one day find a way. But Jesus is talking especially to the community of faith and how we behave towards one another….
My problem is me. How do I rid myself of the resentment which is so easy to harbour and learn to forgive and let go the utterly minor wrongs and hurts which I perceive myself to have suffered?
There is only one way. And that is to go back again and again to the debt God has cancelled for me – and to what it cost Him to do that; to go back to an old chorus that I have quoted before “Oh the love which drew salvation’s plan...” Oh the mighty river of love that flows from the heart of God Himself, the river of blood which God shed for me on the cross of Calvary when He freely paid the price for ALL my sin. And if I learn to take that seriously perhaps I shall stop jibbing when a wrong is done to me.
I don’t think I’m alone in my struggles to forgive. I suspect that as a church community here we are still to some extent harbouring the perceived hurts and wrongs of the past. And I think until we start to let the hurts of yesterday go, we are missing out the blessing God surely has for us today and tomorrow.
But, maybe that’s for another time. For now I have another personal challenge – and that’s about my own behaviour. Am I by something I’m doing or not doing, saying or not saying, forcing others into a position where they have to forgive me again and again? I am pretty sure that may be the case and that I need to reflect on that as well. In Romans 14 Paul is reminding us of some of the huge challenges of being a community in Christ. We are all so different and it is all too easy to judge each other by the standards we try to set for ourselves. God forgive us!
Which brings me to the Periodic Table and to an insight I owe entirely to the wonderful Vicki Chiverton, Head Teacher of our St Jude’s Schools Federation. Vicki was reflecting that each individual element of the Periodic table has wonderful qualities of their own but put them all together in one place and the fireworks start! We should not be surprised when we struggle with our own behaviours as well as that of others in the context of our Church community. But neither should we be content. Because, as Paul says – one day “Each of us will give an account of himself to God” and in that account we shall need to say how we have responded to the enormity of God’s mercy to us by living alongside one other with acceptance, generosity, forgiveness and grace.
Sunday 18th December 2022
Matthew Chapter 1vv. 18-25
We know so little about Joseph. He appears in Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus which goes back to Abraham. Of greatest importance in that family tree are the lines which trace Joseph back to King David: “Boaz, the father of Obed, who’s Mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David”. When the angel comes to Joseph, the angel addresses him as “Son of David”, not simply to underline Joseph’s ancestry, but to make it very clear that the unborn child is the child of God’s promise. Joseph secures the ancestry of Jesus, the true lineage of the Messiah promised by prophets of old.
In Luke’s Gospel the focus of the Christmas narrative is almost completely on Mary. In Matthew, the balance is redressed. At this pivotal moment in God’s salvation plan, when perhaps Mary is undoubtedly waiting fearfully to know what Joseph will decide to do, Matthew tells us that Jesus too is visited in a dream by an angel of the Lord.
Matthew describes Joseph as a “righteous man”. Matthew would have equated that “righteousness” to passionate observance of God’s Law. Joseph had apparently been badly let down. A betrothal between a man and a woman was a legally binding contract. Papers had already been signed; no doubt money had already changed hands. The period of betrothal was one year – time perhaps for couples to lay the foundation of their relationship but not to consummate it. That would only happen after the marriage took place.
For the betrothal to be set aside the Law required a formal “divorce”; Mary would be seen as having betrayed and shamed her husband to be. She would have been subject to public disgrace and even perhaps to the sentence of stoning. It says everything about Joseph that he was willing to set aside his rights under the law for the sake of protecting Mary, or protecting her as best as he could. And so, said Matthew, he planned to divorce her quietly.
At the heart of Joseph’s dilemma, his sorrow and his worst fear, would have been the fact that Mary, with whom he was preparing to spend the rest of his life, and with whom he would already have been planning to have children of his own, was apparently an adulteress. When the angel of the Lord came to him it was that fear that was dispelled straightaway: “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”.
We know so little about Joseph, but that tells us that, alongside being well versed in the Law, Joseph was also a man of faith, almost certainly among those who were looking for what the prophets called “the consolation of Israel” the coming of God’s promised Messiah, the One who would indeed redeem Israel from all their sins. And Matthew, no doubt determined to underline for his readers that this was indeed all part of God’s rescue plan for his people, promised long ago, adds “All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."”
Remarkably, when Joseph woke up, although the situation was unchanged as far as the world would see, he didn’t dismiss his dream. He was a righteous man, a compassionate man, and a man of faith. He took Mary home, perhaps against a chorus of ridicule and criticism, and he remained true to his commitment not to enjoy sexual relations with her until she was truly his, or in this case, until the child was born.
We know so little about Joseph but In the Christmas story Joseph is constantly at Mary’s side, taking her with him to travel to Bethlehem for the Governors’ Census, beside her no doubt as she gave birth to the baby; beside her as they presented the infant Jesus in the Temple; protecting Mary and the child as they were forced to flee for refuge in Egypt; taking them eventually to the safety of Nazareth and the security of the Carpentry business. Then after Jesus became a man under Jewish Law, Joseph disappears from view leading scholars to think he was older than Mary and had died by the time Jesus went to the cross.
Significantly, we never hear Joseph speak; significantly, because we don’t need to hear him speak in order to understand why God chose Joseph for this most crucial of roles in His plan of salvation. We know that Joseph had the right credentials, but we also know he was a man of integrity, compassion and faith, a man who not only trusted God but, far more than that, a man who could be trusted by God to play his own unique role in the fulfilment of God’s will and purpose for His people.
We know far more about Joseph than we think we do. We would not be here today but for him. And Joseph leaves the legacy of his example to us, who today are waiting for the final fulfilment of God’s plan in the return of Jesus. We, like Joseph, are called to be steeped in the knowledge of God, joyfully reflecting the love of God, and faithfully walking in obedience to God. Can we, like Joseph, be trusted to play our part in God’s purpose, through disappointments, setbacks and joys, until our Advent hope is finally realised?
Sunday 11th September 2022
Sermon following the Death of our Sovereign Lady,
Queen Elizabeth II, Defender of the Faith
Our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth II has been described in many ways. Our new Prime Minister Liz Truss said of her: "Queen Elizabeth II was the rock on which modern Britain was built”. A former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown said: "The Queen was a compassionate, dedicated, wonderful public servant” David Cameron called her “the world's most experienced diplomat."
The Queen had many titles in life. Expressed at its simplest she was “Queen of this Realm and of her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith”. But King Charles on Friday called her “my Darling Mama”. And, in a deeply personal statement released only yesterday, Prince William, Prince of Wales, said: “On Thursday, the world lost an extraordinary leader..... So much will be said in the days ahead about the meaning of her historic reign. I, however, have lost a grandmother.”
Perhaps of all her many roles and titles those most precious to the Queen centred on her family; perhaps most of all around her beloved husband, the late Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, whom she called her “strength and stay”. Perhaps she took her greatest delight in being a wife, a mother, a grandmother, and even a great-grandmother. Our hearts go out to those whose loss is greatest of all at this time because their lives were closest of all, and their love strongest of all.
But how was it that the Queen was able to be, as someone being interviewed about her yesterday morning said, “All things to all people”? Could it be that, before anything else, her Majesty understood who she was before God?
The apostle Paul was a theologian; a gifted teacher, preacher and writer. But he too knew who he was before God. 1 Timothy 1v.15 is one of the first verses of Scripture I remember committing to memory as a young Christian: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost”. Despite his many successes in ministry Paul likewise recognised his own imperfections but also recognised the greatness of God’s love for him and knew that Jesus had died to save him.
On hearing the Pharisees’ criticisms of those with whom He often kept company: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” Jesus told two stories of loss. (Luke 15:1-10) The first is that of a single sheep missing from a flock of one hundred and the second of a single coin missing from a collection of ten coins. In each case the owner searches relentlessly until the missing piece is recovered.
Jesus emphasises the joy of each owner when their precious possession is found and says: “Just so there is joy in the presence of the angels over one sinner who repents”. It is the one who knows they have strayed from the ways of God and returns to Him who finds they are forgiven and redeemed by God’s grace and mercy. In a deceptively simple way Jesus challenges the Pharisees’ understanding of who they too are before God.
Our beloved Queen was the most exceptional human being and probably one of the greatest monarchs the world has ever seen, or will see again. But I wonder what she would have made of all that is being said of her including those words from Prime Minister Liz Truss: “Queen Elizabeth II was the rock on which modern Britain was built”. I think perhaps she would have pointed to the Rock on which she had declared herself to stand, the Rock that is the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe Queen Elizabeth II knew herself before anything else to be a child of God, forgiven and redeemed by the death of Jesus on the cross for her. It was because that was her greatest conviction she was able to live the astonishing life she did.
We honour and remember our beloved Queen. Among so much else her life reminds us imperfect human beings that we too have a Saviour who gave His own life that we might become children of God.
I want to add just one more thought. We can be very sure that our beloved Queen is now in the very presence of God and that she will be joining with the voices of all those there with her in that wonderful hymn of praise from I Timothy 1:17: “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory forever and ever. Amen”
Sunday 31st July 2022
Luke 12. 13-21 - Where the heart is
I have a chopping board – a very ordinary chopping board, except that it’s heart-shaped, which makes it slightly unusual. It belonged to one of my very dearest friends, who died just before Christmas last year. She had cooked many meals for me and I can still picture her chopping onions, mushrooms, peppers...on this board. When we cleared her home earlier this year the chopping board found its way to the “Charity Shop” pile. I rescued it and brought it home to the Vicarage kitchen, where it doesn’t get quite so much use but it takes pride of place.
In recent weeks in the UK a large number of fires have been triggered by the extreme heat, including an extraordinary number of house fires. Many people have been forced to flee from their homes, unable to take little besides the clothes they were wearing. It mirrors the situation for many thousands of people in Ukraine who have also been forced to leave their homes recently, for different reasons.
Suppose I had to leave my home at very short notice? What would I be most concerned to take with me? I probably would try to rescue the chopping board because it is testament to an irreplaceable friendship and I should hate to lose it.
But realistically, those of you who live with someone you love would probably worry about very little else other than knowing that they are with you and safe. And it would be the same for those who have pets – wanting to make sure that those treasured companions are out of harm’s way. I might want to take things like my mobile phone, passport, bank cards, driving licence, my Nanna’s wedding ring, some treasured photos maybe – even a few books, including my Bible.
We pray that we never find ourselves in that situation. But perhaps sometimes it’s good to stop and think about what is really most important in our lives: where our heart is.
In Jesus' parable we read of a successful and wealthy businessman. So successful and so wealthy that he builds larger storehouses to accommodate the treasures which he has accumulated. Being surrounded by all the fruits of his labours makes him feel very secure. He can, as some might put it, take his foot of the gas. Life is set to be very safe and very comfortable way into the future.
Except, of course, it isn’t.... Tragically the man dies suddenly on the very night he has been reflecting on how good life is. His possessions are left behind. To him they have become worthless. And Jesus says: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."
Nothing that has material value in this life can be taken with us into the life to come. All those possessions which we would find so hard to leave behind have value for this life only. And yet, says the Old Testament, “God has placed eternity in our hearts”. We are programmed for the life of eternity, beyond our lives here, however long and however successful those may be. The treasures we can take with us into eternity are of a very different kind. They are the treasures which we have accumulated here in our relationship with God. They are those things about our relationship with Jesus on which we have truly set our hearts.
Just a little bit further on in Luke 12 we read Jesus words: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. Our hearts will always be set on the things that we count as of most importance. Paul, at the beginning of Colossians 3 says: “Set your minds (or as many translations have it – your hearts) on things that are above, not on things that are on earth”
There is ample evidence around us today of the fragility of life; even of the fragility of the world itself. Climate change, conflict throughout the world, corruption in government... We have largely forgotten that the world belongs to God, that we are tenants, not landlords. We still appear to think we can put things right, unravel the damage; reset the clock, without any reference to the Creator.
One day, without warning, God will intervene. One day Jesus will return to claim what is His own. Everything that has been invested in this world alone will crumble. All that we shall have left is what we have invested in eternity.
As you know, all the Bishops of the Anglican Communion are gathered in Canterbury at the moment for the Lambeth Conference, a gathering which would normally take place every ten years but was postponed by 2020 because of COVID. Archbishop Justin Welby is chairing the Conference and I want to quote from his opening address. He said:
“My prayer for this Conference is very simple. It is that everyone here, whoever you are, wherever you’ve come from, whatever hopes and fears you may bring with you, may leave with your heart full of desire for friendship with Jesus Christ. For to desire Jesus is to desire God. To desire Jesus is to desire to be filled with love for God and, by God, love for His people and love for His word”.
I dare to say that should be our daily prayer for us as the people of God in St. Jude’s. Jesus said of the religious people of His day “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”. It is God alone who knows what is of greatest importance in our lives. It is God alone who truly sees where our hearts are.
And if home is where the heart is...then those who have truly set their hearts on the things of God will one day exchange the fragility and impermanence of this earthly home for the home prepared for them in heaven.
Sunday 17th July 2022
Luke 10. 38-42 - Let the wise listen
“Let the wise listen”. This is not a sudden demand to pay attention to this
sermon! It’s a quotation from the beginning of the Book of Proverbs where the writer
says that the proverbs are intended to give the reader wisdom, discipline and
understanding. But his plea “Let the wise listen” already suggests that the one who listens
is making a wise choice.
The former Secretary of State for Health, Sajid Javid, was the first to resign from the Cabinet recently. His departure triggered a wave of resignations which ultimately led to Boris Johnson’s resignation. Mr. Javid said later that it was a sermon given at a Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast, which finally convinced him to stand down. He had been wrestling with his conscience for months but his mind was finally made up: "I made my decision then, sitting there listening to the sermon, and I thought, it’s about integrity...”
Around 160 MPs attended that Prayer Breakfast which took place within the architectural beauty of Westminster Hall. After the event the person responsible for leading worship said that for many of those MPs it was a very rare opportunity to find real space for reflection. He commented: “when we're on our knees in the presence of the one who knows it all, we are more likely to realise that we don't know it all...” And at least one of those present, and perhaps many more, was willing to listen to what God was clearly saying to him.
The Gospels record three occasions on which Jesus visited the home of Mary and Martha
but there may have been more. Their home may well have been a place of refuge for
Jesus. Mary and Martha may have used His visits as an opportunity to invite others in to
meet Him. On this particular occasion there may have been many guests. Martha was
working flat out to provide for them all and Mary had chosen not to help, but rather to sit
and listen to Jesus.
Jesus spoke tenderly to Martha and I cannot believe He was unsympathetic to her or
ungrateful for her hospitality. But nonetheless He underlined the importance of what Mary
was doing. Jesus knew that both time and opportunity to listen to Him were limited. Mary
was doing what she most needed to do.
I think we make a mistake if we look at ourselves and ask – are we a Mary or a Martha, a
“listener” or a “doer”. Or for the men – are we an activist like Peter – or a more silent
support like our own patron saint St. Jude? Martha was getting on with the meal although
probably multi-tasking so half-listening too. Mary was doing the lion’s share of the
listening. But the gospels reveal there must have been times when Martha devoted
herself to listening to Jesus
In John’s account of the raising of Lazarus it is Martha who comes out with two
remarkable statements of faith: “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have
died BUT EVEN NOW I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him”. And then a
simple creed: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into
the world” She could only have got there by LISTENING to Jesus.
On the third of the recorded visits of Jesus to this home in Bethany, Mary lavishly
anointed Jesus’ feet with a expensive perfume. In response to the chorus of disapproval
which followed Mary’s action Jesus said that Mary had saved her gift for the day of His
burial. Mary’s listening had led her to anticipate Jesus’ cross and the whole house was
filled with the fragrance of her love, her sorrow and the fruit of her listening.
But do we ever wonder how the Apostle Paul arrived at the extraordinary understanding of Jesus that we find in his letters? Paul was a theologian, steeped in the Jewish Scriptures and when he was converted he searched the scriptures diligently for fresh understanding of their revelation of the Christ so that he could preach Christ to the Jews.
But surely only by, figuratively speaking, sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to Him
could Paul have written such a masterly interpretation and explanation of the nature of
Christ and of His role in God’s plan of salvation. “For in him all the fullness of God was
pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross”.(Colossians
1:19,20). This is the heart of the Christian Gospel and if Paul had not listened that Gospel
would never have been preached to us.
In chapter 9 of his Gospel Luke records how, at the transfiguration of Jesus, the voice of
God was heard to say: “This is my Son...Listen to Him” This past week we have witnessed
the extraordinary events which followed when one of our own politicians did just that. We are
living in a time where there are far more questions than answers: the pandemic; the
escalating conflicts across the world and ever closer to our own shores; the political turmoil
even in our own country; extreme weather and its effects; growing economic hardship...It is
surely time when we started to take far more seriously the challenge of listening to the voice
However busy our lives may be, in these turbulent times: “Let the wise listen”
Sunday 10th July 2022
Luke 10. 25-37
I used the story of the Good Samaritan in our Junior School assembly on Thursday. Knowing the story would be familiar to most of the children I asked questions as I went along, including “Who was it who didn’t help the man who had been hurt?” “The Vicar!” was the very swift answer! There’s food for thought there!
This story is SO familiar that apparently a preacher once entitled his sermon on this passage “Not another Sermon about the Good Samaritan”! Perhaps you feel the same! So what can this ancient parable, so vividly told by Jesus, have to say to us today?
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The Lawyer’s question was probably designed to trap Jesus into saying something out of step with Jewish teaching. But Jesus turned the question back on the Lawyer who should have known the Law better than anyone: “What do you read there?” The Lawyer’s answer drew together quotations from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself”. And Jesus said: “You have given the right answer. Do this and you will live”.
Perhaps embarrassed he’d asked something to which he clearly knew the answer, the Lawyer had to think on his feet for a follow-up question: “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus was the greatest story-teller of all time. A brief setting of the scene: a lone traveller on a notoriously dangerous road who almost paid with his life. A Priest: who when he saw the man, passed by on the other side. A Levite: who when he saw him, did the same.
Maybe they were hurrying to a religious gathering. Maybe they feared the man was dead; that they would become ceremonially unclean if they touched him. But maybe they were simply afraid. Perhaps they thought: “If I stop to help this man, what might happen to me?” But then the Samaritan came by, perhaps with a different question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” Disregarding his personal safety and any pressures of his own, he dealt with the man’s immediate need and provided for needs he might have in the days ahead.
And Jesus asked: “Which of these three was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The Lawyer muttered “The one who showed him mercy”. He couldn’t bring himself even to say: “the Samaritan”. Someone whom the lawyer despised; whom he believed had no place in the Kingdom of God, had fulfilled God’s law.
What does this story say to us now? Jesus painted a picture of an upside-down world, where those who had clear responsibilities and duties of care failed to fulfil them; a world where the most vulnerable were left isolated and hurting; a world where those who seemed most to care were often among the most despised and marginalized. It was a world not so very different from Palestine in the 1st century. Sadly, it depicts a world not so very different from the world of the 21st century.
The people to whom Jesus directed His criticism were the religious people: the people who, more than anyone else, should have been reaching out to those in need: the people who had become so obsessed with the letter of the Law that they had lost sight of the spirit of the Law. Would Jesus direct the same criticism at the Church today?
Bishops from all over the world will soon be assembling for the 10 yearly Lambeth Conference. We know that there is serious division on what some would consider fundamental areas of doctrine – we need to pray they will be united in their desire to lead the Church of God in proclaiming God’s love and mercy to today’s broken world.
So where do we fit in this story? Perhaps sometimes we feel we are like the donkey – with all the cares of this broken world on our back. After such a chaotic week it becomes harder to know what to worry about first.
What the Lawyer could not see, and perhaps we fail to see, is that he, and we, are probably most like the man by the side of the road: hurt, damaged and broken. Sometimes we’ve brought the hurts on ourselves by taking the wrong road. Sometimes the hurts come because they are part of life’s journey. The Lawyer could not see that Jesus, who was causing such trouble in the religious echelons, was the only one who could help him.
The parable reminds us in 2022 that there is still only One who can ultimately bring order of out chaos, healing out of hurt, even life out of death. It reminds us that the hope for the world lies in the One who also became the victim of violence and hate. It reminds us too that only He can empower us to take up the challenge with which the Lawyer was left: “Go, and do likewise”.