Sunday, 16 July 2017

'Where are you living now?' transcript of sermon at HMP Stafford July 16th 2017

                             HMP Stafford 16th July 2017  Romans 8.1-11  Matthew 13.1-9,18-23

On the 30th July 1966, Gordon Banks was defending England’s goal in the World Cup at Wembley. 

Meanwhile, at just turned 15, I was travelling down from Lancashire to Newmarket to sign on as an Apprentice Jockey with Bruce Hobbs.

At the age of 14, I had developed a deep adolescent angst about dying and dying unknown. Something that is not untypical. 

So I dreamed of becoming a famous jockey, somebody people would remember when I died.

My first career as a jockey did not amount to much, although I did ride one winner.

After that career ended, I spent some years behind bars.

However, I was not serving time but serving drinks in various hotels around Cambridge and Newmarket.

I think I have behind bars like this on only three previous occasions.

In 1980 when I visited somebody in Wandsworth. Then in 1986, when during my Ministry training I spent a whole day in Strangeways. Then my last visit here for your Christmass Carol Concert.

I also had a good friend when I was living in Cornwall who was a Chaplain in Dartmoor, and so got to hear a little about prison life from him.

However, I really know very little about what prison life is truly like. 

That being said I think I would not be wide of the mark to say that at least in your thinking you live your life in one of two places. 

Either in the past or sometime in the future – maybe when you are released.

A Priest in a sermon at a Church in Brighton, another place we have lived, said something profound that I have tried to hold onto.

‘Between the past we cannot change, and the future that we cannot control, there is the now here with God and that is where we should be.’

Of course, you are not alone in living like this; an awful lot of people live in those two places.

Looking back to the past can push us into ‘if only’ – I can tell you as a minister who has conducted hundreds of funerals you hear this all the time.

‘If only’ we had not said, ‘if only’ we had said, ‘if only’ they were not at, ‘if only’ they did not go.

I had my own ‘if only’ moment when riding in my third public race and it brought to an end any hopes I ever had of becoming a jockey, famous or otherwise.

We simply cannot live like that.

Let us consider the story we heard from the Gospel, the Parable of the Sower.

We know the seed was good – we are not told that the sower broadcast good seed into good soil and inferior or bad seed among the rocks and weeds or along the path. The seed as we hear later is the Word of God, and it is the best of seeds.

Maybe the sower had an ‘if only’ moment – if only I had not sown that seed among the rocks, or with the weeds or along the path.

On the other hand, perhaps the sower when he planted the seed dreamed of what would happen in the future.

Perhaps he imagined a bumper crop, a rich harvest with enough to feed his family and have some left over to sell.

Of course, he could have dreamed like that while sitting in the barn with his feet up on a bag of corn waiting to be sown. 

That would of course have got him nowhere fast.

He had to get out and sow the seed.

It is absolutely right and proper we have dreams, visions and ideas of what might lie ahead in the future. In the American business world, they call them BHAG’s –

Big Hairy Audacious Goals.

However, it has to start right here and right now.

This is the first thing I would like us to consider.

You may be serving time in H.M.P. Stafford, Her Majesties Prison – but I want to suggest you can also be spending time in His Majesties Presence.

That right here and right now, you can begin a work that will help you achieve your BHAG!

However, there is an ongoing work to be done; clearing away stones that would hinder growth, scaring away those who would steal your idea or tell you are wasting your time.

Then making sure people do not walk all over your dreams, ideas and ambitions.

In the Letter of James Chapter 5.7-8, we read…

‘Meanwhile, friends, wait patiently for the Master’s Arrival. You see farmers do this all the time, waiting for their valuable crops to mature, patiently letting the rain do its slow but sure work. Be patient like that. Stay steady and strong. The Master could arrive at any time.’

So how do we maintain our patience?

I mentioned His Majesty Presence, now we need to talk about His Majesties Present – His Gift.

The Gift of the Holy Spirit that we heard about in the passage from Romans.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans is his greatest work and needs a lot of unpacking to understand all that he was trying to say.

However if there is one message that comes out clearly time and time again, it is that in Christ we can have a new life – a life lived for God, a life in which the Seed of the Gospel, the Word of God, dwells within us.

Let’s see if reading this passage in The Message translation helps – I think it does…

‘But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him. Anyone, of course, who has not welcomed this invisible but clearly present God, the Spirit of Christ, won’t know what we’re talking about. But for you who welcome him, in whom he dwells—even though you still experience all the limitations of sin—you yourself experience life on God’s terms.  It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!’

We have talked about His Majesty Presence and His Majesties Present – and it is interesting to note that another word for Present is a Gift – the present moment is always a gift. 

Now I want to talk about His Majesties Purpose.

That purpose is laid out across the whole of the Scripture from Adam and Eve onwards. Our true human vocation is to be image bearers of God and to care for His good creation.

In Ephesians 4.13 we read about the importance of unity among believers…

until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, as we mature to the full measure of the stature of Christ. 

‘…as we mature to the full measure of the stature of Christ.’

That is God’s purpose for each and every one of us – that we become like Christ.

That is the best goal, dream, idea, vision or BHAG you can ever have.

Because speaking of my own experience, once I turned away from trying to live life under my own terms, and once I read a little verse from Colossians 3.3. ‘For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God’    

Once I turned my life over and said let me work for God, sowing Gospel seeds, then I experienced His Majesties Presence, His Majesties Present and discovered His Majesties Purpose.

Every morning when you get up is the first day of the rest of your life – you can make a choice either to live in the past or to live in the future – maybe because the present is just so awful.

However, it is right here and right now that you can find God – in His Majesties Presence.

You can make a decision to clear away stones, pull up those weeds and set to work planting good seeds, looking for a great harvest.

On the other hand, you can sow seeds of bitterness, of anger and resentment, of jealously.

One thing I do know about life in prison is that you have limited choices.

However, I also know that you can choose how to live your life each and every day and in each and every moment.

Can I urge you to make the right choice – to recognize God’s presence, to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and begin to live life in the present moment, knowing forgiveness and healing for the past, and having a realistic hope for the future.

And whether you are able to walk out of here later on today or not, the same choice lies before us all.

Living in the moment with the help of God and accepting the gift of His Holy Spirit to renew our minds that will help us walk a different path daily, we can all become part of that rich harvest, good seed sown in good soil.  

Therefore, which path are you going to choose - for it is always your choice!



Support the work of the Chaplaincy Team at HMP Stafford.  Join with the Prison Fellowship Prayer Group - next meeting 30th August 2.00pm - 3.30pm at Rising Brook Baptist Church, Stafford.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Is there really a heaven?

I was asked this question recently and had to give a fairly concise answer...

An intriguing question, a question over which sadly blood has been split and many thousands of words spoken and written. 

The shortest and most honest answer is that nobody knows.

However, let us back track and see what we do know.

Jesus is a historically credited figure with extant evidence for his existence.  Equally historically verifiable, is his crucifixion.

From here we then have to ask further questions and the first one is why out of the thousands upon thousands of men crucified do we remember Jesus.  What makes his crucifixion something that we are still discussing thousands of years later?  A crucifixion that has inspired artist and poets across the world and rather oddly the cross has become a fashion icon worn by many people.

Then we need to examine the accounts of the resurrection and come to a decision.  If they are false then we still have the puzzle over why we are still talking about Jesus and his death.  However, in some ways that would remain just a peculiarity.

If on the other hand, you accept the evidence, as millions upon millions of people of every type and every status, rich, poor, slave, billionaires and those bankrupted, plus  junkies and super models and all stations in between have done!  If you accept the resurrection then the whole world changes – your whole world changes.   (I would say as someone who believes in the resurrection that the world has changed whether you believe it or not!)

From here, we can then begin to examine the teachings of Jesus.  We can look further at what some of the early Christian taught about heaven.   All of this contained in the New Testament.  From there we can reach back further and explore the Old Testament.  And right there in the first Book of the Bible we have a story of God creating the heavens and the earth.

Then skip along to the last Book in the Bible, Revelation and chapter 21 where we read - 

  ‘And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.    And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.    And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.’

This picks up what Jesus taught in his ‘model prayer’ – The Lord’s Prayer...
   ‘Your Kingdom Come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’

So heaven is the realm where God lives and earth is the realm designed for humans and the whole of the created order. One day they will be wonderful combined and then to read further from Revelation 

‘ And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away’

Sunday, 9 July 2017

'My Way' or 'The Highway' - transcript of sermon St Anne's Brown Edge 09/07/2017

Reading Romans is a challenge.

Reading Romans out aloud is a challenge.

Reading today’s passage is a challenge and with all the do and not do stuff it has sometimes been dubbed the Frank Sinatra passage – Doobey Doobey Do..

Walter Wangerin who wrote an excellent book called ‘The Book of God’ – the Biblical story told as a novel also wrote a book called ‘Paul.’

I love the way Wangerin portrays Paul. He does not have him sitting quietly and studiously at a table writing, but rather striding about as a Scribe tries to capture correctly the thoughts and ideas that come thick and fast.

Paul is famous for using mixed metaphors.

Paul was gripped by God, by the big picture, by Jesus once he stopped kicking against the goads and saw both the truth and the reality of whom Jesus was and what he achieved on the Cross.

The Cross - ‘For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’  1 Cor. 1.18

Paul knew the Book of God – Paul knew what it was to be zealous for God, for God’s Law.

However, Paul came to see that the Law was powerless to save as it only served to highlight transgressions.

Think about what the laws of our country do today.

Three basic things;

1) They constrain us, which might be good, bad, or even neutral, depending on your point of view.

2) As such, they are a marker for when we have transgressed, when we have broken the law

3) They speak of punishment to those who break the law

All of this, and much more besides was the same for the Law of Moses.

Above all the Law, as Paul says here in Romans (and in many other places) highlights our sins.

Or rather sin – and those that live in sin, live in death. 

‘For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Romans 6.23

(The only wage that has not been subject to any increase or decrease – it remains as a constant.)

What we need to understand is that we are not referring to particular sins, plural, for example, the breaking of moral codes, important though that is, but with the ‘sin of the world.’

‘The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ John 1.29

So, what is the ‘sin of the world’?

The overarching sin of the world is idolatry – the worship of something other than God in whose image we are created and whose glory we are called to reflect.

Furthermore, we are called to bring the whole of the created order into a place of giving praise and glory to God as creator and sustainer of all.

That is our human vocation. 

That was the call of God to Adam and Eve, that was the call of God to Noah, that was the call of God to Abraham, that was the call of God to Moses and that was the call of God to the People of Israel.

And the People of Israel were called to be a People peculiar unto God and to be a light to the Gentiles…

‘For this is what the Lord has commanded us: "'I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'" Acts 13.47

The call of God to worship Him is not because he is egoistical and desires sycophantic cultic worship.

To worship is to give something value or worth.

The effect of this is that we become like that which we worship by giving it value or worth. 

We will reflect back that which we worship – money, power, position, sex, whatever it is that we give worth to will mould us and shape us.

That is why idolatry is the one major overarching sin of the world. 

(Read the Book of Hosea)

How are we to we guard against this sin and worship God alone?

Well our Psalm Reading for today begins to give us some clues.  It speaks of God’s love, compassion and forgiveness.  All of this within the context of God’s Kingdom – God’s sovereign reign over all the earth.

‘Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominions endure through all generations.’ Psalm 145.12

Then that glorious passage from Zechariah we heard read, that speaks of  God coming as King, but not in power and mighty judgement, but meekly, gentle and riding on the back of a donkey.

May I remind you of what was written above Jesus’ head as he was crucified – ‘The King of the Jews.’

This is what Paul had come to see once the scales of prejudice had been taken from his eyes.

Paul knew the Law of Moses well and Paul knew as we all know, that there is another type of law. A law that entraps us, holds us prisoners, and will eventually lead us into death.

This is the good that I would do I do not do stuff.

A dark mysterious force encourages us to rebel against the acceptance of God as Lord and King.

This dark mysterious force gains strength and influence when we ‘worship’ this force, when we give into the temptations that face us.

This is not so strange and mystical and we see the outworking of this in action on a daily basis. 

When God takes second place in our choices.

Paul knew about this battle and Paul knew that the Law of Moses only served to demonstrate how far we fall short of God’s glory...

 ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,’  Romans 3.23

However, Paul came to know, as we can come to know, that Jesus is not only King of the Jews, but King overall the earth.

That through the death of Jesus, the power of this dark evil force has been broken forever as Jesus rose victorious over sin and death.

Therefore, if we yoke ourselves to Jesus we will find that we are also able to overcome.

That we will be able to live in the right way, in righteousness, to fulfill our God given vocation of being image bearers of God to the whole of the created order.

Romans 3.22-24 ‘And this righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.…   

And Jesus said…

‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. ‘

Coming back to Frank Sinatra there are two songs in the world, and all of us sing either one or the other.

One of Sinatra’s best-known songs was ‘My Way’ and I am sure you will know at least some of the key words, especially ‘I did it my way.’

This is the most popular song today… 'I'll do things my way'

However, an alternative song to ‘My Way’ is the song we recently sang at my home Church of St John’s.  It is one of my favourite Gospel songs, ‘I Surrender All.’

Written by Judson W Van DeVenter in 1896 this Gospel song, that also has a hymn quality about it, has remained popular and influenced many people.

1.   All to Jesus I surrender,
All to Him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust Him,
In His presence daily live.

o    Refrain:
I surrender all,
I surrender all;
All to Thee, my blessed Saviour,
I surrender all.

2.   All to Jesus I surrender,
Humbly at His feet I bow;
Worldly pleasures all forsaken,
Take me, Jesus, take me now.

3.   All to Jesus I surrender,
Make me, Saviour, wholly Thine;
Let me feel the Holy Spirit,
Truly know that Thou art mine.

4.   All to Jesus I surrender,
Lord, I give myself to Thee;
Fill me with Thy love and power,
Let Thy blessing fall on me.

5.   All to Jesus I surrender,
Now I feel the sacred flame;
Oh, the joy of full salvation!
Glory, glory, to His Name!

So, here is the question – when you step out of the door of this church building and enter into the week ahead, think of the places you will go, the people you will meet, the things you will say and do and even think – is it going to be ‘My Way’ or ‘The Highway.’

Let us pray using the words of yet another popular hymn that we sang earlier...

Lord, for ourselves, in living power remake us
self on the cross and Christ upon the throne,
past put behind us, for the future take us;
Lord of our lives, to live for Christ alone.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Making a Show of Particularity - FCN July Monthly Reflection

I have been involved with Church Tents at County Shows for over twenty years, in Cornwall, Devon, Sussex and now Staffordshire.

I know at first-hand how much hard work and effort goes into putting on a good show. Even today with pop-up gazebos there is still a job of work to be done even for the most modest of displays, including FCN. 

(Some make a sterling effort and win awards!)

The question that always sits there at the back of your mind is that we have to take all this lot down at the end of the day or two/three days and is it all worth the effort, time and expense.

At times like that, I reflect of the Tabernacle of Moses - see Exodus 25- 26 and various other places for the very exacting standards.

If you have ever struggled to put up a gazebo or party tent then spare a thought for what the Israelite's had to do!

The Tabernacle represented the place where God met with his people.

Exodus 25:8 ‘Then let them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them.’

Psalm 24.1 declares; ‘The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein…’

God is omnipresent but chose to reveal himself in particularity.

That is in part what we do when we erect our own temporary tabernacle to display the work of God through the ministry of FCN.

We are saying in effect, God is here, God is present, and God cares.

God cares about farming and agriculture. God cares about animal welfare and TB and late payment and milk quotas and about families in dispute. God cares about the farmer who has become so defeated that they are contemplating taking their own life. God cares about all of this and we by being present in particularity are demonstrating that very fact.

Another question that may be asked (and it is a perfectly proper question to ask) is about the cost, the time and effort and the volunteers, etc. Is it viable?

Well I would suggest that you do not turn to your Bible to try to answer that question.

A shepherd has a 100 sheep and just one wanders off so he sets off, leaving the 99 to search out the one!

This is the other particularity, not of place this time but the particularity of the person.

You may not be a great fan of Billy Graham and that style of evangelism. However, a story is told of Billy being interviewed shortly before a big rally. The interviewer said, ‘well Billy, all is set, the stadium is filling up, how many do you expect to turn to Christ tonight?’ Billy thought for a moment and then replied, ‘just one, and if just one person turns to Jesus all of this will have been worth it.’ (Interestingly the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has a resource programme called ‘My Hope’ - ‘The Worth of a Soul.’)

(You might also like to consider the story of the outpouring of Nard, the Widows Mite being worth more than all the other wealth, and the workers in the vineyard)

God does not appear to be very good with sums and values!

However, God is good with outrageous love, mercy and grace shown to individuals.

Jesus lived in particularity, in space, time and geography. In this setting, Jesus met and ministered to individuals as well as to crowds. He gave a mother back her son from death, dealt kindly with a woman with a deeply personal medical problem, and picked a woman up out of the dust where she had been thrown at Jesus’ feet, accused of adultery and facing being stoned. He met a woman at a well and spoke into her life and he met a tax collector who then gave most of his ill-gotten gains away in restoration.

As God’s representatives upon earth, in our temporary tabernacle and set in the particularity of a Show, Ploughing Match or some other Event, we are called to do the same.

Yes, it may not add up – all the time, effort and cost. However, it could make all the difference to that one farmer who does not know which way to turn in their desperation, or that wife of the farmer concerned for her husband’s well-being. I hope, like Billy Graham, you might be able to say, yes, it is all worth it for the one!


Lord Jesus, in the particularity of your earthy ministry you met and filled individuals with an outrageous abundance of love, mercy and grace. So fill us with the Holy Spirit that we may also be agents of that very same outrageous abundance of love, mercy and grace, freely dispensed to all whom we meet. Help us not so much to count the cost of doing something, but consider the consequences of doing nothing! Amen