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Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension: Lockdown Gardening
I’m a willing amateur when it comes to gardening. I tend to go for the straightforward things like clean soil, veg. in rows and neat stripes on the lawn. Well, ‘lawn’ is a bit of an exaggeration; it’s really mown meadow. The border is also a bit of an overstatement. We grandly call it ‘The Western Border’. It used to be a thick bramble hedge until Les and I tore it out with crowbar and axe. But the contrast between lawn and border is clear, even from this photo. The edge divides the two: predictable grass on the one side and an eruption of surprises on the other. A gardener has been here before and each year we discover some new addition: shrubs, bulbs, bluebells. We even have some planned fruit and veg. of our own among the surprises.
I spend quite a lot of time on the border – the border between humankind and God. That’s part of what clergy do. Border activities include prayer; scanning the contours of that mystery we call God; developing the community’s interaction with Kingdom values; translating divine movement; staring into the divine fog. And at this Ascension-tide, the line between humanity and divinity is most marked. The Ascension celebrates the end of those extra-physical appearances of Jesus. We believe that Jesus returns to the company of The Father in order that together they send their councillor, their advocate, their Holy Spirit to support us in the on-going work of Christ here on earth. Through The Ascension, the local can become the universal presence of Christ.
Images of The Ascension
Our reading today tells the story of the Ascension. Luke is the only gospel writer who records the event but even he, with his medical precision, struggles. And so do we. The whole canon of Christian Art on the subject is quite frankly laughable so I’ve asked Joss Jordon, aged 7, to paint us the scene and she’s done a great job. It’s bold, colourful, precise and has that vertical dimension about it which was so important for the 1st century mind. For them, heaven was above; hell was below. Joss’s picture is far more sophisticated than the Chapel of the Ascension at Walsingham, where a pair of plaster feet are screwed into the ceiling!
This boundary of Jesus’s earthly life challenges us. Our minds are stretched to the limit; language seems inadequate. We are faced with this boundary between earth and heaven, between the physical and the spiritual which Jesus crosses and unites them in himself. But also in us, The Body of Christ.
Monty Don, writing last week about the loss of Nigel, his beloved dog, points towards this mystery in which we are united
“Part of the pleasure of gardening is the connection to the rhythm of something deeper than our daily lives. It connects backwards and forwards to something of which we are only a part.”
Back to my border. There’s a big contrast between the rough grass and the teeming border. With the help of my gardening friends, I can tell you what is in the border. I can step into the border and weed, mulch, plant and harvest. And there appears to be a heavy crop of soft fruit this year and I shall be sad if I cannot share it with my jam-making brother who lives in the north. But I can tell him what to expect if the lockdown ends. I can witness to most plants in that border: the shrubs which God has thrown up and the stuff I continue to plant. I know what’s there.
As Jesus ascended he told his friends that they must be witnesses to all that has happened. They must tell of all the good things that Jesus accomplished here on earth – his teaching, the miracles, befriending of the poor and the speaking of truth to power. It was costly, we know that, but The Ascension beckons us upwards too, to continue that work as he equips us to do.
We too are called to witness to the good things we have experienced directly or indirectly from the hand of God: relationships healed, the lives saved from agony, different directions taken, new skills discovered, a new life, a peaceful death. At The Ascension, Jesus encourages us to explore beyond the border, for the treasures to be found there will colour life on my patchy lawn. Amen.
Simon Aley, currently preparing for ordination, has recorded this week’s sermon, which can be watched here on YouTube.
If you have any problem doing this the sermon is also copied underneath.
Today’s Gospel reading is John 14:1-12 and Simon has used the New International Version but you can follow in any Bible.
“Lord show us the Father and that will be enough for us”
So how are you managing in lockdown? How are you contacting friends, family, business contacts? By telephone? Skype? Teams? Facetime? Or Zoom. And what does it look like? A few weeks ago, the Church Times, created a montage of people on these various platforms in lockdown. Various images – some with a full face, others just the top of their head, some dog collars, one even robed! Different ages, different settings And don’t you all look round, take a nosy peek? Or is that just me?!! As you can imagine while our Priest in Charge reads the erudite articles in the Church Times, I tend to go for the cartoon they publish each week and in that same edition the cartoon also focussed on the online screen view classifying us accordingly, the artistic or the scholarly or the realistic! I will leave you to decide which group you fall into or other people you have had these Zoom or similar sessions with and taken a nosey peak! Lord show us the Father and that will be enough for us. Give us a nosy peek at God if you like.
I get Jesus’ disappointment at Philip saying this. “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?” Philip was one of the earliest of the disciples to follow Jesus, a friend of Andrew and his family, Philip really had better opportunity than most to know Jesus and who he was and yet says “show us the Father and that will be enough.” Clearly therefore being a disciple of Jesus, all that time had not been enough. He needed something more. Jesus has just declared “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except by me.” Philip had assumed perhaps that Jesus was offering to introduce the disciples to the Father, and, in a sense, he does but what Philip fails to appreciate is that in seeing Jesus he is with the Father. Jesus and the Father are one. Philip should know that no-one has seen God and to do so is certain death. So, a strange demand for Philip to make.
What are you hoping to get from the Prime Minister’s announcement this evening 10th May? Depending on when you listen to this you may already know! What restrictions do you want to see lifted? One I have heard many times in the last week is around when we can get back into our churches and worship together. On one level I share that longing but on another I have really valued this time of worship in lockdown, actually seeing our garden grow daily through spring that I have not done in over 20 years living here in Manton and meeting with the people of God locally and around the world through daily acts of worship on Zoom – to pray for one another daily and see God’s hand at work. And as an aside I have probably invited more people every day to these Zoom services because that is how you join than I had to any other church services prior to lockdown and perhaps I need to learn from that. God was not locked into our churches when we had to close the doors. He was and is and will be omnipresent – everywhere. Lord show us the Father and that will be enough for us. We may be in lockdown, but God is with us every moment. The famous German Pastor and writer of the last century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a poem while locked in prison on New Year’s Day 1945 a few weeks before he was executed by the Nazis, not long before VE day. This is a free translation I did of one of the stanzas:
From all His powers so wonderfully bestowed
Whatever happens we can surely know
That God is with us evening until morning
Already knowing what each new day brings.
Jesus gave a wonderful assurance to his disciples and to all of us. It is one of the 7 I am sayings of Jesus in John’s Gospel ego eimi is the Greek for I am and is a very intense way of saying this, deep, personal and reassuring and Jesus is not a way to God, he is the only way. Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved. Jesus is truth. In the Old Testament the law is the truth but Christ fulfils the law and so embodies truth; the truth about who I am, how I am counted as righteous and my destiny in God are all wrapped into this assurance. And thirdly the life. Jesus is about to die. Our Gospel reading today has flipped us back to just before Holy Week and Jesus will die in a few days and the disciples have been warned and yet this condemned, or at least doomed man is claiming he is the life. This claim is only possible because Jesus, as he reminded Philip is in the Father and the Father is in him. He knew that but his faith was not strong enough. My faith is not strong enough. Relying on faith alone, I falter. If I had faith the size of a mustard seed, I could move mountains and yet there has been no tectonic activity as a result of my small faith and I suspect I am in good company. The nearest the patron saint of Wales got was for a small hill to rise up from the ground from which he could preach! My faith is not enough even for that. Being allowed back into our churches to worship again would not be enough and being shown the Father, I suspect, would not be enough. I need, we all need Christ in our lives and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. To know that Christ is in us, the hope of glory – the way, the truth and the life is enough for now in lockdown, in normal times and for all eternity.
Let us pray.
Thank you Lord that you are the way, the truth and the life, that you are in the Father and the Father is in you and in the Spirit’s you are with us and when our faith is weak you uplift us. Help us see however hard the situation is that you are enough for us. We may not see you, but we can love you and worship you right where are
And now to Him who is able to keep us from falling and to make us stand without blemish in the presence of His glory, to the only God our saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord be all glory, power and authority for all time and for now and forever. Amen
We are in difficult times as a community and the wardens and I want to share with you the resources of our church for it is at such times of national emergency and challenge that people fall back on old certainties often overlooked.
Following government guidance and instructions from our archbishops, there will be no public worship in our churches until further notice. And as from 23 March, we have now been told to close the churches, even for private prayer which is sad but necessary.
At times of crisis The Church and its members are specifically called to witness to the continuing presence and power of God through prayer and action. Awareness of our neighbours’ needs is written into our national DNA but it is primarily a faith activity: “Love God and your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10.27). Please remember in your prayers those in authority who have to make difficult decisions on our behalf and those who sacrifice their own well-being to help others either professionally or domestically.
Many folk will be worried about themselves, their loved ones and the future of our lives both communally and individually. Please use your wardens, PCC members and myself to discuss anything which is on your mind. Small issues usually mask greater issues which affect us all. No concern will be dismissed; there will be a way through. Hope will prevail.
Christopher Armstrong. 01572 748634.
Churchwarden names and phone numbers are shown on the CONTACT page