Friday, 15 July 2011

Wheat and the Weeds

Today, I’d like to concentrate on the Gospel reading which is another parable from Matthew -  The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds . It is difficult for me to preach on parables, because I think Jesus used them, at least in part, to get people thinking, to cause them to muse on them over the next few days, wondering what they mean and how they relate to them. My hope and expectation is that the Holy Spirit will cause each of us to spot something in the parable that relates to us or encourages us or challenges us, and therefore my expectation is that we could each go away with a different interpretation of what Jesus was saying. In fact I would consider that to be a great success if that happened.

For this reason, it is normally thought that the ‘explanations’ of the parables are probably later additions to the gospel of Matthew, written by the second generation of Christians. Matthew’s gospel is thought to have been written in AD80, sometime after the fall of the Temple in AD70 so it is indeed possible that there was input from second generation Christians.

So what does this parable mean to you? I wonder whether you love it or hate it? I guess I have both reactions to it.

I love it because, for me it goes some way to answering  the question of why God lets suffering and difficulty continue in the world. It is because the two grow so close together, they have their roots entwined, pull up the weeds and you will pull up wheat too… It isn’t so easy to separate suffering and blessing, and so often one leads to the other. And so the parable reminds me get on with life, amongst the suffering and difficulty, because there is no such thing as a weed free field this side of eternity. The parable also reminds me that God is patient with me. There are a lot of weeds growing in my heart, as well as some wheat. God takes the rough with the smooth when it comes to Lesley, and the same with any of you that are aware of your failings. God won’t be rough with us. There is a lovely verse in Isaiah 42 that says:

‘A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.’

So, in some ways this is my favourite parable, a word of comfort from a gentle God. But, on the other hand you could see a theology that is called ‘predestination’ in it. This is a theology that some of the reformers expounded when the Protestant churches broke away from the Catholic church. It is often attributed to a man called Calvin, and hence you may meet ‘Calvinists’ who have this theology. The idea is that God, before time, decided who would go to heaven – called ‘the elect’ and who would go to Hell – called ‘the reprobate’, and then the two groups live together, one forever predestined for glory and the other forever predestined for eternal damnation. Needless to say, I don’t believe in a God like this. But I guess, if I did, then the parable tells us that all we can do is grow, thrive and not judge others  because at the end of the day it is only God who knows what is wheat and what are the weeds.

I should probably have said earlier that the parable partly relies on the idea that it is very difficult to tell what is wheat and what are the weeds, as it is thought that the weeds were a plant called ‘darnel’ which initially looks very similar to wheat. In preparing this sermon I have noticed some more ideas about this parable that feel helpful.

For a start Jesus is very black and white here – there are two types of crop, good quality wheat and useless weeds. There are two main characters involved, the good farmer and the fiendish enemy. There are two times of day – the farmer in the daytime and the enemy under the cover of night.  There are two destinations – the wheat in the barn or the weeds in the fire.

So it is tempting, isn’t it, to be black and white ourselves? Throughout church history, there have been people who are quite clear about what is good doctrine and what is bad, and the bad has been plucked out and the offending books have been burned. Indeed Jesus was accused of having false doctrine. There have been people who are quite clear about who are good Christian leaders and who are bad, and the bad ones have been plucked out and burned at the stake. Indeed Jesus was crucified for being a false messiah. There are people who have been quite clear about what worship is good and what is bad, and the false altars have been pulled down and burned in the fire.  Indeed Jesus was denounced for encouraging false worship. There have been people who are quite clear about good and bad lifestyles and those with bad lifestyles have been plucked out and burned in the fire. And yet Jesus said that he died to save sinners, not to condemn them. The Wheat and the weeds are to grow up together . The weeds are not to be plucked out.

To save.. not to condemn.. That challenges me. Who have I condemned? Who have we as a church condemned? How about through the ages – the crusades, the inquisition – the church has done much plucking.

I heard a story about a church who had a sponsored walk and one of the lads did the walk in a Tutu and carrying a rainbow flag. So they airbrushed him out of the photos because they didn’t want to promote homosexuality. Who do I airbrush out? Do I airbrush out Jesus’ friends in the Gospel? The tax-collectors, the prostitutes, the sinners? Perhaps it is frankly tidier to airbrush Jesus out because he can be a bit embarrassing sometimes.

This parable is a parable of Tolerance. Life is messy. I should expect to find myself surrounded by ‘weeds’ (arrogantly presupposing that I am ‘wheat’), people who have different values, who challenge me, irritate me, unnerve me. To be honest, that isn’t my experience recently. So where are they? Have I plucked them out? I will be saying this a lot, but if there is one thing this Benefice has taught me, it is the power of acceptance and love. Perhaps as life goes on I will learn that more and more and consequently find more and more weeds surrounding me!

I hope you have found something in this parable that the Holy Spirit is trying to tell you. I know I have. I hope God continues to bless you richly through this parable this week.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Your Church Wedding

Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Transfiguration - Matthew 17:1-9

Glory.. what does the word glory mean to you? Can anyone give me a definition?

I have heard it said that Glory is a symbol of light, of transformation, and of the direct revelation of God’s presence. All of these were present at the Transfiguration.

This time of transfiguration is a mountain-top experience, a moment when it feels like the veil between heaven and earth has drawn very thin… I wonder whether you have experienced that? Perhaps when out on a mountain top, or when walking in the countryside, or driving and seeing a sunset, or  in a time of prayer? Or in church? Has anyone experienced a time of glory?

It is a strange thing the transfiguration because it seems to have many echoes of the story of the crucifixion – especially in Matthew’s gospel:

Matthew has the centurion at the foot of the cross saying ‘Truly this was the Son of God’ just like the voice from heaven at the transfiguration.  Matthew also has three female disciples at the foot of the cross –Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee just as there are three male disciples at the transfiguration – Peter, James and John.   

But there are also four dramatic contrasts between the story of the transfiguration and of the cross:
Firstly Jesus takes his friends with him, up a mountain for his transfiguration.  For his crucifixion Jesus is taken by strangers to a hill having been abandoned by his friends.   

Secondly at the crucifixion Jesus’ clothes are stripped off and squabbled over: at the transfiguration Jesus’ clothes are turned shiny white. 

Thirdly the transfiguration is full of light – the light comes not just from Jesus’ clothes but also from his face.   His face shone like the sun - according to Matthew - and even the cloud out of which the voice from heaven cam was ‘bright’.  The crucifixion on the hand was full of darkness.  Luke tells us that at the actual point of Jesus’ death ‘there was darkness over the whole land’ and the sun’s light failed. 

Fourthly at the transfiguration there are two saints standing beside Jesus: at the crucifixion hang two robbers.
In the story in Luke’s gosepel, we are told that Jesus was glorified at the transfiguration and that the disciples woke to see his glory.  But Jesus is also glorified – in a different – even opposite way -at his crucifixion.

It is if we are looking at two pictures of the same thing with similar outlines but contrasting even opposite colours.  If one scene were sketched on a transparency and placed over the other many of its lines would disappear.   What is the significance of this?  

Well the two scenes represent the extremes of human experience.  One speaks of nakedness and mockery, nails and blood, suffering and loneliness, torture and death.   The other makes visible the presence of God within a human being.   So Jesus embodies the whole spectrum of human possibility in one person.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons why he is always been so attractive and inspiring.   He shows forth in his own person both the depths of pain and anguish which a human being can know and –what we all long for – transformation to a state beyond pain and anguish.   Jesus it the great illustration of both pain and hope.  At his transfiguration he is humanity transformed and humanity glorified.  But he can only transform humanity through his crucifixion as demonstrated by his subsequent resurrection. 

I wonder whether if you thought about the times that you have felt closest to God, or when you have felt transformed as a person.. are those moments like the crucifixion or like the transfiguration? I think for me I have some of both… but perhaps the most powerful are the times that were painful.

Here finally are some words from the author Michael Willson: ‘The cross is not a rescue like the Exodus from an evil situation but salvation in and through a evil situation, first confronting it, then bearing it, then transforming it.  It is as if evil is the raw material out of which new life is forged.  The news of the gospel is not moral perfection nor sinlessness, it is forgiveness.’  Through forgiveness and love evil is reversed and can be changed into good.  ‘Jesus is less interested in the causes of evil but in its transformation’ 

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Renewable Energies Seminar

On the 5th March I will be organising a seminar in Wing. The picture above is of some of their solar panels that Wing church folks have put on their roof (I was being brave when I too the photo). Please consider coming along (details below). If you have a house or school or church or church hall that you have some responsibility for then this is a way of making money as well as being 'green'.

Your church & renewable energy – Wing Seminar
An opportunity to hear about renewable energy options and your church building.

Find out how your church can generate electricity, cut energy bills and, through the feed-in-tariffs, make a good return on its investment!

Including presentations and information from experts, plus an opportunity to see solar panels on a church roof in action.
On 5th March 2011 at All Saints Church, Wing, Buckinghamshire

Starts at 9.30am and finish by 12.30pm

Coffee and tea will be available for a small fee.

For further details and to book a place visit:

Alternatively send your name and contact details by email to or call 01865 208745

Click here to download a poster to advertise the event.

Organised by the Diocese of Oxford and hosted by All Saints Church, Wing


Tuesday, 8 February 2011

February Pause for Thought...

Pause For Thought ….
with Lesley Fellows

Do you ever think religion does more harm than good? Do you ever read stories about religious people that make you wince? Do you ever think that Richard Dawkins has a point when he talks about abusive religion? There are some terrible stories in the news that make me put my head in my hands. But there again, I came across this piece of writing by a Quaker called Bernard Canter, and he answers these questions so well:

Religion is living with God. There is no other kind of religion. Living with a Book, living with or by a Rule, being awfully high-principled are not in themselves religion, although many people think they are and that that is all there is to it. Religion has got a bad name through being identified with an outward orderliness. But an outward orderliness can be death, dullness and masochism. Doing your duty may be admirable stoicism; it isn't religion.
To find religion itself you must look inside people and inside yourself. And there, if you find even the tiniest grain of true love, you may be on the right scent. Millions of people have it and don't know what it is that they have. God is their guest, but they haven't the faintest idea that he is in the house. So you mustn't only look where God is confessed and acknowledged. You must look everywhere, to find the real religion.
I completely believe that true Religion transforms both us and our world for the better. It is based on compassion and love, not on stoicism, nor on legalism, nor on judgementalism. It is like falling in love, it transforms everything, because nothing can ever be the same again. We do need to open our eyes and our hearts though. I will leave you with some words that I love from a nun called Joan Chittister:

All life takes on a new dimension once we begin to see it as spiritual people. The bad does not destroy us and the good gives us new breath because we are always aware that everything is more than it is. The family is not just a routine relationship; it is our sanctification. Work is not just a job; it is our exercise in miracle making. Prayer is not just quiet time; it is an invitation to grow. We begin to find God where we could not see God before, not as a panacea or an anesthetic, not as a cheap release from the problems of life, but as another measure of life's meaning for us.
I pray that all of us find ourselves surprised by God this year.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Salt in the dung

1 Cor 2:19
  (O) "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
   nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has(P) prepared(Q) for those who love him"—

Jesus, in this section of the Sermon on the Mount starts in the courtyard of a house, and then goes inside.  Jewish homes were built as a single room in a U shape around a courtyard. The courtyard would contain the “earth”, which was an outdoor earthen oven, a millstone for grinding, a dung heap, chicken and cattle. The earthen oven would be fuelled by dung and this was mixed with salt to help it burn. In the same passage in Luke, it says that salt which has lost its saltiness is “fit neither for the earth, nor the dunghill, men throw it away”

It is an interesting analogy – that somehow we are meant to be the catalyst that keeps the flame alive, and we are meant to be found in the dung, the messiness of our society and of life. I wonder if this is how you see yourselves?

We then go into the house, which was lit with an oil lamp that was put on a stand and as there was only one room it lit the whole house. At night time it was extinguished by placing a bushel basket over it and leaving it there, so that the house didn’t get filled with smoke and fumes just before retiring to bed.

Jesus is asking us whether we are like the light on the lampstand or whether we are like the extinguished lamp with the bushel basket. Darkness to the hearers of this parable was not just the absence of light – darkness had a life of its own, it was sinister.

I want to think about light and darkness in this sermon, and the encouragement of those words from Corinthians:

O) "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
   nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has(P) prepared(Q) for those who love him"—

I want to think about how we can remain salty, stay as a catalyst, keep the flame burning and generally stop being smothered by the bushel basket.

So if we think about darkness, a darkness that is active and not simply a lack of light, what is that darkness for you? For me it is fear every time.

My major fear has been inadequacy, that if I was found out, I wouldn’t be lovable. I regularly read a commentary on the rule of Benedict and in the section in humility the author, Joan Chittistler considers that all people secretly think they are inferior to others which is why we cling so tightly to our achievements, our degrees and so on.

Certainly, for me, the only thing that could silence the voice that said I wasn’t good enough was by being the best. Each year at university I had to come out top. I got the top first and the prize for best project, somehow a first in itself couldn’t satisfy my desperate inadequacy, it had to be the top one.

I was truly dreadful at receiving criticism too. I can remember occasions where someone in authority has criticised me, and rather than listen and evaluate their opinions, I have been desperately hurt. Hopefully, that is better now.

I think a closely related fear is the fear of being rejected, and I can trace rather painful threads back to my childhood.

I don’t know whether any of these fears resonate with you – whether you can recognise fears that have dogged you all your life?

So how on earth do we get over these fears? I guess the first thing is we get a friend to challenge us. I have a friend who is permanently afraid of ‘them’. So I say 'who are "they" exactly?', and 'what are "they" going to say to you or do to you?' Another thing is ‘what is the worst thing that can happen?’

Encouragement is good too – I was very discouraged recently and my bishop said that he thought I was perfectly able to do this or that. I walked out so much taller. Of course it helped that the Bishop told me.

I think the key is that we need to expose our fears – to bring them into the light, with someone we trust – hopefully someone who won’t collude with us, but challenge us and encourage us.

Do we really want to be fearful, or do we want to be salt and light? Do we want to be a catalyst for change, do we want to bring light? I am hoping the answer is no, so let us unshackle ourselves from the darkness and remember that God loves us:

O) "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
   nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has(P) prepared(Q) for those who love him"—

The Bible tells us ‘do not be afraid’ more than a hundred times, and more than any other commandment.
We are told that those who walk in darkness have seen a great light and asked the question ‘if God is for us then who can be against us?’

So let us throw off our bushel baskets, find ways to admit and overcome our fears and start shining as lights in our dark world, or to use another metaphor let us be salt in amongst the dung. Amen

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Calling the disciples

So let’s just glean some information from the reading we have heard. We learn of the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus’s cousin and also the one who had baptised him. It seems likely that Jesus has been part of John’s group, but on his arrest the disciples scatter and the ministry there at the Jordan ends. So Jesus leaves John the Baptist’s group, and remember from last week that the group included Andrew and Simon Peter and possibly the apostle John.

The next thing we find is that Jesus then took up residence in Capernaum near the sea. There is no explanation at all given for this. I guess I would surmise that Jesus needed to go and think. John had been arrested, what did that mean? Was Jesus to take over the ministry? Would it be a different form? Is now the time? What would the implications be?

John the Baptist was a holy man – following in the footsteps of the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha – meeting with God in dreams, visions and altered states of consciousness. Jesus had followed in this way, learning the ropes, perhaps. I think of Holy people as those who are capable of embodying the values that they espouse.

John had been the rabbi, training his disciples and now he was gone, so Jesus becomes the rabbi, and the first thing a rabbi does is call his disciples. So he finds Simon Peter and Andrew. Fishing was done overnight or early in the morning and then the rest of the day was dedicated to mending the nets, and that is what the brothers were doing when they were called. ‘Follow me’, Jesus says, and they do. Then the same with James and John, sons of Zebedee.

We have thought before about what a privilege it was to be a disciple of a rabbi. In most cases only the best of the best of the best became disciples – those who has studied the scriptures and learned them off by heart – those who could answer questions on the Law and the Prophets, they were the only ones who would take the Yoke of their Rabbi’s teachings. Hence, when Jesus called them, perhaps it is no surprise that they were quick to respond, they were being told that they were worthy, that they were chosen, that to Jesus they were good enough.

It reminds me of that old Chinese Proverb – “He who thinks he is a leader and has no followers is actually only going for a walk”.

I would like to consider a few aspects of Jesus’s leadership that I think were brilliant and I would like to emulate, and perhaps all of us can emulate them.

The first is embodying his values, which I have already spoken about. Another who did this was Gandhi – amazing things can be achieved if we completely embody the change we would like to see. It has to be authentic - it has to go through us - no one will be fooled by a mask. We must never tire - never slump in our standards, never get negative and unfocused - always challenge anything that erodes the vision. When people give us a negative and hopeless rhetoric we must not ignore it, but reply, 'Ah, it is tempting to feel like that, but there is a better way.....'

The second is Listening; I am convinced that Jesus listened very deeply. I was reminded again of the three levels of listening recently. It really is the most important skill. If we feel heard then it is so important, and so unusual. I have turned over a new leaf, again, to listen at level 3 as often as I can. So here they are:

Level 1 or ‘Internal listening’
As the listener your focus in on yourself and your own thoughts rather than the speaker. As the speaker is talking you interpret what you hear in terms of what it means to you. This is normal everyday conversation where it is natural as the listener to gather information to help you form opinions and make decisions. You may feel that you appear to be listening, but in fact your thoughts have wandered off.

Level 2 or ‘Listening to understand’
As a listener operating at level 2 you are focusing totally on the speaker, listening to their words, tone of voice and body language and are not distracted by your own thoughts and feelings. You can summarise back to the person in their own type of language what they have said, and be completely attentive. This is a very high degree of listening.

Level 3 or ‘Global Listening’
This involves the listener focusing on the speaker and picking up more than what is being said. You are aware of what is going on in your own emotions - you will be empathising and so your own feelings will mirror those of the person you are listening to. You can gauge their energy and their emotions as well as picking up what they are not saying. You will understand what they are thinking and feeling, and trusting your own senses can be extremely responsive to the needs of the person you are listening to, knowing what question to ask next.

The third is Empowering – Jesus taught his disciples what to do and what he expected, and then when they were ready he sent them off to do likewise and report back, so when he was gone the movement continued – he taught them to make disciples who make disciples.

There is a saying ‘May you be covered in the Dust of your Rabbi’.. this was because the disciples walked behind their rabbi and they got caked in whatever the rabbi had stepped in. It was a sandy, dusty place and they walked close enough to get covered in the dust of their rabbi. This is a metaphor for us – may we walk so closely to Jesus that we gat covered in his dust. But what does that mean for us today?

What is the challenge for us? Jesus says ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’. Do we want to be part of this? I am guessing the answer to this is yes because we are all here – we want to be part of bringing God’s love and God’s justice to this world. Jesus says we need to repent – but what does this mean – what can we do?

Well I guess there are a few things I really want to repent of:

- The first is that feeling that I’m not really good enough.. Jesus has called us all. Like the first disciples, we may think there are others better than us… this is utterly irrelevant – Jesus called us, not the other way around. Jesus has faith in us, do we have any faith in ourselves?

- The second is the desire to give up, to compromise, to cooperate with all those who say it is all too hard. We are here to change the world, with the help of the Holy Spirit and following the model of Jesus. Let’s not compromise our standards or our beliefs, let us challenge ourselves and others, and always seek the higher way. I don’t mean judge people, I don’t mean spread guilt and shame.. I mean spread love, spread encouragement, I mean treat ourselves and others with respect and dignity.

- The third is I need to listen more, listen to people more deeply and hear what people are actually saying, because the people who listen well are those who have a chance of hearing God and hearing others, and in doing so those who listen might change the world.

Let us together Repent for the Kingdom of God is near.