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John 4: Barriers overcome by hope

Based on a Sermon first preached at Westergate Methodist Church on Sunday 15th March.

We find ourselves in unprecedented, anxious and unexpected times. It is almost impossible to escape the unending media updates on the worldwide Covid-19 outbreak, and at times it is hard to work out what is truth, and what is media spin, fiction and scaremongering.

It is likely that within the next few weeks we will find new barriers and boundaries placed upon us to seek to protect the vulnerable and control the spread of the virus; social-distancing, self-isolation, hand-washing, cancelling of events and closing of buildings among them. People are understandably anxious about what the next few weeks will hold, including whether we will have enough food and supplies.

But barriers are not new. Good or bad, they have always been part of human life, from the segregation of the feudal system and the slave trade to stories throughout scripture where we find kingdoms and walls and wars where people are divided and boundaried. And many boundaries we know today are human made, from walls and fences, to the meaning we human beings have place on rivers, forests, cliffs and mountain ranges.

As we come to John 4, we meet Jesus who ignores social, cultural and geographical boundaries for the sake of his mission.

Things had got a bit difficult, Chinese whispers spreading and anxiety growing, for rumour had it that Jesus was baptising more people than John. And while the truth was that Jesus wasn’t baptising anyone (4:2), at the time it was the rumours that help weight – not the truth.

So what does Jesus do?
He leaves Judea, and to do so he heads through Samaria – outsider land, a place that Jews didn’t typically go, to a people that Jews didn’t typically mix or socialise with. But Jesus is either ambivalent to the boundaries or intentially walks through them. It seems that boundaries were not so important to Jesus…

As the day goes on, Jesus is tired so as they reach Sychar, the disciples head for food while Jesus rests by the well; tired, hungry, thirsty, alone. Perhaps he’d been there a while when along comes the Samaritan woman, in the heat of the day. And ignoring social and cultural boundaries, Jesus speaks to this Samaritan, this woman, and not just speaks, but asks her for a drink too.

And as the conversation goes on (and there’s much more that could be said!), Jesus offers hope of living water, that will spring up into eternal life. The idea of a fresh, abundant, flowing spring of life excites the woman, gives her hope and she says to this Jewish bloke, give me some! (4:15).

This woman, in her conversation with Jesus, finds a sense of hope, life, freedom, self worth – as Jesus sees her as the human she is, without the barriers of social and cultural conformity. She declares ‘you are a prophet’ (4:19), and Jesus then declares that mountain and Jerusalem will one day not matter at all, because true worshippers will worship in Spirit and in truth (4:21-23). Not worship that conforms to human barriers and boundaries, but worship that is personal, individual, true, in spirit.

In her encounter with Jesus, this woman is set free, through Jesus simply speaking words of truth and compassion, and ignoring barriers of culture and society. She becomes an evangelist in telling the rest of the city of her encounter, and many also believe.
All because Jesus didn’t have a bucket, and didn’t care for cultural, geographical and social boundaries.

Jesus comes to meet each of us at the well, just as he met the woman at the well. He meets us as human beings, fearfully and wonderfully made. Filled with possibility and potential, love and compassion, mercy and grace, creativity and gifts and skills.
Each of us brings to the table of the work of God something no-one else can be. Being someone no-one else can be.

So where is our well? Where can we experience the transformation of Jesus presence?

Over the coming weeks, we don’t know what barriers and boundaries are going to be placed upon us, in an effort to safeguard the health and wellbeing of the nation, especially those who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19.

But whatever boundaries may be put in place (which we need to respect and follow), Jesus doesn’t follow them.

Jesus doesn’t conform to human boundaries, Jesus meets us at the well, even if we’re isolated and alone, and says mountain or Jerusalem, church building or community centre, that doesn’t matter, what matters is worship in Spirit and in truth.

Gathering in a community of believers is helpful, encouragement, supportive, and we know that to belong to Jesus, to worship in Spirit and truth, is to be part of a communtiy of believers.

But we can be community without being sat next to each other, for a time. We have phones, some have email and social media, we overcome barriers and boundaries in different ways. Wherever we find ourselves over the coming weeks, in these days of anxiety and uncertainty, Jesus ignores the barriers and offers living water to all, that springs up into eternal life.

Jesus offers hope.
Hope that this too will pass.
Confidence that Jesus will overcome any barriers or boundaries that may come our way.
Assurance that he is always with us, no matter what.

Jesus does and will meet with us wherever we are, no matter what is going on in the world around us.


COVENANT: Living without the full picture

Adapted from a sermon preached at Covenant Services in January 2020 at Westergate, Bognor Regis and Felpham Methodist Church, West Sussex.

During the 2020 Christmas break we took our first ever family trip to the cinema to see Frozen 2. If you want to watch a movie that includes songs that will undoubtedly get stuck in your brain forever… that’s the film to go and see…

We sat in the cinema, waiting for 12:30 to arrive… and when it did, the sound came on…be we had no picture. At first we thought the film must be starting off with some radio adverts, but after a while of listening and hearing some adverts that made no sense without pictures, and I was convinced I’d seen on the telly in recent days we began to think something might not be quite right.

Continue reading COVENANT: Living without the full picture

God of all: Unity in difference

Adapted from the transcript & notes of a Sermon first preached by Rev Dan Balsdon at Bognor Regis Methodist Church on 20th October 2019.
The Readings were Jeremiah 31:27-34 & Luke 18:1-8

Please forgive any typo’s I missed!


As a probationer presbyter, the Church requires me to undertake ongoing study.
At the moment, I’m preparing for a study week with fellow probationers in November which will centre around reflecting on our first year of ministry and thinking about what the Christian gospel looks and feels like in the places I serve.

Continue reading God of all: Unity in difference

To leave and remain…Part 2

The Sun rose.
The world awoke.
Another day.
The past week’s event almost forgotten.
Not for his followers.

The women gathered early.
Jesus might have left, but his body remained.
So they headed out to the tomb.

When they got there, the stone had moved and the body was gone.
All that remained were the burial clothes.
Now nothing remained. All had been taken.

And then, as Mary sat weeping,
Jesus appeared.
Alive.
He didn’t leave.
Somehow he remained.

Mary ran to the others, told them Jesus lived.
They struggled to believe.

And then, then Jesus appeared.
I am alive, he declared.

“Now I must leave, I can’t be with you in person any longer.
But my Spirit will remain with you always.”

To this day, by his Spirit, Jesus remains.
Transforming lives and communities through his unconditional love,
and longing for us to remain in him and experience his love.

If you want to know more, come and explore at Felpham Methodist Church, or send us a message.

First published by Felpham Methodist Church, April 2019

To leave and remain… Part 1

The sky turned black.
The world watched…. and waited.
Jesus’ time seemed to be up.

He’d gathered with his friends, shared their final meal together.
“I will soon have to leave you” he said.
He’d gone to pray in the garden,
“Father, let this suffering leave me” he prayed.
Then he was betrayed.
handed over, put on trial.
His disciples scattered, leaving Jesus alone.

‘Crucify Him’ the crowd shouted.
So he was. Stripped. Flogged.
Marched up the hill.
And there, there he was killed.  
Hung from a cross and left to die.

Jesus had left.
His followers lost.
What to do now that Jesus no longer remained with them?

First published by Felpham Methodist Church, April 2019

Tackling the tough stuff…

Soon after I arrived in Circuit, one of the churches under my care asked if we could start a bible study/fellowship group, because it was something they longed for but hadn’t had for some time.

I willingly obliged, encouraged by their enthusiasm for study and fellowship and I confess slightly indulgently – because I always enjoy conversation about faith, scripture and God.

Continue reading Tackling the tough stuff…

Seeing what’s in front of me

I’ve recently been reading a book called ‘Under the Unpredictable Plant’, by Eugene Peterson. Using the book of Jonah as a foundation, he explores how we understand the vocation of a pastor in a world where vocation too often becomes a career, spirituality becomes religiosity and being a pastor revolves around either being a manager or being a messiah. He makes many points, but at it’s crux is the suggestion that above all being a pastor requires us to speak of God, and point to God.

While the book was written over 25 years ago, and comes from an American context, I’ve still found it a really helpful read, as someone who is about to begin full time ministry and can echo with some of Eugene’s own vocational journey.

Over the last few days, one line has particularly stuck with me, where Peterson suggests we need to:

“develop a reverence for what is actually there instead of a contempt for what is not, inadequacies that seduce me into a covetousness for someplace else.” [1]

All too often, I find myself hearing what others are saying, seeing what others are doing, and wishing I could be doing that, that I was like that. The result is that I fail to recognise, appreciate and revere what is in front of me.

There have been a few times in the past week where I’ve found myself caught up short, realising the seduction and distraction that has drawn my attention away from what is in front of me.

One such moment was on Sunday morning. My family and I were attending my link church for the last time before we move to Bognor Regis. I’ve spent the last 2 years linked to the church as part of my training, where I have worshipped with them, lead some services and bible study’s, attended some meetings and been generally present and supporting the church and their minister. It’s a group of people I’ve come to love for their generosity, welcome and hospitality, and deep desire to worship God in the face of adversity. They welcomed Louise and the girls as heartily as they welcomed me, they even created a creche space in a side room for the girls to be able to play during services, and were never frustrated by the noise or the distraction two toddlers regularly created!

But my link church was very different to churches I’d been to before. It’s multi-cultural identity and inner city location were both a step outside of anything I’d been used to in Cornwall. I needed to get used to fact that my being white sometimes meant I was the minority in the congregation, I had to get used to the congregation numbers doubling, or even trebling in the time between the start and finish of the service. The church had very different ways of doing things that I might have had.

Neither have I been immune from field-gazing. Hearing other’s talk about their link church experiences and wishing I’d had the opportunities they’d had.

This weekend, as they said goodbye to us, not only did they surprise us with cake and nibbles after the service, they gave all of us gifts of thanks, and gathered around us and prayed for us all. They shared how much they’d been touched, encouraged and nurtured through our presence and ministry with them. The irony is that it wasn’t until I was leaving that I came to realise just what was in front of me. I’ve never felt I’ve really done much at my link church, yet now I see how much my simply being with them has impacted them.

One member said to me afterwards “you’ll never fully know the impact you’ve made on us”. That was a heart stopping moment. All I could say, was “I guess I won’t”, and in that moment that was ok. It was ok not to know, because in truth it doesn’t matter, not to me, what matters is what God is doing, what matters is that God has, is and continues to work in those amazing folk through their hospitality and love.

Me, I’ve been reminded once again to revere what’s in front of me and know that it’s not all about me and what I do, it’s about what God is doing. I hope and pray I never lose sight of that.

——————–

[1] Under the Unpredictable Plant, Eugene Peterson, (Eerdmans, 1992) p.133.

Calling and Vocation (4): Rooted in God

This is the fourth (and for the moment, final) post in a series of posts around the theme of Calling and Vocation, particularly focused around my own experiences of formation for ordained ministry, but also seeking to be broader in recognising the calling and vocation of all God’s people.

You can see the previous blogs in the series here:

Calling and Vocation (1): Risk-Takers

Calling and Vocation (2): Hope-Builders

Calling and Vocation (3): Discernment

Rooted in God

Why wait until the fourth and final (for now) post to talk about God? In fairness I don’t think I have, all my reflections had been based on an assumption that God is central and primary in our exploring of and responding to calling and vocation. To take risks that enable others to explore and realise their own God given talents and abilities, to build hope, that others can see the God in the future as well as in today, and encouraging and modelling discernment as a process of seeking to respond it, test out and talk about hat God is saying and doing in our lives.

However, I’ve come to a point in my reflections where I’ve come to recognise that, with all good and Godly intentions, it can be too easy to go by or own steam, or God to be moved to the periphery and us to take centre stage. One of the aspects of faith I’ve sometimes found a challenge to sustain over the last 3 years is a sense of spirituality which keeps me rooted in relationship with God, rather than in ideas, institutions and ideologies. It’s something I continue to work at, and recently with some friends feel that I have made some significant headway.

With so many worldly distractions around us, the temptations of materialism, the draw of commercialism, the culture of instant gratification we live in, it seems is too easy to become distant from God, distant from what matters. In his book exploring vocational holiness, Eugene Peterson recognises some of these tensions. Exploring the book of Jonah, he parallels life encounters with the storm Jonah faces, as a place for re-orientation [1] a time to wake-up [2] and take note of God, when Jonah was doing all he could to escape God.

Of course, these thoughts are in no way isolated to the topic of calling and vocation. This is about Christian life, living out the faith we profess. Yet it is from the seeking to live out faith that calling and vocation emerge – one feeds the other, gives life to other. Calling and Vocation cannot be separated from faith. Peterson appears to suggest that when such a separation happens, we fall from spirituality into religiosity, from pursuing vocation to fulfilling a career. [3]

So whether exploring vocation yourself, our thinking about ways to help others think about vocation, I think it is important to never neglect the importance of bring rooted in God. Calling and vocation becomes a fallacy, for it hides a self-focused careerism, separated from the faith in which we profess.

Even more so now than when I went through the process, I greatly appreciate the emphasis on the call of God which was present throughout my own candidating experience. I appreciate that not everyone’s experience is the same, but for me, the emphasis on the call of God left me feeling assured and at peace that God’s will would be, working in and through the many conversations, panels and meetings I had, all the while feeling and knowing in my spirit that they were soaked in prayer and God’s Spirit. The emphasis also helped me to know it wasn’t all about me, it wasn’t about what I do or could/would do, but about who I am, as a child of God, feeling and responding to the call of God and allowing others to journey with me in exploring and eventually confirming that call.

In a sense then, this series of blogs therefore finishes at the place where calling and vocation needs to start, and always be: rooted in God – who loves, calls and equips, listening and responding to God call, and in the company of others, pursing vocation with God at the centre.

[1] Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Eerdmans, 1992) p.46

[2] Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Eerdmans, 1992) p.35

[3] Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Eerdmans, 1992) see p.3-5; 20.

Calling and Vocation (3): Discerning

A couple weeks ago I began sharing some thoughts around calling and vocation,(links to the previous blogs… Calling and Vocation (1) Risk Takers; Calling and Vocation (2): Hope-Builders). Here’s a third, which focuses on discernment.

Discernment

If you were asked to describe what discernment means, how would you attempt to answer that question? And a further questions, where do you see discernment practiced, evident or talk about within church life?

If I was asked 3 years what discernment is, I think I would have struggled to answer it very well at all. Now, while still not finding it easy, words like testing, considering, weighing-up, consultation and conversation with others – all under the banner of a Christian belief that discernment is seeking to understand and enflesh the will of God in our lives, and/or the lives of others.

In my experience, and in conversation with other people’s experience of candidating for ordained ministry in the Methodist church, I’ve noticed two things;

  1. That the majority of people feel a sense of certainty of some sort of call before they share it with anyone else
  2. That while people feel a sense of certainty of call, this certainty has been one of calling to candidate, not calling to ordained ministry.

Both have their significance – and to briefly explore them, I want to start with the second observation.

Speaking from my own experience, I strongly felt a call to candidate, to offer myself to the Church. While I wouldn’t have described it in this way at the time, in hindsight I can see that this was a time of discernment, as the church and I sought to discern the will of God together. While I felt confident I was doing the right thing in candidating, I never felt any sort of certainty about the result that would one day come.

Looking back, this time of discernment was extremely significant for me, because it allowed me to time to explore what this call might mean for me, for my family and for my future. It meant I could deal with some of my doubts, name some of my fears, wrestle with some of the questions that were constantly developing in my mind. But this was done with others, supporting, nurturing and encouraging me. In many ways, my last two years at college have felt like a continuation of that, no so much about discerning vocation, as discerning about self, about identity, about the place and shape of future ministry, again done alongside others, tutors, family, colleagues, friends.

Which leads me to consider the first observation I have made – That the majority of people feel a sense of certainty of some sort of call before they share it with anyone else.

In some ways, and speaking from personal experience, that had some great strengths for me in considering ordained ministry. A sense of certainty that to candidate was the right thing for me to do meant that some of the challenges I faced through that process were supported with an inner sense of certainty and conviction which enabled me to overcome them.

However, is certainty a prerequisite of what then becomes a more public discernment process? What I think I’m asking is whether we believe we are providing people in our churches with the tools and resources for personal discernment before they make that ongoing process of discernment more public. I am pretty sure there are some things we’re good at, but I am also sure there’s going to be more we could do.

Taking this beyond thinking about the processes of discernment for ordained ministry, what of discernment for other vocations, whether it be in or outside of the church, how is the church equipping people to discern the will of God for their lives? In one way or another, I think most people would agree that we live in a culture which increasingly assumes immediacy, is built up on finding clear answers with haste and instancy, and expects a level of perfectionism and faultlessness. I’m not convinced society does the concept of discernment much service, and I’m not convinced it’s supported by the Biblical narrative either.

I’ve been reading Exodus this week, and the character of Moses has echoed with me in ways it hasn’t before. One thing that has struck me is that Moses was full or doubts about himself, his worth, his ability, how he would be received by the Israelites.

‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’

‘But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me?’

‘O my Lord, I have never been eloquent […] I am slow of speech and slow of tongue’

‘O my Lord, please send someone else.’

Exodus 3:11; 4:1; 4:11; 4:13.

His questions and his wrestling with this call come alongside the fact he had run away from Egypt because he had murdered an Egyptian (2:12). Moses wasn’t perfect, he lacked self-confidence, I think he lacked certainty, but God called and used him all the same.

So as Christians, as God’s people, I think we need to be more intentional about how we talk about and practice discernment in the public sphere, which will impact upon the private sphere. We need to show that it is ok to not know, that it is right to take time in discernment, that discernment does not necessarily require certainty, that it is proper to take that journey with others, in discerning the will of God. Discernment should be part of our making sense of calling and vocation, wherever direction we sense that taking us, whether for a season or for a lifetime. To affirm that calling comes with doubts and fears, and that these feelings are natural, human, and part of what discernment is.