Friday, February 20, 2009

Serving God

a sermon preached by Becky Hartwell on Sunday, 15th February

 Now last week Richard talked about serving God, it was moving on from the 18+ event that never happened.  In the morning he talked about serving God, by serving others.  Because the fruit of the love of God is at work within us and through this it becomes a joy.


And this evening while talking about serving God I want to focus on the idea that serving God doesn’t always have to be something we work up to, something we plan for years, something that can only be done under certain circumstances.  We don’t have to be missionaries, church ministers, doctors in shanty towns.  Instead, serving God can be the day to day things, bringing up your children, helping out a stranger, taking care of someone who needs it.


Encouraged by Richard’s services I decided to also look at serving God, looking at those who have served God in unusual ways, or in subtle ways.  While trawling through the mass of information on the internet I found something quite interesting, something called “Sunday School Teacher Appreciation Day”.  Now, I myself have never heard of such a thing, as it turns out it is an American thing.  And yet for all of us who went to church as children we understand the affect that a Sunday School teacher or Junior Church leader has.


But I would encourage us all to think of those who have affected our spiritual journey.  It may be that there have been so many people, those we’re not even sure the names of but people who through their words, their actions and their kindness. 


Personally for me, there have been children’s leaders, youth workers from our Federation events, family, friends and some lovely ladies from churches when I was growing up.  But there were those who unknowingly had an affect as well.  My friends from university who weren’t Christians but were aware of my behaviour, they knew I was a Christian and were interested on how that affected my behaviour.  No matter what happens we have an affect on those around us, it just depends what sort of affect it is.


There is a theory called Locard’s exchange process – now I don’t use intelligent theories in talks often so let’s just hope I can explain it.  In television shows like CSI – Crime Scene Investigators, they can pick up dna or clues because when a person has been at the scene something of the location will be left on the person and vice versa.  It is explained as this “with contact between two items, there will be an exchange”.


So what does that mean for us?  Well, it is true for us as well, with contact between two people there will be an exchange. 


We remember, even for a short time a rude shop assistant, a helpful person with directions – when I was travelling I remember the towns that had the polite people and those that didn’t.  We can remember those that have challenged us as Junior Church leaders have, those that have left us happy, sad, angry or confused but we do remember people. 


In that Locard’s exchange process rings true for us as people, and if we remember others do they remember us?


Undoubtedly there are people who have been so grateful for the flowers they have received, an activity that runs well at the end of services but has an affect.  There are those who remember having someone at church chat to them the first time they came, and one of the children even said to me a couple of weeks ago, “Come on Becky, do one of your little prayers” – people remember the contact we have with them.


So with contact with two people there will be an exchange.


If we look to the story of Jesus washing the feet we can see that exchange.


We can see how Jesus affected his disciples, the man they saw as Lord and teacher was kneeling down to wash their feet.  Imagine our teachers doing that for us.  The one we see as the most powerful, important, humbling themselves completely in love and service.  The love that Richard talks about.


Jesus wasn’t doing this act because it was all about a lesson, he could have done the same lesson in a different way, without getting his hands dirty.  He knew he was going to die soon, he was going to suffer, be tortured, be in complete pain and in fact be rejected by the men he was bending down to wash the feet of.


But he chose that moment to bend down and wash their feet.  These weren’t beautifully manicured feet that had been washed that morning and then kept in socks and shoes.  These were sweaty feet, dirty from walking round the streets probably with marks, grazes and other things on them.  He wasn’t humbling himself in a picture perfect postcard way, he was humbling himself in a complete act of service.  In an act of love.


The exchange process was there for the disciples as well.  We can always see the affect Jesus has on others, whether it be aiding them to feel loved, welcoming children to him, confusing and angering the Pharisees.  But the disciples also had an affect on Jesus.


Later on in John we hear of Jesus being troubled in spirit, and we hear of his annoyance that the disciples were sleeping while he was praying in Gethsemene.  Jesus came as a person with emotions and taking on experiences in life, people affected him as well as him affecting them.


When asked questions by the disciples in this passage Jesus answered with honest, real answers.  He didn’t fob his disciples off with things that would just shut them up.  Jesus spent time with them, he spent time as a human on earth.



Jesus is a man who served with his heart, an incredible example and a man who has had the biggest effect on our lives.  Jesus did huge acts of service, things that seem to be watered down by calling them service.  We know he died for all of our sins and yet in comparison the washing of the feet is minuscule.  This small act still stands out though as an important act of service.


But what about other people in the bible who showed acts of service.  There are the stories that involve a lot of action, planning and time, for example Noah and King David.  Then there were the smaller things, where people served God then and there, taking the gifts that God had given them and then giving them back to him in service.  There was Esther, a beautiful lady who became a Queen and with the help of others saved the Jewish people.


Or the story of Paul and Silas, serving God while in jail.  And there was Mary, the mother of Jesus, a lady who when so young gave birth to the Saviour of the world.


Instead we heard the story of the birth of Samuel.  Samuel became a very important man in the story of God’s people, a judge, a prophet and the man who anointed King David.


However, when we meet him here he is just a baby.  A baby that is truly longed for by his mother.


But what makes this a story about someone serving God.


In her prayers to God, Hannah says that she is his servant.  Often we forget how we can be serving God in our daily lives, we may consider it is something we can do in years to come, when we are “better” Christians, when we are praying over thirty minutes a day, when we have not done anything wrong in a twenty-four hour period.  And yet, in this moment Hannah is saying she IS God’s servant, even though she hasn’t had her child. 


Hannah established in her prayer that she was God’s servant.  But that if he gave her what she desperately wanted, she would in fact give it back to him. 


Hannah didn’t pray a selfish prayer, she wanted to serve God even in her pain.  She was willing to be humble and stated she was a servant of God.


In some ways, Hannah’s prayer seems like the type we might say when we are desperate, or the ones we frequently hear on tv “God if you do this for me… I will be a really good person…I won’t ever been mean to someone again…I will go to church every Sunday”.  But Hannah’s prayer was more powerful than that.  She would have known God wouldn’t have ignored words like that, Hannah was praying honestly and humbly.



And so it came that when Samuel was born, Hannah gave him back to God.  She kept her promise and took him to the Tabernacle.  She was giving him to God.


Hannah was a person of the bible, not hugely featured, just in two chapters but in the situation she was in she served God – she wasn’t a judge, she wasn’t a prophet, she wasn’t the wife of a King but she served God through prayer and having a child.


This story of Hannah and Samuel enables us to think about the gifts God has given us.  In the same way when Hannah had a choice to make with Samuel, these are gifts that we can choose to give back to God, given back to him through serving him and his people.


There is a story in a book I have read about a person who is given a special tea set, very posh and beautiful.  But this tea set is kept in the attic, wrapped up in paper for a special occasion.  But an occasion special enough never happens and eventually the tea set just sits, hidden and never used.  Then one day the owner dies, their children find the tea set and use it.


Our gifts from God can end up like this tea set, he gives them to us so we can serve him and his people but if we keep saving them til the right time we might never use them.


So service is something that we have lots of examples in the bible.  But as Richard has talked about it needs to be grounded in God.  The joy comes from loving God. 


When I talked about Locard’s exchange process before I talked of how when we meet someone we make a choice, have a good effect or a bad effect.  But as we have an affect they also have an affect on us.  If we spend all our time serving God but never time with God we will be affected by all the things we see, we receive.  There is a lot of suffering, pain and sadness in the world.  This can and does have an affect on us.  So we need to stay grounded in the love of God, we need to still immerse ourselves in his word and stay in prayer with him.


We can come to Jesus in everything, and ask for him to renew us, we can develop our learning and understanding of him, we can embrace all that he has to offer us.  Serving isn’t a lonely thing, it comes with the love of Jesus.


So we see that small acts can make a large difference, as I said at the beginning serving God isn’t always about the big acts but the small things also have a significance, the prayer and being a parent, the washing of feet and the being a Junior Church leader.



So as Richard said last week, what difference is hearing this going to make? 


  • Maybe we can think what is our tea set?  What are we holding on to for a special occasion?


  • Maybe we need to be remembering those who have served God by being there for us.  Those who have had patience and love for us, even when we weren’t hugely likeable people.  Or maybe those who have served us and gone unnoticed, those who have been involved in the small things that might not transform lives immediately but might have such a gradual effect we didn’t realise it.  And thank God for their service.


  • Or just maybe we can say to God, “use me”.  A scary thing to say to God because he doesn’t ignore those words.  Maybe as we go home from here or get up tomorrow morning we can ask God to use us for that day, for the walk we might be taking or the people we will meet.  We can ask God to help us serve him better.
    • Little random acts of kindness, story of people who pay for toll booths but then get ignored
    • Trying to leave earlier so to be a better driver


Finally I am going to leave you with some words that were made by a man called Robert Fulghum, a man who understood that things can stop us.  A man who also saw that it was possible to do small things in serving God if we are willing to use what we have in the moment.

She strode to the rostrum and changed the agenda of the conference from intellectual inquiry to moral activism. She said, in a firm voice to the awed assembly: "We can do no great things; only small things with great love. "

The contradictions of her life and faith are nothing compared to my own. And while I wrestle with frustration about the impotence of the individual, she goes right on changing the world. While I wish for more power and resources, she uses her power and resources to do what she can do at the moment.



Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sustaining Service of Others and of God

Had it not been for the snow we would have welcomed the CF Youth 18+ event this week. A fun time together they were going to explore the invitation at the heart of the Christian faith to service. They would have been sharing stories together and hearing from people from church as well.

John Lewis is one of those who would have shared his story now. Our honorary deacon, John has shared in a lifetime of service, not least through teaching, Samaritans, work for Dowty House, a residential care home in Cheltenham, and here at Highbury. For him as for all of us, Service is at the heart of what it takes to be a Christian.

But that kind of service can be difficult to sustain.

Is there anything in our Christian faith that can help us to sustain a life-time of service to one another and for that matter for God.

We share with many of other faiths and of no faith a commitment to service. There is nothing distinctive about that. Our call to service comes from the imperative to love that is at the heart of our Christian faith.

“This is my commandment,” says Jesus in those words we read from John 15 earlier, “that you love one another.”

“A new commandment I give to you that you love one another as I have loved you. By this shall everyone know that you are my disciples if you have love one for another.”

At every turn ‘love’ is the order of the day for the Christian.

Couple that with the commitment to the poor, the quest for justice that is implicit within that command to love and the imperative could not be clearer. And anyone who takes it seriously will find it an obligation impossible to fulfil.

We often think of religion as laying demands on us. We should do this. We should do that. We should not do the other. And this is the greatest command of them all – to love.

Some even speak of religion as ‘an obligation’. There are, so they would have us believe, religious obligations that we need to meet.

Ought, ought, ought.

Such demands lead to burnout and have the potential to give rise to depression. You can never do enough.

Something is needed to sustain that kind of service and love.

Those words from John 15 are interesting.

They come not at the beginning but at the end of a famous passage.

Let’s hear the passage in full and notice the sequence of thought.

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes* to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed* by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become* my disciples. 9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

It is the sequence of thought that is significant.

The key to sustaining service lies in those words Jesus says to his disciples.

“I am the vine you are the branches.”

We are all linked together – our life of service is sustained by being part of a group of people supporting each other – prayer, pastoral visiting network. It is of the essence of Christian commitment and the call to love that we do not seek to go it alone. We are in this together. And together we support each other.

A church family is a support network.

Chris with Diana’s help is working on the next issue of Highbury News. Diana has been putting together the Church’s annual report. It is good to see the supportive network there is in the church. And to see the activities there are in the church.

Maybe we need to ask ourselves as a church. Do they simply grow, or is there a key to their growth in the insights Jesus offers here. He begins by speaking of the need to prune …

“I am the true vine and my Father is the vinegrower…. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”

I do hope people can come to our annual meeting on the 1st March. It really is an important day in our church calendar. It is interesting to reflect on the life of the church to ask the question about pruning. Are there things in our church life that need pruning?

Food for thought … and for prayer.

There is something more that sustains us in our service.

I am the vine you are the branches,” says Jesus. “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

Our meeting of the Cotswold Magical Society was just getting under way in the Hucclecote Community Centre to the sounds of the build up to the big match being shown on the big screen the other side of the partition wall in the club room. It was of course Liverpool versus Everton. Was it the first time they had met in the cup since Hillsborough. I don’t know. I did prick my ears up a little while before kick off when I heard them singing the FA Cup anthem, Abide with me.

I recalled sitting in the Kop at Anfield to support Leicester City against Liverpool. When a Leicester player scored I jumped out of my seat. Fortunately, everyone else did as well as Leicester born Emile Heskey by that time was playing for Liverpool. It was moving to see the eternal flame at the Hillsborough memorial and to see the way so many fans were moved as they paid tribute there.

To keep us going in the face of tragedy, to sustain us in our service we need a strength from beyond ourselves, we need a spiritual rootedness in the love of God in Jesus Christ.

That is the strength implicit in those opening words of that FA anthem. Abide with me.

Abide in me as I abide in you.

But what applies to our activities together, applies also to us. Is there anything in our own lives that needs pruning?

Sometimes the pruning is taken out of our hands.

Circumstances mean we have to ‘cut back’.

How tragic, how awful.

Or is there another way of looking at it?

Can we see it as pruning that’s been taken out of our hands? May God have something else in store? After all,

“Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”

This for me is the key to Christian service. It is not simply that Jesus gives us a command to follow. He offers us a strength within, a presence, he comes inside us as it were and that is what sustains us.

It is at that point that we come to one of the most exciting concepts when it comes to sustaining service as a Christian.

I am the vine you are the branches.

Abide in me as I abide in you.

Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.

“My Father is glorified by this,” says Jesus in verse 8 “that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

Love in our Christian faith is not an obligation placed upon us.

It is the fruit that is borne of our togetherness in Christ, it is the fruit that is borne of the love of God in Christ taking root in our hearts, working its way through us and issuing in the fruit of love and justice and peace in a life of Christian service.

This is what sustains us in our Christian service. God forbid our faith be reduced to a set of religious obligations, a repeated ought, ought, ought.

See service as the fruit of the love of God at work within you and it becomes a joy.

“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

Sunday, February 1, 2009

So what is the Church doing in response to the recession?

Lorraine is forever sending me emails. No, I do not mean our Lorraine. I mean someone called Lorraine Kapp. Lorraine Kapp is the Administrator for the Gloucestershire Assembly Team that brings together everyone in Gloucestershire that works in the Voluntary and Community Sector.
What a mouthful!

And there are so many emails!

Actually it is a very important network of people. There are an immense number of voluntary and community groups working away for the good of so many people in our community.

The email was about the response that should be made to the Recession.

Your input please.

At yesterday’s community strategy executive board meeting there was a constructive debate on the recession. It was agreed that:

Gloucestershire First is best placed to lead on support to businesses.

It’s worth pausing there. Because this month sees the retirement of Stan Jones, a member of Salem and there this morning, but also a regular member of our evening congregation. He has for the last few years built up Glos First as a major group supporting business in this county. In recognition of his contribution he was given an honorary degree by the University of Gloucestershire.

I pause there … because that is where I want to begin … what response are we as churches making to the recession. Well, as we each of us are making a response in the sphere we are involved in that is significant. People from our churches are very much involved in the response at many different levels – and we need to be giving them support, and supporting people in the area they are involved in.

But the next part of the email recognises that in the difficult period we are entering into, people need support.

The email says this, The Voluntary and community Sector, public sector and other organisations are best placed to continue to provide direct support to people;

There are potential gaps in support given to people, in resources available … and there is a need to target thngs to fill those gaps.

And that is where the questionnaire comes in.

Lorraine Kapp writes … “It is very important that I can give accurate information on the activities that VCS organisations are doing to support people and local communities through a recession in order to influence the subsequent planning and allocation of resources.

Then comes the request.

The Assembly Team would therefore like to hear:
what you are doing already to support people and communities in the recession
any ideas for other ways for supporting people and communities in the recession

I have an emailing of all the churches in Cheltenham. And from time to time I circiulate Lorraine Kapp’s emails around that mailing. I fear I don’t do all of them. There are so many.

But my attention was drawn to this one. It seemed particularly important.

What is our response as a church?

I have circulated the email around the Deacons and on our emailing list. I share it today. I will include it in our next News Letter.

How do you begin to respond?

Actually, I want to say that is precisely what Church is about.

Since the New Year I have on Sunday mornings been trying to flesh out what it is about our Christian faith that is significant at a difficult time such as we are in. Faith in a Great Big God helps us to put things in perspective, help in a God who through Jesus gets involved in the ordinary everyday life is equally important as it prompts me to realise that the tiniest of things I can do is in reality very, very important.

I went on to reflect on the way we can draw on a strength from beyond ourselves in that unseen, but real presence of the Spirit to keep us going, and to enable us to do what in our own strength we could not do.

Curiously some of those themes are explored in the Christian novel of the moment, the Shack, which as I was saying last week is well worth a read.

In a sense that is the first part of my answer to the question Lorraine Kapp poses.

The first thing we are offering people in a time when lots of things we have taken so for granted are toppling, tumbling and being called into question is a framework of beliefs that have been tested through the centuries and are capable of seeing us through difficult times.

There is more, much more that we have to offer in response to Lorraine Kapp’s question.

I believe in the Church.

This is where I begin to take issue a little with the writer of the Shack.

I believe passionately in the Church. I would not be where I am doing the job I do if I did not have that conviction. I do not accept that Christianity is a personal, individualistic thing between an individual and God. At the heart of Chrsitian faith is a very personal faith, rooted in the heart and shaped by the conscience of each us individually. But the Christian faith then invites us to share our faith in God with each other.

Jesus gathered people together so that they would learn from one another and learn from him. Indeed he said that it would be as people gather together, even if it’s only two or three, that he would be present with them.

Wherever you turn in the New Testament you see the followers of Jesus coming together in that upper room in Jerusalem for prayer. In the homes of believers as they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)

Wherever Paul went he formed churches, and he wrote to them to keep them going.

We, who are many, he wrote to the Church in Rome in Romans 12:5, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another.

What a wonderfully rich image. We are the body of Christ, as Mother Tereas said, he has no other hands but our hands, he has no other feet but our feet. We embody Christ’s presence in our world, the Jesus who brings a way of love into people’s lives, the Jesus who heals hurting people. We embody this Jesus, and individually we are members one of another.

That’s a very thought provoking way of putting it. That we are actually bound to one another. That idea is developed further by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12.

He writes at length of the church as the body of Christ.

Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.

He explores his theme by speaking of the way each part of the body needs the other parts – and so it is in the church we need each other. All parts of the body are equally important, and so each member of a church is equally important.

God has so arranged the body, that there may be no dissension within the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.

This is the church I believe in. A church where everyone counts. A church were everyone looks out for everyone else. A church where everyone cares for one another.

Then comes one of the most magnificent statements about the church. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.”

That’s the crux of the matter.

What are we doing to support people and communities in the recession.

A large part of the answer simply points to the church. This is precisely what the church is about. We offer a support network from the cradle to the grave. With support for little ones and families – and at the same time on-going care and support right the way through life to old age too.

We must not under-estimate the importance of our visiting scheme – it is a network of support which enables us to be on the lookout for each other.

We must not under-estimate our prayer networks – it is good to know we can support each other in prayer.

We must not under-estimate the way our premises are used offering a home to community groups that become more and more important at this kind of time.

This is all a very real contribution.

Since our last Church Meeting and into our Annual Meeting we are looking at a number of things in particular:

Becky is convening a group to look at the next steps we need to take to develop our support for families and children.

We are in touch with a niece of Margaret Pote to develop a link with the College

This week Phil Arnold and I joined a large number of people in Gloucester taking forward the idea of introducing Street Pastors on to the streets of Cheltenham and Gloucester. I went on to a meeting with church leaders in Cheltenham working out ways in which we might ensure that such a venture is rooted in the life of Cheltenham’s churches.
That meeting had an enthusiasm for extending that kind of support from the night time to the daytime economy of Cheltenham too.

An initiatve of churches in Cheltenham to open overnight accommodation for those who are homeless.

A meeting jointly with St Luke’s and St Michael’s to develop further how we may work together.

Things have been in the doldrums with regard to churches working together in Cheltenham. I sense that the kind of questions Lorraine Kapp has posed to us will galvanise us into action. May that be our prayer.

The Faith we Share Together - from Paul's Letter to the Romans
We have a Gospel to share, Good News for all

The Good News was promised long ago by God through his prophets, as written in the Holy Scriptures.

The Good News is about his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ:
as to his humanity, he was born a descendant of David;
as to his divine holiness, he was shown with great power
to be the Son of God by being raised from death. [Romans 1:2-4]

The Good News is God's power to save all who believe, [Romans 1:16]

The Good News reveals how God puts people right with himself:
it is through faith from beginning to end [Romans 1:17]

Everyone has sinned and is far away from God's saving presence.
But by the free gift of God's grace
all are put right with him through Christ Jesus,
who sets them free.
And by his sacrificial death
Is the means by which people's sins are forgiven [Romans 3:23-25]

Now that we have been put right with God through faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

He has brought us by faith into this experience of God's grace,
in which we now live.

And so we boast of the hope we have of sharing God's glory!
We also boast of our troubles,
because we know that trouble produces endurance,
endurance brings God's approval,
and his approval creates hope
This hope does not disappoint us,
for God has poured out his love into our hearts
by means of the Holy Spirit, who is God's gift to us [Romans 5:1-5]

The Spirit comes to help us, weak as we are. [Romans 8:26]

If God is for us, who can be against us?

Who, then, can separate us from the love of Christ?
Can trouble do it, or hardship
or persecution or hunger or poverty or danger or death? [Romans 8:35]

No, in all these things we have complete victory
through him who loved us! [Romans 8:35]

For I am certain that nothing can separate us from his love:
neither death nor life,
neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers,
neither the present nor the future,
neither the world above nor the world below
there is nothing in all creation
that will ever be able to separate us
from the love of God which is ours
through Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:37-38]


So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light