St Mary's Church, Gainford and
St Andrew's Church, Winston
In the Diocese of Durham
Please feel free to contact Eileen about these sermons if you have questions or would like to have a conversation (electronically or in person) about them.
Bishop of Durham, The Rt Rev'd Paul Butler's Sermon at St Andrew's, Winston and St Mary's, Gainford on Sunday 15 December, 3rd Sunday in Advent.​

General Election has produced a clear result with a large majority for Boris Johnson and the Conservative party. There may well be mixed emotions about this amongst – some delighted, some disappointed, some simply relieved that a clarity in one direction has emerged. Some will be optimistic about the future, some deeply worried and pessimistic, some uncertain.
But the Advent call for us all as followers of Jesus is to be a people of Hope. Hope rooted in God. Hope rooted in what Jesus Christ has done for us all. Hope rooted in the future being in God’s hands. Hope rooted in God’s promise of the kingdom fulfilled.

John the Baptist – arrested, imprisoned, knowing his death is wanted
The euphoria perhaps that followed Jesus’ baptism – now uncertain, now questioning
So periods of question, of doubt etc are part of the discipleship journey. Just look at the Psalms with all their questions – and rages against God. Look at Jeremiah’s complaints; look at John the Baptist in prison – and these are not early doubts, they come in later periods, in maturity.

Jesus response is to encourage John to look at the signs of God’s Kingdom arriving in Jesus’ ministry.
The healings; the restorations; the renewals. All fulfilling in the vision of the Kingdom offered in the prophets eg Isaiah 35
For us – we look to Jesus, his life, his ministry, his teaching but more, his death, his resurrection, his sending of the Spirit, his church, his future return.
We look to the signs of the Kingdom around us – generally not broadcast on the media but look at hungry fed, prisoners supported on release, addicts released, enemies becoming friends, lives changed.

We wait patiently. We persevere for the Kingdom.
We work for health and healing and wholeness
We work for releasing the poor from being downtrodden and lift them up
We work for justice
We remain faithful to Jesus kn owing that the Judge stands at the door

Hopeful living does not rely on optimism as that can be quickly overturned. Hopeful living patiently waits, patiently persists, patiently trusts confident in the One who is our Hope.
We keep living for and in the name of Jesus our Lord.

Sermon – ADVENT 2 – 8th December 2019 (Sunday before General Elections)
Psalm 72:1-7; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

You may have noticed that I have included the Psalm for this Sunday on our Pew Sheets.  I was compelled to do this because it seems to me that our Prayer for this Sunday and the Psalm speak into our current circumstance as we face our country’s General Elections this week.  What do I mean? Well, here is what leapt out to me from the prayer:
O Lord, raise up, we pray, your power
and come among us,
and with great might succour us…
And from Psalm 72
1 Give the king your justice, O God,
    and your righteousness to a king’s son.
2 May he judge your people with righteousness,
    and your poor with justice.
3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
    and the hills, in righteousness.
4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
    give deliverance to the needy,
    and crush the oppressor.
Our Prayer for today calls for power, God’s power, and the Psalmist’s prayer lists specifically what he desires the power to deliver.
On Thursday, we are invited to grant power to individuals and political parties to govern us and the country.  The candidates hope what they have promised is better matched to our desires than their rivals’ promises, and so win our gift of power. 
The Psalmist expresses what he desires of the King: justice; righteousness; prosperity for the people; the cause of the poor; deliverance to the needy; and that oppressors will be crushed. 
But should there be any message from the pulpit concerning politics?
And is there evidence from scripture to counsel against it? 
As uncomfortable as it may be for you or me, the truth is that there is ample evidence that God has neither turned his face against the matter of government nor has he caused us to be silent about politics.  The Psalmist appeals overtly to God for King Solomon to exercise justice and govern with righteousness from God.  The Psalmist emphasizes attention to the poor, needy and oppressed; and, also, asks for prosperity.
Paul writes to the Roman Christians about the politically sensitive matter of how the Jewish people and non-Jews from all nations should be regarded.  Today we adopt a rather distasteful term: anti-Semitism, which of course presumes there is the stance of ‘Semitism’.  As we know, this is among the hot topics of our country’s political debate.  It seems some hot topics have not cooled over 2,000 years. 
Paul tells of Jesus’ stance in that matter:
‘7 Welcome one another, therefore,
 just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised (that is the Jews) on behalf of the truth of God…, 9 …in order that the Gentiles (that is the non-Jews) might glorify God for his mercy.’  “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” Rejoice, you non-Jewish Christians, with the Jews.
And there is evidence of power that is counter-cultural and defies conventional expectation. Our Gospel passage draws attention to the power invested in John the Baptist:
‘John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.’
Was it John’s pop-star looks and hippy habits that attracted the Jews and everyone along the river Jordan to go out to him? No, they searched him out to confess their sins!  John was a phenomenon that had been foretold by prophets long before.  John was proof of a power that was not of this world.
So, for our current circumstances where political aspirants are competing for our power, is there a right Christian perspective that guides our way?
We have already heard from the Psalmist, of justice, righteousness, defence for the causes of the poor, needy and the oppressed, and for prosperity.  We are not directed to forfeit abundance and prosperity. 
And from John the Baptist we learn what to expect from those who hold high office: “Bear fruit worthy of repentance”; in other words, be so productive that your wrong-doings and shortcomings may be forgiven.
Most of all, today, I declare that there is no power without the mercy and favour of God. 
Here is the last verse of a hymn that I hope we might truly be able to sing by faith with thanksgiving, and as we pray for our country this week and thereafter (whatever the outcome of the General Elections):
Be still for the power of the Lord is moving in this place
He comes to cleanse and heal, to minister His grace
No work too hard for Him, in faith receive from Him 
Be still for the power of the Lord, is moving in this place.
In this season of Advent especially as we remember the coming of our Incarnate God into a politically messy world:
Be still for the power of the Lord, is moving in this place
2nd October 2016

SERMON Revd Eileen Harrop (GAINFORD AND WINSTON HC) TRINITY 17: 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN

                Some of us are interested in history.  Our history boards reveal how much we value our legacy of community and Christian worship here.  Our local history is captured in carefully researched and much loved books. 
Today’s New Testament reading cannot be read and passed over without considering its historical context and significance.  It provides us with an opportunity to be reminded of the foundations of Christians being gathered together, how from small beginnings and seemingly impossible conditions nurtured and strengthened faith.  In the civilised comfort here today, where we worship in peace and beauty, we easily ignore the early Christians’ incredible journey of faith.
The apostle Paul wrote this epistle or letter to Timothy in AD 67, a few years before the great volcanic eruption that overwhelmed Pompeii in AD 79.  During this time, from AD 64, Emperor Nero had issued his edict to destroy Christians.  The first recognised and organised ‘church’ led by the twelve disciples after Jesus’ Ascension, was forced into hiding from AD 66.  The role of the Jerusalem church as the central authority of the Christians ceased in AD 70.
But since AD 50 Paul had responded to God’s calling to be a missionary apostle, to travel to cities far from Jerusalem and Rome.  He had established churches in many places including Corinth, Galatia, Philippi, and Ephesus.  This was astonishing in itself.  At that time, the Christian way was considered ‘pagan’ or the new ‘cult’ because the prevailing religious cultures boasted multiple gods.  Their leader Jesus of this small band of minority people who had taken up a strange variant of the Jew’s mono-theistic belief had been executed as a criminal.  The Christian way should have been ‘blown out of the park’.  According to historical records, Herod was a pussycat compared to Nero.
In today’s reading, Paul is writing from a dungeon in Rome.  He is at the end of his ministry.  Most historians accept the Eusebius account of Paul’s beheading ordered by Nero, a short time after this epistle was completed.  Paul is heartened by his recollection of Timothy’s journey in faith.  Paul had endured and experienced many miraculous escapes and blessings.  He knew that it was by faith that the Church would continue to flourish.
Timothy’s testimony is especially relevant to us in our present time.  It is not generally known that Timothy was appointed a Bishop or over-seer and leader of the churches that he had planted and established together with Paul.  Some Bible scholars do not acknowledge this as church structures were still in their early stages of formation.  Timothy bucked the trend: he was young in age and, for that, regarded as Paul’s apprentice instead of Paul’s successor.  The Apostle Paul’s final task was to affirm Timothy in his leadership, reminding him of how his faith was sown.
Paul wrote, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.”
Timothy’s ministry is to be founded on his faith. 
Timothy had come to faith because of his grandmother Lois’ example.  We have no details about how Lois’ faith was evident, and whether she was a quiet or strident character.  But her faith was known to Paul. 
                Timothy’s faith was also deepened by his mother Eunice’s faith.  And this was also evident to Paul.
Timothy was a child of mixed race: his father was Greek and his mother a Jew.  He had to make up his mind if the God of Jesus and of his mother was more than, more believable, more real than the belief in Greek gods.  It was more than an intellectual and philosophical decision, because as the 2nd century writer Tertullian observed: “pagans often make the comment 'See how these Christians love one another'”.
I wish to encourage you this morning as well as appeal to you to be reminded of your faith.  Some of you bring your children and grandchildren with you to church, even if only from time to time.  Sometimes I have the privilege of meeting your children or your brothers or sisters, or their children, at church. 
I remember my brother’s infant blessing service during an evening family service when I was only 5.  It was exciting but also daunting to be among so many people in church.  I still see and feel the occasion but only 1 word stuck: “thanksgiving”.  It was a big word for a 5-year-old and I was determined to know what it meant!
It nourished my seed of faith.  Sometimes seeds of faith take a long time to germinate, and some seeds need more nourishment and watering than others.  For all the disruptions since then to the feeding of that seed, I have come to articulate a personal faith.
It is the same faith of Jesus’ first disciples, the first missionaries and church leaders, and the same faith as Timothy’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice.  Paul implores Timothy to “rekindle the gift of God that is within you...for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love…” He urges Timothy: “Do not be ashamed… of the testimony about our Lord … because you are relying on the power of God”. “Do not be ashamed”.
Your faith, like mine, is the testimony of our Lord.  It is a faith borne of miracles and power exceeding all human wisdom.  It is founded on a history that defies scepticism and cynicism.  Our children and grandchildren, all whom we love, need our discipleship to nourish their seeds of faith however hidden they are from us.  Rekindle this gift of God within you, pray in faith, and in God’s spirit of power and of love do what is right and good.
18th Sept 2016

SERMON Revd Eileen Harrop (GAINFORD AND WINSTON HC) TRINITY 17: 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13
Author of life, our Saviour and guide, grant us understanding of your living Word. AMEN

                I am advised that among the characteristics of a good sermon is its challenge to listeners.  But often the preacher cannot claim credit for this, as it is unavoidable if the prescribed Bible passages are not to be ignored.   Humour I am told is also advisable, but I am neither Dawn French nor the Vicar of Dibley.
                According to William Barclay, the eminent Bible study expositor and most of the commentaries I have referred to, today’s parable from our Gospel reading is among the most difficult to interpret.  It is one of those parables that the reader feels needs to be read several times to take on board what is being told. 
“There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.”
Another translation says:
“There was a rich man who had a steward.  He received information against the steward, which alleged that he was dissipating his goods.”
Jesus is addressing a large crowd comprising many tax collectors and people in business. He had told the parable of the lost sheep and the woman who lost her silver coin, and of the prodigal son.  So far the Shepherd, the woman with 10 silver coins, and the father of the 2 sons, have been interpreted to explain God’s attitude towards those who are lost and those who have always been with him.  Jesus had used 3 contexts and circumstances that appealed to their understanding.  People engaged in business and financial occupations are also people who are parents and siblings, and who have private lives. 
But this particular parable speaks to them in their context as business people.  As the parable is introduced, the listeners put themselves into the roles as they arise: ‘the rich man’, the manager or steward, and the rich man’s tenants. 
Let us listen again to more of this parable:
“Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.  I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’”
We are invited into the mind of the manager whose dishonesty and corrupt practice has been found out.  He is rational about his predicament.  He is rather cool headed as he thinks through the consequences.  He admits his limitations.  He is honest about himself despite having been dishonest towards his employer and his employers’ tenants.  He says:
“I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.”
He weighs up what matters most to him.  He must not be reduced to begging and must continue to be held in good regard socially.
                I find myself pausing at this point.  It does not seem to matter to this steward responsible for his employer’s property that he had cheated on his employer. 
How do we feel about this?  Is it somehow acceptable for a rich man to be diddled?  Perhaps there are people who feel that every rich man must have been dishonest or consumed with greed to have gotten himself or herself into a materially excessive position.  I have not met Philip Green or the deceased Robert Maxwell but it is widely reported that their wealth was not honestly gained.  
Perhaps he is just being pragmatic so he acts quickly to preserve his dignity.  But by his action the extent of dishonesty is revealed.  He informs the tenants that their payment to the estate owner is reduced.  He halves one tenant’s payment and reduces the other’s by a quarter.  His normal practice would have been to pocket a part of their payments meant for the estate owner so now he rescues his situation by cheating on both parties.
But the tenants whom he had previously cheated are now grateful to him, and when his employer learns of his scheme, he praises him!  It is madness is it not?
Jesus speaks very directly into the context of his listeners.  Jewish leaders then had a saying to justify their attitude and actions: “The rich help the poor in this world, but the poor help the rich in the world to come”.  It helped to salve one’s conscience when the time came to give away his wealth however it was gained. 
A few years ago partly as a fallout of the recent banking and financial crisis, the tax status of the wealthiest businesses was scrutinised.  Amazon and other companies were identified as having paid hardly any tax to our UK Government.  Some of my clerical colleagues were outraged so that they issued strongly worded requests to parishioners not to buy from Amazon.  I asked them if they regarded all Amazon’s staff to be dishonest and hence deserving the potential loss of their jobs? That would be the eventual consequence of reduced profits.
This parable flashes up the harsh reality in a world where people find themselves compelled by financial imperatives.  In my past occupational life with global businesses, maximising profit was always a primary goal.  Individuals looked to how they could have the greatest share of wealth whether shareholders or employees.  There was a person or even a department whose responsibility was to identify how not to pay more tax than could be avoided.  Were there any governments in any country unaware of this?  
Jesus tells his listeners:
“…the people of this world are much shrewder in handling their affairs than the people who belong to the light”
This is a tough parable.  It exposes the norms of this world that challenge what it means for each of us as Christians.  But be encouraged: with God’s help, we can choose God above financial gain, and be blessed with all we need. AMEN    

11th Sept 2016
SERMON Revd Eileen Harrop (WINSTON HC) TRINITY 16: 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Psalm 14, Luke 15:1-10
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN

                I hope your imagination is stirred when you hear the reading of the Gospel.  Sometimes, as with this morning’s passage, we are presented with a lively scene.  I find it helpful to be like ‘a fly on the wall’ or someone among the people there. Luke our Gospel writer tells us:
“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
                Luke says plainly that the majority of that particular crowd of people are tax collectors and sinners.  It is apparent to Luke that they have come to listen to Jesus.  By contrast there are also people present who have not come to listen to Jesus.  If we have exercised our imagination we can hear their ‘tut-tutting’, and see them exchanging glances and shaking their heads.
                In Paul’s letter to Timothy he places himself firmly in the first category. He says:
“I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.”
                What a strange person Paul must be to describe himself so harshly.  Are people anything like him, speaking so critically about themselves?  Yesterday I enjoyed the company of those who came to listen to me sharing a bit about my life at the Breakfast Club.  Later that day I enjoyed the company of visitors and members of Gainford’s Leek Club at their show.  I met children enjoying themselves on the Green on the way there.  All of these encounters should have lifted my spirits.  Yet I admit they added to my heavy heart as I reflected on the language of our Bible readings.  The language of the confessed sinner, of the acknowledged need for forgiveness, of sin and repentance, seems so far removed from normal conversation.
                In between Breakfast Club and the Leek Show, Brian and I had a surprise visit from friends.  We exchanged news over a cuppa in the brief time they were able to stop.  We shared experiences of stressful dysfunctional relationships within each of our families.  From that rose the issue of forgiveness and reconciliation.   People seem more inclined to accept that life is often messy, that it is a norm to be lived with, as if anything better is a bonus.  People would rather not enter the territory of being wrong or admitting the need to apologise, even if their wrong-doing has caused hurt or offence.  Some would even rather not receive an apology because that is an admission of things having gone wrong.  Often people say about their friends, siblings, children, or parents: “I’m quite lucky really because…” and some positive characteristic is mentioned as if that makes up for all that is disappointing or difficult.
                Nations and governments reflect this perspective.  For months now, actually years, the wickedness of regimes inflicting destruction, injury, death and desolation in Syria and other parts of the world have been top of the news.  There has been no improvement despite the many words expressing outrage.  Managing political relationships is the compromise found more acceptable than the cost to millions of lives.  Someone posted on Facebook (and yes I do engage in social media) that people spend billions on missions in space in hope of finding a better place while wantonly destroying the place they already have.
                Returning to our Gospel, to whom do you understand that Jesus addresses his illustration when he says:
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” 
Jesus also illustrates the attitude of the woman who loses her coin:
“‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’”
Who are the “hundred sheep” and who is “the one that is lost”?
Our Psalmist is less gentle-mannered than Jesus: “Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”  They have all gone astray… there is no one who does good, no, not one.”
In Winston, as in many places, we want to live peaceably with others.  Does this apply to those determined to be spikey characters or those who constantly moan about anything?  Yes, that is only their mask to soften the blow of disappointment they fear.
The hundred sheep and the 9 silver coins are the sinners and taxpayers scorned by the Pharisees and scribes.  They are already in their shepherd’s fold and with their mistress.  It is those who, even if not as self-critical as Paul or as self-deprecating as Peter, know their sinfulness and regret their wrongs who are safely in the fold.  But those who are satisfied as they are, who consider it normal to perpetuate a failed and broken world, who are appalled by the notion of being forgiven, are the lost.

So I reflected again on my encounters with people since my arrival here and remembered their distinctive gladness in meeting me.  One show winner yesterday began by leading me to his broad beans, which somehow led to his telling me his scepticism about church. Within a few minutes he was sharing deep questions of faith and before I left he expressed relief about not having given up on God.
The Bible’s language of repentance may be tough and facing reality without denying or lessening its brokenness is tough.  But the hope of salvation in Jesus Christ is real, and we can trust God to seek each person even when they do not seek Him, and love each one until he or she is found.

4th Sept 2016
SERMON Revd Eileen Harrop (WINSTON HC) Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN
                A big part of parish life is belonging to a community and celebrating it.  Although we know churches close when the money runs out, the reality is that churches close because the people run out.  My first experience of a parish church was in a village a little smaller in population and much smaller in geography than Winston.  There were usually between 5 and 10 people at the main Sunday service and possibly 3 for Evensong.  Then somehow at each Carol Service before Christmas, the church would be so full extra chairs had to be brought in.  The only other time that church congregation swelled was on Remembrance Sunday.
                Since our departure more than 10 years ago, the church went through a major fundraising campaign to restore its Norman bell-tower with 6 bells, improve its bell-ringing chamber, repair its roof, and install a kitchen servery and toilet facilities. 
The whole community participated and supported every fundraising event so that within 3 years they got and completed all that was intended.
There was something about All Saints Church’s community that brought the wider community to believe in the continuity of their church.  There was a spiritual legacy of worship in their ancient church, which they had a taste of each year in the candlelit setting at Christmas.  But for most of that community, the Christ aspect of church was not yet meaningful.
Does that situation reflect, in some way, our church and community here? 
In our Bible reading, Paul greets Philemon as his dear friend and fellow Christian worker, Apphia a Christian sister, Archippus another Christian active in mission, and then “the church in Philemon’s house”.  He knows his letter would be read out to the church, and that they would understand and appreciate those warm words of endearment.  Paul promotes a sense of belonging by greeting all of them with God’s grace and peace.  Then he tells them that all the good they do for Christ enables the sharing of their faith to be effective.
In the short time I have been your parish priest I have seen and experienced the good that you do for Christ.  Last weekend, I heard how people came together for the good of the church: sharing flowers and floral items, making the most delicious cakes and aromatic quiches, welcoming visitors, gathering contributions towards the raffle, setting up and clearing up etc.  A few weeks before, the culmination of many people’s combined effort of the parish and church’s story for permanent display brought the community into the church.  As St Paul told the church in Philemon’s house: “the sharing of your faith may become effective” when people experience the good you do for Christ.  Together, as sisters and brothers in Christ, you have laid a good foundation amongst the wider community that will enable the sharing of your faith to be well-received.
But what will your response be when there comes a moment when God asks you to share and reveal your faith? 
A main reason for Paul writing to Philemon was the return of Onesimus, once a slave belonging to Philemon.  Onesimus had run away, taking some of his master’s goods in his escape from slavery.  But Onesimus became a Christian and found himself working with Paul.   Onesimus decided to return to Philemon and was delivering Paul’s letter personally.  In the letter Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus not as a slave but as a Christian brother. 
Both Philemon and Onesimus had to examine the nature of their faith, which would be publicly witnessed.  How would Onesimus be received?  Would he be welcomed by Philemon who would relinquish his rights as master of his former slave? Would not only Philemon but also the church community receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ?
Today, the wider community is ever watchful of the witness shown by the church community. 
What does Jesus tell us about being a real witness of our faith? 
According to today’s Gospel passage Jesus tells the large crowds: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes even life itself, cannot be my disciple”.  Well I tell you this: many people hearing this stop in shock and disbelief at this point.  Is hating each of my family members really what Jesus asks of me? 
So far, I have commended you and our church community for laying a good foundation for the sharing of faith.  Could that all be just kindness before the blow?  No, we must take Jesus’ whole conversation into context: He was telling the crowd how being a Christian requires serious and careful understanding in the same way as building a tower or going to battle would need careful thought and preparation. 
All of us have questions about our faith.  There are things that trouble us about what the Bible says, about what we believe and why we are Christians.  We are all on a personal journey in our faith.  Jesus is starkly honest with us about the implications of our faith and where our journey will take us.  
There may come a time when our faith is opposed by our dearest loved ones or when our own long-held certainties are challenged.  Many turn from their faith at those times. Many more entrust their challenges and questions to prayer, seeking with open heart and mind to receive God’s insights.  Let us not only read the Bible but study and reflect with God’s help. In so doing, we will receive the answers that draw even our dissenting loved ones into the knowledge and love of God.
So continue as a caring and joyful church community that blesses the wider community.  But continue also your personal journey of faith in all truth, that you may receive understanding, and be ready to testify with confidence in Jesus.  Amen
28th August 2016
SERMON (WINSTON FESTIVAL HC) Revd Eileen Harrop -  Psalm 81:1-11; Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

                I’d like to issue a little warning before I commence my sermon.  It may be a struggle for anyone for whom the Queen is a negative symbol.  Like the newscasters sometimes say, “If you do not wish to know the result, look away now”!
A little story has been told about Her Majesty the Queen who happened to be out in an unofficial capacity in Ballater, Scotland.  (You may have heard it before). A person looking up from her shopping observed the person next to her and said, "You look remarkably like the Queen!" to which Her Majesty replied: "how very reassuring!"
                In the context of this marvellous festive weekend celebrating and honouring Her Majesty’s 9 decades, the Bible readings set for this Sunday, the 14th after Trinity, seem extraordinarily suited to us at St Andrew’s, Winston.  Our reading from Hebrews chapter 13 appeals to us, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  That shopper’s unexpected encounter with the Queen directs us to consider the truth received from scripture.  Hospitality to greet angels surrounds all our visitors this weekend in the love, intent, effort, care and welcome communicated by every aspect of this festival. I have heard how there was such a lot of goodwill in the busyness of getting everything done; everyone feeling so ‘at one’ in this place of peace and prayer.
                I was drawn to reflect on the journey of faith, how people arrive at a personal conviction that there is a loving God who revealed himself in Jesus. 
                Her Majesty has dedicated much of her 9 decades in service to the people of her earthly realm.  She attributes to God her decision and determination to live her life in this way.  In the book that honours her 9 decades, she endorses the description of her role: The Servant Queen and the King She Serves. 
We do not have details of how she came to such a deep and practical faith. However, the Queen has repeatedly shared, in her ‘live’ Christmas broadcasts each year around the world, how her faith has given her the strength to serve and to be compassionate.
                It occurred to me that the fellowship among our church family and the festival team reflects our Sovereign’s personal example.  There is something in the humility of quiet service, of joy and fulfilment in being able to serve and to bless others.  I am not native to this country but certainly of ‘The Commonwealth’.  In all the most wholesome communities I have had the privilege of being part of, there is a subtle yet deeply instilled sense of blessing: of wishing to bless others and to be blessed.
                This sense of blessing is expressed in today’s Psalm 81:
1 Sing aloud to God our strength;
    shout for joy to the God of Jacob.
2 Raise a song, sound the tambourine,
    the sweet lyre with the harp.
3 Blow the trumpet at the new moon,
    at the full moon, on our festal day.
This sense of blessing cannot be contained.
Our Queen and her family have had their anxieties, disappointments, deep sadness and loss.  Despite her life of ‘upstairs’, she has not been spared from the pain of sin in the world nor the natural grief of losing her parents and her only sister.  But as in our Psalm, the Queen testifies year on year of God who was not silent when troubles thundered around her:
7 In distress you called, and I rescued you;
    I answered you in the secret place of thunder…
Some of our displays highlight Her Majesty’s concern for the unfortunate, and her encouragement to us to share and act on every concern in society.  It is as our Bible reading teaches: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God”.
I am unashamedly glad of such practices as the Queen’s Garden Parties at Buckingham Palace.  I have met many people honoured with invitation to those occasions.  Most have neither a personal history of ‘an easy life’ nor a background of privilege. They are instead bound by thankfulness, mindful of so many whose struggles are great. Once again, this attitude is mirrored in our Bible reading:
“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured”.
It is apparent that among the many things we have gained from Her Majesty is her personal testimony of faith.  Sadly, there are even clergy colleagues against Christians sharing their testimony.  For them testimonies need to be vetted lest they reveal either unworthy people or un-believable stories.  I do not share their view for if their wariness is justified then many of Jesus’ disciples and apostles’ testimonies would have been disqualified and so too most of God’s chosen people described in the Old Testament.
Today those of us who celebrate Her Majesty’s testimony are blessed; we have taken up the Bible’s call:
“7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
We have remembered Her Majesty and considered the outcome of her way of life.  However, can we ‘imitate her faith”? Her Majesty’s steadfast faith is founded on one certainty, that her King, her Lord and Saviour “Jesus Christ, is the same yesterday, today and forever”.
May God bless each of us with steadfast faith in Jesus Christ as our King, our Lord and Saviour. AMEN