Sept 23rd 07
Trinity 16 and Baptism
Amos 8.4-7, Matt 5.13-16
Having a child changes your life. Any parent here will affirm that. Of course, you know that before you have them. You can read up the details in any good childcare book. You can look at friends and relatives who have just become parents. Sleepless nights, dirty nappies, a truckload of stuff to buy. Of course children change your life. But the reality of that change doesn’t usually hit you until the moment when you hold your own child in your arms. Suddenly you realise how fragile this baby is, and how dependent on you, and how dangerous the world is, and how unprepared you really are for the job. You realise how fierce and how desperate love can feel. This isn’t just going to be about the cost of nappies or having to give up the spare room to be a nursery. It’s about having your life torn open to make room for a whole new human being. Children can bring out the best in us, unlocking a capacity for love and wonder, courage and a new sense of responsibility. But they can also bring out the worst in us. The sheer exhaustion of colicky nights or toddler tantrums or sibling battles can reduce the most sorted-out parent to a complete wreck, gibbering with incoherent fury.
Children change you. But our Gospel reading today reminds us that children don’t just change their parents; they change us all. And that potential to change the world isn’t just limited to their early years, but happens throughout their lives. “You are the salt of the earth” says Jesus to his followers. “You are the light of the world”. Who is he talking to? His followers are a motley bunch of ordinary men and women from the backwater Galilean towns of Northern Israel. We know there were a few fishermen, and a tax-collector, but the rest are a mystery – probably just small scale traders or artisans, peasant farmers and housewives. I’m sure if there were any celebrities we’d have been told so. And yet, Jesus says, these ordinary people will be salt and light – two of the most important commodities in the ancient world.
Salt was vital. It was an antiseptic, used to treat wounds. But more important than that it was a preservative. Salting was one of the most important ways of preserving food before canning and freezing were invented. It kept meat, fish and vegetables from going bad so you had something to eat in the hungry months when harvest time was long past. Salt could be the difference between life and death, starvation and plenty.
And light is something we often take for granted now – a flick of a switch and all is bright. But it wasn’t always so. Our ancestors knew the difference it made to them to be able to work, cook, eat, socialise and travel after sunset. One little candle or lamp could open up all sorts of new possibilities.
Salt and light – simple technology, but life changing for those who had them. World changing too, because with food preserved in the larder, and light to see by after the day’s end you had time to do more than simply subsist. You could invent and learn and grow.
You – said Jesus to the ordinary people who gathered around him – you are as important as that. You can transform the lives of those around you just like salt and light. My guess is that most of them looked at each other in amazement. “What, us?! What difference can we make? We’re not kings or generals or even great teachers.” They’ve come to Jesus to learn. They’ve come to him because they feel needy – they want help, healing, forgiveness. But here he is talking about them as if they are some sort of heroes or teachers or healers themselves. How can that be?
But Jesus was right. They do change the world, that little band of ordinary people, as they eventually travel out into their communities with his message of hope. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here today. And what Jesus said is just as true of each of us. We may feel small – as small as baby Harry. We may feel helpless or ignorant – knowing as little as baby Harry does right now. But just as little Harry changes the world simply by being here, so each of us changes the world too. We may have a large circle of influence or a small one, but we will make a difference to someone. The choice we have to make is what that difference will be. We can be that essential salt that brings goodness and flavour to their lives or we can settle for bland apathy that leaves evil unchallenged, wrongs unrighted. We can make other people’s lives brighter, make it easier for them to find their way, or we can deny them the light that would help them to grow, by keeping our own light under a basket, strictly for ourselves.
In the Old Testament reading the prophet Amos challenges the people around him to think about the effect they are having on others. They are far from being salt and light, in fact their selfish and thoughtless actions – aimed only at enriching themselves – are damaging those who were most vulnerable in their society. They hurry through the festivals of Sabbath and new moon – the times when people could take time off to rest and be with their families – so that they could get back to work. They cheat at the market using false scales and inflating prices. They buy and sell people like cheap commodities, and won’t even let them gather the leftover wheat from the fields. They sell it off to maximise their profits instead. It is a sadly modern picture. Workers denied proper rest, sharp trading practices that skate around the edge of legality, cheap goods made in sweat shops by people who are little more than slaves. All these things happen today, and they will continue to happen as long as we manage to convince ourselves that what we do doesn’t really matter, as long as we fail to see the way in which each of us changes the world, for good or ill as we act, or refuse to act, for good. We think we are insignificant, but actually this ocean of injustice is made up of many tiny drops of water, the individual careless decisions we make that we think are too small to count.
We are not neutral observers of the world say these two readings to us. Life isn’t a spectator sport. We make it what it is for us and for others.
The baptism we are about to do has many meanings. It is about God’s declaration of his unconditional love for Harry. It is about Harry’s place in the family of the church. But it is also a reminder of God’s calling to him and to each of us to make a difference for good. It is a reminder to each of us of our significance in the world. One of the many symbols I will use during this Baptism is oil. In fact I shall anoint Harry with oil twice. Before the baptism I’ll anoint him with olive oil – it was used in the ancient world as a preparation for washing – a soap substitute to loosen the dirt and a sign of welcome in the dusty heat of the Middle East.
But after the baptism I’ll anoint Harry a second time, and this I’ll use the oil of chrism. (pass it round the congregation) Oil of chrism is olive oil scented with frankincense. It is the oil used to anoint monarchs when they are crowned, and priests at their ordination, when they begin their ministry. It is oil, in other words, which is used to say that someone is starting an important job, that they have work to do which others will notice. You can smell when someone has been anointed with chrism oil. The scent of them spreads out into the world.
When I anoint Harry I’ll be reminding him, and us, that what he does will makes a difference. He is not called to slip through the world anonymously, but to be salt and light, with an impact for good that spreads beyond his own life to the lives of others, like a sweet scent. And just as he is called to change the world for good, so are we all.
9th Sept 2007 Trinity 14 Sermon by Kevin Bright
Luke 14.25-33, Philemon 1-21
Lord, give us courage and honesty to face the questions you put before us. Amen.
Vote for me. I’ll bring you ludicrous working hours, low wages; you’ll be ridiculed, lack personal security and could face unfair imprisonment, possibly even a painful death. Who wants to join my party? Not words likely to flow from the lips of any campaigning politician.
Jesus urges us to think about the cost of true faith in him and the potential consequences of true discipleship in the same way that we should plan a construction project to see it through to the end or consider action against others knowing what we will be letting ourselves in for. He doesn’t try to hide the fact that following him will have a cost, it is not an easy option and sacrifices will have to be made.
I’m a lot more at home with the Jesus who heals, tells lively parables, cleverly rebukes pompous religious leaders and exudes warmth and sympathy to those in need.
I’m disturbed by Jesus words, they challenge me with questions I’d rather not face up to ‘…If anyone does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.’ ‘In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.’ He’s hardly trying to sweet talk us into following him and doesn’t seem much of a salesman does he? It all seems a lot more palatable when we hear words which are gentle and offer comfort.
The trouble is that he ‘walks the talk’ and it’s hard to ignore someone who clearly understands the cost of being God’s servant. I see it as a call to face up to what Christ really means. A call to recognise our priorities and not to put off clear thought on this in the way we may delay confronting other issues that disturb us like facing up to a health or relationship problem in the false hope that they will resolve themselves.
So if you don’t get on with your family are you a step closer to being a disciple than those of us who love them? I don’t think so. The problem is thrown up by the word hate. We understand hate to mean loathing. I guess that the girl in the news this week who killed her sister in a rage must have hated her for at least a while. We know none of this is the way of Christ.
What is clear though is that Christ is to be put before even the things we love, our family, our home, our security. For many it is not necessary to leave our family and give up our home but it’s worth thinking whether we would be prepared to do so if we felt Christ was calling us to. It’s a really searching question and few of us could respond with ‘count me in’ without deep consideration of what we are being asked to do.
When I was in my early twenties I felt pleased with myself for buying, or more accurately, securing a mortgage on, my first house. When an Aussie surf dude friend of mine came to stay he saw it rather differently. His words have remained with me ever since’ Oh man I feel so sorry for you losing your freedom with this great mill stone around your neck.’ To him it was horrible to have responsibilities that could prevent you from hopping on a plane to pursue the sun, or a wave.
A question worth considering is have our homes, financial security and lifestyle become such an important part of our identity that Jesus is pushed to the margins or can Gods love in Christ still be the most important thing to us?
Instead of offering low wages, prison and death to followers what if a leader we could believe in gathered us to tell of an isolated place where there’s oppression, injustice and an urgent need for food and medical supplies. The leader needs our support to bring relief to these poor people. If we’re prepared to go it will mean a long journey on foot with no room for comforts or unnecessary baggage. Spend time with those you love now because it’s unlikely we’ll all make it back.
It’s still not an attractive proposition but we could make sense of it and see the risks have a purpose for good.
The love of God is still the primary motivation for many today who risk everything to serve others in bringing relief to the poor, standing up for the oppressed and facing persecution for their faith.
This church has links with Ruth and Saulo De Barros, Saulo is now bishop of the Anglican Diocese in the Amazons.
cited the case of the American nun Dorothy Stang, who received death
and was then murdered in February 2005, in Anapu, a city in the
rainforest, after speaking out against local land barons.
He continued: ‘Despite being threatened, you have to keep going. I would prefer my son and daughter to think of me as someone who died rather than just sat in a church. Once you have opened your eyes to it you can’t turn your back. We live in an unequal world; you see how many people are suffering and you think what right have I to ignore their plight.’
He added: ‘Friends say “you have done enough, you can’t change the world”, but if everyone thought like that where would we be?’
Inspiration like this gives an insight into the sort of religion Jesus is offering. It doesn’t offer an insurance policy or a nice warm feeling inside but relates closely to all that is happening around us. There will constantly be new challenges to face if we commit ourselves to discipleship.
We heard almost all of Paul’s short letter to Philemon. It seems likely that Philemon became a Christian after hearing Paul preach in Ephesus and Paul respected him as a man who had reacted to the gospel message with love and generosity.
Like most men of means Philemon had slaves, it seemed as natural to him as a car or TV is to us today. However, one of his slaves had run away, then a capital offence. The slave seems to have met Paul in Ephesus where he became a Christian and looked after Paul in prison. However Paul couldn’t delay the need to send the slave Onesimus (Own-ee-si-mus) back but gently asked Philemon to accept him without penalty, even to set him free whilst emphasizing that the final decision was his. Wouldn’t you hate a situation like this; your friends would think you’d gone mad. Faced with a modern equivalent newspapers would have a field day pointing out what sort of message does this send out to slaves! Run away and get rewarded with freedom, the whole system could break down!
Paul knew all this yet found his priority in the gospel message and its need to change real lives and influence difficult decisions that have to be taken. The partnership Paul and Philemon have in the gospel is more important than observing the norms of society and offers the possibility that when a few people hold to these values, new things can be achieved. It’s one of those moments when we don’t just hear the gospel but the opportunity to live it stares us in the face.
We are not told whether Philemon forgives Onesimus though whatever he did would have been witnessed by those in his house church so he was certainly under the microscope on this one. I think most of us would expect that Paul’s letter did the trick though it would have taken a great deal of self control by Philemon not to make Onesimus feel even a little bit guilty.
Philemon and Onesimus must learn to accept each other because Paul loves them both and, even more, so does God.
I mentioned earlier that Jesus challenge to follow him is a difficult one to face up to, disturbing and a bit frightening at times. Here the challenge becomes reality; turn your world upside down Philemon. You’ll need to take a risk and may be hated by some for doing so, this could prove costly.
Could we be still be influenced by Paul’s plea today and see every person as a beloved brother or sister or is true discipleship just too risky for us?
Lord, give us courage and honesty to face the questions you put before us. Amen.
17th June 07 Breathing Space Communion
Over the past half-century talking about sin and repentance has gone out of fashion. All that gloom and doom, making people feel bad about themselves – surely it can’t do us any good? We downplay confession, not wanting to focus too much on the negative. It is good that we are careful to try not to make people feel unnecessary guilt – the threat of hell was so often no more than a way of exercising social control.
But there is a downside to our modern aversion to all things penitential. We may have learned to resist guilt that isn’t ours, but often we seem also, it seems to me, to have lost the ability to deal with the guilt that is ours. We do have responsibility for the mess of the world, the mess of our lives. There’s nothing wrong with feeling guilt for things we should feel guilty for; things that are our fault.
Why are we so inclined to say “it’s not my fault, nothing to do with me”? It’s partly the result of living in a compensation culture. If we admit responsibility someone might sue us. But it’s also a result of having forgotten that along with penitence and repentance came absolution – God’s forgiveness. Admitting we have done wrong is the first step towards being put right. If we can’t admit our failings, there is no way we can be forgiven and know the joy of a new start.
That, I suspect, is the problem with Simon the Pharisee and the circle he moves in, who gather to hear this strange and controversial teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. They aren’t perfect. Of course they aren’t. No one is. But try getting them to admit to it. They have all played very cool towards Jesus. Simon hasn’t even given him the basic courtesies which any Middle Eastern host should have done. They don’t need him, or anything he has to offer – they’re all right, or at least they are making a bold stab at appearing to be. I suspect they are relieved when a notorious local woman shows up. Whatever they have done, whatever guilt they are concealing in themselves, hers is surely worse. Jesus will be diverted into condemning her – surely he won’t spot that there is anything wrong with him.
But Jesus points out to them that they have it all upside down. This woman’s extravagant gestures of love show that she knows how much she has been forgiven for, and that she is delighted at the chance to make a new start. She knows she has been given a precious second chance, and she is determined not to waste it. But they, hiding behind their façade of respectability, are going nowhere. Whatever sins they carry are still weighing them down, and will always do so, because they can’t even admit their existence.
Repentance isn’t a dead-end state of hair-shirt wearing misery. It is the gateway into new life, something which this woman receives with such joy that she can’t contain it. Yes, she was guilty – we don’t know what of – but now she is forgiven, and has a whole new life ahead of her. No wonder she is happy. They say the best revenge is living well, but I think the best repentance is living well too, “using aright the time that is left to us here on earth” as a prayer in the funeral service puts it.
So tonight, if you are aware of something in your life that isn’t as it should be, rejoice. That awareness can be the beginning of something wonderful – the discovery that no sin is greater than God’s power to forgive it, no sin greater than his love for us.
10th June 07 - Trinity 1
were two extraordinary stories in today’s readings. Two stories
of the miraculous raising of the dead. Two dead sons given back to
their widowed mothers. Elijah revives the son of the widow of
Zarephath and Jesus raises the son of the widow of Nain, even as
he is being taken away for burial. Amazing, powerful miracles.
But I wonder how we feel about them?
We might have intellectual doubts and questions. Could these miracles really have happened? For us the line between life and death is clear and firm. With our 21st century scientific and medical minds we know that you are either alive or dead, and once you are dead, there’s no coming back. If your heart has stopped, you aren’t breathing and there is no brain activity then there is no life. We have learned to look at the body as an isolated thing, a machine. When it stops working, that’s it.
For the people of the ancient world, though, life and death weren’t as clearly divided. They weren’t sure when life started – most thought it was at quickening, when the mother felt the baby inside her move. They believed that was when God put the soul in the body. And they thought that the soul hung around for a few days after the body died too. That’s why it mattered that Jesus was three days in the tomb, so that no one could say that he wasn’t properly dead. The boundary between life and death was much more blurred than it is for us, and for that reason, they wouldn’t have had the same problems we do with these stories. To them, God gave life and God took life away, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to think he could give life back again – it was a matter of his will, not of scientific possibilities. They are amazed when these dead sons rise, but not because they thought it was impossible in any scientific sense. Their amazement had other roots, which I’ll talk about more later.
So our modern ideas of life and death can easily side-track us, then. Could these miracles really have happened? We don’t know, and can’t know, but that, for the Bible writers isn’t the point. It’s not what they want us to focus on at all.
The second concern we might have with these stories is an emotional one. I belong to a preaching discussion list on the internet, a virtual gathering of preachers from all over the world who talk about the readings set for the week. This week an American preacher wrote in. She had a dilemma. There had been a tragedy in her community. A 16 year old boy had been killed in a road accident. Could she really preach on these two stories about dead sons restored to their mothers, when this community mourned a dead son of its own? She didn’t think the family would be in her church, but others who were close to them might be. I didn’t envy her the struggle she was having. Preaching on miracles is always difficult. If you’re bereaved, ill, depressed, hearing of the miraculous cure of others can seem like a slap in the face. If God can heal people – even raise them from death – why doesn’t he do it for everybody?
But this can be a red-herring too, because the Bible writers weren’t trying to explain the whys and wherefores of human suffering when they wrote down these stories. They weren’t trying to explain why some individuals are healed and some not. The message they intended to convey was a very different one.
So, if we put aside those intellectual questions and emotional reactions that these stories can raise in us, what are we left with? What were the writers trying to tell us?
The clue is in the reactions of the onlookers. They don’t say – “wow – raising the dead – that’s impossible, how did you do that?” They don’t call for a public enquiry or a scientific investigation, in the hopes that these cures can be repeated for everyone. For them, what these miracles show is that God is at work, God is here, God has shown up in their midst. “Now I know that you are a man of God,” says the widow at Zarephath to Elijah, and the crowd at Nain cry out that “God has looked favourably on his people!”. The Greek word they use is linked to their word for an overseer, a supervisor, a boss– it’s episcope in Greek.
“The boss has shown up!” shouts the crowd – God is here among us. This miracle proves it beyond a doubt because who else but God can give life? It’s what he does. He did it at the beginning, breathing the breath of life into Adam and Eve. He is the source of life, the sustainer of life. If the dead are rising, it must be God.
“The boss has shown up!”, they cry, but as with the arrival of any boss, there are mixed reactions to this. How you feel about the boss’s presence depends on what you are up to when he arrives. Some are frightened. They know that God will bring change, upsetting their apple carts. But for others this is wonderful news.
It is wonderful news first and foremost, of course, for the two mothers and sons in this story, not just because of the personal grief involved in any bereavement, but also because to be a widow in ancient times was a precarious business, and to be a childless widow was even worse. It was very hard for women to have an existence independent of men. They were always their husband’s wife, their father’s daughter, their son’s mother. But these women have been left without the protection of a man when their sons die, with no one who will be able to support them in the future. They are at the bottom of the heap – always the place where, in the Bible, God seems to show up first. In fact for the widow of Zarephath there is another twist to this. Zarephath isn’t in Israel – it is to the north in Phoenicia, in a land which was often at war with Israel. So God has shown up and is at work – shockingly – in a household where perhaps foreign gods are worshipped, and certainly where the laws of Moses were not kept. This widow is not even among the deserving poor – why on earth would God be bothered with her.
But God is bothered, and he shows it as he gives Elijah the power to raise him from death.
God – the boss – shows up for these two grieving, powerless women, and he does what only he can do, what is most basically in his nature – he gives life. That’s how the onlookers know it is his work – because life comes from God. It is his gift alone.
The life that is given in these miracles is literal, physical life, but there is a sense in which all the work of God – in the miracles and ministry of the prophets and of Jesus is life-giving. Healing miracles give back to the sick the chance to play a full part, to live a full life in their society. Feeding the five thousand provides the stuff of life to a hungry crowd. Calming a storm brings an end to the chaos that threatens life. Jesus’ call to fishermen, tax collectors, and prostitutes to follow him, gives them a dignity and purpose that makes life worth living. Even those who oppose him are challenged to live, rather than die. St Paul talks in the second reading of the destructiveness of his former life before he followed Christ.
There are many kinds of life and death – physical, emotional, spiritual, social. There are plenty of people who are perfectly healthy, but feel dead inside. Life without hope, love, connection to others can feel as if it isn’t worth living, as if you might as well be dead. When we look at these miracles only as baffling stories about the re-animation of corpses they can seem a million miles from our experience, but they aren’t meant to be. They aren’t just about the weird things Elijah or Jesus might or might not have done thousands of years ago. They are about what God is doing now, and what God is calling us to do now as well.
I doubt whether any of us will see a corpse rise up – in fact I rather hope I don’t! But there are all sorts of ways in which we can have a life-giving influence on others. Poverty and injustice can be deathly – people abandon hope, thinking the cards are irrevocably stacked against them. But we are called to stand for life, to overturn the barriers that obstruct God’s gifts of life-giving justice. Environmental degradation and climate change are deathly. But we are called to stand for life as we do what we can to protect the biosphere – the sphere of life in all its diversity. The private struggles of depression or loneliness are deathly too. We are called to stand for life as we reach out to a neighbour to help them in their need, or to let them help us in ours
People often see Christian commitment to the sanctity of life as being the preserve only of those who campaign against abortion and euthanasia. But life is more than mere existence. If we truly treasure life as sacred, we need to be concerned, passionately concerned, about its quality as well as about its length, about ensuring that all can share in its fullness and joy, living lives of love, peace and security.
Where God is, these stories tell us, life is. In fact, where God is, life overflows, unstoppably. Let us pray that those around us will recognise in us that same life-giving touch which proclaims that the boss has shown up, God is here, and at work in his world through us.
3rd June 2007
Evensong - Trinity Sunday
Exodus 3.1–15, John 3.1–17
Our two Bible readings for tonight seem at first glance to be very different. In the first, a Hebrew on the run from Pharaoh, living as a shepherd in a remote desert encounters a mysterious burning bush. In the second a member of the religious elite goes at dead of night through the back streets of Jerusalem to talk to Jesus.
Yet when we look more closely we see all sorts of parallels between these two stories of people meeting a God who is not as they expected him to be. I’ve spotted five. I’ll explain.
Let’s start at the beginning. Both encounters begin with something strange. Moses sees a bush which burns, but isn’t consumed. “I must turn aside and look” he says to himself. Nicodemus is drawn to Jesus by the signs he’s seen and heard too. This meeting happens straight after two startling incidents near the beginning of John’s Gospel – the turning of water into wine at a wedding in Cana and the overturning of the traders’ tables in the temple. The first is an immensely cheering miracle, it seems to me – unlimited wine for all! – and the second an immensely challenging one, as Jesus demonstrates the need for an overturning of the social and economic structures of the day. Things like these, say Nicodemus, can’t be done without the presence of God – he has to know more. Moses and Nicodemus both “turn aside”. Moses, from the path on which he is leading his flock. Nicodemus from the pathways he’s trodden as a religious leader and teacher, sure, until now, of what he believed, but now wondering whether there could be more. That’s the first parallel.
The second is in the response that they make to the strangeness of what they find. Moses takes off his shoes. This is holy ground. It’s a puzzling thing to do for us – going barefoot in our culture is a sign of relaxation and informality, not respect. But in Moses’ world it was literally a humbling gesture. The word humble comes from the same root as humus – the earth. Going barefoot meant your feet were on the ground. You were brought down to earth; there was no protection, no insulation between you and earthy reality.
Nicodemus, as far as we know, keeps his shoes on, but he becomes vulnerable and expresses humility in a different way. He has to divest himself of what he thinks he knows, admit ignorance, puzzlement at Jesus’ words. “Are you a teacher of Israel, yet you do not understand these things?” asks Jesus. He’s hit the nail on the head – Nicodemus hasn’t the faintest idea what Jesus means, and he is brought down to earth by Jesus’ straight talking. For this clever man, respected for his knowledge, this intellectual nakedness is probably the most embarrassing there could be, but unless he sheds his self-image as a man of knowledge, he can’t learn from Jesus.
The third of the five parallels is found in the way they both discover a God who is both utterly new, and yet the same as he has always been. There is surprise and similarity, contrast and continuity. Moses is shocked to find God off what he thinks is his own territory. He had grown up with the idea that Gods were local. But here is the God of his ancestors – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – way off his patch, so to speak. Monotheism – the belief in only one God – develops slowly in Hebrew thought, and this is an early stage in its development. God isn’t stuck in his own land, he can be everywhere. This is very new, and yet clearly there is continuity too – this IS the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob.
For Nicodemus too there is something old and something new in his encounter with Jesus. He is shocked at Jesus challenge to the old order, the assumptions of his times, and yet Nicodemus can also see that his teaching is rooted in the Bible, that the things he does are in line with the God who is revealed there.
The fourth parallel illustrates that continuity. The message to Moses and to Nicodemus is the same. God tells Moses that he has heard and seen the misery of his people, slaves in Egypt, and he will act to rescue them. They have not been forgotten, they are not rejected or abandoned. And what is it that Jesus says to Nicodemus. Those, most famous words. “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son…”
The nations around Israel – Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Assyrians – were quite content to believe in gods and goddesses who were really only interested in their own ends, their own power struggles, who capriciously played with humanity for their own amusement. But, apparently alone among the nations of the time, the God of Israel’s motivation was love. We are so used to that that it has perhaps lost its power to move us as it should. That is a pity, because it is truly awe-inspiring. “What are mortals”, as the Psalmist says “that God should care for us?” And yet, both these stories tell us, that is what it is all about. Not vengeance, not the desire to condemn, but healing, rescue and love for his precious creation.
The fifth and final parallel, after that glorious revelation, is that for both Moses and Nicodemus, getting involved in that mission of love will not be easy. There are struggles ahead. Moses is given a twin challenge – to persuade Pharaoh to let the Hebrew slaves leave Egypt, and then to contend with the tribes that already occupy the Promised Land. It is, as God points out, the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and they aren’t going to be pleased when a rival nation arrives on their doorstep. There will be trouble both getting out of the old land, and getting into the new.
But God says to Moses, “I have come down to deliver them”. Like a midwife God will be there by their side as they go through this painful and dangerous transition – the birth of a new nation.
You don’t get any prizes for spotting the parallel with the story of Nicodemus here. Jesus talks to him about new birth too, birth through water and the spirit, birth from above. Nicodemus is confused – how can you be born again when you are already full grown? But that is what he will need – a completely new start – if he wants to be part of building this new kingdom that Jesus has come to bring. Joining in the work of Jesus will mean leaving the comfortable world of privilege and security he has known, and aligning himself with someone who is already attracting hostile attention. He comes by night to see Jesus because he wants to remain hidden, but he will have to come out of this womb-like darkness if he is really serious about this new life. It is a hard message, and Nicodemus takes a long time to find the courage he needs. We hear of him twice more in the Gospels. The first time we find him putting up a rather weak defence of Jesus in the face of the plotting of his fellow Pharisees. “Everyone deserves a fair trial,” he says, but he doesn’t press his point, and it doesn’t seem to make much difference. By the time he steps out of the shadows, he probably feels it is too late to do any good. It is he, in John’s Gospel, who brings spices to anoint Jesus’ body as it is taken down from the cross, and helps to carry it to the tomb. It has taken the death of Jesus to bring him to his own new birth – a long and difficult labour indeed.
So, five parallels between these two stories. But perhaps the most important parallels aren’t the ones we draw between Moses and Nicodemus, but the parallels we draw to our own lives.
Let’s go back over those five points again, and put ourselves in the picture.
First, let’s ask, what makes us “turn aside”? What is it that draws us to explore faith, to contemplate God? There are signs and wonders all around us, challenges that call to us, but so often we walk on by, our minds deadened by the cares of life, or the rigid patterns of thought that we have grown up with. A burning bush – so what?
Second, we might ask how we might we need to “take our shoes off”? How do we protect ourselves from God, insulate ourselves from reality? Is our faith mere words, a game we play on Sunday, or do we have our feet on the ground, our faith connected to the reality of our lives in all their earthiness?
Thirdly, how do we check out our image of God? Are we challenged and shocked sometimes, or is our faith predictable and cosy? And if we think we have met God in a new way, is our faith deeply enough rooted, well enough informed to show us when we are just going completely off beam?
Fourthly, have we taken on board that our God, like the God of Moses and Nicodemus, still loves the world, still sees and hears its misery, and comes to us to act to heal and rescue? What would you long for God to see and hear today, in your life, in our world? And how will he answer that prayer? Moses was called to be part of the solution, and so are we – the ways in which that love and healing are expressed.
Finally, we should know that for us too, there is a struggle involved in finding the new life God wants for us. Birth is not easy – not for the mother, and not for the child either, but only a complete new beginning will do. It isn’t something that happens once and for all; it is a constant process of beginning again with God, but do we have the courage for it? Perhaps we will hesitate, as Nicodemus did, until it seems to us that it must be too late. But it is never too late with God, never too late to respond, never too late to change.
Five parallels. Five ways of stepping into these stories and hearing in them the living word – the God who is “I am” – yesterday, today and forever – calling out to us to turn aside, know his love, and be born again.
June 3rd 2007 Trinity Sunday
Proverbs 8.1–4, 22–31, Psalm 8, Romans 5.1–5, John 16.12–15
What does this time of year mean to you? For some it is a beautiful time. It’s the start of summer. The gardens are beginning to look their best; the hedgerows are full of wild flowers. It’s a time of relaxation and ease. But for many others May and June mean only one thing – examinations! It’s not just the students taking SATs, or GCSEs, or AS levels, or A Levels, or university exams who get worked up. Parents and other members of the family share in their anxiety too, as we try to encourage and console and make it possible for our children to do as well as they can. And of course, for teachers, this is the moment when they find out whether any of what they have laboured to teach all year has actually sunk in.
It’s an important time, but it can also be very frustrating. A couple of hours in an exam room often seems a woefully inadequate way to judge how children are getting on. Some are better than others at cramming in a set of facts and churning them out on the day. Some exams only really test how good students are at passing exams. And we all know that some of the most valuable lessons we learn don’t come from text books anyway, and that no amount of exam passes will necessarily guarantee happiness or success or that you will lead a good and useful life. Passing exams doesn’t necessarily give you the skills you really need to become a fully rounded, emotionally mature, caring, responsible individual, able to contribute to society. There’s far more to living well than simply knowing stuff, and the life-lessons which we really need don’t usually come quickly or easily. They take a long time and real work to master.
Of course that’s never stopped us wishing for a quick and easy route to knowledge though. There’s a folktale by the Brother’s Grimm which tells of a man who is set on by robbers. They bundle him into a sack and haul him up into a tall tree, intending to return to kill him later. Having hung there for a long time in despair the man finally manages to escape by persuading a passing student that this sack is actually “the Sack of Knowledge” – 24 hours in it and you know everything! The student eagerly swaps places – here is an end to all that tiresome studying! And you could say it works – he learns something almost straight away, even if it is only that you should never believe what a complete stranger tied in a sack tells you…!
The story of Adam and Eve and that forbidden fruit is about the longing for instant knowledge as well. The fruit is the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. “Eat this,” says the serpent, “and you’ll know everything. You’ll be just like God.” But Adam and Eve soon realise they have bitten off more than they can chew. Knowing good from evil is one thing, having the wisdom to live with that knowledge is quite another. And by grasping at something they weren’t ready for they have damaged the very thing that could have helped them – their relationship with God. Instead of feeling they can walk and talk with him freely as they have done before they are ashamed. They just want to hide from him.
Knowledge is power. Knowledge can be dangerous when we use it to try to make ourselves look big, or others look small, to manipulate or intimidate. The people of the Bible knew well that knowledge on its own wasn’t enough. It was wisdom we needed. Wisdom was far more than mastering facts or passing exams, and it didn’t come instantly. Wisdom was such an important attribute to the ancient Hebrews that they often spoke about it as if it actually was a person. They pictured it as a woman – the Hebrew word for wisdom is feminine – and we meet her in today’s Old Testament reading. She was there in the beginning with God, she says, by his side helping to put into action his creative plans. Wisdom was essential to everything, from making the heavens, to setting a boundary for the sea. And she continued to be there, delighting with God in the world and in the human race.
So what the people of the Old Testament are telling us is that you don’t just find wisdom in the pages of books, but in everyday experience, in daily life. We find wisdom where we are, or we don’t find it at all. We find God where we are, or we don’t find him at all. And this wisdom – God’s wisdom – isn’t something we can find in splendid isolation in an ivory tower. It’s found in relationship with God and with others. You can’t find wisdom on your own, and you can’t keep it to yourself either. It isn’t something to be hoarded for its own sake, as a bargaining chip to bring us power, to help us climb the ladder of personal success. It is there to be shared for the good of all, not to be owned by a few lucky individuals. God’s wisdom is for everyone, just as God is for everyone, not just for some intellectual elite.
Today is Trinity Sunday, the day when we are supposed to focus on the strange and puzzling idea of God as three persons but one God. That too is often something that people feel is just for the elite – theologians with too much time on their hands and more brains than is good for them. It’s tempting to relegate the whole business of the Trinity to a dusty shelf somewhere, like a book we meant to read but never quite got past the first few pages of. But that is a great shame, because the Trinity is really all about experience, not book-learning; real life, not abstract theology. The Trinity is Christianity’s way of trying to talk about God in the here and now, God for everyone, just as the people of the Old Testament had tried to talk about that same experience using that active creative figure of Wisdom, who showed them God at work in the world.
They were convinced that they met God as they learned to live wisely and well, because it was only from God that true wisdom came. The early Christians felt that they had met God too, and had seen God’s effects in their lives. They had met God in the person of Jesus. They had met God in their experience of the Holy Spirit, who gave them strength and joy. They already knew God as Creator and loving parent, but now they knew him in these other ways as well. The idea of the Trinity was the best they could do to express that sense of God’s presence with them in the reality of everyday life. They didn’t worry about the philosophy until much later – what they knew about was the experiences they had, experiences through which they learned and grew. These were experiences of wisdom just like those of their ancestors. Jesus talks about the Spirit of Truth, guiding us into truth in today’s Gospel. God in experience, bringing us wisdom. St Paul talks of God who is found even in suffering, suffering which produced endurance, endurance character, and character a hope that doesn’t disappoint us. God in experience, bringing us wisdom.
The Trinity can sound horribly complicated, but it is actually very simple – it is a way of describing an experience, an experience that we can all have. We can all meet God in our everyday lives, as we learn and grow in his wisdom, the wisdom that enables us to live as his children, doing his work, loving others, creating justice and peace in his world.
It is simple to understand, but, of course, that doesn’t mean that this wisdom is easily come by; there is certainly nothing painless or instant about it. It will take much more than 24 hours in a sack of knowledge, or a bite of an apple. This path to wisdom will take as long as it takes, and will almost certainly involve sacrifice and suffering.
No wonder we feel frustrated that our schools can’t manage to wave a magic wand over our children and turn them into the model citizens that we would like – happy, healthy, responsible, and wise. The expectation is quite unrealistic. Becoming the people God wants us to be takes a lifetime and involves the whole community as we shape each other in all the things we do. It’s not just about academic values, but spiritual values too. It’s not just about what happens in school, but what happens at home, what happens in church, what happens in our neighbourhoods, and what happens in the wider world. It isn’t just learnt through formal teaching but through the examples we set, the things we spend our money on, the principles we live by. The best teacher in the best school in the world can’t work miracles with our children, teaching them love, courage and trust if the rest of their society is teaching them hatred, fear and suspicion.
Trinity Sunday is the beginning of the long Trinity Season – twenty something weeks, all through the summer and early autumn. It’s by far the longest season in the church’s year. But it needs to be long, because the emphasis in this season isn’t on the exciting events of the Christian story - the birth, death and resurrection of Christ. It is on the slow steady work of God among us; the God whom we meet day by day as we learn to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with him.
May 27th 2007 Pentecost Sermon by Kevin Bright
Genesis 11.1-9, John 14.8-17&25-27
Important people, do you know any either personally or otherwise? People like to be seen with important people because by association they must be pretty important themselves mustn’t they?
If I go to meet a business owner and find myself the other side of a vast desk, usually on a smaller and lower chair than theirs, I can virtually guarantee that they will have at least one photograph in their office of them with someone the public perceive to be important, usually Bush, Blair, or occasionally Thatcher for those more senior in years.
I guess I should guard against assuming all such people have an insatiable desire for power themselves as I don’t know the background to these associations. The other factor is that we are all guilty of expressing our self importance from time to time and there can be a fine line between telling people who we are and what we do as opposed to how important we are.
Please forgive me if you’ve heard this before but I think we would all consider the Pope to be a pretty important person.
Well he was on a tour in the US going around in this amazing limo and at the end of the day he says to his chauffeur ‘I’m pretty fed up riding around in the back of this limo all the time how about you get in the back and let me have a go at driving this amazing vehicle. Nervously the chauffeur swops seats and the Pope starts to open up the vehicle on an empty freeway, 60, 70, 80, 90, 95 miles per hour and just as he is thinking how the vehicle picks up speed without one noticing he sees the flashing blue lights in his wing mirror.
The motorbike cop waves the vehicle over and walks towards the drivers’ window with a stern look on hid face, a look which turns to one of amazement when he sees who’s driving. ‘Just a minute Sir’ he says as he turns away to radio his commander. ‘I’ve just pulled over someone very important, not too sure what to do here.’ ‘Important you say, who is it the state governor?’ ‘No, more important than that’. ‘Not the Presidents wife again?’ ‘No more important.’ ‘Surely, not the President himself?’ ‘No more important than that.’ ‘That’s simply not possible; tell me who it is the commander demanded’. The traffic cop replied in a rather shaky voice, ‘Actually, to be honest I’m not quite sure, but let’s put it this way, the pope is his chauffeur!’
I acknowledge credit to the Dean of Rochester (Adrian Newman) for that theological illustration of how we relate to important people. When you open the back door to this car and see the man in uniform would you consider the chauffeur an important person?
Well he would probably have more in common with those God considers important than those who seek celebrity by association. Over and over again God chooses people to do his work who are at best ordinary, but often apparently inappropriate or inadequate for their great task.
Pentecost is the contrast to the story of the Tower of Babel where people want to make a name for themselves, that story tells us that a desire for power and arrogant determination to be self reliant divides us from each other and from God.
If we have doubts about ourselves, our relationship with God and our future we’re more likely to turn to God and ask for help.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus tells his disciples in John’s gospel that the world cannot receive the spirit of truth. Perhaps the world is too obsessed with what has become important to it, its own truth, its own crazy self-authenticating systems to receive the Spirit whose job it is to unite us with the Father and the Son. It’s up to each of us if we want to be in the world or of the world.
‘Designer goods’ has become a description we would associate with things of the world Luis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci etc. maybe it’s time for us to remind ourselves we are the original designer goods, made in the image of God, knitted together in our mother’s womb, people with a real purpose.
Beneath our public persona, deeper than the messy reality of our private lives, at our innermost core, our very being, lies the fact that God made us and loves all that he has made. Because of this he sent us the Holy Spirit and the shocking truth is that there is real possibility that we could be the very people to fulfill the words of Christ when he said ’ …the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do…’
If we are people who are open to receive the Holy Spirit, I would have thought that like me you have some difficulty putting your finger on exactly what it (or should that be he or she) actually is. In Acts Luke speaks of the Spirit being ‘like the rush of a violent wind’ and of ‘divided tongues as of fire’ there is a sense that he is struggling to find words which absolutely define the experience. Maybe that’s because we like to categorise, to logically explain all things that we struggle so much and I believe that the Spirit goes way beyond this. After all much of Jesus teaching was through stories capable of more than one interpretation.
This is not a ‘cop out’ for trying to know if the Spirit is real for us. We can lazily dismiss any evidence or we can accept our vulnerability and experience the fact that the Spirit has the power to bring unity and restore communication where it has been lost.
I read recently of an American lady who in the midst of studying for a theology degree was struck down with ovarian cancer. Her inadequate medical insurance meant she couldn’t cover her cost of treatment so members of her parish and her daughter’s school held a fundraiser on her behalf. She described the joyful mayhem that filled the house where the event was held and of her irrepressible conviction that every person present that night had something like a tongue of fire or a halo above their head. The spiritual heat shining out from them was as palpable as any CAT scan or MRI. They were on fire with love.
And as this lady experienced the Spirit is still making a difference in people’s lives today. For those who allow the Spirit to move them this could be the difference between greedily taking or thinking how we can give, between accepting the status quo or searching for ways we can challenge injustice, between seeing a future which is bleakly certain or gloriously possible.
As we struggle to understand the Spirit we can go off in any direction but find ourselves coming back to love. The same thing happens when we try to understand God the search brings us back to his love for us up and his son gave up his own life upon the cross in the greatest act of love the world has ever known.
Why was it that so many could understand each other at Pentecost? Perhaps it’s because the common language spoken was the language of love.
When we take time to think about it we may realise that we have had our own Pentecost experience, the birth of a child, a relationship restored, a new insight or understanding.
If we can leave ourselves open to the Spirit there will be more to come.
This Pentecost let’s give thanks for the times we have seen the Holy Spirit in our lives and invite her to be a constant presence in each one of us and this church as we look forward to our future.
Come Holy Spirit.
2007 Easter 7 – Breathing
Acts 16.9-15, John 17.20-end
We beseech you, leave us not comfortless…says our collect for today.
One of our earliest and deepest fears is the fear of abandonment. For a small child it can literally be the difference between life and death. Left alone, you simply can’t survive. For a long time we need adults around us who understand the world and can protect us.
“Leave us not comfortless.”
There is a sense in which we probably never grow out of that fear of being left alone, with no one to care about us or notice us. We can cope with all sorts of troubles if only we feel we aren’t alone with them. A friend, a partner, a child or parent – often they don’t have to do anything or have any clever ideas; they just have to be there.
“Leave us not comfortless…” The comfort we long for isn’t just the relaxation of a cosy armchair by the fire, but comfort in the oldest sense of the word - a presence that strengthens, that “fortifies” us, making us strong.
This sort of comfort was something the early followers of Jesus needed badly. They faced a huge task – to take the message of Christ to the ends of the earth. It was a task they were to do in the midst of persecution. Yet they were essentially no different to us – not superheroes. The story we heard from Acts is a typical view of the kind of turmoil they faced. Paul and Silas arrive at Ephesus and soon their message has started changing lives. They bring good news, but they bring colossal disruption too. A slave girl is healed, a jailer finds new hope, but in the process Paul and Silas make powerful enemies, and find themselves in prison as well. We perhaps look on people like Paul and Silas as full of courage, in a way we couldn’t ever aspire to, but my guess is that they were probably just as scared as we would be. And yet somehow, somewhere they find the strength, the comfort, that we all long for, strength even to sing and pray in the dead of night in their prison cells, rather than huddling in a corner and crying, as I suspect I would.
Where does that strength come from? Paul and Silas draw it from each other, of course. Jesus knew what he was doing when he prayed that we might be one. We need each other. God’s love often comes to us through people who know us and love us. But they only have that love and support to give because they also know it individually. They have discovered that the same God who raised Jesus from death – who did not leave him comfortless, in the darkness of the tomb, even when all seemed lost – is with them too. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, “neither death, nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This Sunday we stand between two important festivals - Ascension and Pentecost. Ascension, when we recall how Jesus’ earthly ministry finished, on a hill outside Jerusalem as he was taken up into heaven, leaving his disciples gazing up into what must have seemed an endless, empty sky, and Pentecost, when the truth that Paul will one day express so powerfully first dawns on them. God has not left them at all. In his Spirit he is present in a new way in their lives. It’s a realisation that takes a while to come though, and that’s probably true of us too as we wait for the things we long for – healing, forgiveness, meaning, the sense that we matter and are cared for.
“Leave us not comfortless” we pray. Just like the disciples we can often find ourselves looking around into what seems like an empty space, longing for strength to meet challenges that seem beyond us. But the good news is the same now as it was then – the God whom we wait for is already here. Nothing can separate us from him, except perhaps our own closed eyes, ears and hearts. His presence may not be as we expect – it certainly wasn’t for those stunned disciples at Pentecost. He may not do what we expect, or give us what we ask for, but the God who did not abandon Christ to the darkness of the tomb will not abandon us either.
In the silence, we pray, both for ourselves and for others, “leave us not comfortless”, and we wait for the knowledge that our prayer is already answered. Amen.
I’m going to ask you a question. I don’t want you to tell me the answer. I just want you to ponder it for yourselves. If you could change something in your life, what would it be? Now, I want to be a bit specific here – I don’t want you to think of something completely impossible or beyond your control, like being 21 again if that day is long past, or winning the lottery. Think of something that you could, theoretically at least, achieve. A change at work, or in a relationship. A new skill. Deepening your knowledge. Sorting out some problem that has beset you – giving up smoking, drinking less. Praying more, living out your faith, doing something for someone else.
I’m going to give you a moment of quiet to think of something in your life that you’d really like to be different, that you really want.
I hope you’ve all thought of something. Now I’m going to give you another short time of silence to ask yourself the question, “if that’s what I want, why hasn’t it happened, why haven’t I done it? What’s stopping me from doing it? What is getting in the way?”
The man in our Gospel reading today was well aware of what he wanted to change. He’d been ill for 38 years. 38 years! What were you doing 38 years ago – in 1969? Perhaps you weren’t even born then. For all that time this man had been ill with something – we don’t know what. Eventually he had come to a pool in Jerusalem, where miracles were believed to happen. Some early manuscripts include an extra verse which explains it a bit more. Every now and an angel disturbed the waters, it was thought, and whoever got into them first after this would be healed. So the crowds of the sick waited and waited, and when the moment came they all rushed forward, hoping to be the lucky one. We might think the NHS is a bit of a lottery, but it was nothing compared to this.
This man had been there a long time, but somehow his chance never came. He was still lying there when Jesus came to the pool, and noticed him, and spoke to him. “Do you want to be made well?” he asked. What a ridiculous question – insulting really. Of course he wants to be made well, doesn’t he? Why else would he be lying by this pool?
But that’s where this story gets interesting, because the man doesn’t answer Jesus’ question at all. Instead he comes straight back with what sounds like a well-rehearsed response. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” It’s as if he hasn’t heard what Jesus said at all. He leaps straight to the obstacles. Whether he wants it or not is neither here nor there.
It’s an odd response and it raises all sorts of questions. Why does it seem so impossible to him that he will be healed? Why is he torturing himself with longing for something that actually he doesn’t believe he will ever get. If he’s so sure he can’t get into this pool in time, why linger there?
We can’t know for sure what is going on in his head, but here are some things that seem relevant to me.
Firstly, he seems completely focused on this pool and its healing powers – this is the only solution he is considering. He doesn’t ask Jesus whether he can help him in some other way. If he can’t get down into these waters at the crucial moment, he can’t be healed. He can’t give up and move on, because it is this or nothing, but every failure deepens his conviction that it won’t be him.
Secondly, he believes his healing is all in the hands of others. “There is no one to put me in the pool…” It is nothing to do with him. It is all to do with them. Maybe it seems a little unfair to criticise him for this. His life is hard, he can’t move easily. He probably feels isolated and lonely. But I suspect that blaming others, locating his problems outside himself, is something he would do anyway. If we read on in the Gospels we discover that after he has been healed he comes in for stern criticism from the local Pharisees. Jesus has told him to take up his mat and walk, but it is the Sabbath. No one is allowed to work then, so they come down on him like a ton of bricks. And what does he do? He blames Jesus – he told him to do it. He deflects their anger onto the one who has delivered him from his misery. He’s in trouble; but it is someone else’s fault.
Thirdly, I suspect that Jesus’ question hits the nail on the head. Does he want to be healed? In one sense, yes, of course. But being healed will mean a huge change in his life. After 38 years of disability, what will he do? He has probably got by by begging. How will he live now? It might sound odd to suggest this, but even change for the better can be stressful and challenging. We get used to our lives the way they are, even if the way they are looks far from perfect.
It might seem very unChristian, ungenerous, unpriestly of me to make all these criticisms of this poor man. After all, how would I cope with 38 years of disability? Probably no better than he did. But I think it is important to see these things and to say these things, because it isn’t just this man who behaves like this, who lingers at the place of healing, but somehow is never quite able to take the plunge. It isn’t just this man who sees the obstacles instead of the opportunities. I think it is something we all do – I can certainly see it in myself. We do it in our personal lives and in our life together as a church, and globally too. And the reasons are the same. We get fixated on one solution, trying the same thing over and over again, using each failure as proof to ourselves that the change we want is impossible. “I tried that; it didn’t work!” We locate the problems elsewhere – it’s all someone else’s fault. “I’m ok, it’s all the others that are the problem.” We look at the disruption that change will bring and decide that, actually, it might be out of the frying pan and into the fire. We’d rather stay as we are.
Efforts to tackle something like global warming are a prime example. We know we ought to do something, but so often inertia seems to rule. It’s all down to governments, or the USA or China – what difference can I make? To sort it out we’d have to give things up, go without – it would all cost too much.
Do we want the world to be made well?
“Yes… but…” we say, helplessly.
The obstacles we raise often have foundation in reality of course. Other people can make it hard for us to change, and we can do the same to them. We label, we stereotype, we fail to support, we give up on people, and so they give up on themselves. The Pharisees who soured this man’s new life with their petty criticisms remind us that we often weigh people down with senseless restrictions too. Just before Easter you may remember that I asked for donations to help a young girl who had had to leave home, and was being supported by the Bridge Trust in Tonbridge. She was trying to finish a college course, but the convoluted funding system available to young single homeless people meant that it looked as if she wouldn’t be able to continue. I’m glad to say that you responded with wonderful generosity. I sent nearly £300 on our behalf and I’m sure others in the area were just as generous, but it makes me angry that as a society we make it so hard for young people in this position as they try to build themselves a life.
But ultimately it is Hannah’s own determination to make a go of her life which is the crucial factor in her journey, and the same is true for all of us. Our journey through life is our journey. It is made with God, and supported by others too, but it is our journey, and our feet that must make it. Our lives are our gift to us from God, placed into our hands, for us to live, and whatever difficulties others place in our way, the most powerful obstacles to our growth are almost always the ones we come up with ourselves.
If you’re struggling with something right now, I don’t want you for one moment to think that I am blaming you for it. I’m not. We are all living in a tangled world, tied up in knots that are not of our own making, suffering from ills that have roots far beyond our own lives. It’s not your fault if bad things happen to you. But we do have choices about how we respond to those troubles. God wants us to find freedom and growth. That might mean healing. It might mean being delivered from your difficulties. It might equally mean learning to live with them creatively and with a sense of peace. But however much God wants us to find that freedom, we won’t unless we want it too.
In the end this man is healed not by an angel stirring up the waters. That has been a complete blind alley for him. He is healed when he responds to Jesus’ challenge to him. “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” It seems to me to be a greater challenge even than being first in the pool. Perhaps it is only surprise that enables him to do it. Perhaps it is something that he’s never tried, so he hasn’t had a chance to reject it. Whatever it is, it reminds us that we need to do the same. Stand up. Pick up your mat - stop resting on those old obstacles, those old excuses - and take a step forward into God’s future for you.
2007 Easter 5
Acts 11.1-18, Rev 21.1-6, John 13.31-35
People sometimes say to me, as they struggle with some dilemma or other, “if only God would speak to me and give me an answer I could understand – then I’d know what to do”. I sympathise. It seems as if it would make everything simpler if we could hear some clear unequivocal guidance, or see some message written in the sky in shining letters– do this, don’t do that, go here, don’t go there. But I wonder whether the voice of God would really be as welcome as we think.
St. Peter hears it loud and clear in today’s first reading - and to be honest it sounds like he wishes he hadn’t.
He was in Joppa, on the coast, he says, as he recounts this tale to other church leaders. He‘d gone up onto the roof to pray. We know from the full version of this story a little earlier in the book of Acts that it was midday, and that Peter was hungry. As he prayed he had a vision. Coming down out of heaven was a sheet, full of animals. Peter was like most people who live close to the land. When he looked at a lamb he thought “mint sauce”. When he looked at a fish he thought “a nice crispy batter and a squeeze of lemon” Animals meant food – and he was hungry. But as he looked more closely into the sheet, he recoiled in disgust. The animals in the sheet were all ones which the Jewish faith called unclean. The laws he’d grown up with were strict and specific. No pork, no shellfish, no meat cooked in milk. They weren’t allowed vultures, reptiles or bats either, and we would probably agree with them there! But that’s the point, really. Cultures differ. Things which are a delicacy to one society are disgusting to another. The reasons for those different choices might not be obvious, but nonetheless they will be deeply rooted, and almost instinctive. How about dog or horse for Sunday lunch today? There’s scientific reason why not, but my guess is I’ve put some of you off your dinner even suggesting it.
We might not understand all the prohibitions laid down in Peter’s Jewish upbringing, but we can understand his feelings as he looked into this sheet hoping to find something edible. But just as he backed off in with his stomach churning he heard a voice. “Get up, Peter; kill and eat”.
What is he supposed to do? “By no means, Lord…” he answers. It’s a fascinating response, because it captures perfectly Peters’ disorientation and confusion. He calls this voice “Lord”. He knows it is God’s voice, though the story hasn’t actually said it is. But he isn’t going to do what it says. As I said at the beginning, hearing the voice of God might not be as simple or as comforting as we first suppose.
If this is God he has every right to tell Peter what to do – he is Lord – Peter says so himself. But eating these animals is against the law – law that he has grown up believing that God himself gave. “You can’t tell me to eat these things, God, because the Scriptures – your Word – tell me that I can’t.” Psychologists call moments like this “cognitive dissonance” – when you come up against something that you know can’t really be as it seems, and yet there it is, right in front of you. Like an optical illusion, which seems to shift before your eyes, or a moment when someone you know really well does something completely out of character. This sort of moment can leave us feeling as if the ground is moving beneath our feet, as if the world no longer makes sense. It’s profoundly disorientating and disturbing. That’s what Peter’s feeling as he acknowledges God’s Lordship, but can’t bring himself to do as he asks.
Eventually the vision vanishes, with Peter still refusing to do what God has told him. And just at that point he has some visitors. A group of men arrive, sent by a Roman Centurion called Cornelius. Cornelius wants to see him, to find out more about Jesus, and how he can follow him. We might think Peter would be glad to go. He’ll be spreading the message, and to a powerful man at that. But Cornelius is a Gentile and in Peter’s book visiting a Gentile is just as revolting a prospect as eating pork sausages or prawn cocktails or deep fried bat. It is just plain wrong. Gentiles were Gentiles and Jews were Jews – each had their own place, and they should keep to it. Going to their houses! Sharing their food! Yuk!
Suddenly Peter knows why he had that vision - it was nothing to do with what he was going to eat for lunch. It was all to do with preparing him for this moment. A turning point, a vital moment. If Peter hadn’t gone, if he and others in the early church hadn’t overcome their disgust and their deep, instinctive feeling that they were doing something dangerous and disloyal to their culture, we would probably not be here. The Christian faith would have remained a minority sect of Judaism, and probably would have quickly died out in the chaos of the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersal of the Jewish people. But somehow they found the faith to believe that God could call them beyond the limits they thought he himself had set and the deep seated prejudices that they thought were just the natural order of things, and do something completely new and unexpected.
Peter goes to Cornelius. He swallows his disgust and goes to take the good news to someone whom he thinks is without God. That is probably challenge enough, but he has even more to cope with when he gets there. He arrives in this supposedly god-forsaken house with its uncircumcised, pork eating inhabitants who hardly even know the rules , never mind keeping them, and finds that God is already there – as much at home with Cornelius as he is with Peter. Cornelius and his household are filled with God’s Spirit, just as Peter had been on the day of Pentecost. Peter thinks he is helping Cornelius to discover God that day, but actually it is the other way around. It is Peter who really has the revelation, Peter who learns the most shocking and liberating lesson.
Love one another as I have loved you, says Jesus to his disciples. But how has he loved us? First and foremost he has loved us by being here - where we are, whoever we are. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” the early church proclaimed. God has always been free to go where he wills, but in Christ he demonstrates that beyond doubt. In Christ God breaks free of the box we think we have put him in, safely confined to heaven, or to the Temple, or to the church, or to those who are like us, or those who seem good and respectable to us. And he dwells among us, as he likes, where he likes, in whom he likes. Our task is not, as Peter tries to do, to tell God what his own rules ought to be. “By no means, Lord…!” Our task is not to police his boundaries for him, or guard his holiness – he can do that himself if he wants to. Our task is to learn to see him even in what seem like the most unlikely people and situations.
We are called to live as Easter people – people full of God’s new life – but it is hard work, and often uncomfortable. Easter isn’t all spring flowers and sunshine. Just as the chick must fight its way out of the egg, breaking the shell open bit by bit, we often have to fight our way out of the confines of old ideas and prejudices. But when we do we will find that God is already there, in the place which we thought was off limits, because nowhere is off limits to him.
We are called to a great “God hunt” – a hunt that should confront us and challenge us, as well as delighting us. God calls us to seek him and find him where he is, not just where we think he ought to be. That might mean looking at others with new eyes – especially those with whom we disagree or of whom we disapprove - and asking, “where is God in this person?” What would happen if we could do that when we looked at the terrorist, or the child abuser, or the person who has hurt us personally in some way? What would happen if we thought of them first as God’s dwelling place? We might not feel any better about them or what they have done, but it would surely mean that we couldn’t treat them as if they didn’t matter, as if they weren’t really human, as if they could be disposed of like rubbish.
Joining the great God hunt might mean looking at some situation in our lives which we think is insoluble, or beyond hope with new eyes too and asking, “where is God in this situation?” It won’t make our difficulty or our sadness go away, but as we find God in the midst of the brokenness we will learn to value even the toughest times as holy places – times full of the grace and wisdom of God.
There is much in this world, and in our own lives that might make us want to recoil in horror, or turn away in disgust. But the uncomfortable voice of God challenges us not to do that. Instead he calls to us to come on a great God hunt, to seek him and find him, even in places we could never have imagined he might be. He calls us to love one another, to love our world, to love ourselves as his dwelling place, the place where he is at home, the place where he is at work, to heal and to recreate us.
29th 07 Easter 4
Acts 9.36-end, Rev 7.9-end, John 10.22-30
a lovely detail in the reading we heard from Acts today,
which always makes me laugh. Perhaps it shouldn’t, because it is really
sad story about death. But we all know that tears and laughter are
Dorcas has died. She is one of those ladies who is the salt of the earth. She is a pillar of the local community, kind and generous. If you’ve got a problem, Dorcas will sort it out. Every church has people like this – this church included. They are gold dust.
But Dorcas has died. Everyone is stunned – they can’t bear to think it has happened. They send for Peter, who is nearby. They don’t really say what they expect him to do about it, but they want him there anyway. When Peter arrives he is taken upstairs, to the room where her body has been laid out. And straightaway all the other women surround him, weeping and wailing – and this is the detail I love – waving at him the clothes Dorcas had made. “How can she be dead?” they seem to be saying – “when she did such beautiful needlework!” I’ve never heard of there being an exception to the laws of mortality for those who can sew a straight hem or a neat buttonhole, but death does strange things to our sense of logic.
I remember once, when I was away on holiday with a church group, having to break the sad news that one of the congregation back at home had died. She was the equivalent of Dorcas in that church, a much-loved lady – and I knew that people would be shocked.
Gently and carefully, as they arrived back from an afternoon out, I told them that Dot had died. “But she can’t have died,” said one woman loudly, “I’ve just bought her a present!” Fortunately when she thought about it she saw the funny side of what she had said, just as Dot would have done. But I’ve never forgotten it. Death can seem such a shocking, unbelievable interruption of the normal order of things, that people’s first reactions are often not logical at all.
But that sort of shocked disbelief tells us something important, I think, about what it means to be human – just as the widows’ reaction to Dorcas’ death does.
Something like 150,000 people die every day in the world. Yet each of those deaths is a real person, with a life story, friends, family, children, parents, hopes and dreams, achievements and failures. Each one of those 150,000 is unique. They may not be famous, they may never have done anything on a grand scale, but to their friends and families they matter completely. They leave a hole in the world that can’t be filled. Anyone who has lost someone close to them will know how that feels.
Dot, the lady whom I knew, was an inspiration to many – she changed people’s lives by her loving manner towards them. Dorcas too, was a one-off. Who else was going to fulfil the kind of ministry she had? How could she be dead?
Dorcas’ story, of course, doesn’t end there. Peter prays, and she is restored to life. I don’t know how that happens, and in a way it doesn’t matter. The point I want to make is the same whether she lives or dies. We don’t know anything else of her beyond this story, but it’s clear that to those who knew her she was irreplaceable. She took seriously what Jesus had said, “whenever you clothed the least of one of my brothers and sisters you clothed me.” It may not seem like the most dramatic of ministries – no public acclaim, no clever words – but because of her people who had nothing but rags were given the dignity of clothes made with care, the naked and the cold were wrapped in love. Her ministry made a difference. It mattered, and so did she.
In a sense the reading from the book of Revelation carries the same message – a message of the importance of each individual.
St John pictures a great multitude. There are so many that no one could count them. One of the elders seated on the throne asks John, “Who are these?” “You know who they are, “says John, and sure enough the elder answers, “these are they who have come out of the great ordeal.”
John wrote at a time when many Christians were ferociously persecuted for their faith. He had been exiled to the barren island of Patmos himself. He knew that many of those he loved had been killed by the Roman authorities, often in brutal and degrading ways that had stripped them of their dignity and humanity. Totalitarian regimes like the Roman Empire know well that the most effective way of subjugating others is to regard them as less than human, reduce them to a number. It’s what the Nazis did in the concentration camps, quite literally, and survivors still bear those numbers today. The Romans did this by treating dissidents as disposable fodder for their horrific games, pitting them against wild animals, or against each other, for the entertainment of the crowds.
Many of them probably died wondering whether their sacrifice had all been pointless, thinking that they were as worthless as the Roman authorities said they were. But this passage from the book of Revelation sets that straight. The verdict of the Roman authorities on them was not the last word, and it was not the truth. In God’s eyes they mattered absolutely and utterly. They weren’t nameless corpses, torn to pieces by lions. They were a white robed assembly, given places of honour in the heavenly courts. They were loved, just as Dorcas was, just as Dot was, as precious, irreplaceable individuals.
They weren’t just anonymous victims. Each one was different and unique. Their stories were known, their names and needs were known. God knew and cared for them like a shepherd, in life and in death. He was going to wipe every tear from their eyes. I don’t know if you’ve ever wiped away someone else’s tears - if you are parent you probably have. It’s not something you can do en masse. You can’t just take a general swipe at it. It is something you have to do up close and one eye at a time, one person at a time. That is what God does – each one is an individual to him.
St John, wants his battered and persecuted people to know that in God’s eyes each one of them, with their unique gifts and callings, matters. What they do matters – for good or ill – even if they seem to themselves like ants in a world of giants. Who they are matters – even if they are treated as if they are nothing. Their tears matter, and God himself wipes them away.
Ours stories will probably never be as dramatic as theirs. We may never have to face the challenges they did, but we can still easily feel that what we do is of little consequence, and that we don’t really matter. The little good that we do here and there is of no significance in the world. The little bad deeds here and there really don’t do too much damage. We don’t express our opinions, because who’s going to listen to us? We don’t offer our gifts, because there’s nothing special about them. I’m sure many women could sew just as well as Dorcas – it would have been easy for her to just think that they would do the job of clothing others better than her.
We don’t have to be in the kind of desperate situation that St John’s people were to need to hear the truth about ourselves. The truth that the good we do can really help, and the bad we do can really hinder. We are unique, and we need to know that and take responsibility for it – using our gifts for the good of others. Every single one of us makes a difference to the course of the world – whether we mean to or not, for good or ill.
So what makes you irreplaceable? What is your unique gift? And how are you using it? Do you really think you can make a difference anywhere? I don’t know how you might answer those questions for yourselves, but it is important that we take them seriously, because each of us matters to God, to the world, to the church, to one another.
After this service we’ll have a chance to see an example of this in action when we hold our Annual Parish Meeting. It might seem like a bit of bureaucracy – a dull requirement to be got through as quickly as possible. I can’t promise that it will be exciting! But in its way it embodies in real terms those precious truths that today’s Bible readings tell us. We’ll be hearing about the real nitty-gritty work of the church, and iwe'll be electing those who will be on the Church Council for the coming year. We don’t have a post for a dressmaker in chief, like Dorcas, but the people who volunteer to serve on the Council, and all the others who give time and effort to the practical work of the church, in small ways and in great, are the Dorcases of our congregation. Many of them probably don’t think they are anything special, but if they weren’t there, quietly working away the whole enterprise of this church would fall apart at the seams.
The message for us today is that each of us can bring love and hope to others, whether that is in church, at home or at work. Each of us is called to offer ourselves and our gifts for the good of others. Dorcas brought her needlework – what will we bring?
April 22nd 2007 Easter 3
Acts 9.1-20, John 21.1-19
There’s a wonderful children’s book – a real classic – which I suspect many parents and children here will have come across. It’s called Rosie’s Walk, by Pat Hutchins.
It’s not long, and it’s not complicated, so I shall read it to you.
Rosie the hen went for a walk, across the yard, around the pond, over the haycock, past the mill, through the fence, under the beehives, and got back in time for dinner.
OK - It’s not exactly Shakespeare, so why do I view this as a classic – a book no child should miss out on?
It is because while the words roll smoothly on, the pictures tell another story entirely. What we know is that Rosie is being followed by a large, hungry looking fox. She’s blissfully ignorant of him, but we know he’s there. On every page he almost catches her, but fortunately, just in the nick of time something happens to thwart him. A rake springs up to hit him, he falls in the pond, a bag of flour drops on him, and finally a swarm of enraged bees chases him away. Rosie is none the wiser; it’s just been a pleasant stroll to her, but we know how close she has been to death and disaster on that day, and how lucky her escape has been.
The story works on lots of levels. It’s a great “look behind you!” suspense story for children, but I suspect it also has a subtle message for parents too. We want our children to be able, like Rosie, to stroll through life never disturbed by its troubles and sorrows. We want to protect our children from harm. But this book reminds us that the world is full of foxes – dangers lurking in unexpected places – and that actually, although Rosie gets away with it in this story, it is only by a series of lucky chances. Life is fragile. We’d rather our children knew nothing of sadness, but it’s not always going to be possible – or wise – to wrap them in cotton wool. Ignorance may not always be bliss.
This occurred to me with new force this week as I watched the news reports from Virginia, following the shooting of so many students and staff there. The shock on the faces of the students who had escaped, the students who had shared classes or accommodation with the gunman, young people, many of whom had probably never encountered death before – was plain. And it was every parent’s nightmare. “We expect our schools and colleges to be places where our children can learn safely…” they said.
Any loving parent wants to keep their children safe. We want to keep ourselves safe too. No one welcomes danger, mess, or brokenness. But the awful discovery that many parents and students made this week is that nowhere is truly safe. Pain, grief and loss are part of life. They come to us sooner or later, however careful we are. Our desire to protect ourselves and our children by hiding from this, strolling on like Rosie in blissful ignorance will not, in the end, help us. If we are going to live fully and with true courage it is better that we should turn around and face the foxes that stalk us, coming to terms with what it feels like to be afraid and alone, hurting and confused.
Today’s readings give us two pictures of courage like that – courage that knows the risks and chooses to face them. Ananias is a Christian living in Damascus. I’ve always thought that he is one of the bravest people in the Bible. It is just a few years after the death and resurrection of Jesus – very early days for the church. Groups of Jesus’ followers have begun to gather in towns and cities, but it is dangerous for them. The Roman authorities are suspicious of this new movement, and the Jewish authorities see it as heresy, something they are duty bound to stamp out. The leading figure in their persecution is Saul of Tarsus, a clever Pharisee, learned in the law and ruthless in his opposition to Jesus’ followers. He has had Christians arrested, imprisoned, beaten, probably killed. He sets off for Damascus on a mission to find and destroy Jesus’ followers there. They know he’s coming – perhaps it is no secret – he wants them to know and to tremble.
But on the way a strange thing happens. There are bright lights in the sky, Saul falls to the ground, blinded, and he hears a voice, the voice of Jesus, asking “why do you persecute me…?” Suddenly he realises that he has got it wrong, that following Christ is not a dangerous perversion of the truth, but the way to life and peace. Baffled, confused, shaken, he is led into the city.
And that’s where Ananias comes in. He is minding his own business, keeping his head down, when God speaks. “There’s a man in the city that needs healing – go and visit him, Ananias”. “Ok, Lord, who is he?” “His name is Saul of Tarsus.” “Saul of Tarsus – that’s the name of the man who’s been persecuting the church – what a co-incidence, Lord, because, obviously, it can’t be him, can it? – can it?” “Yes, Ananias – that’s the one…”
Well, would you go? What if it’s a trap? What if Ananias is bringing danger not only on himself, but on his friends too? How much courage did it take him to walk through those streets to the house where Saul was, knock on the door, identify himself as a follower of Jesus, and take Saul under his wing? Our human self-protective instincts cry out, “Look behind you Ananias – that old fox from Tarsus is surely up to no good.”
But Ananias goes anyway, and the rest is history. Saul of Tarsus, the arch-enemy of the church, becomes St Paul, the great missionary, who carries the Christian message all around the Mediterranean, a founding father of the church. But it is Ananias whose courage is celebrated in this story. Ananias doesn’t know what will happen. Even if Saul is genuine, perhaps his old associates are nearby, spying on him. But Ananias’ courage isn’t rooted in the conviction that nothing bad will happen to him – God doesn’t promise him that . All he knows is that, if disaster does fall, it won’t mean that God has deserted him. He has seen that God was with Jesus through the pain of the cross and the darkness of death into the new life of resurrection, and it will be the same for him. His faith and his peace don’t depend on his circumstances. The things that happen to him are just that, things that happen to him, not signs that God has given or withdrawn his love.
So often we allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking that when good things happen it means we are good, favoured, worthwhile, and that when things go wrong we believe that we ourselves are a disaster area, fit only for the scrapheap. But the truth is – and Ananias knows it - that deep down we are the same people all the time, God’s children, endlessly beloved, always in his care whatever happens to us.
I came across a very helpful way of thinking about this this week in something I read. Imagine you are standing on a mountain. If a blizzard is blowing, if it is swathed in fog, if the wind and rain are beating on you, you are probably going to think, “What a dreadful mountain – I’m never coming here again.” But if you are standing on that mountain in brilliant sunshine, admiring the view and the exquisite alpine plants, basking in the spring sunshine, you will think it is the best place in the world. Actually, it is the same mountain – it is only the weather that has changed.
We mistake the weather in our lives – the good and bad that comes and goes - for the mountain that is the real truth about us, that we are the dwelling place of God. There is a mountain at the heart of each of us, the solid fact of our status as God’s children. We might be blinded to that by the blizzards and the fog, but it is still there, the ground beneath our feet.
St Peter learns this too in today’s Gospel reading. During Jesus’ ministry, when he had been surrounded by adoring crowds, Peter felt on top of the world. All was well with him. But when Jesus was arrested and killed, surely this meant that the whole enterprise had been a mistake – where is God now? It is only when the risen Christ meets him that he realises that it is not the acclaim of the crowds nor the disgrace of the cross that really tell the true story – either about Jesus or about him. The truth doesn’t depend on passing circumstances. Peter is more than the sum of the things that happen to him – the weather of his life. He has within him a truth like a mountain – the love of God which nothing can destroy, not even death. It matters that he knows this, because one day he too will face death, and he will need to be sure of that mountainous truth. Jesus calls him Peter, from the Greek petros – the rock , a mini-mountain – because he wants him to measure himself by his solid centre – God within him - not by the ever-changing weather of triumph and trouble, joy and sorrow that flows in and out of his life. And he wants the same for us.
The students of Virginia Tech have learned things this week that no one would have wanted them to learn. They have learned about the brokenness and fragility of the world, about death and loss and grief. One of them said, “For those who died this is all over, but for the rest of us it will go on for ever…” And she was right. But let us pray for them, and for all our young people, and for all the rest of us too, as we meet the vagaries of life. Let us pray that we will remember that whether the things that happen to us are good or bad, they are the weather that swirls around us, not the mountain at the heart of our being which is the truth of God’s love, and which lasts for ever.
April 15th 2007 Easter 2 – "Breathing Space" Communion
delivered this short "thought"
at the first of our new "Breathing Space" communion services on
Sunday evening. This new, contemplative communion service includes lots
silence, few words and just a little recorded music, as well as a
light candles. Despite it being "low Sunday" when congregations are
traditionally small, we were packed out in the Lady Chapel, running out
booklets and seats, which was a delightful surprise - "Breathing
Space" had been an attempt to re-think the evening communion
because numbers had dropped so low that it was hardly viable. If
continue at this level, we shall have to move back into the choir
stalls of the
main church (either that or the congregation will have to put their
at birth for a seat at the service!)
be with you, says Jesus to his disciples. In fact he says
it twice – and then again the following week when he comes again to see
“Peace be with you”. Perhaps it’s not surprising they need to hear it
again. The last thing they have been feeling is peaceful. They are
They have watched him crucified. They have justifiably feared that the
would happen to them. They also know that they have let him and
– running off to hide rather than standing by him. They are afraid,
confused too. This wasn’t how it was meant to be. They desperately need
words of peace.
But this greeting isn’t simply a reassuring comfort to them. “There, there – it will all be all right now. I’m back from death.”
The peace that Jesus gives to his disciples in that locked room isn’t just a feel-good thing. Peace – shalom - in the Bible is the state in which everything is as it should be. Hurts are healed, relationships are repaired, people thrive and grow as God had always intended, as his children. Shalom means wholeness, not just the absence of noise or trouble. It is integrally tied up with putting right what is wrong, mending what is broken. That is what Jesus comes to his disciples to do. As they hear those words, once, twice, three times, they begin to take in that they are forgiven, that the disaster of their desertion of Jesus, the apparent failure of the cross, the terror they feel at being left abandoned to face the wrath of those who killed Jesus, isn’t the last word. Things can be set right, and there can be new birth, new life, and a new beginning for them.
But the peace that Jesus gives them doesn’t end with them, as Jesus’ next words show. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
These are words that are very familiar to anyone like me who has been ordained as a priest, because they are read at ordination services. One of the things priests are supposed to do, and are given authority to do by their ordination, alongside blessing and celebrating communion, is to declare God’s forgiveness of sins. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But of course here Jesus isn’t speaking to a bunch of priests. He is speaking to a motley assortment of individuals – fishermen and tax collectors, people he has plucked from their ordinary lives, not necessarily learned in any academic way, not necessarily with any sort of qualifications for ministry. I can understand why the church came to insist that this was a priestly role. For many it is sometimes important to hear these words from someone they know the church has recognised and trained, and who is accountable. But there is a danger if we get to hung up on absolution as a priestly role that we miss the important fact that Jesus calls all of us to this ministry or forgiveness. The reality is that we do all have power, by what we say and do, to set others free, or to imprison them, tying them to their past actions so that neither they nor we can move forward. You don’t have to be a priest to help people know forgiveness, or to make them feel that there is no escape from what they have done. The peace which we find – that “shalom” wholeness” - is peace which we are called also to give, as we help others to mend, to heal, and to grow.
“Peace be with you.” Not just a simple greeting. Not just soothing words. But a commitment from God to us, to let us be free from past sins and failures, to start again. And a calling from God to all of us – priests and laypeople alike, to recognise our power to set others free as well.
Easter Sunday 07
That first Easter day, the one we heard about in the Gospel reading, was a day of great confusion. It started badly. A small group of women set out in the early morning, with a basket of spices and a vague plan of anointing a body, three days dead, sealed in a tomb which they had no way of getting into. But at least they had a plan, even if they had no idea how to put it into action. When they got to the tomb even that little bit of certainty evaporated. The stone was rolled away; the tomb was empty; the body was gone. In its place were angels with a mystifying message. A message which was met with disbelief and ridicule by the other disciples. What on earth was going on. What on earth was all this about?
We’ve been celebrating Easter for a couple of thousand years now, but my guess is that there are often times when we feel just as confused about it. What have we come here to celebrate? What have we come expecting? What is it all about for us, today?
Perhaps it is easiest to start with what it isn’t about.
Easter isn’t about chocolate. Not that I have anything against chocolate, you understand. If you’ve got more Easter eggs than you can manage, just send them along to the vicarage and I’ll be quite happy to polish them off for you. But Easter isn’t about chocolate. The feasting isn’t an end in itself, or shouldn’t be.
Nor is Easter about bunnies, or chicks, or spring flowers – not that that I’ve got anything against them either. They’re a wonderful reminder of the resilience of life, a sign of joy and hope. But they can’t be an end in themselves any more than chocolate can.
Easter isn’t – and you may be surprised to hear me say this – Easter isn’t even primarily about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Of course, without that there would be nothing to celebrate. But we can easily get too hung up on arguing about the facts of an event that happened long ago – did Jesus literally rise from the dead? How could that be? If not, how did he rise? Every Easter the media seem to manage to produce some story challenging the resurrection, or some Bishop who says he doesn’t believe in it. But my experience is that most Christians aren’t followers of Christ because of an academic acceptance of something that happened two thousand years ago. It is what is happening in their own lives that matters to them. They may not understand how Christ could rise from death, but somehow they have the sense that he is here, with them, very much alive and well. That’s what matters, and what makes the difference to them, that’s what convinces them. If Easter is just an ancient story, to be picked over, analysed and then forgotten for another year, we have missed the point completely.
So if Easter isn’t primarily about any of those things – the chocolate, the chicks, the old, old story - what is it about? It is about one word. If you get this one word, you have got Easter, you’ve got its essence, you’ve understood why it matters.
That one word is “freedom”.
Jesus’ first followers understood this. It was no accident that Jesus had been crucified at the time of the Passover feast – when the Jewish people celebrated God rescuing them from slavery in Egypt. Every Passover the story was told again; the story of Moses; of their dramatic escape across the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army hard on their heels, and the journey to freedom in the Promised Land. The Passover was a feast of freedom.
But by the time of Christ, although the old story was still told, in reality many people were just as enslaved as they had ever been in Egypt. They were enslaved by the occupying Roman army, not daring to challenge their might, terrorised into compliance by the threat of death. They were enslaved too by the religious authorities. The laws which had been God’s great gift to them had become ways of controlling and oppressing people, sorting out the sinners, keeping at a distance those whose behaviour or lifestyle was considered to be beyond the pale. The poor, the sick, women and children, those who had infringed the complex laws of purity – they were pushed to the margins.
Against this backdrop, the ministry of Jesus came as a great cry of liberation. He went deliberately to those who had been pushed aside. He angered the authorities by saying that they were worth just as much to God as the rich, the powerful and the good. It was dangerous stuff – a message of freedom to people who were chained down by the attitudes of those around them. No wonder those same enslaving authorities had him killed.
And having killed him, they thought that was that. It was all over. But that first, confusing, Easter morning showed them that they were wrong. It was God who was going to have the last word here. And that last word was freedom. Freedom for Jesus from the grave. Freedom for those who followed him from the suffocating constrictions of the religious laws and the attitudes of their society. Freedom from the fear of death.
is at the heart of the Easter
message. And I suppose I could, at this point, sit down and shut up.
Well, sorry, no it isn’t, because freedom, in reality, is never as simple as it appears.
We’ve heard a lot about freedom just recently as we’ve marked the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. Perhaps we thought we knew what we were going to hear as we re-visited this story. But in fact there have been challenges and surprises for many of us as we have re-examined the history. It isn’t a story of one great hero, William Wilberforce, single-handedly defeating oppression, like an eighteenth century Moses, for a start. We’ve heard about the wide range of people who campaigned for freedom. Many of those were black slaves, or ex-slaves themselves. There were many unsung black champions, and the slaves themselves were vital to the fight. They weren’t the passive victims that they’ve often been portrayed as.
Just as we’ve had to broaden our view of those who fought against slavery, we’ve also had to broaden our view of those who wanted to keep it. It’s no good us thinking it was just the slave traders who profited. There were many people with a vested interest in slavery. It created the prosperity we still enjoy as a nation. All our major institutions – including the Church – are tainted by it. And the African nations from which the slaves came were complicit too – selling people as slaves was commonplace.
It wasn’t the case, either that once the slave trade ended, or once slavery itself became illegal, all was well. Slave owners were compensated, but ex-slaves were left to fend for themselves. Slavery has left a long legacy of racism and poverty which still bedevils our world. And of course modern day anti-slavery campaigners remind us that slavery is still thriving in the form of debt bondage and human trafficking.
No wonder this issue is still so contentious. No wonder we are still arguing about who should apologise to whom, and for what, whether and how reparation should be made, to whom and by whom. Gaining freedom is one thing. Living it is another.
is complex. Freedom is complex
too. It isn’t won in one triumphal swoop. It isn’t all done and dusted
day. Whether it is freedom from slavery in a Caribbean plantation, or
for modern day slaves, or freedom from slavery to fear, or freedom from
to other people’s expectations and prejudices it is something you have
constantly. It is a journey, made one step at a time. Freedom is hard
and even harder to stick to.
What is Easter about? It is a great call to freedom. It starts with that empty tomb, with Jesus bursting from the imprisonment of death to the freedom of resurrection, but it doesn’t end there. Christians sometimes call themselves “Easter people”, but that doesn’t mean that we should go around with a lazy assumption that once we have found Christ all is well, that some magic wand has been waved over our lives and our world. “Christ is risen, Alleluia!” but are we risen? Is our world risen, set free, as Christ wants it to be?
Being Easter people means committing ourselves to a long and difficult road – the road to freedom - working to confront oppression in our own age, not just rejoicing in its defeat in the past. It means learning to see the way in which we are enslaved ourselves – enslaved to the opinions of others, enslaved to the fear of standing up and being counted, enslaved to behaviour which we know is harmful, enslaved to sin in all its forms. It means learning to see the ways in which we enslave others too – forcing them to be like us, to meet our needs, no matter what the cost to them.
There IS a great shout of victory today, and great rejoicing, and feasting. The signs of spring are all around us, pointing us to the new life God wants for his people. But today is just the start, not the end. Easter people are people on a journey, not people who have arrived smugly at their destination. God’s call to us is not just to CELEBRATE Easter, but to LIVE it as we learn together to be truly free.
Maundy Thursday 07
I have a wonderful photo that I treasure of my two children when they were small. Michael was about 4 and Ruth about 2. We had set out for a walk up the hill to the local duck pond. On the way hunger struck. But there was no food. Or was there? Before I was really aware of what was happening Michael had produced the bag of bread he had been carrying to feed the ducks, and was busy sharing it with his little sister. (I don’t think it can have been too stale!) Whether there was any left for the ducks I can’t remember, but I love the picture we managed to get of this magic moment. It reassures me that despite all the quarrels I remember between my two when they were growing up basically they cared about each other (and still do twenty years later). Even if it was only duck food, he wasn’t going to let her starve!
Sharing bread with others makes them our companions. Through it we are linked together. It says that they matter. We are prepared to give up what we might have hoarded for ourselves for their sake. The bread and wine we share in the Eucharist declares to us that the same is true – and even more true – of God’s relationship with us. He has given us his own Son, given him completely, body, blood, life on the cross for our sake. Has given and continues to give to us his owns self. Why? Because we matter to him, whoever we are, whatever our background or life story.
In the Eucharist God makes companions of us – companions to himself, companions to one another.
What is it about this night? It is “the night when he was betrayed.” Jesus blesses, breaks and shares this meal, declaring his companionship with his followers, the sharing of his life with them, knowing full well that one of them is about to sell him to his enemies, that another will deny knowing him before the night is out, that the rest will scatter into the darkness when the soldiers come rather than share his fate.
There are often times when this Eucharistic meal is – or at least should be - a hard one to swallow. Perhaps we are aware that our life is not as it ought to be. Perhaps we are aware of those whom we have betrayed or failed. Perhaps we know there are quarrels and resentments which seem impossible to sort out. Perhaps we are simply, painfully, aware of the brokenness of the church, where differences of opinions so often harden into suspicion, hatred and rejection. As a woman priest I know what it is like to have people refuse to take the bread from me when I have celebrated the Eucharist. Sometimes I’ve found it hard myself to take communion from a priest who I know feels that way about me.
But the Eucharist is not a dinner party for friends, a club for like minded people. It isn’t a badge of merit for those who deserve it. It isn’t an exercise in private sentimental piety. It is instead a radical statement of our belief that ultimately, beyond and beneath our divisions, there is a unity to which God is inexorably drawing us, that God’s desire is to bring together, to make companions, of everything in heaven and on earth and under the earth. Jesus chooses this meal, surrounded by those who will desert and betray him, because he wants us to know that true companionship is rooted in the reality of our relationships with one another and with God, not in some fantasy world. True companionship doesn’t rely on us getting it right all the time. It is strong enough, deep enough, wide enough to encompass not only our successes but also our failures. It endures, no matter what we do to try to destroy it.
“Do this in remembrance of me” says Jesus. Share your bread – the stuff of your lives, the reality of your existence, what is most precious and life giving. Share your bread, even if it is hard, even if you fail. As we “do this in remembrance of him”, as we do this as he did it, with the real gift of his real life, God is present, however we understand it, reaching across the barriers we have created, to come to us with life that will never end and food that will never be exhausted.
Palm Sunday Evensong 07
Isaiah 5.1-7, Luke 20.9-19
Imagine yourself in a crowded marketplace in the Middle East, in the times of the Bible. In an age before radio, television and films, the marketplace was where you found not only food, but also entertainment. So here you are amidst exotic sights and smells, greeting neighbours and gawping at visitors from distant lands. In the melee you hear a voice raised in song, and a knot of people gathered. It is the ballad singer, the storyteller, come to the market to sell HIS wares – crowd-pleasing sagas, stories of heroes, and, of course, romantic tales. The song he begins now is one of these. “Let me sing a song for my beloved…” he starts. We know what to expect.
This is the world that Isaiah is evoking in the first reading, and his hearers would have been very familiar with the scene. They would have known what to expect just as we do. But Isaiah’s love song takes a completely different and shocking turn. Instead of hearts and flowers and a happy ending this turns out to be a strange tale about a vineyard; a vineyard which, despite the owner’s labours – clearing the weeds, building watchtowers and planting it with the best vines - produces nothing but sour, tiny, wild grapes – no good for anything.
It is a mysterious reading. We might wonder whether two separate passages have been spliced together accidentally. What has love got to do with vineyards? But I think there’s a good reason why Isaiah mixes up these two images – the love song and the agricultural parable.
Of course, those who heard Isaiah’s prophecy would have known what he was talking about. The vineyard was Israel - both the land and the people. God had chosen them as the place where he would make himself known, and where he would begin his work of setting right the world. That’s why Isaiah starts his story as if it is a love-song, because he knew that God’s relationship with his people was not a functional one, not a matter of how much they produced in the way of good works, but a relationship of love. This vineyard owner tends his vineyard lovingly; he puts himself out for it. No expense is spared. In the same way, God had laboured lovingly for Israel, rescuing his people from slavery, leading them to freedom, founding them in their own territory, sticking with them through thick and thin, through multiple betrayals. And yet still Israel didn’t learn. Instead of the rich harvest of justice – love and peace which should have overflowed to neighbouring nations so that the light of God could spread through the whole world – there was bloodshed. Instead of seeing Israel as a beacon of hope, a place where wrongs were righted, there were cries of terror and despair as the rich oppressed the poor. Some love story this turned out to be!
God is not some unreasonable,
callous judge, arbitrarily condemning people to suffering because they
produce what he hopes; he is a patient and passionate lover, who longs
with his people and to see them prosper simply because he cares about
loves them, and it pains him deeply that his love seems to make no
to them. By setting this up as a love story, and reminding his hearers
they would expect to hear in the market place, the happy ever after
Isaiah makes all the more shocking the eventual end, which is one in
vineyard is destroyed by invaders, trampled down and left to the thorns
thistles. Love, he suggests, can make no difference unless people let
root in them. Just as an abused lover eventually runs out of new
tactics to try
to get their abusive partner to change, and is wise to leave them, so
expects that God must now have run out of tactics to use with Israel.
It is a hard reading, one that must make us uncomfortable, but it is one which confronts us starkly with our own power and responsibility.
We too are called to live lives that produce harvests of righteousness for the world, letting God work in us to transform our sour “wild-grape” lives into rich wine. But God can’t compel us to change, not without denying us the free-will that was his original gift to us. And if we don’t produce righteousness, if we don’t produce justice and peace, the consequence for us and our world is just the same as it was for Israel – bloodshed and tears, war and famine and environmental degradation. We don’t have to see it as a punishment meted out by an angry God, as Isaiah does; it is simply the natural result of our acts of greed and possessiveness. The messes that confront us in the world start in the human heart and in our relationships with one another and with God. Either we let God change us, healing the wounds that give rise to sin, or we carry on as we are, producing sour gifts of strife and sadness. It’s up to us.
The image of the people of God as a vineyard probably wasn’t new even in Isaiah’s day, but by the time of Jesus it was firmly established in the common imagination. So when Jesus tells HIS story, he knew people would get the picture straight away.
Here is another vineyard, owned by a man who has leased it to tenants and gone on a journey. When he sends for the share of the produce – the rent they owe him - he discovers, that they have taken possession of it. They send his slave back empty-handed – not even with a message for the owner. He is irrelevant to their lives. The next slave he sends is beaten up, and a third also.
So he sends his son. That tells a tale in itself. Who would risk their son, when they have already seen how the tenants treat slaves?
But the tenants don’t understand that. They treat the whole business as if it is just that – a business, and with an absentee landlord to boot. Perhaps they think he won’t notice their theft, their murder? Perhaps they think he doesn’t care – about the land, about them, even about his son himself? Easy come, easy go.
But they are wrong. This story, like Isaiah’s, isn’t just about agricultural economics. It’s a love story too, of a father for his son, whose inheritance this land was to be. In trying to steal this land they have wounded not just the father’s bank balance but his very heart. “What will the owner do then?” Jesus asks. “How would you expect him to react?” To his hearers it must have been obvious. You can’t kill someone’s beloved son without expecting swift retribution. How could the father behave as if nothing had happened?
Once again, then, this turns out to be a love song – and one that ends in tears for all concerned.
Today is the beginning of Holy Week. During this coming week, day by day, we’ll be reading and praying our way through the story of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life, a story which seems to echo this parable, and Isaiah’s prophecy. We’ll hear about plotting, betrayal, arrest, torture and death. It is a grim story, but just like the stories of these two vineyards, the events of Holy week are a love song too. Jesus’ love song for us. They are the culmination of a life lived for love, a life of passionate commitment to establishing the kingdom of God on earth, risking everything to reach those who had been excluded from that kingdom – the poor, the outsiders, the sick. This love for us and our poor battered world was so strong it was prepared to pay an unimaginably high price. And just as in those other two love songs the lover is rejected, treated as nothing. Easy come, easy go. What do we need with a saviour?
But the similarity between these earlier tales and the real-life story of Jesus’ death ends there, and it is the difference between them which we are really meant to notice.
Isaiah told a love story which ended in the tragedy of abandonment. Jesus, in his parable, told a love story that ended in the expectation of violent retribution. Both stories remind us of the passionate nature of love – but it is a passion that ends in disaster. The good news of the story that we will be hearing in this coming week – the story told in the flesh and blood of Jesus – is that it doesn’t have to end like that. Humanity does the worst it can to God, and human logic expects that he will cast us off, but that isn’t what happens. There is – there always can be – forgiveness and a new beginning, the real-life story says; not because God doesn’t care what we do – there is no “easy come, easy go” about his relationship with us – but because he cares SO passionately that he can never finally let us go. The love song we’ll be hearing, the love story we’ll be telling, goes beyond all human sense or logic. Human love has human limits, but God’s love has no limits. He calls to us, like the singer in the market place to listen not to our fears, but to his love that is stronger than death, and to let that love song change us forever.
Philippians 3.4b-14 & John 12.1-8
Did you check yourself in front of the mirror before you left home this morning? Possibly you had forgotten about the clocks going forward an hour and had to rush, letting your normally high standards slip a little. Are appearances important?
Good Christian people know that it’s what’s in you heart that matters isn’t it? Yet there’s a full length mirror on the wall behind the vestry door you know, I hasten to add that it was there long before this church appointed its first lady priest. I looked in it today before I came out to ensure my scarf was even.
I think the truth is that we do care how others see us. It’s installed in us from a young age that it’s good to look clean and tidy, we think others expect it. But our appearance can also say a lot about us.
I’ve owned a Barbour coat since I was in my teens and when I was a part time soldier I was told not to wear it, I was a mere NCO, and only commissioned officers were to wear these coats to avoid confusion! The same coat seems to find favour with Royalty and after Helen Mirren wore one in her recent film about the Queen sales in America went through the roof.
Then there are cultural and racial appearances, people who have different skin colour, dress differently or believe different things from us. If these things make us feel uncomfortable should we seek to dominate these people so that our ways prevail?
As we remember 200 years since the abolition of the slave trade this weekend we are reminded how people are dehumanised to suit their exploiters. It’s actually so important that we do remember how wrong this was as entire peoples have been enslaved, exploited and ill treated from the Nazi regime to Saddam Hussein to Robert Mugabe just to name a few. By looking back and seeking Christ’s healing and forgiveness in these situations we must try to carry this forward into our future. We need to think why some foods or clothes are so cheap for us, why people are being trafficked between countries and think what we can do to support social and economic justice.
What we look like, the brand of car we drive, the labels on the clothes we wear, the newspaper we read, the schools we attended the people we are seen with, all these things say who we are. Or do they? These are narrow confines related to marketing, brand awareness, class distinction, demographics, socio-economic profiling and inaccurate preconceptions.
Do Christians subscribe to this? Well I suspect the answer is yes and no. Yes we like many of the materialistic things that others do, but no we are not prepared to be pigeon holed by them. We will not conform to many stereotypes but will revel in surprising others by stepping outside these because our values extend so far beyond them.
When Paul talks of confidence in the flesh he is referring to all the privileges in life being the only things we aspire to and value. He talks of many good reasons why he could justify being part of this system of values as he tells of his family, religion and status, all of which would have him highly regarded in Jewish Society. Yet what so many see as signs of success and privilege he talks of as negatives once he came to know the values of Christ. These seemingly positive things threatened to get between him and Christ, something each of us would be wise to consider.
There is a difference between working hard and working to excess because the potential wealth generated is all that matters. I can remember seeing a sketch with two middle aged men living in huge houses with ride on lawn mowers and sports cars galore constantly trying to out do each other. As one man rides on his mower he shouts out to his neighbour ‘whoever dies with the most toys wins’.
It is one thing to become obsessed with our acquisitions yet quite another to recklessly waste valuable commodities when they are in short supply.
We see Mary taking expensive perfume and anointing Jesus feet with it. Unquestionably she acted with great extravagance; the perfume represented all she had of value, probably costing around one year’s salary for a worker.
Yet Jesus defends her actions when she is criticised by Judas explicitly stating that this is a burial anointing, implying that Mary understands what is to happen to him, and that this is a prophetic act. Real love is expressed through her actions; you can almost smell the perfume which filled the house and feel the softness of Mary’s hair as she tenderly wipes his feet.
It’s good to be reminded of tenderness and generosity when it seems that so many groups, cultures or nations are hell bent on their way prevailing. We need to get in touch with our common humanity and start caring more about each other regardless of our differences. There is an urgent need for us to look beyond our differences to, a recognition of the overriding oneness of our human family, and our obligations to it.
Even though Paul talks of straining forward towards the prize which is Christ, like an athlete hoping to win a photo finish I was reminded this week that there is also a time to simply revel and bask in Gods grace and his love for us. Lent is passing quickly by and I was feeling bad that I hadn’t read a book, been on a course or given God some other practical way he could see I had taken lent seriously.
Accepting that I hadn’t made time recently to just be me and accept God’s love has helped me relax a little and just enjoy God in the good things which seem a little sharper. I certainly recommend it to you.
As we become more confident that God takes each one of us very seriously it becomes easier to take ourselves a little less seriously. Safe in God’s care his gift of humour feels like something worth spreading.
I read of a man in Auschwitz. And he knew that if, even once he despaired, he'd lose the will to live. So he and a friend made an agreement. Every day they'd look for and find something in the middle of that nightmare that they could laugh about. And they did. How, I don't know. But 60 years later he told how that humour saved his life. And he was being absolutely serious.
There can be something spiritual about humour; it can reflect what is at our core. I think it's the fact that if we can laugh at something, we can't be intimidated by it. It's our refusal to be defined by today an understanding that events need to be considered in the perspective which is Gods time.
Lionel Blue is someone who, as a gay Rabbi, knows what it is like to be excluded by people uncomfortable with the way in which he is different from them. As an ageing man living in an area of London where his neighbours come form many backgrounds he says’ In this communal mix I feel proud of my own lot, the mature Jewish women who help staff the charity shops and give immigrants, locals and street people the attention you might expect in Bond Street. What would appall many they take in their stride confident in their calling to serve. They learnt about old clothes as youngsters in the shmatte trade and their factory humour spices our suburban respectability.’
He tells how a flasher accosts an old Jewish woman on her way home from her workshop and excitedly throws open his overcoat. She goes up to him and peers closely. 'You call that a lining?' she says to the bewildered man who’s suddenly more interested in where his coat came from.
And a little humour can bring some humanity into the most dire situations. Take the Lebanese, in a country that has repeatedly been invaded by Israel, the one joke everyone likes to tell remains:
An Israeli arrives at London's Heathrow airport. As he fills out a form, the customs officer asks him: "Occupation?"
To which he defensively replies: "No, No, just visiting!"
My suggestion for the week ahead is be prepared to let go of old things that may weigh heavily. Take the week off, a week off feeling you must be doing something and remind yourself how much you are loved by God, bask in it and enjoy it like warm sunshine or a hot bath. If we can do this we may even find we have the confidence to take ourselves a little less seriously.
You do realise that if this caught on it could even lead to a more peaceful future for us all and that would certainly be something worth smiling about.
18th 2007 - Lent 4 Evening Communion
Joshua 5.9–12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5.16–end, Luke 15.1–3, 11b–end
A couple of weeks ago the Sunday School were working on the famous story we’ve heard in today’s Gospel reading. When they came back to join the rest of us they brought up the drawings they had made of the different parts of the story. I thought it would be fun to see whether the congregation, who couldn’t see the pictures clearly, could guess what the story was. “What is the story about,” I asked, “who is in it?”
“A boy”, one of them answered.
“And who else?”
“Another boy”, they added helpfully.
“And?” I asked.
“And anything else?”
“A pig!” they said triumphantly.
And that was it.
A boy, another boy, a dad and a pig.
It was an economical version of the tale, but you couldn’t fault it for accuracy, and actually they probably told us most of what we needed to know to guess how this story would unfold.
A story about a boy and another boy? It is bound to end up in a squabble. Siblings, whatever their gender, seem to have no trouble finding something to fall out about. It happens in the best regulated families. They squabble because they are alike. They squabble because they are different. They squabble for no reason at all sometimes – it is just built in. They may be the best of friends one minute, thick as thieves, but the next moment they are rolling on the floor apparently trying to murder each other.
And then there is the dad. Who’d be a dad? Who’d be a mum either, come to that? It would be really useful if antenatal classes included training for the Secretary Generalship of the United Nations, because finding solutions to sibling squabbles is often just as difficult. Usually the best you can hope for is that they will end up united against you, instead of fighting each other. You love them both, so why can’t they love each other?
And the pig? Well that is a sure sign that someone somewhere in this story is going to end up in a mess.
A boy, another boy, a dad and a pig. On the face of it a simple story. A story about families just like our own, people just like us.
But its simplicity is a bit deceptive, because actually it is a story which changes, grows and deepens the more you look at it. It is a story with a lot of room in it – room for us to identify with it and learn from it.
We can take it, for example, on an individual level, identifying ourselves with its characters and seeing echoes of our personal or family lives in it. Some people will feel like the younger son, the prodigal. Perhaps they’ve taken a wrong turn in their lives, done things they regret, and they have needed to discover that there can be forgiveness and a new start. They’ve been overjoyed to find that God’s love for them is not grudging or measured, but overflowing, like the love of this father for his repentant son.
Others might see themselves in the older son. The sensible one. The responsible one. That’s the story of their lives. Instead of squandering their inheritance on loose living, they have squandered it on tight living. They have worked hard to do what they think is right, but only because they fear that God wouldn’t love them otherwise – for who they are rather than for what they do.
There may be some too, who identify with the father. They are waiting and hoping for a child to come home, for something to change.
As well as our personal circumstances this story can also help us to reflect on wider issues, though. The scribes and the Pharisees to whom Jesus first told this story believed that they were God’s faithful servants. They were the older brother. They disapproved of those who didn’t live according to the law, who were destined for destruction, not deserving God’s love. Jesus challenges their judgementalism. Not only are they cutting others off from God’s love, they aren’t really living in its fullness themselves either. The tragedy is that God loves them more than they will ever realise, but they are so pre-occupied in anxiously policing what they think are the boundaries of his kingdom that they can’t see it.
This judgementalism is still rife, of course – not just in religious groups but in any groups. Groups tend to want to organise themselves – to sort out the insiders from the outsiders, to regulate their membership, to set conditions for joining. Once we see ourselves as the guardians of an inheritance, as this older brother does, it is very hard for us to relax about letting others share in it – what if they don’t take the same care we do? We’ve put in the hard labour, they’ve just shown up at the last minute. This sort of resentment can be expressed towards newcomers to church who have the effrontery to express ideas about how we might do things differently, or towards people whose lifestyles don’t fit our mould of acceptability, or towards people who only come to church now and then for weddings and baptisms – they are just using us, we think! But in God’s eyes, this story says, they are just as precious. He rejoices because they are there, seeing what IS rather than what we think ought to be.
So we can look at this story from a personal angle, or from a wider angle, seeing its challenge to our judgementalism and exclusivity.
But there is one more facet to this story, which seems to me to be particularly intriguing and important as we approach Holy Week and Easter. As I have said, we can identify with it as individuals, or as groups – looking for ourselves in it. But where is Jesus in it?
Where is Jesus in this story? To be honest it had never really occurred to me to look for him in it– there was quite enough going on without worrying about that. But then I spotted something that seemed too much of a coincidence to be accidental, and I realized that he was there actually. He has stepped inside this story, just as we do. It was the little phrase that the father uses of his prodigal son when he returns which gives the game away. He uses it twice in fact. Once to the servants as he gives his instructions for the feast they are to prepare, and once to the older brother. “This son of mine was dead and is alive again”. “This brother of yours was dead and has come to life.” Suddenly a bell started ringing in my head. Who else is dead and comes to life in the Gospel? It is Jesus himself. I can’t believe this is just an accidental turn of phrase. Luke is too careful a writer for that.
And when you look at the preface to the story you see another parallel. What is it that the Pharisees are complaining about? That Jesus eats with sinners. Just like the prodigal in fact, who has “devoured his father’s property with prostitutes.” Now, I’m not suggesting that this means that Jesus IS the prodigal or that he behaved in a dissolute manner. What I think he is doing here is playing into the worst suspicions of the religious authorities ABOUT him. He wasn’t a sinner in reality, but these people who challenged him thought he was. And they disapproved of him thoroughly for it. He associated with sinners – tax-collectors, prostitutes, the lowest of the low – even eating with them, which was strictly forbidden. By doing that he made himself as unclean as they were.
It wasn’t just this that offended them, though. They could see that he was a brilliant teacher, someone who knew the scriptures, someone to whom others looked for teaching. He seemed to have received a great inheritance from God. But instead of using his power and wisdom to reinforce the status quo, he is squandering his inheritance on people who don’t deserve it. He might as well go and feed pigs – unclean animals that make unclean any who associate with them. What a waste! What a disgrace!
Just as those “older brother” Pharisees would have thought that this story ought to end with the prodigal dying forgotten in that filthy pig sty, so they believe that Jesus’ story should and will end with his destruction – crucified on the midden of Calvary with outcast unclean criminals for company. It is only just, only fair that it should be so.
But it was not so. What Luke tells us is that instead of disappearing without a trace, the filthy, despised son in fact gets a new robe – the best one – a ring on his finger, sandals for his feet, and a feast to welcome him home. And this is how it was for Jesus also. The tomb couldn’t hold him. The disgrace of the cross was not the last word.
St Paul writes to the Corinthians that God “made Christ to be sin who knew no sin”. We think of him, with 2000 years of hindsight as a man in whom everyone must really have seen goodness, but in fact, to those who attacked him he was as wicked as this prodigal – taking the riches of faith and casting them down before those who had forfeited their right to them. His death on a cross was assumed by many to be a sign of his disgrace and of God’s rejection. But just like the prodigal in the story, Christ, who was dead, returned to life again. He had gone out into a distant land too– beyond the pale of respectable society. There he got alongside the most lost and sinful. In the eyes of those who held the power, by doing this he was lost, a sinner, also. And having got alongside them, he stayed alongside them in the messes they endured, sharing and suffering that mess with them, just as he is beside those today who sit in the muck of life. And he is beside them still when they make the long trek back home, knowing full well that they will be greeted joyfully by their Father who loves them with a love which is beyond measure and beyond reason, and who will run down the road to meet them with undignified and unconstrained delight.
It is a simple story. A story of a boy, another boy, a dad and a pig – but in it lies the whole great truth of salvation, the story of the love of Christ who became sin for us, so that we could come home with him and find our Father’s welcome.
11th 2007 - Lent 3
Isaiah 55.1–9,Psalm 63.1–9, 1 Corinthians 10.1–13, Luke 13.1–9
“Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.”
I’m sure all the Sound of Music fans in the congregation recognised that instantly. Maria’s life has taken an unexpected turn. Baron Von Trapp has proposed to her and she is over the moon with happiness. Why has this happened? Because, she believes “Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.”
The belief that we get what we deserve, and that we deserve what we get is very widespread. Of course sometimes there is some sense in it. If you love others, some of them will probably love you back. If you chain-smoke and drink yourself under the table every night it won’t be too surprising if you get lung disease or cirrhosis of the liver. But we can sometimes get it badly wrong when we try to make a link between people’s behaviour and the things that happen to them. I expect we all know good people to whom terrible things have happened, and times when great evil seems to have gone completely unpunished. I’ve often heard people agonise when things go wrong in their lives – “What did I do to deserve this?” they cry. If they can’t think of anything to blame themselves for they blame God. He hasn’t obeyed what they think are his own rules – he’s allowed them to suffer when they’ve done nothing to deserve it?
Jesus meets a group of people in today’s Gospel reading who believe that you get what you deserve and you deserve what you get. There have been two high profile disasters locally. There has been a massacre in the Temple at Jerusalem, and there has also been a terrible accident. A tower has collapsed at Siloam, killing eighteen people. Why? Had the victims sinned in some way? “Somewhere in their youth and childhood” had they done something bad? The crowd expect Jesus to answer “yes”. Then as now, this belief was widespread. Its roots ran deep, like a pernicious weed. Health, wealth and security were signs of God’s blessing; disease and disaster a sign of his anger. Even St Paul, in our second reading seems to succumb to this sort of logic – it is a less than inspiring reading. But Jesus won’t go along with this thinking. Did these people deserve their fate? Did they have it coming to them? No, he says, they didn’t, they were no worse than any of us.
This tendency to believe that there must be some hidden link between sin and disaster, virtue and success probably comes from our human desire to understand the world, to make connections and figure things out. We want to find predictable patterns so that we know what is coming and can prepare for it. Maybe we can even control it. That’s fine when we get it right, but sometimes our need to predict and control leads us to see links where there aren’t any. We fall into superstitious behaviour. A footballer insists on wearing his lucky socks – the ones he wore when he scored that winning goal – every time he goes out onto the pitch. He’s linked two things together – the socks and the winning - but there really is no link. Conspiracy theorists spin webs of connections between unrelated events, convinced that there is a secret plot to be discovered. So long as we have a neat answer, an answer that works for us, it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. It makes our world feel safer, more predictable and manageable. It makes us feel as if we are in control.
This sort of superstitious attitude can easily creep into religion too. If only we can find the right buttons to push, say the right prayers, work out what makes God cross and avoid doing it we can keep him on our side, make him do what we want, get health, wealth and success in this life and a ticket to heaven when we die. There are Christians who sincerely believe that God sent Hurricane Katrina to punish New Orleans for what they consider its moral laxity. It sounds simple, and they believe it is simple, and it gives them a comforting sense of safety, because they do not behave like those they are condemning. But their analysis doesn’t really hold water at all. Disasters don’t discriminate. Good people often die in them: bad people often survive.
So where does that leave us? Does it not matter what we do, how we live? Is that what Jesus is saying? No, not at all. In fact he warns his hearers that unless they repent they will perish just as these others have done. Bearing in mind that he has just said their deaths weren’t a punishment on them, this sounds like a bit of a mixed message, and it isn’t easy to make sense of what he means, but I’ll have a go. Here’s a suggestion.
The word “repent” literally means “to change your mind”. “Change your mind” says Jesus, or you will die just as they did. How did they die? They died believing that it was their fault. They died believing that they were being punished, that they had got it wrong and that God didn’t love them. “Change your mind” says Jesus. “Change your mind about God and about what he is up to in your lives. Change your mind about the way he works, how he feels about you”, or you will die believing the same thing, and what a tragedy that would be.
To ram the point home he tells them a story. It is a story about a man who owns a fig tree that won’t bear fruit. Cut it down! , the man tells his gardener – it’s just a waste of space. The fig tree has failed to live up to his expectations. It makes no sense to keep it.
But the gardener, rather bravely, considering he is just a servant, takes a risk and answers his master back. No, he says, leave it a while. Let me dig around it and manure it, and then we’ll see.
Now, which of the men in this story would Jesus’ hearers assume represented God? Probably the one with the power, the demanding, exacting owner, judging his fig tree and finding it wanting, punishing it with death. But it isn’t the owner who represents God in this story. It is the gardener; the gardener who is patient and generous. Not only is he patient and generous, he knows how to help this unfruitful fig, and he is prepared to put himself out to give it what it needs to thrive. “Dig around the roots and cut them back,” he says. It is good advice. Figs fruit better if their roots are restricted or pruned. Allow them a long root run and all they’ll produce is leaves. “Then give it some manure. Feed it and nurture it. Give it a chance and tend it lovingly, and who knows we may yet be eating its fruit a year from now. “
God is not a fearsome judge, this parable tells us, who waits to catch us out, who is always ready to punish us if we renege on our side of some terrifying bargain. Instead he is the eternally hopeful gardener, who sees every day as a new chance, whatever we have done in our “youth and childhood”. Every day is a day when we can start to grow and thrive in his care.
So often people expect God to tell them that they are not good enough, that they deserve what they get and they get what they deserve, and it’s no good complaining about it. But Jesus tells us instead of a God who longs to heal and nurture. It is we who are the unreasonable judges, quick to condemn ourselves and condemn others too, the impatient landowner who would cut down the fit without a second thought. In the Old Testament reading Isaiah too challenges that common picture of a vengeful God. “Come buy wine and milk without money and without price” his God calls out. “Return to the Lord, for he will abundantly pardon”.
I would love to know why suffering happens. I’d love to know a way of avoiding it. I’d love to have a magic wand to wave over the pain that I see around me. But the truth is that I don’t know why things turn out as they do, and there is no magic wand. What I do know is that it is not the case that we get what we deserve, or that we deserve what we get. Jesus got the cross, and he didn’t deserve that. But as he went through the darkness of death he discovered that God was with him still, that this shameful fate was not a sign of rejection, or a sign that he had failed, but a way to life and peace instead. Never mind what you did “somewhere in your youth or childhood,” whether it was good or bad, he tells us. Don’t waste your time obsessively scratching around for sin in your life, or in the lives of others, for someone to blame or for a reason to blame yourself. Instead hear God’s call to you to come, now, as you are, to eat and drink of his goodness, to grow and thrive in his care today.
March 4th 2007 - Lent 2
Genesis 15.1–12, 17–18, Luke 13.31–end
Today’s Old Testament reading is pretty strange stuff. Visions of flaming torches, bizarre animal sacrifices, and “a deep and terrifying darkness” that descends on the Old Testament Patriarch Abram. It probably sounds like a whole lot of mystical mumbo jumbo, and it seems a million miles away from our experience. But despite its strangeness, actually this story is one that has some important things to communicate to us.
The situation is this. Abram has been called by God to leave his native land of Haran and go to a new land – the land that will one day be called Israel. God has promised to make his name great in this new country. Through him all the families of the earth will be blessed, God says. But God has never really spelt out the detail of this grand plan, and, after a while, Abram begins to wonder how on earth God is going to fulfil his promise. You see, the problem is that he and his wife Sarai have no children, and they are far too old to expect any now. How can you be the father of a multitude, when you don’t even seem to be able to be the father of one?
Childlessness can be a painful challenge now for couples who are unable to conceive, but in the ancient world it was regarded as a disaster. Children were vital; they were the family work force, they would look after you in old age, and after you died, they would remember you, tend your tomb, carry on the family line. They were the nearest thing you would get to immortality – a belief in life after death wasn’t well developed at this time. Without children many people thought that their lives and their labours would all have been in vain, vanishing into the sands of time. This is what Abram and Sarai face. Who will inherit their property? Only Eliezer, a servant who has apparently been nominated as heir in the absence of children. He and his family will take over all they have worked for. Who will remember Abram and Sarai? Who will tend their tombs? No one. And if that is going to be the case, what is the point of him making this Herculean journey, uprooting himself from the society he knows. It will all be for nothing in the end?
God hears Abram’s fears, and he answers. He WILL have his own offspring, says God. Look at the stars, God says, as Abram gazes up into the night sky. You will have as many children as that.
It sounds wonderful. Abram tries to believe him, he wants to believe him, he says he believes him. But right now, adrift in the desert, with no clear idea of his journey’s end, how can he be sure that it will really turn out the way God says? Should he really risk abandoning the life he has for the chance of the life God is offering him? Turning round and going home must seem very attractive.
Until he set off on this journey across the desert his life was all mapped out. As I have said, his childlessness meant that it wasn’t mapped out the way he wanted it to be. But at least he knew where he stood. He knew the land he lived in, where the good grazing was and the water holes. He had his business networks. He knew who to trust, who to trade with. He knew how his world worked. But this new life God calls him to is a completely unknown territory, geographically, emotionally and spiritually. Theoretically it is going to be better than what he has, but we all know how threatening change – even change for the better – can feel. It is amazing what we will put up with just because it is the devil we know rather than the devil we don’t. We’ll often settle for familiar pain or sadness, with situations that are far from what we really want, because the path that leads to a better future seems frightening or risky. The “deep and terrifying darkness” that comes down on Abram is the darkness of an unimaginable future that God is inviting him to step into and many of us will be able to identify with him.
“Deep and terrifying darkness” is something that confronts most of us at sime time or other – times when there is a choice to be made; to stick to the status quo, even if it is bad, or to step out into the unknown. Some of those choices are to do with personal situations ; perhaps we know something is wrong in our lives, we need to ask for help, see a doctor or counsellor, break a bad habit, leave a job, retrain for something new. Some of those choices may have to do with our relationships; perhaps we need to confront someone close to us, to speak an uncomfortable truth to them. We may need to end a relationship, or start a relationship. We may need to blow the whistle on some injustice at work. Sometimes change beckons to us in our church lives or in the community. A new opportunity opens up, but dare we respond. Are we really up to it? I often meet people for whom even the action of stepping over that threshold into church for a service is a “deep and terrifying darkness”. They’d like to come, but they are afraid; afraid of making a fool of themselves because they don’t know what to do, or maybe afraid – as perhaps we all should be – that they will meet with God here, that what they encounter will change them.
For some people these moments of decision may be literally life-threatening. All over the world there are people who know that confronting injustice may mean persecution or even death. Saulo and Ruth de Barros, whom we support as part of our “Away Giving”, are two such people. Saulo is the Anglican Bishop of the Amazon, and part of his and Ruth’s work involves championing the rights of the landless people or very poor local farmers in parts of the Amazon which are, he says, virtually lawless, controlled by powerful local families
In a recent letter he said this. “There are towns and villages where one family holds all the power and if you speak out in protest you disappear. As many as 200 priests and lay ministers from different churches have been threatened, most of them live in the Amazon area.’
‘Despite being threatened, you have to keep going. I would prefer my son and daughter to think of me as someone who died rather than just sat in a church. Once you have opened your eyes to it you can’t turn your back. We live in an unequal world; you see how many people are suffering and you think what right have I to ignore their plight?’
He added: ‘Friends say “you have done enough, you can’t change the world”, but if everyone thought like that where would we be?’
Saulo and Ruth have chosen to be where they are, and do the work that they do, because they want a better future of justice and peace for the people of the Amazon and for its natural environment, but it is a hard choice, because they know that the path is dangerous. I am sure that they have faced and continue to face many times of “deep and terrifying darkness” as they tread that path.
In the Gospel reading Jesus makes an equally risky and frightening choice. His preaching has reached the ears of King Herod – the same man that ordered the killing of John the Baptist. Herod is a dangerous enemy. Jesus could, if he chose, take the path of safety – get out of the way, keep quiet. That is what the Pharisees want him to do. They might be genuinely concerned for him, but they are probably also concerned for themselves. He is stirring people up, disturbing the status quo, and this can only lead to trouble. Surely it would be better just to let things be, even if they aren’t perfect. Better the devil you know…
But Jesus is having none of it. It is not that he is superhuman, above fear and doubt. In the Garden of Gethsemane, we see him sweating blood, wrestling with his fears – a vivid picture of his “deep and terrifying darkness”. But running away will mean turning away from what he know needs to be done, and he refuses to do that.
There was a lot of fuss a few years ago about a film called “The Last Temptation of Christ”. I never quite understood why, as it was asking a question and making a point that was very powerful. It asked what would have happened if Jesus had chosen to reject his calling, to opt for safety instead of the cross. It showed him imagining a normal family life, working as a carpenter in quiet obscurity. It was a future that had its attractions, but he realised that if he chose this quiet life his message would be lost, lives that he should have touched for good would remain unchanged. And so he chose the hard path, the path that led to death on the cross, but ultimately also to life, not just for him, but for all of us.
Today’s Gospel story is a picture of true courage – courage that knows the risks and takes them anyway, that acknowledges the cost, and is prepared to pay it. “Today, tomorrow and the next day, I must be on my way,” says Christ, not because he wants to suffer, but because that is the only way in which the kingdom of God can come.
Our moments of choice may not be as dramatic as his, or as Ruth and Saulo’s, but they are just as real – the darkness can seem just as deep and terrifying – and they are just as important. God beckons each of us into a new and better future - a future that we make for ourselves and for others too, but it is often a path that takes us on a route we have never travelled before, to a destination we can’t imagine. God’s promise to us, as it was to Abram and Jesus, is that it is a journey worth making, and that he will walk beside us every step of the way. It is up to us whether are prepared to put our hand into his and walk through the night into the new day.
February 25th 2007 - Lent 1 - Fairtrade Fortnight
The sermon was introduced by the "voices" of two growers in the third world, and two "shoppers " here. Their words can be read below.
In a sense the case for Fairtrade speaks for itself. When we hear those voices, telling us the differences between the lives of those who can sell through fair-trade networks and those who can’t it is obvious what we should do. But the fact is that, though fair-trade has made huge inroads into our shopping habits – you can get all sorts of fairly trade goods now, quite easily – fair trade shopping can still seem like an optional extra, something we might do if it doesn’t cost us any more, if it doesn’t involve any more effort on our part, if there is enough pay-off for us in terms of feeling good.
And that is not really enough. It is not really what it is all about. Picking up the chocolate bar with the fair-trade mark on it is a good thing, but the commitment to trade justice needs to have far deeper roots in us than that if it is really to make a difference. It is our whole attitude to the world – the earth we share and all that it produces – which needs changing if the situation of growers like those we have just heard from is really to change.
Today’s Old Testament lesson might not seem to have much to do with twenty-first century global trading, but actually it is fundamental to the whole matter. It’s a reading from the end of the book of Deuteronomy, near the end of the Israelites long journey across the wilderness from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land of Israel. As they approach their journey’s end Moses speaks to them.
This is a rich and fertile land they are entering, very different from the hardships of the desert that has been their home for so long. Though there will still be struggles, life is about to get a whole lot easier for them. They will be able to plant crops and see them through to the harvest – something you can’t do if you are a nomad. But there is a danger in all this. Soon, God knows, they will start to look at the riches of this land not as a gift, but as an entitlement. They will regard them as their land, their crops, their wealth. And what happens when we start to treat the land as if it belongs to us, as if we can own and control it? History tells us that we become territorial, aggressive, unwilling to allow others a share in the good things it produces.
In fact our idea of ownership of land is really a bit of a nonsense. We don’t own the land, whatever our laws might proclaim. No one can own land in any permanent way. We are just stewards, tenants, temporary occupants and beneficiaries of its life. It would be more accurate to say that the land owns us, since we are far more dependent on it than it is on us. And Christians would go further than this .The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, proclaims Psalm 24.
The harvest ritual that the people of Israel are told to perform each year is meant to remind them of this truth. They are to give the first fruits of their harvest to God as an offering – not the leftovers, the surplus, which would be far easier to do, but the first fruits. That is a real sacrifice, because who knows what will happen to the rest of the harvest? But giving the first fruits acknowledges that this is not their produce to do what they want with, but the generous gift of God entrusted to them to share. As they make their offering, says Moses, the people must tell themselves again the truth about themselves and their world. “A wandering Aramean was my father,” they must recite. They are the descendents of a homeless traveller. They have known slavery – hardship, hunger and powerlessness. And it is God who has rescued them from it and given them this new life in a land “flowing with milk and honey”, not their own might. As they lay their offering down they shall say, “I bring you the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” Then, and only then, can they join with all the people of the land – including the “aliens” – strangers in their midst – to enjoy this bounty. It is not theirs; it is God’s. They are in a position of power now, as they haven’t been before. They have what they need and can share it with, or deny it to others; but this doesn’t mean that they should think that they have deserved or are entitled to their wealth.
This is a reminder that we all need. We learn early that what is ours is ours, and that we should hold onto it with all our might. If we do give or share, most of us still secretly think of what we have given as belonging to us – ours to do with as we please. It makes us feel good to give, but often we fail to see that actually, what we gave was never really ours anyway. The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.
From God’s viewpoint, to stand by and do nothing while others are denied the basics of life, to condone and support unjust trade practices, to demand the cheapest bargain in the supermarket without asking how it comes to be so cheap, so that we can preserve our wealth is really to steal from him, and to steal from his children, our brothers and sisters.
Like the Israelites in the Promised Land, we have power, but it is easy for that power to go to our heads, for us to think we are entitled to it.
In the Gospel reading Jesus faced the same temptation to throw his power around. Bread from stones, miraculous feats, authority over nations. He could have all this. But he recognised his own dependence on his Father, and through him, his connection with his fellow human beings – who were all God’s children, as he was. And so, instead of holding onto what he had – even his own life – he was able to let it go for the sake of others. His sense of security was rooted in his knowledge of his Father’s love for him – love that even death couldn’t defeat – so he didn’t need to try to find security in wealth or fame or political influence.
We begin this season of Lent in the wilderness with him as he contemplates the gifts that God has showered on him, and in the wilderness with the Israelites, as they look forward to the milk and honey that they will soon enjoy. It is right, as we do so that we are aware of the riches that are in our hands – the money in our purses and wallets – and that we remind ourselves that this is not ours, whatever the world might say to us, but the gift of God to the whole of humanity.
Banana grower ‘A’
I grow bananas on a large plantation in Central America. Our pay is very low. Pesticides sprayed on the bananas can have terrible side effects – they can make men sterile. Women in the banana packing sheds suffer double the normal rate of leukaemia. Babies are born deformed. We don’t have any land of our own, so working on the plantation is the only way we can make a living.
Banana grower ‘B’
I grow bananas on a plantation in Costa Rica. Since we joined Fairtrade, our pay has increased. This means life is much better for us; we can afford piped water and electricity.
The environment has been improved too. Plastic waste is recycled, and you can walk around the banana plantation without smelling chemicals. This means our health has improved. Weeds are pulled up by hand, instead of using harmful herbicides, and workers have been sent on training courses.
Fairtrade has given us the opportunity to help ourselves – we can look forward to the future, instead of wondering how we’ll survive.
Tea grower ‘A’
I work on a large tea estate in India. It is back breaking work, but our pay is very low. This means that, as we earn so little, the children have to work too. They don’t go to school.
Our houses are in a terrible condition, but if we complain to the estate manager we risk losing our jobs. Any shelter is better than none.
Tea grower ‘B’
I also work on a large tea estate in India. It is very hard work, but in the last few years life has taken a turn for the better. Our estate now sells tea through Fairtrade. We have used some of the extra money from Fairtrade to buy an ambulance. The biggest difference the money has made is in providing electricity to the workers’ houses. This means women now have more time - they don’t have to collect firewood, and the houses are smoke-free which is healthier for us all. Before we had electricity many people had breathing problems, more women had miscarriages and birth complications. Another advantage is that children have light to study at night.
Cocoa grower ‘A’
When cocoa prices fall, we have to make difficult decisions. We may have to put off sending our children to school, and we can only afford to buy medicines for members of the family who have paid work.
It’s not just the people who get ill – capsids and mealy bugs can destroy much of the cocoa crop each year, if we’re not able to look after the plants properly.
Another problem is traders who rip us off – they don’t always weigh our cocoa beans fairly, or pay us cash.
We can’t grow anything else – we wouldn’t be able to market it.
Cocoa grower ‘B’
Things are really looking up for us since we’ve been selling our cocoa through Fairtrade. We have a long-term contract with the chocolate company, so our hard work pays off. Farmers who had to leave their farms to look for paid work have returned to their villages to grow cocoa. Communities are back together again. We’ve used some of the extra money from Fairtrade to make a concrete floor in our house – before we just had a dirt floor. We can now afford to send our children to secondary school, as well as buying them schoolbooks and shoes. We’ve also planted more cocoa because of our confidence in Fairtrade – it gives us a good price. Fairtrade really does make a difference.
When I peel a banana, or tuck into a bar of chocolate, or pour a cup of tea, I don’t think about the person who grew it. I don’t think they are anything to do with me, so it isn’t my problem. As for Fairtrade – why should I pay a bit more when other brands are cheaper? If these people want to earn more they should sell their crops through Fairtrade too.
Farmers can’t just switch to Fairtrade and earn more money. If they could, they would! This is where we come in. What we choose when we shop affects people thousands of miles away. If we choose Fairtrade brands, demand for them will grow, and more farmers will be able to join Fairtrade. It may cost us a few pence more, but don’t you think it’s a small price to pay when our choices really do make a difference?
18th February 07 - Last Sunday before Lent - Sermon by Kevin Bright
34.29-end, 2 Corinthians 3.12 – 4.2 & Luke 9.28-36 & 37 – 43
You may know that the Oscar Winning movie Chariots of Fire tells the story of two athletes at the 1920 Paris Olympics. Harold Abrahams, after a gigantic struggle as much against himself as the other runners, won the gold medal in the 100 yards. Eric Liddell, the Christian who refused to run on a Sunday, switched events and won gold in the 440 yards. It was a moving double story all the more remarkable for being true.
Then there’s Kelly Holmes who won both 800 and 1500 metres gold medals at the last Olympics. My children went to see her victory parade in Tonbridge and squashed in the huge crowds could get nowhere near her. A year later when she had come back down to earth she could be found giving talks and doing promotions at such highbrow venues as Bat & Ball sports where she had time to talk and pose for photos with each individual admirer.
Back at the ‘Chariots of Fire’ Olympics, the theologian Tom Wright reminds us that after the games were over, the movie shows all the athletes returning to London, and spilling out excitedly onto Waterloo station. All except Harold Abrahams. His girlfriend waits anxiously as the crowd thins out. Only when they have all gone does Harold emerge slowly from the train. He has achieved what he set out to do. He has the long coveted prize in his hands. He has been up the mountain, and is realizing that whatever he does now he will never stand there again. He has come down from the giddy heights and now it is time to face reality.
The gospel reading from Luke today poses the question, why are we reading of the Transfiguration on the Sunday before Lent?
A possible answer could be – to offer us encouragement before we set out on our Lenten journey. Eight days earlier, again during a time of prayer, Jesus told his disciples ‘ The Son of Man has to endure great sufferings, and to be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, to be put to death, and to be raised on the third day.’ Jesus is about to set out to Jerusalem and the Cross but before we contemplate his suffering we are given this mountain top moment as foretaste of how it will reveal his glory.
If the readings from Exodus and Luke are read consecutively we could almost be forgiven for wondering if we are hearing echoes. Jesus is on the mountain like Moses when he met with God; his face was also transfigured by the encounter. The disciples like Moses find God in a cloud.
Like our athlete, Harold Abrahams, Peter finds it hard to accept the need to come back down to earth and wants to capture the moment, to bottle it up. He clearly has left his camera/phone at home so wants to try and preserve it by building three structures, one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah and it’s at this point that the disciples are enveloped by the cloud and told to ‘Listen to Him.’ They have to face up to the need to come down from the mountain, take up their cross and follow him. They weren’t able to understand at this time, that the glory they had glimpsed on the mountain would finally be unveiled on a little hill outside Jerusalem.
Meanwhile Paul seems as positive about veils as Jack Straw was a few months ago when he described the Muslim veil as ‘a visible statement of separation and of difference.’
Perhaps these words, for different reasons, are appropriate for Moses who can now be himself only in God’s presence; with everyone else he must be veiled.
Paul contrasts this with his own boldness as a minister of the new covenant. He implies that the veil is a sign of the Israelites determination not to see what is offered to them. He feels they deliberately put a barrier between themselves and God, one which will remain until Jesus removes it.
He urges us not to veil things but to be open and honest. Taken a stage further could Paul have been thinking of the veil of the temple torn in two at the crucifixion? Once again a symbol of separation keeping apart the Holy of Holies where God dwelt from the rest of the Temple where men dwelt. This signified that man was separated from God by sin. Above all, the tearing of the veil at the moment of Jesus' death dramatically symbolized that His sacrifice would open the way into the Holy of Holies for all people, for all time, both Jew and gentile.
As we consider our individual faith and our approach to Lent this year it may help to ask ourselves these three questions.
We heard God’s words ‘This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him’. Can we set aside some time to listen?
Are there veils in our lives which we can do something about? Veils that needlessly separate us from a closer relationship with God.
Do we want to stay on the mountain top where Christ can be seen in his glory, or are we ready to come down and to face up to the need to follow Jesus through suffering, death and resurrection?
18 February 2007
11th Feb 07 - Second Sunday before Lent 07
Do you believe in God?
That might seem a strange question to ask. After all, here you are in church, giving up an hour or so of your Sunday morning. I can probably fairly safely assume that most of you would answer “yes”. And you wouldn’t be alone in that. Surveys consistently reveal that around 70% of the British population say they believe in God – even if they don’t go to church - and the figure would be much higher in many other parts of the world. The number of genuine atheists in the world is fairly small.
But the problem with those surveys is that they make it sound like such a simple question with a simple answer. ”Do you believe in God?”- Yes or no, tick one box only, delete as applicable. But the reality is that it isn’t a simple question, and there isn’t a simple answer either.
For a start, not everyone means the same thing by that little word “God”. For some God is a vague spiritual presence, an impersonal life-force. For others God is an old man with a white beard sitting on a cloud, a literal embodiment of the picture language of the Bible and Christian tradition. Every religion describes God in different ways and every believer within that religion will have their own ideas and interpretations too. Our images of God are shaped by our upbringing – the things that happen to us, the things we are taught.
When people tell me that they don’t believe in God, I sometimes ask them to tell me about the God they don’t believe in. Often they tell me about a fearsome, distant, vengeful figure, arbitrarily sending people to hell, or making them suffer in some way. “I don’t believe in that God either,” I tell them, “or at least, if God is like that I certainly don’t want to worship and serve him.” It’s often a surprise to them to realise that their picture is only one among many.
So, asking whether someone believes in God tells us very little – “God” is a word that needs a lot of unpacking.
But it’s not just the word “God” that can muddy the waters. The word “believe” can be just as misleading.
For some people belief is something that happens in your head. It’s a matter of accepting the philosophical idea of a divine being, weighing up the intellectual arguments and coming to a rational decision. For others it is in the heart – a feeling that there is something there, or a hope that there might be – a comforting presence. Some think believing in God means believing things about God and the Christian story. Creation, Virgin Birth, Resurrection, the Second Coming. If you can tick all the boxes, you can call yourself a believer. Accepting these things, or at least saying you do, is what matters. Belief can even be regarded as a sort of bargaining chip. “I’ll believe in you, God, and in return I’ll expect you to help me out when I need it” - like a voter, giving a pledge of support to a candidate in an election. I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine.
Do you believe in God? It all depends what you mean by “God” and what you mean by “believe”. It’s not nearly as simple as it first appears.
There’s a question about faith at the centre of today’s Gospel reading; that dramatic story of the stilling of the storm on the lake of Galilee. But the question Jesus asks of his disciples isn’t “Do you believe in God?” it is a much more interesting and useful question - “Where is your faith?”
I confess I have often read this as if it were a rebuke, as if Jesus were saying, “You ought to have known that God would still the storm – what kind of disciples are you if you can’t believe that?” But lately I have come to question that interpretation. After all, when the storm blew up they did call for help. They woke Jesus up precisely because they thought he would be able to help them. Isn’t that faith? Of course it is.
But what Jesus is concerned about is what sort of faith this is, what it depends on – where is your faith? What is it in? He is aware that, at the moment, their faith is strongly tied up with their circumstances, what happens to them. If things are going right, they will believe, but if things are going wrong, what then? A faith that is dependent on God intervening to protect us from pain and suffering – doing what we want him to - is a dangerously fragile faith. Jesus knows that this is not the sort of faith they need. It matters that they get to grips with this because soon they will watch him suffer and die on the cross. There will be no miraculous rescue there, no stilling of the storms of pain and death that swept over him. And they’ll face persecution as well – most of those first disciples will eventually die for their faith. If their faith is based on God stopping the bad things happening, it will be no use to them then.
There’s another problem too. Where is their faith? At the moment, it is clear that it’s in Jesus, all wrapped up in his physical presence. They shelter behind him, look to him for the answers, run to him when they don’t know what to do. But soon he will be taken from their sight, and what will they do then? Just as children must eventually learn to stand on their own two feet in the world and trust their own judgement, we need to develop a faith that is our own– that makes sense to us and is embedded in our own lives, rather than being dependent on someone else to do our believing for us.
When Jesus asks “Where is your faith?” his real concern isn’t that they don’t have any, but that it is in the wrong things, dependent on circumstances, second-hand, and because of that, it won’t sustain them when they need it to. What they really need is to learn that God loves them and is with them, whatever happens, for good or ill, in triumph or disaster, in life and in death, sinking or swimming. And they need to learn that for themselves, each one of them. “Where is your faith?” Jesus asks them. And he asks us the same question too. Where is our faith? What does it depend on?
There’s a theologian called John Westerhoff, who once described four different styles of believing, styles we might progress through, or flit between at different periods of our lives. I’ve always found his descriptions helpful. I recognise myself in them; perhaps you might too. As I run through them, ponder your own faith, and see whether these descriptions ring any bells for you.
First he talks about experienced faith. This is common in early childhood. It’s an unquestioning acceptance of the world as it is – an uncomplicated enjoyment of the sights and sounds around us, a sense of awe and wonder at the world. It doesn’t look for meaning; it takes things as they are. “But trailing clouds of glory do we come/From God who is our home;/Heaven lies about us in our infancy!” as Wordsworth put it.
Then there is what he calls affiliative faith. This sort of faith is all tied up with belonging to a particular community, and it often develops as childhood progresses. We pick up our beliefs from others, from parents and Sunday school teachers. “I am a Christian because my parents are, because I go to church, because my friends and neighbours are. I do what they do. I believe what they believe.” There’s nothing wrong with this sort of faith in itself, but we can easily end up stuck in it, unable to think for ourselves.
Thirdly there’s what he calls searching faith. Teenagers and young adults often show this sort of faith – and sometimes it doesn’t look much like faith at all! It’s not content with other people’s answers – searching faith challenges and questions everything. It can be alarming to go through and to watch. Everything is thrown up in the air, certainties are rejected. It can look as if something is going wrong, but actually it is usually a good sign, a sign that faith is growing not dying. We need to question and doubt if we are going to develop a faith we can understand, a faith that is our own, not second-hand, a faith that makes sense to us.
If we get through this questioning, Westerhoff says, we may, just may, find ourselves with his fourth style of faith – mature faith. This is a faith that we have consciously accepted and acknowledged as our own. It is a faith that makes a difference to how we live. It has consequences. It involves commitment. It’s not just words in the head, or a warm feeling in the heart. It’s not a bargaining counter to be offered to God. It doesn’t depend on things going right with us. It is flexible and resilient, so that when the storms of life come upon us, it won’t be destroyed. For most of us this sort of faith is a long time coming, if it ever comes, but it is the faith we really need when the storms of life rage about us.
“Where is your faith?” asks Jesus of us. What is it rooted in? What difference does it make to the way you live? And most important of all, what are you doing to make sure that it is growing as it should?
When he asked this question of the disciples they had no answer for him. They were too amazed to say anything. He didn’t push it. He just left them to ponder his question. So I’m going to do the same, as we hold a minute or two of silence and think about our own lives. “”Where is your faith?”
Third Sunday before Lent Evensong - 4th Feb 07
“Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.”
What do your clothes say about you?
You may be someone who is deeply interested in fashion, or you might never give it a second thought, but whether we like it or not the clothes we wear send out messages about what we think of ourselves, how we see ourselves. The colours we choose – sombre and understated or vibrant – the styles, formal and elegant or relaxed and casual – tell people at a glance what we are like. That’s why people usually dress with such care for important moments like interviews. Our clothes, whether we like it or not, whether we are aware of it or not, are a powerful means of self-expression.
But they aren’t just about self-expression. Just as clothes can tell others who we are and what we are like, our clothes can also send messages inwards, to ourselves. Put on a sharp suit and you will feel altogether more powerful and businesslike than if you were wearing jeans. A tie for men, a pair of heels for women, and you feel instantly smarter and more together. When a school is failing and a new head is drafted in, the first thing they seem to do is to introduce a new school uniform and insist it is worn. The theory is that if children are dressed smartly they will take more pride in their school, and in themselves too.
Anyone here who has ever worn a uniform as part of their work will know the difference it can make. You don’t just put on the clothes, you put on the role as well. I remember when I was first ordained, wearing a clerical collar seemed very odd – I was aware of people noticing it. I noticed it myself – who were they looking at? It marked the transition though, between being a private individual to being someone who was recognised, for better or worse, as a representative of the church. Wearing the collar helped me to make that transition.
So when Paul writes to the Colossians, “Clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” we can see what he is getting at. What you wear, whether it is a smart suit, a uniform, or a clerical collar, shapes your understanding of yourself – it makes you a different person. Putting on the garments of compassion, says Paul, works in the same way. If we do it consistently we become compassionate people.
We might feel that compassion and love shouldn’t be something that is put on – it is either there or it isn’t. We live in an age when people are very concerned with authenticity, with listening to their feelings. “Putting on” something sounds hypocritical, as if we are just dressing up, pretending. But Paul recognises that truth that we have just touched on. What we wear doesn’t just reflect who we are. It shapes us too.
It is no accident that the “uniform” of monks and nuns is called a habit. The word “habit” was used interchangeably in the past to mean both the clothes people wore and those deeply ingrained ways of behaving that they had built up over the year. The words custom and costume come from a shared root too – the Latin “consuetudinem”- routine, ritual, something you do again and again. Just as people got dressed day by day in the same clothes without really thinking of it – it was a daily routine – so their daily behaviour, the multitude of small words and deeds, would eventually shape their characters and become second nature to them.
Clothe yourself with compassion, says Paul. Put on love. Make the decision to act lovingly, whether it is what you feel or not, and pretty soon it will become a habit – a good habit – something that you hardly even have to think about.
It was good advice – advice Paul knew the Colossian church needed. Made up of many different racial and social groups it was a melting pot that was continually in danger of boiling over. Greek, Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free – there was almost unlimited possibility in this group of people for misunderstanding and mutual suspicion. It was important that they got into the habit of loving one another and seeing one another as children of the same Father.
Relationships in the family were full of potential for conflict as well, he said. They needed conscious effort if love was to grow. We may not agree with all that he says. The subjection of wives to husbands and slaves to masters is not a way of life we would advocate now. But this was a cultural context very different from our own, and Paul was concerned to help his readers lives with the realities of the lives they had then. But if some of his advice seems dated, some of it is just as relevant as it ever was. Children and parents are still just as capable of making each others lives hell as they were, and a new study last week of domestic abuse revealed that one woman in nine is abused by her husband or partner in any year. That might mean physical violence, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse – putting someone down, constantly criticising, controlling them and denying their right to privacy. One woman in nine in any year. Of course men are sometimes victims of abuse too, but it is nowhere like as common. “Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.” Sadly it appears that Paul’s words are as much needed now as ever.
In all our relationships, whether in the family, in the church, or in any other community, says Paul , it is what we do that counts. Feelings matter; of course they do. But if we wait until we feel compassionate, kind, humble, meek and patient we may be waiting forever. Putting on compassion is not just play acting, it is not just dressing up, it is creating the self that God wants us to be, so that we can also create relationships that will build up rather than destroy, that will enhance life rather than diminish it.
“You have died,” says Paul, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” In the early church the ritual of Baptism involved being clothed anew as you came up out of the water – it still does in some churches. You went down into the water, buried with Christ, drowned with him in the deep water of death, and just as he had risen to a new life, so did you. The white robe given as you emerged from the font was a symbol of that new life. But this robe – this new life- is something we must continue to put on, day by day, if it is really to make a difference. The robe must become a habit , so that the outer clothing becomes the inner truth. Whatever our clothes say about us, whether we are dedicated followers of fashion or unrepentantly scruffy, let us pray for diligence and perseverance to put on each day and in every circumstance the clothing of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience and love until the costume becomes a custom and the garment becomes a habit.
Third Sunday before Lent - 4th Feb 07
Isaiah 6.1-13, 1 Cor 15.1-11, Luke 5.1-11
You have to feel sorry for Simon Peter. There he was, one ordinary morning, washing his nets by the side of the lake. He hadn’t had a good night; he’d caught nothing, not a single fish. But sometimes fishing is like that, and he was used to taking the rough with the smooth. He wasn’t too worried. Tomorrow night would probably be different – the fish were out there somewhere! His long years of experience taught him that.
But just as he had resigned himself to his lack of success, the day took an unexpected turn – and not necessarily for the better. He hadn’t even noticed Jesus standing and watching him, but all of a sudden there was this stranger, climbing into his boat, without so much as a by-your-leave. “Hey! What do you think you’re doing? That’s my boat you’re getting into.” Then Simon noticed the crowd gathering. Jesus asked him to put out a little from the shore. Frankly he was too stunned to argue.
And Jesus began to teach. We don’t know what he had to say, but Simon doesn’t seem to mind just sitting there and listening to him. He had nothing else to do anyway– no fish to clean and sell, that’s for certain, because he hadn’t caught any.
But when Jesus asks Simon to head out into deep water and cast his nets there, Simon draws the line. “Ok, look, you’re a good teacher, I’ll give you that. The stories were interesting, the teaching was wise, but I’m the fisherman here, and I can tell you, I fished this patch last night, all last night, and there’s nothing here, not a sprat, not a minnow. If there was, I’d have found it. Just because you know the Bible, just because you can preach a good sermon, don’t let it go to your head – you’re in my territory now.” Jesus just looked at him. “Oh all right then, I’ll give it a go, since you seem so convinced – but I can tell you, there’s nothing there!”
So Simon rowed out into the deep water, cast his nets, and before he knew where he was they were full, and overflowing, as if the fish just couldn’t stay away. In the end he had to call his friends in the other boat to come and help, and even then the boat nearly sank under the weight of the catch.
Now I don’t know how you’d have reacted to this. Simon ought to have been overjoyed – like he’d won the lottery. I am reminded of those jubilant people on Branscombe beach, scavenging among the wreckage for the cargo that was shed from the MSC Napoli, and, in some cases at least, finding real treasure. Those fish were just there for the taking, and Jesus didn’t even ask for anything in return.
But that isn’t how Simon reacts. Instead he falls to his knees and cries out, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” We get to know Simon Peter pretty well as the Gospel progresses, and he isn’t usually reticent about himself and his own abilities. He’s not one for false modesty – never know to put himself down. He is usually first with an answer, even if it is the wrong one. He’s an entrepreneurial go-getter who has an almost indestructible belief in himself. But as he hauls in this enormous catch, a catch not found by him but by this carpenter turned teacher, who to the best of his knowledge has never cast a net in his life, he discovers that he is not the number one top fisherman of Galilee after all. It must be a bit humiliating frankly. Suddenly he sees that however powerful he thought he was there is one who is infinitely more powerful than him.
People sometimes describe Christianity, rather scathingly, as a crutch for those who are too inadequate to cope with life without it, something to console those who have fallen on hard times. Karl Marx said that religion was the opiate of the masses – a drug that dulled the feelings and made the painful struggles of life bearable. Get rid of inequality, empower people and there would be no need for it, he thought. But what fascinates me about Simon Peter in this story is that actually, as far as we know, he was doing just fine when Jesus came along. He hadn’t caught anything the night before, but there’s no suggestion that he was worried about it. He wasn’t starving or destitute. He owned his own boat. He had made a comfortable enough life for himself.
The other two other men we meet in our readings today could hardly be described as needy either. We don’t know much about Isaiah, but there’s no reason to suspect he was particularly messed up, and Paul was at the height of his powers when he had that vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus that changed his life. He was a zealous, influential Pharisee, with plenty of friends in high places, highly regarded by the authorities. Like Simon Peter he wasn’t known for his lack of self-confidence. Quite the reverse. Yet, just like Simon Peter, when Paul and Isaiah encounter God their lives are turned upside down. “Woe is me. I am lost!” cries Isaiah, and Paul describes himself as the “least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the church of God.”
No matter how powerful, how rich, how sorted out your life seems to be, these stories tell us, when you meet with God you see them in a wholly different light. Christian faith is not just a consolation to the weak; it is a challenge to the strong, causing them to look again at the power they place so much trust in.
It sounds like a bit of a grim message. But actually it is the most hopeful message we could possibly hear.
It is so easy for those of us who have power and wealth – and that is most of us in the Western world, even if we don’t feel it to be so – to settle for the lives that power and wealth brings. We have enough to eat, somewhere to live, comfort and security. Our basic needs are met, so what else is there to strive for? Just more of the same. More food, more possessions, bigger better houses, more luxury. And yet all the studies show that it is not true that the more we have the happier we are. Beyond a certain level riches don’t make us happy. The rich are just as prone to depression as the poor. In a sense, our power and our wealth restrict us, because they convince us that our lives are in our hands, that it is all down to us what we do with them, yet often our imagination and our courage are limited. We do what we know. We see only the possibilities that we have always seen, the things that have worked well enough to get us to where we are.
If Simon hadn’t met Jesus he would probably have carried on fishing, made a decent living for himself. No doubt he would have had some good catches. But he would never have had a catch like this one. This was something completely beyond his experience, something that made him realise that the life he had put so much effort into building was really just an empty shell. That all his wealth, however great or small it was, was nothing compared to what this man could lead him to. It wasn’t about the fish – he left that enormous haul behind when he followed Christ. The best catch of his life, and he left it on the shore for whoever wanted to take it! But it wasn’t about the fish. It was about the meaning Christ gave to his life, something that money could never buy, no matter how good a fisherman you were. He was an okay sort of bloke – a good enough fisherman, doing reasonably well for himself, but nothing out of the ordinary. Yet God chooses to show up in his life, as if his life really mattered. So perhaps, he thinks, it does really matter. And as it turns out he is right – his life is hugely important. In order for him to discover this, though, he has to leave his old patterns of life, his old security in his own ability to provide for himself. It is a huge challenge, but then again who is it that has enabled him to catch so many fish the boat nearly sinks? Not himself, but Jesus.
St Paul too, seems on the face of it to have a great deal to lose when he decides to follow Christ – status and respect, even life itself. And yet he says of himself in one of his letters that he counts all that he has lost as so much rubbish in comparison with what he’s gained. Whatever he has given up was worth it.
Today’s Gospel story is full of passionate generosity. It speaks to us of a God who is not content simply to come to those who are broken, desperate, destitute, and make their lives ok, bearable, but who also longs to transform the lives of those who feel they are doing fine, thank you. He comes to batter on our hearts, to shake us out of our complacency, to pour on us riches that we haven’t even imagined. Riches that are not to do with having more of what we’ve already got – money, power, status – but are in an entirely different league. The riches of love, community, meaning, the depth that comes from facing and sharing pain, the sense that our lives matter and make a difference. He comes to pour those riches upon us so that we in turn can bring them to others. Leave your nets, says Jesus to Simon, leave the world you know, the person you think you are, the riches you have acquired for yourself, the life you have restricted yourself to having, and come and follow me.
Candlemas 07 – 28th January
Hebrews 2:10-18, Luke 2:22-40
There was once, so it is said, a farmer who lived in India. He was reasonably prosperous. His farm was set in a broad fertile valley, watered by the river that ran through it. The farmer was content with his life, until one day a traveller came by and stopped at his house. He talked of the wonders he had seen in the world, and the wonders he still hoped to see. In particular he had heard tell of rumours that somewhere in the world was a place where diamonds could be found. Diamonds that could be picked up off the ground. Huge diamonds. Acres of diamonds. Diamonds shining with ice and fire, like only diamonds can. The farmer dreamt that night of those diamonds and by the time dawn came he knew that, however contented he had been with his life, he would not now be able to rest until he too had found these acres of diamonds.
But where would he find them? Straightaway he leapt from his bed and went to the house of a holy man who lived nearby. The holy man was none to pleased to be woken so early, but he told him that, yes, he knew of this rumoured field of diamonds, but all he knew was that they could be found where a river ran over white sand.
Despite the enormity of the task the farmer could not be put off. He sold his farm, his livestock and all his possessions and made ready to leave. Before he went he took one last stroll around his land, over the fields and down to the river. His river ran over white sand, he thought to himself, but there were no diamonds here, just dull, rough rocks. He picked one up and put it on the mantelpiece before he left, and then he went, and did not look back.
He travelled through India. He travelled across the Middle East. He went into Africa and across the straits of Gibraltar to Europe. He crossed mountains and deserts, and found a thousand rivers, a thousand sandy river beds, but nowhere did he find so much as a single diamond, let alone an acre of them. He spent all the money he had on his search, and eventually became destitute. With nothing but the rags he stood up in, and not even the price of a loaf of bread to his name, he stood on yet another sandy beach where yet another river met the sea and despaired. And as he stood there a tidal wave came in, and swept him away.
Truly, a tragic tale. But it is not over yet. Soon after the farmer had left his farm its new owner arrived. He looked around at it will pleasure – here was a good place. Inside the house he saw the rock on the mantelpiece which the old farmer had left there. Perhaps it was the way the light fell just at that moment, but he noticed a little sparkle within it. Something like ice; something like fire. He picked the rock up and turned it over in his hands. Certainly there was something there. He took it to a trader in gems, and, sure enough, he discovered that it was, indeed a diamond. And better still, he knew that there were plenty more where it came from, covering the bed of the river as it flowed over the white sand. Acres of diamonds.
The idea that the treasure we seek is actually already close to us, or even within us, is a common one in folktales. There are many stories of poor people who dream of riches and travel the world in search of them, only to discover that the treasure they seek was under their own house, or hidden up a chimney breast or buried beneath their own vegetable patch.
And, in a sense, the story we heard in today’s Gospel is not so very unlike those ancient folk tales.
It tells us of a day in the Temple in Jerusalem – an ordinary day, a day like many others. As usual, the Temple was full of people – people who were also looking for treasure. The treasure they sought was the Messiah, the one who would bring back God’s kingdom, his rule, to Israel. But how and when and where this would happen was a matter of fevered speculation. Some were looking for a military leader, some for a teacher. Some were convinced that only when the people of Israel kept the law perfectly would the Messiah appear. Some were convinced that Moses and Elijah would return to announce him. Regularly people claimed that they were the Messiah themselves, or acclaimed others as the Messiah. And the Temple was the place where everyone came to argue their position.
It’s no surprise that on this day then, with all these people caught up in their high flown debates, one little family could so easily slip into the Temple largely. Whatever the Messiah was going to be like, this little trio – a carpenter, his young wife and their newborn baby – surely hadn’t got anything to do with him? They weren’t even rich – we know that, because they had brought an offering of just two pigeons in thanksgiving for their child. According to the law you should really bring a lamb as an offering- the pigeons were an alternative if you were too poor. They could have come and gone and no one would have been any the wiser – like those diamonds in the story they were easy to miss.
But while most people didn’t notice them, there were two people in the Temple who did have their eyes open that day. Two people who somehow saw the diamond glint beneath the ordinary exterior. How was it that they saw what everyone else had overlooked? We don’t know for sure, but the passage tells us some interesting things about Simeon and Anna. They had both been fixtures in the Temple for a long time, for a start. Simeon was “righteous and devout”, and Anna practically lived there, praying and fasting day by day. They’d seen a lot of life pass through those Temple gates. They had seen people who were so desperate to believe in something that they’d believe in anything, people so desperate to follow someone that they’d follow anyone. They’d seen fads and fancies come and go, false hopes raised only to run into the sand of reality. Age doesn’t necessarily bring wisdom, but it does provide you with a lot of material for reflection if you want to use it, and Simeon and Anna had done so. After all that watching and waiting, they knew what they believed in – not in the latest hare-brained idea, or self proclaimed Saviour, but in the love and faithfulness of God, who would not leave or forsake his people, God who kept his promises. They might not know how he was going to keep them. They might not feel they had a blue-print for the future, but they knew that God had not stopped caring or listening. That is the hardest, but greatest, sort of faith. We would all far rather have certainty, black and white answers, but the truth is that life is a work in progress – and our knowledge and understanding are imperfect and partial. Simeon and Anna had learned to look beyond their own ideas into the mystery of God, who was beyond them, and to expect to be surprised by him. Unlike the crowds in the Temple who thought they knew what God should look like and do, they had no difficulty in accepting that he might come as a tiny child, here and now. God could just as easily be found in the ordinary as in the extraordinary. He could even be found in times of humiliation and suffering, when it seemed to others that all was going wrong. “A sword shall pierce your own soul too” Simeon says to Mary, but that is not a sign of failure, but part of the process that leads to triumph.
Candlemas marks the end of the Christmas Season in the church. After this service we shall take down the crib in the Lady Chapel. It has been there ever since Christmas Day, reminding us of that old story of the stable in Bethlehem. It is a good story, and good to be remember it each year. But it is important that we clear it away now, because otherwise we run the risk of getting stuck in that long ago and far away story, assuming that God needs angels, stars, wise men to come to his world. And if we do that we shall miss him in our everyday lives, which is where he really needs to be.
Candlemas is actually on February 2nd – Friday. We’re celebrating it today because I didn’t think I’d get much of a congregation if I asked you to turn out then! But perhaps I can encourage you to mark it in your own way on Friday too. I wonder what that day will hold for you? Looking in my own diary, there’s nothing too dramatic. It’s just an ordinary day, with ordinary tasks. Perhaps yours is the same. So I think it would be a good for all of us to pause and wonder, to ask ourselves, “where is God in all of this? How does God come to us? The message of Candlemas is that this day, Friday, any day, might just be the day when God shows up in our lives, the day when we hold a diamond in our hand. But will we seen him, or will we miss him, convinced that here and now is the last place he would choose to be?