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Online Bible Sermon
March 14th 2010 sermons will be posted on a sermon blog here instead of on this page as this should
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March 7 2010 Lent 3
Isaiah 55.1-9, 1 Cor. 10.1-13, Luke 13.1-9
If you were here last Sunday, you may recall Kevin beginning his sermon
by sharing with us the struggle he’d had to write it. The readings he
had to work with were complicated and difficult to understand and
explain. Well, Kevin, I have to tell you – this week’s were no easier!
That’s because they touch on one of the most fraught and complex issues
any of us have to deal with, the issue of suffering. It is something
theologians from every religion puzzle over, but of course it is
something which also comes home to us all personally too, which is why
it is so hard to tackle. It’s not just academic. It brings to light big
questions, “Why suffering?” “Why me?” ”Why now?”
People have come up with all sorts of answers to those questions.
Sometimes we suffer simply because we are human. Our bodies wear out
and are vulnerable to diseases that we can do nothing to avoid, but
without those bodies, we wouldn’t be here at all. We live in a world
where earthquakes and hurricanes cause immense destruction, but they
are also vital parts of a natural system which we depend on. If the
earth weren’t volcanically active it couldn’t support life.
Sometimes we suffer because of the actions of others, or they suffer
through things we do. That’s inevitable too. Until we are all perfect,
we are bound to fail each other and cause each other pain, whether we
mean to or not.
Sometimes, of course, we know that we have caused our own suffering, if
only we have the courage to admit it. There was an unusual funeral
reported in the news this week. A Dover man, who had been a heavy
smoker for most of his life, and who knew it had caused the lung
disease from which he died, made a very unusual request. He asked that
his hearse should display on its side in large bold letters the words,
“Smoking killed me”. It might have been too late for him, but perhaps,
he thought, someone else might heed his message.
You can find all of these explanations for suffering in the Bible, as
you would expect, but there is another that crops up from time to time
too, and it is the most problematic of the lot. Here and there in the
Bible you find people suggesting that suffering is some sort of
punishment from God for sin, perhaps entirely unrelated to the disaster
that has befallen you. St Paul seems to be saying that in our second
reading. But it is an argument which is just as often challenged in the
Bible. The Bible isn’t an instruction manual, it is the record of many
generations struggling with these big questions, and it doesn’t always
agree with itself. Most famously it is contested in the book of
Job. Job’s friends tell him that the terrible times he is going through
must be a sign that God is angry with him, that he has done something
he shouldn’t. Job isn’t having it though – he knows it is nonsense –
and God backs him up. Suffering, like the rest of life, is a mystery he
isn’t ever going to understand. What matters is that he knows God’s
presence with him in it.
It is this sort of thinking though, which Jesus is facing in today’s
He is heading towards Jerusalem, straight into conflict with the Roman
and Jewish authorities, and everybody knows it. Some of those around
him try to stop him. We don’t know who they were or why they do this.
They might be followers; they might just be bystanders. What is clear
is that they think Jesus is mad. “Can’t he see what is coming?” they
ask. They remind him of another incident which has recently happened,
something obviously famous at the time, something to do with some
Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices…”
Fortunately the Jewish historian Josephus, who was a contemporary of
Jesus, writes about an incident that sounds as if it could be this one,
so we can fill in at least some of the gaps. Pilate, not always a
sensitive or sensible man, decided that it would be a good idea to send
his Roman troops into the very holiest place in Judaism, the Temple in
Jerusalem, to show people who was boss. Great big, hobnail booted
soldiers, tramped into its hallowed courtyards. Once in, they proceeded
to slaughter the worshippers as they made their sacrifices. Not only
was this barbaric, it would also have been regarded as sacrilegious,
desecrating the Temple. There was widespread horror and
But gradually people started to ask those insidious questions “why were
these pilgrims in particular the ones who were killed?” “There but for
the grace of God go I” we sometimes say, thoughtlessly, when disaster
strikes, as if those who weren’t so lucky must have somehow deserved
their fate – God’s grace wasn’t with them as it was with those who
survived. They must have committed some sin or other to turn God
Jesus is very quick to refute that idea. The people who were killed
were no worse than anyone else, he says – don’t blame the victim.
But he has more to say, and it doesn’t make comfortable hearing, for us
or for them. They may have been no worse than anyone else, says Jesus,
but “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” It is a
rather terrifying and baffling thing to say. What does he mean? It
sounds as if he is contradicting himself. Are we responsible for our
suffering or not?
The answer is, of course, it all depends which sin and which suffering
we are thinking about. His questioners have tied themselves in knots
with what is really no more than magical thinking; they have run away
with the idea that some infringement of a law, some failure in
performing a ritual could cause a completely unrelated disaster. It is
superstition, not sense. There is no way that this massacre in
Jerusalem can be blamed on that sort of triviality. But it feels tidy
to them, and it feels like something they could have some control over
– like being careful not to step on the cracks in the pavement or walk
under ladders. But all this is distracting them from the real
issues they need to face. They are living under brutal Roman
occupation. They need to make some real choices about how they respond
to the situation they face. It is a time for pulling together,
supporting each other, preserving and standing up for those things
which really matter, those who are most vulnerable, not nit-picking
over the detail of the law. But they are sleepwalking through this time
of peril, evidently hoping that if they keep their heads down it will
all go away.
I am reminded of the famous words of Pastor Martin Niemöller, who
was imprisoned by the Nazis.
First they came for the communists,
and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade
unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I
did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was
no one left to speak out for me.
Jesus’ questioners probably want to keep him out of trouble, just as
they want to keep themselves out of trouble. They think he is making a
ghastly mistake by going to Jerusalem – look what happened to these
others who went there. Not only will it lead to his death, but if he
dies then any idea that he is the Messiah will die with him. Bad things
only happen to bad people, they think to themselves. If he dies it will
just go to show that God was never really with him. But Jesus is having
none of it. Sometimes, he says, the painful path, the path that leads
into trouble is the right path, the path you need to walk. Death and
suffering are necessary for him, and inescapable if he is to be true to
the message he has been sent to proclaim. To turn back because he will
suffer, or because people will think he is cursed when he hangs on the
cross will betray all those who have heard his message, that God loves
them and wants them to live in freedom and dignity.
The fig tree he talks about in his parable looks like a failure, fit
only for burning, but patience and root pruning will reveal that it
isn’t so at all. Figs fruit better if their roots are restricted or
pruned – that is horticultural fact, and I expect his hearers knew it.
It sounds counter-intuitive, just as it is hard to see how the cross
could be the gateway to life, but it is so, says Jesus. What he will go
through won’t look like the kind of success they expect from their
Messiah, but it will, in the end bear fruit. He calls them to
accept that, and to walk in that same challenging path too – remember,
Luke’s Gospel is written for the early church, a church under
persecution, who had to make the same sort of agonising choices Jesus
did. Speaking out for justice, sticking with those who suffer; that is
the way to life and freedom and true peace, says Jesus to them.
Today’s collect puts it well. “Mercifully grant that we, walking in the
way of the cross, may find it no other than the way of life and peace:”
We don’t have to live with occupation or persecution, but I think Jesus
words are just as valid for us; we often face tough choices about our
priorities, and the temptation to avoid facing the things we need to
face as well. I wonder today what paths we might be avoiding because we
can see they will be painful or difficult. Do we try to distract
ourselves from the real issues we need to deal with by spending our
time and energy on trivialities and abstractions?
God wants us to bear good fruit. Our world, so full of suffering, needs
us to bear good fruit. But do we have the courage to let God cut around
our roots? Do we have the perseverance to take in the food he gives us?
Do we have the patience to stop looking for instant success and wait
for his life to well up from deeper places?
Here’s a prayer to end with as we ponder these things.
Show us, good Lord,
the peace we should seek
the peace we must give
the peace we can keep
the peace we must forgo
and the peace you have given in Jesus our
February 28th 2010 Lent 2 Sermon
by Kevin Bright
Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18, Luke 13.31-35
Each week in lent there is a sense that we take a step nearer to the
cross until we arrive at its foot on Good Friday. This isn’t something
that can be stopped once we’ve chosen to take part, to set out on the
journey. So however you’ve chosen to observe lent, in a group, reading
a book or in quiet contemplation I hope your journey has started well.
To be honest with you my journey has not started well. This first full
week feels like it involves climbing an endless hill and with all the
rain we’ve been having I’ve felt as if I’m constantly slipping
backwards in the mud, progress is very slow and hard won.
For some reason the passages from the bible I’ve been given to preach
on today have caused me the most problems in my eight plus years of
preaching. In putting these words together I’ve read at least 20 other
peoples sermons on this subject plus numerous blogs and internet
resources. I’ve had every book I own out to study the commentary and
read what Jane Williams, Tom Wright and William Barclay make of it
amongst others. Yet still as midnight brought forward this new day I
had very few words down on paper to share with you. It wasn’t that I
hadn’t put many words down it was just that I kept deleting them as not
good enough or not relevant enough to us. So I went to bed a little
I set the alarm to give myself time to have another go but woke well
before this as it dawned upon me why this is so difficult and the
answer is of course because it matters so much, you can’t hope to
communicate the love and care of Christ if you don’t put love and care
into the words you use in trying to do so.
I haven’t shared my shared my preaching inadequacies with you in the
hope that you think well at least he tries despite what comes out the
other end, I’ve shared them in the hope that we are all reminded how
precious our faith is and how important it is to find Jesus in the
words that we hear each week, this is where our focus needs to be.
Preaching and worship styles vary in different cultures and ours tends
to be one of formality and quiet reflection so I’m telling you quietly
and formally that this stuff really matters, to the extent that it is
potentially life changing. So please listen carefully to the few words
I have managed for today and see if you can really find Christ and
yourselves in these stories.
We get a sense of the unstoppable journey that Jesus is on in our
gospel reading today though we have to pick through the farmyard
analogies of foxes and hens to see what the real message is.
In Galilee Jesus has lots of success. The people are happy to hear what
he has to say, and they are anxious to see some of his miracles. It is
in this setting that our gospel reading states: "At that very hour some
Pharisees came and said to him’ get away from here, for Herod wants to
It is unclear whether the warning given to Jesus by some Pharisees is
in fact simply a threat from Herod’s messengers or whether this
particular group had a genuine wish to see him safe from the same ruler
who had earlier beheaded John the Baptist. Either way the danger to him
was very real and would have been a good enough reason for most to get
well away from the area.
So his reply which starts ‘Go and tell that fox for me’ would have
startled those who heard. The retort had sharp implications that Jesus
saw this man as insignificant in his plans. He had far more important
things to achieve confronting evil and bringing healing to those in
need. He didn’t take his orders from this man, he took his orders from
Jesus lament which we heard speaks of his yearning to reach out to
Jerusalem and his love for the people whilst at the same time
recognising that his destiny is to go to Jerusalem and die. It turns
out to be rejected love. A painful experience in any form of
relationship. Some of us will have personal experience of this whilst
others will simply know someone or read in the press of those who offer
faithful love only to have it humiliatingly thrown back in their faces.
To offer love in the first place means making yourself vulnerable and
takes courage but to have love rejected will make most a lot more wary
the second time around. Yet God in Jesus shows both vulnerability and
compassion by leaving his offer of a loving relationship open for
acceptance without pre-conditions or time limits.
The rebellious stubborn people which represented the temple and city of
Jerusalem refused to be won over with Jesus message despite his desire
to gather the people together as a ‘hen gathers her brood under her
wings.’ The mother hen may seem unusual imagery at first but when we
consider her nurturing protective qualities we start to get the idea.
There are accounts of farmyard fires where the mother hen is found
burnt to death with her wings spread over her chicks which have
survived, it comes naturally to sacrifice her own life in order that
they might live.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem sighed Jesus. During this time of Lenten
reflection it would be good to look at ourselves and see if we have our
own ‘Jerusalems’. What is it that that makes Christ sad when he looks
at our lives?
Much of what causes problems between us comes down to relationships,
with each other, with entire nations, religions and regimes. I’m sure
we can all think of examples of trading systems, values, conflicts and
acts of personal selfishness which still make Christ lament. Where
differences of ethnicity or sexual identity turn into walls of
separation and bitterness. Where you and I become small minded, mean,
unloving and unloved.
In all these places, and others like them, Jesus still stands and
laments, calling out to us , "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I
desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood
under her wings, and you were not willing!"
It’s the ‘you were not willing’ bit that we have the power over. This
is the part that can bring real change to our communities and our
world. We need to be willing to listen and really think about the
plight and views of people different from ourselves. We need to be
willing to respond generously with our hearts and wallets when we see
real need. Above all we need to grow in relationship with God, to build
an honest and grown up dialogue and be willing to learn what his
Our Genesis reading gives us some pointers on what relationship with
God can look like as Abram experiences God’s compassion when he states
what he really wants is a son and heir and trusts God to deliver.
It’s honesty with ourselves and God which will allow our relationship
to flourish. Think of your healthiest relationships they won’t be
perfect but they will be honest and involve effort, forgiveness and
communication whether with colleagues at work, an enduring marriage or
friendship. God yearns for relationship with us as he did the people of
Jerusalem and it’s up to us to show willing!
When we pray do we expect God to respond in love? Do we really expect
God to be faithful or are we simply going through a ritual which
expects no response?
We don’t need to wait for sad times before we learn to pray earnestly
to God but it’s during times of worry and sadness that we cannot help
but reveal our true selves and sometimes the best prayer to God is a
groan, a lamentation, or the voice of grief.
Jesus knew he had important work to do before he would reach Jerusalem
and the cross and over the next few weeks our actions and prayers over
our journeys to this point will shape how we feel when we arrive at the
cross to contemplate what God has done for us.
I’d encourage you to contemplate what an unstoppable journey to the
cross means for you even though it can be a difficult and painful
subject as well as a hopeful one.
John Bell of the Iona community offers an uplifting thought when he
states that ‘there are few instruments of execution which have such
positive connotations’. He saw the electric chair and the gallows as
gloomy examples of instruments of torture and death but saw the cross
as representing ‘the worst that humanity gives to God and the best that
God gives to humanity.’
If we can see Christ as a mother hen which spreads out her wings to
protect us and die for us in order that we can have life in all its
fullness then we can also recognise that we don’t travel alone on our
journey to the cross as we seek forgiveness and salvation.
our Mother Hen loves us; protects us; even dies for us so that we might
have life, forgiveness and salvation. For this immeasurable love,
thanks be to God!
Feb 21 20101 Lent 1
Deut 26.1-11, Luke
might seem as if our first reading, from the book of Deuteronomy, was
rather an odd one for Lent. It’s all about harvest, and the kind of
harvest offerings that the people of Israel were supposed to bring to
the Temple. It seems like it is at the opposite end of the year from
where it should be. Indeed, it is one of the readings suggested for
So what is it doing here?
It isn’t, of course, an accident or a mistake. This reading comes from
near the end of the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness. For forty
years after their dramatic escape from Egypt, so the story says, they
lived a nomadic lifestyle in the desert, heading for the Promised Land,
but never quite making it over the border. But now, finally, they are
nearly ready to cross the Jordan and Moses has some advice to give
them. He knows them well by now. He has seen them grumble and moan for
the last forty years – about the food, or the lack of food, the water
or the lack of water, the hardships of their life in the desert.
Sometimes they have wanted to die, sometimes to go back to Egypt, where
at least they were fed. But through it all they were given reminders
that they weren’t alone. The God who had miraculously rescued them from
slavery was with them. Manna and quails from heaven, water springing
from dry rocks, pillars of cloud and fire to guide them.
They have got as far as they have, and survived as long as they have,
not because of their own strength, which has been about as dependable
as a mirage, but through God’s help – without it they would be dead, or
back in slavery.
But when Moses looks ahead, to the very different life they will soon
lead in a land “flowing with milk and honey” he can see trouble. It’s
odd, but I’ve often seen people cope magnificently with trauma and
trial, only to collapse and lose their way when it ends. Perhaps it’s
because we have to mobilise all our resources to get through tough
times, leaning on friends, accepting help, really thinking deeply about
what matters to us, but in good times we can just slide along through
life without giving it too much thought. Bad times often bring us
together too. The Israelites have needed one another in the desert, as
communities living in harsh conditions always do. They have had to pull
together in an early example of what we might call the “spirit of the
blitz”. But in this new land they will all be able to go their own way,
do their own thing. At the moment, too, they’ve nothing to lose, but
they soon will have, and they will start to cling to their new found
possessions as a result, suspicious of strangers or those in need.
Moses gives them this ritual and orders them to keep it, as a way of
reminding themselves of this time when they were in need, when they had
to lean on others, when they had only God to keep them alive.
The Lent connection is perhaps becoming clearer. In the Gospel
reading it is Jesus who is out in the wilderness, led there by the
Spirit. He will have choices to make throughout his ministry and he
needs to be ready for them. How will he fulfil the task he has been
given, to establish the kingdom of God – establishing a sort of new
Promised Land? Will he rely on his own strength, on his ability to
muster popular support, no matter what moral compromises he must make
to do so? If he does, he will be in deep trouble, because if he comes
to depend on that, what will he do when he is faced with the cross – a
place where he will have no strength and where the people who cheered
him on for his miracles will all be gone? Here in the desert,
thirsty, helpless and alone, as he will be then, he can learn to rely
on his Father’s love, even when he can’t see it and when God’s voice is
silent. At the end of his struggle in the wilderness we are told that
“the devil departed from him … until an opportune time” – the time of
his crucifixion. It is the lessons he learns in the wilderness that
will sustain him then.
Lent invites us to look at the desert places and times in our own
lives, times when things we have relied on have been stripped away –
health, job, home, relationships. Most of us have known times like
that. Perhaps you are in a desert now. It is easy to view those times
just as waste, times best forgotten as quickly as possible – put it
behind you, people say to us, meaning well. But these can be times
which are vital for our growth, just as they were for the Israelites
and Jesus, and while I don’t believe we can, or should, go out looking
for them, the real waste is when we let their lessons trickle away into
the sand and evaporate, instead of letting them teach us about the love
of the God who is just as much at home in the desert as he is in the
land of milk and honey.
Sunday next before Lent 2010
Exodus 34.29-end, 2 Corinthians 3.12-4.2,
Luke 9. 28 -36
Today is Valentine’s Day. For anyone who has suddenly realised why
their spouse has been looking daggers at them since breakfast, I expect
the village shop still has some cards for sale, though, as ever, if
you’re in a hole, it may be wiser not to dig…
Joking aside, though, Valentine’s Day is a day which stirs up some of
our most powerful human emotions – that’s why it can feel so fraught
and complicated. Love, joy, hope on the one hand; disappointment,
grief, loneliness on the other. It can be the best of days or the
worst of days, depending on your circumstances. While some will want to
celebrate it, for many it is a day which just reminds them of what they
don’t have, or what they once had and have lost, and they would just
like to forget about it, if only the shops, with their displays of
hearts and flowers would let them. The best of days; the worst of days.
The fact that it raises such strong emotions in us, whether they are
positive or negative, is a sign of just how important love is to us.
And by that I don’t just mean romantic love, of course. Love comes in
many other forms that are just as powerful; love between parents and
children, between friends or siblings, between members of a church or
neighbourhood that draws us together into real communities. We need to
feel that we matter to others, that we are cared for, that there are
those who feel glad when we’re are around and miss us when we aren’t.
If everything else in our world is coming to pieces, but we know we are
loved, we can get through even the worst trials. Conversely if
everything else in our world is fine – we have money, a house, a good
job, achievements galore – but we don’t feel connected to people who
care about us, it can all seem as if it counts for nothing. Love
The readings for today have nothing to do with Valentine’s Day, of
course. They are just the set readings for the Sunday before Lent;
Moses’ encounter with God, Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain top,
and some related thoughts from St Paul. But as I read them this week,
in the light of the fact that this would be Valentine’s Day I found
myself thinking about these readings in a different way. What is it
that makes Moses’ face shine when he comes away from his meeting with
God? What is it that makes Jesus’ glow with light? Is it just the
awesome majesty of God reflected in their faces, or could it be
something more than that? Is it too ridiculous to say that it might
also be the light of love?
I don’t think that is a far-fetched suggestion at all.
The story of Moses’ relationship with God begins in the desert. He’s
run away from Egypt because he’s killed an Egyptian who was attacking
an Israelite slave. He’s started a new life, married a local woman,
left behind any thoughts of his Israelite identity or the faith of his
ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. What’s the point anyway? God has
evidently forgotten them. Then he comes across a burning bush, and from
out of the midst of it, he hears the voice of God. And what does that
voice say? It doesn’t berate him for his failings. It doesn’t command
him to grim obedience. God says to him “I have seen the misery of my
people who are in Egypt. I have heard their cry, I know their
sufferings,…and I have come down to deliver them.” These aren’t the
words of a ferocious master, but of a loving parent who can’t bear to
see his people suffer. It was a radical and surprising picture of God
at the time the Old Testament was being put together. On the whole,
ancient cultures didn’t expect their Gods to have any real affection
for them. Human beings were just bit-part players in their grand divine
dramas, to be used and discarded as it suited them. But here is a God
who, it seems, is genuinely concerned for his people, who cares about
them as people, people who are suffering and crying, a God of love.
We’re used to that idea, but the people who first wrote and read these
That thread of love – stubborn, subversive, surprising - runs right
through the Old Testament, alongside what would have seemed like more
conventional images of divine power and might.
God is often pictured as longing for his children, agonising when they
turn away from him.
“How can I give you up,” he says to the prophet Hosea, “.., how
can I hand you over… O Israel? …My heart recoils within me; my
compassion grows warm and tender….” (Hosea 11.8) Other nations might
have looked at this and thought, “What kind of insipid, weak,
wishy-washy Deity is this? “ The answer is, a God whose love trumps any
The relationship we see between Jesus and his father is one of love as
well. In Mark and Matthew’s version of this story, the voice from the
cloud announces that “This is my Son, the Beloved.” Luke, for some
reason, calls him the Chosen one here, but he’s already used that same
word, Beloved, at Jesus’ baptism, right at the beginning of his
ministry, and it’s plain to see that Jesus is just as much the Beloved
to him as to the other Gospel writers. Jesus is not sent as an emissary
of God on a mission of conquest, but as the beloved on a mission of
In Luke’s Gospel Jesus speaks often of that love. He tells the story of
a lost sheep and the shepherd who abandons the rest of his flock in the
wilderness to look for the stray. “Which of you wouldn’t do the
same?” He asks his audience, who probably knew a thing or two about
keeping sheep. It is a question full of irony, because, actually it is
a daft thing to do – what if he rescues that one wayward sheep
only to find the rest have been eaten by a wolf…? God’s love for us is
so strong that it defies reason, he tells us.
But in today’s story it seems to me that it is Jesus who is hearing
afresh that message of love for himself. It comes just at the moment
when he most needs it, because he is about to head for Jerusalem where
he will be crucified. He has had repeated confrontations with the
religious authorities, and the Romans are not going to allow religious
dissent to escalate into rebellion. It doesn’t take a genius to see
what coming, and there is no avoiding it, unless he gives up on his
mission. So he really needs this reminder of his Father’s love, this
moment when heaven breaks through to earth. As I said earlier, when
life gets tough, it is love that keeps you going.
St Paul ties together the stories of Jesus and Moses in his words to
the church in Corinth. He invites this little community to look for the
light of God’s love not in a burning bush or on a mountain top, but in
their own lives as they struggle to follow the way of Jesus, a way of
love and freedom. These early Christians found themselves drawn
together into communities where Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male
and female were on equal footing. It was often a struggle to adjust to
such a radically different way of life from that which they had been
used to. It was love that made it possible to live in this new way – at
least sometimes, when they managed to achieve it! But what a difference
it made when they did. It strengthened them in times of persecution and
drew others towards them. It was something which was immeasurably
precious, transforming them, as Paul puts it here, from “one degree of
glory to another”.
All this week, as I’ve been thinking about these readings, with their
messages of transforming love, I’ve had the first line of a song
running through my head, and I thought you might indulge me by letting
me play it to you as I end this sermon – then it can run through your
heads endlessly as well! The music is by Andrew Lloyd Webber – the
words are by Don Black and Charles Hart. I’ve printed them on the pew
sheets. It may not be your cup of tea – it’s not Bach or
Beethoven – but there are times when a popular song manages to catch
something which is really worth saying, that we all recognise
instinctively as true, but hadn’t quite put into words , and I think
this is one of those songs. Like our Bible stories, it speaks of love
that changes us “hands and faces, earth and sky”, in words that echo
the mysterious light of those stories of Moses and Jesus. Love “turns
the world around,” it says, but it also opens us up to pain that is
“deeper than before”, just as it did for Jesus as he went to the cross.
Love calls us to break the rules we’ve set ourselves, says the song, to
cross the boundaries that divide us from one another. It may seem
risky, but, as the story of Jesus reminds us, there are some risks that
are worth taking, and that must be taken if we are to live lives that
are worth living.
As you listen to this song, I’d like to invite you to think of the love
you have received and the love you’ve given this week, in whatever form
it took, and to think of the love that God calls us to create, love
that reaches across borders of prejudice and fear, love that is
prepared to take chances for the good of others. Most of all I’d like
to invite you to think about the love of God, which surrounds and holds
us eternally. Love changes everything, says the song. Love changes
everything, says the Bible too. Amen
(I haven't reproduced the words of
the song "Love Changes Everything" here for copyright reasons, but it
is easy to find if you google it!)
2010 2nd Sunday before Lent
Holy Communion and Baptism
Gen 2.4b-9, 15-25, Luke 8.22-25
Water makes up somewhere between half and
three-quarters of the human body, so they say. It covers 70% of the
surface of the planet, and that’s before you take into account the
water in clouds, underground water, water locked up in the snow and ice
covering mountain tops, water held in plants…We live in a world of
water. And that’s just as well, because we couldn’t live in a world
It’s no surprise then, that people across the world in every culture
and religion, in every age, have given water a huge symbolic
significance. Hindus bathe in the River Ganges, and return the ashes of
their dead to it if at all possible. Muslims wash before worship or
reading the Koran. It’s very important to them. Jewish people bathe in
the mikveh, a ritual bath, to purify themselves.
Many cultures have believed that the afterlife lay across water
somewhere. Vikings and Saxons buried their dead in ships so they could
make the journey. Greeks and Romans buried their dead with coins to pay
the ferryman, Charon, who would row them across the river Styx.
It was common among ancient cultures to believe that springs, rivers
and lakes were places where supernatural beings lived – gods and
goddesses, nymphs and spirits. You had to keep them happy by throwing
offerings into the water. That custom’s never really died out. People
can’t seem to resist throwing coins into fountains and wishing
Modern people may not believe consciously in any of these old ideas,
but water is still a powerful symbol to them. We install “water
features” in our gardens, not because we need the water, but because
there’s something about a pond or a fountain that we find calming or
refreshing. And how many holidays involve water somehow? Beaches, lakes
or rivers… Holidays often involve swimming, sailing, surfing, or just
sitting and listening to the waves rolling onto the shore.
Water matters. It’s so obvious it almost seems daft to spell it out.
Christians, of course, use water as the central symbol of this ritual
of baptism that we are about to perform for Adam. It’s a service that
goes right back to the earliest days of the church and in some
Christian traditions Adam could expect to go right under the water, or
even be baptised in a river or lake. We are a bit more sparing in our
use of water here – and it’s warmer than he would find in the open air!
– but the symbolism’s the same. The jugful of water we’ll be
using is a reminder of water in all its forms, water as symbol of life
in all its fullness.
It was a complete coincidence, but a very convenient one, that water
featured so largely in our Bible readings today. From the Old Testament
we heard the story of Creation with its image of a stream rising from
the earth to water the “whole face of the ground”. Then we heard the
Gospel story of the storm on the Sea of Galilee. There are two
very different sides to water in these stories, though. In the first,
Adam, the namesake of our baptism candidate today, depends on the water
God has given - without it he couldn’t live. The water in the Gospel
story, though, is water that threatens to overwhelm. The disciples are
sure it will be the death of them. And they feel as if there’s nothing
they can do about it. Even when they wake Jesus up it isn’t to ask him
to help – it doesn’t occur to him that there is anything he can do. All
they shout is “master, we are perishing!” as if it matters that he
should be awake when he dies. Thanks a bunch, boys!
They can’t control the water that is crashing into the boat. But in a
sense Adam is powerless over the water around him too. The water he
needs arrives by itself to irrigate the land; it’s a gift of God , not
something he can predict or control.
If water is a symbol of life, then these watery stories remind us that
we are in the same predicament as Adam and the disciples. We might like
to think we are in control of our lives, but actually our power is very
limited. We can’t make it rain, and we can’t stop it raining either. We
often can’t make life give us what we want, or prevent bad things
happening to us either.
So, what might this have to do with this service of baptism that we are
engaged in today? What might it mean for our Adam’s life?
Becoming a parent is a wonderful thing, as I’m sure Claire and Ian
would agree, but it is a scary thing too. Suddenly you are faced with
the responsibility for another life, for someone who, at the beginning
at least, is completely dependant on you. It is inevitable that
parents’ hopes for their children are very powerful, but it is equally
inevitable that their fears are powerful too. If anyone told you how
many things you would find to worry about once you had a child, you’d
probably never embark on parenthood at all. So we wrap our children in
cotton wool to try to protect them from life’s knocks on the one hand
and try to give them everything they could possibly want, hothousing
them so that they can have all the opportunities in life possible, even
if they’d really be better off being left to muck around and develop at
their own pace…
But the reality is that however hard we work at being perfect parents
we can’t control what happens to them completely.
The stories we’ve heard today, though, remind us that while we are
often helpless in the face of life, we aren’t alone as we face it. The
biblical Adam can’t conjure up water for himself, but there it is
anyway. The disciples can’t still the storm, but they haven’t been
forgotten, and they aren’t going to be left to drown. The stories don’t
promise that in all circumstances life will go the way we want it to.
That would be nonsense. The disciples are saved from death on that
lake, but we shouldn’t forget that by the time Luke is writing his
Gospel, around 80 AD, most of them have suffered far more painful
deaths at the hands of the Romans, as has Jesus, of course. The
difference is, though, that somewhere along the line they have realised
that in life or in death, when things are going well, or they are
facing disaster, God is with them. He is with them in the whole of
their lives. A God who dispenses easy answers and a foolproof way
out of suffering wouldn’t have made any sense to them at all.
Baptism is not a magic ritual, which will bring Adam good luck and
protect him against bad luck. What it does promise, though, is that
whether his life is full of calm, refreshing springs of water, or
assailed by storms and crashing waves, he won’t be facing it
alone. God’s love surrounds him. It is our job to help him to
recognise that love and draw on it. Parents, godparents, friends
and family, all have a responsibility to give him that message. And so
does the members of this church where he is being launched on his
voyage of faith. It’s a message we convey by our own love of him,
through our efforts to help him appreciate the world and care for it
and for those around him, through our commitment to telling him the
stories of faith, through our prayers for him, through our welcome of
him into this Christian family.
Our prayer for him this morning is that he will know, in the best and
in the worst moments of life, that God is his guide and his companion,
that he is not alone, and that we, who so much want the best for him,
will know that we are not alone either.
January 31 2010 Candlemas
(The feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple)
“My eyes have seen your salvation” says Simeon in
our Gospel reading as he gazes at the six-week old child in his arms.
This is what he has have waited his whole life for, and now, here
he is – “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your
But what is it that Simeon and Anna respond to? How is it that they
recognise Jesus as the Messiah, when no one else seems to? He didn’t
have a halo, despite the way great artists have portrayed him. He
wasn’t born with the word “Messiah” tattooed on his forehead.
There is nothing about him which suggests he is anything other than a
completely ordinary baby. There is nothing about Mary and Joseph to
suggest that they are anything other than completely ordinary parents
either – and hard-up parents at that. You were supposed to sacrifice a
sheep when you’d had a baby, but if you couldn’t afford a sheep a pair
of doves would do, according to the law set out in the book of
Leviticus. Mary and Joseph had had to go for the economy option. And
yet, Luke’s story suggests that Simeon and Anna have no hesitation in
homing in on this little family, despite the vast crowds which thronged
I don’t believe this is just a narrative device – something Luke uses
to simplify the story. Simeon and Anna’s ability to recognise Jesus for
who he is so quickly is significant to Luke, and fortunately he gives
us some big clues to help us understand what is going on here. The fact
that they recognise this baby has nothing to do with what the child or
his family look like. It’s not what they see, but how they see that
matters – with sight that has been sharpened by a lifetime of prayerful
reflection on the world around them.
Three times in as many verses Luke tells us about Simeon’s awareness of
the Holy Spirit, God’s inner presence in his life. Simeon is someone on
whom the Spirit has rested, he says. It is through God’s Spirit that he
has heard the promise that he’ll see the Messiah before he dies. And it
is the Spirit which has summoned him to the Temple that day.
Anna, of course, didn’t need to be summoned to the Temple. She lived
there day and night, and she’d devoted herself to prayer for her whole
life – eighty-four years of it, according to Luke . She speaks of Jesus
to “all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem”, and it’s
clear that this is her priority too.
Their eyes can “see God’s salvation”, to use Simeon’s phrase, not
because there is anything superficially different about Jesus, but
because they are in the habit of looking for it, looking beyond the
obvious, expecting that God will be at work in the world, trusting that
he has not forgotten them, whatever is happening on the surface. Their
minds as well as their eyes are open.
Living hopefully, as they clearly do, can’t have always been easy. The
century before Jesus’ birth saw widespread tumult across the whole of
the Mediterranean. The Roman Republic was locked in civil war, its
leading figures vying for power. Eventually one of them, Julius, became
the sole leader, the Emperor, and the Republic became an Empire, but
along the way there was a great deal of collateral damage. One of the
contenders for power was a man called Pompey, and his big idea to
impress the Roman people was to conquer and subdue the Middle East, to
capture it for Rome. Judea, weakened by its own civil war at the time,
was ripe for the picking. He marched into Jerusalem with his soldiers,
desecrating the Temple in the process. From that point onwards Rome
ruled, and the people of Judea had to live under brutal occupation. The
Jewish people reacted to this disaster in different ways. Some, like
the Zealots, formed armed resistance groups. Some withdrew into the
desert – the Essenes who wrote the Dead Sea scrolls took this approach,
becoming a sort of spiritual resistance movement. Some decided to
abandon their principles and collaborate – people like the hated
tax-collectors, who took money from their own people to support the
occupying army. Some probably just gave up, assuming that God, if he
existed, had forgotten them. “What’s the point? He’s not listening…”
The same events confronted them all, but people saw them differently,
understood them differently and chose to react in different ways.
Simeon and Anna would probably have been young adults when Pompey’s
soldiers came. They had lived all their lives since then under
occupation. They could have felt hopeless or bitter, as others did, but
instead they chose a path of trust, and patient prayer. Luke tells us
that Simeon is as “ looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” He
is still looking forward, expecting God to act, despite all that he has
As you may know Philip and I had the sad task this week of attending
his mother’s funeral in Dorset. She died just over a fortnight ago
after a long illness. As the family planned her service we were greatly
helped by the fact that she had written copious memoirs, and carefully
filed them in her computer so we could find them easily. (Fortunately,
she was VERY organised.) It gave us plenty of first hand material to
draw on for our family tributes. Pam was 81, so her autobiography
included recollections of growing up in wartime, of marriage and family
life in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, of combining work and motherhood, of
national and international events of the twentieth century and their
impact on her. In some ways, I suppose, there was nothing desperately
unusual about her life. I am sure that many of the experiences
she had are common to anyone who lived through the same times as she
did. And yet, of course, her memoirs gave us something quite
distinctive – her view of these things. They told us how she had seen
the world, how she had understood and reacted to these events in her
own way. It was a perspective that was coloured by her personality and
her habits of thought, shaped by her strengths and vulnerabilities. As
we read her words we saw, just a little, through her eyes, which was a
great help as we tried to put together a service that would be true to
her as a unique individual.
It is the same with all of us. We may see the same events as others,
have similar experiences, but we understand them and react to them in
our own ways. We draw our own conclusions. We learn our own lessons,
and those lessons in turn shape our responses to future events. If we
have some setback or disappointment in life, we can conclude that life
always lets you down, that we are destined to be unlucky, unloved, and
unsuccessful for some reason, or we can simply say to ourselves that
“you win some and you lose some”, pick ourselves up and start again. If
things go well we can react with wonder and gratitude, or we can take
that success for granted, assuming that we are entitled to it, that the
world is simply giving us what we are owed. As we repeat the pattern
again and again we form habits of thinking and responding. We learn to
live hopefully or hopelessly, to see salvation, like Simeon and Anna,
in the ordinary or even traumatic things of life, or to let our eyes
slide over the surface of the world missing God among all its crowded
Simeon and Anna’s view of the world was shaped by a lifetime of prayer,
of turning to God when things went well, and turning to him with equal
determination when they went badly. Their prayer lives would have been
soaked in the words of the Psalms – those ancient poems of the Jewish
people with their uncompromisingly honest expressions both of praise
and lament. They would have been influenced by the stories of their
faith, accounts of troubled times in Israel’s past, of slavery in Egypt
and exile in Babylon, and of God rescuing them from those hard times,
too. They had faced desperate times before, just as they did now, and
survived, the stories told them. Don’t give up. God is still with you.
The formal title for this feast of Candlemas is the feast of the
Presentation of Christ in the Temple – a bit of a mouthful – but it’s a
reminder that now, just as then, Christ is in our midst – he is
present. There is life and light to be found in our world no matter how
dark it looks.
This story asks us some questions too, though. It asks us whether we
have eyes to “see God’s salvation” in the things which happen to us,
the opportunities and challenges that come to us, the people we
encounter. It asks us what lessons we’ve learned from our lives, what
conclusions we have drawn from it. It asks us what habits we’ve
developed that encourage us to reflect and think creatively and
helpfully about what happens to us, so that our eyes stay open to God,
open to hope, open to life.
“My eyes have seen your salvation”, said Simeon, and Anna rejoiced. Our
prayer should be that we can live with that same sense of hope, with
eyes that are ready to see the signs of God at work in us and in the
world around us.
Jan 24 2010
Sermon by Kevin Bright
Luke 4.14-30, Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Here’s a question more difficult for some than others. Can we think of
someone who’s made us really angry?
I’m going to make it more difficult. Exclude the easy targets such as
politicians, bankers, property agents. Exclude people who have acted
violently, cheated or stolen from you or upset you because they’ve done
anything wrong, they provide the easy answers. Even exclude the traffic
lights that always turn red as you approach them when you’re in a rush
to get somewhere, they’re not doing it maliciously!
Think of someone or some organisation that has made you angry because
they’ve told you the truth. Usually the reason we get angry in this set
of circumstances is, to coin a phrase, because it’s an inconvenient
truth. We’ve chosen to do something, set off in a certain direction,
made up our minds when we hear words which don’t fit with all that were
Here’s some stuff that might be on our list, you shouldn’t be driving
with such poor eyesight, you’re not good enough at this to be part of
our team, I thought you were going to give money to the Haiti appeal
before filling your trolley again at the supermarket, yes it does look
big in that dress, you have got the time to make a contribution, you’re
just too selfish.
I read an article this week about some people asked to think about who
most closely resembled Christ in their lives. One lady said “I had to
think…’Who is it that told me the truth about myself so clearly that I
wanted to kill him for it?’
Of course diplomacy can be used when breaking an unwelcome truth to
someone but there will always be a place for being more forthright.
It seems that Jesus used both approaches in today’s Gospel passage when
he returned to Nazareth to read and teach in the synagogue. It gives us
contrasting and frightening events that certainly wouldn’t lead me to
accept a second invitation to preach there.
It seemed to be going well as we heard “all spoke well of him and were
amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Is that
because, at that stage, they didn’t understand what he was saying or
possibly they just couldn’t see how his comments applied to them.
Did they really not get it? Or should we read between the lines, was it
that their amazement actually was astonishment that the boy they all
knew had dared to come back and challenge their long held beliefs and
claim to be the fulfilment of the very scripture he read to them?
Another possibility is that they were so caught up in ritual that they
didn’t really listen or think anymore when they went to worship.
But surely the people in the synagogue are bemused by Jesus omission of
the climax to the passage from Isaiah 61 where we hear of God’s
vengeance which will favour and restore the Jewish people. This is the
first clue for those paying attention in the synagogue that he was
bringing a message of change, vengeance and wrath are no longer to be
the way forward. For people waiting for God to liberate them from their
pagan enemies this was not good news.
Just in case the people hadn’t picked up on this line of thought Jesus
goes on and makes it crystal clear that when the prophets were active
it was, not the Israelites who benefited but God had performed mighty
works outside Israel in pagan Syria and when God helped a widow it was
not a Jewish one.
If the people weren’t sure whether to get angry earlier they were now
in no doubt that this was not a message they were prepared to accept
and as the mob mentality takes over they drive him out with a view to a
violent end. We now know that this was a taste of things to come.
With the benefit of 20:20 hindsight we know that Christ was right but
it’s hardly surprising that the Jews found his message hard to swallow.
This challenges us to keep our minds open and not fall into the same
trap. We would do well to examine what it is that we reject and why.
How our rejection is seen by others, for example accepting people of
all races as equal shows our rejection of racism.
What about others, how do we feel when they reject our message of hope
found in Jesus. It would be good if we could start by understanding
that like the Israelites this message is hard for some to take on
board. Do we quickly lose patience when the message isn’t accepted on
our terms and climb back into our bunker or do we continue to practice
the gospel of Christ the best we can?
We heard from Nehemiah about the time after he has returned from exile
in Babylon to Jerusalem and rebuilt the city walls. The physical
rebuilding is one thing but rebuilding a group of people fit to live in
Jerusalem and be called Gods covenant people is quite another.
Many of those in Jerusalem are the dregs of society that not even the
invaders thought worthy of taking into captivity.
As Ezra reads trained people pass through the crowds to ensure they
understand what is being asked of them. The people have to relearn
about God and also learn to live together as a society which is
obedient to him. It’s clear that if they are to stay on course that
they will need to support each other.
We too need each others support on what can be a difficult journey at
times, and we need to make spaces where this support both spiritual and
physical support can take place.
Possibly the most common reason, that we and others can crowd Jesus out
is when we fail to prioritise space to nourish and sustain our faith.
Most people are not actually openly hostile to Christ’s ways it’s just
that other things lead to an unintended rejection of his message.
Don’t get me wrong I like to buy nice things and have occasionally
bumped into some of you at Sainsbury’s or Bluewater on a Sunday
afternoon. But I think the important thing is to make space for Jesus
first and then fit in restaurants, pubs, shops, cinema, bowling and
whatever else we enjoy around this. After all the leisure sector is
open much longer hours than we can spend engaging with others here or
I wanted to close today with a modern day ‘prophecy’, one I’ve
abbreviated. It’s really up to us how true it turns out be. Ironically
it’s about an organisation founded by a Jewish gentleman, a Mr Cohen,
and they are very keen to secure our time and even more so our money.
It’s in the form of a poem:-
Nowadays we worship at St Tesco
At first the neighbours seemed a little shocked
But then St Tesco’s doors are always open
Whereas St Cuthbert’s doors are always locked
It’s hard to get to know the congregation
And the vicar isn’t actually ordained
They haven’t got a pulpit or a chancel
But they’ve got enormous windows
And they’re stained!
I’m glad we’re in the parish of St Tesco,
I feel so happy walking down the aisle
While the Reverend was always rather gloomy
But the check-out girls have always got a smile
Their uniform is anything but dreary
It’s polyester cotton and it’s striped
And pretty tunes come floating down from heaven
It isn’t organ music but it’s piped
But business is booming at St Tesco
The worshippers are spending more and more
They’re getting such a throng on Sunday morning
That they’re going to have to reinforce the floor
And frankly it has been a revelation
On Sunday now we relish going out
And seeing all that inexpensive lager
Has made my husband so much more devout
But sometimes in the busy supermarket
Above the merry ringing of the till
I fancy I can hear a church bell ringing
From the steeple of St Cuthbert’s on the hill
The bell has gone, the roof, the stained glass window
I dare say it’s a merciful release
For nowadays we worship at St Tesco
It’s closing time St Cuthbert
Rest In peace...
Jan 10 2010 Baptism of
Isaiah 43.1-7, Acts 8.14-17, Luke 3.15-17,
Make yourself at home…
I bet we often greet visitors with words like that.
We want them to feel relaxed and welcome, but we’d probably be quite
surprised if they took us literally, if they started putting their feet
up on the coffee table, moving their stuff in, raiding the fridge,
redecorating to suit themselves. We’d probably feel they had crossed
the line. We may not spell out the rules, but we all know the
difference between a guest, however warmly welcomed, and a member of
the household who has a right to be there. Guests, we hope, respect the
way we run our households and generally leave the place as they found
it; members of the household expect to be able to make their mark, have
their own space, leave their things lying around. It’s all about
belonging, and that’s something that is very important to us, very
There’s no place like home, they say, and they are right. Whether you
live in a vast extended family, or on your own, it matters that there
is somewhere you belong, that is home for you.
Today’s readings all have something to say, in different ways, about
belonging, and what it means to us, not just belonging within the
bricks and mortar of a house, but within our communities, and within
the household of faith.
In the Old Testament reading the people of Israel are in exile in
Babylon. They are far from home in a place where they definitely don’t
feel they belong, where they are not so much guests as prisoners. One
of the big challenges for them was that they started to think that God
had rejected them, that as well as being far from home they were far
from God too. They felt forgotten, abandoned, and they thought it was
their fault. But Isaiah’s prophecies tell them that it isn’t so. “I
have called you by name; you are mine” says God to them. “When you pass
through the waters, I will be with you; when you walk through fire you
shall not be burned.”Why? “For I am the Lord, the Holy One of Israel,
YOUR Saviour.” They are his people, his responsibility. He can’t forget
them – they are a part of the family. A few chapters later, Isaiah puts
it like this, “can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no
compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will
not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”
(48.15) You belong, says God to his people. You belong to me, you
are my people. “Bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the
end of the earth.” They are members of the family, not just servants or
Jesus too, hears a message about belonging in the Gospel reading, a
message that is also heard by those around him. The crowd have been
asking John about the identity of the Messiah, God’s representative,
and John points them away from himself towards Jesus. But the voice
from heaven, God’s voice, doesn’t declare that Jesus is just an
emissary, someone sent to do a job on God’s behalf. It proclaims that
he is God’s Son, the Beloved. That’s a very different thing. Luke’s
Gospel again and again stresses the family relationships which not only
Jesus has with his Father, but which God calls us to discover
too. It is Luke who tells us the story of the Prodigal Son – the
one who, frankly, is no earthly use to his Father in any practical
sense, taking his money and wasting it. When he comes to his senses he
hopes that perhaps, if he really begs, he might be hired as a servant,
but discovers that his father has never stopped seeing him as his son,
and never will do. .
And in the New Testament reading Peter and John visit some new
believers in Samaria. They had received baptism, a symbolic washing
away of their sins, but somehow there was something missing. The
passage talks about them needing to receive the Holy Spirit. That might
sound a bit mysterious to us, but the easiest way of understanding it
is to say that they need to know not just the outward ritual of
baptism, but the inward sense of relationship with God. The early
Christians talked about the Holy Spirit when they wanted to explain the
way in which they experienced God’s presence as something intimate and
personal rather than God as an intellectual idea. God came home to them
through his Spirit, dwelling in their hearts. They were transformed
from thinking of themselves as distant strangers to seeing themselves
as members of the family, people who belong.
These readings, as I said, are all about belonging, and they invite us
to think about what it means to us to belong, who we belong to, where
They are message which are full of comfort, especially in an age when,
increasingly it seems to me, people often hunger for a sense of
belonging which they feel is hard to find.
People often work far away from the place they live. They may have
moved many times in the course of their lives, not staying long enough
anywhere to put down roots. They travel by car to an out of town
shopping centre or to pursue leisure activities miles away, rarely
putting their feet on the ground of their own neighbourhood. They may
hardly see those around them, let alone get to know them. It’s hard to
feel you belong when that is your experience.
People are perhaps more reluctant to commit themselves to communities
of faith or to political or campaigning groups too. They want to keep
their options open, or perhaps they fear getting tied up with other
people, identified too closely with them.
We have come to value our independence and individuality, and there’s
nothing wrong with that. But it often comes at a high price, as we find
ourselves cut off from others, living in separate bubbles, and yearning
to belong somewhere to someone, but not really knowing what to do about
Today’s Bible readings can comfort us but they should also challenge us
as well, because belonging isn’t just about being welcomed by others or
by God. That’s just the first stage. You only really feel you belong
when you discover that you have something to give as well as to receive
, when you are able to make your mark on your community, take up space
I’ve been part of many different churches over the years, and they are
good places to learn about what it means to be part of a community.
I’ve watched many people come through the doors for the first time.
Some churches have been good at welcoming them (this is one of them);
others less so. But there is a crucial turning point which people need
to reach if they are truly to feel they belong. It is the moment when
they start to feel they can take responsibility for something, do
something, give something, affect the life of the others in that
community. That is when people stop feeling like guests, however
welcome, and start feeling like family. It takes effort not only on the
part of the newcomer, but also on the part of the old hands who have
often become used to things they way they are, and struggle to budge up
to make space for the new person and the new ideas they bring. It’s
often the trickiest part of ministry, the point at which things come
unstuck, toes get trodden on, feathers get ruffled, but it’s a vital
turning point, transforming an assembly of strangers into a family in
which the warmth of God’s love can really be felt.
It’s not just something that needs to happen in churches, of course,
but in any sort of community – neighbourhood, workplace, family – if it
is ever really going to be a community, and it is the point at which
these other groups often come to grief too. Belonging is great, but it
takes courage and work.
The current spell of snow has highlighted for many people how important
communities are. As well as some shared fun – the field behind the
church has been a sledgers playground all week – there have also been
reminders of the need for mutual responsibility. Whose job is it to
clear the pavements, or look out for those who can’t cope so well with
cold and ice? Do we know who the vulnerable people are in our
community? Do we feel responsible for them? Do we feel able to ask, if
we are the ones who need help?
God reminds us that we belong to him, members of his family and
therefore brothers and sisters to each other. He calls us to make
ourselves at home, in the world, in our communities, in the church, and
in doing so, to make a home for each other too.
Jan 3 2010 Epiphany Sunday
Isaiah 60.1-6, Eph 3.1-12, Matthew
Happy New Year. New Year is the traditional time
for that unique British institution, the pantomime, a very strange art
form, and one which is virtually unknown elsewhere in the world. It’s
probably rather baffling for outsiders, with its strange conventions –
audience participation, cross-dressing, pantomime horses and so on. For
those who’ve grown up with it the conventions are very familiar,
though… oh, yes they are!...
The thing that really makes a good pantomime, it seems to me, is a
really wicked villain, someone obviously evil, with a dramatic cackle
and a dark cloak who you can spot a mile off and greet with boos and
hisses, the louder the better.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that we have a villain just like that in
our Gospel reading today. King Herod looks like a classic baddie, a
scheming, deceitful, brutal man, apparently without conscience.
But I think there’s more to him than that. Not that I want to defend
him. He was a genuinely nasty piece of work. He had at least three of
his own children murdered, and one of his ten wives as well - hardly a
model of domestic respectability. Massacring the children of Bethlehem
would have been nothing to him. But those actions, brutal as they were,
don’t tell the whole story of this man. He wasn’t just a sadistic
psychopath. He had reasons for acting as he did, reasons which are
disturbingly easy to understand.
You see, King Herod had realised that children are dangerous, and he
had a point. I’m not talking about the havoc they can wreak on your
home and your bank balance. The threat Herod saw in them isn’t
something they can do anything about – it’s not their fault. It’s just
that inevitably they bring change – the new generation always
challenges the old one, as it must. Herod knew this, and it made
him very afraid.
He had been king of Judea for several decades by the time of Jesus, but
it wasn’t popular acclaim that kept him on the throne, it was perpetual
vigilance. He was always on the look out for those who might one day
supplant him – even among his own children, of whom he had a great
many. But he was caught in an impossible dilemma. He couldn’t reign
forever. Even he knew that. Sooner or later someone would replace him.
It had to happen, but he couldn’t bear the thought of his power
slipping away. As the years passed he grew more and more
paranoid. He was declining physically; his sons were in the bloom of
youth. And of course, here were the wise men in our Gospel story
suggesting that it might not even be one of his children who dethroned
him. It might be some completely strange child, one he’d never heard
Children were dangerous. They stirred up his deepest fears; fear of
change, fear of losing control, fear of losing significance in the eyes
of others, fear of death itself. Best to get rid of them…
King Herod, of course, is an extreme example, but I don’t think he is
alone in his ambivalence about the future. The coming of a new
generation always implies the passing of the old and that isn’t an easy
thought for many people.
Parents sometimes struggle to accept that there comes a time when their
children are stronger or cleverer or more capable than they are. It can
be a bit of a blow when they beat you at football for the first time,
or get better qualifications than you did. Or perhaps you look the
effortless beauty that youth brings with a twinge of envy, aware of the
grey in your own hair and the wrinkles round your eyes. No amount of
surgery or expensive potions can hold back the years forever. Young
people often handle technology with ease, while those born before
computers were commonplace can’t figure out how to answer the fancy
mobile phone they got you for Christmas. You end up feeling like a
dinosaur… Children bring us delight, love, joy – we wouldn’t be without
them for the world – but it can be a real challenge to accept that they
must in the end overtake us, and let them move to centre stage to have
their time in the sun.
Perhaps it’s just as hard for those on the other end of the generation
struggle too. There were reports this week in the media about the
growth of the “boomerang” generation - adult offspring who come back to
live with their parents. Sometimes they have no choice; they just can’t
afford to move out. But sometimes it is just easier to stay in the
shelter of the childhood home rather than stepping out and taking
responsibility for themselves.
And this isn’t a problem limited to parents and children, of course.
Time brings change to all of us, and that means facing changes we can’t
control, or predict, or even imagine. The prophet Isaiah, in our Old
Testament reading today, spoke of a change which his people longed for,
the restoration of Jerusalem – they were in exile in Babylon at the
time. He talks of a time when nations would come streaming to Jerusalem
with gifts of gold and frankincense, which is why we read it at
Epiphany. It’s the moment when the rest of the world will finally
recognise the glory of Israel. But Matthew takes that familiar image
and subverts it in a way which changes its meaning completely. His wise
men come with their gifts, just as Isaiah said they would, but God
doesn’t seem to be in the palace or the Temple, the centre of the
nation, the seat of power. When they eventually find him, he’s in a
humble house, born as a nondescript child of nondescript parents to
whom no one would have given a second glance. How dare God depart
from the script! What was wrong with the age old ways, the things they
had planned for and expected for centuries? Herod had actually built a
splendid new Temple – wasn’t that good enough for God’s Messiah…?
The story of the Epiphany, the appearance of God to these foreign
astrologers, rank outsiders, is a story about change, change that is
neither expected nor welcome to Herod and the rest of the Jerusalem
establishment. It is a reminder of the disturbing fact that we aren’t
control of the future, however much we’d like to be.
I’ve put some pictures on your pew
leaflets today – a range of versions of the traditional image of
the old year handing over to the new. I was intrigued at the different
ways in which the handover is portrayed. Each one says something
distinctive about our attitudes to that unknown future – the infant New
In the oldest version – the one at the top right – which I guess is
early 20th Century, the old man greets the child with affection and she
looks up to him with respect. It is a dignified, warm image,
acknowledging the wisdom of the old but welcoming the energy and life
of the new as well.
The other pictures, though, tell a whole set of different stories. In
the second one, the old year walks off dejectedly, as if he feels
utterly redundant. But the infant he leaves behind looks completely
lost and helpless, abandoned to manage on her own. She really could
have done with him sticking around a bit to show her the ropes. It’s as
if he has decided that if he can’t rule the roost completely he has
nothing to offer at all.
The third picture features a rather mischievous looking infant who the
old man is escaping from as fast as possible. Personally, if I was that
baby, I’d think twice about annoying a man carrying a very sharp
scythe, but this baby hasn’t got the sense he was born with. It doesn’t
bode well. The new is just something to resent, something that will
cause you no end of bother.
The final picture is one of all-out intergenerational warfare, with the
baby having to wrest the hour glass from the old man, who is determined
to hang onto it. “Ready or not, here I come” says the caption, but the
old year isn’t going to give up without a struggle.
I wonder which of these images represents the way you feel about
change, about the year that is coming, the decade that is coming, the
generation that is coming? Is it the first one, or can you see yourself
in some of the others too? I guess we’d all like to face the
future with serenity but how do we achieve it?
St Paul’s words from our second reading give us a clue. They are full
of serene acceptance, which is surprising when you realise that they
were written when he was in prison. Once, he had enjoyed a secure life
as a respected Jewish teacher. Now he was facing death because of his
allegiance to Christ. And yet he talks of having “boundless riches” –
he doesn’t sound like a man who resents his fate or fears his future.
What’s his secret? It is that, whatever he faces he knows he doesn’t
face it alone. King Herod is petrified of what is to come because all
he has is himself. He is the ultimate self-made man, believing he must
sustain himself only by his own efforts, paranoid and brutal though
they are. But Paul walks forward into the future sustained by the love
of God, known through the Spirit that dwells in him, and through the
Christian communities he is part of, Jews and Gentiles, with their rich
variety of wisdom. He has discovered a God who isn’t constrained by
human expectations and boundaries. Paul might not know what the future
holds but he knows who holds him as he faces it – God himself - and, in
the end, that is all that matters.
I began by wishing you a happy New Year. I hope that’s what you have,
but in reality it may not be. None of us knows what lies ahead. But we
can be sure, as Paul was, that we don’t face it alone either. Amen.
Christmas 1 09 St John the Evangelist
When I was expecting my two children, the science of ultrasound
scanning was at a very early stage of development. The images were
nothing like as clear as they are now. The radiographer would point
out, if you were lucky, some grainy part of the picture to you. “That’s
the head, there are the legs…” but sometimes it took quite a lot of
faith to see the smudges on the screen as a child. But despite the
difficulty, it was still tremendously exciting. Suddenly you were aware
in a new way that this was a real child, an individual, not just an
uncomfortable bump that kicked you in the ribs now and then. Now,
with much clearer pictures, and print-outs to take away, I imagine that
is even more true. The child becomes real for fathers and grandparents
to be, and anyone else you can show it too as well.
When Jesus was born there was no such thing as a scan of course. Mary
and Joseph’s first sight of their baby came only after his birth.
That’s when the reality of what had happened to them and through them
kicked in. The Gospel accounts tell us that the arrival of the
child left them wondering, amazed. The same was true of the shepherds.
They went away proclaiming the good news to anyone who would listen.
The wise men were changed too. They went home “by another way”
according to Matthew – not just geographically, to avoid Herod, but
spiritually and psychologically. Their perspective had changed.
They had assumed that whatever God was doing would happen within the
power structures of the world as they knew it – Herod and his ilk, but
this child was born in a stable, not a palace, challenging all those
assumptions, making them think again.
But what was it about Jesus which so affected those who saw him?
Countless generations of artists have painted the child as a sort of
“glow in the dark” baby, with light streaming from his halo, as if
there was something about his appearance which singled him out, but the
Gospels don’t mention any such thing, and I think that sort of imagery
actually takes us in precisely the wrong direction. In fact it is the
very ordinariness of the child which amazes those who see him, his
realness, a baby who is an individual, with a nose that is just such a
shape, with eyes just such a colour; himself, not someone else. During
pregnancy, as I said, you might have an idea of the child who is
going to be born, a set of hopes and fears, but it’s only when they
actually arrive that you can see who they are in reality, in
particular. That’s the experience those first visitors to the stable
have. They may have had long cherished ideas of the Messiah, but here,
so they are told, is the reality – a genuine, flesh and blood child,
this child, a unique individual just as any child is a unique
individual, here and now.
Today is the feast of St John the Apostle. He was one of those
fishermen called by Jesus to follow him. He’s the brother of James.
He’s also called John the Evangelist, because of the Gospel and the
letters which bear his name. As you might have guessed from the
roundabout way I said that, these days scholars are very dubious
whether he really wrote them. They were written too late to have been
by him – experts reckon they were written towards the end of the first
century. It is far more likely that they were written by members of a
Christian community which he had founded, or been influential in. This
was common practice in the ancient world and wouldn’t have been thought
at all unusual or dishonest. Giving these writings John’s name was the
way they proclaimed that these were John’s priorities. They might not
be his words, but this was his perspective, the kind of message they
had heard from him.
And what was that message?
Overwhelmingly it is the message that Jesus is God’s Word made flesh.
His Gospel begins with those famous words “In the beginning was the
Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God… and the Word was
made flesh and dwelt among us…” Jesus, for John, is God’s way of
expressing his love for us, not in some abstract philosophy or
high-flown mysticism, but in real relationships, real caring, real
action, and God’s call to find and express that same love for one
another. It is a message about lives being transformed like water
into wine. It is a message that is proclaimed to Samaritan women, blind
men, people who no one else has ever taken seriously, despised
outsiders, declaring that they in God’s eyes they are people of
infinite dignity, worthy of respect.
These were the things that John had cared about, the things he had
learned from being around Jesus. As he talked about Jesus after his
death and resurrection these were the things he went on and on about,
until the community that formed around him had taken them in so deeply
that they could tell the story as if they had been there, as if they
had indeed “seen with their eyes, touched with their hands.
I don’t believe it was just a case that they were parroting the stories
John had told them, though. They had also seen the truths John talked
about lived out in their own experiences. They had witnessed
transformation in their own lives. Gentiles and Jews overcame mutual
suspicion to welcome each other, rich and poor learned and worshipped
on the same footing in those early communities, women and men treated
each other as equals. It wasn’t always easy. They didn’t always
succeed. But the evidence of the letters we have from the New Testament
which was so full of exhortations to love one another, full of
challenges to the social order of the time, shows how hard they were
trying to live this radically new life. And it was one which must have
succeeded often enough to be attractive to outsiders who joined them.
The letters and Gospel of John, in particular say again and again that
if your faith doesn’t lead to love – love for your brothers and
sisters, love for those in need – it isn’t a faith worth having. If
God’s love is not real, having a real effect in your life, then the
Gospel is no more than a distraction.
It’s good that on this first Sunday after Christmas we should hear this
message. Christmas is so often shot through with fantasy. In fact if
there isn’t any “magic” to it people often feel short changed. They
want to escape from the mundane realities of life into a world in which
extraordinary things are possible – in which reindeers can fly and the
world is sprinkled with fairy dust. I’m not knocking that; we all need
a little magic in our lives. But when the fantasies evaporate and the
fairy-dust blows away, what are we left with?
For John the true shock of Jesus’ birth lay in the fact that it was a
real birth, not the birth of an idea or a dream. It said that wherever
you were, and whoever you were, God’s love could be part of your life.
His Gospel has no birth stories, no shepherds or wise men or angels,
but it proclaims the same message as Luke and Matthew, where we do find
those tales. Love is possible, it says. God’s love: transforming and
healing love. That love didn’t come to us as an idea, but as flesh and
blood, into the reality of the lives of those who knew him, something
that could be seen and heard and touched. And if love was possible in
first Century Judea, it is possible anywhere else too.
Sometimes love, healing and change seem as unlikely as flying reindeer.
We just don’t believe they can happen, not to us, in our lives. As we
look around the world it is easy to despair. War, greed, envy, fear
seem to have the upper hand. But love is possible, says John and the
community that he founded. It might be costly, it might be
challenging, it might change us more than we want to be changed, but it
For many people Christmas is over already. It ended on Christmas Day
when all the presents were unwrapped, and the carefully prepared meals
reduced to a pile of washing up. For others it will end on Twelfth
Night when the decorations will come down. Liturgically it will end in
church at Candlemas, when we take the crib down. But actually it
shouldn’t end at all, if we have really understood what it is about –
God coming, here and now, into our lives to change them, God calling us
to love one another, and giving us the strength to make that happen.
Sometimes we probably have only a vague sense of that – like the grainy
picture on an ultrasound scan, but God’s desire is that we should know
its reality, and be changed for good.
Christmas day 09
The Christmas Branch - a story for Christmas Day
Many years ago there was a mother with a large family. Her husband had
died, leaving her a widow. She worked as hard as she could but she
struggled to find enough money to pay for food and clothes and fuel for
the fire. She and her children were often cold and sometimes hungry too.
The hardest time of year for them was Christmas, though. As the
children walked through the village where they lived, every window they
passed seemed to have a Christmas tree in it, decorated with beautiful
ornaments and shining with candlelight. They would have loved to have a
tree like that, but they knew it wasn’t possible. Their mother would
have loved to have given them a tree like that, but she knew it was out
of reach too. It was coming up to Christmas time and, in the town where
she lived, people were getting excited.
One year, on the night before Christmas Eve a storm blew up. All night
long the children could hear it howling through the forests around the
town. “At least it will bring down some wood that we can gather for the
fire,” said the children’s mother. In the morning of Christmas Eve sure
enough, when they went to look, the forest floor was covered in fallen
branches. If they had nothing else for Christmas at least they’d be
warm. As the widow gathered wood for the fire the children went off to
see what they could find. Soon they were back, not with an armful of
twigs, but with an entire branch which had fallen from a fir tree.
“We will have a Christmas tree after all” they said. “It may be a bit
battered – more of a Christmas branch than a Christmas tree - but it
will do.” They dragged the branch all the way home and into the house
and propped it up in a corner of the room. They had nothing to put on
it, but it made the house smell of pine, just like the proper Christmas
trees in the rich people’s houses, and they were happy with it.
But after they had gone to bed their mother sat in a chair by the fire
and looked at fir branch. She was glad the children were pleased with
it, but it was a bit pathetic really, compared to the trees in the
other houses. It was lopsided and plain, with sparse branches. Suddenly
she felt a wave of sadness sweep over her. She wanted to be able to
give her children a tree like the other children in the town had, with
shiny decorations on it, and candles to brighten it – even presents
round its base, but there was no chance of that.
As she looked at the branch she noticed something moving in it. A
spider crawled out and began to make its way to and fro across it,
spinning a cobweb as it went. Back and forward, back and forward, the
strands of the cobweb stretched across the branch.
It was the last straw. Wasn’t it enough that she couldn’t give her
children a beautiful tree – now this spider had to come and spoil what
she had with its web. She might have been poor, but she kept her house
clean, and she wouldn’t put up with cobwebs. “Even on Christmas Eve,”
she said to herself, “there’s no rest,”. She reached into her apron
pocket for a cloth to sweep it away with and got up from her
chair. But as she did so she heard a small voice, a tiny voice. It was
coming from the spider.
“No, please don’t!”, it said.
“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t sweep you away, you and your
untidy cobweb!” said the woman.
“But all I am doing is worshipping the Christ Child, just as my
ancestors have always done.”
“By leaving a mess all over our tree! How can that be worship?”
“If you sit down, and put the duster away, I’ll tell you,” said the
So the woman sat down, and the spider started his story.
“Long ago,” he said, “one of my distant ancestors lived in a place
where there were hardly any trees. She lived in a cave by the side of a
road going south from Bethlehem to Egypt in the middle of a stony
desert . Now and then people came down the road. The spider took no
notice of them, though, and they never noticed her either.
One day, though, she saw a tired looking couple – a young man and woman
– trudging down the road towards her. The woman was carrying a tiny
baby and both of them looked worried, glancing over their shoulders as
they walked along.
As they came to the cave, the woman said to the man, “We’ve got to
rest, Joseph – the baby needs to be fed, and we can’t go any further
tonight. Why don’t we stop in that cave over there?”
“But Herod’s soldiers are following us, Mary” answered the man “and if
they catch us, we’re finished, and so is Jesus!”
“That’s as may be, his wife answered, “but I can’t go on any longer,
and it’s almost dark.”
So they decided that, dangerous though it was, they’d spend the night
in the cave. Joseph said he’d stay awake and keep watch while Mary
slept. But he was just as tired as she was, and soon his eyelids began
to droop, and he fell asleep.
Now the spider was watching from a corner of the cave. She didn’t know
what had happened, but she could see that this little family was in
danger, and she wondered what she could do to help.
She couldn’t fight off the soldiers they had talked about…
But then she had an idea. He went to the mouth of the cave and began to
spin a web. Back and forth she went, across it, gradually building up
strand upon strand of cobwebs until the mouth of the cave was covered.
She only just finished in time too. Because as She did, She saw two
soldiers tramping down the road towards the cave, their weapons and
armour shining in the moonlight.
They looked behind every rock, every scrubby shrub as they came.
“There’s a cave up ahead there” one said to the other. “That would be a
good place for them to hide.” “Yes, we’d better check that…”
They came closer and closer to the cave. The spider trembled with fear.
Would her work be good enough.
“Nah! No one’s been in here for years!” said the soldier. “Look at this
cobweb – it’s so thick you can’t even see through it!”
And the soldiers went back to the road and marched off into the
In the morning, Mary and Joseph woke up. “Look at the cobweb – there’s
been a very busy spider here”, they said as they broke through it to
get out. “And look – said Joseph, “there have been some busy soldiers
too.” All around the cave entrance they could see the footprints of the
soldiers in the dust. “If it hadn’t been for that spider’s web, they
would have found us for sure…”
“Well, thanks be to God for spiders!” said Mary. “I’ve often wondered
what God created them for, but now I know – they have saved his son
from death, and I’ll never think of them the same way again. And God’s
blessing on them. Whenever they spin their webs they should tell the
story of this night.”
“And that,” said the spider in the fir branch, to the widow, “is why,
on Christmas Eve, all spiders spin their very best webs. We can’t sing,
we can’t read from the Bible, but we can remember when we hid that tiny
child from the soldiers, and so this is our worship.
“Well, then, you must spin away”, said the woman to the spider, “for we
all have to do what we can!”
And she thought to herself as she watched him spin. She often felt just
like that spider – there was little she could do for her children, and
yet she could do what she could – love them and look after them with
God’s help. For a while she watched as the spider carried on spinning
his web but in the end, her eyelids felt heavy too, and she fell asleep
in front of the fire.
She was woken next morning by the shouts of the children. “Look mother,
look at our tree!”
And she looked, and every strand of that cobweb had turned to silver,
and the tree shone as brightly as any they had ever seen. It was the
very best tree that anyone had ever seen.
And that’s the story behind the tinsel we put on our Christmas trees.
I’ve brought a lot of this fine cobweb tinsel with me today, and I’d
like to give each of you a few strands of it as you leave. Take it home
and put it on your tree, or in your house somewhere as a reminder of
that spider who protected the baby Jesus with his web, and a reminder
that all of us can do something to help others, weaving love into their
lives, even if it sometimes feels as fragile as a spider’s silk. When
we do that we are offering the kind of worship God really wants. It
might not seem like much to us, but it might just make all the
Midnight Mass 2009 - A sermon by Kevin Bright
Luke 2:1-20 & Isaiah 62.6-12
does Christmas mean?
For me, until last Friday, it had meant an endless series of work
related meals and drinks parties which saw me put on half a stone in
For some it may mean buying presents that people don’t need with money
they don’t have.
To others reliant on Christmas trade to see them through likely leaner
times ahead it means exceptionally hard work.
To soldiers serving in dangerous situations far from home it can mean a
sharp focus on loved ones they are separated from and missing terribly.
To people like my cousin whose wife died suddenly last week I pray that
Christmas means there is still a very real hope despite the devastation
At Christmas there is always the danger that we are like a group of
people who threw a party for a special friend. Invitations are issued,
more food and drink is bought than can reasonably be consumed, and
decorations are put up. Finally we gather together only to realise that
we were so busy with the superficial things that no one actually
invited the guest of honour!
The fact that we are gathered here at this hour despite slippery paths
and cold weather indicates that we have invited Jesus to be part of our
Christmas and that we want to hear his message. Invitations are
important, it’s lovely to receive an invitation to a wedding or special
occasion as it makes us feel wanted and valued. Then there are open
invitations, the sort when family, friends or colleagues say ‘feel free
to call in anytime, you will always be welcome’, and that most
certainly is the case at this church.
Without an invitation either specific to an occasion or open, there are
not many people who would turn up uninvited as to do so could cause
embarrassment or worse for the host.
Whilst they are not labeled as such our readings tonight speak in many
ways about invitations.
The sentinels (or watchmen) we hear of in Isaiah are not looking out
for enemy attackers but can be found impatiently inviting, God,
salvation, restoration to the people of Israel, to their holy city of
Jerusalem. Their task is to pester God "all day and all night." They
are to "give him (God) no rest" until the restoration of the city is
Like a woman yearning for the return of her husband Zion longs for the
return of its King signifying the exiles of Babylon’s desire to achieve
restoration of their relationship with God.
Some people, mostly well connected, holders of important posts and not
forgetting attractive young people of course are used to receiving many
So it’s important to note exactly who God invited to see the Christ
child with their own eyes. Shepherds. Romantic figures in a rural
setting symbolising pastoral care?
Pull the other one; these guys were rough, dirty and uncouth for the
most part. They were despised by the orthodox religious people of the
day as they were unable to keep all the ceremonial hand washings, rules
and regulations. We are told that more than likely they were out in the
fields and not on their way to register in the census because they were
not even considered fully-fledged citizens. They spent all their time
driving the sheep across the land of so many different people and
provinces that they could not really call any place home. In addition,
they probably smelt more like sheep than anything else. Yet they are
the first to hear of Jesus birth, just what is going on?
Luke tells us that these shepherds were the people to whom the message
above all messages was delivered. He wants us to understand the
wonderful inclusiveness of God’s love. In chapter 1 of Luke, Mary has
sung the Magnificat, filled with images of justice: "God has scattered
the proud in the thoughts of their hearts"; "God has filled the hungry
with good things, and sent the rich away empty." Luke wants us to be
clear that God’s message is for everyone, especially those who think
they are too insignificant to matter.
When God comes and makes His announcement to shepherds, He is also
saying to us, "Your life is worthwhile and known to me.’’.
In Isaiah we saw transformation, new buildings, and new roads waiting
for large numbers of people to welcome the King as Jerusalem is
restored. The crowds encourage each other and inspire confidence in
We also need to know about Caesar Augustus, head of the great Roman
Empire at the time of Christ’s birth. He had declared his dead adoptive
father, Julius Caesar, to be divine and therefore styled himself ‘son
We are then able to contrast both of these scenes with the shepherds
who, probably somewhat shell shocked and mystified scuttle off to some
sort of animal shelter to see a baby. We need to remember this in order
to see God’s way is announced by the birth of a little boy in humble
circumstances and recognise that this marked the beginning of a
confrontation between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world.
You have to admire the shepherds and people like them today who accept
God’s invitation even though they may be afraid, feel unworthy and have
doubts. The shepherds faithful actions meant Mary and Joseph received
confirmation of what had been their secret up to that point, that the
child is the Saviour, the Messiah and Lord, from this humble and
What difference does all we have heard make to the crowds in Isaiah’s
city, to the shepherds and to each one of us? It means that the people
of the city are free to live their lives without fear of attack and we
are free to live without the burden of guilt, knowing our sins have
It turned out that the birth of Jesus as a new king was not so much
about getting rid of the Roman army but more about changing peoples
minds and their way of life, not about a war to bring regime change but
about an invitation to join a peaceful revolution which involves
accepting Gods offer to live in a loving relationship with him and
extending this to our fellow human beings.
Of course there are always people who don’t accept invitations, perhaps
they have something more pressing or attractive to do. The fact that
there was no room for Jesus birth to take place in a decent habitable
room is symbolic of this. Bethlehem, like many of our lives was
overcrowded, but God’s search, and mans rejection, continues to this
It’s my personal experience that at the time when all earthly hope is
lost God is still there for us, offering hope to the hopeless. When
people we love are lost to us it’s the only thing left that makes any
sense. What more could any sane person hope for other than what is
offered, eternal peace, justice, forgiveness and love.
Many of us probably received Christmas cards from people we meant to
get in touch with over the last 12 months, we’re still fond of the
people who sent them it’s just that our lives have been busy and our
good intentions to renew our friendship has come to nothing again.
We need to ensure this doesn’t become the case with God. He has given
us an invitation far too good to let it be lost among the greetings
cards and gift wrap that may clutter our homes, far too good to let it
evaporate in the warm feel good feeling of candles, holly and hymns. We
need to RSVP, let God know that we are grateful for the invitation,
that we enthusiastically accept and that we want to demonstrate this
through our words and actions.
If we can do this then regardless of anything else in our lives at
present we will truly have something to celebrate this Christmas.
‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace..’ (Luke 2.14)
Baruch 5.1-9, Luke 3.1-6
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when
Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee,
and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis…”
I wonder how many of you had mentally switched off by this point in the
Gospel I just read. Trachonitis, Abilene, Lysanius, Annas, , … It’s
probably just as well that we stand up to hear the Gospel or we might
have all fallen asleep by the end of that first sentence - and it was
just one, very long, sentence.
What could Luke be thinking of by bogging down his story in all these
details? Why not just cut to the chase, get on with the tale?
But Luke’s not daft, and he’s not a bad storyteller either. It’s just
that we are hearing this story 1900 and something years too late. If
we’d been among his first readers, the people he was writing for, we’d
have got his point, and it was an explosive one.
So, who are all these people? Well, he starts with the big one. The
Emperor Tiberius. Ruler of most of the known world. A nasty piece of
work. Bad-tempered, paranoid – not someone who looked kindly on
challenge, but very, very powerful. Then there’s Pontius Pilate – we’ve
all heard of him. The governor who later sentenced Jesus to death,
literally washing his hands of him, a man who was always prepared to
put political convenience before integrity. They were the Roman rulers.
Next Luke tells us about the local Jewish rulers – puppet kings given
their power by Rome. Herod, his brother Philip, and Lysanius had the
area sewn up between them. Finally he tells us about the religious
leaders. Annas and Caiphas, high priests of the Temple in Jerusalem.
In other words this is a list of just about anyone who was anyone – the
people whose opinions mattered, the A list celebrities, those you
needed to get on your side if you wanted to get anything done. But
having impressed us with this “who’s who” of the first century, how
does Luke end this long sentence? “In the fifteenth year of the Emperor
Tiberius…and all the rest… the word of God” he says, “came to John, son
of Zechariah, in the wilderness.”
John, in the wilderness.
The Word of God comes to him, not to the big-wigs, the people who could
make things happen, but to an eccentric, unkempt oddity living in the
middle of nowhere, the back of beyond.
It almost seems like a bad joke after all that build up. Why on earth
would God entrust to him the most important message the world could
ever hear, that the Messiah is coming? We’d be forgiven for thinking
that what God really needed was a good PR person to take his publicity
machine in hand…
But, it is to John that this message comes, someone who is far from the
centre of power. And that is how it was always going to have to be.
Because John announces the arrival of the kingdom of God, and there is
no way that kingdom could sit within the power structures of the day.
God’s kingdom is a place where the mighty are put down from their
seats and the humble and meek are exalted, where the poor are fed and
the rich sent empty away, sings Mary when she hears that she is
expecting the child who will bring this about. How could those who are
rich and mighty pass on such a message? For Tiberius, or Herod or the
high priests to announce such a kingdom would be like turkeys voting
for Christmas. Some of them, at least, might have had their hearts in
the right places – let’s be generous to them – they might have wanted
the world to be a better place, but not if it meant losing their
privileged place in it.
And that is perhaps the important point. We like the idea of a saviour.
We want solutions to the problems we face. We want to sort out broken
relationships, lose weight, be more organised, be kinder, more patient,
but if that involves radical change, discomfort, sacrifice or cost we
very easily throw in the towel, because we also want to be able to
carry on with business as usual. We might be prepared to bolt on
something extra – buy a book, go on a course, get a gadget that
promises to help us out, but we don’t want to let go of what we already
have. Almost always that means we sabotage the change we want before
we’ve even started.
The message of John, though, is that when God gets to work there will
be things that will have to be given up in order that the world can
find the new wholeness he wants for it, his love and peace and healing.
That’s why he calls people to repentance. Repentance is not a popular
word – it sounds like hair shirts and misery. But when the Bible talks
about repentance, that’s not what it has in mind at all. Repentance
doesn’t mean making yourself feel wretched and worthless. It literally
means to change your mind. Metanoia is the Greek word – noia means
mind. Repentance is about changing the way you think, what you expect,
what you assume, what you value. It’s not about sitting in the
gloom; it’s about searching for the light.
In the Old Testament reading the prophet Baruch speaks to the battered
city of Jerusalem, destroyed when its people were taken into exile in
Babylon. Jerusalem will be restored. God will bring its people home.
But they will also have a part to play in this new thing he is
doing. “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O
Jerusalem,” he says. Only then will its people be able to “put on the
beauty of the glory from God, the robe of righteousness, the diadem of
the glory of the everlasting”. Their society won’t be healed simply by
coming home and going back to business as usual. There are things they
have to take off – that garment of affliction – if they are to put on
their new identity, a city that deserves the name he gives it
“Righteous Peace, Godly Glory”.
This coming week sees one of the most important international meetings
of our age, the Climate Change conference in Copenhagen. I know that
there are many different opinions on Climate Change, and that the
science is hard for lay people to understand and to evaluate. But the
vast majority of scientists believe there is hard evidence that it is
happening, and that, unchecked, it could have absolutely devastating
effects on the living conditions on earth and absolutely devastating
effects on all of us as a result.
Development agencies like Christian Aid are already reporting the
effects of climate change on some of the poorest of the world’s people.
As ever, they suffer first and most. Those who have eked out an
existence on marginal land are now finding that more frequent droughts
make it impossible to survive, or more frequent flooding washes their
land away or poisons it with salty sea water. They need to move, but
where can they go? If they move into neighbouring areas they are met
with hostility by those who are only marginally better off– that is
part of what the conflict in Darfur has been about. If they try to go
further afield they come up against the barriers of a rich world scared
of a flood of what they call economic migrants – though it might more
accurately be called “people desperate to find a way of providing for
their families.” I’ve printed out some copies of an article from the
Church Times - they are at the back - if you’d like to know more.
The essential thing is, though, that climate change is something that
will effect us all, sooner or later. It isn’t just about saving the
polar bear, but about justice. If we don’t respond soon enough and
thoroughly enough there won’t just be environmental catastrophe but
social catastrophe as well.
The trouble is that there’s no way of combating climate that doesn’t
involve discomfort, inconvenience, expense, maybe even real sacrifice
of what we see as our right to live our lives as we want to. Low-energy
lightbulbs, as we found out this year when we installed them in the
church, have a way of turning out to be low light light bulbs too! The
technology’s just not there yet. We had to compromise in the end, or no
one would be able to see anything, but it was a salutary lesson in the
cost and inconvenience of trying to do the right thing.
A major source of greenhouse gases is transport - cars, lorries, buses
as well as planes and boats– but we have grown used to the idea that we
can go where we want and have goods brought to us from wherever we want
too. It’s hard work asking, “is my journey really necessary?” “Do I
really need that thing that has been brought half-way across the world
to me?” These may seem small things, but we struggle to accept even
these minor limitations to our lifestyle. Tackling global warming
requires changes we just don’t want to make.
This may not be the sermon you expected to hear when I began. What does
climate change have to do with that ancient story of the coming of the
Messiah to the people of Israel, and the strange prophet John who
It has everything to do with it. John called people to be ready for a
new world, a world which couldn’t coexist with the power
structures of his day. It couldn’t be “business as usual” . The
kingdom of God was always going to challenge and confront that world of
Tiberius, Herod, Annas and Caiphas. If we are going to see God’s
kingdom, God’s peace, God’s justice in our world we have to see the
ways in which it challenges the powers that control us too – powers
“out there”, but also the powers “in here” – greed, apathy and the fear
that we will lose our place in the world. We can’t expect it to
“business as usual” for us either. Repent, says John to us, just as he
did to those crowds by the river Jordan. Change your minds. Change your
lives. There is no other way for “all flesh to see the salvation of
God”, for all of us to know the peace and wholeness he wants for his
Breathing Space for Advent - Thursday Dec 3
THE ROAD TO
Christmas is coming. You don’t need me to tell you that. Decorations
are going up. There are special deals in the shops on Christmas gifts
and food. Perhaps you are making plans for family gatherings, or
You may feel daunted or delighted about all of this, but you can’t
avoid it. We are all on the road to Bethlehem, whether we like it or
not! I thought, therefore, that I would focus on that sense of the
journey towards Jesus’ birth in the three Breathing Space talks this
year. The Road to Bethlehem - what happens on the way to that moment
when Jesus is born, both in first century Judea and in our own lives
Next week I’m going to look a bit at Mary and Joseph, and the events
that led them to this huge event in their lives, and the week after
that we’ll think about ourselves and what brings us to the point of
encountering Christ, but this week I’d like to start by taking a
broader view and look at the wider events that lead to Jesus birth,
what was going on in the world he was born into. That may sound a bit
dry and dull, but it’s important, because Christian faith is about a
real person who was born in a real place at a real point in time, not
about a set of ideas or doctrines.
The Gospel reading we’ve just heard locates Jesus very thoroughly in
his time. It is the reign of the Emperor Augustus, the time when
Quirinius was governor of Syria, says Luke. These are actual people –
we have other records of them. Publius Sulpicius Quirinius is there in
the records, the legate sent to Judea to try to bring it to heel. And
the Emperor Augustus was the most famous person of his age. He had
brought unity to the Roman Empire in the wake of the civil strife after
Julius Caesar’s assassination. Julius had been declared a god after his
death, but Augustus was declared to be divine even within his lifetime.
The people of his time called him the Son of God, the Redeemer, the
Saviour of the World, titles which we expect to hear applied to Jesus,
but that’s the effect of 2000 years of history. Augustus was known by
these names long before Jesus was. When the early Christians
started calling Jesus by these titles every good Roman would have
winced – it was either high treason or a bad joke. How could a
carpenter from a backwater town in an insignificant little province be
compared to the great Augustus? Jesus’ titles are a direct, and I am
sure, deliberate challenge, claiming to set up a whole new world order.
Jesus is born, says Luke, into this world where Rome thinks it has
power all sewn up, but it isn’t so. God has other ideas!
Of course the other big influence in Jesus’ part of the world, and on
Jesus himself, is the Jewish faith. He grows up amid Jewish
expectations and understandings of the world. If the Romans rule in the
secular realm, the Jewish authorities have a firm grip on all things
religious. They are expecting a Messiah, and they know what he’ll be
like. A king like David – the righteous branch of our Old Testament
reading. Some expect a religious leader, some a military leader, but
they all expect someone with real power who will restore their glory as
a nation, lead them to triumph over the Gentile nations around them.
Jesus doesn’t fit that bill at all – he seems intent on giving away
their distinctive privileged place in God’s eyes, letting anyone in.
When we read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth we often skip quickly
over the historical references – references to Augustus and Quirinius
or to the ideas and hopes of people like the ancient Israelites whose
world view seems very distant from us. But they are vital reminders of
what incarnation really means – God coming among us where we are. In
Jesus’ time that meant coming into the world of Roman rule and Jewish
political expectations . The Road to Bethlehem led through these
political, economic and social landscapes. If we want to see God
at work now we need to look at the political, economic and social
realities of our own time to find him.
The Bishop of Croydon got himself into trouble with the press this week
by suggesting that some of the imagery in our well-loved Christmas
carols was, shall we say, a bit twee and sentimental, a nostalgic
picture of a bygone age, a fantasy which we use to divert us from the
real issues. Of course there were storms of protest – Bishop slams
Christmas carols... – but he has a point. If the Road to Bethlehem
doesn’t run through the here and now then there’s no point setting out
on it. It is God’s message in our situation we need to hear. What is he
challenging? What is he trying to strengthen? As the world leaders
gather at Copenhagen for talks about climate change next week, what is
God saying about the way we treat our planet? Where is he in all that?
The prophet Jeremiah put it well. He told his hearers, in exile in
Babylon, that one day they wouldn’t just be able to say that theirs was
the God who’d led them out of Egypt – a God of a long ago and far away
story - but the God who had led them out of Babylon, where they
were exiled right then as well. May we, this Advent, find God the God
who leads us out of the imprisonments and exiles of our own times, as
he faces the struggles we face with us.
Lead us to Bethlehem Lord.
Show us again the Christ Child –
the King of Kings in a manger.
Remind us you came with no glamour,
but a quiet, extravagant love that
‘freedom from oppression
and good news to the poor’.
Lead us to broken places –
use us to build hope
and work for their transformation.
Jer 33.1-14, Luke 21.25-36
ancient Greek myth, the gods give Pandora a box which she is
forbidden to open. Unsurprisingly, curiosity gets the better of her,
and she does open it, and all the woes and burdens of the world fly out
– war, sickness, fear, hatred. Pandora is horrified, but then she
realises that one thing is left – hope – and hope makes all the
difference. It’s an old story, but it still rings true to us because I
guess we’ve all seen the effect of hope. If people have it they can
often survive and even triumph in the most desperate of circumstances.
If they lose it, life becomes unbearable.
This week there were moving reports in the news of the story of a
Belgian man called Rom Houben who was left paralysed and apparently in
a vegetative state after a car crash 26 years ago. His family were told
he was completely without awareness or comprehension. But somehow they
never gave up hope that the man they knew was still in there. They kept
pushing the doctors to do more tests and finally three years ago found
one which showed that he was completely conscious of his surroundings
and had been all along – he just couldn’t show it. After intensive
physiotherapy and lots of help he can now communicate with the world
once again. It was their hope for him, hope they couldn’t let go of,
which kept his family going, and it turned out that he too had never
given up hope that one day he would break free of this awful prison he
was in. I am sure there were many times when he and his family
felt like giving up, wished they could give up, but hope can be
stubborn; sometimes you can’t let go of it even when you want to.
Hope is a central theme of this season of Advent. As we look forward to
the celebration of the birth of Christ we recall the hopes of the
people of his time for a saviour, the hopes of Mary and Joseph and our
own hopes too.
Today’s Bible readings launch us on this Advent journey of hope. They
tell us stories of ancient peoples who found hope in the midst of
disaster. Jeremiah prophesies to the people of Judah in exile in
Babylon. Their situation looks hopeless. Their city of Jerusalem has
been destroyed, their leaders killed or enslaved. This has to be the
end for them. But God promises them it isn’t so. “The days are surely
coming” he says – not perhaps, not maybe, but surely. Their nation will
be restored and a new king will lead them, a king as great as David – a
branch from the old tree, a chip off the old block. Live with hope,
Jeremiah tells them – things won’t always be as they are now.
And there’s hope at the heart of today’s Gospel reading too. It’s
harder to spot among all those apocalyptic images of roaring seas and
shaking heavens, but it’s there. Jesus tells his followers that these
troubles are the sign that God’s kingdom is close at hand, not signs
that God has abandoned them. “When these things begin to take place,
stand up, raise your heads – your redemption is drawing near.”
Luke’s Gospel was written sometime in the 70’s AD, at a time when the
words Luke attributes to Jesus would have had a special force for his
listeners, because they had just lived through some of the most
harrowing events of their generation. In AD 68 the Roman Emperor Nero
had died, forced to commit suicide by rivals for his throne. The
following year, during bitter civil strife, four different Emperors
ruled one after the other, each coming to a sticky end. But when all
that was over, the trouble was just starting for Judea. The Jewish
people had long been a thorn in Rome’s side, and the new Emperor,
Vespasian, decided that one of his first acts would be to sort out this
troublesome little province once and for all. He sent his son, Titus,
to lay siege to Jerusalem and eventually to destroy it and disperse its
people around the world.
Luke writes in the aftermath of all this, for people still traumatized
by these events. He points them back to Jesus. He told us, he said –
when these things happen they aren’t the end, they are the beginning.
And Luke was right. When Jerusalem was destroyed, the emerging
Christian church was propelled out of its Jerusalem base around the
world. It had to change, to broaden its vision. If Jerusalem hadn’t
been destroyed who knows, the message of Jesus might never really have
spread at all.
So, our Bible readings speak of hope. Hope is a great and powerful
thing, they say. But I think we need to be careful, because though hope
is powerful it can also be powerfully dangerous if we take too simple a
view of it.
Hope can be misplaced. It can be unrealistic. It can lead us down the
wrong path just as easily as the right one, and keep us going down that
path when we should long ago have turned back. We can be so fixated
upon what we hope for that we fail to see the gifts and treasures that
we already have.
That story I began with, of the Belgian man whose family would not give
up hope for him eventually saw those hopes at least partly fulfilled.
Even though he is still severely disabled, simply being able to
communicate again has seemed to him and to them like a whole new life.
They are full of joy, despite the struggles they still have. But there
are many people who long just as intensely as that family did for such
a breakthrough for themselves or for a loved one, who won’t get the
result they want, no matter how hard or how long they hope. Hope is not
a magic wand. Sometimes, in fact, people put themselves through endless
painful tests and treatments in hope of a cure, when what they really
need to do is learn to accept and to live with their lives as they are.
Instead of helping, hope can get in the way.
The problem comes when we let our hopes become fixed and inflexible. We
imagine our lives as we want them to be, and it’s that or nothing. We
aren’t open to good things coming in any other shape than the one we
That sort of thinking has often blighted the way we read the Bible too.
We don’t know what Jeremiah had in his mind when he talked about that
promised Messiah of God, the righteous branch springing from David, let
alone what God had in his mind. But many who heard his prophesies came
to believe that this promised saviour was going to be a king like
David, physically descended from him, ruling a geographical kingdom
like his, only bigger and better. That’s what they hoped for. That’s
what they expected. That’s why they were so aghast at the suggestion
that an itinerant carpenter who refused all offers of worldly power
could be the one – it would never do. He wasn’t the kind of Messiah
they hoped for at all, so that was that.
Today’s Gospel reading has provided even more fertile ground for
dangerous hopes to grow in. Many of the early Christians assumed that
Jesus’ return was just around the corner. They took literally the words
that “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken
place.” Luke probably thought that, and Jesus may have done too. When
it didn’t happen that way the early Christians were thrown into
confusion. It took a long time for them to accept that they needed to
plan for the long term. But there are many people who still see these
words as a blueprint for the Day of Judgement. They justify
neglecting the planet and even welcome disasters because they honestly
believe they are signs that Jesus is about to return, and that’s what
they have always hoped to see. Hope is powerful, but if your image of
the thing you hope for is too fixed, too definite, it can be dangerous
too, blinding you to the reality of the world you are living in,
blinding you to answers which don’t happen to fit your preconceived
So where does that leave us? Should we just abandon hope? I hope
not! What matters, it seems to me, is that we make sure we ask
ourselves what it is we hope for, and why, so that we can develop
healthy hopes which open up possibilities rather than closing them
down. Living hopefully isn’t about having a goal and heading for it
regardless, clinging to an idea through thick and thin. That’s not
hope; it’s just pigheadedness. Jesus tells his followers in this
passage “stand up and raise your heads". Living hopefully, he tells us,
means having our eyes open to see him, our hearts open to know him,
even if he comes to us in ways we didn't expect. If we can do that we
learn to trust that whatever happens he is still with us. True
hope is rooted in relationship, not in results.
So, on this first Sunday of Advent, what is it you hope for? Are your
hopes healthy ones? You may have hopes for your own life, for others in
your family or among your friends? But what if it doesn't happen the
way you hope it will?
And what about your hopes for the world? As leaders gather in
Copenhagen to discuss ways of tackling climate change, what do we
feel? Hopeless, or hopeful? Just like those ancient Israelites in
Babylon hearing promises of a new king and a new nation, we may not be
able to imagine a solution to the problems that face us, but the Bible
tells us that however hopeless we feel, God doesn’t give up on us. He
calls us to put our roots down deep into the soil of his love so that
whatever happens we will still be able to live hopefully, open to his
wisdom and his word, whatever form it takes, for our own sake and for
the sake of others as we live through the difficult times of our age.
Second Sunday before Advent 09
Hebrews 10.11-25, Mark 13.1-8
“Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown
down,” says Jesus. It was an extraordinary, shocking thing to say, and
this statement was the crucial piece of “evidence” produced at his
trial just a short time later. The stones in question are those of the
Temple in Jerusalem, a Temple built by Herod the Great – the Herod of
the Christmas story- and it had only just been completed. It replaced
an earlier Temple, and frankly it was a vanity project. Herod was
determined that his name would live forever, and building a temple
seemed to be the best way to achieve that – not just any temple, but
the biggest, grandest, most lavishly decorated temple he could possibly
But it wasn’t just the size and splendour of the Temple which made
Jesus words’ seem so strange and offensive. It was what the Temple
represented. It was the central focus of Jewish faith. Above all it was
the place where you met with God, offering sacrifices to set right your
relationship with him, to ask for forgiveness or to express your
gratitude. It was the only place where those sacrifices could happen.
And yet here was Jesus saying that it would be demolished, not one
stone left on another. No wonder his hearers were baffled and offended.
Surely, this couldn’t be! God wouldn’t let it happen! How could they
meet God if the Temple wasn’t there?
But Jesus was right. It did happen. In AD 70 – just about the
time Mark’s Gospel was being written - the Romans laid siege to
Jerusalem and eventually destroyed it, Temple and all. It was the end
of a period of tumult that had gone on through the 60’s AD, but in AD
70 the Romans had had enough. The centre of Judaism collapsed and
the people were dispersed around the world. The priestly elite were out
of a job. No temple, no sacrifice; no sacrifice, no role for priests.
It was a huge catastrophe which changed Judaism forever. It’s why Jews
don’t sacrifice now. But the destruction of the Temple had an equally
momentous effect on the fledgling Christian Church. For many years
after the Resurrection, Christianity was simply a reforming movement
within Judaism, but as Jesus’ followers gradually embraced Gentiles and
dropped the requirements that they keep Jewish laws cracks started to
appear and widen between them and the faith they had grown up in.
Tensions grew, and in times of trouble, people tend to draw their
boundaries more tightly, so when Jerusalem was destroyed, the Jewish
religious authorities barred the Christians from the synagogues. You
were either Jewish or Christian - you couldn’t be both. The destruction
of the Temple marked the end of the world they had known for both Jews
and Christians. It wasn’t just the loss of a cultural monument they
mourned, but the loss of the place where they had always felt they
could meet with God.
So now what? Jews turned increasingly to the Torah, the Law. The
destruction of the Temple saw the beginnings of Jewish scholarship
which sustained them through their long Diaspora. But Christians
focussed on Jesus himself. They came to see him more and more, as the
writer to the Hebrews said, the “new and living way” into the presence
of God. You didn’t need a Temple. You didn’t need sacrifice. God wasn’t
confined to the Holy of Holies –you could meet him anywhere. Jesus had
shown that, embodying God in the form of an ordinary Jewish carpenter
from the backwater province of Galilee.
And where did you meet Jesus now? You could meet him in his Holy
Spirit, that inner sense of God. You could meet him in the breaking of
bread as Christians gathered together. You could meet him in every
loving act – “where love is, there is God”. You could meet him as you
served others – “inasmuch as you did it for the least of one of my
brothers and sisters you did it for me,” he’d said. Don’t be alarmed,
says Jesus to his followers. These are birth pangs, not death throes
you are going through; the beginning of a new world.
“The Lord is here!”, we proclaim in our worship, but do we believe it?
Where did we find him today? Where will we look for him tomorrow? The
challenge for us, as it was for his first followers, is to live with
our eyes open for the presence of God. God who has promised that we are
always welcome in his presence and that nothing can separate us from
Remembrance Sunday 09
Isaiah 9.1-6, Romans
I was taking an assembly in Seal School earlier this week, as I do
regularly. I showed the children a picture of our village sign – I’ve
reproduced it on the service sheet. Many of them recognised it and knew
where it was. But what were the images on it? The church was obvious,
but what, I asked did they make of the picture in the bottom left hand
corner. They could see a seal and some waves and a crown, but was it
just a play on the name of the village? Many of you here know the
answer to that question, and could tell the story far better than I,
but I’m hoping you’ll bear with me, because I also suspect that there
are many who don’t, and it is a very dramatic and moving story, worth
hearing and worth thinking about on this Remembrance Sunday morning.
The picture is a representation of the badge of the submarine HMS Seal, a
mine-laying submarine built just before the Second World War. She was
commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Rupert Lonsdale,
quietly devout Christian whose wife had died in childbirth just a
year or so before he took command. In April 1940 Seal was sent on a
mission to lay mines in the Kattegat, between Denmark and Sweden. It
was a dangerous and difficult mission, but Seal did her job and began
to make her way home. She’d been damaged during the mission, though,
and progress was slow and difficult, especially when she realised that
there were German anti-submarine trawlers out hunting for her. She
dived, intending to wait till they had lost her trail. What the crew
didn’t know was that they had somehow snagged a wire attached to a
German mine and had been dragging it along with them. Now that they had
come to a stop, the mine was swept by the current, straight into the
stern of the boat. There was a huge explosion and water began to rush
in. The crew scrambled forward, shutting the watertight doors as they
went. All 60 men on board were safely accounted for, but Seal was lying
at an angle, her stern weighed down by the water and sticking in the
soft mud of the sea floor.
It was early on a summer evening when all this happened, so they had to
wait several hours till it was dark enough to try to surface. At
10.30pm they blew the ballast tanks and started the engines, hoping to
lift Seal off the sea bed. But Seal was stuck fast – in fact the
angle at which she was lying got even steeper. They did some emergency
repairs and tried again. Still no movement. Several hours had passed
and the oxygen levels were falling dangerously low. The carbon dioxide
they were breathing out was building up as well, slowly poisoning them.
They all knew how vital it was that they should surface soon. Even the
smallest tasks were becoming an almost impossible strain for the crew
as they weakened. A third attempt was made, using every trick they
could think of. But still the boat lay on the bottom. It looked utterly
hopeless. Many of the crew could no longer even stand.
Lonsdale ought to have been desperate, but if he was, he didn’t show
it. Instead he announced to the men that he intended to pray. Many of
them privately thought this was completely pointless, but they
respected him enough to keep quiet. So Lonsdale prayed in a loud voice,
so it would carry to the men who were spread through the boat, slumped
in exhaustion. "Dear God, we have tried everything in our power to save
ourselves and we have failed. Yet we believe that you can do all things
which are impossible to men. Please, O Lord, deliver us."
He led the men in the Lord’s Prayer, and then suggested that they said
their own prayers in the quiet of their hearts. As they prayed, he had
an idea. Why it hadn’t occurred to him before now he didn’t know - it
seemed to have come out of nowhere. It was a bit far-fetched. It might
not work, but at this point anything was worth trying.
Lonsdale ordered the men to make their way forward, as far as they were
able. If only they could increase the weight in the front half of the
boat it might just tip it and help it to pull free of the mud. The men
began painfully to move forward – many were only able to crawl. Someone
threw down a rope and they clung to it, pulling themselves upwards.
When they had all gone as far as they could, the engines were switched
on and they waited to see what would happen. Surely the weight of sixty
men couldn’t make a difference, but as they waited they felt the sub
start to move. Inch by inch she began to level out and then to rise to
the surface. The hatches were thrown open and at last, fresh air came
It would be wonderful if that was the end of the story - a classic tale
of courage, ingenuity and triumph against all the odds…But, of course,
it wasn’t, because Seal had surfaced in enemy waters, and soon they
were under attack from German aircraft. Seal was too badly damaged
either to fight back or to escape and Lonsdale, with great reluctance,
surrendered, having destroyed all the confidential documents and
equipment. He and the crew were taken prisoner and spent the rest of
the war in POW camps. That’s where Seal village comes into the story,
of course. Seal had adopted the submarine before the war, but now
everyone swung into action, sending letters and parcels and supporting
the crew’s families until they came home. HMS Seal, though, was towed
into a German harbour, and eventually, briefly and unsuccessfully, was
pressed into service in the German navy.
Any captain surrendering a vessel automatically faces a court-martial,
and Lonsdale knew throughout his captivity that this would happen
to him. In fact Seal was the only British Naval vessel to be
surrendered during the entire war. In the event Lonsdale was honourably
acquitted. The court recognised that to have done anything but
surrender would have condemned not only himself but also the crew to
death, for no real purpose. But his widow told me that, though the
court acquitted him, to his dying day he never really acquitted
himself, never forgave himself for surrendering. It went completely
against the grain of the traditions of the Navy; the captain is
supposed to go down with his ship rather than hand her over. During
their imprisonment he and his crew also faced intermittent hostility
from other prisoners who falsely believed that the surrender of Seal
had led to valuable secrets falling into German hands.
When we know this latter part of the story, suddenly that simple tale
of miraculous salvation becomes a much more complex, darker story, but
much more real too. I’ve never been caught up in a war, but I’ve heard
enough stories from those who have to know that it is rarely
straightforward, any more than the rest of life is. Equipment fails.
People aren’t what they seem - I think of the five soldiers killed this
week by an Afghan policeman they were training, and the Americans
killed in Fort Hood by a US military psychiatrist. Messages are
misunderstood, or don’t get through at all. Lonsdale might have
been able to forgive himself more easily, for example, if he’d known
that the Admiralty had sent a message telling him that the safety of
the crew should be his priority after destroying confidential documents
and equipment – in other words, that he should do exactly what he did.
But he didn’t get the message, because he’d already destroyed the
codebooks he needed to decipher it. Lonsdale bore a heavy load as he
tried to reconcile the ideals of the Navy with the messy reality he
faced on that stricken submarine. It seems to me that his story is a
warning to us today to be aware of the expectations we still place on
those who fight on our behalf, which may be equally unrealistic.
War can teach us many things. It can show us how heroic people are, and
how brutal, how selfless and how selfish. But if it teaches us nothing
else it should teach us humility, the limitations that come with being
human. War is a demonstration of those limitations in itself, of
course, a sign that all our attempts to find a peaceful solution have
failed. We do no one any favours, though, if we confuse the fictional
wars of the blockbuster novel with reality, and expect always to find
clear lines between success and failure, glory and shame. Courage comes
in many forms.
Rupert Lonsdale didn’t just have huge personal strength and resources,
but also the wisdom and true courage to see when he had come to the end
of them, and the ability to look for help beyond himself. "Dear God, we
have tried everything in our power to save ourselves and we have
failed," he prayed, “yet we believe that you can do all things which
are impossible to men. Please, O Lord, deliver us."
In the reading we heard today, St Paul talks of the whole of creation
groaning, longing for a world of peace and freedom that God wants for
his children. Paul faced the might of the Roman Empire, the greatest
empire the world had ever seen, and he was well aware how puny he was
by comparison. If this grand vision were to come to be, it would not be
through his own strength, but by God’s grace.
Today, men and women – military and civilian - in Afghanistan, in Iraq,
in many other conflict zones around the world face what must often seem
like an equally impossible task. I have two prayers to offer for
them. My first is that they will discover that strength which
Lonsdale and his crew knew – the strength which comes, paradoxically,
from realising that they don’t face these trials alone. My second is
that we will have the wisdom to know when our demands on them are
unrealistic, and the compassion to help them when they are crushed by
God’s call to each of us is to do what we can to build a world of
peace, but he longs for us also to know that when our own powers
are exhausted there is a Wonderful Counsellor, the Prince of Peace,
there at our side.
All Souls 2009
1.15-20, John 14. 1-6
I meet with families to plan a funeral service I find myself
issuing what might be called a disclaimer – an apology in advance. We
can’t say all there is to be said about the person who has died, I
explain. There isn’t time, and even if there was we still wouldn’t be
able to say it all. Everyone will have different memories, different
stories. Despite my apologetic tone, though, I usually find that
families are quite happy to accept the limitations of a funeral service
– they know it is impossible to sum up the person they knew in a few
minutes at the church or crematorium. In fact I suspect that they
are sometimes quite relieved.
The truth is that even the most straightforward lives are more like a
patchwork quilt than a single piece of fabric, a mixture of dark and
light, many colours and designs. Among the patches in the quilt will be
some that are familiar and that we want to celebrate - treasured
memories - but there will also be regrets, failures and disappointments
as well, because that is the reality of life. Families often struggle
to acknowledge and deal with those memories, and it is quite
understandable that they don’t want them told at the funeral service.
But sometimes they seem to struggle to voice those thoughts even among
themselves in private.
Once in a while, of course, it’s the other way round – relationships
were bad, and all families can think of is what has gone wrong. Then I
have the opposite challenge – finding some redeeming features to talk
The truth is that both pictures – the perfect saint or the total sinner
– are unrealistic. No one is all darkness, or all light and unless we
can acknowledge the good and the bad as we mourn – privately if not
publicly – we will almost certainly find ourselves with unfinished
business to deal with later.
I remember once greeting a couple after a funeral service at the
crematorium. They had been sitting at the back of the chapel looking
rather uncomfortable throughout and as they left they explained why. It
was a very nice funeral, they assured me, but they had realised as soon
as I started talking about the person who had died that it wasn’t the
one they had come for. Who was this person? It didn’t sound like their
relative at all? It turned out that they were half an hour early –
“their” funeral was next on the list...
That was a case of mistaken identity, but I wonder whether mourners who
have come to the right funeral might sometimes have that feeling too.
Who is this saint everyone is talking about? Can it really be the same
person who, though we loved him, we also found infuriating, demanding,
impossible to live with?
It can be difficult for us to acknowledge – especially when they’ve
just died – that someone we love might have been less than perfect, but
if we do struggle to be realistic about them, tonight’s Bible readings
can reassure us. God has no trouble with the mixture of good and bad,
success and failure that makes up human life. “In him all things hold
together” wrote St Paul, in his letter to the church at Colossae. His
plan in Christ is to reconcile all things to himself, to gather up the
fragments of our lives and our world. His hands are big enough and his
love strong enough to hold the whole of our human experience – the
things we are proud of and the things of which we are ashamed. He can
make of them something new and whole.
We might think we must put on a good face for God, dress up and behave
if we want to be accepted by him. We might think we should present our
loved ones to God in unrealistically glowing terms too, but that’s not
what the Bible says. He accepts us warts and all – and
those we love as well.
As Jesus said to his disciples on the night before he died in the
second reading we heard , “Don’t be afraid – there is room for you in
my Father’s house, whoever you are and whatever you have done. The
place is prepared. Your name is on the door. You’re not a stranger come
to visit, but a member of the family whose place is assured, just as
We look back tonight on the lives of those we have lost with
thanksgiving, but unless they are very unusual people they will have
had their flaws too, just as we all do. There will almost certainly be
sadness and regrets among our memories of hurts we couldn’t heal. God
says to us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” In God’s house there
is room for everyone, and for every part of life. He gathers together
and makes sense of the things we cannot hope to. We, and those we mourn
and miss, are in safe hands.
All Saints 09
Wisdom of Solomon 3.1-9, Rev.
21.1-6a, John 11.32-44
A couple of weeks ago I was in London on my day off. As I headed back
towards Victoria Station to catch the train home I thought I would just
pop into the bookshop attached to Westminster Roman Catholic Cathedral
to pick up some Advent Candles while I was passing. I might as well get
ahead of myself, I thought. It won’t take a minute and then I’ll be
able to cross that job off my list of things that need doing before
As I got near though, I realised it might not be the quick job I
anticipated. There seemed to be a great many people around, both in
front of the cathedral and in the bookshop. In fact there was a queue
to get into the cathedral which zigzagged to and fro filling the plaza
and trailing all the way down the road beside it too. There was a large
screen set up and something being broadcast on it to keep them happy
while they waited. At this point I remembered that this was the day St
Therese of Lisieux was coming to town. Or rather a small part of
Therese of Lisieux – a thigh bone and a bit of her foot, I think –
encased in an ornate casket which was being taken around the United
Now, as you may have guessed, this isn’t exactly my cup of tea -
perhaps it’s not yours either - but it certainly seemed to be a great
many other people’s. Therese’s stop at Westminster Cathedral was just
one of many on a nationwide tour which lasted almost a month, and
everywhere the scenes were the same – crowds of people turning out to
spend a moment praying before her relics. Some came to ask for healing,
hoping for a miracle; others just wanted somehow to share in the
goodness they felt they saw in her life. Perhaps many didn’t know why
they had come at all, but just felt they had to be there. Wherever her
relics were taken there were scenes of devotion which seemed like an
echo from pre-Reformation England.
Of course, in the Middle Ages, this would have been a much more
familiar sight. Every church would have had its relics – every altar
was supposed to have a relic embedded in it. And many people travelled
to visit relics further away too. Pilgrims would have come through Seal
on their way to Canterbury, for example, to venerate the relics of
Thomas a Becket. The crosses carved into the pillar by the door were
probably carved by those pilgrims – a common practice then.
As they made that journey they weren’t just doing so to enjoy the fresh
air and the scenery, or to marvel at the great Cathedral at the end of
it. The aim of the exercise was to get close to those physical
fragments of the saint, to touch the casket in which they were kept,
perhaps even to see them with their own eyes. And although a lot of the
beliefs and practices surrounding the veneration of relics leave me
cold, I can see why they mattered, and how faith might be impoverished
without practices like this.
The point about relics, you see, was that they were physical. They were
real bits of real people, people in whom the pilgrims believed glimpses
of God had been seen. Of course, not all the relics were genuine –
there were several heads of John the Baptist doing the rounds, for
example, which seems unlikely… But that wasn’t the point. They were
real to the pilgrims , and they reminded them powerfully that faith
wasn’t just a matter of ideas and doctrines. It was about real people,
living real lives, in real bodies, which suffered tiredness, hunger and
pain just as theirs did. And yet, within those real lives and real
bodies the saints had found the strength and grace to follow Jesus.
That was an inspiration – if the saints, who were as human as we are,
could live lives of courage and holiness so can we; it was also a
challenge – we can’t let ourselves off the hook by thinking that saints
were somehow made of different stuff from us! We can see they weren’t
when we look at their bones.
Relics reminded people that their faith was about the real world, not
just some distant heaven beyond their sight. Of course, you don’t
have to venerate relics to be aware of this. It is at the heart of the
story of Jesus – God’s word made flesh and blood and bone, living among
us, in a particular place, at a particular time, a real person. In
today’s Gospel we see this humanity. He is deeply disturbed by the
death of a friend, caught up in a private family tragedy which, while
very traumatic and sad, was nothing unusual. Jesus’ response is
extraordinary, of course, raising Lazarus from death, but it happens in
a commonplace setting as an ordinary family faces the kind of loss
which many others before and since have also faced. God can be at work
right where we are, says the story, if we have eyes to see him.
Our second reading today from the book of Revelation, gives us the same
message. Revelation can seem like a very strange book, full of baffling
symbols and images, a playground for conspiracy theorists, but this bit
is straightforward enough, and easy to understand. Its writer was
a Christian leader who had been exiled to the dry, dusty island of
Patmos, far from the communities he cared for. He, and they, were
facing persecution and death for their faith, and he was worried for
them, just as anyone would be. If you strip away all the dramatic
language his message is a simple one – the one he and his flock need to
hear as they face these challenges - and it is right here in this
passage. “See” says the voice which speaks to him, “the home of God is
among mortals.” God is not in some distant heaven, too far away to see
their pain, too grand to care about it, but right there with them,
wiping away the tears, helping them deal with the things that cause
These Bible passages, like the relics of the saints, remind us to keep
it real. A faith that is just words and ideas is unlikely to
sustain you when you really need it. You can have the neatest, most
well-worked out theology in the world, you can know all the ins and
outs of double predestination and the doctrine of the imputation of the
righteousness of Christ, but when your doctor tells you he’s found a
lump, or the boss tells you you’ve been made redundant, or you’re
struggling with the temptation to do something that will hurt someone
else, all that theology won’t amount to a hill of beans. What will make
a difference are the real-life habits you have built up, habits that
have grown out of an honest struggle with your own experiences. The
habit of making time for reflection and prayer, the habit of living
with integrity, the habit of looking out for places where God is at
work, for places where love is being created, and for the places where
it needs to be created.
A faith which is just theory isn’t enough at these times. It won’t do
you any good, and it’s unlikely to do anyone else any good either. At
best it is irrelevant; at worst it can be positively damaging, because
if there’s a mismatch between the theory and the reality, the
temptation always seems to be to distort reality to fit. It’s a bit
like Cinderella’s Ugly Sisters cutting off their toes to cram their
feet into the glass slipper. Religion – any religion - becomes
dangerous when it takes its eyes off the earth it can see to focus on
the heaven it can’t. I think of the generations of illegitimate
children who were stigmatised for the perceived sins of their parents,
despite the fact that none of us can be held responsible for our
origins. Theological theories about sin were allowed to obliterate
compassionate common sense. I think of the way in which the apartheid
regime in South Africa justified its oppression of black people. They
truly believed that God had created some races to be inferior to others
and that they would be happier if they lived separately. They could
quote all the Bible verses to support their argument. But they refused
to see the evidence in front of them, the oppression and suffering
their theory was causing.
As a woman priest, if I can be personal for a moment, and thoroughly
biased, I have to say that I have experienced this sort of thinking in
relation to the ordination of women too. Those who oppose women’s
ordination as priests and bishops often do so on what are called
“impossibilist” grounds. They believe that, in some mystical sense,
ordination just can’t “stick” to us as it does to men. We can call
ourselves priests, others can call us priests, but we aren’t priests.
It doesn’t matter how well we do the job, whether people feel that they
have been blessed or nurtured by our ministry, whether they experience
something priestly in it - nothing has actually “happened”, they say,
whatever that might mean. To me, it is a classic case of putting the
cart before the horse, allowing theological theories which we can’t
test to overrule the real experience which we can.
Keep it real, say God’s saints to us today. We either find God where we
are, or we don’t find him at all. If the theory doesn’t match the
experience, question the theory rather than mutilating reality to fit
it. The faith we need is not a string of fancy words and clever ideas;
it’s rooted in experience and grows by reflecting on experience. Faith
like that sometimes feels less tidy, more provisional, more open to
change than a carefully constructed set of intellectual ideas, but when
the rubber hits the road real, flexible faith will be far more use to
us, far more resilient. I’m still not convinced about relics – I’d be
quite happy if they had let what remains of Therese of Lisieux rest in
peace, but if her physical presence reminds us that it is in this
world, in real people – even people like us – that God’s light
shines, then perhaps her visit will have done some good.
October 11 2009 Trinity
A man runs up to Jesus in the Gospel reading we just heard and kneels
down in the dust before him. We don’t know much about him. We don’t
know his name. We don’t know where he’s from, or how old he is, or what
he does for a living, but one thing is pretty obvious. He is desperate.
He REALLY wants an answer to his question. He comes running, not
walking. He throws himself on the ground. He’s begging for help.
Which makes it all the more surprising that when he gets his answer he
refuses to accept it and walks away. He is shocked and grieving, the
story says, but he doesn’t even give Jesus a chance to explain. “Go,
sell what you own and give the money to the poor” he says, “ and you
will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me”. However desperate
he was for an answer, it wasn’t this answer he wanted. Many people in
the Gospels find hope, healing, love and joy when they meet Jesus, but
this man isn’t one of them.
It’s a poignant story. Jesus looks at this man and loves him, we are
told. He doesn’t condemn. He doesn’t judge. But he seems to know from
the outset that he won’t be able to help him, and the reason for that
is actually there in the very question the man asks him.
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
It’s that word “inherit” that gives it away. The Greek word Mark uses –
klero - is the word you use of something that comes into your
possession – a piece of land, for example. It doesn’t necessarily mean
that you’ve inherited it in our modern sense, from someone who has
died. It could have been given to you in payment for something, or
allotted to you for some other reason. The thing is, it is yours and
once you’ve got it that’s that. You might build a house on it, or grow
something on it, but if you wanted to you could ignore it completely
and leave it to the weeds. It’s up to you. You might never set foot on
it at all in fact, but it would still be yours. You could treat it as
an investment, something to cash in when the need arises. It is yours,
just sitting there for you to do with as you wish.
It’s a bit like people who buy works of art not because they actually
think they are beautiful, not because they want to hang them on the
wall and look at them, but simply because they think they will one day
be able to sell them for more than they bought them. They lock them in
a vault somewhere, and there they sit, in the dark, waiting to be sold
That is how this man views eternal life, as a particularly valuable and
sought after possession which he can store alongside all his other
possessions for a rainy day – a divine insurance policy if you like.
When Jesus suggests that eternal life might actually involve a radical
change to the way he lives here and now, he takes fright. That wasn’t
what he had in mind at all.
I don’t think he is alone in thinking of eternal life in this way, as a
thing to possess, a golden ticket to get you into heaven one day. In
fact I’d go so far as to say that is a very common for people to regard
it that way. Pay your dues and all will be well when the day of
judgement comes. That might mean saying the right prayers, or going
through the right rituals, or believing the right things or acting in
the right ways, but the principle is the same. In return you get
something which you can bank against the time you need it.
Sadly, it’s a view that has often been promoted by both secular and
religious leaders. If people’s eyes are fixed on a distant vision of
heaven it is less likely that they will start asking awkward questions
about this world and its injustices. Never mind that you are
oppressed, hungry, poor now – behave yourself properly, guard that
golden ticket, and all will be well one day.
But the point Jesus is making here is that eternal life is not a thing
that can be possessed or stored, it has to be lived. It’s obvious when
you think of it. Life, the ordinary life that you and I and all
creatures live, isn’t a possession, it is a process. It is one moment
after another, made up of a succession of actions, thoughts, words.
It’s a journey, not a destination. It is all the things that happen to
us, all the things we do. We shape it, and it shapes us. Life is
not a static lump of stuff that you can store somewhere until you need
it – in the bank, on the shelf, in a file somewhere.
When the Bible talks about eternal life it isn’t talking about
something which is different in nature from that ordinary life, but
something that is different in quality. Jesus calls it “life in all its
fullness” in John’s Gospel. It is life, if you like, lived in colour
rather than black and white, life filled with love, life lived with an
awareness of ourselves, of one another and of God. Life that nothing
can extinguish, not even death. But above all it is life that is lived.
This man who comes to Jesus is making what philosophers call a category
error. It’s like him asking “how big is yellow?” – a question that has
no meaning. He is so used to thinking of everything as a possession
that he assumes eternal life is just another one. But eternal life
isn’t something that comes in a box from Argos. That’s why Jesus can’t
tell him how to get it, where to buy it, what the catalogue number is,
which is what he was hoping for. All he can tell him is how to live in
a way that will draw him closer to God, in a way that has that eternal
quality to it.
But when the man realises what Jesus is saying, he also realises that
living this way will involve change. In particular, in his case, he’ll
have to get rid of those possessions in which he has put so much of his
trust, and start to trust God instead. If he can do that, Jesus says,
he will find he is living the life he longed for – he will have eternal
life, treasure in heaven. But somehow is it all just too difficult, so
he turns and walks away.
One of my favourite children’s stories is Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So
story,” the Sing Song of Old Man Kangaroo. This man reminds me very
much of Old Man Kangaroo. The kangaroo, says the story, was once a very
ordinary looking creature, with short legs, and a thin tail, like a
rat. But the kangaroo wasn’t happy with this. He went to the gods and
asked them, “make me different from all other animals, and wonderfully
run after”. He was asking to be a celebrity, but the gods took him
literally. They summoned the dingo, and set him to chase after the
kangaroo – he wanted to be sought after, didn’t he? Kangaroo ran as
fast as he could to escape, all across Australia, and as he did
his back legs got stronger and stronger, until eventually he was
hopping on them, and his tail thickened, so that it stuck out “like a
milking stool behind him”. By the time the chase ended, back at the
salt pans where the gods were bathing, the kangaroo was the shape we
see today. But it wasn’t what he had had in mind at all, he complained.
“This wasn’t what I had in mind,” he protested, “the dingo has altered
my shape so I'll never get it back; and he's played Old Scratch with my
Doing what Jesus asks will be just as disruptive to the life of the man
in today's Gospel – he’ll never be the same if he follows him. Jesus
promises that this reshaping will lead him to the fullness of life he
really needs and longs for. All he can see is what he will have to let
go of, and that turns out to be too frightening for him to contemplate.
The rich man turned away and rejected the changes which were the key to
his transformation, the key to him sharing God’s work in the world,
being part of the kingdom of God. Each of us is called to live “eternal
life”, life that is full, overflowing with love, not just for our own
sakes but so that we can help set right what is wrong around us. This
isn’t about getting a ticket to heaven; it is about discovering heaven
here and now. Just like that rich man, that involves change, unless we
are saints already – and I’m certainly not. He was called to give up
his possessions. We may need to change our lives in other ways, though
I am sure that many of us have more than we need, and more than is
healthy for us too. It may be, though, that we need to seek forgiveness
or give forgiveness. It may be that we need to learn more, deepen our
faith, spend time in prayer, read the Bible. It may be that we need to
do something active to create justice in our world – to stop cursing
the darkness and start lighting the candles, as the saying goes. The
point is that if we are serious about wanting eternal life, God’s life,
in our lives then we have to accept that it will change us, and that is
often hard. Jesus looked at the rich man and loved him as he struggled.
He looks at us and loves us too, as we struggle with the challenges we
face, but in the end it is up to us whether we come and follow or turn
and walk away.
October 4 2009
Trinity 17 Evensong (St Francis/Harvest thanksgiving)
Josh 3.7-end, Matt 10.1-22
Throughout the history of the church there have been people who have
responded literally to the words of the New Testament passage we heard
today. Jesus commands his disciples to go out to preach the gospel
taking no gold or silver or copper in their belts, no bag for their
journey. They are to take no spare clothes, no sandals, no staff. They
are to depend utterly on God to provide for them through those they
St Antony, in fourth century Egypt, turned his back on his society and
spent the rest of his life in the desert praying and meditating. Others
soon followed him – the desert fathers and mothers – living austere
lives, wrestling with the demons who they believed inhabited those wild
Theirs was a contemplative path, but others have lived by faith in
active ministries. George Muller, a German born member of the Plymouth
Brethren founded and ran a number of orphanages in Bristol and the
South West during the19th and into the 20th centuries. He was famous
for refusing to ask for money for his work. If there was a need, he
prayed for it, and, according to reports, in came the money he needed.
I’m not suggesting that’s the way we ought to do things, but this sort
of very literal response to the Gospel message has appeared time and
time again in Christian history.
Perhaps the most famous among those who have “lived by faith” like this
was the saint whose feast day falls today – appropriately on our
Harvest Festival day - that of St Francis. I told his story this
morning, but for the sake of those who weren’t there, here’s a brief
recap. He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, and as a young man
had everything he could possibly want. His head was full of full of
dreams of romance and glory. He loved nothing better than a good night
out – wine, women and song. But during a war between Assisi and
neighbouring Perugia Francis was captured and held for a year in
prison, suffering cold, damp and hunger there. When he came home, no
matter how he tried he couldn’t simply slip back into his old, carefree
life. Gradually he saw the hollowness of the life he had lived before.
His conversion wasn’t an instant one, rather a gradual “unlearning” of
the lessons he had grown up with, that material wealth was the key to
happiness, that the poor, if noticed at all, should be kept at a safe
The Gospel passage we heard this evening was a key part of the journey
of faith which eventually transformed him into the saint whom we
remember today. The earliest biography of Francis was written by Thomas
of Celano in 1228, just two years after his death. He had known
Francis, so the account he gives of Francis encounter with this reading
is probably accurate.
“One day, however, when the gospel story of Christ sending his
disciples to preach was read in the church, the holy man of God
[Francis] was present and more or less understood the words of the
gospel. After mass he humbly asked the priest to explain the gospel to
him. He heard that Christ's disciples were supposed to possess neither
gold, nor silver, nor money; were to have neither bread nor staff; were
to have neither shoes nor two tunics; but were to preach the kingdom of
God and penance. When the priest had finished, Francis, rejoicing in
the spirit of God, said, "This is what I want! This is what I'm looking
for! This is what I want to do from the bottom of my heart!"
Francis, according to the account, took off his shoes, tossed away his
staff, gave up everything except a single tunic and exchanged his
leather belt for the cord which Franciscans still wear today. “he was
not a deaf hearer of the gospel,” said Celano, “but, laudably
committing all that he had heard to memory, he diligently attempted to
fulfil them to the letter”
Francis expected the brothers who joined his community to follow the
same pattern. In the rule he wrote for them he says this:
The brothers should appropriate neither house, nor place, nor anything
for themselves; and they should go confidently after alms, serving God
in poverty and humility, as pilgrims and strangers in this world. Nor
should they feel ashamed, for God made himself poor in this world for
us. This is that peak of the highest poverty which has made you, my
dearest brothers, heirs and kings of the kingdom of heaven, poor in
things but rich in virtues. Let this be your portion. It leads into the
land of the living and, adhering totally to it, for the sake of our
Lord Jesus Christ wish never to have anything else in this world,
St Clare, who founded the first female communities of Franciscans was
just as radical in her discipleship. She defied her wealthy family and
refused to fulfil their expectations that she would marry. Worse than
that though, the convents she founded didn’t ask for dowries for the
women who entered. Other convents became rich that way, and were often
little more than than places to palm off inconvenient, unmarried
daughters Clare’s convents, though, were open to all women, and all
women who were part of them were equal. There was no life of luxury on
offer – Clare’s sisters cared for the poor and the homeless.
It sounds like a demanding and an austere life. Perhaps it ought to
have been rather miserable. But it’s clear that it didn’t seem that way
to Francis and Clare. Instead Francis saw it as the path to true joy
“It leads into the land of the living…” he said in that extract from
his rule. He didn’t simply mean that it would get you into heaven when
you died. It was the path to true joy in this world too.
So, how do we feel when we hear of these lives of tremendous
self-sacrifice and simplicity?
You’re anything like me, your feelings might be mixed.
We might be filled with admiration – though we might prefer to admire
from a safe distance, and hope God doesn’t expect us to live like this
We might find the idea of living a simple life tempting, though to be
honest, it is probably the idea rather than the reality that attracts
us. De-cluttering, down-sizing – wouldn’t it be nice to clear out the
Btu we might also have some quite legitimate questions and reservations
about living like Francis and Clare. It’s all very well if you have no
dependents, but for many of us it’s just not so simple to throw aside
our responsibilities, and we would probably feel it was wrong to do so.
I remember once hearing the Argentinian evangelist Luis Palau speak. I
was about 19 at the time, as was most of the audience, and he, I
suppose was in his 40’s – ancient as far as I was concerned. He looked
around at the sea of eager, young faces about him. “Ah,” he said,” it
is easy for you young people to be enthusiastic about following Jesus,
to be prepared to give him your all, and maybe to judge us older people
too. But what do you have to give up to follow him? What have you got
to lay on the altar? A pair of jeans and a biro…”
Francis’ story is an alluring one, but it is easy to hear it, reflect
on it and think – yes, but what has it to do with me? I can’t live like
that. So we consign his example to history, and go on as we were
before. And in doing so we miss the real challenge, which isn’t to copy
Francis , but to discover what it might mean for us to follow God’s
call, and find the joy that comes from living as WE are supposed to.
The most important message of that Gospel reading which so moved
Francis isn’t the specific instructions about what you are to wear and
carry , it is the command to be good news for those around you, to be
the bearer of peace, someone in whom others see a glimpse of God’s
kingdom, someone who can see a glimpse of God’s kingdom in them
That might happen through our words, but often it will be our actions
and our choices which communicate good news, and it can happen not just
in the extreme and dramatic discipleship of a Francis or a Clare, but
in the everyday things of life. For example, by supporting fair
trade our lives become good news to producers on the other side of the
world. By reducing our environmental impact, our lives become good news
for those who are suffering drought, famine and flooding caused by
climate change. By getting involved in our local communities –
volunteering to help with the cubs and the Beavers, who desperately
need committed adults to lead them – we become good news in our local
Francis’ life calls us to clear away the clutter that obscures the
light in us. The clutter of his life was the wealth that weighed him
down. The clutter of Clare’s life was the expectation of her family.
Our clutter may be different – fears, habits, just the suspicion that
nothing we can do matters anyway – but if we can clear it away, we too
can shine with God’s light. On this St Francis Day Harvest Festival,
may we be good news, just as he was, people whose lives are full of the
fruits of God’s harvest abundance.
September 27 2009 Trinity 16 09
James 5.13-20, Matt 9.38-50
In our first reading today, we heard a lot about prayer. James tells
those early Christians he is writing to to pray; to pray when they are
suffering, pray when they are cheerful, pray for others, ask others to
pray for them.
One of the most surprising things I find in my ministry is the number
of people who pray. Not just regular churchgoers, but people who rarely
or never go to church, people who aren’t part of any organised
religion. They might just send up a plea in a time of desperation, or
they might spend time contemplating as they walk the dog or do the
gardening; they might use words, or simply sit in silence. It is very
common to come in to the church building or wander round the churchyard
and discover someone quietly enjoying a moment’s peace or a safe place
to shed a tear. Some people leave prayers on the board which stands by
the Lady Chapel, but sometimes I find little notes on the altar too,
the record of someone’s struggle. I gather them up, in case you wonder,
and add my prayers to them. I am quite sure, though, that God hears
these prayers, however they are offered, whoever offers them. God isn’t
limited by the boundaries of our human ideas or institutions, as Jesus
very forcibly reminds his disciples, when they moan that someone is
healing in Jesus name without – horrors! – having the right membership
card, so to speak.
Prayer seems to be a deeply rooted human instinct. Archaeologists find
evidence of it going way back. Cave paintings weren’t just a bit of
interior decoration – almost certainly they were part of some sort of
worship ritual, a prayer for a successful hunt. Every culture has its
sacred sites – springs and trees and mountains. The offerings left in
these places speak of ancient prayers for healing, good fortune, or
People pray, or at least the vast majority do, in my experience. They
always have done, and I don’t see any signs that prayer is going out of
fashion, whatever happens to organised religion.
But perhaps we don’t very often think about how or why we pray, and
that can mean that our prayer lives aren’t always as rich and
sustaining as they might be. So, I thought, this morning I’d spend some
time thinking about prayer. I’m just going to draw a few thoughts from
the Bible and Christian tradition which might help you to think about
your own prayer life.
The first and by far the most important lesson in the Bible about
prayer comes right at the start, in the book of Genesis. If you get
this bit sorted, the rest falls into place. In the beginning says the
story, God creates, and he looks at his creation and declares it good.
That includes the people he has made. They were so good, says the
story, that what God wanted to do most of all was simply to be with
them. He came walking in the garden, the story says, in the cool of the
evening, just looking for them, as you would for a friend at the end of
the day. Of course, he discovers that they are hiding, ashamed of
themselves because they have done the one thing he asked them not to,
but that’s another story. The point is that God’s desire was to be with
them, and throughout the Bible that message comes back. “You will be my
people, and I will be your God” he says, again and again. He says it as
he rescues them from slavery in Egypt. He says it to them when they
reach the Promised Land. He says it to them even when they ignore him,
when they live in ways that hurt and oppress others. Sometimes he seems
on the brink of abandoning them, but in the end it is as if he can’t
bear to. “How can I give you up?” he says to them through the prophet
Hosea “How can I hand you, over?” “ I will be like dew to Israel; he
shall blossom like the lily, he shall strike root like the forests of
Lebanon.” (Hosea 11.8 & 14.5-7)
God isn’t like an autocratic, bad-tempered ruler, someone into whose
presence we must creep, trembling, ready with words to butter him up
and keep him happy. Nor is he some sort of cosmic vending machine, who,
if you put your prayers in the slot, is obliged to give you what you
want. He is a friend, says Genesis, a friend who loves us, and that
changes the whole dynamic.
Prayer is, at its heart, just us as we are meeting God as God is, and
discovering through this encounter that we are accepted. Meeting God is
not something you have to dress up for, or put on a posh voice for, or
pretend about. Who do you think you are fooling anyway? He knows who
So, what about the prayer we offer for specific situations – what we
call intercessory prayer in church jargon? Where does that fit in to
this? I wanted to come to this second, because it seems important that
we get the relationship thing straight first, but that doesn’t mean
that intercessory prayer isn’t important – praying for our own needs,
or the needs of others actually follows on from that discovery of a
relationship with God as friend. Friends do want to know what’s on your
heart and mind, what you are concerned about, but seeing God as friend,
rather than vending machine, might change what we expect from those
If you were to talk to a friend about something that concerned you, a
number of things might happen. Perhaps the friend could do something
directly to help. I’m not ruling that out when we pray – sometimes
things do seem to happen as a result of prayer that we can’t explain –
miracles if you like. But it could be, instead, that a friend
might help you to see what you could do to solve the problem yourself,
to help you to see it in a new light. Sometimes we are the answer to
our intercessory prayers – it is our change of heart, mind and will
which are often the vital elements in sorting out the situation we are
Sometimes, though, the gift your friend gives you might simply be to
listen, to give you time. That can be all the healing we need from God.
Perhaps there is nothing that can be done in a particular situation
except learning to accept it with grace. I have often longed for a
magic wand, but somehow it seems to be maddeningly elusive. But
prayer can tell you at these times that you are not alone, and often
that’s the most precious gift of all, and the most important answer to
The third point I want to make today follows on from that. Prayer
reminds us that we are all connected – connected to one another as well
as to God. It builds up those connections, helping us to see ourselves
and to see God, but also to see one another more clearly, and because
of that to love one another more deeply. James assumes in his letter
that prayer happens within a community – it isn’t just something which
we do alone, but something we do for each other. In a sense, prayer is
the glue that holds his community together. I think that is just as
true now, which is why there is a variety of ways we pray for each
other here at Seal. Some of you will be well aware of them, but for the
sake of those who aren’t it’s worth drawing your attention to them.
There’s our prayer board at the front here, where you can leave a
prayer. There’s a prayer list on it too, where you can add a name to be
read out in our public prayers. That happens twice a month – on the
first Sunday morning and the third Sunday evening. There’s a prayer
basket which is brought up to the altar at communion too – you can
write a prayer and put it in the basket before the service starts.
We need to exercise a bit of caution, of course, about how we pray
publicly for each other. Not everyone wants the fact that their
varicose veins are playing them up broadcast to the entire congregation
without their say-so! But if public prayer would help you, then it’s on
offer. If we are serious about creating a church in which people feel
safe and welcome, a church where they can grow, then sharing prayer for
each other is an important part of that, however discreetly it happens.
I’m aware that these thoughts on prayer aren’t comprehensive – there is
much more to say and many questions I haven’t even touched on – but it
seems to me that if we can get our heads around these basic things we
have made a good beginning.
• Prayer is rooted in our relationship with God. If
we find it hard to pray it might be because there’s something wrong
with that relationship.
• Prayer is answered in many different ways –
sometimes we are the answer to our own prayer, sometimes the effect
prayer has is simply to remind us that we are loved and remembered.
• And prayer isn’t just a solitary pursuit. It
connects us not just with God, but with one another.
Prayer matters. It is the lifeblood of our faith, the glue which holds
us together, so however we do it, we need to do it.
If any of this has made you think again about prayer you might find it
helpful to look at the leaflet you were given this morning. “Pray as you can…not as you can’t”, I’ve
called it. It’s got some ideas for praying; things you may not have
tried, but things which are rooted in Christian tradition and history.
If they help, use them. If they don’t, forget them. As I said when I
started, prayer is a part of being human, something which should come
as naturally to us as breathing – and it is just as important too. It
is the way we learn that we are loved, that we are held in hands which
will never let us go, and that’s something which we can never have too
September 20 2009
Trinity 15 Breathing Space
James 3.13 - 4.3,7- 8a, Mark 9.30-37
“The disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying, and they were
afraid to ask him.”
As Jesus heads towards Jerusalem he tells the disciples about the
suffering and death that awaits him there. But something
about what he is saying is too much for them to get their heads around.
They don’t understand, and they are afraid to ask.
The intriguing question is, “why are they afraid to ask? What are they
afraid of?” Are they afraid of looking stupid? Probably – no one likes
to admit ignorance. But I think there’s more to it than that.
If there is anything worse for them than not understanding Jesus here,
it is what might happen if they did understand him.
Death, suffering, betrayal. These things aren’t in their game plan for
Jesus – he is supposed to be the popular leader, the one who will sit
on the throne of God’s kingdom. Of course there is talk of resurrection
here, but can they really trust that the resurrection will make all the
pain that comes before it worthwhile? Can they believe it will happen
at all? The last thing they want to do is get Jesus to spell his
message out for them. It’s no surprise that his words fall like
lead balloons into a bottomless pool of awkward silence.
My guess is that we have all been there in situations like this,
situations where we really don’t want to hear, don’t want to take in
something we are being told. An unwelcome diagnosis, a redundancy
notice, the loss of someone close to us, a relationship in
difficulties… things which will change our lives, alter our future. If
we don’t let the words in, if we refuse to understand, perhaps it will
go away. The last thing we want to do is check it out. Like the
disciples, we are afraid to ask because we don’t know how we’ll cope
with the new reality we are being told about. It’s not so much that we
can’t understand it, but that we can’t stand under it. It feels like a
weight that is too heavy for us to bear.
At times like these we’ll often engage in what psychologists call
“displacement activity”– fussing over trivialities, getting worked up
about something irrelevant to take our minds off what is really
happening, moving the deckchairs on the Titanic so we don’t have to
look at the iceberg,. The disciples engage in displacement activity
here. Jesus has just been talking about the powerlessness he will face.
There’s nothing they can do about that, nothing they can do to protect
him, or themselves. So instead they plunge into a bit of personal
point-scoring about who is the greatest among them. “I’m closer to
Jesus than you are!” “He called me to follow him before you!”
James talks about the same sort of behaviour in his letter – people who
fight among themselves rather than facing the things that need
attention in their own lives – the cravings that are at war within
them. You don’t have what you need, he says, because you don’t ask for
it. When you do ask, you are asking for the wrong things – things that
won’t meet your real needs. Like the disciples, the real problem is
that these people can’t find the courage to ask the questions they
really need to, because if they do they will reveal – to themselves as
much as to anyone else – just how vulnerable and needy they really
That’s one reason why, I think, Jesus takes a child in his arms as a
response to their squabbling. Children couldn’t afford to play silly
games, pretending they were fine, pretending they had no need. That’s
still true today, but in Jesus’ world life was even more precarious for
them than it is now. If they didn’t cry, if they didn’t ask, if they
didn’t recognise and express their need, they might not be fed or
housed or protected. But if the adults around them met those needs they
discovered there were people who loved them, people whom they could
love and trust, people who would help them not because they had to – no
one was making them – but because they wanted to. In the same way, says
Jesus, it is only as we recognise and express our need – welcoming the
children that we all really are, bundles of need and vulnerability –
that we discover God’s goodness and his love for us.
Tonight then, I’d like to invite you to wonder what questions you are
afraid to ask – of yourself, of others, of God. What needs do you have
that you’d rather not acknowledge? What do you want to say that you
haven’t yet been able to? In the silence, ask yourself why, and what
you plan to do about that.
Sept 13 2009 Trinity 14
Sermon by Kevin Bright
Mark 8.27-38, Isaiah 50.4-9a, James 3.1-12
"The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to
sustain the weary with a word.’’ Aren’t you the lucky ones this morning!
There may be some weary people here this morning having walked, and
cycled for Kent churches, built, manned and dismantled stands at Seal
fete and those who organised, dispatched and cleared a well received
fish and chip supper!
Some of us may be the weary but I’m not the one with the tongue of a
teacher, these, of course were the words of Isaiah from our Old
Isaiah says some important things about communication. He is somebody
whose ear is truly attuned to the voice of God. Certainly listening and
thinking in ways which allow space for God’s word to flourish will be a
good starting point for us all.
It also matters that words are not misused or taken out of context by
denying their starting place in God. If this happens God’s word will
not be recognised and communication will break down.
The English middle classes, in particular, are rather good at keeping
emotions in check. We are good at making small talk finding subjects
which are safe to discuss. Illness, mourning, faith and fear are topics
which rarely fill our conversation. It is said that if an Englishman
was stuck on a desert island he wouldn’t arrange the drift wood to
spell HELP but would need to collect rather more to spell out ‘ACTUALLY
I’M FINE THANK YOU!
I was sitting in a barbers shop in Charlton several weeks ago when the
Greek chap cutting my hair spotted an old man walking down the road
about a hundred yards away and nearly pierced my eardrums as he
screamed across the street ‘Hey John how did the operation go?’ It made
me think how refreshing it was to hear someone show care for another so
openly and without a hint of awkwardness.
Do you ever get the feeling that there are so many ways of
communicating yet little of real meaning is being said? We are
bombarded with rubbish through hundreds of TV channels, unwanted
telephone calls, texts and junk mail. With respect to junk mail look
out for the one purporting to come from HM Government which says that
if you eat too much chopped pork you can get swine flu – ignore it,
it’s just spam.
The words which really carry meaning, really change things from then on
will be very small in number. Here’s some that might fit the bill…I
love you, Were getting married, I’m gay, I’m joining the army, I want a
divorce, I’ve got cancer, I’m pregnant, I’m redundant.
This is certainly not small talk; these sort of statements will usually
be remembered for a life time and possibly, for good or bad, life may
never be the same again afterwards. Imagine blurting out of these
statements in the middle of dinner party chit chat, it would be a real
If you think I’m taking a long time getting to the point today it’s
possible that this gives a hint of the way things had been progressing
for the disciples.
Everywhere they’ve been people would have been asking them about Jesus
and no doubt many would also have offered strong opinions stating that
he was mad, demon possessed or a trouble making revolutionary as well
as a force for good.
There is every possibility that the disciples enjoyed the speculation
and debate and no doubt a fair bit of gossiping went on between them.
So the next question is going to offer one of those defining life
changing moments and it will be a brave man who commits himself to
‘Who do you (as distinct from other people) say that I am’ asks Jesus.
You can imagine the disciples looking at each other to see who will
answer, should they play safe by stating that he is a prophet and
letting him explain further or would that show a lack of conviction.
Dare they say he is the Messiah or will he rebuke them stating that he
is only a prophet?
Peter knows who he hopes Jesus is and isn’t afraid to say that Jesus is
the Messiah. It seems inconceivable that the other disciples weren’t
thinking the same thing, why otherwise would they have given up
everything to follow him? Yet clearly they weren’t all ready to admit
this in front of Christ and each other.
Peter's bold claim about Jesus might sound like a man who is confident
in Christ, but he's taken some time to get here, after witnessing one
impressive deed of Jesus after another, and hearing Jesus proclaim the
reign of God throughout the first half of Mark's Gospel. Like us, he
has stumbled and struggled at times, but today he seems to have a
moment of great clarity.
Having finally got this life changing word out in the open Jesus
explains what this will mean for him and the disciples, and it’s
gravely serious, it has already shaped Jesus and will shape the life
and death of his followers also.
To some it will only ever be just a word and its meaning and power will
not be realised.
As James explains in his letter to the early church words can be
problematic. Religious words which would be world changing if lived out
by the huge numbers who recite them can be said week in and week out
without affecting their lifestyles. Some people who speak words of evil
gossip and prejudice also call themselves Christians.
James has a problem with this challenging us with his illustration of
the stream, it either gives pure water which is life giving or that
which is not fit to drink, but it cannot do both. Our words also have
the potential to either be life affirming or to contaminate the stream
Those who feel that their contribution to church and community life is
limited by time or who feel less able to contribute as their bodies
wear out would do well to remember the power of the words we utter,
perhaps in prayer, perhaps through words of encouragement or
affirmation. Words have real power to bring change and influence
others. Words can also be dangerous.
So when Peter states that Jesus is the Messiah he is making a very
dangerous statement both politically and theologically. It meant that
Jesus is the true king of Israel, likely to enrage the Jewish
hierarchy. It also meant that his authority exceeded that of Rome
itself, unlikely to go down well with the Roman Emperor and his
For the disciples this also a turning point, life just got a great deal
harder, reality is hitting home as Jesus spells out how his time of
great suffering lay ahead. Its time to focus on God’s agenda and this
is why harsh words are inflicted upon Peter as he thinks of things in
earthly terms, when Jesus says ‘get behind me Satan’ he makes it clear
that the path ahead cannot be changed.
In challenging Jesus, perhaps saying surely it doesn’t have to be like
this do we see a little of ourselves in Peter? Do we want to deny the
reality of Christ’s suffering and seek a less painful way?
Do we want to focus on the love and life enhancing aspects of Christ
but avoid the work needed to explore the more difficult, deeper,
spiritual and sometimes risky or painful parts?
If this is the case then we are not facing up to all Jesus really is
and could be to us and our lives will be the poorer for it.
Which matters more to us: who we would like Jesus to be, or who we will
allow Him to be?
No one can say that Jesus induced them to follow him under false
pretences. Christ didn’t come to offer us an easy life but to challenge
us to realise our potential for greatness.
As always God leaves us free to choose. The proclamation of who Jesus
really is turns out to be the pivotal point in Marks gospel and the
point of real change for the disciples.
The big question for us is are we at the point where we are ready to
change in the way we know Christ for all he can be or are we not ready
for this yet and need to keep him at arms length.
Either way it’s not a question that we can leave unanswered.
Sept 6 09 Trinity 13
Isaiah 35.4-7a, Mark 7.24-37
on your pew sheet shows a woman at a feeding station in
Ethiopia. It comes from last Sunday’s Independent newspaper, reporting
on the famine which is threatening that battered country once again.
It’s a powerful picture, but one which leaves us with as many questions
Who is this woman? She looks too old for this to be her child, but
perhaps poverty has aged her. What is she thinking? Where has she come
from? What has she lost or left behind to come here for food? How does
she feel about that?
What struck me most about the photo is her silence – that impassive
stare that tells us nothing about her, as if she is knows full well
that nothing she can say will make a difference, but of course that’s
guesswork too. She might not be thinking anything of the kind. The only
way we could find out the answers to our questions is if we could hear
her speak for herself.
Giving a voice to the voiceless is very much at the heart of our
readings this morning. In the OT reading Isaiah speaks to people who
are victims of oppression and suffering in his own age, the people of
Israel, in exile in Babylon. “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your
God”, he says to them, as he promises that they will soon be rescued.
When that point comes, he says, it will be like water in the desert,
bringing life and hope. “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a
deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy”. The tongue of the
speechless will sing for joy. God’s salvation isn’t just about being
freed from exile, it’s also about being able to speak with your own
voice – not just being a face in a crowd, a number on a list, but a
precious individual able to tell your own story in your own words.
The Gospel reading tells us about people who have to struggle to make
themselves heard too.
In the second of the two encounters in the passage we heard, Jesus
heals a man who is literally tongue-tied. He’s got an impediment that
prevents him speaking clearly. He was deaf as well, and the two
disabilities together must have made it very difficult for him to
express himself, and so be known as an individual and be able to play a
full part in his society. It must have been hugely frustrating – why
bother asking him what he thought? He couldn’t tell you. He’d probably
spent a life time with people assuming they knew what he wanted,
putting words in his mouth.
The woman in the first story in the Gospel reading is also struggling
to be heard. It isn’t a physical problem that gets in the way for her,
though, but a social and spiritual one. It’s an odd story for many
reasons. For a start it takes place in Tyre, a seaport outside Israel,
in foreign territory, and there is no indication of why Jesus would
have gone there. It’s not a holiday. He’s not there for the peace and
quiet. Even if people went on holiday then as we do now, which they
didn’t, it would be an odd place to go for a rest, because Tyre was
regarded with great suspicion by Jewish people. It was full of people
coming and going, sailors on shore leave, doing what sailors on shore
leave do the world over. It was a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural place.
It had a reputation as a sink of iniquity, a byword for immorality .
Tyre and Sidon were the Sodom and Gomorrah of 1st Century. I am forced
to conclude that Jesus is deliberately trying to stretch his vision of
himself, to get out of his comfort zone, but it looks as if he finds he
has pushed himself further than he thought here. A Syrophonecian woman
– a local – throws herself at his feet. She begs him to heal her
daughter. To us it seems like a no-brainer – she needs help, so help
her, Jesus. But the twin facts that she was a woman and a Gentile would
have made the whole scenario seem very uncomfortable for him. No good
Jewish man – especially one who people looked to as a teacher – would
have been expected to associate with a woman like this. It would
reflect very badly on him and he knew it. She may be crying out for his
help, but the voices of his upbringing, his cultural and religious
conditioning, shout louder, and he refuses to help. Her problems are
nothing to do with him.
Commentators often have huge problems with this story. Jesus comes
across as insensitive to the point of rudeness. All sorts of
explanations and excuses have been offered to try to soften the story –
Jesus didn’t really mean it, he was being ironic, or he was just
testing her faith, but in a way, these explanations make it worse. This
woman is desperate – it is no time for joking, no time for playing
theological games with her. What I notice though, is that Mark doesn’t
seem to feel the need to explain Jesus’ actions. I suspect that is
because, to him, the shock isn’t that Jesus tries to push this woman
away at first – that would have been quite understandable to him
- but that in the end, he doesn’t; he welcomes her. He gives her
what she wants, and, not only that, he praises her for her courage and
persistence. It can be puzzling for us to see Jesus changing his mind
as he does here, but it shouldn’t be – learning is a part of being
human, and learning always involves change, often it involves trial and
Jesus is changed by this encounter. He learns something from this
woman. He hears her voice, and the voice of God speaking through her,
and because of that we hear it too. The message is clear – no one, not
even a gentile woman, not even a gentile woman from a rackety, sleazy
seaport town like Tyre, is beyond God’s love. And it goes even beyond
that; a gentile woman from a rackety, sleazy seaport town like Tyre has
a vital part to play in God’s work. Not only can Jesus associate with
her and speak to her, she can speak to him, teach him and change him.
She finds her voice, she has her say and her voice makes things happen
– not just in her life as she sees her daughter healed, but also in
Jesus’ life too, helping him to see his mission in a far broader way,
That picture of the Ethiopian woman we began with, as I said, is a
powerful one, but in a way it is also a cliché. Photos of people
in the midst of famine or disaster are often like this, pictures of
passivity and silence. We can see them, but we can’t hear them, not in
their own voices, their own words, speaking for themselves. Perhaps
it’s easier for us that way. If we did hear this woman’s voice, if we
knew her story, she might become a bit too real to us for comfort. Her
silence protects us from her, from the challenge of her life. If we
heard her voice and started to know her as a person, it might be much
more difficult for us to turn the page of the newspaper and get on with
our lives. Things might have to change in our lives, just as they did
for Jesus when he started really listening to that Syrophonecian woman.
Ironically, of course, we live at a time when it has never been easier
for people – some people at least – to have their say. We can write. We
can phone. We can email. We can blog. We can twitter – God help us –
giving people instant updates on what we are doing through the day, as
if anyone would really want to know. We are asked for our opinion on a
scale that people in previous generations wouldn’t have dreamed of.
Hotels ask what we thought of our accommodation. Online shops have
feedback forms to fill in. Local government agencies have to consult
with people before, during and after anything they do. There are focus
groups and consumer panels and no news report is complete with out vox.
pop. interviews, asking every Joe and Jane Bloggs what they think about
the credit crunch or the Lockerbie bomber or how we should combat
climate change, no matter whether they actually know anything about it.
I’ve written something in the parish newsletter this month about the
consultation we’re all invited to be part of to help choose a new
Bishop. Even the church is at it. We’ve never been able to have our say
on such a large scale before.
But does that mean that we are hearing the voices we need to hear? Or
are we just hearing the voices of those who can shout the loudest? How
do we decide who to listen to and who we will ignore? Can we hear, amid
this torrent of words, the voices that really matter? Can we even hear
the voices in ourselves that we should be paying attention to, the
voice of conscience, the voice of God?
We’ll never know what that Ethiopian woman is thinking, what she would
say to us if she had the chance to speak, but perhaps her silence in
itself is a message to us, a reminder of the need to listen as well as
to speak, to listen to ourselves, to listen to God, to listen to those
who push us out beyond our comfort zone, to listen to our enemies as
well as to our friends. Perhaps she invites us into her silence, to
still the blizzard of noise in our heads, so that the words we
eventually speak are ones that really matter.
Trinity 12 09
Deut 4.1-2,6-9, James 1 17-27, Mark 7.1-8,
Most families, I guess, have little family phrases that they use among
themselves; favourite sayings, TV or radio catchphrases, or maybe
something funny someone in the family once said that’s never been
forgotten; a sort of private language.
In my family when I was growing up there was a phrase I heard often. It
was an affectionate, if rather muted expression of praise that you
could use for almost anyone or anything. They were, you said, “All
right, if you looked at them quickly and forgot what you saw.” My
mother thinks she picked it up from a rather eccentric landlord she’d
once had. You could use it of yourself as well, in a rather
self-deprecatory way, if someone asked how you were. “I’m alright; if
you look at me quickly and forget what you saw.” I don’t know whether
it rings any bells for anyone else, but it was part of the warp and
weft of my childhood.
It came to mind this week, of course, because of the phrase we heard
from the letter of James this morning. The writer describes people who
hear the word of God, but don’t do what it says, as “like those who
look at themselves in a mirror… and on going away immediately forget
what they were like.” They think they are alright, says James, but
that’s only because they have looked at themselves quickly and
forgotten what they’ve seen. They think of themselves as good people,
but actually they’re spreading gossip about others and ignoring the
needs of the vulnerable and poor in their society.
In the Old Testament reading too, Moses warns the people of Israel to
“take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the
things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all
the days of your life.” What are those things that their eyes have
seen? They’ve just been rescued from slavery in Egypt, fed with manna
in a barren wilderness. They have seen themselves in a new way– not as
slaves, but as children of God, his Chosen People. He has given them
laws that are supposed to shape them sto that they revealed his love to
others, but will they keep these laws once they are in their new land?
“Take care and watch yourselves closely…” says Moses. Don’t just look
at yourselves quickly and forget what you saw – if you do that you will
never learn to be the people God wants you to be.
So did they take care and watch themselves? Well, it seems that some of
them did. By the time of Jesus some sections of the community were
almost obsessive about keeping the commandments God had given them.
There are, it is said, 613 specific do’s and don’ts in the law of
Moses, 613 commandments or mizvot covering everything: what you should
eat, what you should wear, when you should work and rest, how you
should run your family life, how you should sow and reap your crops,
how you should treat strangers… the list goes on and on. No area of
life was unregulated and for some people that was just what they
The people we most often associate with this close attention to the law
in the New Testament are the Pharisees, and they get a pretty bad press
for it. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus attacks them as hypocrites.
They may keep the letter of the law, but they ignore its spirit. They
are technically blameless, ritually pure, but their lives impoverish
and burden others rather than setting them free.
But I think we should be cautious about accepting the Gospel picture of
the Pharisees without question. The Gospels were, after all, written at
a time when there was a lot of hostility between the early Christian
church and the Jewish faith it had grown from. Like a lot of family
feuds, you have to be careful about you don’t just hear one side of the
argument. Jesus was right to criticise the kind of behaviour he talks
about here, but that doesn’t mean that the Pharisees had got it ALL
wrong. In fact I’d like to give them 2 ½ cheers. They may have
failed to see the wood for the trees, but they were saying something
which we forget at our peril.
Like James, and like Moses, they remind us that the devil – and God too
– is in the detail. Sometimes there is just as much danger that we fail
to see the trees for the wood. We have grand dreams of world peace, or
thriving churches or vibrant neighbourhoods – these are the woods, the
big picture. We pray earnestly for these things. We write them into
vision statements, dress them up in flowery words, but we’ll never
achieve those dreams unless we pay attention to the detail of what we
are doing here and now, what we are saying and thinking – those actions
are the trees. The Pharisees knew that the big changes we long for out
there in the world can only come about if we are prepared to make a
thousand tiny changes in our own lives, looking at ourselves carefully
and taking responsibility for our actions. Making those changes takes
discipline, it can be boring and tough, and that’s why we often fail to
do it. There’s a risk, that we will end up like the Pharisees, losing
sight of the ultimate goal, and we have to remember, of course, that
our goal may not be the same as theirs, their 613 commandments aren’t
necessarily the ones we need today, but let’s hear it for these much
maligned people – at least they knew where the journey was meant to
start, in daily life, in individual actions.
St James backs this message up. Look in the mirror, he says. Look in it
long enough to see yourself clearly so that you see what you need to do
to change. It’s not time wasted. If you have ever gone out of the house
in a hurry and got half-way through the day before realising that your
jumper was on inside out you’ll bear witness to that, I’m sure. An
honest, quiet moment in front of the mirror is always a good idea.
If that is true for our outward appearance, it is even more true for
what is going on inside us.
Earlier this week I heard a story from a colleague* in the States about
a couple who lived in her apartment block. They were a devoted couple,
good neighbours, living a quiet life together. The only thing that
singled them out was that they were gay. No one took the blindest bit
of notice of this, except for one other family in the block, a husband
and wife who proclaimed themselves to be devout Christians. They were
adamantly opposed to this couple. Several times a week, the wife would
stand outside the gay couple’s door and shout vitriolic abuse through
it at them. She even scratched the paintwork on their car, in their
sight, just to ram the point home.
Eventually they couldn’t stand the harassment any more, and paid a
financial penalty to break their lease early. They were hurt, and they
were baffled too that anyone could believe that behaving like that was
any part of being a Christian. They, and many of their other
neighbours, drew the conclusion that if this was Christian faith, it
wasn’t for them.
That woman’s actions and words didn’t just poison the lives of the
couple she harassed, and their picture of the church, though. She was
also inevitably poisoning her own life by them. Every cruel word she
uttered twisted her out of shape a bit more, dragging her further and
further away from the God of love who she claimed to be speaking for.
She may have said that she believed in the kingdom of God, that Jesus
was the Lord of her life – I am sure she would have been most insistent
about it – but everything she was doing worked against that kingdom and
You can’t build a world of love using the bricks and mortar of hatred
and bitterness – you just get a world of even more hatred and
That may seem an extreme case of course, but we can all be blind to
ourselves as she was. We pray for peace and justice in the world, but
act with hostility and suspicion to those around us. We rise up from
our prayers, and instantly begin to cut them to pieces with cruel
words, often over the most trivial matters. We all do it, not just in
churches, but at work or at home too. We are blind to it because we
don’t spend enough time looking honestly at ourselves. We look at
ourselves quickly and forget what we saw.
There is an ancient monastic technique of prayer which can help us to
guard against this and it is one I think is worth trying. Anyone can do
it – it’s not rocket science. Monks and nuns call it an “examen of
conscience”, but the name doesn’t matter. All it involves is stopping
at the end of the day, just for a few minutes, and recalling that day’s
events – the things you did, the people you met, the conversations you
had. Don’t try to justify them to yourself, make excuses or re-run
arguments – it’s not a time for problem solving, just for observing
yourself and being aware of what you feel about those encounters and
events. When I do this I often see things I didn’t see at the time.
Sometimes I see things I regret, things I might need to set right.
Sometimes I learn something about myself or someone else. Sometimes I
spot God at work, a moment of blessing, which I would have otherwise
missed. It needn’t take long to do this, but it is like that look in
the mirror before you go out which shows you that you’ve actually got
odd socks on. It’s a moment to check whether your image of yourself
matches the reality.
I’m going to end with a short time of silence and an invitation to do
this right now. Look back at your day so far. Look carefully, and ask
God to open your eyes, so that you don’t look at yourself quickly and
forget what you saw.
*Mary Jo Harper
Ephesians 6.10-20, John 6.56-69
If you’ve ever been a Sunday School teacher, as I was for many years,
you’ll know that the first reading we had today is a sure-fire winner
with children. “Put on the whole armour of God.” Children need no
cajoling to make themselves cardboard helmets and shields and weapons –
the craft activity for the session is a doddle. It’s only when they
start beating the living daylights out of each other with the Sword of
the Spirit – and, trust me, they always do - that you start to wonder
whether it was really such a good idea.
But I don’t think it is just children who can get let war-mongering
instincts get the better of them. Adults can be just as tempted to come
out fists flying and guns blazing when they think they have a righteous
cause. It happens between neighbours – fences that aren’t quite where
they should be, hedges that grow too big. “Give them an inch and
they’ll take a mile,” we mutter darkly, as we compose irate letters of
protest, which will sour our relationship with them forever. Families
fall out over issues that in hindsight seem ridiculous, a birthday
forgotten, an unwise comment which is taken the wrong way. I’ve often –
far too often – heard stories from people at funerals about family
rifts which grew out of what seems like nothing in hindsight but which
can never now be mended. At the time, whatever the issue, it felt so
obvious and so important. Right is right and wrong is wrong , so we
reach for our weapons and the armour and march into battle.
When religion gets added to the mix things can get even worse. Crusades
and pogroms, witch-hunts and executions; they have all been fuelled by
the belief that we can and should combat “the forces of evil” – which
usually just means whoever disagrees with us - with whatever weapons
come to hand. Paul’s language here seems to encourage that sort of
attitude. Doesn’t it say we are under attack? Doesn’t it say we should
fight for the things we believe to be right? Yes, it does, but it is
easy to get carried away on a tide of self-righteous indignation and
find that we were mistaken and have done more harm than good.
It seems to me that if we are to guard against that there are two
questions we need to ask ourselves before we take up arms, or write
that letter, or organise that petition or make that cutting remark.
The first question is what we are supposed to be fighting for – what
are the causes that should enlist our support. How does whatever we are
getting worked up about fit with those?
The second question is, what are we supposed to be fighting with – what
are the weapons and armour we should use?
Today’s readings can help us, but we might find some surprises in what
What should we be fighting for? Well, what did Jesus fight for? In
today’s Gospel he calls his followers to align themselves with him and
with his mission, to eat and drink him. You are what you eat, and we
are meant to be like him. If we want to know what our priorities should
be, we need to know what his priorities were.
This passage comes at the end of a long discussion, prompted by the
miracle of Jesus feeding the 5000. The free feast had delighted the
hungry crowd, but it had alarmed the religious authorities. They
thought they were the ones God would use to hand out spiritual
sustenance, not some scruffy carpenter from Galilee, but this isn’t the
first time Jesus has shocked them. This is Chapter Six of John’s
Gospel. In Chapter Two, Jesus had stormed into the Temple and
overturned the tables of the money lenders. That’s how John launches
his ministry. In Chapter Three he meets with Nicodemus, a respected
religious leader, and tells him that he will need to forget everything
he ever knew - be born again - if he wants to see God at work. It is a
pretty insulting message, frankly. Jesus then spends almost the
whole of Chapter Four sitting by a well talking to a woman – completely
alone and un-chaperoned. What is worse she is a Samaritan woman. Even
worse than that, she is a Samaritan woman who seems to have a decidedly
dodgy reputation in the opinion of her neighbours – that’s why she’s at
the well on her own. Jesus disciples are horrified, but the woman
herself is transformed by the experience. In Chapter Five Jesus heals a
paralyzed man on the Sabbath, which was against the law. He is
unrepentant though. The man was ill. He needed healing and that was all
that mattered. People are more important than rules.
So by the time we get to Chapter Six it’s no wonder that the
authorities are fuming, and even his followers are finding his message
hard to stomach. He couldn’t care less about respectable opinion if it
gets in the way of loving others. He couldn’t care less about upholding
standards. He couldn’t care less about protecting the position of the
Jewish faith. As far as his opponents are concerned he is dragging
God’s name in the mud, but he doesn’t care about that either. He
doesn’t even care about protecting himself. He makes his decisions
about what is worth fighting for based on how it will affect the people
at the bottom of the pile, not whether it will win him favour with the
people at the top. If that means that he will end up on a cross, as it
surely will, that’s just how it has to be. And he warns his disciples
that following him will mean walking the same route. It’s not
surprising that many of them start to slip away. It was too tough then,
and I suspect it feels just as tough now if we are honest. Truly to
live as followers of Christ would mean such radical change for most of
us that it’s not surprising our efforts often seem so lukewarm and
I am always depressed, though, by how easily we can miss the point of
Jesus’ message. It’s a simple matter to whip up a storm of protest, for
example, about things like wearing crosses to work or school, as if
this was a make or break issues that signalled the end of Christian
civilisation as we know it. Christian faith has never required the
wearing of symbolic items. Jesus said that people would know we
followed him by the love we showed each other, not by the jewellery we
wore. He called his followers to stand firm on the things he stood firm
on. It wasn’t about maintaining your place in society, or clinging to
your rights, but upholding the worth of those whom the world calls
worthless, insisting that marginalised and oppressed were treated with
dignity. As his mother sang “He has put down the mighty from their
seats and exalted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with
good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”
What are we fighting for? Not the right to wear a cross, but the
lifting of the crosses which others are forced to carry.
That is the cause, but what are the means we are given to wage this
war? What are the weapons we should be fighting with? Again, they may
not be the obvious ones.
Weapons and armour are meant to make you look strong and invincible.
The Christians in Ephesus who first read Paul’s words knew that. They
would have seen Roman soldiers around all the time. Paul knew it too.
He writes this letter from prison – an “ambassador in chains”, as he
puts it – and I’ve no doubt there were soldiers guarding the gates that
kept him in.
But Paul takes the familiar military images of war and subverts them.
The weapons and armour he talks about – truth, righteousness, peace,
faith, salvation, listening to the voice of God – were the opposite of
the weapons used by the Roman army, an army which had come to dominate
his world with such ruthless effectiveness. Truth? Who needed that? The
right propaganda, the ability to deceive and manipulate. These were the
tools that worked. Righteousness? You did whatever you had to do to
prevent rebellion and keep people in their place – casual brutality was
fine if it got results. Peace was a word the Romans used a lot – the
Pax Romana, the Roman Peace was what they claimed to be offering the
lands they conquered. But it was a narrow thing. You conformed to Roman
ways or paid the price. It was far from the picture of wholeness which
the Bible meant by the word “peace”, in which all were able to
thrive. Faith – the invitation to trust God and trust others
without proof or safety net – that can’t have seemed like much of a
shield to hide behind. Faith and trust involve vulnerability and
openness, which is quite the opposite of a shield. And salvation, in
its fullest sense, means acknowledging and accepting God’s love not
just for me, but for all people - friends and enemies. How could you do
that and still be able to slaughter your enemies? Above all, Paul tells
his hearers to listen to God’s voice, the sword of the Spirit. That
meant putting other voices aside – their own voices, the voices of
their society. These weapons would have seemed ridiculous to the Romans
– perhaps they do to us – surely they’ll never win a war. But the
message Paul is trying to get across is that victory doesn’t consist in
being able to look upon the crushed bodies of your vanquished foes with
a gleeful sense of superiority, but in turning those enemies into
friends. It’s not about winning the war, but about winning the peace, a
peace that starts in a human heart which aligned with God’s heart and
radiates outwards to others.
It’s a tough message – if it doesn’t feel tough then we are probably
not being honest with ourselves. It goes against the grain, against our
human nature – that’s why we so seldom manage to achieve it. When Jesus
asks his followers “Do you also wish to go away?” the answer in their
hearts was probably “yes”, and that maybe that’s how we feel too. But
if we are serious about wanting to follow Christ, and find that healing
peace he offers we can’t afford to ignore that challenge. As Simon
Peter recognised, there isn’t another way, not one that will work. “To
whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” he says to Jesus.
May we find the courage to hear those life-giving words, and walk the
path they call us onto, in the ways that lead to peace.
August 9 2009 Trinity 9
I Kings 19.4-8, Ephesians 4.25-5.2, John
If you’ve been in church over the last couple of weeks you’ll know that
this is the third Sunday in a row when we’ve had a set of readings
about eating and drinking. There was the story of the feeding of the
5000 a fortnight ago, then the manna in the wilderness last week. I was
on holiday of course, but I’d be surprised if food and drink hadn’t
cropped up somewhere in the sermons Peter Flynn preached during my
absence. This week we heard about Elijah being fed by angels, and Jesus
talks about himself as the bread of life. There are another couple of
foody passages to come over the next few weeks – perhaps the committee
that planned the scheme of readings did July and August just before
lunch. They certainly seem to have been a bit obsessed!
It’s ironic though, that we are focusing on these things just at a time
when the symbolic eating and drinking we do in church – the communion –
has had to change because of the current flu outbreak. How can we share
bread and wine without also sharing the virus? That’s the dilemma the
church has been struggling with. As you may know the Archbishops sent
out a letter a couple of weeks ago advising that we shouldn’t drink
wine from a common cup for the time being. They’ve said that we can
either just give out the bread, or that the priest can dip each wafer
into the wine and give it to the communicant like that. The second
option sounded rather messy to me, which is why I’ve gone for the first
one – just giving bread – but it’s not set in stone, so let me know
what you think. It’s been difficult to sort out because it’s not just
about the hygiene issues, there have also been complex theological
questions and long held church traditions to think about too – the
Church of England has rules and regulations about what needs to happen
for a Communion service to be “valid”, whatever that means. So, can we
use individual cups? No, apparently. Can we forget about the wine
completely? No – I have to consecrate some and drink it myself. What
God thinks about the knots we tie ourselves in over these issues I
can’t imagine – he is probably dumbfounded at the way we’ve made a
simple meal so complicated. I’m not at all sure whether all these
precautions will make the slightest difference to the transmission of
flu either. But this is the official advice, so we’re following it.
As I said, though, it seems to add insult to injury that our readings
are so focused on bread and wine when sharing them is the source of so
much trouble at the moment.
But at least all this is making us think about what we do when we come
together to worship, and what we value about it. It’s making us aware
of the way worship brings us into contact with each other. It’s making
us aware of the physical side of worship. That’s a good thing, because
in a way it is at the heart of our Christian faith. For Christians
matter, flesh, physical things ought to be very important. The stories
the Bible tell of Creation stress that God looked at what he had made –
all that physical stuff - and “behold, it was very good”. Christians
believe that somehow, however you understand it, in Jesus “the Word
became flesh”. In him God came to us in human form, visible and
tangible, with a body that was as vulnerable as any of our bodies, a
body in which he suffered and died. In the Gospel reading today, Jesus
talked about his own flesh being the food that sustains us. It sounds
odd, a bit revolting even, but what he meant was that he wanted to be
woven into the depths of our being, as close as food and drink,
absolutely in the here and now, not kept at a safe distance far off on
some heavenly cloud.
So it’s right that our worship should be physical too, involving things
we can see, smell, touch and taste. That’s why we use things like bread
and wine (when we are allowed to!) to remind us of God’s presence. We
don’t just sit and think. It’s not just words. Worship involves our
bodies as well as our minds, our hands as well as our heads.
Baptism is an especially physical service. Today we’ll be using water,
of course, but also oils to anoint Sophie with. We’ll wrap her in a
white shawl, a reminder that she is wrapped in the love of God. It’s
all very touchy-feely, quite deliberately, reminding us that faith is
about the whole of our lives, our real lives – body and soul, at home
and at work, Monday to Saturday as well as Sunday.
Just as worship brings us into contact with physical things – bread,
wine, oil, water - it also brings us into contact with each other.
Perhaps that’s even more important. Paul said in our second reading
today that “we are members one of another” He often talked about the
church as a body. To grow in faith we need others; people we can love
and be loved by, people we might irritate and be irritated by, people
we might need to forgive and be forgiven by.
The current flu outbreak causes us such headaches – not just as
Christians, but as human beings too – because the things that could
spread the virus are among the very things that matter most to us;
meeting with others, physical contact, sharing with others. To be
completely protected we’d have to live in solitary confinement, never
touching anything that anyone else has touched – but what sort of life
would that be? Would it even be possible? Even if we stayed at
home we’d need food and other essentials brought to us by others. Look
at Elijah in our first reading. For reasons too complicated to explain,
he’s had to run for his life out into the middle of nowhere, and he’s
being kept alive by food and drink brought to him by angels. If that
happened today, what would we say? “Don’t touch that cake, Elijah! You
don’t know where it’s been…!” I bet the angel didn’t use antibacterial
Of course there’s nothing wrong with taking sensible precautions. But
in the end we have to accept that any sort of life that’s worth living
is dangerous. We can’t always prevent risk, and even if we could, we
wouldn’t always want to.
Today we are going to baptise Sophie. We are going to ask for God’s
blessing on her as she begins her journey through this risky business
of living. Of course we hope that all will go well for her in her life.
That she will be happy, healthy, successful, that the road will rise up
to meet her, that she will never meet with trouble… but…we know that
human life isn’t like that. She’s bound to get ill sometimes, to feel
sad or anxious, to fail, to be disappointed, no matter how carefully
her parents protect her. It is tempting to wrap our children in cotton
wool, but the reality is that we can’t and we make their lives smaller
and poorer if we over-protect them.
The water of baptism that I’ll pour on Sophie’s head in a minute is a
symbol of life – life in all its fullness. The prayer I use as I ask
God to bless it reminds us of this. It talks about the water that
cleans us and keeps us alive – water as a good thing. But the same
prayer also talks about water as a symbol of the dangers and darkness
of life. Water as something we can drown in, water that makes us feel
all at sea, out of our depth. The prayer tells of God parting the
dangerous waters of the Red Sea so that Moses could lead the Israelite
slaves to freedom. It tells of God bringing Jesus through “the deep
waters of death”.
Life is risky, says the prayer; but it also promises that whatever our
lives bring us – cool, refreshing springs or floods that overwhelm us –
God will be with us, God will be with Sophie. We can react to the
dangers of life by withdrawing from it and never really living at all,
or we can decide to jump in with both feet, and live it anyway.
God doesn’t say we won’t meet trouble, but he promises us that there is
nothing – nothing we can do, no sin, no failure, no virus - which will
cause him to draw back from us, to cut off that contact or let us go
from his hands. That’s a promise not just for Sophie, but for all of us
today, a promise that gives us the security we really need, so that we
can live joyfully even in the midst of danger.
2 09 Evensong - Sermon by Kevin Bright
Job 28 & Hebrews
Questions, questions, questions
Do you think our current culture is one where we readily look for
someone to blame when things go wrong? Are we failing to accept and
face up to the fact that we are sometimes don’t have the ability to do
some things, make errors or suffer consequences for some other self
Are there those among us who are prepared to shoulder responsibility,
lobby for change and work hard for the things we believe have real
value and bring real good? Or do we just watch and read as events
unfold around us, tutt tutting and blaming politicians, teachers,
bankers, the police, the supermarkets, the drinks industry……..in fact
anyone but ourselves. It’s not that these bodies are without
responsibility it just that their responsibility doesn’t abdicate us of
Take these quotes from insurance claim forms:-
• "On approach to the traffic lights the car in front
• "I bumped into a lamp-post which was obscured by
• "I knocked over a man; he admitted it was his fault
for he had been knocked down before."
• "I pulled away from the side of the road, glanced
at my mother-in-law and headed over the embankment’’.
The failure to face up to mistakes and shortcomings means that we never
have to think about why they happened, what caused us to make certain
decisions and what we might need to change to stop them happening
again. That’s a difficult and challenging process and it’s so much
easier to just blame someone else and move quickly on isn’t it.
If we do start thinking about what motivates and compels us to make
certain choices then as Christians it’s obvious that our faith will
have a major part in this. It’s clear from our Hebrews reading that the
author of the letter was throwing out some challenging questions to
Jewish Christians suffering persecution and perhaps tempted to abandon
their faith and lapse back into Judaism or nothing, challenges which
have remained relevant to us ever since, if for different reasons.
What questions might these words from Hebrews generate?
‘By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of
Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill treatment with the
people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.’ (v24&25)
Who are we, where are we rooted, when tough times come what choices
will we make?
‘He considered abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than
the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the reward.’ (v26)
What is really important to us? Is our faith sufficient to stay
focussed on true meaning?
‘By faith he left Egypt, unafraid of the King’s anger; for he
persevered as though he saw him who is invisible.’ (v27)
What are our goals? Do we think they involve God?
Let’s look at Moses. He had plenty of excuses for taking the route of
least resistance in life. Moses had every right to have had an identity
crisis. We know how in Egypt the baby Jewish boys were condemned to
die, so Moses mother put him in a reed basket among the rushes until he
was discovered by a daughter of Pharaoh. Ultimately he would have
enjoyed an Egyptian education and all the privileges of his position.
He was born Jewish but he was raised Egyptian. He had to decide at some
point in his life "Who am I?" This was important because it would
determine the rest of his life. If he said, "I’m an Egyptian" and faked
his heritage, he would live a life of ease and rise to the highest
levels of the social pyramid.
If he said what he really was, "I am Jewish”, he would be humiliated,
kicked out of the palace, sent to live with a bunch of slaves for the
rest of his life.
Yet Moses saw his people being badly mistreated as slaves and he could
not be silent. He refused to live a lie.
There’s something liberating about being your self. The quickest way to
an ulcer is to try to be somebody you’re not. If we want to live the
enjoyable lives that God wants for us we need to be comfortable with
who we are.
We cannot blame somebody else for the direction of our lives. And, we
cannot live off somebody else’s spiritual commitment. We have to make
our own decisions. People often say, "My parents were Christians" or
"My wife is a Christian..." as if that is sufficient to tick some
theoretical box or as if there is some magic that rubs off by
association. The fact is that each of us has to make and maintain a
real choice to commit to the struggle to live a truly Christian life.
If we can all be children of God the other family analogies are
redundant…God has no grandchildren!
The wisdom to make the right choices in life is what we seek what we
pray for. How many times will we look back and say I was a fool to have
thought that or to have done that. Until the day we die I expect.
The prophet Job torments us with another huge question...Where can true
wisdom be found?
His poem that we heard tells of the elusiveness of wisdom. Not just
practical wisdom but something much deeper than that. The poem starts
by highlighting human ingenuity as it talks of our ability to discover
and mine precious metals beneath the surface of the earth. Yet the
impossibility of obtaining divine wisdom becomes clear as the poet
tells us ‘mortals do not know the way to it and it is not found in the
way of the living. God understands the way to it, and he knows its
What God has offered us is a wisdom which we can use in our lives
without the need to understand the world, the universe and everything.
Job explains that true religion and the shunning of evil is our
recognition of our gift from God and it follows that if we have faith
enough to recognise God’s divine wisdom in all things that this trust
will shape our decision making and our responses to all these big
The examples are there for us in Hebrews as we are reminded how Abraham
had so much faith that he was prepared to offer his only son as a
sacrifice to God, how Isaac had faith in his old age that his younger
son Jacob could fulfil God’s plan despite his natural preference, how
Jacob blessed the younger son Joseph who spoke with faith of the exodus
from Egypt shortly before his death.
Each had faith and wisdom to look beyond themselves to the reward that
So we are left a legacy and a framework for our own lives. We can see
how faith has sustained our predecessors in times of oppression, how
faith is too valuable to sacrifice for short term gain and how faith as
a motivating force gave the Israelites safe passage as they were
pursued to the red sea.
So we ask God to help us find faith and wisdom in order that our lives
may be shaped by them, knowing that our lives will not become perfect
in God’s sight, but that they will be more honest and that will mean
facing up to the areas where we need to change.
July 19 2009 Trinity 6 –
Mark 6.30-34, 53-56
It’s funny how you can read the same passage in the Bible year
after year, but then suddenly notice something in it you’ve never
There are two little details in our Gospel reading tonight that caught
my attention – things I’d never really seen or wondered
about – which gave me food for thought this week.
The first was what Jesus’ followers are called in this passage.
Did you notice? They are called apostles. “The apostles returned
from their mission.” That’s odd, because they are only
usually called apostles after the Ascension. Apostle means “one
who is sent out”. Jesus sends them out at that point to take his
message out into the world. It’s the title we associate with them
when they become leaders of the early church. But here is Mark calling
them apostles long before that point. And it’s the only time in
the whole course of Jesus’ ministry that they are referred to in
this way. All the rest of the time Mark calls them disciples. Disciple
literally means “learner” in Greek. Mark normally describes
them as learners – people who are learning from Jesus as they
So, why are they apostles here?
It’s quite simple. They have just returned from what you might
call a bit of work experience. Jesus has sent them out, apostellein in
the Greek, to try out a bit of ministry for themselves. They have gone
out taking nothing with them - no bread, no bag, no money in their
belts – to see what happens. And perhaps to their surprise, they
discover that people listen to them, and are healed through their
Can you imagine how that felt? You’ve spent your life till now
catching fish, or collecting taxes. Then you’ve met this
extraordinary man and trailed around after him, your mouth hanging open
with surprise as he does miracles and argues theology with religious
experts. Then all of a sudden he declares that it’s your turn
– go on, have a go!, says Jesus. Me, what do I know? But you go
out anyway, and…it works!
You can hear their excitement in Mark’s description of them
“They gathered around Jesus and told him all that they had done
and taught…” They are full of new-found confidence.
Can we do this? Yes, we can! We are apostles now…
It’s what happens next that was the second little detail which I
noticed, though, and it perhaps casts their apostleship into a
different light. Jesus tells them to come away for a while – to
relax, to rest, to digest what has happened to them. But the crowd
won’t let them. Wherever they go, the crowd follows. They get in
a boat and sail away to a deserted place. But even there the crowd
finds them. In response to this, Mark tells us, Jesus goes ashore.
That’s the little detail I noticed. Jesus goes ashore –
just Jesus. Mark’s very clear about it, and he is a very careful
writer. Those fledgling apostles, so full of their newly
discovered abilities – they get left behind, watching from the
boat as Jesus heals and teaches this desperate crowd. The message Jesus
is giving them is clear. They may be apostles, people who are sent out,
but they are also still disciples, people who need to watch, to
learn, to grow, to let him do his work too. I wonder how they
felt about that. My guess is that, human nature being what it is, they
probably felt a bit insulted, left out…surely, they could help?
I read a comment on this story earlier in the week which seemed to me
to sum it up well.* The writer said that there were two things
Jesus’ followers had learned by the time all this had happened.
Firstly, that God could work through them, and secondly, that God could
work without them.
I am sure those are lessons we need to learn too. Sometimes it may be
the first which is the most difficult. We may feel insignificant, that
we aren’t up to the job. If so, we need to hear that God can work
through us, just as he did through those first apostles. He can help
others through us, whoever we are. We can all make a difference. God
isn’t making a mistake when he calls us and sends us.
Sometimes, though, it may be the second lesson which we struggle with.
We may think it is all down to us, that we have to save the world, or
save the church, or save our family, or save our workplace. The truth
we need to hear is that we’re not responsible for everything.
Even if we had twenty five hours in the day and eight days in the week,
we couldn’t do it all, and we don’t need to. God can use
Tonight, as you reflect on your life, do you feel insignificant, or
indispensible? Maybe the answer’s different in different parts of
your life. God can work through us, and God can work without us too
– which is the message we need to hear tonight?
Copenhaver, 1994. The Christian Century
July 12 2009 Trinity 5
Amos 7.7-15, Eph 1 3-14, Mark 6.14-29
Spotted any good bargains recently? We all love to get something for
nothing, or something for not very much. In the current financial
climate retailers are desperate to get us to part with our money;
discounts are everywhere and some of them are very seductive.
Deep down, though, we know that there is no such thing as a free lunch.
If we pay less than the true cost for something, someone, somewhere
along the line is going to suffer. It may be the shop workers or the
people who make the goods, but in the end unrealistic pricing can lead
to businesses collapsing, with knock on effects far wider than we might
imagine. What looks like a good bargain in the short term can turn out
to be a disastrous one in the long term.
It’s not just financial bargains that can turn out to be less
attractive than they first seem. Personal bargains can go sour as well.
Literature and folk-tales are full of stories of people who think they
have got something for nothing but find that it has cost them far more
than they thought. The legend of Faust who sold his soul to the Devil
in return for knowledge is a case in point. Another common story across
many cultures is one about the man who meets a stranger who offers him
riches or power in return for whatever the man first encounters when he
first gets home. He assumes it will be a farmyard animal or
something else that doesn’t really matter to him – but of
course it always turns out to be his daughter or son. That story even
crops up in the Old Testament, in the book of Judges in the story of
Jephthah and his daughter. We might wonder how anyone could be so
stupid as to fall for bargains like this, but the truth is that it is
easy to be taken in by a slick sales pitch. In our heads we know that
if something looks too good to be true it probably is, but our hearts
tell us a different story.
King Herod makes a classic bad bargain in our Gospel reading today
– that rash promise to his daughter to give her anything she
wants, even half his kingdom, if she will dance for him and his guests
at his birthday banquet. But it turns out that she doesn’t want
half his kingdom. She wants the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
He hadn’t thought of that, and he doesn’t want to do as she
asks, but a bargain’s a bargain. The thought of losing face in
front of his guests, not to mention suffering the wrath of his wife and
daughter is too much for him.
In killing John though, he makes yet another bad bargain. He bargains
on the belief that John is expendable, that it won’t matter if he
kills him, that there will be no consequences to this. It’s only
later, when Jesus begins preaching and healing that Herod realises how
expensive this deal really was. Deep down in his heart a dreadful chill
sets in. He is afraid that this is John, risen from death to seek
revenge. That bad bargain literally seems to have come back to haunt
In the Old Testament we hear of a man who has made a bad bargain too.
King Jeroboam ruled for 40 years over the kingdom of Israel. He was
rich and powerful and he had created a rich and powerful elite around
him. But that power and wealth had been accumulated by cheating the
poor. Jeroboam had allowed injustice to thrive. The poor were bought
and sold for the price of a pair of sandals, said Amos in another part
of his prophecy. Jeroboam thought he could get away with this
indefinitely. But Amos tells him that it isn’t so. He warns
Jeroboam that the nation will soon be destroyed by the Assyrians. All
his wealth and power will come to nothing, his name and his family will
be wiped out. Jeroboam will discover, said Amos, that trading justice
and compassion for wealth and power was a bargain that would be far
more costly than he realised, not just for him but for the whole
nation, weakened by corruption and unable to stand against this new
Jeroboam and Herod both forgot that their power – however great
it seemed – was limited. They thought they had made a magic deal
with fate, with God, with life, that meant they could have exactly what
they wanted, absolute power, absolute protection, something for
nothing. It was a complete illusion, but it was only when things went
really badly wrong that they realised this.
There’s an interesting detail in that Old Testament reading which
shows us what was going on in Jeroboam’s mind and in the minds of
those who supported him. Jeroboam ruled from a place called
Bethel. It was a sacred place, the place where, long before, Jacob had
had a dream of a ladder reaching up to heaven with angels going up and
down on it. When Jacob woke from his dream he declared that
“surely this is the house of God!” He called it Beth-el,
because in Hebrew that means the house of God.
But look what the priest, Amaziah, says when he sends Amos away with a
flea in his ear. “Never again prophesy at Bethel,” he says,
“for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the
kingdom.” That’s how Amaziah, and presumably Jeroboam too,
think of this place – not as Beth-el, the house of God,
God’s sanctuary, but as the king’s sanctuary. Jeroboam has
put himself at the centre of the nation, in the place of God. This is a
place where, to all intents and purposes, he is worshipped, not a place
where people can see beyond themselves, their own self-interest, their
narrow tribal concerns, to God who is above all.
But Herod and Jeroboam are ancient history and it’s easy to think
their stories have nothing to do with us. As I said at the beginning,
though, we are all quite capable of being taken in by a bad bargain -
“something for nothing” “buy now, pay later”,
and perhaps that means we don’t think we’ll pay at all. We
sell ourselves all sorts of lies like these.
We might think, for example, that we can have a healthy body, even if
we don’t look after it – if we eat and drink too much, or
smoke, or don’t exercise. Or perhaps we convince ourselves that
we can have a healthy household, a happy family, even if we are never
there or treat those we live with thoughtlessly.
Our neighbourhoods matter to us too, but if we aren’t prepared to
give any time and energy to nurturing them - volunteering to help in
local organisations, for example – those neighbourhoods will
never thrive – you don’t get something for nothing.
We’ve had a “buy now, pay later” attitude to the
environment , but that isn’t sustainable either. This
week’s G8 summit has reminded us yet again that we can’t
put off acting to avert climate change. If we are honest, we know that
there’s no solution that won’t involve some personal cost
to us. But we act as if it is ok for the poorest nations of the world
to pay the price as crops fail through drought or flood, or for our
grandchildren to pay as they grow up in a world that will face
challenges we can only imagine.
Of course, not everything that goes wrong is someone’s fault.
Things happen that no one can prevent – to our bodies, our
families, our communities and our world. But often there is a
connection, and kidding ourselves that there we can have something for
nothing, that our actions have no consequences, can be a costly mistake
both for us and for others.
Why do we act like this? Partly it is habit, or laziness, but I think
there is also a large element of fear mixed in too. We cling to our
possessions, our power, our comforts, our old ways, because we
are afraid of what will happen if we lose them.
St Paul could have been forgiven for thinking like that. He had lost a
lot when he decided to follow Jesus; a secure place as a respected
teacher in Jewish society, old friendships and networks of support. In
the end even his life was taken from him, like many of the early
Christians. And yet in the letter he writes to the church in Ephesus, a
letter which seems to have been written while he was in prison, he
doesn’t sound like a man who is feeling poor or vulnerable.
Instead he talks about “the riches of God’s grace which has
been lavished on us”. You don’t get the impression that he
is feeling hard done by or anxious. He has learnt that whatever he
could win by his own efforts, his own wheeler-dealing, will never give
him the safety he longs for. That can only come from knowing that in
good times and in bad, whether things are going right or wrong, he is
held in God’s hands, hands he can’t fall out of. In the
end, as he says, God will “gather up all things in Christ, things
in heaven and things on earth”; nothing will be lost. He
describes himself, and all of us, as children of God, heirs, who are
given what we need not because we have earned it but because we are
So what about us? What bad bargains a have we made, or are we tempted
to make – with ourselves, with others, with God, with life? What
short cuts or dodgy deals do we convince ourselves that we can get away
with? And why do we try to do these things? What is it we are clinging
to, and what do we think will happen if we let go? Are God’s
hands big enough to hold us, strong enough not to let us fall? Do we
believe that our place in his heart is unshakeable?
I can’t answer those questions for you, but I hope that we will
all find the time to answer them for ourselves so that we will know,
with Paul, the riches of the grace that is lavished on us, and find the
true security that nothing can take from us.
July 5 09 Trinity 4 Evensong
Jer 20.1-11a, Rom 14.1-17
The Bible is many things. Fascinating. Gory. Beautiful. Comforting.
Challenging…The one thing it isn’t is consistent.
That’s not surprising. It was written over many hundreds of years
by many different hands, from many different sources, each one writing
independently. It’s not a text book or a guide book or an
instruction manual. If we expect to be able to fit it all together
neatly we’ll be in for disappointment.
The two readings tonight are a case in point.
In the first, Jeremiah is called to deliver a deeply unpopular message,
telling the people that they are about to be conquered and taken into
exile. But the people of Israel are in modern parlance, deep in denial
– they just don’t want to hear this - and the leaders of
the nation are keen to encourage their optimism, even if it is
misplaced. His words are bad for morale, causing unrest, creating
trouble. If he cared about his people and his nation, he should keep
quiet, make things easy for them – why cause distress and panic?
Better to stay positive.
They put Jeremiah in the stocks in an attempt to shut him up. When he
is released, though, his first act is to repeat the prophecies that
have got him into trouble in the first place, and to throw in a few
choice insults to Pashur, the man who had him arrested while he is at
it. Predictably this doesn’t go down too well – if we read
on we would find out that this is just one more step in a concerted
campaign to shut him up.
But despite this, he carries on speaking , defying the leaders of his
Jeremiah, like many of the prophets, was a reluctant messenger. He
didn’t want to put himself in the firing line. Maybe he hated the
message he was giving just as much as those who heard it. But the words
burned within him
“If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in
his name’, then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”
Jeremiah is praised by the Bible for his uncompromising stand for
truth, for having the courage to stick up for what he believed to be
right, for being prepared to make things awkward for others in the
interest of getting across the truth of God’s word to him.
In the New Testament though, Paul seems to be making quite the opposite
point to the Roman church. There the problem seems to be that people
are too ready to stand up for what they believe in. They are too
inclined to get up on their high horses to denounce others who they
feel are acting against the will of God and as a result there is
division and bad feeling in the church. Paul says that the Roman
Christians shouldn’t insist on their own way if it hurts or
causes trouble to others, even if they think their opponents are wrong
or making a fuss about nothing.
If we had had just one of these readings tonight we would probably feel
the message of the Bible was simple. If we only heard Jeremiah we would
take it as an encouragement to speak out for the truth. If we only
heard Paul we would hear a message that we should let others live as
they feel is right, even if we feel it is wrong. But hearing both of
them together makes us aware that it isn’t that simple. Each of
those positions, on its own, is inadequate.
We may try to solve the dilemma by arguing that Jeremiah was speaking
out about something that was of life and death importance, while the
differing factions in the Roman church were getting stressed about
minor matters of diet, but my experience is that the small
disagreements can feel just as important to people, and can often
escalate into just the kinds of conflicts that tear nations apart. The
Reformation was a struggle about things like whether the bread and wine
really become the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, or just
symbolize them. To most people today it all seems very abstruse and
irrelevant, but people burnt each other at the stake in the 16th
century over these issues.
We may try to solve the dilemma by saying that Jeremiah was right, so
it was important that he made himself heard, whereas the people causing
trouble in the Roman church by getting obsessed with details were
wrong. But that is a judgment of hindsight, and the problem with
hindsight is that, by definition, we don’t have it when we need
it. If the Babylonian conquest had failed, would we have thought that
Jeremiah was justified in declaring these troubling prophecies?
Ultimately these readings, taken together, leave us with more questions
than answers. They aren’t simple messages. We should be wary of
interpreting them in straightforward ways, taking them out of their
context and making absolutes of them.
But their contradictoriness might be the thing we most need to hear in
them. Taken together they make us question the decisions we make about
the situations we face. There are bound to be differences of opinion in
communities, because they are made up of people who are different from
each other, whether that is the community of the church, or of the
nation, or of the world, or, at the other end of the scale, the small
communities of family and friends we are part of. When is it right to
insist on making your point, to carry on making it in the face of
opposition , even at the cost of upsetting or inconveniencing others?
Speaking as a woman priest I live with the dilemma of working in a
church which is still in two minds about the ordination of women. We
can’t be bishops yet. Parishes can decide not to accept
women’s ministry. I didn’t get ordained to make them feel
miserable, or to push them out of the church. But equally I am here,
validly ordained, and I can’t deny my vocation, a vocation which
others have tested and confirmed. Should I opt out of ministry to spare
the feelings of those who don’t believe I should be here, or is
it right to carry on, in the belief that I am doing what I should be
We all have to deal with similar dilemmas. When is it right to strike,
or take direct action, or even just take part in a march or
demonstration which will inconvenience others going about their
business? At home, when is it right to do something that you feel
strongly about, something you think is right, even though it may have
an impact on the rest of the family that they don’t welcome? We
may have the best of motives when we insist on sticking to our guns. We
may even be right in the end. But where should we draw that line?
It isn’t simple, and we aren’t always going to get it
right, but Paul’s words to us help us. He reminds us that the
most important thing we can do is to be aware of who we have given the
lordship of our lives to. “We do not live to ourselves, and
we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we
die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we
are the Lord’s.” That’s how it is meant to be,
and in reminding us of that he calls us to ask whether that is so in
our lives. What is it that we live and die to? What are the values and
priorities that really govern our decisions? It is easy to allow
ourselves to be ruled by a jumble of fears, unexamined prejudices,
self-interest or the approval or disapproval of our social set, rather
than really thinking things through afresh. All these things can become
lords in our lives, taking the place of the Lord of love.
No easy answers then tonight – but valuable questions. If we feel
like Jeremiah, always burning to speak out, perhaps from time to time
we should stop and ask whether our passion is justified and helpful as
his was. If we feel, on the other hand, reluctant to speak out,
preferring always to go along with what others want and say, perhaps we
should stop and wonder about that too, in case we are failing to say
what needs to be said. Whatever we do, our readings call us to
remember to root ourselves in a life of prayer, a life in which we
invite God to shape us and to be our Lord.
July 5 2009 Trinity 4 Sermon by
Mark 6.1-13, 2 Corinthians 12.2-10,
You may have spotted the common theme running through each of
today’s readings. Each explores issues around the message being
delivered and the person presenting the message.
Of course the way in which a message is presented can be very
important, the credibility of the person giving the information will
understandably influence whether we can accept it or believe in it but
we also have to guard against letting our prejudices hold undue sway
with what we hear.
Jesus has returned to his home town and is preaching in the synagogue.
Even though those who hear are astounded at his wisdom they seem to
take offence that this man, a former local carpenter whose family are
well known to many has hit them with great wisdom and revolutionary
teaching. It’s all too much for them; just who does he think he
is talking to them with such authority!
This is early indication of where things are heading. These Jews will
allow no space for Christ’s message and will find false reason to
obstruct it both here and in the ultimate showdown.
It can be hard enough for a parent to accept the first few occasions
that their child tells them a fact with great authority, one which they
don’t feel confident enough to challenge. It also happens in work
situations as the person you’ve trained and got started develops
and shines through with knowledge and talent which goes beyond your own.
The Jews hearing Jesus preach haven’t got beyond the stage where
they can accept that he’s surpassed them. Their thinking is
clouded by prejudice due to their familiarity and his humanity.
What they are doing is what many of us do day in day out. If the
message comes from a certain newspaper it can’t be true. A friend
of mine would often tell me something outrageous then say
‘it’s in the Sun so it must be true!’ We close our
ears to messages from the political party we oppose, even when they
make great sense we find reasons to dismiss the message and undermine
the messenger. It’s nothing new.
Paul tells us of a ‘thorn in his flesh’. Some take this to
mean a physical defect that would remind him of his frailty, humanity
and dependence on God, though it is also possible that this
‘thorn’ is a person opposing and undermining him as he
tries to deliver his gospel message.
The third man struggling to deliver his message is the prophet Ezekiel
who has a difficult task, sent to deliver God’s message to Jews
exiled to Babylon. A scary intimidating bunch of stubborn people in
rebellion against God. It sounds about as appealing as an Englishman
being asked to go and tell Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that
he really needs to ensure that elections in his country are free and
fair, any volunteers?
A natural extension of all this is that we are challenged to consider
the mindset we arrive with at church on a Sunday. Are we eager to
worship, hear God’s word and encourage each other or have we got
as far as we are going to go on our Christian journey, well this side
of eternity anyway, and we just want to continue as we are thank you.
Preaching in most middle class dominated English churches is quite a
civilised and orderly affair. An uneasy truce seems to exist where the
preacher doesn’t shock, embarrass or individually challenge
anyone and in return there is no overt heckling or unruly behaviour.
The preacher pretends not to notice that some people are staring at the
floor, fiddling with their service papers or pretending to sleep,
activities which would be quite unacceptable in a formal education or
business situation because he or she knows that people are actually
listening and meditating intently. If it were not so their hours of
careful preparation would be wasted.
This slightly tongue in cheek observation highlights the more serious
point that an important message cannot be told in the wrong atmosphere
by a person who is resented. We are used to hearing how the people are
amazed at Jesus but this time it is Jesus himself who is amazed –
at their unbelief. Sensing what he can achieve to be limited we see a
sudden change in his tactics.
This change has a stark message for anyone who preaches, or leads or
ministers in any way. It is that it is God’s message and
God’s will which needs to be heard and it seems if Jesus himself
didn’t mind whether that came from him or a disciple we also
shouldn’t get too hung up on who brings the message.
This fact came through loud and clear, it is God’s message which
is both urgent and important and therefore needed to be acted upon
straight away. This was a symbolic act of witness to Israel,
demonstrating God’s urgent timetable as history was rushing
towards its climax.
So Jesus sends out his disciples in pairs ordered to take no money, no
food and not to put on two tunics. They were to rely on local
hospitality where it was offered. Clearly this was in the days before
risk assessment forms were invented.
William Barclay offers some insight into the significance of Jesus
comments on how the disciples were to dress.
Most Jews at this time would wear an inner garment called a chiton or
sindon, a simple long piece of cloth folded over and sewn down one
side. They were commonly sold without any hole for the head to go
through to prove that the item was new. It also allowed the neckline to
be cut as required, for example a mother would cut it low enough to
enable her to easily breast feed her baby.
The outer garment was called the himation, used as a cloak by day and a
blanket by night. It was almost square though folded and cut to wear on
the move by day.
Without the outer garment the disciples would have been travelling more
lightly, able to move faster and cover more ground, spread their
message to more people. But it was also a higher risk strategy offering
no shelter, protection or comfort if hospitality proved to be in short
The other significance is that the Jews would have known of the temple
law which required a man to put aside his staff and shoes and money
girdle when entering such a sacred space.
It seems that Jesus may have had this in mind and his disciples were to
show even greater respect and humility, honouring the humble homes and
work places they would visit and showing that God could not be limited
to the temple, recognising his presence in all places.
And so it is today. God will not be limited in any way.
It is for us to have minds which are open to hear, discern and act upon
God’s message, sometimes urgently.
It is for us to continue the work of the twelve sent out, not
necessarily without money or shelter but we also need to ensure that
these things aren’t so important to us that they get in the way.
Of course we won’t feel up to the task but neither did the
disciples, like us they also were frail human beings who had previously
failed in so many ways. Yet they showed that with God’s help
anyone can bring liberation to the poor, comfort to the sick and lonely
and knowledge to many of how the love and mercy of God extends into
every part of our world.
It is for each one of us to do, not someone else.
There ends my radical, shocking and challenging message for today!
Patronal Festival 09 – St Peter and St Paul
Acts 9.10-25, Matt 14.22-33
Today we celebrate our Patronal Festival. It is fixed for this day
because today – or tomorrow to be accurate - is the feast of our patron
saints – St Peter and St Paul. You all know that. Of course our church
isn’t the only St Peter and St Paul around. In our own Diocese of
Rochester there are 18 St Peter and Pauls – it’s dead common, I’m
But have you ever wondered why these two saints appear together so
often? It’s not as if they were bosom buddies in life. In fact the few
occasions we hear about them meeting in the New Testament they often
seem to be arguing, at loggerheads about how non-Jewish people should
be incorporated into the faith. Saints, like any other human beings,
don’t necessarily see eye to eye, or find it easy to get along, which
is quite reassuring really. So why put them together? Why not St Peter
and St Andrew? They were brothers. Or St Barnabus and St Paul?
They were travelling companions.
Of course the reason that St Peter and St Paul are lumped together on
this joint feast day and lumped together in the dedications of churches
all over the world, is that they were considered to be the two single
most important figures in the foundation of the church. Peter, whose
name means the Rock – he was given that name by Jesus himself - was the
one Christ chose to be the leader of the church when he was no longer
with them in the flesh. Paul was the great missionary of the early
church, travelling around the Mediterranean founding churches and
writing all those letters which we still have in the Bible, shaping the
beliefs of the first Christians. Between them they really formed
the Christian faith in its early days. They were the two great heroes
of Christian history, men who knew what they were about, saints to whom
people looked for a firm lead, a good foundation. The icon
I’ve printed on your pew leaflets shows them holding the church
between them, guarding it and supporting it.
No wonder people wanted to call churches after them. Who wants a church
named after some obscure figure – St Ethelfrith of the back-of-beyond -
when you can have a big-hitting saint on your side? And if you
are going to have one star saint, why not have both of them – the
original “buy-one-get-one-free”? That was the thinking of those who put
their feast days together, and dedicated churches after the two of
But is that heroic picture of St Peter and Paul really accurate – or
really helpful? Were they really the people we have made them out to
be? The readings we’ve heard today perhaps point us in a different and,
I think more realistic direction.
In our Gospel reading we heard the story of Jesus walking on the water,
and of Peter not walking on the water – or at least not for long
anyway. It’s there in our stained glass window at the back of church.
Peter does ok while the first flush of enthusiasm is on him but then he
realises that what he is doing is impossible, and, unsurprisingly, he
starts to sink. In a sense he stands for all of us here – or rather he
sinks for all of us! Who hasn’t felt like this as some point? I know I
have. Out of my depth. Floundering. Sure I’m going to go under. The
first Christians knew this feeling well. The pathway Jesus showed them
felt new, untrodden, perhaps un-treadable too – they might as well have
been walking on water. The honour he gave to those who most considered
beyond the pale or unimportant – women, children, tax-collectors,
sinners, outsiders – baffled them. And what kind of Messiah died on a
cross? It didn’t make sense, to them or to those who criticised and
persecuted them for it. No wonder they sometimes felt as if the ground
they were standing on was turning to water beneath their feet.
For us too, life doesn’t always make sense. Things aren’t as we expect
and we find ourselves looking into a future that is uncertain. Peter
found – and we can find too – that when the ground beneath us starts to
wobble, it isn’t our own strength that gets us through, but the
relationship we have formed with God. For him it was the trust he’d
built up in this strange leader as he had got to know him which led him
to cry out for help and to take the hand that was offered to pull him
up. For us it is the time spent in prayer and reflection, in reading
the Bible, in worship, taking our faith seriously and wrestling with it
– which holds us through difficult times and keeps our head above
The story we heard about St Paul in our first reading is similar. It’s
a story that isn’t often read, so you may not be familiar with it.
Paul’s called by his Hebrew name of Saul in this story – people often
went by different names in different contexts in his time – but it’s
the same man. You’ll recall that he was originally a staunch opponent
of the followers of Jesus. He believed Jesus had been dangerously
mistaken and that his teaching was leading the Jewish people astray. He
was determined to squash this new movement. He campaigned against it
and had Christians arrested and thrown into jail. He kept up his
opposition until the day, on his way to Damascus, when he had a vision
of Jesus himself. He realised that this strange prophet really was
God’s Messiah. Paul sat in Damascus, physically and spiritually
blinded. He couldn’t make sense of the world around him anymore.
Everything had changed.
In the story we heard today, Ananias, a Christian living in Damascus,
is sent to heal him, and perhaps we might suppose that this is a happy
ending to his story. But it’s not that simple. Paul begins to preach
the Christian message in the Synagogues of Damascus and that really
puts the cat among the pigeons. The Jewish leaders there are furious –
the very man they hoped would uphold their point of view is attacking
it. They begin to plot against him, and to save his life he has to
escape from Damascus, lowered down over the walls in a basket by his
new Christian friends in the middle of the night.
It is a rather ludicrous image, and I am sure Paul was aware of that –
hardly in keeping with his old dignity as a learned scholar of the
Jewish faith. He had always been so sure of himself and of what he
believed, but now everything is up in the air, including Paul himself,
dangling precariously over the long drop to the rocks beneath. All that
keeps him from falling is the love of the Christians holding the ropes
from which that basket is suspended. He’s asking a lot of them to help
him – after all, until recently he was their worst enemy. And he’s
perhaps asking a lot of himself too in trusting them. He has tried
brutally to suppress their movement. Can he really rely on them not to
let him fall?
Of course, they don’t let him fall, and perhaps that is why the letters
he later writes to his churches are so full of teaching about loving
one another, about being the body of Christ, giving mutual support,
resolving arguments, treating one another well. It is something he
learned about on the end of a rope, when others held what was literally
a lifeline for him. We are still called to hold lifelines for one
another of different sorts, supporting and encouraging, listening and
giving practical help. It’s a vital part of our Christian journey to
get to know others who are on that same journey, and to let them get to
know us. You can be a Christian on your own, but your own faith will be
poorer for it, and so will the lives of those who might have needed you
to help them. It’s not always easy, of course, because we are all human
and relationships can be tricky things, but wrestling with differences
of opinion, with the hurts and the misunderstandings that naturally
arise between people often turns out to be a gateway to the love which
God wants us to find in one another.
In the icon Peter and Paul look completely sure of themselves. They
hold the church between them, with a grip that looks reassuringly firm.
But if we could see their feet, and if the painter was honest, what
would we find. We’d find that one was standing on wobbly water, and the
other was suspended in thin air.
I think we’d be better off if we could see them like that, because
that’s how life often is for us – personally, within the church, within
our society and our world. We don’t know what is coming next. Life
isn’t predictable. When we find ourselves floundering like Peter or
dangling by a thread like Paul it’s far more use to have the example of
people who have been there before us, who have learned to value and
cherish their relationships with God and one another, rather than just
trusting in their own abilities. If they are heroes, what use are they
to me, because I’m not one?
For 800 years or so – at least - this church has celebrated Peter and
Paul, year in, year out on their joint feast day. During those 800
years people here have gone through plague, war and civil strife.
Vicars have come and gone. Organists have come and gone. Death watch
beetle have munched through rafters. But we are still here. Just like
our predecessors I expect we still feel we are walking on wobbly waters
and dangling over empty air. As we celebrate yet another in a long line
of birthdays for this church, I pray that we’ll find that same faith
that Peter and Paul had, faith rooted not in our own abilities and our
own strength, but in the relationships we build with one another and
14 June 2009 Trinity 1
by Kevin Bright
Mark 4:26-34, 2 Corinthians 5:6-17,
A New Reality
As I read around today’s scriptures I found my thoughts drifting
towards reality TV shows! They fill a great deal of our airtime and
include titles such as Big Brother, The weakest link, Who wants to be a
millionare, super nanny, secret millionare, the apprentice and Britains
got talent to name but a few.
Clearly the shows vary in content, quality and entertainment value even
though they all fall within the description of Reality television.
Supposedly this is a genre of television that presents unscripted
dramatic or humorous situations, documents actual events, and
features ordinary people instead of professional actors. Or is this
just the context in which us viewers are encouraged to believe these
programmes are set, in order that the producers can have their desired
Perhaps the reality of Reality television is that participants are
coached to behave in certain ways sensationalising situations to
attract viewers, perhaps post production techniques and editing mean
that our brains are working from a completely false set of assumptions.
Perhaps the reality is that its all about filling airtime on hundreds
of channels with people you don’t have to pay and yet still generating
advertising profits. Alternatively the reality could be that I’m just a
miserable old cynic.
Even though Paul didn’t have Simon Cowell to compete with for peoples
attention it’s a new kind of reality which he is urging the church in
Corinth to grapple with. He encourages Christians to have their own
distinct relationship with reality and to make judgements based upon
this. He wants us to be ‘savvy’ people with perception and not to be
fooled by what others may present as reality.
Seeing through reality TV shows might be obvious, Paul wants us to go a
lot deeper than this, to confront our bodily instincts, suggesting that
our bodies are stuck in the old reality wanting comfort, security and
pleasure. It’s not that the bodies messages are necessarily wrong ,
it’s that we have to strain to see the world with different eyes to see
something deeper, something which will continue after our bodies have
been shed. We need to trust God more, consider how what we see might
fit in his kingdom and, as Paul puts it ‘walk by faith, not by sight’.
Paul encourages us to see our world in the context of the love of God
in Christ and his aim is to teach us to make judgements in the light of
that reality. He is an example of someone whose perception of reality
drastically changed from one who felt compelled to persecute Christians
to a man who was able to see things in the light of Christ turning his
knowledge and understanding completely on its head.
He offers us hope and inspiration to seek a deeper reality than much of
that which is pumped through the airwaves, the web and in most of the
press. We are to challenge what we hear and see considering God’s point
of view beyond those who shape and present our news and information.
Switch empty celebrity, wealth and fame back the other way and we find
Christ centred reality in the lives of people who are oppressed,
starving and sick. To those whose reality is purely material they can’t
understand how such people have such remarkable depths of resilience,
compassion and hope in what can seem such hopeless situations. Their
faith in Christ is their reality and they thank God for it though it’s
no excuse for their fellow Christians to ignore their plight.
Pauls argument for a new reality offers a really, really hard challenge
We live and work and consume at the overlap of several huge cultural
waves. More than any generation before us we live in a cultural,
economic, moral and religious hypermarket, a megastore where we can
pick and mix together whatever we like.
The trouble is that this raises rather a lot of questions for people
who want to be distinctly Christian.
From where I’m standing these questions include:-
• Do such things as truth and clear values exist or
does it depend upon the point of view of the person describing them?
• Are we tempted to create a personal form of virtual
reality and then inhabit our own private little world?
• Is there a danger that this virtual reality
will collapse in upon us?
One thing we can be sure of is that it’s never black and white, so how
do we work out what is pleasing to God?
Those with good memories will remember being challenged to consider
what their images of God were last Sunday morning. A mystical figure on
a cloud, a spirit, a man, a woman were all possibilities but the main
influence on our thinking over the centuries has been the culture in
which this took place.
Our thinking this week is towards what we can imagine God’s kingdom is
like and it seems that we are encouraged to go beneath the veneer or
scratch away the topsoil to find some reality. It is all about the
kingship of Christ but it’s less pageantry and privilige and more
sacrifice and service.
In our Old Testament reading Ezekiel uses the cedar tree as a symbol of
royalty when he talks of the hope that a new king will arive someday
and a new Kingdom will begin bringing relief from Babylonian
Just as we make mistakes searching for God’s values in a confusing
world the Jews spent much time looking in the wrong places for a mighty
Jesus contrasts their images of splendid cedars and royalty with a tiny
mustard seed, something easily passed over by those with their minds on
greater things. Whilst the seed could grow into a large shrub it was
commonplace and somewhat scruffy, lacking the majestic splendour of the
We may want to make Christ our reality but feel that to change our
standards of judgement so radically is beyond us.
Jesus suggests that it doesn’t have to be that way. dramatic and
immediate change won’t be the path for many but we need to look more at
the potential of small things and understand that they are definitely
Like the mustard seed these small steps may not be seen by those with
their minds on higher plains even though they could lay the foundations
for bigger things. There is a warning here against looking down on,
say, the church with small numbers, those who make a start with
basic bible study or those who simply get out of bed and want God to be
part of each day.
Jesus realised that his message was radical and that it would deeply
challenge and disturb the reality of all who heard it which is why he
spoke in parables. He later explained this to his disciples in order
that they could take his message out into the world.
The task which faces us today is to walk in Christ’s reality each and
every day. If we can do this, even in a very small way, Christ’s
message of forgiveness, love and hope will become a reality for so many
more people in our world.
Trinity Sunday 09
Isaiah 6.1-8, Romans 8.12-17, John 3.1-17
What’s your image of God? In theory we may know
that God is beyond imagination; that’s why the second commandment tells
us not to make any graven images of God. But human beings have always
found it pretty hard to resist the temptation to give God some sort of
form or face.
The image of God which Isaiah paints for us in the first reading is
pretty clear. It’s very much drawn from the world he lived in. He’s
writing at a time when Assyria and Babylon were the dominant forces in
the area –the people of Judah were in exile in Babylon for some of this
time. If you go to the Assyrian and Babylonian galleries in the British
Museum you can see the kind of images that surrounded him - lots of
carvings of winged supernatural beings just like the ones he describes
here. They were common all across the Ancient Middle East. I’ve put a
picture of one in the pew leaflet. Although Isaiah doesn’t describe God
himself in any detail, his mental picture is of him is of someone
awesome, majestic, and mysterious, with the trappings and attributes of
the rulers of his world.
Perhaps our image of God is similar – the great king on a throne. Or
maybe it is quite different – shaped by our own age. Christians over
the centuries have imagined God in many ways, usually heavily
influenced by the culture in which they live. Some have thought of him
as remote, some as a familiar friend. Some have seen him as ferocious,
some as gentle. God has been portrayed as male, female, black, white.
Often, of course it is Jesus who has been our image of God, but we’ve
depicted him in many different ways according to our culture and our
own inclinations too. Look at paintings of Jesus over the ages and you
will find they almost always reflect the time they were painted. We’ve
imagined God through the symbols of the Spirit too; as wind, flame or
We can’t seem to help ourselves – we need images. Most of us aren’t
good at thinking in the abstract.
I don’t think it matters in the least that we do this, though, so long
as we are aware of two things.
The first is that our imagination is just that: imagination. No matter
how often we have described God in a certain way, we can’t limit God to
that form, or to any form. If God can’t be however God wants to be,
he’s not God at all. We have tended, for example, to call God “he” –
just as I did then - but that doesn’t mean he is male. The Bible is
clear that God is above our gender distinctions. Actually, there’s more
female imagery for God, both in the Bible and in later Christian
Spiritual writing, than people often realise, but because for most of
human history men have had more power than women in the public sphere
that male image of God has become almost totally dominant and the
female images have been overlooked. We easily lose sight of the fact
that our picture of God is just a picture, but when we do that we limit
our vision of God, and of what God can do.
The second thing we need to be aware of is that our imagination is OUR
imagination. It often says more about us than it does about God. Our
background, our personality and the needs of the moment can all affect
how we think of God.
A writer called Dan Clenendin put it very well in an article he wrote
honest, it's disturbing to consider my pictures of God. There
is God as Candy Man or Sugar Daddy who reinforces my self-aggrandizing
narcissism. Sometimes God feels like the Absentee Landlord or Reclusive
Neighbor. I know that He exists, but He feels hidden, silent,
incommunicative, and far away… God as Vending Machine, Concierge, or
Short Order Cook is there to cater to my whims. To make my problems
disappear there is God as Magician, and to engineer a parking space or
fine tune some petty detail of my life there is God as Puppeteer. When
I feel the weight of my faults and failures, God looms as a High School
Principal, Probation Officer, or Divine Accountant. He snoops around in
the dirty details of my life, exposes me, and I am found in arrears.”
I wonder whether we recognise any of those images in the way we see
God? I wonder too what the image of God we have tells us about
ourselves, about what we need or long for, or perhaps fear?
That writer goes on to talk about the way we often understand God in
election times – as Partisan Politician or as Tribal Deity – God who is
on our side…
In this time of turmoil in our political system we do well to remember
that. It’s not just individuals who can promote a limited and
limiting picture of God, but societies and groups as well.
You might be forgiven for wondering whether there’s any real point
talking about God at all, if we are so full of bias in our view of him.
But I think the New Testament readings we heard today can help us here.
They aren’t concerned with who God is – his identity in a philosophical
sense. They are much more bothered about how we relate to him, and how
he relates to us; our relationship with God and the effect he has on
us. St Paul reminds us that we call him Abba – “Father” in Aramaic, a
familiar and loving term. And John’s gospel tells us of God’s love for
us – a love so great he sent his own Son to us to demonstrate it on the
cross. God can’t give up on us, he says. Even Isaiah’s grand vision
ends up telling us more about God’s relationship with us than about
God’s identity. Isaiah is shrinks from God, terrified, but God sees
things differently” Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” he calls
out. He doesn’t just accept Isaiah; he wants to use him too, as a
We will never be able to describe or explain God in an intellectual,
abstract way, says the Bible, but we can know him in relationship,
through the effect he has on us when we spend time with him in prayer,
when we work with him in service, when we find him in others, in those
In a way that is just the same as the way we know one another.
When I am preparing to take someone’s funeral one of the most important
things I have to do is to find out about them, of course. Usually I
haven’t known them myself. So I visit the family, and I say to them,
“Tell me about John – What was he like?”
Almost always there is a long pause. Nine times out of ten, even if
they loved him very much indeed, they struggle to think of the words
that would describe him. And the reason is obvious. They can’t sum up
an entire life in something as slippery and inadequate as words. Even
if they could tell me everything he ever did, words couldn’t express
the husband, father, brother, son, colleague, friend that they knew. It
is a different experience for each of them, and it changed over time.
Words can never capture the emotional flavour of that relationship, the
sense of knowing and being known by someone who is woven into their
hearts, who was and is and always will be part of their lives, someone
who has helped to shape them into the person they are. No wonder they
struggle at my questions. I often have to reassure them that we don’t
need to say everything, that the funeral is just a focus, a reminder of
what that person is to them.
Knowing about someone is not the same as knowing them. Knowing about
them may be more objective, more accurate in a technical sense, but it
will never be the same as the kind of knowledge we have when we let
someone else get under our skin, and we get under theirs. Often the
better we know someone, the closer we are to them, the harder it is to
describe them; we see nuances, contradictions, new depths, new
discoveries. But it’s also true that when you know someone in that way,
you often don’t feel the need to describe and define them. That is the
kind of knowledge of God which the Bible talks about as our goal – not
the head knowledge, but the knowledge that comes from letting God touch
us and change us. Isaiah and Nicodemus both discover God through what
God does for them and with them. Isaiah is called to serve others in
God’s name. Nicodemus is invited by God to have a new start – to be
born again in relationship with him.
There are reasons why the Church has so stubbornly held onto the
doctrine of the Trinity, despite the fact that it seems like nonsense.
One of those reasons is that it does seem so ridiculous, so beyond our
understanding. If ever we think we have God all buttoned down, boxed
up, within our grasp, the doctrine of the Trinity will soon pull the
rug out from under our feet. Like a juggler juggling with three balls –
the idea of God as Trinity reminds us that there’s no way to hold onto
the whole of God at once. We have to keep letting go of our ideas, and
letting God be God, someone who is beyond our grasp. The wind blows
where it chooses…says Jesus to Nicodemus…you hear the sound of it, but
you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
Another reason why the Trinity matters, though, is that at the heart of
this odd understanding of God is relationship. The Father, the Son, the
Spirit – not one, all alone and ever more shall be so, but an endless
flow of love continually giving birth to love in the world.
Who is God? On Trinity Sunday we are invited to stop telling God who
and what we think he should be, and let God be God instead – infinite
and intimate, wider than the bounds of space, but closer to us than our
own selves, known, familiar and yet someone who calls us constantly to
see him in new ways, and to meet him afresh.
Some examples of female Images of God
in the Bible and in Christian Spiritual writing.
Genesis 1:27, Hosea
11:3-4, Hosea 13:8, Deuteronomy 32:18, Isaiah 66:13, Isaiah 49:15,
Isaiah 42:14, Psalm131:2, Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34, Luke 15:8-10
of Canterbury (11th C)
Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you: You are
gentle with us as a mother with her children; Often you weep over our
sins and our pride: tenderly you draw us from hatred and
judgement. You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds:
in sickness you nurse us, and with pure milk you feed us.
Julian of Norwich (14th C)
And thus in our creation God Almighty is our natural father, and God
all-wisdom is our natural mother, with the love and goodness of the
Holy Spirit. These are all one God, one Lord. In the knitting and
joining he is our real, true spouse and we are his loved wife and his
fair maiden. ….
May 31 2009 Pentecost
Acts 2.1-21, Romans 8.22-27
“When the Day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in
one place.” The Day of Pentecost. What do you think of when you hear
those words? The rushing wind, the fire dancing on the disciples’
heads, the babble of languages… the coming of the Holy Spirit to fill
the first Christians with confidence and joy? Those are the symbols and
events we associate with this festival. We grow used to the sights,
sounds, smells and tastes of different festivals. Christmas with its
spicy smell of mince pies and mulled wine. Easter with its spring
flowers. Harvest with apples and grain. And Pentecost – Whitsun - with
the familiar images of the Holy Spirit – wind and flames. Those are the
things which are in our minds today.
But have you ever wondered what those first disciples were expecting on
that Day of Pentecost, as they gathered in the upper room? They weren’t
thinking of fire and wind – all that was yet to happen.
The feast of Pentecost is an ancient Jewish feast, still celebrated
today - and nothing to do with the Holy Spirit at all. Pentecost means
fiftieth, and this is the fiftieth day after the great feast of the
Passover. Pentecost is also known to Jewish people as Shavuot and, for
them it is the feast of the first fruits. Its roots are agricultural.
It celebrates the first fruits of the crops gathered in the Promised
Land, after the long trek out of slavery in Egypt, which was recalled
at Passover. Passover is celebrated as the spring crops are being sown
- Shavuot is celebrated when the first of them is harvested. If
Passover celebrates the beginning of the journey across the wilderness
towards the Promised Land, Shavuot celebrates the moment when they
start to live there.
In Israel there were seven different crops which ripened in the seven
weeks after Passover - and traditionally people would gather and keep
the very first cut of each of these seven crops for this festival. They
would tie a ribbon around each crop, put the fruits in a basket and
bring them to the temple as an offering to God, giving him thanks for
the good things that he has given them. Traditionally they brought
wheat, barley, grapes, figs, olives, honey, and pomegranates.
But there’s another sort of first fruit which is celebrated at Shavuot,
as well as all these delicious things. Shavuot is also the time when
Jewish people remember the giving of the law on Mount Sinai – Moses
going up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments from God. The
commandments were a sort of foretaste – a first fruit - of the way the
world could be. By trying to live justly, treating each other and the
rest of creation, and God, with respect and kindness, the people of
Israel believed they were bringing that world into being. The law
enabled them to grow the first fruits of a new harvest of
righteousness. You can see how it all ties together, perhaps.
But what does that have to do with the Holy Spirit? Let’s go back to
the disciples, gathered together, thinking of pomegranates and
figs and olives on this Day of Pentecost, of the first fruits of the
Promised Land, the new world which their ancestors had been given by
God, but thinking too, I am sure, about the new world they had suddenly
found themselves in.
Fifty days earlier, they had seen Christ crucified and buried, but
then, just when they thought all was lost, he had been raised from
death. In the weeks that followed they had had to re-examine everything
they thought they knew. They had learned that God’s love was stronger
than death. They had learned too that they were to be the ones who
would take the message of that love to the ends of the earth. This was
their new world and it was one which felt utterly bewildering and
overwhelming. How could they possibly achieve this task they had been
There’s a story from the time of the Exodus about the first glimpse the
people of Israel had into the Promised Land. They came near to its
borders and decided to send spies into it to see what it was like. The
spies came back with glowing reports of the rich crops they saw there,
but with alarming tales of the strength of the inhabitants as well.
“There are giants in the land – we were like grasshoppers to them! “
they said. The Israelites took fright at this and turned back,
wandering for a whole generation more in the wilderness until they
found the courage to cross the Jordan.
As Jesus’ disciples gathered on the Day of Pentecost that’s how they
felt too – faced with an impossible challenge, and wanting to retreat
But as they sat there together, full of fear and incomprehension, they
had an extraordinary experience of the closeness of God. Later on they
tried to describe it, but all they could do was come up with some
images. It was like fire, like a rushing wind…but then again it wasn’t
actually burning or blowing. In the end you get the feeling that it was
beyond description – you just had to be there to understand…What really
mattered was the effect it had. Suddenly, the obstacles – the giants in
the land – the fear and doubt – are swept away, and the disciples
themselves swept out into the crowd which has gathered in Jerusalem, a
crowd from all over the world, but a crowd which somehow understood
what the disciples were telling them. Again, it’s not an experience
they could explain, and neither can we, but the effects were clear.
Many people joined the disciples that day, convinced by what they saw
and heard. And the disciples themselves were changed by the
experience too. Suddenly now they knew that God really would do as he
promised – be with them, giving them the words to say and the strength
to say them.
Of course, that was only the beginning of the story. Not every day was
as easy as that. But they needed that experience – that extraordinary
beginning - to reassure them that God was working in them, and that
extraordinary things really were possible.
Some of you by now, if the cogs have been whirring, may have realised
why all this happened on that Jewish feast of Pentecost, Shavuot – at
the time of the first fruits. The disciples had come together
thinking “first fruits”, and first fruits were what they got, the first
fruits of the new world that God was building through them.
St Paul, as a good and learned Jew, would also have linked Pentecost
with the “first fruits” too. That’s why he writes to the Roman church
in our second reading about the “first fruits of the Spirit”. That is
why in his letter to the Galatians he talks about the fruit that the
Spirit produces in our lives – “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy,
peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self
control.” (Gal 5.28) These are fruits the world is hungry for; just as
the people of Israel were hungry for the delicious food of the Promised
Land and the order and peace of the law. On the Day of Pentecost, the
disciples started to see and trust that God was changing them, bringing
those fruits into being in their lives, but what about us?
The Shavuot basket God wants us to bring to him today, the Shavuot
basket he wants us to share with the rest of the world, isn’t one that
just contains pomegranates and figs; it has in it those far more
important fruits of love, joy, peace and the rest – the evidence of the
changes he has made to us. The coming of the Spirit is not just about
extraordinary experiences – speaking in tongues or mystical visions –
but the steady growth of goodness in us. Just as people couldn’t miss
the effect of the Spirit of God in the lives Jesus’ first followers,
they should be able to see changes in us too. If our faith hasn’t made
a difference to the way we live our lives then we should be wondering
If we can see those changes in us though, that doesn’t mean that the
work is finished. First fruits are just that - the promise of things to
come. The changes that we can see should make us hungry for the harvest
that is still unseen. Often we are satisfied with so little – and
complacent about seeking more. We are content with a meagre faith, the
faith we had as children, the knowledge we picked up at Sunday school.
We are happy with a sketchy understanding of the Bible; relationships
with one another that are cordial and pleasant but nothing deeper; the
occasional bout of generosity or kindness, but nothing that will really
make a lasting difference; one exciting day, one great spiritual
moment, but nothing that lasts. Today, on this feast of first fruits,
we need recognise that this is a beginning, not an end. Our Christian
lives are supposed to get richer, deeper, more life-changing, more
world-changing as we go on with God.
We are called by God today to build on our relationships with one
another and with him, to find ways to serve others, to further that
world of peace and justice which we are called to build; to catch fire,
to be propelled out into action by the wind of his Spirit. Perhaps,
like the disciples, and like the Israelites crossing the wilderness, we
feel that there are “giants in the land”, obstacles too great for us to
deal with, but God’s promise is that he has strength enough for us,
energy enough for us, love that is strong enough to carry us through,
and that he will always be with us, just as he was with the disciples.
So this Pentecost, what’s in your Shavuot basket? What are the signs
you can see in yourself of God’s generous love for you? And what are
you going to do to make sure that those good beginning are the first
fruits of a bumper crop, not the whole of the harvest. Come, Holy
Spirit, we pray today in word and song, but how are we going to nurture
the seeds of God’s kingdom in us, so that its fruit fills not just one
basket, but overflows to a hungry world?
2009 Easter 7
21-26, John 17. 6-19
As many of you will know, I spent much of the week before last serving
on what is called a Bishop’s Advisory Panel, interviewing and assessing
candidates for ordained ministry. It’s a tremendous privilege – meeting
people at such a crucial point in their lives. It’s also exhausting,
especially because the only time allowed in the rather packed programme
for writing our reports on the candidates is the middle of the night.
Like my fellow advisors I didn’t finish until 3.30 in the morning of
the final day! I’ve just about recovered now, having taken last Sunday
off, but it was a bit of a killer.
But apart from the bit where we burn the midnight oil, I am always very
impressed with the selection process. It’s very careful, very well
thought-through. The candidates’ own Dioceses have already looked at
them thoroughly before they come to a national panel, and we get all
sorts of paperwork about them before we meet them. Then we get to turn
them inside out. There are interviews with each of the three advisers,
tasks to do; presentations, discussions, written exercises. We have
specific criteria to select against – things we know we are looking
for. And at the end of it all there are those dratted reports to write,
tightly focussed reports that have to take into account all the
evidence we’ve seen, not just our gut feelings. I’m sure we get it
wrong sometimes; people are ordained who shouldn’t be, or not ordained
who would have been perfectly ok. But if mistakes are made, it’s
certainly not for want of trying.
So it’s a bit galling to hear in our first reading today about the
selection process of the early church, because, frankly it seems a
doddle by comparison. They want to choose someone to take the place of
Judas, who has betrayed Jesus and then taken his own life. So, what do
they do? They cast lots. No 3.30 in the morning report-writing for
them. No lists of criteria. No agonising over the paper work, looking
for just the right words, trying to make sure they’ve really sifted the
evidence. They just pray and then toss a coin, or pull a name out of a
hat, or something like that. They’d specified that the person chosen
had to have been a follower of Jesus from the beginning and that had
narrowed it down, but that’s as far as they went in terms of using
their own human reason to make the decision. Frankly it all looks a bit
ropey to modern eyes. What kind of way is that to determine the future
of the church, and the future of the individuals concerned?
But however odd this seems to us, I think there is an important message
for us here, not just for those who select priests, or apostles for
that matter, but for all of us as we make our journey through life. I’m
not for a moment suggesting that we should take our decisions by
casting lots today - however appealing it might feel when I am
struggling with reports at 3.30 in the morning. But this story reminds
us that however much we think we are in charge of what we do with
our lives, or the lives of others, however carefully we ponder the
choices we make, in the end there’s a huge amount that isn’t down to
us, that we can’t control or predict. As the Yiddish proverb puts it –
“People plan, God laughs”. Casting lots was a common practice at the
time of Christ. Those who did it didn’t think that by doing this they
were leaving their decisions to chance; they thought of it as leaving
those decisions to God, trusting that their lives were in his hands.
They recognised that it is often the things we don’t choose, the paths
we are forced down by circumstance, which turn out to carry the richest
blessing for us.
Many of the candidates we saw had discovered this too. They were a very
varied bunch. The youngest was in his early twenties; the oldest in her
mid-sixties. Male, female, rich, poor, from all sorts of different
backgrounds and walks of life. Their life stories were full of twists
and turns and setbacks. Many had gone through profound pain or loss in
their lives, and, like most of the candidates I’ve seen over the years
they were surprised to find themselves at this point, surprised their
lives had led them to this. They’d assumed that the church, and God,
would be looking for priests who were some sort of model Christians,
paragons of virtue and certainty, and they didn’t feel like that at all
(which is just as well, because if that was the case I’d never get
through the selection process!)
As we looked together at their lives, though, they were able to see how
those twists and turns – the things that seemed to have gone wrong as
well as the things that had gone right – were important in their
journey. It wasn’t just, or even mainly, their own choices which had
shaped them and given them the gifts they were offering, but also the
things life had thrown at them. The setbacks they’d experienced weren’t
blind alleys or detours, they were a vital part of the journey. We may
not have cast lots to select them, but nonetheless there were a lot of
apparently random factors which had brought them to this point, things
they had had no control over at all.
We know almost nothing about the two men in that selection process in
the book of Acts we heard about today, Joseph and Matthias. We don’t
hear anything of them before or after this moment. But we can use our
imaginations to think about them, and by doing that, perhaps think
about our own lives too.
The one thing we do know is that they’d been followers of Jesus from
the start, but that they weren’t part of that inner circle of 12 whom
Jesus had chosen to be closest to him.
They were out on the fringes. I wonder how they had felt about that?
How would you have felt?
Did they feel left out, jealous of Peter, Andrew and the rest?
Or were they quite happy to tag along and not be noticed too much?
And how did they feel when they found themselves suddenly thrust into
the limelight at this point?
If the Christian community thought they were good candidates to be
apostles now, why hadn’t Jesus picked them in the first place?
Did they feel that they were second-best, or perhaps that they
shouldn’t even be there at all?
Did either of them actually want this role – no one seems to have asked
How would you have felt in their shoes?
And how did it work out?
Was Matthias any good at being an apostle – better than Joseph would
Was he glad he had been chosen?
Was Joseph perhaps glad that he hadn’t been?
And what did he do next?
Did he discover his own calling, something perhaps quite different, but
the thing that really fitted him?
Or did he spend the rest of his life with a chip on his shoulder and a
feeling of resentment?
If it was us, how would we have reacted?
Their lives and futures are thrown up into the air at this point, and
whatever they felt about it, it is bound to have changed them. This
selection process is something that happens to them rather than being
their choice. It happens because of something else they couldn’t have
predicted either; Judas’ betrayal and death.
Perhaps, when we look back at our own lives we can identify times like
that as well. Times when things didn’t turn out the way we expected,
when we set off in one direction, only to find that we ended up
somewhere else entirely. Times when we were pushed into something we
didn’t want, or held back from something we did.
At times like those often the only choice we have is how we react to
what has happened to us. We can think of those times as blind alleys, a
waste, a sign that we have gone wrong somehow, or that God has
forgotten us or is punishing us; or we can make a decision that,
however painful they might be these are opportunities to learn and
grow, to seek and to find God at work.
I don’t like the TV programme, “The Apprentice”. Apart from encouraging
nastiness, it seems to me to promote a very narrow view of success.
You’re hired or fired, a winner or loser. And to be a loser seems to be
the worst thing in the world to those taking part. In real life though,
we are certain to lose at some point, certain to meet with failure and
disappointment. At those points the Apprentice will be a lousy
spiritual model, not one that will help us at all, which is why it
worries me that it seems so popular.
The model Jesus gives us in the prayer we heard in the Gospel reading
is quite different. He’s in Gethsemane when he utters these words,
waiting for his arrest. He knows he is going to look like the ultimate
loser to those around him. But he prays that his disciples will
discover that this isn’t so, that his death is the gateway for him, and
for them, to a new life, and a new sort of community. “Sanctify them in
the truth” he prays. To be sanctified means to be set apart, taken out
of the rut of the world and allowed to be different. His path – the
path his disciples will have to follow too – is one that won’t look
successful in the world’s terms. They’ll need to have the courage to
see a different reality, different truths to those that are commonly
accepted – truths about Jesus and about themselves, truths about life
and about what real success looks like.
The candidates we saw will be hearing from their Bishops round about
now. I hope that whether we felt that priesthood was right for them or
not, they will find that wherever they go from here God is with them on
the journey and waiting for them at the end of it too, just as he is
for all of us.
09 Easter 5
Acts 9.26-40, John 15.1-8
“An angel of the Lord said to Philip, Get up and go toward the
south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This
is a wilderness road).”
This is a wilderness road, says the author of the book of Acts, in an
apparent aside, in brackets. We might think that means it’s not really
relevant at all. But if we think that we’d be wrong, because actually,
it’s the key to the story, the thing that makes sense of this strange
little tale. This is a story about wildernesses and people who find
themselves in them.
In it we meet two people who are out in the wilderness – literally, but
in other ways too. The first is Philip, sent out here by the voice of
God. It is very early days for the Christian faith. In fact it isn’t
really a separate faith at all, just a reforming movement within
Judaism. But already we can see the cracks appearing. Stephen has just
been stoned to death, and a wave of persecution has broken out, driving
many of the leaders of the church out of Jerusalem away from the
Temple, away from the familiar spiritual landmarks. Philip has gone to
Samaria, which probably seemed strange enough to him, but now God has
called him to what really feels like the middle of nowhere, and he has
no idea why.
He’s not alone in the desert. He soon comes across an official from the
Ethiopian court; the Queen’s treasurer, no less, riding in his chariot.
He’s a man of status and wealth, but that hasn’t helped him much in the
journey he has just been on. He’s been to Jerusalem to worship in the
Temple. We don’t know whether he was Jewish by birth – there were
Jewish settlements all around the Mediterranean and North Africa – or
whether he was an ethnic Ethiopian who was just interested in Judaism
and wanted to live by its tenets, but whichever was the case this
journey doesn’t seem to have met his needs, because when Philip finds
him, he is evidently puzzled. He seems to have come away from Jerusalem
with more questions than answers, no wiser than when he set out.
Philip hears him reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah, but the
Ethiopian is quick to admit that he doesn’t know what it means. “How
can I,” he says, “unless someone guides me?” There’s more than a touch
of frustration in his voice. He wants to know what it’s all about, but
no one seems to have been willing or able to explain it to him. If he
was going to Jerusalem at this point we could understand it, but he’s
coming away. He’s been in a place that was stuffed full of religious
teachers, people whose lives centred around the study of these ancient
texts, but either no one had the answers he was looking for, or, more
likely, no one was prepared to meet with him at all.
And there’s a reason for that, a reason which hinges on the other thing
we have been told about this man. He’s a eunuch. That’s the bit we
usually feel a bit awkward about – some translations coyly just call
him an official - but the Greek says he’s a eunuch, and there’s no
reason to doubt it. Eunuchs were common in the ancient world.
They were often slaves who were castrated when they were small
children. It seems cruel and barbaric to us – it is cruel and barbaric
– but this was a brutal age and ironically it gave them access to much
better positions in society than they might otherwise have had. This
man is the treasurer to the Queen. Bearing in mind that he probably had
no choice in the matter, he might well think that being a eunuch had
served him well. Until he got interested in Judaism, that is.
While most of the ancient world wasn’t at all bothered by the idea of
eunuchs, Judaism most certainly was, especially when it came to
worshipping in the Temple. The book of Deuteronomy, the book of the
law, was clear. Eunuchs couldn’t enter the Temple, however deserving
they were in other respects. (Deut 23.1) the principle was that you had
to be whole and unblemished if you wanted to meet God, so most
disabilities would bar you from worship. Eunuchs certainly
weren’t considered to be whole, and that was that. So this man
has trekked all the way from Ethiopia to Jerusalem, only to discover
that the very place he most wants to be, in the Temple, is closed to
him. He can never play a full part in this community of faith. And
there’s nothing he can do about it because he can’t change what has
happened to him.
It seems to puzzle him especially because he’s been reading the
prophecies of Isaiah – that’s what he’s doing when Philip arrives - and
they seem to say something quite different. Isaiah talks about a
suffering servant of God, rejected by others, humiliated and denied
justice. He’s been rejected, says Isaiah, because he is mutilated and
disfigured. “So marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance “
that “we accounted him stricken, struck down by God and
afflicted.” But Isaiah says that this isn’t how God sees him. The
truth is that “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our
iniquities (53.5)...through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.”
(53.10) We probably associate these words with Jesus, but the Ethiopian
didn’t; he’d never heard of him. And neither did Isaiah; he lived 500
years before this. We don’t know who he had in mind. When the
Ethiopian asks, “Is he talking about himself, or someone else?” he’s
asking about the principle, rather than about a specific individual.
Can someone like this, someone who is maimed, not whole, someone like
himself, really be chosen by God, blessed by God, used by God as a
blessing for others?
I’m sure he’d read on in Isaiah too, just a few chapters later, to the
point where God promises “to the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who
choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give
in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons
No wonder he is puzzled. Something doesn’t add up. Isaiah’s words are
clear, yet 500 years later it’s still only the physically whole who are
allowed into the Temple, into the community of faith. Whatever the
scriptures say, the religious leaders proclaim that God will only
accept the strong and the perfect, not the weak, the wounded or damaged
like him. He was pushed out into the wilderness long before he got onto
this road from Jerusalem to Gaza, and he’s desperately in need of
And there’s Philip, with a story to tell him of another man who was
rejected, a man who was flogged, mocked, humiliated and executed as a
common criminal. If anyone looked as if God had rejected them it was
Jesus. Yet on the third day God raised him from death, turning what
looked like defeat into triumph. Suddenly the penny drops for this
eunuch. If it could be true for Jesus, it could be true for all who
were despised, all who were disfigured and maimed. It could be true
even for him.
“Look, here is water!” he says, full of excitement. “What is to prevent
me from being baptized?” And the answer is nothing. For the first time
in this man’s spiritual journey there’s no barrier to him being fully
part of the community of faith. It’s just a question of him getting out
of the chariot and into the water. It may not have been what he
expected – a waterhole in the desert rather than the splendour of the
Temple - but it is in this wilderness that he finds the gateway to God,
his holy ground. Isaiah talks in another place of the desert
blossoming, waters breaking forth in the wilderness (Is 35) and that is
exactly what happens. Philip’s wilderness blooms too as he starts
to understand that it doesn’t matter how strange the landscape seems –
geographically or spiritually – God can work wherever he wants to. That
knowledge is going to matter as the church moves out beyond its Jewish
roots into unfamiliar territory.
So what has this to do with us? My guess is that every one of us has
been in the wilderness at some point in our lives. If we haven’t, then
we probably will be one day. Life has a way of throwing us all out into
the desert sooner or later. Some people live all their lives there, of
course, treated as outsiders for one reason or another. Others are
exiled from the places of comfort and power they have known by illness,
breakdown or some other reversal of fortune – the present financial
crisis is meaning many who once felt secure, for example, are losing
jobs and homes. When we find ourselves out in that wilderness, what do
we do? Do we stand pressing our noses against the windows of the world
we long to be part of, a place of strength, health, wealth and social
acceptability? Or do we, like Philip and the Ethiopian, turn around and
face the desert and make the truly wonderful discovery that God is
already out there with us, and that we’re no less his children, no less
loved, no less valuable or able to be a blessing to others because we
are struggling or in pain, or because there are things in our lives
that have gone wrong and can’t be put right.
God longs for us to know this, but to do so we often have to ask that
same question the Ethiopian asks. “What is to prevent me…?” The
barriers that stop us feeling confident and of value when our lives are
in a mess, aren’t usually the ones that others have put there. They are
the ones we have put there ourselves. “What is to prevent us…?” We can
be prevented from taking the steps we need to by our fear of getting it
wrong. We can be prevented by cynicism or apathy. We can be prevented
by pride – it would have been easy for this important official to have
fallen prey to that. We can be prevented by old resentments; by the
chips we’ve carried on our shoulders all our lives. All these things
can mean that the desert stays a desert, and our gifts wither in the
This story tells us that the wilderness can be the holiest ground of
all if we are prepared to let it be, if we are prepared to get out of
the chariot and into the water of God’s love.
So “what is to prevent us…?”
May 3 09 Easter 4
“I am the Good Shepherd” says Jesus. It’s an image that’s very
familiar to us from hymns and stained glass windows – an image of Jesus
surrounded by suspiciously clean and well-behaved sheep. But my guess
is that while we are familiar with the image, most of us know far less
about the reality of sheep and shepherding. I don’t think we’ve
got many practicing shepherds in the congregation.
The people of Jesus’ time knew all about sheep, though. As well as
being an important source of meat, milk and wool, they were vital to
their worship. They were sacrificed in large numbers in the Temple in
religious rituals – thousands of Passover lambs, for example, were
killed each year. Shepherds were essential to their communities. A
whole way of life depended on them and everyone would know that. That’s
why Jesus chose this image when he wanted to talk about true leadership
But, as I said, shepherds aren’t part of our everyday experience, so
perhaps we need a different image to work with, one that is more
familiar to us. It seems to me that the job of the security guard might
be one that we could choose instead. It may not seem as romantic – I
don’t see it catching on in the stained glass windows – but I don’t
suppose shepherding is all that romantic in reality either. Just like
those first century shepherds, security guards are an essential part of
our society. As the shepherd safeguarded the sheep, security guards
safeguard us and the things that are important to us, and they are
everywhere once you start to notice them. They patrol our
shopping centres. They keep watch over office buildings and warehouses.
They are on duty in hospitals, at airports, in any large institution,
and at major events like festivals. We may not really notice them as
people, but we are aware that there is someone there in a uniform who’s
got their eyes open for danger.
The uniform’s important, of course, because it is the thing we notice
first – sometimes in fact, it’s the only thing we notice, and that can
be rather dangerous. The trouble is that when we see someone in uniform
we tend automatically to assume we can trust them and that they will do
the job the uniform represents. That’s not just true of security
guards. Any uniform will do: a doctor in a white coat, a construction
worker in a hi-visibility jacket, a priest in a dog collar. The uniform
says, “trust me – I know what I am doing”. But it’s only when those
people come to do the job that we really discover whether they are can
live up to the promise of their uniform.
I trained for the priesthood alongside a man who had been a security
guard at a GCHQ listening post – one of those top-secret places where
they monitor communications around the world. On his first day he put
on the uniform and reported for duty. “What am I supposed to do? “ He
asked. His boss solemnly took him to a little booth by the front gate
and said to him, “you just sit there…” And that’s what he did.
Hour after hour after hour he just sat there. As far as I know nothing
dramatic EVER happened – no one EVER tried to break in. But he knew
that if a terrorist did turn up, he’d have to be ready. At that point
he’d be right in the firing line, risking his life. And it would only
be then that he, and everyone else, would discover whether he had the
courage, commitment and character he needed to do the job. The uniform,
the outward appearance of the security guard, was no guarantee of
anything. It was his actions that would reveal the truth about him.
Jesus is making the same point when he talks about shepherds. Just
because someone is wearing the official badge from “Shepherds R Us PLC”
that doesn’t tell you anything. It’s not the outward appearance, the
contract they signed, the uniform they wear that matters, but what they
do when a wolf shows up. At that point only those who really care
about the sheep in their charge will stick around, he says. Those who
are simply doing it for the money, for what is in it for them, will
head for the hills.
Of course, Jesus’ concern wasn’t really with security guards or
shepherds. These are both just images. What he was really interested in
was those who claimed to be “shepherds” of the people of Israel, the
people who led and guided the nation. And he’s taking a huge risk in
what he says, because it is precisely those people who he is addressing
here. He’s talking to a group of Pharisees, who are often portrayed as
self-appointed and rather self-righteous guardians of the public
morals. It’s probably not an entirely fair picture – many of them were
good people - but it sounds as if there were certainly some who thought
they and they alone had the right to decide who was acceptable and who
To them Jesus was a complete fraud. A carpenter’s son from Nazareth
with no connections, no official status, no position in society. “Who
does he think he is?” they asked. The ideas he preached were so
strange. A God who welcomed all – tax-collectors, prostitutes,
Samaritans, Roman soldiers, people who were unclean in myriad ways.
What kind of message was that? As far as the Pharisees were concerned
it was heresy, blasphemy. Their people, their flock, shouldn’t be
exposed to this sort of thing – they were convinced it would lead them
We sometimes forget how WRONG Jesus’ message must have seemed to many
at the time. We’ve had him on a pedestal for 2000 years. But to these
Pharisees it was obvious. THEY were the shepherds of their people, the
ones with the official training, the official approval, the right
“uniform” so to speak. Jesus didn’t look right at all. When he tells
this parable about true and false shepherds, they know which group they
think he belongs to. Where’s his uniform? Where’s his badge of office?
Where’s his authority?
But Jesus turns their preconceptions upside down. It’s not the outward
appearance that matters, he says, it’s what happens when the chips are
down, when the wolf comes, when the sheep are threatened that reveals
whether the shepherd is up to the job, worthy of the name. Until that
point you can’t tell which is the good shepherd and which is the hired
hand, no matter what they look like, what qualifications they seem to
have, what uniform they wear. Of course we are meant to read this story
with hindsight, to be aware of the fact that the person saying these
things goes on to do just what he talks about. He is the shepherd who
lays down his life for the sheep, facing the onslaught of human hatred
and suspicion because of his love for his people.
In our first reading today we hear the same message. Peter and John
have healed a man who was begging outside the Temple. They had healed
him in the name of Jesus, the one whom the High Priest had just had
crucified. The Temple authorities are furious and call Peter and John
before them and round on them. What right do they have to do this? They
are followers of a heretic, someone who the powers-that-be have decided
can’t possibly be from God. Peter and John’s answer is simple. “Look at
the facts – the man has been healed. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that
something to rejoice over?”
I’d like to assume that the Pharisees’ blinkered thinking was all
ancient history, but of course it isn’t. Nor is it something that just
relates to the way people saw Jesus or his followers. It is a universal
human tendency - to see the outward appearance, the uniform, rather
than the person inside it. It is a hard discipline to look deeper, to
see people for who they actually are and to judge them by what they do
instead. But it is a discipline we need to practice.
It’s a discipline that is especially important, it seems to me, in an
increasingly multi-cultural society. There seems to be a rising tide of
panic among some Christians at the moment – often whipped up by
simplistic reports in the media – as the reality dawns that we no
longer live in a society where Christianity is the default setting. Of
course, our nation has changed – other faiths are more numerous than
they once were, though still a minority. More significant are the large
number of people who once would have called themselves Christians but
now reject any religion. It is tempting, in the face of these changes,
to focus our energy on maintaining the outward symbols, structures and
rituals of belief, to insist that the cultural markers of Christianity
– the uniform – is on show. Wearing a cross to work or maintaining the
old privileges that came with being the state religion assumes huge
significance – a way of marking our territory. The danger is though
that the uniform becomes more important to us than the actions it
should represent. I value the Christian history and tradition of
our nation and I’m all for standing up for my faith – I do it for a
living. But we have to make sure it is our faith we are standing up
for, not just those cultural markers that have come to be associated
with it – not just Christianity as an institution but Christianness – a
way of thinking and living and behaving towards others. The fruit of
the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness,
gentleness, faithfulness and self-control, says St Paul, not an
irritated insistence that we should have a special place at the table.
The message of the gospels is that God doesn’t judge us by how loud our
voices are, or how many churches we have, but by how many people we
have loved and how well we have loved them.
Jesus, the good shepherd, didn’t look to the people of his time the way
they expected the guardians of their society to look, and he knew
it. The uniform, the outward appearance, the things he said were all
wrong. In him God took on what seemed a very unlikely form. But in
doing so he called us to look beyond our expectations too, to listen
for the voice that calls out in every tongue to every nation and
culture to a flock that is far wider and more diverse than we can dare
2009 Easter 3
I’m going to begin by asking you a couple of questions which might seem
a bit strange.
Who are you? And who am I?
You see what I mean; you’re probably thinking that I’ve finally lost my
marbles. It’s bad enough that I don’t seem to know who you are, but if
I don’t know who I am either we are in real trouble!
Actually, though, those questions aren’t as daft as they might seem.
What do we mean when we talk about our “selves”, when we use those
words I and you? Are we just thinking of our bodies? Is that who I am?
Is that who you are? – these particular assemblies of limbs and organs,
put together according to the blueprint laid down by our DNA? I doubt
whether many of us think that’s all there is to us. After all, bodies
change. They grow, they age. When we are new-born we look quite
different from the elderly person we might one day become, but we don’t
stop being “us” because our physical appearance changes.
Most people, for most of history have believed that humans are more
than just physical, more than just bodies because that’s how it feels.
Whether we call it soul, spirit, mind or consciousness, we can’t shake
the belief that there is something that makes us essentially us. It may
not show up on a CAT scan or an autopsy, but most of us stubbornly
believe it’s there. But although people might agree that human beings
have bodies and souls, they haven’t always agreed about how the two fit
together, or on what value we should place on each part. How we answer
that question can have a profound effect on the way we live.
At the time of Christ there were lots of different ideas about bodies
and souls around. The early church was a melting pot for those ideas.
Some of the first Christians were gentiles; they’d grown up with the
assumptions of the classical world – the ideas of Roman, Greek or
Eastern philosophy. Other early Christians were Jewish; they’d
been steeped in the stories and teaching of the Old Testament. Both
groups thought humans had souls as well as bodies, but they understood
them very differently.
Many Classical philosophers thought that bodies were the inferior part
of the package. It was the soul that mattered, a spark of something
divine which was housed, or even imprisoned, in treacherous flesh and
blood. Souls were pure and immortal. Bodies were fallible and
transient; they got ill, they didn’t do what you wanted, they were
filled with inconvenient appetites and impulses. They always let you
down in the end. Those who believed this wanted to be able to rise
above their bodies, to control them, and ultimately shed them and
fly free again, returning to their rightful place in the world of the
Jewish belief was very different, though. It started from the story of
the creation in the first chapter of Genesis. God made his universe and
he looked at what he had made, and he declared that it was good – all
of it. Matter was good, earth was good, bodies were good too. The body
was a blessing, not a prison. Of course you needed to use it aright,
but it was something to treasure, not to try to escape from.
When we read today’s Gospel – the story of Jesus appearing to his
disciples after the resurrection - we might be able to hear echoes of
the debate between these two different strands of thinking in the early
church, those Gentile and Jewish ideas about bodies and souls. Of
course we often get so caught up with our modern questions about how
the resurrection could have happened, or if it happened at all that we
miss these messages, but they were really crucial to the original
writers and hearers. They weren’t bothered about the “how” of the
resurrection. If God wanted it to happen it could happen, and they
certainly believed it had. If we want to hear what Luke was
trying to tell us in this story, then, we have to try to put aside our
modern questions and hear the story as his first hearers would have
done. It’s worth the effort, because actually that message is still
important for us today.
So, what would they have heard in this story of the risen Christ
appearing to his followers? The crucial point – the point Luke hammers
home – is that when Jesus appears it is not as a disembodied spirit, it
is as a very real, flesh and blood body. The disciples are petrified
when they see him – who wouldn’t be? They think they are seeing a
ghost. But Jesus tells them it isn’t so. “Look at me,” he says, “look
at my hands and feet – see the marks of the nails – touch me. A ghost
doesn’t have flesh and bones.” He even asks for some fish and eats it
in front of them. Disembodied spirits don’t eat, so this is not a
disembodied spirit. Whatever God is doing in the resurrection, Luke is
saying, he is doing it in bodies, not just souls.
We may not understand how any of this can be, but that doesn’t matter.
What I want us to do is to hear the underlying messages – and there are
two things in particular that I’d like to draw out this morning.
The first is that by stressing the bodiliness of Jesus’ resurrection
Luke is telling us that bodies matter, the material world
matters. He is affirming that Jewish attitude to the physical
stuff of the world. It is good, he says. It is worth saving,
cherishing, redeeming. Jesus’ resurrection, as he tells it, isn’t about
God rescuing Jesus from the world, whisking him straight off to some
spiritual realm. It is about God’s transforming power being within the
world. It‘s not about what happens after we die – or at least that
isn’t its main focus. It is about what happens in the here and now, in
the world we know. This is a message which would have sounded new and
strange to many of the Gentile Christians. And because it was the
Gentile version of Christianity, with its classical philosophical
flavour which gained the upper hand in the early church, we who have
followed them have often lost sight of it too. The funeral service in
the Book of Common Prayer, for example, written in the 17th Century,
praises God that those who have died have been “delivered from the
burden of the flesh… and out of the miseries of this sinful world.”
I can understand why people might feel this way. For most people over
most of human history life has been hard, and suffering and death a
constant threat. If you look around this church you will find memorial
stones to people who died of diseases that would now be easily
preventable or treatable, cut off from life prematurely. The ornate
Latin tombstone on the wall to the left of the altar records the death
of a young couple who were suddenly struck down with an illness and
died within 24 hours of each other. Maintaining a positive view of the
flesh is bound to be harder if you are constantly reminded of its
frailty and if there is little you can do to control it.
The problem is that if we have a negative and fearful attitude to the
physical world we can easily find ourselves tempted simply to turn away
from the world, to stop enjoying it, stop caring for it, stop caring
for others and for ourselves. That’s disastrous for us personally, for
our attitudes to those around us, especially if they are in need, and
for the environment too. We need to hear that this world is God’s
world, the world he loves and is committed to.
The second reason why we need reminding of the blessedness of our
bodily existence is that our physicality ties us to one another. We can
talk about our souls as if they are private, individual things,
existing in a personal bubble, but bodies can’t survive on their own.
They are always going to need other bodies. We are born from the
relationship between our mother and father – without them we wouldn’t
exist. We rely on countless other people for our daily needs; those who
grow the food we eat or deliver the services we need. Individual
self-sufficiency is impossible. And it’s not just people we need. We
rely too on the whole chain of physical matter around us, air, soil,
plants, insects, other animals. Our bodies remind us that everything is
When the Gospel writers insist that the risen Christ had a body, and
wasn’t just a soul, they remind us that he has chosen to be woven into
the world, to be as dependent on it, as affected by it as the rest of
us, even when it wounds him. He’s part of that same chain of being
which we all belong to. The salvation and hope he brings aren’t about
handing out individual tickets to heaven to the lucky few while the
rest of the world is left to stew in its own juices. They affect
everything. This is an ancient truth, but one we have often lost sight
of in the West, with our rather individualistic mind set. Eastern
Orthodox Christians place much more emphasis on our collective
relationship with God. They talk about the divinization of the Cosmos,
God transforming all things. And it’s there in the New Testament too.
St Paul says that in Jesus, God was “reconciling to himself all things,
whether in heaven or on earth” (Col. 1.19). It’s either about all of us
or it’s about none of us. When Christians get involved in issues of
social and environmental justice, or campaigns to end poverty or
alleviate suffering they aren’t following trendy liberal fads. They are
listening to that deep message of the Gospels which tells us that
everything is connected, that when one part suffers all is damaged and
when there is any healing anywhere, everything is made a little more
So, who are we? Bodies or souls? A mixture of both? However we answer
the question today’s Gospel reminds us that this world around us, with
all its vulnerabilities and failings as well as its joys is worth
redeeming, worth cherishing, worth caring for. It tells us that bodies
– ours and other peoples are a blessing, not a curse, to be enjoyed and
looked after. Whatever comes after death, this life, this world,
this flesh is a place where God wants to be at work. Taking that
seriously can make a world of difference.
April 19 2009
Easter 2 Breathing Space
Acts 4.32-35, John 20.19-31
Today is traditionally known as Low Sunday and perhaps we might think
it is easy to see why. After all the work and business of Lent, Holy
Week and Easter Sunday itself it would be no surprise if everyone was
feeling a bit low – low energy, low numbers in the congregation, low
level of preparation as well often, since many clergy take time off. In
fact, though, Low Sunday doesn’t get its name for that reason. “Low” is
actually thought to be a corruption of the Latin word “Laudes” which
means praise. It’s the first word of the Latin Sequence set for the day
– the chant that came before the Gospel in the Latin Mass. Laudes
Salvatori voce modulemur supplici – let us sing praises to the saviour
with a humble voice.
Far from being a day when we experience the “let-down” from the high of
Easter Sunday it is supposed to be a day of great rejoicing, a day when
we begin to think about what the Resurrection might mean, what
difference it might make, when we let it sink in.
Last week we left the women running in terror from the empty tomb. They
had been told by the young man they found there that Jesus had been
raised from the dead, but it didn’t seem as if they had really taken it
in, and who can be surprised at that? In this week’s Gospel story
though, the disciples begin to encounter Jesus himself in ways that are
both mysterious and mundane. He appears in rooms where the doors are
locked and yet his wounds show him to be very real flesh and blood.
They can see him, hear him, touch him even, if they want to. It is a
very real encounter, but one that is also beyond their understanding.
And Jesus’ words to them show that this is not so much a happy ending
to a sad tale, but the beginning of a story that is new, a
journey that will take them to places – literally and spiritually –
that they could never have imagined. They will find a new freedom, and
the power to set others free too. Thomas will discover a new trust in
place of his old scepticism – not just an intellectual belief, but a
real change in the way he is able to live his life. Old traditions say
he took the Gospel all the way to India. They might even be true – who
would have thought this doubter could travel so far?
In the first reading, from Acts, we see some of the early outworkings
of the transformation the resurrection wrought on those who followed
Jesus. They’re drawn together into a new community, sharing what they
have. It’s noticeable that it’s not about sharing equally though; it is
about sharing according to need, something which you can’t do simply by
establishing a new set of rules to replace the old ones of private
ownership and possessiveness. You have to get to know someone in order
to know their need, and this is what they do, getting to know and to
love people who they might once have thought unclean, people who might
be from a very different social class to them, people of different
races and backgrounds. It was exhilarating, and probably bewildering
too, for those early Christians; most of all it was utterly new. They
were changed, and it was the resurrection which changed them.
So the challenge for us on this Low Sunday – the Sunday when we are
invited to sing a new song of praise – is what that song will be? What
transformation have we seen in our lives? How have we grown in love and
in service as a result of this great good news we have? If we can’t
point to any growth in us, why not, and what are we going to do about
it in this Easter season? Easter isn’t just a day, nor even just
a season; it’s a state of mind, an attitude to life which looks for
transformation and healing in our own lives, which welcomes it when we
find it, and which leads us to share it with others too.
09 Easter Sunday
Acts 10.34-43, Mark 16.1-8
In our Good Friday children’s workshops this year, among other things,
we made Easter bonnets. You can see a couple of them in the porch –
extraordinary creations with all sorts of things stuck to them – and
the flower arrangers, as well as the wonderful Easter eggs, have
taken a “bonnet” theme too. You may ask why. After all, what have hats
to do with the real meaning of Easter? Shouldn’t we have been thinking
about the death and resurrection of Jesus? Aren’t Easter bonnets just
sentimental symbols that get in the way of the serious matter of the
cross and the empty tomb? Surely, this isn’t what Easter’s about! Or is
In fact, Easter bonnets, like those other popular symbols of the season
– eggs, fluffy chicks, bunnies, and so on - are all about newness, and
newness, it seems to me is very much at the heart of the Easter
message. As I’ve explained in the display in the porch, most of our
forebears wouldn’t have had new clothes very often. They were a luxury.
But if you could have just one new set of clothes in the year, this was
the day when you would wear them. If you couldn’t afford a complete new
set of clothes, a new hat would do, or, if you couldn’t even afford
that, an old hat with new trimmings – hence the Easter bonnet. Wearing
new clothes was a natural way to join in with the Easter celebration of
new life, not just the unfurling of the buds on the trees and the green
shoots pushing their way up through the bare earth, but also the new
life of Jesus, bursting from the tomb. In a age before efficient
artificial lighting, central heating and all our other modern comforts,
the colour and warmth of spring – the sheer vigour of its new life -
must have been almost intoxicating. It’s no wonder that our ancestors
co-opted those joyful signs of spring and wove them into their
celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.
The Jewish people had done exactly the same thing with their feast of
Passover, the feast which forms the back-drop to the stories of Holy
Week. Passover celebrated the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from
Egypt, but it was also an agricultural festival that marked the
beginning of the growing season. What better time was there, they
thought, to tell the tale of their journey from the death of slavery to
the new life of the Promised Land than when the world around them was
bursting with new life as well?
For the early church, as they told the story of Jesus, the parallels
were obvious. They had found new life and liberation in Jesus’
resurrection; liberation from the fear of death, and liberation into a
new way of living too. Old barriers were broken down in the community
they formed; barriers between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave
and free. In Christ, the world was made utterly, unimaginably new.
So, Easter bonnets, eggs, chicks and bunnies – signs of life’s
abundance - why not?
But glorious as they are, these symbols struggle to bear the whole
weight of the meaning of the Resurrection. They can only take us so
far. The joy of spring is uncomplicated. It just arrives. Flowers
bloom. Eggs hatch. It all just seems to happen. The new life we hunger
for can be much longer in coming, and when it arrives it can feel risky
and challenging, not simply joyful. If we really want to know what it
means to be made new in Christ we need to dig a bit deeper than bonnets
and eggs, and the story we heard from Mark’s Gospel is the perfect
place to do that digging.
There’s no glorious music in this story, no flower-filled churches; no
one has put on their best new clothes. Instead, all we have is a group
of frightened women. When we first meet them at the beginning of
the story they are afraid; they were on their way to anoint a corpse
that had been dead for three days after all. But as the story unfolds,
they seem to get even more frightened until, by the end of the reading,
the end of the Gospel as we have it today, they are completely
speechless with terror.
Mark’s Gospel almost certainly didn’t originally finish here in fact;
experts think the last page was lost early in its history. But
actually, I quite like this cliff-hanger ending. To me it brings home
the shock of the Resurrection.
In our Lent study groups this year we spent some time looking at this
story. As we thought about these women, we tried to put ourselves in
their shoes. Why were they so afraid? What were they afraid of?
The sheer strangeness of the situation, we decided, would be terrifying
enough. We don’t expect the dead to rise, and neither did they. What
had happened to Jesus’ body? What was going on? But we didn’t think
this was the only reason they were scared. We also wondered whether
they were asking themselves what it might mean if Jesus really had
risen, how it might change their lives. Perhaps, we thought, that might
be even more frightening to them.
They’d followed Jesus from Galilee, hoping he was the Messiah. They’d
watched him as he hung on the cross, horrified by the pain he suffered,
but powerless to help. Many of the other disciples hadn’t even had the
courage to do that; they had deserted him, desperate to save their own
skins. Now he was dead. It was awful. But at least it was all over,
and, so far, the authorities seemed to be leaving them alone. They were
bitterly disappointed, their dreams that Jesus would bring in the
kingdom of God were dashed, but people can adjust to almost anything in
time. These women had already fallen back on the traditions of their
people. They set off to mourn at the tomb, to perform the rituals that
they would have done for anyone dear to them who had died. When they
had done that, they could go back to their old lives and try to pick up
where they had left off. It was sad that it hadn’t worked out, but it
was a sadness they were expecting to learn to live with, to put down to
experience. That was the plan on that early morning, as they set out.
But then they discovered that the tomb was empty, and they were told
that Jesus was alive. God had raised him. Now what? Suddenly the
mission they thought was over was very much on again. They’d been ready
to sink back into their old lives, but instead they were being called
to go forward into a whole new life.
Death is frightening, but sometimes life is even more frightening. The
joy of new life is only half the story. It can also bring challenges
with it that seem impossibly daunting, to us just as to these women. It
takes courage to start again, courage to live, courage to hope, courage
to grow, courage to keep going.
I know that today many of you have come to church carrying heavy
burdens. Some are burdens you’ve shared with me; some are only known to
you and God. I know that there are people here dealing with serious
illness or chronic pain – your own or that of a relative. Others
struggle with problems at home, with marriages that are in trouble,
with children you are worried about, with love that has faded away or
been stretched to breaking point. Others are facing the possibility, or
the reality, of redundancy, or are having to make others
redundant. Even if I didn’t know any of your stories, I would
know that this was the case, because you are all human, and human life
is often messy, fragile and complicated. We may try to look as if we’ve
got life sorted, but the truth is that most of us, sooner or later,
will find ourselves walking wounded, or perhaps not walking at all.
When we hit those times, the joy of Easter can seem empty, unreachable.
I have known times like this myself, because I’m human too. When my
first marriage was coming to an end and for a while afterwards I often
felt like telling people what they could do with their hallelujahs on
Easter Sunday. Whatever the calendar said, it didn’t feel like Easter
to me, not if it just meant fluffy chicks and new bonnets and all that
cheerful stuff. What redeemed Easter for me were stories like these of
the women at the tomb, stories which told me that to be “Easter people”
we don’t necessarily have to have smiles plastered all over our faces
and hearts full of sunshine. We can be terrified, and that’s ok.
Choosing hope is not always easy. Choosing life is not always easy.
Easter isn’t always a straightforward dance of joy, a simple triumph.
Sometimes the gift it brings is just enough courage to keep on walking
with God through the darkness until the morning finally comes.
As well as the Easter bonnets in the church porch, you probably noticed
as you came in the Easter Garden the children made. Beside it, there is
a basket of these glass nuggets. Some of you already have responded to
the invitation on the display there to take one and add it to the
garden as your own prayer for new life. If you haven’t done this yet,
don’t worry, it will be there all this week at least, so do it when the
moment is right for you. On one level, it’s a very simple prayer
activity, but if we take it seriously, that prayer for new life, for
resurrection, is an awesome one, a huge commitment, a great leap into
the dark. Let us pray that we find the Easter courage to take that step.
Lord, even in the midst of terror and
despair, even when the future you offer us scares us witless, lead us
to life, lead us to hope, lead us to Easter.
March 29 2009
As most of you must
know by now, I’m sure, I am a mad keen gardener. At this time of year,
the vicarage windowsills are crammed with little pots of seedlings.
But I understand that not everyone shares my passion, and for some
gardening can seem a very mysterious activity, full of strange terms.
Pruning and pinching out, perennials and biennials and half-hardy
annuals, and all those Latin names…where do you start?
There are some basic bits of gardening advice though, which seem to me
to be pretty obvious, but which make a real difference between your
chances of success or failure. The one I know I always need to hear is
this… “Seeds won’t grow unless you take them out of the packet…”
Every year in the depths of winter, I pore over the seed catalogues and
order what I think I’ll need for the coming year. Come the spring I
have all manner of seeds in their packets waiting to be sown. But there
are always one or two of those packets which stay unopened. Somehow, I
overlook them – perhaps they look trickier than I expected, or they
need some very specific conditions, or I meant to get around to sowing
them, but forgot or was too busy. And so they sit there, and sure
enough, they don’t grow into the glorious plants they are meant to;
they don’t grow into anything at all in fact. I could probably stock an
entire garden with the things I have failed to sow over the
years. “Seeds won’t grow unless you take them out of the packet.”
Jesus knew this too. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and
dies, it remains just a single grain:” he says. It was as obvious then
as it is now, but probably just as important to hear. If you want your
grain of wheat to sprout and grow and produce a harvest, you have got
to be prepared to let it go, to drop it into the earth first. And what
will happen to it there? It will disintegrate, break open, become lost
in the mud. There will be nothing to see of the seed anymore. But in
its place will be a new plant, bearing many more seeds than the
original. Of course, the slugs might get it, or the birds, or some
disease or other – there’s always a risk involved – but if you never
sow it, you can be sure that it won’t come to anything.
Jesus isn’t really handing out horticultural advice here, of course.
He’s talking about himself and his own death. This is a message
directed in particular at some people who had sought him out to find
out more about him. We’re told they are Greeks. That doesn’t
necessarily mean they were from Greece, or were ethnically Greek. Greek
ways of life had spread all around the Mediterranean and the Middle
East during the time of Alexander the Great. Greek was the
international language. Greek literature and philosophy were the
backdrop to the lives of any reasonably educated person. The Jews in
Palestine had fought hard to keep their own culture and religion pure
from these influences, but Jews living elsewhere, as well as Gentiles,
were often Greek in their outlook. The Greeks we meet here probably
come from this “Hellenistic” background as it was called. Their Judaism
is “Greek-flavoured Judaism”. It’s no accident that they come first to
Philip and Andrew – disciples with Greek names, not Hebrew names.
So what are these “Greeks” expecting to hear from Jesus? To understand
that we need to know a little bit about Greek philosophy. Greek
philosophers had some very definite ideas about what it meant to be
divine – what divinity looked like. Ordinary Greek men and women might
still have believed in the colourful legends of the multitude ancient
gods and goddesses with all their dubious goings-on, but Greek
philosophers by this time thought of those stories as just that –
stories. For them God was quite different. God’s most important
attribute, the essence of divinity, was that he never changed.
Human beings changed and eventually died: God didn’t – if he did, he
couldn’t be God as far as they were concerned. God wasn’t tossed about
by passions, subject to the ups and downs of life. He was an unseen
essence who went serenely on, just the same, for eternity, absolute
perfection. If you wanted to be like God, which they did, then you had
to aim for perfection too – physical and mental as well as moral.
Jesus warns them here, though, that his life won’t be like that at all.
He is about to be thrown into a maelstrom of suffering. At the end of
it, he will die, his mission will end in what will look like absolute
failure, not absolute perfection. They want to hear of a Messiah who
will rise above the storms of the world, with a calm, cool divine
mastery. But he tells them that he’s going to fall into the mud, like a
seed, and be broken to pieces. It has to be this way, he says, because
it is the only way that will lead to life in the end. In one of his
letters, St Paul says in one of his letters that the cross is “folly to
the Greeks” . We don’t hear how these Greeks respond, but we can guess
that it didn’t make a lot of sense to them. This wasn’t their idea of
the divine way.
It’s probably hard for us to understand how shocked and baffled people
like this would have been by the imagery Jesus uses here – the seed
disintegrating and dying. We’ve had 2000 years to get used to the story
of Jesus’ death – but the legacy of that Greek way of thinking is still
with us in other ways. We often burden ourselves - or others – with
unrealistic expectations of perfection. To be truly successful,
everything in our lives has to be right. Good job, good marriage, good
home, 2.4 smiling children… When any one of those things doesn’t work
out as we expect we beat ourselves up, or beat someone else up,
convinced that it ought not to be so, that something can be done and
must be done to make it all better. If we can’t manage that we simply
paper over the cracks and pretend all is still well and hope no one
notices that we are falling apart.
Sometimes we can become so scared of failing that we won’t try anything
that feels risky at all, and we end up missing out on opportunities
that might have borne good fruit. We cling anxiously to the one grain
of wheat we have, and we miss what might grow from it. The truth is
though, as many who have gone through times of apparent failure will
tell you, that it is often in those times that they learn the really
valuable, life-changing lessons they need. It’s at these time we
discover the generous love of God, and of others, which doesn’t depend
on what we can do or give, but only on our preparedness to accept that
love. It’s at these times that we discover what really matters to us,
and how easily we are sucked into chasing after things that don’t.
Rudyard Kipling in his famous poem “If” said that we should meet “with
Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same”.
Neither is quite what we often think they are. Triumph may not make us
happier or better people, and disaster can be a rich seedbed of new
“Should I ask, Father same me from this hour ?”asked Jesus. But he
knows that it is this hour – the hour of his death – which is the
moment that will really matter. If he turns back now he will be turning
back from his message too, a message of love, forgiveness that includes
everyone. He’ll be saying that it never really mattered. The grain of
wheat - his life - must fall into the ground at Golgotha, if that
message is to survive and spread.
The seed that you were given today when you came into church isn’t a
grain of wheat. It’s a runner bean seed. It’s a beautiful seed. That
lovely black and purple speckled coat, shiny and smooth. It looks
great. You could put it on a shelf and admire it. You could, I suppose
cook it and eat it, but it wouldn’t make much of a meal. Or you could
plant it in a pot on the windowsill (it’s too cold yet to plant it
outside) and who knows, later in the year you might be harvesting
runner beans from it. If you haven’t got a garden, you could team up
with someone who has? I can’t guarantee you success – slugs, birds,
late frosts, all sorts of dangers might lie in its way – but if you
don’t sow it there’s no chance at all it will grow.
Whatever you do with it I hope it will remind you of what Jesus said in
today’s Gospel – not so much about horticulture but about life. Imagine
that this seed represents something in your life. Perhaps it is
something you know you have always wanted to do, but have been afraid
to try. Perhaps it is something you feel you ought to do – something
that needs sorting out or addressing in your life, something that feels
difficult, risky or painful. Perhaps it represents a gift you have to
give – here or elsewhere – a gift that is needed. We can certainly do
with all the help we can get; that’s something I’ve emphasized in our
Annual report and I’ll say it again at the Annual meeting after this
service. We are growing, but to keep growing we need people to have the
courage to have a go, to get involved, to deepen their faith, take on
new responsibilities, to reach out to others and welcome them. Are we
up to it? No. Of course not. One little seed – what can that come to?
But the one seed of Jesus’ life changed the world, so maybe ours are
more important and more powerful than we think.
Seeds won’t grow unless we take them out of the packet. It’s basic, but
it’s true – so whatever our runner bean seed represents to each of us,
let’s pray that we have the courage to let it fall into the ground, and
the faith to believe that God will bring life, hope and joy from it,
however timidly it is given.
March 8 2009
“Those who are ashamed of me and of
my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of
Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with
the holy angels.”
These are stern words from Jesus – puzzling words too perhaps – what
can they mean?
The harshness of those words isn’t the only problem with this passage,
though. Deny yourself, Jesus goes on and that opens up a whole new can
of worms. Self-denial is never going to be much of a vote winner, but
for some people it is a very damaging concept indeed. It’s one thing if
you live a life of reasonable comfort and freedom; you might need
reminding of the danger of selfishness. But many people never get the
chance to be selfish. Poverty, race, gender, disability, lack of
education can all rob you of the power to choose how you live. The last
thing you need is someone telling you that you should surrender even
what freedom and self-determination you have got. Women in abusive
relationships sadly have often been told that they should grin and bear
it –“it’s your cross, self-denial is good for the soul”, they are told.
But how can you deny, give up, what you have never really discovered?
If Jesus means us to understand his words in that way then I think he’s
So there are all sorts of difficulties in this reading. Frankly, it’s
tempting just to hurry over these awkward statements of Jesus and hope
no one notices. Only a fool would want to draw attention to them. Alas,
you see that fool before you! I am always fascinated by the bits of the
Bible which seem difficult or awkward, because they are often the bits
which, if you wrestle with them, yield real treasure.
The problem is that we easily forget that the Bible comes from a time
and culture that is very different from our own. We may recognise the
words – being ashamed, denying yourself – but we can’t assume people
understood those concepts in the same way as we do. So we’ll need to do
a bit of work if we want to understand what Jesus is saying here.
The first thing we need to take on board is that the culture Jesus
lived in was far less individualistic than ours. People thought of
themselves primarily in relation to others, as part of a group. When
they talked about the “self” they didn’t mean the sort of inner
awareness of thoughts and feelings that we might mean – that’s a very
recent idea. Ask them who they were and they would say that they were
someone’s mother, brother, son, sister, a member of this tribe, that
nation. We value our individualism – “climb every mountain, ford every
stream, follow every rainbow, till you find your dream!” We want to
control our own destinies, make our own choices, not just do what
others expect or accept their view of who we are. But the people of
Jesus’ time would have thought that very odd – and many societies
around the world today would agree with them. To be on your own,
independent, wasn’t a sign of freedom, but something deeply worrying to
them. Who would look after you if you fell into difficulties? Who were
you if you didn’t belong with anyone?
So the “self” to them – this thing Jesus was telling them they had to
deny – wasn’t so much an inner, individual awareness, as something made
up of the expectations and assumptions of their community, who other
people thought they were.
Self-denial, in the way Jesus means it here, isn’t about giving up cake
for Lent. It isn’t about giving up your desires or hopes. It is about
taking a long hard look at the person you think you are, the person
other people tell you you are, and asking yourself how that fits with
who God is calling you to be. The people Mark wrote this Gospel for
knew all about this sort of self-denial. These early Christians were
people who had had to make some traumatic choices because they followed
Jesus. Some of them had grown up in Jewish families; others had grown
up with a variety of pagan backgrounds. Often, when they decided to
follow Jesus, either those communities had rejected them, or they had
found they could no longer live in ways that fitted in with them. The
selves they knew– shaped by and tied up with those communities – were
gone. Who were they now? They felt cast adrift, orphaned. However much
joy there was in their new lives, they had also had to make tough
choices, to lose things that were precious.
Those choices weren’t made any easier by what Jesus goes on to say next
here. “Deny yourself” he begins, but then he goes on “and take up your
cross.” For us the cross has become a well-loved Christian symbol. We
wear it round our necks on a chain; we decorate our buildings with
ornate versions of it. But to the first followers of Jesus it was a
symbol of shame and fear. Crucifixion was a means of execution which
was deliberately humiliating – public, prolonged, painful. The Romans
used it when they wanted to send out a message that they would tolerate
no rebellion. It was regarded with particular horror by Jewish people.
They took it as a sign that the person concerned had been rejected by
God, that God was ashamed of them.
That brings me to the second big difference between our culture and
Jesus’. His was a society in which shame played a huge part in
controlling behaviour. Anthropologists call groups like these “shame
cultures”. They contrast them with “guilt cultures” like ours where we
try to look to the inner voice of conscience to guide us, and we feel
guilty if we do wrong– it’s an inner, personal thing. In a shame
culture, it’s the voice of the community that matters. The worst thing
anyone can do is to dishonour their community in the eyes of others; if
they do that, the community will respond, must respond, to restore
their honour. That means excluding or even killing the one who has
offended, to remove the shame. The awful “honour crimes” that blight
some communities are a product of “shame culture”. When someone does
something that is perceived as shameful, perhaps falling in love with
someone unsuitable, the family will drive them out, maim them, or even
kill them to restore the family honour. They’d rather be guilty
of murder than carry that burden of shame. It may seem incomprehensible
to us, but it doesn’t to them, because shame has such a powerful place
in their thinking.
In Jesus' time, shame ruled too. The prodigal son’s real crime, in the
eyes of the people of the time, wasn’t that he wasted his money on
loose women and wild parties, but that he left home, abandoned his
responsibilities to the family, to pursue his own way. It was an insult
to his father’s honour. Couldn’t he control his own flesh and blood?
What kind of father was he? No one would have expected him to take the
prodigal back – to do so brought even more shame on him. The father did
take him back, of course – that is what was so revolutionary and
baffling about the story to those who first heard it– but that doesn’t
lessen the shame the father suffered because of his actions, the damage
that was done to his reputation. Jesus message wasn’t that there was no
shame in what had happened. What he was saying to this shame obsessed
society was that shame wasn’t to have the last word. Reconciliation and
healing were more important even than family honour and the respect of
those around you.
“Take up your cross” says Jesus. In the eyes of his community, the
manner of his death will bring enormous shame on him and on anyone
associated with him, shame which the resurrection won’t cancel out – it
was only his disciples who witnessed that. To everyone else Jesus would
be just another failed Messiah, a deluded fool.
His followers have already seen Jesus courting shame and disapproval,
of course, through the people he has associated with in his ministry.
He’s eaten with sinners, talked with women with dodgy reputations,
touched the unclean and the outcast - shameful actions in the eyes of
others. But his death will be the most shaming act of all and his
disciples will have to choose how they react to that. If they want to
share his work and the building of his kingdom, they will also have to
share his shame too and risk being despised and rejected by those
around them. Which do they want? To be approved in the eyes of their
society – to gain the world – or to be loyal to Jesus, to stick with
him and his vision of justice and peace?
So where does all this leave us? Our choices probably aren’t as stark,
but if we want to follow Jesus there are choices for us to make too,
choices about who we are, and where our loyalties lie. As I’ve said,
our society is different to theirs, but perhaps it’s not that
different. We value individualism but we still let ourselves be shaped
by others too – our social circles, our family or friends, the media.
Sometimes the “self” that we become under their influence isn’t the
“self” God calls us to be.
And though shame isn’t as powerful in our society, it still matters to
us what others think. We’ll compromise our principles so our friends
will like us. We’ll spend our money, time and effort to impress
others we want to keep in with. We’ll avoid people we don’t want to be
seen with so others won’t think we are like them.
Look carefully, think carefully, says Jesus, before you make your
choices. God is not always to be found sitting on the throne of public
acclaim and popularity. Choosing his path may mean changing the way we
look at the world, at other people, even at ourselves. Now, as in the
time of Jesus, God may be at work in those places we would rather not
go – outside us and inside us too in the broken places of our own
lives. God may be at work in those people we don’t want to be
identified with - for whatever reason – in whatever seems shameful to
us. If we can’t go to those places and be with those people, he tells
us, we may find we have missed him, and missed the blessing he brings
March 1 09
Evensong Lent 1
Sermon by Kevin Bright
Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7 & Romans
convinced that the vast majority of people want to be good; whatever
they understand that to mean. Possibly even more importantly they want
other people to think of them as good people, honest, trustworthy and
reliable. But the reality is that we all fall short of where we want to
be and often feel bad about it, sometimes hating ourselves for falling
short of our aspirations.
The story we heard in the Garden of Eden is more complicated than
simply whether we are good or not, our story is more than a story about
disobedience and sin. It is a story about relationships and the
fact that consequences always follow the breakdown of trust in what has
been a beautiful relationship.
In relationship there is responsibility, in our case we are to care for
and keep the world in which God has placed us.
We hear how man is given permission to eat freely of any tree in the
garden. This tells us that humanity is given freedom to live in God’s
world, to carry on the activities necessary to maintain life. But this
freedom is not absolute. There is a limit of just one tree from which
man may not eat.
The story is clear what the consequences of disobedience will be if we
fail to leave that one tree alone: they will be immediate ("when you
eat of it") and final ("you will surely die"). At this point in the
story there is no alternative to God’s justice which will be enforced
if man crosses the boundary God has set.
It is the task of humanity to recognize those boundaries and live
The relationship has boundaries defined for human existence in God’s
world. It seems to me that the more we feel we must know everything, do
everything and control everything the less we rely on God and the more
out of balance our world becomes. Increased fires, floods and
hurricanes may all be consequences of the global warming caused by our
desire to take control
Here we start to recognise ourselves in the story. It is rapidly
becoming our story, for we human beings, even today, do not like limits
and boundaries. Maybe the fact that we tend to focus on the one
prohibition, the one forbidden tree, reveals something important about
us. We too frequently see God as One who prohibits. But He is also the
God who permits. Why do we not ask about all the other trees that are
permitted? Why does the prohibition bother us so much?
What is it that we see as the one forbidden tree today? Is there
something we obsess about, that we know oversteps the boundaries of a
healthy relationship with God? Sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll seem
obvious. Selfishness, lack of compassion and greed are likely to
manifest themselves as the ‘forbidden tree’ which beckons us in far
more personal and complex ways.
As we heard of events in the Garden of Eden we are reminded that God
has left us free to choose for ourselves. The example of picking
forbidden fruit highlights the consequences of bad choices made for
short term pleasure. We are all tempted to make these selfish choices,
often without thinking through the impact they can have.
It’s a mind blowing dilemma; we are people who know what God wants from
us. We are not the people who should have trouble trusting in God yet
it is many of these negative things which we allow to take up so much
time and energy without seeing all the ‘trees we can eat from’, the
positives which massively outweigh the negatives. It’s so easy to feel
angry and hard done by at present when we see the mess we are in and
the RBS pensions debacle being played out in the media just seems to
rub our noses in it all the more.
Yet as Christians it is essential that we have the faith and discipline
to think deeper than the news headlines and tabloid stories.
A sign seen outside a Methodist church was trying to get this message
across, it read ‘Don’t let worries kill you. Let the church help’.
Crazy as a £700,000 per year pension is for anyone, do any of us
stop to think that when the bandwagon was rolling along nicely we spoke
out less about disproportionate rewards. Could it be that the shambles
we see before us is just one consequence of the world’s damaged
relationship with God? Those natural balances in functions of needs and
suppliers have got out of kilter.
Can we see ourselves anywhere in the story which is unfolding in front
of our eyes or is someone else always to blame?
Can we see a way forward which is positive and relationship restoring?
I think the answer is ‘Yes’ on two levels.
One involves recognizing that Jesus Christ repaired the relationship
with God damaged by Adam; the other requires us to keep working for a
world which edges closer to something God might recognise as his
.The theologian Tom Smail makes sense to me when he said’ when we are
most aware of the…power of sin in ourselves and our world the
possibility (of refusing God’s love) seems all too real, but when we
look away from ourselves to the love that has faced and overcome all
evil and goes on giving evidence of its presence and power in ourselves
and in the world, then hope prevails.
We know where the way forward came from after the relationship
breakdown in the Garden of Eden but there is also an important part for
us to play in finding a way forward for our world with its broken
morals and ethics of which just one consequence is a broken financial
Lent is a good time to remind ourselves that we need to overcome the
temptation to leave the broken things broken because they might not
impact on us today. But doing nothing is not an option.
Christ showed us the way by holding to the truth no matter what the
consequences. Christ is sometimes referred to as the ‘second Adam’,
highlighting the fact that he came to fulfill what Adam was unable to.
When we use the word obedience nowadays it commonly implies that an
inferior party is involved or that an oppressive situation exists.
Whilst as an innocent victim Jesus is in solidarity with those who
suffer forced obedience through evil regimes this is not what motivates
In more positive terms the word can imply trust, self control, courage
and hope and it is this line of thinking which helps us get closer to
the obedience of Jesus.
This evening’s readings could be summed up as a tale of two gardens.
In the Garden of Eden Adam chose disobedience, he chose to sin, and
destroyed what had been a beautiful relationship with God. This brought
consequences for the whole human race.
In the garden of Gethsemane Christ chose obedience to submit to the
Father’s will and ‘die’ to pay for the sin of mankind symbolized by
The power of Christ’s obedience to overcome the consequences of
disobedience is demonstrated by the fact that his death and
resurrection established a reign of life, not death, of grace, not just
The relationship between God and man has been restored through Christ.
It’s now for us to live as people secure in our relationship with God,
and in doing so make it a reality for many others.
March 1 09 Lent 1
this first Sunday of Lent, we always hear the story of Jesus’
temptation in the wilderness. It’s a familiar story, but if I asked you
to tell me it, I suspect that it isn’t the version we’ve just heard
that you would recall. It is the version in Matthew and Luke’s Gospel
that sticks in most people’s minds. They both have that famous
conversation between Satan and Jesus as the devil tries to tempt him
away from his mission. “Turn these stones into bread”, “Throw yourself
from the Temple to test if God will help you”, “Bow down and worship
me” he says, but Jesus is having none of it, and eventually Satan
realises he has no power over this man.
The story we’ve just heard from Mark’s Gospel doesn’t include any of
that. It seems sparse by comparison. What goes on in the desert is only
hinted at. But I don’t think Mark’s version is any less powerful,
though. What we see instead in Mark – something we might miss in the
other versions – is how this episode in the wilderness fits in with the
rest of the story. Matthew and Luke give us a rather stylised static
encounter between Jesus and Satan – you could imagine it taking place
on a stage - but Mark’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is
full of movement, more like an action film. There’s no time for detail,
no time to stop and talk. The story rushes us along.
Jesus comes down from Galilee to the Jordan, right down into the Jordan
for his baptism. He comes bursting up out of the water as the Spirit
comes down on him from Heaven. The Spirit doesn’t bring tranquillity
though; instead it drives Jesus straight out into the desert, and there
is no peace for Jesus there. To ancient peoples the wilderness wasn’t a
place to retreat to – it was the place where demons lived, a place of
chaos and danger, a place where Jesus will be in the midst of a battle.
The wild beasts prowl around him. The angels circle him protectively as
he struggles. And when the battle is over, there is still no time for
Jesus to rest on his laurels or regain his strength. He is propelled
out of the desert and straight back to Galilee. His message spills out
of his mouth as he arrives, as if he can’t contain it. “The time is
fulfilled; the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the
And if we read on in the Gospel, we’d find that that was just the
beginning of a breathless sequence of events as Jesus explodes onto the
scene in Galilee, healing the sick, calling his disciples to him.
As I said, the story is full of movement and action. Mark’s story
leaves us in no doubt. Something momentous is happening here, something
to do with the kingdom and the good news. It’s not explained or
explored, but instantly we know it matters.
It’s like that moment in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the
Wardrobe” when the Beaver makes a mysterious announcement to the
children. “Aslan is on the move” he says,” – perhaps he has already
landed.” The narrator goes on. “None of the children knew who Aslan was
any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken, everything
felt different… Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter
felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious
smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And
Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and
realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of
summer.” (Ch 7)
In Mark’s Gospel, the news that Jesus is on the move, bringing with him
God’s kingdom is electrifying. Instantly crowds start coming to him,
looking for and finding the healing that they assume will signal the
arrival of the Messiah. But Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom and the
good news is about far more than just individual healing from disease,
and that is something that many of those who crowd around him never
seem to grasp. Physical healing – however welcome - simply allows them
to go back to the life they had before. What Jesus is really announcing
is a whole new life, a whole new world, a whole new way of thinking and
seeing, something he calls the kingdom of God.
At the heart of that kingdom isn’t a set of policies, a big idea or
two, some rules and regulations. At the heart of that kingdom, at the
centre of his message is a relationship, a relationship with God.
That’s what really matters, he says. Understand that relationship
right, catch a hold of it and treasure it and all the rest will follow.
We can tell that this is what matters most to him from the words he
hears from heaven as he comes up out of the water of the Jordan, the
words that launch his ministry. “You are my Son, the Beloved;
with you I am well pleased.” It’s not a policy statement; it’s a
declaration of his relationship with his Father. It’s the same voice we
heard last week at the Transfiguration, addressed to the disciples
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him” says God. And at the end
of the Gospel, we hear it echoed by the voice of the centurion who
crucifies Jesus. “Surely, he says, “this man was the Son of God.”
Exactly what Mark meant when he called Jesus the “Son of God” is
something we’ll never know. He probably didn’t interpret it in quite
the same way as later Christians did, once theologians with backgrounds
in Greek philosophy got hold of it. It may have had much less to do
with biological sonship than we think, and much more to do with family
likeness, but however Mark understood it, the message is clear –
somehow Jesus embodies God in a way that is plain for all to see. When
you look at him you can’t mistake who his Father is – when you have
seen me, as he says to his disciples elsewhere, you have seen the
But this is not an exclusive relationship – and that’s the really good
news. It is not just Jesus who is part of this family of God. God’s
commitment – the commitment of a father to his children – isn’t just to
Jesus; it is to all of us. That was nothing new to the people of his
time; it was just that they, like us, often forgot it, and failed to
live in its light. They knew very well that they were people of the
covenant, people who lived in a covenant relationship with God. It’s
there in our Old Testament reading today, the end of the story of Noah.
After the devastation of the flood, God makes them a promise. “I am
establishing a covenant with you…” he says. No matter what happens, he
will not abandon them. A covenant, in Biblical terms, is an
unconditional promise of unconditional love. No ifs and buts, no
exclusion clauses. It is the promise that any loving parent makes to
their children – I’ll always be there for you, even if you aren’t there
for me, even if you let me down. You can’t undo parenthood – once you
have children, they are always yours.
I’m sure we’ll all have been moved by the news of the death of David
and Samantha Cameron’s son this week. It’s not just his death that is
moving though, but also the story of the relationship they had with
him. They were people, say those that knew them, who had been in many
ways lucky in their lives, protected to a large extent from struggle
and hardship until Ivan was born. Then, suddenly they had to deal with
the fact that their child was not going to be the healthy, perfect
child they hoped for and perhaps assumed they would have. But they
discovered that Ivan’s disabilities didn’t alter the love they had for
him at all. However he was, whatever he was capable of, or not capable
of, he was their son, and they loved him. And they aren’t at all
unusual in that. I have met many parents of severely disabled children
with life-limiting illnesses, and nearly all have made that same
discovery. They can’t imagine why anyone would suggest that their child
is less precious or important than one who is able bodied.
It is this kind of relationship, this kind of love, a love that
transcends the frailties of humanity – physical, mental, or moral –
that Jesus comes to declare. At his baptism, he hears the truth of his
relationship with his Father “This is my Son, the Beloved”. In the same
way, he comes to us to declare the truth about us and God. We too are
his beloved children, all of us. God has declared it to be so, has
committed himself to us, and that commitment has not and cannot be
destroyed, and he will find a way of continuing to declare that love to
us, however much we try to reject it. Jesus’ death on the cross, above
all is a declaration of that limitless commitment to us.
Christian faith is not, first and foremost, about rules or doctrines,
though we often seem to behave as if it is. It is about this
relationship with God. It is about learning to trust its strength and
indestructibility as we come to God to ask for healing and forgiveness.
It’s about learning to live in its light as we let it shape our lives
and our attitudes to those around us, who are as much beloved of God as
we are. We’re in the middle of Fairtrade Fortnight at the moment, to
take a timely example. If we really believed that those who supply the
goods we buy were God’s beloved children, just as we are, how could we
allow them to suffer from unjust trading practices?
Aslan is on the move, said the Beaver to the children in Narnia. Jesus
is on the move, Mark’s Gospel says to us. Something is stirring that
can make all things new if we will let it. This Lent, as we share in
Jesus’ forty days of reflection and struggle, let’s ask ourselves what
it might mean for us really, deeply to hear those words that Jesus
heard, “You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter; with you I am
well-pleased.” Let’s ask ourselves what it might mean really, deeply to
believe those words and to live by them.
09 Last Sunday before
Today’s Gospel story is one of those illustrated by our stained glass
windows. The story of the Transfiguration is there at the back – a
typical Victorian stained glass portrayal. The three disciples – Peter,
James and John – fall back in amazement at the sight of Jesus, who has
been, as the story tells us, transfigured before them, his robes
suddenly glowing with dazzling brightness. And beside him are Moses and
Elijah, two of the greatest figures from the Old Testament who people
believed would return to herald the Messiah.
I’ve printed another image of the same story on your pew leaflets, so
you don’t have to get a crick in your neck turning round to the window.
Frankly, one depiction of the Transfiguration is much the same as
another. Every version I’ve ever seen follows the same conventions. The
three shining figures are always at the top, higher up the mountain
than the disciples, or even in the air above it, though the story
doesn’t say that this was how it was at all. The three confused
disciples are always at the bottom of the picture, often thrown down on
the ground. You could draw a line between the two groups, as if they
represented the worlds of heaven and earth, of glory and bewilderment.
But my suspicion is that these traditional images can obscure as much
as they reveal about this story. In reality it is a far more ambiguous
and subtle tale than they suggest.
The Transfiguration is a strange story to our 21st Century ears, of
course. “These sorts of things don’t happen,” we protest, “they can’t
happen. It’s against the laws of nature.” But those who first heard
this story wouldn’t have been thinking that at all. Of course, they
didn’t expect that people would suddenly shine with light or that long
dead heroes would appear at the drop of a hat any more than we would,
but they wouldn’t have thought such a thing was impossible if that was
what God wanted to happen. They weren’t bothered about the laws of
nature; it was the will of God which governed the world as far as they
were concerned. So, “Did it happen?” is our question, not theirs, and
we’ll never find the answer to it. The question that is worth asking
though, is what this story might have meant to those who first told and
heard it, and what it might mean to us today.
To answer that, we have to understand a bit more about the characters
involved. Let’s take Moses and Elijah first. Both of them are
inspirational leaders of their people at times of great need. Moses
confronts Pharaoh, and persuades him to let the Hebrew slaves go. Then
he leads them across a vast and barren wilderness to a land that
neither he nor they have ever seen. Elijah confronts the powers of his
own day – King Ahab and Queen Jezebel - speaking truths they don’t want
to hear about the injustices of their rule. He stands up for the God of
Israel, in the face of their hatred, challenging the prophets of
Jezebel’s God to a contest on Mount Carmel. No wonder the Jewish people
looked up to Moses and Elijah as heroes. Of course they did.
But Moses and Elijah were far from one-dimensional. They weren’t just
heroes. They were also human beings, fallible human beings, and the
stories told of them don’t downplay that side of their character at
all. Moses spent much of his early adult life on the run having
murdered an Egyptian in a brawl. When God called to him from the
burning bush, he fought tooth and nail against the task God asked him
to do. “Go to the Egyptian Pharaoh!? Tell him to let the Hebrews go!?
No one will listen to me!” says Moses. He made it out of Egypt and
across the wilderness in the end, with a great deal of help from God,
but he’s not exactly heroic material at the outset, and this isn’t a
job he ever wanted.
Elijah too has his struggles and doubts. That famous contest on Mount
Carmel ends in victory for his God, who sends down fire from heaven to
consume the sacrifice Elijah has made there. But in the wake of that
triumph, Elijah has all the prophets of Jezebel’s god killed. That
wasn’t something God had told him to do; it was a bit of private
enterprise on Elijah’s part. Unsurprisingly Jezebel doesn’t like it.
She decides to have him killed in revenge. All that courage he knew on
the mountaintop disappears and he runs for his life, out into the
desert. It is there, as he sits in a cave contemplating the ruins of
his ministry, that he meets with God, not in something dramatic – an
earthquake, wind or fire – but in a still small voice, the voice he
should have been listening to in the first place. Elijah’s most
profound encounter with God doesn’t come when he is triumphant, but
when he is defeated and feeling utterly alone.
Moses and Elijah aren’t plaster saints; they are real people who get
things wrong and sometimes take the wrong path completely. Their lives
and their ministries are marked by pain, fear, struggle and loss.
Forget the shining figures of the stained glass – I don’t think that’s
how their lives seemed to them at the time, despite the tremendous
things they achieved.
Of course, the middle figure of the three – Jesus – now surely, we say,
he is as wonderful as he is painted, worthy of being on a pedestal, a
true hero. But we are looking at him with 2000 years of hindsight, 2000
years of theology, 2000 years of images of Christ the King, Christ in
Glory, Christ on the throne of heaven. It doesn’t seem at all strange
to us that he would shine with glory. What we need to remember, though,
is that to his first disciples – Peter, James and John – however much
they respected him, he was basically still a carpenter from Nazareth, a
man with a background very similar to their own. He’d acquired a
following because of his teaching and healing, but they saw him as an
ordinary human being. And he’s an ordinary human being whose ministry
is setting him on a collision course with the authorities as well,
which will lead to what looks to them like total failure. Peter had
acclaimed him as Messiah just a chapter earlier, but the disciples
increasingly doubt this as he heads for his death. In their minds,
suffering and death aren’t in the script if he really is the Messiah.
It’s very significant, then, that this story comes just at this point
when the disciples realise that Jesus is deliberately turning away from
the successes of his ministry, the adulation of the crowds, and setting
his face towards Jerusalem and that ignominious death on the cross. It
is significant because to their eyes he is turning away from the kind
of glory they expect from the Messiah, and yet, here he is transfigured
and blessed by God’s voice. “What kind of saviour is this?” the story
seems to ask. Not the saviour they were expecting, clearly.
Even the Resurrection, wonderful though it was, doesn’t fit the gung-ho
stereotype of a heroic happy ending. Jesus doesn’t come back with an
army to take revenge and smash his enemies into the ground. He returns
with a body that still bears the wounds of the nails in his hands and
feet. And he doesn’t appear to those who have killed him, to rub their
noses in his triumph, but to those who already follow him, to inspire
them to continue his mission – something that would lead many of them
to their own deaths. If you want a religion that promises victory
parades and popular approval then Christianity is not the one for you.
What about the other three characters in the story – Peter, James and
John? If Elijah, Moses and Jesus are portrayed in the traditional
images as the heroes, these three are portrayed as the fools, the ones
who fail, who don’t understand. They often seem as thick as two short
planks – like Peter here, rushing in to try to help and breaking the
moment with his mundane offer to build shelters. And yet they go on to
be the rocks on which the church is founded, entrusted by Jesus with
the task of taking his message out into the world. Neither the heroes
nor the fools of this story are entirely what they seem at first sight.
What we have here, then, is a story about the way in which God took
unlikely people - people who were human, frail, vulnerable - and used
them for tasks they could never have imagined. Whether the world
decided to call them heroes or fools, whether they saw themselves as
heroes or fools, God’s glory was seen in them, in lives that were
battered and scarred, in people who got it wrong as often as they got
it right, people who even suffered what seemed like total and
humiliating failure in the sight of others, as Jesus did on the cross.
And that really is good news. Because it means that if I open my eyes,
I might find that God is still shining through lives like that, in
situations like that. I might find God even in my own life, and in
yours, in the things that go wrong as much as in the things that go
right. This story is not about something extraordinary that happens to
people who are extraordinary, but an affirmation that here, now, in
you, in me, God can be at work, no matter how grim or how dark things
look. Like these disciples, we may only catch a glimpse of that glory
now and then, in a moment of unexpected peace, an act of unexpected
kindness, a flash of courage that inspires us to set out on a road we
never expected to take, but a moment is often enough. Did the
Transfiguration happen? Did Jesus’ robes glow? Did Moses and Elijah
appear? Who can tell? What really matters though, is not “did it happen
then?” but is it happening now? Or rather, where is it happening
now? Is my life being transfigured, changed so that it shines
with God’s light? Are my eyes open to see that light in others?
The Transfiguration. It’s not a story about long-dead heroes, or
long-dead fools, but a story about me and about you, in our heroism and
our folly, and about God who can still touch us with his glory as he
gets to work in our mixed up lives.
8 February 2009
Third Sunday before Lent
1.29-39,1Corinthians 9.16-23 & Isaiah 40.21-31
journey to work has been a little slower than usual this week and most
days I’ve found myself still sitting in the car when ‘thought for the
day’ comes on the radio. Except Monday when there was no journey to
work due to the heavy snow fall.
I heard a speaker saying that the snow had done something that
religions had collectively failed to do, it had made most people just
stop for the day, plans for shopping trips, lessons and important
meetings had to be abandoned. Many shops and schools closed buses and
No respecter or rank or importance, the snow is a great leveller; it
settles on teachers and pupils without discrimination. It mocks the
self-important and trips up the well sorted, it forces people to notice
things around them - like other people; and it maybe gets some to
consider something bigger than themselves. The author of the book of
Job once wrote: 'God's voice thunders in marvellous ways. He says to
the snow: Fall on the earth. He stops every man from his labour so that
all men may know his work.'
Just for a day we are forced to recognise that we are not in control.
Most accepted their fate cheerfully reaching for toboggans, building
snowmen and throwing snowballs. Some even thought of those for whom the
snow would be difficult and dangerous offering to help where they
normally pass by.
The following day brought blue skies and shone a bright light on this
winter wonderland which made artificial creations by the same name look
quite pathetic. For those of us with eyes to see God’s creation has
been magnified this week.
Isaiah tells us that the whole world shouts out the presence of God.
The puny people who run around full of their self importance have only
to see the vastness of all there is to realise our mistake.
We all need to be forced to stop and look around us sometimes; doing so
increases our chances of recognizing God at work. We need eyes to see
beyond the predictable icey recriminations about health and safety,
shut schools and the cost of it all. If the weather forecasters are
right there may be further opportunities for reflection before spring
finally establishes itself.
These words of Isaiah adorn many posters of majestic eagles soaring
with a sense of place in creation. Unlike weather forecasters one of
the remarkable capabilities of eagles is to sense when a storm is
coming, they soar to a high point in the sky, and then when the storm
winds come, they use the storm's wind to soar even higher, over the top
of the storm itself. It’s a powerful metaphor for coping with loss,
distress, and conflict in our lives. As the storm grows fiercer cling
harder to God, recognise that in the suffering and sadness we see the
opposite to God and his enduring love for each one of us.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we heard him describe his
proclamation of the gospel as an obligation. He is not free to dictate
the terms under which he proclaims God’s message. He cannot insist that
people accept it in only one particular sort of package. It kind of
sums up why being a Christian can lead to a lot of headaches sometimes.
Should we stand up and evangelise with well intended words? Should we
keep our faith quiet and concentrate on living it out rather than
shouting about it? Should we wait patiently for the chance to speak
with others when the time seems right and they are open to discussion?
I don’t know the answer to this but feel certain that sensitivity and
compassion must be involved somewhere in the process.
It may help us to think of the things Jesus taught us that go together.
Words and actions, words are often the easy part. Soul and body, God is
interested in our wellbeing on both counts. Earth and heaven, we need
to care about both.
‘All things to all men’ is a phrase we are familiar with though the
translation we heard today is the more politically correct ‘all things
to all people’. Its use is generally negative, implying weakness and
undue compromise for an easy life. However Paul is more likely to be
highlighting the fact that his purpose in life is to preach the gospel,
he is freely available to all, at the disposal of God and therefore the
disposal of all he comes into contact with.
It’s difficult when people get ‘the wrong end of the stick isn’t it.’
Messages can easily be misunderstood or even mischievously misconstrued
as others fit your words to their agenda. Perhaps this is what happens
after Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law and others. Crowds gather to
see the new superstar, but he hasn’t come to seek celebrity and makes
clear that his purpose is to proclaim God’s message. That’s why he
slips away quietly seeking a peaceful opportunity to refocus.
A certain nurse was in the news this week because she offered to pray
for an elderly lady she was caring for. She explained that her well
intended actions arose because she finds it impossible to divorce her
faith from who she is and particularly from her work in caring for
others. She may tread more carefully in the future but it sounds that
she, like Paul is at the disposal of God and therefore the disposal of
all she comes into contact with.
After reinstating this nurse, named Ms Petrie, North Somerset HNS Trust
said it did value spiritual support, which is why there were chaplains
and multi-faith prayer rooms in NHS buildings. "For some people of
faith, prayer is seen as an integral part of health care and the
healing process. ‘’
‘Crikey’ I thought has Somerset NHS trust been looking at the gospel
reading for this week! It’s encouraging to recognise that healing and
well being go beyond what is purely physical.
A Jesus who enacts God’s reign among the broken and marginal people of
his time offers huge challenges to us. Not only to follow his example,
but also not to lose faith in the process.
I definitely don’t have any insight or personal experience of
miraculous delivery from illness or injury but I can see ways in which
we as lowly foot soldiers of Christ can bring healing in so many
A Jesus who acts with compassionate words and touch is critical for our
communities today. Often, people diagnosed with horrible illnesses,
experience a sense of isolation; friends and even family react with
fear and caution. The same can be true for the bereaved and unemployed.
I heard a recently unemployed man saying that friends no longer call to
ask him to go out for a drink because they know he is conserving his
cash. The trouble is they no longer call for anything else and he is
feeling increasingly isolated and outcast from mainstream society.
In these circumstances those who do offer him hope and encouragement,
empathy and compassion are truly bringing much needed healing,
reinforcing the fact that this human being is no less valuable whilst
he is unable to secure work.
Jesus' healing was grounded in vulnerability. He held himself
open to whatever and whomever the day presented, even the terror of
execution at the hands of an occupying government. His service
was one of constant lifting up, in the face of forces that would tear
He restores Simon’s mother-in-law to her family and like an unemployed
person back in work she keenly resumes her role as provider of
hospitality to her guests.
As Simon and his companions said to Jesus when they found him at
prayer, "everyone is searching for you."
Today many are still searching for hope and it’s our actions in
proclaiming God’s message that can make it real for them, in doing so
we proclaim our God and fulfil our very purpose.
Malachi 3.1-5, Luke 2.22-40
Mary and Joseph come to the Temple, bringing Jesus with them. He is
about six weeks old in the story we heard in the Gospel reading. The
Jewish law required parents to make a sacrifice 40 days after the birth
of their firstborn son. If you had asked a theologian at the time to
explain why they would have told you that, according to the book of
Numbers God had decreed that all firstborn males – human and
animal – actually belonged to God, and that a sacrifice was necessary
to, as it were, buy them back for their families to bring up. Whether
Mary and Joseph understood this in the same way as the theologians, I
don’t know. Theology is one thing: real life is another as I often find
when families ask me to baptise their babies. They often have a very
hazy idea of what the church officially teaches about baptism. What
they want is a ceremony to give thanks for their child, to welcome him
or her onto the public stage of the world as a new, unique individual –
and why not? That seems like a very valid and necessary thing to do.
The official agenda may not always be the most important or relevant
That’s certainly the case when Mary and Joseph come to the Temple. The
official business of the day – the sacrifice – isn’t really mentioned
at all, except to explain why they happen to be in the Temple at that
point. The priest who takes their offering is invisible and unheard. In
his own eyes he may have been the lynch pin of the whole enterprise,
but he is irrelevant to the story. It doesn’t seem as if he noticed
anything special about this family. I have some sympathy for him.
He’s probably busy - too busy really to look at the people before him.
When your mind is focussed on doing your job, getting all the words and
actions right, it is easy to find that you haven’t really seen what’s
under your nose.
It is only Simeon and Anna, an old man and woman with no special status
or position who actually realise what is going on. They have been
longing for the moment when God begins to act to set right what they
are so painfully aware is wrong in their world, and they are overjoyed,
elated, when they realise that today is the day and this child is the
one God will use. The story doesn’t give us any clue about what it is
they see in Jesus. Perhaps there is nothing to see on the surface.
Perhaps it is just an inner prompting that propels them towards him;
but it is an inner prompting that has been fine-tuned by many years of
prayer. Somehow, because of this, their spiritual eyes are open and
they see what no one else does, the dawning of a new age in this child.
God has come, salvation has come, deliverance has come – and they
rejoice that they are there to welcome it.
Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation of Christ – is celebrated 40
days after Christmas in the Church’s calendar. It falls now, obviously,
because this story is set 40 days after Christ’s birth. But there is
another reason why our ancestors decided that now was the moment to
tell this story. Like many other feasts of the Church’s year, it was
actually grafted onto much older pre-Christian feasts. In any society,
human beings seem to need set times of fasting and feasting. Whatever
their religion people have always celebrated things like mid-winter,
mid-summer, harvest, time for seed sowing, or whatever matters most in
their communities. In the ancient Celtic traditions of these islands
before the coming of the Christian faith, there were actually eight
special feasts during the year. Four of them marked the midwinter and
midsummer solstices, and the spring and autumn equinoxes. They cut the
year into four. Halfway between each of those dates, though, there were
four more festivals, cross-quarter days as they became known. Three of
them survive in our modern calendars as May Day, Lammas Day at the
beginning of August, and Halloween, and the fourth falls round about
now at the beginning of February. It was called Imbolc by the Celts –
and it celebrated the first faint signs that winter was weakening its
grip and spring was on the way. It might not feel much like that today,
but go outside and look around and you’ll find that those ancient Celts
were quite right. In my garden, the snowdrops are starting to flower.
The shoots of other spring bulbs are coming through. Buds are beginning
to appear on shrubs and trees. It takes a bit of faith, but if you know
what to look for you can see the signs that winter is coming to an end.
Perhaps you can see, then, why it made sense for the early church to
tell this story of Simeon and Anna at this point in the year. Simeon
and Anna see the first signs of God’s springtime, his coming kingdom,
in Jesus. If you have your eyes open, says the story, you can see the
green shoots that will grow into a whole new world. The priests in the
Temple don’t see them, for whatever reason. The rest of the crowd don’t
see them. And perhaps we wouldn’t have seen them either. But that
doesn’t mean they aren’t there. It is easy to miss God’s presence among
us because, like those priests, like that crowd, we are too busy to
look or just so convinced we know what he will look like that we fail
to recognise him. Surely, he won’t come among us as a squalling infant,
the child of ordinary parents from some backwater town.
Open your eyes, look again, say Simeon and Anna. The prophet Malachi
tells us that “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his
Temple,” but he may not look as we expect him to.
This is the reason that I chose today to admit our children to Holy
Communion, as I hinted when we prayed for them earlier. In them, we can
see God growing and working – green shoots of new life. Those shoots
may not always be obvious. Like the rest of us, they are work in
progress, plants with a long way to grow, but they are on the way,
growing in the right direction. That’s why it is so important that we
should encourage them, nurture them, feed them with the food we share
in the Eucharist so that they keep on growing.
It’s not just the children in whom we can see those signs of God’s life
today. It is before us in lots of other ways too, if we have eyes to
see it. Simeon talks about Christ bringing light to the Gentiles, not
just to the people of Israel. If you want to find those green shoots of
divine life, he is telling us, the best place to look may not be in
what is familiar, your comfort zones. Getting to know people who are
unlike us in some way is often wonderfully rewarding once we’ve got
past the initial challenges. As we break down barriers of culture,
race, religion, disability, social background or lifestyle we often
find unexpected blessings – God at work.
Anna talks about the Messiah as someone who will redeem Jerusalem - it
was under the heel of Roman rule at the time. She expected the Messiah
to bring freedom from oppression and injustice, just as the prophet
Malachi did. He talks of the Messiah bearing witness against sorcerers
and adulterers, against those who cheat their workers, who fail to care
for widows and orphans. God is at work, says Malachi, where people are
learning to honour their relationships with God and with each other,
keeping faith with those they are committed to, taking responsibility
for those who are vulnerable, trusting God rather than trying to
manipulate the world to our own ends – that’s what people went to
sorcerers for. If you want to find God at work, those green shoots that
announce the spring, it is where these issues are addressed and taken
seriously that you need to look.
If you wonder how you might do this, you were given today the latest
newsletter from the Sevenoaks Churches Together Social Concern Group.
In it you’ll find news of local projects which are meeting the needs of
vulnerable people in our own communities – a child contact centre where
separated parents can spend time with their children, a Befrienders
scheme that gets alongside people who have hit some difficult patch in
their lives and need a bit of support, a new Debt Advice Centre where
trained advisers can help people in financial problems. We support some
of these schemes through our Away Giving, but they need more than money
– they need people too. I know that there are some here who have got
involved, and I am prepared to bet that in doing so they have found
themselves not just helping fellow human beings, but also being
challenged, growing personally, meeting with God in those they have
helped. Right here in Seal there are needs too. I am pretty sure that
Nicky Harvey still needs helpers and leaders for Beavers and Cubs.
Perhaps that doesn’t sound very dramatic. Will you really discover the
Messiah there? The story of Simeon and Anna should warn us not to rule
it out. “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple”.
Sometimes, especially on a cold day like to day, it is hard to believe
that the spring will ever come. Sometimes when we look around the
world, all we can see is trouble, sorrow and need. It can all feel
hopeless, wintry, God-forsaken. But it isn’t. God is among us. There is
no place that is forsaken by God. The signs of his life are there, just
as the signs of spring can be seen too, if we open our eyes and look.
May we have the courage to go to the places where God is at work today,
eyes to see him and hands to work with him so that his new life can
grow to maturity among us.
Conversion of Paul
25 Jan 09
Today we heard the
dramatic story of Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the road to
Damascus. Officially, today is called the feast of “The Conversion of
Paul” but personally, I have some difficulty with that
title. It’s that word “conversion” which bothers me. You
won’t find it in the story, and I think it is a misleading word to
The problem is that the word conversion tends to bring to mind
something being transformed from something into something completely
different - a change between two mutually exclusive states. You
can have a loft conversion in your home, for example, to give you an
extra bedroom or study – but if you do that, you will have lost the
storage space for all that junk you used to keep there. You can either
have a loft or a living space. You can’t have it both ways.
I recall a story from Michael Palin’s TV programme about his travels
around Eastern Europe last year. He took a train from Hungary to
Ukraine, but when he got to the border he discovered that the whole
carriage had to be hoisted into the air because the undercarriage (or
whatever it is called on a train) had to be changed completely. The
Ukrainian train line had been built to a different gauge because the
Soviet rulers of the time wanted to deter potential invaders – enemy
trains wouldn’t fit Ukrainian lines. The trouble was that friendly
trains don’t fit them either. So every train that crosses the border
has to go through this extraordinary rigmarole. It has to be converted
from one gauge to another, with a complete change of wheels.
Talking about the conversion of Paul can create the same sort of all or
nothing picture, as if this experience on the road to Damascus is the
point when the wheels come off his Jewish faith, to be replaced by a
complete new set of Christian wheels so he can run on a Christian train
Telling the story that way makes it into a triumphalist tale of one
faith defeating another. “See what a big fish Christianity has
caught!” it seems to say, “one of Judaism’s prominent and
respected teachers changing sides. Doesn’t that just prove that
Christians are entirely right and Jews are entirely wrong?” It’s
a bit like when an MP defects from one party to another – the party
that has won the convert can never resist the temptation to parade
their new member about, rubbing the other party’s nose in it, as proof
of their own superiority. To our shame, this is often how the story of
Paul has been told, fuelling the anti-Semitism that has repeatedly
infected the Church over the centuries.
People have even suggested that Paul changed his name from the Hebrew
Saul to the Roman Paul as a sign of his rejection of Judaism – he tends
to be called Paul in later writings when he is working in non-Jewish
settings. The truth is, though, it was common for people in the
multicultural societies of the ancient Mediterranean to have and to use
different names in different contexts, just as immigrants often do
today. Paul never stops being Saul as well, a devout and enthusiastic
Jew. Whatever happens on the Damascus road, it isn’t his conversion
from Judaism to Christianity.
Actually there was no such thing as “Christianity” at this point
anyway. The message which Jesus and his disciples preached was simply a
development within Judaism– one among many. It was a time of great
religious and political upheaval. There were many different Jewish
groups around, all with their own ideas of how their faith needed to
change and develop. Zealots, Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes,
followers of different Jewish teachers and preachers like Jesus. Their
messages varied, but they were all Jewish. Jesus’ message was
that he believed God’s covenant was not just with the Jewish
people, but with all people – Gentiles and other outsiders were welcome
on equal terms. If you were already Jewish you didn’t stop being Jewish
when you decided to follow Jesus. So the conflicts we read of in
the New Testament are squabbles within a family, not between different
families. Sadly, that didn’t make them any less fierce; family
squabbles can be the bitterest of all. But knowing that does make a
huge difference to the way we read the New Testament. Jesus doesn’t
reject the faith of his ancestors and nor does Paul. It was only much
later that the Christian church drifted away from its Jewish roots.
Of course, Paul changes after this experience, but he doesn’t convert
from one faith to another. It is his understanding of that faith that
is different – the way he sees it that changes.
Seeing, and not seeing is a theme that runs right through this story.
When Paul encounters Jesus on the Damascus road, he is left blinded.
That blindness isn’t just physical, its emotional too. It’s the
blindness of confusion. Paul had always thought he knew who the good
guys were, which way was up, how he should live to be right with God.
He was a Pharisee – the name Pharisee probably comes from the word that
means “to separate”. Separating the clean from the unclean, the good
from the bad was at the heart of what the Pharisees were about, what
they thought mattered.
Paul had been clear in his own mind that Jesus of Nazareth had got it
wrong, and that those who followed him were getting it wrong too – they
were leading Judaism down a blind alley and they had to be stopped.
Jesus’ death on the cross, like a common criminal, was proof to him
that God had condemned and rejected him and his message – otherwise why
would he let him die in this shameful way? For the sake of the faith
this dangerous new movement, and those who proclaimed it, had to be
stopped. But on the road to Damascus, a flash of light knocks him to
the ground and he hears a voice, the voice, it turns out of Jesus, the
man he has been opposing. We don’t know exactly what happened, what
Paul saw and heard, but it convinces him that far from condemning Jesus
God has blessed him. It makes no sense to Paul. It leaves him in the
He is led into Damascus, and there he sits, still blind, in a state of
complete bewilderment for three days until Ananias is sent by God to
heal him. His blindness clears away, but the way he now sees his world
has changed. It’s the same God, the same faith, the same scriptures,
but a new understanding of them. And oddly, in this strange story, full
of supernatural phenomena, the real healing comes simply by Ananias
Let’s put ourselves into Ananias’ shoes for a minute. He’s a disciple,
one of those followers of Jesus in Damascus who Paul has come to root
out. Like Paul, he hears God’s voice. “Here I am, Lord,” says Ananias.
“There’s this man called Saul” says God, “he’s from Tarsus. He’s in
trouble, he’s been blinded, but he’s had a vision– a vision of a man
called Ananias, who will come to him to heal him...” “Hmm,” says
Ananias to God. “Saul…of Tarsus…I’ve heard of someone with that name –
word is that he has caused a heap of trouble for the disciples in
Jerusalem and that he’s on the way to do the same to us…” You can
almost hear Ananias desperately hoping to himself that the Saul of
Tarsus who God is talking about is some other Saul of Tarsus – surely,
it can’t be this terrible man he’s heard about. But God has no such
reassurance for him.
God asks him to go to the house of what is probably the most dangerous
man around, someone who has come here expressly to get rid of people
like him. Not only that, he’s supposed to go to HEAL him!
Would you go? I don’t know if I would. What if it’s a trap? But Ananias
does go. And when he gets there, he greets Paul not as an enemy but as
a brother. “Brother Saul…” are his first words to him. That, I think,
is what really heals Paul, what really changes him. Paul, the good
Pharisee, has concentrated on maintaining the boundaries between clean
and unclean, Jew and non-Jew, good and bad, friend and enemy. But here
is Ananias, a man who should have hated him, who had good cause to hate
him, coming to him instead to heal him. Ananias acts out the message of
Jesus which Paul has been fighting against. He ignores the boundary
that ought to separate them, ignores the very real threat that Paul
poses and sees Paul simply as a human being in need, whom he can help.
That’s why I think it is so important that we don’t tell this story as
a conversion from one faith to another, because the message Ananias
proclaims by his actions isn’t a message of opposing truths slugging it
out, of exclusivity, of separation and taking sides, but a message of
inclusion. Even Paul - Saul of Tarsus - the man who’d struck terror
into the hearts of Jesus’ followers is to be treated with love and
welcome. His identity as a child of God, his need for care, trumps any
differences of ideology or outlook.
This message, learnt from Ananias, forms the backbone of Paul’s later
ministry. His letters are full of it – there is neither Jew nor
Gentiles, slave nor free, male and female. All are one in Jesus. God
has broken down the dividing walls, he says. It’s not about ideas or
ideologies, but about people, individuals with all their differences,
but all to be seen and loved as children of God. The story we’ve heard
today isn’t one of two mutually exclusive faiths, struggling for
supremacy. It’s a story of the breaking down of barriers, of the
widening of vision, of two people – Paul and Ananias – learning to see
one another not as stereotypes but as human beings, able to give love,
needing to receive love. It’s a message which the Christian church
through the ages has repeatedly forgotten or betrayed, seduced instead
by a triumphalist vision of faith out to gain power and influence,
suppressing those who disagree. In a world still riven by sectarian
strife, religious and political conflict, prejudice, suspicion and fear
of those who are different, it’s a message which all of us, Christian
and Jew, believer and atheist needs still to hear, to celebrate and to
live by too.
2009 Epiphany 2 Breathing Space
I came across a set
of moving advertisements
recently. They were made for American television but you can find them
on the internet too. They were designed to persuade people to volunteer
and to give.
One of them showed a homeless man, lying on a cold pavement.
“This is Jack Thomas” the voiceover said, “today someone almost brought Jack something to
eat, someone almost drove
him to a shelter and someone else almost
brought him a warm blanket …and Jack Thomas, well, he almost made it through the night.”
Other ads in the series featured young people who had almost had a
community centre built for them, an elderly woman who had almost been
visited, a homeless family who had almost been fed by neighbours, and
so on. Almost giving, almost volunteering, said the adverts, was no
better than doing nothing at all.
The ads work because we’ve all acted like this. We meant to get around
to helping, but at the crucial moment we were too busy, tired, or just
distracted by something or other. But the ads also remind us of how
important an apparently small action can be – picking up the phone to a
friend, filling in the form to volunteer or give, knocking on the door
of the neighbour we haven’t seen for a while. If we don’t act, the
person who needs our help won’t get it, and the fact that we almost did
it will make no difference to them at all.
Tonight’s readings are both, in their ways, about small actions and the
difference they make. The people in these stories do act, they do
respond, but it’s easy to see how they might instead have missed the
vital moment, just as those who almost helped Jack Thomas did.
In the Old Testament reading, the boy Samuel hears a voice in the
night. Once, twice, he goes to Eli, the old priest who looks after him,
but Eli brushes him off. Only at the last minute, on the third attempt
does Eli take him seriously. “It is God calling to you – listen to
him.” It would have been so easy for him to have ignored the third call
too, to write it off as a childish interruption, to have almost paid
attention. Why would God be speaking to a small boy and not to Eli
himself? Who is the priest around here?
And Samuel could have acted differently too. He could have decided not
to pass on the message he was given. After all, it was a painful
message – the message that Eli’s family line was coming to an end.
For both Eli and Samuel there are fragile moments in this story,
moments when God’s message could have easily been missed. The story
turns on small decisions made in the middle of the night by an old man
and a young boy, neither of whom really knows what the consequences of
their actions will be.
For Nathanael and Philip in the Gospel, events could have turned out
very differently too. All it would have taken were very slight changes
in what they decided to do that day. When Philip is called by Jesus to
follow him and begins to believe that he is the long awaited Messiah he
decides to seek out Nathanael and tell him too. Why? We don’t know.
Nathanael sounds as if he is one of life’s natural sceptics – not an
obvious choice for Philip to tell. But Philip decides to go anyway, and
that makes all the difference – what if he had decided not to bother?
Nathanael could have missed the moment too if he hadn’t been able to
get past his prejudice about people from Nazareth – can anything good
come from there? – and had decided not to go with Philip. It all hinges
on a small decision to get up from under that tree. Almost responding
would have been no good. If he had done that he would have missed his
I am sure that any of us, looking back at our lives, could find times
when the future has been determined by a split second decision to act.
Perhaps we can also recall times when we almost acted too, and as a
result let an opportunity slip by that might have been important for us
and for others as well. We can’t change the past, of course, but the
good news is that God doesn’t give up on us as easily as we give up on
him. His call to us to love, to grow and to serve comes afresh again
and again. In the silence tonight, I’d like to invite you to ask
yourselves whether there are things you are almost doing at the moment,
calls you are almost responding to, people you are almost helping,
paths you are almost setting out on. Almost doing something, as those
American adverts pointed out, in practice is no better than not doing
it at all. God calls us to turn our “almosts” into actions.
January 11 2008 - Baptism of
by Kevin Bright
Mark 1.4-11, Genesis 1.1-5, Acts 19.1-7
Most of us who go to work and school have just completed our first week
back after a Christmas break which seems to get longer every year that
is unless you work in the retail sector, are a police officer or a
For many it offered a chance to re-charge the batteries or at least
break the cycle of passing the flu and vomiting bug amongst colleagues
and classmates, though some are still suffering.
So one week into it do we still feel ready for the challenges and
opportunities that 2009 may put in front of us?
We often resolve to do better, use the calendar to mark a new start, to
do differently as we enter a New Year. When all the carols had been
sung, scriptures read and sermons preached the thing I remember most
from Christmas 2008, even more than the new tie and miniature whisky is
us being asked to think ‘what difference does Christmas make? ‘
A potential problem with Christmas is that it becomes too familiar as
the years pass by. It can suffer in the same way as the January sales
that start in December and go on for weeks, the urgency to respond can
become lost on us.
So if we have allowed ourselves to drift through Christmas mixing up
sentimentality with spirituality, confusing partying with real
celebration and allowing Christmas greetings to replace the Christmas
message then perhaps it will help to move on to John the Baptist and
the message he has for us.
My mind paints a picture of John as a man who would be confrontational
and uncompromising without needing to say much at all. The way he lives
his life, his clothes and his food don’t suggest someone who has come
to enjoy life’s comforts, the sort of person who could leave us feeling
a bit shallow and self centred. He’s not a politician trying to match
his words to the mood of the day, the message he has to deliver is far
too important for such nonsense.
This man is a breath of fresh air to us now and to the Jewish people of
his day. Many had been looking for a sign from God eager to find the
Messiah who would lead them against the Romans. They didn’t expect it
to look like this, a prophet from the wild telling them to repent, to
change direction, turn around and go the right way, God’s way. There’s
urgency to his message, someone very special would be coming very soon,
as what John had done with water the one who was to come would do with
the Holy Spirit.
We like to think that baptism was something that Christians invented,
but in reality, it is an ancient Jewish practice of ritual immersion.
Ritual immersion was required for all kinds of things, after child
birth, after contact with a dead person, after certain diseases, and so
on. Immersion in a ritual bath, or a mikvah, was required. It still is
and many Jewish brides will to this day go to the mikvah before a
wedding. John the Baptist's used the mikvah--a ritual familiar to his
Jewish contemporaries--as a method of calling for repentance.
What an introduction Mark’s Gospel gives John, if you were reading this
for the very first time you could think this guy is going to be the
main character? So it would be a surprise when the main character turns
out to be that nondescript bloke from among the crowds. There’s
nothing whatsoever to distinguish him from the rest. Next to
John, he’s a nonentity: no fiery words, no audience, no entourage, and
no obvious ‘messiah-costume’.
Almost quietly yet quite suddenly Mark tells us here comes Jesus,
heading for the Jordan, presenting himself to John the baptizer. Jesus,
who has been who knows where for most of something like three decades,
discerning and preparing. He is ready to fling himself into the work
awaiting him. And yet not quite ready just yet. He needs something to
mark the change, a river, a ritual, a recognition.
He is, in a real sense one of the crowd, until the moment he emerges
from the water. ‘You are my Son, the Beloved,’ he hears as he comes up
from the water. This truly is the Messiah, the annointed one, marked
out as God’s son and annointed with the Holy Spirit.
We discover that ‘repent’ means more than ‘be sorry for your
sins’. It means a complete change of life, of values, of
priorities. It means a total re-orientation of life - a
renouncing of the past and the embracing of the Kingdom. This is the
direction John offers but surely it didn’t apply to Jesus.
But in a sense Jesus does ‘repent’. It’s not repenting from sin but for
him it is the baptism into the Kingdom - into his mission. Here,
he publicly renounces his old life, old ties such as family, old job,
old priorities. His mission will require everything of him, and
it begins with the change of direction from his normal daily life. He
has been a carpenter; he is now a preacher, prophet, miracle-worker and
Servant of the Kingdom.
Today’s readings remind us how as Christians we need to be open to
seeing signs from God, open to hearing not only what the powerful with
a platform to speak say but also those who sit outside what many would
regard as the establishment. If we are to be people baptised in the
Holy Spirit we are also people open to hear and understand beyond the
news and opinions pumped out through the media.
John the baptist may have been dismissed as a madman by some in his day
because the version of God’s love he announced didn’t fit the agenda
they had for their lives. We have to ask ourselves how we would receive
such a message.
Jane Williams compares Genesis words telling of the creation of the
world and the bringing forth of light into the darkness with the way
that a mother talks to her newborn baby.
It’s not so much that God is picking us up and doing all that ‘coochy
coo’ talk, the point is that when a mother talks to her unborn or
newborn child even though they don’t actually understand what is said
the talking signifies a loving bond and signs the child as part of a
family and wider community. So God’s act of speech to his newborn world
which we heard of brings it into community with him and marks it, from
the very start, as destined to be part of God’s family.
Reminded and reasurred that God delights in us and has a purpose for
our lives we can look ahead with hope. We have been loved by God since
the very beginning and are reminded again that humanity belongs to God,
we are his beloved and give him pleasure.
Time and circumstances cannot change this even though we often find
this hard to believe, that we each are individually loved and very
important to God. Financial crises, war, anxiety and suffering cannot
change this, death itself cannot change this. It’s as important as it
ever has been for us to take this truth out into the world act on it
and share it.
And so, with the vast majority of 2009 in front of us we are each
challenged to ask ourselves, and God, what work was I was created to
do? If we are to do this drenched in the power of the Holy Spirit we
also may need to consider how can I mark real change in my life? What
ritual, what respite, and what river do I need to take myself to?
There’s no one I know of in this church who lives on Locusts and wild
honey but there is a community of baptised Christians willing to listen
and offer support whereever possible.
May we be empowered in our work and drenched by God Father, Son and
Holy Sprit in the year ahead.
Epiphany 09 – 4 Jan 09
This story we’ve just heard from Matthew’s Gospel is a very familiar
one. It’s the story of the two kings…
Yes, you did hear me right, and I haven’t had a bit too much “Christmas
cheer”. I did say that it is the story of the two kings… That’s how it
was introduced, at any rate, in a book I read in the run up to
Christmas called ”The Christmas Stories”, written by Trevor Dennis, the
Vice Dean of Chester Cathedral, and I think he is quite right.
The point he is making is that actually the central characters in the
story we heard from Matthew’s Gospel today aren’t the visitors from the
East who come bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh. In any case, they
aren’t described as kings, nor are we told how many there are. The
kings in this story are King Herod and King Jesus. It is about the
tension between the earthly power that rules the world Jesus is born
into and the power of God in him which challenges that rule, the
tension between Herod’s power, which destroys and kills and the power
of Jesus which heals, restores and welcomes.
We might wonder whether the picture of King Herod the Bible draws is a
bit over the top. He can seem like a pantomime villain, a stereotype of
wickedness, but actually, it’s a picture which seems remarkably true to
the historical facts. There’s no independent record of a massacre of
children at Bethlehem but it is quite in line with what we know of him
– he was horribly paranoid, with some justification, and his paranoia
often led to violence. One commentary I read said rather coyly, “his
personal life was plagued with domestic troubles.” In fact, he had ten
wives and an assortment of children by them, all vying to be his
successor, using any trick in the book to gain power for themselves –
like father, like sons. So Herod was always on the lookout for plots,
and often found them. We know he had several members of his family
murdered when they threatened his position. “Domestic troubles” perhaps
doesn’t quite do it justice.
As well as threats from within his family, he was threatened from
outside too. He’d been made king by the Roman Emperor, Augustus, but he
knew that the power he’d been given could just as easily be taken away.
And if Augustus turned against him, no one else would stand up for
him. He didn’t have widespread support among the Jewish people.
The Pharisees disapproved of him because he was only half-Jewish; his
family had come from Idumea, a neighbour and rival of Judea. The
Sadducees – the aristocracy of Judea – didn’t like him either. They had
supported a rival of his for the throne and Herod had executed many of
them as a result. In other words, this is a man who knew his rule was
very precarious – like a house of cards, liable to come tumbling down
around him if he didn’t keep rigid control of everything and everyone
around him. Rather like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe today, his response
to any suggestion that things might change was to tighten his grip.
So when these exotic visitors come looking for a new king we can see
why he is thrown into a panic. We don’t know much about them – neither
their number, nor their names, nor their precise home – but what we do
know is very significant. The original Greek text doesn’t call them
wise men, but magi, and it tells us they came from the East. Magi were
diviners, soothsayers, astrologers – people who read the signs around
them to try to predict what will happen in the world. We find people
like this in many ancient cultures, called by different names in
different countries. The name magi, though, is what they were called in
the part of the world where the great empires of Persia, Babylon and
Assyria had arisen – in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq and Iran. These
were the ancient enemies of the Jewish people. We read about them in
the Old Testament – one great empire succeeding another, but each in
turn enslaving and humiliating Israel, taking them into exile, smashing
Jerusalem to pieces and decimating the population. Though Rome now
ruled, the empires of the east still evoked a host of bad associations.
We don’t know anything specific about the background of these magi –
who they might have been working for – but the point is, neither did
Herod. They might have been working on their own account but every
self-respecting ruler at the time would have his own spiritual advisers
in his entourage, people who could interpret his dreams, read the
runes, study the sacred writings, examine the entrails of sacrifices,
or, as in this case, interpret the movements of stars and planets.
Perhaps these magi were really spies, sent to find the weaknesses in
Herod’s defences, or to cook up some new alliance with this newborn
Herod has no real idea of what these visiting Magi have planned, who
has sent them, what they will do with the information they discover.
All he can see is that something is going on here that he can’t
control. Something is bursting into his world that he doesn’t
understand, and his response to that – as always - is trickery,
manipulation and ultimately deadly violence.
As I said, though, there are two kings in this story. The first is
Herod, but the second is Jesus, born in obscurity in Bethlehem to an
ordinary little family who never expected – or perhaps wanted – to be
thrust into the spotlight. His family’s reaction couldn’t be more
different from Herod’s. They had good reason to be alarmed as well, or
at least suspicious, when the magi turn up on their doorstep but
there’s no hint of that here. They are faced with a bunch of complete
strangers, not only strangers but Gentiles, not only Gentiles but
diviners. They are of the wrong religion, from the wrong country and
they are engaged in occult activities which are strictly forbidden –
forbidden on pain of death - by Jewish law. Just like Herod, the Holy
Family have no idea whether there is any hidden agenda, and they are
risking all sorts of trouble by welcoming them. But despite all
that they are welcomed.
As Gentiles the magi wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near the heart
of the Temple in Jerusalem – the holy of holies - but they are allowed
to kneel before this child, a child in whom Matthew tells us God is
present and at work. He is the new holy of holies, but anyone is
welcome to approach him.
The magi don’t even have to go through some sort of conversion before
they worship. They aren’t preached at or humiliated or reminded of
their outsider status. They are welcome just as they are, and their
gifts are accepted too. They are seen as people who have something to
give, not just as penitent sinners who have to hold out their hands and
beg for crumbs. And at the end of it all they go home. They take the
insights they have found, this new revelation of God, back into their
own culture, way out of the control of the Jewish faith. What they do
with it we have no idea – perhaps they understand what they have seen
completely differently to the way a Jewish observer would. It doesn’t
seem to matter. God gives himself to them in Jesus, with fearless and
confident generosity. It is completely unlike Herod’s paranoid craving
The strangeness of the Magi doesn’t seem to bother the Holy Family, or
by extension, God himself. In fact it is seen as a blessing, a gift, a
cause for rejoicing.
That sense of openness to what is different, even strange, is something
that was a vital early church. It was a central fact of their being, so
it’s no surprise to find Matthew emphasizing it here. Jews and Gentiles
had come together in a new body, each learning from the other. As St
Paul put it in our second reading, as they discovered each other they
showed “the wisdom of God in its rich variety”. The blessing of
diversity was a wonderful gift, but it was a gift they sometimes they
struggled with too, just as we do.
As I said, this story is a story of two kings, but in a sense, there IS
a third king to think about here as well. We are the third king. Each
of us rules in some way, has some little kingdom of our own, some power
in some sphere – at work, at home, in the church, in some other group
we belong to. And we can choose how we use that power. We can act like
Herod, anxiously protecting our territory; feeling threatened when
something new comes along. The new employee who brings new ideas, for
example, or the teenager who wants to follow some path we had never
imagined for them. Within the church people often seem to feel
threatened by change too, feeling that they must protect the faith,
even protect God – pull up the drawbridge, circle the wagons, build the
walls high and strong, insisting that people must think like us if they
want to come in.
The story of the Epiphany – and epiphany literally means revelation, or
shining forth – is of a God who gives himself away, revealing himself
in Jesus to the least likely people of all, complete outsiders, without
any strings attached. It is a profoundly challenging story, asking us
to look at the ways in which we, like Herod, might sometimes act out of
an anxious self-protectiveness, and end up missing the good news God
wants to give us. The story of these Gentile magi, to whom God entrusts
himself so casually, tells us that God’s love is indestructible and
limitless in its generosity. This God of the Epiphany is a God who
welcomes diversity, delights in diversity, sees the rich gifts
diversity can bring. He calls us to welcome and delight in it too and
to be open to its gifts. The new ideas, new people, new challenges that
come into our lives are not threats, but promises of new wisdom, wisdom
which can make our lives shine all the more brightly with the light of
Christmas 108 – Dec 28th 2008
I’m going to
preach a somewhat half-baked sermon this morning, for two reasons. The
first reason is that I’ve spun what seems to me to be an avalanche of
words over the last week or so, and enough’s enough – both for me and
for you too!
reason I shall tell you later.
I wonder what
difference Christmas has made to you?
On a purely
practical level, it has probably left you poorer. I read somewhere that
we spend an average of £450 for every man, woman and child in the
UK over Christmas, which seems an awful lot, but is probably right.
If we’ve lost
pounds sterling, it is quite likely that we may have gained pounds in
other ways. I don’t know how many calories there are in a Christmas
dinner, and I don’t want to know either, so don’t tell me!
But aside from
those sort of things, what difference has Christmas made to you, to any
of us? If you watched the news on Boxing Day you probably saw pictures,
as I did, of crowds of shoppers storming the sales, stampeding each
other in the rush for a bargain, it occurred to me that even with that
£450 of spending over Christmas many still didn’t feel they had
enough. They still somehow “needed” – desperately - that handbag, that
coat or whatever in order to be happy. The joy of Christmas didn’t seem
to have plugged whatever gap they were feeling in themselves.
doesn’t always seem to make much difference on the inside, it doesn’t
change the world outside us either. As we feasted on Christmas Day in
other parts of the world people went hungry, just as they did last
Christmas and probably will next Christmas too. As we gathered in our
homes, others were still sleeping rough, or housed in shantytowns. As
we sang of peace on earth, conflict was breaking out once between
Israel and Palestine. It is easy, looking around at these things, to
become cynical, to say, “Christmas – it’s just a bit of magic to
distract us from the reality of life – it doesn’t change anything
On one level
that’s quite right. If we think we can treat the stories of the birth
of Christ as if they are some kind of magic wand that we can wave over
the world’s sorrows to make them disappear, then we are sadly
mistaken. They aren’t magic. But that doesn’t mean they don’t
have power. What we need to do is read them as they were meant to be
Only Luke and
Matthew of the four gospel writers bother to tell us anything of Jesus’
birth at all, and the evidence suggests that they don’t mean us to take
them as historical fact. Their stories don’t fit together. Luke, for
example, has the family coming from Nazareth, their home place, to
Bethlehem while Matthew has them living in Bethlehem all along. Matthew
sends the family off to Egypt to escape Herod; Luke mentions none of
this. They can’t both be descriptions of what really happened, and
probably neither of them is. They may contain or be based on some
facts, but it’s hard to know what they are.
something that would have bothered ancient writers or readers though.
If it had been a problem, those who put the New Testament together
wouldn’t have included both stories with their contradictions. These
stories are imaginative prequels, signposts to the later events that
they DO know something about; the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus,
events that had been witnessed by people they knew and had access to –
disciples like Peter, John and James.
The adult Jesus
– the person they knew about - was someone who had preached a
message of God’s radical love for those who were excluded in their
society – lepers, the poor, the disabled, women, children. He had
welcomed Gentiles and loved those whom others saw as the enemy. He had
upset those in authority, challenging their power. What sort of birth
should someone like this have had? What sort of birth would foreshadow
a life like this? A birth which was announced, say, to shepherds rather
than kings, which took place in humble circumstances, which was
welcomed by foreign magi - people who were reminders of the Eastern
kingdoms of Assyria and Babylon which had once enslaved and exiled the
people of Israel.
I doubt whether
Luke or Matthew had more than a skeleton of facts at their disposal as
they constructed their stories of Jesus’ birth, but they had ample
evidence of the man he had become – a man who had changed their lives
completely. That wasn’t embroidery or guesswork; it was fact. They told
stories of shepherds who were amazed at the birth of Christ, or
Mary pondering what had happened. Mary and the shepherds wondered what
this child would become. But the Gospel writers and their readers knew
what he had become; someone who had turned their lives upside down.
Paul, in our
first reading, writes to the church in Galatia, in what is now Turkey,
about those changes. It’s a real letter, to a group of real people
whose lives had been transformed by Jesus’ message. It was written
probably in the 50’s AD, around 20 years after the crucifixion. The
people Paul writes to lived in a highly stratified society where
everyone knew their place. They didn’t share our ideas of universal
Human Rights. Some people mattered, others didn’t, and they assumed
that’s how it was and always would be. Masters had power of life and
death over slaves, fathers over their families.
The message of
Jesus blew into their world like a whirlwind, overturning all these
assumptions. In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free,
male and female, Paul tells them earlier – all are one in Christ Jesus.
And in the passage we heard today he goes on to explain that this is
because each person is fully part of the family of God. “You are no
longer a slave but a child and if a child then an heir.” Most of these
people would never have dreamed even of owning or controlling their own
lives and property; now it seems they are heirs to the kingdom of God.
What might that mean to them?
Being an heir
means that you belong – you are at the centre of the family, at home –
in this case, at home with God. You have a right to be there. It also
means you have responsibilities. Heirs in the ancient world were
supposed to care for the rest of the family too. We are our brother’s
and our sister’s keepers. We can’t just look out for own interests.
That’s not how families work. And Paul is telling us that we are all
lifted to this status of heirs. We have a right to be there, but so do
all the rest of God’s children. None can be excluded.
So, to return to
the place I started, what difference does Christmas make? On its own,
as magical stories of shepherd and angels, magi and stars, not much, it
seems to me. We can hear these tales year after year after year and
remain completely unchanged by them. But if we hear them as their
writers meant us to, as signposts to what was to come, to the life and
teachings of the adult Jesus, then they can have an impact that lasts
far beyond Twelfth Night, just as they did for those who first heard
them. They can turn our priorities on their heads, challenge our values
and the values of our society, challenge us to take seriously God’s
call to us to see ourselves as one family, challenge us to see
ourselves as the heirs of his kingdom, each one of us with the dignity
and status of children of God, even if we are just a bunch of
shepherds, or foreign magi.
I said at the
beginning that this was going to be a somewhat half-baked sermon.
Partly, as I’ve said, that is because there has been a mountain of
words already, but the main reason is that this is a message which has
to be half-baked because you need to finish baking it for yourself if
it is to be real at all. What difference does Christmas make? That is
something each of us has to find for ourselves. Perhaps you need to see
yourself more clearly as an heir of God’s kingdom, someone who really
belongs in it, not on sufferance, or conditionally, but absolutely.
Perhaps you need to be able to see others more clearly in this light.
Each of us is called to our own journey of transformation. The baby in
the manger is just the beginning. It is as we watch him grow, as we
listen to what he says and begin to risk living his message that the
promise of Christmas can become the reality we need it to be.
Scroll down for the sermon preached
at Midnight Mass
The King’s Storyteller - a story for Christmas
Long before there was television, or films or even printed books, if
you wanted a story, you needed a storyteller to tell it to you. I’m
going to tell you the tale of one of those storytellers…
His name was Isaac and he’d been telling stories since he was a small
boy. He’d started by telling stories to his friends and family. They
loved them, and soon his whole village realised that Isaac had a very
special gift indeed. He could spin stories all night, stories to lift
you up, stories to calm you down, stories to amaze you, stories to
amuse you. Isaac always had a story. His fame spread round his village,
and to the next village, and eventually it even reached to the capital
city, and into the palace of the king. Now kings like stories
just as much as anyone else, and when the king heard of this new
storyteller he decided that he wanted to hear his stories too.
So the king sent for Isaac – “Come to the palace and you can be the
King’s Storyteller”. Isaac was very excited. The king’s storyteller!
What could be grander than that? He’d be telling stories to the rich
and famous at the king’s banquets, dressed in fine clothes. He’d be
rich himself, and powerful too with the king for a friend.
But Isaac was nervous as well as excited, because this king was a king
you may have heard of. His name was Herod and he was a hard man, a
ruthless, cruel king. Keep him on your side and you’d be set up for
life; make an enemy of him and it could be the end of you.
But Isaac couldn’t resist the lure of fame and fortune. So off he went
to Jerusalem and to Herod’s palace. At first he was terrified, but soon
he realised, that as long as you told Herod stories he wanted to hear,
he was happy. And what sort of stories did he like? Stories, Isaac
discovered, about kings like himself, ruthless kings, rich kings, kings
who got their own way, no matter how.
So Herod was happy, and Isaac rose high in the court, rewarded with
fine clothes and gold and a grand room in the palace
But one day something dreadful happened. Every morning when Isaac woke
the first thing he did was to decide on a story to tell that night, but
this particular morning , no matter how hard he racked his brains, he
just couldn’t think of a single tale he hadn’t told. He tried to make
up a new story, but nothing came into his head, no plot, no
characters…His head was empty of ideas, empty of words. What could he
do? Things looked bad for him. If he couldn’t think of a story by that
night, he’d be in a whole lot of trouble.
The day wore on, but still no story came to Isaac. The sun went down
and Herod’s court began to gather in the great hall of the palace ready
for that night’s feasting to begin. Everyone settled down to eat and
drink, but Isaac couldn’t eat a mouthful. He had no idea what he would
say when Herod summoned him out to tell his story.
Finally the moment came. Herod clapped his hands together –“Isaac!–
King’s Storyteller!– tell me a story fit for a king!”
Isaac stepped out into the middle of the room. His legs trembled in
terror. Desperately hoping something would come to him, he opened his
But just at that moment the door was flung open and a servant rushed in
with a great flurry of robes…
“I’m sorry, your majesty, I just couldn’t stop them…”
“Stop who?”, said Herod.
“Visitors from the East, your majesty – stargazers of some sort, but
very finely dressed. They say they’re searching for a new king, a baby
king, a king who was promised long ago – they’ve seen a star that
announces his birth, and they thought you might know where he was. I
told them to come back another day, but they insisted – they are right
outside. They’re on the way in, your majesty.”
Herod went crimson with fury – “a new king! Why on earth would I want
to tell anyone anything about a new king! I’m the only king around
here! How dare they! Are they complete fools? Send them away!....
No, no, on the other hand…” he said , “Don’t send them away – bring
them in here…” He looked around the room….”Not a word from any of you,”
he said, with a wily smile on his face. ”Watch and learn! I’ll show you
what kings should be like!”
Herod had forgotten about Isaac, much to Isaac’s relief. He stepped
quietly back against the wall - saved in the nick of time!
In came the visitors. Herod smiled his sweetest smile at them and
beckoned them forward to tell their story. And what a story! They
explained about the prophecies they’d read in their home far to the
east, and the star they’d seen in the sky…a sign of the birth of a
child God would send to bring justice and peace to the world.
Even Isaac thought it was far-fetched and he’d told every tall tale in
the book! “But what we don’t know, your majesty,” said the star-gazers,
“is where this child is to be born.”
Herod smiled magnificently at them. “If there’s anything we can do to
help noble gentlemen like yourselves, we’ll be happy to do so…” he
said. He summoned his advisers, people who knew the ancient scriptures.
“Well,” they said, “there are ancient prophecies that talk about
Bethlehem – King David’s birthplace – I suppose they could try there!”
“There you are!” said Herod,” but be sure when you find him to come
back and tell me – of course I want to go and welcome this new king too
– such a great day for our nation! Now – stay and have some food, stay
the night – it’s far too late to travel!” But the stargazers wouldn’t
stay. They said they needed to travel at night to see the stars that
guided them, so off they went.
“No time for a story tonight, Isaac!” said Herod “and I don’t
think even you could do better than all that nonsense we’ve just heard
anyway!” Isaac was off the hook! But as he headed home he had an idea.
He’d still need a story for tomorrow, or he’d be in the same trouble
then. Those stargazers with their hare-brained errand – surely there
would be a story in that somewhere. It would be a ridiculous story, but
it might make the king laugh. After all they were obviously complete
fools if they’d come to Herod to ask him about a rival king, so who
knows what they might get up to next.
So Isaac slipped out of the palace and set out on the road towards
Bethlehem. It wasn’t long before he had the stargazers in his sights.
They were moving slowly, laden with boxes and bags, stopping now and
then to look up into the night sky. “Funny,” thought Isaac, “there is
something there, a star that seems brighter than the rest, one I
haven’t noticed before.” He shrugged and went on, keeping far enough
behind them so they wouldn’t spot him.
It wasn’t far to Bethlehem – it’s only 7 miles from Jerusalem – and the
travellers, with Isaac behind them, soon arrived. He followed as they
wound their way through its narrow streets – past the big houses –
surely this king would be in one of these? . But no, they went on till
they came to a rather run-down house on the edge of town. There was no
one about, just the light of that strange star shining above them. It
seemed to be directly over this house. The travellers spoke quietly to
each other – Isaac could see they were confused. This couldn’t be
right, could it? But then they heard a baby cry – there was a young
They picked their way across the filthy yard of the house and called
out softly. From inside the back room where the animals stayed at
night, they heard someone call out a welcome. Isaac watched as they
went in, lugging their boxes with them. He crept after them, and peered
through a crack in the door. What an extraordinary sight! Right where
they were, amidst the muck and straw, these finely dressed strangers
were kneeling down. Before them was an ordinary looking man and woman
with a small child in her arms. As Isaac watched they brought out gifts
from their boxes – gold, sweet smelling frankincense, precious myrrh.
What could make powerful, rich men like these kneel down in the dirt
before a child? There was something extraordinary going on here. Isaac
strained to hear what they were saying as they talked quietly with the
child’s mother and father. Something about God’s love for all people.
Something about justice and welcome.
Isaac thought of the grand court where he had made his home, of the
power games and the fear, of Herod, cruel Herod, and the iron grip he
had on the lives of ordinary people, and suddenly, Isaac felt sick of
it all. He leaned forward to try to hear better... when the door he was
leaning on flew open with a great crash. Isaac went sailing through it
and fell flat on his face in front of the mother and baby.
Well…all hell broke loose. The pigeons in the rafters flapped around in
a panic. The animals in the stalls bellowed with fright, and of course
the baby woke up and began to wail. But the baby’s mother just held him
closer and smiled at Isaac as he lay on the filthy floor. “You could
have just walked in, you know” she said, “you’re welcome too!”
For the second time that night, Isaac couldn’t think of a single
sensible thing to say, so he just said the first thing that came into
his head. “But I don’t have a gift to give you” he said, looking
dismally at the stargazers’ presents….” Then he thought again, “No,
perhaps that’s not true – perhaps I do have something for you. In fact
it may be a more precious gift even than this gold, frankincense and
myrrh, begging your lordships’ pardon. You see – I’m a storyteller, and
I have a story to tell you, a true story that you need to hear” And he
told them about Herod, about his cruelty, and about the way he was
trying to trick the stargazers into telling him where the child was…and
about what he would do to if he found him.
They all listened with horror, realising what great danger this baby
was in. Thank goodness Isaac had been there to warn them. It was a
precious gift indeed that he’d given them.
So at first light they all began to pack. The little family said they
would head to Egypt, far from Herod. The stargazers decided to take a
different route home; there was no way they were going back to
Jerusalem – they weren’t that stupid.
And Isaac? Well, he’d certainly found a story to tell – but he wasn’t
going anywhere near Herod with it! And the more he thought about
Herod’s court, Herod’s world, the less he wanted to be part of it
anyway. So Isaac just kept going, from village to village, town
to town. And everywhere he went he told this new story of the child
born in poverty who came to show God’s love for us all. Did he miss
being the king’s storyteller? No, because he still was the storyteller
for a king, only now he told stories for the King of Heaven instead of
for King Herod.
And they say that he wanders the world still, telling that old story to
anyone who’ll listen. Who knows? That might be true. Or perhaps it is
just the story that has travelled? After all, someone brought it to me,
and I’ve brought it to you, and now it’s yours to give away to someone
else. As those old storytellers like Isaac used to say, “that’s my
tale, and now it’s told and in your hands I leave it.”
©Anne Le Bas Christmas 2008
Christmas Midnight Sermon 08
Over the last few weeks, as you might imagine, I’ve led quite a few
Christmas services for local schools. It’s an occupational hazard, or
delight, depending on how you look at it! Whole tribes of children with
tea towels on their heads, squadrons of angels shedding tinsel all over
the place… the usual thing.
One of those school services provided me with a bit of food for thought
I’d like to share with you tonight. The school had decided to focus on
the animals in the stable, with all sorts of stories and poems and
songs. There was a grumpy ox who had been ejected from his stall to
make way for the baby. There was a sheepdog, who’d come with the
shepherds. There were donkeys, cats, spiders, an assortment of birds–
every creature under the sun got a look in. At the end I rose up to say
a word or two off the top of my head to draw things together.
“We’ve heard lots of lovely stories and poems about animals today – all
sorts of creatures. They all found they were welcome at the manger,
welcome to come and see Jesus. But it seems to me that there is one
creature, one animal that we haven’t thought about much today; a
creature who also needs to know they are welcome. I wonder if you can
guess what that creature is? I’ll give you some clues” I said, “Some
creatures have hooves or paws, but this creature has feet. Some
creatures have fur, or wool, like the sheep, but this creature has
hair. Some creatures have eight legs, or four legs but this creature
I’m thinking of has just two legs and stands upright… Can anyone
I was a bit worried, to tell you the truth, that the children would be
insulted. It did seem to me that it was rather obvious, and they were a
bright bunch. Sure enough, a forest of hands shot up. I turned to one
of the older children. “What do you think?” I asked “What creature was
I thinking of? “ With not a trace of doubt or hesitation she
It actually took several more tries before anyone tentatively suggested
that I might be thinking of a human being…
Now, there are all sorts of reasons why the children might have gone
down the wrong track – we don’t always think of ourselves as animals,
after all. But I’m sure that part of it was that by that stage they had
such a huge menagerie of animals in their heads that there was no room
left for the people.
It set me thinking about this whole business of the animals in the
Christmas story. If you read the Bible what you actually find is that,
apart from that flock of sheep in our reading tonight, there aren’t any
at all. Not only are there no kangaroos, there are no oxen, no asses,
no lambs brought by shepherd boys, not even a little donkey to carry
Mary to Bethlehem or camels for the wise men. They’re just not there.
There must have been animals around of course, but the Biblical writers
don’t seem to have been nearly as interested in them as we are. So why
do we insist on putting them in our versions?
Sometimes, of course, there are good reasons. That grumpy ox the
children heard about learned that he was welcome at the manger, so he
reminded the children that they were welcome too, even when they were
grumpy. I’ve told a French legend about an ugly Raven who discovers the
same thing too. I don’t have a problem with playing with the stories,
embroidering them a bit. It can help us to see them afresh.
But I do wonder, especially with the rather more sentimental depictions
of the Nativity I’ve seen– impossibly fluffy lambs and kittens, donkeys
and cattle reverently adoring in a holy hush - whether our
additions might sometimes obscure more than they reveal, hinder more
than they help.
And it’s not just an overdose of suspiciously well-behaved animals that
can mislead us. Sometimes the images we have of the human beings in the
stories are just as problematic.
Mary, for example, is nearly always portrayed as an impossible ideal of
beauty and serenity – with supermodel good looks and a sweet
temperament to boot. The Bible actually tells us very little about her
as a person. She must have had guts to be prepared to go along with
God’s plan, and stick with her son as he died on the cross, but she is
largely a mystery to us. We certainly don’t know anything about what
she looked like. Yet you never seem to see a plain looking Mary. And
she never looks as if she’s just given birth either, let alone in a
stable. I’ve had two children in the comparative comfort of a hospital
and I don’t think you’d have put me on a Christmas card straight
Then there are the magi. They were actually astrologers from Persia who
were regarded by many at the time as rather dubious odd-balls, and
there were a lot of them about. In our versions of the story, though,
they’ve become either wise men, despite the fact that going to Herod’s
palace to ask for directions to a rival king doesn’t sound all that
wise to me, or they’ve become kings, for which there's no warrant at
all. We just want to make them a little more glamorous than they really
We’ve probably even romanticised the shepherds. They’re meant to
represent the ordinary people of the time – low-status, often
overlooked - but we usually manage to turn them into rather quaint
visions of rustic charm – their tea-towels always seem suspiciously
clean to me. Even if we got them right, they would still be way outside
our everyday experience – figures from long ago and far away, not part
of the ordinary stuff of our lives at all.
Of course the Biblical stories of the birth of Christ do have
extraordinary, exotic features in them – angels and stars and so on –
but fundamentally their message is one of a God who chooses the
unspectacular, the ordinary, the everyday mess and muddle of life as it
was lived then. He slipped into the warp and weft of the world largely
unnoticed, in circumstances that had nothing much to single them out at
the time. Shepherds? Who is going to believe them? The tales they tell
are a nine-day wonder. Foreign soothsayers with their strange ideas? In
a world where strange ideas abounded what is one more set to add to the
mix? And what has a Jewish Messiah to do with them anyway? An ordinary
young woman who has got pregnant in circumstances that make her
neighbours raise their eyebrows? The mother of the Messiah? No way!
We assume we would spot the arrival of Christ at a glance. A few
figures with lambs in their arms, a halo or two, the outline of a
stable and we know that this is where it is all happening, where God is
being born – how could anyone miss it? But we’ve got two thousand years
of Christmasses behind us. What the Bible really tells us is that at
the time Jesus was just one more anonymous baby, born in obscurity to a
poor family who had to find room for themselves as best they could
among the animals, animals who probably took no notice whatsoever. And
what is more, it tells us, this is how God wanted it to be.
St Jerome, writing in the fourth century said this. “How I admire the
Lord, the Creator of the world! He wanted to be born not surrounded by
gold and silver, but just on a piece of this earth.” We all like a
little bit of glitter in our lives – a bit of gold and silver, magic
and sparkle - but when the decorations come down and the bills come in,
it is the God who chooses to be born on a piece of this earth, on our
piece of this earth, who we really need. It is easy to treat Christmas
as a welcome distraction from reality, a way of sprinkling a layer of
glitter over what troubles us so we can’t see it for a while, but its
true message is that it is our very earthiness – the stuff that’s
underneath the glitter - the ordinary stuff of our lives - that God has
come to share.
There are no particular qualifications needed for this to happen. No
special holiness. No clever words. There are no exotic secrets or codes
to break. You don’t have to be a church insider. You don’t have to have
everything tidied up in your life first. God doesn’t care if the lambs
are fluffy or the oxen docile. He comes to us anyway where we are, as
we are. Two thousand years ago that meant making his home with a
nondescript couple in a backstreet in Bethlehem. Today it is the
nondescript backstreets of our lives that he wants to be part of, the
humdrum business of Monday morning at the office or on the shop floor,
the scruffy, unprepared corners of ourselves that we might prefer to
hide. He might have to elbow his way through the braying beasts of our
anxieties to find room there. But that’s all right by him, just as it
was at Bethlehem.
A little later in this service, when you come up to share bread and
wine, or for a blessing if that’s what you’d rather do – and everyone
IS welcome - I’m going to invite you afterwards to spend a minute or
two in front of our crib in the Lady Chapel. You can light a candle
there if you’d like to as well. As you do so why not think about your
“piece of this earth”, the reality of your life, into which God wants
to be born. Think about the places where you need God to come to you,
to be with you, and invite him to do just that. Let’s not shut him up
in a story from long ago amid a cast of exotic characters, because this
story isn’t just about them; it’s about us too. It isn’t just those
legendary lambs, oxen, donkeys, cats, dogs and all the rest whose lives
God wants to touch tonight – it is yours as well.
7 Dec 2008
Advent 2 Evensong Sermon by Kevin Bright
& 1 Kings 22:1-28
Bad news is never welcome.
There’s certainly no shortage of it around in the news at the moment is
there. I’m deliberately restricting my exposure to the news to around
half an hour of Radio 4’s Today programme on my drive to the office and
a few specific internet updates to avoid becoming too depressed. I
didn’t know who the BBC financial journalist Robert Peston was until 6
months ago but he really does seem to be the prophet of doom. In fact
he’s become so famous that he is probably one of the few people
benefiting from the global financial crisis, in great demand as an
after dinner speaker earning £10,000 a night.
The aim is to be informed but not bereft of hope! The temptation can be
to ‘stick ones head in the sand’ and keep dismissing what we hear on
the assumption it won’t affect us.
I suspect many of us have put off going to see a doctor when we suspect
we have a health problem as we have an inner fear of being told
something we really don’t want to hear or face up to.
An inconvenient truth. It sums up many situations and you’re probably
aware that it is the title of a film presented by Al Gore about global
warming. One caption from the film shows boats lying on parched land
which used to be a river bed with the statement ‘It is difficult to get
a man to understand something when his salary depends on not
understanding it’. It’s all about facing up to what we are being told
and then doing something about it.
Another way to react to hearing something we don’t like can be to reply
angrily or become defensive, it may suit us to dismiss the person
telling us what we don’t want to hear as mad, an eccentric or a fool.
Perhaps before we ask the opinion of another, particularly one with an
expertise greater than our own we need to first ask ourselves some
questions, do we want to know the truth or are we just seeking
affirmation for our plans. If we find that the truth is inconsistent
with our proposed actions will it change anything?
So it was with King Ahab, king of Israel, who called together 400 of
his prophets to consult them as to whether he should go to war with the
Aramaeans (or we might refer to them as the Syrians), to take the city
of Ramoth-Gilead. It’s important we remember that these were possibly
prophets of the false god Baal. King Ahab had them in his palace and
used them for his advisors. Which ever god they claimed allegiance to,
they were clearly yes men, who told King Ahab whatever he wanted to
hear. They were treated very well by him, and they knew that, if they
wanted to keep their jobs, they had better say whatever the King wanted
them to say. They knew which side their bread was buttered on, and they
ate from the King’s table!
So when King Jehosphat, Ahab’s ally and king of Judah, suggested
consulting a prophet of the Lord, Ahab said that he did know one
Prophet of God … Micaiah … but that he hated him! That’s probably the
best compliment Micaiah could have received! Some people say that you
can tell the character of a person more by his enemies than by his
friends. And, when you have an enemy like wicked King Ahab, that’s
quite a compliment! Micaiah eventually predicted Ahab’s death on the
battlefield and proved to be a true prophet.
I think it’s helpful to reflect on truth we know from Christ and shine
this light on our own lives to see where we choose to ignore it. There
is also a compelling incentive to make time to pray and re-examine what
we understand to be God’s real will in our lives and see if there are
parts we ignore or which disturb us because they don’t fit with our own
Because we are confident of God’s unconditional love for us and because
we don’t believe in salvation through works it can become easy to get
so laid back that we start to ignore the inconvenient reality of the
things which we can see happening around us.
So, when Paul writes to the Roman church, he reminds them of the
service they owe due to "God's mercy". Because they are free it doesn’t
mean that they should fall into a self centred existence which ignores
the needs of others around them. In their particular situation they
were riding rough-shod over their "weaker" brothers and sisters. These
weaker people were pious conservative law-orientated believers (mostly
ex Jews). Being free from the moral law, Paul reminds them, does not
give them the freedom to act immorally.
Their strength and freedom has been found because of their belief in
Christ and Paul wants to remind them of his message to them,
i) ‘Bear with the failings of the weak’.
ii) Follow the self-denying example of Christ.
iii) Welcome one another.
His message is that Christian liberty is seen in freedom for service,
not freedom for self indulgence and sin. As we develop the confidence
to rely and trust Christ more and more so our desire to honour all that
he is will increase and be apparent to others.
So we are encouraged not to treat the weak in the way which is common
in our world.
We know how horrific it can be when the strong abuse their position to
exploit the weak.
The news surrounding the death of the child known as baby P has focused
so heavily on the shortcomings of social services that the fact that
the strong, in this case 3 adults, caused the death of the weakest of
the weak, a small child, almost seems to have been passed over.
The strong in Zimbabwe control the army and use their power to let the
weak starve and suffer disease without intervention.
If the charity ‘war on want’ have got their facts right the strong UK
retailers ASDA, Tesco and Primark exploit weak Bangladeshi workers
paying them 7p an hour to make clothes whilst rice prices in Bangladesh
Paul wants us to follow Christ’s example and understand the
difficulties of the weak not exploit them, avoid them, exclude them,
judge them or develop a sense of superiority but to support them and
build them up so they too can understand the real meaning of Christ’s
In the economic gloom and the horrors we can see around us there are
still far more people around seeking good rather than evil. There are
many working for a sustainable future for our world and there are many
seeking to protect and build up the weak.
Despite the challenges we face we need to make space to pray and listen
for God’s will and do our utmost to act on his truth, however
inconvenient this might be for us.
More than ever we need to support each other and remind ourselves that
we are people who have faith in the God of hope, something which cannot
be changed by the circumstances around us. If we can make this a
reality we could even become the people Paul describes and ‘overflow
with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.’
Advent 2 Dec 7th 2008
Isaiah 40.1-11, Ps 85.1-2,8-13, 2 Peter
3.8-15a, Mark 1.1-8
There’s a little phrase in today’s second reading which really jumped
out at me when I read it. “We wait for new heavens and a new earth,”
says the author “where righteousness is at home.” It was that
last phrase that stood out, “where righteousness is at home”. I
wondered whether it was just some modern translator being a bit
colloquial, so I checked it in the original Greek and that is actually
what it says. “katoikei” is the word in question in case you want to
know. It comes from the Greek word “oikos” for home.
It struck me so forcibly because it sounded rather strange. You get all
this build up – grand, terrifying, cosmic images – fire, noise,
destruction, new heavens and earth…and it all leads up to this - a
moment of pure domesticity, a place “where righteousness is at home”.
There aren’t any crystal seas or pearly gates in this vision. This
image of bliss has more to do with carpet slippers than golden crowns.
It’s small scale, rather ordinary, but in a way, it is all the more
powerful for that.
“Home” is a small word with a huge weight of meaning attached to it.
“Home is where the heart is”. “Home sweet home.” “The Englishman’s home
is his castle.” “Home is the place that when you go there they have to
take you in…”
Our experience of home may not match those ideals at all, of course.
Sometimes home is anything but sweet. Home can be a safe haven, but, as
recent high-profile child abuse cases have reminded us, it can be the
most dangerous place in the world. But even if the homes we have
lived in haven’t been good ones, we probably still know what we want
home to be like. When we talk of being “at home” we know what we mean,
or at least we know what we long for.
Being “at home” means belonging. You aren’t there on sufferance or just
visiting – it is your place – you have a right to be there. Being “at
home” means familiarity – this is a place you know, full of stuff that
you’ve collected over the years. It may be junk, but it is your own
junk. Being at home implies freedom too – the freedom to be yourself,
where you don’t have to impress anyone, or dress up or pretend to be
something you’re not. We talk of things being home-grown, grown in the
place where they are, nourished by its own soil – rather than imported
from somewhere else, authentic.
So when the author of this letter describes the pinnacle of God’s work
as the creation of a place where righteousness is at home, he is saying
something very rich and powerful indeed. I wonder - what would the
world look like if righteousness was truly at home in it like this?
It would be a place where treating other people with love and dignity
came naturally to us. It would be a place where we wouldn’t be afraid
or suspicious of those who were different from us, but ready to welcome
them as God’s children. It would be a place where we would
instinctively want to set right what was wrong, to mend what was broken
– that is part of what righteousness means in the Bible, that active
power of God to put things right. I could go on, but you get the
picture. And you know as well as I do that a world where righteousness
was at home would be a world very different from the one we have now,
because, for all the good that is in it, ours is a world where millions
still go to bed hungry, where children are born and die in poverty,
where lives are wrecked by war, stifled by hatred and prejudice.
It would be a world very different from the one the writer of this
letter knew too, which is why he longs for it so fervently. We don’t
know who he was. Although it is traditionally called a letter of Peter
it’s not by Peter the fisherman, the friend of Jesus – it was written
too late for that. Its author may have been someone writing in his
name, perhaps from a church he’d founded. But whoever he was, we know
he lived at a time when the Christian community faced persecution from
the Romans, because the whole of the New Testament was written against
that backdrop. He lived in a world where life often seemed cheap; death
was casually dealt out to anyone who was inconvenient to those in
power. He lived in a world where the poor, women, children, those with
disabilities – anyone who couldn’t fight their own corner – was
vulnerable to abuse.
Some of his language does seem dramatic to us – fire in the heavens and
so on – but ultimately his dreams are very human, very understandable,
dreams we could all say amen to. They are dreams of a world where
people are free to get on with living their lives at peace with one
another, with God, with themselves, where the suffering he sees around
him has ended. As the person who wrote today’s psalm put it they are
dreams of a time when “mercy and truth have met together, righteousness
and peace have kissed each other, truth springs up from the earth” They
aren’t grand dreams of power and wealth and earthly success, just of a
place where people treat one another right, because righteousness is at
home in them, second nature to them.
But turning those dreams into reality is a huge challenge, and
something that again and again we fail at. If we welcome righteousness
at all we often treat it more like a visitor than something that is at
the centre of our lives. We try to find room for it among the clutter,
to do the right thing at least some of the time, but righteousness is
often the first thing to be evicted if we need the space for something
else. ”Loving others is all very well,” we say, “but you’ve got to look
out for number one, especially in the middle of a credit crunch”. “I
know I need to sort this or that problem out,” we say “but too much
else would have to change.” Fear, apathy, disillusionment crowd in, and
righteousness just has nowhere to lay its head anymore.
The good news is, though, that the God who comes to set us right, the
God who calls us to righteousness, doesn’t give up as easily as we do.
The Bible tells us that over and over again. Moses thinks he’s gone far
from him in the wilderness, but he discovers him right at home in a
burning bush. Jacob runs away from home, the place where he thinks God
dwells, because he’s cheated his brother. But when he lies down
to sleep in the desert, in the middle of nowhere, he dreams of a ladder
set up between heaven and earth, with angels going up and down it, and
God speaking to him. He calls the place Bethel – which means the house
of God – and says in his amazement “this is none other than the house
of God and the gate of heaven”. God is at home here. Jonah sails far
out to sea to sea to get away from God’s call to preach to the city of
Ninevah, but he finds God perfectly at home with him anyway, in the
belly of the whale who saves him from drowning.
When God comes in Jesus to Bethlehem there’s no room for him at the
inn, but that doesn’t stop him. A manger will do. He can make himself
at home there just as well as in a king’s palace or in the halls of
heaven. He carries on making himself at home during his ministry
wherever there is a chink in the armour of the world – wherever there
are people whose lives are broken enough to let him in. And when we
finally try to evict him from life completely on the cross, he’s not in
the least put off by our lack of welcome. He rises from the
homelessness of death and comes straight back to us, still determined
to make his home among us. As John’s Gospel says, “the word was made
flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” no matter what we
did to send him packing.
The message of today’s readings is a challenging one. “Make straight
the paths” calls John the Baptist to us. Be ready to welcome the God of
righteousness, the God who sets you right, so that the world becomes a
place where righteousness is at home, not just a visitor on sufferance,
admitted when it is convenient to us. It is easy to look at the size of
the task and despair, to see our failures and give up, but this isn’t a
task we are called to do alone. We do it in the company of a God who is
ready to begin by pitching his tent with us in whatever corner he can
find. A manger was enough in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, and our
tentative attempts at setting things right can be enough for real
change to begin now. Admitting a problem, asking for help, volunteering
support to someone else, offering our gifts; they may seem small
beginnings but they open the door for God to come in, and for his
righteousness to start to set up home in us.
Advent 1 – 30
Isaiah 64.1-9, 1 Cor 1.3-9, Mark
Last week, after our morning service we had our monthly Faith and Fun
session for the under fives and their families. We were a bit in
advance of the rest of the church because we were thinking about Advent
and about waiting – today’s themes. What were we waiting for?
Christmas! The children knew that. Yes, I said, that’s right, and in a
rather slack, lazy, metaphorical sort of way I added, we are waiting
for Jesus to be born…
I should have known that you can’t be slack, lazy or metaphorical with
small children – they are far too sharp for that. No sooner were the
words out of my mouth than Denise’s Harry leapt up indignantly, put his
hands on his hips and protested, “But Jesus has already been born!”
Of course, Harry was quite right. Jesus HAS already been born. I tried
to cover myself by saying that we were waiting to hear the story of his
birth, but I expect Harry thinks, nonetheless, that I am some kind of
Actually, did he but know it, Harry had gone right to the point, and to
the paradox, of this season of Advent. The word Advent literally means
coming; its message is of the coming of Christ to us. He comes first as
a baby in a manger, as Harry knew. He comes as Good News to shepherds
and wise men, outsiders in his society. He comes to be God with
us – that’s why we call him Emmanuel, it’s what it means. His life, his
death, his resurrection, the gift of his Spirit say God is with us, in
every part of our lives. But our Advent readings and hymns tell us
another story. They speak also of a longing for Christ to come again.
He has been born, as Harry said, but Advent reminds us that there is
also a sense in which he is not yet here, not fully, not as we one day
hope he will be. They talk about his second coming.
We don’t say much these days about the second coming of Christ. In fact
we’re often rather embarrassed about it. It makes us think of men with
sandwich boards standing on street corners proclaiming that the “end of
the world is nigh”, or conspiracy theorists poring over the Book of
Revelation trying to identify the Anti-Christ or pinpoint the onset of
Armageddon. But we don’t have to think like this to find a message
worth hearing in these strange stories. When you strip away the exotic
language of clouds of glory and stars falling from the sky what you
find beneath them is the longing of an oppressed people for God to act,
to intervene in their world and change it. And that is something I
think we can all understand and say amen to.
The terrorist attacks in India, civil war in Congo, the scourge of
HIV/AIDS in Sub Saharan Africa, those countless personal tragedies and
struggles that afflict people make me want to join in the cries of the
Biblical writers to God - “tear open the heavens and come
down.” The promise of heaven when we die isn’t enough for
me, and I don’t think it’s true to the message Jesus proclaimed either.
He spoke of the kingdom of God here and now, life before death, not
just life after death, justice for the poor, freedom for the captives.
If what we have now – war, famine, hatred - is as good as it gets then
it’s not much to get excited about. If God is with us, then where is he?
The absence of God is a theme that runs through all our readings today.
Isaiah speaks for a people in exile in Babylon who have lost everything
they’ve ever known and are now, effectively, enslaved. The New
Testament readings come from times of oppression too. They’re the
literature of the early church, persecuted by the Romans, powerless in
the face of a mighty empire. The people who wrote these words felt
there had to be more. They longed for the day of the Lord, a day when
God would act. Waiting for that day was as hard for them, as puzzling
and as painful as it can be for us.
Like them it may be the suffering of the world, or suffering in our own
lives that challenges our faith or makes us aware of a longing that has
not been satisfied. Sometimes the feeling that we are distant from God
just comes out of the blue though; we just feel that our prayers are
hitting the ceiling, that the line has gone dead. That sort of dryness
or darkness can be a sign of depression – we should never ignore the
obvious – we might need some medical help. It can be a sign that we are
too busy to listen properly too– God just can’t get a word in edgeways.
It can be a sign that there is something we need to sort out that we
are avoiding. But sometimes the silence and darkness we feel are not
signs that anything has gone wrong at all. It is just that we are in a
season in our lives where the real work is waiting and watching. When
we look at a tree that has no leaves on it there are two things that
could be true. One is that it is dead; the other is that it is winter,
something which is essential in the life of a tree.
Wintry seasons, times of questioning and doubt, times when it can seem
that there is nothing happening in us, times when God seems to have
withdrawn are remarkably common. Even those who seem to have an
unshakeable faith can feel like this, sometimes for long periods – in
fact they often seem especially prone to this experience. Mother
Theresa of Calcutta’s letters to those close to her, published
posthumously last year, revealed that for much of her ministry in the
slums of India she had no sense at all of God’s presence. She had felt
him to be close when she was younger, heard his voice calling her to
the ministry she gave her life to, but almost as soon as she began that
ministry her awareness of God dried up.
Some have called her a fraud because of this, and said she was living a
lie, but I don’t think that’s so. She was well enough schooled in
Christian spirituality to know that this was an experience she shared
with many of the great figures of Christian mysticism, people who had
given their whole lives to prayer or to service. The 16th Century
Spanish mystic, St John of the Cross called it the dark night of the
soul. His contemporary, St Teresa of Avila, went through 20 years of
feeling that God was far from her. She was the one who cried out to God
"If this be the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few
of them." Whether they called it darkness, a desert or a cloud of
unknowing, the experience of many great saints has been that sometimes
the closer they have tried to draw to God the further away he seems to
be, as if they are looking for him through the wrong end of the
What kept them going, we might ask? Why didn’t they just give up, as we
might feel tempted to? One thing they all seemed to discover eventually
was a conviction that just because you can’t see or feel something
doesn’t mean it isn’t there. If they were in the dark, it wasn’t
necessarily because God was absent. Instead they came to believe that
he might somehow be IN the darkness with them, just as he had been in
the darkness with Jesus on the cross when he cried out to his
father “why have you forsaken me?”. Like the seed that falls into
the dark earth sometimes there is nothing for us to see in our
spiritual lives for a long time, but that doesn’t mean that nothing is
happening. In time the green shoot - new life - bears witness to that.
These saints who spoke of darkness learned not to put all their trust
in their feelings about God but to balance those feelings against God’s
promise that he’d never leave them or forsake them. And trusting that
promise, they acted on it, like the servants in Jesus' parable who care
for the house even though the master is far away.
In Mother Theresa’s case that meant decades of working among the
destitute and the dying, among the poorest people on earth, people for
whom the touch of love she and her sisters gave may have been the first
and the last loving touch they ever knew. The irony of this is that
though she may not have known that God was with her, though he may have
felt distant and unseen to her, those she helped were very well aware
of his presence. One commentator said of her. “Although she experienced
darkness in her core, God's light radiated out from her. Can there be
any clearer sign of the holiness of God pervading her life?” Perhaps
the problem with our traditional Advent imagery, which looks for Christ
coming from up there in the sky, is precisely that it does encourage us
to reach for a telescope to look for him, to assume we must find him
outside ourselves, when what we really need is a mirror so that we can
learn to see him at work in us instead.
Harry was right – Jesus has already been born. But in a way I was right
too, because in Advent we wait, we hope and we prepare for him to be
born again, not in Bethlehem but in us. A two thousand year old
baby in a manger is not much use to a world in need now. It is the
child who grows in me and you, even in our darkness when we can’t see
it happening, that we really need to bring to birth. So this Advent
let's not look into the distant skies – out there - and wonder where
God has got to, but look instead into the depths of our own lives so
that we can discover his hidden presence there waiting to be born again
in our acts of love and care.