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From March 14th  2010 sermons will be posted on a sermon blog here instead of on this page as this should prove easier to search  and index, and allow for (moderated) comments . This page will serve as an archive, along with the archive pages for previous years (see above.)

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 Gospel reading.
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 revulsion. 

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 against them.

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 Lord.


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 concerned.

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 kill you.’
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 God.

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 response is.
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.

Christ 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  Breathing Space

Deut 26.1-11, Luke 4.1-13

It 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 harvest festivals.

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 matters.

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 stories weren’t.

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 other consideration.

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 love.

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!)

Feb 7th 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 without it.

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 wells. 

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 people Israel.”
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 the Temple.

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 seen.

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 confusions.

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 striving for.

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 elsewhere.

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...

(Pam Ayres)


Jan 10 2010    Baptism of Christ
Isaiah 43.1-7, Acts 8.14-17, Luke 3.15-17, 21-22

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 precious.

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 vassals.

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 we belong.
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 it.

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 within it.

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 2.1-12

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 of.

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 Year.

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 is possible.

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 spider.

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 distance.

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 difference. Amen

Midnight Mass 2009 - A sermon by Kevin Bright

Luke 2:1-20 & Isaiah 62.6-12

What 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 two weeks!
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 and heartbreak.
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 complete.
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 invitations.
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 each other.
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 of god’.
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 unexpected source.
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 been forgiven.
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 today.
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)
Kevin Bright

Advent 2
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 announced it?
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 children.

Breathing Space for Advent - Thursday Dec 3 09

Journey 1   
Jeremiah 23. 5-8,Luke 2.1-7

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 workplace celebrations.
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 too.

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
whispered revolution:
‘freedom from oppression
and good news to the poor’.
Lead us to broken places –
use us to build hope
and work for their transformation.
                Christian Aid

Advent 109
Jer 33.1-14, Luke 21.25-36

In the 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 expect.

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 ideas.

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     Breathing Space
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 manage.

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 him. 

Remembrance Sunday 09
Isaiah 9.1-6, Romans 8.18-25

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, a 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 pouring in.

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 those demands. 

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

Col 1.15-20, John 14. 1-6

Often, when 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 about. 

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 you are.”

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 Christmas.

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 Kingdom.

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 those tears.

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 18
Mark 10.17.31

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 on again.

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 legs. “

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 encounter.

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 places.
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 distance.

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, beloved brothers.

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 too!
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 junk…? 
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 too. 

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 communities.

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 justice.

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 you are.

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 prayers.

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 praying for.
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 our prayer.

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 much of.

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 are. 

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 Testament reading.

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 show stopper!

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 answering it.

‘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 of life.

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 military objectives.

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

A woman and child at a feeding station in in Ethiopia's Oromiya region.Isaiah 35.4-7a, Mark 7.24-37

The picture 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 as answers.

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 error too.

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, encompassing all.

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, 14-15,21-23

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 wanted.

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 that Lord.

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 bitterness.

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

Trinity 1109

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 they say.

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 flawed. 

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 6.35,41-51

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 hand-gel!

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.

August 2 09 Evensong - Sermon by Kevin Bright
Job 28 & Hebrews 11.17-31

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 inflicted reason?

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…… fact anyone but ourselves. It’s not that these bodies are without responsibility it just that their responsibility doesn’t abdicate us of ours.

Take these quotes from insurance claim forms:-

•    "On approach to the traffic lights the car in front suddenly broke."
•    "I bumped into a lamp-post which was obscured by human beings."
•    "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 place.’

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 questions.

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 God promised.

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 – Breathing Space

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 spotted before.
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 follow him. 
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 ministry. 

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 others too.

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?

*Martin B. 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 him.

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 threat.

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 family.

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 nation.

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 doing.  

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 Kevin Bright

Mark 6.1-13, 2 Corinthians 12.2-10, Ezekiel 2.1-5

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 supply.

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 afraid.
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 them.

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 water. 

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 with God.

14 June 2009  Trinity 1    
A sermon by Kevin Bright
Mark 4:26-34, 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, Ezekiel 17:22-24

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 effect?

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 for us.

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 oppression.

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 saviour.

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 cedar.

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 worth doing.

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 dove.

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 recently:

“If I'm 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.”
Dan Clenendin (God Infinite, God Intimate – article for Sunday June 7)

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 trusted envoy.

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 need. 

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

St Anselm 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 given?

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 to safety.

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 why.

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?


May 24th    2009    Easter 7

Acts 1.15-17, 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 them?
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 have been? 
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.

May 10 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 and daughters;”

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 answers.

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 wasteland. 

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

John 10.11-18

“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 and care.

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 wasn’t.

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 astray.

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 to imagine.

April 26 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 spirit. 

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 connected.

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 whole.

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.

April 12 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 it?

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     Lent 5

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 life.

“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     Lent 2

Mark 8.31-38

“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 a monster.

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 us.

March 1 09  Evensong    Lent 1
    Sermon by Kevin Bright
Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7 & Romans 5.12-19

I am 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 within them.
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 kingdom.
.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 system.
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 him.

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 Adam.

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 deserts.

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

Traditionally on 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 good news.”

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 Father.

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.

February 22 09   
Last Sunday before Lent

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

Mark 1.29-39,1Corinthians 9.16-23 & Isaiah 40.21-31   
The 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 trains stopped.
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 practical ways.

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 down.
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.

Candlemas 09

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 agenda.

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
Act 9.1-22, Matt 19.27-30

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 use. 

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 track.

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 dark.

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 turning up.

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.

January 18 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 calling.

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.

11 2008 - Baptism of Christ      Sermon 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 priest!

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 rival?

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 for control.

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 God’s love.

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!
The second 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.

If Christmas 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 really.”

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 read.

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.

That’s not 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 mouth…

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. “Any ideas…?”
“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 child here.

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

Luke 2.1-20

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 guess…?”

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 answered….”a kangaroo!”

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 afterwards!

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 were.

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
Romans 15:1-13 & 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 plans.

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, specifically to:-

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 rise astronomically.

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 love.

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 Nov 2008
Isaiah 64.1-9, 1 Cor 1.3-9, Mark 13.24-37

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 idiot…

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 telescope.

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.