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Home Reading the
Advent 07 - Christ the King 08
22 November 2008 Christ the King sermon
by Kevin Bright
Matthew 25.31-46, Ezekiel
34.11-16 & 20-24
Those here last Sunday will
remember the big silver blocks, each one of which represented a talent,
a vast sum of money. The slave entrusted with one of these didn’t put
his to good use and wasted his chance to increase its value. When his
master returned he was unprepared for his response and incurred his
Today we hear Jesus speak of sheep and goats. This time it’s the
‘goats’ who represent the people who do nothing, they decide that some
people are not worth bothering about and are surprised when they find
themselves in front of Christ the King, Christ on the throne. The
thought of Christ as King may have seemed a bizarre image at the time
he made it, all the more so as Jesus followers experienced the
apparently hopeless events of his arrest and persecution.
Jesus would have been able to point to the words of the prophet Ezekiel
where God himself made it clear what he expects as he looks for lost
sheep and longs to care for them. God scorns the fat sheep who hog the
best pasture and deliberately push away the hungry and needy.
I find it hard to associate Jesus with final and eternal judgement. The
thought of it frightens and disturbs me.
I’m a lot more comfortable focusing on his capacity for forgiveness. I
looked at a lot of books and commentaries to find an interpretation
that would make me feel better about this but none offered me what I
wanted to find. My conclusion is that these words are meant to provoke
and disturb us, leaving us each to examine what they may mean for us
Perhaps we mostly comfortable western Christians feel that judgment
offends our sense of freedom, which is our total freedom from the
opinion of others. Or maybe it has to do with our belief that an
unconditionally loving God will not judge us harshly.
If you're seeking an answer to that difficult question, a preacher
called Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that “the Bible is not a book
with the answers in the back." But we can wrestle with this... because
we have a bedrock, foundational belief, a deep trust in the goodness of
God, in the grace of God, and we can listen for how. God calls us to
participate in the unfolding of the reign of God, and to do so in
freedom, but a freedom that comes with responsibility.
The "with responsibility" part reflects the reality that we live in
community, not completely on our own. We are not, ever... truly
Eddie Izzard was on Telly Friday night saying that when you see
oppressed people who face famine and slaughter at worship they seem to
have an irrepressible joy, particularly expressed through their music.
Clearly he has never experienced the excellent music produced by our
choir as his experience of the Church of England to date has been to
hear joyful words sung as’ Al-le-lu-ia, Al-le-lu-ia ris’n ascended,
For those who don’t know who Eddie Izzard is, he’s not really known as
a theologian, he’s more of a stand up comedian. But maybe his humorous
observations are based on something real. If we don’t express the joy
we have in Christ as our king then we tend not to live this out as the
sheep Jesus talks of.
Our answer could then also become’ Lord, when did we see you hungry or
thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did
not help you?’
A long standing client of mine recently appeared on a TV programme
called ‘The secret Millionaire’. For those not familiar the programme
involves a very wealthy individual working amongst, in his case, those
who care for homeless, unemployed and troubled people around the
Elephant and Castle area in south London.
The very fact that his wealth was concealed from all he had contact
with, enabled him to get alongside people as an equal and struggle with
the difficult work they undertake. If the workers had known of his
wealthy and comfortable life away from this area he would never have
gained the same insights on a first hand basis. He tells me that his
entire value system changed as a result of his experience and that he
continues to support the organisations he worked with.
Because he inhabits a privileged world it was no surprise to hear him
say ‘I didn’t know people lived like this’. The whole thing is about
recognition, his anonymity which enabled him to conceal his real
identity to those he helped but more importantly his recognition of the
needs of others.
We can see hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick and imprisoned
people among us on the news every day. I don’t think we can earn a
place in heaven through the amount we give or do to help these people
but I do believe that God requires us to recognise them and to help
them where we are able if we are serious about calling Christ our King.
Jesus is telling us that we need to do something with our faith, put it
into action. Our relationship with God is not only a matter of having
faith but of also doing faith. If we look around us there is no
shortage of opportunity to recognise Christ in others. Our positive
reaction makes our faith real and makes a real difference in the
An extreme example of recognition is given to us by Mother Theresa of
Calcutta. A prayer of hers went:’ Dearest Lord, May I see you today and
everyday in the persons of your sick, and while nursing them minister
to you. Though you hide yourself behind the unattractive disguise of
the irritable, the exacting, the unreasonable, may I still recognise
you and say ‘Jesus, my patient, how sweet it is to serve you…’
It isn’t my first thought to see Christ in someone else particularly
when they are a pain in the neck, or worse, to deal with but we have
got to try and start looking and thinking in this way if we are to
bring any change. It’s our common humanity we have to learn to
recognise in each other.
Last week, BBC radios ‘thought for the day referred to the Archbishop
of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi’s recent joint visit to the former
Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. The Chief Rabbi spoke of being struck by
the horrible efficiency with which the Nazis collected everything of
use - teeth, hair, shoes, glasses. Indeed, it seemed they had a value
for most things - everything, that is, apart from the millions of men,
women and children that they were throwing away as worthless.
Hitler believed that only by the elimination of the Jewish people could
the German people flourish. Hence Auschwitz. But the truth is exactly
the opposite of this. Our own flourishing, whoever we are, is
completely bound up with the flourishing of other people, whatever
their creed and whatever their colour. And until we understand this
completely, we can never be certain that we are not the ‘goats’ Jesus
spoke of, those who feel some people are just not worth caring about.
We worship in a beautiful ancient church, and despite the repairing and
maintaining responsibility that goes with this I don’t think many here
would swap it for a modern hall, not even on a cold day like this..
We are able to recognise the beauty of this place, recognise the beauty
of worship music and singing which doesn’t actually go “Al-le-lu-ia,
Al-le-lu-ia “and as we step outside we recognise the beauty of the
countryside in winter.
When we leave this place and go back into the world to our families,
homes, schools and workplaces let’s consider whether it’s true for us
that we find it easier to appreciate beautiful places of worship, to
sing glorious hymns, or to appreciate the beauty of nature, than to see
the image of Christ in one another? If that is the case then let’s
resolve to do something about it.
Today we have come to the end of another liturgical year, and our focus
will move to preparing for advent. Once again we will hear the story of
this surprising God who came to dwell among us in the form of a
vulnerable child born of homeless refugees.
This is our God, truly ‘one of the least of these’ which Jesus
challenges us to recognise.
Nov 16 2008 Second Sunday
before Advent. Breathing Space
I Thessalonians 5.1-11, Matthew 25.14-30
Today’s Gospel reading is possibly rather too close to current events
for comfort. It’s a story about people who take financial risks and at
the moment our readiness to do that as individuals, as institutions and
as a nation is very much in the spotlight. And this parable might seem
to be taking us in a direction we’d rather not go in. The slaves that
take risks in the story are praised; the one who keeps his master’s
initial investment safe is condemned. Perhaps our sympathy lies with
that last one. Of course the parable Jesus tells here isn’t really
about money – but now just as then the way we feel about money can tell
us a lot about the way we feel about other things.
My guess is that most of us, far from being cavalier about money are
inclined to be over-careful with it and over anxious about it,
particularly if we’ve known poverty or had to manage on a tight budget.
In past generations support was patchy or non-existent if you fell on
hard times. You would have to throw yourself on the mercy of friends or
charity if things got tough. There was no welfare state. When Jesus
told this parable that was the reality people lived with, so anxiety
about money must have been a backdrop to many lives. In the case of
these slaves of course this money wasn’t even theirs. It was and
remained their master’s. That would have made their anxiety even worse.
Their lives were in his hands, and the amount of money he had entrusted
them with was huge – 1 talent was worth 6000 drachma, and a drachma was
a normal day’s wage, so these slaves had been entrusted with the
equivalent of respectively 17, 34 and about 85 years wages. Even for
the slave who was “only” given one talent it was a huge sum. No wonder
they were afraid. I would be too. But some of the slaves manage to
conquer their fear and they trade with it and it grows. It is these
risk-taking slaves who are praised. Perhaps it would have been a
different story if they had lost it all, but Jesus point here is that
it is their willingness to at least try to use their master’s money –
to invest it in a way that would make it grow - that is what their
master values, not how successful the enterprise was.
Of course, as I’ve said the story isn’t really about money; it’s about
how we deal with the things that are precious to us, about the fear we
can feel for those things and the protectiveness that can cause us to
bury our treasure instead of using it. Jesus told this parable to
people who had grown up aware that they guarded a great treasure – the
treasure of God’s relationship with them, as his chosen people. But
they were sometimes so afraid of letting others into that relationship
that effectively they might as well have buried it in a hole. They
created an elaborate system of rules and regulations to ensure that
only those who were ritually pure approached God in the Temple. Some
people – Gentiles and people with certain disabilities could never get
there for example.
It’s hard to tell who was being protected from what, but it reflected a
“better safe than sorry” mentality. When Jesus came along and
challenged it by including, touching, eating with those who the
religious leaders disapproved of they were very uneasy. Surely nothing
but trouble could result. They weren’t bad people or greedy people –
they were doing what they thought was best and safest. But as a result
they were effectively digging a hole and burying God’s treasure in it –
the treasure he had meant them to share.
It’s something we can still find ourselves doing, putting a fence
around salvation, a fence around the church, picking and choosing who
we think is worthy to receive what God has to give and justifying it by
saying that we are just keeping the treasure entrusted to us safe. We
can exclude ourselves in this way too, convinced we aren’t good enough
for God, that to come close to him would be to risk his wrath. But this
story challenges that thinking. God means his treasure – the love he
has for us – to be used, shared and enjoyed. Only that way can it
The letter to the Thessalonians makes the same point in a different way
– you are safe, it says. “you are not in darkness...” We have what we
need – for ourselves and to share with others. But the question we
might like to ask ourselves in our silence today is how much we feel we
can we trust that? Can we trust God that he will look at us and at our
efforts – however half-baked they are, and however fearfully undertaken
– not with the harsh judgment the third servant fears but with delight,
celebrating with us whatever bit of love or joy or peace we have
managed to create around us.
In the silence tonight let’s think about what are afraid of, and about
those times when we have let fear get in the way of the generosity and
adventurousness to which we are called.
November 9th 2008
Psalm 42.1-8, Ephesians
Remembrance Sunday – a day, as its title says, for remembering. But I
wonder what it is we are remembering today? Perhaps that sounds like a
strange question, but it seems to me that there are many different
types of remembrance happening on a day like today. I’d like to touch
on three of them this morning and I think each has its place as we
reflect on war and try to find a path to peace.
The first sort of remembering I want to talk about might be called
historical remembering. If you look at the television schedules or the
newspapers around this time you’ll find they are filled with
documentaries and articles about the wars that have been turning points
in our history. We hear the stories of great leaders – good and bad –
both the Churchills and the Hitlers of our world. Historians talk about
military strategies and the politics of war. That is historical
remembering and it can be fascinating stuff, though perhaps it’s not
everyone’s cup of tea. But even if you’re not a history buff, this
historical remembering matters. There’s an old saying that goes along
the lines of “History repeats itself. It has to. No one listens.”
If we don’t pay attention to the lessons of past conflicts we may have
to learn those lessons all over again, the hard way. That’s historical
My next sort of remembering is at the other extreme from that, and we
could call it personal remembering, recalling not the grand
stories and the politics but the memories that are unique to each one
of us. I’m sure there are a lot of those sort of memories around.
There are many here who have had direct experience of conflict. Some of
you have served in the armed forces, some may be serving
currently. You will have memories of the people you’ve served
with, the places you’ve been, the things that have happened to you and
that you have done. Some of those memories may be painful, of things
you’d rather forget, but you might also be remembering times of great
camaraderie and sense of purpose. Whether they are good or bad memories
they are your memories, your stories to tell of how things were for you
– no one else’s will be quite the same.
Others here I know will be thinking of family members who are in war
zones right now, or have been recently. Others may be recalling a
war-time childhood amidst the bombs and the air raid sirens.
Even those of us who have no direct experience of war will probably
have personal memories of the effects of war on our family lives;
stories of a father or grandfather who was never quite the same when he
came home, of wounds, physical or mental, that never really healed, of
family life blighted by wartime separation or bereavement. War
doesn’t always make people better or braver. It can also leave a
painful legacy which stretches across the generations.
Recalling those personal memories may be difficult, but it is important
that we do so. Remembering can be the first step to healing, and for
those of us who haven’t known war directly it is the personal stories
that make real its cost to us, that underline the importance of the
work of organisations like the British Legion or Combat Stress, who
work with those who bear the scars of war.
So – historical remembering helps us see the big picture; personal
remembering helps us to see the individual story – both are important.
But the third type of remembering I want to think about today is
important too because it helps us to understand not only what happens
in war – politically or personally – but why it happens. For want of a
better term I’m going to call it spiritual remembering. On this day, if
at no other point in the year, we are called to remember our values,
the things that matter to us, that can make us the people we want to be.
Both our Bible readings today were about spiritual remembering in
different ways. The first one, from Psalm 42, is the song of a
person who is in exile, a captive in a foreign land. The plaintive
verses from Psalm 137 which the choir sang to us came from this period
too. They were written at a time when the people of Judah had been
conquered by the Babylonians and taken away across the desert to
Babylon – modern day Baghdad. Jerusalem had been smashed to pieces, the
temple ruined. Everything they had was gone. As they sat in Babylon,
the Bible tells us, they remembered the life they had lost. They
remembered the land they loved, which they thought they would never see
again. They remembered, too, their beginnings in that land – the
ancient story of God setting their ancestors free from another exile in
Egypt. They remembered the tale of him bringing them across the
wilderness to a Promised Land of plenty and they remembered the laws
they had been given by Moses, laws which were meant to form them into a
nation that would be based on justice and respect.
As they sat in Babylon, remembering mournfully what they had once had,
who they had once been, the dreams they had once dreamed, they started
to think about how they had come to abandon that vision and ignore
those laws. The rich had heaped up wealth for themselves; the poor had
been disregarded, trodden down. And they had taken God’s love for
granted, too, assuming that he would make them invincible. They hadn’t
seen their own responsibility for shaping their society. It was only
when they thought they had lost everything, as they sat in that distant
exile, that they began to remember what they were meant to be about. It
was there in Babylon that they started to collect together the stories
of their origins into what we call now call the Old Testament. It’s a
book of spiritual remembrance.
Remembering the things that matter is a theme picked up in a different
way in the New Testament reading. “Put on the whole armour of God” says
St Paul to the church in Ephesus. These early Christians were going
through tough times. Being a Christian was dangerous. Many of them were
imprisoned, tortured, killed by the Romans. How should they act in the
face of this persecution? Paul reminds them that this struggle isn’t
one they can fight with weapons and armour made of metal. What they
really need in these dangerous times is to remember and to hold close
to them the lessons they have been learning as they follow the way of
Paul talks about truth. He talks about righteousness, faith, peace, the
sense of being secure in God’s love – that’s what salvation is about.
He talks about being open to God’s word, the challenging voice that
cuts across our prejudices and assumptions. It’s not meant to be an
exhaustive list and I expect we could come up with other things to add
to it, but the point he is making is that in times of trouble it is
these things, things that are to do with our basic attitudes to life,
which will make the difference. If we forget them we will soon be in
trouble. It is sad but true that wars can bring out the worst in people
as well as the best. There’s never been a war that was without its
atrocities – massacres, rapes, casual cruelty. Those scenes of the
brutal treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison are probably not
that exceptional – it’s just that someone took photos so the whole
world saw them. In times of trouble people who would normally be
law-abiding can find themselves forgetting who they are, forgetting
what they always thought was most precious to them.
I watched a TV programme last week about the last day of the World War
1 – perhaps you saw it too. It told the disturbing story of the
soldiers who fell in the hours before the Armistice came into force at
11 o’clock. Despite the fact that it was widely known that the fighting
would end then, something like 11,000 soldiers were killed on that day,
more than the total killed in the D-Day landings. Some of those deaths
may have been inevitable, even justifiable, but sadly there were cases
where it seems there was no better reason for them than that a
commanding officer wanted to have one last stab at glory, to be able to
say he had won some town or village, which he could have walked into a
few hours later. If ever there was a story that told of the need for
spiritual remembrance – remembering what really matters - it is this
It isn’t only in the heat of battle that these things happen, of
course. When any of us are struggling with some great difficulty at
work or at home, when any of us feel threatened, with our backs to the
wall, we can just as easily find ourselves using weapons that we know
are wrong to win ourselves an advantage – lying to cover up our
failures, cutting others down with a ruthlessness we would usually be
ashamed of. But the victories we win using such weapons usually turn
out to be hollow ones, and the long-term cost can be far greater than
we anticipated. We find, in that Old Testament phrase, that we have
sown the wind, and reaped the whirlwind.
Today then there are many memories, many types of remembering happening
here and all of them matter. It matters that we remember our history so
that we can learn from it. It matters that we remember those personal
stories too. But spiritual remembrance matters as well; remembering who
we are, and who we want to be. It matters not only on the battlefield
but also in the board room, on the shop floor, at home. It matters
because if we forget these vital things we may find that we have fought
the wrong battles with the wrong weapons, and that the world we have
created for ourselves is a place of suspicion, hatred and vengeance
where no one can live well.
2nd Nov 08 All Souls'
Rev 21. 1-6, Romans 8.31-35, 37-39
In the seventeenth century an eminent Quaker wrote a prayer which is
still beloved by many today. His name was William Penn and he was the
founder of what is now the state of Pennsylvania. I am sure you will
have heard it – it’s often read at funerals.
We give them back to you, dear Lord, who gave them to us. Yet you did
not lose them in giving, so we have not lost them by their return. What
you gave you take not away, O Lover of souls; for what is yours is ours
also if we are yours. And life is eternal and love is immortal, and
death is only an horizon, and an horizon is nothing save the limit of
our sight. Lift us up, strong Son of God, that we may see further;
cleanse our eyes that we may see more clearly; and draw us closer to
yourself that we may know ourselves to be nearer to our loved ones who
are with you. And while you prepare a place for us, prepare us also for
that happy place, that where they are and you are, we too may be for
William Penn (1644-1718)
It’s a prayer all about giving, taking, losing and finding again. Penn
knew about loss. Several of his children had died in infancy, as
they so often did in those days, and his first wife died quite
young. He’d had to leave behind his life in England, too, when he
travelled to America to escape the religious turmoil of the times. He’d
lost all that was familiar to him. His prayer comes out of personal
experience – and it is one that clearly still speaks to many today.
I think there are two reasons for that. The first is that we
recognise the sense of separation and absence he talks about. It is a
universal human experience. Especially in the early days of bereavement
these are usually the most powerful and painful feeling we have. It’s
telling that we often say of someone who has died that we have “lost”
them. Suddenly there is a gap in the world where they used to be. There
is an empty chair. There is silence where we are used to hearing a
familiar voice. It can seem quite baffling – absurd even. How can
someone be there one minute and the next be utterly gone from us? It’s
very common, in fact, for us to find this literally unthinkable – our
brains “fill in” the gap. We think we’ve caught a glimpse of the one we
have lost in a crowd, or heard the sound of their key in the door. It’s
a common phenomenon, nothing to do with ghosts or spirits, just that we
tend to see and hear what we expect to see and hear, even if it isn’t
But I think there is a second reason why this prayer is so treasured,
because it doesn’t stop at that feeling of loss. It doesn’t let loss
have the last word. Instead Penn reminds us that there is a sense in
which ultimately we can’t be parted from those we have loved. We are
still bound to one another, says Penn, because God holds us all in one
embrace – living and departed. We are bound together in his love. Penn
said in another place that “Whoever loves beyond the world cannot be
separated by it.” He calls death an horizon - and this is a man who
knew about horizons; he’d sailed over them as he crossed the Atlantic
several times during his life. Horizons look all too real from
the shoreline, like the end of the world, yet when you sail towards one
it vanishes. Just because we can’t see the world that is beyond the
horizon doesn’t mean it isn’t there and just as real as the place where
St Paul said the same thing in a different way in our reading tonight.
“Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus”. He was
speaking to the church in Rome – not some mighty institution meeting in
a grand building but just a small group of Christians gathered
together, often in secret, in the face of persecution. These people had
seen friends and family dragged away, arrested, imprisoned, executed in
the arena for their beliefs; they knew that one day it might be them
who faced this fate. Their whole lives were permeated by loss and the
fear of loss. But Paul, who was eventually executed himself by the
Romans, reassures them. He has discovered – he is convinced – that
whatever their persecutors manage to destroy, they can’t destroy the
love of God, the love which truly bound them together.
It may be tonight that you are in those first raw stages of grief,
aware only of what you have lost. You may feel that this can never
change – and of course there is a sense in which that gap is never
filled, not in the way we would like it to be, this side of death – nor
can bereavement be hurried through or short circuited. It takes as long
as it takes. But as we bring our grief and loss to God, Penn’s
prayer for us, and my prayer for you, is that you will find yourself
held in the embrace of God, an embrace that holds us all, living and
departed, an embrace that reaches across the horizons of our loss.
26th October 2008 Bible Sunday sermon
by Kevin Bright
Col 3.12-17, Luke 17.11-19
Today is designated ‘Bible Sunday’.
Here’s a question for you, have you read your bible every day this
week? Me neither.
Do most of us read words from the bible at least once a week? There’s a
good chance that we do with the lectionary readings on our pew sheets.
It’s worth asking ourselves if there are events that make us read the
bible more often, more urgently or which make us look for help in
understanding it better. Preaching the next day usually works for me!
We’re often urgently grappling with God’s word during our preparation
for confirmation or if we are studying for an authorised ministry.
People who read publicly often like to have some understanding of the
context in which their reading sits or at least run through it to
ensure there are none of those difficult to pronounce words.
Then there’s life’s challenges, times of fear, danger and suffering
which understandably prompt us to seek hope in the words of the bible.
But what about what we might call normal daily life when none of the
above may apply?
According the last UK census in 2001 72% of respondents took the
trouble to state their religion as Christianity, 77% in Sevenoaks
district, and Christians read their bibles don’t they.
Well from those of that 77% that actually attend church the Bible
Reading Fellowship tells us that 16% read the bible on a daily basis.
If you feel a structured approach to daily bible reading would help you
they are offering a two week free trial of their notes and reflections,
which can be downloaded from their website, the two weeks starts today
so you’ll have to online later to get the maximum advantage.
Alternatively, Bobby Rayner is our Bible Reading Fellowship
representative and can tell you more.
We heard the words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel ‘Heaven and earth will
pass away, but my words will not pass away’. The words of Christ, of
God, remain with us for all time and remain eternally significant. Have
these words been left with us in order that successive generations of
Christians can be made to feel guilty about not habitually reading
them? I’m certain that this is not what God had in mind.
My view is that reading the bible, thinking about what it means to us
and acting upon it are an integral part of our relationship with God.
He’s not interested in making us feel bad about how much time we put in
but as our Christianity matures we are likely to feel that the bible
will help us go deeper with God and it will therefore grow in
importance to us.
We need to be honest with God and ourselves and lay open the reasons we
find bible study difficult sometimes. There’s no shame in saying it and
it’s a ridiculous pretence among people who are in a community of
mutual support to assume everyone else has their head in the bible for
hours every day.
The bible is a fantastic collection of books. 39 in the Old Testament
and 27 in the new, easy to remember as 3x9=27. These books really are
worth reading. There’s poetry, songs, wisdom, law, violence, kindness,
protest, complaint, letters, prophesying, great surprises, joy and
much, much more. The bible is a collection of 40+ authors
covering around 1600 years.
We don’t need to fear the books of the bible too much as we are
probably more familiar with much of it than we realise.
We know many great characters from the bible, Adam and eve, Noah (and
his Ark), Joseph (and his amazing Technicolor dream coat), Moses (and
his parting of the sea), Samson (the strong man), David and Goliath. We
can probably recall the accounts surrounding Jesus birth with Inns and
wise men, we know John the Baptist, that 5000 were fed, the Good
Samaritan and the prodigal son. We smile at the little tax collector
Zacheus who had to climb a sycamore tree to see Jesus. Palm Sunday with
the donkey, the last supper, Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection,
Pentecost and all those letters to the early church at least ‘ring some
bells’ among us.
We all know at least parts of this and don’t need to fear picking up
our bibles it’s just that it can offer so much more when we understand
the people, their customs, and the events of the times. When we start
to imagine ourselves in their shoes the bible can come alive as the
penny drops and we see they were often going through similar stresses,
strains, sadness and joys that we are today.
Don’t have time, don’t understand it, get bored reading it, fall asleep
when reading, find it hard work, don’t have the self discipline are all
common and natural excuses for letting our good intentions come to
We can all spare a few minutes each day and there will be others here
who would love someone to discuss the bible with. There’s an enormous
amount of help available in books and online. Even if you don’t have a
bible with you it can be read in over 100 versions on bible gateway
.com so we can read it in before or after we start our busy day or in
our lunch break, technologically savvy people can even read it on their
PDA as they sit on the bus or train or wait between meetings or
The early Christian church, such as that in Colosse which Paul’s letter
was addressed to, didn’t have all the formality that we have in our
patterns of worship. Their church would most likely have been small
groups of people meeting wherever they could to worship pray and study
the bible. Much of the time they would be debating and getting to grips
with the events they read about without any expert help, discovering
and learning for themselves.
As a lay person I’m with you on this. I need to learn more, dig into
the bible more regularly and be open to being challenged and changed as
My experience to date has been that time spent with the bible can offer
consolation, comfort, deepened spirituality, hope, courage and more.
There is so much potential that we as a church community can release
for the power of good if we get reading and sharing the bible together.
If we’re honest it’s easier to get motivated when we do things with
others. Anne is proposing to publish study notes on a monthly basis
relevant to our reading in church. Its then up to us to decide what we
do with these. My suggestion is that we each look for opportunities to
sit with a few others for an hour or so once a month. I’m happy to make
my house available but equally happy to meet at others where mobility
and child care make it difficult to get out.
Whether alone or with others let’s start reading the bible more from
There’s a new opportunity here to increase what we can take from the
bible so let’s respond as people sharing a common journey and not let
our good intentions pass us by.
October 19 2008
Trinity 22 Breathing Space Holy Communion
1 Thess 1.1-10, Mt 22.15-22
Jesus is in a tight spot, as he so often is in the Gospels. You could
say he has put himself there. He has been telling parables, parables
that are none too subtle in their message. We’ve heard a series of them
over the past few weeks. Stories of wedding banquets where the wedding
guests refuse the invitation, where sons who ought to help don’t. The
Chief priests and Pharisees aren’t stupid. They can see who the target
of these stories is – them. And they don’t like it. So they plan their
They send some of their stooges along to Jesus with an apparently
serious question. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere…(a bit of
flannel follows to soften Jesus up)…Tell us what you think. Is it
lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
The problem they are tapping into here was not only that the taxes were
being paid to the Romans, the hated occupying forces, but that the
coins with which they had to be paid bore an image of the head of the
emperor, the emperor who was regarded as divine. This broke the
commandment not to make graven images. It was absolutely fundamental to
Jewish law. Good Jews were left in a huge dilemma. Break the Jewish law
and keep the Romans on your side, or break the Roman law, but keep in
the good books of your Jewish friends (and, they thought, of God too.)
It’s a dilemma to which there was no easy answer, So they know when
they ask Jesus this question that there is no reply he can give which
will keep everyone happy – that’s why they ask it. Whatever he says
they will have grounds to accuse him to someone – either to the Jewish
leaders as a collaborator, or to the Romans as a revolutionary.
But unfortunately they aren’t as clever as they think. When Jesus
asks them to show him a coin, they are caught off guard and instantly
reach into their pockets for one, and they are hoist on their own
petard. They might disapprove of these coins, but at least one of them
has one on him, and what is more, when we look at this passage in its
context we discover that they are standing in the Temple at the time.
They have brought a graven image of the Roman emperor into the most
sacred place in the Jewish world. Jesus could have just shrugged and
walked away. He has punctured their self-righteousness – they are no
better than anyone else, caught up in the inevitable contradictions and
complexities of human life. If we think we are going to be able to get
through life floating in a bubble above the mess of the world we can
think again. But that is not the end of the story. There is something
else they need to learn, something which, had they known it might have
prevented them trying to play a trick like this in the first place.
“Give to Caesar what belongs to him” says Jesus. But then he goes on
“and give to God the things that are God’s”. And that is the sting in
the tail. The coin is the emperor’s – it bears his image to make that
point. But it is not just the emperor’s image Jesus sees before him as
he stands there on that day. He also sees something that bears the
image of God – not a coin but people, the people who are asking the
question, the other people there who are perhaps more genuinely
struggling towards the truth. The Bible teaches, right from the
beginning that each of us is made in the image of God. It’s there in
the Book of Genesis – “God created humankind in his image, in the image
of God he created them. Male and female he created them.” Whoever we
are, whatever we have done, we reflect God in some way. We bear his
image, just as much as the coin bore the image of Caesar. Give to the
emperor what bears his image, says Jesus, but give to God what is his,
which is nothing less than the whole of ourselves.
Jesus doesn’t just tell us to do this thing or that thing. He calls us
to look at our basic orientation towards God and one another. He calls
us to know that we are God’s children, with all the joy and demand that
involves, and that those around us are God’s children also.
In the silence tonight let’s reflect on what it might mean for our
lives if we took that call seriously – giving to God what is God’s,
nothing less than our whole selves, and seeing what is God’s in others
12th Oct 08
Isaiah 25.1-9, Ps 23, Phil 4.1-9, Mt 22.1-14
We’re in the middle of a crisis – you don’t need me to tell you that.
It’s all over the news, banks collapsing, financial systems grinding to
a halt. People are worried about the security of their jobs, savings
and pensions. Individuals, local councils, charities, even the police
force are worried that they will lose money, vital money that funds
vital work. I don’t pretend to understand all the ins and outs of what
has caused this crisis, but it’s clear that we are facing major changes
and challenges. I don’t know about you, but I find a lot of what I hear
unsettling, frightening even. For those of us in the prosperous West,
who have been winners in the global lottery in recent generations of
growth and prosperity, all this is coming as a nasty shock. That’s why
I’ve put together some
which you may have noticed in the porch on the way in – prayers for the
financial situation and leaflets which might help if you or someone you
know is worried. They are on the church website too.
It may not be obvious but the readings we heard today are very relevant
to this time of crisis – this turning point that we have reached.
The first reading comes from the book of the prophet Isaiah. These
words were written in the eighth Century BC at a time when Isaiah’s
society, the little nation of Judah, was also going through a crisis.
The Assyrians were advancing on them, conquering the nations round
about, and soon they knew the axe would fall on them. It hadn’t
happened yet, but it would, and there seemed to be nothing they could
do but watch, just as perhaps we have watched what is happening in our
day, transfixed with a sort of horrified fascination.
Isaiah, though, calls his people to look beyond the terrifying vision
they are facing, and to consider what will come next. There is an old
myth that the Chinese character for crisis is made up of two others,
one which represents danger and the other opportunity. I’m afraid it
isn’t true, but I can see why we would want it to be, because there is
a sense that every disaster, however ghastly it is, also opens up new
possibilities. When something is swept away, eventually something else
will come along to fill the gap, and however small and insignificant we
might feel we can all affect what that new world looks like. Change
brings with it choices that must be made, choices which will shape the
God’s desire, says the prophet, is that that new world will be one that
is very different from the one these people know now. Instead of
corruption and injustice – the city that is destined to become a ruin -
he longs for a world where everyone can share in the feast of creation,
where everyone has enough and “the song of the ruthless is stilled.”
How does that sound to you? Pie in the sky? Unrealistic? Dangerously
subversive? Too good to be true? Possibly all of those things, but it
is what the Bible says, again and again, that God wants – there is
nothing really new in this vision. It is the same vision God gave to
Moses as he led the people towards a land “flowing with milk and
honey”. Jesus preaches of a world in which there is justice and love
too and when we pray that Biblical prayer “thy kingdom come”, this is
what we are praying for as well.
But however much we say we want a world like this, bringing it about
always seems to elude us. The problem is that it takes more than a
vague longing to build this sort of world. It takes real change in the
way we live, the way we relate to one another, our priorities.
Especially for those of us living in relative comfort and prosperity a
fairer world is likely to mean we have less rather than more, where we
have to give up some of the advantages we have enjoyed for so long, and
that’s not an easy thing to do. If it was we would have done it long
ago. Being content with less means confronting whatever it is that
drives our need to grab and to grasp; the fear of losing face, the fear
of being vulnerable perhaps. Like most people throughout human history,
we’d like everything to be different, but we don’t really want anything
The Gospel reading is about change, and our resistance to it, as well.
A king holds a banquet to celebrate the marriage of his son. We’re used
to thinking of weddings as being about love - about two people wanting
to be together – but for most of human history that wasn’t the case at
all. Marriage was about the future – inheritance, property, the forging
of alliances. And that was especially true of royal marriages like this
one. A royal marriage is about the future of a whole kingdom, the first
step towards birth of an heir, another generation of kings.
So, the king in this story isn’t just having a party. He is celebrating
a new stage in his kingdom’s life. The ways the various characters in
the story respond to his invitation tell us how they feel about being
part of his plans.
They fall into three groups, three different responses. Some people
won’t come to the banquet at all, even though they’ve been specifically
invited. Some respond with enthusiasm – the crowds in the streets –
both good and bad – who never imagined they could be guests at such a
feast. And then there is that poor chap at the end who is thrown out
because he isn’t dressed properly – I’ll come back to him in a minute.
Those who first heard this story would have had no trouble identifying
who the first group represented – those invited guests who won’t come.
Ah, they’d have said, these are the Jewish leaders, religious and
secular, who didn’t recognise Jesus as the Messiah. They couldn’t
believe that God really wanted the kind of future he talked about – his
version of the kingdom of God – so they first ignored him and then had
him killed. There would have been no mystery there for them at
all. This was a group that it was easy to point the finger at and to
disapprove of from their perspective.
The second group – the great crowd of ordinary people who find
themselves unexpectedly welcomed to the banquet – would have been
pretty obvious too. Jesus’ message was that everyone – good and bad,
rich and poor, whatever their life story – was welcomed by God.
But the really puzzling figure is the man at the end, the one who is
thrown out for not having the right clothing. What’s all that about, we
wonder? What’s he done wrong? Surely it doesn’t matter to God what we
wear? And we’d be right to think that - it doesn’t matter. God loves us
whatever we look like, whether we are in jeans or an Armani suit. To
understand this bit of the story we need to know a bit about its
cultural background. In the Middle East it was common practice for the
host at a wedding to provide clothes for his guests, just as people
sometimes give out wedding favours to guests today. This man isn’t too
poor to afford a wedding garment. He has been given the clothes he
needs already; he just can’t be bothered to change into them, or
doesn’t want to for some reason. He’s turned up to the feast – who
wouldn’t with free food and drink on offer? But he doesn’t really want
to get involved in this king’s plans for the future.
It is easy, as I said, to tell the goodies from the baddies in the
first part of the story, easy to see who they represent, but this man
is perhaps more difficult and more uncomfortable for us to identify,
because there’s probably a bit of him in all of us. He’s the bit of us
that stands on the sidelines, comes along to church, voices concern for
the poor, means well, but hopes that everything will basically stay the
same in his life. The man in the story literally doesn’t want to get
changed, and he stands for that part of us that doesn’t want to get
changed either, to have God transform us, pull us apart and put us
together differently. But just like him, if we won’t get changed then
our involvement in building the kingdom is never going to come to much.
“Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just,
whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable…think
about these things…and the God of peace will be with you” says St Paul
to the Philippians. The kind of transformation we should aim for is
clear, but how do we get changed? What can we do about it?
Sometimes the change we need might come through spending regular time
in prayer and reflection, reading the Bible – letting ourselves hear
what God is saying to us. I’m planning from next month to produce a
monthly Bible study outline, something you can use on your own, or get
together with a couple of friends to talk through. I hope that might
help us hear God’s voice and respond to it.
Sometimes we may need to seek out some help to change, talking through
a problem with someone else – I’m always happy to listen.
Sometimes change comes as we get involved in serving others. We meet
Christ in them, and discover parts of ourselves, good and bad, that we
were unaware of.
It doesn’t matter how we get changed, so long as we do, committing
ourselves by that change to being part of the kingdom God is building
in our age.
Somewhere in all of the mess of this moment, in the crises that are
besetting the world, God is at work. He is always at work if we have
eyes to see him. As Psalm 23 put it, he is setting a table in the face
of all that troubles us, a table at which the poor are just as welcome
as the rich, the bad as welcome as the good. We’re invited to share in
that feast, to get changed ourselves so that we can be part of the
transformation he wants for all. That is the challenge we face, a
challenge to which each one of us has to make our own response.
5th Oct 08 Harvest Evensong
38.1-18, Romans 8.18-25
We’re living in difficult times. The financial crisis that’s filling
the news at the moment is one which will have directly touched many in
our own community who work in the City. It’s not just affecting them,
of course– less money around means fewer goods being manufactured and
sold, not just here but around the world, which means fewer jobs for
those who work to produce and sell them. People unable to get mortgages
means less money for house buying, house-building and all the allied
trades that go with that. In the end everyone suffers, not just in this
country but around the world, and as ever it is likely to be the
poorest that suffers most. We’re all in these difficult times together.
And it’s not just the economy that might make us fear for the future.
There’s the threat of terrorism, and the continuing struggle in
Afghanistan and Iraq, and tension growing with other countries like
Iran as well. And there’s climate change, which will exacerbate any
other problems, potentially causing massive ecological disruption,
pain, poverty and conflict.
We’re living in difficult times – our celebration of the harvest is
inevitably tinged with that knowledge. But we are not the first to live
through times like these. Communities, nations and individuals have
struggled with disasters of one sort or another for the whole of human
history. Indeed we could say we’ve been lucky to live when and where we
have. Most of us have enjoyed a long period of relative prosperity,
comfort and safety. For many around the world now, and many in this
country in the not too distant past it would have seemed a complete
pipe dream to have, for example, health care free at the point of need,
universal education, a welfare safety net. We may grumble about the
inadequacies of the systems we’ve got, but at least we have them to
So difficult times are nothing new, and both our readings tonight are
about people who are living in such times.
The first reading was from the book of Job, a story which leads us on
an extended journey through one man’s misery. It’s not meant to
be a historical account of a real person – it may well be based on a
folk-tale that would have been familiar to its hearers already. But it
takes that story and expands it to form a meditation on the problem of
suffering – what causes it, whose fault it is, and how we can respond
Paul’s letter to the Romans is written to a community living through
persecution, by a man who endured repeated threats to his life, arrest
and in the end almost certainly was martyred. So these ancient writings
should have something relevant for our times too.
Job was a prosperous man at the start of his story. In fact he was
ridiculously prosperous. As well as his ten children, he had, says the
Bible, seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke
of oxen, five hundred donkeys and very many servants. He was the Warren
Buffett or the Bill Gates of his day; “the greatest of all the people
of the east” it says. And to add to all that he was a good man, upright
and blameless. This is not a story of a fat cat reaping the just reward
But all this is taken from him, supposedly at the behest of Satan who
wants to prove that people only serve God because of what he gives
them. We need to be careful not to place too much emphasis on the
figure of Satan in this story – it is a story not a work of academic
theology. The word “Satan” literally means “the accuser” – the one who
tests people – rather than the horned devil of later mythology. In this
folk-tale picture of the courts of heaven he is just the antagonist
that gets the story going, but he’s not a central player. He doesn’t
appear after this point at all.
Anyway – Satan gets his way and disaster after disaster falls on Job.
Enemy tribes and natural disasters deprive him of his livestock. His
children are killed when a strong wind from the desert destroys their
house. Job himself is afflicted with a terrible disease – some dreadful
skin condition that leaves him sitting in the ashes scraping at his
sores with a potsherd. Job refuses to turn away from God though. “Shall
we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?“ he
asks his wife.
Frankly he seems a bit too good to be true at this point, but as the
writer develops his story we begin to seem more clearly Job’s struggle
to hold onto his faith. We are introduced to a group of Job’s friends –
Job’s comforters - who turn out not to be a lot of comfort at all, and
it is in conversation with them that we start to see into Job’s mind,
and into theirs too. They fall into the classic mistake of trying
to “fix it” for Job, or at least find him a neat explanation for his
suffering. The trouble is that their tidy solution actually ends up
making him feel worse.
For Job’s friends it all seems clear. In their spiritual economy, you
get what you deserve. If Job suffers, it must be because he has done
something wrong. Despite his denials, denials which fit in with what
God has said about him, that he really is blameless, they go on at him
about justice and repentance, urging him to turn to God, although in
fact he has never turned away from him.
Job rejects their neat but wrong solution. But that doesn’t mean he
lets God off the hook. If you’ve ever held yourself back from being
angry with God, thinking perhaps that it isn’t really allowed, the book
of Job should give you all the permission you need. Job tells it like
it is. He is bitter, desperate, furious and he’s not going to hide any
of that from God. And it’s clear that that is fine with God. He can
cope with our anger – it is when we refuse to speak to him at all that
he can do nothing for us. Job demands that God gives an account
of himself. If the trite answers of his friends are wrong, if he really
is innocent, why is this happening? I guess it is a question many of us
have asked at some time.
And God eventually does respond - but not in the way Job expects, with
a reasoned account of what has been happening. He responds with the
words we have heard tonight. From the depths of a great whirlwind his
voice thunders out. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the
earth? Who shut in the sea with doors? Have you commanded the morning?”
Job wants an explanation he can understand, but God tells him that
he’ll never find one. Our horizons are limited – all we can really see
is our own narrow viewpoint. That’s part of being human. Any
explanation we can get our heads around is always going to be
inadequate. Job’s friends think they understand how the world works –
suffering is a punishment for sin – but in their desire to find a neat
answer they increase Job’s suffering rather than decreasing it. The
truth, as God says to Job, is that the universe is bigger than us,
bigger than we can ever comprehend, and it always will be. God himself
is bigger than us and bigger than we can ever comprehend too. In fact,
if God isn’t bigger than we can comprehend, then he isn’t God at all,
no more than an idol, the work of our own imagination. It may not
strike you as much of an answer, but it is the only answer you’ll get
from this particular book of the Bible. But for Job it was enough, and
for what it’s worth, I think it is one of the most valuable insights we
can have as we try to deal with the reality of life with all its
sufferings. Job reminds us that we need to learn to see our
limitations, to be aware that what we know isn’t all there is to know,
because then, paradoxically we may find that we can open our minds and
hearts to all sorts of new possibilities.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is also written, as I’ve said, in a time of
trouble. Many of those who heard it knew people who had already died
for their faith, and many of them would die for it too. It hardly looks
like triumph. But then, neither did the death of Christ, yet out of
that death came resurrection. Again we hear that things are not always
what they seem. Death is not the end; failure is not the last word;
when things are against us it doesn’t mean that God has stopped loving
us. Paul calls his hearers to look at the world with new eyes,
eyes which are ready to recognise the dawn of a new day not just focus
on the darkening of the old one. He calls them to hear the groaning of
the world as labour pains rather than death throes. God’s at work in
you, says Paul to these troubled Roman Christians. There’s a new
harvest growing. Look at yourselves and see the changes he has wrought
So, tonight as we think of the current crises the world faces, we hear
of two sets of people living in difficult times of their own, trying to
respond to them with hope not despair, with faith not trust. There are
no magic answers. I don’t know what the future holds for us, or how
much difficulty there will be yet to come. But God promises that he
won’t forsake us. If we live with integrity and love, if we hold onto
the values and the principles that lead to life rather than retreating
into a self-protective huddle, then the God who is unimaginably greater
than we can imagine can still bring forth a new harvest of
righteousness in our lives that we can share with a world that
desperately needs it.
5th Oct 08 Harvest - The Pumpkin Competition
There was once a village where lots of people liked growing things. In
the centre of the village were some fine allotments on a sunny slope.
At the top of the allotments were three plots next to each other owned
by three sisters. Now I’d like to tell you that they all got along
well, and most of the time they did, except when it came to growing
pumpkins. Beans and potatoes and cabbages and lettuces and
asparagus – they could grow these and share them without any argument
at all, helping each other out, but when it came to growing pumpkins
that was another matter.
Pumpkins just seemed to bring out their competitive streak. Every year
there would be arguments about whose was the biggest and best pumpkin.
Sometimes it got quite nasty and they didn’t talk to one another for
Eventually the head of the allotment society – a wise man - decided
that this wouldn’t do at all. “I’ve decided,” he said to the three
sisters, “that this year we will have a pumpkin growing competition. We
will see who is best at growing pumpkins. I will be the judge, and I
will give the prizes when I have decided who the best pumpkin grower is.
The three sisters got to work. They sowed the seeds. The pumpkin plants
started to grow. They watered them. They fed them. The plants put out
leaves and flowers. The tiny pumpkins started to form. They watered and
fed some more. They watched anxiously as their pumpkins started to
swell. As the summer wore on the competition hotted up. Which one would
win the competition?
Harvest time came. The pumpkins were ripe. And it was clear to the
sisters which one of them would win. The first sister’s pumpkin was
huge – far bigger than the other two. The middle sister had grown a big
pumpkin, a fine pumpkin, but it was nothing like as big. And the third
sister's pumpkin, though still very impressive, was quite a bit
smaller. The three sisters harvested their pumpkins and brought them to
the head of the allotment society. “Here we are” they said. Ready for
you to judge who has won. “Well” he said,” they are very fine
pumpkins.” He measured them and weighed them and took some photographs.
“Very fine pumpkins indeed, but actually I’m not quite ready to decide
which of you is the best pumpkin grower yet. Take them away and do what
you want with them – I have all the measurements, I’ve taken some
photographs - , and I will think about it and let you know.” The three
sisters were very puzzled. It was obvious to them who had one. But they
took the pumpkins away and waited. But what were they going to do with
the pumpkins now, while they waited for the official announcement?
The first sister took her huge pumpkin home in her wheelbarrow. She
could hardly carry it. She knew she was going to win. It was obvious.
She started to dream about what it would be like when she won. Everyone
in the village would want to come and see her prize-winning pumpkin.
She imagined himself showing it to them. But where would she put it?
How would she display it? Surely such a marvellous pumpkin deserved a
really special showcase. So she built a fine wooden case, and made a
wonderful velvet pillow for the pumpkin to sit on and everyday she
polished the pumpkin so that when the day came she would be ready to
show it off. What she didn’t know – and you may not either – is
that sometimes although a pumpkin can look fine on the outside, in the
middle it can be rotting away, fermenting and producing gas, just like
a fizzy drink… Inside the pumpkin the pressure had been building up for
weeks. One morning she reached out to polish the pumpkin and as soon as
she touched it – boom – the whole thing exploded. Slimy rotten pumpkin
The second sister, when she heard this had happened, felt a bit smug
I’m afraid. What a waste of a pumpkin, she thought. It serves her
right. Pumpkins aren’t for exhibiting, they are for eating, so that’s
what I’m going to do. I love pumpkin, and now I’ve got this huge one,
all for me! So that evening, she cut a big slice of pumpkin and roasted
it in chunks, with her dinner. Delicious. But it was a big pumpkin –
there was an awful lot left. What was she going to do? She could share
it – but why should she – it was her pumpkin; if other people wanted a
pumpkin they could grow their own. No, she would eat it all herself.
She had baked pumpkin, boiled pumpkin, fried pumpkin, pumpkin pie,
pumpkin cake, curried pumpkin, stewed pumpkin, pumpkin fricassee,
pumpkin pizza, pumpkin on toast, pumpkin for breakfast, for lunch, for
tea. She ate pumpkin in every way you could think of, and perhaps some
you’d rather not. She ate it faster and faster, ever more desperately.
She didn’t want her pumpkin going rotten before she’d finished it. But
let’s face it, there’s only so much pumpkin one person can eat. Soon,
although she hated to admit it, she was absolutely fed up with pumpkin.
She was seeing pumpkins in her dreams, chasing her along the road…
Finally there came the day when she took one look at the pumpkin flakes
she was eating for breakfast – that’s like cornflakes only made out of
pumpkin - and her stomach just turned over at the thought. I won’t tell
you what happened next, but suffice it to say that she was very, very
Meanwhile the third sister had taken her pumpkin home with her, just
like the other two, and just like them, she wondered what to do with
it. She knew it wasn’t the biggest, but it was still a fine pumpkin, a
tasty looking pumpkin. It was far too big for her. She thought and she
thought, and then she came up with an idea. The next morning the
village woke up to find posters all over the place. Come to my pumpkin
party! Today! All Welcome! No one was quite sure what a pumpkin party
was, but it sounded interesting. So at the appointed time, they all
turned up. “What’s a pumpkin party?” They all asked. “This is!” said
the third sister,” and she showed them into the dining room – “help
yourself!” and there was the table groaning under the weight of a big
pot of pumpkin soup and a splendid pumpkin pie. “There’s plenty for
everyone, “she said – you can take some home to share if you can’t eat
it all. And that’s how it was. Everyone ate and drank and laughed and
strangers who’d never spoken a word to one another became the best of
And just at that moment the head of the allotment society came around.
“Now I’m ready to give my prize “, he said, “for the very best pumpkin
And who do you think won it?
It’s a daft story- of course it is. But it’s not so daft that we can’t
see ourselves in it. Often we use our possessions as ways of impressing
others, like the first sister, or we hoard them all for ourselves, like
the second. In the end, the Bible says, neither is the way to real
happiness. The good things God has given us are ours to share – that
way they aren’t just possessions – gadgets, houses, toys, pumpkins –
but ways of creating love, bringing us together.
Perhaps this year, as we contemplate this fine big pumpkin at the
front, which Patrick and Hilary Coffey grew for us on our very own
allotments here at Seal – where I’m sure they have no arguments at all
- we might like to think about what the pumpkins in our lives are. What
are the things we have which we could share, but sometimes find it hard
to? The things we use to impress others, the things we hoard for
ourselves because we feel we are entitled to them. Patrick said to me
yesterday, (and he didn’t know what this story was going to be about,)
that this pumpkin, though huge, is perfectly edible. “If someone
brought a big breadknife, people could take a slice home….” He said. So
that’s what we’ll do after the service – slice it up so we can have our
very own pumpkin party.
21st Sept 2008 St
Matthew Breathing Space Communion
“Go and learn what this means,” says Jesus, “’I desire mercy, not
sacrifice’”. The people he was talking to would have been very familiar
with those words. They are from the book of the prophet Hosea, and they
are echoed in other places in the Scriptures too. In the book of the
prophet Isaiah God tells his people “I have had enough of burnt
offerings …. Cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice rescue
the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
The Pharisees would have known the words. There was nothing new here at
all. But Jesus isn’t telling them to learn the words; he’s telling them
to learn what the words mean, and that is a very different thing.
Jesus’ words are his response to the Pharisees reaction when he calls
Matthew to be his follower. Matthew is a tax-collector, a collaborator
with the Romans, forcing the Jewish people to pay taxes which mostly
went to fund the Roman army. In other words he was part of the
machinery which made an oppressed people pay their oppressors for
oppressing them. And, since tax-collecting was essentially a franchised
industry, tax-collectors like Matthew would have made money from it by
adding on a top-up fee for themselves. It’s a way of life that was
probably very difficult to escape from once you were in it. You’d have
to convince those around you that you really had changed, your whole
social network would change too. Many people would think “once a
traitor, always a traitor. Once a cheat, always a cheat.”
That certainly seems to be how the Pharisees felt about it, but I
wouldn’t be surprised if some of the disciples were just as shocked.
What was Jesus thinking of? To be sure they were nothing special
themselves – just ordinary fishermen – but at least they were loyal
fishermen. Matthew was just the kind of person who would call this new
movement into disrepute.
I desire mercy, not sacrifice, says God. When Jesus quotes those words
here he is reminding his hearers of our human tendency to want to look
down on others, to turn them into the sacrifices that bear the badness
of the world for us. Even in prison there are hierarchies of
wickedness, it seems. Heaven help you if it becomes known that you are
in for harming a child in some way – the punishment meted out by fellow
prisoners is, I’m told, far worse than that handed down by the courts.
You become the sacrifice – everyone else feels better because they can
project onto you all the monstrous things in the world. We
scapegoat and sacrifice other groups in this way too – illegal
immigrants, those struggling with mental illness or addiction, those
who can’t look after their families in the ways we think they ought to
– fat cat business people have come in for a lot of criticism this
week, as if the global economic crisis were solely down to them. It’s
easier to blame them than to look at the whole financial system and our
part in it too. We turn them into sacrifices to bear the guilt we all
have a part in.
But Jesus calls us to mercy, not sacrifice. That doesn’t mean
pretending that sin isn’t sin or that there aren’t things that need
healing in our world, but it does mean recognising that those around us
are human, as we all are, that they can fail, but that they can also
change – as Matthew does. It means giving them the freedom to make that
change rather than weighing them down with our negative opinions of
them so that they are sunk before they start. And the only way to
develop that sense of mercy – to learn what the words mean – is to
start with ourselves, to see the way we too need to change and heal.
In the silence today let’s think of those who are sacrificed by our
society, those who bear the burden of disapproval, those who struggle
to find a better way to live. Let’s ask God to help us learn what it
means to be merciful, to ourselves and to one another.
14 Sept 2008 Holy
Most people like a good story, one that has a beginning, a middle and
an end, with all three bits joined up logically. We like to hear
stories, and we like to tell them as well. They help us to make some
sort of pattern out of the things that happen to us. Counsellors help
us to tell the story of our lives; news reporters try to make the
things they report into a story so we can get our heads round them more
easily. Spinning a yarn, telling a story is a fundamental part of human
Today is Holy Cross Day, and it’s a day around which many stories have
been spun. It’s a feast that goes back to the fourth Century when St
Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, allegedly “discovered”
the True Cross, buried near the supposed site of Jesus’ tomb. Of course
there’s no proof that either the cross or the tomb site were genuine,
but people were quite content to believe in them at the time. Soon
little splinters of the wood she’d found were dispersed all over the
Christian world to be venerated as relics, enshrined in golden cases,
and, inevitably, people began to create stories around them – because
that’s what human beings like to do.
So, I’m going to tell you one of those stories. It was written down by
Jacobus de Voragine in the 13th Century, and I’m pretty sure there’s
not a shred of fact in it, but I’m going to tell it anyway, because,
like all good tales, a story can be true even if it isn’t real. It can
tell us important things, even if it didn’t happen like this at
This is a story that starts where every story should; at the beginning
– in this case at the very beginning, in the Garden of Eden. In this
garden were a man and a woman, and a tree that they were forbidden to
eat from, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We all know what
happened next. They couldn’t resist the temptation and they ate, and as
a result they were driven out of that paradise into a world where they
had to labour and struggle.
That much is in the Bible, of course, but at this point, like all good
storytellers, our medieval forebears began to improvise.
Adam, they said, eventually grew old and as he lay dying, he thought
with longing of that garden he had been exiled from. So he sent
his son Seth back to the gates to beg the Archangel Michael for a
little bit of Eden –something to remember it by. But all Michael would
give him was one seed from that tree that he’d had eaten from -
probably the only thing in the garden Adam didn’t want to remember.
Seth brought the seed back, and, as Adam sank into death he put the
seed into his mouth. Adam died and was buried, but the seed germinated
and began to grow strong and tall.
Many centuries passed as the tree grew and no one remembered any more
where it had come from. Eventually the great king Solomon came to the
throne. He decided to build a magnificent Temple in Jerusalem. He
needed timber and his eye fell on the tree, which was just right for
the purpose. So he had it felled and cut up and built a bridge with it
that led into the Temple.
One day who should come to the bridge, but the Queen of Sheba, come to
marvel at Solomon’s wealth and wisdom? But as she went to cross the
bridge she had an awful premonition. She went straight to Solomon and
told him that this timber would one day lead to the destruction of his
Temple, and to something new that would stand in its place.
Solomon was horrified by this, the story says – he’d only just finished
the Temple. It was his pride and joy, his monument - so he ordered that
the timber be torn out and the wood buried. The timber was put deep in
the ground and once again it was completely forgotten.
Time passed and it happened that people dug a pool for watering their
animals just where the buried timber lay. Soon they discovered that the
water in the pool had strange healing properties. The sick would crowd
around the pool, waiting for their chance to get into it and be cured.
For many years it was a place of healing until the day when Jesus of
Nazareth came to it, and finding a man there who had no one to help him
get into the water, he healed him anyway. That story’s in the Gospel
but the legend adds that as soon as he had done this, the wood buried
at the bottom rose to the surface – if Jesus could heal people what
need was there for this pool anymore?
The wood was fished out and left to dry. And that’s how it came to be
conveniently lying around when a local carpenter, who’d been ordered to
make crosses for the Romans, found himself looking for a strong piece
of timber for an upright. They were crucifying this Jesus of Nazareth,
a troublemaker who’d claimed to be king of the Jews, or Son of God, or
some such – the carpenter didn’t know what it was all about, and he
didn’t care either. He was just doing his job, and this timber would do
just fine. So the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree that
had borne the fruit that began all the trouble, in the end bore Christ,
the fruit of God’s love, the fruit which healed the world.
Of course all that is complete invention – absolute taradiddle. But
it’s taradiddle with a profound and important point to make. As I said
at the beginning, just because a story isn’t real doesn’t mean it isn’t
true, that it can’t tell us things we need to know.
What this story reminds us is that, in Christ, God comes to us in the
very place where we need him most, the place where it has all gone
wrong in our lives and in our world, in order to set us right. He
doesn’t sit high up in his heaven looking disapprovingly on us from a
distance, exhorting us to try harder, to struggle to make our own way
out of the mess we’ve made. As St Paul says in our second reading, “he
humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death
on a cross…” He comes to us at the point of our need.
That’s why those medieval storytellers wanted to link the tree of Eden
and the tree of Calvary – to sort out the mess you have to go to the
place where it all began, to its very heart.
It’s on the cross that Jesus shows the transforming power of God’s
love, because it is only here that he can face the destructive force of
evil, the evil of an oppressive Roman state, the evil which treats
people as rubbish, outcasts. And he shows that no amount of evil can
destroy the love of God as he comes through into the new life of the
resurrection. Out of the mess comes the salvation. Out of the disease
comes the remedy. It is only by dying, only on the cross, that we can
In our Gospel reading, John uses the same sort of parallelism. He
recalls the story of the people of Israel in the wilderness that we
heard in our first reading today. They had been bitten by poisonous
snakes, and Moses was told that the only way to cure them was to make
an image of a snake and put it on a pole – those who looked at the
snake, the source of the trouble, would be healed. As we look at the
cross, and Jesus lifted up on it, we see both the problem of evil – the
horror of what human beings are capable of doing to one another -
and its remedy too - the love which faces that evil for the sake of
But what’s all that got to do with us? What difference does it make to
the way we live our lives? One of the things I have learned in my
ministry is that human life is full of mess. Not all the time; there’s
plenty that’s good too. But whether we look outside at our society, or
inside at ourselves we find that there are many dark corners, places
where we’d rather not go, painful memories, failures, things we are
ashamed of or regret – our own crosses, places where everything seems
to be are dead or dying. And many people spend huge amounts of energy
trying to avoid those places. Often they will try to use faith as a
cover-up, a bolt-on, a distraction from the problems. They try to build
a fence between faith and life, as if they could hide these things from
God – surely he wouldn’t want to go there either. And as a result
nothing ever really changes for them. The shocking message of the
cross, though, is that God not only can go into those dark places and
live to tell the tale, but that these are the very places where he
needs to be and wants to be, the places where we need him to be too.
Our medieval forebears probably seem very strange to us, going to all
that trouble to venerate what were probably completely ordinary little
bits of wood, but perhaps they have something to teach us. As they
contemplated those precious splinters they were reminded that the real
“true crosses” were the ones in their own lives - the places of pain
and failure in themselves and their world. They were reminded too that
these were the places to which Christ longed to come, just as he had to
the Cross of Calvary, to restore and heal. I have no relics to offer
you today – just the strange story they told – but I hope it will help
us to see where the true cross is for us, the place where we most need
God’s presence, and that we will let God come to us there, so that his
love can transform us too.
7 September 2008 Trinity 16 Sermon
by Kevin Bright
Ezekiel 33.7-11, Romans 13.8-14 & Matthew 18.15-20
All three of our readings today talk of problems with our behaviour;
something most adults largely consider doesn’t apply to them but to
younger members of our communities. I suspect that it is very rare for
any of us to be challenged about our behaviour in this very liberal
society we live in, unless it borders on the criminal.
However this doesn’t mean that we aren’t aware that we are doing things
wrong, things we wouldn’t choose to share with our children for
example. Paul, in his letter to the Romans is effectively saying, look
you know how to behave, you know what is wrong adultery, murder,
stealing and all the other things so now is the time to get on with
living your lives in a way which is an example to others.
He tells us to not get distracted from the important work of Christ by
over indulging or falling into bad ways, don’t waste time being jealous
of your neighbours house extension, new kitchen or convertible car,
don’t waste time quarrelling, trying to discredit others or put them in
a bad light but focus on getting to know your neighbour as a person.
If we are to love our neighbour it will involve getting to know
something about them whether they are a group of disadvantaged people
who live on the other side of the planet that we want to help or
whether they literally live next door. Clearly this is something that
people in this church have acted upon long before this sermon, the
outcome of which is a coming together for the village fete. We have to
ask ourselves would we like to be loved abstractly as if we had no
personal qualities, weaknesses or flaws.
Paul doesn’t suggest this is something to get around to one day but a
matter of extreme urgency. Could all this imply that there never has
been a perfect Christian community and that this stuff has to be
addressed by every generation of Christians? Now there’s food for
One of the pleasures of children growing up is that they can offer you
advice; it’s no longer a one way street. Advice might include ‘I
thought drinking too much wine wasn’t good for you or that sign said 40
mph and you’re doing nearly 50!’ It’s uncomfortable isn’t it. Who likes
being told off and knowing they are in the wrong?
Another pleasure can be to have advice reinforced in writing, so that
you can study it over and over. In my case when I got one of these I
also asked for a photograph of my offence and the Metropolitan Police
seemed only too pleased to oblige!
I though I’d shown great restraint by driving along a near empty dual
carriageway at only 36 miles per hour. I wasn’t happy to have it
pointed out to me that I had done wrong and my reaction was to become
defensive. Why don’t the police spend their time focussing on the
catalogue of crime in Woolwich, near to where I committed my speeding
offence? If it had been a traffic cop he would have seen that I was
driving safely and never given me a ticket. I was only 6 mph over the
speed limit this was pathetic.
The journalist Piers Morgan also had the same experience of being
prosecuted for doing 36 mph in a 30 limit and was offered the
opportunity of attending a 3 hour lecture on rehabilitation instead of
3 points on his licence. He found this a very painful 3 hours enduring
comments from his fellow offenders such as ‘Britain’s got no driving
talent’. He ridiculed the man offering the corrective lecture saying he
was like the Ricky Jervais character ‘David Brent’ and fumed at the
multiple choice questions he had to complete such as ‘ keeping to the
speed limit in the next year would be wise, a) I strongly agree, b) I
strongly disagree or c) I don’t know.’ After writing an article
ridiculing the system and the man pointing out the truth to him he
concludes that next time he going to take the points on his license.
And there you have it, two grown up self righteous men who don’t like
having the fact that they have done wrong pointed out to them. Two men
who rather than accept they are in the wrong look for excuses and try
to deflect away from the fact that they knew the rules and got caught
breaking them. I was wrong and so is Piers Morgan.
The prophet Ezekiel is inspired by God to tell us we must warn the
wicked and Jesus tells us to point out the fault when a member of the
church sins against us.
Taking into account what we have heard so far it seems we would need to
do so after careful thought and prayer as what we point out will almost
certainly not be welcomed. We also need to think about how we each
react to being told uncomfortable truths be they about our lifestyle,
our affect on the planet or our need of Christ.
At its most extreme the backlash of criticism and warning can lead to
violence, terror and oppression. But I would have thought the most
common reaction is a fudging of the issues a failure to really face up
and deal with what is put to us. We avoid the people, we pretend it
doesn’t exist or we think we can forget about our problems by moving on
to a new job, a new home, a new church or splinter group within a
church where we can avoid the issues by sitting with likeminded people.
Many dream of a life in a new country only to find the same problems
rise to the surface after they have lived there for a period of time.
I can really relate to Christ’s advice to discuss a problem initially
‘just between the two of you.’ Shouting across an office at someone in
front of their colleagues is humiliating to the recipient and often
also confrontational. On an international scale open criticism of other
countries or their leaders has the same effect. Whilst it may be
necessary to immediately confront in case of an emergency the chances
of a successful resolution to a problem are greatly increased where
this doesn’t involve humiliation. If we don’t feel this is true we have
to question our motives for acting. Are we on an ego trip, do we want
to demonstrate how powerful and important we are, is it really all
about crushing someone or getting our own back rather than achieving
what is best for our community?
Jesus tells us that if we are not listened to when we point out a fault
we should go back with one or two others, but there is also a duty on
us to listen and reflect as well. In doing this we would be made to
explain to the others why we felt the person was at fault. Don’t you
sometimes find that when you discuss someone else’s faults with another
they often force you to consider the facts again or introduce new
thoughts on the subject which you may not have considered? They may
even remind us that you have done something similar in the past,
resulting in a more humble approach to the criticism we offer.
I can’t believe that Jesus meant us to intimidate or bully a person we
are trying to correct by turning up with others rather that the
evidence is checked and considered by others before confronting the
person again. Quite possibly the outcome is a compromise resulting from
both sides further reflection on the matter.
Sadly we all know that attempts at conflict resolution can sometimes
inflame the problem. Jesus tells us that the next stage should be to
consider the problem within the wider church and if the person still
cannot see reason we are free to treat them as a tax collector or
pagan, perhaps a modern equivalent might be, (well still a tax
collector, only joking) more likely an extortionist and a Muslim
reached the point where we’ve given our offender every opportunity to
be reconciled; we’ve been very fair and now is the time for casting
them out with righteous indignation isn’t it? Is this what the bible
Those tempted to follow this route would find they had gone full circle
and should themselves face correction from their fellow Christians who
know how Christ treats outcasts in society.
The very author of today’s gospel is Levi, better known as Matthew,
formerly a tax collector who Christ called to change his ways and
follow him. Then there’s the little man who collected big taxes Zacheus
who Christ eats with, outraging the Pharisees.
One of the clearest features of the life and teachings of Jesus is the
way that he included people that everybody else left out. Jesus
included criminals (the thief on the cross), and people who were
outcast (Samaritans, Gentiles, the poor, the sick, lepers, women, and
the list goes on).
It seems that when we feel we have exhausted routes to reconciliation
Christ encourages us to never give up hope, to leave the door open to
those shunned by society. This is certainly not easy. If we look at
reconciliation in South Africa or Northern Ireland peace has come at
great cost to many and this can also be true in our communities and
To me the messages from today are about Christianity making a real
difference by having the courage to act when we know something is wrong
but also using our faith to persevere in trying to achieve the
reconciliation that God wants between us, something he knows first hand
can come at a great cost.
2008 Trinity 15
Jeremiah 15.15-21, Matt 16.21-28
A year or so back the TV presenter Tony
Robinson did a series on the worst jobs in history, trying to get a
flavour of what it might have been like to do some of the jobs our
ancestors did. How about being a leech collector, for example, stamping
about in swamps until the leeches attached themselves to your legs? All
you’ve got to do then is pull them off and put them in a jar ready for
the doctors to use…wonderful!
Or perhaps you’d rather be a medieval royal falconer? That sounds fine,
very grand, very fascinating, looking after magnificent birds of prey
belonging to the king - until you discover that if you happen to lose
one of them, the penalty is to have an equivalent weight of flesh to
the bird you’ve lost cut off your body. It would concentrate your mind
on your job!
I can sense that I’m probably not being very successful in selling you
these new career ideas, am I?
There was one job, though, which Tony Robinson didn’t try, but which I
think he would have found equally unpleasant, if our first reading is
anything to go by, and that is the job of an Old Testament prophet.
Jeremiah certainly doesn’t seem to be enjoying it. He feels as if the
whole world is against him. He’s getting it in the neck from all and
sundry. He’s even starting to wonder whether God is against him too,
despite the fact that he is only doing what God himself has asked him
to. “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be
healed? Truly you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that
fail.” He’s not having fun.
It’s tempting to write off Jeremiah as one of those people who are
never happy unless they are miserable, but I don’t think that’s fair to
him. He’d never wanted to be a prophet in the first place and when we
discover what he was up against we can see why.
The message God gave him to proclaim was a message no one would have
wanted to hear. It was a challenging message, warning his nation that
it was about to be overthrown and destroyed, telling people that they
needed to turn to God for help, now, before it was too late. It was the
6th Century BC, and at that time the Babylonian Empire ruled across
much of the Middle East. The tiny nation of Judah, the area around
Jerusalem where Jeremiah lived, hadn’t been conquered – yet – but
anyone with any sense could see that Babylon had it in its sights.
So what were the people of Judah doing about this threat? Not a lot.
They were sleepwalking towards destruction, convinced that because they
were God’s chosen people, because he’d rescued them from Egypt, they’d
be fine. They were invincible in their own eyes. No matter what they
did God would protect them. Nothing bad could happen to them. It didn’t
matter if they ignored God, if they worshipped idols, if they
disregarded the laws he’d given them, if they oppressed the poor,
neglected the vulnerable. Good old God – he’d come through for them in
the end and everything would be fine and dandy.
So when Jeremiah starts telling them to wake up, to sort themselves
out, well, you can just imagine the response. They ignore him. And when
they can’t ignore him any more they arrest him, they persecute him,
they even throw him into a dry well to die – anything to shut him up.
Who can blame him for complaining so bitterly?
The problem was that Jeremiah’s vision of the future was spot on. Not
much later Jerusalem was destroyed, the Temple flattened and the cream
of the people carried off into captivity in Babylon. Jeremiah couldn’t
even comfort himself with the smug satisfaction of having been proved
right because this was his own nation, his own people, and he suffered
just as much as they did when it fell. It wasn’t until Jerusalem lay in
ruins, when the people were far away in Babylon, that they
started to reflect on Jeremiah’s prophecies, and to hear not only
that unwelcome challenge he had set before them, but also the message
of hope within the challenge. It was because God loved them that he had
been so desperate that they should change. God would stick with them,
but if they treated him simply as a sort of lucky mascot – paying lip
service to him, but not actually living as he told them – then his
vision for them of a society of compassion and justice could never come
to fruition because they wouldn’t let him help them bring it about.
Their illusion of invincibility had blinded them to the reality not
only of the threat against them, but also of the blessings God wanted
to give them. They preferred to believe that “it can’t happen to us”;
it was only when it did happen to them that they saw how they had lied
to themselves, and by that time, tragically, it was too late.
In today’s Gospel reading we meet someone who is also having a problem
facing reality. This time it is Peter who is saying “It can’t happen,
it mustn’t happen...” Jesus has been explaining that he must go
to Jerusalem where he will be arrested, tried and executed. It’s not
that he has some spooky ability to tell the future, just that it is
obvious that if you tangle with the authorities, as he is doing, you
are heading for trouble and a sticky end.
But Peter won’t have it. Somehow he has convinced himself that Jesus
can’t die. He’s the Messiah. What’s the point of that if God won’t
protect you from trouble? God can’t let this happen. It was the same
thinking that had bedevilled the ancient Judeans of Jeremiah’s time. If
God is with you, surely that means you must be immune from suffering
and failure, no matter how you act yourself?
Peter hadn’t realised that it was precisely because Jesus was God’s
Messiah that trouble and death were always going to be part of the
package. Jesus’ calling was to stand up against the forces of
oppression, and the forces of oppression were hardly going to take
kindly to that. The only way he could have avoided suffering was to
walk away from the job. You can’t have your cake and eat it – either he
had to take what came with the task or not do it at all. Just like the
ancient Judeans, Peter had to learn to face the reality of what was
going to happen to his friend, to give up his illusions, his wishful
thinking, and accept the world as it really was.
Most of us, thank God, don’t face the sort of cataclysms and challenges
we’ve heard about in our readings today, but that doesn’t mean we are
any better at facing reality when life does get tough. I suspect we are
equally prone to living in a fantasy world in which everything is as we
wish it to be, or at least it could be if only everyone else would fall
in with our plans.
It’s often the small things that catch us out, it seems to me. Like
thinking that we all ought to be able to drive where we want when we
want, and find somewhere to park at the end of the journey. The reality
is that there is a limited amount of space for driving and parking, but
that doesn’t stop people acting as if they are entitled to absolute
freedom of movement. Or we ignore some health problem or disability
that is beginning to trouble us – it can’t happen to us, it mustn’t
happen to us, so it isn’t happening to us. We miss out on the help we
need, and we often make our lives and the lives of those who care for
us more painful and difficult as a result. We just can’t bear to admit
that we have a problem. We pretend the resources of our planet are
unlimited, or that we can buy cheap goods without someone somewhere
paying the price for that. We feel we ought to have dream holidays,
dream marriages, dream jobs, dream homes – but such things are exactly
that, a dream. Nothing is perfect, nor can it be. Even if we work as
hard as we can, try as hard as we can, there are always things that
will be beyond our control. Compromise is inevitable. In the end we
can’t have all we want, do all we want. We have to make choices, and
those choices will not always be easy ones.
Jesus warns his disciples that if they want to follow him they will
find themselves having to deny themselves and take up their cross. I
don’t think he means we should all wear hair shirts or seek out
hardships deliberately. In the context of this passage I think what he
is saying is that we need to drop our illusions, stop living in our own
little dream worlds, and accept that living as children of God, sharing
in that work of healing and restoration, is bound to involve cost and
sacrifice in a world which is not perfect. Peter’s refusal even to
consider that Jesus might die shows how ego-centric his thinking is. He
doesn’t want it to happen so he doesn’t see why it should happen, so it
can’t happen. But the truth is that it will happen and, as Jesus
says, there is some sense in which it must happen if he is to do what
he came to do.
So there’s a challenge for us in today’s readings. What are the
illusions we cling to? How prepared are we to see the world as it
really is, ourselves as we really are, others as they really are rather
than as we would wish them to be. Reality is sometimes unattractive,
but it is what is real, what is there. Our refusal to acknowledge it
won’t drive it away. Whether it is the urgent shared reality of the
struggle to live together on a crowded planet, or the more personal
realities of relationships that need attention, work that needs doing,
troubles that must be faced, we need to accept that what is, is.
Unless we do that we can’t hope to deal with the issues that confront
us, and more than that we will miss the blessings that are hidden
within the pain, the hope, healing and new life God wants to bring us
as we do what needs to be done, and the knowledge that whatever we
face, God faces it with us.
August 24 2008
Romans 12.1-8, Matthew
“You are Peter and on this rock I
will build my church”.
A few years ago I went to Rome for a holiday with Philip. We saw all
sorts of fascinating places – Philip had lived there for some years, so
he knew the nooks and crannies the guide books don’t tell you about.
But you can’t go to Rome without visiting the Vatican, so that had to
be on the itinerary too. It’s been a focal point for western
Christianity for almost two millennia. Whether you’re Catholic or
Protestant, love it or loathe it, you can’t ignore it. And if the
Vatican is at the heart of the western Church, then at the heart of the
Vatican is the great basilica of St Peter’s. And at the heart of the
basilica, under the high altar, is, so they say, St Peter himself, or
his bones at any rate. Tradition has it that he was martyred in Rome
and buried in this spot. Eventually a church was built over the burial
site, which grew into the vast basilica we see today. So there’s a
sense in which quite literally, the church has been built on Peter.
He’s right there in the foundations, with all that heavy marble
weighing down on him. As you can tell, it’s not my cup of tea
architecturally, but there can be no doubt of the message it proclaims.
St Peter matters. Of course its not really meant as a literal picture
of Jesus’ words, but it does reinforce the lesson that in some sense,
we all rest on Peter, the rock.
But why? What is there about this man which is so rocklike?
It’s not obvious. When we meet him in the Gospels as often as not he is
getting it wrong – sometimes spectacularly so. It’s Peter who jumps out
of the boat and attempts to walk on the water, with predictably soggy
results. Next week we’ll hear the story of Peter trying to stop Jesus
heading for Jerusalem because he can’t bear to think of him dying. It
is Peter who louses things up at the Transfiguration. There he is with
James and John, given the privilege of witnessing a vision of Jesus
shining with glory, with Moses on one side and Elijah on the other. But
he can’t just stand there and watch – he has to put his big foot in it,
offering to put together a couple of sheds so they have somewhere to
stay the night. In the midst of this transcendent, beautiful,
mysterious moment all he can think of is getting down to Homebase
before it closes …
And then, of course, Peter denies even knowing Jesus when Jesus is
arrested. Some rock he turns out to be!
If what you mean by a rock is a safe pair of hands to entrust a body of
theological doctrine to, someone who’ll bring a sharp and intelligent
mind to bear on matters of faith, who’ll lead others with tact and
diplomacy then Peter is not the person you want for the
job. He is a great character, but there are many other
disciples who seem much better qualified. I am reminded of that old
military report on a trainee officer. “His men would follow him
anywhere, but only out of curiosity.”
So why is Peter chosen? What is it which Jesus and the early church saw
in him that made them call him the rock and want to build on him?
What are the qualities that he brings to the leadership of this new
movement which Jesus so much wants to point us to?
The clues, I think, are right there in Peter’s own reaction to Christ
in today’s Gospel reading. It is a pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry.
His fame has grown, but so has the opposition against him, and Jesus
wants to know what his closest followers think.
“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” he asks. It’s a very vague
question. Which people does he mean? His friends? His enemies? The
crowd? And what does he mean by the “Son of Man”? It’s a title that was
sometimes used for the longed-for Messiah, but more often it was
simply a roundabout way of referring to yourself – this mere mortal,
muggins, I. So, did Jesus want to know what they thought about the
Messiah or about him, or did he think that the two were the same? He
didn’t say, and they didn’t know, so they gave him an answer as vague
as the question. “Some say John the Baptist, or Elijah, Jeremiah, one
of those old prophets…”
“Ok,” Says Jesus, “enough beating about the bush – let’s be straight
about this now – that’s what “people” say, but what about you, and what
about me - who do YOU say that I am?”
And, quick as a flash, back comes Peter with his answer. “You are the
Messiah, the Son of the living God…” There’s no vagueness in his
answer, and it tells me two very important things about Peter, two
things which shed light on why this unlikely person became so important
to the church.
The first thing is that Peter has his eyes on the here and now. He
doesn’t talk about John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah. He’s not looking
for the return of some dead prophet from the past or the restoration of
a bygone golden age. What he can see is that right here in front of
him, in the form of this carpenter from Nazareth – not an obvious
choice either - God is present and bringing to birth something
astonishing and new. Everyone else – those unspecified “people” -
might expect God to appear and to act in some familiar way, but Peter
doesn’t. He affirms Jesus as the Son of the LIVING God, a God who is
newly present in every generation not frozen in time or form in a past
That mattered for the early Christians, because whether they liked it
or not, their lives were full of change. Their understanding of their
religion, of their God, of themselves, of each other, was completely
turned upside down in the early years of the church. They had to cope
with being expelled from the synagogues and persecuted by Jewish and
Roman leaders. They lost friends, families, livelihoods, security, and
in their place all they had was an extraordinary rag-bag of fellow
travellers in faith to support them. Paul talks about the body of
Christ in our first reading today and how its different parts must
learn to work together. It was a hard lesson though, because that body
was made up of such a strange assortment of limbs. Slave and free, men
and women, all races and backgrounds. This was a body with Jewish arms
and Gentile legs, so to speak, and who knows where the torso had come
from? No wonder they struggled. No wonder we still do sometimes.
A leader whose ideas were set in stone, who could only imagine God
acting in ways he had acted before, who was hamstrung by the past,
would be no good at all. Instead the church needed someone like Peter,
who had his eyes open for God at work in new ways, making a new
And that brings me to the second important thing I think this story
reveals about Peter. To be able to acclaim Jesus as Messiah was a huge
and courageous leap of faith. How was Peter able to take that leap? It
wasn’t, with all due respect to him, because he had studied the
Scriptures in detail and proved to his intellectual satisfaction that
the prophecies all pointed to Jesus – in fact I doubt whether he could
explain a tenth of what was going on if his life depended on it. It was
because he knew and trusted this man. He had lived with him, travelled
with him, gone through thick and thin, success and failure with him,
known him in his public and private moments. He knew that Jesus’ love
wasn’t just put on when he went out to meet the crowds, but was
something which pervaded all his words and actions, that his closeness
to his Father wasn’t a fleeting thing, but a daily reality. Peter knew
Jesus. He might not have always understood what he said and did, but he
knew the person who was saying it, and that was enough. In John’s
Gospel, when the crowd starts drifting away from Jesus, scared off by
the sheer strangeness of what he seems to be saying, it is Peter who
announces that he is staying. “Who else can I go to, Lord? You have the
words of eternal life.”
Peter sticks around. He sticks around when he gets it right and he
sticks around when he gets it wrong. He sticks around when he
understands and when he doesn’t. The message to us is that if we want
a faith that is resilient enough to withstand the changes and
chances of life we need to stick around too, to give time to things
like reading the Bible, meeting with others, praying, looking for
Christ in our daily lives, serving him in others. There is no short
cut, no magic pill, no way of developing that deep sense of trust
without putting in the legwork, or perhaps it’s the soul-work, of
living day by day in the light of Christ. Putting in that soul work
won’t make the questions go away, of course – there is always more to
learn and understand – but what I have observed in those who live like
this is that eventually the questions don’t disturb them so much. Like
Peter, they don’t need to know everything to know the really vital
thing, the life-giving, life-transforming love of God at work in them.
So Simon the fisherman is declared by Jesus to be Peter, the rock. But
I am sure that Jesus was aware of the paradox – perhaps the irony – in
this nickname he gives him. Calling him a rock makes it sound as
if he ought to be inflexible, unchanging, solid, but actually he is the
opposite, open to all sorts of new possibilities. It’s a different sort
of rocklikeness altogether. But this, in the end is what makes him the
perfect foundation, just what the church needs as it grows through the
changes and chances of life. And it’s just what we need too as we try
to open our eyes to see the living God in our midst today.
August 17 2008 Trinity 13 Breathing Space Communion
“Jesus went away to the district of
Tyre and Sidon”
The Gospels are full of Jesus coming and going; he always seems to be
on the move. So perhaps we don’t think twice about this statement at
the beginning of our Gospel reading. But we ought to think twice about
it, because it is highly significant, and quite surprising, because
Tyre and Sidon are not Israelite towns. They were originally in the
land of the Philistines, arch-enemies of Israel. In Jesus’ day they
were in Roman Syria. Now they are Lebanese. In other words these were
foreign towns, full of foreigners – and a particularly rum lot of
foreigners at that. Tyre and Sidon were sea ports, with the kind
reputation for drunkenness and debauchery that sea ports often seem to
have. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus denounces those who don’t
listen to him by saying that even Tyre and Sidon will come off better
on Judgement Day than they will – EVEN Tyre and Sidon - the implication
is that Tyre and Sidon are just about as bad as you can get.
So, the question is obvious – what is Jesus doing there? It’s not the
kind of place you’d go for an “away from it all” break – especially if
you are a good Jew. This is a place which is guaranteed to confront you
with all sorts of challenges – people worshipping other gods, people
living and behaving in ways that would have seemed shocking to Jew, and
to a lot of other people too.
This trip of Jesus’ seems to be a deliberate attempt to put himself in
a situation in which he and the disciples will feel uncomfortable, out
of their element, challenged in ways they couldn’t have been at home.
And that, of course, is exactly what happens. A pagan Canaanite woman
comes to them, having heard that Jesus is a healer. Her daughter is ill
and she is desperate. She probably hasn’t got a clue about the Jewish
religion, maybe doesn’t know much about who Jesus is or how he fits
into the religious landscape. She just believes he can help, and that’s
all that matters. Although it seems clear to her, though, it obviously
isn’t to Jesus and the disciples. As far as they are concerned
she is nothing to do with them. “Wrong religion, wrong nationality – go
and find someone more like you to help you…” She just seems too foreign
for them, as if somehow healing won’t work if it’s done in a foreign
language or offered to someone with a different understanding of the
world. It is only her persistence which convinces them otherwise.
Some people will try to say that Jesus was just testing her faith when
he refused to help, but I think that makes him a monster. It seems to
me far more likely that Matthew intends us to read this story just as
it appears, as an account of Jesus learning and growing. It shows
Jesus’ understanding of himself, his mission and his Father’s will
developing – he’s human, like us, and doesn’t know everything.
What is significant though is that he seems deliberately to have put
himself in a situation where he knew he would not feel at ease, where
he knew he would not be on home ground. He didn’t know what would
happen or how he would react there, but he knew that it would be
challenging that there was a possibility that he would get it wrong, as
he seems to do here, before he got it right. He might not know
what he needs to learn, but he knows that he needs to learn, and that
you can’t do that by sticking with what you know.
The story deserves its place in the Gospels because he calls us to have
the same kind of courage and willingness to go beyond our comfort zone
as he goes beyond his. The lesson he learns in Tyre and Sidon is vital
to him, and it’s vital to us too. God really is at work in all people,
that he speaks every language as his native language, every nook and
cranny of the world is home to him. It is the Canaanite woman who has
the real faith in this story, the faith to look for God’s help from
someone who must have seemed as alien to her as she did to him and who
seems decidedly unhelpful at first. She can see that God is at work
through Jesus; he and the disciples take a lot longer to recognise that
God is also at work through her, to call them to the changes they need
The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. We say it, but do we
believe it, or do we think that really God is really most at home in
our own familiar corner of the world, working in the ways we have
always expected him to? Where are our Tyres and Sidons today – the
strange places where we feel like a fish out of water? Who is our
“Canaanite woman”, the person who calls us out of the comfortable
familiar territory to discover the unimaginable wideness of God’s love.
August 10th 2008
1 Kings 19.9-18, Romans10.5-15, Matthew
“Immediately after feeding the crowd with the five loaves and two fish,
Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other
I’ve been reading the Bible for many years now – as you might expect -
and I like to think it is familiar territory, but I still often find
things in it that surprise me, things I’ve never noticed before.
There’s a word in the opening verse of today’s Gospel reading which had
that effect on me this week.
Jesus MADE the disciples get into the boat…It’s that word “made” that
caused me to sit up and take notice. Jesus MADE the disciples get into
It jars somehow, to think of Jesus compelling people to do something
which they evidently don’t want to do. And it is puzzling as well. What
is going on here?
The story doesn’t tell us why the disciples are so reluctant to set
out. Perhaps they can see that a storm is brewing. Perhaps they just
don’t want to end up on the other side of the lake without Jesus – if
they’ve got the boat how will he get there? Perhaps they think he is
trying to send them away for their own protection, away from some
trouble he faces, as if they are children.
We don’t know what the problem is, but what is clear is that this is a
journey they don’t want to make. They think it’s a bad idea, and when
the wind and waves get up I’ve no doubt they feel they have been proved
right. But by then it is too late. They are far from shore and they
can’t turn back.
I guess that many of us will be able to identify with that feeling.
Most of us at some time or other will find ourselves having to take
journeys we’d rather avoid, or face challenges we’d rather duck. We may
have misgivings, suspecting that we’re biting off more than we can
chew, but still, somehow we find we have to go ahead. There are some
things you just have to do. But when the task we have taken on turns
out to be far harder than we thought, as is often the case, we feel,
like the disciples, all at sea, out of our depth, “much further out
than we thought, and not waving but drowning” as Stevie Smith’s poem
puts it. I can well imagine that there are times when Archbishop Rowan
Williams has felt like this recently – who’d want his job? But there
are many also who don’t make the headlines who face daily struggles to
provide for their families, to honour their commitments to others and
to live with integrity, honesty and love.
In our Old Testament reading today Elijah is going through the same
sort of experience. He’s just had a showdown with the prophets of the
god Baal, the god of the evil queen Jezebel. Elijah has won the contest
– or rather his God has won it – but he soon realises that he is
actually in more trouble now than he was before he started. Jezebel
isn’t one to take defeat lying down. She lets it be known that she
wants Elijah dead and he has to run for his life. We find him out in
the wilderness, cowering in a cave on Mount Horeb.
“What’s the point?” he says to God. “I tried to follow you. I did
everything I should, and look what has happened! I am all alone and
everything I’ve tried to do has come to nothing!”
Two stories, then, which although they come from long ago and far away
speak of experiences we can all recognise.
But there is hope in these stories as well as familiarity, and some
advice for coping with times like these. In particular there are two
messages which seem to me to be worth hanging onto when the storms hit.
The first is that running into stormy water isn’t necessarily a sign
that something has gone wrong – that we have failed, that others have
failed, that God has failed. Why did the disciples have to cross the
lake? It’s the same as that old question about the chicken crossing the
road. To get to the other side. If we read on in the Gospel we find
that when they do get to land there is a crowd of hurting, lost,
helpless people, waiting for someone to come to their aid, waiting for
Jesus and for the disciples. Of course this journey is hard, but it is
a journey that each of those needy people will consider was worth
As Paul says, quoting the Prophet Isaiah in our second reading, “how
beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news”, or, in this case
the hands that are blistered and bleeding from pulling on the oars to
bring the message of hope they so desperately need to them through the
This journey wasn’t a pleasure trip. It certainly wasn’t just a test,
set by Jesus to see how much faith the disciples could muster. I don’t
believe in a God who imposes pointless ordeals on us to try to catch us
out – if God is like that then he’s a monster. I added those extra
verses to our Gospel reading this morning because it seemed to me that
we need to hear them for this story to make sense.
Jesus didn’t send the disciples out into a storm out of some perverse
sense that it would do them good to suffer. He did it because this was
a journey that needed to be made.
The people for whom Matthew wrote this Gospel – the early church – knew
all about challenges like that. They were persecuted by the Romans for
following Jesus. Many of them would die for their faith in painful and
humiliating ways. It’s no accident that when Matthew describes this
little boat as being “battered” by the storm, he uses a word which
literally means “tortured”, because that was what was happening to his
readers and those around them.
Sticking to the pathway of love they had chosen was tough, and it must
have often felt like a completely stupid thing to do – why not just
give in and go back to the old ways and an easy life? But they couldn’t
shake the conviction that this actually was the right way, this way
that Jesus had set them on. In a sense this story, of Jesus walking on
the water, is not so much an account of a miracle from the time of
Christ’s earthly ministry as it is an account of what seems to me to be
an even more miraculous discovery made by those early Christians as
they faced torture and death. Whether Jesus had ever really walked on
the surface of the Sea of Galilee we’ll never know, but they certainly
believed that he walked beside them on the chaotic waters of the storms
they faced. It was that experience which Matthew was really reminding
them of in this extraordinary tale.
And that brings me onto the second message which this story, and that
of Elijah, proclaims. No matter how far out at sea you are, the Bible
says, and how close to drowning, no matter how far away God feels, you
cannot fall out of his sight, out of his mind, out of his hands. Jesus’
words to the disciples as he walks towards them over the water are
simply “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid”. He is here, even in
this place which was surely the last place they would expect him. If he
can come to them here, he can come to them anywhere.
And his presence is enough for them, though the waves are still as
mountainous, the wind is still as fierce. The storm doesn’t die away
until he and Peter are in the boat, and it’s not clear whether that was
Jesus’ work in any case, or whether the storm had simply blown its
course. It almost seems like an afterthought - and I think that is
deliberate. It’s not the storm on the lake that matters; it’s the
storms in the disciples’ hearts that really need stilling. As Peter
leaps out of the boat to walk on the water too, it takes him quite a
while even to notice those mountainous seas, despite the fact that he
has been hauling the boat through them, exhausted and desperate for
hours and hours.
For Elijah too, it isn’t in some great demonstration of power – an
earthquake, wind or fire, that God speaks most clearly. It is somehow,
mysteriously, in the depths of a sheer silence - something which can’t
outwardly change anything at all - that Elijah becomes aware of God’s
presence, aware that God is God, in charge no matter what is happening
on the surface.
Life is full of storms. There’s no avoiding them, especially if you
want to live with integrity, to bring hope and healing to others, to
challenge injustice. Jesus couldn’t avoid trouble; he was overwhelmed
on the cross by the waters of death. We can expect trouble too if we
follow him and seek his kingdom of justice and peace in our own lives.
But just as those waters of death weren’t the end of the story for
Jesus, they aren’t the end of the story for us either. Beneath the
surface of the events that so trouble us is a love that is deeper and
stronger still, which no storm can destroy, and no wind sweep away.
Look again and listen again, say these tales; beyond the earthquake,
beyond the fire, beyond the wind, beyond the waves there is one who is
always beside you on the waters of chaos to lead you into his
“A sower went out to sow” said Jesus. “Ah, good,” said the crowd. “Now
this is going to be a story we understand – nothing too mystical or
high-fallutin’. We all know about sowing seeds.”
And of course they did; there can hardly have been anyone there who
wouldn’t have experience of growing things.
In Jesus’ day, growing your own wasn’t a hobby, a lifestyle choice. It
would have been essential for all but the most wealthy to grow at least
some food to provide for their families.
So when Jesus launched into a story about a sower he was talking to
people who were all likely to be knowledgeable about this sort of
thing. He was speaking their language…
“A sower went out to sow…” he said, and they wondered what would come
next. Perhaps there would be some horticultural wisdom here?
“Well” says Jesus, “some of the seed fell on the path.” “Yes,” thinks
the crowd, “it always does that – it’s irritating, but you’re bound to
waste some that way. Obviously it won’t grow, but that’s life – one for
the rook, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow – that’s the
rule for seeds. Still the path is narrow, so not too much is lost!”
“And then,” continued Jesus, “some seed fell on rocky ground where it
started well, but when the sun came out it just didn’t have enough
soil, and it shrivelled up and died.” The crowd started to look
doubtful about this sower. “Didn’t he know his fields? Hadn’t he worked
this ground enough to realise where the bedrock was close to the
surface? You can’t help throwing some seed on the path, but it seems a
bit wasteful to chuck it about on the rocks – he can’t have been very
good at this farming lark…”
“And some seed, “Jesus went on “fell among thorns…”
“Oh, come on!” said the crowd, “that’s ridiculous. Who’d sow seed in
amongst the weeds?”
Now you might say, “perhaps the sower didn’t realise that the soil was
weedy, and the thorns only appeared after he had sowed the seed,”
except that the word Jesus uses for the thorns makes it clear this
couldn’t have been so. These thorns, according to the text, are
acanthus. You might have acanthus in your garden – its common name is
Bear’s Britches and it’s sold as an architectural plant. In other words
it is huge. In the Middle East it would have been evergreen too, there
all year – you couldn’t have missed it. Even if the seed made it to the
ground through these great leathery leaves, they’d have no chance of
growing down there in the dark.
Of course some seed does end up falling on good ground in the story,
but by this stage the crowd probably feels it is more by luck than
judgement. This sower is not “Gardener of the year”. There’ll be no RHS
gold medal for him. The only redeeming factor is that the seed that
falls on the good ground thrives, and despite the apparent ineptitude
of the farmer, there is, in fact, a good harvest, indeed a bumper
harvest – some of these plants yield a hundred seeds for the one that
But that doesn’t change the fact that the crowd would probably not have
thought very highly of this sower. He really doesn’t seem to know what
he is doing, casting seed indiscriminately all over the place like this
– what a waste!
What kind of sower throws three quarters of the seed into places where
it almost certainly won’t grow?
There are two possible answers to that question.
The first is - a very, very foolish sower indeed.
The second is - a sower who has an unlimited supply of seed and an
unlimited amount of time and patience to sow it in.
A sower of the second variety can chuck the seed around as freely as he
likes, even into the most unlikely soil. He’s got nothing to lose and
everything to gain by it. It might look as if he is sowing in
improbable places, but who knows? Perhaps one or two odd seeds might
find a way to grow along the broken edges of the path, or in some
little pocket of deeper soil among the rocks, or in a clear patch among
the acanthus. The good soil might not all be in one neat, fenced off
block - the story doesn't say it is, and we’re not dealing with modern
factory farming methods here. In fact the only real way to discover
where all the good soil in your field, all the soil that might support
a growing plant is, is to cover the whole area with seed and see what
comes up. And my experience is that nature often has more surprises up
its sleeve than we expect.
I have a particularly fine hollyhock growing in a gap just a couple of
inches wide by the garage. It’s a great big plant and it would never
have occurred to me to plant it there. But there it is – it arrived
without my help, dropped there by the wind, or a bird perhaps, and it’s
doing fine. I might not be able to see much good soil there, but the
seed knows what it's doing better than me and seems to have found
enough food and water to keep it happy.
The seed in this story, of course, as Jesus says, is the word of the
kingdom, the word of God. It represents God’s life sown in the world to
bring love, joy and peace to people. If you were here last week you may
recall me telling you a bit of the context for the part of
Matthew’s gospel we’re working our way through at the moment, and it
applies just as much to this passage as to last week’s. Jesus has been
coming in for some pretty harsh criticism from the religious elite.
He’s been healing people they thought were unclean, and eating and
drinking with tax-collectors and sinners. This is against their
tradition and they are offended by it. It seemed to them that Jesus was
dragging God’s name into the mud, casting the pearls of God’s kingdom
before swine, throwing good food to the dogs. "Why waste your time on
the bad people – by their very lifestyles they’ve shown that they don't
care about God at all? God will never grow anything good in their
lives." Spending time and energy on them, in other words, looks as
useless as throwing precious seed onto the pathway for the birds or
scattering it amongst the rocks or thorns. If Jesus really wants to do
good he should keep company with virtuous people who showed their
seriousness about God by the way they lived.
But Jesus' has discovered – and proved - that even in the unlikely soil
of a gathering of tax collectors there will be some who were just
longing to hear that word of welcome and love he brought them – in fact
they are far more likely to hear it than those righteous people who
think they have it all sorted out already. Zaccheus comes down from his
sycamore tree. Matthew leaves his tax office. Other unlikely people
found God at work in their lives too. Lepers are healed. Women, even
prostitutes, find a dignity and a welcome they’d never known
before. To the people of the time, these lives might not have
looked like promising ground, but a rich harvest is springing up among
them somehow – lives are being changed. The good soil shows itself by
what it grows, and there is far more of it, in far less obvious places,
than is dreamed of in the narrow understanding of those who held
In our time, just as much as in the time of Jesus, those who see
themselves as “religious insiders” can sometimes be much too quick to
leap to conclusions about where the good soil is and what it looks
like. They – we – can behave as if it is our responsibility to dispense
or withhold God’s blessing, as if there was only a limited amount to go
around, which we have to be enormously careful not to waste. We
sometimes talk about “taking God out to people” as if he lived in a
cupboard that only we had the key to. We can make people feel that
their experience and understanding of God can’t possibly be valid,
because they don’t come with the stamp of approval of some authorised
religious body, or that they have to tick all the boxes we set before
them, believe the right things, behave in ways we have decided, before
they can be entrusted with a tiny ration of seeds to grow in their
lives. Sometimes people will sit in church for a long time, part of a
congregation, yet still feel that somehow their lives are too trodden
down, like that pathway, or too stony or thorny for them to dare to
think that anything of God might take root in them – that’s something
that only happens to someone else.
But the message of this story is that this is not so. God’s love is not
limited. It is not liable to run out. He spreads it around far more
generously than we can imagine, in fact, like this sower, he throws it
everywhere. He is at work in places, people and situations that we
might never expect. Nor does God need protecting by human rules, fences
built around him to keep out what we might think is unclean, unsafe,
unsavoury. He can cope with our messes and our mistakes far better than
we can. I suspect that he can even cope with the Anglican Church, with
all its fears and foibles as it thrashes its way so painfully through
its interminable quarrels.
What kind of sower sows seeds as the sower in this story did?
We might equally well ask: What kind of shepherd abandons ninety-nine
perfectly good sheep in the wilderness to search for just one that is
Or what kind of king when his posh guests refuse to come to his banquet
skips over the B list celebrities and throws open the doors to the
riff-raff, apparently unafraid that they will all just run off with the
silver or ruin his nice carpets?
The kind of sower, the kind of shepherd, the kind of king whose love is
inexhaustible, whose hope is unquenchable, and who looks at each one of
us and sees not the downtrodden paths, the stones or the thickets of
thorns but those, sometimes tiny, patches of good soil that we might
have missed which seem small to us, but turn out to be big enough for
the seed of God’s love to take root and grow.
July 6th 2008
Trinity 7 Evensong
story of Zaccheus is surely one of the best known and best loved in the
Gospels. Certainly if you’ve ever been a Sunday School teacher, as I
was for many years, you’ll feel as if you know it inside out. It’s one
of those stories which children seem easily to identify with. I suppose
that’s because Zaccheus, as the story tells us, is short, just like
them. Tree climbing appeals to children too, and the thought of a rich
and influential man having to clamber up a sycamore tree to see over
the crowd has an element of the ridiculous about it.
But in a way although we probably think we know the story of Zaccheus
very well, there is also a sense in which we really don’t know it at
all. What you notice when you look at it carefully is how much it
doesn’t tell you, doesn’t explain, how many gaps there are in the
The bare bones are simply that Jesus comes to Jericho – he’s on his way
through – it doesn’t look as if he means to stop. But a crowd has
turned out to see him. This isn’t surprising because on the way into
the city he has healed a man who was blind – news has spread.
Zaccheus wants to see him too, though the story doesn’t give us any
clue why, whether it is just curiosity or some deeper longing. But he
is small and there is a big crowd. So he climbs a tree, a strangely
undignified act for a chief tax collector. As Jesus comes by, he looks
up and see Zaccheus, and calls to him – by name (how did he know that?)
– to come down, “for I must stay at your house today.” Now Luke has
just told us that he is on his way through Jericho, so it doesn’t look
as if staying anywhere was really in the plan, so has he changed his
mind, or what?
Down comes Zaccheus – he hurries down the tree – and welcomes Jesus
joyfully. Why? Did he think this was one in the eye for the crowds or
is this genuine joy?
But though he is happy the crowd is not. They grumble. Again, we don’t
really know what their problem is except that they think it is wrong
for Jesus to visit a tax collector. Is it just that their religious
sensibilities are offended because Jesus is mixing with a sinner, or
are they jealous of Zaccheus? Perhaps they would have liked Jesus to
come to their homes and they’re angry with him for rejecting them in
favour of the tax collector. Again, it’s not spelled out. We are left
And then, instantly, Zaccheus announces that he will give half of what
he owns to the poor, and pay back anyone he has defrauded four times
over. This all happens, note, before they have had any chance to talk.
It’s not the result of any discussion they’ve had. What has happened to
change Zaccheus so profoundly?
And then what…? Did Zaccheus follow Christ? Did the crowd repent of
their judgemental attitudes?
We don’t know. You see what I mean about this story really being far
more enigmatic than it first appears. It really tells us very little
except that a short rich tax collector meets with Jesus, is changed,
and that the crowd don’t like it.
I once focussed on this story in a Lent study session in another
church. I split the group into three, and gave each sub-group a
different task. The first group I asked to think about what might have
come before this story. How had Zaccheus come to be the kind of person
he was, a rich but hated tax-collector? I asked them to imagine what
his childhood might have been like. What would have motivated him to
take on this role, which he would have known would single him out for
suspicion and anger from his community? It’s a strange thing to choose
to do – most of us would much rather be liked. They came up with an
elaborate back story for him. As I recall they decided that he was the
only son of a powerful man, a man who held high office in his community
but who was a bit of a bully. Zaccheus was desperate to win his
father’s approval in any way he could. So he tried to look big, even
though he was actually rather small. Being a tax collector made you
important in the eyes of the Romans, even if it lost you friends, but
Zaccheus, they decided didn’t have many friends anyway, so what did he
have to lose. “I care for nobody, no not I, since nobody cares for me”
as the song goes.
The second group I asked to think about the events of the story itself
and to read between the lines. What was happening and why? As they
visualised the scene what did they see? They came back with lots of
insights into what the crowd might have been feeling, and what Zaccheus
might have thought as the story unfolded.
It was the third group, though, who really surprised me. I had asked
them what they thought might have happened next. If we’d come back to
find Zaccheus a year or two later, what would we have discovered?
Almost all of them decided that Zaccheus’ change of heart probably
didn’t last, that the chances were that he went back sooner or later to
his old ways. I confess that this was something that had never occurred
to me. In reality I suspect that the fact the story is in the Gospels
at all implies that Luke wants us to feel that Zaccheus really did
change his ways for good, but that Lent group were very sceptical about
it. Perhaps they were a rather cynical or pessimistic bunch – I
really can’t remember – but they were adamant. Jesus might have made a
difference there and then, but old habits would have died hard for
It was a fascinating session, but you might ask, what did we know about
Zaccheus at the end that we didn’t at the beginning? And the answer
would be, almost nothing. We had no idea whether our reading of
the story was anything like the reality of his life. So was it all a
waste of time to use our imaginations in this way? I would say not. We
might not have found out anything about Zaccheus, but we found out a
very great deal about ourselves, about how we might have felt and
reacted if the things in this story had happened to us. In particular
that group went away wondering whether they might sometimes be too
sceptical or dismissive of the possibility that they or others around
them could change. The story spoke to them not so much about Zaccheus,
who they would never meet, but about themselves, who they lived with
And that is really the point of this story, and in a way, the point of
reading the Bible at all. Of course it is important that people study
the Bible as a historical document, helping us discover and understand
what the text says, and how it might have been understood by those who
originally heard and wrote it. That can be an important way to shed
light on its meaning, as well as being interesting in its own right.
But if all we do is find out what an ancient text might have meant to
an ancient people, long dead and gone, then we are missing its real
When Jesus summons Zaccheus down from his sycamore tree he tells him,
“I must stay at your house today…” If I had to put money on it I would
say that this is the moment when everything changes for Zaccheus. Jesus
comes home to him, becomes real in his life, not just a distant figure
glimpsed over the heads of the crowd, but someone who is prepared to
get to know him on a far more intimate level than he could if he
remained at a distance, and he is prepared to let Zaccheus get to know
As we read the Bible not just with our heads but with our hearts also,
letting the stories resonate within our own lives, God comes home to us
too, showing us ourselves, just as that Lent Group discovered. We may
never know what “really happened” in this or in any other Bible story,
or why it happened. We may never answer those intriguing questions this
story provokes. We can’t travel back in time. But though the events of
the Bible are distant – something we might feel that we struggle to
see, just as Zaccheus struggled to see Jesus over the head of the
crowd, we also may find that God is closer to us and more aware of us
than we thought and wanting to speak to us.
In a short time we will all go home and lock the doors of the church,
but we shouldn’t fool ourselves that we are locking God in here too.
The message of this story is that God says to us just as he did to
Zaccheus “I must stay at your house today…” What will he find when he
comes home with you tonight? What will the light of his loving presence
enable you to see of yourself also? And most important of all, how will
it change you?
July 6 2008
9.9-12, Romans 7.15-25a, Matt 11.16-19, 25-30
If you’re a parent you will probably have realised by now that the
universe is unfair. Your children seem to have almost boundless
supplies of energy – they can run around for hours and yet with the
briefest of rests bounce back up again. You, on the other hand who need
that sort of energy to care for them, do your job, look after the
house, worry about the state of the world and all those other things
that press upon you are absolutely whacked out. You see what I
mean? How can that be fair? It is when we are older, with important
things to do that we need all that get up and go, but by that time it’s
got up and gone!
“Come to me all you that are weary
and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”
Jesus’ words to his followers in today’s Gospel often touch a
chord in people because so many people feel weary. Of course, it’s not
just the tiredness of a day’s work or of caring for children that he
means here, but the tiredness that comes from struggling against
impossible odds, over and over again, without ever really feeling that
you have got anywhere. In the Greek myth, Sisyphus was condemned by the
gods to roll a stone up a hill forever, but every time it got near the
top it would roll down again. Recognise that feeling? If you do, then
what you are experiencing isn’t a simple tiredness that can be cured
with a good night’s sleep but the kind of bone-deep weariness that
needs something far more radical to sort it out.
The Greek words Jesus uses in the Gospel to describe the weary and
burdened people who come to him would have conjured up a very specific
sort of picture to his hearers. They are words that you might use to
describe a donkey, loaded with a burden that is too heavy for it, on
the point of collapsing, or a ship that has been over-loaded with
cargo, about to sink under the weight. In other words, he isn’t
describing people who just have a difficult time, but people who are
carrying loads imposed on them unjustly by others, loads that will be
impossible to bear, no matter how hard they try.
He has a specific set of people in his mind as he says these words; we
can tell who they are by reading back in the Gospel a bit to see what
has been happening and what he has been doing.
In the days leading up to this Jesus has been hard at work. He has
healed a paralysed man; “your sins are forgiven,” he said to him, and
the man took up his bed and walked. He has cured a woman with a
haemorrhage and raised a little girl from death. He has even changed
the lives of some of those hated collaborating tax collectors – people
who were regarded as the worst of sinners. Surely that should be a
cause of rejoicing? But instead Jesus comes in for sustained criticism.
All his enemies can see is that in declaring the forgiveness of sins he
has usurped the place of God, in touching people who were considered to
be ritually unclean he has made himself unclean too and in consorting
with sinful people he has gone soft on the message of God, on his
holiness, on his demands that people live right.
The Bible doesn’t tell us what those who have been healed think, but my
guess is that it would simply be “Thank God, I can walk! Thank God I’m
healed! Thank God I’m alive! Thank God I’m accepted!” But this cuts no
ice with Jesus’ opponents. Jesus’ actions might look good, feel good,
and do good, but they are still convinced that he must be in the wrong
because what he is doing is contrary to their tidy understanding of
They would have seen all of these people he has welcomed and helped as
beyond the pale. They might be able to be accepted back into their
communities and allowed once again to worship in the Temple, but only
if they could sort themselves out somehow. It was widely felt that
those who were ill or disabled, those whose lives were in difficulties
were being punished by God, so it was no one else’s responsibility but
their own to do something about it. The task of the righteous was to
stay righteous, not to risk their own good standing by consorting with
these dubious characters.
That’s why the people who come to Jesus are so weary. Their lives are
hard enough as it is, but every time they try to struggle out of the
mud in which they are sinking there is some self-righteous religious
person or disapproving neighbour to shove them firmly back down into
the mire. Like an over-laden ship the people he has been ministering to
are sunk before they start according to the religious and social rules
of the times. They’ll never get to where they need to be by following
the rules of their society.
So Jesus offers another way
“Come to me all you that are weary
and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”
It’s important to notice here what Jesus offers and what he doesn’t. He
never says he will make life trouble free, but he does promise
something that seems to me to be even better. He promises rest, and
that is a very significant word to choose. Resting is what God did when
he had finished making the heavens and the earth. He looked at what he
had made and he saw that it was very good, just right, absolutely as it
should be, and then he rested. The Hebrew word for rest is “shabat” –
which gives us Sabbath. When the Jewish people translated their
scriptures into Greek the word they chose to translate “shabat” was the
same one Jesus uses here – the rest Jesus offers is the same sort of
rest that God enjoyed on that first Sabbath.
The rest of the Sabbath wasn’t just time off to put your feet up (or
even go to church); it was meant to be far richer than that. The
Sabbath was supposed to be a time to remember God wanted his world to
be – as it had been at the beginning – to re-capture that for just for
one day a week. A world of justice, of peace, of love and
harmony. A world in which God and his people could delight, not one
where people were oppressed by the burdens of injustice, prejudice and
thoughtless criticism. That was a world very different from the one
those weary people knew then, and which weary people today know.
I’m sure you can think of lots of examples of this sort of double
My own experience of single-parenting after my divorce taught me that
while that was tough enough in itself, the real burden was dealing with
the judgemental attitudes of people who neither knew nor wanted to know
about the reality of my life and the decision I had made.
Many of those who have suffered problems with mental ill health will
attest that it is the stigma of the illness which is often the hardest
thing to cope with.
Those who are disabled in some way often struggle more than they should
need to because of a thoughtless disregard for simple things which
would make their lives easier, as if they just didn’t matter as much as
A woman told me recently about the struggle she has shopping with her
learning-disabled small son who tends to have screaming fits when he
gets frustrated because he can’t communicate. Dealing with him is
challenge enough – the straws that breaks the camel’s back, though, are
the disapproving looks she gets from complete strangers who assume she
must just be a bad mother.
Frankly at the moment the church wearies me – not this particular one,
but the wider church. It wearies me to see gay clergy friends of mine
who want only to get on with living their lives and offering their
gifts being treated as if they were pariahs. It wearies me as a woman
in ministry to be regarded by some sections of the church as somehow
dubious or even dangerous to the spiritual health and well-being of the
faithful. You may disagree on these contentious issues, and you are
entitled to your opinion, but I am weary at what seems to me to be a
pointless waste of the lives and energy of those who suffer because of
Whatever it is that wearies us though Jesus tells us that it is in
coming to him, in putting our lives into his hands that we will find
the true rest we need. But it isn’t a rest that will come about by
magic. Jesus goes on to say that the rest he offers, paradoxically,
involves taking on another yoke. There is work to be done to create a
world where burdens are lifted rather than imposed, work which we all
have a part in with him, work which starts with recognising and
shedding the unnecessary burdens that we may have picked up through our
lives, but which goes on from there to see the ways in which we may
have imposed burdens on others. Jesus’ yoke, the work he calls us to is
one that is worth bearing though, work that is worth doing, which is
why Jesus calls it an easy yoke.
“Come to me all you that are weary
and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”
It’s a wonderful invitation, an invitation that has given hope and
comfort to countless people, but it’s an invitation that is often far
deeper than we realise. It’s an invitation not just to a bit of time
out from the things that bother us, but to a healing that can get to
the roots of the problem, bringing love out of the hatred and suspicion
with which we have poisoned the world.
29th June 08 The
Feast of St Peter and St Paul - Patronal Festival (Holy Communion
I don't know if you've ever had a nickname. If I ever have, I don't
seem to have known about it – perhaps that's just as well. Nicknames
can be quite baffling. One of my son's friends was known to absolutely
everyone as Stinge. I don’t know why because he wasn't remotely stingy–
quite the reverse, a generous, cheerful, helpful lad. My son never
really explained how he got the name – I'm not sure he knew – but
Stinge his friend was and Stinge he remained.
There’s a famous man with a nickname in our gospel reading today. His
parents named him Simon, but to Jesus and eventually to the whole
church he was Peter – from petros, the Greek for rock. He was to be the
rock on which the church was built, a firm foundation. You wouldn't
have thought it at first, though, as he was anything but rocklike,
impetuous and changeable. But Jesus looked at him and saw not only who
he was but also who he could become. He saw the journey he was going to
make –from ordinary fisherman to founder of the church - a journey no
one else would have thought possible.
The other saint we heard about today – the other saint who this church
is dedicated to - didn't exactly have a nickname, but he did have two
names and the change from one to the other was equally significant and
required just as big a journey.
Paul appears first in the Bible bearing the Hebrew name Saul. He'd been
born in the city of Tarsus, in what is now Turkey, but his family were
Jewish. There were lots of well-established Jewish communities living
around the Mediterranean. Paul's father had been made a Roman citizen
at some point, probably in reward for some job he’d done for the
Romans. It was a great privilege, worth having, and it was hereditary
too, so Paul was a Roman citizen as well. That’s probably why he came
to have the Roman name Paul – it means “little” in Latin.
It was quite common for people like Paul – non-Romans living in a Roman
culture - to have a Latin name as well as one from their own
background. It made things easier when they were dealing with Roman
authorities – people knew how to spell and pronounce it. Immigrants
today will often take an English name or anglicise their original one.
They might use one at home in their own community, and one for dealing
with the host community.
But when we first meet Paul it is his other name – the Hebrew one, Saul
– that he is using, and that’s no surprise. He was proud of his
Jewishness. He was a Pharisee, a member of a very strict religious
group. The Pharisees had often opposed Jesus in his ministry, and Saul
did the same after Jesus’ crucifixion. By his own admission he was
determined to stamp out what he saw as heresy. These followers of Jesus
were distorting the faith of their ancestors, changing it to suit
themselves, and he was dead against it. He organized the persecution of
the early church, and had Christians thrown into prison. But
eventually, and very dramatically on the road to Damascus, on the way
to arrest some more Christians, he saw a vision of Jesus which
convinced him that the message he had opposed was actually right. God’s
love was for all – you didn't have to be Jewish to be part of his
After that this man who had felt so passionate about his mission to
keep Judaism Jewish became just as passionate a spokesman for the
opposite point of view - that God had chosen everyone. We can see
this passion in the first reading we heard today. His life’s work
wasn’t among his own Jewish people but among the Gentiles, non-Jews,
working to make sure they were completely included in the Christian
community. That's why in his letters and in the accounts of his travels
in Gentile lands he is always Paul, not Saul. Instead of saying, “I'm a
Jew first and foremost” with his name, he is saying with this Latin
name “I’ve come with a message for all. “
Paul's change of heart happened while he was on a real journey – on
that road to Damascus - but it was the spiritual and emotional journey
that was the longest journey for him.
Saul to Paul, Simon to Peter. The name changes tell us about the
journeys these two men – our patron saints – made, and actually there’s
a third journey, expressed in a name change, in today’s readings. In
the Gospel Peter call’s Jesus the Messiah – it means “anointed one”,
the Greek equivalent is “Christ”. Today people often use “Christ”
almost as if it is Jesus’ surname, but actually it is a title, the
title of one whom people expected, the one chosen and anointed by God
to lead his people. It’s the first time in Matthew’s Gospel that anyone
uses it of Jesus and it shows that there is another journey happening
here as those around Jesus see him in this new way. Perhaps his view of
himself changes too. He’s not a carpenter from Nazareth, but one who
comes to bring a radical new message from God.
So our readings today are full of hints about the journeys people make;
journeys they need to make if they are going to grow and change as they
should. It seems very appropriate to me that we should be aware of this
today because the baptisms we are about to do are a step forward on a
journey too. Emily, Jordan and Annie have all decided for themselves
that they'd like to be baptised. They and their parents and godparents
will be declaring in a moment that they want to “turn to Christ”, head
in his direction, along the road he leads them on.
They’ve come a long way on their journey already of course – they've
learnt a lot, grown a lot. But they've also got a lot of their journey
ahead of them; all sorts of opportunities to take, choices to make. Who
knows what they'll be when they grow up? I asked them myself; they each
had some ideas - a career in chocolate tasting appealed to Annie! - but
no one, including them can be sure what they will do, what challenges
they'll meet on the way. Perhaps at the end of their lives they’ll be
able to give themselves a nickname that sums that journey up – like
Peter the Rock - but they don't know what it is yet.
So what they need to know today is that wherever their journey takes
them, they won't travel alone. They’ll travel with the whole Christian
community – all of us here and Christians around the world. And most
importantly they’ll travel in the company of God. Baptism affirms that
God is always with us and will always be with us, through thick and
thin, good and bad, successes and failures – nothing we can do will
drive him away.
When we come to baptise them you might notice that we use a shell to
scoop the water. There's a reason for that. The shell is symbol of
pilgrimage – that special sort of journey that people take to discover
themselves and to discover God. Back in the middle ages people used to
go on pilgrimage to all sorts of places, but one of the most special
was in Northern Spain – Santiago de Compostella. It’s still a place of
pilgrimage. They went there to visit the shrine of St James and his
symbol happened to be a shell, so that’s the symbol they carried.
Gradually the shell became the symbol of pilgrimage anywhere. Medieval
pilgrims to Canterbury along the pilgrims’ way through Kemsing would
have worn one, maybe stopping off here. I can’t prove it but I’d guess
that the crosses carved into the pillar by the door were left by those
same medieval pilgrims. So this church is no stranger to pilgrims. And
today we help three new pilgrims to take the next step on their journey
as they are baptized. Who knows where that journey will lead them, but
the promise of baptism is that they’ll make it with God and with the
rest of us, his pilgrim people.
And since today is our Patronal festival - a special day not only for
Emily, Annie and Jordan, but for all of us as we gather to celebrate
the life of the church and to pray for our journey together - I'd like
to invite you all to take home a little reminder of that pilgrimage we
are on, the journey we are called to make. So, when you come up to take
the bread and wine, or for a blessing – and everyone is welcome - I'd
like to invite you to pick up a little shell from the table here. Take
it home to help you think about the journey you are on. Think about the
places you've been, the things you've done and that have happened to
you. Think too about the direction you are heading in – is it the one
you want to go in, the one that will really lead to the place you want
Peter, Paul, even Jesus himself, had journeys to make. Annie, Emily and
Jordan have journeys to make. We each have a journey to make, and one
to make together too. Let’s pray today for all our journeys, that we’ll
know God’s presence as he walks beside us.
June 22nd 2008 Trinity
There are times when I look at a set of readings and I think, “Oh, come
on God, how am I going to make a sermon out of these?” This week’s
readings are a set like that. They hardly paint an attractive, upbeat
image of what it means to be a Christian, do they?
“Now look,” says Jesus to his disciples, “the fact is that if you
follow me you will be in for a whole heap of trouble.” Oh, great!
“You’ll be maligned and persecuted, just like me. There’ll even be
people who want to kill you – but don’t worry about them…!” Well,
actually Jesus, I have to confess to a tiny shred of anxiety about that
“To cap it all,” says Jesus, “even your nearest and dearest will
fall out with you if you follow me; there will be strife in your
household – parents against children, children against parents, and
that’s before we start on the in-laws…”
Hang on, whatever happened to family values, Jesus…?
Oh well, if the Gospel reading is so problematical perhaps I’d better
preach about the first reading instead? But that’s really no better.
It’s all doom and gloom there too – all this stuff about sin and being
baptised into the death of Christ…
Frankly, if I wanted to do a sales job for Christian faith this
morning, in the hopes that people would be enticed to join the church
by the prospect of the joy it offers, these readings wouldn’t be a lot
of help. So perhaps it’s fortunate that that isn’t what I want to do –
today or any day. Of course I’m not against folk enjoying church, but
if that’s ALL that happens then I would consider we’d failed in our
job. My real hope is that when people come here they will go away with
something – some resource, some resolve or even just some more
questions - that will help them deal with the struggles and challenges
of their lives; that they’ll go away with the tools they need to live
with what they have to live with and change what they don’t.
The church isn’t a club where happy, successful people can get together
to congratulate one another on their good fortune, even if it would
like to be like that. After 15 years of doing this job in a variety of
churches I’ve discovered that no matter how smooth things look on the
surface of a congregation, when you start to get to know people you
find that many of them are struggling with things that seem unbearable
– and that’s only the ones I get to know about. This isn’t
because they are weak or inadequate. There’s nothing wrong with them,
except that life happens to have brought them overwhelming sadness,
irreparable loss, crushing anxiety, dilemmas that have no neat
solutions. It doesn’t happen to everyone all the time, thank goodness,
but far more people than you might suppose will have come here today
carrying desperately heavy burdens. If you are one of them, believe me,
you’re not alone. If you aren’t one of them, then don’t assume that
everyone is in the same fortunate boat as yourself or that you will
stay in that boat forever.
That’s why, despite the unattractiveness of these readings, it is
important that we hear them and that we pay attention to them, because
they were written for people who also knew at first-hand how tough,
challenging and grim life could be. A sugary version of Christian faith
that makes it out to be an easy answer which brings instant health,
wealth and happiness wasn’t going to help those first Christians,
just as it doesn’t help those who are going through troubled times
Matthew’s Gospel was probably written shortly after 70 AD, when the
Romans finally destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. The Jewish people
were thrown into a time of chaos and many of them did what people
usually do in these circumstances. They drew their boundaries tighter,
looked for scapegoats, feuded among themselves. It’s just human nature.
The followers of Christ, still regarded as a troublesome branch of
Judaism by many rather than a separate religion, were an obvious target
for mistrust and suspicion and they were eventually banned from the
synagogues, told they were no longer part of the ancestral faith they’d
grown up in and which had given them a sense of identity and a place to
belong. That’s the community Matthew is writing his Gospel for.
Paul is writing to a group of Christians living in Rome, the heart of
the empire, where they were faced with constant reminders of the brutal
force of that empire. Public execution, gladiatorial games which were
really just an excuse for mass slaughter – these were a commonplace
part of Roman life, designed to remind people what would happen if they
stepped out of line. Dying with Christ wasn’t a metaphor - picture
language to help people think about their spiritual lives - it was what
was happening in the most blood-thirsty of ways to their fellow
So what these people needed was not cheery platitudes about how much
fun it was being a Christian. They needed words of wisdom that could
bring real hope, real help to get them through the days of suffering
and the nights of fear they faced as they tried to live out the new way
of peace and justice that Jesus had taught them. There was no guarantee
in this new faith that God would swoop down and miraculously rescue
them from their fate – he hadn’t done so for Jesus on the cross. There
were no magic ways around the dark times – they just needed to find the
strength to go through them somehow.
So how could they find that strength? That’s the important question,
because we need it too, even though our burdens may be quite different.
I don’t claim any special insight here, and I’m very hesitant about
saying anything to those who are in the midst of turmoil – sometimes it
is better to keep silent, but there are two things that I think these
passages point us to that might just help or be worth remembering.
The first is that to get through hard times we may have to leave behind
old ways of thinking, old patterns of relating – to allow some things
to die so that new things can come to birth. Paul talks about
dying to sin so that we can be alive to God; sin is not just about the
individual bad things we might do, but also about the systems we are
part of that twist and misshape us, the expectations of our society,
even of our family and friends that damage rather than healing
us. The first Christians – pressurised to make sacrifices to the
Emperor – often had painful choices to make - banishment from their
families, exclusion from the social circles they had moved in, the loss
of powerful positions or even of their lives because of the path they’d
chosen to follow. I’ve often seen people who’re going through
difficulties having to make hard choices too. Sometimes they might have
to leave a job, leave a relationship, leave a life-style, give up a
self-image or a set of beliefs that is damaging them. Sometimes we have
to almost shed a skin that is too small for us so we can find the new
self we need, the freedom we need to grow.
But paradoxically, these readings also suggest that having been set
free, we then need, in a sense, to give up that freedom again. Jesus
calls us to become part of the household of God, to give our allegiance
to him and to one another.
In the ancient world people normally lived in households, not on their
own. They shared their lives with a host of other relatives, as well as
servants and slaves, all under the power of the head of that household.
They didn’t expect to live as free-floating individuals, and, actually
it would have been very hard to do so. For people in the ancient world,
having a household to belong to, even if only as a slave, meant that
you would at least be fed and housed. It gave you security and identity
too. Belonging to a household would usually be better than trying to
make it on your own. What mattered was who you were dependent upon –
whose household you belonged to, and how they shaped it. If it was a
good household, with a good master, you were well off; if not, your
life was hell.
When Jesus talks in the Gospel about being part of the household of God
therefore, he wasn’t just talking about a cosy family gathering, but
about being part of something that was vital, life-giving for those
first Christians, who had often lost their support and their place of
belonging. Here was a household that had God as its head – someone who
not only cared about you, but who could number the hairs on your head.
In this household even if you lost everything, even if your life was
disintegrating before your eyes, it was not the end, but a new
beginning– those who lose their lives will find them, says the Gospel.
And it was a household that was open to all, whoever they were and
whatever their background. Those early Christians weren’t perfect of
course – they fell out just as often and as bitterly as we do today –
but nonetheless their commitment to a life together gave them the
courage they needed to face persecution. The good news for us is that
we are still called into that same household, bringing both our
strengths and our needs to one another and to him. We don’t get it
right all the time – in fact we often get it spectacularly wrong - but
I’ve often been overwhelmed by the depth of love I’ve found within the
church and the transforming effect that love can have on people when
they come into contact with it.
As I said when I started, these aren’t easy readings. They are hard
readings, for hard times when life is painful and bewildering, when the
challenges seem too great for us, when the floods threaten to overwhelm
us. There are no simple answers in them, no magic wands, but they speak
to us words of real hope and wisdom, of a God whose love is stronger
than the things that enslave us, a God to whom we are of infinite value
and by whom we are infinitely cherished, a God who calls us together
into his household of love.
15 June 2008 Trinity 4
Breathing Space Communion
Jesus calls his disciples in today’s Gospel reading, sending them out
to “proclaim the good news”. But when we start to look at the list of
names of those he calls we realise that they are a pretty rum lot.
There’s Peter, whose heart’s in the right place but who spends half his
time rushing into things without thinking them through. There’s Thomas
who always seems to be full of questions, wanting everything spelled
out for him. There’s Matthew, the tax-collector, viewed with suspicion
by many. And there’s Judas Iscariot, who’ll eventually betray him.
There are others whose stories we don’t know, but they are all ordinary
people, fishermen, farmers, tradesmen. They hardly look like a dream
team and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were aware of that
themselves. They probably knew themselves well enough to realise that
they weren’t really up to the job – “Cure the sick, raise the dead,
cleanse the lepers, cast out demons…” Oh, sure, Jesus, and what
shall we do after lunch…?
Still, perhaps they thought to themselves that they would be able to
pretend. So long as they went far enough away from home, to a place
where no one really knew them. Maybe then they might be able to
maintain some façade of holiness long enough to impress those
they had landed amongst…
No such luck. Jesus is quite specific. They are not to go among
strangers with their message – not to the Gentiles, not to the
Samaritans. It wasn’t that Jesus had anything against these groups – he
ministered to them himself. I think the point is that he knew that his
disciples needed to start where they were, with the people they knew,
if their ministries were ever going to be rooted in reality. They
weren’t to be like travelling snake-oil salesmen, turning up with some
novelty cure and then beating it out of town before anyone saw through
the pretence. What he calls them to is that depth of genuine connection
with people that we see in his own ministry. When Matthew tries to
describe how Jesus feels at the sight of the needy, ragged crowds that
come to him he uses a Greek word that is literally to do with the
bowels. Jesus is gutted, sick to his stomach. He feels their distress
in his own body, as if it was his own. If his followers can’t make that
sort of connection – if they are determined to keep it all at one
remove – they will never have the empathy that they need to help. Jesus
calls them to a ministry rooted in love not in slick packaging. But how
can they find that connection?
“You have received without payment; give without payment”, he tells
them. ”You have received…” that’s the important thing. They themselves
were in need – and still are – and it is this that they must remember
as they deal with others who are in need, because it is not in their
strength but in their weakness that they will find most powerfully
God’s love, the love that they are called to pass on. Matthew describes
the crowd that Jesus met – people like those they will meet – as
“harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”. The image is a
powerful one – the Greek word translated as harassed literally means
“coming to pieces, coming apart at the seams, disintegrating” and the
word helpless means “tossed about”. It is the image of a lamb caught in
the jaws of some wild animal that Jesus evokes - torn to shreds
as it is thrashed about. That’s what happened to sheep without
shepherds in Jesus’ world. Being broken, shredded like that, is part of
the humanity that Jesus himself shares on the cross – and it is the
place where we are most likely to find God’s healing, God’s love.
Jesus calls his disciples to look at their own lives, to see what they
have received, and then to use that knowledge to help others - give as
you have received. He doesn't want them to do some slick PR job for
Christian Enterprises PLC, but simply to share the transforming love
that they themselves have found.
harvest is still plentiful; the labourers are still few, and probably –
if we have any sense – we are wary of God’s call. Who are we to think
we can do anything for anyone else? “Cure the sick? raise the dead?
cleanse the lepers? cast out demons?…” Us? But just like
disciples, we need to realise that Jesus doesn’t call us to pretend to
have the answers. That won’t help anyone. He calls us to look in the
broken, battered places of our own lives, to find God’s healing where
we are, where we need it, and then, as we take his message to others,
we’ll find that we won’t have to pretend.
8 June 2008 Trinity 3 Sermon by Kevin Bright
9.9-13,18-26, Romans 4.13-25, Hosea 5.15-6.6
Lord, please help each one of us to find personal meaning, guidance and
inspiration in the words we have heard read from the bible this
‘In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes’, a phrase
attributed to Benjamin Franklin but as we just heard also firmly on the
agenda around 1800 years earlier. Tax collectors will never be popular
but to be fair it seems that the trouble with the profession is that
90% of its members give the rest a bad name!
Death, taxes, and things which the Jews considered ritually unclean,
all controversial stuff in today’s gospel reading.
‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor’ said Jesus.
If we think carefully about it, those few words express the reason for
his existence, his mission on earth to fulfil scripture and they offer
hope to us all for an eternal future with God.
We literally thank God for this as we recognise his grace and mercy
Most of us avoid the doctors like the plague! We only go there if we
feel so ill that there is no other option. This is a not a doctor to be
avoided until there is no other option but one we should welcome into
our lives recognising our need for his help. If we can get on the right
track and maintain contact you might even call it preventative medicine.
When Jesus talks of the sick it seems he meant this in both a moral and
spiritual sense, after all we heard about tax collectors and sinners as
well as a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. The thing they have
in common is that they would all have been outcasts from Jewish society
and Jesus actions violated the ritual laws which were generally
Let’s have a look at a few of the people mentioned to see why this can
be regarded as a taboo busting episode from Matthews gospel.
Taboo 1 - First there’s Matthew, also known as Levi, possibly the
author of this gospel so possibly writing of his own experience at
being called to follow Christ.
When commanded ‘follow me’ he gets up and follows Christ. My impression
is that he recognises Christ’s authority and understands that this is
not a command to be queried. There is no room for dithering, we don’t
hear ‘hang on a minute I’ll just finish today’s takings’, or ‘I’ll just
check with the Romans to make sure they are okay with this’ he
Even today not everyone has kind words about tax collectors but
Matthews role was even more hated. He would be about as popular as an
Englishman going off to fight for the Taliban in his role collecting
taxes on behalf of a hated occupying Roman army.
On top of that the tax collectors were renowned for abuse, malpractice
On top of that again the situated was aggravated further because the
tax collectors were regarded as ceremonially unclean on account of
their continual contact with gentiles and their need to work on the
So Jesus decision to call Matthew and dine with him and other outcasts
would have both bewildered and infuriated the Pharisees.
Taboo 2 –
Ladies menstruating were considered ritually unclean, even more so a
lady haemorrhaging. She would have been close to the top of the list of
‘things to avoid if you want to stay pure’ according to Jewish law. The
fact that Jesus heals a condition that had persisted for 12 years
without any reference to her being ‘unclean’ was therefore abhorrent to
Taboo 3 – Dead people. Right up there in the hierarchy of purity laws
was the rule that dead bodies should not be touched. (Remember the
parable of the Good Samaritan where the priest avoids the beaten body
in case it is dead and he breaks the rules).
Taboo breaking also applies to the desperate man who approaches Jesus,
probably a synagogue leader we would know as Jairus. Anyway a man of
high standing who hears there’s a prophet in town who’s healing people.
He’s more used to people coming to him to ask for things in his
respected role yet he forgets his high standing and usually
dignified public demeanour, his little girl has just died, what could
all that matter now. He publicly throws himself to his knees in the
dusty road as he seeks Jesus healing power.
As we know Jesus also ate with prostitutes, lepers and other outcasts,
and was quizzed as to why his disciples didn’t keep Jewish fasting laws.
The message was becoming clear that Jesus had come to bring radical
change. The old way of doing things didn’t fit comfortably alongside
what Jesus had come to do and this was going to upset people opposed to
It wasn’t that Jesus had come to destroy the old ways but change had to
take place as he came to fulfil scripture.
This doesn’t feel like gentle change phased in over time with a
Clearly Jesus had not sought advice from any management consultants or
he would have ‘sought to mitigate the risk to the change caused by
resistance and employed change agents to build communication, learning
and reward system plans that accurately reflect the needs of the
targets of change.’
However, in a world before management consultants Jesus not only makes
it clear how things must change if God’s love for the outcasts and
suffering is to be made real but he also shows the way forward to the
future when he says ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice, something the
prophet Hosea had seen long ago.’
In effect, Jesus told them, “If you feel right with God, okay; but
these people I came to help need something more than all your
self-righteous ritual performances.”
Faith had lead Matthew to follow, faith was shown by the man whose
daughter had died and Jesus said ‘your faith has healed you’ to the
Paul continues this theme in his letter to the Romans. If only those
who keep Mosaic Law are God's people, faith would be meaningless.
Effectively Paul said that nobody could keep the law, however hard they
tried but anyone can get to know God and trust him, like Abraham did.
If we accept the new ways that Jesus showed us as being Gods way then
we are freed from slavishly following the path which doesn’t feel right
but which we tend to go down anyway because so many others do. We are
freed from behaving in the way that others expect just because that is
what they have become used to.
We need to look for signs of change which bring hope whether this is
seen in the possibility of the first black US president or in something
as local as improved community facilities.
It’s for us to challenge injustices and care about the outcasts. This
could mean giving time, money or prayer.
When you consider the opportunity Jesus gave to Matthew maybe we just
need to find it within ourselves to give someone a break this week.
If our faith lives through us there will be times when we feel the need
to speak out, sometimes as a minority voice. Awareness of the
sacrifices and needs of others will become important to us.
we need inspiration there’s certainly one bishop we can look to for
examples. That’s the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu.
He has not only lead prayer and protest for the people of Zimbabwe but
also drew attention to himself this week by jumping out of a ‘plane at
13,000 ft with a devil, a red devil skydiver of course.
Despite opposing the war in Iraq he recognises the sacrifices of
individuals serving both there and in Afghanistan and aims to raise at
least £50,000 for the ‘Afghanistan trust’ which provides care for
Jumping out of a plane or making public protest won’t be for everyone
but not turning our backs on those in greatest need has to be for
everyone of us, if we are serious about being followers of Christ.
8 June 2008
Trinity 208 Evensong
Jesus told a story in today’s Gospel about sowing and growing, a
familiar story. But his simple, familiar tale has a powerful message
for us. The seeds which the sower scatters, he says, are the words of
God. They represent all those tiny things that speak to us of hope and
of new beginnings, words that whisper to us that things can be
different. Seeds, despite their small size, have packed within them the
potential to become huge plants – trees even – and to produce seed
themselves. They are full of promise for the future.
But any gardener will tell you just how easily tiny seedlings can be
destroyed, how many dangers there are for them to face – pests and
diseases, drought and frost. Sow four times as many as you need, says
the old gardening proverb. “One for the rook, one for the crow, one to
rot and one to grow.”
The Old Testament story we heard today – the story of Ruth - speaks of
the promise and the vulnerability of in our lives – those seeds of
hope. Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi – both widows, with no one to
support them – are about as helpless as they can be in the society of
their time. But Ruth’s courage and faith in sticking with Naomi,
leaving her own homeland and going with Naomi to Israel, are rewarded.
Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz, notices her and eventually marries her. Good
news for Ruth and Naomi, but even better news for the people of Israel,
because Ruth and Boaz have a son – Obed – who is the father of Jesse,
who is the father of the little shepherd boy David, who becomes
Israel’s greatest king. Ruth’s life is a vulnerable seed, but one
which eventually brings forth a very significant harvest.
The seeds which fall into our lives may not have such far-reaching
effects as these, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. We are
all called to bear the fruit of God’s kingdom, both for our own sake
and for the sake of others. Sometimes things which seem small to us can
have a huge impact. A chance encounter which leads us in a new
direction, a new job, a wake up call of one kind or another – even an
illness or a loss can be a turning point, something that spurs us into
action. All of a sudden the world looks different – we are filled with
a sense of resolve – things will change, things can change, things must
change, we think. But will that seed be able to put down roots, to grow
and to thrive and produce more life, or will our good resolutions lead
nowhere, and our hopes shrivel and die.
According to Jesus’ story there are many reasons why these seeds of new
life might not make it to the harvest. Some of those seeds – the words
of God that inspire us – will fall onto the path, the well-trodden
route, where the earth is packed hard. Our attempts to change our lives
often fail because before we’ve even started old messages start playing
in our heads, “don’t be ridiculous, there’s no point trying, you’ll
never manage it, you’ll give up, you’re no good at this sort of thing”.
Often new initiatives fail because we haven’t got the courage or the
imagination to try doing things in new ways, to abandon our old images
of ourselves, of our world, of other people, of the way things ought to
be. It is easier to do what we have always done, even if it has never
worked. It takes enormous effort and courage to get off the path and
out into unfamiliar territory. And so the seeds of new growth are
destroyed before they have had a chance to grow.
Other seeds, says Jesus, shrivel and die because they fall on rocky
ground. They have no depth of soil to grow in. There aren’t enough
nutrients, and the water just evaporates. If we want our hopes to bear
fruit we need to build up depth in our lives. Building up depth means
taking time for reflection, getting to know ourselves, building up our
friendships, being involved with our communities, laying down resources
of wisdom – the words of the Bible, the lessons learnt from history.
All these things keep that new growth healthy and strong – without them
it comes to nothing. If we’ve rushed through our lives, skating across
the surface, now we find we are parched and hungry.
A third group of seeds, says Jesus, is choked by thorny weeds – plants
which grow more strongly, winning the battle for light and energy.
These aren’t annual thistles, according to the parable, by the way.
They don’t grow from seeds which are hidden in the soil, which the
farmer is unaware of, which he only realises are there when they
germinate alongside the wheat. According to the Greek text, these are
acanthus plants. You might have acanthus – Bear’s Breeches - in your
garden. There’s acanthus mollis with smooth leaves, but these in the
parable are more likely to be acanthus spinosus – a thorny variety that
grows wild in the Middle East. Acanthus is sold these days as an
‘architectural plant’ – in other words it’s huge. Four feet tall,
enormous leaves, roots that go down to Australia. It is perennial, and
evergreen in the Middle East. You couldn’t possibly miss it, and yet
this sower seems to think it is worth scattering his seeds among it.
There’s not a chance they’ll grow! Even if they make it down through
the foliage to the ground and germinate, they’ll die a slow death in
People often display an equally unrealistic expectation that they will
be able to grow new lives without paying the least attention to the
deeply rooted problems in which they are entangled. They embrace the
latest fad diet, without examining what it is that has caused them to
overeat in the past. They come along to church and pray piously, while
all the time nursing grudges which they have no intention of trying to
put right. We want to “make poverty history”, but this will mean making
a lot of other things history too – greed, the feeling that we have the
right to hang onto our comfort and convenience at the expense of
others, the equation we draw between status, self-esteem and material
possessions. In reality our hopes for a world of peace and justice are
far more likely to be killed off slowly by the weeds of apathy and
self-interest than they are to be blasted away by Al Quaeda. These
things tangle around us, deep-rooted and vigorous. Our good intentions
are no match for them.
All in all it looks like a bleak picture. Change doesn’t come easily.
New growth is fragile
But, of course, there are four types of soil in the farmer’s field in
the parable. Some seed falls onto good ground, and there it grows and
thrives and produces thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold. We’ve seen what is
wrong with the bad soil – but what is so good about this ground? What
makes good soil? Jesus’ listeners knew, and any keen gardener in the
congregation will know too. Good soil is soil that has been opened up –
by digging, by frost, by worms. It’s been broken apart, so that the
roots of the plants can penetrate it and the shoots find their way to
the surface. It has been turned over, raked about to break down the
lumps in it. The gardener has gone deep enough to dig out even the
acanthus roots – it takes some doing, but it can be done.
And of course it is rich soil. Rich with what? What does good soil have
in it to feed the plants? It is full of what we might euphemistically
call organic matter. That means compost - rotted down vegetation. I’m
an avid composter – compost is gorgeous when it is fully decomposed,
but on the way to its final state even I have to admit that it can be
singularly unattractive – smelly and slimy as it rots. And, of course,
the really lucky soil gets manure too…
So the good soil in the field, the good soil in our lives is the soil
that is broken open, turned over, dug up, full of rotted rubbish and
other substances which we might prefer not to name.
Often when people talk to me about their lives, these are precisely the
areas which they are most reluctant to discuss – most likely to be
ashamed of. It is hard to acknowledge the broken bits of our lives, the
failures, the disappointments, the rotten stuff. We would rather just
put them out of sight and out of mind. We hope people won’t find out
about them. But according to this parable these are precisely the
places that will grow the most abundant harvest.
It doesn’t sound likely, but it’s true. Many people have found God most
deeply at work not in the shiny, respectable, capable parts of their
lives, but in times of weakness and failure. It is a truth which is
central to our faith, in fact. It was Christ’s willingness to go
through the pain, humiliation, and defeat of the cross which led to the
new life of Easter. God’s kingdom grew strong and fruitful in the
broken soil of his body on the compost heap of Golgotha – strong enough
to break the bonds of death, strong enough to bring new life not only
to him, but to the whole of his creation.
As we look at our lives, and the life of the world, despite all the
sadness and trouble it contains there are also many seeds of hope –
people struggling to bring life and love to others. Perhaps we can see
seeds of hope in our own lives too. But we can see how vulnerable those
seedlings are. If they are to have a chance of survival it will be in
the broken soil of our lives, in the soil that has been dug and weeded,
enriched from our compost heaps of failure and weakness. As we follow
our broken Saviour, may we find the fruit of love, peace and justice
growing in us richly today and always.
1st June 08 Trinity 2
3.22b-31, Matthew 7.21-29
There was once, it is said, an architect. He had spent his career
building beautiful houses for very rich people, and though he enjoyed
his work and was good at it, gradually he began to envy those he
designed for. After all, he would never be able to afford one of the
houses he built.
As he neared retirement the managing director of the firm he worked for
called him into the office. “Before you retire there is one last job
that we have for you,” he said. “It is a slightly unusual commission.
You are to build a house for a client who wants to remain anonymous.
The client says that you can design the house exactly as you like. The
only requirement is that you must use only the best materials and build
the house with care and attention to detail.”
The architect set to work. But, knowing that this would be his last
job, all those resentments he had stored up over the years started to
niggle away at him. “Why should this unknown person have such a fine
house,” he thought to himself, “when I shall soon have to live on a
pension?” So he began to cut corners, buying cheaper materials and
pocketing the money he saved. He took short cuts on the construction in
ways that no one but himself would easily be able to see.
Finally the house was finished. The architect was invited by the
managing director to be present when the keys were handed over to the
new owner. He smiled to himself at the thought of this poor fool who
would think he had such a fine house, when in fact the architect knew
that in 10 or 15 years time all sorts of problems would appear in it
because of the way he had cheated. But what did he care about that?
He’d be long retired by then – he’d have the last laugh.
The day of the handover arrived. The architect was surprised when he
got to the house to find lots of his fellow workers there, but no sign
of anyone who might be the new owner. The managing director stood up.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this has been an unusual commission, but now I
can reveal to you who the owner of this fine new house is. The company
decided, you see, that it would like to make the very best
retirement gift it could to one of its longest-serving employees…” and
with that he turned to the architect and gave him the keys. “Welcome to
your new house, which you built yourself with such care. May you have a
long and happy retirement in it...”
In today’s Gospel we hear about a wise builder and a foolish builder,
one who builds his house on rock and the other who builds his house on
sand. Like the architect in the story, they have to live in the houses
they have made. This is fine until the storm comes, when the house on
the rock stands firm and the other collapses, just as you might expect.
“Build on the firm foundation of God’s will,” says Jesus “God’s way of
living - love, forgiveness, tolerance, respect - and you will build a
dwelling place for yourself and for others that will be good and
strong.” And we probably nod our heads and think to ourselves “well,
that’s obvious isn’t it…” But because this message seems so obvious
it’s easy for us to skate over the surface of it and by doing that we
may miss some of the deeper questions it provokes, questions we need to
answer if it is to be any real use to us.
Because the fact is that although it seems obvious that building the
house of our life on good foundations with good materials is wise, we
often seem to be very bad at doing it. We do things like smoking, or
drinking and eating to excess that we know will harm our bodies. We
hurt those we love and those who love us. We sabotage our own efforts
to grow and heal. We know what makes for healthy, happy human living –
individually and for our communities and our world - but we choose
something else. Like that architect in the story, our wounds and
failings get in the way of our better nature. And we’re not alone in
that. As St Paul says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of
God.” We’re all in this together, intending to build beautiful
homes for ourselves, lives that are places of love and joy and welcome,
but often ending up instead with ramshackle huts, bodged together with
Polyfilla and wishful thinking, which collapse when the cold winds
blow. If we KNOW better, why can’t we DO better?
The thing that has always bugged me about Jesus’ story of the two
houses is why the foolish man chose to build on sand in the first
place. Even a moment’s thought would tell him it was a bad idea. Jesus’
audience would have known how daft it was to build on sand, especially
in an area like the Middle East, where the dried up river beds were
often suddenly overwhelmed by flash floods. Everyone knew it was daft.
The foolish builder knew it too – and Jesus is clear that he IS
foolish, not just unlucky or ignorant or too poor to afford a better
spot. If that were the case Jesus would say so (and, in any case, it
would make the whole parable pointless). No, this foolish builder just
decides, for some strange reason of his own, that it is there, on the
shifting sand, that he wants to build. But why?
I’m a member of a preachers’ discussion forum on the internet – it has
members all around the world. Many of my colleagues on that forum live
in places that are prone to natural disasters – floods, earthquakes,
tornadoes and so on. So I asked them why the people in their
communities chose to live in these places, and why they didn’t just
move somewhere else. I got all sorts of answers. Some people, of
course, had no choice – they were too poor to move. But for others that
wasn’t the case. Some people, they said, were in denial – they just
didn’t think it would happen to them. Some were fatalistic – they might
as well just accept the inevitable, disaster would strike them someday,
so it might as well be a disaster they were familiar with – the devil
they knew. Some just stayed because this was home, the place they had
grown up in – their identity was wrapped up in it. Some reckoned that
the advantages – good soil or beautiful scenery, perhaps – compensated
for the potential risk.
This same mix of factors is at work across the world. Cyclone Nargis
caused so much devastation because it made landfall in the Irrawaddy
Delta, a highly populated but very low-lying area in the south of
Burma. Most of it is barely above sea-level. It was obviously
vulnerable, so why did so many people choose to live there? The answer
isn’t just a simple tale of individual human choice, let alone
individual human folly; it is far more complicated than
that. When the British conquered Burma in the 19th Century,
they decided that the fertile soil of the Irrawaddy Delta, then a huge
mangrove swamp, would be ideal for growing rice. So they cleared the
mangroves, which had protected the land from floods, absorbing the
power of waves and wind. The result – lots of rich, alluvial silt to
grow rice in, which led many people to settle there – there was a good
living to be made. But with the mangrove swamps gone, they were
defenceless when the storm hit. It wasn’t just individual choice but
also global politics, economics and the vagaries of history which led
to this disaster – a disaster that could have been prevented.
It seems to me that when we ask ourselves why we made choices in our
lives that turned out to be self-destructive it is tempting to look for
some simple answer. We give ourselves a hard time – how could we have
been so stupid? It is even easier to look at others disapprovingly when
it is their lives that are falling apart and rush to judgement – why on
earth couldn’t they see that they were heading for disaster? “It’s not
rocket science…” we say to ourselves. But in reality the personal,
social, and spiritual brokenness that afflicts us – the thing the Bible
calls sin – isn’t a simple matter. It doesn’t have simple causes, and
it doesn’t have a simple cure either. It is part of being human,
fallible, broken people entangled with billions of other human,
fallible broken people.
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” says Paul, but
the good news is that he goes on to say that just as all are part of
this tangle of wrong so all, in the love of God can be justified - put
right - too, and that that is his desire. What is more as each one of
us is disentangled by his love, we help set others free too to live the
lives he wants for them as well. It’s not magic. It doesn’t happen
overnight. We might even need to be dismantled completely and shifted
to a new foundation. But a God who could raise Christ from the dead is
not going to be defeated by anything we have done.
If your life was a house, would you want to live in it? If the answer
is an unequivocal yes, then you are either very fortunate or you are
missing something. Most of us, I guess, will be aware of at least a
little damp in the attic, or creaking in the walls, and we may know we
have far deeper problems too. Perhaps we have realised we are in the
wrong place completely, sinking in the sand rather than set on a firm
footing of rock. Whatever the case is for us, the invitation is the
same; to stop desperately trying to bodge-it-ourselves, put away the
Pollyfilla and put ourselves into the hands of a loving master builder
who longs to begin his work of reconstruction in us.
25th May 2008 Trinity 1
Leviticus 19.1,2.9-18, Matthew 5.38-end
“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” That’s the call
to us in our first reading today.
“Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” says Jesus in the
Be holy; be perfect!
So, no pressure there then….!
How perfect and holy do you feel this morning, I wonder? Not very? Me
neither. I’m guessing that for most of us these commandments sound more
than a little unrealistic – and perhaps we’re not sure that we really
want to be holy or perfect either. Holiness and perfection can sound
rather otherworldly, not very human, even a bit priggish. But let’s
have a look at them this morning anyway – who knows, they may turn out
to be more important and more attractive than we think.
Holiness is a common Biblical idea, especially in the Old Testament,
and the key thing to know is that it isn’t to do with being pious or
praying a lot or being respectable – things we often associate with
being holy. Holiness, for Biblical writers, is about separation.
Holy things were things that had been set aside for a special purpose.
They were different, or used differently to ordinary things. “Remember
the Sabbath day and keep it holy,” said the commandment, for example.
Treat the seventh day differently from the others; that way it will jog
you out of the temptation simply to plod on through your life
unthinkingly so that the things that are really important –
thanksgiving, wonder, gathering together with your community - aren’t
swallowed by the relentless sameness of life. That’s what holiness is
about – the separation and distinctiveness that helps us to see the
things that matter more clearly.
So when God tells Moses that the people of Israel are to be holy he is
saying that they too should have the courage to be distinctive, to
stand out rather than just following the herd. It’s not about being
different for the sake of being different – sheer contrariness - but
about being prepared to go against the grain of the world if that is
what love and justice calls us to do.
The passage we heard this morning gives a little sketch of what that
might involve, and if your image of holiness is of a rather precious
piety it just might come as a surprise to you. Don’t reap right up to
the edges of your field, it says. Don’t harvest all your grapes – leave
some for the poor and the landless. Don’t keep your labourers’ wages
until the morning – they need them each evening to buy food for their
families. Don’t make life harder than it needs to be for those with
disabilities. Be straight with others, don’t use underhand techniques
to gain the advantage over them. This vision of holiness is very
practical, to do with creating a society where all have a fair chance.
Living like this probably sounded just as extraordinary to ancient ears
as it would to many people today. One of the first words most children
discover is the word “mine!” It’s wired into us to feel we should heap
up as much as we can, just in case there might be bad times around the
corner – to be self-protective, which can often mean being selfish
too. But God calls his people to be different, to be distinctive,
to be holy, and that means making choices that might not come naturally
to us, like the choice to be unselfish, not to cling to our rights or
Being holy, above all then inevitably involves thinking for ourselves,
being aware of our own prejudices and assumptions, weighing up the
evidence and coming to our own conclusions, even if that means we don’t
quite fit in anymore. We need to listen to those around us and be aware
of our traditions, but in the end, to be holy we have to take
responsibility for our own decisions and not just do whatever others
It is reasonably easy when this means opposing things that Christians
have traditionally opposed – greed, promiscuity or gambling, for
example. But sometimes God’s call to holiness means looking long and
hard at attitudes that we might have picked up within the Christian
community. When campaigners fought for the abolition of the slave
trade, for votes for women and against apartheid they often found that
it was Christians who were their staunchest opponents rather than their
allies, Christians who claimed that the Bible backed their views, who
looked suspiciously at anything new, simply because it was new, who
were angry that anyone should question their traditional
interpretations of the word of God. Our current “hot potatoes” are
different – this week’s debates around the Human Fertilisation and
Embryology bill, for example, or the tensions within the church about
gay clergy or women bishops. But the call to holiness remains the same.
It’s not a call to look for what others say is “the Christian view” and
just follow their lead. We each need to make up our own minds, based on
the evidence, so that we can say – “this is my decision.” We can’t
shrug our shoulders and hide behind the Bible, because if we read the
Bible honestly and intelligently we soon discover that there are many
ways of understanding and interpreting it. We can’t shrug our shoulders
and hide behind the church, or the media or our family and friends, and
let others do our thinking for us. We’re responsible for the decisions
we make, and the effect they may have on the lives of others.
So that’s holiness. But what about perfection? “Be perfect, as your
heavenly Father is perfect.” Well, again, we need to be careful that we
understand this word. Perfection to most of us means something that is
spotless and pure. The exhibitors at the Chelsea flower show have been
aiming for perfect gardens this week – no weeds, no slugs, not a leaf
out of place. I often find that wedding couples have succumbed to the
pressure to aim for a perfect wedding – one that goes like clockwork
with everything “just so.” It never quite works out like that, of
course, and it usually doesn’t matter in the end, but they’ll put
themselves through endless misery and expense in their quest for
But that sort of perfection isn’t what Jesus means here. The Greek word
that the Gospel writer uses – teleo - means finished or complete.
It is the same word that Jesus cries from the cross as he dies - “It is
finished!” His work is accomplished. He has seen it through to the end.
Our English word “perfect” had the same meaning originally – “per” on
the beginning of a word means “right through” – persistent, pervasive
and so on.
Being perfect isn’t about being sinless, then, or never getting things
wrong, it is about having a faith that goes right through you, that
affects everything you do, that is deeply rooted and real so it shows
itself in the love with which you live your life. It is like a stick of
rock - the words “Follower of Christ” shouldn’t just be painted on the
ends. They need to run all the way through the middle, so wherever you
cut us you read the same message.
The Gospel reading gives us a glimpse of what that perfection might
look like. It’s a similar message to the Old Testament but Jesus takes
it even further. Living his way doesn’t just mean sharing fairly, but
giving more than is expected, loving not just your neighbours and your
kin, but your enemies too. If someone takes your coat, give them your
cloak. If they make you go a mile, go another one willingly. To live
like this demands a faith that is far more than skin deep. To love in
the face of hatred, to give generously to someone who has taken from
you, you need to know very securely that you yourself are loved,
honoured and precious in God’s eyes.
So – to be holy you have to be prepared to be distinctive, to be the
person God calls you to be rather than being squashed into a mould made
by others. To be perfect you have to allow that distinctiveness to run
right through you, affecting everything you do and say.
How holy and perfect do you feel this morning, then? Probably still not
very, but perhaps the challenge seems like a slightly different one
when we see it this way. It isn’t a call to remove yourself from the
sullying influences of life into an otherworldly cocoon but to get
involved in the world and to take your faith into every nook and cranny
of your being.
I came across the story this week of a nun called Sister Elaine Roulet,
and I’d like to finish by telling you about her. She lives in a convent
in New York. When she joined her order many years ago it was full of
nuns, living out their vocation in a rather rarified and protected
environment. She recalled taking her vows. "It was so exciting, so
romantic, to walk down that aisle as a bride of Christ and come back as
a nun…You were enshrined in these wonderful robes and had all this
mystery about you and felt and even smelled holy". But the convent
gradually declined in numbers, and so the sisters took a brave
decision. They’d been working with women prisoners and their families,
and they realised that many of them had nowhere to live when they left
prison and soon slipped back into crime. So the sisters decided to open
up their convent and take these women in. Now the convent is full
again, but with ex-prisoners and their children rather than with nuns,
with all the chaos, mess and noise family life brings as they care for
these often damaged and vulnerable people.
Looking back Sister Elaine said, "There was such purity about [the life
we had]…"It was so uncomplicated, you know?...And now it's so
complicated, but so much better,"…
The unruffled calm and quiet of the convent might have looked holy and
perfect, but it is what is happening now which Sr. Elaine sees as real
holiness and perfection. Women who no one has time for, no one respects
or wants are treated with dignity and love that goes beyond anything
they or anyone else might expect. Sr. Elaine is very fond of reminding
people that “our changed lives might be the only gospel that some
people ever read.”
Be holy, be perfect is the challenge to us today, so that the gospel
that others read in us might be one that is distinctive, that goes
right through us and that speaks to them of the powerful, transforming
love of God.
May 18th 08 Trinity Sunday Breathing Space Communion
Isaiah 40.12-17, 27-31, Matt 28.16-20
I expect we’ve all had the experience of going back to a place we knew
when we were small children and finding that although the things we
remember are still there, inexplicably everything seems smaller than it
once was. I can remember not being able to reach the bolt on the
bathroom door at my childhood home, and not being able to see into the
washbasin, but now it’s all within easy reach.
What happened? Of course, it’s not that these things shrunk; it is that
This isn’t just something that happens to us physically; it is also
true in other ways. A skill that once seemed quite impossible– reading,
writing, swimming, knitting, speaking a foreign language or whatever -
might now come as second nature. Once it felt like Mount Everest; now
you hardly notice you are doing it. Or perhaps you have faced what felt
like an impossible emotional challenge - overwhelming grief, anger,
bitterness or fear - but looking back on it now the passage of time has
changed your perspective. You might still feel sad, angry, bitter or
anxious, but these emotions don't feel as if they are drowning you
Those who heard Isaiah’s prophecy – Jewish exiles in Babylon – faced a
situation that seemed overwhelming to them. The Babylonian Empire
stretched across most of the Middle East. It was an apparently
undefeatable power. They had been powerless to stop it when it
destroyed Jerusalem, powerless when they were taken into exile, and
now, after several generations, it seemed as if nothing could ever
change. Babylon’s might was the biggest thing that they could imagine.
It filled their mental horizon, a vast, irresistible cruel force. They
could no more imagine its empire being defeated than they could imagine
But then along comes Isaiah and tells them that they will soon be going
home. Babylon will fall. God has promised it and he will keep his
promise. However big and powerful Babylon is, he says, God is bigger
and more powerful still.
Think of the vastness of the universe, he reminds them. Yet God could
contain it all in one hand if he wanted to. From his angle, the nations
of the world – even Babylon – were no more than a speck, their empires
just fleeting moments in history. How big a thing seems depends not on
the size of the thing, but on the size of the person dealing with it –
whether it is the height of a bolt on a door, or a grief that seems
overwhelming, or the enslaving might of an empire.
In the Old Testament when Moses asks God what he is called, he gets a
strange answer. I AM, says God. He is being itself, the source of
everything that is. The Medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, once had a
vision of God. He was holding in his hand something the size of a
hazelnut. “What is it?” she asked. “It is everything that is “came the
answer. “But it is so small? Surely it will just collapse into
nothing.” “No” she heard, "because God made it, God loves it and God
That’s Isaiah’s message to his people. God is vast, he says– far, far
bigger, and far, far more powerful than any empire or army, no matter
how mighty they seem to you.
But the Gospel reading gives us even better news. Again we meet people
facing a vast challenge. “Go therefore and make disciples of all
nations” Jesus says to the tiny handful of ordinary men and women who
follow him. How on earth will this be possible? They aren’t rich or
powerful or clever. It is a Mount Everest size challenge.
But Jesus reminds them that they aren’t alone as they begin their work.
He will be with them through his Spirit - the Spirit of God - as they
travel out into the world. God himself will dwell within them giving
them the wisdom and the courage they will need – that same mighty God
who holds the universe as if it was no bigger than a hazel nut.
God for them is not just I AM anymore; God is “I AM WITH YOU”.
I’ve given you all a little hazelnut to hold this evening. As you hold
it, think of something that looms large in your life – a worry, a
grief, a challenge. Think of the things that loom large in the life of
the world – those who suffer in the aftermath of the cyclone in Burma
and the earthquake in China, or those complex problems like climate
change which the world is struggling to respond to. Think of those
things, vast as they are. God doesn’t wave a magic wand that takes them
away , but as we contemplate them, these things that threaten to
overwhelm us, he tells us again “I am with you. I am with you always,
to the end of the age.”
Pentecost 2008 Sermon by Kevin Bright
Acts2.1-21, 1Corinthians12.3-13, John 20.19-23
Did you watch ‘the apprentice’ this week? If you don’t know what this
programme is it has been described as the thinking mans game show where
supposedly highly educated and capable people compete over a series of
business related tasks, the one who doesn’t get fired wins a job with
Sir Alan Sugar’s company on a six figure starting salary.
The programme raised an interesting question when the two teams were
sent to Marrakech to find various items including a kosher chicken. As
the contestants combed the predominantly Muslim city’s hectic markets
for a bird meeting Jewish food laws, one team made a crucial error by
confusing kosher and halal.
Back in the boardroom Alan Sugar (who is Jewish) was clearly stunned
that the team didn’t associate the word kosher with Jews, at least the
other team headed off to the city’s Jewish quarter where they were
probably pointed in the right direction.
"Is it right you went to a Muslim halal butcher and asked him to get
you a kosher chicken? And he actually made a prayer over it?" Sugar
The young man who had stated that he was “a nice Jewish boy” on his CV,
nodded as Sugar continued and I quote: "Are you having a laugh or what?
I don't know why you didn't go the whole hog and find a Roman Catholic
priest to take the butcher to confession."
It might be useful, just in case it comes up in conversation to remind
ourselves that the two types of religious slaughter, halal (Muslim) and
shechita (Jewish), are similar, in that both involve cutting the
animal's throat. However, the most obvious difference between the two
is that the latter does not require any kind of ritual blessing. For
more detail on the origins of Jewish food laws read the book of
So the interesting question I referred to is; does this mean that
people who are perceived to be highly educated do not feel that even a
very basic knowledge of the worlds leading religions is of any value to
Well, whilst I’m not as highly educated as many of the contestants on
the show, my slightly educated guess is that this is true for quite a
number young people and that this is reflected in the overall numbers
choosing to actively participate in organized religion.
Does this mean that these same people are beyond experiencing the Holy
Spirit in some way? This is certainly does seem to be true for many who
have no formal church involvement.
Research carried out in 2005 with those who did not regularly attend
church found only a very small number felt it was not possible to have
a spiritual experience with many younger people being more open to the
possibility than more mature respondents. Many were able to recount
what they felt had been spiritual experiences even though some found
them difficult to explain or make sense of.
Some people found certain buildings could invoke their sense of things
spiritual, particularly beautiful cathedrals and old parish churches.
One lady when speaking of an ancient church said ‘I feel quite
overwhelmed emotionally a lot of the time when I am there. Whether it’s
because of the love in there I don’t know, I can’t explain, it just
When asked about spiritual possibilities one respondent replied ‘Not
sure about floaty things with big wings but I believe there are people
on earth whose lives are probably very similar to an angel’.
Could such people be those who have been breathed on by the breath of
Jesus as we heard of in John’s gospel? It’s possible isn’t it that
there are still disciples faithful to Jesus mission who have received
the Holy Spirit and now find themselves doing things they never dreamt
they would be doing. That same spirit enables them to make God’s love
known to people who may have no other channel open to experience this.
For us, as believers and people open to the Spirit, we have to find
ways of demonstrating that Jesus was more than just a great teacher, a
wise man and someone who died for love of others though all these
things are true.
If it were only his lessons which we sought to implement others would
not hear us talking about Jesus only the things he taught, it is for us
to be rooted in him and in relationship with God through him and the
If you are anything like me you find it hard to always be aware of the
Holy Spirit and your relationship is at least less than constant.
It may be helpful to consider that ‘the doors were locked for fear of
the Jews’ when Jesus appeared to the disciples. What are the “locked
doors” in each of our lives that we might wish Jesus would pass through?
Are there distractions, selfishness, lack of faith or possibly things
we are afraid of which we would love Christ to break through for us
freeing us to receive the Spirit? Fear has kept many a person
suppressed and behind closed doors and a real remedy for fear is peace.
The real peace which Jesus offers can only be absolute within us when
it is breathed in and through us by Jesus, who grants the Spirit and
When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth regarding spirituality he
urged all the members to form one body with Christ.
The big question for the Church in the early 21st century is precisely
the same as it was for the Church in the Acts of the Apostles in the
1st century. Will we become alive and aflame with the Spirit of God?
Will we let the Spirit of God transform us into a church of vitality
and service, prayer and praise?
It is easy to feel unworthy of receiving the Spirit and of performing
such a demanding task.
When you think about it, it sounds like Jesus is giving the disciples a
blank cheque when he says they have the power to forgive or retain sins.
Now this is a group of people we should be able to identify with, they
have just betrayed and deserted their leader then locked themselves in
an upstairs room fearing for their lives. By showing these men the
marks from his crucifixion he demonstrates how much he has forgiven
them, surely after this they could not do anything but share in the new
life and forgiveness that God has offered.
When we take time to think what we are offered by God we receive
gratefully knowing that we could never do anything to deserve this. The
difficult bit comes when we deal with other people, do we have a right
to be more grudging than God?
If you get the feeling that there are more questions than answers today
it’s probably because most of these issues challenge each of us to
respond in a personal and sometimes private way. But even if some
responses are private it is becoming increasingly evident in this
church that many of these are positive responses to Christ which when
put together for his service are leading to a healthier stronger body
of which we all form part.
I found these words from a lady called Jan Richardson a Methodist
minister, artist and author, seemingly a person in receipt of many
gifts! I particularly love the words that encourage us to keep
breathing, so we might stay alive in every sense, possibly even
breathing in the breath of God.
"The celebration of Pentecost beckons us to keep breathing.
It challenges us to keep ourselves open to the Spirit who seeks us.
The Spirit that, in the beginning,
brooded over the chaos and brought forth creation;
the Spirit that drenched the community
with fire and breath on the day of Pentecost:
this same Spirit desires to dwell within us and among us."
Acts 1.6-14, 1 Peter 4.12-14; 5.6-11, John
There are two types of people in the world, they say – those who think
there are two types of people in the world and those that don’t.
Or, as Woody Allen put it, “There are two types of people in this
world, good and bad. The good sleep better, but the bad seem to enjoy
their waking hours much more.”
Or here’s one for the mathematicians among us – and only the
mathematicians are likely to get it. There are ten types of people in
the world, those who understand the binary system and those who don’t.
If that one passed you by here’s one for those not into maths.
There are three types of people in the world: those who can count and
those who can’t…
You get the idea. Human beings love to sort things out into categories.
In fact it’s one of the first things we learn to do. That’s why small
children put everything in their mouths – they are finding out what is
food and what isn’t .They usually manage to spot the difference
pretty quickly, though they may have to chew through a few worms and
slugs on the way!
Sorting things out is a skill we developed early in our evolution. As
well as sorting the edible from the inedible we needed to know the
difference between animals we could catch and eat and those who might
catch and eat us, and between members of our own tribe and members of
rival tribes who might be a threat. We can’t get away from it, sorting
things into categories is deeply woven into our make-up. But
sometimes we are just too efficient about it for our own good. We can
get so obsessed by working out which box to put something into that we
forget to ask whether it really needs to be sorted out at all, and
whether we might be doing more harm than good by our tidy minded
In a sense the idea of the Ascension can easily fall prey to this
tendency to sort things out and put things in their place. At the
time of Jesus most people saw the world as a sort of spherical
bubble. The middle layer was the earth, the ground they stood on.
Above them was the dome of the sky like a roof, and above that
somewhere was heaven, with God on his sapphire throne. Below them was
the shadowy underworld. Up was good, down was bad – the universe was
sorted out neatly, with everything safely in its place. There was some
traffic between heaven and earth. Angels came and went from one to the
other. There were even stories told of a few especially favoured people
in the Old Testament like Enoch and Elijah who were supposedly scooped
up into heaven bodily. But for most people, earth was where they were
and where they stayed, and when they died they went down into that dark
world below. Some Jewish groups believed that one day there would be a
resurrection, but it was a bodily resurrection to live in a new kingdom
on earth, healed and recreated by God. Earth was earth and heaven was
heaven and hardly ever did the twain meet.
The story of the Ascension is told in the context of this understanding
of the world. So when the Bible writers describe Jesus slipping out of
the physical sight of his disciples to return to his Father’s side, of
course they talk about him going up into the sky. It worked for them
perhaps, but it can sound very strange, even ridiculous to us.
Certainly artists seem to me to struggle to depict it. The stained
glass window in our Lady Chapel is a picture of the Ascension. Jesus
hovers just off the ground, surrounded by a band of angels who almost
seem to be hauling him up into up into heaven by force of will, as if
they’ve discovered too late that the cloud they have provided to propel
him upwards isn’t quite up to the job! “I told you he’d put on weight,
Gabriel. We should have brought the turbo-cloud instead!”
The Biblical writers were people of their time, and like most ancient
writers they weren’t really bothered about historical accuracy – the
reality of what happened. What mattered to them was to tell a good,
memorable story that would make their point. But this account of
how Jesus came to vanish from our physical sight leaves modern people
with as many problems as it solves. The first is obvious. Heaven isn’t
“up there” – we’ve been “up there” so we know that. But there’s another
problem, which I think has more far-reaching effects. Once we start
thinking of heaven as a place which is “up there” or “out there” it is
a short step to thinking that wherever it is a long way away from here,
where we are, and absolutely distinct from this world – it is that old
sorting instinct again. Before we know where we are we are giving the
impression that there are two types of places in the universe – heaven,
where God is, and earth, where he is not. Many people end up feeling,
as a result that heaven and God are immeasurably distant from their
everyday lives. Not only is this not helpful, I don’t think it is
really true to what Jesus’ taught either.
Far from heaven being a distant, unreachable realm, a place that you
needed a turbo-cloud to reach, Jesus describes it consistently as being
here and now. The kingdom of heaven is within you, he says, or amongst
you. It is at hand – so close you can reach out and touch it. Before he
leaves them Jesus tells his followers that although they won’t be able
to see him he will soon, through his Spirit, be present with them in a
new way – not tied to one time and place but always and everywhere.
He’ll be there in the shape of those who need help - “what you did for
the least of your brothers and sisters you did for me”. He’ll be there
in every act of giving and receiving love – “where love and charity
are, there is God” He’ll be there filling their hearts with
confidence and comfort and a peace that they can’t explain.
Take out the rather strange imagery of clouds and distant heavens and
the ascension tells the same story as the incarnation. When Jesus was
born, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. Heaven and earth meet
in him, They are drawn together into one unbroken and unbreakable whole
and they are not parted when he returns to his Father. Jesus’ Ascension
isn’t – or shouldn’t be – a message to us that he has gone far from us
into a separate realm, leaving the things of earth far behind him, but
rather that he has destroyed the barrier between earth and heaven,
between God and humanity. Instead of sorting things out and dividing
things up, he gathers them all together in himself.
We shouldn’t be surprised at this, because throughout his ministry he
has been doing this, breaking down barriers and mixing up our neat
boundaries, warning us that our obsession with sorting things out can
end up doing more harm than good.
He tells a parable, for example, about a farmer whose field has been
sown with a mixture of wheat and tares – grass-like weeds. His servants
are all for pulling up the weeds as soon as they spot them, but the
farmer urges patience. There’s no way of separating the good and bad
plants without destroying the good along with the bad; they look too
much alike. Solzhenitsyn, who knew the effects of evil at first hand in
the Soviet Union nevertheless said in the Gulag Archipelago, that “the
line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human
being.” In the wickedest people there can be glimmers of kindness; even
a saint will have their failings. You can’t root out evil by rooting
out people – you’ll destroy the good in people along with the bad in
them, and we’re all a mixture.
In many other ways during his ministry he urges us to resist the
temptation to categorise, divide and condemn. It may be the hated
Samaritan who turns out to be your true neighbour, he says, or the
apparently good-for-nothing son, the black sheep of the family, who is
the source of the greatest rejoicing in the end. The poor, the sick,
the disabled, the sinner, these are the people in whom you see God’s
presence. The cross, a shameful instrument of death is the place where
God’s glory is seen most powerfully. The last shall be first and the
first, last. The world is turned upside down, the categories you have
divided it into are blurred, the barriers broken. What is Jesus’ prayer
for his followers in the Gospel? It is that “they may be one, as we are
one”. The earliest Christian communities – we see one gathering at the
end of the first reading – were distinctive because they WERE
communities, coming together and sticking together despite their
profound differences. Being one, as we all know, is no picnic. It means
choosing to live in the knowledge that all people ARE your brothers and
sisters, people who you can’t isolate yourself from, even if you want
to, rather than forming cliques and trying to ignore or deny the
existence of those who differ from you.
The Ascension, though it can seem so strange and inaccessible a story
to us, is a vital part of Christian faith, and we need to rediscover it
and reclaim it for our age. It seems to me that the recent BBC version
of the Passion story did it very well. It showed Jesus after the
resurrection appearing to his disciples. Sometimes they recognised him
instantly; sometimes they didn’t. But eventually, after some final
words of encouragement, he simply slipped away into the crowds, to be
lost to their sight among the mass of humanity. And the disciples let
him go, because they knew by then that what really mattered was that
they could now find him and serve him in everyone they met, if they
only opened their eyes. Just as the barriers that separated them from
God, and heaven from earth, had been broken so had those which
separated Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, friend and
So enjoy the poetic language of the hymns and stories today – the
clouds, the sapphire thrones - but be aware too of the
limitations of this picture language, because the heaven that God
really wants us to discover is the love that binds us to him and to one
Acts 17.22-31, (1 Peter 3.13-22), John 14. 15-21
In today’s first reading we had a little shapshot of the ancient world,
a world that might seem very different to our own, but is actually very
similar. St Paul, who spent most of his ministry on the move, has
arrived in Athens, the centre of Greek life and thought. And he has
been taken to the Areopagus, the hill where the Council of Athens, the
group which oversaw the city’s life, gathered. They’ve heard about his
preaching – talk of a new Way – and they want to know more. These are
Greeks, living in what was still one of the most important intellectual
centres of the world. Rome may have had the military and political
might, but Greece had the thinkers, the philosophical tradition -
Aristotle, Plato, Socrates. Wander into an Athenian marketplace and you
wouldn’t just find fruit and veg. you’d find people debating, arguing
with one another about ideas. So this new teacher with his new teaching
was someone they wanted to know more about.
Paul talks to them about the many shrines he has seen in the city –
shrines to a whole multitude of gods and goddesses. It’s the one he has
spotted to the unknown God that really fascinates him though. This is
the God who he wants to talk to them about – the God who is always
present, “in whom they live and move and have their being”, but who is
also absolutely beyond their power to imagine. This is the God of the
Jews and the Christians, he says, one who we can’t explain in words,
let alone portray in carved stone – that is why the Ten Commandments
forbid anyone to make a graven image. In doing so you limit your idea
of what God might be. This is his message to them.
But it’s not so much what Paul says that I want to focus on as the fact
that he’s saying it at all, giving an account of his faith here to
these learned people, in a society where there are many other competing
world-views. As I said, it’s a different world, and yet it’s also our
modern world too, a world where we can’t just assume that others will
agree with us, where we, like Paul, can expect to be challenged about
what we believe and why. I suspect that for many of us that’s something
we feel rather uncomfortable about. Paul clearly knew what he wanted to
say, but how would we respond in his shoes?
There’s a little phrase in today’s second reading – I know we didn’t
hear it read, but it is there on your sheet – which puts the challenge
clearly. “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who
demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with
gentleness and reverence”. I wonder how many of us feel “ready to give
an account of the hope that is in us” – let alone with enough
confidence to be able to do it with gentleness and reverence?
I read Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion this week. For
those of you who’ve never heard of Richard Dawkins, he is a biologist
who is fervently opposed to religion – any religion, in all its forms.
The book’s been a best seller and stirred up quite a lot of
controversy, so I thought I should read it. Whether you’ve read the
book or not, it seems to me important to raise some issues from it,
because Dawkins says things that many who are opposed to religion say –
things you may hear at work, from family members, down the pub , things
you may have wondered about yourself.
I’m not so concerned about the issue of proving God’s existence – I
don’t think we can ever prove or disprove that anyway, and there
certainly isn’t time to tackle those sort of arguments now. But I do
want to raise three very specific concerns that I have with the way
Dawkins goes about his discussion of religion.
The first is that Dawkins, while very knowledgeable about biology seems
strangely ignorant about theology. He apparently refuses to make any
serious study of theology, because he just thinks it is all nonsense.
But that means that his arguments often seem to miss the point.
It used to be said that in Northern Ireland, if you said you were an
atheist, someone would be sure to ask – “but are you a Protestant
Atheist or a Catholic Atheist?” Dawkins, it seems to me, is a
Fundamentalist Atheist. The God he doesn’t believe in is a sort of
old-style, hellfire-preaching fundamentalist’s God – a spy in the sky,
waiting to punish us if we do wrong. I don’t believe in that God
either, and I don’t suppose many of you do.
The Bible he rejects is a Bible that he reads like a Fundamentalist
Christian would, taking all of it on the same level as a simplistic set
of instructions. He doesn’t seem to realise, or want to deal with, the
fact that most theologians – most Christians – don’t have that
simplistic attitude to it. We read it as a developing picture of the
way people wrestled with faith and with their ideas of God and of life.
It’s a living document, something that each generation and individual
brings their own story to and can interpret and react to in different
The second concern is that, like many atheists, Dawkins seems convinced
that if you remove religion from the world you’ll remove the violence,
bigotry, prejudice and so on that have so often been perpetrated in its
name. This, as far as I can see, is entirely unsupported by the
evidence. Seventy years of atheist government in the Soviet Union
didn’t seem to produce people who were any more likely to live
peacefully together in love and harmony. Atheist societies and atheist
individuals might not be any worse than religious societies and
individuals, but they’re no better either, as far as I can see. The
fears and hatreds that twist the world are things that are rooted in
the human heart and they have a tendency to break through whatever
ideologies and world-views people espouse.
The third concern follows on from that. It’s that Dawkins and those
like him often seem to assume that religion is something that is simply
imposed from above – the result of the brainwashing of the young by a
power-hungry church or by parents or teachers. Stop preaching it,
abolish churches and priests, and it will wither away. People will
heave a sigh of relief and rise up from their oppression into a new age
of pure, scientific rationalism. But I don’t think there is any
evidence for this either. Whether we like it or not spirituality – a
sense of the divine – seems to arise spontaneously in people. Dawkins
puts it down to a misdirected genetic impulse. But whether that’s the
case, or whether it’s that there genuinely IS something divine that
lies behind and within the universe, if it is SO deeply embedded in us,
it is hard to see HOW it can be got rid of. What does it take to
stop people believing in God? Education explicitly against religion has
been tried in Communist countries. Gulags have been tried. The
Holocaust has been tried. But people continue to find faith and to hold
onto it. I’m sure that Dawkins and others who share his views wouldn’t
dream for one moment of using tactics like those. But what would they
suggest? If religion is bad for us, a tragic mistake, how is it to be
These questions – things that puzzle me after reading the book – don’t
of course have anything to say about the basic issue of whether there’s
a God or not. That’s not something we’ll ever definitively prove or
disprove. But in a way I think these practical issues are more
important. Many bad things have been done in the name of religion, but
we’ll be no better off if sloppy thinking about religion means that
equally bad things are done in the name of atheism.
Thinking about faith matters, then. But despite all this, I wouldn’t
want to leave you with the impression that mastering a bunch of
philosophical arguments is the decisive factor in convincing others
that believing in God is reasonable – or convincing yourself either.
Years of listening to people talk about their spiritual journeys has
led me to the conclusion that, in the end, it’s something far harder to
pin down that draws people to faith and keeps that faith alive, despite
all the questions and struggles they might have with it. It’s the sense
that, somehow, they’re loved – loved by God who, as Jesus says in the
Gospels, won’t leave them orphans. It’s hard to explain or to justify
that statement - I am sure that Dawkins would reject it as rubbish -
but it’s what people consistently tell me, and what I‘ve experienced
too, and a real scientist has to consider seriously the data they are
presented with. Julian of Norwich, writing in the 13th Century, in the
face of the Black Death and a world of hardships said, “All shall be
well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
That wasn’t some airy-fairy sentimentalism – her world was too brutal
to allow that. It was born of a deep conviction that she was held in
the hands of God, no matter what happened to her or around her, and
that these were hands she couldn’t fall out of.
Sometimes that sense of being loved is an inner conviction. But
sometimes it’s the love of others which makes people feel that there
might be something to this Christianity business. Christians can be
ghastly, of course, but they can also be wonderful – patient, kind,
welcoming, living lives of great generosity and beauty. When you meet a
Christian like that, there is a power to their lives that is beyond
words to explain.
If you’ve felt challenged or unsure when people talk dismissively about
religion – “it’s all a lot of nonsense, we’d be better off without it”
– remember this. As we struggle to give “an account of the hope that is
in us” it’s the gentleness and reverence – the love – with which we do
it that’ll really make the difference. We’re called to live the faith
we proclaim, in a God who’s lovingly present in all the world, whether
anyone’s aware of him or not. He’s present in those with whom we debate
and in those who disagree with us. Winning the argument is neither here
nor there; only love, in the end, can heal a hurting world.
The God Delusion by Richard
Dawkins ISBN 9780593055489
Helpful responses to Dawkins’ book can be found in:
The Dawkins Delusion by
Alister McGrath with Joanna Collicutt McGrath ISBN9780281059270
Darwin’s Angel by John
Cornwell ISBN 9782846680489
(All available from Sevenoaks Library)
April 20th 08 Easter
5 Breathing Space Sermon
We are all familiar with the idea of life as a spiritual
journey. We live here just off the old pilgrim route to Canterbury, and
I am sure that this church saw its fair share of pilgrims back in the
Middle Ages – apparently the kebab shop along the road was once a
pilgrim’s hostel (though I doubt they dined on kebabs!)
And even if we’ve never ploughed our way through Pilgrim’s Progress we
probably have some idea of what it is about – a spiritual journey
through landscapes that have become part of the English language, like
the Slough of Despond.
But I wonder, if you were to draw a map of your life’s journey, what it
would look like? I wonder if it would be a straight route from A to B –
a super-highway. Or would it be a far more meandering path. Perhaps
there might be times on that journey when the road you were on seemed
to turn into a dead end, when you had to retrace your steps, when you
felt as if you had taken a wrong turn. A relationship that broke down,
a job that ended in acrimony or disappointment, a time when your plans
just seemed to turn to dust? I suspect that for most of us life hasn’t
been a straight route – perhaps it isn’t now. We don’t know what lies
ahead, and often when we come to a crossroads there is no way of
telling which way will be the best – we just have to walk it and see
Jesus talks about journeys in Gospel. He is speaking to his disciples
on the night before he dies. They thought they knew where his road was
leading – to the throne of David, to his rightful place as the Messiah.
But he talks about suffering and death, and they are just baffled. How
can this be? Surely it is some mistake. The journey Jesus is taking
seems to the disciples to be turning into a dead end – quite literally
a dead end. Don’t go there, Jesus, they want to say!
But Jesus is clear. This is the way – I am the way – there is no way
other than this to get to where God wants us to be. And of course, in
the light of what actually happened, we can see that this is right. His
death wasn’t some ghastly mistake, but the route to new life, not just
for him, but for us all. God is at work in him, even in the darkest
places. There are no such things as dead ends in God’s eyes.
Jesus says to his confused and anxious followers “Do not let your
hearts be troubled…I will come and I will take you to myself”. It’s an
odd thing to say when you think about it. He is both the destination –
I will take you to MYSELF – and the guide who gets you there – I will
take you. But in a sense, odd though it seems, this is precisely the
point. If Jesus is with us then, wherever we are, we have already
reached our destination, we have come home, whether that is on some
road that seems to lead nowhere, or retracing our steps back from some
brink we have come to. There’s no such thing as wasted time, a wasted
journey. Whatever the territory, if we walk with Jesus we are walking
on kingdom streets, heavenly places, roads which can enrich and bless
So, in the silence, think of the roads you have taken, the map of your
life. Be aware of the times when you feel as if you took a wrong
turning, or went round in circles, and look for God walking beside you
on those roads. What can they teach you? What have you gained from
them? If you hadn’t gone that way, what would you have missed? Even in
those places, says the Bible - perhaps especially in those places – God
is with us. Jesus comes to us to take us to himself, and in every step
we take we are coming home.
13th April 08 Easter 4
Psalm 23, John 10.1-10
“The Lord is my shepherd” said today’s Psalm – probably
one of the most famous passages in the Bible. I can’t begin to count
how many times I have spoken and heard those words during my ministry
at funerals and weddings. Jesus echoes its imagery in the Gospel,
talking about himself as the gate of the sheepfold and the shepherd who
will lead his flock to pasture.
It is a beautiful picture and I suspect for many of us it conjures up a
tranquil rural vision of lush green fields and fat, fluffy sheep. It’s
an image that evokes comfort and consolation.
So when we hear the Gospel reading for today we might imagine Jesus’
audience feeling the same way. Perhaps we picture a group of disciples,
or some needy crowd sitting at Jesus’ feet, hungry for reassurance,
bathed in his gentle smile, and going home feeling just that little bit
safer for the words he has spoken.
But if that is so then we need to think again, because when we look at
this passage in its context we discover it isn’t the disciples or the
sick and needy Jesus is talking to here, but a bunch of Pharisees -
religious lawyers who are often portrayed as his arch-enemies. The
Gospel is probably unfair to them, but they were reknowned for their
passion for the law, for dotting the “i”s and crossing the “t’s”, and
this was often what brought them into conflict with Jesus, a conflict
which was one of the factors leading to his death.
The words we heard today, far from being gentle words of comfort, are
actually the tail end of a conversation Jesus has been having with
these Pharisees about something he has done which has troubled and
angered them. Forget the green grass, forget the gentle smile,
forget the consolation. These words are spoken in the context of a
somewhat bad- tempered squabble in a dusty street in Jerusalem.
So, what’s been happening? Well, Jesus has come across a man who has
been blind from birth – and he has healed him. “Wonderful,” we might
think, but the Pharisees are not so sure. It’s not the miraculous
nature of the healing that bothers them – they didn’t have our 21st
century concerns about the scientific possibility of this. They didn’t
have much idea of how sickness or healing came about at all. No - what
concerned them was the moral and spiritual implications of this healing.
Firstly, the man born blind was a sinner in their view - or his parents
were. The Pharisees thought illness was God’s punishment, and health
was his reward, as did most people at the time. So, if God had punished
this man, what business did anyone else have to heal him?
Secondly, he had been healed on the Sabbath. The law said no one should
work on the Sabbath. Healing was work, so it shouldn’t have happened.
Thirdly, the healing had happened at the hands of Jesus of Nazareth, a
man they thought was decidedly dodgy, who seemed to have far too
liberal and loose a view of the world.
So - a sinner, Jesus, has healed another sinner, the blind man, and has
committed a sin, working on the Sabbath, in order to do so. Surely this
can’t be right – God would never honour such an unsatisfactory
situation with his healing power.
The Pharisees’ response to this disgraceful state of affairs is to try
to find a way to prove that things are not as they appear. They suggest
that perhaps this is a case of mistaken identity – perhaps it’s not the
same man. They summon his parents.
“Is this your son?”
“Of course he is,” they say.
“Well – how could he have been healed…? “
“Ask him yourself – he’s a grown up!” they answer, “We haven’t got a
clue. All we know is that he was blind and now he sees!”
So they ask the man himself.
“This can’t be right”, they say. “The man who healed you is a sinner!”
“I don’t know who my healer was,” says the man. “I’ve no idea whether
he is a sinner – all I know is that I was blind and now I see, and it’s
all down to him. If you call that sin, well, that’s up to you, but it
seems to me that he must be from God….”
At this point the Pharisees blow a gasket and send the man packing. Who
is he, an ignorant beggar, to tell these religious professionals their
job? They’re the theologians. The fact that he was blind and now he
sees, as everyone is so stubbornly pointing out, is neither here nor
there. It might LOOK like good news. It might SOUND like good news. It
might FEEL like good news, but it can’t BE good news, and it didn’t
ought to be allowed. They head straight for Jesus to have it out with
That’s the background to the words we’ve heard today.
And when we understand that background we see that Jesus’ talk of sheep
and sheepfolds isn’t a comforting devotional message to his followers.
It’s a subversive challenge to people who are very suspicious of him,
words that will set him on a collision course with them.
These images Jesus uses of sheep and shepherds and sheepfolds are
nothing new, you see. Jesus is tapping into imagery that would be very
familiar indeed to the Pharisees. The Old Testament often compares the
people of Israel to a flock of sheep, vulnerable and in need of
protection. And usually those Old Testament images lead into a lament
that those who should be looking after the people, the leaders of the
nation who are meant to be their shepherds, are failing in their task.
They often go on to talk of a time when God himself will be the
shepherd of his people, leading them and feeding them himself. It’s a
message that the prophets proclaimed again and again, and here is Jesus
echoing it as he speaks to the religious leaders of his own day.
It is inflammatory talk and the implication is clear. The Pharisees,
who have set themselves up as shepherds, people who lead and guide
others, have failed too. They’ve created a sheepfold, says Jesus – a
gated community, fenced about by rules and regulations – but only those
who they judge to be deserving can come into it. They have shut out
those who they think aren’t fit to be included in their protected
enclosure – the sick, the disabled, sinners, Gentiles, anyone they
consider unclean. They have done it for what they think are the best of
motives – to maintain their nation’s faithfulness to God. But in the
end it is a deadly strategy – not just to those outside, who are left
to fend for themselves instead of receiving the care and protection
they need, but also to those inside the fold, including the Pharisees
themselves. They need the rich and varied pasture of the wider world.
Sheep weren’t meant to live in sheepfolds indefinitely; they will
starve. It looks like a tidy way of organising the world. It seems so
safe, but in the end they kill what they are trying to protect as well
as those whom they have excluded.
The true shepherd on the other hand, says Jesus is one who brings
abundant life. The word translated as “abundant” actually means
excessive, superfluous, too big for its container – it is a quart in a
pint pot – life overflowing, like the Psalmist’s cup – the cup that is
running over. This is life that breaks through the restrictions people
put around it, that bursts through the barriers of prejudice, that
can’t be hemmed in by the tidy theological precision of the Pharisees
world-view. The man Jesus healed is a perfect example of this. He was
blind and now he sees, he was as good as dead, living physically,
emotionally and socially on the edge of existence, but now he is full
of life, and it hasn’t come about because he has kept some rule or
other, but because he has come into contact with Jesus who has put
aside the anxious obsession with ritual cleanness that the Pharisees
were so keen on so that he can reach those who need his
When Jesus talks of the sheep recognising the voice of the true
shepherd – the one who gives them this abundant life - it is people
like this blind man he is talking about. The blind man may not know who
Jesus is, or why he has come, but he knows life when he finds it – the
life that his new sight brings him - and it changes him utterly. The
shepherd’s voice is unmistakeable to him because it is the voice that
brings him hope and dignity, just as it does to all those others who
come to him “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” as
the Gospels put it.
It would be comforting to feel that this whole sermon was an exercise
in historical reconstruction, about a world that is long gone. But I
don’t think it takes a genius to realise that our world is not so very
different. We can all behave like overanxious and judgemental
gatekeepers, trying to keep pure and safe the things we value by
excluding anything new or different which we feel might be a threat. We
do it to ourselves, afraid to try anything new in case we get it wrong.
We do it to our families, wrapping those we love in cotton wool. We do
it in our churches and in our wider society, subtlely or not so
subtlely excluding those who don’t fit somehow. But it is an approach
that will ultimately lead to death not life, for those inside as well
as those outside our folds.
What we need instead is to have the courage to listen for the voice of
the true shepherd of our souls. That voice might not sound like we
expect it to. It might come out of the wilderness rather than from the
centre of the sheepfold. But we will know it when we hear it, because
it will be a call to life, abundant life, that bursts the barriers that
keep us shut in and divided from each other. It will be a call that
invites us out into a world which we will come to find is all God’s
world, God’s pasture and God’s dwelling place.
6th April 2008 Easter 3
Evensong Sermon by Kevin Bright
1 Corinthians 3.10-17 & Haggai 1.13-2.9
I’ve had a bit of a headache at work this week. On top of all the usual
issues to deal with there has been a constant thudding noise for
several hours a day. It echoes from the direction of the river Thames
across Greenwich town centre and into the hillside that rises up to the
No it’s not property prices crashing it’s the sound of pile foundations
being driven through the soil until they reach suitably solid ground,
forming the base upon which several storeys of new apartments can be
On a different site Down by the river at Erith the land is so marshy
that pile foundations even have to be used for some signs and lighting
as they would otherwise sink into the ground being of use to only very
The word "pisa" has associations with "marshy land," which gives some
clue as to why the tower here began to lean after only 4 storeys were
constructed, it also didn’t help that its foundation is only 10 feet
deep. Still it’s been a constant source of fascination and challenge to
engineers and after the most recent intervention it’s expected to last
a few hundred years yet.
As we heard in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth the
importance of our Christian foundation is fundamental to all we are and
all we do. He tells us ‘for no one can lay any foundation other than
the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.’
That is the central issue Paul was addressing in this letter. Churches
that are built only on ideas or actions or style are doomed to failure.
Throughout the church as a whole there is a need to show we are
relevant to people and their lives. It’s not the packaging that
ultimately matters, whether the music is rock guitar or organ, whether
the minister wears a dog collar or a tie, whether we meet in an ancient
building or a modern hall. It’s not the packaging but what people find
is real when they delve beneath this.
The central question we ask ourselves should be, "Did we meet with
Jesus in anyway" not "was my opinion or style supported today? Jesus
Christ is the root and foundation, the cornerstone, the vine. It is the
calling of each of us to remember that we are Jesus people. We are
members of his body, and the church is all the stronger when we can
focus on this.
The prophet Haggai had a similar message for the remnants of those
exiled in Babylon returning to Judah. They had repaired and sorted
their homes but what about the temple? He challenged them to consider
whether they were committed to rebuild their national life with God at
It seems absolutely obvious but I certainly need reminding quite
regularly that Jesus Christ has to be the foundation for every aspect
of our lives. It’s so easy to drift away from this despite our best
intentions, we get caught up in the routine, feel worn down by the
sheer hard work to be done and quite naturally want to be liked and
accepted by others and so behave as they expect us to.
Religious dramas are always difficult. Life of Brian seems to spring to
mind for many when bearded man in sandals gather together yet watching
the BBC’s version of the passion this Easter was helpful to me for the
simple fact that it was good to see events enacted and Christ’s words
spoken by an apparently unremarkable human figure. It occurred to me
that we don’t often see Jesus on our screens on mainstream television
at normal civilised hours. The unchanging message of the passion
stood in stark contrast to TV evangelism on satellite channels which
have telephone numbers and credit card signs in the corner of the
When we are able to see Jesus as our real foundation for life it’s not
so surprising that we encounter him more often and in different ways.
It’s not just watching Jesus on TV, but as I was cutting the hawthorn
hedge and wincing as the thorns cut me I saw Jesus as the crown of
thorns tore into his scalp and the blood ran down his face. When
ethical dilemmas trouble me it’s Christ’s advice I want to hear above
the voices. Christ compels me to think about what is happening in the
world as protest both silent and noisy accompanied Tony Blair’s speech
In Westminster Cathedral this week, intended to bring faiths closer
together for our common good.
It’s also true to say that I have switched off the TV or radio, closed
my mind to his presence and deliberately ignored the debate when I want
to be greedy or self indulgent, then my misguided building is brought
to light and proves unsustainable. This is the construction Paul speaks
of which is eventually tested by fire, and although we remain intact it
is time to rebuild carefully from that same foundation once again.
You probably know the game Jenga where wooden blocks are removed one at
a time until the tower comes tumbling down. I’ve seen people take
several minutes as they assess which block can be removed without
causing damage and then carefully slide the piece of wood out breathing
a sigh of relief at their selection.
It seems to me that so much damage is caused by those who thoughtlessly
want to impose their religion upon others, demonstrating how much
better than them they are as a result. Such people charge in clumsily
giving the impression that Christians are weirdos or extremists who
need others to conform to their ways. I heard of one man excluded from
Sunday school as a child for inappropriate dress who came to hate the
church and has only found his way back some 40 years later.
The careful thought and patient consideration as to the best and most
intelligent way to demonstrate Christ as a sure foundation are not
always those we first think of. They may involve bringing others to
this building but events designed to bring people together like ‘meet
your neighbours’ and simple acts of kindness and reconciliation at
home, school and work are also ways of showing how Christ changes us.
Paul tells us that we are God’s temple and that God’s spirit lives in
us. This new temple is not built of stones, arches and pillars but of
human beings. Paul’s declaration would have been radical to Jews who
felt that heaven met earth at the temple building rather than living
through individuals and among communities. So the rather daunting
challenge is for us to make our lives and communities places where
people might find God.
I celebrated a joyful Easter Day this year as we braved the snow
storms, which seem mild by comparison to today’s to witness my little
brother (who is a lot bigger than me) being baptised in a pool in
Chelmsford Baptist Church.
At the age of 37 he wanted to take action to become a member of a
church that he could feel part of and like two million others in this
country before him he booked himself on an Alpha course.
His public words before baptism included ‘Towards the end of the
course I found that I was having a very real and meaningful
experience ,and I felt that I should no longer resist the opportunity
that I had to have God in my life.
I began to see God working…in small ways, and through prayer and
encouragement from the wider church community, I have grown in my faith
and now consider Jesus to be at the centre of my life.
As he bounced up off the bottom of the pool we reinforced the
centrality of Christ as we sang ‘at the name of Jesus every knee shall
In a less emotionally charged moment he later told me that one his
biggest influences had been a work colleague with whom he shared an
office. A man seeing out his last few years before retirement who made
it clear that Christ was his foundation. My brother described him as
being like a daily drip feed. Thankfully one which led to improved
spiritual well being. God in the work place whatever next!
The Westminster Cathedral debate talked of how the Economist magazine
published the so called obituary of God in its Millennium issue. But as
we look around us it is abundantly clear that for millions of people
God lives, Christ is risen, and is needed by us and the world as much
For some reason the rumour of his life giving love just won't go away.
It doesn't stay neatly fixed to a date in a moon-made calendar. It
seems to have a mysterious life of its own; it sneaks into
conversations. It pops up - not just in art galleries and television
dramas - but, apparently, in people's lives. And if Jesus is to be
believed, he can be found transforming people, bringing purpose and
The Easter message of hope offered by the risen Christ can be lived out
if we are able to form a living temple in which it can thrive. There
are huge numbers of people still searching for meaning and hope in life
and if they find Christ living among us they may stop exploring the
ways which lead to ‘dead ends’.
‘Why do you look for the living among the dead’ he is not here but has
risen and lives among us now. Our challenge is to make this
visible to those who do not yet have Christ as their foundation.
April 6th 08 Easter 3
It is a very human story, the one we’ve heard in today’s gospel. Two
disciples of Jesus, exhausted by the events of the past few days,
frightened that what happened to him might happen to them too, head for
home, seven miles away in the village of Emmaus. Who wouldn’t do the
same? There’s no place like home – the familiar comforts, the places
you know like the back of your hand. It’s just where you want to be
when you are fed up.
Of course the twist in the story is that they have already started to
hear rumours that Jesus has risen from the dead, but even that can’t
keep them in Jerusalem. In fact I suspect that that is the last straw –
the very thing that drives them away. They have been tossed about
emotionally – from the hopes of Palm Sunday to the despair of Good
Friday. They have endured days cooped up in hiding, terrified that they
would be arrested too. But as the hours and days have passed they have
started to get used to things as they are, to come to terms with the
sense of disillusionment they feel, the shame, regret and confusion of
those last days when they deserted him. It hadn’t been what they had
wanted – a bitter disappointment - but there’s no point crying over
spilt milk. All they want to do is slip away and lick their wounds.
But just when they are ready to put the whole thing down to experience
and move on some of their number start to say that the tomb is empty!
Jesus is alive! If it is true, what does it mean? Instead of an end,
this is a new beginning – a new beginning with all sorts of new demands
- and they just don’t have the energy to deal with it. They can’t get
their heads around what has happened and they don’t even want to try.
Let’s just go home , and put it all behind us,” they say, wearily.
Except, of course, that it isn’t as simple as that. The questions that
have bugged them aren’t so easy to discard. Whatever it was that drew
them towards Jesus in the first place is still there, nagging away at
them. As they trudge along the road, they are still debating all that
has happened, You can take the disciples out of Jerusalem, but you
can’t take Jerusalem, with all its earth-shattering events, out of the
As I said, it is a very human story – a story I find easy to connect
with. I suspect that many of us can think of times when we would have
longed to leave behind some issue or question that we struggle with,
some sadness that haunts us, some grudge that we can’t resolve. We’d
like to be able to wipe out the past, like an old DVD or video, but it
won’t stay wiped. We long for everything to go back to the way it was –
to go home - but the memories and the questions won’t leave us alone.
They are like stray dogs that follow us along the road yapping at our
heels no matter how hard we shoo them away.
It’s not always some painful or negative thing that troubles us like
this, however. It can just as easily be a sense of calling, a sense of
wanting to explore faith more deeply that nags at us. I often have
conversations with people who aren’t regular churchgoers, but who
certainly wouldn’t class themselves as atheists either. They believe in
something, but they aren’t sure what. They can’t quite pick Christian
faith up, but they can’t put it down either. Coming to church often
seems a step too far, a step that they are reluctant to take. They are
worried, perhaps, that identifying themselves as Christian means taking
on board a whole package of beliefs and attitudes to the world that
they aren’t at all keen on. They want to know more but they are wary of
being dragged into a world they don’t want to enter.
Others might make it into church, and even sit in the pews for years,
but never take it any further than that, leaving church each week with
their questions unasked, vaguely concerned that they might not like the
answers if they found them, or fearing ridicule if they reveal their
ignorance. “How can there be a God when there is so much suffering?”
“What do all those strange words in the creed mean anyway?” “How should
Christians live – are there life-styles that are just beyond the pale?”
“Could God really love me?”
And I think most of us at some point go through phases of what you
might call semi-detached Christianity. However involved you are, and
however strong your faith has been it is perfectly normal to find
yourself sometimes, like these disciples, trying to walk away from the
whole Christian thing and leave it behind, to get fed up with its
demands and its complexities, even if in the end you may find that the
things that drew you to faith in the first place draw you back to
That is certainly true for these disciples. They walk away from
Jerusalem, away from the place where they have last seen Jesus, but
their conversation is all about him and about what he meant to them, as
they puzzle over what it all might have meant and how they could have
got it so wrong.
When the stranger joins them on the road they find themselves pouring
all of this out to him. He is a good listener and a good teacher too,
pointing out all sorts of things that they’d never thought of. But
despite his learned answers, it isn’t his intellectual skill that
finally causes them to recognise him. It is only when he eats with
them, when he breaks bread – an ordinary everyday act of sharing in
response to their ordinary everyday act of loving hospitality – that
the penny drops.
What is it that makes such an impact on them? Of course the appearance
of a man they thought was dead is part of it. But I think as well as
that – and perhaps more importantly - it is the realisation that he has
been prepared to walk seven miles in the wrong direction with them
which really makes the difference to them. He has been prepared to go
with them where they are going – even if it is to the wrong destination
- and to be with them where they are when they get there, to do for
them whatever it takes so that they can find what they really need. He
shares their bread, but before he does that he has shared their journey
too, and this tells them that he will also share their lives no matter
how many more misunderstandings and failures there are along the
When these disciples headed for Emmaus, they thought they were going to
a place where nothing life-changing could ever touch them again. Their
home village of Emmaus was so insignificant that nobody now knows
exactly where it was. There are several contenders in the area, but no
one is sure which is the right place. But they find that God in Christ
is just as much at home in an anonymous village, sitting at a scruffy
kitchen table as he is in some Temple or grand palace. It is knowing
that – seeing his love and commitment to them in action – which
literally turns these disciples around, which sends them back to
Jerusalem, back to the mission he has called them to. I doubt
whether all their questions have been answered. I doubt whether they
could give a point by point, blow by blow account of that long
theological discussion they have had. I doubt whether they have
unlocked all the secrets of the universe, but they have discovered the
thing they really need to know, that God is prepared to stick with them
in the questioning and the doubt just as much as in their times of
faith and certainty.
I think this is a profoundly hopeful story. Most of us don’t walk in a
straight line with God either. We may want to go in the right
direction, but that’s not how it ends up. We get it wrong. We
procrastinate and dawdle. We misunderstand. We get confused. We change
our minds. We go round in circles. But wherever we are, this story
tells us, God is right there with us. He is just as much at home going
the wrong way with us as he is going the right way, and he will never
leave us or give up on us.
This story invites us to ask ourselves where we are on our journeys,
what we are heading for and what we are running away from, what the
questions are that yap at our heels, that won’t leave us alone. It
invites us to be open about them, to ask what seems unaskable. But it
also reassures us that God is present with us as we do that. He is with
us as we struggle with the questions life throws at us. He is with us
when we try to run away from those questions. He is with us when we are
exhausted and despondent. He is known now as he was then, in the
breaking of bread – not just in this ritual that we shall share later,
but in all the ways we share together, in the everyday acts of loving
hospitality we receive and give. Whatever questions we ask, whatever
answers we find, whatever journeys we take – in the wrong direction or
the right one – it is the discovery of this love, which is beyond
measure or limit, that will take us to the place we really need to be.
March 30th 2008
“Peace be with you” says Jesus to the
disciples as he appears before them in the upper room on the evening of
that first Easter Day. At one level this greeting would have been
exactly what they would have expected to hear. Of course the
circumstances were very strange – it was being uttered by a man who has
risen from the dead. But the greeting itself, “peace be with you” was
the standard greeting at the time, just as it still is today in the
Middle East. It is “Shlama lokum” in Aramaic, the spoken language
of Jesus and his disciples, “shalom aleichem” in Hebrew, the language
of the Old Testament as well as of modern Israel, while Arabic speakers
– Muslim and Christian – would bid you “Assalamu alyekum”.
The “shalom”, “salaam” or “shlama” of this greeting isn’t an emotional
quality. It isn’t about tranquillity or relaxation or quiet. It isn’t
even about the absence of war. It is that state in which everything is
as it should be, when everything is healed, whole – bodies, minds,
spirits. It isn’t just about individuals – it’s about communities,
nations, the whole cosmos. In fact you can never have it fully while
others lack it – how can you be fully at peace while others are in
Seeking “shalom” was a major focus in the Old Testament. The prophets
dreamed of a time when people would plant their crops and be able to
harvest them too, not afraid of an attacking army. They dreamed of
people sitting under their own vines and fig trees, with their families
thriving around them, in harmony with their neighbours, in a world in
which the poor were fed and rulers were just and wise.
This everyday greeting “Shalom Aleichem” - peace be with you - and all
its Middle Eastern variants is a rich, deep thing then. But these
languages aren’t alone in this richness. Our English “hello” is a
contraction of “hail to you” , and that word “hail” comes from the same
root as health, heal, and whole. We talk of someone being “hale
and hearty” – I know it is spelt differently, but it is actually the
same word. Whether we know it or not, when we greet people we are
praying for their well-being too.
Those of you who learnt Latin in school will probably remember greeting
your teacher with the word “salve”. That’s linked to the Latin word
“salus” – health. That’s why we call greetings “salutations”. Romans
too, it seems, greeted one another with a wish for wholeness and
healing, their equivalent of “shalom”. “Salus” also gives us the
English “salve” – an ointment to make you well. It gives us safety too
– the state in which you are healthy and whole. And it gives us “save”
and “saviour” and “salvation” as well.
But my guess is that when many people hear those last few words,
“saviour” and “salvation” – it isn’t healing and wholeness in the here
and now that spring first into their minds. It isn’t sitting under your
vine or fig tree, or living in harmony with others, or justice and
equality. Those words have picked up some very specific theological
associations for many Christians, associations which I think are often
much narrower than they ought to be. For many Christians
salvation has come to mean no more than a guarantee of admission to
heaven when you die. Christ’s work for us as saviour is a bit like
getting us through security at an airport. You know how complicated
that is now – especially if it is Heathrow Terminal 5! You’ve got to
have all the right papers and none of the wrong sort of baggage when
you get to the gate if you want to get on the plane. For many
Christians salvation is the spiritual equivalent of this. Its main
purpose is simply to give us what we need to get past the heavenly
security guards so that we can get to the place we want to go to - an
eternity of bliss – rather than being left out in the cold.
It is a shame that salvation has so often been so narrowly interpreted
like this, because it seems to me that this is far removed from the
ideas that Jesus expressed in his teaching and actions. “The Spirit of
the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to
the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and
recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to
proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” That is what he said at the
start of his ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth – his manifesto, if
you like. His mission of salvation is to heal what is broken and
restore the image of God in people, an image that has been twisted and
marred by sin. It is about repairing relationships between people –
bringing about that Old Testament vision of shalom – health, wholeness
and justice - that was always God’s intention for the whole of his
world. Of course it applies to what comes after death as well as what
comes before it, but that unknown territory isn’t Jesus main focus, and
we do his message a disservice if we concentrate solely on that.
I said when I started that on one level that greeting “Peace be with
you” would have been what the disciples would have expected to hear –
the normal greeting of one person to another. But on another level I am
sure it would have meant far more to them than that. When Jesus
proclaims God’s “shalom”, his peace, to them, he is proclaiming
salvation, using that word in its broadest, and I think, most accurate
sense, a salvation that is already in effect, already healing them and
their relationships. Imagine what the last few days have been like for
them. Hiding fearfully in an upper room they have been arguing among
themselves, swamped in regret and shame after their desertion of Jesus.
They have felt let down too – all their dreams shattered. They are
confused – nothing has turned out as they expected, and they don’t know
why. It is all wrong. They might just as well go home to Galilee and
forget all about it. As they hear those words though – “peace be with
you” - they begin to take in the truth they need to hear. God is
healing his world. God is healing them. The apparent disaster of the
cross is actually a sign of God’s indestructible love, which even death
can’t defeat. Jesus, who they might have expected to rebuke them,
actually forgives them. There is new birth, new life, a new
beginning. Peace be with you – not a promise of admission to a heavenly
city when they die, but real hope for them now and real healing.
And as Jesus proclaims God’s shalom to them, he also makes it clear
that this gift is not just God’s to give. “As the Father has sent me,
so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any,
they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are
These are words that are very familiar to anyone like me who has been
ordained as a priest, because they are read at ordination services. One
of the things priests are given authority to do by their ordination,
alongside blessing and celebrating communion, is to declare God’s
forgiveness of sins. But while I know that it is sometimes important to
hear these words spoken by someone who has the authority and
accountability that is given by ordination, I don’t think for one
minute that it is only priests who do this work.
Jesus is speaking here to a motley bunch of fishermen, tax collectors,
lay people of all sorts – neither trained nor ordained for ministry.
The reality is that we all have this power to bind others or to set
them free. We can all tie people to their past actions, stopping them
moving forward to the new lives they need or we can release them to try
again. We can all give or withhold the shalom – that healing peace -
that they need. It’s not necessarily a matter of saying or refusing to
say some words of formal absolution, but the way we act towards one
another that does this.
I recall one man I knew who had grown up the youngest of a large, poor,
mining family in the North East. When he was old enough to start at the
local Sunday School his hard-pressed mother did her best to kit him out
smartly for his first session. She carefully knitted him a new jumper –
a rare treat – and proudly sent him off down the road to the church.
Not long afterwards he was back, tearful and humiliated. The vicar had
sent him away. “You can’t come to Sunday School,” he said, “unless you
are wearing a jacket and tie.” His lovingly hand-knitted pullover,
which had taken many hours of effort, and cash the family could ill
afford, was not good enough. In fact the vicar seemed to take it as a
deliberate act of disrespect.
Needless to say the little boy never went back, and sadly he never got
over this rejection either. He was bitterly opposed to the church and
to religion ever afterwards, and that bitterness spilt over into the
rest of his life. I don’t know how many times that vicar had spoken the
words of absolution in church but on that day his thoughtless
words had denied that child the shalom, the healing peace, the
salvation that he needed.
“Peace be with you.” It is not just a simple greeting, nor just
soothing words. It is God’s proclamation of his saving power that heals
us and all creation, power that sets us free from whatever it is that
has bound us, and calls us into his new life. And as he declares his
shalom to us, he reminds us that we all, priests and laypeople alike,
have the power to pass on or to withhold that shalom– the true
salvation that makes us whole and healthy.
Easter Sunday 08
Acts 10.34-43, Matthew 28.1-10
There’s one word that sums up the story Matthew tells of the
resurrection of Christ, the story we have just heard. It’s not a
difficult word. It’s not a long word. In fact it’s almost as short a
word as you can get. It is the word “go”.
“Go” says the angel to the two women at the tomb. “Go and tell the
others that Christ has been raised.”
“Go” repeats Jesus when they meet him, “and when you’ve gone and you’ve
done that, keep going – go to Galilee – not to hide, but to meet with
me and to hear what you should do next.” And when they meet him they’ll
discover that there is yet more “going” for them to do. “Go out to the
ends of the world” he will say to them, “with my message of love.” In
fact Matthew’s resurrection story is full of motion. When these women
go, they don’t just amble or creep, they run, propelled along by a
mixture of fear and joy to tell their amazing tale.
You could pretty much reduce this resurrection story to that one word,
and you’d have the gist of it right.
But “go” was the last word on anyone’s mind at the beginning of the
story. As the women set out for the tomb they were not expecting
motion; they were expecting to encounter a scene that was absolutely
static, just as they left it, and would stay that way fixed and
immovable. The stone sealed across the tomb, with guards to prevent
anyone moving it. The body inside it, like any dead body, unmoving. One
of the things that has always struck me when I have seen a dead body is
just how still it is. You almost find yourself waiting for the person
to take a breath, for some tiny flutter of an eyelid, but it doesn’t
happen. There is no stillness quite like the stillness of death.
Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany had watched as the very dead, very
still body of Jesus was placed in this tomb. All their hopes and dreams
had died with him. He was not going anywhere. They were not going
anywhere. Nothing was going anywhere any more. When they set out on
that sad morning, it was simply with the intention of sitting at his
tomb, sharing that stillness.
Except that when they get there things are anything but still. There is
a sudden earthquake. The resurrection shakes up the whole world,
Matthew tells us in this detail. It upends people’s expectation; bursts
open the constraints that have imprisoned them and shatters the
barriers that divide them. The tomb is split open; the boulder across
its mouth has fallen away to reveal, not a motionless body, but an
empty space. And there is the angel - not some cute cherub, but an
awesome being of searing light - proclaiming that Christ has been
raised from the dead. No wonder the guards fall back in a dead faint.
Not only have they been literally stunned by this apparition, they also
realise that they have failed in their task. Despite the fact that they
were there all night, wide-awake - honest guv! – Jesus is gone.
The women appear to be made of sterner stuff than the guards because
they find the courage to listen to the angel’s message. And that
message, as I said, you can boil down to the one word “Go”. “He’s not
here,” says the angel, “There’s no point hanging around. Have a look in
the tomb if you must, but then go and go quickly – there’s work to be
done!” So that is exactly what they do.
“Go!” says the angel to the women, and I think that the message
is the same for us today. Go! – not straight away…I haven’t finished
yet, and I’m hoping you’ll stay for the rest of the service and for
coffee afterwards. But just like these women we shouldn’t linger at the
tombs of our lives either because that isn’t where we will find the new
things God wants to give us, anymore than these women could find Jesus
if they were rooted to the spot in that garden in Jerusalem.
What sort of tombs am I talking about? What sort of tombs might we be
tempted to linger at?
Some people linger over their failures or over some tragedy that has
befallen them – the tombs where they have buried their hopes. They
punish themselves endlessly for things that everyone else has
forgotten, or things that they can’t undo. Of course we should learn
what we can from the past, otherwise we will just repeat it, but sooner
or later we have to accept that what has happened has happened and
leave it be if we are going to be open to new possibilities.
Some people linger over dead relationships – the tombs of their love –
clinging to relationships that may be poisoning their lives and the
lives of others. They keep hoping that their partner will somehow
magically change into the person of their dreams. Of course it is
right to work at relationships when they are in trouble – not to just
give up - but sometimes there is nothing you can do, and it does no one
any favours to pretend that there is.
Some people linger in an unhelpful way at the literal tombs of a loved
one who has died. Of course we grieve when we have lost someone, and
nothing can fill the gap they have left. Of course grief has its own
timetable, and can’t be hurried – no one else can tell you when your
own personal Easter Day has come - but I’ve known people who,
many years after a loss, seem still to be completely frozen in their
sorrow, as if they have died themselves, and that is a double tragedy –
the loss of two lives instead of one.
Some people, it seems to me, even linger at the stories of the Bible in
a way that turns them into tombs – tombs for dead theology, dry and
dusty focuses for arguments over the details of things that happened
long ago, or metaphysical mysteries that we will never find the answers
to. I’m all for telling and meditating on the stories of the Bible –
I’ve spent much of the last week doing just that with the stories of
Holy Week – but if they become an end in themselves they can do more
harm than good. The oppression and the death of Christ can become so
luridly vivid to us, that they eclipse the oppression and death of
those who are suffering today. Are we as engaged with the story of
those who have been imprisoned in Tibet as we are with the story of
Christ? If we aren’t careful we can find ourselves getting more worked
up about a 2000 year old act of injustice that we can do nothing about,
than we do about injustices we might still be able to prevent here and
now. Endlessly puzzling over the mechanics of the resurrection can be a
distraction too. It’s a mystery we’ll never solve, beyond saying that
the disciples encountered Jesus in some form that convinced them he had
been raised from death – they must have done, because they wouldn’t
have gone to their deaths for the sake of something they knew to be a
lie. But how whatever happened, happened we’ll never know. The issue
that we need to get to grips with is not how Christ was raised, but how
we are raised. How can we live in his resurrection light, with
hope, love and joy today? How can he bring life to what is dead in us?
Faith needs to be real, to be something that makes sense of our lives
today if it is going to be any use.
It is tempting when life challenges us, to stay rooted to the spot –
even if the spot is a miserable one – to cling to the familiar, even if
it is a poor substitute for the true hope we need. Any change is
frightening – even change for the better. Who knows what might be out
there in the dark, unknown future? But the message of the resurrection
angel is that it is only when we go that we will discover what we
really need to know, the wonderful truth that Christ has already gone
before us, just as he had gone before the disciples to Galilee. He is
with us as we set out, he is with us on the journey, and he is there at
the journey’s end. “Go” he says “Go with faith, go with joy – there is
nowhere you can be where I am not.”
The two women do as they are told. They go. The rest of the disciples
do as they are told too. They go to Galilee. They go to the lands
around them. They go even to the farthest corners of the earth – they
even come here in the end. They go too, across boundaries of other
sorts. In our first reading St Peter had to cross the boundary of
national and religious suspicion, taking the message of the Gospel to a
hated and unclean Roman soldier. They go across boundaries of gender –
these first two witnesses of the resurrection were women. They wouldn’t
have even been given a hearing in a first century court of law, but
their testimony is treated as equal in the early church. The disciples
go across the boundaries of their fears, facing persecution and death
themselves. They are able to do all of this, because they have
discovered that wherever they go, Christ is there already, perfectly at
I’ve no idea this morning where you are called to go to, but I know
that each one of us is called to be on the move. To live is to move –
only the dead lie still. The resurrection isn’t a happy ending to a
troublesome week; it is a happy beginning to the rest of our lives,
lives we are called to live with that same kind of adventurous courage
as the first disciples, running towards the new life God wants for us
and for his world.
Maundy Thursday 08
Exodus 12.1-14, John 13.1-17, 31b-35
Feet – I don’t know how you feel about yours, but many people have
mixed feelings about them. They do a lot of work, after all, carrying
us about, so it’s not surprising if they end up a bit battered and bent
about by life – not always our most attractive physical
But that wasn’t the only reason why Jesus’ disciples were so horrified
when he took a towel, knelt down on the ground and began to wash their
feet – filthy from the city streets of Jerusalem. They were convinced
that Jesus was the king, the Messiah – hadn’t he ridden into Jerusalem
on a donkey, just as the prophets had said the Messiah would? Weren’t
the crowds flocking to him? They were already imagining thrones and
crowns and privileged positions at his side for them too, with servants
to wait on them. But here was Jesus, doing what those servants
should have done, dealing with the dirt so that they didn’t have to.
What sort of king washes people’s feet? This was never going to work,
if Jesus wouldn’t play the part he was supposed to.
It was the second time that week that they had had to struggle with the
issue of feet in fact. Just a few days earlier, out in the nearby
village of Bethany, at supper with Martha, Mary and Lazarus, they had
been appalled when Mary produced an expensive jar of ointment and began
to anoint Jesus’ feet with it, wiping them with her hair. Judas
protested on the grounds of the waste involved – the ointment could
have been sold and the money given to the poor - but that wasn’t really
the point. It was the fact that Jesus was allowing a woman to do this
for him – no respectable rabbi, no respectable Jewish man, should have
permitted this intimacy from an unrelated woman. Jesus had crossed the
line before, letting Mary learn from him just like the male disciples
did. That was bad enough, but this! Well, really!
Again and again, Jesus dragged his disciples out beyond their comfort
zones, into new territory. Of course, the real shock was still to come,
as he overturned all their ideas of what God’s Messiah should be by
dying a shameful death on the cross, but the signs were all there
already for them to read.
I’ve been watching – as perhaps you have – the BBC’s “Passion” this
week. It’s only half-way through, of course, but I’ve been quite
impressed. The only thing that bothered me for a while was the
disconcerting fact that Jesus, in their portrayal, comes across as
completely insane. Everyone around him – the high priest Caiaphas, the
Roman governor Pilate, the disciples – has recognisable, sensible
agendas. Caiaphas wants to maintain the status quo, even if it means
collaborating with the Romans, because he sees that as the best way of
keeping the Jewish people safe. Pilate doesn’t want trouble either – it
will only get him into Caesar’s bad books. The disciples want people to
listen to Jesus’ message – if Jesus is killed, how can that happen?
Better to be a living dog than a dead lion. Anyway, they have families
and businesses that they are responsible for. Jesus has made his
point. Why not go back to the safety of Galilee? There’s nothing in any
of their arguments that seems unreasonable, is there?
And yet Jesus persists, spouting mystifying words about the kingdom of
God, the need for him to die, the promise that God is doing something
new in him. It sounds insane. And yet, as I pondered the BBC’s version
of events I realised that they had got it absolutely right. If you read
the Gospels you realise this is how they tell it too. Jesus is a
man who is living his life according to some sort of pattern that has
never been seen before, who regularly and deliberately turns people’s
expectations upside down and inside out. And those around him really
did think he had gone mad – none of it made sense.
These incidents with the feet are classic examples. Where is the sense
in letting a woman touch you like this – what will people think? Where
is the sense in behaving as if you are a servant – who will respect you
Of course sometimes behaviour that looks mad is mad - there is no
particular benefit in making people uncomfortable or turning their
worlds upside down simply for the sake of it. But in the light of the
cross and the resurrection, in the light of two thousand years of
hindsight, we can see that what Christ does is not madness at all. When
Christ drags people out beyond their comfort zone, he does so to show
them that the future doesn’t have to be the same as the past.
In the Old Testament we see a similar moment – a moment of apparent
madness – from Israel’s distant history. The Israelites had been slaves
in Egypt for more years than anyone could count. But now, here was
Moses, telling them that there was a Promised Land for them, where they
could be free. But to reach it they would have to believe that Pharaoh
was going to let them go – they had to act as if it was already a done
deal. Eat your meal hurriedly, leave none for the next day because you
won’t be here to eat it. Put your shoes on and take up your staff, be
ready to go when the moment comes, because come it certainly will, says
Moses. Sheer madness! The rational among them would have quite rightly
pointed out how impossible this all was. The Egyptian nation was the
most powerful the world had ever seen. This wild fantasy of an escape
simply wasn’t going to happen!
Moses, like Jesus, drags these Israelite slaves out of their comfort
zone - quite literally in his case - out of the familiarity of Egypt
into the frightening emptiness of the desert.
Both Moses and Jesus know that it is only by disturbing the assumptions
of those around them, challenging them to see a new future that
anything can change. Moses promises a land flowing with milk and honey.
Jesus’ promise is not of material comfort at all, but of a kingdom in
which people are ruled by love of each other, a kingdom in which
humility and service are not signs of weakness, but privileges, a
kingdom in which people are set free from the dog-eat-dog patterns of
life which can only result in fear and injustice.
It is tragic but true that today this sort of thinking still seems like
madness to many
Those who dare to seek peace are often labelled idealistic fools. Those
who dare to campaign for justice for the poor are often labelled
naïve. Those who dare to hope that it might be possible for us to
live in harmony with each other and with the rest of creation are
labelled tree-hugging do-gooders. I recall the words of the Brazilian
Archbishop Helder Camara “When I give the poor bread they call me a
saint; when I ask why the poor have no bread they call me a communist”,
just another sort of madness in his society at the time.
Cynicism is often seen as the norm. “What difference can one person
make to all the problems of the world?” we say, shrugging our
shoulders, as we troop off to the shops to pile up yet more junk. “You
can’t teach an old dog new tricks” we say as we reject some new
possibility for our lives. “Look after number one – no one else will!”
we say as we turn aside from someone who needs our help, or some action
that will cost us, but benefit others. But it is only when we dare to
leave these old familiar ideas behind that we can really begin to
change and really begin to see God’s kingdom here and now among us.
At the end of this service we’ll be sharing in the short service of
Tenebrae. We’ll read a series of passages from the Bible, blowing out
the candles on the altar as we do so, until we are in darkness. That
darkness is supposed to remind us of the darkness that gathers around
Jesus as he is arrested and killed. It is the darkness of the
bafflement his disciples felt and the darkness of betrayal as they all
fell away. It is the darkness in the hearts of those, then and now, who
can countenance torturing and killing the innocent to preserve their
own power. But it is also the darkness into which we each need to step
if we are to discover the reality of God’s purpose for us. If we stick
only with what we know, we will stay as we are. It is the unknown
future – however mad, strange or new it might feel - that we need to
The darkness of Christ’s grave is not just the darkness of death – the
end of some foolish stunt pulled by a madman. It is the darkness
in which he, and we, await new birth. Christ’s grave is not just a
tomb; it is a womb as well. Like the dark earth in which the seed
germinates, it is the place in which new life begins. So, let’s
not be afraid to step into that darkness with God, and let him lead us
through it to his new kingdom.
March 16th 2008
Breathing Space Communion Palm Sunday Evening
50.4-9a. Matthew 21.1-11
I’m sure everyone was delighted at the news on Friday that Shannon
Matthews had been found alive. There were great scenes of rejoicing on
the estate in Dewsbury where she lived, with crowds of children
shouting her name and dancing on a great scattered pile of “missing”
posters. That same community had been seen in the weeks since her
disappearance walking local pieces of waste ground, handing out
leaflets at football matches – getting together to help in the search
and support the family.
Amidst all the rejoicing on Friday night, though, one local man was
interviewed who said that what worried him was what Shannon might have
been through. If she had been harmed, he said, then “God help the
person who has done it. This community doesn’t forgive that
We bandy about this word “community” with great ease, as if it were
bound always to be a good thing, but it is often much more complicated
than we think – and not always healthy. Shannon's community which had
been united in anxiety and in rejoicing might well turn out to be
united in its desire to punish too. Seeing that Shannon turned out to
have been taken by a distant relative, part of her family, part of the
community, there’s a real possibility that the cheers of joy for
Shannon’s recovery might turn to shouts of hatred and suspicion –
whether deserved or not – towards her family.
Communities can be dangerous things. They can be as ruthless in
excluding those who don’t fit as they are good at including those who
do. They can force people to adopt a common mind, whatever that happens
to be, rather than encouraging them to think of themselves as
individuals with individual responsibility. It’s not always easy to see
how this happens but the effect is clear. It's like a flock of
starlings swirling in the sky as they gather to roost. You can’t pick
out who is taking the lead, and yet some sort of signal is being passed
somehow. So this word, “community” sounds good, but in reality it can
be nothing more than another name for a crowd, or even a mob.
The crowd which greeted Jesus on that first Palm Sunday was no
different. Some were there because they passionately believed in his
message, some were there because they were curious, and I suspect that
some were there simply because this strange procession provided a
moment of excitement in a dull life. They pulled branches off the trees
and shouted Hosanna till they were hoarse, but it’s clear that some of
them didn’t have a clue who they were shouting for. “Who is this..?”
they asked, eventually. And when the Hosannas turned to shouts of
Crucify, they were equally willing to go along with the crowd.
The truth is that we are all capable of this – we don’t need to be in
first century Jerusalem, and the temptation to go along with the crowd
isn’t just something that just besets council estates in run down
areas. There are ways in which we all resist the challenge of being
ourselves, of thinking for ourselves and of taking responsibility for
The Old Testament reading told us that God’s servant – and that is what
we are called to be – needs to have ears awakened “to listen as those
who are taught.” You can only resist the whispering of the crowd if
your ears are open – open especially to God’s voice, says Isaiah. Only
then can we live the lives we are called to, with integrity, and help
others too with words that will sustain them in their own, sometimes
weary, struggles too.
Holy Week is the tale of one man who swum against the tide of the
world’s evil and paid the price for it. As we begin our observance of
Holy Week, I wonder what the tides are in our lives that sweep us along
and how good we are at recognising them and swimming against them if we
need to. What are the whispering voices of the crowds around us – the
voices of families and friends, the voices within workplaces or social
groups, the voices of the media and of our wider society? Let us
recognise them this Holy Week, and let us open our ears too to the
voice of God – that still small voice of love that calls us out of the
crowd and into our own true inheritance as his children.
9th March 2008 Lent
5 by Kevin Bright
John 11.1-45, Romans
8.6-11, Ezekiel 37.1-14
Does a long gospel reading mean we need a long sermon? If I attempted
to address every aspect of our reading then yes, but you will be
relieved to hear that I only wanted to share thoughts on the bits that
jumped off the page for me.
It doesn’t necessarily follow that my highlights of this reading will
be the same as yours.
Possibly you were surprised by the detail that Jesus didn’t rush to
Judea when he heard that Lazarus was gravely ill but stayed put for two
whole days before setting off on his journey.
Perhaps you could share in the desperation, bewilderment and pain of
Martha and Mary who both effectively say ‘if you had got here sooner
our brother would not have died.’
The obvious big story here is that we are told Lazarus is restored to
life after being dead for four days, hardly an everyday occurrence
compared to our life experience.
Even though these are all key elements in the sequence of events the
thing that really struck me was the simple fact that, Jesus Christ, the
son of God, bursts into tears!
If Jesus was so upset by the sisters’ distress and grief why didn’t he
rush to them immediately he heard Lazarus was ill? What was he doing
for those two days?
From the fact that he later says ‘Father I thank you for having heard
me’ when the stone was rolled away from the cave containing Lazarus
body, it seems certain that Jesus was praying. It was dangerous for him
to go to Judea; his own disciples remind him that the Judeans had
wanted to stone him accusing him of blasphemy for claiming to be God’s
son. Who knew what would happen if he returned?
Yet a tension was created by Mary and Martha who clearly longed for
Jesus to join them urgently.
We are reminded that being a follower of Christ is not always risk free
as we heard Thomas tells his fellow disciples ‘ Let us go also, that we
may die with him’, indicating the grave consequences he expected upon
their return to Judea.
The days must have been spent wrestling over Gods will for him, knowing
there was no easy option available.
The current chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, describes Judaism as a
religion of questions.’ He remembers his teacher’s greatest praise as
‘you raise a good objection’.
Maybe we’re starting to see things in a slightly Jewish way as well if
we still have more questions we want answered.
So if Jesus was so well prepared through prayer why did he break down
when he saw Mary weeping? The only explanation which makes sense to me
is that this showed the fullness of his humanity.
It can be difficult to accept that the one who came to demonstrate
God’s power of life over death also shows his vulnerability when
confronted with sadness and suffering.
Have you ever steeled yourself for a distressing situation, thought
things through logically, prayed, talked openly about your feelings
with someone close to you and prepared yourself to be as supportive as
you can. Only to arrive and be distressed beyond expectation when the
sheer human suffering becomes apparent?
Around 20 years after my mothers death my most painful memory is of my
father, who I’d never seen cry before, lying on his bed balling his
I’m sure every one of us has tried to convince ourselves that we are
over a sad situation only for it to unexpectedly come back and hit
To be fully human means not being fully in control of our emotions.
I switched on the early morning news one day this week to see the
presenter talking live at 6.00 am from near the home of the missing
schoolgirl Shannon Matthews. He was explaining how the community had
come together in support of the child’s family and then asked the local
curate some fairly routine questions.
With a sense that time was running short he turned to this poor woman
in her dog collar, who I must say looked shattered, stressed out and
wind swept in the cold darkness of a Yorkshire winters morning
and asked a staggering question, particularly for a two minute
live interview at this unearthly hour.
With the spotlights shining in her face and the cameras pointed it went
something like ‘Just quickly, many of our viewers will be wondering
why, if there is a loving God, he lets things like this happen?
Visibly stunned and after a moments hesitation she replied along the
lines of’ our God knows a thing or two about suffering and as we move
closer to Easter we are reminded of how he suffered for us and with
us’…. And there was clearly time for no more as they moved to the next
Profound wisdom and love in real time, amongst real heartbreak from a
woman who had been up half the night before leading a vigil for the
Having demonstrated his humanity Jesus also shows us that even for God
incarnate death is not cost free. In doing so we get a glimpse of a God
who is real, we might even say he is a bit like some of us!
This is certainly not a God who sits aloof on a cloud, this is not an
invisible God who exists somehow out there in space, this is our God
who got down on his knees to be at eye level with his children. Can it
be any surprise that so many people say they feel Gods presence in
their times of sadness and adversity?
Picking up on what St Paul said to the Romans can it also be any
surprise that when all is well and we feel that we are in control it
becomes tempting to direct our lives away from God, something I suspect
we have all flirted with in the past.
Totally human yet totally God as Jesus proclaims ‘I am the resurrection
and the life’, words which would be filled with a new understanding
Most of us here know that love is not risk free. But even though it can
be painful we also know that the price is one worth paying. With faith
and prayer Jesus shows us how to find a way forward with God in the
most desperate of situations.
The irony is that as Jesus demonstrates Gods love and life giving
power, at the same time he is setting the final seal on his own death.
His journey to Lazarus has been one which steers him towards head on
collision with the Jews who want him dead.
Let’s keep reading, praying and listening through Palm Sunday, Holy
week and Easter to remind ourselves of how his imprisonment and death
lead to our freedom and hope.
2nd March 08 - Lent 4 Evensong
Micah 7, James 5
The prophet Micah, at the end of the eighth century BC, was facing the
complete breakdown of his society. The Assyrians who had conquered the
area had deported many of its people, stripped the nation of its
wealth, and left those who remained to fend for themselves amidst the
ruins. Micah’s world had collapsed. It was everyone for themselves. You
couldn’t even trust your own family and your closest friends. “your
enemies are members of your own household” laments Micah. There
was no point looking to anyone in an official position either – the
judges were in the pocket of the wealthy. “The powerful dictate what
they desire” he says. “The best of them is like a briar, the most
upright of them a thorn hedge.” His words of lament are ancient, but we
can hear echoes of them throughout human history right up to the
present day. Many people have faced devastation like this.
There was news from Kenya this week of a power-sharing deal, which, it
is hoped will bring peace there, but at least one man I heard
interviewed on the radio was sceptical. He had fled to a displacement
camp. “How can I just go back to my village, “ he said. “It was my own
neighbours who were threatening my family.” This isn’t just an African
problem. In the 1990’s the same sort of sudden breakdown of an
apparently settled society happened in the former Yugoslavia. We are
only ever a short step away from this sort of chaos.
The letter of James is also written to people living in desperate
times, though it might not be so obvious. He writes to a church that is
being persecuted, in a society in which inequality and injustice were
rife, and where life was fragile and often snuffed out without a second
thought by the Roman authorities.
It would be natural to despair in times like these, but Micah and James
don’t, despite the challenges that face them. That is why their words
have stood the test of time, and why they are so valuable to us. Their
gift to us is that somehow they are able to see beyond the immediate
situation, and to identify some of the things that might make for a
hopeful future, not just in their long gone eras, but to us today in
the challenges we face. These may be global – climate change, unjust
trading practices – all bring risks not only of the personal
suffering of people far away, but of political instability which will
affect us all. The challenges may be much closer to home – the private,
personal traumas in our lives. Whichever it is, we need these voices
from the past to point us beyond a sense of helplessness to a real hope
that will lead to a better future
So what sort of things do these readings say to those who are facing
challenging times? I am going to suggest three things – and they
can all be summed up in the phrase “Get real!”
The first thing that these readings tell us to get real about is the
situation we face. Micah is honest about the bleakness of the
predicament he is in. He’s not afraid of genuine deep sadness and
lament – he doesn’t try to put a brave face on it - there seems to be
not even a left-over crumb of hope to sustain him, not even one
overlooked bunch of grapes on the vine, no scrap of anything to
scavenge. Get real – it really is this bad.
James calls on his hearers, especially those who are living in comfort,
to get real about the future that they are making for themselves. They
may think they are secure, but their riches will eat away at them. The
cries of those they have oppressed have reached the ears of God.
Stop deluding yourselves that you can live the life of Riley at the
expense of the poor – in the end you will bring destruction on
yourselves. These are not comfortable or easy readings, but they are
necessary readings calling us to see the ways in which we turn a blind
eye to what is wrong, either because we simply can’t bear to
acknowledge it, or because acknowledging it would mean that we would
have to change.
Human beings have a staggering ability to pretend to themselves that
there is nothing wrong in the hope that what you don’t see, or don’t
choose to see, won’t hurt you, but in our heart of hearts we know it
isn’t so. We can get nowhere in addressing our problems, or the
problems of the world until we admit that they are problems.
Get real about the situation, is the first message of these passages.
This is important, but it is just a first step. Often the very reason
why we don’t want to see the problems for what they are is because we
feel we can’t do anything about them. So is there anything here to
point us in the direction of hope?
I believe there is. James and Micah in different ways both tell us to
see where we fit in both as part of the problem and as part of the
solution. Get real about yourself, they say – your own responsibility
both for the problems and the solution. Micah, like many Old Testament
writers can sound very alien to our 21st Century ears. We might well
feel that he gives himself rather a hard time “I must bear the
indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him.” We probably
don’t share his view that the bad things that have happened are a
direct result of God’s anger, and I’m not suggesting we should. But
nonetheless there is some wisdom in his words. What he has recognised
is that he can’t simply point the finger at others in his society. If
it has gone off the rails – if people are at each others throats,
allowing injustice to poison their community life, then he, as part of
that society, can’t be immune from blame. The things he has done, or
the things he has left undone have contributed to that somehow. He may
not be the worst of sinners, but he is involved. It is all too easy for
us to talk about the problems of the world as if they are someone
else’s fault, as if we have nothing to do with them, but that is rarely
so – we are all linked to one another. And just as we are part of the
problem we can all do something to set things right. James’ letter
focuses on small things that can make a big difference to the world.
Confess your sins. If you need help, ask for it. Look out for one
another – don’t just let people drift off into behaviour that is
harming them or harming others. Do what you can, he says. Don’t
agonise, organise, as one slogan that I hold dear puts it. God will
honour that. None of us has a magic wand, but that doesn’t mean we are
powerless. Apathy can have just as profound an effect on the world as
action. Make a decision, and follow it up – let yes mean yes and no
mean no – do something.
Get real about the situation, get real about your part in that
situation- two calls to us that are about looking at what is
in front of us. But the third call is rather different, and calls us to
look very much beyond ourselves. Get real about God, say these two
writers. Ultimately for both Micah and James the best and most powerful
hope lies not
just in what they can do, but in the character of the God they trust
in. He is a faithful God, they believe, a God who has not let his
people down in the past, the God of Abraham, of Jacob, of Job – people
for whom life often seemed just as bleak as theirs does, but who
discovered in the end that God was with them. The story of Jesus
himself, his death and his resurrection, are the final proof of this
faithfulness, of course, for the community of Christians James writes
to. And God is faithful, according to these writers, not out of
stubbornness, not because he doesn’t want to look as if he has failed,
but out of love, love for his world, his own creation. Appropriately
for Mothering Sunday,
God’s is the faithfulness that a loving parent will show to a child.
Loving parents stick with their children because it is unimaginable to
them not to. They could no more forsake their child than cut out their
own heart. God’s love, according to Micah and James, is like this –
compassionate, merciful, everlasting.
The fact that their current circumstances are so bad does not alter
the reality about God to which they hold. “As for me, I will look to
the Lord. I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear
me.” Says Micah. James talks about the farmer who looks at the bare
earth, not in despair, but knowing that within it are the seeds which
will grow into a plentiful crop – the fact that he can’t see them
doesn’t mean that they aren't there.
Get real say these ancient writers to their contemporaries. Get real
about your situation, get real about yourselves, but above all, get
real about God. They knew what their reality was but what about us?
What is the truth about the world we live in, the challenges we face?
What is the truth about the part we have played and are called to play
in that world? And most of all, what sort of God do we believe in? One
who will desert us at the first sign of trouble, one who blows with the
wind, this way and that way, one who is capricious and forgetful? Or a
God who walks beside us through the pain and the devastation until the
new day dawns?
February 24th 2008 - Lent 3
Exodus 17.1-7, John 4.5-42
A place for everything and everything in its
place! I would love to say that that was the motto I live by.
Unfortunately, not being a naturally tidy person, the truth is more
often, “a place for everything and everything somewhere else.”
But although I fail, that doesn’t stop me hoping! We all like a
bit of order in our lives. Life is much easier if you know where to
find things, if things are where you expect them to be.
It’s the same with people – we like them to be where we expect them to
be as well.
In my last parish I was chaplain to the local Asda store. I used to go
in once a week and stand in the foyer chatting to the customers and
staff. Often, though, people would do a double take, suddenly noticing
the dog collar – “’ere, are you a vicar, then?” A place for everything
and everything in its place? The place of a vicar was certainly not in
the aisles of a supermarket, with an Asda staff badge on. They couldn’t
quite believe their eyes.
In today’s Old Testament reading we find a group of people who are
feeling very out of place indeed. The Israelites, newly escaped from
slavery in Egypt, find themselves in an arid wilderness, far from the
abundant waters of the River Nile. Life might have been hard in Egypt,
but at least you never went short of water. This desert landscape is
something unimaginable to them, and they don’t like it. “Why did you
bring us out of Egypt? “they complain to Moses - “Is God among us
or not?” Surely God can’t be out here in this wasteland! No
self-respecting Egyptian God would live out here – they know that.
Egyptian Gods had fine temples. This desert is no place for a God to
be, any more than it is for a human with any sense.
In the Gospel story we meet two more people who are feeling out of
place. Jesus is out of place in Samaria. For reasons lost in the
mists of time, Jews and Samaritans regarded each other with suspicion
and often outright hatred. Israel was divided into two separate
territories – Judea in the south, where Jerusalem was, and Galilee in
the north. Between them lay Samaria. Good Jewish people would make a
long diversion around Samaria to avoid setting foot on its soil and
mixing with its inhabitants. So Jesus and his disciples really
shouldn’t be here. But he has decided to take that short cut and we
meet him, out of place in this alien, heretical land, exhausted and
thirsty, just like the Israelites in the desert.
The woman who comes up the path towards the well in the hot noonday sun
is also someone who feels out of place. She shouldn’t do. She’s a
Samaritan. This is her home. But in the eyes of her society she is
someone who doesn’t really belong either. We know that straight away,
before we hear anything of her story, because she is coming to this
well, alone, at noon, the hottest time of the day. No one with any
sense did that. Collecting water was hard work – a job for the cool of
the morning or evening. It was a time too for socialising, nattering
with your friends as you met up at the well. But this woman doesn’t
seem to have any friends. She’s deliberately coming for water when no
one else is likely to be around.
As we later discover she has a miserable personal history. Five
husbands, and the man she’s with now won’t marry her. What’s happened?
These marriages might have been ended by divorce or by death, or by a
mixture of the two, but whichever it is her community probably regards
her as a walking piece of bad luck by now. Women couldn’t initiate
divorce, so if she’s divorced it’s her husbands who have rejected her,
not vice versa – this isn’t a woman who is living some sort of loose
life, hopping from man to man – but despite this it would be she, not
her husbands who were left carrying the shame and stigma. And if she’s
been repeatedly widowed, she’s not much better off.
Premature death was often regarded as God’s punishment or the devil’s
work. To lose one husband was bad, but five?!…
There’s something very dodgy about this woman in the eyes of her
neighbours and she is among the most vulnerable, most marginalised
people we meet in the Gospels, unsupported by friends and family,
despised, and economically insecure. Even in the midst of her own
people she is out of place..
According to the expectations of the time, Jesus should turn his back
on her – as a Samaritan, a woman and someone who is obviously not
accepted within her own society, even if he doesn’t know why yet. But
he doesn’t do that. Instead he asks her for a drink. She’s so surprised
she checks that he has really got the measure of the situation – does
he, a Jew, really want water from her? He does, and before she knows
where she is they are deep in conversation – a long conversation about
water and husbands, and places of worship.
Some of their conversation might seem rather baffling to us. “Should we
worship on this mountain or in Jerusalem?” she asks. I’ve heard
preachers suggest this is just a red herring to stop Jesus from probing
any further into her personal life. But I don’t agree. I think her
question is much more relevant than it seems.
One of the major differences between Samaritans and Jews was their view
of where God should be worshipped. Jews worshipped in the Temple, but
for Samaritans Mount Gerizim was the real holy place. But if Jesus, a
Jew, has seen her life so clearly, perhaps the Jews are right on this
too. Where is God? she wonders. On Mount Gerizim or in the Temple? A
place for everything, and everything in its place – but which is God’s
Jesus’ answer takes her beyond the simple either/or. God’s true
worshippers are the ones who can see him at work not just in a Temple
or on a holy mountain, but wherever the truth is spoken and recognised.
Those who worship him, worship him in Spirit and in truth.
So where is the place where God is at work on this hot, noonday? It is
right there where a thirsty exhausted Jew and a marginalised Samaritan
women – both of them feeling “out of place” - accept each other as they
are, where they see and speak the truth about each other. Jesus sees,
and says, that she is an intelligent woman with much to give – to him
and to her own community, not a disgrace to be shunned. She sees, and
says, that he is the Messiah, the one whom her people just as much as
the Jews have been waiting for. They get beyond the labels, beyond the
prejudices, and they tell one another the truth, and there is God in
their midst, blessing them both.
The Samaritan woman’s transformation is obvious, as she rushes off to
tell those neighbours who have rejected her what Jesus has done. He has
treated her with respect, a child of God, someone worth talking
theology with. How long is it since someone has spoken to her like
this, I wonder? His treatment of her is a cool stream in the desert –
some of that living water that he talks about.
But Jesus too comes away from this encounter enriched: it has reached
somewhere deep in him. When the disciples return with food, he doesn’t
want it. He’s not hungry any more. This conversation has left him
bursting with delight. It has satisfied him more deeply than any food
and drink could.
He needs to see God at work out here in this alien place, in the life
of an outcast woman, just as much as she does. One day soon he’ll find
himself outcast too, nailed to a cross enduring a squalid and
disgraceful death, perhaps wondering if this can really be right. Is
this any place for God’s Messiah to be? He needs to know for certain
that it is.
All this matters to us, too. “A place for everything, and everything in
its place”. But where is the place we expect to find God? We look at
the meanness and the squalor of the world, and it’s easy to assume that
God can’t possibly be in it. Surely he is high in his perfect heaven,
not here. We look at the church and shake our heads sadly at its
quarrels and divisions – this isn’t where we’ll find God at work, we
think – these things are a sad distraction from the real business of
loving and caring for our neighbour. We look on our own failures and
the failures of others, the deserts of shame and regret in our lives,
and feel they are the last place we’ll find God. But we are wrong. We
have the temerity to describe people, places, situations as
“God-forsaken” when in fact it is only we who have forsaken them,
turned aside from them, drawn back in disgust or horror. God hasn’t
forsaken them, any more than he had forsakes the Israelites in the
desert, or that marginalised Samaritan woman, or Jesus as he hangs on
“Is the Lord among us or not?” is the question we ask when we are out
in the desert places of our lives, our church and our world. Yes, say
these stories – especially here, where we are confronted with often
painful truths. Because God knows, even if we don’t, that it is most
often in the arguments, the clashes, the failures that we are presented
with the opportunity really to do the work we need to if we are going
to change, to hear the words that we have avoided or missed. Often it
is only when truth splits the rock of our lives apart, when the
certainties crumble, that the living water can begin to flow.
“A place for everything, and everything in its place.” When all seems
lost, when all seems wrong, when all seems out of place, God says
“strike the rock and let the living water flow”. And, if we dare to
take him at his word, that living water can bubble up for us, as it
does for the Israelites, and the Samaritan woman, and Jesus himself, an
inexhaustible fount of healing.
17th February 2008 - Lent 2 - Breathing Space Holy Communion meditation
John 3. 1-17
Rather than a talk today I’d like to lead you in a short guided
meditation – all it needs from you is a bit of imagination. Don’t worry
if you don’t think of yourself as the imaginative type – if you’ve ever
heard a story on the radio or read a book and had a mental picture of
the people and places in it, you can do this. Some people seem to be
able to picture things more vividly than others, but most people are
better at this than they think they will be.
A word of two of introduction:
In today’s Gospel reading we heard the story of Nicodemus, a leader
among the Jewish people, a respected pillar of the community, a man
whom everyone knew, a man who knew himself, or thought he did. But when
Jesus came along he found himself suddenly questioning the faith and
way of life that had always seemed so secure to him. He needs to ask
Jesus questions that seem to him to be unaskable, to think thoughts
that seem unthinkable, and he certainly doesn’t want others to see him
in this state of confusion. So he comes to Jesus under cover of
darkness hoping to be unnoticed. Jesus doesn’t seem to mind the
subterfuge – he meets Nicodemus, as he does so many others, just as he
My guess is that Nicodemus isn’t the only one among us who sometimes
has things to say to God that seem unsayable – doubts, fears, anger,
maybe even moments of tenderness and thanksgiving. So tonight I’d like
to invite you to come on an imaginative journey with me, in the steps
of Nicodemus, in the hopes that we can be aware in the silence of our
hearts of what it is we need to say to God, and what he might say to us
in response. I’m going to sit down to lead this. I will pause now and
then as I lead you on this journey, and, at the end there will be quite
a lengthy time of silence so you can let the story unfold however it
does for you.
Close your eyes. Sit comfortably and breathe gently.
It is night.
You are going through the streets of Jerusalem to a place where you
know you can find Jesus. Stop for a moment and imagine what is around
What is this street like? Is it narrow or broad?
How much of the night sky can you see if you look upwards?
What is the weather like – is it a cold winter’s night or a balmy
What is on either side of the street – houses? Shops? High walls?
What is the street surface like – stones, earth, smooth or uneven?
What noises can you hear? – a dog barking? Cicadas? The noises of
Is there anyone else around?
How do you feel about this journey you are making – eager? fearful?
Take a few moments to imagine the scene before you go on…
Now you move on…are you in a hurry or going slowly, reluctantly,
You arrive at the house where you know Jesus is.
There is a door – take a look at it – what is it like?
How do you feel as you stand there…?
You knock on the door
The door opens, and Jesus invites you in…
Take a few moments as you follow him in to look around you and to look
What can you see on your right, on your left, straight in front of you?
What do you think he was doing before you arrived? Have you interrupted
him, or did he seem to know you were coming?
Jesus invites you to sit down and he sits down himself…
He asks you what it is that you want to say….it might be something
profound, or something trivial, something that comes to you now, or
something that has always bothered you.
In the silence, ask or say whatever it is you want, and see how Jesus
As we bring our time of meditation to a close, take your leave of
Jesus, aware of what you have said and what you have heard and what you
will take away from this encounter.
February 10th 2008 - Lent 1 Sermon by Kevin
Matthew 4.1-11, Romans 5.12-19,
Did you have pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, the last chance to feast
before Lent began?
Next came Ash Wednesday which offers a chance to reflect on our sorrow
for our sins and our mortality.
These two dealt with we can focus on what we hope to achieve this lent.
Do we want to give something up like booze or sweets and give the money
we save to a good cause? Have we resolved to break the habit of
something we know to be wrong? Maybe our lent will involve positive
unselfish action to benefit others. The Church of England is
encouraging us to have a carbon fast (that is to cut our carbon
emissions). Perhaps we want to read, study, reflect and see if God can
become more real for us.
Today is the first Sunday of lent and if you’ve managed to abstain or
keep working towards your goal for this long the good news is that
you’ve already succeeded for around 10% of this penitential season. By
observing the forty days of lent we remind ourselves of the time of
Christ’s withdrawal to the desert for forty days to fast and prepare
for his ministry.
So with these points clear in our minds we simply need to master
temptation for another 36 days and we’re home and dry, ready to
There is always the possibility that we become changed during lent and
that the temptations resisted for forty days become permanent.
Even if we think we have temptation mastered changes in circumstance,
new positions of responsibility and unexpected opportunities can catch
us off guard.
I read the following text when researching our readings for this week
and it seemed like it could have been written following the news of the
last few weeks even though it was actually published in 2002!
Ever since her local party had told her, to her surprise, that they
wanted her to be their candidate, she had been overwhelmed by the
honour both of running for parliament and of serving her people. All
her noble ideals had been smiling at her, beckoning her, telling her
that she was now going to be able to achieve them. Her one thought had
been: get elected and at last you’ll be able to change the world. To
make things better. To turn things around.
She still couldn’t believe it, victory by 10,000 votes. They had wanted
her. They had chosen her. This was her day and it was sweet.
She needed space to think and took a long walk in the woods by herself.
She was shocked by what she discovered, the ideals were still there but
what were these other voices?
Now at last they whispered, ‘you’ve got a chance to make some real
money. Lots of businesses will want you on their board, to lobby
ministers for them. You can name your price.
‘This is just the first rung on the ladder’ said the voices.’ If you
play your cards well, if you don’t make a fuss about too many things,
and get to know the right people, you could, get rid of that party
activist you never liked, be on TV, be… in the cabinet ………
I shouldn’t have been surprised that the text felt topical as it’s a
timeless temptation to those who find themselves in any position of
For Jesus the issues were also about whether he would exploit his
position of power. It wasn’t favours from senior figures of the day
that he might be tempted to call upon but his special powers given by
God. Would he choose to lead a privileged life or confront temptations
which were real for him as a human being?
The first temptation is for Jesus to turn the bread into a stone. This
says more about doubting God’s goodwill towards us than dealing with
hunger. Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert, and became very
hungry. No doubt he wonders has God has forgotten him. The temptation
is about more than just a meal, more than just a stone and a piece of
bread. It’s about taking control, making up for God’s apparent
forgetfulness or carelessness, doubting God’s goodwill.
Jesus doesn’t turn the stone into bread; he commits himself to trust in
God’s promise of sustenance in the wilderness. The real hope which
Jesus gives us is that we need only have the tiniest faith to achieve
great things. After all it’s not the size of the faith but the God in
which we believe which is important. We know how things worked out for
Jesus but will each face our own ‘desert times’, and don’t yet know how
we will react.
Surely doubt of God must weaken our ability to weather times of
temptation. Faith isn’t something we can switch on and off at will but
we do need to remind ourselves how much we are loved by God, how ready
he is to forgive us and that he has a purpose for each of us.
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.
The other major temptation is to see all the injustice around us and
feel powerless. We are tempted to give in to despair - the despair that
nothing we can do will make a difference; the despair that says that
there is no help or hope for us or for our world.
In our lives we experience a struggle between obedience to our faith
and the temptation to give in and pursue the easy option. Even when we
have faith in the God of life
we experience temptation; we feel desires and live through events that
test our faith.
For most of us once we have made certain basic life choices it is not
so much about giving in to the temptation to steal, murder or pursue a
life of crime. It’s much more likely that we are tempted to retreat
into our comfort zones and live self centred lives with our eyes closed
to those in need, to injustice and to wrongdoing.
I recently read an interview where a man cited the reason that he no
longer came to church as being ‘because it’s full of hypocrites’. I
thought to myself I have to agree with you, I can see why church can be
unattractive to many who only ever read headlines and grab sound bites
about this strange institution. For about a week I genuinely felt quite
down about this.
I expect we all have our special times when we can find a little quiet
space to think and mine tends to be when I wake around 3.00 am. In the
peace of the night the truth became clearer and I felt like shouting
out ‘no we’re not! We’re not hypocrites at all, most of us here and
others I know who try to lead a Christian life don’t go around
pretending they’ve got it all worked out or even that they’re any good
at it (being a Christian that is). We simply believe that God loves us
and we’re trying to respond to that. We don’t think we are superior or
judge others for their ways.
In fact the reality is that we all fall short of where we want to be
and often feel bad about it, sometimes hating ourselves for failing to
achieve our aspirations.
One of my fathers most told stories is how the preacher in the welsh
chapel he attended as a child once got so worked up telling his flock
how wretched they were that his false teeth came flying out towards the
congregation. Unfortunately for those listening he caught them in mid
air nonchalantly replacing them to continue unabated. Perhaps this is
where the saying came from ‘Don’t let worries kill you. Let the church
I don’t think we need to be told how wretched we are due to the
fact that most of us are pretty good at putting ourselves down!
Deep down many of us feel that others would not like us if they really
knew us. Yet it’s often when we feel brave enough to speak of our
shortcomings that we feel a weight is lifted, others are often also
made to feel a lot better when they realise they are not alone in their
At times our Christian life can be a real struggle, if we are honest,
at times, it can be something we endure rather than enjoy. Our faith
can be like an animal in fragile recovery, something which has to be
nurtured day by day to regain its strength.
But it’s not as if all our failings build up over a lifetime like an
ever increasing burden we must carry in a rucksack that will finally
ground us. Christ has offered us the opportunity to lighten our load to
the extent that we can move forward in a way which is liberating
bringing new life to ourselves and others.
Whatever label you prefer be it evil, devil, dark forces or simply
temptation, we all recognise that there is something which tries to
divert us from the path we think we should be following. At critical
times of decision and vocation it may not be a specific sin we are
tempted to commit more that we allow ourselves to be diverted from the
path we know leads to servanthood and ultimately to God.
Jesus refused the temptation to focus on the needs of his body knowing
the greater need was to fulfill his purpose on earth.
My prayer is that this lent we can follow his example and find the
courage to focus less on our physical needs and more on the needs of
our heart and spirit, and in doing so be set free to fulfill our God
Come to the edge, he said. They said:
we are afraid.
Come to the edge,
he said. They came.
He pushed them,
and they flew.
(Guillaume Apollinaire, 1880-1918)
3rd Feb 2008 Candlemas
Malachi 3.1-5, Psalm 24, Hebrews
2.14-end, Luke 2.22-40
When you came into church you were all given a candle I hope. We’ll be
lighting those candles at the end of the service, but I’d like to think
about them a bit now, so we’re ready for that moment when it comes.
Today is officially the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the
Temple, but it has always been called Candlemas too, and for very good
reason. We’ve just heard the story of Jesus being brought to the Temple
at 40 days old as the Jewish law required. The Temple was a busy place,
full of people, noise, bustle, animals too – this was where they were
sacrificed. We think of churches as peaceful places, but this was
Through all that noisy throng, came one little family. Mary, Joseph and
Jesus. There was absolutely nothing about them to single them out. No
angels, no stars, no heavenly music. There must have been many other
families there just like them. And yet, two elderly people, regulars at
the Temple, spotted them and responded in the most extraordinary way to
Simeon, a devout man, steeped in the Scriptures and longing for God’s
kingdom of peace and justice, steps out of the shadows towards them.
With him is Anna, a widow for many years, who lived in the Temple
precincts, praying night and day for the Messiah to come. Somehow they
know that this is the one – some inner voice, some prompting says “here
is God, come among you.”
It is Simeon’s words, of course, which led to this reading being
associated with candles and Candlemas. This child will be a “light for
revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” This
child will light up the world, he says – Jews and Gentiles alike will
find in him a new way of seeing, a revelation of God, a revelation of
themselves, which will change them forever.
In the middle ages this feast of Candlemas was the time when people
would bring candles as offerings for the church’s use. They would also
bring their own candles from home to be blessed. As the only sources of
artificial light, and expensive commodities, candles were precious. But
the light of those Candlemas candles was also thought to have special
significance, protecting homes from evil. The light wasn’t just
practical. It was symbolic too. And it still is, of course.
Light means safety to us, just as it did to Medieval Christians. With
it we can see where we are going, where we are, and where others are
too. Light is comforting, soothing, reassuring. Night time has always
been a time of danger. Fear of the dark is a common experience, for
perfectly sensible and practical reasons. All sorts of things can be
done under cover of darkness that can’t happen in the full light of
day. For that reason light is often associated with good, and darkness
with evil. We’ve given it a moral quality. We talk of others lighting
up our lives too – people we love or the saints and heroes whose
courage shines out in a dark world.
Light also tends to mean understanding to us. When a character in a
cartoon has a bright idea a light bulb goes on above their heads. We
have “bright” ideas – or sometimes not so bright ones! We say that
something has dawned on us when we mean that we have suddenly thought
of something we hadn’t seen before.
Knowledge, moral goodness, safety– these are all symbolic meanings we
have given to light. There are those who will defend the glories of
darkness too, of course – it has its place, bringing rest and sleep –
but throughout human history, it has been light we have sought out and
Even in a church that has perfectly adequate electric lighting, we love
the glow of candles. People almost instinctively associate them with
prayer and reflection. They speak to us of Christ, the light of the
world, of God’s presence with us, lighting up our lives. At Christmas
especially we use light in this way. The Advent candles, the lights in
the crib, the star of Bethlehem and the light of the angels.
We like light, and we appreciate the lights we have been given. But in
today’s service we do something rather odd with that light. Having lit
our candles during the final hymn we’ll blow them out during the
responses that end the service. It’s not the lighting of them that is
the point today, but the moment when they are extinguished. What is
that all about? It seems bizarre, counterintuitive. Does it mean that
we reject the light, that we would rather live in darkness? No, of
We blow out our candles today – those lights outside us – as a way of
saying that the light we have been given, by God and by others,
shouldn’t be something that is just external. Instead we need to learn
to find it and nurture within us, to trust that it burning securely
there, where nothing can put it out. It isn’t just out there – in the
saints and heroes, in the child in the crib – it is in here, in you and
me ours to use and to pass on as we learn to light up other people’s
lives. Candlemas marks the moment when we remind ourselves that we have
work to do, light to give as well as to receive.
There are all sorts of challenges that we may be called to respond to.
Some are challenges that come upon us unbidden. Illness, bereavement,
family difficulty and so on. But there are other challenges that we can
choose to take up, moments when an opportunity arises to do something
for others, to make a difference in some way, perhaps to do something
we have never thought we could for the first time.
It is easy for us to shrink back at these times, to say “Oh no, I
couldn’t possibly!” We are all too aware of our weaknesses. But
then, most people would have looked at the baby Jesus in the Temple and
only seen a squalling infant – how could this helpless scrap of
humanity be a light to light up the Gentiles? Only Simeon and
Anna, people of great imagination, spotted his potential. I think that
we sometimes look at ourselves and can only see a squalling infant too.
We can’t quite believe that we have what it takes – there’s so much we
don’t know. Surely others would be better qualified! Fortunately God,
like Simeon and Anna, has more imagination than we do, and sharper
sight. Jesus is the light of the world – yes – but so are we. He said
so himself to his followers. “You are the light of the world – don’t
hide that light under a bushel.” With all our faults and failings,
though there’s plenty more to learn always, we nonetheless have light
within us, the light we need. It might look to us too feeble and
flickery to be any use, but that’s not how it seems to God.
So, what are you doing with the light God gave you? Are you just
enjoying its comforting glow in the privacy of your own heart or are
you using it to light up the lives of others. There is no shortage of
opportunities to put it to good use – locally and further afield.
Seal Parish Council is desperate for new councillors. When the Post
Office was told it would close, they were so under-strength that it was
very hard for them to co-ordinate any sort of response. We really need
people who will light up our community by serving on the council.
There is a move afoot to open a community café in Sevenoaks –
somewhere where people can drop in for a chat and a bit of support if
they want it. But who is going to get it up and running? There’s a
meeting about it on Feb 22nd if that is somewhere someone feels they
could take their light and share it.
Or here’s a one off Ecumenical activity – a free card making craft
session on 1st March in Sevenoaks High Street, open to anyone out
shopping who feels like joining in, making Mother’s Day and Easter
cards and having a chance to chat as they do so.
Here in church there are plenty of needs too. The older children would
love a chance to have a group tailored to their needs rather than the
needs of the little ones, but we’d need more children’s workers. We
always need new choir members – especially men! – and bell ringers, and
people willing to train for lay ministry of various sorts. I put a
request in the pew sheets last week for people to volunteer to read and
lead intercessions. I’m still bracing myself for the stampede – but it
seems a little slow in coming!
So, what are you doing with the light God gave you? Some of you are
probably already burning the candle at both ends, and in the middle too
– this message is not for you - but my guess is that there are others
of you who hang back, who haven’t quite come to believe that YOU are
the light of the world, and the church, and the community, that you
have within you not only the light that you need, but the light that
others need from you too.
After the service, as well as putting away the crib, I shall take down
those lovely shimmery light-filled angels on the board at the back that
the children made at Faith and Fun . In their place I am going to put
up this “Sits. Vac.” poster, with details of some of those
opportunities that I mentioned. Have a look at it, and have a look
inside yourself. What are you doing with the light God gave you?
Isaiah 9.1-4, Matt 4.12-23
“When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he
withdrew to Galilee”, said today’s Gospel. And who can blame him?
Jesus knew John. According to tradition they were related in some way –
cousins of some sort. John had baptized him. John had acclaimed
him as the Messiah – the one his own ministry had been preparing for.
And now he had been arrested for criticising King Herod. Jesus knew -
everyone knew - that the Herods were a seriously dysfunctional family.
The king Herod who arrests John is the son of the King Herod of the
Christmas stories – the one who ordered the massacre of the innocents.
Growing up with in his family can’t have been a picnic, and the son
turns out to be just as bad as the father. Capricious and cruel, he
wouldn’t have know a moral principle if it came up and bit him.
The future for John doesn’t look rosy. So the opening of today’s Gospel
reading makes complete sense. Jesus withdrew to Galilee. Who wouldn’t?
Get away to safety while you can, Jesus!
But just as we think we have got it sorted, things in this story get
confusing. Jesus may have withdrawn to Galilee, but instead of giving
up his mission he instantly starts calling disciples, telling them to
follow him. He may have withdrawn, but it is only so that he can begin
the dangerous ministry for which John the Baptist had paved the way.
The place where he begins that ministry is significant. Matthew makes
much of it. It’s the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. Zebulun and
Naphtali were two of the tribes of Israel – there were twelve in all,
each descended from one of Jacob’s sons or grandsons. Each tribe had
its own share of the land of Israel. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali
took the northernmost part of the land. It was good land, fertile, with
the Sea of Galilee providing good fishing, but it was also a place that
was very vulnerable to attack. This was the frontline, the first place
that an enemy would come to on its way down through Israel. Think of
North Eastern France and Belgium – pockmarked with battle sites, fought
in and fought over for centuries – from the endless medieval wars
between England and France, to Waterloo, to the trenches of the First
World War – you can hardly move for reminders that this is an area that
has seen much suffering. Zebulun and Naphtali were like that. The
reading from Isaiah recalled the occupation of Zebulun and Naphtali by
the Assyrians in 722 BC – they were the first areas to fall. The
leaders were deported, scattered over the Assyrian Empire, never to
The remnant of the people were left to eke out a living under the
brutal rule of the Assyrians. These are people who have walked in
darkness, says Isaiah. They have borne a heavy burden, a bar of
oppression across their shoulders. In their weakened state they were
easy pickings for other local tribes too, who moved in and settled
their land. It was hard to hold onto your Jewish identity up there, far
from Jerusalem and the Temple. That’s why it is called Galilee of the
nations, or Galilee of the Gentiles – you’d find all sorts there.
By the time of Jesus another power had occupied the land. This
time it was the Romans who had invaded, and once again Zebulun and
Naphtali bore the brunt of the occupation. The Romans established
settlements and stationed many of their troops here. The town of
Tiberias, not very far away on the Sea of Galilee was named after a
Roman Emperor. Everywhere there were reminders of their power and of
the danger of opposing them. The people of Zebulun and Naphtali once
again sat in the darkness, and lived in the shadow of death.
So, what looks like a retreat on Jesus’ part is nothing of the sort. He
is going straight into one of the hardest places he can, a place where
he will meet with huge dangers – risking the wrath of Rome as he
challenges their rule, and risking the wrath of the Jewish authorities
as he preaches a message of inclusion, of love over law, amongst the
mixed communities of Galilee.
Thomas Merton, a 20th Century Trappist monk and spiritual writer said
this: “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely
no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he
cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he
must be in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no
Galilee is the least obvious place for Jesus to begin his ministry, the
least likely place for it to succeed, but that is precisely why he
chooses it. This is a place that needs him.
I wonder too, whether that is why he chooses fishermen as his first
followers. I’m no expert, but it seems to me that in commercial fishing
it isn’t catching the fish that is the most difficult bit, it is
finding the shoal in the first place.
Modern trawlers are equipped with fancy gadgetry to help with this,
though there’s still a lot of human skill involved, but in first
century Galilee all you had was your experience and a sharp pair of
eyes to spot the fish. A silvery glint in the water, some ripples where
you didn’t expect them – I don’t know what the signs were, but Andrew
and Simon, James and John certainly would have done. And they knew that
if you wanted to catch those fish, you had to go where they were, not
where you wanted them to be, even if that was a place that was far
across the lake, or in a rocky, inconvenient or dangerous place. Jesus
chose people who were trained to look and to look again, to deal with
reality, to go where they needed to be, not where they wanted to be.
That’s my theory anyway, because those were the skills his followers
would need. If they were going to fish for people – to look for the
lost and the broken in his name – they would have to have eyes open for
them, and the courage to go into the places where they were, which
would often be places of darkness and danger.
Even for these fishermen, though, that wasn’t going to be an easy task,
any more than it was for Jesus. And it isn’t easy for us either, who
are still called to do this if we claim to be Christ’s followers. Going
into dark and difficult places is counterintuitive – it goes against
all our instincts to protect ourselves from harm. But, in all sorts of
ways, it is part of the Christian calling.
Some of those dark places are probably obvious – the war-torn or famine
struck nations of the world, the lives blighted by poverty, mental
health problems or homelessness in our own nation, for example. But I
don’t want to focus on those today – we all know they are there –
because before we venture into those places we must first be sure we
have faced the darkness that is closer to home, the darkness in our own
hearts and lives. If we haven’t looked at ourselves honestly we are
likely to do more harm than good when we try to help others.
In my experience most people – including me - will do almost anything
to avoid this sort of honesty. We may know we have problems, but rather
than getting help to deal with them we run away from them and try to
ignore them. Excessive drinking and eating, reckless behaviour,
compulsive spending, overwork - people will do all sorts of things to
take their minds off what is really wrong. They look for things that
will make them feel good in the short term, but won’t sort out the long
term issues. Credit card debts getting you down? Go shopping and cheer
In relationships too we often prefer to avoid the real issues. People
whose marriages are in difficulties will have an affair rather than
talk to their partner, or, perhaps even worse, they’ll have a baby in
the hopes that will cement the relationship. These tactics almost
always create more problems than they solve, but people still try
Sometimes, sadly, churches can be places people go to distract
themselves from the real issues. They come along hoping to forget their
problems, to lose themselves in the rituals, the worship, the
traditions, the irrelevant but captivating theological squabbles we
seem to love. People put on a happy face and pretend that all is well
with their lives. Some churches seem positively to encourage them to do
this, selling their churches as places where everyone is full of joy
and certainty, where there are easy answers to be had – come along to
us, and all your troubles will be wiped away! But if we fall for that
we miss the chance to do the real work that faith should draw us to,
and that the church should provide a space for – getting real with
ourselves, getting real with one another, getting real with God,
discovering that he loves, forgives and accepts us no matter what kind
of a mess we are in. Then and only then will the rituals, the worship,
the traditions and the theology really make sense. Then and only then
will we be able to go out to others with a message that is worth
passing on – one that we have experienced in our own lives.
Jesus withdrew to Galilee - but not to escape or avoid the harsh
reality of his calling. He went into the “region and the shadow of
death”, the place where people for generations had sat in the darkness
of oppression, so that there, where they really needed it, he could
bring life-giving light. And he called others to share in that work
with him - others who would first learn to see their own darkness and
need, as they had seen the shoals of fish under the surface of the
lake. Having seen that, they would then be able to recognise the
darkness and need of those around them who were hungry for love and
justice. The world has changed a great deal since the time of Christ,
but his calling hasn’t changed at all, and nor has the need diminished.
May God give us the sharp eyes of those fishermen to see that need –
our need and the needs of others - and the courage to respond to it.
20th January 2008 Epiphany 3 – Breathing Space Communion
Isaiah 49.1-7, John 1.29-42
There’s a very important conversation in today’s Gospel reading.
It only consists of thirteen words – in fact in the Greek original it
is only eight words long – but it is, for the people involved,
completely life changing.
Two of John the Baptist’s followers hear John's words about Jesus --
here is the Lamb of God ! -- and something in that piques their
curiosity. They set off to follow him. They don't seem to
want to come straight out and talk to him, but they don’t want to lose
sight of him either. Anyway, if they are trying to go unnoticed, they
fail. He may be the Lamb of God, but it’s the two of them who must look
rather sheepish as they trot along after him. Sooner or later, he spots
them. “What are you looking for?" he asks.
It’s a straightforward question on one level. It’s unnerving being
followed, and whatever if is they want they might just as well come out
with it. But, of course it is also a question with a whole lot of
What are they looking for? They have been following John the Baptist.
They have responded to his fiery message of repentance – it has touched
something in them. But it isn’t enough. John himself has pointed them
towards Jesus. They are spiritually hungry, as so many people are, but
hungry for what? Hungry for healing? Hungry for change? Hungry for
revolution…? Who knows - they certainly don’t. All they know is that
something is wrong with their world and it needs to be set right.
“What are you looking for?” asks Jesus, and that is really the nub of
the matter. They don’t know the answer. And I am sure we can
sympathise. Many of us probably feel the same – drawn to church, to
faith, by an unnameable longing. We may have all sorts of doubts and
questions. We may not always like the church, or feel certain of our
faith. We may go through patches where we think the whole thing has to
be nonsense, but somehow we keep coming back.
For many people today, of course, that spiritual search doesn’t include
the church or organised religion at all, but they still have a hunger
for something – wisdom beyond their own, peace, a sense that they are
connected to something bigger than themselves.
The disciples are flummoxed by Jesus’ question. The answer that comes
out of their mouths seems rather odd. “Rabbi, where are you staying?”
Not, who are you? Or, what do you believe? Just “where are you
staying?”. And yet it is a very revealing response. It’s not about
knowing his address so much, I suspect, as having some sense, to use a
modern phrase, of “where he’s coming from”. Our homes usually speak
volumes about us– they give a much better understanding of our
personalities and values that any amount of words. These disciples,
rightly, don’t just want to follow a teacher who can come up with
persuasive words, but someone who will live his message in the real
Jesus’ answer is a simple but wonderful invitation. “Come and see!” We
have no idea what the disciples find out about Jesus from his home –
what kind of neighbourhood he was in, how big or small it was, who else
was there, but if we were to have the same conversation with him now–
if we were to “come and see” where he is staying now we would make a
wonderful discovery. “Where are you staying? Where do you choose to
live?” The answer is, “in us!” “The Word was made flesh, and
dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” That is a pretty awesome
answer, and an awesome privilege too. Not only should it change the way
we look at ourselves, but also the way we look at one another. If we
want to find Christ, we need to look where we are and where others are
too – even, and especially, in places in ourselves and our world that
seem squalid or broken . He doesn’t hold himself aloof, high in the
heavens, as if in some celestial gated community, but comes to where we
are, amidst the mess and the muddle of our real lives and the real
lives of others too.
Thirteen little words – eight in the Greek – and yet there is enough in
them to sustain a whole lifetime of Christian exploration and
discovery. “What are you looking for?” “Rabbi, where are you
staying?” “Come and see!” All we need to ask, all we need to
know, all we need to find is there.
13th Jan 2008 Epiphany 2
– Baptism of Christ
Isaiah 42.1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10.34-43,
If you look at our pew leaflets you’ll see that today is officially the
day when we celebrate the Baptism of Christ. We heard about it in the
Gospel. But there’s another theme that runs through the readings as
well, which might seem to have nothing to do with baptism. It is the
theme of voices – these readings are full of voices. In particular
there are lots of references to the voice of God.
“Thus says the Lord” starts the Old Testament reading. It’s a phrase
you hear often in the Old Testament. God is forever speaking to his
people. Right at the beginning it is God's voice that calls creation
into being. “Let there be light,” he says, and there is light.
It’s God's voice that tells Abraham to leave his native land, and go on
a journey into the unknown. It’s God's voice which calls to Moses
out of a burning bush. It’s God’s voice that tells Jonah to go to
Ninevah to preach repentance to the mighty Assyrians.
Psalm 29 talks about that voice too. And reading it you can see why
those who hear God’s voice in the Bible often – like poor old Jonah -
seem to wish they hadn’t. The voice of God, the Psalmist says, is a
powerful voice, an awesome voice, a voice that thunders. It breaks
things to pieces, shakes the wilderness, makes the oak trees writhe and
strips the forest. It’s a voice that makes things happen, that
changes things irrevocably.
God's voice doesn’t always have to be violent, of course. The
prophecy to Isaiah speaks of God’s voice in his servant being so gentle
that it won't even break a bruised reed or put out a flickering
candle. But gentle though that voice is, it is still a voice of
immense power and authority – a voice that can bring justice and
The people of the Bible expected to hear from God. And though they
didn’t necessarily do what he told them, they wouldn’t have questioned
his right to tell them what to do. He was God. He had a right to
speak and to expect his word to be obeyed. Of course, it wasn’t just
God. They lived in a world in which it was accepted that some people
had absolute, life and death authority over others; kings over their
subjects, masters over slaves, fathers over their families. That's how
things were -- like it or lump it.
In that sense it was a very different world from ours. We tend to
be quite resistant to the idea of some external authority telling us
what to do – whether that is God, the state, the boss, or members of
our family. We value our independence, our right to make our own
decisions, and to speak with our own voices. We have safeguards against
too much power being in any one pair of hands -- everything from Magna
Carta to the Human Rights Act. We’re right to be cautious. It’s
no accident that we call tyrannical rulers “dictators” – people who
dictate to us. Dictators can come in many guises – political leaders,
religious leaders, dominant people within families, anyone who believes
that they have the only voice that counts. Whatever their form, we’ve
recognised that dictatorships are never really healthy. They impoverish
the dictator and the dictated to alike, leading us to forget that we’ve
all got something to contribute.
That's why, after this service, we are having the first meeting of our
Junior Church Council. The adults can make their voices heard
through the Parochial Church Council, but there hasn’t really been a
way till now for children to contribute their opinions and ideas, and
that means that we all miss out. The children miss out on the chance to
shape our church’s life, and the adults miss out on hearing the
children’s perspective, a perspective we need. Church shouldn't
be something that simply happens to people – young or old - but
something we are all involved in building together.
So, encouraging everyone to have their say is good. But there are
dangers attached to it as well. Reading the letters’ page of the
newspaper or a message board on the internet soon reveals how willing
people are to hold forth about things they know nothing
about. We can be so intent on having our say that we stop
being able to hear the voices of others, or even acknowledging that we
need to. We can be so suspicious that others -- including God -- are
dictating to us that we stop trusting what anyone else says, just
because it didn’t come from us. And the reality is that however wise we
are we don't know the answers to everything, we don't always know what
we're doing. If I go to the doctor, I expect her to listen to me
as I describe my symptoms, but I'd be a bit put out if she expected me
to supply the diagnosis and treatment as well. I need her expertise,
her voice, and I need to trust it.
Sometimes, too, what we think is our own voice, our own wisdom, is
really nothing more than a bundle of inherited prejudices. We
don’t realise that the voices in our heads are not always our own, but
the voices of tradition, or our families, or the media.
St Peter had to learn this. In our New Testament reading he's
preaching a sermon in the house of a Roman called Cornelius, who wants
to be baptised. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality,
in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is
acceptable," he says. God's grace is for everyone, Jew or Gentile. He
sounds very confident, but actually this is a lesson he has only just
learnt himself – and it wasn’t an easy lesson.
The invitation to visit Cornelius comes just after Peter has had a
startling and disturbing vision. He has seen God offering him a
whole heap of animals that his Jewish tradition had always declared
unclean. “Tuck in!” says God… “Yuck,” said Peter, “No way!” "But if I
say it's clean," says God,” then who are you to tell me it
isn't?" Peter isn’t convinced though. It might be the voice of
God, but the voices of his upbringing shout so loudly that he’s hardly
able to hear it. No sooner has the vision faded than there is a knock
at the door and an invitation to come to Cornelius’ house, a house
where he will have to talk to, touch, perhaps even eat with these
Gentiles. You can imagine the clamour of voices in his head as he makes
the journey. “Surely this can’t be right” “You’re disobeying the law.”
“What would your mother think?”
By the time he gets to Cornelius, he’s obviously managed to convince
himself somehow that this message is really from God, but my guess is
that it still felt strange, because this argument about Jews and
Gentiles rumbled on for many years in the early church.
I said at the beginning that this Sunday’s readings were supposed to be
about the Baptism of Christ, so what does all this talk of voices have
to do with Baptism?
The obvious link is that at his Baptism Jesus hears the voice of God
too, a voice from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am
well pleased.” But I think there is a broader point to make. There is a
sense in which his baptism - and all baptisms - are about establishing
relationships, relationships with God and with one another. , “This is
my Son, the Beloved." says the voice of God. All committed
relationships involve communication – voices - speaking and
listening. Without the willingness to hear one another, to give as well
as take, and perhaps sometimes to do things you wouldn’t choose
to as a result, they soon founder and fail. At his Baptism Jesus
commits himself to honour his relationship with his Father. He will
receive his Father’s love, but he’ll also do his Father’s work and
follow where he leads, even to the cross. In our baptisms we
acknowledge that we are God’s sons and daughters too, members of the
family, and we make that same commitment to listen for God’s voice and
act on it.
I know that deciding what God is saying is not always simple. You can
be sure that he’ll never be telling you to defraud your boss, or beat
your wife, or heap up riches while the poor go hungry. But sometimes it
will take careful attention in prayer, in reading the Bible, in
conversation with others to pick out what is really God’s guidance.
Sometimes we’ll have to take a chance, go with our best instincts about
it, and be prepared to be corrected if we get it wrong. But however
tough it is, when we claim our place as part of God’s family we accept
the responsibility at least to try to hear what God is saying, rather
than just feeling free to do whatever we feel like doing.
Baptism acknowledges our relationship with God. But it also
acknowledges our relationship with one another. When Jesus comes to
John, John doesn’t want to baptise him at first. But Jesus insists. His
ministry won’t just be about giving to others but about receiving from
them too. He is one of us, one with us. “You are my brothers and
sisters,” he says, “children of the same heavenly Father.” In Baptism
he committed himself to listening to us as well as to God, and so, in
our baptisms we commit ourselves to listening to others too. Listening
with care and love, just as he did, looking for God’s likeness in them
and believing that we will find it. We may not always agree with our
brothers and sisters, but anyone who claims to follow Jesus gives up
the option of going it alone, just as Jesus gave that option up.
The voice of God. Sometimes it shakes the wildernesses of our
complacency, strips the forest of competing demands bare, so that we
can see the wood for the trees. Sometimes it comes to us gently, to
heal us when we feel like broken reeds. Sometimes it comes through the
Bible or through listening in prayer. Sometimes it comes through the
voices of others – the young as well as the old, those we disagree with
as well as those who think like us. But always it comes to tell us that
we are not alone, but children of God, sisters and brothers to each
other, with all the joys and the responsibilities that that
6th Jan 2008 Epiphany
Sunday Evensong Sermon by
2.1-11, Baruch 4.36- 5.9
Signs, so many signs. Of course once we have seen them for the first
time and absorbed the information we don’t particularly notice them
again. We know which streets are one way, where to stop and give way
because we have become familiar with our area. We know that the church
hall and vicarage are across the road because we’ve been there so many
times. I hope we are equally familiar with the signs in this church
that say fire exit, if not I suggest you familiarise yourself with your
nearest exit now in true air stewardess fashion!
In the gospel of John, the miracles of Christ are always called
“signs.” Unlike those we have grown familiar with and barely notice the
sign we hear of today was the first recorded in John’s gospel, a big
new sign was being erected for those who were looking for it. In this
case it seems the sign was particularly for his disciples who had been
invited to the wedding with him.
I personally feel that because this reading is often heard at wedding
ceremonies we associate it with weddings and this can be our first
thought. There’s no bad thing in thinking of us as brides of Christ or
reminding ourselves of the imagery of a new Jerusalem dressed as a
bride from the book of Revelation. But I don’t feel this is the
principal message, the principal purpose of this sign.
When you think about it we don’t often read a sign and then look to see
what it’s made of or what it sits on. Hopefully many read the notices
on the church notice board but few study the type of wood it is made
from. We look hard for a road sign in an area we are unfamiliar with
though we would think it weird if people got out of their cars to study
the metal and reflective materials used once they had read the sign.
And so it is with the wedding reception, this forms the material, the
canvass, if you like, upon which Jesus writes his first sign.
The signs in John’s Gospel have messages for us and we need to focus on
the message more than the sign itself. So, having done this the other
way round, having seen what the sign board is made of we had better get
on and read the sign itself. What does it say to you?
What is the message of this sign of water into wine? The message of the
sign is that Jesus took 180 gallons of Jewish laws, laws that numbered
more than 600 regulations, laws which sustained a corrupt system of
privilege and hypocrisy and transformed them into 180 gallons of grace
and freedom. Jesus then transformed these religious regulations into a
new religion, a new wine that would burst old wine skins. The miracle
was a sign for the disciples present and anyone else that can see it.
The miracle had a message written all over it and this was the really
important part. What words would you choose for the message?
A lot of signs are mundane but necessary but there are also the ones
that seem to state the obvious or which are even confusing. Because of
our litigious society we now have statements on a cup of coffee such as
‘caution, contents may be hot’!
We need to take care translating signs as it’s easy to change their
A sign in a cocktail lounge, Norway:
LADIES ARE REQUESTED NOT TO HAVE CHILDREN IN THE BAR.
In a Nairobi restaurant:
CUSTOMERS WHO FIND OUR WAITRESSES RUDE OUGHT TO SEE THE MANAGER
But back to the question. What does this sign mean for us?
Well it’s not a coincidence that we are looking at this on Epiphany
Sunday. If we look for the meaning of Epiphany in theological language
it is the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles. In more general
terms it is the revelation, insight or sudden perception into meaning,
reality or understanding.
I question whether I could find quite the right words for this
signboard but in my mind I see a really big board that says something
like ‘PREPARE FOR A NEW ERA’ or ‘NEW WAYS AHEAD’, think about it, what
would you put on your sign board after witnessing this event?
For those who can read the sign and understand the message this is
truly an epiphany moment.
180 gallons of grace. Jesus hasn’t just met the need of the host whose
wedding reception embarrassingly ran dry he has the huge water jars
filled to the very brim, almost to overflowing. He doesn’t just give
them the equivalent of a cheap table wine which it sounds like they’ve
been drinking but supplies wine more akin to a fine claret which the
guests would have expected to be served first.
My take on this is that a generous God is giving more than we could
ever have expected to receive but it’s not insignificant that this is
also more than the guests should consume in one night if they know
what’s good for them! God trusts us with his gifts; we are left free to
choose whether we enjoy them responsibly, whether we share them further
or whether we greedily consume within our own little circles, knowing
that others are going without.
The sign of water into wine displayed that the hour is close at hand;
the old age is passing away, the new has dawned. The disciples
understand the sign and believe.
What does this sign mean for us today? Our relationship with Christ and
our Christian faith are to be abundantly full of the grace of God. It
is so easy to transform our faith into weekly rituals without taking
God’s grace out into the world and sharing it.
You can’t help but be saddened by the thought that Christ gives us the
gift of more delicious wine than we can ever need and in return the God
of generosity and extravagance received crucifixion and sour wine from
a sponge on a stick.
However John doesn’t invite us to dwell on that, with the first of his
"many miraculous signs" he demonstrated that somehow and in some
unsurpassed manner Jesus revealed the glory and character of God like
no other. He invited people to drink his wine.
"New wine is created in the 'old' vessels of the Jewish purification
rites, symbolizing that the old forms are given new content.
Whatever we make of the celebration at Cana & what happened at it,
John wants us to see that people were having a good time & Jesus
was in the midst of it. He paints the picture of a Jesus who would join
in the party, a celebratory word made flesh whose instinct is not to
scoff at those having a good time. It’s quite possible that he joins in
the Jewish dances and fully enjoys the party.
We often find it easiest to see God when we are at our most vulnerable,
in times of great need. We are challenged here to ensure Christ is in
the midst of everything we do, the celebrations as well as the sadness.
If we are able to do this then we have not only recognised the sign
that says ‘NEW LIFE AHEAD’ but also that we are following the path
which will lead to glory.
30th December 2007
Christmas 1 07
The Independent newspaper had a powerful picture
on its front page on
Christmas Eve – I’ve reproduced it on your pew leaflets. The opening
paragraph of the article
that accompanied it, written by
Katherine Butler as part of the Independent’s Christmas appeal
for Save the Children, ran like this…
“In the dark of a one-room shack, a new-born baby sleeps in the
arms of a young mother. It could be a biblical scene. The glow from a
kerosene lamp gives the mother a halo. Add an ox, a lamb and a manger,
and this could be the story of Christmas, a painting of the Madonna and
Child from the Middle Ages, or the living crib assembled by St Francis
in the 13th century.
Eyes shut, arms thrown back, the infant looks relaxed. She doesn't know
that this is the toughest place in the world to be born on Christmas
Eve. It's a six-hour flight from London but here, in the moist, hot,
mosquito-blown air of this corner of Africa, Salamatu Sankoh was born
by candlelight in conditions barely advanced since the time of Christ.
Life's lottery has delivered her to a slum in Sierra Leone. In some
ways, you could call her the unluckiest baby in the world.”
The article goes on to say that Sierra Leone is bottom of the table on
the United Nations Human Development Index. One in six mothers dies in
childbirth, so she is lucky to have a mother at all. One in four babies
dies before the age of five. The town she lives in – Kroo Bay -
is essentially a rubbish dump. There is little medical care available,
little opportunity, little education, and though Sierra Leone now has a
reasonably stable, democratically elected government, the legacy of
civil unrest means that peace is fragile.
Salamatu, of course, could be any one of millions of children in the
world today, in any one of the countries where poverty is endemic. She
could also be the child born in poverty in richer nations too, or the
child born to drug addicted or alcoholic parents, or parents who are
abusive or neglectful. She is a child who, on the surface at least,
seems to have no chance, a child whose life looks bleak and unpromising.
Her picture is a sharp counterpoint to the cosy images of the Christ
Child on our Christmas cards, the “glow in the dark” baby,
surrounded by angels. But in reality, as the writer of the article
points out, Salamatu’s picture is a far more accurate portrayal
of the way things might have been in Bethlehem, even down to the
slightly fearful and resigned look of her mother. She knows how many
challenges her baby will have to face just to survive, just as Mary and
Joseph must have done.
Today’s Gospel reading – a hard story that you’ll
never find on a Christmas card – emphasises those dangers. King
Herod was notoriously brutal, and while we have no independent evidence
for this particular massacre, it is not at all unlikely. He had several
of his own children killed, so he would have had no hesitation in
murdering other people’s children. Mary and Joseph are forced to
run for their lives with the infant Jesus, sheltering in a foreign
land, just as so many families do today. It’s not much of a
start. And while Jesus survives this threat to his life, unlike those
other babies in Bethlehem, we know he won’t make old bones.
He’ll die a painful and violent death while still a young man in
the end anyway. Just as with Benazir Bhutto, you can see death coming,
stalking him down throughout his life until it catches up with him.
Authority doesn’t like to be challenged. Those who do so know the
risks they are taking.
Life is hard, this story tells us. Life is hard, the story of Salamatu
Sankoh tells us. But that is not all the stories tell us. If it were, I
don’t think we would bother to tell them at all. We would simply
give up in despair– especially if we lived in poor communities
like Salamatu’s. And that isn’t what happens. The writer of
the article went on to comment that…
“… the people of Kroo Bay are far from helpless.There's an
air of intense activity about their community. Abdulam the child
water-seller, Bintu the midwife, Mammy Soko and the other slum dwellers
are survivors. They moved here to escape war. Now, everywhere you look,
someone is cooking, washing, hawking things to sell, fetching water,
sewing, cutting hair, scraping a living.”
The ancient Greeks told the story of Pandora, who opened a mysterious
box – a box she had been forbidden to open. Out of it came all
the world’s woes – war, disease, famine – but just
when all was lost she realised that there was something left –
hope. The story doesn’t spell out what that hope was based on,
but it observes very accurately the stubborn determination to carry on
which is so deeply embedded in the human spirit. For Christians, the
hope we are invited to share is rooted in the belief that God is with
us in the world. “It was no messenger or angel but his presence
that saved them,” said Isaiah in our first reading and the writer
of the letter to the Hebrews points us to God’s presence in
Christ - God visible and tangible – like us in every respect. It
is God’s world, the Bible tells us. Bad things happen within it,
for all sorts of reasons – reasons we can’t always
understand. But those bad things are not a sign that God has abandoned
us or stopped loving us. He is constantly with us, suffering with us,
crying with us, but kindling hope in us too as he brings new life out
of the darkness of sorrow.
You can look at Salamatu, or at Christ, or at any child in their
position and see only a vulnerable baby, born to a world of hardship,
born to die; or you can look at them and see the chance of a new
beginning, the chance that things could be different. You can see
them as just more mouths to feed, more indistinguishable faces in the
endless swarm of the needy, or you can see them as reflections of the
divine, bearers of God’s image, with a message to give and a task
to fulfil that is unique. The difference is crucial. Depending on your
viewpoint these vulnerable children are either an invitation to
despair, or an invitation to hope, to love, to be connected to others.
We have the same choice to make when we look at the challenges of our
own lives, the sadness, the loss, the struggles that we might face
closer to home. For some they will be proof that we live in a
heartless, godless universe, but for others they will be holy ground,
places where they encounter God. I have met people who have lost their
faith in times of trouble, who say “How can there be a God if
this has happened to me?” I can understand why that happens, and
all of us will have times when faith seems a nonsense. But it
isn’t inevitable that sorrow kills faith because I have equally
often met people for whom difficult times have awakened their spiritual
awareness. It happens in all sorts of ways. They might find a dimension
to life they hadn’t thought about, or have an experience they
can’t explain, or feel they are held and comforted by something
beyond their understanding. They might simply discover a wealth of
human love around them, or some unsuspected moral strength within
themselves. It’s not always easy to see why some react one
way and some the other but it does knock on the head the pub
philosophers’ argument that “no one can believe in God when
there is such suffering in the world.” People can, and they do.
As we stand on the threshold of a New Year then, I’d like to
leave you to ponder your own state of faith and hope. As you look at
Salamatu, what do you feel? Called to compassion, or worn down with
despair? And what about the troubles and sorrows closer to home in your
life, how do you feel about them? Do they feel like potentially fatal
threats to your faith, or could they be holy ground, places where you
might meet God? And if that flame of hope is burning low, are there
things you need to do, or to receive, to fan it into life again? God
has promised to be present with us, but if we won’t be present
with him there’s not much he can do. Taking time to pray –
however and wherever you do it – reading the Bible, worshipping
and talking about faith with others, getting help with the problems
that beset you, most of all, being honest with God and
yourself…all these things can help. And if you want to talk
about any of these things, or anything else for that matter,
that’s what I’m here for. It matters that we take our faith
seriously, that we take our relationship with God seriously. It’s
not just a nice add on, something to pay attention to for an hour or so
on a Sunday morning. That relationship – God’s presence
with us - is the ground in which our hope is rooted. And for
Salamatu’s sake, as well as for our own, we need to have hope
– living hope, real hope - because hope produces action, the
action that Salamatu needs, the action that brings the fullness of life
for which she and all God’s children were created.
Christmas Day morning 2007
Marko and the Christmas visitors – adapted from a Serbian folk tale.
There was once an old shepherd. He had lived alone in his little house,
high above the village for many years, tending his sheep. One night a
storm blew up. Above the noise of the wind and rain, though, the
shepherd could hear the sound of crying. Perhaps it was a lamb in
trouble? He opened the door, and there on his doorstep was a newborn
baby boy, wrapped in a blanket. “Who could have left you
here?” said the shepherd. He couldn’t see anyone. Whoever
the parents were, and why they hadn’t been able to keep the baby,
the shepherd never found out. The shepherd had no children of his own,
but he’d raised plenty of orphaned lambs – food and warmth
were what mattered. He wrapped the child in lamb’s wool and fed
him on sheep’s milk, and the child lived, and thrived, and the
shepherd, who loved his adopted son, called him Marko.
But though the shepherd welcomed little Marko, the villagers were not
so sure. They didn’t trust strangers, and they were suspicious of
this child who had arrived in such a mysterious way. It wasn’t
long before they realised too that this little boy was different in
another way, too – he was blind. He couldn’t see anything
at all. In those days people were sometimes cruel to those who were
disabled in some way, and instead of helping them to live their lives,
they rejected them. “Huh!” said the villagers to the
shepherd, “what use will he be? You should never have taken him
in!” The village children teased him and wouldn’t let him
play with them. But whenever Marko got upset by their treatment the
shepherd would say to him firmly, “They’re only thinking of
what you can’t do – but I see what you can do, and you can
do things they’ve never dreamed of.” It was true, too.
While other people saw with their eyes, Marko had learned to use his
sense of touch. He could touch your face and feel whether you were
happy or sad. He could tell, somehow, whether you were cruel or kind.
If the shepherd brought him an injured sheep Marko would run his
fingers over it and soon be able to say exactly what was wrong.
“You can see with your fingers!” the shepherd used to tell
But life was sometimes sad and difficult for Marko. There was one thing
that Marko longed to do more than any other. Every Christmas the people
of the village would gather in the little church to put up statues of
the Holy Family - Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Children from the
village would be chosen to take the statues out of their boxes, where
they had been stored during the year, and put them carefully into an
alcove in the wall of the church, high up above the people’s
heads, where they would stay throughout Christmas, looking down on the
congregation. The shepherd had described the figures to Marko –
Joseph the carpenter’s strong, rough hands, Mary’s smile,
and the little child, so young and fragile, lying in a manger. Marko
liked hearing about them, but more than anything he wished he could
feel them for himself, to see them through his own fingers, just like
he did the injured sheep, or the face of the shepherd. Eventually one
year, he plucked up courage when the time came, to raise his hand
– “Could I help? Could I carry the Holy Family?” The
villagers were horrified. “You! – you’d drop them,
you wouldn’t be able to see where you were going with them
– and anyway, they are ours, and you are an outsider, a stranger,
you’ve no right even to ask – now, be gone with you –
scram back up the mountain where you came from…”
Marko felt more miserable than he had ever felt in his life. He took to
his heels and ran back up the track to the shepherd’s hut, crying
all the way, longing to tell his adopted father what had happened. But
the shepherd was nowhere to be found. Marko ran out into the barn, but
there was no one there but a few orphaned lambs, brought in to be
reared there. He lay in the straw and sobbed – why couldn’t
he be like all the other children? Why couldn’t he, just once,
hold those holy statues in his arms, touch Mary and Joseph, and feel
the face of the infant Jesus.
He was still crying when he heard the tap at the barn door, and the
door being pushed open. “Excuse me,” said a man’s
voice, “I wonder whether you would mind if I and my wife and baby
sheltered in your barn for the night. It’s getting cold, and we
can’t find anywhere to stay – the people in the village
said they had no room.”
“My adopted father isn’t here at the moment, “said
Marko, “but I know he would say yes – he took me in, so I
know he would welcome you too.” “Thank you, “said the
man, then he noticed Marko’s face, still wet with tears.
“What’s the matter?”, he asked. As he and his wife
began to unpack their things, Marko told them what had happened, how he
could see with his fingers as well as others could see with their eyes,
and how he longed to hold the Holy Family but wasn’t allowed to.
“Being able to see with your fingers is very clever, they said.
“Would you like to touch our faces?” they asked. Marko
reached up. He felt the man’s beard and held his rough hands
– hands that had done hard work. He felt the woman’s smile.
And then she put the baby into his arms.
“Marko, would you hold the baby for us, while we get ourselves
sorted out?” she asked. Marko took the child carefully – he
was very small. He felt his little nose, round like a button, and his
ears, like fragile sea-shells. He felt the roundness of his head
against his cheek, and the child’s soft lips. By the time the man
and the woman had finished unpacking and settled down beside Marko on
the barn floor, the baby was fast asleep in Marko’s arms.
“You keep hold of him, said the mother, he’s happy with
Just at that moment, Marko heard voices, and footsteps, coming towards
the shed. A great crowd of people – he hoped they wouldn’t
wake the baby, but who could it be? No one usually came here.
The door of the shed was pulled open, and Marko heard a great gasp of
surprise. “What is it?” He asked. No one answered for a
long time, but then Marko heard the voice of the shepherd. “The
villagers came to find me on the hillside,” he said. “They
said that my barn was on fire. They could see the light from it all the
way from the village. So we came straight away… but we never
expected to find this.”
“Find what?” asked Marko.
“The Holy Family, here with you, Mary and Joseph, and Jesus,
asleep in your arms…we've seen them a thousand times in church,
but they've never looked quite so alive as this.” And just at
that moment, Marko felt the weight of the child vanish, and heard Mary
whisper in his ear, “Thank you Marko, for making us welcome
– never forget that you have held Jesus in your arms.“
The family had gone, as mysteriously as they had arrived, but Marko
never forgot that night, the night when he discovered that whoever you
are, you can hold the Christ Child. And the villagers never forgot it
either, and the lesson they had learned; that God was not their
property, someone they could lock up in their church, but that he goes
where he wills, and dwells with all who welcome him.
Midnight Mass - Christmas 07
1: 1-14, Hebrews 1:1-12 & Isaiah 52: 7-10
It’s lovely to see everyone here tonight, no doubt for some
it’s a welcome relief from the Christmas preparations. I asked
one of the ladies in my office if she enjoyed getting the Christmas
presents ready for her children and she replied it’s just like
another day in the office really, I do all the work and all the credit
goes to the big guy in the suit who turns up late.
I don’t know if it’s the same for you but to me Christmas
seems to come around faster each year. May be it’s something to
do with the fact that the commercial aspects become evident from around
Once the cards start arriving it seems hard to believe that another
year has passed by and so many things I intended to do remain on the
‘to do’ list. Cards often have a little note saying things
like ‘we really must get around to meeting up this year’,
just as they have for several Christmases and birthdays before.
I’ve taken the view with some that this just isn’t going to
happen so I’ve knocked them off the list to avoid all this
ridiculous pretence. One I removed from my list 3 years ago but he
keeps sending the cards saying we must meet up despite the fact that
he’s gone to live in Iceland.
As another year draws to a close it’s also a good time to
consider whether we are serious about our relationship with God in the
year ahead. Do we intend making the effort to really meet with him or
are we happier to keep him at arms length? More of a long distance
friend to exchange the occasional well intended word with. We intend to
get in close relationship but the years just seem to slip by.
There is no question that God seeks a loving permanent relationship
with each one of us. Hebrews tells us that the incarnation, the word
made flesh, is the climax of God’s continuous, creative,
communicating love. This incarnation reminds us that the very purpose
of our existence is to be drawn into a dialogue with God, hearing his
word and responding to it. We heard that his son ‘is the
reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s
very being.’ So what does this reflection of God look like? It
looks like a tiny baby, a human being. This is something which should
cause us to consider how we relate to other human beings in our midst
and throughout the world.
The word made flesh. The God of the book has adopted the raw materials
of humanity to dwell among us. No amount of words sent by post or by
telephone or over social networking sites - can ever match the reality
of presence. Face to phone or face to screen will never match face to
face. And Christmas is about face to face. About God stepping out of
the virtual and into the reality of everyday relationships.
There is continuity between what is observed in Genesis and what is
observed in Jesus. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that whilst God
spoke to Israel through the prophets the ultimate revelation was to
come through Christ. As one who was with God from the beginning Jesus
is appointed to rule over all he has made. God’s eternal nature
has not changed, what he was and will always be remains the same, yet
he has revealed himself to us in a new way.
Are we ready to take our relationship with God to a new level? Well
it’s clear that God’s gift is freely available for us to
accept. Perhaps it helps to consider how we accept other gifts we might
receive this Christmas.
Getting a knitted jumper every year from Aunt Agatha on Christmas Day
ought to warrant an Oscar category of its own: Best Display of Fawning
Gratitude in Adverse Circumstances. This is something that many learn
to deal with through years of experience.
But what about ethical gifts available through the various aid
organizations? This is altogether a more complex proposition which has
new potential to catch out recipients.
For a start, they can come from unexpected quarters. And while all you
get is a card to verify the purchase of said gift, someone several
thousand miles away should see their life improved by this act of
Yet sometimes those selfish feelings are hard to suppress and there
will be the nagging sense that giving a goat to a nomadic Sudanese
tribe feels better for the giver than you, the nominal receiver. But
with the eyes of the family bearing down on Christmas morning, the last
thing you will want to do is betray this sense of disillusion. My view
is that such gifts are better given in response to a request rather
than as a surprise.
In contrast the gift of love from God can be accepted or ignored; there
is no need to pretend as God will know if he is in relationship with us.
John tells us ’the world came into being through him yet the
world did not know him’ God does not force a response; he allows
us the option of ignorance about the very purpose of our existence.
That’s why it’s important that go to John’s gospel to
understand what difference this child makes in our life. John
doesn’t mess around with a lot of details. No angel visitations,
no traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, no manger scene. Instead he
gets right to the point of Christmas and summarizes the whole birth
story by saying this, “The Word became flesh and lived among
us,” or I like the way the paraphrase of the Bible called the
Message says it, “the Word became flesh and blood, and moved into
the neighbourhood.” Jesus is the Word, and what he is telling us
is that Jesus, the Word was around long before the child was laid in
the manger, in fact he was there in the beginning of time, he was a
part of creation, and he even goes so far as to say the Word, Jesus,
was God. Jesus is God come in the flesh.
As we observe our gardens and landscape at this darkest time of year we
see that lack of light means lack of growth in the vegetation around
us, new life is not yet springing up together with all its
If we examine our own lives there will always be dark areas, times of
regret, shame and sadness but these need not hold us back from
accepting the light which came into the world as Jesus Christ. By
choosing the light we choose to struggle with the question why has God
come in the flesh to walk among us, to experience the same ups and
downs we do, the same temptations, the heartbreaks, even to experience
a brutal death on a cross. Why would he do this? Why would he leave the
splendor of heaven and come to the darkness of earth as a weak human
infant. The Bible tells us he did this because he loves us that much,
he wants us to experience a truly full and abundant life, to walk in
the light of his paths, and to step into our proper created place as
Isaiah proclaims a time when God will be in plain sight and what could
be more recognizable than a fellow human being. At Christmas, St John
recalls us to repentance as well as to joy. He tells us that when we
look around at our world and the terrible violence that disfigures it,
we must recognise that part of the problem is that many refuse to
recognise who and what we are; and so we are unable to recognise,
respect and love each other.
It’s easier to blame religion for the world’s problems than
to work at recognizing our common humanity in Christ, despite all our
human flaws and weaknesses.
It always makes me smile to recall the words of Groucho Marx ‘I
don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as
Whilst Christianity is certainly not a club it is true that many of us
feel unworthy of relationship with God but we need to remind ourselves
that God has demonstrated emphatically that he wants to be in
relationship with each one of us regardless of how worthy we may
perceive ourselves to be of such love. Our own experience of love may
remind us of the risks involved and maybe even the pain felt if this
love is rejected.
We see the distortions, the refusals and the tragedies all the more
horribly and painfully in the light; but we don’t stop being able
to see the gift of God who still loves in and through it all.
The good news for those prepared to hear it remains that the light
which came into the world has never been overcome by the darkness and
never can be. This is not only the message of Christmas it is the truth
that is God’s offer of eternal life.
So this Christmas let’s not allow our good intentions to pass us
by like our Christmas cards that say ‘we must get together
sometime’. Let’s resolve to work and pray for peace in our
homes, our communities’ and in our world. Let’s resolve to
positively choose the light through the restoration and strengthening
of our relationship with God.
December 23rd Advent 4
Isaiah 7.10-16, Matt 1.18-25
Ahaz and Joseph – the two men who feature in today’s
readings might seem very different – they are from completely
different social backgrounds for a start. But they have two important
things in common. The first is that both were men who liked to get
things sorted out, practical men in their different ways. Ahaz is a
king, and what use is a king if he can’t come up with answers
that work, solutions to the problems of his nation? Joseph was a
carpenter. He had spent his whole life fixing things, making things fit
together somehow – chairs and tables, doors and boats. A bit of
ingenuity and the right tools, and he could find a way to make you what
The other thing they have in common is that, when we first meet them,
they are both facing sticky dilemmas.
Ahaz is king of Judah. The books of Kings and Chronicles tell us more
of his story. Jerusalem was under attack from the nations round about,
which was nothing unusual, but things were looking particularly bad at
this point. Ahaz was getting really worried.
Joseph’s problems are of a very much more personal nature, of
course, but just as tricky. His intended bride is pregnant, with no
very plausible explanation of how this came to be. If he sticks with
her he risks being a laughing stock, losing his honour as she loses
Faced with their troubles their first response, as practical people, is
the same, “Don’t just sit there, do
something…” they say to themselves – the motto of
every good do-it-yourselfer. But what can they do?
They both come up with ideas that seem sensible - tried and trusted
solutions - the kind of things that anyone in their situation might do.
Joseph decides to dissolve his betrothal contract quietly and let Mary
slip away somehow. He could have accused her of adultery and had her
stoned to death, so it is at least a compassionate plan.
Ahaz’ plan is rather more dramatic. He decides to appeal for help
to the super-power of the day - Assyria. He sends a message to the king
of Assyria, asking him to come and sort out his troublesome neighbours.
It’s a cunning political manoeuvre, thinks Ahaz, just what a king
ought to be doing.
But both men receive a visitor who challenges them to think again.
Ahaz finds the prophet Isaiah on his doorstep with a message from God
– “Don’t do it, Ahaz, “ he says,”
Don’t ask Assyria for help - ask God instead – whatever you
like – as high as the heavens or as deep as the
grave…” But Ahaz is too proud, too stubborn to look to
God. He’s the king. This is his problem. He’ll sort it
Alas, though, the plan he was so proud of leads to disaster. The
Assyrians are more than happy to come and deal with his neighbours. Oh,
yes. They attack them with gusto. But making a treaty with Assyria puts
Judah into the hands of the Assyrians themselves - getting into bed
with a super-power is always a dangerous move. It is the beginning of
the end for the nation, and pretty soon they find themselves the next
victims of Assyrian attack and plunder. “Sennacherib came down,
like a wolf on the fold,” as the poem says…
Joseph’s visitor is an angel, who appears to him in a dream, but
the message is the same as Isaiah’s to Ahaz– think again.
“It may not seem to make sense, Joseph, but actually this is
God’s work. Stick with Mary – God knows what he is
doing…“ Unlike Ahaz, Joseph decides to listen, to wait, to
trust God. He has no idea how God can bring any good from this whole
sorry mess, but his willingness to take a chance on God is crucial to
the story of salvation.
Similar stories, similar men, but two very different outcomes.
The two readings are linked as well, of course, by the strange words of
Isaiah’s prophecy, which Matthew quotes, “the young woman
is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him
Immanuel.” Scholars argue about what Isaiah meant, but
almost certainly he is referring to a real woman bearing a real child
in his own time – a child who could be the sign of a new
beginning, perhaps a royal child.
Matthew takes those words and uses them, rather out of context and with
a few twists, to refer to Mary. In the process Isaiah’s
“young woman” is turned into a “virgin”. The
original Old Testament Hebrew word didn’t necessarily imply
virginity, just youth. Unfortunately this ancient mistranslation has
confused the issue for us, and made it all about virginal conception
– could it happen? did it happen?. It’s an argument
we’ll never find an answer to. Our understanding of biology is so
different to the first century that we are really in a completely
different conceptual universe. But the danger is that our puzzlement
can mean we miss the really crucial point about these strange
words. You see, it isn’t really the mother that is the
point here – virgin or not - but the child. God’s sign,
says Isaiah – his message both to faithless Ahaz and frightened
Joseph, is the baby itself.
So what sort of message is a baby? What is that all about?
Fundamentally a baby is a symbol and a reminder of newness. It is a new
thing, a new creation. When a child is born its future is a mystery,
its character is a mystery – unknown and unknowable. It is not a
repeat of an old pattern, not a clone, but something that has never
been seen before, a completely new beginning. Having a child is an act
of faith – you don’t know what will happen to it or how it
will change you.
Throughout Advent we call out in our hymns and prayers, “come,
Lord Jesus”. We invite God to come to us. But the story of the
child in the manger is a reminder that when God comes he does not come
as we expect, not as a military leader or a great king, not even as a
fully grown man, but in something as surprising and new as a baby. When
God acts in our lives, now as then, this story tells us it may not be
in old familiar ways. When he calls us to follow him it may not be on
old familiar routes. God is a God of newness, a God whom we can’t
control or predict.
That is a profound challenge to us just as much as it was to Ahaz and
Joseph. “Come, Lord Jesus,“ we call, but what if he comes,
as he did then, in a way no one expected? That kind of God will bring
change and disturbance to us. He might call us to unlearn old ways,
drop old prejudices, break out of our moulds, act in ways that feel
challenging to us. Change isn’t easy – and the older you
are the harder it is – but the God who comes as a child in a
manger isn’t the kind of God who will do what we expect.
“Come Lord Jesus,“ we cry, as groups - families, churches,
societies - but what if he comes like a child in a manger and leads
those groups in new directions?
Groups tend to want their members to fit in, to follow the same
pattern. It’s hard if some members want to do things differently.
The first child in a family to decide to go to university, or the first
not to do so, someone taking a risky or different path, living in ways
that seem hard for the others in a group – a family, a church, a
society - to understand or approve of – all these things
can be hard for us to adapt to. It takes courage to let other people
be, to give support as they make their way through life, to be open to
the possibility that, though their way may not be your way it may yet
be a way full of blessings. It is so easy simply to condemn what seems
new or different without waiting to understand it, to see its real
impact, but a “child-shaped” God calls us to be open to
“Come Lord, Jesus”, we cry, as a global community that is
desperate for help, but what if he comes like a child again, and asks
us to change our attitudes and assumptions to our world?
In an age of global climate change, we all need to question radically
the ways we live. For hundreds of years humans have believed that we
can climb ever upwards, producing more, consuming more, growing all the
time. Accumulating possessions has been a mark of status for
generations. Only lately do we see that over- consumption and greed may
not just be bad for our waistlines and our bank balances, but might
quite literally be the death of the human race, and a lot of other
species too, as we pump out greenhouse gases to sustain our
lifestyles. To change a whole way of life, though, is enormously
difficult, almost unimaginable for many. The global machinery involved
with our modern economic systems is hugely complex. Feeling baffled
about what to do? Feeling hopeless that anything can be done? Join the
club. But if we and our brothers and sisters around the world are going
to survive, we need to be open to the child in our midst, the solutions
that are new, that we haven’t thought of yet, and that may seem
strange and uncomfortable to us.
Ahaz and Joseph – two men in trouble, two men who face dilemmas
that have no easy answers. Just like the dilemmas that face us as
individuals, as groups and as a global family. Ahaz decides to trust
himself, to do what he has always done, and the result is disaster.
Joseph though - faithful, brave, loving Joseph, so often overlooked in
the nativity story - opens himself to God with a willingness to trust
and to take a risk that is quite awe-inspiring, to let God do something
new and strange that will change his life, and all our lives. May we
this Christmas, have the courage to see the child of God that is born
in us and for us today, the work of God that he seeks to do in our
world, our church, our families, our individuals lives. May we have the
courage to seek and to find his new answers for our new and frightening
December 9th 2007 Advent 2
wonder how many of you have traced your family tree, or thought you
would like to if you ever had time? Just recently everyone seems to be
at it. Genealogy is big business. I certainly seem to have a growing
number of requests to search for information in our registers here.
Personally I blame the BBC. The series “Who do you think you
are?” which followed various famous people as they traced their
family trees, was a surprise hit – it made for compulsive
viewing. Some uncovered stories that illuminated the very different
lives people lived in the past – an ancestor in the work house,
for example; some found illustrious forebears; some, with equal
delight, found rogues and villains! The title of the series was spot on
- “Who do you think you are?” . The thread that ran through
the programme was that by finding out who their ancestors were, these
people were somehow also finding out more about who they were too.
Again and again, the subjects of the programmes realised that the
values and attitudes they had grown up with were somehow rooted in past
events – events they might not have even known about. Distant
traumas – war, poverty, some long-forgotten disgrace – had
cast a shadow over the family for generations. “I see now why we
never talked about such and such, or why there is such a tendency to
behave like this or that within the family….?” they said.
Where we come from matters to us. Adopted children often have a
powerful need to know their origins, a need that is now rightly
recognised. It’s not just about being aware of inherited medical
conditions, it’s also about knowing what makes them the people
they are, what makes them tick.
Genealogy is nothing new, of course. In the Old Testament today we have
what is probably the oldest image of the family tree. “A shoot
shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of
his roots.” These words provided the inspiration for one of the
most common artistic features of medieval churches – the Jesse tree.
England has lost many of its Jesse trees. The Reformers and Puritans
destroyed them along with many other images, but if you know where to
look they are still there to be seen, and they are much more common in
Continental Europe. Jesse trees can be painted images, or made of
stained glass, or carved in wood or stone. At the bottom lies Jesse,
who was the father of King David, and out of his side a tree literally
grows up. In its branches sit the Old Testament precursors of Christ
– David and Solomon, the prophets, and so on. At the top is
Christ, sometimes with Mary.
The Jesse tree is a reminder that Jesus didn’t just appear from
nowhere. It speaks of the Jewish roots of our faith, all those men and
women who struggled to know God and make sense of their live, whose
stories we read in the Old Testament.
That lineage was very important to the early Christians, those who
wrote the New Testament. Most of them were Jewish by birth. It hurt and
disturbed them when their fellow Jews accused them of betraying their
roots, of changing the faith of their ancestors. No one wants to feel
that they have been cast adrift from their ancestry. But they also
believed very passionately, as Jesus had taught, that the kingdom of
God was for Gentiles as well as Jews, a message that seemed strange and
new. Throughout the New Testament you can see them wrestling with this
tension. The second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans is a
classic example. “what was written in former days was for
our instruction and encouragement, the promises given to the
patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are confirmed in Christ, he says,
not abolished, but the good news is for the Gentiles as well.
“Welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you” –
friend and stranger, Jew and Gentile.
The message is there in the Gospel too. It’s not enough to claim
Abraham as your ancestor, says John the Baptist to the Pharisees and
Sadducees who come to him. God’s got other ideas about who is
part of his family. Matthew’s Gospel is particularly strong on
this message. He begins his story with Jesus’ family tree.
It’s that long bit we never read - so and so begat so and so who
begat so and so. In it Matthew traces Jesus’ line right back to
Abraham. There, look – Jesus really is kosher – he says.
He’s the proper heir to the throne of David, a child of Abraham,
firmly rooted in Judaism. But that’s not all he is saying in his
genealogy. Because tucked in among the branches of this family tree are
some surprises, some reminders that this lineage was not quite so
simple, not quite so straightforwardly Jewish, as his readers might
like to think. At vital points in the story Jesus’ line was
enriched by people who came from outside the Jewish nation and faith.
There are four women mentioned in his list along with all the men, and
they are four very interesting women. Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites,
and Ruth, the great grandmother of King David, was from Moab. Then
there is Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother – she’s
described as the wife of Uriah the Hittite, Uriah the Hittite whom King
David had killed so that he could have her to himself. She was quite
probably a Hittite too. All of these were also women who might well
have been looked on with disapproval at the time – outsiders in
other senses. Tamar and Rahab were prostitutes. Ruth was an asylum
seeker – a widowed foreigner seeking support in a strange land.
And Bathsheba, although she was forced into that relationship with King
David, would have been considered an adulteress at the time. They are a
rum lot, but Matthew makes a point of including them, so that we get
the message that it is often the outsiders which really bring strength
to a family, who take it in the new directions it needs to go. It is
often the people, and the events, which seem strangest or most
disturbing that bring families, communities and faiths the new life
Families can be wonderful things, and I include in that word family not
just the classic “mum, dad and 2.4 children”, but any of
the wide variety of groupings which give us a sense of belonging and
identity. At their best, families teach us to love and be loved. They
enable us to develop as individuals. They give us a secure base to go
out from to fulfil our own callings. But families can also be
hell. Families can be oppressive, suffocating, abusive even. People can
be imprisoned by their family history and the assumptions that go with
it. “We don’t do things like that in our family!” is
their cry, “that’s never been our way!” Families can
force their members into moulds. They can stop them from growing and
prevent them from giving their gifts. Families, whether they are the
small groups of people we share a home with or our wider communities,
our church families, or our nations can have such a rigid sense of
their own identity – who they think they are - that they create
straightjackets for their members. Lives are wasted and made a misery,
and the future is doomed to be no more than an eternal repeat of the
Isaiah knew, John knew, the Pharisees and Sadducees should have known,
that God did not see things this way. He was a pilgrim God. They were
meant to be a pilgrim people – always on the move, growing and
changing. He gave to his people a rich inheritance of faith, but it was
never meant to be a prison. The message to us is the same. We may
find ourselves imprisoned by family expectations, by the expectations
of our friends, by a faith we have inherited that doesn’t seem to
fit the reality of our lives, or just by our own fear of change.
We may feel that who we are is determined solely by our past. But the
truth is that each one of us is also a unique creation, a new thing,
and God is still able to bring new shoots from the old rootstocks if we
let him. Just as he lobbed surprises into the family tree of Jesus
– outsiders who nudged his family story into new directions
– so he can lob surprises into our lives. And we can be his
surprises to others too –surprises to our families, our
communities and our world, if we have the courage to be so.
Those Jesse trees I was telling you about that feature so large in
medieval art always culminate in Christ – he is their end point.
But in truth they shouldn’t stop there, because God’s
family tree continues to grow. We are its new branches. We are the ones
who are called to fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy in our own generation
just as Jesus was and the first Christians were in theirs. We are the
ones who can make the new world he describes today, a world of
righteousness, of equity, and of the peace that reconciles lions and
lambs. In fact, if we don’t do it, no one else can.
“Who do you think you are?” isn’t just a question
about the past. It is about the present and the future too – what
we are doing now in our age to build the world to come. We aren’t
just somebody’s children, somebody’s descendents. We are
somebody’s parent too, somebody’s ancestor, whether we have
flesh and blood offspring or not. It is we who shape the families, the
communities, the church, and the faith of the future. Let’s
pray that we will have the courage to grow, to flourish as we are
called to do, so that we can play our part in making a tree that has
room to shelter all within its branches.
December 3rd 2007 Advent 107 Evensong
Isaiah 52.1-12, Matt 24.15-28
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger
who announces peace,” Famous words – I’ve been
humming the version that Handel set to music all week while I’ve
been thinking about this – you can’t help it! But in many
ways they are odd words too. I don’t know how you feel about your
feet, but for many the words “feet” and
“beautiful” don’t necessarily go together.
Feet are useful. They get us around. When something goes wrong with
them we are severely inconvenienced. They are immensely complicated
structures – bones, muscles, tendons. They bear the whole of our
weight, carry us through our lives. We expect a lot of them. I have no
idea whether reflexology really works – the idea that each part
of the foot has some relationship with a part of your body – but
I can understand why such an idea should develop because feet are
literally our foundations – everything else is built upon them.
But feet are usually unsung heroes. Many people don’t like their
feet. They have a tendency to lumps and bumps, bunions and corns and
hard skin. Folk are often shy about revealing them. It was the practice
of the Bishop of Portsmouth, who ordained me, to wash the feet of those
whom he was ordaining. It was a lovely touch – the bishop
modelling the servant behaviour he expected of those he was ordaining
as servants in the church – but I can tell you that the feet we
presented to him to wash were already very thoroughly clean already!
Several of the churches I’ve served in since have had the
tradition of the priest washing people’s feet on Maundy Thursday
– I love to do it actually. But I have to say that it is always
difficult to find volunteers, and I was told firmly when I arrived here
that it wouldn’t go down well!
“How beautiful are the feet of the messenger who announces
peace…” Why is it, we might wonder, that Isaiah decides to
single out the feet of this messenger for praise, and what is so
beautiful about them?
Let’s start with the fact that it is the feet he praises –
wouldn’t it make more sense to praise the messenger’s
mouth? That is where the message is coming from. I think there is a
good reason why it is the feet that are mentioned here, though. A
message is no good unless it is delivered. There was a dreadful tale
last year in the papers about a postwoman who, for some reason, had
felt completely overwhelmed by her job, so she just stopped delivering
the letters. She took them home instead. When the police finally worked
out what was going on they literally couldn’t open her front door
for the mail piled up in sacks behind it. 7.5 tonnes of letters and
parcels were taken away from her home. 110,000 separate articles.
According to the newspaper report, “The mail included job offers,
university placement offers, greeting cards, mortgage agreements and
drivers' licences, as well as cash and vouchers. One witness, who never
received his £300 wage packet, ended up fighting with his
employer. Another missed a holiday when his new passport never
Being a messenger means getting up on your feet and going. A message
that doesn’t get through is worthless. It might as well never
have been sent. How beautiful are the feet that bring good news, says
Isaiah. It is only when we act, when we get up and go with God’s
message, that we can make a difference to people.
People are often nervous of the word “evangelism”. They
imagine it means knocking on doors or accosting total strangers in the
street. It doesn’t. It just means spreading good news, being open
about the things that have made a positive difference in your life,
rather than keeping them to yourself as a personal, secret treasure.
One of the things I have been keen to do since I took up my post here
nearly two years ago was to work on our communication with those around
us. It seemed to me that we had a tremendous amount to offer people
– a beautiful building that was actually open during the day, a
good choir and strong musical tradition, a variety of worship, and most
of all a really open welcome no matter who you are and what your
background. But often people outside the church didn’t know what
went on inside it – no wonder they weren’t coming. Almost
always when people do come here, they like what they find, but they
have to hear about it first. Evensong is a classic example. We do it
well, and I am sure that there are people who would love it if they
tried it, but it is up to all of us to make sure that message gets out
otherwise they will miss out, and we will decline.
Evangelism isn’t just about getting people to come to church of
course. It can be anything which spreads good news - practical help, a
campaign for justice, just going about our everyday activities with
integrity and compassion. But whatever it is, it involves our feet
– we have to get up and get going if it is to be any use at all.
And that brings me onto the second question. What is it about the feet
of God’s messenger that makes Isaiah call them beautiful?
It’s nothing to do, I’m sure, with the height of the
arches, or the shape of the toes. I should imagine that a
messenger’s feet, like a dancer’s, get pretty battered and
worn over the years. The reason these feet are beautiful is that they
bring good news, peace, salvation. They bring news that lifts people
out of despair, that gives them life.
Isaiah’s messenger had come to tell the people of Israel, in
exile in Babylon, that they would soon be going home. God himself would
lead them back to Jerusalem. They had been in exile for 70 years
– most of them had been born there and they had probably never
imagined that they would return. But now the moment is really coming.
“Break forth together into singing”, says Isaiah.
No wonder he acclaims the feet of the one who brings this message as
beautiful. This messenger has beautiful feet because he is delivering a
I am not at all surprised that many people today are dismissive or
antagonistic towards Christian faith. I’m not surprised that I
often find myself on the receiving end of blanket criticism of
Christianity from people I meet, who have no idea what I personally
believe. I am not surprised that prominent atheists like Richard
Dawkins seem to strike a chord with so many. I think it is directly
related to the fact that the message that some Christians have
delivered, and still deliver, is not one of peace, wholeness and love,
but one of narrow exclusivity and condemnation. It isn’t good
news at all, there’s nothing beautiful about it. Too often the
church has been, and still is, concerned mainly with policing its own
boundaries, keeping things neat and tidy. Instead of helping people to
“put on their beautiful garments, shake themselves from the dust
and rise up,” it has pushed them down and kept them out. Not only
does that mean that we can’t share good news with them, it also
means that we can’t discover the good news they might have to
give to us.
The message that many people hear is that if you are a single parent,
cohabiting, gay, even if you just have the temerity to come to church
in jeans, or don’t know how to find your way through the
complexities of the liturgy, you aren’t really welcome. Sort
yourself out first, is the message, then you can come in. Where is the
good news in that?
Of course, sometimes genuine good news does contain challenges –
Jesus challenged people. But he challenged people from the basis of
having come among them, of really knowing them, of listening to them
and loving them. He came to where they were, as a tiny child in a messy
stable, as a convict on a cross, not doling out condemnation from some
distant heaven. If we want to be welcomed by the people around us, we
must make sure that the message we bring them is genuine good news, the
message of peace, hope and love that they really need. It can be a
challenging message too, but only if we have had the humility to listen
and to learn from them before we presume to offer opinions.
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who
Ancient words, words rich in associations for us, but words that are
right up to date too; words which should make us stop and think as we
consider our calling to take out God’s beautiful message of peace
into our own world in our own time.
December 3rd 2007 Advent 1
Rom 13.11-14, Matt 24.36-44
sisters,” says St Paul in our second reading, “you know what time it
He is probably right. I expect you do know what time it is. I imagine
that many of you are wearing watches. You might have other time-telling
devices on you – mobile phones perhaps. Almost anything
electronic seems to have a clock in it. Even till receipts and bus
tickets usually have the time printed on them these days. “You
know what time it is…” It is hard these days not to.
Our forebears might not have had so many ways of telling the time, and
they might not have been as accurate, but measuring time has always
been important. In our Lady Chapel you’ll see a stone, set into
the masonry, engraved with a circle with lines like the slices of a pie
cut into it. I puzzled over it for a while when I first arrived, but
eventually I discovered that it is a Medieval sundial face. It’s
not much use in the Lady Chapel, of course, but that wasn’t where
it was originally meant to be. In the middle-ages it was outside the
church, embedded in the wall. Its primary purpose was to tell people
when it was time to pray. Priests, and often lay people too, followed a
pattern of seven different services, spread through the day –
they were printed in books called “Books of Hours”. So you
needed some way of measuring the passage of time to pray the right
services at the right intervals.
Long before that, other ancient civilisations often had remarkably
sophisticated ways of calculating time too, observing the regular
movements of the sun, moon, stars and planets. Stonehenge, whatever
else it is, is certainly an ancient device for marking the Winter and
Summer Solstices, for telling the time.
Knowing “what time it is” seems to be a very important thing for us
But despite our apparent obsession with measuring time our relationship
with it often seems to be rather fraught.
Many people feel there is never enough time. They are always rushing
about. They might be trying to meet impossible targets set by employers
or government, or the pressures might come from within them –
they’ve just never learned to say “enough is enough”
We have all sorts of so-called “time-saving” devices, but
evidence suggests that modern people are in far more of a hurry than
their ancestors were. We can cram more into the day, so we do, but we
don’t seem to be any happier or more satisfied as a result.
Some people today feel too busy, then, but others have the opposite
problem. They find themselves “killing time” –
watching the clock in jobs that feel meaningless, or stuck at home as
the hours drag by because they are unemployed, or unable to join in
with the opportunities around them through disability. Time goes far
too slowly when you feel you have nothing worthwhile to do with your
And whether we’ve got too much time or not enough, we all know
that our time is limited – no one lives for ever. That means you
have to make choices about what you do with your time. You can’t
do everything. Seize the day! we are told .You only live once! But what
shall we do with that day when we have seized it? How shall we spend
that one life? The more choice you have, the worse the dilemma is. Many
people find it very difficult to commit themselves to one job, one
path, one person as a life-partner, because they know that if they
choose this job, this path, this person, they will cut off so many
other possibilities. Women struggle to decide when to start a family.
The biological clock is ticking, but they have interesting and
rewarding careers too. For all our medical and social advances, there
are still choices to be made, and those choices often involve
sacrificing one possibility in favour of another. Fathers often want to
be active Dads, involved in their children’s lives, but have to
juggle that with competing demands on their time at work. Time is
limited. We can’t do it all or have it all. We have to choose,
and though choice can be good, it can also be a huge burden.
As Paul says, we know what the time is. Our problem is that we
don’t always know what the time is for. Wouldn’t it be good
if someone made a clock that didn’t just tell you the hours,
minutes and seconds, but also told you what you should be doing with
In fact though, when St Paul talks about time here, he isn’t
really talking about clock time or calendar time. The Greek word he
uses is kairos. Kairos means something more like “the right
time” – the right time to do something, the right time for
something to happen. We talk about “an idea whose time has
come”. We call someone the “hero of the hour” It is
that sort of time that Paul means, that sort of time that we need to be
able to tell. Not where the big hand and the little hand are, but where
God is, and what he is calling us to.
Jesus’ disciples evidently had the same difficulties we do with
this whole business of handling time. They want to know from Jesus when
the end of the world will come, when God will finally wind things up,
set things straight, sort things out. They want a date for their
diaries, the hour and the minute, something precise so they can be
ready for that moment. We might not share their belief in an imminent,
literal “end of the world”, but we can understand the idea
that there will be times when we are faced with challenges, with
judgement, when the chickens come home to roost – personally,
nationally, or globally - and we’d like to be able to predict
those times too.
But Jesus disappoints his disciples. He doesn’t know, and even if
he did, knowing a day and an hour isn’t the point. Putting a date
on their calendars won’t help them. They don’t need to know
God’s timetable for the future. What they need to know is what
God is doing in the present.
Telling the kairos time, for them and for us, knowing what you should
be doing with your with your hours and days and years means being aware
of the present moment. It’s about being awake, says Jesus, and
Paul echoes his message. “Now is the time to wake from
sleep” he says. Jesus’ disciples had their eyes so firmly
on the future that they couldn’t see what was right in front of
them, the real task of loving others, of building God’s kingdom
now. Paul’s readers found focussing on the “now”
pretty tough too. They apparently preferred to sleepwalk through their
days, dulled by drink or meaningless relationships, distracted by petty
quarrels and jealousies. The message to us is the same as it was to
them. No one can predict our futures. What we do now, though, will
determine how we cope with them.
Telling God’s kairos time isn’t a matter of having some
spooky prophetic ability or some secret wisdom. It is simply about
being open to the real issues in our lives, and in the life of the
world, and finding the courage to respond to them. It is about living
each day lovingly, not just hoping that if you know the deadline
you’ll be able to spring into action at the last minute. We
don’t know how global climate change will affect the world, or
how soon, but we do know that we need to live simply, so others may
simply live. Yesterday was World Aids Day. We don’t know how the
pandemic of HIV/AIDS will work itself out, whether there will ever be a
cure or a vaccine, but we do know that there is much we can do now, if
we care to, to support and help those who are suffering its effects. We
don’t know when time will run out for us personally, but we do
know that this day is God’s gift to us, to be treasured and used
What time is it? It is 10.30 something. It is December 2nd. It is 23
days to Christmas. That is the calendar time, the clock time - time to
panic about whether the presents will be bought and the food prepared
by the deadline, or time to drown such anxieties in a festive tide of
booze and parties. But what does the kairos clock say? What time is it
for us in God’s eyes?
Perhaps that clock tells us it is time to change, time to forgive, time
to be forgiven, time to leave behind something old, time to take up
something new, time to sort something out, time to reach out to
someone, time to let someone reach out to us, time to listen to our own
voice, time to listen to the voices of others that cry out for
liberation and justice in the world. Here’s an Advent challenge
for you – not a hard one. This Advent why not take just two
minutes in each day to sit down and ask yourself that question –
“what time is it for me?” Take two minutes just to be still
and silent before God, to look at that kairos clock together, and see
what it is saying. Forget Christmas, for those two minutes at least,
forget the future with all its unpredictable hopes and fears, and open
your eyes to what the present moment says to you.
I know what time it is now. It is time for me to stop. Time for us all
to take the first of those two minute Advent silences as we listen for
the kairos message, God’s “now”, in our lives.