26th November - Christ the King
Church's year begins in Advent each year and ends on the feast of
Christ the King. Over the year we hear the great cycle of stories about
the world's longing for light and hope, the birth of Christ, which
Christians answers that longing, his ministry, death, resurrection and
ascension, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church.
You can find out more about the Church's year here.
The Church's year begins in Advent each year and ends on the feast of Christ the King. Over the year we hear the great cycle of stories about the world's longing for light and hope, the birth of Christ, which Christians answers that longing, his ministry, death, resurrection and ascension, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church. You can find out more about the Church's year here.
Today is the feast of Christ the King. It isn’t an ancient feast like Easter, going back to the early centuries of the church. In fact it was only instituted in 1925, by the then Pope – Pius XI. He looked around him and saw communism, fascism and secularism growing in those years between the wars. Times were changing; people didn’t automatically look to God and the Church for a guide to how they should live. Increasingly they chose their own way, followed their own path, made it up as they went along, challenging traditional moral teaching and social patterns. He didn’t like what he saw. It seemed to him to be a recipe for disaster, leading to conflict and confusion. So he declared this special day; a day to remember who the Big Boss really was – God. A cynic might suspect that he was hoping that they might also remember who the Big Boss’s spokesperson on earth was as well – namely himself – but that’s another story!
counter-attack succeed? Did he manage to hold back the tide of individualism,
the sense that we all have the absolute right to live our lives as we want to? Well,
looking around, I suspect we would have to say that he didn’t. In fact the
tendency for people to feel they can make up their own rules and go their own
way is far stronger and more pervasive now than it was then. It’s even got a
name of its own. This is post-modernism – a phrase coined to describe common
attitudes today; mistrust of authority, the right to choose for ourselves,
self-expression, self-determination. Post-modernism trumpets everyone’s right
to be true to themselves. Put like that it sounds quite reasonable and
desirable, but it doesn’t take long to see the pitfalls. What happens if my
freedom and my choice clash with yours? The current rows over the wearing of religiously
symbolic clothes and jewellery – veils and crosses – illustrates this. Do we
have the right to wear what we want, wherever we are, whatever we are doing, no
matter what others feel? And what about the right of people to break the speed
limit if they happen to think it is safe to do so? Or the right to hold loud
phone conversations in crowded train compartments? Or to damage our health with
alcohol, tobacco, lack of exercise, unhealthy food? The issues are complex, but
they all have in common the feeling that if it feels ok to us then we should be
allowed to do it. What right has anyone
else to tell us what to do with our own lives…?
So what are we supposed to think when we come to a feast like today’s – Christ the King – which sets before us an uncomfortable claim – that there is a supreme authority, and that it isn’t us? For some it is a nostalgic reminder of an old-style authoritarianism that they would happily return to when people did what they were told. For many others, though, it seems a painful anachronism – something that can’t be squared with the personal freedom that we have come to see as our human right. What can it mean today to call Christ “King”, to call God “Almighty”?
Today’s Gospel reading, as it turns out, is an odd choice for this feast, but a very helpful one in unpacking this dilemma.
You’ll have noticed,
I’m sure that there is a lot of talk of kings in it. But take a second look and
it’s interesting to see who it is that is so obsessed with kingship. It’s not
Jesus himself; it is Pontius Pilate. He’s the one who seems to have kings on
That’s why I said that this is an odd choice for the feast of Christ the King – because actually Jesus goes to great lengths here NOT to claim that title. He sidesteps the issue completely.
He does that because he knows that Pilate is not actually interested in establishing some eternal truth about Jesus’ status and nature. All Pilate wants to know is whether this is a man he should worry about. Has he got a following? Where does Jesus come in the political pecking order of the time?
It’s got nothing to do with the things Jesus has been saying and doing, nothing to do with the rightness of his cause. It is purely a matter of the power he might wield and the trouble he might cause to Rome – and to Pilate.
It’s no surprise that Pilate thinks this way. Roman society had very clear social boundaries, enshrined in law. Everyone knew where they stood. At the bottom were the slaves, then the freed slaves, then freeborn people, then the various upper classes, and at the top Caesar, with ultimate power – he was regarded as a God.
And to add to that Pilate had a military background. He was used to the idea of rank – of a chain of command in which you knew who you had to obey, and who had to obey you. It was second nature to him to want to work out where the power lay; who to cultivate, to get on your side, and who to fear.
But Jesus won’t play Pilate’s game. He has come to testify to the truth, he says to Pilate – to expose power games not to collude with them. He IS a leader with immense power, but he hasn’t used that power to dominate and manipulate during his ministry, and he isn’t going to start now. What Pilate understands by the word “king” is a million miles away from the reality of Jesus’ relationship with the people who follow him. His way has been one which set people free, giving them their own status and dignity. He has formed them into a new community where they are each responsible for each other, commanded to love, not to lord it over one another.
If we want to use the word “king” of him we need to be careful to understand that his is a kingship that is constantly giving away its power in order to empower others. He uses his kingship to reveal to people that they too are rulers, with a power and a kingdom of their own – their own lives. We each have a realm, Jesus says, a place where we have the responsibility to exercise authority. What we do matters; it shapes our homes, our workplaces, our churches and communities into kingdoms of peace or kingdoms of discord. “You are the salt of the earth” he tells us, not so that we can just feel a warm glow about ourselves but so that we can see that we make a difference, we rule, we have power.
This is a very different thing to the post-modern ideas of our unlimited rights to self-expression and freedom to live as we want to. It isn’t just about knowing who we are and being true to ourselves; it is also about knowing WHOSE we are – God’s children, and, because of that, brothers and sisters to one another, with a call to love one another as much as ourselves.
It is very different too, to an unthinking submission to an authoritarian God whom we obey out of fear or laziness. “Always keep a-hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse” as Hilaire Belloc put it. Jesus doesn’t declare any desire for us slavishly to follow him because of what might happen to us if we don’t. We are not called to be like Pilate, simply trying to sniff out the top dog and make sure he is with us rather than against us. It is the kingdom that matters to Jesus - the building of a place of peace and wholeness – not his status as the king.
Christ uses his power to point us to our own. He forgives us so that we can learn to forgive others. He draws us into his family so that we have confidence to draw others into it too. He doesn’t want us to stand adoringly before his throne, paralysed by the magnificence of his glory, but rather to go out and to discover that glory in ourselves and in one another. Doing that takes asks far more of us than mindless obedience. We have to think for ourselves to do it. It’s not just a matter of passing on a set of rules, not just a matter of asking “what would Jesus do?” Using our own power in Jesus’ name requires us to ask the far more difficult question “What should I do, in MY time and place, to create a kingdom of peace for us all?”
Christ the King is a dangerous feast. It can easily be an exercise in triumphalist escapism – “God is the Boss, and we’re on his side!”. It can easily be a nostalgic yearning for a simpler age when people did what they were told to. We are wise to be wary of this feast and the ideas it can enshrine. But it is an important feast, if we understand it rightly, which is why I think it is worth celebrating and reflecting on. It reminds us of the reality of our own power – power over ourselves and others, power that can be used to heal or to destroy. Christ the King calls us today to see and to own that power, to recognise ourselves as royal children, with royal dignity and freedom, but with royal responsibility as well.
19th November - 2nd Sunday before Advent
Daniel 12.1-3, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10.11-25, Mark 13.1-8
I acquired a new bit of clerical clothing last week. It’s not a new cassock or a new clerical shirt or anything like that. It’s not something splendid made of brocade. It isn’t in any of the regular liturgical colours. It’s actually day-glo yellow and, to be honest, I’m rather hoping I never get to wear it – not just because of the colour, which does nothing for anyone, but because of the circumstances it is designed for.
This is the article in question: a high visibility tabard. I became entitled to wear it when I finished a training course recently to become what is known as a critical incident chaplain – as you can see it has “incident chaplain” on the back in large letters. Critical incident chaplains are people called on if there is a disaster of some sort – an explosion, a train crash, a flood – that sort of thing. They work as part of the response team co-ordinated by the local authority to support people either at the site of the incident or in the rest centres where people come for shelter. They are there to give support, to listen, just to be available for anyone who needs them. Now I’ve been trained, I’m supposed to keep this in a bag, along with an identity badge and a handbook, so it’s ready if I need it in a hurry.
It was a fascinating training. I found out all sorts of things that I never knew before – things I’d never even thought of. Did you know, for example, that in an emergency the council planning officers can go into any branch of McDonalds and get 100 happy meals on demand! Personally that sounds like a very good reason for trying to avoid being caught up in a disaster!
And what happens if people bring pets to the rest centres? Apparently they are all put in individual cages in a separate room. It works well usually, we were told – except for the unfortunate occasion when someone brought a 10ft python with them. It was put in a cage opposite another containing Splodge the guinea pig. Alas, pythons are cleverer than you think, and this one managed to get out of its cage and into Splodge’s. It was Splodge’s owner, a six year old girl, who discovered the situation. Splodge was nowhere to be seen – but there was the python, looking very satisfied, with a suspiciously guinea pig shaped bulge halfway down its body!
Joking aside, though, I was impressed with the tremendous detail of these emergency plans. There are people out there whose full time jobs, day in day out, are to imagine the worst things that could happen and come up with a plan to get us through them.
All this seemed very appropriate in the light of this week’s Bible readings. Both the Old Testament and the Gospel are really about “critical incidents” – disasters - times of destruction and devastation. The Old Testament reading is from the time that the Jewish people were exile in Babylon. It’s quite near the end of that time. It is the third year of King Cyrus, the passage tells us. Cyrus was the Persian king who overthrew the Babylonian empire. Eventually he sent the exiles back to their own land. But at the time this passage was written everything was still in chaos. It was rather like the situation in Iraq today – modern day Babylon. Just because you have been officially liberated doesn’t mean that all is well. Daniel foresaw that things would get worse before they got better – there were “times of anguish” ahead.
In the Gospel Jesus warns his followers of “times of anguish” too. The Temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed, he says – “Not one stone will be left on another”, “nation will rise against nation, there will be earthquakes, famines”…He reels off a catalogue of disasters. It will feel like the end of the world. Mark’s readers would have read these words with a shudder of recognition, because his Gospel was written just as the Romans did in fact destroy the Temple, and the rest of Jerusalem too, in AD 70, having finally lost patience with their troublesome Jewish subjects.
These Biblical disasters may seem remote to us. Their dust has long since settled. But the uncomfortable truth is that catastrophe is an ever present threat. It may come through deliberate acts of terrorism and war like the London bombings or the war in Iraq. It may come through accident or human error – Aberfan, Zeebrugge, Buncefield. It may come through acts of nature – the Boxing Day tsunami, Hurricane Katrina. But it comes, with depressing regularity.
And even if we manage to avoid these large scale disasters, most people at some stage will have to face a personal disaster of their own. I may never get to wear this tabard, but, like all clergy, I know I will deal on a regular basis with critical incidents in people’s lives. They may only involve one or two people, they may never hit the headlines – in fact sometimes they may be entirely private, but they are a regular feature of my work. The serious or sudden illness, the bereavement, the redundancy, the family breakdown, the emotional crisis…these are all things which leave people feeling, just as Jesus said, as if there is “not one stone left on another” - everything they knew has come tumbling down around their ears.
The best and most detailed disaster plans in the world can’t actually prevent disasters, we were told in our training. All they can do is help us to survive it, to live through it, so that eventually we can get through to what the emergency planners called “a new kind of normal”. As Jesus put it, it is a matter of discovering that the times of anguish can be birth pangs rather than death-throes.
The local authority emergency officers I met were mainly concerned with the physical and practical readiness for these times – health care, food, shelter. But they were clear that how well people came through these disasters was actually determined by far deeper things than that. That is why they wanted chaplains on the team. All they could do was keep bodies alive. It was what happened to people’s spirits which really mattered. If they were really to live again they needed emotional and spiritual resources – not just “happy meals” and somewhere to put their pets.
But what sort of resources were those? What do we need to come through “times of anguish”?
Our second reading, from the letter to the Hebrews, gives us, I think, some valuable clues. Perhaps that’s not surprising – like all the early Christians the writer was no stranger to persecution and trouble. There are three things that seem to me to be important in what he says. Three things to remember when disaster strikes.
“Approach God,” he says … approach him with confidence. Even if all you want to do is shout at God, approach him. You will be just as welcome; he will be just as ready to listen. Some people turn away from God in times of trouble because they are so angry with him that they can’t face him. They somehow feel that he won’t want to see them unless they are sounding calm and holy. Or perhaps their faith has never really had much to do with real life, so when real life throws problems in their way it doesn’t occur to them to look to God for help. But it’s actually at these times, if we can keep coming to God that we discover the deep reality of his love – a love that may not have any answers, but which is there with us when we need it.
“Hold fast to the confession of our hope”, he goes on to say – this is the second thing -” for he who has promised is faithful.” The things that we believe to be true when times are good – that God loves us, that he is with us” should still true when times are bad. If they aren’t then they are not true at all. Yet it is easy to find that we have rooted our faith in our own good fortune, rather than in the faithfulness of God whatever happens. I am reminded of the words found scratched in a cellar in Cologne by Jewish people who had been hiding out there during the Second World War. "I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining; I believe in love, even when I feel it not; I believe in God even when he is silent." It matters that we put down deep roots into our faith, that we understand it, not just in our heads, but in our hearts, now. Then we shall have something to draw on when we need it urgently.
“Do not neglect to meet together” – that is the third thing. One of the most important factors that determines how well people cope in times of trouble is whether they have a secure network of support around them. Families can help, support groups can help, and, of course, the church can help. In fact the church is particularly well placed to help, not just because it is full of people who care, but because it has a rich heritage of stories, prayers, and traditions to help people through crises in their lives, and to point people beyond itself to God. In tonight’s psalm we hear his promise that he will not “abandon us to the grave, but will show us the path of life.” It is as we meet that we can remind each other of this truth and find that path together.
I hope I never get to wear this tabard. But critical incidents – times of anguish - come to us all, and so, even more than that, I pray that we shall all learn to trust in the faithfulness of God and the love of one another, so that when those times come we shall have more than a McDonald’s happy meal or a day-glo tabard to carry us through.
12th November 06 - Remembrance Sunday
Deuteronomy 10.12-13,17-21 Romans 12.9-21
Straight after this sermon we’re going to sing a hymn which will be very familiar to many of you – “O Valiant Hearts”. It is much loved by many – a noble and stirring hymn. But it’s a hymn that others sometimes feel uneasy or ambivalent about, which is why it isn't sung as often as it once was – none of our modern hymn books include it. The problem is, of course, that any hymn on any subject can only ever tell part of the story. You’ll never fit everything that needs to be said into a few short verses, especially if they have to rhyme and fit the music. You can only ever give a partial picture. That’s just as true for “Valiant Hearts” as for any other hymn. So if we are to sing it – and I think it is a good hymn, worth singing - we need to unpack it a bit, reflect on it, look at it carefully to see what it says, and to see what else needs to be said as well to round that picture out.
“Valiant Hearts” rightly honours, in its first few verses, the courage of those who have fallen in war. It expresses our gratitude to them and our prayer for them as we entrust them into God’s hands. But the picture it paints is one of people who, every one of them, seem to face the heat of the battle serenely. No one seems to feel fear or doubt; everything happens with dignity and deliberation. Now, I’ve met a lot of service and ex-service personnel in my ministry - my previous posts were all in Gosport, a place still dominated by the Royal Navy – and, to be honest, their accounts of the reality of war don’t always seem to match up with this idealized picture.
Of course those who have spoken to me of their experiences of war have often recalled acts of tremendous courage and self-sacrifice – the extraordinary bravery of ordinary people which the hymn honours. But that was never the whole of the story. They have just as often spoken of petrifying terror, when survival instinct took over; of times of complete chaos, when orders went astray or didn’t arrive, when equipment didn’t work; of deaths that were needless, from accident or – that dreadful euphemism - “friendly fire”. They have spoken too – though often with great difficulty and overwhelming guilt – of times when they themselves acted in ways they were ashamed of – when any “knightly virtue” they had seemed way out of reach. There were sights and sounds that they longed to forget, but which haunted them still. I have listened to men and women who would rather have fallen in battle alongside their comrades; people for whom living with the memories and the scars is infinitely more difficult than death would have been. They’d probably find it impossible to see their own hearts as valiant, and the imagery of this hymn might well make them feel even worse than they already do. The courage they showed, and still show as they do the best the can with their lives is completely hidden from them.
That is a terrible shame, because the truth is that valiant hearts come in many different forms; many different sorts of valour are called for in times of war, and in its aftermath, and it is important that we recognise and honour them all.
I think of my own grandfather, who fought at Gallipoli. Though he came back physically unharmed he suffered terrible depression for the rest of his life. For those who endured that campaign, it was the chaos, the disillusionment, and the apparent pointlessness of the sacrifice which scarred them as much as the actual fighting.
I think of the young submariner I met in Gosport who had fought in the first Gulf war. Something terrible had happened during that time – I don’t know what it was because he had never been able to tell anyone about it. But when the second Gulf war started he fell apart completely. I met him when we were trying to arrange his baby daughter’s baptism. In the end we had to have a very small private service, because this man, who had once gone off so confidently into battle now couldn’t even face the thought of a church full of people on this special occasion. He had been fortunate enough to be given a place at one of the residential therapeutic centres run by an organisation called Combat Stress. But he’d had a real struggle to get that place – mental health care for ex-service personnel is still woefully lacking.
I never heard how he got on there, but I hope he found some healing and peace, because he could so easily have become the third ex-serviceman I think of today – a homeless man who appeared on a news programme just a few weeks ago, sleeping rough in a doorway in London. A very high proportion of the homeless are ex-service personnel, unable to adjust to civilian life after traumatic experiences in the forces. This man was asked what he would like to say to the people who walked past him every day. “I’d like them to know,” he said, “that I used to be a proper person, like them…” He USED to be a proper person – now he hardly saw himself as human. In a strange way, this battered and broken man was showing valour too, trying even then to tell his story to a world that seemed completely indifferent to him and to the price he had paid for their security.
There are many other stories that could be told. The British Legion works with countless veterans whose experience of war would echo these, I’m sure; people who struggle because the reality of war for them was nothing like the image they had of “knightly virtue”, people who can’t see that a valiant heart is sometimes a broken heart too.
Of course there are many civilian stories of courage in times of war to be told as well. Valiant hearts are not always in uniform; there are the families of servicemen and servicewomen who wait at home for news, or who support those who have been injured; ; there are the leaders and campaigners who are committed to find a path to peace no matter how many setbacks they encounter; there are the innocent populations of war zones living in terror of bombs and bullets, who still, somehow, try to hold onto decency, humanity and hope.
Valiant hearts, all of them, just as much as those who fell in battle. As we sing our hymn in a minute, we need to hold them in our thoughts and prayers too, as they live daily with the cost of war.
But there is more even than this, I think, and if we leave it there, I think we will still be missing the most important message of this hymn – the one that will really make the difference. Because, as we honour the valiant hearts of others, we should also be asking ourselves what are the acts of valour to which we are called – where are our valiant hearts? Those who fell didn’t want to die; those who suffer the effects of combat long for it not to have happened. But lasting peace will always elude us until we each find the courage to live justly, because it’s justice that paves the way to peace; justice that starts with us and our everyday decisions.
“What does the Lord your God require of you? “asked the Old Testament reading. “To walk in his ways,” is the answer. That meant, for those who first read these words, not taking bribes, not being partial, caring for the widow, the orphan and the stranger. That was the way, said the reading, to well-being and peace for all. And the challenge is the same for us too. We may think it is human nature to put ourselves and our own first, but the Bible reminds us that true peace will only come if we can see beyond our own interests, beyond the borders that divide us, to the common humanity which unites us.
To live justly takes courage and commitment – and sacrifice too. It takes a valiant heart. It’s a way that is usually learnt and expressed, not through grand gestures, but in our day to day dealings with one another.
St Paul reminds us of that. “Love one another… rejoice in hope…extend hospitality…do not be haughty…feed your enemies…don’t repay evil for evil”. The way to peace starts not on the battlefield or in the military headquarters but in the home, in the workplace, in the supermarket, over the garden fence. It starts when we refuse to speak badly of the neighbour who has hurt us, when we refuse to demonise the group we don’t understand. It starts when we decide to care for the environment we all share, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the poorest in the world, upon whom threats like climate change will always fall most heavily. It is competition for increasingly scarce water and grazing, for example, that lies behind the war in the Darfur region of Sudan.
Our day to day actions may not seem to us to matter all that much, but it is in the small resentments of the human heart, the small cracks in communities, the small acts of injustice that the seeds of war are sown and take hold. It is easy to sing of the valiant hearts of others: it is much harder to hear their cry to us to live valiantly ourselves so that their sacrifice need not happen again.
So today we give thanks for the valiant hearts of those who fell in war, and those who serve in the armed forces today. We give thanks for the valiant hearts of those who struggle to live with the effects of war, for whom each new day is a personal battle, and the valiant hearts of those who love and care for them. We give thanks for the valiant hearts of those who live in the midst of conflict, yet still hope and work for peace. And we pray for valiant hearts ourselves to face the challenges that come to us today and tomorrow, right where we are, as we learn to walk in the way that leads to peace.
Combat Stress The Royal British Legion
O valiant hearts who to your glory came
5th November 2006 - 4th Sunday before Advent
Sermon preached by Kevin BrightMark 12.28-34, Hebrews 9.11-14, Deuteronomy 6.1-9
God, others, me
Think of someone you feel is a good communicator; it could be your teacher, a broadcaster, a celebrity, a politician, a work colleague, maybe even a priest! Communication is important.
A message well communicated is often shorter than a message poorly communicated. It’s actually easier to ‘rabbit’ on referring to long texts or making sure nothing is missed by covering every detail than it is to extract the real meaning from a document or event.
The best journalists give the key information in their reports but leave out the unnecessary detail.
When you think about it, sometimes a small number of words can get our minds working harder than a great essay. For example - ‘For sale, engagement ring, still in box, never worn.’
Few people could see this advertisement without wondering what the circumstances were, did she turn him down, did he lose his nerve, is there a long tragic story behind this?
Communication is about speaking in plain English.
It’s common for us to know inside that we have something profound to say and for it to come out horribly wrong.
You may recall United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld commenting in a press briefing. "Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know."
Actor Richard Gere said: "I know who I am. No one else knows who I am. If I was a giraffe and somebody said I was a snake, I'd think 'No, actually I am a giraffe.''
The plain English campaign offers an example of how an attempt to get a message across might be improved. Two examples:-
High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.
Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.
If there are any points on which you require explanation or further particulars we shall be glad to furnish such additional details as may be required by telephone.
If you have any questions, please ring.
Business reports have executive summaries, usually at the beginning which attempt to convey the essential message of the report, it’s there for those who don’t have time to study all the detail or who might not understand it anyway.
Organizations try to express themselves through mission statements. Marks & Spencer’s mission is ‘To make inspirational quality accessible to all.’
So having thought about the need for clarity and brevity we turn to Old Testament Law. If this was simple and clear there would be no need for the existence of the scribes, lawyers, teachers and experts in the study of the Law of Moses. All 613 of them, 365 do’s and 248 don’ts. They had a vested interest in formality and ritual at the Temple and administered the law as judges.
Of these 613 laws which one did Jesus think was the most important? Was the scribe trying to start a row, test Jesus knowledge or did he really want to benefit from his wisdom? Perhaps this mass of regulations which were so complex that they needed expert interpretation could be simplified.
The answer combines the words from our Deuteronomy (6.4-5) reading with words from Leviticus (19.18).
The top priority, the number one command is so important that Jesus quotes “The Shema,” which literally means, “to hear.” This verse from Deuteronomy 6 was recited by every pious Jew in the morning and evening, and some still do it today.
Jesus said ‘The first is, Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. ’The second is this ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.’
It’s interesting that though the scribe asked for the one greatest commandment, Jesus actually gave Him two. He did so because All love comes from God, even that expressed by those who want nothing to do with him. The two commandments are complimentary – you can’t fulfill one without the other.
In those few words Jesus gave a mission statement, an executive summary a clarification of the laws the scribes enforced, interpreted and debated, all 613 of them.
His answer represented a shift from what had become heartless formalism for many to religion based upon relationship. If we love God and our neighbour everything else flows from this.
The scribe seems to understand that our love for God is shown through our love for each other. When Jesus says ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’ it seems to imply that he has risen beyond his contemporaries and is beckoned to take a step further to accept Jesus way.
If we want to make our love for God more real then it has to come out of the way we relate to other people. Not only our friends or those we take pity on but also those who are different from us, who may be selfish, unreasonable or offensive.
If we want others to find a relationship with God it has to come out the way they see us behave and from the way we speak of this God we love.
Talking of how others might see our Christian faith I remember reading of how Terry Waite found himself in military hospital during his service days.
‘Pretend to be asleep’ the soldier in the next bed whispered to him. Although it was 10 in the morning every bed patient appeared to be totally unconscious and those who were dressed disappeared into the bathroom. It was the visit of the army Scripture Reader, well intentioned but totally unable to communicate except by putting a scriptural text into every sentence he uttered.
You are walking in the light, aren’t you brother? You have a great witness to make here. Even a Christian such as Waite found this jargon a total turn off.
As people who love God we know that we also are loved by him. The people we see around us, whether we like them or not are loved by God as well. So we are to love them, care for them, to serve them, for God. A lot easier said than done but something to hold in our minds with all the people we meet in the forthcoming week and beyond.
And if your mind has wandered in the last ten minutes, if I’ve over complicated things or failed to communicate here’s my attempt at a mission statement, an executive summary or a simple phrase to help us remember what today’s readings are all about:-
God, others, me, in that order.
Couldn’t be simpler could it? God, others, me.
29th Oct 06 - All Saints
There is a story told of the 19th century writer Anatole France. Apparently as a young boy he was fascinated by the lives of the saints and all their heroic exploits. St Simeon Stylites especially grabbed his attention. This rather peculiar saint expressed his dedication to God by living for thirty years on top of a sixty-foot pillar in the Syrian desert. For some reason the young Anatole decided one day that he should try to imitate him. Unfortunately he didn’t have a sixty-foot pillar to hand, so he climbed up on top of a kitchen cupboard. It was the best he could do. He stayed there all morning, but by lunchtime he’d had enough and, rather ruefully, climbed down from his perch. His mother realised how disappointed he was by his failure, and tried to cheer him up. "Now, you mustn’t feel bad about this.” she said. “You have at least made the attempt, which is more than most people have ever done. But you must remember that it is almost impossible to be a saint in your own kitchen."
It strikes me that his mother was a very wise woman. Her son’s idea of saintliness was drawn from pious legends and stained glass windows. The saints you find in these are never angry, never unsure. They are quietly, calmly devout, trusting in God, smiling through their difficulties. Their lives are all sorted out; their faith shines from them even though they are in the midst of being martyred or undergoing terrible ordeals. That’s all very well if you are looking for an edifying picture to decorate the rarefied surroundings of some splendid church. Praying, preaching, or dying beautifully to the sound of angels’ song look wonderful done in coloured glass or painted plaster, but somehow you can’t imagine these saints ever peeling sprouts – dealing with mundane reality. They’d look totally out of place scrubbing the floor or unblocking the sink. The gilded saints of our church architecture and our pious tales wouldn’t know one end of a kitchen from another. It IS almost impossible to be a saint like that in your own kitchen.
Kitchens, lets face it, are un-dramatic, un-heroic places, places where it is hard to look holy, hard to pretend. They are where the inner workings of our households are revealed - the reality rather than the face we want to show to the world. They are where the real business of our lives happen - cooking, cleaning, organising, or at least trying to! If your kitchen is anything like mine there is usually some sort of “work in progress” there. A meal being prepared, washing up waiting to be done, broken things to be fixed, a pile of ironing… there’s never a moment when everything is sorted out in a kitchen – or at least not for long.
They can be messy places too – you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs…! No one puts their best antiques in the kitchen, things that need to be kept clean and dry and safe. It’s where we put those well-worn tables and chairs that won’t mind a few knocks and scrapes.
Kitchens are places where things go wrong – sauces go lumpy, toast burns, tempers fray. They are often places, too, where emotionally real and sometimes messy things happe; rows erupt, secrets are revealed, comfort is given around the kitchen table or as we stand at the sink with our sleeves rolled up. And kitchens can be the places where loneliness hits hardest if we live alone – cooking for one, sitting alone at the table.
Kitchens reflect the real “us”– the way we are in the heart of our being, the heart of our household - and my guess is that the real “us” often doesn’t feel saintly at all. That’s why being a saint in your own kitchen seems such an odd idea. Saints always seem to be certain, but we doubt. Saints are calm, but we panic. Saints smile through their troubles, but we rage and cry. Saints are all sorted out, but we feel as if our lives are a tangled mass of loose ends and unfinished business. They seem, as they shine from their stained glass, to be calling us to a life that is impossible. We can never be as holy as they are, we think, as we stand amidst the chaos of our lives. But we are all called to holiness, to sainthood. Today’s feast of All Saints is not just about those great heroes and heroines of the Christian faith, it is meant to be about all of us. So if sainthood feels so alien, so hard to imagine happening in our own kitchens and our own lives, there is either something very wrong with us, or there is something very wrong with our image of sainthood.
Today’s Gospel, mercifully, suggests that it is the latter that is true.
Jesus comes to Bethany, to the house of his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. But Lazarus has fallen ill and died. This isn’t news to Jesus. He was told all about it. In fact his friends begged him to come and heal Lazarus as he had healed so many others. But he didn’t come, not until it was much, much too late. Lazarus was dead and had been in his tomb for four days by the time Jesus got there.
When Jesus does finally arrive you can imagine the reception he gets. Mary is prostrate with grief, falling at Jesus feet and angrily challenging him - “if you had been here my brother would not have died.”
She is weeping.
These aren’t restrained, elegant tears either – the Greek words suggest the kind of crying that makes your eyes red and your face blotchy; that makes your nose run. This whole situation is one big mess. To add to the grief and the anger, there is also confusion. No one thinks it ought to have happened like this – not Martha, not Mary, and even Jesus, as he weeps for his friends seems racked with regret. As the onlookers say, what’s the point of having this famous healer for a friend if he isn’t going to make you a priority when you need him? I wonder how that accusation made Jesus feel?
When they get to the tomb things seem to be going from bad to worse. Jesus wants the stone pushed aside. The smell is terrible already, protests Martha, but Jesus insists. So the stone is taken away and Jesus calls to Lazarus to come out. It must have seemed as if he had gone crazy – the whole thing is like some revolting horror story. And when Lazarus does come out the reaction of the onlookers is by no means uniformly joyful. Some of them believe in Jesus; the other half go straight to the Pharisees to complain. Never mind that Lazarus has his life back and his sisters have their brother back, they can’t be having this sort of upsetting of the natural order – it just isn’t right! It is this incident which seals Jesus’ fate. From then on the authorities are clear that they must be rid of him.It is easy for us, from a distance of two thousand years and with the benefit of hindsight to overlook the terrible messiness of this story. We see the faith of Mary and Martha, as they ask Jesus for help, but miss their doubt and their anger that he hasn’t helped already. We see Jesus’ assurance that his Father will act, but we miss the grief which torments him when he is faced with the agony of his grieving friends. We see the triumph of Lazarus’ return to life but we miss the controversy it unleashes which will lead, very soon, to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. To understand this story we need to do more than just read the words, safe on their page in neat black and white; we need to hear the sobbing and wailing, see the faces twisted with anguish and smell the sickly odour of the tomb. There’s no simple, tidy solution on offer here. Martha and Mary are not shining, beautiful stained-glass figures, plaster statues standing serenely on their pedestals, but real human beings who haven’t a clue what is going on. Even Jesus struggles with what he is doing as he first delays and then has to face the consequences of that delay. Martha, Mary and Jesus are brutally honest with one another; there is no pretence that everything is all right. All we can say is that within their confusion they cling to the faith that God still IS. They don’t assume that he has ceased to exist simply because things aren’t turning out the way they expected. And they cling to the hope that, somehow, he will act, even if they can’t imagine how. God still IS. Whatever he is up to, he is up to something.
Can you be a saint in your own kitchen – in the heart of your life, where you struggle, where things often seem messy and confusing? It seems impossible if we think of saintliness as the ability to sail through troubles with an unruffled faith, smiling and tranquil. But the saints in this story show us a different way – holiness that is rooted in reality and honesty; that encompasses doubt as well as faith, tears as well as smiles, anger as well as gratitude. Can you be a saint in your own kitchen? Well, it seems to me that if you can’t there isn’t much point being a saint anywhere else. If faith isn’t real in the kitchen then what use is it? We worship a God who came among us, born in the messiness of a Bethlehem stable, dying messily on a cross. He came into the “kitchens of our lives” - our reality - because he knew that that was where we needed him most, where we needed to feel his love, his power, his peace. On this All Saints’ Sunday we need to take our eyes off those stained glass saints so that we can see his real presence, here working among us amidst all the kitchen clutter of our real lives so that we can truly shine with his light in the world.
Oct 15th 06 -Trinity 18Amos 5.6-7, 10-15, Mark 10. 17-31
“Seek the Lord and live”…says the Old Testament reading. “Seek the Lord and live.”
Today’s Gospel reading tells us of a man who is doing just that – looking to God for life. It seems strange that he is so desperate. He already seems to have everything he could possibly want – wealth and status aplenty. And yet here he is, running to Jesus as if his life depended on it. Not walking but running to this poor carpenter, with his motley crew of followers.
he gets there he throws himself at Jesus’ feet…
But in the end he goes away grieving – no better off than when he arrived. Jesus has told him that to find what he seeks he must give up what he has – all of it - and that seems like too high a price.
Jesus watches him go. “It’s easier”, he says to his disciples, “for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Now there are those who say that this business about the camel and the eye of the needle actually referred to a small gate in the wall of Jerusalem which was known as the “eye of the needle”. You could squeeze a camel through it, but only if it knelt down and you took its load off. It’s a colourful story, and it’s been going the rounds for centuries, but I’m afraid it’s completely untrue. There’s no evidence that there was any such gate and no references to it anywhere else. So if anyone’s explained this passage to you like that, I’m afraid they were mistaken. The truth is that this phrase was a common expression at the time of Christ. It was a way of saying that something was impossible – like fitting a quart in a pint pot. It was meant to conjure up a ridiculous picture in your mind. Further east people talked about fitting an elephant through a needle’s eye, which was even sillier.
So Jesus is saying exactly what he seems to be saying. That being part of the kingdom of God – the world God is making of justice and peace – is impossible if you are rich. There aren’t any loopholes. It’s not about small gates that you can squeeze through if you know how.
It’s a hard saying. The disciples don’t like it, and they don’t understand it either. “Who can be saved then?” they ask.
The unspoken question which is troubling them is how rich you have to be before Jesus’ words apply to you. Are they too rich? To be sure, this man has much more than they have, but they aren’t destitute. They’ve got a fishing boat or two between them, a family home maybe, goods that they will inherit some day. And why is Jesus saying this now? He’s met with many other people in his ministry, and he’s never said before that their possessions will prevent them from entering the kingdom.
Christians ever since have argued about this too. You can’t enter the kingdom if you are rich, says Jesus – but how poor do you have to be? Do you have to be starving, or will it do to just be a bit hard up?
The truth is that our sense of whether we are rich or poor depends very much on what we have known in the past, and on what the norm is in our society. My daughter Ruth worked for a year in a Peruvian orphanage before university. It was a real eye opener – particularly for her, but also for the rest of us as we read her letters and emails. The orphanage had no hot water, few books or resources. Ruth was quite shocked when, early in her time there, the director of the orphanage sent her out with a group of girls to the local market, where the girls proceeded to do the rounds of the market stalls, asking for donations of fruit and veg. But she soon came to realize that in many ways these were the lucky children. In the shanty towns around them there were many children who were far worse off. These girls, with a secure roof over their head and an education, were rich compared to many others in their society. Poverty and wealth are very hard to define, and simply to understand this story as one about the dangers of possessiveness and greed is to miss its real point, which is just what the rich man, and the disciples did. Its message is actually much more subtle than that.
There are two words in this story which need our close attention if we are going to understand the underlying message. They aren’t long words, or difficult words – in fact they are about as short as you can get. They are in the middle of the question that the rich man asks. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The two words in question are “I” and “Do”. They reveal a great deal about this man’s approach to his faith, and tell us where he is going wrong.
Let’s take the first word first – the little word “I”. “What must I do?” asks the man. It’s all about him. Eternal life is something completely individual – a possession like all his others – something he can inherit and own.
It has nothing to do with anyone else, with the community he lives in, with the rest of the world. Even when he has kept the commandments, which meant almsgiving among other things, it sounds as if he has had his mind on his salvation. He sees eternal life as simply a ticket to heaven, as many people do today – and it is a ticket for one. I’ve always thought that there is something very isolated about this man. Perhaps wealth does that to you – it becomes a wall cutting you off from others – you suspect their motives so you keep them at a distance.
When Jesus tells him to sell what he has and give his money to the poor he challenges that self-contained world that he lives in. Salvation isn’t something individual. It’s about justice. It’s about relationships. Eternal life is not something you can own for yourself – it’s not about what happens to your individual soul when you die. It is a quality of life in the here and now which makes a difference to all.
It’s the same for Amos in the Old Testament. “Seek the Lord and live” is a command addressed to the whole nation, and it is something they can only do together. They have trampled on the poor, taken bribes, pushed aside the needy – and the whole nation has suffered because of it. The gift of God that he offers them – call it salvation, eternal life, entry into the kingdom – is for all of them too. It is the recreation of the whole nation as a place of justice and peace.
Salvation is either about all of us or none of us. We are all linked together. How can I enjoy the feast in the kingdom of heaven when I know that there are people who have no bread to eat? How can I enjoy the fullness of life that God gives when I know that others are dying of malnutrition and preventable diseases?
It ought to be impossible for us to rest easy under those circumstances – to feel we have arrived in paradise – as impossible as getting a camel through a needle’s eye…
If this rich man can get rid of the possessions which he has built like a wall around himself, he will discover that he is no longer an isolated individual, but inextricably linked to the whole of creation.
The second important little word is the word “Do”. This man believes that eternal life depends on what he does. He’s been keeping the commandments faithfully – doing things. He’s been trying his hardest – doing things. And he assumes that there is just some little thing he needs to do– an action to perform, a prayer to pray. Then he will have it all sussed. Rich people are used to having power to make things happen – they are doers. So this man assumes that getting eternal life will be all down to what he does, if he can just get Jesus to tell him what that should be.
But the truth is that there is nothing he can do to earn the peace he so much craves. It’s not for sale. It can’t be bought. It’s impossible to buy God’s favour - there’s that camel again attempting to get through the needle’s eye – trying to do an impossible task. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that God might give it to him anyway – that’s rather sad. Perhaps that’s why Jesus looks at him so lovingly. He sees through this man’s wealth to the poverty which underlies it. He may be rich in possessions but he is poor in trust, poor in the ability to receive from God – and probably from others as well. He’s bargained his way through life and he doesn’t think anyone would just give him something simply because they love him.
“What must I do?” he asks. Jesus knows that he will have to give up his bargaining counters – his possessions and the power they bring him – in order to learn that it isn’t about doing, and that God has already given the fullness of life for which he longs.
So although this story looks as if it is about wealth and poverty, there’s more to it than that. Of course in a world where many starve we need to look at the mountain of our possessions. But it is the underlying issues which this story really points to – what our wealth means to us – power, control, and self-protective, trustless isolation. These are things that have no place in God’s kingdom – any more than fish can live on dry land, or a camel can go through a needle’s eye. Jesus’ demands seemed too hard for the rich man, and sometimes we feel too that we haven’t the courage really to let go of the things we cling to. I hope and pray, though, that we won’t go away grieving, but will be brave enough to let God do the impossible with us as he opens our eyes to his kingdom.
Oct 8th 2006 - Trinity 16
Genesis 2.12-24, Hebrews 1.1-4,2.5-12, Mark 10. 2-16
When the Gospels talk about marriage, then, we need to be careful. Marriage, to them, was a very different experience, with different expectations, in a different context, from our marriages – I’ll say a bit more about that in a minute. We can’t simply lift the words of the Gospel into the 21st century and expect to use them as a blueprint for our marriages. It would be like trying to drive a modern car with a set of instructions for a horse drawn carriage, or vice versa– it isn’t going to work. They might both have wheels and be forms of transport, but there the similarity ends. So we have to approach Jesus’ words with great care, if we are going to find meaning in them for us.
Harvest Evensong - Oct 1st 06 - Sermon by Kevin Bright
Romans 8.18-25, Genesis 9.1-17
Paul says that present suffering cannot be compared with future glory. So what is his personal experience of suffering? He gives us a little snapshot of this in his second letter to the Corinthians
"I have worked much harder than most, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea. I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles, in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea and in danger from false brothers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep. I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food. I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face the daily pressure of my concern for the churches."
Thankfully the majority of us will never build a CV of suffering to compare with this, but neither do we expect to live lives free from suffering and we would be greatly surprised if a single day passes by where we do not see or hear of suffering that makes us groan with sadness, frustration or despondency.
I heard my self groan when shortly after the thunder storms this afternoon my computer shut down losing part of this sermon and adding to my workload. Yet there are far more serious things to groan about.
We groan when we see half the world starving at the same time as Jamie Oliver is telling our children and their meals providers to stop eating so much high fat food.
We groan when we see unjust violence and war, oppression, exploitation of the vulnerable and weak, wasted lives and bloodshed of the innocent called collateral damage. Perhaps we groan a little less vigorously as we hear such news from Iraq on a daily basis as this becomes a tragic normality.
If we take time to think about it we groan for the moral and ethical agony forced upon those who do our dirty work. Police and soldiers whose role is to protect and provide stability yet having to take others lives to fulfil their role. Politicians who must make decisions which will result in lives lost and ruined.
All this before we even consider our own physical suffering from sickness and injury, sadness and mourning, regrets and hate of ourselves for our weaknesses and defects. If we take time to seriously reflect on our own lives we groan.
Yet we don’t groan because we have chosen to follow the way of Christ, we are unlikely to suffer in the way that Paul describes. You may think well at least Paul didn’t have to listen to your sermons, but apart from that the worst we suffer tends to be ridicule or being considered by some as part of the world’s problems rather than the solution.
Whether we groan, scream, if our eyes fill with tears or if we simply shake our heads it’s because we want better, we want Christ’s ways and values to prevail, we want a better world.
There are a lot of people who have a longing or groaning for things to be better. Our reading tells us of 2 things that are currently groaning. We are told that the whole creation is groaning with frustration and longing. We are also told that Christian’s are groaning in frustration and desire.
Despite our groans we need to find ways to live a life which essentially means doing the best we can to patch, mend reduce and care for our world until the Glory of which Paul speaks is revealed to us.
Like many I tend to think of the animals going in two by two children’s story book style when I think of Noah. The Genesis reading we heard today is the bit after the storm when order is restored and new life encouraged. It’s easy to forget the faithful determination which precedes the happy ending.
Yet if we consider what has gone before we find a story of utter devastation when all that is familiar is swept away. Noah is in his boat for 150 days, fear and doubt would have had plenty of time to fester. Was God having a laugh leaving him to die a slow death on a stinking boat, a death which would make those killed in the flood look lucky?
We all know that the British Army puts its soldiers through tests of endurance. One I am aware of involves putting infantry soldiers through a gruelling 20 mile course over the Brecon Beacons carrying weaponry and heavy equipment. Those fit enough to complete the course are greatly relieved to cross the ‘finishing line’, many collapsing in a heap as they do so, having pushed themselves to the limit. Within minutes they are told to stand up and prepare to do the 20 mile course again. Some become abusive and refuse to move, others collapse in a heap saying they can’t go on. A few decide to push themselves as far as humanly possible whatever the consequences. Just one mile on over the brow of the hill a truck is waiting to feed and transport those with the mental toughness to go on when it was unclear how this would end.
Similarly, if we are to be effective Christians we need to draw on the Spirit to keep us going despite all we see around us, when the glory Paul speaks of seems a distant prospect of little immediate relevance.
If we are to allow ourselves to see God's glory embodied in the world, then we should experience not only awe, wonder and humility but also compassion for all bodies in pain. Where the body hurts, the creator hurts, and we as stewards of the body hurt.
The groaning creation that Paul speaks of is a reminder that creation is suffering, feeling the pain of injustice and vulnerability. Human bodies within creation suffer too, the suffering of oppression, sickness and pain. But Paul's letter is a reminder that when we speak of creation we speak of the creator, the one who allows us to continue to hope.
I think I’m on dangerous ground if I try to tell ladies too much about childbirth. However I am clear on one fact, for the mother, it hurts! The suffering is necessary for the birth of a new life. For most the pain is followed by the joy of new life with new hope and opportunity.
Hope has a lot to do with a belief that the world is and always will be God's world and that God has a continuing relationship with it. If we can imagine the world as a sanctuary for God's presence then we can still see places for him to dwell, places of new growth and health among those we have spoilt. Where we see tentative signs of life which is pleasing to God there is an opportunity to encourage and build to expand these areas, making them sustainable for the future.
If we are serious about caring for God’s world we need to keep thinking about how we can compassionately identify with and serve the expressions of creation that we see around us. When we buy goods that seem too cheap to be true we need to dig a bit deeper to see if in fact they are really costing the earth. Chances are that either the planet or some person will have been exploited in the making.
If we are serious about caring for Gods world we need to seek peaceful and just ways of co-existence not focus selfishly on our own needs. We need to pay attention to each other, especially the vulnerable, to listen to the lessons of the natural world, not to ignore those in need.
As birth pains are followed by new life so our hope is based on the promises of the resurrection, the redemption of all creation.
But until that time we need to focus on new and better ways to care for God’s world. We need to hurry up and act as we wait for God's renewal of all creation - to live in hope is to act on what we know now and leave the ultimate results in the loving hands of the God who is more than willing to be in relationship with his creation.
Trinity 15 - Sept 24th 06
"The disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying, and they were afraid to ask him..."
I wonder how many times we’ve been in positions like that?
We don’t understand what the doctor is saying to us – and we are afraid to ask.
We don’t understand what a partner is saying – and we are afraid to ask.
We don’t understand what our boss is saying – and we are afraid to ask.
What is it we fear? We fear that the doctor is saying,”I’m sorry, it’s serious – there’s nothing we can do”; that our partner is saying, “I’m sorry, it’s over – I don’t love you anymore”; that our boss is saying “I’m sorry, you’re sacked.”
I read recently of a woman whose husband was serving in
The disciples do the same thing when Jesus starts to tell them that he must suffer and die. They hear him say the words, but they can’t take them in.
Part of the problem is that Jesus’ picture of the suffering Messiah doesn’t fit with what they think the Messiah should be and do. He’s supposed to be strong and fearless, a mighty conqueror, a superman – victorious in all things. Suffering and dying aren’t part of the package. They’re a sign of failure and disgrace.
But even if they could get their heads around it, I don’t think they would want to hear what Christ is saying. His vision of the future is a painful, frightening one – for them as well as for him. It involves betrayal, humiliation and powerlessness. Who wants to think about that?
So instead of asking him to explain they change the subject. They throw themselves into an argument about who among them is the greatest. Psychologists would call this ‘displacement activity’ – something we do to distract us from the thing we really need to face. The bereaved widow who gets obsessed with whether there is enough ham for the funeral tea so she can avoid thinking about the loss of her husband. The committee that spends hours on a complete red herring to avoid discussing the knotty problem that really needs solving. We all do it – sharpening pencils rather than getting down to work. Here the disciples displace their anxiety about what Jesus has said with a heated bout of spiritual arm wrestling.
Jesus evidently knows perfectly well what is going on – probably half of Galilee can hear the row – but by the time they get to
It’s an odd little trio of stories – Jesus’ teaching about his death, the argument on the road and the little child – but it is a trio that belongs together. All these stories are linked – each one sheds light on the other. We can easily see the link between the argument and the little child. “No matter how great you think you are, to me this little child is greater and more important than any of you.” But it might be harder for us to see what this has to do with those words he has spoken about his suffering and death. What has a little child got to do with the cross?
The problem for us, I think, is the image we have of childhood.
We have put childhood on a pedestal – a golden age of wonder and carefree play. Conditioned by generations of sentimental illustrations, the child in this story has become to us a symbol of innocence, simplicity and trust– a chubby cheeked, angelic toddler, gazing adoringly up at Jesus. What could be more comforting? It is odd that we should idealize childhood in this way, though, because all of us have been children – and, if we are prepared to be honest, we know what it is really like. However loving your family, however happy your circumstances, I doubt if any of our childhoods were happy all the time. Being a child means being small and weak, having to deal with a world which can seem baffling and terrifying. A world of giants who have enormous power over you. It means being dependent, being at the mercy of others, unable to protect yourself against them if they turn against you. Children easily feel foolish and afraid – they don’t know what to do, what is right, who to trust. One hopes there will be fun and wonder as well, but even the best childhood is no picnic. My experience of children is that most of them long to be bigger, stronger, to know more about the world. They dream of power – the time when they will be top of the heap, able to boss other people around as they are bossed around. It is adults, looking back through rose tinted spectacles, who see childhood as a land of lost innocence, something they would love to reclaim.
And if its true now, in our allegedly child loving society, that children are vulnerable and weak, it was even more true in Jesus’ day. Infanticide was common in many ancient societies; children were exposed, sold into slavery, forced to work. There was no safety net for children without families. Discipline was severe, brutality was common, and for many children exploitation was the norm. Many parents did love their children and care for them, but even so, children were often regarded as animals to be tamed, rather than angels to be treasured. To many adults they didn’t have value in themselves, but only as potential sources of labour , people who would care for their parents in old age. The idea that a famous Rabbi like Jesus would want to have anything to do with children would have been laughable – what a waste of his valuable time to use it up on these half-formed creatures who wouldn’t even be able to understand what he was saying! Almost always in the Bible, then, and certainly here in this story, children are not symbols of innocence and trust, they are symbols of marginalization, weakness and humiliation – that state in which we can’t protect ourselves and must suffer whatever is doled out to us.
And where have we heard that before? Where have we heard talk of suffering and weakness? In those earlier words of Jesus, the ones the disciples have been trying to avoid “The Son of Man is to be betrayed, and they will kill him…” On the cross Jesus is going to find himself reduced to the state of one of these vulnerable helpless children. Dying is about as powerless as it gets. Being hung naked on a cross – how much more humiliated can you be? As he goes to the cross he will share, deliberately, the lot of the “little ones” of his society– the children, the poor, the outcast, those who could simply be discarded as worthless at the whim of those in power. And yet, says Jesus, the outcome of this will be new life, true life, risen life – a life in which all of those “little ones” find dignity and worth. The disciples hanker for power – they are ready to claw their way over one another to be the greatest. Power, they think, will give them the status they need to make them feel worthwhile and safe – proper grown ups at last, whom others look up to. But Jesus is telling them that it will only be when they let go of that dream of being in control that they will discover their true safety and worth, which comes from being held in the hands of God.
“Welcome the child,” says Jesus. That means welcoming those who are marginalized today – the “little ones” of our world. But it also means welcoming the littleness in our own lives; the times when we feel like small, weak, helpless children. Times of failure, times when we get it wrong, when we feel adrift and alone. Times of dependency. Times when we feel useless. Like the disciples on the road we might long to escape or deny these experiences, to live in a fantasy land where all is well, to grasp at power and success so that we don’t have to admit our weakness. But this behaviour, as well as damaging others whom we tread on in our scramble to look big, also blinds us to the true security that God wants us to have; the knowledge that he loves us just as much when we are weak, when we fail, when we are enduring the mess of the cross or the darkness of the tomb, the knowledge that he is with us in these times in ways he never can be when we are on our high horses proclaiming our own greatness.
Remember that woman I was telling you about at the beginning? The one who wouldn’t let in the people who had come with news of her husband’s death. We are all like that sometimes. The child – the part of us that will always be at the mercy of forces we can’t control – knocks at the door of our lives. She comes with the bad news of our weakness and limitation, the news that we can’t do everything, that we can’t control everything, and we don’t want to let her in. We’d far rather ignore her and pretend that we are big and strong, in the hopes she will go away. But if we shut her out because we don’t want to hear her bad news, we will miss the good news she brings too. For she doesn’t come alone. God comes with her – God who brings light out of darkness and hope out of despair. God who still says to us “whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me.”
Trinity 14 - 17th Sept 06
Trinity 13 - 10th Sept 06
What a rude man Jesus is! It’s a shocking story, the one we heard at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading. A woman comes to Jesus – a desperate woman. Her daughter is ill - her little daughter – just a child. And what does Jesus do? He refuses to help, and to add insult to injury he compares her to a dog. It’s a passage that embarrasses and perplexes many people. Bible commentators and preachers try all sorts of explanations to soften the story, but those explanations seem to me to create as many problems as they solve.
In Matthew’s account of this story the disciples are with Jesus, though Mark doesn’t mention them here, so another explanation has been put forward that he is testing their faith. But, personally, I can’t see how this is any better – if anything it seems worse to use this frantic woman simply as a teaching aid for them, so that they can learn a lesson at her expense.
Trinity 12 evensong - Sept 3rd 06
Exodus 12.21-27, Matt 4.23-5.20
Imagine living through those times. It must have seemed like the end of the world. Everything you knew and valued had been brutally stripped from you amidst carnage and slaughter. You had lost your home, your heritage, even the Temple itself, the centre of your national and spiritual identity. It was a massive trauma, not only physically, but psychologically and spiritually too, and it provoked what we might now call a communal identity crisis. Exiled from your homes, with the Temple and all its familiar rituals gone, what did it mean to be Jewish anymore?
And where did it leave the early Christians? Up until this point, the followers of Jesus were really just a movement within Judaism, rather than a separate religion. Most Christians, like Jesus himself, were Jewish by birth – the message was only gradually spreading to include the Gentiles. Though they were developing different beliefs and ways of worship, Christianity was still recognizably Jewish. Its followers believed that Jesus had come to fulfil Judaism, not abolish it or compete with it. Not all their fellow Jews agreed with them, but many tolerated this new movement, regarding it still as part of Judaism, if rather a troublesome part.
Trinity 12 - Sept 3rd 06 Sermon written by Kevin Bright
Mark7.1-8&21-23, James1.17-27, Deuterononmy4.1-2&6-9
Trinity 11 - 27th August 06
Joshua 24.1-2a, 14-18 John 6.56-69
Will they stick to the way of life that they have learnt in the desert, and the God who has led them across it, or will they abandon him in favour of the local gods and the local customs?
“Take yourselves seriously,” say Joshua and Jesus to us. You are not just God’s creation – passive recipients of his love - you are also co-creators with him, actively shaping his world for good or ill, called to take sides for justice and peace, and to take sides against all that which destroys the wholeness which is his vision for you. “Choose this day whom you will serve…”
Trinity 10 - 20th Aug 06Proverbs 9.1-6, John 6.51-58
The Old Testament Reading today is a vivid and intriguing one. It is a picture of a woman welcoming people to a feast – a feast she has prepared in the house she has built – hewing out its seven pillars - a feast to which all are welcome. All they have to do is come. It’s a wonderfully joyful and hospitable picture. But the woman in question isn’t just any woman, laying on a banquet for her neighbours. She is Wisdom personified. Wisdom was an immensely important virtue in ancient Hebrew thought. It was one of the fundamental attributes of God. It was so important that, as here, it was often portrayed as if it had a life of its own. Earlier in the book of Proverbs Wisdom is pictured dancing at creation with God – she’s not a bolt-on extra – she’s central to God’s life, central to God’s plan, central to what he wants for his people. Wisdom was vital, they thought, if you wanted to live your life fully and well.
The Christian writer Irenaeus said, in the second century, that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive” – that’s our real goal, he says - but how do you measure that in an A level or a GCSE? How do you put that in a league table?
There are three things I’d like to pick out of our Old Testament reading today to start us thinking.
I have been very moved by the actions of the
Archbishop of York this week. He was so profoundly upset by the war in
May we have the courage to hear her and to respond.
Trinity 9 - August 13th 06 - by Kevin Bright
John 6:35, 41-51, Peter 1:16-21, 1 Kings 19:4-8, Ephesians 4:25-5:2
It can often be when we feel at our strongest that we are in fact at our most vulnerable. We can hit a high through our success in our work, increased wealth, and new status or through favourable publicity.
Not only was it the main form of sustenance for life and
energy, it held the promise of life itself.
The gift of eating bread without scarcity in the Promised Land is
described in the book of Deuteronomy.
So we are clear that there was no question of them replying ‘not for me thanks I’m on the Atkins diet’ but their desire confused the physical and spiritual food on offer.
‘Anyone who comes to me I will never drive away’, we heard Jesus saying in our Gospel reading. It is up to each of us to respond individually to this invitation, to show that we are serious about receiving the bread of life Christ speaks of. The living bread is Christ himself the giver and sustainer of spiritual life. The bread he gave for all in the world is his flesh, his human life in order that we may share in eternal life.
6 - 23rd July 06
How is your work/life balance? Have you got time to do all the things you feel you need to do, or ought to do, or want to do? Or are you rushing around like a headless chicken, never quite feeling you are doing anything thoroughly enough. We are all encouraged to try to get a better balance in our lives these days, not to work ourselves into the ground but to make time for rest, for hobbies, for community involvement, for family and friends, and quite right too!
So what are we to make of Jesus and the disciples in today’s Gospel reading? Rushing here and there, besieged by crowds, not even a moment to eat. They try to get away, but they don’t really succeed – everywhere the crowds follow them. It’s a recipe for burnout…
And in fact, we only see the half of it here. If you look carefully at the heading on the readings sheet you’ll spot that this is actually two passages stuck together. There’s a large chunk that’s been filleted out of the middle. And what happened in that time? A whole lot of teaching, the feeding of the 5000, walking on water and stilling a storm...enough work for a month, never mind a day! Jesus does get a bit of time to pray, but even that’s interrupted by having to rescue the disciples when they get into difficulties in their boat. The passages we have read today are just the brackets around the day – the bread round what looks like a very meaty sandwich. It makes me feel tired just reading it.
Is this passage telling us, then, that all this work/life balance stuff is for wimps? That real disciples don’t need rest? Should we never say “no”? Should we try to meet every need, even if it means we too have “no leisure even to eat”? I very much doubt whether that is what Mark is trying to tell us here. In fact I don’t suppose it even occurred to him that we might read this story in that way, and it certainly wouldn’t fit in with the picture of Jesus we get in the rest of the Gospels. In other places it is clear that Jesus doesn’t want people anxiously striving, running themselves ragged. “Consider the lilies that neither sew nor spin,” he says, “ yet God clothes them”. He never behaves as if other people are dictating his agenda, either. He’s not someone who can be manipulated into doing what others want if he doesn’t think it is right. Scribes, Pharisees, Pilate, Herod – they all try to control him, but he is his own man, very much in control of himself, his time and his mission. But sometimes, as here, he seems to be willing to respond to any and every need, even if it disrupts the plans he’d had, even if it exhausts him. Why? What is different here?
What I think Mark was hoping we would be struck by when we read this passage wasn’t how busy Jesus was, but who he was busy with. Jesus puts himself out here, gives his very best even when he is exhausted, to the poor, the sick and the outcast – these “sheep without a shepherd”. These were the ones whom his society often thought of as unclean and not worth bothering about, who were often excluded from the social structures and the religious life of their communities. Many people at the time would have thought that poverty and disease were punishments, signs that God was displeased with you – I suspect that many still do, asking, “What have I done to deserve this?” when things go wrong in their lives. Back then, though, this sort of thinking was the norm – no one would have questioned it. If you were a woman, a slave, a Gentile, someone who didn’t live by the rules, you would have been very aware that you were in some sense an outsider, and always would be. The boundaries were clearly drawn. You were either “in” or “out”, one of “us” or one of “them”, and you knew which was which. Again and again we see Jesus causing offence to those who are “in” – the scribes and Pharisees, the rich and powerful – as he sides with those who are “out”. This simply wasn’t what a respected and respectable rabbi or teacher would do. Jesus ignores these boundaries – and that profoundly threatens the social and religious order. That’s one of the reasons why, eventually, he ends up an “outsider” himself – outside the city walls dying the death of a criminal.
Jesus, in his life and in his death, chooses to go out into the wilderness, literally and spiritually – for the sake of those whom society has already consigned to that wilderness. He doesn’t just help them, he identifies with them – these are the people for whom he will exhaust himself, the people he gives priority to. That’s the surprise – that’s what Mark hopes we will notice, it seems to me, in these passages. Not that Jesus is busy, but who he is busy with.
And it raises some real questions for us – or it should do. Who do we feel inclined to put ourselves out for, and why? How do we decide where to concentrate our resources? We probably give to charities and respond to specific appeals for help, but that is something we can do at arm’s length – we never actually meet those we help. But who do we identify with? Who do we invest our time and effort in getting to know? Whose company do we seek out? Who would we allow to make demands on us? “Birds of a feather flock together, “ as the saying goes. If you look around in our society, the evidence is that most of us naturally seek out and cultivate relationships with people who are like ourselves, who think like us, live like us, have similar backgrounds and educations, similar assumptions and expectations. People gravitate towards neighbourhoods where others like themselves live – in urban areas you only have to walk across a few streets sometimes to feel you have gone from one world to another. In extreme cases gated communities – ghettos really – have sprung up, making explicit this desire to define who is an “insider ” and who isn’t. Parents send their children to schools where there’ll be others like them. Gradually those schools become identifiably middle-class, working-class, black or white in their make-up, which of course, perpetuates the process. Few people will deliberately choose to live among those whose outlook and background is very different from their own. It’s too much like hard work. We can feel threatened by different ideas and customs, fearful that they will overwhelm our own. The fear of the “other” can easily drift into resentment and animosity. We can even start to feel that those who are different are somehow less human than we are. If they don’t think like us and live like us, perhaps they don’t feel like us either. Perhaps they don’t get hurt and feel afraid as we do. We convince ourselves that it somehow doesn’t matter how we treat them.
We’ve seen an extreme example of this over the last weeks in the dreadful conflict between Israel and Lebanon. On the television we see Lebanese and Israeli hospitals full of wounded, suffering, terrified people. Frankly, they look identical to us – the same tears and cries, the same blood. But they evidently don’t look like that to those who are caught up in that conflict. The fact that they can shell one another, knowing what damage their weapons do suggests that those waging this war have convinced themselves that their enemies aren’t really like them at all, that their suffering and grief somehow feel different. It is the same in any war – it’s probably the only way we can get our heads around killing another human being. The walls we put up between ourselves can have tragic results.
The epistle today talks about boundaries too. For Paul and the early church the lines of division that were causing trouble were between Jewish and Gentile Christians – Christians who had grown up as Jews and those who had come from other cultural backgrounds. The rows were bitter. Who should have the final say on what this new faith should be like? Who owned this faith? Who was at its centre? But Paul tells Jews and Gentiles alike that they must look beyond the religious identities they have grown up with. God has broken down those walls, he says, bringing together those who were “near” and those who were “far off” into one body, just as Jesus broke down the walls of his society, abandoning his “insider” status and giving himself to the crowds of “outsiders” who flocked to see him. And still today he calls us to cross the social, cultural and religious boundaries of our own times. Christ is our peace, Paul says. We are made one in him – we define ourselves not by race or background, but by the fact that we are God’s children, citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. There is no “near” and no “far-off”, no “in” and no “out” to God. He is at home everywhere. He puts every person at the centre of his love. We will only make true peace – in the church, in our neighbourhoods, and in the world if we grasp this truth.
A story is told of a religious teacher who once asked his followers a question. “How do you know,” he said, “when the night has passed and the day has come?” They pondered for a while. “Perhaps,” said one of them” it is when you can look to the distant hillside and distinguish whether the shape you see moving there is a dog or a sheep?” “A good answer,” said the teacher, “But not the one I was thinking of.” “Perhaps,” suggested another,” it is when you can look at the trees at the bottom of your garden and tell whether they are figs or olives?” “No,” said the teacher, “that’s not it either.” His followers were stumped and asked the teacher to give them the answer, “ It is when you can look into the eyes of every person you meet and see that they are your brother or sister, because if you can’t do that then the night will never pass and the day will never come.”
AmenTrinity 5 - 16th July 06
Amos 7.7-15, Ephesians 1.3-14, Mark 6.14-29
“John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
I guess we’ve all occasionally had that ghastly experience of something we’ve done coming back to haunt us. A rash action, an unkind word, a corner that we’ve cut - we think we’ve got away with it, but then we discover that, no, there are consequences. Perhaps the person about whom we made that cruel remark gets to hear of it, or the corner we’ve cut leads to someone else getting hurt. We get that horrible sinking feeling as we come face to face with the truth about ourselves.
Herod has an extreme version of that experience in today’s Gospel reading. Most of it is told in flashback – the story of the killing of John the Baptist – the killing he ordered as a result of foolishly giving in to the whim of his step-daughter. He knew it was wrong at the time – even he could see that John was a holy man. But somehow he had found himself giving the fateful order. Still, least said, soonest mended – he seemed to have got away with it. But then he hears about Jesus – healing, performing miracles, preaching a message of love, justice and forgiveness. It all sounds horribly familiar. There are many opinions floating around about who this new preacher is, but Herod is convinced he knows. It is John, back from the dead, and surely out to get him. “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” he says, as a cold shadow creeps over him.
Herod is a complex man, a man twisted both by the political games he has had to play to gain and hold onto power, and by the upbringing he has had. It would be an understatement to say that he came from a dysfunctional family. He’s the son of Herod the Great, who managed to get through ten wives one after the other, which puts even Henry VIII in the shade. Herod the Great was the one who ordered the massacre of the children in Bethlehem when Christ was born. We know from the historical record that killing came easily to him – he had several of his own family killed. No doubt his son, Herod Antipas –the Herod in this story - was well aware of how ruthless his father was. It must have been a precarious upbringing and it’s no surprise that he turns out so badly, forever looking over his shoulder for the next threat.
Herod lives with the dangerous combination of great power and great fear. Great power – the power of life and death over those he rules. But great fear – because he knows how fragile are the roots of that power. He needs to keep the good will of Caesar – he rules as a vassal of the Roman emperor. He needs to keep the good will of the Jewish people who regarded him with great suspicion. And he needs to keep the good will of other power-hungry members of his family – or at least to make sure he has plenty of protection against them. Never give a sucker an even break might well have been the family motto – they were always ready to move in for the kill at any sign of weakness.
It was family troubles that had triggered off this whole sorry situation with John the Baptist. At first, John had probably seemed harmless enough. He was an odd man, living in the desert and preaching a message of repentance and a new start. “ The messiah is coming” he proclaimed, but messianic prophets were two a penny. The messiah was always coming. But then John’s message starts getting a bit too close to home for comfort. Herod had married his niece, who’d been married to his brother before – it was, as I have said, a very dysfunctional family! That not only broke the incest taboos, but it also created an even more tangled web of power within this family – hardly the recipe for stable government.
While most people would have kept their opinions to themselves, John said what he saw – that this was a bad situation that needed sorting. That’s what prophets do – say what they see. But his message went down like a lead balloon – with Herodias, who was quite content with the new arrangements and didn’t appreciate some unwashed oddball poking his nose into her private life, and with Herod too, who realized that questions about the legitimacy of his marriage might soon grow into questions about his fitness to rule. But John wasn’t put off by the danger he was in. His message was that everyone could have a new start – that everyone needed a new start – whether they were rich or poor, powerful or powerless, even Herod and Herodias. He said what he saw, no matter who he was speaking to.
Amos, in our Old Testament reading, did the same – and was greeted with the same sort of response. At the time he preached the nation had split into two halves. Israel, in the north, with Bethel as its capital, and Judah in the south, centred on Jerusalem. Amos lived and prophesied in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. But it was a dangerous time. The Assyrians were threatening Israel. Amos’ was called to warn the Northern Kingdom of that danger, and of the need for reforms in the corrupt regime of King Jeroboam. But Jeroboam, like Herod, decided that he would rather not hear the message. It was all too inconvenient. He didn’t want to change. “Go away and prophesy somewhere else,” he says, through his priest, Amaziah. “Go and preach in Judah in the Southern Kingdom”. Of course, there was no point in Amos doing that – the threat was to the North, but if he did that Jeroboam wouldn’t have to listen to his message. Out of sight and out of mind. What you don’t know can’t hurt you.
Of course, in the end the destruction Amos predicted came to pass, just as he said it would, no matter how thoroughly Jeroboam ignored him. The Northern Kingdom was obliterated by the Assyrians. They came down, as the poet Byron put it “like the wolf on the fold…” Ignoring the messenger doesn’t make the message any less true. Herod has to learn the same lesson – you can kill the messenger, but the message lives on. John the Baptist may be dead, but this new preacher, Jesus, is just as challenging, just as powerful, just as dangerous.
“John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” he cries, woefully, as the chickens come home to roost.
What we see in these two stories is the struggle between reality and illusion. That struggle is played out between Amos and Jeroboam, and between John and Herod – between the clear-sighted, truth telling prophets and the kings, whose power, and the fear of the loss of that power, seems to have blinded them to the raw facts which in the end they will not be able to deny. Their situations are dramatic, but we can all find ourselves in the middle of struggles like these. We carry inside us both the voice that tells the truth, that whispers, or sometimes shouts, of realities we don’t want to hear. And we carry within us Herod and Jeroboam too – powerful forces that try to stifle that truth. “Humankind cannot bear too much reality”, said TS Eliot. He was right. It is staggering what we find ourselves able to turn a blind eye to. People will amass huge debts that they can’t hope to pay, knowing at some level that they are doing so, but refusing to acknowledge it until the bailiffs come knocking. They will slip into addiction to drink or drugs, always managing to convince themselves that they could stop whenever they want to. They will betray or desert their families for the sake of an affair that later baffles them – what did they see in this new person?
It isn’t just individuals who can seem blind to the obvious. As communities and nations we can easily refuse to see things that we really need to face. In fact, we often bolster each other’s blindness – who wants to be the one that speaks out, that steps out of line? We’ve all heard the warnings, for example, about global warming, about the terrible impact this will have on our world, and especially on those who are already vulnerable and poverty stricken. But where is the panic, the urgency to do something about it – where is the mourning and the grief that, logically, we might expect in the face of such environmental and social destruction? If we were told that our own back gardens were to be made a wasteland we would be up in arms, but we seem to be able to contemplate the whole world becoming a wasteland with remarkably little loss of sleep.
We stop our ears and shut our eyes, hoping the awful realities of life will go away rather than facing them honestly. And that is a tragedy – it was a tragedy for Jeroboam and Herod, and it is equally tragic for us. Because it’s in that moment of repentance, when we come face to face with ourselves, that God’s voice can speak most powerfully to us, not of condemnation, but of hope. It is in the darkness that the light shines most brightly. Herod was right to hear in Jesus the echo of the prophet he had beheaded. But while he believed that John had come back to haunt and condemn him, in fact what he was really being offered was another chance – a chance that yet again he refused to take. As we reflect on this tragic, sordid story, may we be open to the prophetic voices in our own lives and times. May we be led to an awareness of the voices that we stifle, voices that call us to uncomfortable repentance, but voices too that call us to a wonderful hope and the promise of new life.
Trinity 4 July 9th 06
2 Cor 12.2-12, Mark 6.1-13
I’m going to begin with a story from Japan.
There was once a woman whose only brother had come back from some far away war. He was physically unhurt, but sad and angry, and nothing his sister could do made any difference. He just pushed her away. In desperation, she went to see a wise woman from the village – a healer. “I can help, “said the woman, “but you must bring me something – I shall need a hair from the chest of the crescent moon bear”. (This bear has a white patch in the shape of a crescent moon on his chest – that’s how it got its name). The woman was terrified. The crescent moon bear was very fierce. She was sure she would never survive the ordeal, but she decided to go. She packed some food and set off to the bear’s cave in a clearing at the top of a mountain, not really knowing what she would do. But by the time she got to the top of the mountain she had had an idea.
When she got there, she took some of her food and laid it at the mouth of the cave. Then she went and stood on the other side of the clearing. The bear lumbered out – he saw the food, and he saw her – but she was too far off to worry him. He ate the food. The next day she repeated this, but came a little closer As the days passed she carried on with this routine, getting a little closer each day until she was standing right by the cave.
The bear came out. He saw her there and drew himself up to his full height. “What do you want?“ he growled. The woman trembled with fear. “I want to ask a favour in return for the food I have given you.” “What?” “I need to pluck one hair from the crescent on your chest. It will hurt, so I need your promise that you won’t hurt me in return.” “Very well.” he growled. She reached up and plucked just one hair, as quickly as she could. Then she took to her heels and ran. And it was just as well. The bear entirely forgot his promise, and let out a great roar of pain and began chasing after her. She ran like the wind all down the mountain, through forests and fields, just managing to stay ahead of him until she reached the safety of the village and the bear turned back. The woman ran straight to the healer, still clutching the precious hair tightly in her hand.
She gave it to the healer and waited to see what she would do next. Surely she would use it to make a potion or a spell. But the healer strode over to the fire and threw the hair into it. In a moment it was gone. “Why did you do that? After all I went through to get it! It took more courage and strength and patience than I thought I had. I never thought I would do it!”
“I know,” said the healer, “ Now, take that courage and that strength and that patience, and return to your brother – you have all you need to help him.”
And the woman went home, knowing that she had found for herself what she sought and could do what she had to, and in time her brother was restored to health, and she was never the same again either.
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus sends his disciples out to preach the Gospel and proclaim the kingdom. They’ve seen him at work, so they know how it goes – healing the sick, feeding the hungry, loving the unlovable, explaining the intricacies of the Bible, calming storms on the sea… But that’s the problem – they HAVE seen him at work, and it’s been pretty dramatic work. Whatever makes him think they will be able to do it? What do they know? Next to nothing. What skill or power do they have? Less than nothing by comparison with Christ, it seems to them.
So, surely, they must think, before we go he’s going to initiate us into a few secrets, give us some sort of bag of tricks, at the least a handbook or two, some guidelines for what to do in tricky situations, just as the woman expected a magic potion from the healer in the story.
Jesus gathers them together. They wait with bated breath.
“Now,” he says, “ you can do this… I’m giving you authority… and here’s what you will need. A staff and some sandals – you’ll be walking – there aren’t any company donkeys on offer. And a tunic – but just the one.”
And that’s it – that’s the equipment list. No money, no bread, no bag, so they can’t gather up possessions along the way. He sends them out with nothing but the clothes they stand up in. How on earth does he think they’ll cope? Surely they’d do better with some decent equipment.
But actually I think Jesus is very wise to send them out as he does, empty-handed, because there are two things that they will learn from this that they couldn’t learn any other way.
The first is that going out empty handed will reveal to them the resources they already have – the ones they really need – the ones they carry within them. Like the woman in the story of the crescent moon bear they will be confronted with challenges they don’t think they can meet, but they’ll discover that there is already more to them than meets the eye. They will see the ways in which God has already changed them, and the ways in which they need to continue to grow.
Equipment, resources, money – they are all very well – they can be useful tools, but they can also be a distraction. It is tempting to use them to cover up what we feel is a lack in ourselves. If we have a flashy enough presentation – all bells and whistles – perhaps no one will notice that we don’t actually know what we are talking about, that we aren’t actually living the message we proclaim. But experience shows that the message of God’s love comes across most powerfully and effectively not through glossy presentations, but when people encounter those whose lives have been transformed by their faith. I don’t know if you have been watching “The Convent” – the television programme where four women were sent to live in a convent of Poor Clare nuns for six weeks. It’s just come to an end, and all the women in different ways have been changed by the experience, finding growth and healing in it. Why has the experience been so powerful? I think the abbess hit the nail on the head when she commented that “it’s the love, you see, that does it in the end.” – and she was right. Those four women met with love in that convent, in the shape of an assortment of nuns whose lives had been so shaped by the life they lived there that they positively glowed with it. It wasn’t high tec, it wasn’t slick, it wasn’t dramatic – but it worked.
Jesus pares his disciples down to the bare minimum too – there’s nothing but themselves and God – no money to buy solutions to the challenges that face them, not even a second tunic to present a better appearance to the world. Just them and God. And they discover that, however inadequate they thought they were, God can use them, and he does use them.
But there is a second and equally important reason why these disciples need to go out empty handed. And that is that, just as it will drive them to draw on their own resources, it will also make them rely on the gifts that others give them. With no bread, and no money, they will be entirely dependent on the welcome of strangers – people who will take them in and sustain them. They’ll be the ones in need – the receivers, not the givers. Those who minister to others – whether that is within the church or in caring professions or informally in their families and communities – are often tempted to think that they are the ones who HAVE, and those who they are caring for are the ones who HAVE NOT. The helpers have all the gifts and resources: those being helped are simply black holes of need, waiting to be filled. It’s not good for either party. As C. S. Lewis once famously said of a do-gooding acquaintance, "She lives for others; you can recognize the others by their hunted look".
Jesus sends out his disciples with nothing so that they will discover that they have as much to receive from those they meet as they have to give them. They will discover one of the great joys of ministry – that those we think we are helping , actually help us far more, with their stories, their struggles, their courage and love for others.
There are two challenges, then, for us in this story. Challenges for us as a church that wants to grow, and for us as individuals involved in all sorts of ways in caring for our families and our communities.
The first is a challenge to look at ourselves? Do we see ourselves as people who have the resources that we need, people who God is at work in? Or do we just see our inadequacies and our shortcomings? Do we trust that God knows what he is doing in calling us and sending us, or not?
The second is a challenge to look at those who we want to help and to communicate with. Do we see them as people in whom God is already present, treasures who will enrich us, people in whom we will meet God, or do we think the giving is going to be all one way?
St Paul discovered the great Christian truth that God’s grace – God’s work in us – is at it’s most effective and most life-changing, not when we are strong, but when we are weak, because that is when we are most open to God. It goes against the grain of our common sense. It goes against the grain of a success and power oriented society. But it is true. It is tempting to hanker after fancy resources and clever answers, to put our trust in them. But in the end, as Paul discovered and Jesus knew all along, it is those who go empty-handed through the world who will find what they really need, for themselves and for others too.
Patronal Festival 06 Evensong
Ezekiel 34.11-16, John 21. 15-22
We’ve had a wonderful celebration of our Patronal Festival tonight, surrounded by music – thank you Daniel and the choir – to finish off a really good day.
It is right for us to celebrate today. We have a lot to celebrate as we give thanks for the life of this church.
It’s a church with a lot to offer – dedicated, faithful people, willing to give their time and talents to its worship and mission. We’ve a beautiful building in a beautiful location, and a long and strong sense of being rooted in this place. It’s a great place to be – I knew it would be when I applied for this post.
Of course there’s room for development too – we haven’t got it all sorted out. In fact we must grow if we are to survive. And I would be saying that even if we were packed to the gunnels. The church is always only one generation away from extinction. If it doesn’t grow – helping each new generation to find the gospel – it dies. Standing still is not an option. So as we celebrate today what is and what has been, we also need to be aware of what is to come. That’s true for us as a parish, but of course we are also part of the wider church and our future is tied up with the future of the rest of the people of God.
For our particular part of that wider church – the Anglican Communion – these last weeks have brought to a head many painful issues that divide us. You may have been aware of the debates that have been going on in recent days. Differences of opinion about ministry – whether gay people and women can be bishops. Difference in how we think we should make those kinds of decisions. It looks quite likely that there are going to be splits within the Anglican communion. The Episcopal Church in the USA and some of the African provinces in particular seem to be heading in entirely different directions. There’s talk of listening to one another and compromise, but it doesn’t look promising.
Of course it’s not just between provinces that there are differences. At the local level in the C of E there are fundamental disagreements too. There are two parishes in this Deanery of Sevenoaks, for example, where I can’t exercise any priestly ministry. Their PCCs have passed resolutions banning women priests. I can’t offer to cover for sick colleagues or those on holiday or help in interregna in those churches, and in some cases, their clergy wouldn’t be happy to cover for me here either. Surprising as it sounds we all manage to get along remarkably well at clergy meetings and on a personal level - we manage to see past the differences more often than not, but there is a sadness about all this, and it looks set to get worse. I don’t envy Rowan Williams, the archbishop as he tries to find ways to keep people listening to each other and loving each other. He needs and deserves our prayers.
This weekend – Petertide - is one of the traditional times for ordinations. During those ordinations, the priests will have been reminded of what their role is about in the same words that I heard when I was ordained. They will have been told that they should “ search for the Lord’s children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations”. Perhaps, as they begin their ordained ministry, that wilderness seems particularly wild. And it isn’t just the wilderness outside the church they have to worry about – there’s just as much wilderness within it.
What sort of message is this, you might ask, for a Patronal festival? Where’s the good news? Where is there anything to celebrate iin all of this? It might seem like a message of doom and gloom, but actually I think that any celebration which didn’t recognize the challenges of the future would be a rather hollow one. Part of the point of celebrations is to remind us of the things we have already achieved and how we came to achieve them, so that we are encouraged to go forward. And there is good news in all this.
Yes , it does sometimes feel as if the church is going into a bit of a wilderness, but wildernesses are, if we look at the Bible, often the most important places for God’s people to be, the places where the things that really matter happen.
The nation of Israel was born in a wilderness as they escaped from Egypt and wandered towards the promised land. It was a confused and a confusing journey, but one in which they learned what it meant to be God’s people and to trust in him.
And by the time Ezekiel writes the words we hear in our Old Testament reading today, they have another wilderness experience to cope with. They’ve been led across the desert to Babylon, and there they are threatened with the loss of all that has made them a nation – identity, culture, history – it has all been swept away. Ezekiel likens them to sheep that have been scattered by a storm. They have lost sight of each other. The individual sheep may have survived, but the sense that this is a flock with a common identity is lost. But God’s promise to Israel is that he is perfectly capable of gathering together what has been scattered, perfectly well able to provide food, shelter and healing for his people. “I will seek the lost, I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…I will feed them with justice”, he says. The wilderness experience of exile in Babylon is just as formative and re-formative to Israel as that first wilderness journey was. It was the time, for example, in which the Old Testament really started to come together and be written down.
If God wasn’t defeated by the Pharaohs of Egypt or the Kings of Babylon, I see no reason to suppose that God will be defeated by our scatteredness, our squabbles and suspicions today. In fact, I strongly suspect that it is the struggles we go through as we work our way through these coming crises that will really reveal God in our midst and help us to learn and grow.
Anglicans are often accused of sitting on the fence – trying to be all things to all people – but actually that reticence to draw firm lines, to be too definite about our doctrines, to rush to solutions, is something that I really value. I wonder whether the muddled state we often seem to live isn’t actually our own peculiar gift to the rest of the church – very peculiar, but a gift nonetheless. Rowan Williams has said this week that, “The reason Anglicanism is worth bothering with is because it has tried to find a way of being a church that is neither tightly centralised nor just a loose federation of essentially independent bodies.” I hope we’ll resist the temptation to try to tidy ourselves up too much.
The church, if we’re honest, has spent most of its life in a muddle. It was led from the first by an odd assortment of very fallible and fickle human beings, our two Patron saints among them. In today’s second lesson we find Peter having to start from scratch with Christ, rebuilding the relationship that has been shattered by his denial of Christ. He discovers, much to his surprise that Christ still both trusts and intends to use him. It is in our failings, our muddle, that it seems to me we discover most clearly the grace and the love of God. What room is there for God to love, to rescue, to heal, if we have it all sorted out for him?
As we celebrate at Seal this weekend we look back with thanksgiving, but lets look forward too – not in fear and gloom, but in hope. God has sought out and rescued his people in the wilderness many times before, and there is no reason why he should stop doing so now. The church that comes out of this present wilderness may look very different from the one that is going into it, but that is not necessarily a bad thing, if it is a church that has met with God in that wilderness. We don’t know what the future holds, as they say, but we know who holds the future – it is God who is as ready to heal, to forgive and to lead us in our wilderness as he always has been.
The Feast of St Peter and St Paul (and Baptism) 2nd July 06Ezekiel 17.22-24, 2 Corinthians 5.6-17, Mark 4.26-34
Today we celebrate the feast of St Peter and St Paul, the saints for whom this church was named, the ones who have been a special inspiration for those who have worshipped here for the last 800 years or so. I like the fact that churches are so often dedicated to people – real people whose lives have spoken of God’s love for the world. It reminds us that the church isn’t actually the building in which people worship. Nor is it a set of ideas – creeds and statements of faith. The church IS people. People created by God, blessed by God, loved by God. God came to us in Jesus as a person – “the Word made flesh” the Bible says. A particular person in a particular place, living, loving, laughing, weeping, dying just as we do.
It was the person of Christ, the fact that he was fully, wonderfully human, a demonstration of all that humans could be, which attracted others to him and changed their lives.
Our saints, Peter and Paul, were two of those whose lives he changed the most. As I’m sure you know, they were among the first leaders of the church, very important, and well known. Some churches are dedicated to obscure or even legendary local saints, but our two patrons couldn’t be more famous – we’ve got the celebs of the Christian world. Peter, the fisherman, one of the closest to Christ, always keen to get involved – sometimes too keen for his own good! He has a reputation for being impulsive in the Gospels. He’s the one who jumps out of the boat to see if he too can walk on water. You can see him in the window at the back of church at the moment when he realizes that what he is doing is, technically speaking, impossible, and starts to sink.
Peter is the first among the disciples to recognize Jesus for who he is. We heard about that in the Gospel reading. “Who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus. And Peter comes back – quick as a flash – “you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” That’s why Jesus calls him Peter – it’s a nickname– his real name is Simon. But Peter is Greek for “Rock” – and that’s what Jesus says he will be, the Rock the church is built on.
But just as Peter has fervently acclaimed Christ, he will soon find himself equally fervently denying him. When Jesus is arrested Peter claims that he’s never met him. He’s a man of extremes, is Peter. It’s all or nothing with him, as he bounces from faith to denial, from hope to despair. But what he discovers – and the message he has for us – is that no matter how he acts, God still loves him, Jesus forgives him. He’s an odd choice for a rock, perhaps, but he is the one who is chosen, and, in the end, he becomes the mainstay of the Church in Jerusalem.
Paul’s life is very different from Peter’s. He wasn’t one of the original disciples. He never met Jesus in his earthly ministry, and if he had, he would have opposed him at first. He was a Pharisee – one of that group that are often painted as the baddies in the Gospel. He’d given his life to trying to observe Jewish law and tradition, and making sure that others did too. So this new Christian sect that claimed that the Messiah was a man who had welcomed all comers, including sinners and outsiders, really horrified him. He dedicated himself to rooting their influence out of Judaism –organizing the arrest and persecution of as many of them as he could get his hands on. It wasn’t till he had a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus – a vision that knocked him off his feet - that he changed his mind – and his heart and his life too. He described himself in one of his letters as “the worst of sinners”, and if you were one of those Christians he had persecuted you’d probably agree with him. But after his conversion he founded numerous churches among those he would once have despised and spread the Gospel all across the Mediterranean. Just as Peter’s work built the church in Israel, Paul’s built it beyond Israel. That’s why in the icon I’ve printed on the back of the service sheets, they are both together holding the church.
By coincidence the child we’re going to be baptizing in a few minutes shares the name of one of the people who were converted through Paul’s ministry. The Biblical Lydia was, in fact, the very first European Christian, a wealthy woman living in Philippi in Macedonia. In a way we are her spiritual descendents. Lydia was a trader in purple cloth. You can see her on the picture with a length of cloth. It might sound odd, just offering one colour. “You can have any colour you like so long as it’s purple…” Nowadays dyes are usually synthetic, but in Lydia’s time, they were all made of natural substances. Purple was made by crushing up loads of tiny shells of the murex, a little sea creature, and it took a lot of murex to make a little bit of purple, which made it was phenomenally expensive. Only the very rich could buy it, and so its dealers were wealthy too. It was a colour for emperors – imperial purple – and it still has that luxurious image for us. I’m sure that’s why Cadbury’s chocolate bars have purple wrappers! I happen to know that our little Lydia’s mother, in her professional life, works in the field of colour chemistry – inks and dyes and so on. I don’t know whether that had anything to do with the choice of her daughter’s name, but she and the Biblical Lydia could probably have had an interesting conversation if they’d met.
Anyway, Lydia, the trader in purple, met Paul when he first came to Philippi in the European province of Macedonia, and soon she had a church meeting in her house. It was a very brave thing to do – Christians were often persecuted, but she put her life, her business, her reputation on the line as she committed herself to this new Christian faith.
Our Lydia’s big brothers – Stefan and Jamie - have equally important namesakes. St Stephen was the first Christian martyr, and was stoned to death because of his preaching. Paul has a hand in his story too. It was Paul, before his Damascus road experience, who guarded the coats of the stone throwers we are told.
And Jamie has several Biblical Jameses to choose from. One of them - James the Great - has a special link with Baptism. He was one of Jesus’ disciples – close to him, like Peter. According to legend, after his death in Jerusalem, his remains were miraculously transported to Spain – he had, supposedly preached there - and a shrine grew up where his bones were found. In Spanish it is called St Iago de Compostella – St James of the field of the star. It became a major site of pilgrimage, and pilgrims there were given the emblem of St James to wear to show that they were pilgrims – a shell. Eventually that became a symbol for pilgrims everywhere. That’s why we use a shell scoop at Baptism. The person being baptized is a pilgrim on a journey through life, as we all are.
So – Peter, Paul, Lydia, Stephen, James – these are the people the Church was first made of. The Church IS people and it always was. It’s not buildings, however fine they are. It’s not ideas. It’s people – pilgrims on a journey of discovery together. People learning to love and to be loved, to forgive and be forgiven, to become fully human. Not perfect people – that’s a relief to me! – but people who have learned , like Peter and Paul, that they can get it wrong – spectacularly wrong in their case– and still God will love them and use them.
Today, as we remember and give thanks for those first founders of the church, it is especially appropriate that we should have a Baptism. What Peter, Paul and the rest started, little Lydia, and all the rest of us too, are called to continue – being light, life, hope and joy for others. As we baptize Lydia we will celebrate the gifts God has given her. We pray that she grows up to use those gifts well, so that her unique life becomes a gift to the world. As we do so I hope we’ll be aware of how important she is – and how important we all are - to the work of God in the world. The church is people. The church is us – you and me. We may not think we have much to give. We may not think we are up to the task – but neither did Peter, the denier of Christ, or Paul, the persecutor of Christians, and where would we be without the gifts of their lives?
Trinity 2 - June 20, 2006
2 Cor 6.1-13, Mark 4.35-41
Jesus was tired. Anyone would have been. The crowds had hemmed him in all day; so many that he had had to teach them from a boat, floating just off shore on the Sea of Galilee. He had told them about sowers, sowing their seeds in the field. He had told them about lamps hidden under baskets, and mustard seeds that grew into great trees. He had tried to explain the kingdom of God, and to be honest not one in a hundred of them seemed to have a clue what he was going on about – not even among the disciples was there any real understanding.
So at the end of the day he was exhausted. “That’s it,” he said to them,” let’s head off to the other side of the lake.” And they, good friends that they were, saw that here, at last was something they could do for him.
They might not have known what he was on about with all these stories he had been telling all day, but they knew about boats. They could take him safely across the water.
“Lay down and have a rest, Jesus, - put your feet up, close your eyes – we can look after you now instead of you looking after us.” “They took him with them in the boat – just as he was” – that is what the Gospel tells us.
And Jesus sank down onto the cushion in the stern of the boat, and fell asleep.
The disciples got on with doing what most of them did best. The Sea of Galilee was a second home to a lot of these men. It was where they made their living, where they had grown up.
You can imagine the first part of the journey. The sun sinking towards the horizon, the water lapping against the boat, the ripple of the wind on the sails. An idyllic scene.
But then, all of a sudden, everything changed, as it does in that area. A storm blew up. The waves, which had been gently rocking the boat suddenly threatened to overwhelm it. The water was coming in faster than the disciples could bale it out.
But Jesus slept on.
Eventually the disciples couldn’t stand it any more. They woke him in a panic. “Teacher,” they shout above the roar of the wind. “Teacher” – notice that. It’s not “Jesus” but “Teacher” – he’s the one who is supposed to know what’s what. They have put him back up there on the pedestal – they are expecting something from him.
“Don’t you care that we are perishing?” they shout.
And Jesus, we are told, wakes up, rebukes the wind, and says to the sea “Peace, be still”
The storm dies down and there is dead calm.
It’s a dramatic and puzzling story – one of several in which Jesus shows his command over the elements. These are stories which grab our imagination. We all know what storms are like – storms on the sea or storms on the land. We know what it feels like when a peaceful landscape or seascape is turned into a frightening and dangerous place by the wind. I imagine many of us have vivid memories of the storm of 1987, when so much havoc was wrought. We can remember the powerlessness we felt in the face of something so much stronger than ourselves. There was nothing we could do except wait it out, and hope all would be well.
But this story isn’t just about those sort of storms – they only come now and then, after all. I think its real power is in what it says about the other sorts of storms we face. The storms of illness, unemployment, relationship breakdown, the death of someone we love. Many of us, at some point, will have had that terrifying feeling of being out of our depth, in danger of being swamped, overwhelmed by the demands of our lives or the emotions we feel.
Sometimes we’ll have woken up in the morning and thought, “How on earth will I get through this day, this week, with all I have to get done, with all I must face?” Little things will feel impossible – the straws that break the camel’s back - and we’ll be terrified that we won’t be able to cope.
That’s what the disciples were feeling as the storm raged around them. They hadn’t sunk – yet – but they could see that they were going to, and there was nothing they could do about it. No wonder they were panicking.
But what does their experience have to tell us that will help when we face our own storms?
Mark’s gospel – though it is short – is very carefully put together, and he makes every word count. So, to understand it you often have to look in close detail at what he writes. And the detail we need to pay attention to here is the words Jesus says to the storm as he wakes up from his sleep. “Peace, be still” is the translation we heard today. But in the Greek that’s not actually quite what it says.
The Greek is “Siopa, pefimoso”. Siopa is an onomatopoeic word – that means it sounds like it the thing it means. “Siopa” – if you listen you can hear that it simply means “shh – be quiet”. And pefimoso comes from the word “muzzle”. It means “to shut the mouth.” So what Jesus actually says to the storm is “Shh– shut up”. He tells the storm to stop shouting. And that is the key. It isn’t just the storm that is the problem, it’s what the storm is saying to these disciples – the message it is giving them – what they are understanding through it, that is making them panic.
As the storm rages outside them, another sort of storm rages within, shouting to them that they are failures – even at sailing. They should have been able to cope with this storm. They are fishermen – this is what they do. They had been so confident when they set out. “Put your head down Jesus, we’re the experts here. We may not know much about theology, but sailing is our thing.” But they couldn’t even get this short journey right. The storm is telling them that they can’t cope, that they are about to die, and, worst of all, that they are alone. When they wake Jesus up, what is their cry? Not “help us!” but “Don’t you care…?” That is their worst fear – not that they are drowning, but that they have been abandoned.
We probably all know what those sort of storm voices sound like. When things go wrong, what do we think to ourselves, what are the messages that we hear? Often it is things like “I must have done something very wrong to deserve this,” or “ What a fool I am, I should have seen this coming.” or “I’m useless – I always thought I was, but now I know it”, and, like these disciples, the storm voices often tell us that no one cares, that we are all on our own.
These messages of blame, powerlessness, hopelessness and abandonment sap our courage, confidence and resolve – the very resources we need in times of trouble. And soon we find we are being pulled under by despair and panic. They are usually voices we have learnt to hear from childhood, the voices of family and society, and they are very deep rooted.
The fears that assail these disciples have equally deep roots – but Jesus knows that they need to be dealt with. “Why are you afraid?” he says to them, when the storm is over. Not, “why were you afraid?” The desperate fears that the storm revealed are still there, even when they are safe on land. He knows that they are lurking – waiting to surface again when trouble next strikes. And it matters that he addresses them because there will be plenty of storms coming in the future for these disciples. Not storms like this one, but storms that will be equally terrifying. They will soon face the storm of Jesus’ death, when all their hopes and plans seem to have come to nothing. And later many of them will face the storms of their own persecution and death too. The memory of this moment, when even the wind and waves gave way before Christ’s voice, this demonstration of his authority, will be vital to them.
St Paul knew about the storms of life too – he faced persecution and danger almost daily. He tells the Corinthians about it in our second reading today – afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments. But in the midst of these desperate situations he too has found peace. He has learnt to hear the voice of God. He has learned to listen to that voice, to hear it above the roar of the storm. He may be facing death, but “see – we are alive!” he proclaims. Though he has nothing, he has come to know that he possesses everything he could possibly need.
There's no shortcut to this sort of assurance. But Jesus’ disciples and Paul would tell us that you get it by going through the storms, not by avoiding them. Sometimes that means having to shout at God, as they did – it can feel as if he is asleep, as if he doesn’t care, and we need to discover for ourselves – each of us – that it isn’t so.
Perhaps today you have come to church frightened that some storm in your life is about to pull you under. The storm voices may be shouting loudly at you. But the voice of God, can still cut through the clamour, strongly, firmly, if only we will learn to hear and trust it, just as it did on the sea of Galilee. “Peace – be still” he says to us – you are held in the everlasting arms of the creator of the wind and sea, the one whom they will never defeat.
June 18th 06 - Trinity 1
Ezekiel 17.22-24, 2 Corinthians 5.6-17, Mark 4.26-34
With what can we compare the Kingdom of God? says Jesus. What’s it like when God is at work? How do we recognize him in our lives and in our world?
Again and again in the Gospels Jesus looked for ways to help people understand what this new kingdom was like. The Kingdom of God is like a woman looking for a lost coin, he said, or like a man throwing a party, or like a treasure hidden in a field. But here in our Gospel reading today it is seeds which he uses to open the doors of our imagination.
There were in fact two parables about seeds in tonight’s reading. And they have been put together for a reason. There is a logical connection between the two.
So what do they tell us?
The first talks about something that any gardener can connect with. The wonder of germination and growth. Someone scatters seed on the ground, Jesus says, and sleeps and rises, night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows by itself. There’s nothing the sower can do except sow the seed and wait. The rest is a gift of God, a miracle. Even today, when we know so much more of the biological processes at work in seeds as they grow, what Jesus says is still true. We can do all sorts of clever things to encourage germination and growth, but ultimately we can’t create life, not even the smallest, simplest kind.
When we moved into the vicarage, I dug a vegetable bed. It was hard work, but at the end of my labours it was still just a patch of bare earth. Now it is full – in fact Philip dug out some more ground the other day because I’d run out of space. There are courgettes and runner beans and peas and carrots and parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes and tomatoes and lettuce… And what did I do to bring that about? Not a lot, really. I just dropped the seeds into the earth and waited. For a long time the earth stayed bare, and I wondered whether anything would grow at all. But then the miracle happened. One morning a little row of green feathery carrot leaves were poking through the soil. It takes me by surprise every year. But every year it happens. Not because I bring it about, but because it is in the God-given nature of seeds to germinate and grow. In fact I can’t bring it about, and that is the point of the parable.
In Jesus day they hadn’t heard of the phrase “control freak”, but I bet there were just as many of them around as there are now. Most of us like to feel in control of our lives and our world. We like to feel we can make things happen, rather than just have things happen to us. We feel safer when we are in control. We don’t like to feel like cogs in a machine at work, for example, we want to have some say in what’s going on. Delegation is often difficult – will someone else do the job the way we want it done. Families are often hotbeds of control freakery too. As parents it is all too easy to try to pressure our children into being what we want, rather than respecting their individuality – and they will often try to control us too! But in the end all our striving to control the world tends to come to nothing. It’s like trying to sweep up the sea with a dustpan and brush.
We can be control freaks in our faith too. People often behave as if it is up to them to make God act, up to them to find salvation, up to them to build the kingdom. If we say the right prayers, believe six impossible things before breakfast, do the right rituals, or just be good all the time, then all will be well. We may know in theory about grace – that God’s love is a gift, given because he chooses to give it – but how many of us have really taken it in? And one of the reasons we haven’t taken it in is because it we’d like to feel that we have some control over him. We’ve pushed all the right buttons, we think, so God is surely obliged to help us. We have kept our side of the bargain, now he must keep his.
Jesus’ parable directly challenges that, though. The seed grows not because of anything we do but because God wants it to. God’s kingdom grows because he wants it to. He’s in charge, not me.
I am loved by God not for what I have done, not for my prayers, or any good I may do, but simply because I am here, his creation, his child. And the same is true for all of us. We can’t make him love us – he loves us because he wants to.
So, the first parable makes clear to us what is our job and what isn’t, what’s our responsibility and what isn’t. It encourages us to relax and to trust. It’s God’s kingdom, not ours, God’s love, freely given, not our due, earned by the sweat of our anxious brows.
But the next parable takes things further. In a sense, it is the sting in the tail of the first one.
Because now Jesus turns away from his image of the tidy field full of delicious fat grains of wheat ready for harvest, and uses an entirely different picture of an entirely different sort of seed. A mustard seed. And I suspect that, at that moment, many of his listeners wondered what on earth he was on about.
What is this mustard seed? Scholars argue about it, but the most likely candidate is something like the plant we call wild mustard – charlock. Pliny the Elder, a Roman author writing at the same time as Jesus knew it well. This is what he wrote about it.
“With its pungent taste and fiery effect, mustard is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand, when it has once been sown, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”
In its native Mediterranean habitats this plant grows up to 5 or 6 feet tall. It is tough, with strong, pithy stems and, as Pliny said, once you’ve got it you’re stuck with it. The seeds get everywhere, and it will form great thickets if left to its own devices. It can be cultivated, and it was, but introducing it to your garden is like taking a tiger by the tail. You may soon wish you hadn’t. Think of brambles – yes, we all like the blackberries – but they are a great nuisance otherwise, and they soon take over. The mustard of Jesus’ day was like that – a stubborn, prolific weed. And it gave cover to all sorts of wild life which gardeners might prefer to keep at bay. All those birds! They’d be straight onto the crops wouldn’t they!
This isn’t the tidy, manageable wheatfield of the first parable.
God’s kingdom is like a patch of weeds, says Jesus – a patch of weeds full of voracious birds! Hmm…
It was a surprising picture to his first hearers – the disciples were certainly confused by it – and perhaps it is a surprising picture for us too.
The people of his time thought they knew what the kingdom of God was about, and who it was for. It was for good, observant Jews. Like the kind of well-behaved plants you wanted in your garden, these were the ones who they thought God would welcome. But Jesus told them that actually the kingdom was for sinners as much as saints, Gentiles as much as Jews, the sick, the prostitutes, the collaborators. People they might have thought of as weeds.
The church still, it seems to me, has a tendency to want to set boundaries, to place limits on God, to tidy up. It’s hard to escape the feeling, when you look at the disputes and debates within the church that we are still saying that you have to believe the right things, behave the right way, have the right lifestyle to be welcome. Even those who have been coming to church for years are often profoundly suspicious of each others’ right to belong – evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics, liberals – we look at each other and wonder, “who let you in?”
But this parable tells us that God is at work far beyond the boundaries we set. His kingdom is a great wild, diverse place, full of life. Just as the first parable told us that we couldn’t make God love us, or stop loving us, this one teaches us that we can’t tell him who else he must love, or exclude either. While the church may concern itself with its boundaries – anxiously keeping tabs on who is in and who is out – the kingdom of God seeds itself about the world, wherever there is a patch of ground that it can grow in. If we really want the church to be a place where God is at work, says this story, we had better make sure that our church is not too well-weeded. Because if it is, we will be missing much of the life that God is longing to give us – all that birdsong, all that diversity, with the health and strength that diversity brings.
So, two parables that remind us, if we have ears to hear, that God’s wonderful, overwhelming kingdom is not ours to control or limit, but ours to enjoy, to share, to explore, and to find in corners of the world we may never have thought of looking. May the seeds of his word grow richly in us.
June 11th 06 - Trinity Sunday
Every now and then there are people who suggest that the Christian faith was made up – a giant conspiracy of some kind - that there was no such person as Jesus, that the stories about him, and about the early church were written on the back of an envelope by a bunch of people who thought, somehow that they had something to gain from inventing a new religion. But if there’s one thing that convinces me that this isn’t so, it is the doctrine we celebrate today. Trinity Sunday. The preacher’s nightmare. You couldn’t make it up, could you? You certainly WOULDN’T make it up if you had any sense. God is three, and God is one, says the doctrine of the Trinity. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – but they aren’t three Gods, they are one. I’m not brilliant at maths, but even I know the difference between three and one, and they aren’t the same. You just can’t do this with numbers. It seems to me, then, that either the early Christians were bonkers, or they were trying to say something which they felt was so important that even if they couldn’t explain or express it in a way that made sense, it was still something they wanted to hang onto.
This doctrine has been fundamental to the Church’s understanding of God from very early on in its history. It was an idea that developed over the first few centuries of the Church’s life, long before Christianity became a recognized religion in the Roman Empire. The Christians were still being thrown to the lions, so you’d have thought they had enough to worry about without tying themselves in knots over ideas that seemed completely daft. But the idea of the Trinity seems to have been very important to them even at this stage. There was something about God being three, and yet one, that helped them deal with their lives, which were lived under such threat and pressure. And if it was important to them then there’s just a chance that if we could understand it, we might find it was important to us as well. But it is understanding it that is the difficult bit.
The problem is, I think, that we often put the cart before the horse when we come at the teachings of our faith. We start with the idea – whether it is the Trinity, or salvation, or Christ’s death on the cross, or whatever – and then we try to apply it to our experience. But since our lives and our contexts are very different from that which gave rise to these expressions of faith, like Cinderella’s ugly sisters trying to squash their feet into the tiny glass slipper, we often find we have a hard time getting those ideas to fit us. But for the first Christians it was the other way around. They started with experience. They knew Christ. They saw him die. They felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. And then they worked out ways of trying to explain and express what they had seen and felt. The doctrines – the classic teachings of our faith – were their best attempts to describe their experiences.
So what sort of experiences might have produced a belief in the Trinity?
The earliest Christians had all grown up as Jews. They believed in one God, not a whole array of them like most of the societies around them. And they believed that this God was good. They looked at the world around them in all its beauty and splendour and they saw in it evidence of God’s generosity and care – the care of a loving parent, who gives you what you need and sticks with you through thick and thin. God as Father and Mother, God as Creator.
Then they met Jesus. And somehow in him they saw a reflection of the goodness, generosity and stickability they had seen in that loving Parent and Creator. They looked at Jesus, and he so resembled the God their faith had always spoken of that very soon they were calling him “Son of God”. The letters of Paul, and the Gospels, which started to be written within a generation of Christ’s death, were already calling him this – it was a very rapid development. They weren’t talking about DNA and genetics, of course, they knew nothing of that. But they could see the family resemblance between this man who had walked among them, died on the cross and risen again and the Father God of their ancient scriptures.
And then they experienced the Day of Pentecost, when something came rushing into their lives like a mighty wind, filling them with assurance that God was with them, as close to them as they were to themselves, and filling them with power to go out with this message. Their sense of this powerful presence, which they called the Holy Spirit, was that it was like Jesus, who was like God their Father.
All three experiences to them seemed alike. Somehow God was with them in three people, three distinct but interlinked presences.
And the common factor in all of these experiences of God was that they were experiences of love. God the Father had loved his people in creation, had yearned for them when they went away from him. He wouldn’t let them go. He had wanted to be involved with them – “I will dwell with them. They will be my people and I will be their God” was his refrain.
God the Son, his love had been given to them, and to all sorts of outcasts, the harassed and helpless, during his ministry. Here was God again, dwelling with them – God’s word of love made flesh. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” we heard in the Gospel today.
And God the Spirit, strengthening them with the knowledge that they were still beloved, still God’s people, as they went out into the world, even though they couldn’t see and touch him anymore.
Love was at the centre of their experience of God, and love was supposed to be at the centre of their lives too. “This is my command to you – love one another”, said Jesus. Everything else was window dressing.
So, having known the love of God for them in all these ways, it seemed obvious to them that the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit must be all about love too. In fact they came up with a word for it – a word which seemed to them to perfectly describe what you might call the home life of the Trinity – what the Godhead actually did. It’s a wonderful word, a word full of meaning. Unfortunately it is also a Greek word, so it might not exactly trip off the tongue for us. However – we’ll give it a try. This wonderful word, which describes the activity of the Trinity is perichoresis. It’s made of two Greek words. Peri means around – perimeter, periphery, peripatetic, periscope – things that go around and about…. Choresis comes from the word Choreo - to dance. We get choreography – the steps of a dance – and chorus line from it.
So – perichoresis – this word that describes the relationship of the Trinity, literally means to dance around and about. Father, Son and Holy Spirit were in an endless dance, they thought – weaving in and out of each other. It’s a dynamic relationship, this word says. They aren’t just sat there talking endless dull theology to each other. They are on the move, they’re active, they’re joyful. Unlike the Gods of ancient Rome and Greece, they aren’t in competition with each other. They’re not rivals – a dance has to be cooperative if it’s going to work. Their dance is a dance of love. They are still perfectly themselves, but they are folded into one another.
To help the truth of that sink in, I think we need a little visual aid. That’s why I have strung three ribbons from the chandelier – and I’m going to need three people to help me with them. The gold ribbon is for God the Father – these are the traditional colours for the Trinity - the red is for Christ, who shed his blood. The green for the Spirit who helps us grow.
But there’s another ribbon in the church too – a white one which I hope you have all written your names on. Because the early church wasn’t just interested in the Trinity as an academic exercise. What really mattered to them was the awesome, incredible fact that WE are invited to be part of its life, woven into that dance of love – God is still the God who says “I will dwell with you. You will be my people and I will be your God” The love of the Trinity is not just for itself. It is something that we are woven into as well. I don’t know how that makes you feel, but to me it feels like I’m in the safest place in the world, and that is how it felt for those early, persecuted Christians too. That’s why the Trinity mattered so much to them.
So now, if I can have some volunteers – people who know how to make a plait – we might see this dance of love – perichoresis – in which we are all enfolded into God, happen before our very eyes.
(weave ribbons together)
June 4th - Pentecost 06 Evensong
Ezekiel 36.22-28 Acts 2.22-38
Philip and I went to Prague for a few days last week. It’s a beautiful, fascinating city. But it is also a city that has gone through many changes. Over the centuries it has been fought over by many nations. In the last century what is now the Czech Republic went from Austrian domination, to a brief spell of independence, to Nazi rule, to communist domination and now to capitalism. What must that feel like for those who lived through it? Less than twenty years ago, the city was behind the iron curtain, and now there’s a McDonald’s on every corner, and foreign tourists from every corner of the globe. The values and ideals you have grown up with are now, abruptly, overturned. The goodies become the baddies. The certainties you were schooled in are swept away – you may not have liked the way things were, but at least it was familiar. But what now? Should you celebrate your past, or try to forget it? And what if the new state has problems and the freedoms you longed for don’t seem so wonderful after all? Amidst the growing prosperity of Prague there was clearly also poverty – rough sleepers, drug addicts and drunks on the park benches. We wondered whether those who might once have been cared for by the state were now perhaps falling through the gaps of the new capitalist system.
The challenge facing the Czech republic, and all the former Eastern European states reminded me of what the people of Israel were facing in our Old Testament reading today. In exile in Babylon they experienced what must have felt like the near extinction of their society and their way of life. They had lost everything – land, home, culture. But gradually they got used to it. By the time Ezekiel was writing they had started to live as Babylonians, and even worship Babylonian gods. They had forgotten who they were, and whose they were. They were giving up on God. But God was not giving up on them. Through Ezekiel he promises that the exile that seemed endless is coming to an end after all. Freedom is coming. They will return to Jerusalem. But going back to Jerusalem, being rebuilt as a nation won’t just be a matter of transporting them across the desert. Like the people of the Czech republic, it won’t simply be a matter of making external changes. They will need a complete inner transformation too, a change in their attitudes and expectations. They will need a new heart. And that is what God promises them.
“A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
To us the heart is mainly associated with the emotions. Biologically we know now that it is just a pump of course, but symbolically we still locate our feelings there. We talk of hearts and flowers, and of being broken hearted when love doesn’t work out. We say that our hearts rule our heads if we listen to our feelings rather than thinking things through. We feel with our hearts; we think with our brains. But that isn’t the way the people of Ezekiel’s time thought, and it matters that we know that if we are going to understand this reading.
For most of human history, the heart wasn’t the seat of the emotions – in fact feelings were often located in the bowels. The heart, for the ancients, was the seat of the mind. They didn’t think the brain was important at all. Some philosophers simply believed it was a cooling device! It was in your heart that you did your thinking. We can see why. The heart was obviously active. You could feel it beating. If it stopped you died. And your heart was in the middle of you, they thought, so it was obviously the most important organ in the body, the control centre, the place where the real you was centred.
It matters that we understand this. God’s promise of a new heart isn’t a matter of feeling different about life. It’s far more radical than that. Having a new heart means not only a change in the way you feel, but also a change in the way you think, a change of will, a change of character, of your whole being.
God promises a complete change for his people. But a change to what?
What will this new heart be like? It will be a heart of flesh, says Ezekiel, a heart of flesh to replace hearts of stone. Hearts of flesh, hearts of stone – what is the difference? How have the Israelites hearts been stony? It isn’t to do with the emotions, remember – this isn’t about emotional hard-heartedness. That’s not what hearts are about for these people.
The heart is the seat of thought, of understanding, the place where you make sense of things. So a heart of stone is one that understands life in ways that are set, solid, unchangeable and inflexible. The Israelites had thought they had it all sorted out – faith, God, the world, themselves. That’s what it means to call them stonyhearted. They wanted black and white certainties, simple neat answers in the face of the complexity of life, and when they thought they had found them they clung to them for dear life.
Before the exile in Babylon they believed that nothing could harm them – God was on their side, no matter what they did. They believed it absolutely. They ignored all the evidence to the contrary, all the warning signs. Endlessly the prophets told them they needed to wake up and change, but it made no difference. “It can never happen to us”, they said, from the security of their stone hearts. But then of course, it did. They were conquered and taken into exile. Jerusalem was destroyed.
At which point many of them appear to have abandoned their certainty that God was with them in favour of another certainty – that God was not with them, that there was no hope, that they were never going home to Jerusalem. So they might as well get used to it, give up on God and learn to live as the Babylonians did. A completely different belief, but the same stony attitude. It was all or nothing. It was easier that way – who wants to live with uncertainty, better to make up your mind and stick to it. A stone heart is nothing if not reliable. It is solid – solid as a rock.
But a heart of flesh on the other hand is changeable. That is the essence of flesh. It is changing all the time. That can make it seem weaker, more vulnerable – which is why the solidity of a heart set in stone can look like a better bet. But in the long run the changeable heart of flesh can adapt and respond to changing situations much better than the rigid heart of stone. Flesh lives and grows. What God wants for his people, says Ezekiel, is a faith like this. A living faith, a faith that is rooted in a dynamic relationship with him, rather than an unshakeable sense of its own rightness. Stone looks safer that flesh, stronger than flesh, more solid than flesh, but that doesn’t make it a good building material for hearts and lives.
St Peter, in our New Testament reading, reminded the Israelites of his own time of this same truth in a different way. They had let their understanding of God become set too. Their laws had become burdens; millstones round their necks. Because of their fixed views of God, they didn’t recognise him in Christ. They thought they had their lives and their faith sorted out, set in stone, and Jesus message didn’t fit. So they crucified him. They rolled the stone of their certainty across the tomb, and thought that everything could be as it always had been. But, says Peter, in the end the living word of God, made flesh in Christ, was stronger than stone. Death couldn’t hold the life of God. However much we try to shut God out, or shut him in, he does not give up on us. His offer of a new heart, of a living way is still there.
What difference does this make to us? We too can easily find ourselves hanging on to an understanding of the world, of faith, of God, of ourselves that is set in stone, rather than being open to follow the living way God offers.
Often we opt for stone over flesh too. We prefer certainty; change can feel frightening. It might be change in the church – new services, new ways of doing things. It might be changes in society which we find it hard to adapt to. It might be changes in the way we see ourselves or those close to us – new opportunities, new challenges. The stony heart – the mind that thinks it has it all worked out, and doesn’t want to consider new possibilities – will resist change simply because it is change. The heart of flesh, though, will be able to respond, trusting in God’s love to take us “through all the changing scenes of life” rather clinging to its own set views for security.
At Pentecost, we celebrate the Spirit of God, God’s living presence in our everyday lives, his heartbeat in our own hearts. And we celebrate too his everlasting promise of renewal – a holy heart transplant - today, tomorrow and whenever we need it.
“A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
I can remember the classroom; I can remember the teacher. I can even remember where I was sitting when I first heard one of my favourite poems. It is one of those that I expect many of you could recite…
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face and a grey dawn breaking.
John Masefield’s Sea Fever – whether you are a sailor or not, it stirs something in many of us. I lived for many years in Gosport, on the other side of the harbour from Portsmouth. Often I would stand at the harbour and see the ships leaving port. Cross channel ferries like floating blocks of flats, naval vessels, and small sailing boats – there was always something going on. As I watched those ships leaving I’d think to myself “you could go anywhere from here”. Of course, most of them weren’t powered by the wind anymore, but just occasionally there would be tall ships, and you’d really get an idea of what it might have been like when the harbour was full of the “wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking”. It is quite awesome to see a ship moved by nothing but the power of the wind – wind that has taken men and women from one end of the earth to the other – wind that has powered a thousand adventures and explorations.
Today is the feast of Pentecost, when we give particular thanks for the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the member of the Trinity about whom most people find it hardest to talk. That was just as true in Biblical times as it is today, because we often find the Spirit described using picture language. The Biblical writers couldn’t think of a way to explain the experience, so they had to say it was like something else. The Spirit is described as being like a dove, hovering over the waters of chaos at the beginning of the Bible; as something like water which will be poured out over those who prophesy; as flames of fire, and of course as wind, which is why I started where I did.
The apostles gather in an upper room on the Day of Pentecost, facing a task that seems quite impossible – that of taking the gospel message out into this hostile world – the world that killed Christ. They have absolutely no idea of what they will do next. They are paralysed by their sense of fear and inadequacy – how can they what they have been called to do? They can’t. As they wait they hear what sounds like a rushing wind. Suddenly it is as if the penny drops. Before, they thought that God was with them – now they know it.
And the effect is dramatic. These frightened men and women are blown out of that upper room by the force of what ever it is – this thing that is like a mighty wind – out into the streets, and begin to find themselves proclaiming the good news of God’s love. Before they were huddled in the upper room, too scared to show their faces, now they can’t keep the message of Jesus to themselves. They are swept out of that room by the wind of the Spirit and they start a journey that will take them and their message to the end of the earth. It is an amazing transformation.
And that, in a way, is the key to understanding the Spirit. Like the wind, you can’t see it. You don’t know where it comes from or where it goes to, but you can see the difference it makes. You can see it changing things, moving things – situations and people too. Like the wind in the sails of the ship, the Spirit has the power to take us away from the familiar harbour walls – to take us on a journey.
Sometimes people will comment after a service that they found it moving – we sometimes say the same of a piece of music, a poem or a story. “But where has it moved you to?” I often want to ask. What people often mean is that it has touched their emotions. But feelings come and go, and often they leave us unchanged. These feelings we experience move us in the sense that a roller coaster car moves us. It starts at point A and goes all the way around until it comes back to where it started. You get off feeling distinctly moved – positively green around the gills- but you are actually in exactly the same place you began at. But the ship that sets sail from the harbour or the person who allows the Spirit of God to fill their lives is moved from one place to another – from A to B to C and onwards on a journey that will take them to places they’ve never been.
As a church and as individuals we are challenged at Pentecost, just as the disciples were, to let our faith be real, to untie ourselves from the safety of the harbour wall and let the Spirit of God blow us out over our horizons, really moving us, really changing us.
“I must go down to the seas again,” says Masefield, “for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.”
Perhaps the journey God calls us to – “a wild call and a clear call that cannot be denied” - is one of personal growth, or political action, or involvement in community or church. Perhaps it is one we have already heard, but resisted. Perhaps the destination is already clear to us. Perhaps we won’t know where it is leading, or what it’s about until we arrive at its end.
The wind in the disciples’ sails, both literally and spiritually, carried them all over the world – even to the damp shore of a damp little island called Britain. People here - our ancestors - heard the message that the Spirit brings – good news for the poor, release for the captives – if they hadn’t we wouldn’t be here today. We tell their tales, amazed at their courage and persistence. I wonder what tales will be told of us, and what tales we will tell at the end of our journey with God? I wonder how our journey will affect others, will change the world? Or will we prefer to stay safely moored – tied up firmly to the harbour wall of the familiar, never venturing into the deeper waters.
Here’s how Masefield finishes, and how I am going to finish too, because I think his words describe just as well our journey.
I must go down to the seas again to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.
Easter 7 - 28th May 06 Evensong
Isaiah 61, Luke 4.14-21
What’s your favourite bit of the Bible? The 23rd Psalm? 1 Corinthians 13? – “ Love is patient, love is kind…? “ The Beatitudes, the Lord’s prayer… or those bits that Handel set to music in the Messiah which have us humming along in the pews. Most of us have favourite passages that we like to hear again and again. They bring us comfort. They are full of important memories and associations. However much we may value the Bible as a whole, there are some parts that are special to us. Often they are passages which we have read at times of difficulty, which have supported us and made us feel God’s closeness to us.
The people in the synagogue in Nazareth which we heard about in our second reading were no different to us. The knew what they liked, and they liked what they knew. When Jesus launched into his reading from the Scriptures, they were in familiar, comforting territory. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me…” he said – words from the book of the prophet Isaiah, words which we heard in our first reading today, words which they were very familiar with too. Isaiah was one of the most popular books of the Hebrew Bible. We know that because the New Testament writers quote so often from it. “As it says in the prophet Isaiah,” we hear, again and again in the Gospels, Acts and Epistles… Isaiah is quoted more often than any other writer, and clearly, it’s assumed that people will recognize the references. So it is no surprise that when Jesus turns up in the synagogue at Nazareth, it is the book of Isaiah that the synagogue leaders give him to read. “Choose something from Isaiah, Jesus,” they say, “whatever you like – we know we’ll be glad to hear it.”
They are expecting good things of Jesus. They are excited by his presence. At this point in his ministry Jesus is riding high on a tide of approval. Reports of his preaching have spread around the area. “He was praised by everyone”, says Luke. He is the hot ticket – the one to look out for – the one to hear if you get a chance, the latest big thing. And, for the people in the synagogue in Nazareth, of course, he is also the local boy made good. Who’d have thought it – Joseph and Mary’s son – someone who had grown up among them, who they remember seeing in the first century equivalent of short trousers? They can see that he is going to be very special, and they feel chuffed that he is here among them. So they give him the scroll of Isaiah- special words to read – their favourites – just as people will ask a famous singer to sing a famous song, not something obscure or mediocre.
One reason Isaiah was so special to them was that he prophesied at a very important moment in their history – a pivotal moment. Theologians believe that the book of Isaiah was actually written by several people, over a period of time, but much of it certainly comes from the end of the exile in Babylon. After 70 years of exile the people of Israel were suddenly, miraculously set free to return home to Jerusalem. They’d thought it would never happen. The Babylonian Empire seemed to be invulnerable. But the Persian King Cyrus had other ideas, and when he conquered Babylon that was it – the exiles were free to return.
Isaiah’s prophecies announce the good news of their release. “Arise, shine for your light has come,” he says. “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” “ I shall gently lead those that are with young.” “Comfort my people” Isaiah’s words are words of great hope and joy to a people about to be set free from an oppression that seemed endless. No wonder they loved it.
And no wonder, that the people of Jesus’ day loved it too, because they felt pretty hard done by too. They were living under Roman occupation, Roman oppression. Although they weren’t in a foreign exile, many felt they might as well have been. They didn’t rule their own land. They had to kow-tow to the Romans, and to the Herod family, the puppet rulers who the Romans had installed. They felt like victims, so they reached for the words that had brought the people of Israel hope when they had been victims before.
No doubt, when Jesus began to read, then, their hearts swelled. This was what they wanted to hear. “ The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me….” It is a passage about how those who are being oppressed will be set free, captives released, the blind will see, the poor will hear good news… When he handed back the scroll and sat down to preach, as was the custom, they were on a high – all ears to hear what he would say about this passage. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This is the moment when this is all starting to happen, he says.
How did they react? It was a stunning thing to say – arrogant even. Jesus was claiming to be the anointed one, the Messiah. But actually, if we had heard the next verse we would have discovered that this didn’t trouble them at all. In fact it seems to be music to their ears. “All spoke well of him,” it says. “They were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.
But as we know this approval didn’t last. Before long these same people would be baying for his blood, attacking him, rejecting him, handing him over to death on a cross. What went wrong?
What happens to change their minds? Why do they end up clamouring for his crucifixion as a blasphemer?
The problem seems to be not what he is going to do, but who he is going to do it for; not what is going to happen – deliverance for the poor, the blind, the oppressed, the captives – but who those people are. As I have said, the book of Isaiah was written at a time when Israel was at a very low ebb. The people were victims, exiles, hopeless and helpless. THEY were the oppressed, the captives, the blind, the poor. Isaiah’s words comforted them because they acknowledged this. “God is coming to help you.” the people heard, ” Your oppressors will get what is coming to them, and you will be rewarded.” God loves Israel – and he will fight for them.
But the shock of Jesus’ message, the shock that becomes apparent as his ministry develops, is that the deliverance he brings is not centred on this one group – the nation of Israel. It is for all who are persecuted. He brings freedom for their enemies as well as for their friends – Samaritans, Canaanites, even Romans. He brings healing to those of whom they disapprove – those whom they consider sinners. He teaches those whom they thought were not worth teaching – women, children, slaves. Not only that, often he tells them – the good synagogue goers, the holy people – that it is THEY who are the oppressors. They think of themselves as helpless victims, but they are themselves victimizing others, laying burdens on them, keeping them away from God.
We are all sometimes tempted to think of ourselves as victims – people who have suffered at the hands of others – and it is sometimes the case that we have. But victimhood is a very seductive state – it requires little of us, we can all too easily wallow in it. It is easy for us to think of ourselves as powerless. But it can blind us to the truth about ourselves that we also have power, and are capable of using it in ways that oppress others. Often we are so busy rehearsing the wrongs that have been done to us that we can’t see the ways in which we are passing those hurts on to others. It seems to me that there is more than a touch of this in the troubles that beset Israel today. Modern day Israel was formed to redress the injustice of the stateless Jewish people who had suffered so much in the Holocaust, but the Palestinian people feel – probably rightly – that they have been treated unjustly in their turn. In Northern Ireland each side has seen the violence meted out against them as oppression, and the violence they meet out themselves as a just response to that oppression. Each side in these disputes feels themselves to be the victim rather than the victimizer, the oppressed ones, rather than the oppressors, yet, seen from the outside, both sides both perpetrate and suffer wrong.
But my suspicion is that it isn’t just nations that suffer from this. It is salutary now and then for us to ask ourselves.” What do I feel a victim of? Who do I feel is doing me wrong? Is there any chance – any chance at all – that I actually bear any responsibility for the way things are? Could I be the oppressor as well as the one oppressed? How would I feel about them being the ones to whom the good news of God’s love is preached, especially if their freedom might depend on my repentance and change?”
Jesus was crucified because he dared to preach not only the good news that people expected to hear, but also the good news that they didn’t expect, good news which, to their ears was not good at all. That God wanted to rescue all who were oppressed, including those who suffered because of what they themselves did. His good news was good news for the foreigner, the outsider, and even the enemy. It was a message that brought comfort, but it also brought the challenge – the uncomfortable challenge to see ourselves as part of the problem and to change.
He preaches the same message to us today. We are not just powerless victims in a cruel world. We are sometimes also the perpetrators of cruelty, through negligence, weakness and our own deliberate fault, as the confession puts it. We are probably just as reluctant to hear that as Jesus’ first century audience, but it is true. Like them we need to learn to hear that challenge, and to respond to it not with fear, anger or denial, but with hope. For the promise God gives now, as then, is that deliverance is possible – deliverance not only from the wrong that is done to us, but from the wrong we do to others too.
Easter 6 - 21st May 06
In the middle of the twelfth century in a monastery in Yorkshire a Cistercian monk wrote the following words. “In human affairs nothing more sacred is striven for, nothing more useful is sought after, nothing more difficult is discovered, nothing more sweet experienced and nothing more profitable possessed…”
What was it he was talking about?
Life in a Cistercian monastery was tough. Perhaps, then, it was poverty and simplicity he thought was so important? Then again, his was a life rooted in prayer– so maybe it was depth of contemplation he meant. It was a life too of great self-discipline - perhaps this was what he had his heart set on. Or perhaps it was service of the needy or heroic self-sacrifice that he was trying to acheive?
In fact, though, as good as those things might be, it was none of them that was in his mind when he wrote those words. The thing which that monk valued above all other, the thing he thought was worth any amount of effort to gain and to preserve… was friendship. Simple friendship. The close affection of one person for another. The sense of knowing and being known, trusting and being trusted, having someone who shares the ups and downs of life with you, who can laugh and cry with you, or simply sit beside you in silence with nothing needing to be said. Someone to whom you matter, and who matters to you. Friendship. “In human affairs nothing more sacred is striven for, nothing more useful is sought after, nothing more difficult is discovered, nothing more sweet experienced and nothing more profitable possessed, for friendship” he said, “ bears fruits in this life and in the next.
The monk in question was called Aelred, and he was the Abbot of Rievaulx – you can still visit the ruins of his Abbey. He’d been born in Hexham in about 1110 and he grew up in the court of the King of Scotland, but it was clear from an early age that he was drawn to the monastic life. He joined one of the new Cistercian monasteries which had recently been founded by Bernard of Clairvaux. It was a challenging, hard life – these monasteries were austere places often in remote locations. But there is nothing hard, or austere or remote about Aelred. What comes through his writing is a wonderful sense of joy and humanity, and that joyful humanity is rooted in his appreciation of others, and the friendship he has with them.
“”Without friends,” he said, “absolutely no life can be happy.” He called a friend “the best medicine in life”. “We would be compared to a beast” he said,” if we had no one to rejoice with us in adversity, no one to whom to unburden our mind as sorrow crosses our path or with whom we can share our moments of sublimity and illumination.”
Friendship was so important to Aelred, in fact, that he wrote a whole book on the subject, called Spiritual Friendship, from which those quotes are taken. In it he explores friendship – what it is, why it matters. But it isn’t a theoretical book. It is written from experience. It is clear from his writing that Aelred’s community was a genuinely friendly place to be, despite the rigours of life there. “The day before yesterday, “ he said, “as I was walking the round of the cloister of the monastery, the brethren were sitting around forming as it were a most loving crown. In the midst, as it were, of the delights of paradise with the leaves, flowers and fruits of each single tree, I marveled. In that multitude of brethren I found no one whom I did not love and no one by whom, I felt sure, I was not loved. I was filled with such joy that it surpassed all the delights of this world…so that I could say with the prophet: ‘ Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity…”
It’s a lovely picture of a community in which all are valued, and a picture of a man confident of his own place in the affections of others. He was a man who truly knew what it was to have friends and to be a friend – and knew very well too the effect those friendships had had on him, the ways in which they had shaped and changed him.
But as well as the human value of these friendships to him he also recognised their importance to his spiritual life. “Among the stages leading to perfection, “ he said, “friendship is the highest”. It was the day to day joy and demand of being a friend and having friends, he saw, which taught him what he really needed to know about the most precious friendship of all in his life - the friendship of Christ.
In the Gospel today Jesus says what I think are some of the most explosive words in the Bible to his disciples, “I have called you friends”, he says. My guess is that most of us are used to the idea that God loves us. We may find it hard to take in, but we are used to singing it, praying it, and hearing it. But love is such a large word, and it can have so many meanings. We use it to talk of romance, of sex, of the chemical reactions which take place when we meet someone we are attracted to, even before we know them. At the other extreme we use it to talk about grand acts of self-sacrifice, benevolence, do-gooding. It can be a strangely distant and impersonal word. You don’t have to like people, we say, in order to love them. Love is about seeking their good – even the good of your enemies. We use the word love to talk about all sorts of other desires too. We can love chocolate, or travel. Love is something we can fall into, and fall out of as well. Love can be an obsessive, possessive, destructive whirlwind, or it can simply refer to a vaguely helpful act undertaken for the benefit of a stranger. Many of you will have helped collect or given to Christian Aid this week. It would be right to describe that as an expression of love, but we are very unlikely to call the relationship we have with the recipients of our gifts friendship. We don’t know them, and we are unlikely ever to.
Friendship involves love, of course, but not all love involves friendship. Friendship is personal – a friend is someone you know. It is equal- not a relationship of power and submission. It is freely given – true friendship can’t be earned. Friendship involves liking as well as loving. Our friends are the people we choose to be with, choose to work with, know we can rely on.
My guess is that we are used to thinking of God as someone who loves us, desires our good, wants the best for us. But friendship is something else – a relationship in which we have gifts to give as well as to receive, in which we know and are known, in which we are liked as well as loved. I have met many people who believe that God loves them; I have met very few who genuinely feel that he likes them.
But that is what Jesus says to his disciples – I have called you friends. People I have chosen to be with. People I have chosen to trust, to rely on. People whose lives are intimately, intricately bound up with mine. Of course, like all good friendships, there is also a sense of mutual obligation in this relationship. Jesus says “You are my friends if you do what I command you,” – we might be surprised at that . We might not expect to hear the language of command in the context of friendship, but isn’t a true friend someone who you can assume will come running if you really need them? Someone who will see your need and respond without thinking twice. That is the sense in which Jesus uses the word “command” here. You can phone a true friend out of the blue and say “come – I need you.” and know that they will be there. Your need is enough. Jesus friendship for us is like that – our need was enough, enough for him to lay down his life – and he invites us to respond in the same way to him, growing into a relationship in which we naturally want to do what he would do, because that’s how friends are with each other.
Aelred, all those years ago, lived out a life of friendship in his monastery – friendship with Christ and friendship with his fellow monks. Shaped by that life of friendship, he became a friend to many, and his testimony to the power of friendship still speaks to us today. Perhaps as I’ve talked about friendship you have found yourself recalling with gratitude those who are part of your lives, who have changed you, who know you through and through, whose company you treasure. But as well as simply appreciating our friends, God invites us to learn through our friendships, just as Aelred did, and to find in them echoes of his own friendship for us. He invites us to trust not just that he loves us, but that he likes us too, and to let the knowledge of that liking sink into our lives and transform them so that we too can bear the fruits of friendship in a lonely world.
Easter 5 - 14th May 06 Evensong
Isaiah 60.1-14, Revelation 3,1-13
In tonight’s readings we have two very similar visions of victory.
Isaiah looks forward to a time when Jerusalem will be rebuilt in glory. Processions of kings from all nations will come to it bringing gifts. In particular those nations who have oppressed Israel will come bending low before them – “all who despised you shall bow down at your feet”, he promises.
In the book of Revelation the Christians at the church of Philadelphia are promised too that their enemies will bow before them.
These are visions of victory which those who first heard them would have recognized straightaway. This is what happened in the ancient world when one nation defeated another. The losers would be paraded in great processions, put on show, humiliated. They would have to bow down to the victors, be subordinate to them.
If you go to the British Museum you can see these processions, carved on stone memorials from Egypt, Assyria, Greece, Rome . Endless lines of conquered people, vassal nations, bringing their tribute, not because they wanted to, but because that was the cost to them of being allowed to live. For the conquering nations these processions were moments to be savoured and celebrated– that’s why they carved them on the walls of their buildings. For the losers they were times of abject humiliation.
But the people Isaiah and John wrote to were those losers. Despite the grandeur of the visions we heard to night, when they were written they were the ones groveling in the dust. Isaiah was writing to a nation in exile in Babylon. The people of Israel, driven across the desert by the conquering Bablyonians, had been paraded in those victory processions and were now forced to work for the nation that had enslaved them.
The people of the church in Philadelphia, too – members of a new and persecuted faith – were often on the wrong end of the power struggle. They were persecuted both by the Romans, and, in this case, also by powerful Jewish groups who wanted to destroy this new Christian movement. John calls them “a synagogue of Satan”.
The Babylonian exiles, the church in Philadelphia - these were people who knew about defeat, who experienced defeat on a daily basis. Perhaps it’s easy to see, then, why these visions would be so appealing, and so necessary to them. They needed something to give them hope – hope that things wouldn’t always be as they were at that moment.
We can understand, then, why dreamed of and longed for this sort of victory. But the visions that inspired them make me a little uncomfortable, and I think we need to be careful as we read them.
Essentially the victory of God’s people here consists of doing the same thing to your oppressorsas they have done to you. Humiliating them – making them bend low before you. “See, the boot’s on the other foot now – now who’s the one eating humble pie?” These visions feel very much like classic revenge fantasies – the kind of thing you imagine as a child if you are bullied at school. The moment when your bully will get his or her comeuppance, when those who have made your life a misery will be forced to come groveling to you for forgiveness, which you might – or might not – grant.
It’s a dangerous fantasy, that revenge fantasy. It may give you the energy to keep going when all is against you, but if you do end up winning your struggle there is a terrible risk that you will act it out, turning into the very oppressor you have fought against.
It is the tale of a thousand wars, a thousand civil conflicts. Whatever their roots, however much justice one or the other might originally have had on their side, they usually turn into bitter, endless, tit-for-tat affairs, with each side as barbaric as the other. We’ve seen it in Northern Ireland – even this week a young Catholic boy was murdered by a Protestant gang. We’ve seen it in Israel. We’ve seen it in many parts of Africa. We’ve seen it in the former Yugoslavia. It looks increasingly as if we are seeing it in Iraq. Making war is easy – it is making peace that is so hard. Ghandhi famously said “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” Yet, fuelled by revenge fantasies, the human race seems unable to let go of the desire to get even.
It is readings like those we have heard today which makes me glad that, theologically, I am a liberal and not a fundamentalist. I don’t feel the need to believe that every word of the Bible was dictated by God and stands as it is for all time with an unchanging meaning. Readings like this can only make sense when we read them in their context, as the work of human beings, reflecting their understanding of faith, limited, just as ours is by our time and circumstances, as well as by our human limitations.
But nonetheless it seems to me that if we listen carefully we can still hear the voice of God speaking through these readings. At the very least we can recognize ourselves in them – our own desire for retribution. They can prompt us to ask questions about what we think victory should consist of. One theologian, Phyllis Trible, called these sort of readings “texts of terror”. She saw in them invitations to reflect and to repent, to learn from the mistakes of those who went before us.
But I think that there is more in these readings than simply a cautionary tale. Despite their limitations, they hint at possibilities that go beyond mere revenge.
Secular victors at the time would have claimed their victories as their own – it was the kings and the military rulers to whom honour was due. But both Isaiah and John remind us that the ultimate victory, the ultimate honour, the ultimate power belongs to God. “If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the house of my God,” says John, “I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God”. Isaiah too, says that the conquered nations will see in Israel not Israel’s own glory and power, but that of God.
That strikes me as a great safeguard. At the moment of victory, at the moment when we might be tempted to crow over those who are defeated, we are reminded that, however sweet our power feels, actually we are not the ones who rule. There is one who is more powerful than we are. And that brings me hope, because it means that, whatever I secretly hope will happen when someone hurts me, God will have his own ideas, his own plans, and they may be nothing like mine. I can acknowledge my desire for revenge, I can recognize its power and its danger, but ultimately God has the last word, say these readings. And what will God do? Well, throughout the Bible, the story is the same – we don’t know, but whatever it is, it will probably be a surprise.
Isaiah and John envisaged victory in the only way they knew how – but they knew that their God was not under their control. For John and his fellow Christians, in particular of course, there was the example of Christ to mull over, to set alongside their desire for vengeance. Now there was a strange sort of victory if ever there was one. They knew that his death and resurrection were a victory over the forces of evil. And yet neither his death nor his resurrection looked at all like any victory they had ever seen. There was no heroic struggle against the Jewish authorities, against Herod, against Pilate. Jesus simply walked right into his crucifixion with no attempt to defend himself. And even at the moment of crucifixion, he forgave those who drove the nails into his hands.
After his resurrection, far from humiliating his killers and bringing them trembling to their knees, he appears instead to his disciples speaking of love, peace and forgiveness. What kind of victory was that? Nothing like their fantasies at all. It was powerful, but it was also puzzling, different from anything they had imagined.
John and his churches struggled to come to terms with this, I think. That’s why the book of Revelation is such a mixture of love and violence, healing and retribution – lakes of fire and brimstone, alongside visions of wholeness and healing for all. As hurting human beings, they still wanted revenge, on their terms, in ways they could imagine, just as we all would. But they knew they were following one who called them to something beyond simple victory – the triumph of one and the defeat of another – to a peace that was past their understanding.
Intermittently, the church has continued to get glimpses of that new and better way. St Francis of Assisi tried to make peace during the crusades by going unarmed to the Sultan of Egypt. It didn’t end the war, but it was a shining attempt to put aside vengeance and break that particular cycle of violence – an attempt which peace loving Muslims and Christians still draw strength from. In our own times we have seen brave people in South Africa like Desmond Tutu reach beyond retaliation to forgiveness. Knowing that they were God’s children – that God ultimately ruled them – they saw that their oppressors too were children of the same creator, and ultimately brothers and sisters. And why would you want to harm your own flesh and blood?
These “texts of terror “we have heard today are powerful. They were written for people who needed strength to endure what seemed unendurable. Understanding them in their context we can appreciate them, and the people who needed them so badly. But they can easily become texts which simply fuel the fires of vengeance. It is up to us whether we choose to hear in them the voice of God, calling us to a true peace in which all are held in his embrace, or the voice of hatred, calling us to seek an eye for an eye, and make the whole world blind.
Easter 5 - May 14th 06 - Morning Service
Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8
“I am the vine and my father is the vine-grower”, says Jesus to his disciples. Grapevines would have been a familiar sight for his audience - a staple crop. For us in England they are still a bit unusual, though warmer summers are making them easier to grow and more successful. I’ve just bought a couple of vines for the vicarage – more for ornament than in any real hope of decent grapes – it’s a bit cold and blowy for them really to thrive in my garden. But you never know – we might be able to produce a bottle or two of Chateau Le Bas one day!
But for Jesus’ hearers the vine was an ever-present part of their everyday lives. Most people with a bit of ground probably had one. They knew about growing vines too. They knew that the vine was not really one plant but two. It had a rootstock – something that would grow well, that was good at drawing up water and nourishment from the soil. But grafted onto that rootstock would be the fruiting part of another vine – one which produced good, tasty grapes of the variety you wanted. It’s a clever business, grafting, binding the two plants together, so that you got the best of both of them.
Because everyone knew about vines it’s no surprise that they were used often in the Bible symbolically. In particular the nation of Israel was often likened to a vine – the vine God had planted. “You brought a vine out of Egypt, “ says Psalm 80, “you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.” The prophets spoke of the vine of Israel too, often lamenting that it was producing sour grapes, that it was neglected, withered and useless, but looking forward to a time when it would flourish again and be fruitful.
So as soon as Jesus started talking about vines and vineyards, people knew what he was on about. It was familiar language. They had heard all this before. It was all rather old hat – or at least it would have been if he had stuck to the script they expected. But he didn’t.
As I’ve said, for the people of Jesus’ time, the vine was Israel. But Jesus doesn’t say, “Israel is the vine”. He says, “I am the vine”.
That must have been deeply shocking for the disciples. Here he is, putting himself in the place of the nation. Why would that have disturbed people so much? For this reason. For his hearers, being Jewish – part of the nation of Israel - was fundamental to their understanding of themselves. They had a distinctive way of life – quite different from the nations around them - a strong common identity. They were proud of their national identity, proud of their customs and laws. But for many allegiance to those customs, allegiance to the idea of Israel, had become stronger than allegiance to God. Vines, as I said, are really two plants – the top growth of one vine grafted onto the roots of another. God had intended for this nation to be grafted onto him, to draw their identity and their strength from his roots, but they had re-grafted themselves onto the rootstock of nationalism– being Jewish had become, for many, more important than doing God’s will. My country, right or wrong.
We see the same thing happening when football hooligans brawl with one another. It has nothing to do with football – in fact they often aren’t interested in the game at all – it has everything to do with tribal loyalty, marked out by the colours you wear and the area you come from.
Or take the tragic case of Michael McIlveen, the Catholic teenager beaten to death last week by a gang of Protestant youths. That had nothing to do with the theology or spirituality of Catholicism or Protestantism – I don’t suppose any of the youths responsible could have given any sensible account of them. The denominations were just markers to establish whether Michael McIlveen was “one of us” or “one of them”.
And repeatedly the British National Party has tried to hijack Christian faith as a rallying point for it’s very narrow view of what it means to be British. They seem quite unaware that this is a Middle Eastern faith in its origins and that the majority of Christians in the world are black and live in Africa. The centre of Christendom, if you plot the numbers of Christians and where they live, is apparently now not Rome or Canterbury, but Timbuktu. That’s not something that I think the BNP is ever going to acknowledge.
These are extreme examples, but they are all ways in which, like the people of Jesus’ time, we can find we have become grafted onto the rootstock of a false vine – a vine which has the sap of nationalism, tribal protectiveness, suspicion and hatred running through it.
We may not have any sympathy with these viewpoints, but these aren’t the only false vines which people can abide in. It’s worth asking ourselves now and then what rootstock are we are grafted onto. Where do we draw our sense of identity and our strength from? If I were to ask you what you are, I wonder what you would answer. Jesus’ disciples would have said “Jewish!”. Those football hooligans would say – “Millwall!” or whatever their team is. McIlveen’s killers would say “Protestant!” The BNP would answer “British!” But what about you. How would you describe yourself if I were to ask you what you are?
Perhaps you’d say, I’m a wife or husband, a mother or father, a member of such and such a family, a teacher, an accountant, an Old Etonian, a musician, a vegetarian, an Elvis Presley fan, an Anglican, Seal born and bred, an incomer, the list is probably endless.
There’s nothing wrong in any of those answers, of course, but if we let any of the labels we use to describe and understand ourselves have too much importance we will probably find ourselves in difficulty. If we look to these things to be the rootstock of our lives, something we become dependent on to supply our sustenance, we may find that the fruit we produce is not as it should be. Being a mother or father for example, is fine, but if you look to parenthood to supply you with all your sense of identity, what will you do when your children leave home? It would probably be better for them, too, if all your sense of self-worth wasn’t dependent on their success. Or if you look to your professional role to make you feel worthwhile, what will happen if you are made redundant or retire? Being proud of where you live is fine, but it can easily tip over into suspicion of those who live elsewhere. And as for those Elvis Presley fans – what trauma some of them faced when he died! In fact, some of them still refuse to believe it! Definitely not a vine it is healthy to abide in!
Our interests, our passions, our culture and history – all these things are part of us – but it’s dangerous to root our whole lives in them – none of these things is strong enough or deep enough to sustain us, and they can so easily become nothing more than tribal markers, ways of deciding who’s out and who’s in, who is one of “us” and who isn’t.
“I am the vine,” says Jesus – not Israel, not any of those other things we are tempted to root our lives in. Christ calls us to abide in him, and through him, in God, the creator of all, the healer of all, the Lord of time and space. Root yourself in him and you will be drawing on the deep and inexhaustible waters of life, the sustaining food of love which is stronger even than death. You’ll be anchored by roots that transcend national boundaries, which hold together the past, the present and the future. Christ calls us out beyond our narrow definitions of ourselves. You may be a parent, you may be an accountant, you may even be an Elvis Presley fan… but underneath all of that you are a child of God. These other things may be part of your life, but this is the vine you need to abide in, the truth you need to know, the rootstock you need to be grafted into.
Of course, being grafted into that vine of God is not always easy. It doesn’t happen quickly. Grafting is a delicate and complicated business. It involves a good deal of cutting and binding, watering and waiting. You can’t graft a branch on by simply hanging it in the vine, or leaving it on the ground nearby. It takes close contact for some time. It doesn’t happen by magic; it doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by creating the right conditions for growth. And the branch that is grafted in has to be severed from its old roots for the graft to happen. Sometimes there are things we have to give up and say goodbye to as we grow into God. I always wonder what happened next in the story we heard from the Acts of the Apostles – that official from the Ethopian court, the man in charge of the treasury. His whole life was rooted in the life of the court – that was the vine he abided in, the place that had supplied his identity. He had nothing else, not even a family. His allegiances must certainly have been challenged by what happened. As he went down into the waters of baptism, he was cut from those roots and grafted into God. He wasn’t the Queen’s man now, as he had been, he was God’s. Did the graft take? Did his new life last? Legend tells that he converted the Queen, and together they founded the Ethiopian church – a church that had very ancient roots, so lets hope it did
I am the vine, says Jesus. The one whose roots go down into the water of life. The one who can feed you with all you need to survive, to flourish, to bear good fruit. Be grafted into me, bound to the rootstock through prayer, through the way you live, through the encouragement of others. Be grafted into me, and abide.
Easter 4 Vocations Sunday - May 7th 06
Acts 4.5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3.16-24, John 10.11-18
Today’s gospel reminded me of an incident in a book I read a while back. It is by Gervase Phinn who was a Schools’ inspector in the Yorkshire Dales. He tells the story of a visit he made to a little school up in a sheep farming area of the Dales.
“In the infants, I chose a bright picture book about a brave old ram who went off into the deep, snow packed valley to look for a lost lamb...Graham, a six-year-old, began reading the story with great gusto. ‘Ronald was an old, old grey ram who lived in a wide, wide green valley near a big, big farm.’ At this point he promptly stopped reading and stared intently at the picture of the ram for a moment. …
‘What breed is that?’ Graham asked.
‘Breed?’ I repeated.
‘Aye,’ said the child. ‘What breed is he?’
‘I don’t know, ‘ I answered in a rather pathetic tone of voice.’
‘Don’t you know your sheep then?’
‘No, I don’t,’ I replied.
‘Miss,’ shouted the child, ‘could Tony come over here a minute? I want to know what breed of sheep this is.’
We were joined by Tony….’Let’s have a look at t’picture then,’ he said.
‘Is it a Masham or a Swaledale?’ he asked me.
‘I don’t know, ‘ I answered in the same pathetic tone of voice.
Another child joined in the discussion. ‘It looks like a blue-faced Leicester to me. What do you reckon?’
‘I have no idea,’ I replied.
‘Don’t you know your sheep then?’ I was asked again and once more replied that I did not. By this time a small crowd of interested onlookers had joined me in the reading corner.
‘They’re not Leicesters,’ ventured Tony, because there’s a low gate in t’picture.’ There were grunts and nods of agreement from the other children.
Before I could ask about the significance of the low gate Graham explained. ‘Leicesters are a long-legged breed. They can get over low gates.’
To cut a long story short, a small girl called Marianne was eventually summoned from another class – she was regarded as the resident expert - and proclaimed it to be either a Bleu de Main or Rouge de l’Ouest.
Phinn concludes “Then she turned to the dunce holding the book and looked me straight in the eyes. ‘Them’s French breeds.’ she said.
Today’s gospel is all about sheep and shepherds. It is about the good shepherd who knows his sheep – unlike Gervase Phinn, who didn’t even know the breeds never mind the individuals. But the Gospel story is also about the sheep knowing the shepherd as well - knowing who to trust, who to listen to, who they are safe with. “I know my own, and my own know me”, says Christ. Sheep soon find out, implies the Gospel, who they can trust, who they should listen to – in the case of those sheep in the Yorkshire Dales it would be Tony, Graham or Marianne rather than Gervase Phinn.
But in a way that very fact – that older doesn’t always mean wiser, that the learned expert schools inspector was revealed as a dunce when it came to sheep, and the six year olds were the true experts – reveals a problem that I think many of us have. The Bible makes it all sound so simple. Jesus is the good shepherd, the one we should listen to, it says. But our experience is often different. His voice doesn’t seem obvious at all to us. In the cacophany of opinions that surround us , which one is God’s? Whose way is the right way, whose call to us is genuine? How should we decide what to think about the knotty issues of our times – war in Iraq, politics and economics, abortion and euthanasia? How should we decide what to do with our lives?
Christians would say that God speaks to us in many ways – through trusted friends, through circumstance, through the words of the Bible, through that deep inner sense we sometimes have that something is right or wrong. But we can easily delude ourselves. We can easily end up just hearing what we want to hear and perhaps that frightens us and makes us hesitant about trusting our ability to spot the true voice of the shepherd..
Christians have decided in the past that it was right to burn people at the stake, for example. “It’s God’s will,” they said, when it was really just the way of their society, the voice of those in power trying to hang onto that power.
And just as we have done wrong in God’s name we have also often missed doing good. We have often missed God’s call to us to respond to some need in our community, to take up some new challenge, to serve him in some way. Today is Vocations’ Sunday – there’s a little display at the back about it. The opportunities I’ve highlighted there are to do with work with the church, and vocation is of course much wider than that. Your true calling may be to be a mother or father, a business leader or a nurse – it may be to do exactly what you are doing now, to do it well, to do it with love. But what if God is calling you to train for one of the ministries I’ve mentioned in the display at the back– to be a Reader, a Pastoral Assistant, an Evangelist, a priest? How would you know that it was his voice? Or would you just write it off – “ I couldn’t possibly do that…? God wouldn’t call me.”
Decision making often feels complex and challenging. It is easier simply to opt out, and that is what we do. We let life happen to us passively, let it roll on past us, afraid that we will get it wrong. We are only sheep after all…doesn’t it say so in the Bible?
And of course it does. But in thinking of ourselves as sheep, I wonder what picture we have in our minds. Perhaps, like me, your image of sheep is really not a very flattering one. Rather dim animals, who do nothing but sit in a lush green field surrounded by a high hedge. All they have to do is eat grass and grow fat and wooly. The shepherd does all the thinking and worrying. And when we think of ourselves, the flock of Christ, we are tempted, perhaps to think in the same terms. Often – because it all does seem so complicated, and we don’t trust ourselves much - we prefer to wait for someone else to tell us what to do and what to think. People are always clamouring for Bishops to make pronouncements on matters of faith and life, to tell them what is right and wrong. But why? Can’t we think for ourselves and make up our own minds? Of course we can, but we’d often rather not. We trust what others tell us about the Bible too, rather than reading it for ourselves. It is probably the most owned and least read book of all time. It is much easier to just sit passively in our lush fields, trusting that someone else will feed us and care for us.
But when Jesus talks about sheep, I very much doubt whether it is this picture he has in his mind – the complacent, dependent lowland sheep, in its protected environment. The sheep of his day weren’t like that. They were much more like the upland sheep you find on our unfenced moors and mountains, tougher, hardier - dare I say it – more intelligent breeds. Upland sheep can’t be protected within fences and hedges – they need to roam over a wide area - so, by tradition, in this country, they are hefted. Hefting means that they are taught their own patch of mountain, where the good grazing is, where the dangers are, and then they are trusted to stay there. You wouldn’t think it was possible, but it is. Hefted flocks have long histories. It may have been many generations since they were first introduced to their particular patch. At the beginning they were taught by the shepherd, who patiently turned them back into the right spot if they start to stray, and led them to the good grass, but having learnt their territory, they then passed on that knowledge to the next generation. So long as some old sheep were left in the flock that knowledge waspreserved. You can take a hefted flock away for veterinary treatment, mix them up with other flocks, but when you turn them back onto the open ground they will go straight back to their own land. That’s why the foot and mouth epidemic was so devastating for hill-farmers – it wasn’t just the sheep but all the knowledge they had which was lost. But as it turns out, new sheep have been able to be hefted too. It is taking time and effort on the part of the shepherds, but it is happening. Sheep are brighter than they look, brighter than we give them credit for. We may be sheep – but it is those hardy, upland sheep that Jesus has in mind, sheep who can learn, who can act independently, and can pass on their learning to others too.
Today, as I have said, is Vocations Sunday. A day when we think about God who calls us – calls us perhaps to tasks we have never imagined. We may feel we are not up to the job, sheepish, but we have a good shepherd who knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what we are capable of. He knows that, like those hardy upland sheep, we can be hefted. We can learn our landscape. We can find out where the good food is, and we can pass on that knowledge to others. Hefting us takes time and patience on his part – coming to us in our wildernesses and turning us back to the good land again and again. It takes time and patience – and seriousness of purpose – on our part too, as we get to know God’s voice amidst the clamour of the world. But it can be done – we can be much more than passive recipients of God’s grace. We can be active agents of it too, leading others to good grazing. On this Vocations Sunday, I pray that the good shepherd will heft us – teach us, guide us, lead us, so that we in turn can teach, guide and lead others.
Easter 3 April 30th 06 Evensong
Deuteronomy 7: 7-13, Revelation 2.1-11
The two Bible readings we have heard tonight are linked by a common theme – a question that has bothered believers as long as there have been believers. How are we supposed to live the way God wants us to in the midst of societies that may be going in a completely different direction? What do we do when the values and priorities of the world we live in are in opposition to what we feel are God’s values. There have been some periods in history when this dilemma has been particularly marked, when people have had to make very hard choices about whether to stand out and be different, or whether just to go with the flow.
Tonight’s readings come from two of those crunch periods. In the first reading the Israelites are just about to enter the Promised Land, but what will they do when they get there? Will they just take on the customs and beliefs of the people who are already there, or will they live differently, according to the rules God has given them? Awesome things have happened to them. They have been rescued from Egypt by the mighty hand of God. They have been given a distinctive law by God, shaped as his people, as he has guided them across the desert. But what will happen when they start to put down roots in this new land? Will that distinctiveness be preserved, or will they gradually just become assimilated, until they are indistinguishable from the indigenous inhabitants, and forget the God who brought them out of Egypt? The book of Deuteronomy is, shall we say, robust on the subject. No compromise! it proclaims. No surrender! In fact they are told in the verses just before the ones we heard that they must slaughter the existing inhabitants and pull down their places of worship – so, no question of just going with the flow there then! It sounds appalling to us – it is appalling – but no one at the time would have thought these orders odd. Throughout the Old Testament the people of Israel are urged to hang on to their distinctiveness in the face of the threat of the other cultures around them. They are often on the brink of annihilation, and the emphasis is on surviving. We might not approve of the methods advocated – the Bible is the developing story of people’s understanding of God and of themselves, its words mustn’t be applied out of context – but we can see why they acted as they did.
The second reading, from the revelation to St. John tackles the same issue. John is in exile on the island of Patmos, writing to the churches he has responsibility for – in this case at Ephesus and Smyrna. He is worried about them. As they try to live as Christians – a persecuted new minority in the Roman Empire – a group which others find odd and threatening – he knows they will find themselves in opposition to the culture around them. Their beliefs, their egalitarian way of life, their refusal to worship the Roman Emperor singles them out. And being singled out will make their lives hard. He knows that there is a risk that they will lose heart, lose energy, and simply swim with the tide – it is easier to be like others than to be different from them. “You have abandoned the love you had at first” he says, sadly. They are losing their edge. Unlike the Israelites who left Egypt with Moses they have the added problem that they aren’t a large group with a distinct racial identity and shared history. These early Christians are just locals who have heard and responded to the gospel as it has spread to their towns and cities. They have grown up as members of the Greek speaking cultures they still live in, soaked in the religious practices and the social customs of their times and places. As they adopt their new found Christian faith they are having to pull away from their old ways and change habits which have been second nature to them. No wonder John fears that they will slip back into old habits and patterns of living.
The dilemma is an old one, then, but it’s one we all face if we call ourselves Christian. What is there about the way we live that tells people we are Christian. There’s an old slogan which asks “ If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” We live in a society which, nominally at least, is inspired by Christian faith, where our laws and ways of government reflect centuries of Christian influence. It shouldn’t be difficult to live authentic, committed Christian lives here, and yet there is still plenty in our society that doesn’t fit with the Gospel. There’s inequality and discrimination, There’s an obsession with material wealth and celebrity. There is casual cruelty and indifference. It’s hardly the city of God, the heavenly Jerusalem that we see around us.
During our Lent course this year, for example, we talked a lot about the Sabbath, and the way we observe it. We didn’t want to go back to a time when Sundays were joyless and restrictive, but we nonetheless regretted the way in which the rhythm of work and rest and worship had been eroded over the years. The 24/7 society didn’t seem to us to be the sort of society God wanted, the sort of society that was good for us as human beings. But can we be the ones to hold out against the pressure of the superstores?
It is a small example, nothing like the challenges that face those who live in societies where to be a Christian invites persecution and physical danger. But it is one that brings home to us the tension of trying to live distinctively Christian lives in a world where other values often hold sway.
In the face of this, historically, Christians have taken one of two routes. The first is to create holy huddles, withdrawing from society and refusing to get involved in it, expelling from their midst anyone that doesn’t fit their tightly drawn criteria for godliness. That was Deuteronomy’s answer – kill those who oppose you. It was the answer of the Puritan groups who tried to shape England during the Civil war, and of the Pilgrim Fathers who founded what they hoped would be holy communities in the new American colonies. It is the answer of separatist churches to this day. “Guard your boundaries! Shut out those who don’t fit!” The problem is that the perfect society they try to create is usually just as flawed as the one they leave behind, because it has flawed human beings in it. And in the attempt they simply alienate those who might need to hear a message of love and welcome.
The second approach to that tension is to abandon any attempt at distinctiveness at all. Simply to fit in with the prevailing mores, to go along with whoever is in power, and not to ask questions or to challenge. Those churches in South Africa who supported apartheid did just this, using selective Bible verses to justify the decisions of the ruling group. Many churches in Germany before the Second World War did the same. In our own nation the Anglican church has often been happy to hitch a ride on the coat tails of power, allying themselves with whoever was ruling at the time. The advantage of doing this has been that we have been able to be part of the national life, available to all who want us. But it has often been at the cost of losing our cutting edge, having nothing really to say.
So what should we do? Should we try consciously to be different, or should we try to fit in? There’s no simple answer. Each situation needs to be considered separately. But I do think there is a vital principle in the two readings we heard today which gives us guidance.
Both of them root the decisions we make about the way we live our lives in our relationship with God. Deuteronomy talks about the covenant God makes with his people – a promise to be with them and care for them, a promise which they have seen him dramatically demonstrate in their release from Egypt. You are God’s people, his children, it says, loved by him eternally. It is when they forget that love that they are in danger. John too sees the danger to the early church as that of losing the love they had at first – forgetting what God has done for them in Christ, drifting away from him.
There is an unfortunate tendency among Christians to separate ethics from spirituality – to put social action, moral decisions in one box and prayer and reflection in another.
Actually, they belong together – and these readings underline that. Our actions and our moral decisions need to grow out of our relationship with God and be nourished by it. They need to be rooted in prayer and reflection – giving God time to speak, and ourselves time to listen. Prayer and reflection aren’t just time-wasting, self-indulgent navel-gazing exercises for the spiritually minded. In prayer we put ourselves in God’s hands. We recognize his authority and our dependence on him. Most of all we become aware of his love for us as individuals – the love that created us, the love which drew him to share our lives in Christ and be part of this messy world with all its compromises and contradictions. Reminded of that love we can admit that we don’t know what to do, and that we still need his help now. There’s far more chance then that we will tread his path through the maze of the world.
Going back to the question we started with we ask, “ How do we live as God wants us to? There are usually no simple answers to the complex dilemmas we face. But as we wrestle with the tensions of living in a world that sometimes feels far from heaven, it is the family likeness that has grown in us as we have spent time with our Father, the love we have learnt to be secure in which will speak most clearly to those around us of the difference God has made to us, and the difference God can make to them too.
Easter 3 - April 30th 06 Morning
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24. 36-48
What do you say when you’ve just risen from the dead? It’s one of those moments that I don’t think the books of etiquette have ever really tackled. It’s not a social situation that we often have to face. “Hi – it’s me again!” seems a bit inadequate, doesn’t it?
Jesus finds the right words, though, in today’s Gospel reading. “ Peace be with you”, he says as he appears in the locked room where his disciples are hiding. ”Peace be with you.” No doubt they would love a bit of peace in their lives right now. They have had a devastating few days. They have gone from thinking that Jesus was going to claim his rightful throne as Messiah to watching him be arrested and crucified. And now rumours are circulating that he has risen – rumours which any sensible person would reject out of hand. They are in turmoil.
But then, there is Jesus, standing in their midst, greeting them with words of peace.
It is the standard middle eastern greeting to this day, of course, Shalom aleichem in Hebrew, salaam aleikum in Arabic. Peace be with you. With the long history of fighting in those areas, perhaps its no surprise that people should wish each other peace. They know what they long for.
But beyond the obvious - the absence of war - what does that word peace really mean? What does it look like? What is peace?
Most of us are probably more influenced by the advertising industry than we would like to think. There are plenty of images of peace to be found there – peace sells. Peace, in the popular imagination is a still lake, and the reflection of trees, a flower-strewn meadow and the gentle babble of a brook. It is scented candles, soothing music and a warm bath to relax in at the end of the day.
We usually associate peace with quiet – with getting “away from it all” Away from the demands of our everyday lives. Away from the constantly ringing phone or the pile of emails. Away from the roar of traffic, the constant coming and going of people hurtling from one thing to the next.
Peace is often also about familiarity – the familiar comforts of life. The old pair of carpet slippers, the favourite places to return to. We often look for it in changeless things as we retreat into a past that perhaps seems simpler and purer, to a time when we didn’t have the responsibilities or problems we have now.
For many people, coming to church gives that sort of peace. It is familiar – the same words, the same music, and all in a beautiful setting. We can let it all wash over us and feel comforted by it, letting go of our cares.
There’s nothing wrong with that in itself. There is nothing wrong with those other images of peace in themselves either – the still lakes, the candles and the quiet music. There’s nothing wrong with finding comfort in familiarity. We all need a break. We all need rest and refreshment. But is that all there is to peace? And, more importantly, is that what the peace that Jesus offers is all about?
If it is, then this Gospel passage really doesn’t make much sense. Peace be with you, says Jesus, but he says it as he holds out his hands and feet, still bearing the wounds of the nails, to his disciples. Peace be with you, he says, but he follows that with a call to them to take his message out into the world. They are his witnesses. The message they will bear will be as costly for them as it was for him. It has cost him his life – the nail marks are reminders of that- and it will cost most of them their lives as well. It will mean change – radical, devastating change. The peace he offers isn’t about “getting away from it all”. It won’t be found by going back to old familiar comforts, by escaping from the world, but only as they go forward, and engage with the world, a world that will demand everything from them – even life itself.
No wonder the Bible talks about the “peace that passes understanding”. The future he offers them sounds about as far from peaceful as we can imagine.
The reading we heard from the Book of Acts gives us a picture of that future, of what the peace of Christ really means in practice. In it, Peter is talking to some people who have just witnessed something wonderful. As he came to the Temple to pray that day he met a man who had been disabled from birth begging at the gate. The gates of the Temple were thronged with beggars – often people with disabilities that prevented them working. They had no choice but to beg – there was no state support – they would starve otherwise. They weren’t allowed into the Temple, though, because disability was seen as a sign of God’s displeasure, as sign that you had sinned. But those going in, perhaps wanting to be seen to be compassionate, would give them money
It was a system that people had grown used to. It worked – sort of. The beggars survived – just about – and the donors had a warm glow of goodness. Everyone knew their place, knew what to expect. But Peter, coming across this beggar, had no money to give him – and even if he had, he knew that a handful of loose change was not what this man really needed. He didn’t need loose change; he needed real change. “I have no silver or gold,” said Peter, “ but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” (Acts 3.6) and the man stood up and walked. He stood up – he leapt up, it says - and walked, and the first place he walked was right into that temple, that had always been forbidden to him. He had the use of his legs back, but more than that he was able to worship, to have a relationship with God, that he had never had before. Not loose change, but real change – his life was transformed. His healing brought this man joy, but it also brought trouble. That’s why Peter is having to explain himself in the passage we heard. He has upset the system – things are no longer as people expect them to be. Everything has changed. And change – even for the better – is stressful. What has this upheaval to do with peace?
To answer that question we need to appreciate what the Hebrew word for peace – “shalom”- was really all about. It wasn’t a tranquil vision of changelessness; something you could get by going backwards into comforting familiarity. It was about wholeness and healing. It was the state in which everything was as God intended it to be. Peace was very closely connected to righteousness. Righteousness is a word which now tends to sound rather dull and forbidding, but in the Bible it isn’t like that at all. It’s the active, healing power of God – the power that makes things right. Peter calls Jesus the Righteous One – a title traditionally given to the Messiah – because he saw in him that power to make right. It was that power he called on to heal this disabled man. There is only one way to true peace in the Bible – through making right what is wrong, making whole what is broken.
According to the Bible, peace isn’t about escaping, but about engaging – not about closing your eyes to the world, but by seeing its problems and doing something about them. And it is either for everyone, or for no one. Real peace isn’t limited to my individual sense of tranquility? How can I “lie down in peace”, as the psalm we read together put it, if I know that others are lying down in a refugee camp, homeless and hungry, or are lying down in a shanty town, ground down by poverty and oppression.
So, what does it mean for Jesus to greet us with the words “peace be with you”? We all want peace. Who wouldn’t? We want peace in our world – peace in Iraq, peace in the Middle East, peace in Darfur. We want peace in our neighbourhoods – clean air to breathe, safety, caring neighbours, fulfilling work for all. We want peace in our families – loving support, people to share our dreams with. We want peace within ourselves – inner harmony and self-acceptance, a sense of meaning and purpose.
But the message of the Bible to us today is that true peace is costly. It isn’t a matter of scented candles and carpet slippers – that’s loose change, not real change. It is a matter of engaging with the world we live in, rather than trying to “get away from it all”. It means living the message of Jesus that we proclaim - a message of love and service. That might involve political action. It might mean lobbying for fair trade. It might mean getting stuck into our local communities, offering our services to voluntary organizations or to the church. It might mean making amends with the neighbours we have fallen out with. It might mean learning to speak gently about each other, learning to listen, understand and love each other. It might mean confronting painful situations in our families. It might mean being honest with ourselves about our own lives. It’s no good hoping to find peace if you know you have done wrong, and continue to do wrong. A guilty conscience is a friend that calls us to repentance, not an enemy to be silenced or ignored.
“Peace be with you” says Jesus to his disciples. It isn’t just a greeting. It is a prayer for the future, a vision for the future – a future that his disciples will make as they take his message of love out into the world and live it, no matter what the cost or how painful the change or challenge. “Peace be with you,” he says to us, as he calls us to the same task.