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Sermons Advent 07 - Christ the King 08

22 November 2008
  Christ the King   sermon by Kevin Bright

Matthew 25.31-46, Ezekiel 34.11-16 & 20-24

Those here last Sunday will remember the big silver blocks, each one of which represented a talent, a vast sum of money. The slave entrusted with one of these didn’t put his to good use and wasted his chance to increase its value. When his master returned he was unprepared for his response and incurred his wrath.
Today we hear Jesus speak of sheep and goats. This time it’s the ‘goats’ who represent the people who do nothing, they decide that some people are not worth bothering about and are surprised when they find themselves in front of Christ the King, Christ on the throne. The thought of Christ as King may have seemed a bizarre image at the time he made it, all the more so as Jesus followers experienced the apparently hopeless events of his arrest and persecution.
Jesus would have been able to point to the words of the prophet Ezekiel where God himself made it clear what he expects as he looks for lost sheep and longs to care for them. God scorns the fat sheep who hog the best pasture and deliberately push away the hungry and needy.
I find it hard to associate Jesus with final and eternal judgement. The thought of it frightens and disturbs me.
I’m a lot more comfortable focusing on his capacity for forgiveness. I looked at a lot of books and commentaries to find an interpretation that would make me feel better about this but none offered me what I wanted to find. My conclusion is that these words are meant to provoke and disturb us, leaving us each to examine what they may mean for us personally.
Perhaps we mostly comfortable western Christians feel that judgment offends our sense of freedom, which is our total freedom from the opinion of others. Or maybe it has to do with our belief that an unconditionally loving God will not judge us harshly.

If you're seeking an answer to that difficult question, a preacher called Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that “the Bible is not a book with the answers in the back." But we can wrestle with this... because we have a bedrock, foundational belief, a deep trust in the goodness of God, in the grace of God, and we can listen for how. God calls us to participate in the unfolding of the reign of God, and to do so in freedom, but a freedom that comes with responsibility.
The "with responsibility" part reflects the reality that we live in community, not completely on our own. We are not, ever... truly self-sufficient.
Eddie Izzard was on Telly Friday night saying that when you see oppressed people who face famine and slaughter at worship they seem to have an irrepressible joy, particularly expressed through their music. Clearly he has never experienced the excellent music produced by our choir as his experience of the Church of England to date has been to hear joyful words sung as’ Al-le-lu-ia, Al-le-lu-ia ris’n ascended, glorified!
For those who don’t know who Eddie Izzard is, he’s not really known as a theologian, he’s more of a stand up comedian. But maybe his humorous observations are based on something real. If we don’t express the joy we have in Christ as our king then we tend not to live this out as the sheep Jesus talks of.
Our answer could then also become’ Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
A long standing client of mine recently appeared on a TV programme called ‘The secret Millionaire’. For those not familiar the programme involves a very wealthy individual working amongst, in his case, those who care for homeless, unemployed and troubled people around the Elephant and Castle area in south London.
The very fact that his wealth was concealed from all he had contact with, enabled him to get alongside people as an equal and struggle with the difficult work they undertake. If the workers had known of his wealthy and comfortable life away from this area he would never have gained the same insights on a first hand basis. He tells me that his entire value system changed as a result of his experience and that he continues to support the organisations he worked with.
Because he inhabits a privileged world it was no surprise to hear him say ‘I didn’t know people lived like this’. The whole thing is about recognition, his anonymity which enabled him to conceal his real identity to those he helped but more importantly his recognition of the needs of others.
We can see hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick and imprisoned people among us on the news every day. I don’t think we can earn a place in heaven through the amount we give or do to help these people but I do believe that God requires us to recognise them and to help them where we are able if we are serious about calling Christ our King.
Jesus is telling us that we need to do something with our faith, put it into action. Our relationship with God is not only a matter of having faith but of also doing faith. If we look around us there is no shortage of opportunity to recognise Christ in others. Our positive reaction makes our faith real and makes a real difference in the process.
An extreme example of recognition is given to us by Mother Theresa of Calcutta. A prayer of hers went:’ Dearest Lord, May I see you today and everyday in the persons of your sick, and while nursing them minister to you. Though you hide yourself behind the unattractive disguise of the irritable, the exacting, the unreasonable, may I still recognise you and say ‘Jesus, my patient, how sweet it is to serve you…’
It isn’t my first thought to see Christ in someone else particularly when they are a pain in the neck, or worse, to deal with but we have got to try and start looking and thinking in this way if we are to bring any change. It’s our common humanity we have to learn to recognise in each other.
Last week, BBC radios ‘thought for the day referred to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi’s recent joint visit to the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. The Chief Rabbi spoke of being struck by the horrible efficiency with which the Nazis collected everything of use - teeth, hair, shoes, glasses. Indeed, it seemed they had a value for most things - everything, that is, apart from the millions of men, women and children that they were throwing away as worthless.
Hitler believed that only by the elimination of the Jewish people could the German people flourish. Hence Auschwitz. But the truth is exactly the opposite of this. Our own flourishing, whoever we are, is completely bound up with the flourishing of other people, whatever their creed and whatever their colour. And until we understand this completely, we can never be certain that we are not the ‘goats’ Jesus spoke of, those who feel some people are just not worth caring about.
We worship in a beautiful ancient church, and despite the repairing and maintaining responsibility that goes with this I don’t think many here would swap it for a modern hall, not even on a cold day like this..
We are able to recognise the beauty of this place, recognise the beauty of worship music and singing which doesn’t actually go “Al-le-lu-ia, Al-le-lu-ia “and as we step outside we recognise the beauty of the countryside in winter.
When we leave this place and go back into the world to our families, homes, schools and workplaces let’s consider whether it’s true for us that we find it easier to appreciate beautiful places of worship, to sing glorious hymns, or to appreciate the beauty of nature, than to see the image of Christ in one another? If that is the case then let’s resolve to do something about it.
Today we have come to the end of another liturgical year, and our focus will move to preparing for advent. Once again we will hear the story of this surprising God who came to dwell among us in the form of a vulnerable child born of homeless refugees.
This is our God, truly ‘one of the least of these’ which Jesus challenges us to recognise.

Nov 16 2008    Second Sunday before Advent. Breathing Space

I Thessalonians 5.1-11, Matthew 25.14-30
Today’s Gospel reading is possibly rather too close to current events for comfort. It’s a story about people who take financial risks and at the moment our readiness to do that as individuals, as institutions and as a nation is very much in the spotlight. And this parable might seem to be taking us in a direction we’d rather not go in. The slaves that take risks in the story are praised; the one who keeps his master’s initial investment safe is condemned. Perhaps our sympathy lies with that last one. Of course the parable Jesus tells here isn’t really about money – but now just as then the way we feel about money can tell us a lot about the way we feel about other things.

My guess is that most of us, far from being cavalier about money are inclined to be over-careful with it and over anxious about it, particularly if we’ve known poverty or had to manage on a tight budget. In past generations support was patchy or non-existent if you fell on hard times. You would have to throw yourself on the mercy of friends or charity if things got tough. There was no welfare state. When Jesus told this parable that was the reality people lived with, so anxiety about money must have been a backdrop to many lives. In the case of these slaves of course this money wasn’t even theirs. It was and remained their master’s. That would have made their anxiety even worse. Their lives were in his hands, and the amount of money he had entrusted them with was huge – 1 talent was worth 6000 drachma, and a drachma was a normal day’s wage, so these slaves had been entrusted with the equivalent of respectively 17, 34 and about 85 years wages. Even for the slave who was “only” given one talent it was a huge sum. No wonder they were afraid. I would be too. But some of the slaves manage to conquer their fear and they trade with it and it grows. It is these risk-taking slaves who are praised. Perhaps it would have been a different story if they had lost it all, but Jesus point here is that it is their willingness to at least try to use their master’s money – to invest it in a way that would make it grow - that is what their master values, not how successful the enterprise  was.

Of course, as I’ve said the story isn’t really about money; it’s about how we deal with the things that are precious to us, about the fear we can feel for those things and the protectiveness that can cause us to bury our treasure instead of using it. Jesus told this parable to people who had grown up aware that they guarded a great treasure – the treasure of God’s relationship with them, as his chosen people. But they were sometimes so afraid of letting others into that relationship that effectively they might as well have buried it in a hole. They created an elaborate system of rules and regulations to ensure that only those who were ritually pure approached God in the Temple. Some people – Gentiles and people with certain disabilities could never get there for example.
It’s hard to tell who was being protected from what, but it reflected a “better safe than sorry” mentality. When Jesus came along and challenged it by including, touching, eating with those who the religious leaders disapproved of they were very uneasy. Surely nothing but trouble could result. They weren’t bad people or greedy people – they were doing what they thought was best and safest. But as a result they were effectively digging a hole and burying God’s treasure in it – the treasure he had meant them to share.

It’s something we can still find ourselves doing, putting a fence around salvation, a fence around the church, picking and choosing who we think is worthy to receive what God has to give and justifying it by saying that we are just keeping the treasure entrusted to us safe. We can exclude ourselves in this way too, convinced we aren’t good enough for God, that to come close to him would be to risk his wrath. But this story challenges that thinking. God means his treasure – the love he has for us – to be used, shared and enjoyed. Only  that way can it grow.

The letter to the Thessalonians makes the same point in a different way – you are safe, it says. “you are not in darkness...” We have what we need – for ourselves and to share with others. But the question we might like to ask ourselves in our silence today is how much we feel we can we trust that? Can we trust God that he will look at us and at our efforts – however half-baked they are, and however fearfully undertaken – not with the harsh judgment the third servant fears but with delight, celebrating with us whatever bit of love or joy or peace we have managed to create around us.

In the silence tonight let’s think about what are afraid of, and about those times when we have let fear get in the way of the generosity and adventurousness to which we are called.


November 9th 2008     Remembrance Sunday

Psalm 42.1-8, Ephesians 6.10-17

It’s Remembrance Sunday – a day, as its title says, for remembering. But I wonder what it is we are remembering today? Perhaps that sounds like a strange question, but it seems to me that there are many different types of remembrance happening on a day like today. I’d like to touch on three of them this morning and I think each has its place as we reflect on war and try to find a path to peace.

The first sort of remembering I want to talk about might be called historical remembering. If you look at the television schedules or the newspapers around this time you’ll find they are filled with documentaries and articles about the wars that have been turning points in our history. We hear the stories of great leaders – good and bad – both the Churchills and the Hitlers of our world. Historians talk about military strategies and the politics of war. That is historical remembering and it can be fascinating stuff, though perhaps it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But even if you’re not a history buff, this historical remembering matters. There’s an old saying that goes along the lines of “History repeats itself. It has to. No one listens.”  If we don’t pay attention to the lessons of past conflicts we may have to learn those lessons all over again, the hard way. That’s historical remembering

My next sort of remembering is at the other extreme from that, and we could call it  personal remembering, recalling not the grand stories and the politics but the memories that are unique to each one of us. I’m sure there are a lot of those sort of memories around.
There are many here who have had direct experience of conflict. Some of you have served in the armed forces, some may be serving currently.  You will have memories of the people you’ve served with, the places you’ve been, the things that have happened to you and that you have done. Some of those memories may be painful, of things you’d rather forget, but you might also be remembering times of great camaraderie and sense of purpose. Whether they are good or bad memories they are your memories, your stories to tell of how things were for you – no one else’s will be quite the same.
Others here I know will be thinking of family members who are in war zones right now, or have been recently. Others may be recalling a war-time childhood amidst the bombs and the air raid sirens.
Even those of us who have no direct experience of war will probably have personal memories of the effects of war on our family lives; stories of a father or grandfather who was never quite the same when he came home, of wounds, physical or mental, that never really healed, of family life blighted by wartime separation or bereavement.  War doesn’t always make people better or braver. It can also leave a painful legacy which stretches across the generations.

Recalling those personal memories may be difficult, but it is important that we do so. Remembering can be the first step to healing, and for those of us who haven’t known war directly it is the personal stories that make real its cost to us, that underline the importance of the work of organisations like the British Legion or Combat Stress, who work with those who bear the scars of war.

So – historical remembering helps us see the big picture; personal remembering helps us to see the individual story – both are important. But the third type of remembering I want to think about today is important too because it helps us to understand not only what happens in war – politically or personally – but why it happens. For want of a better term I’m going to call it spiritual remembering. On this day, if at no other point in the year, we are called to remember our values, the things that matter to us, that can make us the people we want to be.

Both our Bible readings today were about spiritual remembering in different ways.  The first one, from Psalm 42, is the song of a person who is in exile, a captive in a foreign land. The plaintive verses from Psalm 137 which the choir sang to us came from this period too. They were written at a time when the people of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians and taken away across the desert to Babylon – modern day Baghdad. Jerusalem had been smashed to pieces, the temple ruined. Everything they had was gone. As they sat in Babylon, the Bible tells us, they remembered the life they had lost. They remembered the land they loved, which they thought they would never see again. They remembered, too, their beginnings in that land – the ancient story of God setting their ancestors free from another exile in Egypt. They remembered the tale of him bringing them across the wilderness to a Promised Land of plenty and they remembered the laws they had been given by Moses, laws which were meant to form them into a nation that would be based on justice and respect.

As they sat in Babylon, remembering mournfully what they had once had, who they had once been, the dreams they had once dreamed, they started to think about how they had come to abandon that vision and ignore those laws. The rich had heaped up wealth for themselves; the poor had been disregarded, trodden down. And they had taken God’s love for granted, too, assuming that he would make them invincible. They hadn’t seen their own responsibility for shaping their society. It was only when they thought they had lost everything, as they sat in that distant exile, that they began to remember what they were meant to be about. It was there in Babylon that they started to collect together the stories of their origins into what we call now call the Old Testament. It’s a book of spiritual remembrance.

Remembering the things that matter is a theme picked up in a different way in the New Testament reading. “Put on the whole armour of God” says St Paul to the church in Ephesus. These early Christians were going through tough times. Being a Christian was dangerous. Many of them were imprisoned, tortured, killed by the Romans. How should they act in the face of this persecution? Paul reminds them that this struggle isn’t one they can fight with weapons and armour made of metal. What they really need in these dangerous times is to remember and to hold close to them the lessons they have been learning as they follow the way of Christ.

Paul talks about truth. He talks about righteousness, faith, peace, the sense of being secure in God’s love – that’s what salvation is about. He talks about being open to God’s word, the challenging voice that cuts across our prejudices and assumptions. It’s not meant to be an exhaustive list and I expect we could come up with other things to add to it, but the point he is making is that in times of trouble it is these things, things that are to do with our basic attitudes to life, which will make the difference. If we forget them we will soon be in trouble. It is sad but true that wars can bring out the worst in people as well as the best. There’s never been a war that was without its atrocities – massacres, rapes, casual cruelty. Those scenes of the brutal treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison are probably not that exceptional – it’s just that someone took photos so the whole world saw them. In times of trouble people who would normally be law-abiding can find themselves forgetting who they are, forgetting what they always thought was most precious to them.

I watched a TV programme last week about the last day of the World War 1 – perhaps you saw it too. It told the disturbing story of the soldiers who fell in the hours before the Armistice came into force at 11 o’clock. Despite the fact that it was widely known that the fighting would end then, something like 11,000 soldiers were killed on that day, more than the total killed in the D-Day landings. Some of those deaths may have been inevitable, even justifiable, but sadly there were cases where it seems there was no better reason for them than that a commanding officer wanted to have one last stab at glory, to be able to say he had won some town or village, which he could have walked into a few hours later. If ever there was a story that told of the need for spiritual remembrance – remembering what really matters - it is this one.

It isn’t only in the heat of battle that these things happen, of course. When any of us are struggling with some great difficulty at work or at home, when any of us feel threatened, with our backs to the wall, we can just as easily find ourselves using weapons that we know are wrong to win ourselves an advantage – lying to cover up our failures, cutting others down with a ruthlessness we would usually be ashamed of. But the victories we win using such weapons usually turn out to be hollow ones, and the long-term cost can be far greater than we anticipated. We find, in that Old Testament phrase, that we have sown the wind, and reaped the whirlwind. 

Today then there are many memories, many types of remembering happening here and all of them matter. It matters that we remember our history so that we can learn from it. It matters that we remember those personal stories too. But spiritual remembrance matters as well; remembering who we are, and who we want to be. It matters not only on the battlefield but also in the board room, on the shop floor, at home. It matters because if we forget these vital things we may find that we have fought the wrong battles with the wrong weapons, and that the world we have created for ourselves is a place of suspicion, hatred and vengeance where no one can live well.

2nd Nov 08    All Souls' Evening service

Rev 21. 1-6, Romans 8.31-35, 37-39

In the seventeenth century an eminent Quaker wrote a prayer which is still beloved by many today. His name was William Penn and he was the founder of what is now the state of Pennsylvania. I am sure you will have heard it – it’s often read at funerals.

We give them back to you, dear Lord, who gave them to us. Yet you did not lose them in giving, so we have not lost them by their return. What you gave you take not away, O Lover of souls; for what is yours is ours also if we are yours. And life is eternal and love is immortal, and death is only an horizon, and an horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight. Lift us up, strong Son of God, that we may see further; cleanse our eyes that we may see more clearly; and draw us closer to yourself that we may know ourselves to be nearer to our loved ones who are with you. And while you prepare a place for us, prepare us also for that happy place, that where they are and you are, we too may be for evermore.
William Penn (1644-1718)

It’s a prayer all about giving, taking, losing and finding again. Penn knew about loss. Several of his children  had died in infancy, as they so often did in those days, and his first wife died quite young.  He’d had to leave behind his life in England, too, when he travelled to America to escape the religious turmoil of the times. He’d lost all that was familiar to him. His prayer comes out of personal experience – and it is one that clearly still speaks to many today.

I think there are two reasons for that.  The first is that we recognise the sense of separation and absence he talks about. It is a universal human experience. Especially in the early days of bereavement these are usually the most powerful and painful feeling we have. It’s telling that we often say of someone who has died that we have “lost” them. Suddenly there is a gap in the world where they used to be. There is an empty chair. There is silence where we are used to hearing a familiar voice. It can seem quite baffling – absurd even. How can someone be there one minute and the next be utterly gone from us? It’s very common, in fact, for us to find this literally unthinkable – our brains “fill in” the gap. We think we’ve caught a glimpse of the one we have lost in a crowd, or heard the sound of their key in the door. It’s a common phenomenon, nothing to do with ghosts or spirits, just that we tend to see and hear what we expect to see and hear, even if it isn’t there.

But I think there is a second reason why this prayer is so treasured, because it doesn’t stop at that feeling of loss. It doesn’t let loss have the last word. Instead Penn reminds us that there is a sense in which ultimately we can’t be parted from those we have loved. We are still bound to one another, says Penn, because God holds us all in one embrace – living and departed. We are bound together in his love. Penn said in another place that “Whoever loves beyond the world cannot be separated by it.” He calls death an horizon - and this is a man who knew about horizons; he’d sailed over them as he crossed the Atlantic several times during his life.  Horizons look all too real from the shoreline, like the end of the world, yet when you sail towards one it vanishes. Just because we can’t see the world that is beyond the horizon doesn’t mean it isn’t there and just as real as the place where we are.

St Paul said the same thing in a different way in our reading tonight. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus”. He was speaking to the church in Rome – not some mighty institution meeting in a grand building but just a small group of Christians gathered together, often in secret, in the face of persecution. These people had seen friends and family dragged away, arrested, imprisoned, executed in the arena for their beliefs; they knew that one day it might be them who faced this fate. Their whole lives were permeated by loss and the fear of loss. But Paul, who was eventually executed himself by the Romans, reassures them. He has discovered – he is convinced – that whatever their persecutors manage to destroy, they can’t destroy the love of God, the love which truly bound them together. 

It may be tonight that you are in those first raw stages of grief, aware only of what you have lost. You may feel that this can never change – and of course there is a sense in which that gap is never filled, not in the way we would like it to be, this side of death – nor can bereavement be hurried through or short circuited. It takes as long as it takes.  But as we bring our grief and loss to God, Penn’s prayer for us, and my prayer for you, is that you will find yourself held in the embrace of God, an embrace that holds us all, living and departed, an embrace that reaches across the horizons of our loss.

26th October 2008 Bible Sunday 
sermon by Kevin Bright
Col 3.12-17, Luke 17.11-19

Today is designated ‘Bible Sunday’.

Here’s a question for you, have you read your bible every day this week? Me neither.

Do most of us read words from the bible at least once a week? There’s a good chance that we do with the lectionary readings on our pew sheets.

It’s worth asking ourselves if there are events that make us read the bible more often, more urgently or which make us look for help in understanding it better. Preaching the next day usually works for me!

We’re often urgently grappling with God’s word during our preparation for confirmation or if we are studying for an authorised ministry. People who read publicly often like to have some understanding of the context in which their reading sits or at least run through it to ensure there are none of those difficult to pronounce words.

Then there’s life’s challenges, times of fear, danger and suffering which understandably prompt us to seek hope in the words of the bible.

But what about what we might call normal daily life when none of the above may apply?

According the last UK census in 2001 72% of respondents took the trouble to state their religion as Christianity, 77% in Sevenoaks district, and Christians read their bibles don’t they.

Well from those of that 77% that actually attend church the Bible Reading Fellowship tells us that 16% read the bible on a daily basis.

If you feel a structured approach to daily bible reading would help you they are offering a two week free trial of their notes and reflections, which can be downloaded from their website, the two weeks starts today so you’ll have to online later to get the maximum advantage. Alternatively, Bobby Rayner is our Bible Reading Fellowship representative and can tell you more.

We heard the words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away’. The words of Christ, of God, remain with us for all time and remain eternally significant. Have these words been left with us in order that successive generations of Christians can be made to feel guilty about not habitually reading them? I’m certain that this is not what God had in mind.

My view is that reading the bible, thinking about what it means to us and acting upon it are an integral part of our relationship with God. He’s not interested in making us feel bad about how much time we put in but as our Christianity matures we are likely to feel that the bible will help us go deeper with God and it will therefore grow in importance to us.

We need to be honest with God and ourselves and lay open the reasons we find bible study difficult sometimes. There’s no shame in saying it and it’s a ridiculous pretence among people who are in a community of mutual support to assume everyone else has their head in the bible for hours every day.

The bible is a fantastic collection of books. 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the new, easy to remember as 3x9=27. These books really are worth reading. There’s poetry, songs, wisdom, law, violence, kindness, protest, complaint, letters, prophesying, great surprises, joy and much, much more.  The bible is a collection of 40+ authors covering around 1600 years.

We don’t need to fear the books of the bible too much as we are probably more familiar with much of it than we realise.

We know many great characters from the bible, Adam and eve, Noah (and his Ark), Joseph (and his amazing Technicolor dream coat), Moses (and his parting of the sea), Samson (the strong man), David and Goliath. We can probably recall the accounts surrounding Jesus birth with Inns and wise men, we know John the Baptist, that 5000 were fed, the Good Samaritan and the prodigal son. We smile at the little tax collector Zacheus who had to climb a sycamore tree to see Jesus. Palm Sunday with the donkey, the last supper, Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, Pentecost and all those letters to the early church at least ‘ring some bells’ among us.

We all know at least parts of this and don’t need to fear picking up our bibles it’s just that it can offer so much more when we understand the people, their customs, and the events of the times. When we start to imagine ourselves in their shoes the bible can come alive as the penny drops and we see they were often going through similar stresses, strains, sadness and joys that we are today.

Don’t have time, don’t understand it, get bored reading it, fall asleep when reading, find it hard work, don’t have the self discipline are all common and natural excuses for letting our good intentions come to nothing.

We can all spare a few minutes each day and there will be others here who would love someone to discuss the bible with. There’s an enormous amount of help available in books and online. Even if you don’t have a bible with you it can be read in over 100 versions on bible gateway .com so we can read it in before or after we start our busy day or in our lunch break, technologically savvy people can even read it on their PDA as they sit on the bus or train or wait between meetings or lectures.

The early Christian church, such as that in Colosse which Paul’s letter was addressed to, didn’t have all the formality that we have in our patterns of worship. Their church would most likely have been small groups of people meeting wherever they could to worship pray and study the bible. Much of the time they would be debating and getting to grips with the events they read about without any expert help, discovering and learning for themselves.

As a lay person I’m with you on this. I need to learn more, dig into the bible more regularly and be open to being challenged and changed as a result.

My experience to date has been that time spent with the bible can offer consolation, comfort, deepened spirituality, hope, courage and more.

There is so much potential that we as a church community can release for the power of good if we get reading and sharing the bible together.

If we’re honest it’s easier to get motivated when we do things with others. Anne is proposing to publish study notes on a monthly basis relevant to our reading in church. Its then up to us to decide what we do with these. My suggestion is that we each look for opportunities to sit with a few others for an hour or so once a month. I’m happy to make my house available but equally happy to meet at others where mobility and child care make it difficult to get out.

Whether alone or with others let’s start reading the bible more from today.

There’s a new opportunity here to increase what we can take from the bible so let’s respond as people sharing a common journey and not let our good intentions pass us by.


October 19 2008     Trinity 22 Breathing Space Holy Communion

1 Thess 1.1-10, Mt 22.15-22

Jesus is in a tight spot, as he so often is in the Gospels. You could say he has put himself there. He has been telling parables, parables that are none too subtle in their message. We’ve heard a series of them over the past few weeks. Stories of wedding banquets where the wedding guests refuse the invitation, where sons who ought to help don’t. The Chief priests and Pharisees aren’t stupid. They can see who the target of these stories is – them. And they don’t like it. So they plan their fight back. 

They send some of their stooges along to Jesus with an apparently serious question. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere…(a bit of flannel follows to soften Jesus up)…Tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

The problem they are tapping into here was not only that the taxes were being paid to the Romans, the hated occupying forces, but that the coins with which they had to be paid bore an image of the head of the emperor, the emperor who was regarded as divine. This broke the commandment not to make graven images. It was absolutely fundamental to Jewish law. Good Jews were left in a huge dilemma. Break the Jewish law and keep the Romans on your side, or break the Roman law, but keep in the good books of your Jewish friends (and, they thought, of God too.)

It’s a dilemma to which there was no easy answer, So they know when they ask Jesus this question that there is no reply he can give which will keep everyone happy – that’s why they ask it. Whatever he says they will have grounds to accuse him to someone – either to the Jewish leaders as a collaborator, or to the Romans as a revolutionary.

But unfortunately they aren’t as clever as they think.  When Jesus asks them to show him a coin, they are caught off guard and instantly reach into their pockets for one, and they are hoist on their own petard. They might disapprove of these coins, but at least one of them has one on him, and what is more, when we look at this passage in its context we discover that they are standing in the Temple at the time. They have brought a graven image of the Roman emperor into the most sacred place in the Jewish world. Jesus could have just shrugged and walked away. He has punctured their self-righteousness – they are no better than anyone else, caught up in the inevitable contradictions and complexities of human life. If we think we are going to be able to get through life floating in a bubble above the mess of the world we can think again. But that is not the end of the story. There is something else they need to learn, something which, had they known it might have prevented them trying to play a trick like this in the first place.

“Give to Caesar what belongs to him” says Jesus. But then he goes on “and give to God the things that are God’s”. And that is the sting in the tail. The coin is the emperor’s – it bears his image to make that point. But it is not just the emperor’s image Jesus sees before him as he stands there on that day. He also sees something that bears the image of God – not a coin but people, the people who are asking the question, the other people there who are perhaps more genuinely struggling towards the truth.  The Bible teaches, right from the beginning that each of us is made in the image of God. It’s there in the Book of Genesis – “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them. Male and female he created them.” Whoever we are, whatever we have done, we reflect God in some way. We bear his image, just as much as the coin bore the image of Caesar. Give to the emperor what bears his image, says Jesus, but give to God what is his, which is nothing less than the whole of ourselves.

Jesus doesn’t just tell us to do this thing or that thing. He calls us to look at our basic orientation towards God and one another. He calls us to know that we are God’s children, with all the joy and demand that involves, and that those around us are God’s children also.

In the silence tonight let’s reflect on what it might mean for our lives if we took that call seriously – giving to God what is God’s, nothing less than our whole selves, and seeing what is God’s in others too.


12th Oct 08    Trinity 21

Isaiah 25.1-9, Ps 23, Phil 4.1-9, Mt 22.1-14

We’re in the middle of a crisis – you don’t need me to tell you that. It’s all over the news, banks collapsing, financial systems grinding to a halt. People are worried about the security of their jobs, savings and pensions. Individuals, local councils, charities, even the police force are worried that they will lose money, vital money that funds vital work. I don’t pretend to understand all the ins and outs of what has caused this crisis, but it’s clear that we are facing major changes and challenges. I don’t know about you, but I find a lot of what I hear unsettling, frightening even. For those of us in the prosperous West, who have been winners in the global lottery in recent generations of growth and prosperity, all this is coming as a nasty shock. That’s why I’ve put together some resources which you may have noticed in the porch on the way in – prayers for the financial situation and leaflets which might help if you or someone you know is worried.  They are on the church website too.

It may not be obvious but the readings we heard today are very relevant to this time of crisis – this turning point that we have reached.

The first reading comes from the book of the prophet Isaiah. These words were written in the eighth Century BC at a time when Isaiah’s society, the little nation of Judah, was also going through a crisis. The Assyrians were advancing on them, conquering the nations round about, and soon they knew the axe would fall on them. It hadn’t happened yet, but it would, and there seemed to be nothing they could do but watch, just as perhaps we have watched what is happening in our day, transfixed with a sort of horrified fascination.

Isaiah, though, calls his people to look beyond the terrifying vision they are facing, and to consider what will come next. There is an old myth that the Chinese character for crisis is made up of two others, one which represents danger and the other opportunity. I’m afraid it isn’t true, but I can see why we would want it to be, because there is a sense that every disaster, however ghastly it is, also opens up new possibilities. When something is swept away, eventually something else will come along to fill the gap, and however small and insignificant we might feel we can all affect what that new world looks like. Change brings with it choices that must be made, choices which will shape the future. 

God’s desire, says the prophet, is that that new world will be one that is very different from the one these people know now. Instead of corruption and injustice – the city that is destined to become a ruin - he longs for a world where everyone can share in the feast of creation, where everyone has enough and “the song of the ruthless is stilled.”

How does that sound to you? Pie in the sky? Unrealistic? Dangerously subversive? Too good to be true? Possibly all of those things, but it is what the Bible says, again and again, that God wants – there is nothing really new in this vision. It is the same vision God gave to Moses as he led the people towards a land “flowing with milk and honey”. Jesus preaches of a world in which there is justice and love too and when we pray that Biblical prayer “thy kingdom come”, this is what we are praying for as well.

But however much we say we want a world like this, bringing it about always seems to elude us. The problem is that it takes more than a vague longing to build this sort of world. It takes real change in the way we live, the way we relate to one another, our priorities. Especially for those of us living in relative comfort and prosperity a fairer world is likely to mean we have less rather than more, where we have to give up some of the advantages we have enjoyed for so long, and that’s not an easy thing to do. If it was we would have done it long ago. Being content with less means confronting whatever it is that drives our need to grab and to grasp; the fear of losing face, the fear of being vulnerable perhaps. Like most people throughout human history, we’d like everything to be different, but we don’t really want anything to change.

The Gospel reading is about change, and our resistance to it, as well. A king holds a banquet to celebrate the marriage of his son. We’re used to thinking of weddings as being about love - about two people wanting to be together – but for most of human history that wasn’t the case at all. Marriage was about the future – inheritance, property, the forging of alliances. And that was especially true of royal marriages like this one. A royal marriage is about the future of a whole kingdom, the first step towards  birth of an heir, another generation of kings.

So, the king in this story isn’t just having a party. He is celebrating a new stage in his kingdom’s life. The ways the various characters in the story respond to his invitation tell us how they feel about being part of his plans.
They fall into three groups, three different responses. Some people won’t come to the banquet at all, even though they’ve been specifically invited. Some respond with enthusiasm – the crowds in the streets – both good and bad – who never imagined they could be guests at such a feast. And then there is that poor chap at the end who is thrown out because he isn’t dressed properly – I’ll come back to him in a minute.

Those who first heard this story would have had no trouble identifying who the first group represented – those invited guests who won’t come. Ah, they’d have said, these are the Jewish leaders, religious and secular, who didn’t recognise Jesus as the Messiah. They couldn’t believe that God really wanted the kind of future he talked about – his version of the kingdom of God – so they first ignored him and then had him killed.  There would have been no mystery there for them at all. This was a group that it was easy to point the finger at and to disapprove of from their perspective.

The second group – the great crowd of ordinary people who find themselves unexpectedly welcomed to the banquet – would have been pretty obvious too. Jesus’ message was that everyone – good and bad, rich and poor, whatever their life story – was welcomed by God.

But the really puzzling figure is the man at the end, the one who is thrown out for not having the right clothing. What’s all that about, we wonder? What’s he done wrong? Surely it doesn’t matter to God what we wear? And we’d be right to think that - it doesn’t matter. God loves us whatever we look like, whether we are in jeans or an Armani suit. To understand this bit of the story we need to know a bit about its cultural background. In the Middle East it was common practice for the host at a wedding to provide clothes for his guests, just as people sometimes give out wedding favours to guests today. This man isn’t too poor to afford a wedding garment. He has been given the clothes he needs already; he just can’t be bothered to change into them, or doesn’t want to for some reason. He’s turned up to the feast – who wouldn’t with free food and drink on offer? But he doesn’t really want to get involved in this king’s plans for the future.

It is easy, as I said, to tell the goodies from the baddies in the first part of the story, easy to see who they represent, but this man is perhaps more difficult and more uncomfortable for us to identify, because there’s probably a bit of him in all of us. He’s the bit of us that stands on the sidelines, comes along to church, voices concern for the poor, means well, but hopes that everything will basically stay the same in his life. The man in the story literally doesn’t want to get changed, and he stands for that part of us that doesn’t want to get changed either, to have God transform us, pull us apart and put us together differently. But just like him, if we won’t get changed then our involvement in building the kingdom is never going to come to much.

 “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable…think about these things…and the God of peace will be with you” says St Paul to the Philippians. The kind of transformation we should aim for is clear, but how do we get changed? What can we do about it?
Sometimes the change we need might come through spending regular time in prayer and reflection, reading the Bible – letting ourselves hear what God is saying to us. I’m planning from next month to produce a monthly Bible study outline, something you can use on your own, or get together with a couple of friends to talk through. I hope that might help us hear God’s voice and respond to it.
Sometimes we may need to seek out some help to change, talking through a problem with someone else – I’m always happy to listen.
Sometimes change comes as we get involved in serving others. We meet Christ in them, and discover parts of ourselves, good and bad, that we were unaware of.
It doesn’t matter how we get changed, so long as we do, committing ourselves by that change to being part of the kingdom God is building in our age.

Somewhere in all of the mess of this moment, in the crises that are besetting the world, God is at work. He is always at work if we have eyes to see him. As Psalm 23 put it, he is setting a table in the face of all that troubles us, a table at which the poor are just as welcome as the rich, the bad as welcome as the good. We’re invited to share in that feast, to get changed ourselves so that we can be part of the transformation he wants for all. That is the challenge we face, a challenge to which each one of us has to make our own response.

5th Oct  08    Harvest  Evensong

Job 38.1-18, Romans 8.18-25

We’re living in difficult times. The financial crisis that’s filling the news at the moment is one which will have directly touched many in our own community who work in the City. It’s not just affecting them, of course– less money around means fewer goods being manufactured and sold, not just here but around the world, which means fewer jobs for those who work to produce and sell them. People unable to get mortgages means less money for house buying, house-building and all the allied trades that go with that. In the end everyone suffers, not just in this country but around the world, and as ever it is likely to be the poorest that suffers most. We’re all in these difficult times together.

And it’s not just the economy that might make us fear for the future. There’s the threat of terrorism, and the continuing struggle in Afghanistan and Iraq, and tension growing with other countries like Iran as well. And there’s climate change, which will exacerbate any other problems, potentially causing massive ecological disruption, pain, poverty and conflict.

We’re living in difficult times – our celebration of the harvest is inevitably tinged with that knowledge. But we are not the first to live through times like these. Communities, nations and individuals have struggled with disasters of one sort or another for the whole of human history. Indeed we could say we’ve been lucky to live when and where we have. Most of us have enjoyed a long period of relative prosperity, comfort and safety. For many around the world now, and many in this country in the not too distant past it would have seemed a complete pipe dream to have, for example, health care free at the point of need, universal education, a welfare safety net. We may grumble about the inadequacies of the systems we’ve got, but at least we have them to grumble about.

So difficult times are nothing new, and both our readings tonight are about people who are living in such times.

The first reading was from the book of Job, a story which leads us on an extended journey through one man’s misery.  It’s not meant to be a historical account of a real person – it may well be based on a folk-tale that would have been familiar to its hearers already. But it takes that story and expands it to form a meditation on the problem of suffering – what causes it, whose fault it is, and how we can respond to it.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is written to a community living through persecution, by a man who endured repeated threats to his life, arrest and in the end almost certainly was martyred. So these ancient writings should have something relevant for our times too.

Job was a prosperous man at the start of his story. In fact he was ridiculously prosperous. As well as his ten children, he had, says the Bible, seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys and very many servants. He was the Warren Buffett or the Bill Gates of his day; “the greatest of all the people of the east” it says. And to add to all that he was a good man, upright and blameless. This is not a story of a fat cat reaping the just reward for greed.

But all this is taken from him, supposedly at the behest of Satan who wants to prove that people only serve God because of what he gives them. We need to be careful not to place too much emphasis on the figure of Satan in this story – it is a story not a work of academic theology. The word “Satan” literally means “the accuser” – the one who tests people – rather than the horned devil of later mythology. In this folk-tale picture of the courts of heaven he is just the antagonist that gets the story going, but he’s not a central player. He doesn’t appear after this point at all.
Anyway – Satan gets his way and disaster after disaster falls on Job. Enemy tribes and natural disasters deprive him of his livestock. His children are killed when a strong wind from the desert destroys their house. Job himself is afflicted with a terrible disease – some dreadful skin condition that leaves him sitting in the ashes scraping at his sores with a potsherd. Job refuses to turn away from God though. “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?“ he asks his wife.

Frankly he seems a bit too good to be true at this point, but as the writer develops his story we begin to seem more clearly Job’s struggle to hold onto his faith. We are introduced to a group of Job’s friends – Job’s comforters - who turn out not to be a lot of comfort at all, and it is in conversation with them that we start to see into Job’s mind, and into theirs too.  They fall into the classic mistake of trying to “fix it” for Job, or at least find him a neat explanation for his suffering. The trouble is that their tidy solution actually ends up making him feel worse.

For Job’s friends it all seems clear. In their spiritual economy, you get what you deserve. If Job suffers, it must be because he has done something wrong. Despite his denials, denials which fit in with what God has said about him, that he really is blameless, they go on at him about justice and repentance, urging him to turn to God, although in fact he has never turned away from him.

Job rejects their neat but wrong solution. But that doesn’t mean he lets God off the hook. If you’ve ever held yourself back from being angry with God, thinking perhaps that it isn’t really allowed, the book of Job should give you all the permission you need. Job tells it like it is. He is bitter, desperate, furious and he’s not going to hide any of that from God. And it’s clear that that is fine with God. He can cope with our anger – it is when we refuse to speak to him at all that he can do nothing for us.  Job demands that God gives an account of himself. If the trite answers of his friends are wrong, if he really is innocent, why is this happening? I guess it is a question many of us have asked at some time.

And God eventually does respond - but not in the way Job expects, with a reasoned account of what has been happening. He responds with the words we have heard tonight. From the depths of a great whirlwind his voice thunders out. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who shut in the sea with doors? Have you commanded the morning?” Job wants an explanation he can understand, but God tells him that he’ll never find one. Our horizons are limited – all we can really see is our own narrow viewpoint. That’s part of being human. Any explanation we can get our heads around is always going to be inadequate. Job’s friends think they understand how the world works – suffering is a punishment for sin – but in their desire to find a neat answer they increase Job’s suffering rather than decreasing it. The truth, as God says to Job, is that the universe is bigger than us, bigger than we can ever comprehend, and it always will be. God himself is bigger than us and bigger than we can ever comprehend too. In fact, if God isn’t bigger than we can comprehend, then he isn’t God at all, no more than an idol, the work of our own imagination. It may not strike you as much of an answer, but it is the only answer you’ll get from this particular book of the Bible. But for Job it was enough, and for what it’s worth, I think it is one of the most valuable insights we can have as we try to deal with the reality of life with all its sufferings. Job reminds us that we need to learn to see our limitations, to be aware that what we know isn’t all there is to know, because then, paradoxically we may find that we can open our minds and hearts to all sorts of new possibilities.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is also written, as I’ve said, in a time of trouble. Many of those who heard it knew people who had already died for their faith, and many of them would die for it too. It hardly looks like triumph. But then, neither did the death of Christ, yet out of that death came resurrection. Again we hear that things are not always what they seem. Death is not the end; failure is not the last word; when things are against us it doesn’t mean that God has stopped loving us.  Paul calls his hearers to look at the world with new eyes, eyes which are ready to recognise the dawn of a new day not just focus on the darkening of the old one. He calls them to hear the groaning of the world as labour pains rather than death throes. God’s at work in you, says Paul to these troubled Roman Christians. There’s a new harvest growing. Look at yourselves and see the changes he has wrought in you.

So, tonight as we think of the current crises the world faces, we hear of two sets of people living in difficult times of their own, trying to respond to them with hope not despair, with faith not trust. There are no magic answers. I don’t know what the future holds for us, or how much difficulty there will be yet to come. But God promises that he won’t forsake us. If we live with integrity and love, if we hold onto the values and the principles that lead to life rather than retreating into a self-protective huddle, then the God who is unimaginably greater than we can imagine can still bring forth a new harvest of righteousness in our lives that we can share with a world that desperately needs it.

5th Oct  08    Harvest - The Pumpkin Competition

There was once a village where lots of people liked growing things. In the centre of the village were some fine allotments on a sunny slope. At the top of the allotments were three plots next to each other owned by three sisters. Now I’d like to tell you that they all got along well, and most of the time they did, except when it came to growing pumpkins.  Beans and potatoes and cabbages and lettuces and asparagus – they could grow these and share them without any argument at all, helping each other out, but when it came to growing pumpkins that was another matter.
Pumpkins just seemed to bring out their competitive streak. Every year there would be arguments about whose was the biggest and best pumpkin. Sometimes it got quite nasty and they didn’t talk to one another for weeks!

Eventually the head of the allotment society – a wise man - decided that this wouldn’t do at all. “I’ve decided,” he said to the three sisters, “that this year we will have a pumpkin growing competition. We will see who is best at growing pumpkins. I will be the judge, and I will give the prizes when I have decided who the best pumpkin grower is.

The three sisters got to work. They sowed the seeds. The pumpkin plants started to grow. They watered them. They fed them. The plants put out leaves and flowers. The tiny pumpkins started to form. They watered and fed some more. They watched anxiously as their pumpkins started to swell. As the summer wore on the competition hotted up. Which one would win the competition?

Harvest time came. The pumpkins were ripe. And it was clear to the sisters which one of them would win. The first sister’s pumpkin was huge – far bigger than the other two. The middle sister had grown a big pumpkin, a fine pumpkin, but it was nothing like as big. And the third sister's pumpkin, though still very impressive, was quite a bit smaller. The three sisters harvested their pumpkins and brought them to the head of the allotment society. “Here we are” they said. Ready for you to judge who has won. “Well” he said,” they are very fine pumpkins.” He measured them and weighed them and took some photographs. “Very fine pumpkins indeed, but actually I’m not quite ready to decide which of you is the best pumpkin grower yet. Take them away and do what you want with them – I have all the measurements, I’ve taken some photographs - , and I will think about it and let you know.” The three sisters were very puzzled. It was obvious to them who had one. But they took the pumpkins away and waited. But what were they going to do with the pumpkins now, while they waited for the official announcement?

The first sister took her huge pumpkin home in her wheelbarrow. She could hardly carry it. She knew she was going to win. It was obvious. She started to dream about what it would be like when she won. Everyone in the village would want to come and see her prize-winning pumpkin. She imagined himself showing it to them. But where would she put it? How would she display it? Surely such a marvellous pumpkin deserved a really special showcase. So she built a fine wooden case, and made a wonderful velvet pillow for the pumpkin to sit on and everyday she polished the pumpkin so that when the day came she would be ready to show it off.  What she didn’t know – and you may not either – is that sometimes although a pumpkin can look fine on the outside, in the middle it can be rotting away, fermenting and producing gas, just like a fizzy drink… Inside the pumpkin the pressure had been building up for weeks. One morning she reached out to polish the pumpkin and as soon as she touched it – boom – the whole thing exploded. Slimy rotten pumpkin everywhere.

The second sister, when she heard this had happened, felt a bit smug I’m afraid. What a waste of a pumpkin, she thought. It serves her right. Pumpkins aren’t for exhibiting, they are for eating, so that’s what I’m going to do. I love pumpkin, and now I’ve got this huge one, all for me! So that evening, she cut a big slice of pumpkin and roasted it in chunks, with her dinner. Delicious. But it was a big pumpkin – there was an awful lot left. What was she going to do? She could share it – but why should she – it was her pumpkin; if other people wanted a pumpkin they could grow their own. No, she would eat it all herself. She had baked pumpkin, boiled pumpkin, fried pumpkin, pumpkin pie, pumpkin cake, curried pumpkin, stewed pumpkin, pumpkin fricassee, pumpkin pizza, pumpkin on toast, pumpkin for breakfast, for lunch, for tea. She ate pumpkin in every way you could think of, and perhaps some you’d rather not. She ate it faster and faster, ever more desperately. She didn’t want her pumpkin going rotten before she’d finished it. But let’s face it, there’s only so much pumpkin one person can eat. Soon, although she hated to admit it, she was absolutely fed up with pumpkin. She was seeing pumpkins in her dreams, chasing her along the road…
Finally there came the day when she took one look at the pumpkin flakes she was eating for breakfast – that’s like cornflakes only made out of pumpkin - and her stomach just turned over at the thought. I won’t tell you what happened next, but suffice it to say that she was very, very ill…

Meanwhile the third sister had taken her pumpkin home with her, just like the other two, and just like them, she wondered what to do with it. She knew it wasn’t the biggest, but it was still a fine pumpkin, a tasty looking pumpkin. It was far too big for her. She thought and she thought, and then she came up with an idea. The next morning the village woke up to find posters all over the place. Come to my pumpkin party! Today! All Welcome! No one was quite sure what a pumpkin party was, but it sounded interesting. So at the appointed time, they all turned up. “What’s a pumpkin party?” They all asked. “This is!” said the third sister,” and she showed them into the dining room – “help yourself!” and there was the table groaning under the weight of a big pot of pumpkin soup and a splendid pumpkin pie. “There’s plenty for everyone, “she said – you can take some home to share if you can’t eat it all. And that’s how it was. Everyone ate and drank and laughed and strangers who’d never spoken a word to one another became the best of friends.

And just at that moment the head of the allotment society came around. “Now I’m ready to give my prize “, he said, “for the very best pumpkin grower…”
And who do you think won it?

It’s a daft story- of course it is. But it’s not so daft that we can’t see ourselves in it. Often we use our possessions as ways of impressing others, like the first sister, or we hoard them all for ourselves, like the second. In the end, the Bible says, neither is the way to real happiness. The good things God has given us are ours to share – that way they aren’t just possessions – gadgets, houses, toys, pumpkins – but ways of creating love, bringing us together.

Perhaps this year, as we contemplate this fine big pumpkin at the front, which Patrick and Hilary Coffey grew for us on our very own allotments here at Seal – where I’m sure they have no arguments at all - we might like to think about what the pumpkins in our lives are. What are the things we have which we could share, but sometimes find it hard to? The things we use to impress others, the things we hoard for ourselves because we feel we are entitled to them. Patrick said to me yesterday, (and he didn’t know what this story was going to be about,) that this pumpkin, though huge, is perfectly edible. “If someone brought a big breadknife, people could take a slice home….” He said. So that’s what we’ll do after the service – slice it up so we can have our very own pumpkin party.

21st Sept 2008     St Matthew    Breathing Space Communion

Matthew 9.9-13

“Go and learn what this means,” says Jesus, “’I desire mercy, not sacrifice’”. The people he was talking to would have been very familiar with those words. They are from the book of the prophet Hosea, and they are echoed in other places in the Scriptures too. In the book of the prophet Isaiah God tells his people “I have had enough of burnt offerings …. Cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
The Pharisees would have known the words. There was nothing new here at all. But Jesus isn’t telling them to learn the words; he’s telling them to learn what the words mean, and that is a very different thing.

Jesus’ words are his response to the Pharisees reaction when he calls Matthew to be his follower. Matthew is a tax-collector, a collaborator with the Romans, forcing the Jewish people to pay taxes which mostly went to fund the Roman army. In other words he was part of the machinery which made an oppressed people pay their oppressors for oppressing them. And, since tax-collecting was essentially a franchised industry, tax-collectors like Matthew would have made money from it by adding on a top-up fee for themselves. It’s a way of life that was probably very difficult to escape from once you were in it. You’d have to convince those around you that you really had changed, your whole social network would change too. Many people would think “once a traitor, always a traitor. Once a cheat, always a cheat.”

That certainly seems to be how the Pharisees felt about it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the disciples were just as shocked. What was Jesus thinking of? To be sure they were nothing special themselves – just ordinary fishermen – but at least they were loyal fishermen. Matthew was just the kind of person who would call this new movement into disrepute.

I desire mercy, not sacrifice, says God. When Jesus quotes those words here he is reminding his hearers of our human tendency to want to look down on others, to turn them into the sacrifices that bear the badness of the world for us. Even in prison there are hierarchies of wickedness, it seems. Heaven help you if it becomes known that you are in for harming a child in some way – the punishment meted out by fellow prisoners is, I’m told, far worse than that handed down by the courts. You become the sacrifice – everyone else feels better because they can project onto you all the monstrous things in the world.  We scapegoat and sacrifice other groups in this way too – illegal immigrants, those struggling with mental illness or addiction, those who can’t look after their families in the ways we think they ought to – fat cat business people have come in for a lot of criticism this week, as if the global economic crisis were solely down to them. It’s easier to blame them than to look at the whole financial system and our part in it too. We turn them into sacrifices to bear the guilt we all have a part in.

But Jesus calls us to mercy, not sacrifice. That doesn’t mean pretending that sin isn’t sin or that there aren’t things that need healing in our world, but it does mean recognising that those around us are human, as we all are, that they can fail, but that they can also change – as Matthew does. It means giving them the freedom to make that change rather than weighing them down with our negative opinions of them so that they are sunk before they start. And the only way to develop that sense of mercy – to learn what the words mean – is to start with ourselves, to see the way we too need to change and heal.

In the silence today let’s think of those who are sacrificed by our society, those who bear the burden of disapproval, those who struggle to find a better way to live. Let’s ask God to help us learn what it means to be merciful, to ourselves and to one another.

14 Sept 2008    Holy Cross Day

Most people like a good story, one that has a beginning, a middle and an end, with all three bits joined up logically. We like to hear stories, and we like to tell them as well. They help us to make some sort of pattern out of the things that happen to us. Counsellors help us to tell the story of our lives; news reporters try to make the things they report into a story so we can get our heads round them more easily. Spinning a yarn, telling a story is a fundamental part of human nature.

Today is Holy Cross Day, and it’s a day around which many stories have been spun. It’s a feast that goes back to the fourth Century when St Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, allegedly “discovered” the True Cross, buried near the supposed site of Jesus’ tomb. Of course there’s no proof that either the cross or the tomb site were genuine, but people were quite content to believe in them at the time. Soon little splinters of the wood she’d found were dispersed all over the Christian world to be venerated as relics, enshrined in golden cases, and, inevitably, people began to create stories around them – because that’s what human beings like to do.

So, I’m going to tell you one of those stories. It was written down by Jacobus de Voragine in the 13th Century, and I’m pretty sure there’s not a shred of fact in it, but I’m going to tell it anyway, because, like all good tales, a story can be true even if it isn’t real. It can tell us important things, even if it didn’t happen like this at all. 

This is a story that starts where every story should; at the beginning – in this case at the very beginning, in the Garden of Eden. In this garden were a man and a woman, and a tree that they were forbidden to eat from, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We all know what happened next. They couldn’t resist the temptation and they ate, and as a result they were driven out of that paradise into a world where they had to labour and struggle.

That much is in the Bible, of course, but at this point, like all good storytellers, our medieval forebears began to improvise.

Adam, they said, eventually grew old and as he lay dying, he thought with longing  of that garden he had been exiled from. So he sent his son Seth back to the gates to beg the Archangel Michael for a little bit of Eden –something to remember it by. But all Michael would give him was one seed from that tree that he’d had eaten from - probably the only thing in the garden Adam didn’t want to remember. Seth brought the seed back, and, as Adam sank into death he put the seed into his mouth. Adam died and was buried, but the seed germinated and began to grow strong and tall.

Many centuries passed as the tree grew and no one remembered any more where it had come from. Eventually the great king Solomon came to the throne. He decided to build a magnificent Temple in Jerusalem. He needed timber and his eye fell on the tree, which was just right for the purpose. So he had it felled and cut up and built a bridge with it that led into the Temple.
One day who should come to the bridge, but the Queen of Sheba, come to marvel at Solomon’s wealth and wisdom? But as she went to cross the bridge she had an awful premonition. She went straight to Solomon and told him that this timber would one day lead to the destruction of his Temple, and to something new that would stand in its place. 

Solomon was horrified by this, the story says – he’d only just finished the Temple. It was his pride and joy, his monument - so he ordered that the timber be torn out and the wood buried. The timber was put deep in the ground and once again it was completely forgotten.

Time passed and it happened that people dug a pool for watering their animals just where the buried timber lay. Soon they discovered that the water in the pool had strange healing properties. The sick would crowd around the pool, waiting for their chance to get into it and be cured. For many years it was a place of healing until the day when Jesus of Nazareth came to it, and finding a man there who had no one to help him get into the water, he healed him anyway. That story’s in the Gospel but the legend adds that as soon as he had done this, the wood buried at the bottom rose to the surface – if Jesus could heal people what need was there for this pool anymore?

The wood was fished out and left to dry. And that’s how it came to be conveniently lying around when a local carpenter, who’d been ordered to make crosses for the Romans, found himself looking for a strong piece of timber for an upright. They were crucifying this Jesus of Nazareth, a troublemaker who’d claimed to be king of the Jews, or Son of God, or some such – the carpenter didn’t know what it was all about, and he didn’t care either. He was just doing his job, and this timber would do just fine. So the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree that had borne the fruit that began all the trouble, in the end bore Christ, the fruit of God’s love, the fruit which healed the world.

Of course all that is complete invention – absolute taradiddle. But it’s taradiddle with a profound and important point to make. As I said at the beginning, just because a story isn’t real doesn’t mean it isn’t true, that it can’t tell us things we need to know.

What this story reminds us is that, in Christ, God comes to us in the very place where we need him most, the place where it has all gone wrong in our lives and in our world, in order to set us right. He doesn’t sit high up in his heaven looking disapprovingly on us from a distance, exhorting us to try harder, to struggle to make our own way out of the mess we’ve made. As St Paul says in our second reading, “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross…” He comes to us at the point of our need.

That’s why those medieval storytellers wanted to link the tree of Eden and the tree of Calvary – to sort out the mess you have to go to the place where it all began, to its very heart. 

It’s on the cross that Jesus shows the transforming power of God’s love, because it is only here that he can face the destructive force of evil, the evil of an oppressive Roman state, the evil which treats people as rubbish, outcasts. And he shows that no amount of evil can destroy the love of God as he comes through into the new life of the resurrection. Out of the mess comes the salvation. Out of the disease comes the remedy. It is only by dying, only on the cross, that we can see this.

In our Gospel reading, John uses the same sort of parallelism. He recalls the story of the people of Israel in the wilderness that we heard in our first reading today. They had been bitten by poisonous snakes, and Moses was told that the only way to cure them was to make an image of a snake and put it on a pole – those who looked at the snake, the source of the trouble, would be healed. As we look at the cross, and Jesus lifted up on it, we see both the problem of evil – the horror of what human beings are capable of doing to one another -  and its remedy too - the love which faces that evil for the sake of others.

But what’s all that got to do with us? What difference does it make to the way we live our lives? One of the things I have learned in my ministry is that human life is full of mess. Not all the time; there’s plenty that’s good too. But whether we look outside at our society, or inside at ourselves we find that there are many dark corners, places where we’d rather not go, painful memories, failures, things we are ashamed of or regret – our own crosses, places where everything seems to be are dead or dying. And many people spend huge amounts of energy trying to avoid those places. Often they will try to use faith as a cover-up, a bolt-on, a distraction from the problems. They try to build a fence between faith and life, as if they could hide these things from God – surely he wouldn’t want to go there either. And as a result nothing ever really changes for them. The shocking message of the cross, though, is that God not only can go into those dark places and live to tell the tale, but that these are the very places where he needs to be and wants to be, the places where we need him to be too.

Our medieval forebears probably seem very strange to us, going to all that trouble to venerate what were probably completely ordinary little bits of wood, but perhaps they have something to teach us. As they contemplated those precious splinters they were reminded that the real “true crosses” were the ones in their own lives - the places of pain and failure in themselves and their world. They were reminded too that these were the places to which Christ longed to come, just as he had to the Cross of Calvary, to restore and heal. I have no relics to offer you today – just the strange story they told – but I hope it will help us to see where the true cross is for us, the place where we most need God’s presence, and that we will let God come to us there, so that his love can transform us too.

 7 September 2008
    Trinity 16 Sermon by Kevin Bright
Ezekiel 33.7-11, Romans 13.8-14 & Matthew 18.15-20

All three of our readings today talk of problems with our behaviour; something most adults largely consider doesn’t apply to them but to younger members of our communities. I suspect that it is very rare for any of us to be challenged about our behaviour in this very liberal society we live in, unless it borders on the criminal.

However this doesn’t mean that we aren’t aware that we are doing things wrong, things we wouldn’t choose to share with our children for example. Paul, in his letter to the Romans is effectively saying, look you know how to behave, you know what is wrong adultery, murder, stealing and all the other things so now is the time to get on with living your lives in a way which is an example to others.

He tells us to not get distracted from the important work of Christ by over indulging or falling into bad ways, don’t waste time being jealous of your neighbours house extension, new kitchen or convertible car, don’t waste time quarrelling, trying to discredit others or put them in a bad light but focus on getting to know your neighbour as a person.

If we are to love our neighbour it will involve getting to know something about them whether they are a group of disadvantaged people who live on the other side of the planet that we want to help or whether they literally live next door. Clearly this is something that people in this church have acted upon long before this sermon, the outcome of which is a coming together for the village fete. We have to ask ourselves would we like to be loved abstractly as if we had no personal qualities, weaknesses or flaws.

Paul doesn’t suggest this is something to get around to one day but a matter of extreme urgency. Could all this imply that there never has been a perfect Christian community and that this stuff has to be addressed by every generation of Christians? Now there’s food for thought.

One of the pleasures of children growing up is that they can offer you advice; it’s no longer a one way street. Advice might include ‘I thought drinking too much wine wasn’t good for you or that sign said 40 mph and you’re doing nearly 50!’ It’s uncomfortable isn’t it. Who likes being told off and knowing they are in the wrong?

Another pleasure can be to have advice reinforced in writing, so that you can study it over and over. In my case when I got one of these I also asked for a photograph of my offence and the Metropolitan Police seemed only too pleased to oblige!

I though I’d shown great restraint by driving along a near empty dual carriageway at only 36 miles per hour. I wasn’t happy to have it pointed out to me that I had done wrong and my reaction was to become defensive. Why don’t the police spend their time focussing on the catalogue of crime in Woolwich, near to where I committed my speeding offence? If it had been a traffic cop he would have seen that I was driving safely and never given me a ticket. I was only 6 mph over the speed limit this was pathetic.

The journalist Piers Morgan also had the same experience of being prosecuted for doing 36 mph in a 30 limit and was offered the opportunity of attending a 3 hour lecture on rehabilitation instead of 3 points on his licence. He found this a very painful 3 hours enduring comments from his fellow offenders such as ‘Britain’s got no driving talent’. He ridiculed the man offering the corrective lecture saying he was like the Ricky Jervais character ‘David Brent’ and fumed at the multiple choice questions he had to complete such as ‘ keeping to the speed limit in the next year would be wise, a) I strongly agree, b) I strongly disagree or c) I don’t know.’ After writing an article ridiculing the system and the man pointing out the truth to him he concludes that next time he going to take the points on his license.

And there you have it, two grown up self righteous men who don’t like having the fact that they have done wrong pointed out to them. Two men who rather than accept they are in the wrong look for excuses and try to deflect away from the fact that they knew the rules and got caught breaking them. I was wrong and so is Piers Morgan.

The prophet Ezekiel is inspired by God to tell us we must warn the wicked and Jesus tells us to point out the fault when a member of the church sins against us.

Taking into account what we have heard so far it seems we would need to do so after careful thought and prayer as what we point out will almost certainly not be welcomed. We also need to think about how we each react to being told uncomfortable truths be they about our lifestyle, our affect on the planet or our need of Christ.

At its most extreme the backlash of criticism and warning can lead to violence, terror and oppression. But I would have thought the most common reaction is a fudging of the issues a failure to really face up and deal with what is put to us. We avoid the people, we pretend it doesn’t exist or we think we can forget about our problems by moving on to a new job, a new home, a new church or splinter group within a church where we can avoid the issues by sitting with likeminded people. Many dream of a life in a new country only to find the same problems rise to the surface after they have lived there for a period of time.

I can really relate to Christ’s advice to discuss a problem initially ‘just between the two of you.’ Shouting across an office at someone in front of their colleagues is humiliating to the recipient and often also confrontational. On an international scale open criticism of other countries or their leaders has the same effect. Whilst it may be necessary to immediately confront in case of an emergency the chances of a successful resolution to a problem are greatly increased where this doesn’t involve humiliation. If we don’t feel this is true we have to question our motives for acting. Are we on an ego trip, do we want to demonstrate how powerful and important we are, is it really all about crushing someone or getting our own back rather than achieving what is best for our community?

Jesus tells us that if we are not listened to when we point out a fault we should go back with one or two others, but there is also a duty on us to listen and reflect as well. In doing this we would be made to explain to the others why we felt the person was at fault. Don’t you sometimes find that when you discuss someone else’s faults with another they often force you to consider the facts again or introduce new thoughts on the subject which you may not have considered? They may even remind us that you have done something similar in the past, resulting in a more humble approach to the criticism we offer.

I can’t believe that Jesus meant us to intimidate or bully a person we are trying to correct by turning up with others rather that the evidence is checked and considered by others before confronting the person again. Quite possibly the outcome is a compromise resulting from both sides further reflection on the matter.

Sadly we all know that attempts at conflict resolution can sometimes inflame the problem. Jesus tells us that the next stage should be to consider the problem within the wider church and if the person still cannot see reason we are free to treat them as a tax collector or pagan, perhaps a modern equivalent might be, (well still a tax collector, only joking) more likely an extortionist and a Muslim fundamentalist.

We’ve reached the point where we’ve given our offender every opportunity to be reconciled; we’ve been very fair and now is the time for casting them out with righteous indignation isn’t it? Is this what the bible tells us?

Those tempted to follow this route would find they had gone full circle and should themselves face correction from their fellow Christians who know how Christ treats outcasts in society.

The very author of today’s gospel is Levi, better known as Matthew, formerly a tax collector who Christ called to change his ways and follow him. Then there’s the little man who collected big taxes Zacheus who Christ eats with, outraging the Pharisees.
One of the clearest features of the life and teachings of Jesus is the way that he included people that everybody else left out.  Jesus included criminals (the thief on the cross), and people who were outcast (Samaritans, Gentiles, the poor, the sick, lepers, women, and the list goes on).
It seems that when we feel we have exhausted routes to reconciliation Christ encourages us to never give up hope, to leave the door open to those shunned by society. This is certainly not easy. If we look at reconciliation in South Africa or Northern Ireland peace has come at great cost to many and this can also be true in our communities and families.
To me the messages from today are about Christianity making a real difference by having the courage to act when we know something is wrong but also using our faith to persevere in trying to achieve the reconciliation that God wants between us, something he knows first hand can come at a great cost.

August  31st 2008    Trinity 15

Jeremiah 15.15-21, Matt 16.21-28

A year or so back the TV presenter Tony Robinson did a series on the worst jobs in history, trying to get a flavour of what it might have been like to do some of the jobs our ancestors did. How about being a leech collector, for example, stamping about in swamps until the leeches attached themselves to your legs? All you’ve got to do then is pull them off and put them in a jar ready for the doctors to use…wonderful!
Or perhaps you’d rather be a medieval royal falconer? That sounds fine, very grand, very fascinating, looking after magnificent birds of prey belonging to the king - until you discover that if you happen to lose one of them, the penalty is to have an equivalent weight of flesh to the bird you’ve lost cut off your body. It would concentrate your mind on your job!

I can sense that I’m probably not being very successful in selling you these new career ideas, am I?

There was one job, though, which Tony Robinson didn’t try, but which I think he would have found equally unpleasant, if our first reading is anything to go by, and that is the job of an Old Testament prophet. Jeremiah certainly doesn’t seem to be enjoying it. He feels as if the whole world is against him. He’s getting it in the neck from all and sundry. He’s even starting to wonder whether God is against him too, despite the fact that he is only doing what God himself has asked him to. “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.” He’s not having fun.

It’s tempting to write off Jeremiah as one of those people who are never happy unless they are miserable, but I don’t think that’s fair to him. He’d never wanted to be a prophet in the first place and when we discover what he was up against we can see why. 
The message God gave him to proclaim was a message no one would have wanted to hear. It was a challenging message, warning his nation that it was about to be overthrown and destroyed, telling people that they needed to turn to God for help, now, before it was too late. It was the 6th Century BC, and at that time the Babylonian Empire ruled across much of the Middle East. The tiny nation of Judah, the area around Jerusalem where Jeremiah lived, hadn’t been conquered – yet – but anyone with any sense could see that Babylon had it in its sights.

So what were the people of Judah doing about this threat? Not a lot. They were sleepwalking towards destruction, convinced that because they were God’s chosen people, because he’d rescued them from Egypt, they’d be fine. They were invincible in their own eyes. No matter what they did God would protect them. Nothing bad could happen to them. It didn’t matter if they ignored God, if they worshipped idols, if they disregarded the laws he’d given them, if they oppressed the poor, neglected the vulnerable. Good old God – he’d come through for them in the end and everything would be fine and dandy.

So when Jeremiah starts telling them to wake up, to sort themselves out, well, you can just imagine the response. They ignore him. And when they can’t ignore him any more they arrest him, they persecute him, they even throw him into a dry well to die – anything to shut him up. Who can blame him for complaining so bitterly?

The problem was that Jeremiah’s vision of the future was spot on. Not much later Jerusalem was destroyed, the Temple flattened and the cream of the people carried off into captivity in Babylon. Jeremiah couldn’t even comfort himself with the smug satisfaction of having been proved right because this was his own nation, his own people, and he suffered just as much as they did when it fell. It wasn’t until Jerusalem lay in ruins, when the people were far away in Babylon, that they started  to reflect on Jeremiah’s prophecies, and to hear not only that unwelcome challenge he had set before them, but also the message of hope within the challenge. It was because God loved them that he had been so desperate that they should change. God would stick with them, but if they treated him simply as a sort of lucky mascot – paying lip service to him, but not actually living as he told them – then his vision for them of a society of compassion and justice could never come to fruition because they wouldn’t let him help them bring it about.
Their illusion of invincibility had blinded them to the reality not only of the threat against them, but also of the blessings God wanted to give them. They preferred to believe that “it can’t happen to us”; it was only when it did happen to them that they saw how they had lied to themselves, and by that time, tragically, it was too late.

In today’s Gospel reading we meet someone who is also having a problem facing reality. This time it is Peter who is saying “It can’t happen, it mustn’t happen...”  Jesus has been explaining that he must go to Jerusalem where he will be arrested, tried and executed. It’s not that he has some spooky ability to tell the future, just that it is obvious that if you tangle with the authorities, as he is doing, you are heading for trouble and a sticky end.
But Peter won’t have it. Somehow he has convinced himself that Jesus can’t die. He’s the Messiah. What’s the point of that if God won’t protect you from trouble? God can’t let this happen. It was the same thinking that had bedevilled the ancient Judeans of Jeremiah’s time. If God is with you, surely that means you must be immune from suffering and failure, no matter how you act yourself?

Peter hadn’t realised that it was precisely because Jesus was God’s Messiah that trouble and death were always going to be part of the package. Jesus’ calling was to stand up against the forces of oppression, and the forces of oppression were hardly going to take kindly to that. The only way he could have avoided suffering was to walk away from the job. You can’t have your cake and eat it – either he had to take what came with the task or not do it at all. Just like the ancient Judeans, Peter had to learn to face the reality of what was going to happen to his friend, to give up his illusions, his wishful thinking, and accept the world as it really was.

Most of us, thank God, don’t face the sort of cataclysms and challenges we’ve heard about in our readings today, but that doesn’t mean we are any better at facing reality when life does get tough. I suspect we are equally prone to living in a fantasy world in which everything is as we wish it to be, or at least it could be if only everyone else would fall in with our plans.

It’s often the small things that catch us out, it seems to me. Like thinking that we all ought to be able to drive where we want when we want, and find somewhere to park at the end of the journey. The reality is that there is a limited amount of space for driving and parking, but that doesn’t stop people acting as if they are entitled to absolute freedom of movement. Or we ignore some health problem or disability that is beginning to trouble us – it can’t happen to us, it mustn’t happen to us, so it isn’t happening to us. We miss out on the help we need, and we often make our lives and the lives of those who care for us more painful and difficult as a result. We just can’t bear to admit that we have a problem. We pretend the resources of our planet are unlimited, or that we can buy cheap goods without someone somewhere paying the price for that. We feel we ought to have dream holidays, dream marriages, dream jobs, dream homes – but such things are exactly that, a dream. Nothing is perfect, nor can it be. Even if we work as hard as we can, try as hard as we can, there are always things that will be beyond our control. Compromise is inevitable. In the end we can’t have all we want, do all we want. We have to make choices, and those choices will not always be easy ones. 

Jesus warns his disciples that if they want to follow him they will find themselves having to deny themselves and take up their cross. I don’t think he means we should all wear hair shirts or seek out hardships deliberately. In the context of this passage I think what he is saying is that we need to drop our illusions, stop living in our own little dream worlds, and accept that living as children of God, sharing in that work of healing and restoration, is bound to involve cost and sacrifice in a world which is not perfect. Peter’s refusal even to consider that Jesus might die shows how ego-centric his thinking is. He doesn’t want it to happen so he doesn’t see why it should happen, so it can’t happen.  But the truth is that it will happen and, as Jesus says, there is some sense in which it must happen if he is to do what he came to do.

So there’s a challenge for us in today’s readings. What are the illusions we cling to? How prepared are we to see the world as it really is, ourselves as we really are, others as they really are rather than as we would wish them to be. Reality is sometimes unattractive, but it is what is real, what is there. Our refusal to acknowledge it won’t drive it away. Whether it is the urgent shared reality of the struggle to live together on a crowded planet, or the more personal realities of relationships that need attention, work that needs doing, troubles that must be faced, we need to accept that what is, is.  Unless we do that we can’t hope to deal with the issues that confront us, and more than that we will miss the blessings that are hidden within the pain, the hope, healing and new life God wants to bring us as we do what needs to be done, and the knowledge that whatever we face, God faces it with us.

August 24 2008     Trinity 14

Romans 12.1-8, Matthew 16.13-20
“You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church”.

A few years ago I went to Rome for a holiday with Philip. We saw all sorts of fascinating places – Philip had lived there for some years, so he knew the nooks and crannies the guide books don’t tell you about. But you can’t go to Rome without visiting the Vatican, so that had to be on the itinerary too. It’s been a focal point for western Christianity for almost two millennia. Whether you’re Catholic or Protestant, love it or loathe it, you can’t ignore it. And if the Vatican is at the heart of the western Church, then at the heart of the Vatican is the great basilica of St Peter’s. And at the heart of the basilica, under the high altar, is, so they say, St Peter himself, or his bones at any rate. Tradition has it that he was martyred in Rome and buried in this spot. Eventually a church was built over the burial site, which grew into the vast basilica we see today. So there’s a sense in which quite literally, the church has been built on Peter. He’s right there in the foundations, with all that heavy marble weighing down on him.  As you can tell, it’s not my cup of tea architecturally, but there can be no doubt of the message it proclaims. St Peter matters. Of course its not really meant as a literal picture of Jesus’ words, but it does reinforce the lesson that in some sense, we all rest on Peter, the rock.
But why? What is there about this man which is so rocklike?

It’s not obvious. When we meet him in the Gospels as often as not he is getting it wrong – sometimes spectacularly so. It’s Peter who jumps out of the boat and attempts to walk on the water, with predictably soggy results. Next week we’ll hear the story of Peter trying to stop Jesus heading for Jerusalem because he can’t bear to think of him dying. It is Peter who louses things up at the Transfiguration. There he is with James and John, given the privilege of witnessing a vision of Jesus shining with glory, with Moses on one side and Elijah on the other. But he can’t just stand there and watch – he has to put his big foot in it, offering to put together a couple of sheds so they have somewhere to stay the night. In the midst of this transcendent, beautiful, mysterious moment all he can think of is getting down to Homebase before it closes …
And then, of course, Peter denies even knowing Jesus when Jesus is arrested. Some rock he turns out to be!

If what you mean by a rock is a safe pair of hands to entrust a body of theological doctrine to, someone who’ll bring a sharp and intelligent mind to bear on matters of faith, who’ll lead others with tact and diplomacy then Peter is not the person you want for the job.   He is a great character, but there are many other disciples who seem much better qualified. I am reminded of that old military report on a trainee officer. “His men would follow him anywhere, but only out of curiosity.”

So why is Peter chosen? What is it which Jesus and the early church saw in him that made them call him the rock and want to build on him?  What are the qualities that he brings to the leadership of this new movement which Jesus so much wants to point us to?

The clues, I think, are right there in Peter’s own reaction to Christ in today’s Gospel reading. It is a pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry. His fame has grown, but so has the opposition against him, and Jesus wants to know what his closest followers think.

 “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” he asks. It’s a very vague question. Which people does he mean? His friends? His enemies? The crowd? And what does he mean by the “Son of Man”? It’s a title that was sometimes  used for the longed-for Messiah, but more often it was simply a roundabout way of referring to yourself – this mere mortal, muggins, I. So, did Jesus want to know what they thought about the Messiah or about him, or did he think that the two were the same? He didn’t say, and they didn’t know, so they gave him an answer as vague as the question. “Some say John the Baptist, or Elijah, Jeremiah, one of those old prophets…”
“Ok,” Says Jesus, “enough beating about the bush – let’s be straight about this now – that’s what “people” say, but what about you, and what about me - who do YOU say that I am?”

And, quick as a flash, back comes Peter with his answer. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God…” There’s no vagueness in his answer, and it tells me two very important things about Peter, two things which shed light on why this unlikely person became so important to the church.

The first thing is that Peter has his eyes on the here and now. He doesn’t talk about John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah. He’s not looking for the return of some dead prophet from the past or the restoration of a bygone golden age. What he can see is that right here in front of him, in the form of this carpenter from Nazareth – not an obvious choice either - God is present and bringing to birth something astonishing and new.  Everyone else – those unspecified “people” - might expect God to appear and to act in some familiar way, but Peter doesn’t. He affirms Jesus as the Son of the LIVING God, a God who is newly present in every generation not frozen in time or form in a past age.

That mattered for the early Christians, because whether they liked it or not, their lives were full of change. Their understanding of their religion, of their God, of themselves, of each other, was completely turned upside down in the early years of the church. They had to cope with being expelled from the synagogues and persecuted by Jewish and Roman leaders. They lost friends, families, livelihoods, security, and in their place all they had was an extraordinary rag-bag of fellow travellers in faith to support them. Paul talks about the body of Christ in our first reading today and how its different parts must learn to work together. It was a hard lesson though, because that body was made up of such a strange assortment of limbs. Slave and free, men and women, all races and backgrounds. This was a body with Jewish arms and Gentile legs, so to speak, and who knows where the torso had come from? No wonder they struggled. No wonder we still do sometimes.  A leader whose ideas were set in stone, who could only imagine God acting in ways he had acted before, who was hamstrung by the past, would be no good at all. Instead the church needed someone like Peter, who had his eyes open for God at work in new ways, making a new creation. 

And that brings me to the second important thing I think this story reveals about Peter. To be able to acclaim Jesus as Messiah was a huge and courageous leap of faith. How was Peter able to take that leap? It wasn’t, with all due respect to him, because he had studied the Scriptures in detail and proved to his intellectual satisfaction that the prophecies all pointed to Jesus – in fact I doubt whether he could explain a tenth of what was going on if his life depended on it. It was because he knew and trusted this man. He had lived with him, travelled with him, gone through thick and thin, success and failure with him, known him in his public and private moments. He knew that Jesus’ love wasn’t just put on when he went out to meet the crowds, but was something which pervaded all his words and actions, that his closeness to his Father wasn’t a fleeting thing, but a daily reality. Peter knew Jesus. He might not have always understood what he said and did, but he knew the person who was saying it, and that was enough. In John’s Gospel, when the crowd starts drifting away from Jesus, scared off by the sheer strangeness of what he seems to be saying, it is Peter who announces that he is staying. “Who else can I go to, Lord? You have the words of eternal life.”

Peter sticks around. He sticks around when he gets it right and he sticks around when he gets it wrong. He sticks around when he understands and when he doesn’t. The message to us is that if we want a  faith that is resilient enough to withstand the changes and chances of life we need to stick around too, to give time to things like reading the Bible, meeting with others, praying, looking for Christ in our daily lives, serving him in others. There is no short cut, no magic pill, no way of developing that deep sense of trust without putting in the legwork, or perhaps it’s the soul-work, of living day by day in the light of Christ. Putting in that soul work won’t make the questions go away, of course – there is always more to learn and understand – but what I have observed in those who live like this is that eventually the questions don’t disturb them so much. Like Peter, they don’t need to know everything to know the really vital thing, the life-giving, life-transforming love of God at work in them.

So Simon the fisherman is declared by Jesus to be Peter, the rock. But I am sure that Jesus was aware of the paradox – perhaps the irony – in this nickname he gives him. Calling him a rock makes it sound  as if he ought to be inflexible, unchanging, solid, but actually he is the opposite, open to all sorts of new possibilities. It’s a different sort of rocklikeness altogether. But this, in the end is what makes him the perfect foundation, just what the church needs as it grows through the changes and chances of life. And it’s just what we need too as we try to open our eyes to see the living God in our midst today. 


August 17 2008     Trinity 13 Breathing Space Communion

Matt. 15.21-28

“Jesus went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon”

The Gospels are full of Jesus coming and going; he always seems to be on the move. So perhaps we don’t think twice about this statement at the beginning of our Gospel reading. But we ought to think twice about it, because it is highly significant, and quite surprising, because Tyre and Sidon are not Israelite towns. They were originally in the land of the Philistines, arch-enemies of Israel. In Jesus’ day they were in Roman Syria. Now they are Lebanese. In other words these were foreign towns, full of foreigners – and a particularly rum lot of foreigners at that. Tyre and Sidon were sea ports, with the kind reputation for drunkenness and debauchery that sea ports often seem to have.  Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus denounces those who don’t listen to him by saying that even Tyre and Sidon will come off better on Judgement Day than they will – EVEN Tyre and Sidon - the implication is that Tyre and Sidon are just about as bad as you can get.

So, the question is obvious – what is Jesus doing there? It’s not the kind of place you’d go for an “away from it all” break – especially if you are a good Jew. This is a place which is guaranteed to confront you with all sorts of challenges – people worshipping other gods, people living and behaving in ways that would have seemed shocking to Jew, and to a lot of other people too.
This trip of Jesus’ seems to be a deliberate attempt to put himself in a situation in which he and the disciples will feel uncomfortable, out of their element, challenged in ways they couldn’t have been at home. And that, of course, is exactly what happens. A pagan Canaanite woman comes to them, having heard that Jesus is a healer. Her daughter is ill and she is desperate. She probably hasn’t got a clue about the Jewish religion, maybe doesn’t know much about who Jesus is or how he fits into the religious landscape. She just believes he can help, and that’s all that matters. Although it seems clear to her, though, it obviously isn’t to Jesus and the disciples.  As far as they are concerned she is nothing to do with them. “Wrong religion, wrong nationality – go and find someone more like you to help you…” She just seems too foreign for them, as if somehow healing won’t work if it’s done in a foreign language or offered to someone with a different understanding of the world.  It is only her persistence which convinces them otherwise.
Some people will try to say that Jesus was just testing her faith when he refused to help, but I think that makes him a monster. It seems to me far more likely that Matthew intends us to read this story just as it appears, as an account of Jesus learning and growing. It shows Jesus’ understanding of himself, his mission and his Father’s will developing – he’s human, like us, and doesn’t know everything.

What is significant though is that he seems deliberately to have put himself in a situation where he knew he would not feel at ease, where he knew he would not be on home ground. He didn’t know what would happen or how he would react there, but he knew that it would be challenging that there was a possibility that he would get it wrong, as he seems to do here, before he got it right.  He might not know what he needs to learn, but he knows that he needs to learn, and that you can’t do that by sticking with what you know.

The story deserves its place in the Gospels because he calls us to have the same kind of courage and willingness to go beyond our comfort zone as he goes beyond his. The lesson he learns in Tyre and Sidon is vital to him, and it’s vital to us too. God really is at work in all people, that he speaks every language as his native language, every nook and cranny of the world is home to him. It is the Canaanite woman who has the real faith in this story, the faith to look for God’s help from someone who must have seemed as alien to her as she did to him and who seems decidedly unhelpful at first. She can see that God is at work through Jesus; he and the disciples take a lot longer to recognise that God is also at work through her, to call them to the changes they need to make.

The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. We say it, but do we believe it, or do we think that really God is really most at home in our own familiar corner of the world, working in the ways  we have always expected him to? Where are our Tyres and Sidons today – the strange places where we feel like a fish out of water? Who is our “Canaanite woman”, the person who calls us out of the comfortable familiar territory to discover the unimaginable wideness of God’s love.


August 10th 2008     Trinity 12

1 Kings 19.9-18, Romans10.5-15, Matthew 14.22-33

“Immediately after feeding the crowd with the five loaves and two fish, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side…”

I’ve been reading the Bible for many years now – as you might expect - and I like to think it is familiar territory, but I still often find things in it that surprise me, things I’ve never noticed before. There’s a word in the opening verse of today’s Gospel reading which had that effect on me this week.

Jesus MADE the disciples get into the boat…It’s that word “made” that caused me to sit up and take notice. Jesus MADE the disciples get into the boat.

It jars somehow, to think of Jesus compelling people to do something which they evidently don’t want to do. And it is puzzling as well. What is going on here?

The story doesn’t tell us why the disciples are so reluctant to set out. Perhaps they can see that a storm is brewing. Perhaps they just don’t want to end up on the other side of the lake without Jesus – if they’ve got the boat how will he get there? Perhaps they think he is trying to send them away for their own protection, away from some trouble he faces, as if they are children.
We don’t know what the problem is, but what is clear is that this is a journey they don’t want to make. They think it’s a bad idea, and when the wind and waves get up I’ve no doubt they feel they have been proved right. But by then it is too late. They are far from shore and they can’t turn back.

I guess that many of us will be able to identify with that feeling. Most of us at some time or other will find ourselves having to take journeys we’d rather avoid, or face challenges we’d rather duck. We may have misgivings, suspecting that we’re biting off more than we can chew, but still, somehow we find we have to go ahead. There are some things you just have to do. But when the task we have taken on turns out to be far harder than we thought, as is often the case, we feel, like the disciples, all at sea, out of our depth, “much further out than we thought, and not waving but drowning” as Stevie Smith’s poem puts it. I can well imagine that there are times when Archbishop Rowan Williams has felt like this recently – who’d want his job? But there are many also who don’t make the headlines who face daily struggles to provide for their families, to honour their commitments to others and to live with integrity, honesty and love.

In our Old Testament reading today Elijah is going through the same sort of experience. He’s just had a showdown with the prophets of the god Baal, the god of the evil queen Jezebel. Elijah has won the contest – or rather his God has won it – but he soon realises that he is actually in more trouble now than he was before he started. Jezebel isn’t one to take defeat lying down. She lets it be known that she wants Elijah dead and he has to run for his life. We find him out in the wilderness, cowering in a cave on Mount Horeb.
 “What’s the point?” he says to God. “I tried to follow you. I did everything I should, and look what has happened! I am all alone and everything I’ve tried to do has come to nothing!”

Two stories, then, which although they come from long ago and far away speak of experiences we can all recognise.

But there is hope in these stories as well as familiarity, and some advice for coping with times like these. In particular there are two messages which seem to me to be worth hanging onto when the storms hit.

The first is that running into stormy water isn’t necessarily a sign that something has gone wrong – that we have failed, that others have failed, that God has failed. Why did the disciples have to cross the lake? It’s the same as that old question about the chicken crossing the road. To get to the other side. If we read on in the Gospel we find that when they do get to land there is a crowd of hurting, lost, helpless people, waiting for someone to come to their aid, waiting for Jesus and for the disciples. Of course this journey is hard, but it is a journey that each of those needy people will consider was worth making.

As Paul says, quoting the Prophet Isaiah in our second reading, “how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news”, or, in this case the hands that are blistered and bleeding from pulling on the oars to bring the message of hope they so desperately need to them through the storm.

This journey wasn’t a pleasure trip. It certainly wasn’t just a test, set by Jesus to see how much faith the disciples could muster. I don’t believe in a God who imposes pointless ordeals on us to try to catch us out – if God is like that then he’s a monster. I added those extra verses to our Gospel reading this morning because it seemed to me that we need to hear them for this story to make sense.
Jesus didn’t send the disciples out into a storm out of some perverse sense that it would do them good to suffer. He did it because this was a journey that needed to be made.

The people for whom Matthew wrote this Gospel – the early church – knew all about challenges like that. They were persecuted by the Romans for following Jesus. Many of them would die for their faith in painful and humiliating ways. It’s no accident that when Matthew describes this little boat as being “battered” by the storm, he uses a word which literally means “tortured”, because that was what was happening to his readers and those around them.

Sticking to the pathway of love they had chosen was tough, and it must have often felt like a completely stupid thing to do – why not just give in and go back to the old ways and an easy life? But they couldn’t shake the conviction that this actually was the right way, this way that Jesus had set them on. In a sense this story, of Jesus walking on the water, is not so much an account of a miracle from the time of Christ’s earthly ministry as it is an account of what seems to me to be an even more miraculous discovery made by those early Christians as they faced torture and death. Whether Jesus had ever really walked on the surface of the Sea of Galilee we’ll never know, but they certainly believed that he walked beside them on the chaotic waters of the storms they faced. It was that experience which Matthew was really reminding them of in this extraordinary tale. 

And that brings me onto the second message which this story, and that of Elijah, proclaims. No matter how far out at sea you are, the Bible says, and how close to drowning, no matter how far away God feels, you cannot fall out of his sight, out of his mind, out of his hands. Jesus’ words to the disciples as he walks towards them over the water are simply “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid”. He is here, even in this place which was surely the last place they would expect him. If he can come to them here, he can come to them anywhere.

And his presence is enough for them, though the waves are still as mountainous, the wind is still as fierce. The storm doesn’t die away until he and Peter are in the boat, and it’s not clear whether that was Jesus’ work in any case, or whether the storm had simply blown its course. It almost seems like an afterthought - and I think that is deliberate. It’s not the storm on the lake that matters; it’s the storms in the disciples’ hearts that really need stilling. As Peter leaps out of the boat to walk on the water too, it takes him quite a while even to notice those mountainous seas, despite the fact that he has been hauling the boat through them, exhausted and desperate for hours and hours.

For Elijah too, it isn’t in some great demonstration of power – an earthquake, wind or fire, that God speaks most clearly. It is somehow, mysteriously, in the depths of a sheer silence - something which can’t outwardly change anything at all - that Elijah becomes aware of God’s presence, aware that God is God, in charge no matter what is happening on the surface.

Life is full of storms. There’s no avoiding them, especially if you want to live with integrity, to bring hope and healing to others, to challenge injustice. Jesus couldn’t avoid trouble; he was overwhelmed on the cross by the waters of death. We can expect trouble too if we follow him and seek his kingdom of justice and peace in our own lives. But just as those waters of death weren’t the end of the story for Jesus, they aren’t the end of the story for us either. Beneath the surface of the events that so trouble us is a love that is deeper and stronger still, which no storm can destroy, and no wind sweep away. Look again and listen again, say these tales; beyond the earthquake, beyond the fire, beyond the wind, beyond the waves there is one who is always beside you on the waters of chaos to lead you into his peace. 

July 13th 2008    Trinity 8

“A sower went out to sow” said Jesus. “Ah, good,” said the crowd. “Now this is going to be a story we understand – nothing too mystical or high-fallutin’. We all know about sowing seeds.”
And of course they did; there can hardly have been anyone there who wouldn’t have experience of growing things.
In Jesus’ day, growing your own wasn’t a hobby, a lifestyle choice. It would have been essential for all but the most wealthy to grow at least some food to provide for their families.

So when Jesus launched into a story about a sower he was talking to people who were all likely to be knowledgeable about this sort of thing. He was speaking their language…

“A sower went out to sow…” he said, and they wondered what would come next. Perhaps there would be some horticultural wisdom here?  “Well” says Jesus, “some of the seed fell on the path.” “Yes,” thinks the crowd, “it always does that – it’s irritating, but you’re bound to waste some that way. Obviously it won’t grow, but that’s life – one for the rook, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow – that’s the rule for seeds. Still the path is narrow, so not too much is lost!”

“And then,” continued Jesus, “some seed fell on rocky ground where it started well, but when the sun came out it just didn’t have enough soil, and it shrivelled up and died.” The crowd started to look doubtful about this sower. “Didn’t he know his fields? Hadn’t he worked this ground enough to realise where the bedrock was close to the surface? You can’t help throwing some seed on the path, but it seems a bit wasteful to chuck it about on the rocks – he can’t have been very good at this farming lark…”

“And some seed, “Jesus went on “fell among thorns…”
“Oh, come on!” said the crowd, “that’s ridiculous. Who’d sow seed in amongst the weeds?”
Now you might say, “perhaps the sower didn’t realise that the soil was weedy, and the thorns only appeared after he had sowed the seed,” except that the word Jesus uses for the thorns makes it clear this couldn’t have been so. These thorns, according to the text, are acanthus. You might have acanthus in your garden – its common name is Bear’s Britches and it’s sold as an architectural plant. In other words it is huge. In the Middle East it would have been evergreen too, there all year – you couldn’t have missed it. Even if the seed made it to the ground through these great leathery leaves, they’d have no chance of growing down there in the dark.

Of course some seed does end up falling on good ground in the story, but by this stage the crowd probably feels it is more by luck than judgement. This sower is not “Gardener of the year”. There’ll be no RHS gold medal for him. The only redeeming factor is that the seed that falls on the good ground thrives, and despite the apparent ineptitude of the farmer, there is, in fact, a good harvest, indeed a bumper harvest – some of these plants yield a hundred seeds for the one that was sown.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the crowd would probably not have thought very highly of this sower. He really doesn’t seem to know what he is doing, casting seed indiscriminately all over the place like this – what a waste!

What kind of sower throws three quarters of the seed into places where it almost certainly won’t grow?

There are two possible answers to that question.
The first is - a very, very foolish sower indeed.
The second is - a sower who has an unlimited supply of seed and an unlimited amount of time and patience to sow it in.

A sower of the second variety can chuck the seed around as freely as he likes, even into the most unlikely soil. He’s got nothing to lose and everything to gain by it. It might look as if he is sowing in improbable places, but who knows? Perhaps one or two odd seeds might find a way to grow along the broken edges of the path, or in some little pocket of deeper soil among the rocks, or in a clear patch among the acanthus. The good soil might not all be in one neat, fenced off block - the story doesn't say it is, and we’re not dealing with modern factory farming methods here. In fact the only real way to discover where all the good soil in your field, all the soil that might support a growing plant is, is to cover the whole area with seed and see what comes up. And my experience is that nature often has more surprises up its sleeve than we expect.

I have a particularly fine hollyhock growing in a gap just a couple of inches wide by the garage. It’s a great big plant and it would never have occurred to me to plant it there. But there it is – it arrived without my help, dropped there by the wind, or a bird perhaps, and it’s doing fine. I might not be able to see much good soil there, but the seed knows what it's doing better than me and seems to have found enough food and water to keep it happy.

The seed in this story, of course, as Jesus says, is the word of the kingdom, the word of God. It represents God’s life sown in the world to bring love, joy and peace to people. If you were here last week you may recall me telling you a bit of  the context for the part of Matthew’s gospel we’re working our way through at the moment, and it applies just as much to this passage as to last week’s. Jesus has been coming in for some pretty harsh criticism from the religious elite. He’s been healing people they thought were unclean, and eating and drinking with tax-collectors and sinners. This is against their tradition and they are offended by it. It seemed to them that Jesus was dragging God’s name into the mud, casting the pearls of God’s kingdom before swine, throwing good food to the dogs. "Why waste your time on the bad people – by their very lifestyles they’ve shown that they don't care about God at all? God will never grow anything good in their lives." Spending time and energy on them, in other words, looks as useless as throwing precious seed onto the pathway for the birds or scattering it amongst the rocks or thorns. If Jesus really wants to do good he should keep company with virtuous people who showed their seriousness about God by the way they lived.  

But Jesus' has discovered – and proved - that even in the unlikely soil of a gathering of tax collectors there will be some who were just longing to hear that word of welcome and love he brought them – in fact they are far more likely to hear it than those righteous people who think they have it all sorted out already. Zaccheus comes down from his sycamore tree. Matthew leaves his tax office. Other unlikely people found God at work in their lives too. Lepers are healed. Women, even prostitutes, find a dignity and a welcome they’d never known before.  To the people of the time, these lives might not have looked like promising ground, but a rich harvest is springing up among them somehow – lives are being changed. The good soil shows itself by what it grows, and there is far more of it, in far less obvious places, than is dreamed of in the narrow understanding of those who held religious power.

In our time, just as much as in the time of Jesus, those who see themselves as “religious insiders” can sometimes be much too quick to leap to conclusions about where the good soil is and what it looks like. They – we – can behave as if it is our responsibility to dispense or withhold God’s blessing, as if there was only a limited amount to go around, which we have to be enormously careful not to waste. We sometimes talk about “taking God out to people” as if he lived in a cupboard that only we had the key to. We can make people feel that their experience and understanding of God can’t possibly be valid, because they don’t come with the stamp of approval of some authorised religious body, or that they have to tick all the boxes we set before them, believe the right things, behave in ways we have decided, before they can be entrusted with a tiny ration of seeds to grow in their lives. Sometimes people will sit in church for a long time, part of a congregation, yet still feel that somehow their lives are too trodden down, like that pathway, or too stony or thorny for them to dare to think that anything of God might take root in them – that’s something that only happens to someone else.

But the message of this story is that this is not so. God’s love is not limited. It is not liable to run out. He spreads it around far more generously than we can imagine, in fact, like this sower, he throws it everywhere. He is at work in places, people and situations that we might never expect. Nor does God need protecting by human rules, fences built around him to keep out what we might think is unclean, unsafe, unsavoury. He can cope with our messes and our mistakes far better than we can. I suspect that he can even cope with the Anglican Church, with all its fears and foibles as it thrashes its way so painfully through its interminable quarrels.

What kind of sower sows seeds as the sower in this story did?
We might equally well ask: What kind of shepherd abandons ninety-nine perfectly good sheep in the wilderness to search for just one that is lost?
Or what kind of king when his posh guests refuse to come to his banquet skips over the B list celebrities and throws open the doors to the riff-raff, apparently unafraid that they will all just run off with the silver or ruin his nice carpets?
The kind of sower, the kind of shepherd, the kind of king whose love is inexhaustible, whose hope is unquenchable, and who looks at each one of us and sees not the downtrodden paths, the stones or the thickets of thorns but those, sometimes tiny, patches of good soil that we might have missed which seem small to us, but turn out to be big enough for the seed of God’s love to take root and grow.

July 6th 2008     Trinity 7 Evensong
Luke 18.31-19.10

The story of Zaccheus is surely one of the best known and best loved in the Gospels. Certainly if you’ve ever been a Sunday School teacher, as I was for many years, you’ll feel as if you know it inside out. It’s one of those stories which children seem easily to identify with. I suppose that’s because Zaccheus, as the story tells us, is short, just like them. Tree climbing appeals to children too, and the thought of a rich and influential man having to clamber up a sycamore tree to see over the crowd has an element of the ridiculous about it.

But in a way although we probably think we know the story of Zaccheus very well, there is also a sense in which we really don’t know it at all. What you notice when you look at it carefully is how much it doesn’t tell you, doesn’t explain, how many gaps there are in the story.

The bare bones are simply that Jesus comes to Jericho – he’s on his way through – it doesn’t look as if he means to stop. But a crowd has turned out to see him. This isn’t surprising because on the way into the city he has healed a man who was blind – news has spread.

Zaccheus wants to see him too, though the story doesn’t give us any clue why, whether it is just curiosity or some deeper longing. But he is small and there is a big crowd. So he climbs a tree, a strangely undignified act for a chief tax collector. As Jesus comes by, he looks up and see Zaccheus, and calls to him – by name (how did he know that?) – to come down, “for I must stay at your house today.” Now Luke has just told us that he is on his way through Jericho, so it doesn’t look as if staying anywhere was really in the plan, so has he changed his mind, or what?

Down comes Zaccheus – he hurries down the tree – and welcomes Jesus joyfully. Why? Did he think this was one in the eye for the crowds or is this genuine joy?

But though he is happy the crowd is not. They grumble. Again, we don’t really know what their problem is except that they think it is wrong for Jesus to visit a tax collector. Is it just that their religious sensibilities are offended because Jesus is mixing with a sinner, or are they jealous of Zaccheus? Perhaps they would have liked Jesus to come to their homes and they’re angry with him for rejecting them in favour of the tax collector. Again, it’s not spelled out. We are left to wonder.

And then, instantly, Zaccheus announces that he will give half of what he owns to the poor, and pay back anyone he has defrauded four times over. This all happens, note, before they have had any chance to talk. It’s not the result of any discussion they’ve had. What has happened to change Zaccheus so profoundly?

And then what…? Did Zaccheus follow Christ? Did the crowd repent of their judgemental attitudes?

We don’t know. You see what I mean about this story really being far more enigmatic than it first appears. It really tells us very little except that a short rich tax collector meets with Jesus, is changed, and that the crowd don’t like it.

I once focussed on this story in a Lent study session in another church. I split the group into three, and gave each sub-group a different task. The first group I asked to think about what might have come before this story. How had Zaccheus come to be the kind of person he was, a rich but hated tax-collector? I asked them to imagine what his childhood might have been like. What would have motivated him to take on this role, which he would have known would single him out for suspicion and anger from his community? It’s a strange thing to choose to do – most of us would much rather be liked. They came up with an elaborate back story for him. As I recall they decided that he was the only son of a powerful man, a man who held high office in his community but who was a bit of a bully. Zaccheus was desperate to win his father’s approval in any way he could. So he tried to look big, even though he was actually rather small. Being a tax collector made you important in the eyes of the Romans, even if it lost you friends, but Zaccheus, they decided didn’t have many friends anyway, so what did he have to lose. “I care for nobody, no not I, since nobody cares for me” as the song goes.

The second group I asked to think about the events of the story itself and to read between the lines. What was happening and why? As they visualised the scene what did they see? They came back with lots of insights into what the crowd might have been feeling, and what Zaccheus might have thought as the story unfolded.

It was the third group, though, who really surprised me. I had asked them what they thought might have happened next. If we’d come back to find Zaccheus a year or two later, what would we have discovered? Almost all of them decided that Zaccheus’ change of heart probably didn’t last, that the chances were that he went back sooner or later to his old ways. I confess that this was something that had never occurred to me. In reality I suspect that the fact the story is in the Gospels at all implies that Luke wants us to feel that Zaccheus really did change his ways for good, but that Lent group were very sceptical about it.  Perhaps they were a rather cynical or pessimistic bunch – I really can’t remember – but they were adamant. Jesus might have made a difference there and then, but old habits would have died hard for Zaccheus.

It was a fascinating session, but you might ask, what did we know about Zaccheus at the end that we didn’t at the beginning? And the answer would be, almost nothing.  We had no idea whether our reading of the story was anything like the reality of his life. So was it all a waste of time to use our imaginations in this way? I would say not. We might not have found out anything about Zaccheus, but we found out a very great deal about ourselves, about how we might have felt and reacted if the things in this story had happened to us. In particular that group went away wondering whether they might sometimes be too sceptical or dismissive of the possibility that they or others around them could change. The story spoke to them not so much about Zaccheus, who they would never meet, but about themselves, who they lived with everyday.

And that is really the point of this story, and in a way, the point of reading the Bible at all. Of course it is important that people study the Bible as a historical document, helping us discover and understand what the text says, and how it might have been understood by those who originally heard and wrote it. That can be an important way to shed light on its meaning, as well as being interesting in its own right. But if all we do is find out what an ancient text might have meant to an ancient people, long dead and gone, then we are missing its real value.

When Jesus summons Zaccheus down from his sycamore tree he tells him, “I must stay at your house today…” If I had to put money on it I would say that this is the moment when everything changes for Zaccheus. Jesus comes home to him, becomes real in his life, not just a distant figure glimpsed over the heads of the crowd, but someone who is prepared to get to know him on a far more intimate level than he could if he remained at a distance, and he is prepared to let Zaccheus get to know him too.

As we read the Bible not just with our heads but with our hearts also, letting the stories resonate within our own lives, God comes home to us too, showing us ourselves, just as that Lent Group discovered. We may never know what “really happened” in this or in any other Bible story, or why it happened. We may never answer those intriguing questions this story provokes. We can’t travel back in time. But though the events of the Bible are distant – something we might feel that we struggle to see, just as Zaccheus struggled to see Jesus over the head of the crowd, we also may find that God is closer to us and more aware of us than we thought and wanting to speak to us. 

In a short time we will all go home and lock the doors of the church, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves that we are locking God in here too. The message of this story is that God says to us just as he did to Zaccheus “I must stay at your house today…” What will he find when he comes home with you tonight? What will the light of his loving presence enable you to see of yourself also? And most important of all, how will it change you?

July 6 2008     Trinity 7

Zech 9.9-12, Romans 7.15-25a, Matt 11.16-19, 25-30

If you’re a parent you will probably have realised by now that the universe is unfair. Your children seem to have almost boundless supplies of energy – they can run around for hours and yet with the briefest of rests bounce back up again. You, on the other hand who need that sort of energy to care for them, do your job, look after the house, worry about the state of the world and all those other things that press upon you are absolutely whacked out.  You see what I mean? How can that be fair? It is when we are older, with important things to do that we need all that get up and go, but by that time it’s got up and gone!

“Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”

Jesus’ words to his followers in today’s Gospel often touch a chord in people because so many people feel weary. Of course, it’s not just the tiredness of a day’s work or of caring for children that he means here, but the tiredness that comes from struggling against impossible odds, over and over again, without ever really feeling that you have got anywhere. In the Greek myth, Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to roll a stone up a hill forever, but every time it got near the top it would roll down again. Recognise that feeling? If you do, then what you are experiencing isn’t a simple tiredness that can be cured with a good night’s sleep but the kind of bone-deep weariness that needs something far more radical to sort it out.

The Greek words Jesus uses in the Gospel to describe the weary and burdened people who come to him would have conjured up a very specific sort of picture to his hearers. They are words that you might use to describe a donkey, loaded with a burden that is too heavy for it, on the point of collapsing, or a ship that has been over-loaded with cargo, about to sink under the weight. In other words, he isn’t describing people who just have a difficult time, but people who are carrying loads imposed on them unjustly by others, loads that will be impossible to bear, no matter how hard they try.

He has a specific set of people in his mind as he says these words; we can tell who they are by reading back in the Gospel a bit to see what has been happening and what he has been doing. 
In the days leading up to this Jesus has been hard at work. He has healed a paralysed man; “your sins are forgiven,” he said to him, and the man took up his bed and walked. He has cured a woman with a haemorrhage and raised a little girl from death. He has even changed the lives of some of those hated collaborating tax collectors – people who were regarded as the worst of sinners. Surely that should be a cause of rejoicing? But instead Jesus comes in for sustained criticism. All his enemies can see is that in declaring the forgiveness of sins he has usurped the place of God, in touching people who were considered to be ritually unclean he has made himself unclean too and in consorting with sinful people he has gone soft on the message of God, on his holiness, on his demands that people live right.

The Bible doesn’t tell us what those who have been healed think, but my guess is that it would simply be “Thank God, I can walk! Thank God I’m healed! Thank God I’m alive! Thank God I’m accepted!” But this cuts no ice with Jesus’ opponents. Jesus’ actions might look good, feel good, and do good, but they are still convinced that he must be in the wrong because what he is doing is contrary to their tidy understanding of their religion.

They would have seen all of these people he has welcomed and helped as beyond the pale. They might be able to be accepted back into their communities and allowed once again to worship in the Temple, but only if they could sort themselves out somehow. It was widely felt that those who were ill or disabled, those whose lives were in difficulties were being punished by God, so it was no one else’s responsibility but their own to do something about it. The task of the righteous was to stay righteous, not to risk their own good standing by consorting with these dubious characters.

That’s why the people who come to Jesus are so weary. Their lives are hard enough as it is, but every time they try to struggle out of the mud in which they are sinking there is some self-righteous religious person or disapproving neighbour to shove them firmly back down into the mire. Like an over-laden ship the people he has been ministering to are sunk before they start according to the religious and social rules of the times. They’ll never get to where they need to be by following the rules of their society.
So Jesus offers another way

“Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”

It’s important to notice here what Jesus offers and what he doesn’t. He never says he will make life trouble free, but he does promise something that seems to me to be even better. He promises rest, and that is a very significant word to choose. Resting is what God did when he had finished making the heavens and the earth. He looked at what he had made and he saw that it was very good, just right, absolutely as it should be, and then he rested. The Hebrew word for rest is “shabat” – which gives us Sabbath. When the Jewish people translated their scriptures into Greek the word they chose to translate “shabat” was the same one Jesus uses here – the rest Jesus offers is the same sort of rest that God enjoyed on that first Sabbath.

The rest of the Sabbath wasn’t just time off to put your feet up (or even go to church); it was meant to be far richer than that. The Sabbath was supposed to be a time to remember God wanted his world to be – as it had been at the beginning – to re-capture that for just for one day  a week. A world of justice, of peace, of love and harmony. A world in which God and his people could delight, not one where people were oppressed by the burdens of injustice, prejudice and thoughtless criticism. That was a world very different from the one those weary people knew then, and which weary people today know.

I’m sure you can think of lots of examples of this sort of double burdening.

My own experience of single-parenting after my divorce taught me that while that was tough enough in itself, the real burden was dealing with the judgemental attitudes of people who neither knew nor wanted to know about the reality of my life and the decision I had made.
Many of those who have suffered problems with mental ill health will attest that it is the stigma of the illness which is often the hardest thing to cope with. 
Those who are disabled in some way often struggle more than they should need to because of a thoughtless disregard for simple things which would make their lives easier, as if they just didn’t matter as much as able-bodied people.
A woman told me recently about the struggle she has shopping with her learning-disabled small son who tends to have screaming fits when he gets frustrated because he can’t communicate. Dealing with him is challenge enough – the straws that breaks the camel’s back, though, are the disapproving looks she gets from complete strangers who assume she must just be a bad mother.

Frankly at the moment the church wearies me – not this particular one, but the wider church. It wearies me to see gay clergy friends of mine who want only to get on with living their lives and offering their gifts being treated as if they were pariahs. It wearies me as a woman in ministry to be regarded by some sections of the church as somehow dubious or even dangerous to the spiritual health and well-being of the faithful. You may disagree on these contentious issues, and you are entitled to your opinion, but I am weary at what seems to me to be a pointless waste of the lives and energy of those who suffer because of these attitudes.

Whatever it is that wearies us though Jesus tells us that it is in coming to him, in putting our lives into his hands that we will find the true rest we need. But it isn’t a rest that will come about by magic. Jesus goes on to say that the rest he offers, paradoxically, involves taking on another yoke. There is work to be done to create a world where burdens are lifted rather than imposed, work which we all have a part in with him, work which starts with recognising and shedding the unnecessary burdens that we may have picked up through our lives, but which goes on from there to see the ways in which we may have imposed burdens on others. Jesus’ yoke, the work he calls us to is one that is worth bearing though, work that is worth doing, which is why Jesus calls it an easy yoke.

“Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”

It’s a wonderful invitation, an invitation that has given hope and comfort to countless people, but it’s an invitation that is often far deeper than we realise. It’s an invitation not just to a bit of time out from the things that bother us, but to a healing that can get to the roots of the problem, bringing love out of the hatred and suspicion with which we have poisoned the world.

29th June 08    The Feast of St Peter and St Paul - Patronal Festival  (Holy Communion and Baptism)

I don't know if you've ever had a nickname. If I ever have, I don't seem to have known about it – perhaps that's just as well. Nicknames can be quite baffling. One of my son's friends was known to absolutely everyone as Stinge. I don’t know why because he wasn't remotely stingy– quite the reverse, a generous, cheerful, helpful lad. My son never really explained how he got the name – I'm not sure he knew – but Stinge his friend was and Stinge he remained.

There’s a famous man with a nickname in our gospel reading today. His parents named him Simon, but to Jesus and eventually to the whole church he was Peter – from petros, the Greek for rock. He was to be the rock on which the church was built, a firm foundation. You wouldn't have thought it at first, though, as he was anything but rocklike, impetuous and changeable. But Jesus looked at him and saw not only who he was but also who he could become. He saw the journey he was going to make –from ordinary fisherman to founder of the church - a journey no one else would have thought possible.

The other saint we heard about today – the other saint who this church is dedicated to - didn't exactly have a nickname, but he did have two names and the change from one to the other was equally significant and required just as big a journey.
Paul appears first in the Bible bearing the Hebrew name Saul. He'd been born in the city of Tarsus, in what is now Turkey, but his family were Jewish. There were lots of well-established Jewish communities living around the Mediterranean. Paul's father had been made a Roman citizen at some point, probably in reward for some job he’d done for the Romans. It was a great privilege, worth having, and it was hereditary too, so Paul was a Roman citizen as well. That’s probably why he came to have the Roman name Paul – it means “little” in Latin.

It was quite common for people like Paul – non-Romans living in a Roman culture - to have a Latin name as well as one from their own background. It made things easier when they were dealing with Roman authorities – people knew how to spell and pronounce it. Immigrants today will often take an English name or anglicise their original one. They might use one at home in their own community, and one for dealing with the host community. 

But when we first meet Paul it is his other name – the Hebrew one, Saul – that he is using, and that’s no surprise. He was proud of his Jewishness. He was a Pharisee, a member of a very strict religious group. The Pharisees had often opposed Jesus in his ministry, and Saul did the same after Jesus’ crucifixion. By his own admission he was determined to stamp out what he saw as heresy. These followers of Jesus were distorting the faith of their ancestors, changing it to suit themselves, and he was dead against it. He organized the persecution of the early church, and had Christians thrown into prison. But eventually, and very dramatically on the road to Damascus, on the way to arrest some more Christians, he saw a vision of Jesus which convinced him that the message he had opposed was actually right. God’s love was for all – you didn't have to be Jewish to be part of his chosen people.

After that this man who had felt so passionate about his mission to keep Judaism Jewish became just as passionate a spokesman for the opposite point of view - that God had chosen everyone.  We can see this passion in the first reading we heard today. His life’s work wasn’t among his own Jewish people but among the Gentiles, non-Jews, working to make sure they were completely included in the Christian community. That's why in his letters and in the accounts of his travels in Gentile lands he is always Paul, not Saul. Instead of saying, “I'm a Jew first and foremost” with his name, he is saying with this Latin name  “I’ve come with a message for all. “

Paul's change of heart happened while he was on a real journey – on that road to Damascus - but it was the spiritual and emotional journey that was the longest journey for him.

Saul to Paul, Simon to Peter. The name changes tell us about the journeys these two men – our patron saints – made, and actually there’s a third journey, expressed in a name change, in today’s readings. In the Gospel Peter call’s Jesus the Messiah – it means “anointed one”, the Greek equivalent is “Christ”. Today people often use “Christ” almost as if it is Jesus’ surname, but actually it is a title, the title of one whom people expected, the one chosen and anointed by God to lead his people. It’s the first time in Matthew’s Gospel that anyone uses it of Jesus and it shows that there is another journey happening here as those around Jesus see him in this new way. Perhaps his view of himself changes too. He’s not a carpenter from Nazareth, but one who comes to bring a radical new message from God.

So our readings today are full of hints about the journeys people make; journeys they need to make if they are going to grow and change as they should. It seems very appropriate to me that we should be aware of this today because the baptisms we are about to do are a step forward on a journey too. Emily, Jordan and Annie have all decided for themselves that they'd like to be baptised. They and their parents and godparents will be declaring in a moment that they want to “turn to Christ”, head in his direction, along the road he leads them on. 

They’ve come a long way on their journey already of course – they've learnt a lot, grown a lot. But they've also got a lot of their journey ahead of them; all sorts of opportunities to take, choices to make. Who knows what they'll be when they grow up? I asked them myself; they each had some ideas - a career in chocolate tasting appealed to Annie! - but no one, including them can be sure what they will do, what challenges they'll meet on the way. Perhaps at the end of their lives they’ll be able to give themselves a nickname that sums that journey up – like Peter the Rock - but they don't know what it is yet.

So what they need to know today is that wherever their journey takes them, they won't travel alone. They’ll travel with the whole Christian community – all of us here and Christians around the world. And most importantly they’ll travel in the company of God. Baptism affirms that God is always with us and will always be with us, through thick and thin, good and bad, successes and failures – nothing we can do will drive him away.

When we come to baptise them you might notice that we use a shell to scoop the water. There's a reason for that. The shell is symbol of pilgrimage – that special sort of journey that people take to discover themselves and to discover God. Back in the middle ages people used to go on pilgrimage to all sorts of places, but one of the most special was in Northern Spain – Santiago de Compostella. It’s still a place of pilgrimage. They went there to visit the shrine of St James and his symbol happened to be a shell, so that’s the symbol they carried.

Gradually the shell became the symbol of pilgrimage anywhere. Medieval pilgrims to Canterbury along the pilgrims’ way through Kemsing would have worn one, maybe stopping off here. I can’t prove it but I’d guess that the crosses carved into the pillar by the door were left by those same medieval pilgrims. So this church is no stranger to pilgrims. And today we help three new pilgrims to take the next step on their journey as they are baptized. Who knows where that journey will lead them, but the promise of baptism is that they’ll make it with God and with the rest of us, his pilgrim people. 

And since today is our Patronal festival - a special day not only for Emily, Annie and Jordan, but for all of us as we gather to celebrate the life of the church and to pray for our journey together - I'd like to invite you all to take home a little reminder of that pilgrimage we are on, the journey we are called to make. So, when you come up to take the bread and wine, or for a blessing – and everyone is welcome - I'd like to invite you to pick up a little shell from the table here. Take it home to help you think about the journey you are on. Think about the places you've been, the things you've done and that have happened to you. Think too about the direction you are heading in – is it the one you want to go in, the one that will really lead to the place you want to be?

Peter, Paul, even Jesus himself, had journeys to make. Annie, Emily and Jordan have journeys to make. We each have a journey to make, and one to make together too. Let’s pray today for all our journeys, that we’ll know God’s presence as he walks beside us.

June 22nd 2008   
Trinity 5

Romans 6.1b-11, Matthew 10.24-39

There are times when I look at a set of readings and I think, “Oh, come on God, how am I going to make a sermon out of these?” This week’s readings are a set like that. They hardly paint an attractive, upbeat image of what it means to be a Christian, do they?  

“Now look,” says Jesus to his disciples, “the fact is that if you follow me you will be in for a whole heap of trouble.” Oh, great! “You’ll be maligned and persecuted, just like me. There’ll even be people who want to kill you – but don’t worry about them…!” Well, actually Jesus, I have to confess to a tiny shred of anxiety about that last bit…
 “To cap it all,” says Jesus, “even your nearest and dearest will fall out with you if you follow me; there will be strife in your household – parents against children, children against parents, and that’s before we start on the in-laws…”
Hang on, whatever happened to family values, Jesus…?

Oh well, if the Gospel reading is so problematical perhaps I’d better preach about the first reading instead? But that’s really no better. It’s all doom and gloom there too – all this stuff about sin and being baptised into the death of Christ…

Frankly, if I wanted to do a sales job for Christian faith this morning, in the hopes that people would be enticed to join the church by the prospect of the joy it offers, these readings wouldn’t be a lot of help. So perhaps it’s fortunate that that isn’t what I want to do – today or any day. Of course I’m not against folk enjoying church, but if that’s ALL that happens then I would consider we’d failed in our job. My real hope is that when people come here they will go away with something – some resource, some resolve or even just some more questions - that will help them deal with the struggles and challenges of their lives; that they’ll go away with the tools they need to live with what they have to live with and change what they don’t. 

The church isn’t a club where happy, successful people can get together to congratulate one another on their good fortune, even if it would like to be like that. After 15 years of doing this job in a variety of churches I’ve discovered that no matter how smooth things look on the surface of a congregation, when you start to get to know people you find that many of them are struggling with things that seem unbearable – and that’s only the ones I get to know about.  This isn’t because they are weak or inadequate. There’s nothing wrong with them, except that life happens to have brought them overwhelming sadness, irreparable loss, crushing anxiety, dilemmas that have no neat solutions. It doesn’t happen to everyone all the time, thank goodness, but far more people than you might suppose will have come here today carrying desperately heavy burdens. If you are one of them, believe me, you’re not alone. If you aren’t one of them, then don’t assume that everyone is in the same fortunate boat as yourself or that you will stay in that boat forever.

That’s why, despite the unattractiveness of these readings, it is important that we hear them and that we pay attention to them, because they were written for people who also knew at first-hand how tough, challenging and grim life could be. A sugary version of Christian faith that makes it out to be an easy answer which brings instant health, wealth and happiness  wasn’t going to help those first Christians, just as it doesn’t help those who are going through troubled times today.

Matthew’s Gospel was probably written shortly after 70 AD, when the Romans finally destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. The Jewish people were thrown into a time of chaos and many of them did what people usually do in these circumstances. They drew their boundaries tighter, looked for scapegoats, feuded among themselves. It’s just human nature. The followers of Christ, still regarded as a troublesome branch of Judaism by many rather than a separate religion, were an obvious target for mistrust and suspicion and they were eventually banned from the synagogues, told they were no longer part of the ancestral faith they’d grown up in and which had given them a sense of identity and a place to belong. That’s the community Matthew is writing his Gospel for.

Paul is writing to a group of Christians living in Rome, the heart of the empire, where they were faced with constant reminders of the brutal force of that empire. Public execution, gladiatorial games which were really just an excuse for mass slaughter – these were a commonplace part of Roman life, designed to remind people what would happen if they stepped out of line. Dying with Christ wasn’t a metaphor - picture language to help people think about their spiritual lives - it was what was happening in the most blood-thirsty of ways to their fellow Christians.

So what these people needed was not cheery platitudes about how much fun it was being a Christian. They needed words of wisdom that could bring real hope, real help to get them through the days of suffering and the nights of fear they faced as they tried to live out the new way of peace and justice that Jesus had taught them. There was no guarantee in this new faith that God would swoop down and miraculously rescue them from their fate – he hadn’t done so for Jesus on the cross. There were no magic ways around the dark times – they just needed to find the strength to go through them somehow.

So how could they find that strength? That’s the important question, because we need it too, even though our burdens may be quite different. I don’t claim any special insight here, and I’m very hesitant about saying anything to those who are in the midst of turmoil – sometimes it is better to keep silent, but there are two things that I think these passages point us to that might just help or be worth remembering.

The first is that to get through hard times we may have to leave behind old ways of thinking, old patterns of relating – to allow some things to die so that new things can come to birth.  Paul talks about dying to sin so that we can be alive to God; sin is not just about the individual bad things we might do, but also about the systems we are part of that twist and misshape us, the expectations of our society, even of our family and friends that damage rather than healing us.  The first Christians – pressurised to make sacrifices to the Emperor – often had painful choices to make - banishment from their families, exclusion from the social circles they had moved in, the loss of powerful positions or even of their lives because of the path they’d chosen to follow. I’ve often seen people who’re going through difficulties having to make hard choices too. Sometimes they might have to leave a job, leave a relationship, leave a life-style, give up a self-image or a set of beliefs that is damaging them. Sometimes we have to almost shed a skin that is too small for us so we can find the new self we need, the freedom we need to grow.

But paradoxically, these readings also suggest that having been set free, we then need, in a sense, to give up that freedom again. Jesus calls us to become part of the household of God, to give our allegiance to him and to one another.

In the ancient world people normally lived in households, not on their own. They shared their lives with a host of other relatives, as well as servants and slaves, all under the power of the head of that household. They didn’t expect to live as free-floating individuals, and, actually it would have been very hard to do so. For people in the ancient world, having a household to belong to, even if only as a slave, meant that you would at least be fed and housed. It gave you security and identity too. Belonging to a household would usually be better than trying to make it on your own. What mattered was who you were dependent upon – whose household you belonged to, and how they shaped it. If it was a good household, with a good master, you were well off; if not, your life was hell.

When Jesus talks in the Gospel about being part of the household of God therefore, he wasn’t just talking about a cosy family gathering, but about being part of something that was vital, life-giving for those first Christians, who had often lost their support and their place of belonging. Here was a household that had God as its head – someone who not only cared about you, but who could number the hairs on your head. In this household even if you lost everything, even if your life was disintegrating before your eyes, it was not the end, but a new beginning– those who lose their lives will find them, says the Gospel. And it was a household that was open to all, whoever they were and whatever their background. Those early Christians weren’t perfect of course – they fell out just as often and as bitterly as we do today – but nonetheless their commitment to a life together gave them the courage they needed to face persecution. The good news for us is that we are still called into that same household, bringing both our strengths and our needs to one another and to him. We don’t get it right all the time – in fact we often get it spectacularly wrong - but I’ve often been overwhelmed by the depth of love I’ve found within the church and the transforming effect that love can have on people when they come into contact with it.

As I said when I started, these aren’t easy readings. They are hard readings, for hard times when life is painful and bewildering, when the challenges seem too great for us, when the floods threaten to overwhelm us. There are no simple answers in them, no magic wands, but they speak to us words of real hope and wisdom, of a God whose love is stronger than the things that enslave us, a God to whom we are of infinite value and by whom we are infinitely cherished, a God who calls us together into his household of love.

15 June 2008    Trinity 4 Breathing Space Communion

Matt 9.35-10.8
Jesus calls his disciples in today’s Gospel reading, sending them out to “proclaim the good news”. But when we start to look at the list of names of those he calls we realise that they are a pretty rum lot. There’s Peter, whose heart’s in the right place but who spends half his time rushing into things without thinking them through. There’s Thomas who always seems to be full of questions, wanting everything spelled out for him. There’s Matthew, the tax-collector, viewed with suspicion by many. And there’s Judas Iscariot, who’ll eventually betray him. There are others whose stories we don’t know, but they are all ordinary people, fishermen, farmers, tradesmen. They hardly look like a dream team and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were aware of that themselves. They probably knew themselves well enough to realise that they weren’t really up to the job – “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons…”  Oh, sure, Jesus, and what shall we do after lunch…?

Still, perhaps they thought to themselves that they would be able to pretend. So long as they went far enough away from home, to a place where no one really knew them. Maybe then they might be able to maintain some façade of holiness long enough to impress those they had landed amongst…

No such luck. Jesus is quite specific. They are not to go among strangers with their message – not to the Gentiles, not to the Samaritans. It wasn’t that Jesus had anything against these groups – he ministered to them himself. I think the point is that he knew that his disciples needed to start where they were, with the people they knew, if their ministries were ever going to be rooted in reality. They weren’t to be like travelling snake-oil salesmen, turning up with some novelty cure and then beating it out of town before anyone saw through the pretence. What he calls them to is that depth of genuine connection with people that we see in his own ministry. When Matthew tries to describe how Jesus feels at the sight of the needy, ragged crowds that come to him he uses a Greek word that is literally to do with the bowels. Jesus is gutted, sick to his stomach. He feels their distress in his own body, as if it was his own. If his followers can’t make that sort of connection – if they are determined to keep it all at one remove – they will never have the empathy that they need to help. Jesus calls them to a ministry rooted in love not in slick packaging. But how can they find that connection?

“You have received without payment; give without payment”, he tells them. ”You have received…” that’s the important thing. They themselves were in need – and still are – and it is this that they must remember as they deal with others who are in need, because it is not in their strength but in their weakness that they will find most powerfully God’s love, the love that they are called to pass on. Matthew describes the crowd that Jesus met – people like those they will meet – as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”. The image is a powerful one – the Greek word translated as harassed literally means “coming to pieces, coming apart at the seams, disintegrating” and the word helpless means “tossed about”. It is the image of a lamb caught in the jaws of some wild animal that Jesus evokes -  torn to shreds as it is thrashed about. That’s what happened to sheep without shepherds in Jesus’ world. Being broken, shredded like that, is part of the humanity that Jesus himself shares on the cross – and it is the place where we are most likely to find God’s  healing, God’s love. Jesus calls his disciples to look at their own lives, to see what they have received, and then to use that knowledge to help others - give as you have received. He doesn't want them to do some slick PR job for Christian Enterprises PLC, but simply to share the transforming love that they themselves have found.

The harvest is still plentiful; the labourers are still few, and probably – if we have any sense – we are wary of God’s call. Who are we to think we can do anything for anyone else? “Cure the sick? raise the dead? cleanse the lepers? cast out demons?…”  Us?  But just like Jesus' first disciples, we need to realise that Jesus doesn’t call us to pretend to have the answers. That won’t help anyone. He calls us to look in the broken, battered places of our own lives, to find God’s healing where we are, where we need it, and then, as we take his message to others, we’ll find that we won’t have to pretend.

8 June 2008  Trinity 3    
Sermon by Kevin Bright

Matthew 9.9-13,18-26, Romans 4.13-25, Hosea 5.15-6.6

Lord, please help each one of us to find personal meaning, guidance and inspiration in the words we have heard read from the bible this morning. Amen.

‘In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes’, a phrase attributed to Benjamin Franklin but as we just heard also firmly on the agenda around 1800 years earlier. Tax collectors will never be popular but to be fair it seems that the trouble with the profession is that 90% of its members give the rest a bad name!

Death, taxes, and things which the Jews considered ritually unclean, all controversial stuff in today’s gospel reading.

‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor’ said Jesus.

If we think carefully about it, those few words express the reason for his existence, his mission on earth to fulfil scripture and they offer hope to us all for an eternal future with God.

We literally thank God for this as we recognise his grace and mercy towards us.

Most of us avoid the doctors like the plague! We only go there if we feel so ill that there is no other option. This is a not a doctor to be avoided until there is no other option but one we should welcome into our lives recognising our need for his help. If we can get on the right track and maintain contact you might even call it preventative medicine.

When Jesus talks of the sick it seems he meant this in both a moral and spiritual sense, after all we heard about tax collectors and sinners as well as a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. The thing they have in common is that they would all have been outcasts from Jewish society and Jesus actions violated the ritual laws which were generally observed.

Let’s have a look at a few of the people mentioned to see why this can be regarded as a taboo busting episode from Matthews gospel.

Taboo 1 - First there’s Matthew, also known as Levi, possibly the author of this gospel so possibly writing of his own experience at being called to follow Christ.

When commanded ‘follow me’ he gets up and follows Christ. My impression is that he recognises Christ’s authority and understands that this is not a command to be queried. There is no room for dithering, we don’t hear ‘hang on a minute I’ll just finish today’s takings’, or ‘I’ll just check with the Romans to make sure they are okay with this’ he immediately follows.

Even today not everyone has kind words about tax collectors but Matthews role was even more hated. He would be about as popular as an Englishman going off to fight for the Taliban in his role collecting taxes on behalf of a hated occupying Roman army.

On top of that the tax collectors were renowned for abuse, malpractice and extortion.

On top of that again the situated was aggravated further because the tax collectors were regarded as ceremonially unclean on account of their continual contact with gentiles and their need to work on the Sabbath.

So Jesus decision to call Matthew and dine with him and other outcasts would have both bewildered and infuriated the Pharisees.

Taboo 2 –

Ladies menstruating were considered ritually unclean, even more so a lady haemorrhaging. She would have been close to the top of the list of ‘things to avoid if you want to stay pure’ according to Jewish law. The fact that Jesus heals a condition that had persisted for 12 years without any reference to her being ‘unclean’ was therefore abhorrent to the Jews.

Taboo 3 – Dead people. Right up there in the hierarchy of purity laws was the rule that dead bodies should not be touched. (Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan where the priest avoids the beaten body in case it is dead and he breaks the rules).

Taboo breaking also applies to the desperate man who approaches Jesus, probably a synagogue leader we would know as Jairus. Anyway a man of high standing who hears there’s a prophet in town who’s healing people. He’s more used to people coming to him to ask for things in his respected role yet he forgets his high  standing and usually dignified public demeanour, his little girl has just died, what could all that matter now. He publicly throws himself to his knees in the dusty road as he seeks Jesus healing power.

As we know Jesus also ate with prostitutes, lepers and other outcasts, and was quizzed as to why his disciples didn’t keep Jewish fasting laws.

The message was becoming clear that Jesus had come to bring radical change. The old way of doing things didn’t fit comfortably alongside what Jesus had come to do and this was going to upset people opposed to this change.

It wasn’t that Jesus had come to destroy the old ways but change had to take place as he came to fulfil scripture.

This doesn’t feel like gentle change phased in over time with a consultation period.

Clearly Jesus had not sought advice from any management consultants or he would have ‘sought to mitigate the risk to the change caused by resistance and employed change agents to build communication, learning and reward system plans that accurately reflect the needs of the targets of change.’

However, in a world before management consultants Jesus not only makes it clear how things must change if God’s love for the outcasts and suffering is to be made real but he also shows the way forward to the future when he says ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice, something the prophet Hosea had seen long ago.’

In effect, Jesus told them, “If you feel right with God, okay; but these people I came to help need something more than all your self-righteous ritual performances.”

Faith had lead Matthew to follow, faith was shown by the man whose daughter had died and Jesus said ‘your faith has healed you’ to the haemorrhaging woman.

Paul continues this theme in his letter to the Romans. If only those who keep Mosaic Law are God's people, faith would be meaningless.

Effectively Paul said that nobody could keep the law, however hard they tried but anyone can get to know God and trust him, like Abraham did.

If we accept the new ways that Jesus showed us as being Gods way then we are freed from slavishly following the path which doesn’t feel right but which we tend to go down anyway because so many others do. We are freed from behaving in the way that others expect just because that is what they have become used to.

We need to look for signs of change which bring hope whether this is seen in the possibility of the first black US president or in something as local as improved community facilities.

It’s for us to challenge injustices and care about the outcasts. This could mean giving time, money or prayer.

When you consider the opportunity Jesus gave to Matthew maybe we just need to find it within ourselves to give someone a break this week.

If our faith lives through us there will be times when we feel the need to speak out, sometimes as a minority voice. Awareness of the sacrifices and needs of others will become important to us.
If we need inspiration there’s certainly one bishop we can look to for examples. That’s the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu.

He has not only lead prayer and protest for the people of Zimbabwe but also drew attention to himself this week by jumping out of a ‘plane at 13,000 ft with a devil, a red devil skydiver of course.

Despite opposing the war in Iraq he recognises the sacrifices of individuals serving both there and in Afghanistan and aims to raise at least £50,000 for the ‘Afghanistan trust’ which provides care for injured soldiers.

Jumping out of a plane or making public protest won’t be for everyone but not turning our backs on those in greatest need has to be for everyone of us, if we are serious about being followers of Christ.


8 June 2008

Trinity 208 Evensong
Ruth 2.1-20a, Luke 8.4-15

Jesus told a story in today’s Gospel about sowing and growing, a familiar story. But his simple, familiar tale has a powerful message for us. The seeds which the sower scatters, he says, are the words of God. They represent all those tiny things that speak to us of hope and of new beginnings, words that whisper to us that things can be different. Seeds, despite their small size, have packed within them the potential to become huge plants – trees even – and to produce seed themselves. They are full of promise for the future.

But any gardener will tell you just how easily tiny seedlings can be destroyed, how many dangers there are for them to face – pests and diseases, drought and frost. Sow four times as many as you need, says the old gardening proverb. “One for the rook, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow.”

The Old Testament story we heard today – the story of Ruth - speaks of the promise and the vulnerability of in our lives – those seeds of hope. Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi – both widows, with no one to support them – are about as helpless as they can be in the society of their time. But Ruth’s courage and faith in sticking with Naomi, leaving her own homeland and going with Naomi to Israel, are rewarded. Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz, notices her and eventually marries her. Good news for Ruth and Naomi, but even better news for the people of Israel, because Ruth and Boaz have a son – Obed – who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of the little shepherd boy David, who becomes Israel’s greatest king.  Ruth’s life is a vulnerable seed, but one which eventually brings forth a very significant harvest.

The seeds which fall into our lives may not have such far-reaching effects as these, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. We are all called to bear the fruit of God’s kingdom, both for our own sake and for the sake of others. Sometimes things which seem small to us can have a huge impact. A chance encounter which leads us in a new direction, a new job, a wake up call of one kind or another – even an illness or a loss can be a turning point, something that spurs us into action. All of a sudden the world looks different – we are filled with a sense of resolve – things will change, things can change, things must change, we think. But will that seed be able to put down roots, to grow and to thrive and produce more life, or will our good resolutions lead nowhere, and our hopes shrivel and die.

According to Jesus’ story there are many reasons why these seeds of new life might not make it to the harvest. Some of those seeds – the words of God that inspire us – will fall onto the path, the well-trodden route, where the earth is packed hard. Our attempts to change our lives often fail because before we’ve even started old messages start playing in our heads, “don’t be ridiculous, there’s no point trying, you’ll never manage it, you’ll give up, you’re no good at this sort of thing”. Often new initiatives fail because we haven’t got the courage or the imagination to try doing things in new ways, to abandon our old images of ourselves, of our world, of other people, of the way things ought to be. It is easier to do what we have always done, even if it has never worked. It takes enormous effort and courage to get off the path and out into unfamiliar territory. And so the seeds of new growth are destroyed before they have had a chance to grow.

Other seeds, says Jesus, shrivel and die because they fall on rocky ground. They have no depth of soil to grow in. There aren’t enough nutrients, and the water just evaporates. If we want our hopes to bear fruit we need to build up depth in our lives. Building up depth means taking time for reflection, getting to know ourselves, building up our friendships, being involved with our communities, laying down resources of wisdom – the words of the Bible, the lessons learnt from history. All these things keep that new growth healthy and strong – without them it comes to nothing. If we’ve rushed through our lives, skating across the surface, now we find we are parched and hungry.

A third group of seeds, says Jesus, is choked by thorny weeds – plants which grow more strongly, winning the battle for light and energy. These aren’t annual thistles, according to the parable, by the way. They don’t grow from seeds which are hidden in the soil, which the farmer is unaware of, which he only realises are there when they germinate alongside the wheat. According to the Greek text, these are acanthus plants. You might have acanthus – Bear’s Breeches - in your garden. There’s acanthus mollis with smooth leaves, but these in the parable are more likely to be acanthus spinosus – a thorny variety that grows wild in the Middle East. Acanthus is sold these days as an ‘architectural plant’ – in other words it’s huge. Four feet tall, enormous leaves, roots that go down to Australia. It is perennial, and evergreen in the Middle East. You couldn’t possibly miss it, and yet this sower seems to think it is worth scattering his seeds among it. There’s not a chance they’ll grow! Even if they make it down through the foliage to the ground and germinate, they’ll die a slow death in the half-light.

People often display an equally unrealistic expectation that they will be able to grow new lives without paying the least attention to the deeply rooted problems in which they are entangled. They embrace the latest fad diet, without examining what it is that has caused them to overeat in the past. They come along to church and pray piously, while all the time nursing grudges which they have no intention of trying to put right. We want to “make poverty history”, but this will mean making a lot of other things history too – greed, the feeling that we have the right to hang onto our comfort and convenience at the expense of others, the equation we draw between status, self-esteem and material possessions. In reality our hopes for a world of peace and justice are far more likely to be killed off slowly by the weeds of apathy and self-interest than they are to be blasted away by Al Quaeda. These things tangle around us, deep-rooted and vigorous. Our good intentions are no match for them.

All in all it looks like a bleak picture. Change doesn’t come easily. New growth is fragile

But, of course, there are four types of soil in the farmer’s field in the parable. Some seed falls onto good ground, and there it grows and thrives and produces thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold. We’ve seen what is wrong with the bad soil – but what is so good about this ground? What makes good soil? Jesus’ listeners knew, and any keen gardener in the congregation will know too. Good soil is soil that has been opened up – by digging, by frost, by worms. It’s been broken apart, so that the roots of the plants can penetrate it and the shoots find their way to the surface. It has been turned over, raked about to break down the lumps in it. The gardener has gone deep enough to dig out even the acanthus roots – it takes some doing, but it can be done.
And of course it is rich soil. Rich with what? What does good soil have in it to feed the plants? It is full of what we might euphemistically call organic matter. That means compost - rotted down vegetation. I’m an avid composter – compost is gorgeous when it is fully decomposed, but on the way to its final state even I have to admit that it can be singularly unattractive – smelly and slimy as it rots. And, of course, the really lucky soil gets manure too…
So the good soil in the field, the good soil in our lives is the soil that is broken open, turned over, dug up, full of rotted rubbish and other substances which we might prefer not to name.

Often when people talk to me about their lives, these are precisely the areas which they are most reluctant to discuss – most likely to be ashamed of. It is hard to acknowledge the broken bits of our lives, the failures, the disappointments, the rotten stuff. We would rather just put them out of sight and out of mind. We hope people won’t find out about them. But according to this parable these are precisely the places that will grow the most abundant harvest.
It doesn’t sound likely, but it’s true. Many people have found God most deeply at work not in the shiny, respectable, capable parts of their lives, but in times of weakness and failure. It is a truth which is central to our faith, in fact. It was Christ’s willingness to go through the pain, humiliation, and defeat of the cross which led to the new life of Easter. God’s kingdom grew strong and fruitful in the broken soil of his body on the compost heap of Golgotha – strong enough to break the bonds of death, strong enough to bring new life not only to him, but to the whole of his creation.

As we look at our lives, and the life of the world, despite all the sadness and trouble it contains there are also many seeds of hope – people struggling to bring life and love to others. Perhaps we can see seeds of hope in our own lives too. But we can see how vulnerable those seedlings are. If they are to have a chance of survival it will be in the broken soil of our lives, in the soil that has been dug and weeded, enriched from our compost heaps of failure and weakness. As we follow our broken Saviour, may we find the fruit of love, peace and justice growing in us richly today and always.

1st June 08     Trinity 2

Romans 1.16-17; 3.22b-31, Matthew 7.21-29

There was once, it is said, an architect. He had spent his career building beautiful houses for very rich people, and though he enjoyed his work and was good at it, gradually he began to envy those he designed for. After all, he would never be able to afford one of the houses he built.

As he neared retirement the managing director of the firm he worked for called him into the office. “Before you retire there is one last job that we have for you,” he said. “It is a slightly unusual commission. You are to build a house for a client who wants to remain anonymous. The client says that you can design the house exactly as you like. The only requirement is that you must use only the best materials and build the house with care and attention to detail.”

The architect set to work. But, knowing that this would be his last job, all those resentments he had stored up over the years started to niggle away at him. “Why should this unknown person have such a fine house,” he thought to himself, “when I shall soon have to live on a pension?” So he began to cut corners, buying cheaper materials and pocketing the money he saved. He took short cuts on the construction in ways that no one but himself would easily be able to see.

Finally the house was finished. The architect was invited by the managing director to be present when the keys were handed over to the new owner. He smiled to himself at the thought of this poor fool who would think he had such a fine house, when in fact the architect knew that in 10 or 15 years time all sorts of problems would appear in it because of the way he had cheated. But what did he care about that? He’d be long retired by then – he’d have the last laugh.

The day of the handover arrived. The architect was surprised when he got to the house to find lots of his fellow workers there, but no sign of anyone who might be the new owner. The managing director stood up. “Ladies and gentlemen, this has been an unusual commission, but now I can reveal to you who the owner of this fine new house is. The company decided, you see, that it would like to  make the very best retirement gift it could to one of its longest-serving employees…” and with that he turned to the architect and gave him the keys. “Welcome to your new house, which you built yourself with such care. May you have a long and happy retirement in it...”

In today’s Gospel we hear about a wise builder and a foolish builder, one who builds his house on rock and the other who builds his house on sand. Like the architect in the story, they have to live in the houses they have made. This is fine until the storm comes, when the house on the rock stands firm and the other collapses, just as you might expect. “Build on the firm foundation of God’s will,” says Jesus “God’s way of living - love, forgiveness, tolerance, respect - and you will build a dwelling place for yourself and for others that will be good and strong.” And we probably nod our heads and think to ourselves “well, that’s obvious isn’t it…” But because this message seems so obvious it’s easy for us to skate over the surface of it and by doing that we may miss some of the deeper questions it provokes, questions we need to answer if it is to be any real use to us.

Because the fact is that although it seems obvious that building the house of our life on good foundations with good materials is wise, we often seem to be very bad at doing it. We do things like smoking, or drinking and eating to excess that we know will harm our bodies. We hurt those we love and those who love us. We sabotage our own efforts to grow and heal. We know what makes for healthy, happy human living – individually and for our communities and our world - but we choose something else. Like that architect in the story, our wounds and failings get in the way of our better nature. And we’re not alone in that. As St Paul says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  We’re all in this together, intending to build beautiful homes for ourselves, lives that are places of love and joy and welcome, but often ending up instead with ramshackle huts, bodged together with Polyfilla and wishful thinking, which collapse when the cold winds blow. If we KNOW better, why can’t we DO better?

The thing that has always bugged me about Jesus’ story of the two houses is why the foolish man chose to build on sand in the first place. Even a moment’s thought would tell him it was a bad idea. Jesus’ audience would have known how daft it was to build on sand, especially in an area like the Middle East, where the dried up river beds were often suddenly overwhelmed by flash floods. Everyone knew it was daft. The foolish builder knew it too – and Jesus is clear that he IS foolish, not just unlucky or ignorant or too poor to afford a better spot. If that were the case Jesus would say so (and, in any case, it would make the whole parable pointless). No, this foolish builder just decides, for some strange reason of his own, that it is there, on the shifting sand, that he wants to build. But why?

I’m a member of a preachers’ discussion forum on the internet – it has members all around the world. Many of my colleagues on that forum live in places that are prone to natural disasters – floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and so on. So I asked them why the people in their communities chose to live in these places, and why they didn’t just move somewhere else. I got all sorts of answers. Some people, of course, had no choice – they were too poor to move. But for others that wasn’t the case. Some people, they said, were in denial – they just didn’t think it would happen to them. Some were fatalistic – they might as well just accept the inevitable, disaster would strike them someday, so it might as well be a disaster they were familiar with – the devil they knew. Some just stayed because this was home, the place they had grown up in – their identity was wrapped up in it. Some reckoned that the advantages – good soil or beautiful scenery, perhaps – compensated for the potential risk. 

This same mix of factors is at work across the world. Cyclone Nargis caused so much devastation because it made landfall in the Irrawaddy Delta, a highly populated but very low-lying area in the south of Burma. Most of it is barely above sea-level. It was obviously vulnerable, so why did so many people choose to live there? The answer isn’t just a simple tale of individual human choice, let alone individual human folly; it is far more complicated than that.   When the British conquered Burma in the 19th Century, they decided that the fertile soil of the Irrawaddy Delta, then a huge mangrove swamp, would be ideal for growing rice. So they cleared the mangroves, which had protected the land from floods, absorbing the power of waves and wind. The result – lots of rich, alluvial silt to grow rice in, which led many people to settle there – there was a good living to be made. But with the mangrove swamps gone, they were defenceless when the storm hit. It wasn’t just individual choice but also global politics, economics and the vagaries of history which led to this disaster – a disaster that could have been prevented. 

It seems to me that when we ask ourselves why we made choices in our lives that turned out to be self-destructive it is tempting to look for some simple answer. We give ourselves a hard time – how could we have been so stupid? It is even easier to look at others disapprovingly when it is their lives that are falling apart and rush to judgement – why on earth couldn’t they see that they were heading for disaster? “It’s not rocket science…” we say to ourselves. But in reality the personal, social, and spiritual brokenness that afflicts us – the thing the Bible calls sin – isn’t a simple matter. It doesn’t have simple causes, and it doesn’t have a simple cure either. It is part of being human, fallible, broken people entangled with billions of other human, fallible broken people.

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” says Paul, but the good news is that he goes on to say that just as all are part of this tangle of wrong so all, in the love of God can be justified - put right - too, and that that is his desire. What is more as each one of us is disentangled by his love, we help set others free too to live the lives he wants for them as well. It’s not magic. It doesn’t happen overnight. We might even need to be dismantled completely and shifted to a new foundation. But a God who could raise Christ from the dead is not going to be defeated by anything we have done.

If your life was a house, would you want to live in it? If the answer is an unequivocal yes, then you are either very fortunate or you are missing something. Most of us, I guess, will be aware of at least a little damp in the attic, or creaking in the walls, and we may know we have far deeper problems too. Perhaps we have realised we are in the wrong place completely, sinking in the sand rather than set on a firm footing of rock. Whatever the case is for us, the invitation is the same; to stop desperately trying to bodge-it-ourselves, put away the Pollyfilla and put ourselves into the hands of a loving master builder who longs to begin his work of reconstruction in us.

25th May 2008     Trinity 1
Leviticus 19.1,2.9-18, Matthew 5.38-end

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” That’s the call to us in our first reading today.
“Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” says Jesus in the Gospel.
Be holy; be perfect! 
So, no pressure there then….!

How perfect and holy do you feel this morning, I wonder? Not very? Me neither. I’m guessing that for most of us these commandments sound more than a little unrealistic – and perhaps we’re not sure that we really want to be holy or perfect either. Holiness and perfection can sound rather otherworldly, not very human, even a bit priggish. But let’s have a look at them this morning anyway – who knows, they may turn out to be more important and more attractive than we think. 

Holiness is a common Biblical idea, especially in the Old Testament, and the key thing to know is that it isn’t to do with being pious or praying a lot or being respectable – things we often associate with being holy.  Holiness, for Biblical writers, is about separation. Holy things were things that had been set aside for a special purpose. They were different, or used differently to ordinary things. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,” said the commandment, for example. Treat the seventh day differently from the others; that way it will jog you out of the temptation simply to plod on through your life unthinkingly so that the things that are really important – thanksgiving, wonder, gathering together with your community - aren’t swallowed by the relentless sameness of life. That’s what holiness is about – the separation and distinctiveness that helps us to see the things that matter more clearly.

So when God tells Moses that the people of Israel are to be holy he is saying that they too should have the courage to be distinctive, to stand out rather than just following the herd. It’s not about being different for the sake of being different – sheer contrariness - but about being prepared to go against the grain of the world if that is what love and justice calls us to do.

The passage we heard this morning gives a little sketch of what that might involve, and if your image of holiness is of a rather precious piety it just might come as a surprise to you. Don’t reap right up to the edges of your field, it says. Don’t harvest all your grapes – leave some for the poor and the landless. Don’t keep your labourers’ wages until the morning – they need them each evening to buy food for their families. Don’t make life harder than it needs to be for those with disabilities. Be straight with others, don’t use underhand techniques to gain the advantage over them. This vision of holiness is very practical, to do with creating a society where all have a fair chance.

Living like this probably sounded just as extraordinary to ancient ears as it would to many people today. One of the first words most children discover is the word “mine!” It’s wired into us to feel we should heap up as much as we can, just in case there might be bad times around the corner – to be self-protective, which can often mean being selfish too.  But God calls his people to be different, to be distinctive, to be holy, and that means making choices that might not come naturally to us, like the choice to be unselfish, not to cling to our rights or our possessions.

Being holy, above all then inevitably involves thinking for ourselves, being aware of our own prejudices and assumptions, weighing up the evidence and coming to our own conclusions, even if that means we don’t quite fit in anymore. We need to listen to those around us and be aware of our traditions, but in the end, to be holy we have to take responsibility for our own decisions and not just do whatever others do.

It is reasonably easy when this means opposing things that Christians have traditionally opposed – greed, promiscuity or gambling, for example. But sometimes God’s call to holiness means looking long and hard at attitudes that we might have picked up within the Christian community. When campaigners fought for the abolition of the slave trade, for votes for women and against apartheid they often found that it was Christians who were their staunchest opponents rather than their allies, Christians who claimed that the Bible backed their views, who looked suspiciously at anything new, simply because it was new, who were angry that anyone should question their traditional interpretations of the word of God. Our current “hot potatoes” are different – this week’s debates around the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill, for example, or the tensions within the church about gay clergy or women bishops. But the call to holiness remains the same. It’s not a call to look for what others say is “the Christian view” and just follow their lead. We each need to make up our own minds, based on the evidence, so that we can say – “this is my decision.” We can’t shrug our shoulders and hide behind the Bible, because if we read the Bible honestly and intelligently we soon discover that there are many ways of understanding and interpreting it. We can’t shrug our shoulders and hide behind the church, or the media or our family and friends, and let others do our thinking for us. We’re responsible for the decisions we make, and the effect they may have on the lives of others.

So that’s holiness. But what about perfection? “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Well, again, we need to be careful that we understand this word. Perfection to most of us means something that is spotless and pure. The exhibitors at the Chelsea flower show have been aiming for perfect gardens this week – no weeds, no slugs, not a leaf out of place. I often find that wedding couples have succumbed to the pressure to aim for a perfect wedding – one that goes like clockwork with everything “just so.” It never quite works out like that, of course, and it usually doesn’t matter in the end, but they’ll put themselves through endless misery and expense in their quest for perfection.

But that sort of perfection isn’t what Jesus means here. The Greek word that the Gospel writer uses – teleo -  means finished or complete. It is the same word that Jesus cries from the cross as he dies - “It is finished!” His work is accomplished. He has seen it through to the end. Our English word “perfect” had the same meaning originally – “per” on the beginning of a word means “right through” – persistent, pervasive and so on.

Being perfect isn’t about being sinless, then, or never getting things wrong, it is about having a faith that goes right through you, that affects everything you do, that is deeply rooted and real so it shows itself in the love with which you live your life. It is like a stick of rock - the words “Follower of Christ” shouldn’t just be painted on the ends. They need to run all the way through the middle, so wherever you cut us you read the same message.

The Gospel reading gives us a glimpse of what that perfection might look like. It’s a similar message to the Old Testament but Jesus takes it even further. Living his way doesn’t just mean sharing fairly, but giving more than is expected, loving not just your neighbours and your kin, but your enemies too. If someone takes your coat, give them your cloak. If they make you go a mile, go another one willingly. To live like this demands a faith that is far more than skin deep. To love in the face of hatred, to give generously to someone who has taken from you, you need to know very securely that you yourself are loved, honoured and precious in God’s eyes.

So – to be holy you have to be prepared to be distinctive, to be the person God calls you to be rather than being squashed into a mould made by others. To be perfect you have to allow that distinctiveness to run right through you, affecting everything you do and say.

How holy and perfect do you feel this morning, then? Probably still not very, but perhaps the challenge seems like a slightly different one when we see it this way. It isn’t a call to remove yourself from the sullying influences of life into an otherworldly cocoon but to get involved in the world and to take your faith into every nook and cranny of your being.

I came across the story this week of a nun called Sister Elaine Roulet, and I’d like to finish by telling you about her. She lives in a convent in New York. When she joined her order many years ago it was full of nuns, living out their vocation in a rather rarified and protected environment. She recalled taking her vows. "It was so exciting, so romantic, to walk down that aisle as a bride of Christ and come back as a nun…You were enshrined in these wonderful robes and had all this mystery about you and felt and even smelled holy". But the convent gradually declined in numbers, and so the sisters took a brave decision. They’d been working with women prisoners and their families, and they realised that many of them had nowhere to live when they left prison and soon slipped back into crime. So the sisters decided to open up their convent and take these women in. Now the convent is full again, but with ex-prisoners and their children rather than with nuns, with all the chaos, mess and noise family life brings as they care for these often damaged and vulnerable people. 

Looking back Sister Elaine said, "There was such purity about [the life we had]…"It was so uncomplicated, you know?...And now it's so complicated, but so much better,"…

The unruffled calm and quiet of the convent might have looked holy and perfect, but it is what is happening now which Sr. Elaine sees as real holiness and perfection. Women who no one has time for, no one respects or wants are treated with dignity and love that goes beyond anything they or anyone else might expect. Sr. Elaine is very fond of reminding people that “our changed lives might be the only gospel that some people ever read.” 

Be holy, be perfect is the challenge to us today, so that the gospel that others read in us might be one that is distinctive, that goes right through us and that speaks to them of the powerful, transforming love of God.

May 18th
08     Trinity Sunday Breathing Space Communion

Isaiah 40.12-17, 27-31, Matt 28.16-20

I expect we’ve all had the experience of going back to a place we knew when we were small children and finding that although the things we remember are still there, inexplicably everything seems smaller than it once was. I can remember not being able to reach the bolt on the bathroom door at my childhood home, and not being able to see into the washbasin, but now it’s all within easy reach.
What happened? Of course, it’s not that these things shrunk; it is that I grew.

This isn’t just something that happens to us physically; it is also true in other ways. A skill that once seemed quite impossible– reading, writing, swimming, knitting, speaking a foreign language or whatever - might now come as second nature. Once it felt like Mount Everest; now you hardly notice you are doing it. Or perhaps you have faced what felt like an impossible emotional challenge - overwhelming grief, anger, bitterness or fear - but looking back on it now the passage of time has changed your perspective. You might still feel sad, angry, bitter or anxious, but these emotions don't feel as if they are drowning you anymore.

Those who heard Isaiah’s prophecy – Jewish exiles in Babylon – faced a situation that seemed overwhelming to them. The Babylonian Empire stretched across most of the Middle East. It was an apparently undefeatable power. They had been powerless to stop it when it destroyed Jerusalem, powerless when they were taken into exile, and now, after several generations, it seemed as if nothing could ever change. Babylon’s might was the biggest thing that they could imagine. It filled their mental horizon, a vast, irresistible cruel force. They could no more imagine its empire being defeated than they could imagine flying.

But then along comes Isaiah and tells them that they will soon be going home. Babylon will fall. God has promised it and he will keep his promise. However big and powerful Babylon is, he says, God is bigger and more powerful still. 

Think of the vastness of the universe, he reminds them. Yet God could contain it all in one hand if he wanted to. From his angle, the nations of the world – even Babylon – were no more than a speck, their empires just fleeting moments in history. How big a thing seems depends not on the size of the thing, but on the size of the person dealing with it – whether it is the height of a bolt on a door, or a grief that seems overwhelming, or the enslaving might of an empire.

In the Old Testament when Moses asks God what he is called, he gets a strange answer. I AM, says God. He is being itself, the source of everything that is. The Medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, once had a vision of God. He was holding in his hand something the size of a hazelnut. “What is it?” she asked. “It is everything that is “came the answer.  “But it is so small? Surely it will just collapse into nothing.” “No” she heard, "because God made it, God loves it and God keeps it.” 

That’s Isaiah’s message to his people. God is vast, he says– far, far bigger, and far, far more powerful than any empire or army, no matter how mighty they seem to you.

But the Gospel reading gives us even better news. Again we meet people facing a vast challenge.  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” Jesus says to the tiny handful of ordinary men and women who follow him. How on earth will this be possible? They aren’t rich or powerful or clever. It is a Mount Everest size challenge.

But Jesus reminds them that they aren’t alone as they begin their work. He will be with them through his Spirit - the Spirit of God - as they travel out into the world. God himself will dwell within them giving them the wisdom and the courage they will need – that same mighty God who holds the universe as if it was no bigger than a hazel nut.  God for them is not just I AM anymore; God is “I AM WITH YOU”.

I’ve given you all a little hazelnut to hold this evening. As you hold it, think of something that looms large in your life – a worry, a grief, a challenge. Think of the things that loom large in the life of the world – those who suffer in the aftermath of the cyclone in Burma and the earthquake in China, or those complex problems like climate change which the world is struggling to respond to. Think of those things, vast as they are. God doesn’t wave a magic wand that takes them away , but as we contemplate them, these things that threaten to overwhelm us, he tells us again “I am with you. I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Pentecost 2008    Sermon by Kevin Bright

Acts2.1-21, 1Corinthians12.3-13, John 20.19-23

Did you watch ‘the apprentice’ this week? If you don’t know what this programme is it has been described as the thinking mans game show where supposedly highly educated and capable people compete over a series of business related tasks, the one who doesn’t get fired wins a job with Sir Alan Sugar’s company on a six figure starting salary.
The programme raised an interesting question when the two teams were sent to Marrakech to find various items including a kosher chicken. As the contestants combed the predominantly Muslim city’s hectic markets for a bird meeting Jewish food laws, one team made a crucial error by confusing kosher and halal.
Back in the boardroom Alan Sugar (who is Jewish) was clearly stunned that the team didn’t associate the word kosher with Jews, at least the other team headed off to the city’s Jewish quarter where they were probably pointed in the right direction.
"Is it right you went to a Muslim halal butcher and asked him to get you a kosher chicken? And he actually made a prayer over it?" Sugar asked.

The young man who had stated that he was “a nice Jewish boy” on his CV, nodded as Sugar continued and I quote: "Are you having a laugh or what? I don't know why you didn't go the whole hog and find a Roman Catholic priest to take the butcher to confession."

It might be useful, just in case it comes up in conversation to remind ourselves that the two types of religious slaughter, halal (Muslim) and shechita (Jewish), are similar, in that both involve cutting the animal's throat. However, the most obvious difference between the two is that the latter does not require any kind of ritual blessing. For more detail on the origins of Jewish food laws read the book of Leviticus!

So the interesting question I referred to is; does this mean that people who are perceived to be highly educated do not feel that even a very basic knowledge of the worlds leading religions is of any value to them?

Well, whilst I’m not as highly educated as many of the contestants on the show, my slightly educated guess is that this is true for quite a number young people and that this is reflected in the overall numbers choosing to actively participate in organized religion.

Does this mean that these same people are beyond experiencing the Holy Spirit in some way? This is certainly does seem to be true for many who have no formal church involvement.

Research carried out in 2005 with those who did not regularly attend church found only a very small number felt it was not possible to have a spiritual experience with many younger people being more open to the possibility than more mature respondents. Many were able to recount what they felt had been spiritual experiences even though some found them difficult to explain or make sense of.

Some people found certain buildings could invoke their sense of things spiritual, particularly beautiful cathedrals and old parish churches. One lady when speaking of an ancient church said ‘I feel quite overwhelmed emotionally a lot of the time when I am there. Whether it’s because of the love in there I don’t know, I can’t explain, it just happens.’

When asked about spiritual possibilities one respondent replied ‘Not sure about floaty things with big wings but I believe there are people on earth whose lives are probably very similar to an angel’.

Could such people be those who have been breathed on by the breath of Jesus as we heard of in John’s gospel? It’s possible isn’t it that there are still disciples faithful to Jesus mission who have received the Holy Spirit and now find themselves doing things they never dreamt they would be doing. That same spirit enables them to make God’s love known to people who may have no other channel open to experience this.

For us, as believers and people open to the Spirit, we have to find ways of demonstrating that Jesus was more than just a great teacher, a wise man and someone who died for love of others though all these things are true.

If it were only his lessons which we sought to implement others would not hear us talking about Jesus only the things he taught, it is for us to be rooted in him and in relationship with God through him and the Holy Spirit.

If you are anything like me you find it hard to always be aware of the Holy Spirit and your relationship is at least less than constant.
It may be helpful to consider that ‘the doors were locked for fear of the Jews’ when Jesus appeared to the disciples. What are the “locked doors” in each of our lives that we might wish Jesus would pass through?
Are there distractions, selfishness, lack of faith or possibly things we are afraid of which we would love Christ to break through for us freeing us to receive the Spirit? Fear has kept many a person suppressed and behind closed doors and a real remedy for fear is peace. The real peace which Jesus offers can only be absolute within us when it is breathed in and through us by Jesus, who grants the Spirit and forgives sin.
When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth regarding spirituality he urged all the members to form one body with Christ.

The big question for the Church in the early 21st century is precisely the same as it was for the Church in the Acts of the Apostles in the 1st century. Will we become alive and aflame with the Spirit of God? Will we let the Spirit of God transform us into a church of vitality and service, prayer and praise?

It is easy to feel unworthy of receiving the Spirit and of performing such a demanding task.

When you think about it, it sounds like Jesus is giving the disciples a blank cheque when he says they have the power to forgive or retain sins.

Now this is a group of people we should be able to identify with, they have just betrayed and deserted their leader then locked themselves in an upstairs room fearing for their lives. By showing these men the marks from his crucifixion he demonstrates how much he has forgiven them, surely after this they could not do anything but share in the new life and forgiveness that God has offered.

When we take time to think what we are offered by God we receive gratefully knowing that we could never do anything to deserve this. The difficult bit comes when we deal with other people, do we have a right to be more grudging than God?

If you get the feeling that there are more questions than answers today it’s probably because most of these issues challenge each of us to respond in a personal and sometimes private way. But even if some responses are private it is becoming increasingly evident in this church that many of these are positive responses to Christ which when put together for his service are leading to a healthier stronger body of which we all form part.

I found these words from a lady called Jan Richardson a Methodist minister, artist and author, seemingly a person in receipt of many gifts! I particularly love the words that encourage us to keep breathing, so we might stay alive in every sense, possibly even breathing in the breath of God.

"The celebration of Pentecost beckons us to keep breathing.
It challenges us to keep ourselves open to the Spirit who seeks us.
The Spirit that, in the beginning,
brooded over the chaos and brought forth creation;
the Spirit that drenched the community
with fire and breath on the day of Pentecost:
this same Spirit desires to dwell within us and among us."


Easter 708

Acts 1.6-14, 1 Peter 4.12-14; 5.6-11, John 17.1-11

There are two types of people in the world, they say – those who think there are two types of people in the world and those that don’t.
Or, as Woody Allen put it, “There are two types of people in this world, good and bad. The good sleep better, but the bad seem to enjoy their waking hours much more.”
Or here’s one for the mathematicians among us – and only the mathematicians are likely to get it. There are ten types of people in the world, those who understand the binary system and those who don’t.
If that one passed you by here’s one for those not into maths.
There are three types of people in the world: those who can count and those who can’t…

You get the idea. Human beings love to sort things out into categories. In fact it’s one of the first things we learn to do. That’s why small children put everything in their mouths – they are finding out what is food  and what isn’t .They usually manage to spot the difference pretty quickly, though they may have to chew through a few worms and slugs on the way!

Sorting things out is a skill we developed early in our evolution. As well as sorting the edible from the inedible we needed to know the difference between animals we could catch and eat and those who might catch and eat us, and between members of our own tribe and members of rival tribes who might be a threat. We can’t get away from it, sorting things into categories is deeply woven into our make-up.  But sometimes we are just too efficient about it for our own good. We can get so obsessed by working out which box to put something into that we forget to ask whether it really needs to be sorted out at all, and whether we might be doing more harm than good by our tidy minded instincts. 

In a sense the idea of the Ascension can easily fall prey to this tendency to sort things out and put things in their place.  At the time of Jesus most people saw the world as a sort of spherical bubble.  The middle layer was the earth, the ground they stood on. Above them was the dome of the sky like a roof, and above that somewhere was heaven, with God on his sapphire throne. Below them was the shadowy underworld. Up was good, down was bad – the universe was sorted out neatly, with everything safely in its place. There was some traffic between heaven and earth. Angels came and went from one to the other. There were even stories told of a few especially favoured people in the Old Testament like Enoch and Elijah who were supposedly scooped up into heaven bodily. But for most people, earth was where they were and where they stayed, and when they died they went down into that dark world below. Some Jewish groups believed that one day there would be a resurrection, but it was a bodily resurrection to live in a new kingdom on earth, healed and recreated by God. Earth was earth and heaven was heaven and hardly ever did the twain meet. 

The story of the Ascension is told in the context of this understanding of the world. So when the Bible writers describe Jesus slipping out of the physical sight of his disciples to return to his Father’s side, of course they talk about him going up into the sky. It worked for them perhaps, but it can sound very strange, even ridiculous to us. Certainly artists seem to me to struggle to depict it. The stained glass window in our Lady Chapel is a picture of the Ascension. Jesus hovers just off the ground, surrounded by a band of angels who almost seem to be hauling him up into up into heaven by force of will, as if they’ve discovered too late that the cloud they have provided to propel him upwards isn’t quite up to the job! “I told you he’d put on weight, Gabriel. We should have brought the turbo-cloud instead!” 

The Biblical writers were people of their time, and like most ancient writers they weren’t really bothered about historical accuracy – the reality of what happened. What mattered to them was to tell a good, memorable story that would make their point.  But this account of how Jesus came to vanish from our physical sight leaves modern people with as many problems as it solves. The first is obvious. Heaven isn’t “up there” – we’ve been “up there” so we know that. But there’s another problem, which I think has more far-reaching effects. Once we start thinking of heaven as a place which is “up there” or “out there” it is a short step to thinking that wherever it is a long way away from here, where we are, and absolutely distinct from this world – it is that old sorting instinct again. Before we know where we are we are giving the impression that there are two types of places in the universe – heaven, where God is, and earth, where he is not. Many people end up feeling, as a result that heaven and God are immeasurably distant from their everyday lives. Not only is this not helpful, I don’t think it is really true to what Jesus’ taught either.

Far from heaven being a distant, unreachable realm, a place that you needed a turbo-cloud to reach, Jesus describes it consistently as being here and now. The kingdom of heaven is within you, he says, or amongst you. It is at hand – so close you can reach out and touch it. Before he leaves them Jesus tells his followers that although they won’t be able to see him he will soon, through his Spirit, be present with them in a new way – not tied to one time and place but always and everywhere. He’ll be there in the shape of those who need help - “what you did for the least of your brothers and sisters you did for me”. He’ll be there in every act of giving and receiving love – “where love and charity are, there is God”  He’ll be there filling their hearts with confidence and comfort and a peace that they can’t explain.

Take out the rather strange imagery of clouds and distant heavens and the ascension tells the same story as the incarnation. When Jesus was born, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. Heaven and earth meet in him, They are drawn together into one unbroken and unbreakable whole and they are not parted when he returns to his Father. Jesus’ Ascension isn’t – or shouldn’t be – a message to us that he has gone far from us into a separate realm, leaving the things of earth far behind him, but rather that he has destroyed the barrier between earth and heaven, between God and humanity. Instead of sorting things out and dividing things up, he gathers them all together in himself.

We shouldn’t be surprised at this, because throughout his ministry he has been doing this, breaking down barriers and mixing up our neat boundaries, warning us that our obsession with sorting things out can end up doing more harm than good.

He tells a parable, for example, about a farmer whose field has been sown with a mixture of wheat and tares – grass-like weeds. His servants are all for pulling up the weeds as soon as they spot them, but the farmer urges patience. There’s no way of separating the good and bad plants without destroying the good along with the bad; they look too much alike. Solzhenitsyn, who knew the effects of evil at first hand in the Soviet Union nevertheless said in the Gulag Archipelago, that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” In the wickedest people there can be glimmers of kindness; even a saint will have their failings. You can’t root out evil by rooting out people – you’ll destroy the good in people along with the bad in them, and we’re all a mixture.

In many other ways during his ministry he urges us to resist the temptation to categorise, divide and condemn. It may be the hated Samaritan who turns out to be your true neighbour, he says, or the apparently good-for-nothing son, the black sheep of the family, who is the source of the greatest rejoicing in the end. The poor, the sick, the disabled, the sinner, these are the people in whom you see God’s presence. The cross, a shameful instrument of death is the place where God’s glory is seen most powerfully. The last shall be first and the first, last. The world is turned upside down, the categories you have divided it into are blurred, the barriers broken. What is Jesus’ prayer for his followers in the Gospel? It is that “they may be one, as we are one”. The earliest Christian communities – we see one gathering at the end of the first reading – were distinctive because they WERE communities, coming together and sticking together despite their profound differences. Being one, as we all know, is no picnic. It means choosing to live in the knowledge that all people ARE your brothers and sisters, people who you can’t isolate yourself from, even if you want to, rather than forming cliques and trying to ignore or deny the existence of those who differ from you.

The Ascension, though it can seem so strange and inaccessible a story to us, is a vital part of Christian faith, and we need to rediscover it and reclaim it for our age. It seems to me that the recent BBC version of the Passion story did it very well. It showed Jesus after the resurrection appearing to his disciples. Sometimes they recognised him instantly; sometimes they didn’t. But eventually, after some final words of encouragement, he simply slipped away into the crowds, to be lost to their sight among the mass of humanity. And the disciples let him go, because they knew by then that what really mattered was that they could now find him and serve him in everyone they met, if they only opened their eyes. Just as the barriers that separated them from God, and heaven from earth, had been broken so had those which separated Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, friend and enemy.

So enjoy the poetic language of the hymns and stories today – the clouds, the sapphire thrones -  but be aware too of the limitations of this picture language, because the heaven that God really wants us to discover is the love that binds us to him and to one another.


Easter 608

Acts 17.22-31, (1 Peter 3.13-22), John 14. 15-21

In today’s first reading we had a little shapshot of the ancient world, a world that might seem very different to our own, but is actually very similar. St Paul, who spent most of his ministry on the move, has arrived in Athens, the centre of Greek life and thought. And he has been taken to the Areopagus, the hill where the Council of Athens, the group which oversaw the city’s life, gathered. They’ve heard about his preaching – talk of a new Way – and they want to know more. These are Greeks, living in what was still one of the most important intellectual centres of the world. Rome may have had the military and political might, but Greece had the thinkers, the philosophical tradition - Aristotle, Plato, Socrates. Wander into an Athenian marketplace and you wouldn’t just find fruit and veg. you’d find people debating, arguing with one another about ideas. So this new teacher with his new teaching was someone they wanted to know more about.

Paul talks to them about the many shrines he has seen in the city – shrines to a whole multitude of gods and goddesses. It’s the one he has spotted to the unknown God that really fascinates him though. This is the God who he wants to talk to them about – the God who is always present, “in whom they live and move and have their being”, but who is also absolutely beyond their power to imagine. This is the God of the Jews and the Christians, he says, one who we can’t explain in words, let alone portray in carved stone – that is why the Ten Commandments forbid anyone to make a graven image. In doing so you limit your idea of what God might be. This is his message to them.

But it’s not so much what Paul says that I want to focus on as the fact that he’s saying it at all, giving an account of his faith here to these learned people, in a society where there are many other competing world-views. As I said, it’s a different world, and yet it’s also our modern world too, a world where we can’t just assume that others will agree with us, where we, like Paul, can expect to be challenged about what we believe and why. I suspect that for many of us that’s something we feel rather uncomfortable about. Paul clearly knew what he wanted to say, but how would we respond in his shoes?

There’s a little phrase in today’s second reading – I know we didn’t hear it read, but it is there on your sheet – which puts the challenge clearly.  “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence”. I wonder how many of us feel “ready to give an account of the hope that is in us” – let alone with enough confidence to be able to do it with gentleness and reverence?

I read Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion  this week. For those of you who’ve never heard of Richard Dawkins, he is a biologist who is fervently opposed to religion – any religion, in all its forms. The book’s been a best seller and stirred up quite a lot of controversy, so I thought I should read it. Whether you’ve read the book or not, it seems to me important to raise some issues from it, because Dawkins says things that many who are opposed to religion say – things you may hear at work, from family members, down the pub , things you may have wondered about yourself.
I’m not so concerned about the issue of proving God’s existence – I don’t think we can ever prove or disprove that anyway, and there certainly isn’t time to tackle those sort of arguments now. But I do want to raise three very specific concerns that I have with the way Dawkins goes about his discussion of religion.

The first is that Dawkins, while very knowledgeable about biology seems strangely ignorant about theology. He apparently refuses to make any serious study of theology, because he just thinks it is all nonsense. But that means that his arguments often seem to miss the point.  It used to be said that in Northern Ireland, if you said you were an atheist, someone would be sure to ask – “but are you a Protestant Atheist or a Catholic Atheist?” Dawkins, it seems to me, is a Fundamentalist Atheist. The God he doesn’t believe in is a sort of old-style, hellfire-preaching fundamentalist’s God – a spy in the sky, waiting to punish us if we do wrong. I don’t believe in that God either, and I don’t suppose many of you do.
The Bible he rejects is a Bible that he reads like a Fundamentalist Christian would, taking all of it on the same level as a simplistic set of instructions. He doesn’t seem to realise, or want to deal with, the fact that most theologians – most Christians – don’t have that simplistic attitude to it. We read it as a developing picture of the way people wrestled with faith and with their ideas of God and of life. It’s a living document, something that each generation and individual brings their own story to and can interpret and react to in different ways.

The second concern is that, like many atheists, Dawkins seems convinced that if you remove religion from the world you’ll remove the violence, bigotry, prejudice and so on that have so often been perpetrated in its name. This, as far as I can see, is entirely unsupported by the evidence. Seventy years of atheist government in the Soviet Union didn’t seem to produce people who were any more likely to live peacefully together in love and harmony. Atheist societies and atheist individuals might not be any worse than religious societies and individuals, but they’re no better either, as far as I can see. The fears and hatreds that twist the world are things that are rooted in the human heart and they have a tendency to break through whatever ideologies and world-views people espouse.

The third concern follows on from that. It’s that Dawkins and those like him often seem to assume that religion is something that is simply imposed from above – the result of the brainwashing of the young by a power-hungry church or by parents or teachers. Stop preaching it, abolish churches and priests, and it will wither away. People will heave a sigh of relief and rise up from their oppression into a new age of pure, scientific rationalism. But I don’t think there is any evidence for this either. Whether we like it or not spirituality – a sense of the divine – seems to arise spontaneously in people. Dawkins puts it down to a misdirected genetic impulse. But whether that’s the case, or whether it’s that there genuinely IS something divine that lies behind and within the universe, if it is SO deeply embedded in us, it is hard to see HOW it can be got rid of.  What does it take to stop people believing in God? Education explicitly against religion has been tried in Communist countries. Gulags have been tried. The Holocaust has been tried. But people continue to find faith and to hold onto it. I’m sure that Dawkins and others who share his views wouldn’t dream for one moment of using tactics like those. But what would they suggest? If religion is bad for us, a tragic mistake, how is it to be abolished?

These questions – things that puzzle me after reading the book – don’t of course have anything to say about the basic issue of whether there’s a God or not. That’s not something we’ll ever definitively prove or disprove. But in a way I think these practical issues are more important. Many bad things have been done in the name of religion, but we’ll be no better off if sloppy thinking about religion means that equally bad things are done in the name of atheism.

Thinking about faith matters, then. But despite all this, I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that mastering a bunch of philosophical arguments is the decisive factor in convincing others that believing in God is reasonable – or convincing yourself either. Years of listening to people talk about their spiritual journeys has led me to the conclusion that, in the end, it’s something far harder to pin down that draws people to faith and keeps that faith alive, despite all the questions and struggles they might have with it. It’s the sense that, somehow, they’re loved – loved by God who, as Jesus says in the Gospels, won’t leave them orphans. It’s hard to explain or to justify that statement - I am sure that Dawkins would reject it as rubbish - but it’s what people consistently tell me, and what I‘ve experienced too, and a real scientist has to consider seriously the data they are presented with. Julian of Norwich, writing in the 13th Century, in the face of the Black Death and a world of hardships said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” That wasn’t some airy-fairy sentimentalism – her world was too brutal to allow that. It was born of a deep conviction that she was held in the hands of God, no matter what happened to her or around her, and that these were hands she couldn’t fall out of.

Sometimes that sense of being loved is an inner conviction. But sometimes it’s the love of others which makes people feel that there might be something to this Christianity business. Christians can be ghastly, of course, but they can also be wonderful – patient, kind, welcoming, living lives of great generosity and beauty. When you meet a Christian like that, there is a power to their lives that is beyond words to explain.

If you’ve felt challenged or unsure when people talk dismissively about religion – “it’s all a lot of nonsense, we’d be better off without it” – remember this. As we struggle to give “an account of the hope that is in us” it’s the gentleness and reverence – the love – with which we do it that’ll really make the difference. We’re called to live the faith we proclaim, in a God who’s lovingly present in all the world, whether anyone’s aware of him or not. He’s present in those with whom we debate and in those who disagree with us. Winning the argument is neither here nor there; only love, in the end, can heal a hurting world.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins ISBN 9780593055489

Helpful responses to Dawkins’ book can be found in:

The Dawkins Delusion by Alister McGrath with Joanna Collicutt McGrath ISBN9780281059270
Darwin’s Angel by John Cornwell ISBN 9782846680489

(All available from Sevenoaks Library)

April 20th 08    Easter 5  Breathing Space Sermon
John 14.1-14

We are all familiar with the idea of life as a spiritual journey. We live here just off the old pilgrim route to Canterbury, and I am sure that this church saw its fair share of pilgrims back in the Middle Ages – apparently the kebab shop along the road was once a pilgrim’s hostel (though I doubt they dined on kebabs!)
And even if we’ve never ploughed our way through Pilgrim’s Progress we probably have some idea of what it is about – a spiritual journey through landscapes that have become part of the English language, like the Slough of Despond.

But I wonder, if you were to draw a map of your life’s journey, what it would look like? I wonder if it would be a straight route from A to B – a super-highway. Or would it be a far more meandering path. Perhaps there might be times on that journey when the road you were on seemed to turn into a dead end, when you had to retrace your steps, when you felt as if you had taken a wrong turn. A relationship that broke down, a job that ended in acrimony or disappointment, a time when your plans just seemed to turn to dust? I suspect that for most of us life hasn’t been a straight route – perhaps it isn’t now. We don’t know what lies ahead, and often when we come to a crossroads there is no way of telling which way will be the best – we just have to walk it and see what happens.

Jesus talks about journeys in Gospel. He is speaking to his disciples on the night before he dies. They thought they knew where his road was leading – to the throne of David, to his rightful place as the Messiah. But he talks about suffering and death, and they are just baffled. How can this be? Surely it is some mistake. The journey Jesus is taking seems to the disciples to be turning into a dead end – quite literally a dead end. Don’t go there, Jesus, they want to say!
But Jesus is clear. This is the way – I am the way – there is no way other than this to get to where God wants us to be. And of course, in the light of what actually happened, we can see that this is right. His death wasn’t some ghastly mistake, but the route to new life, not just for him, but for us all. God is at work in him, even in the darkest places. There are no such things as dead ends in God’s eyes.

Jesus says to his confused and anxious followers “Do not let your hearts be troubled…I will come and I will take you to myself”. It’s an odd thing to say when you think about it. He is both the destination – I will take you to MYSELF – and the guide who gets you there – I will take you. But in a sense, odd though it seems, this is precisely the point. If Jesus is with us then, wherever we are, we have already reached our destination, we have come home, whether that is on some road that seems to lead nowhere, or retracing our steps back from some brink we have come to. There’s no such thing as wasted time, a wasted journey. Whatever the territory, if we walk with Jesus we are walking on kingdom streets, heavenly places, roads which can enrich and bless us.

So, in the silence, think of the roads you have taken, the map of your life. Be aware of the times when you feel as if you took a wrong turning, or went round in circles, and look for God walking beside you on those roads. What can they teach you? What have you gained from them? If you hadn’t gone that way, what would you have missed? Even in those places, says the Bible - perhaps especially in those places – God is with us. Jesus comes to us to take us to himself, and in every step we take we are coming home.

13th April 08    Easter 4
Psalm 23, John 10.1-10

“The Lord is my shepherd” said today’s Psalm – probably one of the most famous passages in the Bible. I can’t begin to count how many times I have spoken and heard those words during my ministry at funerals and weddings. Jesus echoes its imagery in the Gospel, talking about himself as the gate of the sheepfold and the shepherd who will lead his flock to pasture.
It is a beautiful picture and I suspect for many of us it conjures up a tranquil rural vision of lush green fields and fat, fluffy sheep. It’s an image that evokes comfort and consolation. 

So when we hear the Gospel reading for today we might imagine Jesus’ audience feeling the same way. Perhaps we picture a group of disciples, or some needy crowd sitting at Jesus’ feet, hungry for reassurance, bathed in his gentle smile, and going home feeling just that little bit safer for the words he has spoken.

But if that is so then we need to think again, because when we look at this passage in its context we discover it isn’t the disciples or the sick and needy Jesus is talking to here, but a bunch of Pharisees - religious lawyers who are often portrayed as his arch-enemies. The Gospel is probably unfair to them, but they were reknowned for their passion for the law, for dotting the “i”s and crossing the “t’s”, and this was often what brought them into conflict with Jesus, a conflict which was one of the factors leading to his death.

The words we heard today, far from being gentle words of comfort, are actually the tail end of a conversation Jesus has been having with these Pharisees about something he has done which has troubled and angered them.  Forget the green grass, forget the gentle smile, forget the consolation. These words are spoken in the context of a somewhat bad- tempered squabble in a dusty street in Jerusalem.

So, what’s been happening? Well, Jesus has come across a man who has been blind from birth – and he has healed him. “Wonderful,” we might think, but the Pharisees are not so sure. It’s not the miraculous nature of the healing that bothers them – they didn’t have our 21st century concerns about the scientific possibility of this. They didn’t have much idea of how sickness or healing came about at all. No - what concerned them was the moral and spiritual implications of this healing.

Firstly, the man born blind was a sinner in their view - or his parents were. The Pharisees thought illness was God’s punishment, and health was his reward, as did most people at the time. So, if God had punished this man, what business did anyone else have to heal him?
Secondly, he had been healed on the Sabbath. The law said no one should work on the Sabbath. Healing was work, so it shouldn’t have happened.
Thirdly, the healing had happened at the hands of Jesus of Nazareth, a man they thought was decidedly dodgy, who seemed to have far too liberal and loose a view of the world.
So - a sinner, Jesus, has healed another sinner, the blind man, and has committed a sin, working on the Sabbath, in order to do so. Surely this can’t be right – God would never honour such an unsatisfactory situation with his healing power.

The Pharisees’ response to this disgraceful state of affairs is to try to find a way to prove that things are not as they appear. They suggest that perhaps this is a case of mistaken identity – perhaps it’s not the same man. They summon his parents.
“Is this your son?”
“Of course he is,” they say.
“Well – how could he have been healed…? “
“Ask him yourself – he’s a grown up!” they answer, “We haven’t got a clue. All we know is that he was blind and now he sees!”
So they ask the man himself.
“This can’t be right”, they say. “The man who healed you is a sinner!”
“I don’t know who my healer was,” says the man. “I’ve no idea whether he is a sinner – all I know is that I was blind and now I see, and it’s all down to him. If you call that sin, well, that’s up to you, but it seems to me that he must be from God….”

At this point the Pharisees blow a gasket and send the man packing. Who is he, an ignorant beggar, to tell these religious professionals their job? They’re the theologians. The fact that he was blind and now he sees, as everyone is so stubbornly pointing out, is neither here nor there. It might LOOK like good news. It might SOUND like good news. It might FEEL like good news, but it can’t BE good news, and it didn’t ought to be allowed. They head straight for Jesus to have it out with him.

That’s the background to the words we’ve heard today.
And when we understand that background we see that Jesus’ talk of sheep and sheepfolds isn’t a comforting devotional message to his followers. It’s a subversive challenge to people who are very suspicious of him, words that will set him on a collision course with them.

These images Jesus uses of sheep and shepherds and sheepfolds are nothing new, you see. Jesus is tapping into imagery that would be very familiar indeed to the Pharisees. The Old Testament often compares the people of Israel to a flock of sheep, vulnerable and in need of protection. And usually those Old Testament images lead into a lament that those who should be looking after the people, the leaders of the nation who are meant to be their shepherds, are failing in their task. They often go on to talk of a time when God himself will be the shepherd of his people, leading them and feeding them himself. It’s a message that the prophets proclaimed again and again, and here is Jesus echoing it as he speaks to the religious leaders of his own day.

It is inflammatory talk and the implication is clear. The Pharisees, who have set themselves up as shepherds, people who lead and guide others, have failed too. They’ve created a sheepfold, says Jesus – a gated community, fenced about by rules and regulations – but only those who they judge to be deserving can come into it. They have shut out those who they think aren’t fit to be included in their protected enclosure – the sick, the disabled, sinners, Gentiles, anyone they consider unclean. They have done it for what they think are the best of motives – to maintain their nation’s faithfulness to God. But in the end it is a deadly strategy – not just to those outside, who are left to fend for themselves instead of receiving the care and protection they need, but also to those inside the fold, including the Pharisees themselves. They need the rich and varied pasture of the wider world. Sheep weren’t meant to live in sheepfolds indefinitely; they will starve. It looks like a tidy way of organising the world. It seems so safe, but in the end they kill what they are trying to protect as well as those whom they have excluded. 

The true shepherd on the other hand, says Jesus is one who brings abundant life. The word translated as “abundant” actually means excessive, superfluous, too big for its container – it is a quart in a pint pot – life overflowing, like the Psalmist’s cup – the cup that is running over. This is life that breaks through the restrictions people put around it, that bursts through the barriers of prejudice, that can’t be hemmed in by the tidy theological precision of the Pharisees world-view. The man Jesus healed is a perfect example of this. He was blind and now he sees, he was as good as dead, living physically, emotionally and socially on the edge of existence, but now he is full of life, and it hasn’t come about because he has kept some rule or other, but because he has come into contact with Jesus who has put aside the anxious obsession with ritual cleanness that the Pharisees were so keen on so that he can reach those who need his help.   

When Jesus talks of the sheep recognising the voice of the true shepherd – the one who gives them this abundant life - it is people like this blind man he is talking about. The blind man may not know who Jesus is, or why he has come, but he knows life when he finds it – the life that his new sight brings him - and it changes him utterly. The shepherd’s voice is unmistakeable to him because it is the voice that brings him hope and dignity, just as it does to all those others who come to him “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” as the Gospels put it.

It would be comforting to feel that this whole sermon was an exercise in historical reconstruction, about a world that is long gone. But I don’t think it takes a genius to realise that our world is not so very different. We can all behave like overanxious and judgemental gatekeepers, trying to keep pure and safe the things we value by excluding anything new or different which we feel might be a threat. We do it to ourselves, afraid to try anything new in case we get it wrong. We do it to our families, wrapping those we love in cotton wool. We do it in our churches and in our wider society, subtlely or not so subtlely excluding those who don’t fit somehow. But it is an approach that will ultimately lead to death not life, for those inside as well as those outside our folds.

What we need instead is to have the courage to listen for the voice of the true shepherd of our souls. That voice might not sound like we expect it to. It might come out of the wilderness rather than from the centre of the sheepfold. But we will know it when we hear it, because it will be a call to life, abundant life, that bursts the barriers that keep us shut in and divided from each other. It will be a call that invites us out into a world which we will come to find is all God’s world, God’s pasture and God’s dwelling place.

6th April 2008    Easter 3 Evensong    Sermon by Kevin Bright

1 Corinthians 3.10-17 & Haggai 1.13-2.9

I’ve had a bit of a headache at work this week. On top of all the usual issues to deal with there has been a constant thudding noise for several hours a day. It echoes from the direction of the river Thames across Greenwich town centre and into the hillside that rises up to the Observatory.

No it’s not property prices crashing it’s the sound of pile foundations being driven through the soil until they reach suitably solid ground, forming the base upon which several storeys of new apartments can be built.

On a different site Down by the river at Erith the land is so marshy that pile foundations even have to be used for some signs and lighting as they would otherwise sink into the ground being of use to only very small people.

The word "pisa" has associations with "marshy land," which gives some clue as to why the tower here began to lean after only 4 storeys were constructed, it also didn’t help that its foundation is only 10 feet deep. Still it’s been a constant source of fascination and challenge to engineers and after the most recent intervention it’s expected to last a few hundred years yet.

As we heard in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth the importance of our Christian foundation is fundamental to all we are and all we do. He tells us ‘for no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.’

That is the central issue Paul was addressing in this letter. Churches that are built only on ideas or actions or style are doomed to failure.

Throughout the church as a whole there is a need to show we are relevant to people and their lives. It’s not the packaging that ultimately matters, whether the music is rock guitar or organ, whether the minister wears a dog collar or a tie, whether we meet in an ancient building or a modern hall. It’s not the packaging but what people find is real when they delve beneath this.

The central question we ask ourselves should be, "Did we meet with Jesus in anyway" not "was my opinion or style supported today? Jesus Christ is the root and foundation, the cornerstone, the vine. It is the calling of each of us to remember that we are Jesus people. We are members of his body, and the church is all the stronger when we can focus on this.

The prophet Haggai had a similar message for the remnants of those exiled in Babylon returning to Judah. They had repaired and sorted their homes but what about the temple? He challenged them to consider whether they were committed to rebuild their national life with God at the centre.

It seems absolutely obvious but I certainly need reminding quite regularly that Jesus Christ has to be the foundation for every aspect of our lives. It’s so easy to drift away from this despite our best intentions, we get caught up in the routine, feel worn down by the sheer hard work to be done and quite naturally want to be liked and accepted by others and so behave as they expect us to.

Religious dramas are always difficult. Life of Brian seems to spring to mind for many when bearded man in sandals gather together yet watching the BBC’s version of the passion this Easter was helpful to me for the simple fact that it was good to see events enacted and Christ’s words spoken by an apparently unremarkable human figure. It occurred to me that we don’t often see Jesus on our screens on mainstream television at normal civilised hours.  The unchanging message of the passion stood in stark contrast to TV evangelism on satellite channels which have telephone numbers and credit card signs in the corner of the screen.

When we are able to see Jesus as our real foundation for life it’s not so surprising that we encounter him more often and in different ways.
It’s not just watching Jesus on TV, but as I was cutting the hawthorn hedge and wincing as the thorns cut me I saw Jesus as the crown of thorns tore into his scalp and the blood ran down his face. When ethical dilemmas trouble me it’s Christ’s advice I want to hear above the voices. Christ compels me to think about what is happening in the world as protest both silent and noisy accompanied Tony Blair’s speech In Westminster Cathedral this week, intended to bring faiths closer together for our common good.

It’s also true to say that I have switched off the TV or radio, closed my mind to his presence and deliberately ignored the debate when I want to be greedy or self indulgent, then my misguided building is brought to light and proves unsustainable. This is the construction Paul speaks of which is eventually tested by fire, and although we remain intact it is time to rebuild carefully from that same foundation once again.

You probably know the game Jenga where wooden blocks are removed one at a time until the tower comes tumbling down. I’ve seen people take several minutes as they assess which block can be removed without causing damage and then carefully slide the piece of wood out breathing a sigh of relief at their selection.

It seems to me that so much damage is caused by those who thoughtlessly want to impose their religion upon others, demonstrating how much better than them they are as a result. Such people charge in clumsily giving the impression that Christians are weirdos or extremists who need others to conform to their ways. I heard of one man excluded from Sunday school as a child for inappropriate dress who came to hate the church and has only found his way back some 40 years later.
The careful thought and patient consideration as to the best and most intelligent way to demonstrate Christ as a sure foundation are not always those we first think of. They may involve bringing others to this building but events designed to bring people together like ‘meet your neighbours’ and simple acts of kindness and reconciliation at home, school and work are also ways of showing how Christ changes us.

Paul tells us that we are God’s temple and that God’s spirit lives in us. This new temple is not built of stones, arches and pillars but of human beings. Paul’s declaration would have been radical to Jews who felt that heaven met earth at the temple building rather than living through individuals and among communities. So the rather daunting challenge is for us to make our lives and communities places where people might find God.

I celebrated a joyful Easter Day this year as we braved the snow storms, which seem mild by comparison to today’s to witness my little brother (who is a lot bigger than me) being baptised in a pool in Chelmsford Baptist Church.

At the age of 37 he wanted to take action to become a member of a church that he could feel part of and like two million others in this country before him he booked himself on an Alpha course.

His public words before baptism included ‘Towards the end of the course  I found that I was having a very real and meaningful experience ,and I felt that I should no longer resist the opportunity that I had to have God in my life.
I began to see God working…in small ways, and through prayer and encouragement from the wider church community, I have grown in my faith and now consider Jesus to be at the centre of my life. 

As he bounced up off the bottom of the pool we reinforced the centrality of Christ as we sang ‘at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow’.

In a less emotionally charged moment he later told me that one his biggest influences had been a work colleague with whom he shared an office. A man seeing out his last few years before retirement who made it clear that Christ was his foundation. My brother described him as being like a daily drip feed. Thankfully one which led to improved spiritual well being. God in the work place whatever next!
The Westminster Cathedral debate talked of how the Economist magazine published the so called obituary of God in its Millennium issue. But as we look around us it is abundantly clear that for millions of people God lives, Christ is risen, and is needed by us and the world as much as ever.
For some reason the rumour of his life giving love just won't go away. It doesn't stay neatly fixed to a date in a moon-made calendar. It seems to have a mysterious life of its own; it sneaks into conversations. It pops up - not just in art galleries and television dramas - but, apparently, in people's lives. And if Jesus is to be believed, he can be found transforming people, bringing purpose and healing.
The Easter message of hope offered by the risen Christ can be lived out if we are able to form a living temple in which it can thrive. There are huge numbers of people still searching for meaning and hope in life and if they find Christ living among us they may stop exploring the ways which lead to ‘dead ends’.
‘Why do you look for the living among the dead’ he is not here but has risen and lives among us now.  Our challenge is to make this visible to those who do not yet have Christ as their foundation.
Kevin Bright

April 6th 08    Easter 3
Luke 24.13-35

It is a very human story, the one we’ve heard in today’s gospel. Two disciples of Jesus, exhausted by the events of the past few days, frightened that what happened to him might happen to them too, head for home, seven miles away in the village of Emmaus. Who wouldn’t do the same? There’s no place like home – the familiar comforts, the places you know like the back of your hand. It’s just where you want to be when you are fed up.

Of course the twist in the story is that they have already started to hear rumours that Jesus has risen from the dead, but even that can’t keep them in Jerusalem. In fact I suspect that that is the last straw – the very thing that drives them away. They have been tossed about emotionally – from the hopes of Palm Sunday to the despair of Good Friday. They have endured days cooped up in hiding, terrified that they would be arrested too. But as the hours and days have passed they have started to get used to things as they are, to come to terms with the sense of disillusionment they feel, the shame, regret and confusion of those last days when they deserted him. It hadn’t been what they had wanted – a bitter disappointment - but there’s no point crying over spilt milk. All they want to do is slip away and lick their wounds.

But just when they are ready to put the whole thing down to experience and move on some of their number start to say that the tomb is empty! Jesus is alive! If it is true, what does it mean? Instead of an end, this is a new beginning – a new beginning with all sorts of new demands - and they just don’t have the energy to deal with it. They can’t get their heads around what has happened and they don’t even want to try. Let’s just go home , and put it all behind us,” they say, wearily.

Except, of course, that it isn’t as simple as that. The questions that have bugged them aren’t so easy to discard. Whatever it was that drew them towards Jesus in the first place is still there, nagging away at them. As they trudge along the road, they are still debating all that has happened, You can take the disciples out of Jerusalem, but you can’t take Jerusalem, with all its earth-shattering events, out of the disciples.

As I said, it is a very human story – a story I find easy to connect with. I suspect that many of us can think of times when we would have longed to leave behind some issue or question that we struggle with, some sadness that haunts us, some grudge that we can’t resolve. We’d like to be able to wipe out the past, like an old DVD or video, but it won’t stay wiped. We long for everything to go back to the way it was – to go home - but the memories and the questions won’t leave us alone. They are like stray dogs that follow us along the road yapping at our heels no matter how hard we shoo them away.

It’s not always some painful or negative thing that troubles us like this, however. It can just as easily be a sense of calling, a sense of wanting to explore faith more deeply that nags at us. I often have conversations with people who aren’t regular churchgoers, but who certainly wouldn’t class themselves as atheists either. They believe in something, but they aren’t sure what. They can’t quite pick Christian faith up, but they can’t put it down either. Coming to church often seems a step too far, a step that they are reluctant to take. They are worried, perhaps, that identifying themselves as Christian means taking on board a whole package of beliefs and attitudes to the world that they aren’t at all keen on. They want to know more but they are wary of being dragged into a world they don’t want to enter.

Others might make it into church, and even sit in the pews for years, but never take it any further than that, leaving church each week with their questions unasked, vaguely concerned that they might not like the answers if they found them, or fearing ridicule if they reveal their ignorance. “How can there be a God when there is so much suffering?” “What do all those strange words in the creed mean anyway?” “How should Christians live – are there life-styles that are just beyond the pale?” “Could God really love me?”

And I think most of us at some point go through phases of what you might call semi-detached Christianity. However involved you are, and however strong your faith has been it is perfectly normal to find yourself sometimes, like these disciples, trying to walk away from the whole Christian thing and leave it behind, to get fed up with its demands and its complexities, even if in the end you may find that the things that drew  you to faith in the first place draw you back to it again.

That is certainly true for these disciples. They walk away from Jerusalem, away from the place where they have last seen Jesus, but their conversation is all about him and about what he meant to them, as they puzzle over what it all might have meant and how they could have got it so wrong.

When the stranger joins them on the road they find themselves pouring all of this out to him. He is a good listener and a good teacher too, pointing out all sorts of things that they’d never thought of. But despite his learned answers, it isn’t his intellectual skill that finally causes them to recognise him. It is only when he eats with them, when he breaks bread – an ordinary everyday act of sharing in response to their ordinary everyday act of loving hospitality – that the penny drops.

What is it that makes such an impact on them? Of course the appearance of a man they thought was dead is part of it. But I think as well as that – and perhaps more importantly - it is the realisation that he has been prepared to walk seven miles in the wrong direction with them which really makes the difference to them. He has been prepared to go with them where they are going – even if it is to the wrong destination - and to be with them where they are when they get there, to do for them whatever it takes so that they can find what they really need. He shares their bread, but before he does that he has shared their journey too, and this tells them that he will also share their lives no matter how many more misunderstandings and failures there are along the way. 

When these disciples headed for Emmaus, they thought they were going to a place where nothing life-changing could ever touch them again. Their home village of Emmaus was so insignificant that nobody now knows exactly where it was. There are several contenders in the area, but no one is sure which is the right place. But they find that God in Christ is just as much at home in an anonymous village, sitting at a scruffy kitchen table as he is in some Temple or grand palace. It is knowing that – seeing his love and commitment to them in action – which literally turns these disciples around, which sends them back to Jerusalem, back to the mission he has called them to.  I doubt whether all their questions have been answered. I doubt whether they could give a point by point, blow by blow account of that long theological discussion they have had. I doubt whether they have unlocked all the secrets of the universe, but they have discovered the thing they really need to know, that God is prepared to stick with them in the questioning and the doubt just as much as in their times of faith and certainty.

I think this is a profoundly hopeful story. Most of us don’t walk in a straight line with God either. We may want to go in the right direction, but that’s not how it ends up. We get it wrong. We procrastinate and dawdle. We misunderstand. We get confused. We change our minds. We go round in circles. But wherever we are, this story tells us, God is right there with us. He is just as much at home going the wrong way with us as he is going the right way, and he will never leave us or give up on us.

This story invites us to ask ourselves where we are on our journeys, what we are heading for and what we are running away from, what the questions are that yap at our heels, that won’t leave us alone. It invites us to be open about them, to ask what seems unaskable. But it also reassures us that God is present with us as we do that. He is with us as we struggle with the questions life throws at us. He is with us when we try to run away from those questions. He is with us when we are exhausted and despondent. He is known now as he was then, in the breaking of bread – not just in this ritual that we shall share later, but in all the ways we share together, in the everyday acts of loving hospitality we receive and give. Whatever questions we ask, whatever answers we find, whatever journeys we take – in the wrong direction or the right one – it is the discovery of this love, which is beyond measure or limit, that will take us to the place we really need to be.

March 30th 2008     Easter 2
John 20.19-31

“Peace be with you” says Jesus to the disciples as he appears before them in the upper room on the evening of that first Easter Day. At one level this greeting would have been exactly what they would have expected to hear.  Of course the circumstances were very strange – it was being uttered by a man who has risen from the dead. But the greeting itself, “peace be with you” was the standard greeting at the time, just as it still is today in the Middle East.  It is “Shlama lokum” in Aramaic, the spoken language of Jesus and his disciples, “shalom aleichem” in Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament as well as of modern Israel, while Arabic speakers – Muslim and Christian – would bid you “Assalamu alyekum”.

The “shalom”, “salaam” or “shlama” of this greeting isn’t an emotional quality. It isn’t about tranquillity or relaxation or quiet. It isn’t even about the absence of war. It is that state in which everything is as it should be, when everything is healed, whole – bodies, minds, spirits. It isn’t just about individuals – it’s about communities, nations, the whole cosmos. In fact you can never have it fully while others lack it – how can you be fully at peace while others are in distress?

Seeking “shalom” was a major focus in the Old Testament. The prophets dreamed of a time when people would plant their crops and be able to harvest them too, not afraid of an attacking army. They dreamed of people sitting under their own vines and fig trees, with their families thriving around them, in harmony with their neighbours, in a world in which the poor were fed and rulers were just and wise.

This everyday greeting “Shalom Aleichem” - peace be with you - and all its Middle Eastern variants is a rich, deep thing then. But these languages aren’t alone in this richness. Our English “hello” is a contraction of “hail to you” , and that word “hail” comes from the same root as health, heal, and whole.  We talk of someone being “hale and hearty” – I know it is spelt differently, but it is actually the same word. Whether we know it or not, when we greet people we are praying for their well-being too.

Those of you who learnt Latin in school will probably remember greeting your teacher with the word “salve”. That’s linked to the Latin word “salus” – health. That’s why we call greetings “salutations”. Romans too, it seems, greeted one another with a wish for wholeness and healing, their equivalent of “shalom”. “Salus” also gives us the English “salve” – an ointment to make you well. It gives us safety too – the state in which you are healthy and whole. And it gives us “save” and “saviour” and “salvation” as well.
But my guess is that when many people hear those last few words, “saviour” and “salvation” – it isn’t healing and wholeness in the here and now that spring first into their minds. It isn’t sitting under your vine or fig tree, or living in harmony with others, or justice and equality. Those words have picked up some very specific theological associations for many Christians, associations which I think are often much narrower than they ought to be.  For many Christians salvation has come to mean no more than a guarantee of admission to heaven when you die. Christ’s work for us as saviour is a bit like getting us through security at an airport. You know how complicated that is now – especially if it is Heathrow Terminal 5! You’ve got to have all the right papers and none of the wrong sort of baggage when you get to the gate if you want to get on the plane. For many Christians salvation is the spiritual equivalent of this. Its main purpose is simply to give us what we need to get past the heavenly security guards so that we can get to the place we want to go to - an eternity of bliss – rather than being left out in the cold.

It is a shame that salvation has so often been so narrowly interpreted like this, because it seems to me that this is far removed from the ideas that Jesus expressed in his teaching and actions. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” That is what he said at the start of his ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth – his manifesto, if you like. His mission of salvation is to heal what is broken and restore the image of God in people, an image that has been twisted and marred by sin. It is about repairing relationships between people – bringing about that Old Testament vision of shalom – health, wholeness and justice - that was always God’s intention for the whole of his world. Of course it applies to what comes after death as well as what comes before it, but that unknown territory isn’t Jesus main focus, and we do his message a disservice if we concentrate solely on that.

I said when I started that on one level that greeting “Peace be with you” would have been what the disciples would have expected to hear – the normal greeting of one person to another. But on another level I am sure it would have meant far more to them than that. When Jesus proclaims God’s “shalom”, his peace, to them, he is proclaiming salvation, using that word in its broadest, and I think, most accurate sense, a salvation that is already in effect, already healing them and their relationships. Imagine what the last few days have been like for them. Hiding fearfully in an upper room they have been arguing among themselves, swamped in regret and shame after their desertion of Jesus. They have felt let down too – all their dreams shattered. They are confused – nothing has turned out as they expected, and they don’t know why. It is all wrong. They might just as well go home to Galilee and forget all about it. As they hear those words though – “peace be with you” - they begin to take in the truth they need to hear. God is healing his world. God is healing them. The apparent disaster of the cross is actually a sign of God’s indestructible love, which even death can’t defeat. Jesus, who they might have expected to rebuke them, actually forgives them.  There is new birth, new life, a new beginning. Peace be with you – not a promise of admission to a heavenly city when they die, but real hope for them now and real healing.

And as Jesus proclaims God’s shalom to them, he also makes it clear that this gift is not just God’s to give. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

These are words that are very familiar to anyone like me who has been ordained as a priest, because they are read at ordination services. One of the things priests are given authority to do by their ordination, alongside blessing and celebrating communion, is to declare God’s forgiveness of sins. But while I know that it is sometimes important to hear these words spoken by someone who has the authority and accountability that is given by ordination, I don’t think for one minute that it is only priests who do this work.

Jesus is speaking here to a motley bunch of fishermen, tax collectors, lay people of all sorts – neither trained nor ordained for ministry. The reality is that we all have this power to bind others or to set them free. We can all tie people to their past actions, stopping them moving forward to the new lives they need or we can release them to try again. We can all give or withhold the shalom – that healing peace - that they need. It’s not necessarily a matter of saying or refusing to say some words of formal absolution, but the way we act towards one another that does this.

I recall one man I knew who had grown up the youngest of a large, poor, mining family in the North East. When he was old enough to start at the local Sunday School his hard-pressed mother did her best to kit him out smartly for his first session. She carefully knitted him a new jumper – a rare treat – and proudly sent him off down the road to the church. Not long afterwards he was back, tearful and humiliated. The vicar had sent him away. “You can’t come to Sunday School,” he said, “unless you are wearing a jacket and tie.” His lovingly hand-knitted pullover, which had taken many hours of effort, and cash the family could ill afford, was not good enough. In fact the vicar seemed to take it as a deliberate act of disrespect.
Needless to say the little boy never went back, and sadly he never got over this rejection either. He was bitterly opposed to the church and to religion ever afterwards, and that bitterness spilt over into the rest of his life. I don’t know how many times that vicar had spoken the words of absolution in church but on that day his  thoughtless words had denied that child the shalom, the healing peace, the salvation that he needed. 

“Peace be with you.” It is not just a simple greeting, nor just soothing words. It is God’s proclamation of his saving power that heals us and all creation, power that sets us free from whatever it is that has bound us, and calls us into his new life. And as he declares his shalom to us, he reminds us that we all, priests and laypeople alike, have the power to pass on or to withhold that shalom– the true salvation that makes us whole and healthy.

Easter Sunday 08

Acts 10.34-43, Matthew 28.1-10

There’s one word that sums up the story Matthew tells of the resurrection of Christ, the story we have just heard. It’s not a difficult word. It’s not a long word. In fact it’s almost as short a word as you can get. It is the word “go”.

“Go” says the angel to the two women at the tomb. “Go and tell the others that Christ has been raised.”
“Go” repeats Jesus when they meet him, “and when you’ve gone and you’ve done that, keep going – go to Galilee – not to hide, but to meet with me and to hear what you should do next.” And when they meet him they’ll discover that there is yet more “going” for them to do. “Go out to the ends of the world” he will say to them, “with my message of love.” In fact Matthew’s resurrection story is full of motion. When these women go, they don’t just amble or creep, they run, propelled along by a mixture of fear and joy to tell their amazing tale.

You could pretty much reduce this resurrection story to that one word, and you’d have the gist of it right.

But “go” was the last word on anyone’s mind at the beginning of the story. As the women set out for the tomb they were not expecting motion; they were expecting to encounter a scene that was absolutely static, just as they left it, and would stay that way fixed and immovable. The stone sealed across the tomb, with guards to prevent anyone moving it. The body inside it, like any dead body, unmoving. One of the things that has always struck me when I have seen a dead body is just how still it is. You almost find yourself waiting for the person to take a breath, for some tiny flutter of an eyelid, but it doesn’t happen. There is no stillness quite like the stillness of death.

Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany had watched as the very dead, very still body of Jesus was placed in this tomb. All their hopes and dreams had died with him. He was not going anywhere. They were not going anywhere. Nothing was going anywhere any more. When they set out on that sad morning, it was simply with the intention of sitting at his tomb, sharing that stillness.

Except that when they get there things are anything but still. There is a sudden earthquake. The resurrection shakes up the whole world, Matthew tells us in this detail. It upends people’s expectation; bursts open the constraints that have imprisoned them and shatters the barriers that divide them. The tomb is split open; the boulder across its mouth has fallen away to reveal, not a motionless body, but an empty space. And there is the angel - not some cute cherub, but an awesome being of searing light - proclaiming that Christ has been raised from the dead. No wonder the guards fall back in a dead faint. Not only have they been literally stunned by this apparition, they also realise that they have failed in their task. Despite the fact that they were there all night, wide-awake - honest guv! – Jesus is gone.

The women appear to be made of sterner stuff than the guards because they find the courage to listen to the angel’s message. And that message, as I said, you can boil down to the one word “Go”. “He’s not here,” says the angel, “There’s no point hanging around. Have a look in the tomb if you must, but then go and go quickly – there’s work to be done!” So that is exactly what they do.

 “Go!” says the angel to the women, and I think that the message is the same for us today. Go! – not straight away…I haven’t finished yet, and I’m hoping you’ll stay for the rest of the service and for coffee afterwards. But just like these women we shouldn’t linger at the tombs of our lives either because that isn’t where we will find the new things God wants to give us, anymore than these women could find Jesus if they were rooted to the spot in that garden in Jerusalem.

What sort of tombs am I talking about? What sort of tombs might we be tempted to linger at?
Some people linger over their failures or over some tragedy that has befallen them – the tombs where they have buried their hopes. They punish themselves endlessly for things that everyone else has forgotten, or things that they can’t undo. Of course we should learn what we can from the past, otherwise we will just repeat it, but sooner or later we have to accept that what has happened has happened and leave it be if we are going to be open to new possibilities.

Some people linger over dead relationships – the tombs of their love – clinging to relationships that may be poisoning their lives and the lives of others. They keep hoping that their partner will somehow magically change into the person of their dreams.  Of course it is right to work at relationships when they are in trouble – not to just give up - but sometimes there is nothing you can do, and it does no one any favours to pretend that there is.

Some people linger in an unhelpful way at the literal tombs of a loved one who has died. Of course we grieve when we have lost someone, and nothing can fill the gap they have left. Of course grief has its own timetable, and can’t be hurried – no one else can tell you when your own personal Easter Day has come -  but I’ve known people who, many years after a loss, seem still to be completely frozen in their sorrow, as if they have died themselves, and that is a double tragedy – the loss of two lives instead of one.

Some people, it seems to me, even linger at the stories of the Bible in a way that turns them into tombs – tombs for dead theology, dry and dusty focuses for arguments over the details of things that happened long ago, or metaphysical mysteries that we will never find the answers to. I’m all for telling and meditating on the stories of the Bible – I’ve spent much of the last week doing just that with the stories of Holy Week – but if they become an end in themselves they can do more harm than good. The oppression and the death of Christ can become so luridly vivid to us, that they eclipse the oppression and death of those who are suffering today. Are we as engaged with the story of those who have been imprisoned in Tibet as we are with the story of Christ? If we aren’t careful we can find ourselves getting more worked up about a 2000 year old act of injustice that we can do nothing about, than we do about injustices we might still be able to prevent here and now. Endlessly puzzling over the mechanics of the resurrection can be a distraction too. It’s a mystery we’ll never solve, beyond saying that the disciples encountered Jesus in some form that convinced them he had been raised from death – they must have done, because they wouldn’t have gone to their deaths for the sake of something they knew to be a lie. But how whatever happened, happened we’ll never know. The issue that we need to get to grips with is not how Christ was raised, but how we are raised.  How can we live in his resurrection light, with hope, love and joy today? How can he bring life to what is dead in us? Faith needs to be real, to be something that makes sense of our lives today if it is going to be any use.

It is tempting when life challenges us, to stay rooted to the spot – even if the spot is a miserable one – to cling to the familiar, even if it is a poor substitute for the true hope we need. Any change is frightening – even change for the better. Who knows what might be out there in the dark, unknown future? But the message of the resurrection angel is that it is only when we go that we will discover what we really need to know, the wonderful truth that Christ has already gone before us, just as he had gone before the disciples to Galilee. He is with us as we set out, he is with us on the journey, and he is there at the journey’s end. “Go” he says “Go with faith, go with joy – there is nowhere you can be where I am not.”

The two women do as they are told. They go. The rest of the disciples do as they are told too. They go to Galilee. They go to the lands around them. They go even to the farthest corners of the earth – they even come here in the end. They go too, across boundaries of other sorts. In our first reading St Peter had to cross the boundary of national and religious suspicion, taking the message of the Gospel to a hated and unclean Roman soldier. They go across boundaries of gender – these first two witnesses of the resurrection were women. They wouldn’t have even been given a hearing in a first century court of law, but their testimony is treated as equal in the early church. The disciples go across the boundaries of their fears, facing persecution and death themselves. They are able to do all of this, because they have discovered that wherever they go, Christ is there already, perfectly at home.

I’ve no idea this morning where you are called to go to, but I know that each one of us is called to be on the move. To live is to move – only the dead lie still. The resurrection isn’t a happy ending to a troublesome week; it is a happy beginning to the rest of our lives, lives we are called to live with that same kind of adventurous courage as the first disciples, running towards the new life God wants for us and for his world.

Maundy Thursday 08
Exodus 12.1-14, John 13.1-17, 31b-35

Feet – I don’t know how you feel about yours, but many people have mixed feelings about them. They do a lot of work, after all, carrying us about, so it’s not surprising if they end up a bit battered and bent about by life – not always our most attractive physical attribute. 

But that wasn’t the only reason why Jesus’ disciples were so horrified when he took a towel, knelt down on the ground and began to wash their feet – filthy from the city streets of Jerusalem. They were convinced that Jesus was the king, the Messiah – hadn’t he ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, just as the prophets had said the Messiah would? Weren’t the crowds flocking to him? They were already imagining thrones and crowns and privileged positions at his side for them too, with servants to wait on them.  But here was Jesus, doing what those servants should have done, dealing with the dirt so that they didn’t have to. What sort of king washes people’s feet? This was never going to work, if Jesus wouldn’t play the part he was supposed to.

It was the second time that week that they had had to struggle with the issue of feet in fact. Just a few days earlier, out in the nearby village of Bethany, at supper with Martha, Mary and Lazarus, they had been appalled when Mary produced an expensive jar of ointment and began to anoint Jesus’ feet with it, wiping them with her hair. Judas protested on the grounds of the waste involved – the ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor - but that wasn’t really the point. It was the fact that Jesus was allowing a woman to do this for him – no respectable rabbi, no respectable Jewish man, should have permitted this intimacy from an unrelated woman. Jesus had crossed the line before, letting Mary learn from him just like the male disciples did. That was bad enough, but this! Well, really!

Again and again, Jesus dragged his disciples out beyond their comfort zones, into new territory. Of course, the real shock was still to come, as he overturned all their ideas of what God’s Messiah should be by dying a shameful death on the cross, but the signs were all there already for them to read.

I’ve been watching – as perhaps you have – the BBC’s “Passion” this week. It’s only half-way through, of course, but I’ve been quite impressed. The only thing that bothered me for a while was the disconcerting fact that Jesus, in their portrayal, comes across as completely insane. Everyone around him – the high priest Caiaphas, the Roman governor Pilate, the disciples – has recognisable, sensible agendas. Caiaphas wants to maintain the status quo, even if it means collaborating with the Romans, because he sees that as the best way of keeping the Jewish people safe. Pilate doesn’t want trouble either – it will only get him into Caesar’s bad books. The disciples want people to listen to Jesus’ message – if Jesus is killed, how can that happen? Better to be a living dog than a dead lion. Anyway, they have families and businesses that they are responsible for.  Jesus has made his point. Why not go back to the safety of Galilee? There’s nothing in any of their arguments that seems unreasonable, is there?
And yet Jesus persists, spouting mystifying words about the kingdom of God, the need for him to die, the promise that God is doing something new in him. It sounds insane. And yet, as I pondered the BBC’s version of events I realised that they had got it absolutely right. If you read the Gospels you realise this is how they tell it too.  Jesus is a man who is living his life according to some sort of pattern that has never been seen before, who regularly and deliberately turns people’s expectations upside down and inside out. And those around him really did think he had gone mad – none of it made sense.

These incidents with the feet are classic examples. Where is the sense in letting a woman touch you like this – what will people think? Where is the sense in behaving as if you are a servant – who will respect you then?

Of course sometimes behaviour that looks mad is mad - there is no particular benefit in making people uncomfortable or turning their worlds upside down simply for the sake of it. But in the light of the cross and the resurrection, in the light of two thousand years of hindsight, we can see that what Christ does is not madness at all. When Christ drags people out beyond their comfort zone, he does so to show them that the future doesn’t have to be the same as the past.

In the Old Testament we see a similar moment – a moment of apparent madness – from Israel’s distant history. The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for more years than anyone could count. But now, here was Moses, telling them that there was a Promised Land for them, where they could be free. But to reach it they would have to believe that Pharaoh was going to let them go – they had to act as if it was already a done deal. Eat your meal hurriedly, leave none for the next day because you won’t be here to eat it. Put your shoes on and take up your staff, be ready to go when the moment comes, because come it certainly will, says Moses. Sheer madness! The rational among them would have quite rightly pointed out how impossible this all was. The Egyptian nation was the most powerful the world had ever seen. This wild fantasy of an escape simply wasn’t going to happen!

Moses, like Jesus, drags these Israelite slaves out of their comfort zone - quite literally in his case - out of the familiarity of Egypt into the frightening emptiness of the desert.

Both Moses and Jesus know that it is only by disturbing the assumptions of those around them, challenging them to see a new future that anything can change. Moses promises a land flowing with milk and honey. Jesus’ promise is not of material comfort at all, but of a kingdom in which people are ruled by love of each other, a kingdom in which humility and service are not signs of weakness, but privileges, a kingdom in which people are set free from the dog-eat-dog patterns of life which can only result in fear and injustice.

It is tragic but true that today this sort of thinking still seems like madness to many
Those who dare to seek peace are often labelled idealistic fools. Those who dare to campaign for justice for the poor are often labelled naïve. Those who dare to hope that it might be possible for us to live in harmony with each other and with the rest of creation are labelled tree-hugging do-gooders. I recall the words of the Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara “When I give the poor bread they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor have no bread they call me a communist”, just another sort of madness in his society at the time.
Cynicism is often seen as the norm. “What difference can one person make to all the problems of the world?” we say, shrugging our shoulders, as we troop off to the shops to pile up yet more junk. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” we say as we reject some new possibility for our lives. “Look after number one – no one else will!” we say as we turn aside from someone who needs our help, or some action that will cost us, but benefit others. But it is only when we dare to leave these old familiar ideas behind that we can really begin to change and really begin to see God’s kingdom here and now among us.

At the end of this service we’ll be sharing in the short service of Tenebrae. We’ll read a series of passages from the Bible, blowing out the candles on the altar as we do so, until we are in darkness. That darkness is supposed to remind us of the darkness that gathers around Jesus as he is arrested and killed. It is the darkness of the bafflement his disciples felt and the darkness of betrayal as they all fell away. It is the darkness in the hearts of those, then and now, who can countenance torturing and killing the innocent to preserve their own power. But it is also the darkness into which we each need to step if we are to discover the reality of God’s purpose for us. If we stick only with what we know, we will stay as we are. It is the unknown future – however mad, strange or new it might feel - that we need to find.

The darkness of Christ’s grave is not just the darkness of death – the end of some foolish stunt pulled by a madman.  It is the darkness in which he, and we, await new birth. Christ’s grave is not just a tomb; it is a womb as well. Like the dark earth in which the seed germinates, it is the place in which new life begins.  So, let’s not be afraid to step into that darkness with God, and let him lead us through it to his new kingdom.

March 16th 2008     Breathing Space Communion Palm Sunday Evening

Isaiah 50.4-9a. Matthew 21.1-11

I’m sure everyone was delighted at the news on Friday that Shannon Matthews had been found alive. There were great scenes of rejoicing on the estate in Dewsbury where she lived, with crowds of children shouting her name and dancing on a great scattered pile of “missing” posters. That same community had been seen in the weeks since her disappearance walking local pieces of waste ground,  handing out leaflets at football matches – getting together to help in the search and support the family.

Amidst all the rejoicing on Friday night, though, one local man was interviewed who said that what worried him was what Shannon might have been through. If she had been harmed, he said, then “God help the person who has done it. This community doesn’t forgive that easily.” 

We bandy about this word “community” with great ease, as if it were bound always to be a good thing, but it is often much more complicated than we think – and not always healthy. Shannon's community which had been united in anxiety and in rejoicing might well turn out to be united in its desire to punish too. Seeing that Shannon turned out to have been taken by a distant relative, part of her family, part of the community, there’s a real possibility that the cheers of joy for Shannon’s recovery might turn to shouts of hatred and suspicion – whether deserved or not – towards her family.

Communities can be dangerous things. They can be as ruthless in excluding those who don’t fit as they are good at including those who do. They can force people to adopt a common mind, whatever that happens to be, rather than encouraging them to think of themselves as individuals with individual responsibility. It’s not always easy to see how this happens but the effect is clear. It's like a flock of starlings swirling in the sky as they gather to roost. You can’t pick out who is taking the lead, and yet some sort of signal is being passed somehow. So this word, “community” sounds good, but in reality it can be nothing more than another name for a crowd, or even a mob.

The crowd which greeted Jesus on that first Palm Sunday was no different. Some were there because they passionately believed in his message, some were there because they were curious, and I suspect that some were there simply because this strange procession provided a moment of excitement in a dull life. They pulled branches off the trees and shouted Hosanna till they were hoarse, but it’s clear that some of them didn’t have a clue who they were shouting for. “Who is this..?” they asked, eventually. And when the Hosannas turned to shouts of Crucify, they were equally willing to go along with the crowd.

The truth is that we are all capable of this – we don’t need to be in first century Jerusalem, and the temptation to go along with the crowd isn’t just something that just besets council estates in run down areas. There are ways in which we all resist the challenge of being ourselves, of thinking for ourselves and of taking responsibility for ourselves.

The Old Testament reading told us that God’s servant – and that is what we are called to be – needs to have ears awakened “to listen as those who are taught.” You can only resist the whispering of the crowd if your ears are open – open especially to God’s voice, says Isaiah. Only then can we live the lives we are called to, with integrity, and help others too with words that will sustain them in their own, sometimes weary, struggles too. 

Holy Week is the tale of one man who swum against the tide of the world’s evil and paid the price for it. As we begin our observance of Holy Week, I wonder what the tides are in our lives that sweep us along and how good we are at recognising them and swimming against them if we need to. What are the whispering voices of the crowds around us – the voices of families and friends, the voices within workplaces or social groups, the voices of the media and of our wider society? Let us recognise them this Holy Week, and let us open our ears too to the voice of God – that still small voice of love that calls us out of the crowd and into our own true inheritance as his children.

9th March 2008    Lent 5     by Kevin Bright

John 11.1-45, Romans 8.6-11, Ezekiel 37.1-14

Does a long gospel reading mean we need a long sermon? If I attempted to address every aspect of our reading then yes, but you will be relieved to hear that I only wanted to share thoughts on the bits that jumped off the page for me.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that my highlights of this reading will be the same as yours.

Possibly you were surprised by the detail that Jesus didn’t rush to Judea when he heard that Lazarus was gravely ill but stayed put for two whole days before setting off on his journey.

Perhaps you could share in the desperation, bewilderment and pain of Martha and Mary who both effectively say ‘if you had got here sooner our brother would not have died.’

The obvious big story here is that we are told Lazarus is restored to life after being dead for four days, hardly an everyday occurrence compared to our life experience.

Even though these are all key elements in the sequence of events the thing that really struck me was the simple fact that, Jesus Christ, the son of God, bursts into tears!

If Jesus was so upset by the sisters’ distress and grief why didn’t he rush to them immediately he heard Lazarus was ill? What was he doing for those two days?

From the fact that he later says ‘Father I thank you for having heard me’ when the stone was rolled away from the cave containing Lazarus body, it seems certain that Jesus was praying. It was dangerous for him to go to Judea; his own disciples remind him that the Judeans had wanted to stone him accusing him of blasphemy for claiming to be God’s son. Who knew what would happen if he returned?

Yet a tension was created by Mary and Martha who clearly longed for Jesus to join them urgently.

We are reminded that being a follower of Christ is not always risk free as we heard Thomas tells his fellow disciples ‘ Let us go also, that we may die with him’, indicating the grave consequences he expected upon their return to Judea.

The days must have been spent wrestling over Gods will for him, knowing there was no easy option available.

The current chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, describes Judaism as a religion of questions.’ He remembers his teacher’s greatest praise as ‘you raise a good objection’.

Maybe we’re starting to see things in a slightly Jewish way as well if we still have more questions we want answered.

So if Jesus was so well prepared through prayer why did he break down when he saw Mary weeping? The only explanation which makes sense to me is that this showed the fullness of his humanity.

It can be difficult to accept that the one who came to demonstrate God’s power of life over death also shows his vulnerability when confronted with sadness and suffering.

Have you ever steeled yourself for a distressing situation, thought things through logically, prayed, talked openly about your feelings with someone close to you and prepared yourself to be as supportive as you can. Only to arrive and be distressed beyond expectation when the sheer human suffering becomes apparent?

Around 20 years after my mothers death my most painful memory is of my father, who I’d never seen cry before, lying on his bed balling his eyes out.

I’m sure every one of us has tried to convince ourselves that we are over a sad situation only for it to unexpectedly come back and hit us. 

To be fully human means not being fully in control of our emotions.

I switched on the early morning news one day this week to see the presenter talking live at 6.00 am from near the home of the missing schoolgirl Shannon Matthews. He was explaining how the community had come together in support of the child’s family and then asked the local curate some fairly routine questions.

With a sense that time was running short he turned to this poor woman in her dog collar, who I must say looked shattered, stressed out and wind swept in the cold darkness of a Yorkshire winters morning and  asked a staggering question, particularly for a two minute live interview at this unearthly hour.

With the spotlights shining in her face and the cameras pointed it went something like ‘Just quickly, many of our viewers will be wondering why, if there is a loving God, he lets things like this happen?

Visibly stunned and after a moments hesitation she replied along the lines of’ our God knows a thing or two about suffering and as we move closer to Easter we are reminded of how he suffered for us and with us’…. And there was clearly time for no more as they moved to the next story.

Profound wisdom and love in real time, amongst real heartbreak from a woman who had been up half the night before leading a vigil for the missing child.

Having demonstrated his humanity Jesus also shows us that even for God incarnate death is not cost free. In doing so we get a glimpse of a God who is real, we might even say he is a bit like some of us!

This is certainly not a God who sits aloof on a cloud, this is not an invisible God who exists somehow out there in space, this is our God who got down on his knees to be at eye level with his children. Can it be any surprise that so many people say they feel Gods presence in their times of sadness and adversity?

Picking up on what St Paul said to the Romans can it also be any surprise that when all is well and we feel that we are in control it becomes tempting to direct our lives away from God, something I suspect we have all flirted with in the past.

Totally human yet totally God as Jesus proclaims ‘I am the resurrection and the life’, words which would be filled with a new understanding after Easter.

Most of us here know that love is not risk free. But even though it can be painful we also know that the price is one worth paying. With faith and prayer Jesus shows us how to find a way forward with God in the most desperate of situations.

The irony is that as Jesus demonstrates Gods love and life giving power, at the same time he is setting the final seal on his own death. His journey to Lazarus has been one which steers him towards head on collision with the Jews who want him dead.

Let’s keep reading, praying and listening through Palm Sunday, Holy week and Easter to remind ourselves of how his imprisonment and death lead to our freedom and hope.


2nd March 08 - Lent 4  Evensong

Micah 7, James 5

The prophet Micah, at the end of the eighth century BC, was facing the complete breakdown of his society. The Assyrians who had conquered the area had deported many of its people, stripped the nation of its wealth, and left those who remained to fend for themselves amidst the ruins. Micah’s world had collapsed. It was everyone for themselves. You couldn’t even trust your own family and your closest friends. “your enemies are members of your own household” laments Micah.  There was no point looking to anyone in an official position either – the judges were in the pocket of the wealthy. “The powerful dictate what they desire” he says. “The best of them is like a briar, the most upright of them a thorn hedge.” His words of lament are ancient, but we can hear echoes of them throughout human history right up to the present day. Many people have faced devastation like this.
There was news from Kenya this week of a power-sharing deal, which, it is hoped will bring peace there, but at least one man I heard interviewed on the radio was sceptical. He had fled to a displacement camp. “How can I just go back to my village, “ he said. “It was my own neighbours who were threatening my family.” This isn’t just an African problem. In the 1990’s the same sort of sudden breakdown of an apparently settled society happened in the former Yugoslavia. We are only ever a short step away from this sort of chaos.

The letter of James is also written to people living in desperate times, though it might not be so obvious. He writes to a church that is being persecuted, in a society in which inequality and injustice were rife, and where life was fragile and often snuffed out without a second thought by the Roman authorities.

It would be natural to despair in times like these, but Micah and James don’t, despite the challenges that face them. That is why their words have stood the test of time, and why they are so valuable to us. Their gift to us is that somehow they are able to see beyond the immediate situation, and to identify some of the things that might make for a hopeful future, not just in their long gone eras, but to us today in the challenges we face. These may be global – climate change, unjust trading practices – all bring risks not only of  the personal suffering of people far away, but of political instability which will affect us all. The challenges may be much closer to home – the private, personal traumas in our lives. Whichever it is, we need these voices from the past to point us beyond a sense of helplessness to a real hope that will lead to a better future

So what sort of things do these readings say to those who are facing challenging times?  I am going to suggest three things – and they can all be summed up in the phrase “Get real!”

The first thing that these readings tell us to get real about is the situation we face. Micah is honest about the bleakness of the predicament he is in. He’s not afraid of genuine deep sadness and lament – he doesn’t try to put a brave face on it - there seems to be not even a left-over crumb of hope to sustain him, not even one overlooked bunch of grapes on the vine, no scrap of anything to scavenge. Get real – it really is this bad.
James calls on his hearers, especially those who are living in comfort, to get real about the future that they are making for themselves. They may think they are secure, but their riches will eat away at them. The cries of those they have oppressed have reached the ears of God.  Stop deluding yourselves that you can live the life of Riley at the expense of the poor – in the end you will bring destruction on yourselves. These are not comfortable or easy readings, but they are necessary readings calling us to see the ways in which we turn a blind eye to what is wrong, either because we simply can’t bear to acknowledge it, or because acknowledging it would mean that we would have to change. 
Human beings have a staggering ability to pretend to themselves that there is nothing wrong in the hope that what you don’t see, or don’t choose to see, won’t hurt you, but in our heart of hearts we know it isn’t so. We can get nowhere in addressing our problems, or the problems of the world until we admit that they are problems.

Get real about the situation, is the first message of these passages. This is important, but it is just a first step. Often the very reason why we don’t want to see the problems for what they are is because we feel we can’t do anything about them. So is there anything here to point us in the direction of hope?

I believe there is. James and Micah in different ways both tell us to see where we fit in both as part of the problem and as part of the solution. Get real about yourself, they say – your own responsibility both for the problems and the solution. Micah, like many Old Testament writers can sound very alien to our 21st Century ears. We might well feel that he gives himself rather a hard time “I must bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him.” We probably don’t share his view that the bad things that have happened are a direct result of God’s anger, and I’m not suggesting we should. But nonetheless there is some wisdom in his words. What he has recognised is that he can’t simply point the finger at others in his society. If it has gone off the rails – if people are at each others throats, allowing injustice to poison their community life, then he, as part of that society, can’t be immune from blame. The things he has done, or the things he has left undone have contributed to that somehow. He may not be the worst of sinners, but he is involved. It is all too easy for us to talk about the problems of the world as if they are someone else’s fault, as if we have nothing to do with them, but that is rarely so – we are all linked to one another. And just as we are part of the problem we can all do something to set things right. James’ letter focuses on small things that can make a big difference to the world. Confess your sins. If you need help, ask for it. Look out for one another – don’t just let people drift off into behaviour that is harming them or harming others. Do what you can, he says. Don’t agonise, organise, as one slogan that I hold dear puts it. God will honour that. None of us has a magic wand, but that doesn’t mean we are powerless. Apathy can have just as profound an effect on the world as action. Make a decision, and follow it up – let yes mean yes and no mean no – do something.

Get real about the situation, get real about your part in that situation- two calls to us that are about looking at what is in front of us. But the third call is rather different, and calls us to look very much beyond ourselves. Get real about God, say these two writers. Ultimately for both Micah and James the best and most powerful hope lies not just in what they can do, but in the character of the God they trust in. He is a faithful God, they believe, a God who has not let his people down in the past, the God of Abraham, of Jacob, of Job – people for whom life often seemed just as bleak as theirs does, but who discovered in the end that God was with them. The story of Jesus himself, his death and his resurrection, are the final proof of this faithfulness, of course, for the community of Christians James writes to. And God is faithful, according to these writers, not out of stubbornness, not because he doesn’t want to look as if he has failed, but out of love, love for his world, his own creation. Appropriately for Mothering Sunday, God’s is the faithfulness that a loving parent will show to a child. Loving parents stick with their children because it is unimaginable to them not to. They could no more forsake their child than cut out their own heart. God’s love, according to Micah and James, is like this – compassionate, merciful, everlasting.

The fact that their current circumstances are so bad does not alter the reality about God to which they hold. “As for me, I will look to the Lord. I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.” Says Micah. James talks about the farmer who looks at the bare earth, not in despair, but knowing that within it are the seeds which will grow into a plentiful crop – the fact that he can’t see them doesn’t mean that they aren't there.

Get real say these ancient writers to their contemporaries. Get real about your situation, get real about yourselves, but above all, get real about God. They knew what their reality was but what about us? What is the truth about the world we live in, the challenges we face? What is the truth about the part we have played and are called to play in that world? And most of all, what sort of God do we believe in? One who will desert us at the first sign of trouble, one who blows with the wind, this way and that way, one who is capricious and forgetful? Or a God who walks beside us through the pain and the devastation until the new day dawns?


February 24th 2008 - Lent 3
Exodus 17.1-7, John 4.5-42

A place for everything and everything in its place! I would love to say that that was the motto I live by. Unfortunately, not being a naturally tidy person, the truth is more often, “a place for everything and everything somewhere else.”
But although I fail, that doesn’t stop me hoping!  We all like a bit of order in our lives. Life is much easier if you know where to find things, if things are where you expect them to be.

It’s the same with people – we like them to be where we expect them to be as well.
In my last parish I was chaplain to the local Asda store. I used to go in once a week and stand in the foyer chatting to the customers and staff. Often, though, people would do a double take, suddenly noticing the dog collar – “’ere, are you a vicar, then?” A place for everything and everything in its place? The place of a vicar was certainly not in the aisles of a supermarket, with an Asda staff badge on. They couldn’t quite believe their eyes.

In today’s Old Testament reading we find a group of people who are feeling very out of place indeed. The Israelites, newly escaped from slavery in Egypt, find themselves in an arid wilderness, far from the abundant waters of the River Nile. Life might have been hard in Egypt, but at least you never went short of water. This desert landscape is something unimaginable to them, and they don’t like it. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt? “they complain to Moses  - “Is God among us or not?”  Surely God can’t be out here in this wasteland! No self-respecting Egyptian God would live out here – they know that. Egyptian Gods had fine temples. This desert is no place for a God to be, any more than it is for a human with any sense.

In the Gospel story we meet two more people who are feeling out of place. Jesus is out of place in Samaria.  For reasons lost in the mists of time, Jews and Samaritans regarded each other with suspicion and often outright hatred. Israel was divided into two separate territories – Judea in the south, where Jerusalem was, and Galilee in the north. Between them lay Samaria. Good Jewish people would make a long diversion around Samaria to avoid setting foot on its soil and mixing with its inhabitants. So Jesus and his disciples really shouldn’t be here. But he has decided to take that short cut and we meet him, out of place in this alien, heretical land, exhausted and thirsty, just like the Israelites in the desert.

The woman who comes up the path towards the well in the hot noonday sun is also someone who feels out of place. She shouldn’t do. She’s a Samaritan. This is her home. But in the eyes of her society she is someone who doesn’t really belong either. We know that straight away, before we hear anything of her story, because she is coming to this well, alone, at noon, the hottest time of the day. No one with any sense did that. Collecting water was hard work – a job for the cool of the morning or evening. It was a time too for socialising, nattering with your friends as you met up at the well. But this woman doesn’t seem to have any friends. She’s deliberately coming for water when no one else is likely to be around.

As we later discover she has a miserable personal history. Five husbands, and the man she’s with now won’t marry her. What’s happened? These marriages might have been ended by divorce or by death, or by a mixture of the two, but whichever it is her community probably regards her as a walking piece of bad luck by now. Women couldn’t initiate divorce, so if she’s divorced it’s her husbands who have rejected her, not vice versa – this isn’t a woman who is living some sort of loose life, hopping from man to man – but despite this it would be she, not her husbands who were left carrying the shame and stigma. And if she’s been repeatedly widowed, she’s not much better off.
Premature death was often regarded as God’s punishment or the devil’s work. To lose one husband was bad,  but five?!…

There’s something very dodgy about this woman in the eyes of her neighbours and she is among the most vulnerable, most marginalised people we meet in the Gospels, unsupported by friends and family, despised, and economically insecure. Even in the midst of her own people she is out of place..

According to the expectations of the time, Jesus should turn his back on her – as a Samaritan, a woman and someone who is obviously not accepted within her own society, even if he doesn’t know why yet. But he doesn’t do that. Instead he asks her for a drink. She’s so surprised she checks that he has really got the measure of the situation – does he, a Jew, really want water from her? He does, and before she knows where she is they are deep in conversation – a long conversation about water and husbands, and places of worship.

Some of their conversation might seem rather baffling to us. “Should we worship on this mountain or in Jerusalem?” she asks. I’ve heard preachers suggest this is just a red herring to stop Jesus from probing any further into her personal life. But I don’t agree. I think her question is much more relevant than it seems.

One of the major differences between Samaritans and Jews was their view of where God should be worshipped. Jews worshipped in the Temple, but for Samaritans Mount Gerizim was the real holy place. But if Jesus, a Jew, has seen her life so clearly, perhaps the Jews are right on this too. Where is God? she wonders. On Mount Gerizim or in the Temple? A place for everything, and everything in its place – but which is God’s place?

Jesus’ answer takes her beyond the simple either/or. God’s true worshippers are the ones who can see him at work not just in a Temple or on a holy mountain, but wherever the truth is spoken and recognised. Those who worship him, worship him in Spirit and in truth.

So where is the place where God is at work on this hot, noonday? It is right there where a thirsty exhausted Jew and a marginalised Samaritan women – both of them feeling “out of place” - accept each other as they are, where they see and speak the truth about each other. Jesus sees, and says, that she is an intelligent woman with much to give – to him and to her own community, not a disgrace to be shunned. She sees, and says, that he is the Messiah, the one whom her people just as much as the Jews have been waiting for. They get beyond the labels, beyond the prejudices, and they tell one another the truth, and there is God in their midst, blessing them both.

The Samaritan woman’s transformation is obvious, as she rushes off to tell those neighbours who have rejected her what Jesus has done. He has treated her with respect, a child of God, someone worth talking theology with. How long is it since someone has spoken to her like this, I wonder? His treatment of her is a cool stream in the desert – some of that living water that he talks about.

But Jesus too comes away from this encounter enriched: it has reached somewhere deep in him. When the disciples return with food, he doesn’t want it. He’s not hungry any more. This conversation has left him bursting with delight. It has satisfied him more deeply than any food and drink could.

He needs to see God at work out here in this alien place, in the life of an outcast woman, just as much as she does. One day soon he’ll find himself outcast too, nailed to a cross enduring a squalid and disgraceful death, perhaps wondering if this can really be right. Is this any place for God’s Messiah to be? He needs to know for certain that it is.

All this matters to us, too. “A place for everything, and everything in its place”. But where is the place we expect to find God? We look at the meanness and the squalor of the world, and it’s easy to assume that God can’t possibly be in it. Surely he is high in his perfect heaven, not here. We look at the church and shake our heads sadly at its quarrels and divisions – this isn’t where we’ll find God at work, we think – these things are a sad distraction from the real business of loving and caring for our neighbour. We look on our own failures and the failures of others, the deserts of shame and regret in our lives, and feel they are the last place we’ll find God. But we are wrong. We have the temerity to describe people, places, situations as “God-forsaken” when in fact it is only we who have forsaken them, turned aside from them, drawn back in disgust or horror. God hasn’t forsaken them, any more than he had forsakes the Israelites in the desert, or that marginalised Samaritan woman, or Jesus as he hangs on the cross.

“Is the Lord among us or not?” is the question we ask when we are out in the desert places of our lives, our church and our world. Yes, say these stories – especially here, where we are confronted with often painful truths. Because God knows, even if we don’t, that it is most often in the arguments, the clashes, the failures that we are presented with the opportunity really to do the work we need to if we are going to change, to hear the words that we have avoided or missed. Often it is only when truth splits the rock of our lives apart, when the certainties crumble, that the living water can begin to flow.

“A place for everything, and everything in its place.” When all seems lost, when all seems wrong, when all seems out of place, God says “strike the rock and let the living water flow”. And, if we dare to take him at his word, that living water can bubble up for us, as it does for the Israelites, and the Samaritan woman, and Jesus himself, an inexhaustible fount of healing.

17th February 2008 - Lent 2 - Breathing Space Holy Communion meditation
John 3. 1-17

Rather than a talk today I’d like to lead you in a short guided meditation – all it needs from you is a bit of imagination. Don’t worry if you don’t think of yourself as the imaginative type – if you’ve ever heard a story on the radio or read a book and had a mental picture of the people and places in it, you can do this. Some people seem to be able to picture things more vividly than others, but most people are better at this than they think they will be.

A word of two of introduction:
In today’s Gospel reading we heard the story of Nicodemus, a leader among the Jewish people, a respected pillar of the community, a man whom everyone knew, a man who knew himself, or thought he did. But when Jesus came along he found himself suddenly questioning the faith and way of life that had always seemed so secure to him. He needs to ask Jesus questions that seem to him to be unaskable, to think thoughts that seem unthinkable, and he certainly doesn’t want others to see him in this state of confusion. So he comes to Jesus under cover of darkness hoping to be unnoticed. Jesus doesn’t seem to mind the subterfuge – he meets Nicodemus, as he does so many others, just as he is.

My guess is that Nicodemus isn’t the only one among us who sometimes has things to say to God that seem unsayable – doubts, fears, anger, maybe even moments of tenderness and thanksgiving. So tonight I’d like to invite you to come on an imaginative journey with me, in the steps of Nicodemus, in the hopes that we can be aware in the silence of our hearts of what it is we need to say to God, and what he might say to us in response. I’m going to sit down to lead this. I will pause now and then as I lead you on this journey, and, at the end there will be quite a lengthy time of silence so you can let the story unfold however it does for you.

Close your eyes. Sit comfortably and breathe gently.

It is night.
You are going through the streets of Jerusalem to a place where you know you can find Jesus. Stop for a moment and imagine what is around you.

What is this street like? Is it narrow or broad?
How much of the night sky can you see if you look upwards?
What is the weather like – is it a cold winter’s night or a balmy summer one?
What is on either side of the street – houses? Shops? High walls? Gardens?
What is the street surface like – stones, earth, smooth or uneven?
What noises can you hear? – a dog barking? Cicadas? The noises of people?
Is there anyone else around?
How do you feel about this journey you are making – eager? fearful? foolish?
Take a few moments to imagine the scene before you go on…
Now you move on…are you in a hurry or going slowly, reluctantly, cautiously….?

You arrive at the house where you know Jesus is.

There is a door – take a look at it – what is it like?
How do you feel as you stand there…?
You knock on the door
The door opens, and Jesus invites you in…

Take a few moments as you follow him in to look around you and to look at him…

What can you see on your right, on your left, straight in front of you?
What do you think he was doing before you arrived? Have you interrupted him, or did he seem to know you were coming?
Jesus invites you to sit down and he sits down himself…

He asks you what it is that you want to say….it might be something profound, or something trivial, something that comes to you now, or something that has always bothered you.

In the silence, ask or say whatever it is you want, and see how Jesus responds…


As we bring our time of meditation to a close, take your leave of Jesus, aware of what you have said and what you have heard and what you will take away from this encounter.

February 10th 2008 - Lent 1 Sermon by Kevin Bright
Matthew 4.1-11, Romans 5.12-19, Genesis2.15-17; 3.1-7

Did you have pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, the last chance to feast before Lent began?

Next came Ash Wednesday which offers a chance to reflect on our sorrow for our sins and our mortality.

These two dealt with we can focus on what we hope to achieve this lent. Do we want to give something up like booze or sweets and give the money we save to a good cause? Have we resolved to break the habit of something we know to be wrong? Maybe our lent will involve positive unselfish action to benefit others. The Church of England is encouraging us to have a carbon fast (that is to cut our carbon emissions). Perhaps we want to read, study, reflect and see if God can become more real for us.

Today is the first Sunday of lent and if you’ve managed to abstain or keep working towards your goal for this long the good news is that you’ve already succeeded for around 10% of this penitential season. By observing the forty days of lent we remind ourselves of the time of Christ’s withdrawal to the desert for forty days to fast and prepare for his ministry.

So with these points clear in our minds we simply need to master temptation for another 36 days and we’re home and dry, ready to celebrate Easter!

There is always the possibility that we become changed during lent and that the temptations resisted for forty days become permanent.

Even if we think we have temptation mastered changes in circumstance, new positions of responsibility and unexpected opportunities can catch us off guard.

I read the following text when researching our readings for this week and it seemed like it could have been written following the news of the last few weeks even though it was actually published in 2002!

Ever since her local party had told her, to her surprise, that they wanted her to be their candidate, she had been overwhelmed by the honour both of running for parliament and of serving her people. All her noble ideals had been smiling at her, beckoning her, telling her that she was now going to be able to achieve them. Her one thought had been: get elected and at last you’ll be able to change the world. To make things better. To turn things around.

She still couldn’t believe it, victory by 10,000 votes. They had wanted her. They had chosen her. This was her day and it was sweet.

She needed space to think and took a long walk in the woods by herself. She was shocked by what she discovered, the ideals were still there but what were these other voices?

Now at last they whispered, ‘you’ve got a chance to make some real money. Lots of businesses will want you on their board, to lobby ministers for them. You can name your price.

‘This is just the first rung on the ladder’ said the voices.’ If you play your cards well, if you don’t make a fuss about too many things, and get to know the right people, you could, get rid of that party activist you never liked, be on TV, be… in the cabinet ………

I shouldn’t have been surprised that the text felt topical as it’s a timeless temptation to those who find themselves in any position of authority.
For Jesus the issues were also about whether he would exploit his position of power. It wasn’t favours from senior figures of the day that he might be tempted to call upon but his special powers given by God. Would he choose to lead a privileged life or confront temptations which were real for him as a human being?
The first temptation is for Jesus to turn the bread into a stone. This says more about doubting God’s goodwill towards us than dealing with hunger. Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert, and became very hungry. No doubt he wonders has God has forgotten him. The temptation is about more than just a meal, more than just a stone and a piece of bread. It’s about taking control, making up for God’s apparent forgetfulness or carelessness, doubting God’s goodwill.
Jesus doesn’t turn the stone into bread; he commits himself to trust in God’s promise of sustenance in the wilderness. The real hope which Jesus gives us is that we need only have the tiniest faith to achieve great things. After all it’s not the size of the faith but the God in which we believe which is important. We know how things worked out for Jesus but will each face our own ‘desert times’, and don’t yet know how we will react.
Surely doubt of God must weaken our ability to weather times of temptation. Faith isn’t something we can switch on and off at will but we do need to remind ourselves how much we are loved by God, how ready he is to forgive us and that he has a purpose for each of us.

As we heard of events in the Garden of Eden we are reminded that God has left us free to choose for ourselves. The example of picking forbidden fruit highlights the consequences of bad choices made for short term pleasure. We are all tempted to make these selfish choices, often without thinking through the impact they can have.

The other major temptation is to see all the injustice around us and feel powerless. We are tempted to give in to despair - the despair that nothing we can do will make a difference; the despair that says that there is no help or hope for us or for our world.

In our lives we experience a struggle between obedience to our faith and the temptation to give in and pursue the easy option. Even when we have faith in the God of life
we experience temptation; we feel desires and live through events that test our faith.
For most of us once we have made certain basic life choices it is not so much about giving in to the temptation to steal, murder or pursue a life of crime. It’s much more likely that we are tempted to retreat into our comfort zones and live self centred lives with our eyes closed to those in need, to injustice and to wrongdoing.

I recently read an interview where a man cited the reason that he no longer came to church as being ‘because it’s full of hypocrites’. I thought to myself I have to agree with you, I can see why church can be unattractive to many who only ever read headlines and grab sound bites about this strange institution. For about a week I genuinely felt quite down about this.

I expect we all have our special times when we can find a little quiet space to think and mine tends to be when I wake around 3.00 am. In the peace of the night the truth became clearer and I felt like shouting out ‘no we’re not! We’re not hypocrites at all, most of us here and others I know who try to lead a Christian life don’t go around pretending they’ve got it all worked out or even that they’re any good at it (being a Christian that is). We simply believe that God loves us and we’re trying to respond to that. We don’t think we are superior or judge others for their ways.

In fact the reality is that we all fall short of where we want to be and often feel bad about it, sometimes hating ourselves for failing to achieve our aspirations.

One of my fathers most told stories is how the preacher in the welsh chapel he attended as a child once got so worked up telling his flock how wretched they were that his false teeth came flying out towards the congregation. Unfortunately for those listening he caught them in mid air nonchalantly replacing them to continue unabated. Perhaps this is where the saying came from ‘Don’t let worries kill you. Let the church help’.

 I don’t think we need to be told how wretched we are due to the fact that most of us are pretty good at putting ourselves down!

Deep down many of us feel that others would not like us if they really knew us. Yet it’s often when we feel brave enough to speak of our shortcomings that we feel a weight is lifted, others are often also made to feel a lot better when they realise they are not alone in their failures.

At times our Christian life can be a real struggle, if we are honest, at times, it can be something we endure rather than enjoy. Our faith can be like an animal in fragile recovery, something which has to be nurtured day by day to regain its strength.

But it’s not as if all our failings build up over a lifetime like an ever increasing burden we must carry in a rucksack that will finally ground us. Christ has offered us the opportunity to lighten our load to the extent that we can move forward in a way which is liberating bringing new life to ourselves and others.
Whatever label you prefer be it evil, devil, dark forces or simply temptation, we all recognise that there is something which tries to divert us from the path we think we should be following. At critical times of decision and vocation it may not be a specific sin we are tempted to commit more that we allow ourselves to be diverted from the path we know leads to servanthood and ultimately to God.
Jesus refused the temptation to focus on the needs of his body knowing the greater need was to fulfill his purpose on earth.
My prayer is that this lent we can follow his example and find the courage to focus less on our physical needs and more on the needs of our heart and spirit, and in doing so be set free to fulfill our God given potential.

Come to the edge, he said. They said:
we are afraid.
Come to the edge,
he said. They came.
He pushed them,
and they flew.
(Guillaume Apollinaire, 1880-1918)


3rd Feb 2008    Candlemas
Malachi 3.1-5, Psalm 24, Hebrews 2.14-end, Luke 2.22-40

When you came into church you were all given a candle I hope. We’ll be lighting those candles at the end of the service, but I’d like to think about them a bit now, so we’re ready for that moment when it comes. Today is officially the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, but it has always been called Candlemas too, and for very good reason. We’ve just heard the story of Jesus being brought to the Temple at 40 days old as the Jewish law required. The Temple was a busy place, full of people, noise, bustle, animals too – this was where they were sacrificed. We think of churches as peaceful places, but this was anything but.

Through all that noisy throng, came one little family. Mary, Joseph and Jesus. There was absolutely nothing about them to single them out. No angels, no stars, no heavenly music. There must have been many other families there just like them. And yet, two elderly people, regulars at the Temple, spotted them and responded in the most extraordinary way to their presence.

Simeon, a devout man, steeped in the Scriptures and longing for God’s kingdom of peace and justice, steps out of the shadows towards them. With him is Anna, a widow for many years, who lived in the Temple precincts, praying night and day for the Messiah to come. Somehow they know that this is the one – some inner voice, some prompting says “here is God, come among you.”
It is Simeon’s words, of course, which led to this reading being associated with candles and Candlemas. This child will be a “light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” This child will light up the world, he says – Jews and Gentiles alike will find in him a new way of seeing, a revelation of God, a revelation of themselves, which will change them forever.

In the middle ages this feast of Candlemas was the time when people would bring candles as offerings for the church’s use. They would also bring their own candles from home to be blessed. As the only sources of artificial light, and expensive commodities, candles were precious. But the light of those Candlemas candles was also thought to have special significance, protecting homes from evil. The light wasn’t just practical. It was symbolic too. And it still is, of course.

Light means safety to us, just as it did to Medieval Christians. With it we can see where we are going, where we are, and where others are too. Light is comforting, soothing, reassuring. Night time has always been a time of danger. Fear of the dark is a common experience, for perfectly sensible and practical reasons. All sorts of things can be done under cover of darkness that can’t happen in the full light of day. For that reason light is often associated with good, and darkness with evil. We’ve given it a moral quality. We talk of others lighting up our lives too – people we love or the saints and heroes whose courage shines out in a dark world.

Light also tends to mean understanding to us. When a character in a cartoon has a bright idea a light bulb goes on above their heads. We have “bright” ideas – or sometimes not so bright ones! We say that something has dawned on us when we mean that we have suddenly thought of something we hadn’t seen before.

Knowledge, moral goodness, safety– these are all symbolic meanings we have given to light. There are those who will defend the glories of darkness too, of course – it has its place, bringing rest and sleep – but throughout human history, it has been light we have sought out and clung to.

Even in a church that has perfectly adequate electric lighting, we love the glow of candles. People almost instinctively associate them with prayer and reflection. They speak to us of Christ, the light of the world, of God’s presence with us, lighting up our lives. At Christmas especially we use light in this way. The Advent candles, the lights in the crib, the star of Bethlehem and the light of the angels. 

We like light, and we appreciate the lights we have been given. But in today’s service we do something rather odd with that light. Having lit our candles during the final hymn we’ll blow them out during the responses that end the service. It’s not the lighting of them that is the point today, but the moment when they are extinguished. What is that all about? It seems bizarre, counterintuitive. Does it mean that we reject the light, that we would rather live in darkness? No, of course not.

We blow out our candles today – those lights outside us – as a way of saying that the light we have been given, by God and by others, shouldn’t be something that is just external. Instead we need to learn to find it and nurture within us, to trust that it burning securely there, where nothing can put it out. It isn’t just out there – in the saints and heroes, in the child in the crib – it is in here, in you and me ours to use and to pass on as we learn to light up other people’s lives. Candlemas marks the moment when we remind ourselves that we have work to do, light to give as well as to receive.

There are all sorts of challenges that we may be called to respond to. Some are challenges that come upon us unbidden. Illness, bereavement, family difficulty and so on. But there are other challenges that we can choose to take up, moments when an opportunity arises to do something for others, to make a difference in some way, perhaps to do something we have never thought we could for the first time.

It is easy for us to shrink back at these times, to say “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly!” We are all too aware  of our weaknesses. But then, most people would have looked at the baby Jesus in the Temple and only seen a squalling infant – how could this helpless scrap of humanity be a light to light up the Gentiles?  Only Simeon and Anna, people of great imagination, spotted his potential. I think that we sometimes look at ourselves and can only see a squalling infant too. We can’t quite believe that we have what it takes – there’s so much we don’t know. Surely others would be better qualified! Fortunately God, like Simeon and Anna, has more imagination than we do, and sharper sight. Jesus is the light of the world – yes – but so are we. He said so himself to his followers. “You are the light of the world – don’t hide that light under a bushel.” With all our faults and failings, though there’s plenty more to learn always, we nonetheless have light within us, the light we need. It might look to us too feeble and flickery to be any use, but that’s not how it seems to God.

So, what are you doing with the light God gave you? Are you just enjoying its comforting glow in the privacy of your own heart or are you using it to light up the lives of others. There is no shortage of opportunities to put it to good use – locally and further afield.

Seal Parish Council is desperate for new councillors. When the Post Office was told it would close, they were so under-strength that it was very hard for them to co-ordinate any sort of response. We really need people who will light up our community by serving on the council.

There is a move afoot to open a community café in Sevenoaks – somewhere where people can drop in for a chat and a bit of support if they want it. But who is going to get it up and running? There’s a meeting about it on Feb 22nd if that is somewhere someone feels they could take their light and share it.

Or here’s a one off Ecumenical activity – a free card making craft session on 1st March in Sevenoaks High Street, open to anyone out shopping who feels like joining in, making Mother’s Day and Easter cards and having a chance to chat as they do so.
Here in church there are plenty of needs too. The older children would love a chance to have a group tailored to their needs rather than the needs of the little ones, but we’d need more children’s workers. We always need new choir members – especially men! – and bell ringers, and people willing to train for lay ministry of various sorts. I put a request in the pew sheets last week for people to volunteer to read and lead intercessions. I’m still bracing myself for the stampede – but it seems a little slow in coming!

So, what are you doing with the light God gave you? Some of you are probably already burning the candle at both ends, and in the middle too – this message is not for you - but my guess is that there are others of you who hang back, who haven’t quite come to believe that YOU are the light of the world, and the church, and the community, that you have within you not only the light that you need, but the light that others need from you too.

After the service, as well as putting away the crib, I shall take down those lovely shimmery light-filled angels on the board at the back that the children made at Faith and Fun . In their place I am going to put up this “Sits. Vac.” poster, with details of some of those opportunities that I mentioned. Have a look at it, and have a look inside yourself. What are you doing with the light God gave you?


27th January 2008        Epiphany 408

Isaiah 9.1-4, Matt 4.12-23

“When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee”, said today’s Gospel.  And who can blame him? Jesus knew John. According to tradition they were related in some way – cousins of some sort.  John had baptized him. John had acclaimed him as the Messiah – the one his own ministry had been preparing for.

And now he had been arrested for criticising King Herod. Jesus knew - everyone knew - that the Herods were a seriously dysfunctional family. The king Herod who arrests John is the son of the King Herod of the Christmas stories – the one who ordered the massacre of the innocents. Growing up with in his family can’t have been a picnic, and the son turns out to be just as bad as the father. Capricious and cruel, he wouldn’t have know a moral principle if it came up and bit him.  The future for John doesn’t look rosy. So the opening of today’s Gospel reading makes complete sense. Jesus withdrew to Galilee. Who wouldn’t? Get away to safety while you can, Jesus!

But just as we think we have got it sorted, things in this story get confusing. Jesus may have withdrawn to Galilee, but instead of giving up his mission he instantly starts calling disciples, telling them to follow him. He may have withdrawn, but it is only so that he can begin the dangerous ministry for which John the Baptist had paved the way.

The place where he begins that ministry is significant. Matthew makes much of it. It’s the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the tribes of Israel – there were twelve in all, each descended from one of Jacob’s sons or grandsons. Each tribe had its own share of the land of Israel. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali took the northernmost part of the land. It was good land, fertile, with the Sea of Galilee providing good fishing, but it was also a place that was very vulnerable to attack. This was the frontline, the first place that an enemy would come to on its way down through Israel. Think of North Eastern France and Belgium – pockmarked with battle sites, fought in and fought over for centuries – from the endless medieval wars between England and France, to Waterloo, to the trenches of the First World War – you can hardly move for reminders that this is an area that has seen much suffering. Zebulun and Naphtali were like that. The reading from Isaiah recalled the occupation of Zebulun and Naphtali by the Assyrians in 722 BC – they were the first areas to fall. The leaders were deported, scattered over the Assyrian Empire, never to return.

The remnant of the people were left to eke out a living under the brutal rule of the Assyrians. These are people who have walked in darkness, says Isaiah. They have borne a heavy burden, a bar of oppression across their shoulders. In their weakened state they were easy pickings for other local tribes too, who moved in and settled their land. It was hard to hold onto your Jewish identity up there, far from Jerusalem and the Temple. That’s why it is called Galilee of the nations, or Galilee of the Gentiles – you’d find all sorts there.

By the time of Jesus another power had occupied the land.  This time it was the Romans who had invaded, and once again Zebulun and Naphtali bore the brunt of the occupation.  The Romans established settlements and stationed many of their troops here. The town of Tiberias, not very far away on the Sea of Galilee was named after a Roman Emperor. Everywhere there were reminders of their power and of the danger of opposing them. The people of Zebulun and Naphtali once again sat in the darkness, and lived in the shadow of death.

So, what looks like a retreat on Jesus’ part is nothing of the sort. He is going straight into one of the hardest places he can, a place where he will meet with huge dangers – risking the wrath of Rome as he challenges their rule, and risking the wrath of the Jewish authorities as he preaches a message of inclusion, of love over law, amongst the mixed communities of Galilee.

Thomas Merton, a 20th Century Trappist monk and spiritual writer said this: “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room.”

Galilee is the least obvious place for Jesus to begin his ministry, the least likely place for it to succeed, but that is precisely why he chooses it.  This is a place that needs him.

I wonder too, whether that is why he chooses fishermen as his first followers. I’m no expert, but it seems to me that in commercial fishing it isn’t catching the fish that is the most difficult bit, it is finding the shoal in the first place.
Modern trawlers are equipped with fancy gadgetry to help with this, though there’s still a lot of human skill involved, but in first century Galilee all you had was your experience and a sharp pair of eyes to spot the fish. A silvery glint in the water, some ripples where you didn’t expect them – I don’t know what the signs were, but Andrew and Simon, James and John certainly would have done. And they knew that if you wanted to catch those fish, you had to go where they were, not where you wanted them to be, even if that was a place that was far across the lake, or in a rocky, inconvenient or dangerous place. Jesus chose people who were trained to look and to look again, to deal with reality, to go where they needed to be, not where they wanted to be. That’s my theory anyway, because those were the skills his followers would need. If they were going to fish for people – to look for the lost and the broken in his name – they would have to have eyes open for them, and the courage to go into the places where they were, which would often be places of darkness and danger.

Even for these fishermen, though, that wasn’t going to be an easy task, any more than it was for Jesus. And it isn’t easy for us either, who are still called to do this if we claim to be Christ’s followers. Going into dark and difficult places is counterintuitive – it goes against all our instincts to protect ourselves from harm. But, in all sorts of ways, it is part of the Christian calling.

Some of those dark places are probably obvious – the war-torn or famine struck nations of the world, the lives blighted by poverty, mental health problems or homelessness in our own nation, for example. But I don’t want to focus on those today – we all know they are there – because before we venture into those places we must first be sure we have faced the darkness that is closer to home, the darkness in our own hearts and lives. If we haven’t looked at ourselves honestly we are likely to do more harm than good when we try to help others. 

In my experience most people – including me - will do almost anything to avoid this sort of honesty. We may know we have problems, but rather than getting help to deal with them we run away from them and try to ignore them. Excessive drinking and eating, reckless behaviour, compulsive spending, overwork - people will do all sorts of things to take their minds off what is really wrong. They look for things that will make them feel good in the short term, but won’t sort out the long term issues. Credit card debts getting you down? Go shopping and cheer yourself up!

In relationships too we often prefer to avoid the real issues. People whose marriages are in difficulties will have an affair rather than talk to their partner, or, perhaps even worse, they’ll have a baby in the hopes that will cement the relationship. These tactics almost always create more problems than they solve, but people still try them. 

Sometimes, sadly, churches can be places people go to distract themselves from the real issues. They come along hoping to forget their problems, to lose themselves in the rituals, the worship, the traditions, the irrelevant but captivating theological squabbles we seem to love. People put on a happy face and pretend that all is well with their lives. Some churches seem positively to encourage them to do this, selling their churches as places where everyone is full of joy and certainty, where there are easy answers to be had – come along to us, and all your troubles will be wiped away! But if we fall for that we miss the chance to do the real work that faith should draw us to, and that the church should provide a space for – getting real with ourselves, getting real with one another, getting real with God, discovering that he loves, forgives and accepts us no matter what kind of a mess we are in. Then and only then will the rituals, the worship, the traditions and the theology really make sense. Then and only then will we be able to go out to others with a message that is worth passing on – one that we have experienced in our own lives.

Jesus withdrew to Galilee - but not to escape or avoid the harsh reality of his calling. He went into the “region and the shadow of death”, the place where people for generations had sat in the darkness of oppression, so that there, where they really needed it, he could bring life-giving light. And he called others to share in that work with him - others who would first learn to see their own darkness and need, as they had seen the shoals of fish under the surface of the lake. Having seen that, they would then be able to recognise the darkness and need of those around them who were hungry for love and justice. The world has changed a great deal since the time of Christ, but his calling hasn’t changed at all, and nor has the need diminished. May God give us the sharp eyes of those fishermen to see that need – our need and the needs of others - and the courage to respond to it.

20th January 2008 Epiphany 3 – Breathing Space Communion

Isaiah 49.1-7, John 1.29-42

There’s a very important conversation in today’s Gospel reading. It only consists of thirteen words – in fact in the Greek original it is only eight words long – but it is, for the people involved, completely life changing.

Two of John the Baptist’s followers hear John's words about Jesus -- here is the Lamb of God ! -- and something in that piques their curiosity.  They set off to follow him.  They don't seem to want to come straight out and talk to him, but they don’t want to lose sight of him either. Anyway, if they are trying to go unnoticed, they fail. He may be the Lamb of God, but it’s the two of them who must look rather sheepish as they trot along after him. Sooner or later, he spots them. “What are you looking for?" he asks.

It’s a straightforward question on one level. It’s unnerving being followed, and whatever if is they want they might just as well come out with it. But, of course it is also a question with a whole lot of deeper meanings.
What are they looking for? They have been following John the Baptist. They have responded to his fiery message of repentance – it has touched something in them. But it isn’t enough. John himself has pointed them towards Jesus. They are spiritually hungry, as so many people are, but hungry for what? Hungry for healing? Hungry for change? Hungry for revolution…? Who knows - they certainly don’t. All they know is that something is wrong with their world and it needs to be set right.  “What are you looking for?” asks Jesus, and that is really the nub of the matter. They don’t know the answer. And I am sure we can sympathise. Many of us probably feel the same – drawn to church, to faith, by an unnameable longing. We may have all sorts of doubts and questions. We may not always like the church, or feel certain of our faith. We may go through patches where we think the whole thing has to be nonsense, but somehow we keep coming back.
For many people today, of course, that spiritual search doesn’t include the church or organised religion at all, but they still have a hunger for something – wisdom beyond their own, peace, a sense that they are connected to something bigger than themselves.

The disciples are flummoxed by Jesus’ question. The answer that comes out of their mouths seems rather odd. “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Not, who are you? Or, what do you believe? Just “where are you staying?”. And yet it is a very revealing response. It’s not about knowing his address so much, I suspect, as having some sense, to use a modern phrase, of “where he’s coming from”. Our homes usually speak volumes about us– they give a much better understanding of our personalities and values that any amount of words. These disciples, rightly, don’t just want to follow a teacher who can come up with persuasive words, but someone who will live his message in the real world.

Jesus’ answer is a simple but wonderful invitation. “Come and see!” We have no idea what the disciples find out about Jesus from his home – what kind of neighbourhood he was in, how big or small it was, who else was there, but if we were to have the same conversation with him now– if we were to “come and see” where he is staying now we would make a wonderful discovery. “Where are you staying? Where do you choose to live?” The answer is, “in us!”  “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” That is a pretty awesome answer, and an awesome privilege too. Not only should it change the way we look at ourselves, but also the way we look at one another. If we want to find Christ, we need to look where we are and where others are too – even, and especially, in places in ourselves and our world that seem squalid or broken . He doesn’t hold himself aloof, high in the heavens, as if in some celestial gated community, but comes to where we are, amidst the mess and the muddle of our real lives and the real lives of others too.

Thirteen little words – eight in the Greek – and yet there is enough in them to sustain a whole lifetime of Christian exploration and discovery. “What are you looking for?” “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  “Come and see!” All we need to ask, all we need to know, all we need to find is there.

13th Jan 2008     Epiphany 2 – Baptism of Christ       

Isaiah 42.1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10.34-43, Matt 3.13-end

If you look at our pew leaflets you’ll see that today is officially the day when we celebrate the Baptism of Christ. We heard about it in the Gospel. But there’s another theme that runs through the readings as well, which might seem to have nothing to do with baptism. It is the theme of voices – these readings are full of voices. In particular there are lots of references to the voice of God.

“Thus says the Lord” starts the Old Testament reading. It’s a phrase you hear often in the Old Testament. God is forever speaking to his people. Right at the beginning it is God's voice that calls creation into being. “Let there be light,” he says, and there is light.  It’s God's voice that tells Abraham to leave his native land, and go on a journey into the unknown.  It’s God's voice which calls to Moses out of a burning bush.  It’s God’s voice that tells Jonah to go to Ninevah to preach repentance to the mighty Assyrians.

Psalm 29 talks about that voice too. And reading it you can see why those who hear God’s voice in the Bible often – like poor old Jonah - seem to wish they hadn’t. The voice of God, the Psalmist says, is a powerful voice, an awesome voice, a voice that thunders. It breaks things to pieces, shakes the wilderness, makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forest.  It’s a voice that makes things happen, that changes things irrevocably.
God's voice doesn’t always have to be violent, of course.  The prophecy to Isaiah speaks of God’s voice in his servant being so gentle that it won't even break a bruised reed or put out a flickering candle.  But gentle though that voice is, it is still a voice of immense power and authority – a voice that can bring justice and righteousness. 

The people of the Bible expected to hear from God. And though they didn’t necessarily do what he told them, they wouldn’t have questioned his right to tell them what to do.  He was God. He had a right to speak and to expect his word to be obeyed. Of course, it wasn’t just God. They lived in a world in which it was accepted that some people had absolute, life and death authority over others; kings over their subjects, masters over slaves, fathers over their families. That's how things were -- like it or lump it.

In that sense it was a very different world from ours.  We tend to be quite resistant to the idea of some external authority telling us what to do – whether that is God, the state, the boss, or members of our family. We value our independence, our right to make our own decisions, and to speak with our own voices. We have safeguards against too much power being in any one pair of hands -- everything from Magna Carta to the Human Rights Act.  We’re right to be cautious. It’s no accident that we call tyrannical rulers “dictators” – people who dictate to us. Dictators can come in many guises – political leaders, religious leaders, dominant people within families, anyone who believes that they have the only voice that counts. Whatever their form, we’ve recognised that dictatorships are never really healthy. They impoverish the dictator and the dictated to alike, leading us to forget that we’ve all got something to contribute.

That's why, after this service, we are having the first meeting of our Junior Church Council.  The adults can make their voices heard through the Parochial Church Council, but there hasn’t really been a way till now for children to contribute their opinions and ideas, and that means that we all miss out. The children miss out on the chance to shape our church’s life, and the adults miss out on hearing the children’s perspective, a perspective we need.  Church shouldn't be something that simply happens to people – young or old - but something we are all involved in building together.

So, encouraging everyone to have their say is good. But there are dangers attached to it as well. Reading the letters’ page of the newspaper or a message board on the internet soon reveals how willing people are to hold forth about things they know nothing about.   We can be so intent on having our say that we stop being able to hear the voices of others, or even acknowledging that we need to. We can be so suspicious that others -- including God -- are dictating to us that we stop trusting what anyone else says, just because it didn’t come from us. And the reality is that however wise we are we don't know the answers to everything, we don't always know what we're doing.  If I go to the doctor, I expect her to listen to me as I describe my symptoms, but I'd be a bit put out if she expected me to supply the diagnosis and treatment as well. I need her expertise, her voice, and I need to trust it.

Sometimes, too, what we think is our own voice, our own wisdom, is really nothing more than a bundle of inherited prejudices.  We don’t realise that the voices in our heads are not always our own, but the voices of tradition, or our families, or the media. 
St Peter had to learn this.  In our New Testament reading he's preaching a sermon in the house of a Roman called Cornelius, who wants to be baptised.  “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable," he says. God's grace is for everyone, Jew or Gentile. He sounds very confident, but actually this is a lesson he has only just learnt himself – and it wasn’t an easy lesson.

The invitation to visit Cornelius comes just after Peter has had a startling and disturbing vision.  He has seen God offering him a whole heap of animals that his Jewish tradition had always declared unclean. “Tuck in!” says God… “Yuck,” said Peter, “No way!” "But if I say it's clean," says God,” then who are you to tell me it isn't?"  Peter isn’t convinced though. It might be the voice of God, but the voices of his upbringing shout so loudly that he’s hardly able to hear it. No sooner has the vision faded than there is a knock at the door and an invitation to come to Cornelius’ house, a house where he will have to talk to, touch, perhaps even eat with these Gentiles. You can imagine the clamour of voices in his head as he makes the journey. “Surely this can’t be right” “You’re disobeying the law.” “What would your mother think?”

By the time he gets to Cornelius, he’s obviously managed to convince himself somehow that this message is really from God, but my guess is that it still felt strange, because this argument about Jews and Gentiles rumbled on for many years in the early church.

I said at the beginning that this Sunday’s readings were supposed to be about the Baptism of Christ, so what does all this talk of voices have to do with Baptism?

The obvious link is that at his Baptism Jesus hears the voice of God too, a voice from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” But I think there is a broader point to make. There is a sense in which his baptism - and all baptisms - are about establishing relationships, relationships with God and with one another. , “This is my Son, the Beloved." says the voice of God. All committed relationships  involve communication – voices - speaking and listening. Without the willingness to hear one another, to give as well as take, and perhaps sometimes to do things you wouldn’t choose to  as a result, they soon founder and fail. At his Baptism Jesus commits himself to honour his relationship with his Father. He will receive his Father’s love, but he’ll also do his Father’s work and follow where he leads, even to the cross. In our baptisms we acknowledge that we are God’s sons and daughters too, members of the family, and we make that same commitment to listen for God’s voice and act on it.

I know that deciding what God is saying is not always simple. You can be sure that he’ll never be telling you to defraud your boss, or beat your wife, or heap up riches while the poor go hungry. But sometimes it will take careful attention in prayer, in reading the Bible, in conversation with others to pick out what is really God’s guidance. Sometimes we’ll have to take a chance, go with our best instincts about it, and be prepared to be corrected if we get it wrong. But however tough it is, when we claim our place as part of God’s family we accept the responsibility at least to try to hear what God is saying, rather than just feeling free to do whatever we feel like doing.

Baptism acknowledges our relationship with God. But it also acknowledges our relationship with one another. When Jesus comes to John, John doesn’t want to baptise him at first. But Jesus insists. His ministry won’t just be about giving to others but about receiving from them too. He is one of us, one with us. “You are my brothers and sisters,” he says, “children of the same heavenly Father.” In Baptism he committed himself to listening to us as well as to God, and so, in our baptisms we commit ourselves to listening to others too. Listening with care and love, just as he did, looking for God’s likeness in them and believing that we will find it. We may not always agree with our brothers and sisters, but anyone who claims to follow Jesus gives up the option of going it alone, just as Jesus gave that option up.

The voice of God. Sometimes it shakes the wildernesses of our complacency, strips the forest of competing demands bare, so that we can see the wood for the trees. Sometimes it comes to us gently, to heal us when we feel like broken reeds. Sometimes it comes through the Bible or through listening in prayer. Sometimes it comes through the voices of others – the young as well as the old, those we disagree with as well as those who think like us. But always it comes to tell us that we are not alone, but children of God, sisters and brothers to each other, with all the joys and the responsibilities that that involves. 

6th Jan 2008     Epiphany Sunday Evensong
Sermon by Kevin Bright

John 2.1-11, Baruch 4.36- 5.9

Signs, so many signs. Of course once we have seen them for the first time and absorbed the information we don’t particularly notice them again. We know which streets are one way, where to stop and give way because we have become familiar with our area. We know that the church hall and vicarage are across the road because we’ve been there so many times. I hope we are equally familiar with the signs in this church that say fire exit, if not I suggest you familiarise yourself with your nearest exit now in true air stewardess fashion!
In the gospel of John, the miracles of Christ are always called “signs.” Unlike those we have grown familiar with and barely notice the sign we hear of today was the first recorded in John’s gospel, a big new sign was being erected for those who were looking for it. In this case it seems the sign was particularly for his disciples who had been invited to the wedding with him.
I personally feel that because this reading is often heard at wedding ceremonies we associate it with weddings and this can be our first thought. There’s no bad thing in thinking of us as brides of Christ or reminding ourselves of the imagery of a new Jerusalem dressed as a bride from the book of Revelation. But I don’t feel this is the principal message, the principal purpose of this sign.
When you think about it we don’t often read a sign and then look to see what it’s made of or what it sits on. Hopefully many read the notices on the church notice board but few study the type of wood it is made from. We look hard for a road sign in an area we are unfamiliar with though we would think it weird if people got out of their cars to study the metal and reflective materials used once they had read the sign. And so it is with the wedding reception, this forms the material, the canvass, if you like, upon which Jesus writes his first sign.
The signs in John’s Gospel have messages for us and we need to focus on the message more than the sign itself. So, having done this the other way round, having seen what the sign board is made of we had better get on and read the sign itself. What does it say to you?
What is the message of this sign of water into wine? The message of the sign is that Jesus took 180 gallons of Jewish laws, laws that numbered more than 600 regulations, laws which sustained a corrupt system of privilege and hypocrisy and transformed them into 180 gallons of grace and freedom. Jesus then transformed these religious regulations into a new religion, a new wine that would burst old wine skins. The miracle was a sign for the disciples present and anyone else that can see it. The miracle had a message written all over it and this was the really important part. What words would you choose for the message?
A lot of signs are mundane but necessary but there are also the ones that seem to state the obvious or which are even confusing. Because of our litigious society we now have statements on a cup of coffee such as ‘caution, contents may be hot’! 
We need to take care translating signs as it’s easy to change their meaning.

A sign in a cocktail lounge, Norway:

In a Nairobi restaurant:
But back to the question. What does this sign mean for us?
Well it’s not a coincidence that we are looking at this on Epiphany Sunday. If we look for the meaning of Epiphany in theological language it is the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles. In more general terms it is the revelation, insight or sudden perception into meaning, reality or understanding.
I question whether I could find quite the right words for this signboard but in my mind I see a really big board that says something like ‘PREPARE FOR A NEW ERA’ or ‘NEW WAYS AHEAD’, think about it, what would you put on your sign board after witnessing this event?
For those who can read the sign and understand the message this is truly an epiphany moment.
180 gallons of grace. Jesus hasn’t just met the need of the host whose wedding reception embarrassingly ran dry he has the huge water jars filled to the very brim, almost to overflowing. He doesn’t just give them the equivalent of a cheap table wine which it sounds like they’ve been drinking but supplies wine more akin to a fine claret which the guests would have expected to be served first.
My take on this is that a generous God is giving more than we could ever have expected to receive but it’s not insignificant that this is also more than the guests should consume in one night if they know what’s good for them! God trusts us with his gifts; we are left free to choose whether we enjoy them responsibly, whether we share them further or whether we greedily consume within our own little circles, knowing that others are going without.
The sign of water into wine displayed that the hour is close at hand; the old age is passing away, the new has dawned. The disciples understand the sign and believe.
What does this sign mean for us today? Our relationship with Christ and our Christian faith are to be abundantly full of the grace of God. It is so easy to transform our faith into weekly rituals without taking God’s grace out into the world and sharing it.
You can’t help but be saddened by the thought that Christ gives us the gift of more delicious wine than we can ever need and in return the God of generosity and extravagance received crucifixion and sour wine from a sponge on a stick.

However John doesn’t invite us to dwell on that, with the first of his "many miraculous signs" he demonstrated that somehow and in some unsurpassed manner Jesus revealed the glory and character of God like no other. He invited people to drink his wine.

"New wine is created in the 'old' vessels of the Jewish purification rites, symbolizing that the old forms are given new content.
Whatever we make of the celebration at Cana & what happened at it, John wants us to see that people were having a good time & Jesus was in the midst of it. He paints the picture of a Jesus who would join in the party, a celebratory word made flesh whose instinct is not to scoff at those having a good time. It’s quite possible that he joins in the Jewish dances and fully enjoys the party.
We often find it easiest to see God when we are at our most vulnerable, in times of great need. We are challenged here to ensure Christ is in the midst of everything we do, the celebrations as well as the sadness. If we are able to do this then we have not only recognised the sign that says ‘NEW LIFE AHEAD’ but also that we are following the path which will lead to glory.

30th December 2007    Christmas 1
Christmas 1 07

The Independent newspaper had a powerful picture on its front page on Christmas Eve – I’ve reproduced it on your pew leaflets. The opening paragraph of the article that accompanied it, written by Katherine Butler as part of the Independent’s Christmas appeal for Save the Children, ran like this…

“In the dark of a one-room shack, a new-born baby sleeps in the arms of a young mother. It could be a biblical scene. The glow from a kerosene lamp gives the mother a halo. Add an ox, a lamb and a manger, and this could be the story of Christmas, a painting of the Madonna and Child from the Middle Ages, or the living crib assembled by St Francis in the 13th century.

Eyes shut, arms thrown back, the infant looks relaxed. She doesn't know that this is the toughest place in the world to be born on Christmas Eve. It's a six-hour flight from London but here, in the moist, hot, mosquito-blown air of this corner of Africa, Salamatu Sankoh was born by candlelight in conditions barely advanced since the time of Christ. Life's lottery has delivered her to a slum in Sierra Leone. In some ways, you could call her the unluckiest baby in the world.”

The article goes on to say that Sierra Leone is bottom of the table on the United Nations Human Development Index. One in six mothers dies in childbirth, so she is lucky to have a mother at all. One in four babies dies before the age of five. The town she lives in – Kroo Bay - is essentially a rubbish dump. There is little medical care available, little opportunity, little education, and though Sierra Leone now has a reasonably stable, democratically elected government, the legacy of civil unrest means that peace is fragile.

Salamatu, of course, could be any one of millions of children in the world today, in any one of the countries where poverty is endemic. She could also be the child born in poverty in richer nations too, or the child born to drug addicted or alcoholic parents, or parents who are abusive or neglectful. She is a child who, on the surface at least, seems to have no chance, a child whose life looks bleak and unpromising.

Her picture is a sharp counterpoint to the cosy images of the Christ Child on our Christmas cards, the “glow in the dark” baby, surrounded by angels. But in reality, as the writer of the article points out, Salamatu’s picture is a far more accurate portrayal of the way things might have been in Bethlehem, even down to the slightly fearful and resigned look of her mother. She knows how many challenges her baby will have to face just to survive, just as Mary and Joseph must have done.

Today’s Gospel reading – a hard story that you’ll never find on a Christmas card – emphasises those dangers. King Herod was notoriously brutal, and while we have no independent evidence for this particular massacre, it is not at all unlikely. He had several of his own children killed, so he would have had no hesitation in murdering other people’s children. Mary and Joseph are forced to run for their lives with the infant Jesus, sheltering in a foreign land, just as so many families do today. It’s not much of a start. And while Jesus survives this threat to his life, unlike those other babies in Bethlehem, we know he won’t make old bones. He’ll die a painful and violent death while still a young man in the end anyway. Just as with Benazir Bhutto, you can see death coming, stalking him down throughout his life until it catches up with him. Authority doesn’t like to be challenged. Those who do so know the risks they are taking.

Life is hard, this story tells us. Life is hard, the story of Salamatu Sankoh tells us. But that is not all the stories tell us. If it were, I don’t think we would bother to tell them at all. We would simply give up in despair– especially if we lived in poor communities like Salamatu’s. And that isn’t what happens. The writer of the article went on to comment that…

“… the people of Kroo Bay are far from helpless.There's an air of intense activity about their community. Abdulam the child water-seller, Bintu the midwife, Mammy Soko and the other slum dwellers are survivors. They moved here to escape war. Now, everywhere you look, someone is cooking, washing, hawking things to sell, fetching water, sewing, cutting hair, scraping a living.”

The ancient Greeks told the story of Pandora, who opened a mysterious box – a box she had been forbidden to open. Out of it came all the world’s woes – war, disease, famine – but just when all was lost she realised that there was something left – hope. The story doesn’t spell out what that hope was based on, but it observes very accurately the stubborn determination to carry on which is so deeply embedded in the human spirit. For Christians, the hope we are invited to share is rooted in the belief that God is with us in the world. “It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them,” said Isaiah in our first reading and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews points us to God’s presence in Christ - God visible and tangible – like us in every respect. It is God’s world, the Bible tells us. Bad things happen within it, for all sorts of reasons – reasons we can’t always understand. But those bad things are not a sign that God has abandoned us or stopped loving us. He is constantly with us, suffering with us, crying with us, but kindling hope in us too as he brings new life out of the darkness of sorrow.

You can look at Salamatu, or at Christ, or at any child in their position and see only a vulnerable baby, born to a world of hardship, born to die; or you can look at them and see the chance of a new beginning, the chance that things could be different.  You can see them as just more mouths to feed, more indistinguishable faces in the endless swarm of the needy, or you can see them as reflections of the divine, bearers of God’s image, with a message to give and a task to fulfil that is unique. The difference is crucial. Depending on your viewpoint these vulnerable children are either an invitation to despair, or an invitation to hope, to love, to be connected to others.

We have the same choice to make when we look at the challenges of our own lives, the sadness, the loss, the struggles that we might face closer to home. For some they will be proof that we live in a heartless, godless universe, but for others they will be holy ground, places where they encounter God. I have met people who have lost their faith in times of trouble, who say “How can there be a God if this has happened to me?” I can understand why that happens, and all of us will have times when faith seems a nonsense. But it isn’t inevitable that sorrow kills faith because I have equally often met people for whom difficult times have awakened their spiritual awareness. It happens in all sorts of ways. They might find a dimension to life they hadn’t thought about, or have an experience they can’t explain, or feel they are held and comforted by something beyond their understanding. They might simply discover a wealth of human love around them, or some unsuspected moral strength within themselves.  It’s not always easy to see why some react one way and some the other but it does knock on the head the pub philosophers’ argument that “no one can believe in God when there is such suffering in the world.” People can, and they do.

As we stand on the threshold of a New Year then, I’d like to leave you to ponder your own state of faith and hope. As you look at Salamatu, what do you feel? Called to compassion, or worn down with despair? And what about the troubles and sorrows closer to home in your life, how do you feel about them? Do they feel like potentially fatal threats to your faith, or could they be holy ground, places where you might meet God? And if that flame of hope is burning low, are there things you need to do, or to receive, to fan it into life again? God has promised to be present with us, but if we won’t be present with him there’s not much he can do. Taking time to pray – however and wherever you do it – reading the Bible, worshipping and talking about faith with others, getting help with the problems that beset you, most of all, being honest with God and yourself…all these things can help. And if you want to talk about any of these things, or anything else for that matter, that’s what I’m here for. It matters that we take our faith seriously, that we take our relationship with God seriously. It’s not just a nice add on, something to pay attention to for an hour or so on a Sunday morning. That relationship – God’s presence with us - is the ground in which our hope is rooted. And for Salamatu’s sake, as well as for our own, we need to have hope – living hope, real hope - because hope produces action, the action that Salamatu needs, the action that brings the fullness of life for which she and all God’s children were created.


Christmas Day morning 2007

Marko and the Christmas visitors – adapted from a Serbian folk tale.

There was once an old shepherd. He had lived alone in his little house, high above the village for many years, tending his sheep. One night a storm blew up. Above the noise of the wind and rain, though, the shepherd could hear the sound of crying. Perhaps it was a lamb in trouble? He opened the door, and there on his doorstep was a newborn baby boy, wrapped in a blanket. “Who could have left you here?” said the shepherd. He couldn’t see anyone. Whoever the parents were, and why they hadn’t been able to keep the baby, the shepherd never found out. The shepherd had no children of his own, but he’d raised plenty of orphaned lambs – food and warmth were what mattered. He wrapped the child in lamb’s wool and fed him on sheep’s milk, and the child lived, and thrived, and the shepherd, who loved his adopted son, called him Marko.

But though the shepherd welcomed little Marko, the villagers were not so sure. They didn’t trust strangers, and they were suspicious of this child who had arrived in such a mysterious way. It wasn’t long before they realised too that this little boy was different in another way, too – he was blind. He couldn’t see anything at all. In those days people were sometimes cruel to those who were disabled in some way, and instead of helping them to live their lives, they rejected them.  “Huh!” said the villagers to the shepherd, “what use will he be? You should never have taken him in!” The village children teased him and wouldn’t let him play with them. But whenever Marko got upset by their treatment the shepherd would say to him firmly, “They’re only thinking of what you can’t do – but I see what you can do, and you can do things they’ve never dreamed of.” It was true, too. While other people saw with their eyes, Marko had learned to use his sense of touch. He could touch your face and feel whether you were happy or sad. He could tell, somehow, whether you were cruel or kind. If the shepherd brought him an injured sheep Marko would run his fingers over it and soon be able to say exactly what was wrong. “You can see with your fingers!” the shepherd used to tell him.

But life was sometimes sad and difficult for Marko. There was one thing that Marko longed to do more than any other. Every Christmas the people of the village would gather in the little church to put up statues of the Holy Family - Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Children from the village would be chosen to take the statues out of their boxes, where they had been stored during the year, and put them carefully into an alcove in the wall of the church, high up above the people’s heads, where they would stay throughout Christmas, looking down on the congregation. The shepherd had described the figures to Marko – Joseph the carpenter’s strong, rough hands, Mary’s smile, and the little child, so young and fragile, lying in a manger. Marko liked hearing about them, but more than anything he wished he could feel them for himself, to see them through his own fingers, just like he did the injured sheep, or the face of the shepherd. Eventually one year, he plucked up courage when the time came, to raise his hand – “Could I help? Could I carry the Holy Family?” The villagers were horrified. “You! – you’d drop them, you wouldn’t be able to see where you were going with them – and anyway, they are ours, and you are an outsider, a stranger, you’ve no right even to ask – now, be gone with you – scram back up the mountain where you came from…”

Marko felt more miserable than he had ever felt in his life. He took to his heels and ran back up the track to the shepherd’s hut, crying all the way, longing to tell his adopted father what had happened. But the shepherd was nowhere to be found. Marko ran out into the barn, but there was no one there but a few orphaned lambs, brought in to be reared there. He lay in the straw and sobbed – why couldn’t he be like all the other children? Why couldn’t he, just once, hold those holy statues in his arms, touch Mary and Joseph, and feel the face of the infant Jesus.

He was still crying when he heard the tap at the barn door, and the door being pushed open. “Excuse me,” said a man’s voice, “I wonder whether you would mind if I and my wife and baby sheltered in your barn for the night. It’s getting cold, and we can’t find anywhere to stay – the people in the village said they had no room.”
“My adopted father isn’t here at the moment, “said Marko, “but I know he would say yes – he took me in, so I know he would welcome you too.” “Thank you, “said the man, then he noticed Marko’s face, still wet with tears.
“What’s the matter?”, he asked. As he and his wife began to unpack their things, Marko told them what had happened, how he could see with his fingers as well as others could see with their eyes, and how he longed to hold the Holy Family but wasn’t allowed to. “Being able to see with your fingers is very clever, they said. “Would you like to touch our faces?” they asked. Marko reached up. He felt the man’s beard and held his rough hands – hands that had done hard work. He felt the woman’s smile. And then she put the baby into his arms.
“Marko, would you hold the baby for us, while we get ourselves sorted out?” she asked. Marko took the child carefully – he was very small. He felt his little nose, round like a button, and his ears, like fragile sea-shells. He felt the roundness of his head against his cheek, and the child’s soft lips. By the time the man and the woman had finished unpacking and settled down beside Marko on the barn floor, the baby was fast asleep in Marko’s arms. “You keep hold of him, said the mother, he’s happy with you.”

Just at that moment, Marko heard voices, and footsteps, coming towards the shed. A great crowd of people – he hoped they wouldn’t wake the baby, but who could it be? No one usually came here.
The door of the shed was pulled open, and Marko heard a great gasp of surprise. “What is it?” He asked. No one answered for a long time, but then Marko heard the voice of the shepherd. “The villagers came to find me on the hillside,” he said. “They said that my barn was on fire. They could see the light from it all the way from the village. So we came straight away… but we never expected to find this.”
“Find what?” asked Marko.
“The Holy Family, here with you, Mary and Joseph, and Jesus, asleep in your arms…we've seen them a thousand times in church, but they've never looked quite so alive as this.” And just at that moment, Marko felt the weight of the child vanish, and heard Mary whisper in his ear, “Thank you Marko, for making us welcome – never forget that you have held Jesus in your arms.“

The family had gone, as mysteriously as they had arrived, but Marko never forgot that night, the night when he discovered that whoever you are, you can hold the Christ Child. And the villagers never forgot it either, and the lesson they had learned; that God was not their property, someone they could lock up in their church, but that he goes where he wills, and dwells with all who welcome him.

Midnight Mass - Christmas 07     Sermon by Kevin Bright
John 1: 1-14, Hebrews 1:1-12 & Isaiah 52: 7-10

It’s lovely to see everyone here tonight, no doubt for some it’s a welcome relief from the Christmas preparations. I asked one of the ladies in my office if she enjoyed getting the Christmas presents ready for her children and she replied it’s just like another day in the office really, I do all the work and all the credit goes to the big guy in the suit who turns up late.

I don’t know if it’s the same for you but to me Christmas seems to come around faster each year. May be it’s something to do with the fact that the commercial aspects become evident from around mid October!

Once the cards start arriving it seems hard to believe that another year has passed by and so many things I intended to do remain on the ‘to do’ list. Cards often have a little note saying things like ‘we really must get around to meeting up this year’, just as they have for several Christmases and birthdays before. I’ve taken the view with some that this just isn’t going to happen so I’ve knocked them off the list to avoid all this ridiculous pretence. One I removed from my list 3 years ago but he keeps sending the cards saying we must meet up despite the fact that he’s gone to live in Iceland.

As another year draws to a close it’s also a good time to consider whether we are serious about our relationship with God in the year ahead. Do we intend making the effort to really meet with him or are we happier to keep him at arms length? More of a long distance friend to exchange the occasional well intended word with. We intend to get in close relationship but the years just seem to slip by.

There is no question that God seeks a loving permanent relationship with each one of us. Hebrews tells us that the incarnation, the word made flesh, is the climax of God’s continuous, creative, communicating love. This incarnation reminds us that the very purpose of our existence is to be drawn into a dialogue with God, hearing his word and responding to it. We heard that his son ‘is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.’ So what does this reflection of God look like? It looks like a tiny baby, a human being. This is something which should cause us to consider how we relate to other human beings in our midst and throughout the world.

The word made flesh. The God of the book has adopted the raw materials of humanity to dwell among us. No amount of words sent by post or by telephone or over social networking sites - can ever match the reality of presence. Face to phone or face to screen will never match face to face. And Christmas is about face to face. About God stepping out of the virtual and into the reality of everyday relationships.

There is continuity between what is observed in Genesis and what is observed in Jesus. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that whilst God spoke to Israel through the prophets the ultimate revelation was to come through Christ. As one who was with God from the beginning Jesus is appointed to rule over all he has made. God’s eternal nature has not changed, what he was and will always be remains the same, yet he has revealed himself to us in a new way.

Are we ready to take our relationship with God to a new level? Well it’s clear that God’s gift is freely available for us to accept. Perhaps it helps to consider how we accept other gifts we might receive this Christmas.

Getting a knitted jumper every year from Aunt Agatha on Christmas Day ought to warrant an Oscar category of its own: Best Display of Fawning Gratitude in Adverse Circumstances. This is something that many learn to deal with through years of experience.
But what about ethical gifts available through the various aid organizations? This is altogether a more complex proposition which has new potential to catch out recipients.
For a start, they can come from unexpected quarters. And while all you get is a card to verify the purchase of said gift, someone several thousand miles away should see their life improved by this act of generosity.
Yet sometimes those selfish feelings are hard to suppress and there will be the nagging sense that giving a goat to a nomadic Sudanese tribe feels better for the giver than you, the nominal receiver. But with the eyes of the family bearing down on Christmas morning, the last thing you will want to do is betray this sense of disillusion. My view is that such gifts are better given in response to a request rather than as a surprise.

In contrast the gift of love from God can be accepted or ignored; there is no need to pretend as God will know if he is in relationship with us.

John tells us ’the world came into being through him yet the world did not know him’ God does not force a response; he allows us the option of ignorance about the very purpose of our existence.

That’s why it’s important that go to John’s gospel to understand what difference this child makes in our life. John doesn’t mess around with a lot of details. No angel visitations, no traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, no manger scene. Instead he gets right to the point of Christmas and summarizes the whole birth story by saying this, “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” or I like the way the paraphrase of the Bible called the Message says it, “the Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood.” Jesus is the Word, and what he is telling us is that Jesus, the Word was around long before the child was laid in the manger, in fact he was there in the beginning of time, he was a part of creation, and he even goes so far as to say the Word, Jesus, was God. Jesus is God come in the flesh.

As we observe our gardens and landscape at this darkest time of year we see that lack of light means lack of growth in the vegetation around us, new life is not yet springing up together with all its possibilities.

If we examine our own lives there will always be dark areas, times of regret, shame and sadness but these need not hold us back from accepting the light which came into the world as Jesus Christ. By choosing the light we choose to struggle with the question why has God come in the flesh to walk among us, to experience the same ups and downs we do, the same temptations, the heartbreaks, even to experience a brutal death on a cross. Why would he do this? Why would he leave the splendor of heaven and come to the darkness of earth as a weak human infant. The Bible tells us he did this because he loves us that much, he wants us to experience a truly full and abundant life, to walk in the light of his paths, and to step into our proper created place as God’s children.

Isaiah proclaims a time when God will be in plain sight and what could be more recognizable than a fellow human being. At Christmas, St John recalls us to repentance as well as to joy. He tells us that when we look around at our world and the terrible violence that disfigures it, we must recognise that part of the problem is that many refuse to recognise who and what we are; and so we are unable to recognise, respect and love each other.

It’s easier to blame religion for the world’s problems than to work at recognizing our common humanity in Christ, despite all our human flaws and weaknesses.

It always makes me smile to recall the words of Groucho Marx ‘I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.’

Whilst Christianity is certainly not a club it is true that many of us feel unworthy of relationship with God but we need to remind ourselves that God has demonstrated emphatically that he wants to be in relationship with each one of us regardless of how worthy we may perceive ourselves to be of such love. Our own experience of love may remind us of the risks involved and maybe even the pain felt if this love is rejected.

We see the distortions, the refusals and the tragedies all the more horribly and painfully in the light; but we don’t stop being able to see the gift of God who still loves in and through it all.

The good news for those prepared to hear it remains that the light which came into the world has never been overcome by the darkness and never can be. This is not only the message of Christmas it is the truth that is God’s offer of eternal life.

So this Christmas let’s not allow our good intentions to pass us by like our Christmas cards that say ‘we must get together sometime’. Let’s resolve to work and pray for peace in our homes, our communities’ and in our world. Let’s resolve to positively choose the light through the restoration and strengthening of our relationship with God.


December 23rd     Advent 4 

Isaiah 7.10-16, Matt 1.18-25

Ahaz and Joseph – the two men who feature in today’s readings might seem very different – they are from completely different social backgrounds for a start. But they have two important things in common. The first is that both were men who liked to get things sorted out, practical men in their different ways. Ahaz is a king, and what use is a king if he can’t come up with answers that work, solutions to the problems of his nation? Joseph was a carpenter. He had spent his whole life fixing things, making things fit together somehow – chairs and tables, doors and boats. A bit of ingenuity and the right tools, and he could find a way to make you what you wanted.

The other thing they have in common is that, when we first meet them, they are both facing sticky dilemmas.

Ahaz is king of Judah. The books of Kings and Chronicles tell us more of his story. Jerusalem was under attack from the nations round about, which was nothing unusual, but things were looking particularly bad at this point. Ahaz was getting really worried.
Joseph’s problems are of a very much more personal nature, of course, but just as tricky. His intended bride is pregnant, with no very plausible explanation of how this came to be. If he sticks with her he risks being a laughing stock, losing his honour as she loses hers.

Faced with their troubles their first response, as practical people, is the same, “Don’t just sit there, do something…” they say to themselves – the motto of every good do-it-yourselfer.  But what can they do?

They both come up with ideas that seem sensible - tried and trusted solutions - the kind of things that anyone in their situation might do. Joseph decides to dissolve his betrothal contract quietly and let Mary slip away somehow. He could have accused her of adultery and had her stoned to death, so it is at least a compassionate plan.

Ahaz’ plan is rather more dramatic. He decides to appeal for help to the super-power of the day - Assyria. He sends a message to the king of Assyria, asking him to come and sort out his troublesome neighbours. It’s a cunning political manoeuvre, thinks Ahaz, just what a king ought to be doing. 

But both men receive a visitor who challenges them to think again.

Ahaz finds the prophet Isaiah on his doorstep with a message from God – “Don’t do it, Ahaz, “ he says,” Don’t ask Assyria for help - ask God instead – whatever you like – as high as the heavens or as deep as the grave…” But Ahaz is too proud, too stubborn to look to God. He’s the king. This is his problem. He’ll sort it somehow.

Alas, though, the plan he was so proud of leads to disaster. The Assyrians are more than happy to come and deal with his neighbours. Oh, yes. They attack them with gusto. But making a treaty with Assyria puts Judah into the hands of the Assyrians themselves - getting into bed with a super-power is always a dangerous move. It is the beginning of the end for the nation, and pretty soon they find themselves the next victims of Assyrian attack and plunder. “Sennacherib came down, like a wolf on the fold,” as the poem says…

Joseph’s visitor is an angel, who appears to him in a dream, but the message is the same as Isaiah’s to Ahaz– think again. “It may not seem to make sense, Joseph, but actually this is God’s work. Stick with Mary – God knows what he is doing…“ Unlike Ahaz, Joseph decides to listen, to wait, to trust God. He has no idea how God can bring any good from this whole sorry mess, but his willingness to take a chance on God is crucial to the story of salvation.

Similar stories, similar men, but two very different outcomes.

The two readings are linked as well, of course, by the strange words of Isaiah’s prophecy, which Matthew quotes, “the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.”  Scholars argue about what Isaiah meant, but almost certainly he is referring to a real woman bearing a real child in his own time – a child who could be the sign of a new beginning, perhaps a royal child.

Matthew takes those words and uses them, rather out of context and with a few twists, to refer to Mary. In the process Isaiah’s “young woman” is turned into a “virgin”. The original Old Testament Hebrew word didn’t necessarily imply virginity, just youth. Unfortunately this ancient mistranslation has confused the issue for us, and made it all about virginal conception – could it happen? did it happen?. It’s an argument we’ll never find an answer to. Our understanding of biology is so different to the first century that we are really in a completely different conceptual universe. But the danger is that our puzzlement can mean we miss the really crucial point about these strange words.  You see, it isn’t really the mother that is the point here – virgin or not - but the child. God’s sign, says Isaiah – his message both to faithless Ahaz and frightened Joseph, is the baby itself.

So what sort of message is a baby? What is that all about? Fundamentally a baby is a symbol and a reminder of newness. It is a new thing, a new creation. When a child is born its future is a mystery, its character is a mystery – unknown and unknowable. It is not a repeat of an old pattern, not a clone, but something that has never been seen before, a completely new beginning. Having a child is an act of faith – you don’t know what will happen to it or how it will change you.

Throughout Advent we call out in our hymns and prayers, “come, Lord Jesus”. We invite God to come to us. But the story of the child in the manger is a reminder that when God comes he does not come as we expect, not as a military leader or a great king, not even as a fully grown man, but in something as surprising and new as a baby. When God acts in our lives, now as then, this story tells us it may not be in old familiar ways. When he calls us to follow him it may not be on old familiar routes. God is a God of newness, a God whom we can’t control or predict.

That is a profound challenge to us just as much as it was to Ahaz and Joseph. “Come, Lord Jesus,“ we call, but what if he comes, as he did then, in a way no one expected? That kind of God will bring change and disturbance to us. He might call us to unlearn old ways, drop old prejudices, break out of our moulds, act in ways that feel challenging to us. Change isn’t easy – and the older you are the harder it is – but the God who comes as a child in a manger isn’t the kind of God who will do what we expect.

“Come Lord Jesus,“ we cry, as groups - families, churches, societies - but what if he comes like a child in a manger and leads those groups in new directions?
Groups tend to want their members to fit in, to follow the same pattern. It’s hard if some members want to do things differently. The first child in a family to decide to go to university, or the first not to do so, someone taking a risky or different path, living in ways that seem hard for the others in a group – a family, a church, a society -  to understand or approve of – all these things can be hard for us to adapt to. It takes courage to let other people be, to give support as they make their way through life, to be open to the possibility that, though their way may not be your way it may yet be a way full of blessings. It is so easy simply to condemn what seems new or different without waiting to understand it, to see its real impact, but a “child-shaped” God calls us to be open to change.

“Come Lord, Jesus”, we cry, as a global community that is desperate for help, but what if he comes like a child again, and asks us to change our attitudes and assumptions to our world? 
In an age of global climate change, we all need to question radically the ways we live. For hundreds of years humans have believed that we can climb ever upwards, producing more, consuming more, growing all the time. Accumulating possessions has been a mark of status for generations. Only lately do we see that over- consumption and greed may not just be bad for our waistlines and our bank balances, but might quite literally be the death of the human race, and a lot of other species too, as we pump out greenhouse gases to sustain our lifestyles.  To change a whole way of life, though, is enormously difficult, almost unimaginable for many. The global machinery involved with our modern economic systems is hugely complex. Feeling baffled about what to do? Feeling hopeless that anything can be done? Join the club. But if we and our brothers and sisters around the world are going to survive, we need to be open to the child in our midst, the solutions that are new, that we haven’t thought of yet, and that may seem strange and uncomfortable to us.

Ahaz and Joseph – two men in trouble, two men who face dilemmas that have no easy answers. Just like the dilemmas that face us as individuals, as groups and as a global family. Ahaz decides to trust himself, to do what he has always done, and the result is disaster. Joseph though - faithful, brave, loving Joseph, so often overlooked in the nativity story - opens himself to God with a willingness to trust and to take a risk that is quite awe-inspiring, to let God do something new and strange that will change his life, and all our lives. May we this Christmas, have the courage to see the child of God that is born in us and for us today, the work of God that he seeks to do in our world, our church, our families, our individuals lives. May we have the courage to seek and to find his new answers for our new and frightening times.

December 9th 2007        Advent 2 
Isaiah 11.1-10, Romans 15.4-13, Matt 3.1-12

I wonder how many of you have traced your family tree, or thought you would like to if you ever had time? Just recently everyone seems to be at it. Genealogy is big business. I certainly seem to have a growing number of requests to search for information in our registers here.
Personally I blame the BBC. The series “Who do you think you are?” which followed various famous people as they traced their family trees, was a surprise hit – it made for compulsive viewing. Some uncovered stories that illuminated the very different lives people lived in the past – an ancestor in the work house, for example; some found illustrious forebears; some, with equal delight, found rogues and villains! The title of the series was spot on - “Who do you think you are?” . The thread that ran through the programme was that by finding out who their ancestors were, these people were somehow also finding out more about who they were too. Again and again, the subjects of the programmes realised that the values and attitudes they had grown up with were somehow rooted in past events – events they might not have even known about. Distant traumas – war, poverty, some long-forgotten disgrace – had cast a shadow over the family for generations. “I see now why we never talked about such and such, or why there is such a tendency to behave like this or that within the family….?” they said.

Where we come from matters to us. Adopted children often have a powerful need to know their origins, a need that is now rightly recognised. It’s not just about being aware of inherited medical conditions, it’s also about knowing what makes them the people they are, what makes them tick. 

Genealogy is nothing new, of course. In the Old Testament today we have what is probably the oldest image of the family tree. “A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” These words provided the inspiration for one of the most common artistic features of medieval churches – the Jesse tree.
England has lost many of its Jesse trees. The Reformers and Puritans destroyed them along with many other images, but if you know where to look they are still there to be seen, and they are much more common in Continental Europe. Jesse trees can be painted images, or made of stained glass, or carved in wood or stone. At the bottom lies Jesse, who was the father of King David, and out of his side a tree literally grows up. In its branches sit the Old Testament precursors of Christ – David and Solomon, the prophets, and so on. At the top is Christ, sometimes with Mary.

The Jesse tree is a reminder that Jesus didn’t just appear from nowhere. It speaks of the Jewish roots of our faith, all those men and women who struggled to know God and make sense of their live, whose stories we read in the Old Testament.
That lineage was very important to the early Christians, those who wrote the New Testament. Most of them were Jewish by birth. It hurt and disturbed them when their fellow Jews accused them of betraying their roots, of changing the faith of their ancestors. No one wants to feel that they have been cast adrift from their ancestry. But they also believed very passionately, as Jesus had taught, that the kingdom of God was for Gentiles as well as Jews, a message that seemed strange and new. Throughout the New Testament you can see them wrestling with this tension. The second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans is a classic example.  “what was written in former days was for our instruction and encouragement, the promises given to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are confirmed in Christ, he says, not abolished, but the good news is for the Gentiles as well. “Welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you” – friend and stranger, Jew and Gentile.

The message is there in the Gospel too. It’s not enough to claim Abraham as your ancestor, says John the Baptist to the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to him. God’s got other ideas about who is part of his family. Matthew’s Gospel is particularly strong on this message. He begins his story with Jesus’ family tree. It’s that long bit we never read - so and so begat so and so who begat so and so. In it Matthew traces Jesus’ line right back to Abraham. There, look – Jesus really is kosher – he says. He’s the proper heir to the throne of David, a child of Abraham, firmly rooted in Judaism. But that’s not all he is saying in his genealogy. Because tucked in among the branches of this family tree are some surprises, some reminders that this lineage was not quite so simple, not quite so straightforwardly Jewish, as his readers might like to think.  At vital points in the story Jesus’ line was enriched by people who came from outside the Jewish nation and faith. There are four women mentioned in his list along with all the men, and they are four very interesting women. Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites, and Ruth, the great grandmother of King David, was from Moab. Then there is Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother – she’s described as the wife of Uriah the Hittite, Uriah the Hittite whom King David had killed so that he could have her to himself. She was quite probably a Hittite too. All of these were also women who might well have been looked on with disapproval at the time – outsiders in other senses. Tamar and Rahab were prostitutes. Ruth was an asylum seeker – a widowed foreigner seeking support in a strange land. And Bathsheba, although she was forced into that relationship with King David, would have been considered an adulteress at the time. They are a rum lot, but Matthew makes a point of including them, so that we get the message that it is often the outsiders which really bring strength to a family, who take it in the new directions it needs to go. It is often the people, and the events, which seem strangest or most disturbing that bring families, communities and faiths the new life they need.

Families can be wonderful things, and I include in that word family not just the classic “mum, dad and 2.4 children”, but any of the wide variety of groupings which give us a sense of belonging and identity. At their best, families teach us to love and be loved. They enable us to develop as individuals. They give us a secure base to go out from to fulfil our own callings.  But families can also be hell. Families can be oppressive, suffocating, abusive even. People can be imprisoned by their family history and the assumptions that go with it. “We don’t do things like that in our family!” is their cry, “that’s never been our way!” Families can force their members into moulds. They can stop them from growing and prevent them from giving their gifts. Families, whether they are the small groups of people we share a home with or our wider communities, our church families, or our nations can have such a rigid sense of their own identity – who they think they are - that they create straightjackets for their members. Lives are wasted and made a misery, and the future is doomed to be no more than an eternal repeat of the past.

Isaiah knew, John knew, the Pharisees and Sadducees should have known, that God did not see things this way. He was a pilgrim God. They were meant to be a pilgrim people – always on the move, growing and changing. He gave to his people a rich inheritance of faith, but it was never meant to be a prison.  The message to us is the same. We may find ourselves imprisoned by family expectations, by the expectations of our friends, by a faith we have inherited that doesn’t seem to fit the reality of our lives, or just by our own fear of change.  We may feel that who we are is determined solely by our past. But the truth is that each one of us is also a unique creation, a new thing, and God is still able to bring new shoots from the old rootstocks if we let him. Just as he lobbed surprises into the family tree of Jesus – outsiders who nudged his family story into new directions – so he can lob surprises into our lives. And we can be his surprises to others too –surprises to our families, our communities and our world, if we have the courage to be so.

Those Jesse trees I was telling you about that feature so large in medieval art always culminate in Christ – he is their end point. But in truth they shouldn’t stop there, because God’s family tree continues to grow. We are its new branches. We are the ones who are called to fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy in our own generation just as Jesus was and the first Christians were in theirs. We are the ones who can make the new world he describes today, a world of righteousness, of equity, and of the peace that reconciles lions and lambs. In fact, if we don’t do it, no one else can.

“Who do you think you are?” isn’t just a question about the past. It is about the present and the future too – what we are doing now in our age to build the world to come. We aren’t just somebody’s children, somebody’s descendents. We are somebody’s parent too, somebody’s ancestor, whether we have flesh and blood offspring or not. It is we who shape the families, the communities, the church, and the faith of the future.  Let’s pray that we will have the courage to grow, to flourish as we are called to do, so that we can play our part in making a tree that has room to shelter all within its branches.

December 3rd 2007     Advent 107 Evensong
Isaiah 52.1-12, Matt 24.15-28

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,”  Famous words – I’ve been humming the version that Handel set to music all week while I’ve been thinking about this – you can’t help it! But in many ways they are odd words too. I don’t know how you feel about your feet, but for many the words “feet” and “beautiful” don’t necessarily go together.

Feet are useful. They get us around. When something goes wrong with them we are severely inconvenienced. They are immensely complicated structures – bones, muscles, tendons. They bear the whole of our weight, carry us through our lives. We expect a lot of them. I have no idea whether reflexology really works – the idea that each part of the foot has some relationship with a part of your body – but I can understand why such an idea should develop because feet are literally our foundations – everything else is built upon them.
But feet are usually unsung heroes. Many people don’t like their feet. They have a tendency to lumps and bumps, bunions and corns and hard skin. Folk are often shy about revealing them. It was the practice of the Bishop of Portsmouth, who ordained me, to wash the feet of those whom he was ordaining. It was a lovely touch – the bishop modelling the servant behaviour he expected of those he was ordaining as servants in the church – but I can tell you that the feet we presented to him to wash were already very thoroughly clean already! Several of the churches I’ve served in since have had the tradition of the priest washing people’s feet on Maundy Thursday – I love to do it actually. But I have to say that it is always difficult to find volunteers, and I was told firmly when I arrived here that it wouldn’t go down well!

“How beautiful are the feet of the messenger who announces peace…” Why is it, we might wonder, that Isaiah decides to single out the feet of this messenger for praise, and what is so beautiful about them?

Let’s start with the fact that it is the feet he praises – wouldn’t it make more sense to praise the messenger’s mouth? That is where the message is coming from. I think there is a good reason why it is the feet that are mentioned here, though.  A message is no good unless it is delivered. There was a dreadful tale last year in the papers about a postwoman who, for some reason, had felt completely overwhelmed by her job, so she just stopped delivering the letters. She took them home instead. When the police finally worked out what was going on they literally couldn’t open her front door for the mail piled up in sacks behind it. 7.5 tonnes of letters and parcels were taken away from her home. 110,000 separate articles.

According to the newspaper report, “The mail included job offers, university placement offers, greeting cards, mortgage agreements and drivers' licences, as well as cash and vouchers. One witness, who never received his £300 wage packet, ended up fighting with his employer. Another missed a holiday when his new passport never arrived.“

Being a messenger means getting up on your feet and going. A message that doesn’t get through is worthless. It might as well never have been sent. How beautiful are the feet that bring good news, says Isaiah. It is only when we act, when we get up and go with God’s message, that we can make a difference to people.

People are often nervous of the word “evangelism”. They imagine it means knocking on doors or accosting total strangers in the street. It doesn’t. It just means spreading good news, being open about the things that have made a positive difference in your life, rather than keeping them to yourself as a personal, secret treasure.

One of the things I have been keen to do since I took up my post here nearly two years ago was to work on our communication with those around us. It seemed to me that we had a tremendous amount to offer people – a beautiful building that was actually open during the day, a good choir and strong musical tradition, a variety of worship, and most of all a really open welcome no matter who you are and what your background. But often people outside the church didn’t know what went on inside it – no wonder they weren’t coming. Almost always when people do come here, they like what they find, but they have to hear about it first. Evensong is a classic example. We do it well, and I am sure that there are people who would love it if they tried it, but it is up to all of us to make sure that message gets out otherwise they will miss out, and we will decline.

Evangelism isn’t just about getting people to come to church of course. It can be anything which spreads good news - practical help, a campaign for justice, just going about our everyday activities with integrity and compassion. But whatever it is, it involves our feet – we have to get up and get going if it is to be any use at all.

And that brings me onto the second question. What is it about the feet of God’s messenger that makes Isaiah call them beautiful? It’s nothing to do, I’m sure, with the height of the arches, or the shape of the toes. I should imagine that a messenger’s feet, like a dancer’s, get pretty battered and worn over the years. The reason these feet are beautiful is that they bring good news, peace, salvation. They bring news that lifts people out of despair, that gives them life.

Isaiah’s messenger had come to tell the people of Israel, in exile in Babylon, that they would soon be going home. God himself would lead them back to Jerusalem. They had been in exile for 70 years – most of them had been born there and they had probably never imagined that they would return. But now the moment is really coming. “Break forth together into singing”, says Isaiah.

No wonder he acclaims the feet of the one who brings this message as beautiful. This messenger has beautiful feet because he is delivering a beautiful message.

I am not at all surprised that many people today are dismissive or antagonistic towards Christian faith. I’m not surprised that I often find myself on the receiving end of blanket criticism of Christianity from people I meet, who have no idea what I personally believe. I am not surprised that prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins seem to strike a chord with so many. I think it is directly related to the fact that the message that some Christians have delivered, and still deliver, is not one of peace, wholeness and love, but one of narrow exclusivity and condemnation. It isn’t good news at all, there’s nothing beautiful about it. Too often the church has been, and still is, concerned mainly with policing its own boundaries, keeping things neat and tidy. Instead of helping people to “put on their beautiful garments, shake themselves from the dust and rise up,” it has pushed them down and kept them out. Not only does that mean that we can’t share good news with them, it also means that we can’t discover the good news they might have to give to us.
The message that many people hear is that if you are a single parent, cohabiting, gay, even if you just have the temerity to come to church in jeans, or don’t know how to find your way through the complexities of the liturgy, you aren’t really welcome. Sort yourself out first, is the message, then you can come in. Where is the good news in that?

Of course, sometimes genuine good news does contain challenges – Jesus challenged people. But he challenged people from the basis of having come among them, of really knowing them, of listening to them and loving them. He came to where they were, as a tiny child in a messy stable, as a convict on a cross, not doling out condemnation from some distant heaven. If we want to be welcomed by the people around us, we must make sure that the message we bring them is genuine good news, the message of peace, hope and love that they really need. It can be a challenging message too, but only if we have had the humility to listen and to learn from them before we presume to offer opinions.

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace.”
Ancient words, words rich in associations for us, but words that are right up to date too; words which should make us stop and think as we consider our calling to take out God’s beautiful message of peace into our own world in our own time.

December 3rd 2007     Advent 1
Rom 13.11-14, Matt 24.36-44

“Brothers and sisters,” says St Paul in our second reading, “you know what time it is…”

He is probably right. I expect you do know what time it is. I imagine that many of you are wearing watches. You might have other time-telling devices on you – mobile phones perhaps. Almost anything electronic seems to have a clock in it. Even till receipts and bus tickets usually have the time printed on them these days. “You know what time it is…” It is hard these days not to.
Our forebears might not have had so many ways of telling the time, and they might not have been as accurate, but measuring time has always been important. In our Lady Chapel you’ll see a stone, set into the masonry, engraved with a circle with lines like the slices of a pie cut into it. I puzzled over it for a while when I first arrived, but eventually I discovered that it is a Medieval sundial face. It’s not much use in the Lady Chapel, of course, but that wasn’t where it was originally meant to be. In the middle-ages it was outside the church, embedded in the wall. Its primary purpose was to tell people when it was time to pray. Priests, and often lay people too, followed a pattern of seven different services, spread through the day – they were printed in books called “Books of Hours”. So you needed some way of measuring the passage of time to pray the right services at the right intervals.
Long before that, other ancient civilisations often had remarkably sophisticated ways of calculating time too, observing the regular movements of the sun, moon, stars and planets. Stonehenge, whatever else it is, is certainly an ancient device for marking the Winter and Summer Solstices, for telling the time.

Knowing “what time it is” seems to be a very important thing for us humans.
But despite our apparent obsession with measuring time our relationship with it often seems to be rather fraught.
Many people feel there is never enough time. They are always rushing about. They might be trying to meet impossible targets set by employers or government, or the pressures might come from within them – they’ve just never learned to say “enough is enough” We have all sorts of so-called “time-saving” devices, but evidence suggests that modern people are in far more of a hurry than their ancestors were. We can cram more into the day, so we do, but we don’t seem to be any happier or more satisfied as a result.

Some people today feel too busy, then, but others have the opposite problem. They find themselves “killing time” – watching the clock in jobs that feel meaningless, or stuck at home as the hours drag by because they are unemployed, or unable to join in with the opportunities around them through disability. Time goes far too slowly when you feel you have nothing worthwhile to do with your days.

And whether we’ve got too much time or not enough, we all know that our time is limited – no one lives for ever. That means you have to make choices about what you do with your time. You can’t do everything. Seize the day! we are told .You only live once! But what shall we do with that day when we have seized it? How shall we spend that one life? The more choice you have, the worse the dilemma is. Many people find it very difficult to commit themselves to one job, one path, one person as a life-partner, because they know that if they choose this job, this path, this person, they will cut off so many other possibilities. Women struggle to decide when to start a family. The biological clock is ticking, but they have interesting and rewarding careers too. For all our medical and social advances, there are still choices to be made, and those choices often involve sacrificing one possibility in favour of another. Fathers often want to be active Dads, involved in their children’s lives, but have to juggle that with competing demands on their time at work. Time is limited. We can’t do it all or have it all. We have to choose, and though choice can be good, it can also be a huge burden.

As Paul says, we know what the time is. Our problem is that we don’t always know what the time is for. Wouldn’t it be good if someone made a clock that didn’t just tell you the hours, minutes and seconds, but also told you what you should be doing with them?

In fact though, when St Paul talks about time here, he isn’t really talking about clock time or calendar time. The Greek word he uses is kairos. Kairos means something more like “the right time” – the right time to do something, the right time for something to happen. We talk about “an idea whose time has come”. We call someone the “hero of the hour” It is that sort of time that Paul means, that sort of time that we need to be able to tell. Not where the big hand and the little hand are, but where God is, and what he is calling us to.

Jesus’ disciples evidently had the same difficulties we do with this whole business of handling time. They want to know from Jesus when the end of the world will come, when God will finally wind things up, set things straight, sort things out. They want a date for their diaries, the hour and the minute, something precise so they can be ready for that moment. We might not share their belief in an imminent, literal “end of the world”, but we can understand the idea that there will be times when we are faced with challenges, with judgement, when the chickens come home to roost – personally, nationally, or globally - and we’d like to be able to predict those times too. 

But Jesus disappoints his disciples. He doesn’t know, and even if he did, knowing a day and an hour isn’t the point. Putting a date on their calendars won’t help them. They don’t need to know God’s timetable for the future. What they need to know is what God is doing in the present.

Telling the kairos time, for them and for us, knowing what you should be doing with your with your hours and days and years means being aware of the present moment. It’s about being awake, says Jesus, and Paul echoes his message.  “Now is the time to wake from sleep” he says. Jesus’ disciples had their eyes so firmly on the future that they couldn’t see what was right in front of them, the real task of loving others, of building God’s kingdom now. Paul’s readers found focussing on the “now” pretty tough too. They apparently preferred to sleepwalk through their days, dulled by drink or meaningless relationships, distracted by petty quarrels and jealousies. The message to us is the same as it was to them. No one can predict our futures. What we do now, though, will determine how we cope with them.

Telling God’s kairos time isn’t a matter of having some spooky prophetic ability or some secret wisdom. It is simply about being open to the real issues in our lives, and in the life of the world, and finding the courage to respond to them. It is about living each day lovingly, not just hoping that if you know the deadline you’ll be able to spring into action at the last minute. We don’t know how global climate change will affect the world, or how soon, but we do know that we need to live simply, so others may simply live. Yesterday was World Aids Day. We don’t know how the pandemic of HIV/AIDS will work itself out, whether there will ever be a cure or a vaccine, but we do know that there is much we can do now, if we care to, to support and help those who are suffering its effects. We don’t know when time will run out for us personally, but we do know that this day is God’s gift to us, to be treasured and used wisely.

What time is it? It is 10.30 something. It is December 2nd. It is 23 days to Christmas. That is the calendar time, the clock time - time to panic about whether the presents will be bought and the food prepared by the deadline, or time to drown such anxieties in a festive tide of booze and parties. But what does the kairos clock say? What time is it for us in God’s eyes?

Perhaps that clock tells us it is time to change, time to forgive, time to be forgiven, time to leave behind something old, time to take up something new, time to sort something out, time to reach out to someone, time to let someone reach out to us, time to listen to our own voice, time to listen to the voices of others that cry out for liberation and justice in the world. Here’s an Advent challenge for you – not a hard one. This Advent why not take just two minutes in each day to sit down and ask yourself that question – “what time is it for me?” Take two minutes just to be still and silent before God, to look at that kairos clock together, and see what it is saying. Forget Christmas, for those two minutes at least, forget the future with all its unpredictable hopes and fears, and open your eyes to what the present moment says to you.

I know what time it is now. It is time for me to stop. Time for us all to take the first of those two minute Advent silences as we listen for the kairos message, God’s “now”, in our lives.