Sunday, 29 November 2015

Advent Sunday 2015

This week has been one full of the conflicts and tensions of our contemporary world, for example: the continuing aftermath of the Paris shootings and the war in Syria; the re-occurrence of Black Friday; the Lord’s Prayer advert ban; more child sex-abuse investigations and further revelations about racism in the police force not to mention the upcoming climate summit in Paris.  All of these complex problems define our contemporary world – how we respond to them as faithful Christians is a matter of debate and concern.
Take the Lord’s Prayer advert-ban – questions have rightly been raised about its impact upon the right to freedom of religious expression.  It also reflects the way that religion and prayer has become highly politicised – which isn’t just about a secular, political-correctness.  We are faced with jihadist terrorism, which uses Islam for its own violent ends. Should we then bomb Syria? What of Syrian refugees and the radicalisation that happens in the UK. It’s one of the reasons why as a church we remain committed to promoting interfaith relations and dialogue, because the victimisation of Muslims or those of any faith is bad for our society. All people of good will have good reason to meet together.  All this of course feels like déjà vu; we really have been here before – which suggests we are struggling to find an effective way to combat this particular form of extremist terrorism. Mixed in with these major global challenges is that from one angle we seem less and less able to deal with them, for example,  there is the continuing erosion of trust in our public institutions – the police, as well as the church, judiciary and politicians. We are indeed living in times where the foundations of our common life feel like sand. The only certainty is the narrative of commercialism and the freedom of big corporations, banks or multinationals to determine the values at work in our daily lives.
The question is how aware are we of this and did we consent to it? Have we collectively sold our souls and to whom? To have sold our souls and not to know it is like scoring an own goal: joy quickly melts to leave disorientation and confusion.
In to this collective blindness and common death walks Jesus – wake up, be ready, stay awake, be alert! We need to be shaken awake from the unconscious deep sleep we’ve been lured into by worry and fear of each other. Jesus tells his disciples, in the apocalyptic mode, to read the signs of the times and not to be unduly worried by the problems and concerns of the complex troubled world in which they live.
Sometimes, however, Advent becomes a glorification of some sort of peaceful waiting and watching, but the sense we get from apocalyptic literature is not someone waiting in an idyllic garden for a sense of the divine, but rather, someone on the watchtower, being constantly surrounded by attacks, disorder and invasions, but amidst it all waiting for the signs of God – waiting for Jesus to descend again – showing resolve in the middle of the battle, resisting giving a false alarm.
Of course apocalyptic literature and Advent are only part of the Christian story, there are times and plenty of them when an active engagement in the world and a commitment to reforming it is absolutely essential. But Advent with its themes of the end times and final judgment reminds us that we are truly not in overall control; that we have already been saved and that part of our work is to be faithful in waiting for the final salvation of our world. And that can make us feel forgotten, irrelevant, marginal, and insignificant as well as above the crowds, looking elsewhere for meaning and substance. Well, that describes the Christian calling – the practice of looking elsewhere, being a look out, because who knows when the crowd might really need the help of the watchman? We have to remain faithful and alert, who else will? And being faithful demands a whole host of different responses in different situations. For example, one might be that we will keep saying the Lord’s Prayer in season and out of season; if we are banned or if we are listened to; if we are relevant or if we are marginalised; if we are many or if we are few.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Hearts to receive?

Our reading from Matthew (11:20-end) today begins with Jesus’ strong chastisement of what are called ‘the unrepentant cities’: Chorazin and Bethsaida as well as Capernaum. His words directly relate to the previous passages in which Jesus praises John the Baptist and expresses his frustration at the way the people speak about both him and John; verses 11. 18-19 ‘for John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, he has a demon; the Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say ‘look a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’

Jesus’ strong criticism of those who reject both him and John the Baptist is in stark contrast to the second half of our reading in which Jesus prays a prayer of thanksgiving to his Father. In it he praises his Father that his wisdom and truth is revealed to infants; and then Jesus makes a call to those who are weighed down with burdens, offering them an alternative way of life, a way which is gentle, easy and light.

‘Come unto me, ye that are heavy laden and I will give ye rest; for my yoke is easy and my burden is light’.

The movement in thought and emotion in this passage is a challenge to each one of us today. It is also an invitation. Jesus is clear that what he offers is received by those who are little; those who are small and humble of heart- willing to receive and to live in God’s alternative kingdom. We live, don’t we, tossed about by the day to day concerns and problems we encounter – and Jesus presents to us an attractive alternative, a life where our burdens are light, where we gain rest for our souls and where the yoke is easy.

How do we become part of such a kingdom? The link must be made back to how willing we are to receive from God – how willing we are to open our hearts to God’s loving word and to step away from the criticisms, condemnations and envy which make up the average human response to others.  Are we slow of understanding, always looking for fault, happy to condemn and reject? To those who have hearts to receive, Jesus welcomes them into a world of infinite goodness and mercy; to those who don’t, by their own action, they condemn themselves.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

The Go-Between

Did anyone see the Go-between on the BBC last weekend? It is a novel written by L.P. Hartley, in which a 13 year old boy becomes the go-between or messenger for two young lovers. The lovers, who belong to different social classes cannot openly meet, communicate or marry.  The ‘Go-between’ exploits the idea or theme of the innocent messenger, for Leo the young boy, becomes caught up in an affair he doesn’t understand: he is used by the two desperate parties, who exploit his ignorance and willingness to please. He gets too close to their fire and gets burnt.

The story reminds us of the dangers of being a messenger. Yet, the Bible is littered with God’s messengers or 'Go-betweens'. How do they fare in contrast to Leo, the child-messenger?

Moses is one of the archetypal 'go-betweens' in the Bible - mediating Yahweh’s message to His people, the Israelites. For Moses, the delivery of the message and the negotiation with both the giver of the messages and the receivers is one fraught with danger and difficulty. Moses, initially, does all he can to refuse to be God’s messenger, indeed he might be better remembered as Moses, the Reluctant Go-between.

For example, Moses expresses his reluctance to God by saying: ‘But suppose they (i.e. your people) do not believe me or listen to me?’ (Exodus 4.1); And a little later in he says: ‘O, my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue’ (Ex 4.10); and again, more directly: ‘O, Lord, please send someone else’ ! (Ex.4.13).

To be a messenger for a powerful person, let alone a deity, is not a job to be taken lightly, Moses seems to recognise this. Not many of God’s prophets, spokespeople or messengers have been treated very well!

God longs to talk to his people as a husband to his wife (a recurring metaphor in the Old Testament), yet more often than not, God ends up speaking like a jealous and jilted lover. Prophets throughout the OT have had to deliver difficult and uncompromising messages of judgment. We know that God and us- his people- are not kept apart by class divides (as in the Go-between novel) but by humanity’s refusal and rejection of God (and his messengers). The big story of the Bible is our refusal to listen to him, despite the innumerable go-betweens who are continually called to deliver messages of love.

Finally then, perhaps out of desperation, God sends his son, no longer simply a messenger, but the manifestation of the living God himself. Yet, God himself is rejected and murdered, treated like prophets before him, abused and scorned. Jesus, like the priests and prophets who ministered before him, came to offer forgiveness of sins. Yet, it is that forgiveness in action that so scandalised the Jewish priests, because what they did on behalf of God, was now being done by God-among-them; something too remarkable for them to believe and grasp as it happened in their time.

And what of our need today of God’s forgiveness? What do we long to hear God say to us? And can we hear the message of God in the voice of another? The priestly role – which Jesus perfected- is at its most simple, to mediate God’s forgiveness, and this hasn’t changed since ancient Judaism. Whilst they sacrificed lambs, we look to Jesus’ sacrifice as the guarantor of our forgiveness; whilst they poured out the blood of their animal victims - we look to the pouring out of Jesus’ blood as the sign and symbol of our reconciliation with God.

Despite our individual desire for direct contact with God (and our frustration and disappointment with those who claim to speak for God) maybe we still all deep down appreciate, need and want to stand protected from the all-knowing gaze of the supreme Being – and are pleased to let Moses-figures climb the mountain to speak with the awesome God? In case we too get too close and are burned? If we wish to be mediators of the new covenant, then we must learn, like God’s messengers, to be disliked, to be rejected, to be accused and to be mocked. God’s people are not valued by the world, because we are not from the world, and yet we are called to live in it, and transform it by the wonderful message we are blessed to receive. To be a messenger we must be willing to climb the mountain and risk our lives in order to see what it is we must speak:-

‘Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights’.

New Beginnings, Autumn Letter

After the Bank Holiday weekend last August, we arrived home as a family from the Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival, to a front garden (and more specifically a front garden hedge) that had been pruned, somewhat enthusiastically, by some helpful parishioners! We were, to say the least, a little taken aback. Where were our beautiful rosehips and our hedge that provided some privacy from the neighbouring cars and residents? All gone!! This summer the beautiful rosehips have flowered again magnificently, thanks to the pruning; but it took us some time to get used to them not being there.

It is always hard to cope with things being cut back and things being taken away: what we focus on is what we are losing. But what we need to have eyes to see is- what will be, what will grow in its place. Jesus often used horticultural imagery to describe the kingdom of heaven and in St John’s Gospel, the extended imagery of God as the vine grower is utilised: ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.’ (John 15) Through these metaphors Jesus teaches us how we must cultivate the kingdom of God.

Our cultivation takes place in a particular time, place and context. Like a good gardener, if we are to be successful at growing, we need to be aware of the conditions and materials that we have been given. None of us can be unaware that we live in a secular age, one in which (despite the continuing existence of faith schools), most children will grow up without any knowledge of the Bible, Christian values or tradition. Children today will only come to that knowledge through the effective, outward-looking mission and vision of the churches. We also know that secularism and all it evokes and describes is the major and dominant truth-narrative of our day; there is a bias towards secular values and ideas. These include equality, inclusion, tolerance, diversity and the individual’s absolute right to choose (i.e. right to choose how to die). Along with this our age is fantastically technologically advanced, with a dependence on computing and modern methods of communication, a revolution comparable to that brought about by the advent of the printing press. Our age is also suspicious of absolutist claims to truth and is largely materialist, leaning towards scientific reductionism. This is the environment in which we are collectively called to ‘proclaim the Gospel afresh in each generation’ as the ordination rite expresses it.

How can we cultivate new growth in this environment, using the goodness and positive values that are part of contemporary culture, whilst challenging and cutting back all that prevents human flourishing? None of us can stand still; there is no room for complacency. The Family Service, Sunday Club and Baptism Ministry are three (but not the only) ways in which we as a church are grappling with how to communicate, nurture and inspire children, young people and their families today. We are duty bound to take up this opportunity. Hundreds of people are choosing to come through our church doors, willing to sit and listen, ready to engage, have a coffee, light a candle, attend a concert, book a wedding; that is the heart of our church and the heart of our mission. It will only bear fruit if more of us are willing to: reach out of our comfort zones and offer someone else what we have been blessed to receive; let go of forms that we have valued in order to let new ones flourish. God will always surprise and never disappoint us if only we have the courage to take that leap of faith.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Divine Wisdom

In the readings for Sunday 13th Sept 2015 (see below) we are encouraged to seek wisdom. In the New Testament, the suffering of the cross is presented as a new kind of wisdom, which centuries of Christians and theologians have tried to understand. Some time ago, St Francis for example, said that he felt called to be ‘a new kind of fool in the world’ and that ‘God does not want to lead us by any other knowledge than that’. St Paul similarly talks of Christ crucified: ‘a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’ (1 Corinthians 1 23-25).

How do we interpret the suffering of the cross as wisdom for today? If we are to take Jesus’ teaching and his action seriously, then we have to understand that the wisdom of the cross is all about letting go – and that is the hardest thing for any person to do. How do we develop a spirituality that let’s us let go? The assisted dying debate has encouraged all of us to re-enter into that landscape, to explore the boundaries again of the limits of what it means to be truly human.

Richard Rohr, a contemporary Franciscan writes that:
‘What the crucified has revealed to the world is that real authority that ‘authors’ people and changes the world is an inner authority that comes from people who have lost, let go, are refound on a new level’ (Eager to Love, 2014).

It is particularly difficult for modern people to understand a spirituality of letting go- for as a people we have developed mastery over so much; death is the final arena in which in many ways we are still seeking greater control.

Of course, being in hospital and experiencing illness are difficult and challenging experiences for all of us. But, what it is vital for Christians to ask is: how does our understanding of Jesus’ greatest teaching, his death on the Cross and subsequent resurrection, help us to experience, live through and endure the losses, pains and sufferings that life inevitably brings us?

That is a deeply spiritual question that as individuals we must bring to our relationship with God, i.e. our prayer life. Life teaches us, if we let it, to adapt and change; rather than to become more and more rigid, inflexible and trenchant in our views and approaches. God’s wisdom: ‘while remaining in herself, renews all things’. Such Wisdom is that which, out of inner peace and enlightenment, enables renewal, adaptation and most importantly re-creation. For such Wisdom is unconcerned that re-imagining will damage or jeopardise her own deeply developed and anchored truth; for truth and beauty itself cannot be remade by error. What is it then which enables us to remain true, holy and wise? Is it doing the things we have always done? Or is it an ability to change the externals to better reflect for the moment, for the age, the inner radiance of wisdom’s face? : ‘In every generation she (i.e. wisdom) passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets’.

Where is wisdom to be found? In holy fools, who subvert the mores of the day, like St Francis, who: make strange the contemporary consensus by their eccentric life styles and who through their faithfulness to the disruptive and erenic depth of the Gospel re-imagine God’s righteousness for themselves and therefore for those who have eyes to see them.

Having eyes to see wisdom, having a life to embody it, having the imagination to welcome it : holy wisdom shines like the sun, but many clouds obscure her beauty. If we wish to see her, we have to brush away the darkness, and pierce the shady trees of our doubt and fear. Welcome her. Welcome her. Welcome her home to your heart.

Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8.1 For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.  Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom. She is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior, for it is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail. She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well.

Mark 8:27-38 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.   Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’  He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

Monday, 7 September 2015

Blessed are the poor

One of the most obvious things about our society and about any society is that the poor are generally treated badly. To be poor means to experience objectification and rejection; it is to experience blame and judgment. ‘The poor’ experience other people’s fear of them as hatred and attack; poverty on the outside is to be feared and judged, because it represents human failure and suffering. None of us really wants to be poor and so the poor are on one level always to be feared.

The flip side of this is that most of us are drawn towards success and wealth, as success and wealth project the image of human happiness and well-being. Wealth and status are attractive. The wealthy are seen to be good because they represent our dreams about what human happiness looks like; wealth and all that it can bring: learning, friendship, autonomy, choice, status, power, influence and control are the things that we as humans seek and desire.

So, why are ‘the poor’ God’s chosen ones?
(Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  James 2)

For God what is important is that we learn dependence on Him and love for our neighbours: two things that can come more easily to the poor than to the rich. For God, externals are not important, but internals, the quality of our hearts.

None of us can be unaware today of the refugee crisis that we have all been watching on our television screens, reading in our papers and hearing about on the radio. A European politician recently said: ‘If you are rich and attractive to others, you also have to be strong because if you are not, they will take away what you have worked for and you will become poor, too.’ In so doing the politician has perfectly articulated fear of poverty, fear of the other, fear of the sacrifices that come along with doing the right thing. Fear that I / we will lose what we value and need. That is what all of us must feel at some level when we are made to see another person’s need and a claim is made from us to help. The fear itself isn’t wrong, but what is important is how we respond to it.

Helping other people is a complex business, responding as a nation is even more complex, but as individuals and as a nation, God asks us to look deeply in our hearts and look at our fear. If we can look at our fear and overcome it then we can do what we need to do, whatever the cost. That is the goal that all saints have achieved- overcoming their fear to do what God asks them to do. That to me is our duty as Christians, to operate not out of fear (even though it will be there) but to operate out of generous love.  Fear brings rejection, blame, coldness of heart and cruelty; love brings compassion, mercy, generosity, forgiveness and purity of heart.

In his Letter, James (James 2:1-10) talks about the kingdom that God has promised to those who love him. That kingdom must be a kingdom where love reigns, and love is the best ruler that there is. So, if we can overcome fear (and perfect love casts out fear) then we can be inheritors of a miraculous kingdom where mutual flourishing and generous love remakes and re-moulds us into God’s everlasting children.

The kingdom of God is not a place that you can go to without a long an arduous battle with human sin. Jesus shows us the way; and the journey with him is what enables us to see the final destination, when we arrive. None of us on our own strength can hope to achieve perfection, but Jesus reveals to us both the cost and the reward of perfect love. Sacrifice is part of God’s generous love: - but God is wiser than us, through sacrifice he brings about a greater kingdom.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

The Good Samaritan, Civic Sunday 28th June 2015

‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead’.

One of the elements of life that the majority of us who live in England are protected from on a day to day basis is violence; yet Jesus makes it a matter of fact element of this story which he tells. A man is stripped, beaten, robbed and left half dead. It’s the kind of story we are used to reading in our newspapers and seeing on our televisions, stories of violence happening to somebody else. But, Jesus asks the lawyer to consider that violence coming closer to him. What would happen and what would his response be if he found someone left like that half dead on the road?

Jesus is fully aware that violence lies just neatly under the surface of civilised communities and nations, a violence that can erupt equally in our homes, on our streets and through war. Jesus will confront that violence in a more profound way on the cross. But, we continue to have violence only quietly under wraps. And only those who have a memory of what the eruption of violence can do to nations and communities can truly appreciate the value and necessity of those who protect and confront violence for us. As the Queen noted in her recent speech in Europe:

‘In our lives, we have seen the worst but also the best of our continent.’
"But we know that we must work hard to maintain the benefits of the post-war world’.

Of course for many nations there is no ‘post-war world’, only continuing life- shattering violence and disruption. And as we today remember all those who have given their lives in service or who give their lives today for our safety and security, we must be thankful for their courage and sacrifice in facing the darkness and violence of humanity for us all.

But outside of the particular nature of war, we do well to reflect upon Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan and we need to allow ourselves to be challenged. It is worth considering how we might respond to someone in need, who has been so or similarly treated.
Would their skin colour, their class, or status give us reason to walk on by?
For violence can make cowards of us all.
Is there violence near to us that we are refusing to see? Is there pain and suffering near us that we are crossing over the road to avoid? Have we divided the world off into those we are bound to help and those we are not? For Jesus says, violence, unkindness and complicity are normal, compassion, mercy and selflessness are extraordinary.

The Samaritan was a member of an inferior race, not holy or set apart, as understood in that culture in that time. Yet, Jesus re-describes what holiness is; by saying it is how we behave which determines our holiness, nothing else. Being a priest or Levite (they were a priestly caste) is not a guarantor of righteousness. And it is the unexpected person who shows compassion.
Indeed, the power of Jesus’ story lies in how it upsets our satisfaction with our standard morality codes; codes that we build to defend ourselves from the requirement to be truly compassionate, merciful and courageous. 
The lawyer asked the question of Jesus, remember, to justify himself.

Councillor Richard Dodd has given his Mayoral year the theme of saving lives. And it seems to me that the story of the Good Samaritan is the quintessential story of life saving. But, the lives are saved, not simply through the act of compassion which is shown by the Samaritan. No, Jesus tells the story to change and challenge the heart of the lawyer. He tells the lawyer that compassion and mercy are always requirements, whatever badge of office we hold, whatever group we belong to, however sure we are of our own righteousness and most importantly however we seek to avoid it. Compassion and mercy are required of us, whether we like people or detest them, whether the people are like us or different, whether we feel them to be blame for their situation, or not. Compassion and mercy are to be indiscriminately applied. Who is my neighbour? If we look into our hearts, we know the answer to that question.