Sunday, 20 November 2016

Christ the King – The Crown of Thorns

We begin where we end and end where we begin.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.  

Little Gidding, The Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot

We worship a King who wears a crown of thorns. 

The liturgical year is circular – and our spiritual experience of time must then in some way be circular too. We see this as we come to the end of our liturgical year – the feast of Christ the King- knowing that we are about to embark on the season of expectation and nativity, and yet, approach it with the crucifixion narrative. Today, in order to understand who Christ is and what God is like we have to re-encounter the crucifixion. We are invited, in particular, to see where we are in relation to Jesus. It’s easy to stand adoring around the crib of a child of hope and expectation, less easy to keep on standing when he hangs on a tree, in blood and sweat and close to death. Yet, we have to hold these 2 images together- the Jesus of Christmas and the Jesus we encounter today. Either way, in birth or in death, Jesus asks us – where are you standing in relation to me?

The circular nature of the liturgical year is full of opportunity, it’s never too late; we, you, I, have been here before. The repetitive nature of story-telling, which shapes are coming-together, is an invitation to not only listen, but participate. The story of Jesus Christ is a story of which we are all involved and which teaches us that we don’t in reality march from darkness into light, but rather spend time coming in and out of both. Any dissonance or frustrations and indeed fear comes from the expectation that we will and are marching from darkness into light. For Jesus, death was hounding him from the moment he was born (we think of Herod) whilst life shone out of him as he hung lifeless on a tree – a man hopes in the face of his own death and eternity draws closer than he could ever have imagined.

We can look at some of the different characters in the way that Luke tells it. There are the people standing by, watching. Are they afraid, intrigued, scared, sad or hopeful? There are the leaders scoffing; there are the soldiers mocking: ‘here is the King of the Jews’, they taunt. And there are the 2 men who die with him, divided by their response to this mysterious figure: ‘Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom’, says one of the men who dies with him, whilst the other condemns him and his claim to power: ‘are you not the messiah, save yourself and us’.

The questions the bystanders faced as they watched Jesus being crucified are our questions. Or, indeed the questions that Joseph and Mary faced as they saw their son of expectation and hope being born are ours too. They appear differently in our lives- the people are different, the events, the dramas, but the same themes are there and the same realities. Where do we place ourselves in relation to those who stand up for justice, for peace, for hope, for charity? Do we scoff and mock? Do we keep well back, standing on the sidelines watching? Where do we stand when the powerful divide and rule? What we do when others are ill-treated? Where do we stand when that which we hoped for starts to dissolve and slip away? Jesus wants to know where we are in relation to him. Are we close with him as he is born? Can we adore and love when there is hope and joy? Can we remain close at the end?

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. 

That is the journey of faith. The recognition of the journey already lived, with the transfiguring light of faith reminding us where we have been. Heaven and paradise will be no surprise. The other journey is to suffer forever from the loss of meaning, from disorientation, from a sense of not having what we were expecting and yet not knowing where we went wrong; of keeping arriving but never recognising. Not for want of trying, or for being in the wrong place, but from a failure to see. For the other man who was crucified by Jesus, his parallel future and redeemable past were less than a few meters away –  but he could not reach them. It does not matter where we have been or where we will go; it is not (and never has been about the right conditions):- the perfect upbringing or the best expectations. We are not marching into the perfect future, nor hankering after a golden past.  We are waiting on epiphany and transfiguration – and it opens out in the most unexpected of ways, it is opening out now, in the wounds we cover and hide. It is just on the other side of our imagination, on the other side of our dreams. Salvation is not far away, but it may be unreachable – it is fading away now too, in the distance, behind us and before us: can you grasp it? If not, is it because of where you are standing in relation to the king? He stands before us wearing a crown of thorns, he leads us into death, whilst promising life; he waits for us to die before we can even begin.

Saturday, 15 October 2016


(Jeremiah 31:27-34, Luke 18:1-8)

Justice is one of the great themes of the Old Testament and remains a key theme in human experience. We all hate, on a personal level, to be dealt with in a way that seems unfair; we are alert to the minor injustices that we suffer: ‘That person got served first at the bar, but I’ve been waiting longer’, for instance. But, justice is concerned with more than minor instances of unfairness.

On a communal level we rely and depend upon a criminal justice system that we hope and expect to deliver justice – but we know that it too is a fallible, human system. The long and arduous fight of the people of Liverpool to secure justice for the Hillsborough victims makes us deeply aware of the forces that seek to prevent, or delay justice being done. The Judge in our New Testament reading denied and delayed justice to the widow simply out of laziness. Only when it became more effort to deny justice than to give it, did he change his behaviour. Just as we are all deeply sensitive to being treated unfairly, so too do we generally seek to avoid being blamed for things that have gone wrong; when we have done something wrong, especially something that has terrible, if unintended consequences, the first human reaction is to seek to cover it up, to lie. It takes a courageous person to own up and to suffer the consequences. In the case of sexual abuse and rape claims, especially where drugs, alcohol or the powerful are involved, the ability to secure justice becomes even harder. We only have to glance at the paper to see such stories and experiences, and not least we have the on-going, painful and distressing saga of the public inquiry into institutional child sexual abuse.

Justice is a fundamental human need - but it is found to be difficult to secure. Justice is something that ultimately resides with God, who we hope can somehow sort out the complex dramas of guilt, culpability, blame and suffering that we desperately need him to. Indeed the purpose of Jesus’ parable in Luke is to encourage us that God will grant justice.

In Jesus however, God answers our questions on justice in a surprising way. We know the story, but we need to keep re-learning its message: The innocent victim, Jesus, is crucified for his goodness. Instead of coming and dividing the sheep from the goats, Jesus actually takes on the sin of the world. He bares it on his body and he does so without blame or anger. As he suffers, he forgives. And so we realise that the way that God deals with injustice is to take it all upon himself – he declares himself to be the victim of all the wrong decisions, the wrong pronouncements, the murders, the rapes, the stealing, the unlawful imprisonment and the rest. He says, ‘here I am: I will bear them for you’. And in so doing, it is revealed to us that it is only in loving forgiveness that injustice can be redeemed. God’s justice is always surprising, upsetting our human notions of tit for tat, eye for an eye. 

Think of the parable of the workers in the vineyard, in which those who have only worked for a few hours get as much as those who have worked all day. For those who have worked all day, the generosity of the employer seems unfair, but Jesus is introducing us to theological justice. In theological justice God’s generosity appears unfair to those who jealously guard their purity and goodness. But the point is, in God’s worldview, all of us fall short of his love and thus all of us require his grace and generosity in being redeemed. When we recognise our own standing in front of God as a miserable sinner, it is then that we start to appreciate how God’s justice works.

We continue necessarily with our earthly human systems that do indeed reflect eternal justice: we try suspected criminals, we fight for justice that has been denied, we advocate for the vulnerable and ignored (like the widow in our story), and we seek to expose institutional failings, but as Christians we do so with the underlying knowledge that ultimately justice is to be found in Jesus Christ. It is his example to us of what loving forgiveness looks like that sets us free; and it is only in him that peace will be found.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Thought for the day - 'steps on the way to being compassionate'

This week one of my congregation members invited me to their place of work. It is not an invitation I get very often, but one that I will certainly be encouraging from others! Most people probably wonder what a Vicar gets up to all week, we are regularly greeted with the familiar: ‘but don’t you only work on Sunday’s’ jest – but I suppose that for most of us the working life of other people is pretty much a mystery. Perhaps you can reflect on your own working life experience for a moment – where has it taken you and what have your learnt?

The person I visited happened to work in engineering and he took me around the factory floor, meeting the people who worked there and showing me the things they were making. As someone with a mind completely unsuited to anything practical, I was amazed and awed at the things that other people can do.

It got me thinking about the way in which most of us have, in relative terms, quite a small frame of reference: we go to the same shops, the same place of work, see the same people etc. The things that we’re good at we keep on doing and far too little challenge ourselves to take on new skills or move outside our comfort zones. It’s a rare and valuable opportunity to have our horizons expanded and to encounter new things and this is despite the fact that we live in a technological age of advanced communication.

Expansion of the mind seems to me to have a spiritual and ethical dimension, for it can help us in our capacity to relate to and ultimately have compassion for others. And that is what is really important – taking the time to actually listen to another person and really see things from their point of view; whoever they are and wherever they come from.

Compassion is a key spiritual virtue, common to all the major faiths, and it’s fundamental to human well being. It could be described as the ability to step into another’s story for a while and walk alongside them; literally it means to suffer with another. Without any compassion in the world we would all be completely disconnected from each other, isolated individuals without hope of comfort.

So, my gentle nudge this week to myself and to you, is to ask: in what ways can my horizons be broadened this week, not from the safe comfort of the sofa, watching television, nor through the virtual experience of the smart phone or tablet, but through an actual encounter with a real person whose every day experiences are different from mine. Can I take the time to experience their world and can I learn to be more compassionate? In so doing I will have, in a small and real way, made the world a better place.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Making friends in Heaven

Lazarus at the Gate (Luke 16:19-31, see below)

·        What motivates you and I to act in a Christian way towards our fellow humans?
·       Which persistent excuses do we use to avoid doing the things that we know we should?

The story of Lazarus and the rich man at the gate is crude to a certain degree, but its crudeness is intended to cut through our sophisticated reasons for avoiding acting with mercy, generosity and compassion. So, one of the things that this story asks of us is to look quite starkly at our own reasons for avoiding doing the things that we know we should be doing. Which neighbours whose suffering we are well aware of are we avoiding? In what ways are we trying to get out of our obligations to our fellow humans? Which reasons and excuses do we most often use?

But the other thing that the story does, which is more complicated, is to analyse our motivations for doing the right thing. In the past of course the threat of eternal damnation was much more real and was used by the church to motivate people to act in a Christian way. Judgment and eternal damnation is a subject that modern liberal minded Christians tend to avoid, for a whole host of reasons, some good and some less so. But one of those reasons could be that the Christians doing the speaking and reflecting are not the ones that are systematically denied justice and mercy in this life. For those who are life’s victims the thought of God’s judgment at the end of time might be a much more appealing one. And this is how the story goes – Lazarus and those like him can look forward to a time when their suffering will end and they will enjoy everlasting joy in heaven. I don’t know about you but there have been times in my life when I have seen certain people suffering and I have imagined and hoped for their eternal salvation in similar terms, surely God owes those who have suffered to such a degree in this life – some eternal mercy. We can think of those today caught in the hellish conflict in Syria.

But of course the other side of God’s judgment is his judgment on our sin. The rich man is condemned for being indifferent and selfish, as well as greedy; it’s sobering to consider the persistent and widespread nature of such attitudes today. To be a Christian, to follow God’s laws, is quite simply to be a person who notices the suffering of others and who tries to alleviate it. The story presents us with one version of what will happen if we don’t. Whether today we believe or not in eternal damnation of the sort imagined in the story, for God’s sovereignty to be real and meaningful we must imagine that there are real and genuine consequences for turning a blind eye to the suffering of others, which we have the capacity to do something about. For the rich man could have easily in some ways alleviated Lazarus’ suffering, even the dogs managed to show more compassion than he. The consequences for the ‘rich man’ are that he becomes isolated in hell, where not even Father Abraham can reach him – and this can be read metaphorically. His own model of self-sufficient isolation has meant that his world has so narrowed that love cannot reach in: ‘a great chasm is between us’ as Father Abraham puts it. And that is surely a real consequence of sin, of selfishness and greed – isolation and fear. People put up walls to keep others out and to protect what they have; but in so doing they also stop the good stuff coming in. Walls of fear and so called protection ultimately bring a diminished existence for those who’ve built them and those on the other side of them. Wherever we deny love and compassion to others, wherever we narrow our viewpoints and our framework, we deny ourselves a corresponding friend in heaven.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 10.2)

For the rich man did not realise that in reaching out to Lazarus in love he could have received love in return – love does not require money or power, simply a heart open to truth and goodness and it can be given and received by any and all.

Luke 16:19-31

The Rich Man and Lazarus

 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” 

Monday, 5 September 2016

Who am I before God?

Last week we were thinking about how to place our lives, both individual and communal, before God. For this reason we thought through the importance of the practice of seeking His presence in all of our experiences, both good and bad. I encouraged us all to ask: ‘where is God in this?’.

This week, I would like us to reflect upon a different question together, and that is: ‘Who am I before God?’

One of the primary lessons we learn from Scripture, right from the beginning, is the ‘jealous’ nature of our God – he looks at us with pride and it seems a sense of ownership: you are mine. Yahweh of the OT is angry when the people turn to other Gods; the covenant that he has made with them requires faithfulness and constancy.

In our passage from Luke (14:25-33) we hear Jesus talking in a different way about the sort of faithfulness that his Father in Heaven requires of his followers. Jesus talks about hating father and mother, wife and child and he does so in the context of a few interesting illustrations – the one about building a tower, and the other about a King waging a war. In both instances he is talking about proper planning and preparation for the task at hand. It seems that if we are going to complete the task of loving God, we need to be aware of something essential:

Human relationships, pain and suffering, possessions can all get in the way of, blur and even corrupt our first and primary duty to serve and love God. God’s ways are challenging to us and they will trip us up; this life of discipleship will be difficult.

In Paul’s letter to Philemon we see a real life situation where this tension between following God and other priorities are brought into light.

Paul is advocating for Onesimus (who was Philemon’s slave in Colossae) and it seems that Onesimus has run away from his owner. Paul is working out in his letter the sorts of implications of taking on a new identity in Christ.

·        Who is Onesimus in Christ and before God?
·        Can he still be a slave?
·        How should a runaway slave be treated by a Christian?

Paul says: Onesimus is now his adopted Son (Paul’s) and a beloved brother in Christ (to Philemon). Paul is willing to take on any debt that Onesimus owes Philemon. Paul is an advocate, a redeemer (in the traditional sense of the word), a reconciler and a bringer of peace. Philemon as a Christian is being asked to give up his rights over Onesimus; to forgive wherever he has been wronged and moreover to enter into a new relationship with Onesimus.

I wonder in what ways today Jesus may challenge us to re-look at our relationships with one another? Are there ways in which we individually or collectively need to hear Paul’s advocacy for a brother or sister in Christ?

Paul’s memorable words resound in our ears:There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ We can perhaps see how he got there. We could substitute those categories with any number of ones that would be relevant to us today.  It seems that humans have a tendency to create division, to generate hierarchies, to limit equality.

If we are to follow God, to be his beloved people, then we must not only receive our new identity in Christ, we must honour the new identity that our neighbour also receives.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Who do you blame?

I would like you to reflect for a moment on how you respond when something bad happens, or things generally are not going so well for you. What is your reaction?

Perhaps you blame yourself, thinking: ‘Have I done something wrong’ or ‘Am I at fault somehow’. Or perhaps you blame somebody else, or the circumstances.  We may wish to reflect how we respond as a nation to things going badly as well. Do we blame, self-examine, change our ways?

I’d like us to put our response alongside that of the prophets of the Old Testament. They ask, when things go badly: ‘Have we been unfaithful to God/Yahweh’. The first thing to note is that the prophets are thinking collectively (of the whole community of the faithful that is) and they are thinking theologically (is this somehow related to our covenant with God). The prophets ensure, then, that their collective experiences are understood theologically. They want to know how their experience relates to their God, to His promises to them, to their keeping of the covenant.

Jeremiah, whose book of Prophecy we are going to be hearing a lot more of this autumn, is a book which profoundly reflects on the faithfulness (or lack of it) of the people of God. It is written mainly in the context of exile, which the people experienced in Babylon during the time of the Book. Why were they in exile? What had gone wrong? Had they been faithless? Jeremiah’s response is to say that yes they had been unfaithful to the covenant and its laws. They profoundly believed in a correlation between things going well and their adherence to the covenant.

Sometimes we can read the Old Testament without understanding and appreciating the depths of its theological reasoning. We may look critically at it and think, why do they see God as on their side in wars, why do they reflect that God is angry with them if things are going badly; we may scorn their theology and think we are more superior to it.

I would like to suggest, alternatively, that we tend toward secularism in our reasoning and that we should learn from them.

How so?

The first principle to take from the OT prophets is that of putting our experiences into a theological context. We have moved away from an unhelpful correlation that was made between bad things happening and God’s wrath, between illness and sin, but I think we have also moved away from a proper recollection of and a proper theological understanding of our individual and collective experiences. The OT prophets teach us that understanding our experiences in the light of our relationship with God, is what the people of God do. If we don’t reflect on the presence of God’s hand in our experiences, then are we not really atheists?

So, in learning from them, our proper daily response to our experiences should be: where is God in my experience today? Where is God in my experience of illness? Where is God in this new challenge? Where is God in our experience of an ageing and declining national church? Where is God in our waiting for a new Director of Music? Where is God in our culture of secularism?  It is the fundamental practice in our lives as believers, to bring God in, to make space for God, to recognise God’s sovereignty and divine providence. It also creates a helpful spaciousness to our common life, it turns us away from the tendency to blame, either ourselves or one another, and encourages us rather, to take it all to God in prayer. If God is the ruler, the great ‘I am’ then we can turn from panic and fear to trust and to hope.

We know now, of course, that things going well do not equal God’s happiness with us, nor things going badly, being equal to our sin, however, there is a correlation between our faithfulness and our experiences of consolation: joy, peace, hope and faith. God is faithful to us and God’s hand is over all creation; like Jeremiah God knew us before we were knit in our mother’s womb, and has a plan for us, a plan to prosper us and to bless us. What God requires of us is a willingness to engage, to ask the right questions, to put ourselves in the right place. If we do so, we can say, that we too are a faithful people waiting patiently for the consolation of our God. Amen

Friday, 26 August 2016

Where was Jesus trying to take his disciples?

Addressed to the people of St Andrew's Church, Rugby:

I would like to start with what will sound like a random question: I wonder who we would be together if, for one reason or another, we were not able to worship in this building, in the centre of town?

How, if at all, would our identity change?

The Sabbath was and is something incredibly significant for Jewish communal self-identity; it marks them out as different. It gives them a weekly reminder that they live not for themselves, but for the God who made them. It is more than attending worship on Sunday – it is about a rhythm of life which resists the domination of work over rest and limits the human drive to create, make, accumulate, sell and work. Additionally it protects people from those with power over them to force them to work with no rest, for the whole household, livestock and alien must rest too. This is not a limited vision of rest, but a holistic vision of rest for the whole of created order.

Let us remember it:

Exodus 20:8-11

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

As an essential part of the Jewish identity, then, the interpretation of the Jewish Law of Sabbath grew and grew, so that work became defined to quite extreme levels. It was this extreme interpretation of the Sabbath law (not the Sabbath itself) that Jesus took issue with.

Jesus was saying that the people had been led to over-identify strict Sabbath laws with faithfulness. Jesus wanted to reveal to them the simple power of the Sabbath as it was first laid down, and to let go of the over-anxious over-the-top interpretation that bound and burdened the people.

In so healing the woman who was bent double, Jesus provides us with an image of someone burdened; she was burdened by the pain of her condition. But someone bent double can symbolise much more for us. We can see her as representing people who are burdened by over-work, those who have no hope in the future – who look downwards and not up. Jesus, in healing her on the Sabbath, was saying - the Sabbath was given to set you free. Let it do its work, let it set people free!

For those who gained power in interpreting and enforcing the strict Sabbath laws that bore no relation to its original meaning, such an action was perceived as threat and dangerous. In the summary of his teaching on the Sabbath, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

This summary can be applied to other areas of religious observance and practice. I opened with a question about this building. I wonder if I said: ‘This building was made for man, and not man for the building’, what your reaction, response would be? Our identity as Christians has become to be partly defined by the sorts of buildings we worship in- across our British landscape church buildings tell the story of the faithfulness of the people of this country. Like the Sabbath our church buildings are an easy way for others to read our religious identity, it helps them understand who we are. But the buildings were created by humans, to help us and assist us in our faithfulness to God. Like the Sabbath, the buildings serve us and not the other way around. Perhaps we have grown to over-identify faithfulness with the preservation of this building?

This church building carries an ideology, ‘gothic-revival’ and with it comes a vision that we live in and among, but how far is the vision of this building, still ours today? How far, most importantly, is the building telling us how to live, and to what extent are we telling the building how we are called to live?

I would like us to be a community that knows where it’s come from and knows where it is called to be – and that takes a thorough and clear understanding of the past as well as boldness to see something new, as Butterfield and Ruskin and others did in the late 19th century. They had a vision of the glorious splendour of God imagined through the use of strong and solid raw materials, worked on by the hand of man, for the purpose of beauty and truth. There are parts of that vision which we can take into our future; but there are also new parts that we need to add. This church community is more than bricks and stone, more than a vision of holiness and mystery, we are also a people called to relate to one another in love and fellowship; called to draw others into our diverse life; and called to be in this place as modern technological people, using the best of contemporary resources, design and skill. What we do, and how we do it is significant, just as it was for our predecessors.

Jesus showed consistently in his teaching that God the Father always exists as the being who liberates us. Jesus forms communities called to love and honour God with all their being, and to love one another as they love themselves. As a community gathered in this visionary masterpiece of architecture, we too must recognise our primary and only calling to prioritise our love and worship of God and loving care for our neighbour, over everything else. My prayer is that together such a vision will unify, strengthen and embolden us to be as visionary as our ancestors were. Amen