Sunday, 25 June 2017

Civic Service 2017




Last year we gathered together in this church on Civic Sunday just after the results of the EU Referendum. That significant result has changed the course of British history. On the anniversary of that major, seemingly once in a generation event, there have been a series of tragic events which have been incredibly bruising and distressing for the whole country. The terrorist attacks and the appalling Grenfell Tower fire have shaken our country to the core. Not once but three times in so many weeks I found myself gathering on the forecourt with others to mark a minute’s silence for the victims of terror and of course of the fire. We are in a period of history that is proving itself to be particularly fluid, surprising and almost impossible to predict. We are all being tested, none more so than our elected representatives and public servants.

For public figures and leaders in our communities, the need for humility, wisdom, and courage has never been greater. Our country needs leaders who are able to unite us. The words of Jo Cox MP, cruelly murdered by an extremist just over a year ago, sound even more prophetic and powerful one year on:  ‘We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us’. But, they also challenge us to live that reality.

The reading that we’ve heard today from the New Testament comes from a letter written by one of the earliest teachers of Christianity. St Paul went around the gentile, i.e. non-Jew, Greek speaking world, spreading the good news about Jesus Christ. He had a very strong sense of call that his role was to teach the nascent non-Jewish Christian communities. The extract from the letter we have heard was from a letter written to a Christian community in Corinth, Greece (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).

There seems to have been particular problems in Corinth and these problems were to do with rivalry and disunity in the community. St Paul uses the metaphor of the human body to show how a human community is similarly constructed. He describes the way in which each part of the body needs the other parts: ‘The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet ‘I have no need of you’.

St Paul’s metaphor asks us to consider how we enable all the different parts of the body to flourish in the communities that we serve. It may be we think that we can ignore certain parts, or that at least such parts are irrelevant.  The terrible fire at Grenfell reminds us that we can’t. Neglect of the poorer or more vulnerable members of our body – as St Paul calls them – the inferior members – will lead to each part of the body suffering. We cannot ignore each other and think that our neighbours are irrelevant to our well-being. If we do, over a period of time we will start to experience that neglect: ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together with it, if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it’.

Human communities are difficult to manage and control; we live today more than ever in complex ways and so the task is getting harder. Globalisation and technology are bringing with them ever new ways for humans to connect and interact, but they also reveal underlying currents of division, hatred and anger. Leaders today need to be extremely robust – but they also need to become much more adept at linking people together, at facilitating reconciliation within communities and at upholding our common goals and aspirations. What we need now from our public leaders is a new vision of how we can build consensus, develop connections, link people together, and bring reconciliation.

This town of Rugby has an eminent tradition of being a place where people work together, of where community is valued highly, and where we are able to be compassionate with one another. The Mayor this year has chosen the theme of ‘working together’ as her theme and it seems to me that there could not be a more fitting team in this period of our history. Team-work, common goals and shared aspirations are essential for the mutual flourishing of our town of Rugby.

I am a great believer in the need for communities to have representative people who symbolise our unity – through their symbolic roles we have a locus for our unity. The Mayor is such a civic representative figure. The presence of her Majesty the Queen and other members of the Royal Family in Manchester and London after the terror attacks and the fire were hugely comforting. I’m trusting that our new Mayor will not be needed in such tragic circumstances, but nonetheless Madam Mayor you will play an incredibly significant role in representing the unity of our common life as residents in the borough of Rugby. Your role will be to remind us all that we are deeply connected and mutually dependent on each other. You will have the great privilege of getting an insight into the lives and work of so many different people in Rugby and I know that like past Mayors before you, you will be changed by the experience. But, more importantly we pray that this community will be changed by your presence. May you steadfastly seek to bring unity and through it team-work - your honourable theme for this year – into and through our communities. May you work to enable different sections of our society to understand each other better and encourage different parts of our communities to work together for our mutual benefit, so that we may truly know the truth of living so that our grief and our joy are one. 

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

#ThyKingdomCome


In the Easter Season we are reminded by Jesus’ words and actions that we have been blessed by God’s Holy Spirit. The Advocate/Comforter or Spirit of Truth as it is also called has been sent by the Father to enable us in our Christian prayer and discipleship. Jesus’ resurrection appearances can only ever be fleeting and temporary – but in them we are promised and given the Holy Spirit. Jesus breathes on the disciples as he brings peace and reconciliation; he returns after his death as a promise and sign of God’s power and victory over death and to empower us with God’s Spirit. 

This Thursday is Ascension Day (25th May) the first day of 9 which have been marked out as a time of prayer for the holy spirit. It is a tradition that comes from the Roman Catholic Church and it has been taken up very enthusiastically by our Archbishops as an international movement and encouragement to pray. Last year was the first year that the Archbishops launched #thykingdomcome and promoted the 9 days as a period of prayer for evangelism, encouraging people to pray for their family and friends.

I must admit that last year if was the first I had heard about this specific practice of praying for the Holy Spirit from Ascension to Pentecost. The practice, I have later discovered emanates from 19th century Blessed Elena Guerra founder of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit. She dedicated herself to the education of girls and was particularly concerned about a renewal of prayer for the Holy Spirit. Her prayer led the Pope at the time People Leo the 13th to write an encyclical on the Holy Spirit.

Divinum illud munus (English title: On the Holy Spirit) is an encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII on May 15, 1897.

In it the Pope wrote that:

‘We ought to pray to and invoke the Holy Spirit, for each one of us greatly needs His protection and His help. The more a man is deficient in wisdom, weak in strength, borne down with trouble, prone to sin, so ought he the more to fly to Him who is the never-ceasing fount of light, strength, consolation, and holiness.”

In our time the Spirit has worked enabling Anglican and Protestants to join together in prayer from Ascension to Pentecost uniting with the Roman Catholic Church. Revive in Rugby has enthusiastically taken up the call to prayer and on Pentecost Sunday at 6.30pm there will be a unity service at St Peter John Church hosted by Sheila.

During this 9 days, called a novena, we all have an opportunity to renew our prayer and specifically to pray for the Holy Spirit. We will mark the period at St Andrew’s Church with silent prayer at 6.30pm on Thursday until 7.15pm followed by a service of Holy Communion. Prayer resources will be available from Thursday for anyone to pick up from church and we’ll be giving away free copies of St John’s Gospel. They’ll also be a Peace and Reconciliation textile exhibition in church.

Last weekend 10 of us went away together to pray. The early days of the church remind us that Christian discipleship above all else is about being in fellowship with one another – drawn together through the words and actions of Jesus- and enabled through the continuing outpouring of his Holy Spirit. It is very hard to develop that fellowship just through worshipping together on Sunday mornings as it doesn’t give us enough opportunity to really get to know one another. Deepening our relationships with friends at church isn’t necessarily easy – like any form of friendship it involves risk. However, as Christians we seek to frame our commitment to one another within the gracious forgiving love of Jesus.

As a town centre church in which people don’t necessarily live close to one another – we have an extra hurdle to jump over to develop the sorts of friendships which Christian discipleship requires of us. The fellowship Sunday meals, the home groups, the retreats, helping in the cafĂ©, joining the choir or bell ringers, being on the pastoral team are all ways for us to deepen our commitment to God’s commandments. As a busy church with lots going on we can sometimes too forget that God also requires of us that we sit in stillness as his feet.

If you never pop into church in the week, maybe during the novena you’ll take the opportunity. Perhaps you’ll bump into someone and have a longer chat than Sunday morning allows. Perhaps you’ll have 10 minutes of silence to pray. Or light a candle, or meet someone here who needs someone to listen to them. Whatever way we choose to engage in prayer this week, I do hope and pray that all of us in our own way will commit to praying for the gift of the Holy Spirit and the transformation of our lives.

This week then provides us with a real opportunity to re-commit ourselves to prayer on Ascension Day. Without prayer, our life together here is empty and Godless. With prayer, everything that we do together can be transformed. Enabling prayer to infuse our daily life is a practice that takes time, but one it is necessary to persist in.


AMEN 

Monday, 17 April 2017

Extravagant God- Easter Day 2017

During Holy Week the Gospel readings for the day are taken from John’s Gospel, and one of those is always the story of Mary (Martha’s sister) anointing Jesus’ feet.  She shows her great thanks and appreciation that Jesus has raised her brother Lazarus from the dead by taking a pound of pure costly nard (the fragrance filling the room) and anoints Jesus’ feet and dries them with her hair. It is an act of extravagant thankfulness and generosity. It was extravagance that caused offence. It’s hard to know how much the nard would cost in today’s terms, but a days’ wages is 1 denarii – so 300 denarii is 300 day’s wages. So we’re looking at somewhere near an average salary for the year. In each of the Gospel accounts a different set of people are outraged at the extravagance (in John’s it’s Judas who says the perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor.  But Jesus is not. He welcomes it – and accepts the spirit in which it was given.

I had my own encounter with extravagance this week - I asked a member of our congregation if she could get some greenery for our Garden of Gethsemane – I was expecting a few bunches. Instead she turned up with a van full of trees and shrubs. You can see the extravagant garden that she made in the Lady Chapel.

It reminds me of some of the extravagant actions of God in the Bible. Jesus started his ministry with a sign of extravagance – he turned large jugs of water in to wine at the Wedding of Cana – a sign that God had saved the best to the last.

How many times should I forgive someone says Peter to Jesus, up to 7? Thinking that already was generous – 77 times comes Jesus’ reply. Forgiveness is something that you can’t ration.

Then there is the feeding of the 5,000 with the loaves and fishes, from which 12 baskets of food left over. A sign that tells us that the food which comes down from heaven does not run out.

Then the miraculous catch of fish – a resurrection story – in which Jesus tells the disciples to cast their nets the other side, and they draw in so many fish that the nets start to break.

We should be getting the point by now – the kingdom of heaven is a place where love and forgiveness is not metered out according to our worthiness. There isn’t a limited amount of what God’s got to give – God’s love is generous and over-flowing, extravagant and likely to cause offence.

It’s linked to the offence of the Cross – God literally pours himself out for us in love – and through this great act of self-sacrifice he feeds his people for ever – through his flesh and his blood. The last act of crazy extravagance – of overflowing, abundant generosity – to give himself to us in this way.

You can’t manufacture abundant generosity – or extravagant thanksgiving- it’s not something a preacher can draw from her people. It comes from the abundance of the heart – Mary gave to Jesus in love and gratitude for what he had done – she had to respond in the way that she did – it came from deep inside her.  The preacher’s role is simply to remind you that you are invited to encounter anew the Risen Lord : - the Lord of the Bible who comes to each of us individually – standing with us as a reminder that we are invited into a kingdom where the normal rules of 1 + 1 do not apply. God does maths by breaking the rule book – of throwing away the calculator and reminding us we cannot place a price on redemption, resurrection or eternal life. Our extravagance depends on how deeply we realise what Jesus has really done for us.










Saturday, 4 March 2017

Sitting Comfortably?

The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains’. Jonah 2.5-6

During Lent this year at St Andrew's, Rugby, we will be looking in-depth at the story of Jonah and the whale (or rather, big fish). Our reading of the whole book (it is short) during our 10.30am Sunday communion services in Lent will be complemented by a textile exhibition. The exhibition is called Rivers of Life and is brought to us by the Deo Gloria Trust; the work is produced by textile artist Jacqui Frost. In the work Jacqui explores the way in which water is used in the Bible as a metaphor and illustration of our spiritual lives. Of course Lent itself is about entering into the desert. It is in the desert that we encounter real thirst and, it is hoped, our longing and desire for God is purified by such an experience, but of course that is not inevitable. Our Christian journey begins with abundance of water (baptism) but as Jesus experienced, sooner or later the Holy Spirit will lead us into more testing landscapes. It is important that we prepare ourselves for the task. What happens to Jonah when he finds himself in the large fish? He has been saved but also captured – he is stuck, and that probably sums up his attitude toward God. He is stuck in his relationship with God – God won’t let him go but he has to work out whether he will co-operate; if he can't, he will remain stuck – in God’s hands, but nowhere to go. Have you ever felt like that? You know that you are somehow in God’s hands but you are frustrated and confused. Jonah finds that God continues to upset his notions of how things should work out and therefore his story is a very helpful one for those of us who similarly find life with God frustrating and challenging, and yet, we can’t let go. The image of Jonah at the end of the story sitting under the bush cursing God encourages us to reflect on how we approach God’s ways and actions in the world. How often do we understand what God is doing? How often is our anger at God at odds with his sense of justice?

An honest Christian journey seems to me to be one that is fraught with questions, frustrations and confusion.  There is no easy way in Christianity to tie up all the loose ends, to reconcile the problems. It is a religion that requires us to get stuck in, to make it up as we go along, to rile against the injustices and to pray for mercy. But, mercy directed towards others (as Jonah found out) can often feel like an absence of justice. And there is the rub – God’s rule doesn’t often feel right to us. Perhaps therefore sitting uncomfortably is what it’s all about and so my prayer for you (and us) this Lent, is that, it is uncomfortable for you, in all the ways that God would want it to be! (notwithstanding the new pew cushions).

River of Life Exhibition St Andrew’s Church, Ash Wed 1st March – Tuesday 28th March (free entry).




Sunday, 15 January 2017

Do you belong?

Belonging
A new kind of kinship

Isaiah 49:1-7
1 Corinthians 1: 1-9
John 1:29-42

I wonder if you can reflect for a moment on the number of different ways that you ‘belong’. For instance, to a family, to a club, a political society, a nation, a religion. In what ways is your belonging constructed? It might be through birth, through shared interests, through a shared ideology, through how you look, through where you live or through choice. Which groups or identities are most important to you? Are they the ones you have specifically chosen or the ones that have simply been given to you?

St John’s presentation of the early part of Jesus’ ministry encourages us to see membership of his kingdom as an open ended and free invitation to, ‘come and see’. There is, seemingly, no anxiety for Jesus in whom he addressees his invitation to; indeed, as Jesus’ ministry progresses he appears to deliberately disrupt the normal expectations of who is and who isn’t in the club. As he redraws the lines of inclusion and exclusion, he invited those with whom he was with to see God and therefore their salvation differently. At the same time his approach invites us to re-appraise our concepts of what it means to belong.

Anxiety about belonging, about control and rules of membership are currently at the fore in our national and international lives as the UK seeks to rewrite the terms of its relationship with the EU. These sorts of concerns about how we determine who belongs are partly due to problems in a world where resources are finite and in which inequality defines our common experience. If everything were equal, why move anywhere else? Our collective anxiety about external claims to membership of our nation relate more generally to fear about how belonging is constructed and controlled. What makes me British and what gives me a claim to live in this specifically defined area of the world (and who has the right to determine those rules?). Is it the way I look, the language I speak, who my parents were, if I like tea, know how to queue, or about where I was born etc. etc. Such collective anxiety about how to validate claims to membership of our nation relate more generally to fear that what we have can be taken away from us; that there is ‘something’ to lose and ‘nothing’ to gain.

In contrast to the unequal and competitive nature of human experiences of both belonging and rejection, Jesus appears and invites us to enter into a kingdom which is constructed differently. Through parables and teaching we are told that the kingdom of heaven is a place of abundance, generosity and absence of fear. Think of the stories in which Jesus enables us to catch a glimpse of such a reality: the feeding of the 5000 where there is so much left over; the Samaritan woman at the well who is included and embraced despite being the wrong ethnicity; the woman being stoned for adultery who is defended by Jesus; the tax collector who is personally addressed by Jesus. It is through such encounters that Jesus describes to us what it means to belong in the Kingdom of God – to belong in the Kingdom of God means to accept that our identity, our belonging, derives from God and nothing else. We belong not because we are perfect; we belong not because we were born here and not there; we belong not because we are full or because we are empty; we belong because our prior identity is that of a child of God and he decides that that identity cannot be taken away.

However, in the parable of the wedding banquet Jesus reflects on our persistent rejection of God. If you remember the parable, the ones who are invited to the wedding do not come and so the servants are sent out into the street to invite anyone that they can find.  The Kingdom of God is dismissed and rejected. Why?

Remember the man at the wedding feast who was condemned for wearing the wrong clothes? To accept an invitation to the heavenly banquet is to accept that we are entering a world in which we don’t make up the rules, they are given to us by our Creator. For many this is the first hurdle that they simply can’t jump. It is extraordinarily difficult to let go of our pride and ambition and learn to accept the love and generosity that comes from God. In our contemporary world where constructions of identity and well-being are based on the empty promise that infinite choice will provide happiness, there is an almighty struggle to be willing to accept the limitation of an identity that is given.  If we are to live in this kingdom we have to learn again to be dependent and to be disciplined by love. Think of the ways in which the idea of obedience and discipline are thoroughly rejected by modern moralities which see freedom (meaning self-determination) as the ultimate value. To be willing to learn from the One who gives us everything means to be willing to accept that truth is given from an elsewhere, from an external that is not created or determined by ourselves. This is life-giving if it is recognised as gift, but debilitating if it as seen as a limitation of choice. God tells us that we can’t be whoever we want to be. God says: ‘I have made you, given you an identity as my beloved child, and in so doing the bounds of your identity are prescribed and limited’. Human pride and disobedience are quite rightly described as the foundation of original sin because they are the vices that encourage us to believe that we know better. A little glance around our human societies reveals to us the drastic error of such assumptions; true wisdom comes from cherishing the given nature of our identities and rejoicing in our common membership of a kingdom that gives us ultimate well-being and joy.

In spending time with Jesus, the disciples realised that they had to unlearn so much. It is the same for us. God is our teacher and our life-long task is to become better students. But being a student isn’t about ticking all the boxes and being the best. We are invited into a loving relationship with God, to spend time with him.  Our belonging is constructed out of our willingness to receive and to offer back what has been given – as the Biblical phrase reminds us: ‘All things come of thee, and of thine own do we give thee’. It is through this re-drawing of our identities that we realise belonging isn’t about competition, mastery and ascendancy, but about letting go of human sin and opening our eyes to divine harmony. If we do that together the lines of human community can be redrawn and we will truly start to experience the gifts of God’s creation: where we saw lack before we will see abundance; where we saw inequality and want, we will see generosity and sharing, and where we saw conflict and fear, we will see the peaceful co-operation that comes from a life lived by God’s design.
Amen




Epiphany

Epiphany
Sunday 8th January 2017

Matthew 2:1-12
Ephesians 3:1-12
Psalm 72

Epiphany is a festival which encourages us to notice the mystery of the presence of God in our lives. St Paul uses the word mystery a number of times in relation to Jesus Christ in the 3rd chapter of his letter to the Ephesians. Jesus’ presence as mystery means that as humans we cannot define, limit or control who and what God is  – rather, we are asked to notice Jesus and his continuing presence in the world, through the grace of God which grants us faith.

In noticing God, or at least trying to, we are guided in our understanding which is properly expressed as devotion and praise. The nativity stories encourage us to worship God through depicting a miraculous birth.  Consistent with St Paul’s mission to the Gentiles – the non-Jews – the nativity story describes to us how the Christ-child and therefore the mystery of God, is not exclusive. Rather, the Christ-child is to be worshipped by all peoples. Which does not mean that Christians must ignore or dismiss the religions of other nations, but that the true incarnation of God is not exclusive or partisan, rather Jesus, the light of the world, draws all people to himself, even as an infant. This vision of a united world is a compelling one for us to long for. Our divisions are immense; how does the child of peace and unity speak to us as we experience all sorts of different levels of fear? If we trusted that Jesus were walking alongside us, holding our hand, what might we have the courage to do or be?

In addition, the psalmist depicts for us, in the tradition of ancient poetic wisdom literature, the locus of God’s mystery: - it is hidden among and with the oppressed and poor. Which is why Jesus is shown to be hidden at his birth, among the lowly and the poor. And yet God’s presence is also worthy of and honoured by, wise and presumably wealthy, foreign visitors. Indeed, if we honoured the mystery of God among us we would lay everything we had at his feet. Which is a challenge to us gathered here. How much do we hold back from God – not just of our material wealth, but of our selves? Moreover, how much effort do we put in on our journey towards him? The magi embarked on a long journey, seemingly with just a star for guidance, and yet they persevered into a foreign country, with foreign people and duplicitous rulers, just so they might find ‘the one’. Herod’s despotic authority is used in the story as a contrast to the righteous rule of God, through which the poor and the downtrodden are delivered.

So the salient question might be for each of us today on the feast of Epiphany: ‘where am I looking for God?’. If we were to answer that question honestly, what would be our response?

The Bible consistently tells us that God is to be found in the lowly and humble of heart; that God makes his dwelling place with the downtrodden and oppressed; that God is on the side of the poor and vulnerable. But, are we willing to look for God there?

Loving Jesus, your birth shames us in its simplicity and in its poverty – a poverty that was material only, for there was abundance too, the abundance of the heart that was pure gift, pure grace, pure love. Teach us to long for you so that we seek you in the places that would otherwise make us fearful; teach us to love you so that in loving you we would have the courage to leave aside all that is valued in this world, just to catch a glimmer of your beauty which radiates in the exquisite serenity of your kingdom. Amen






Sunday, 11 December 2016

Happiness and Meaning

Advent reminds us that an essential part of being human is our ability to long and to hope for change. The Old Testament writers harness the ability to long for things with great skill, the Israelite history is a history of a people turning longing and desire into a religion: think of the Promised Land and the Messiah. In Advent – the season of expectant waiting - we are given the opportunity to hone our skills of describing the things that we long for, the things that we expect and hope God to provide. However, I wonder how convincingly Christian voices in our culture manage to articulate a vision of God. When we contrast that with our culture, we notice one that is fantastically good at harnessing the language of desire and longing to sell things and lifestyles. For example, we will be told: salvation is to be found in this model of a car; that this perfume will give you a glamorous life-style; that only if you buy this new and better model will you be fulfilled – that, in summary, meaning and happiness are located in the acquisition of more.

We are habituated to our desire being manipulated in all sorts of different ways, but we are probably much less immune to it than we think we might be. The market economy knows that desire is more profitable than fulfillment, and ensuring that people keep longing for the next model of the i-phone, or the next bigger television is what marketing and advertising is all about. Having the thing is much less exciting than longing for it, and so not being fulfilled through buying more feeds the machine. It is a confident and loud business – no-one feels embarrassed by trying to get people to buy more – it is our way of life, who we are.

In contrast, Christian voices tend to be quiet and shy ones in our culture; Jesus is not in fashion, persuading people to believe is embarrassing. We do not spend billions of pounds advertising our way of life, as John Lewis, Sainsbury’s and so on will spend this Christmas. People will flock to see Santa, who is neutral and inoffensive, but fewer will notice the child in the manger.

But, we mustn’t give up; we must remember the value of what God offers his people and keep inviting people into experience who we are. As heralds of the new kingdom we must learn again to be confident in God and in what we believe. John the Baptist is the icon of a man who heralded in the new kingdom by pointing the way to Jesus. Our calling and heritage is to point the way to Jesus still, amidst the clamouring voices that seek to locate salvation elsewhere.

In the short article I wrote for the December magazine I mentioned some research ('The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters', Emily Esfahani) that sought to find out where true human happiness was to be found- a popular subject in our culture. In the first instance the research found that meaning was a greater indicator of well-being than happiness. And meaning the researcher found comes from: 1) a sense of belonging; 2) having a purpose; 3) partaking in storytelling which is redemptive; and 4) experience of transcendence.

Just reflect for a moment on those things. What do you notice about them? What Christians seek to provide our culture with at Christmas time is an invitation to find all these things through participation in a faith community, a church. We invite people to belong to a community of people formed through the love of God; our common purpose is to praise and worship God in a variety of ways – we know who we are and why we are here; we tell stories of our redemption in Jesus each week and we experience transcendence in our worship, our buildings in our world view, our faith. Church communities are places full of meaning. They offer, at their best, anyone who seeks it, the opportunity to come ‘home’: to be part of an accepting and loving family. 

As Christians we have experienced where true meaning and life in all its fullness can be found. The demands of Christian witness are that we get much better at describing, valuing and communicating that which can’t be commodified. We give and receive presents: yes; we see family and friends, eat too much: yes, but much more importantly we gather together to worship God. For it is God and God alone who sets us free. He tells us who we are and for what we are made. It is in God that we find a fulfillment that does not disappoint; he is the end of all our desiring- the rest which quietens our restlessness- the peace that the world cannot give.

As St Augustine wrote:
“You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in you.