Sunday, 15 January 2017

Do you belong?

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.


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.

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.”