Monday, 1 February 2016

Looking at Jesus and being seen

The Presentation of the Christ-child in the Temple

Within the Christian tradition we do a lot of looking – we look at Jesus all the time – we tell the stories about his life, we enact out the dramas of his birth, adult ministry, death and resurrection; and today’s story is about Jesus being looked at again – presented in the temple, taken, blessed and recognised as the light of the world. Looking at Jesus is a vital part of Christian life – we learn everything from him, but the gaze is not one way – Jesus also looks back at us.

Timothy Radcliffe writes that Joy begins by letting ourselves be looked at by Jesus (What’s the point of being a Christian?)

Jesus knows intimately about the ways in which humans look at one another – being a part of our world he was exposed to the range of human emotions – he was looked at with love, with gratitude, with fear, with hope, with mercy, with compassion, with hatred, with judgment and with condemnation. On the Cross he was naked and exposed, the shame would have been overwhelming, the shame and pain of crucifixion and of others looking at him – berating, taunting and mocking. Today we remember that Simeon and Anna took him in their arms and looked at him and saw there great hope, expectation and consolation – his presence granted Simeon peace and the chance to die in peace; from expectation and hope to death and resurrection.

Jesus’ action on the Cross redraws for us the whole way that we experience God’s regard of us. The Garden of Eden story describes the way in which humanity came to fear God’s gaze – the shame of disobedience - and it therefore narrates our alienation from the loving gaze of God.

Our redemption is found in Jesus’ death through which he shows us that our sin does not alienate us from God’s loving gaze. On the cross Jesus looks at the penitent thief and tells him that he will be in paradise. Similarly, when Jesus returns from the dead his look is a look of forgiveness, peace, mercy and hope. He literally takes us by the hand and says – do not be ashamed, look here, look at my face, look at my scars, feel them, they are here, present, real, I suffered, I was hurt, humanity murdered me but I’m back, I’ve survived and I come to you now not in vengeance and anger but in forgiveness and peace! Nothing you do can separate you from the love of God in me!
Shame and fear make us turn away from Jesus (and from one another) – joy begins by letting ourselves be looked at by Jesus. We do not know how that look will transform us. In this moment, can each of us dare to see Jesus’ face, to invite him to look at us, to encourage our eyes to meet his, to turn and be saved?

The thing about people that have beheld the loving gaze of Jesus is that the transformation it makes in them leads them to look at others as Jesus looked at them. That’s how the joy becomes infectious – see how they love one another! – redeemed people shining with the glory of the face of Jesus Christ – beholding one another, looking at one another not with fear, judgment and condemnation, but with eyes of mercy, understanding, forgiveness and love.

Christian worship that would reflect that would inhabit a very different space from Victorian hierarchical churches – where the choir can only see each other and the congregation are all facing one direction looking at the priest – with the children elsewhere in Sunday School– but Jesus is here among us – in each face that blesses through a regard of true love – love that heals, that binds, that reunites, that hopes, that transforms.

Today we are receiving Adrian into the Anglican Communion – but we welcome him not only formally with prayers and liturgy, but more importantly by seeing him and his family – by not just noticing them, but in our welcome, in our attentiveness to them, in our ability to look at them and love them. And in their turn Adrian and his family become one of us here by returning that gaze, by looking back at us in Christ and seeing us as Christ sees us – not a perfect Christian community, but one that not only looks to Jesus but which rejoices in being able to receive his gaze – a community open to that all-redeeming love of God. Which is not without its challenges, remember the young man who asked Jesus what he must to do gain eternal life, Jesus looked at him and loved him and told him to go sell his possessions and give all the money to the poor. We cannot know what Jesus will ask of us who are made free by his attentiveness, but we hope and expect that what Jesus asks is for our further joy and peace and that in learning more about his face we might bless one another, recalling and repeating the Abrahamic blessing:

The Lord bless you and keep you
The Lord make his face to shine upon you
and be gracious to you
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you
and give you peace.

Numbers 6.24-26

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

East-End Epiphany

They came bearing gifts,
Gifts of numinous tone,
Less than £30 a week
And there they came
With gold crosses and chains,
Calendars, clothes and keepsakes.

They spread them out around the room
Across the tables and chairs
They hung them on the walls
As they prepared food and drink
Blew balloons and laid out flowers.

A feast prepared
A celebration
To remember

Their frequent steps
Across thresholds
Into life

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Baptism of Christ

This summer, I took part in the week of guided prayer, which we organised here at St Andrew’s. 2 priests from another diocese came to be with us for a week and each participant committed to praying for half an hour a day as well as meeting their guides for half an hour each day. We were encouraged to pray with scripture, to choose our own passages, or to be given one from our guide. I prayed with the story of the woman at the well. Almost immediately at the beginning of that week I was presented with an image, in prayer, of a plant in the desert that had completely dried up. In my imagination the roots of this plant desired to grow towards the oasis to be fed – they were desperate for water. For me this powerful image perfectly summed up how I felt inside, the state of my spiritual life. I felt that my spirit was drained, that it was literally dying of thirst – I urgently needed my spirit to be renewed with the life-giving water which comes from God: God was there and ready to give me that water.

Water is a very powerful element – parts of the UK have felt and are continuing to feel the overwhelming power of water in the ongoing flooding. Water, a daily essential, a giver and sustainer of life, is also - in too great a quantity - a threat to human existence. The Bible charts these extremes – with the story of Noah and the great flood, along with the fundamental role of baptism in our salvation. Floods can be a metaphor for the need for mass spiritual cleansing – water enacts God’s judgment; whilst at the same time water symbolises our being cleansed and washed from sin. In our baptism, water is the healer and restorer, enacting God’s mercy, his redemption and his grace.

Water plays a key role in Jesus’ ministry – he turns it into wine, for instance, as his first sign or miracle; he is baptised in the river Jordan; he meets the woman at the well and tells her that he gives water that never runs out; he washes the disciples’ feet with water; he is denied water and given vinegar on the Cross; water and blood flow from his side at his crucifixion.

Water takes on a different significance in each of these stories, representing washing and cleansing, healing and restoration, thirst and denial, the old covenant and the new, the giving of eternal life, Jesus’ role as a servant and ultimately the sign of Jesus’ humanity. Water is sacramental –  in our baptism – as well in other liturgies of the church, most importantly the Maundy Thursday liturgy of foot-washing, water is a mediator of God’s grace, a sign of the presence and working of the Holy Spirit, given to us by Jesus himself. Jesus takes the normal stuff of life – water, and through his interaction with it, makes it a means of our salvation.

When we remember Jesus’ baptism as we do today, we also remember our own baptism and in so doing we are reminded that Jesus sanctifies and bestows his grace on each of us, not just once but eternally. We need daily spiritual water that wells up to eternal life. Water in this place is not to quench our thirst but to give us eternal life. The water at the entrance is there to remind us of this, touch it, pray by it – it is a reminder that Jesus came to earth and has redeemed us all.

God with us; God among us: God revealed.

God is rejected, forgotten, ignored, blamed and abused; the same can be said, oftentimes, for his followers. Our job as Christians is to call people to worship the living God and therefore to honour and glorify the one to whom all honour and glory is due. At Christmas we have a particular opportunity to divert people’s attention away from what is of fleeting value, to what is of eternal value. Contrary to popular thought, people are hungry to be fed and eager to pray and those of us who have seen the living God must share in the joy of pointing the way to others. We do not control or contain the glory of God; we do not know where he is or isn’t at work; but we do know what we comprehend together as faithful Christians and to that we must be true. Being a Christian has never been simple – there is no golden age of Christianity when everyone believed and everyone went to church. Faith is a narrow road and only a few walk it – but nonetheless, at the same time, there are always those who have an ear for faith who are ready to come and hear what we have to say. Our role then is to be the sort of people, together, who make that listening possible. In this church we open our doors to those who seek to be in the presence of something greater than themselves; in doing that we are honouring the holy and sacred nature of the God we worship. How might we make our doors wider and more inviting? That is the job that the Parish Church Council is endeavouring to undertake on behalf of the whole community of St Andrew’s. I give thanks for the ways in which I have learnt about God’s grace and generosity here during the past year and most of all I give thanks for you, for sharing with me in the work of Christ– blessings, peace and joy for 2016.

Christ Mass

Salvation might be about the simple act of noticing,
It could be that collective amnesia
Has given birth to nostalgia,
Which in turn encourages us to
Miss the point.

The shepherds and the wise men
Made a journey
And crowded in that little
Place, they saw.

Yet, the television speaks of
Disembodied festivity:
Joy emptied, to leave
Tinsel and technology;
What else is there to be thankful for?

Bodied, enfleshed, breathing, moving, crying,
Realness glorified
Actuality, made more real than you or me
God, emptied and re-filled
Made again and made anew
That we might be re-made
Filled up, meaning spilling over
Shiny things shiny
Because we are made anew

Friday, 25 December 2015

Christmas Reflection 2015

‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’.

Corporately and individually humans persistently and consistently reject God. We are pretty good at choosing what is bad for us- being tempted by any number of false desires. We can become addicted to all sorts of bad behaviours, like alcohol, social media, pornography or self-hatred. The simple ways that we choose to spend our time every day determine the sort of people that we become; the minor details of our lives matter to God – he has given us each moment of every day. As a modern poet, Malcolm Guite puts it:

O king of our desire whom we despise,
King of the nations never on the throne,
Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone,
Rejected joiner, making many one

Take the Biblical tale of the rich man at his gate. He ignores the daily pleas of the poor and sickly man, Lazarus, and after a life of selfish indulgence he finds himself languishing in hell – from where he has a conversation with Abraham. He pleads with Abraham to go and tell his brothers to repent and serve the poor, but Abraham tells him that even if someone comes back from the dead to tell them, they would not believe.

We’ve just started reading the Christmas Carol to our children and it is a story about conversion – about someone learning what it is healthy to desire. Endless money and no capacity to be joyful is a dead end nightmare that leads nowhere. Scrooge is visited by a number of ghosts who reveal to him the bad choices that he has made that have closed up his heart. Most of us are not so lucky to have the reality of our falsehood presented to us at night by ghosts come to save us, (the rich man’s request of Abraham) – but conversion of heart comes less quickly than Dicken’s narrative allows us to hope. Conversion of heart is a painful exercise, not something that we necessarily have the courage for: can we face our demons, our inner battles, can we see the innocent face of God looking at us with love, dare we acknowledge the eyes that meet ours, not with judgment but with mercy?

Religion is despised by many, rejected, ill thought of, the reason for wars and the cause of the entire world’s ills – through the sludge of what man has corporately subjected God to, there is a different story. The dark drives and themes in our world try to drown out the discourse of love and hope that true religion and the one God communicate. Simple people, seeking to love God and neighbour are the humble little ones with whom God dwells; like Mary, like the poor shepherds, like the wise travellers who came from afar, like you and me, who come to this church tonight, seeking to worship the true and living God who brings love and peace and hope into our world.

The Advent season is about learning to long for God, which means learning to long for the things that are of true worth and value.

Throughout Advent we anticipate God’s coming.

But, God comes, always with an element of surprise – we didn’t quite expect this!

God’s emptying of himself into our world as a baby, is a story of how emptying, sacrifice, chosen vulnerability and weakness are the only ways to peace and love. God’s incarnation as a baby reveals the fragility and vulnerability of truth- God is not a violent warrior enforcing his power and control over people; he is a helpless baby, choosing the way of non-violence, who grows into the Prince of Peace. Seeking to be invulnerable is a human endeavour and it leads to hell: think of the way in which gun culture in America generates a violent culture, in the name of protection.

In a society which priorities fulfillment of any desire, good or bad, the Gospel of self-emptying love tells a different story of what makes for well-being.

God is everywhere for those who have eyes to see and nowhere for those who are blind. Heaven is a place we can enter through longing for the right things; hell is the place we make ourselves through our false desires.

Tonight we have an opportunity in which we are invited again to depend upon God, to be attuned to the ways in which he speaks to us and to repent of all that leads us away from him. He waits patiently for us, ever ready to welcome us, every ready to show us the face of his mercy and grace. And his promises are sure:

‘But, to all who received him and believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God’.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Has God become routine?

Many of us do something, not because we make a choice everyday to do it, but because it’s become part and parcel of our lives, one of the things that we do. Church going can be like that, but then Advent turns up in the church year to unsettle and challenge us; to wake us up and out of our routines into some serious re-engagement with the fundamentals of our existence. Advent reminds us that all this ritual, prayer and worship isn’t just a routine that we’ve gotten used to and quite enjoy, but actually is about our eternal destiny and about the things that matter most: truth versus darkness; goodness versus evil; judgment and end times.

Wake up we are told, be watchful, get ready, be alert! Jesus might have left but He will come back; the things that you have been taught and promised are realities; God is not some dream that was imagined a good long time ago; the search for truth, the work of goodness is real.

John the Baptist is a serious prophet – not one to allow us to fall into a sleep. He shows us how repentance and conversion are united together – we can’t have the one without the other – if we repent then we change:

And the crowds asked John the Baptist, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.                 Luke 3

We are encouraged to see, or rather to perceive in Advent, and that means ultimately perceiving or discerning what is true and what is false, what is right and what is wrong. ‘Put on the armour of light’ we are encouraged, ‘cast away the works of darkness’; of course the discernment of truth can be a murky business and we can be particularly good at deceiving ourselves. There is a very short window of opportunity when we might be willing to see ourselves as we really are. Most of the time we put the best account of ourselves forward to others, and are unwilling or at least reluctant to admit our weaknesses, failings or sin. The practice of confession is integral to the lives of Christians because it is about trying to work our way into seeing ourselves as God sees us, as we really are; and that is both a message of hope as well as a message of judgment. In Advent we hold together God’s mercy and God’s judgment and it takes courage to enter into God’s light which is a light that sees truly.

But, the good news is that the new community which is formed out of people who, in repenting their sins and reforming their ways, are led into a vision of a new creation. In the letter to the Philippians 4:8-9* we are encouraged, with the original recipients of the letter, to focus on that which is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing and commendable. We are not told to focus on what is false, unjust, impure etc. This is a necessary correction for all of us, as it is much easier to gather in criticism and hopelessness than it is to gather in truth and hope. When we gather together as Christians, can we remind each other that to focus on that which is good, is what we are called to along with building one another up and encouraging each other? Similarly, as we turn outwards to those who don’t yet believe, it is our duty too, to be bringers of light and of hope, of truth and of justice, of mercy and of peace.

*'Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.'

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Advent Sunday 2015

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