Saturday, 24 January 2015

Life before God's invitation

I wonder if you can imagine yourself in your daily life. What do you do Monday to Friday? - work at a check out, in a factory, teaching students, cooking the dinner, shopping, gardening, reading a book? Imagine that into your domestic or work space Jesus appears - Jesus is there just a few metres away and he’s calling you ‘Follow me’.  

Imagine Mary before she was surprised by the annunciation, what was she doing? Imagine Joseph as Mary came to talk to him to tell him the news, what was he doing; imagine the inn keeper who opened the door; imagine the shepherds as they were out on the fields tending their sheep; imagine the wise men before they saw the star. They all had a ‘normal’ before something strange and mysterious happened to them. And they are judged on how they respond to that mystery and that invitation.

-‘be it unto me according to your word’

These narratives tell us, as the incarnation reveals to us, that Jesus/God appears in our normal ordinary world. Jesus meets the ordinary person in their ordinary lives and makes an invitation -he presents a new reality and says: do you want to help me in this work? ‘ ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people’….

It might be easier to keep on fishing, keep on shopping, keep on reading, keep on cleaning, it might seem easier to look away, to not notice that someone in the near distance is calling you, is looking at you, is inviting you, is asking you – it’s perhaps simpler to imagine that it’s not you that’s being addressed. But,

What if like Simon, Andrew and James we should respond to this stranger who is calling us? We should get up, leave our dishes, leave the check-out, leave the book and follow?

Most of us no doubt at some stage have taken that step, listened to that voice and had the courage to get up and follow. But, I wonder if Jesus has more to ask of us, more to show us, more to invite us to see?

He did with Martha, who wanted to draw her sister back in to domestic tasks, but Jesus said no, she has chosen to follow that call, to take the time to listen.

The Christian journey is one of continuing encounter, continuing relationship with God and a daily opportunity to look beyond the surface realities and domesticity of our lives. Jesus takes the disciples on a journey, one that is compelling, often confusing, dangerous, miraculous, frightening, remarkable and life shattering. Like the first disciples Jesus invites us on a similar journey – his voice and his call is as much historic as it is present and the proclamation and announcement of the good news ‘that the time is near and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe’ is just as compelling as well as necessary today, as it was for the first disciples.

Mark’s Jesus is one who doesn't hang around waiting for people, he makes an invitation and then is gone; he’s got a whole new world to proclaim. The frightening aspect of the Gospel I suppose is that it can easily be missed, because God turns up with an invitation, but then he is gone. For us as Christians our vocation is to keep following, keep up with that voice and keep saying yes to that invitation. For Jesus asks us to be co-workers for the spreading of the good news, co –workers in announcing the new order, fellow travellers who will see something new, who will enter into a different world, who will be challenged and who will be transformed. As we hear again that story of the first disciples, we are invited by God to remember our first response to his call and reflect upon our own faithfulness. Are we still letting the mystery and the strangeness transform our reality? Or have we fallen back into the familiar every day? 

Preached at St Maries as part of Christian Unity Week, 2015

RC Lectionary

Mark 1: 14-20

The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry

 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ 

Jesus Calls the First Disciples

 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Vulnerability and Invitation

In one of the most extraordinary poems (in the sense that it reveals to me a new way of seeing things), in the ‘Haphazard by Starlight’ collection (Janet Morley) Denise Levertov reflects on the idea of Jesus as the Lamb of God (see her Agnus Dei). In it she explores the characteristics of a lamb, and by so doing –edges us to the discovery of our own significance in the story of God. For a lamb is unintelligent, weak, dependent – he relies on us ‘cold hearts’ to give him sustenance: -is it implied(?) she writes that ‘we’ must ‘hold to our icy hearts’ a ‘shivering God’?

It’s a surprising and enlightening reflection as it turns on its head the concept or idea of God as omnipotent and all-sustaining, suggesting rather, that God depends on us for our love, kindness and mercy – that indeed our ability to nurture God has a real impact on God’s ability to be found and to excel.

This sort of discovery relies on Christians being mature grown up ones, who do not suppose that God will rescue them in a heroic fashion, but rather, that we must take responsibility for harbouring God.

It is worth seriously reflecting upon this and considering it; mulling it around in our hearts and sensing the full implication. How many of us are waiting for heroic rescue? How many of us imagine that God will sort it all out anyway, that we’ll be alright. The sort of response that St Paul was struggling with when debating with the Romans about the implications of grace – ‘what then are we to say, should we go on sinning in order that grace may abound! By no means!’ – if we make God totally dominant, able to achieve everything for us, then we are left with a humanity that is denied its free will. And yet, if we assume it’s all down to us to achieve our salvation, to work for it, then surely we are doomed? The surprising nature of God’s grace is that it works through partnership – it's not either or: the great debate between faith or works that so disrupted the unity of the Christian tradition in the Reformation period was unnecessary when one considers the question to be not about faith or works, but about the grace and invitation of God which suggests partnership and mutuality. God makes room for us and invites us to be his handmaiden, for his nature is that which rejects dominance and force, but rather shines forth in vulnerability and gentleness.

Jesus the lamb of God – who takes away the sin of the world.

A weak and gentle lamb is the opposite of the Lion and yet in the Revelation reading (Rev 5:1-10) Jesus is described both as a Lion and a Lamb. William Blake of course has written poems about the Lamb and the tiger, contrasting the innocence and meekness of the first, with the fierceness of the second. Somehow within the Christian narrative, Jesus brings together the idea of the dreadful creature with the meek. The suggestion in Revelation is that it is his suffering sacrifice that brings these supposing paradoxical elements in his nature together: meekness united with courage or strength.

It’s a mixture that can be found in some holy people – where meekness and gentleness is mixed with courage and strength which can be disarming and surprising. It is after all meekness and gentleness that invite our love and tenderness: God wants us to nurture him. Yet in this weakness is strength - again as St Paul expresses it – for it’s a strength of true depth and worth – that suffers for us, that endures for us, that maintains its fullest integrity for us – never denying us our human agency, and yet not allowing us either to destroy ourselves: God saves and invites us to be part of that saving story. He does it gently – ‘come and see’.

Lectionary Readings for 18th Jan 2015

Revelation 5:1-10
John 1:43-51

Denise Levertov, Agnus Dei in 'Haphazard by Starlight: A poem a day from Advent to Epiphany' by Janet Morley. 

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Religion and Violence

One of the issues that the terror attacks in France urge us to reflect on is the ever present threat of hatred and violence. We can align hatred and violence to any number of religious or political ideologies, but the banality of hatred and cold murder comes from the human heart for any number of reasons. It happens in homes and between friends as well as between strangers and supposed enemies. Certitude - moral, political or religious gives power. It enables one to live under the delusion that our supposed version of truth gives us the right to hate and at the worst to take away life. Such certitude gives confidence as it feeds hatred and violence. Of course religious outrage - defending God - gives the greatest veneer of righteous anger that anyone could manufacture. The argument goes: You have offended my highest beliefs, literally my God, so I have the right to hurt you. It is a perversion of religious truth and the exact opposite of the real aims of any religion – love God and your neighbour. And who is your neighbour? A lawyer (who loved to be right) asked Jesus that question long ago and he told him in no uncertain terms that it is the person who is different from you (ethnically, politically and religiously, i.e. the Samaritan) whom you should and must show compassion to.

Jesus came and absorbed the violence and hatred in the world in order to transform it.  As Christians in a multi-faith and secular society, our only message and purpose is to continue to express Jesus’ way of peace and love, in which those whom we thought we were meant to condemn become those whom we are compelled to show compassionate love to. Jesus shows us that the only way to overcome violence is through love and that is a costly road to walk; but the alternative which is an escalation in conflict, fear, violence and death is costlier by far. 

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Christmas Video Message

Text version-

Hello from St Andrew’s Church in Rugby, where once again I’m surrounded by Christmas trees. This year there are a couple that pick up the WW1 remembrance theme using poppies as decorations. 2014 has been a significant year for the UK and for Europe as we’ve reflected on the significance of the first and the second world wars. The not uncontroversial Sainsbury’s advert reminded the nation that the story of Christmas can do extraordinary things; even in war it can unite enemies, as in the famous Christmas Day truce in 1914.

At Christmas we do enter a mystical moment, a moment of opportunity, where the message of God’s love and care for each one of us comes really close. The vulnerable child, the nativity scenes, the bringing of gifts, they tell us that we can still believe in the power of love to transform human experience. At Christmas 1914 on the Western front, some soldiers dared to look their enemies in the face and wish them happy Christmas.

In our societies today we all have the need to look those we dislike, blame and accuse in the face and see that they too bare the image of God. Transforming our enemies into friends is the mystical work of God, but it is made possible in the story of Christmas. Jesus, the baby in the manger, the Prince of Peace, tells us of God’s desire for peace, love and unity for all humankind. I hope that that message reaches deep into your life this year.

From everyone at St Andrew’s Church in Rugby, I wish you a very blessed, holy and peaceful Christmas. 

The video message will appear on the Rugby Advertiser website on 25th Dec. 

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Announcement of a Birth

We all have experiences of the announcement of pregnancies: ‘Mum I’m pregnant’; ‘we’re having a baby’, or in our case a step further on the sonographer saying, ‘one head and another head’…..

But, the simple announcement is not often straightforward; human lives and relationships are complex and fraught with difficulty as well as with joy and frustration and even tragedy. We all have knowledge of the complications too; for some the inability to have children, or a miscarriage, the loss of children; for others the joy and challenge of adoption or fostering children.

Bringing children into the world, let alone bringing them up, is an exercise in experiencing the pains, sufferings, joy and delight of God’s relationship with his people. It should perhaps be no surprise to us that at the heart of the story of God’s relationship with us, his people, is the announcement of a birth. For there is no greater metaphor, no more complex and demanding role, no more poignant or dangerous moment than that of the moment of birth: the fragility and beauty of life and the pure miracle that is life are evident so strongly in that moment.

And so it is that we come to Mary, and the announcement from Gabriel that she is to have a baby. Most of the time in life, especially in our advanced and technological democracies we have the illusion of choice and control. My own experience of pregnancy and child birth is the opposite experience; you have to wait and let nature take over. There is no control and little choice – we are given life and the process surrounding it. That experience of life as gift necessitates renunciation of control. Mary is surprised and perplexed, but she accepts God’s word to her and lets it be.

Sometimes in life we will encounter an event or experience, perhaps one of tragedy or joy that will leave us speechless. It will leave us floundering, in chaos, perplexed and out of our depth. There are times when life takes over, we cannot control or understand it; at those times we must seek God’s word to us and let it be; only desire that we might continue to serve God, as Mary does.

Mary was given a comforter and friend in Elizabeth, for whom something extraordinary was also happening. The shock and the strangeness of her situation was softened by her story being connected to Elizabeth’s. Having a companion who is connected to our own particular story is vital if we are to persevere in life. We need to be connected to others who too are experiencing the strange and perplexing narrative of a life lived in God’s hands; so that the joys and the pains can be shared.

The announcement of new life, the gift of a child, is a precious as well as a deeply vulnerable moment. It is in that way that God chooses to communicate more of Her nature to us: a Mother as well as a Father. The Annunciation is the continuing revelation of God’s tender loving care for Her people – and for ever more the nature of the Christian God will be connected with the image of a mother tenderly caring for her blessed child of promise. As Christians we must remember that God comes to us as a mother tenderly gathers her children, and share in that compassionate love with one another.

Text: Luke 1.26-38

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Tender Loving Kindness

As we journey through life we gather experiences, old certainties may disappear, rocks that we had come to rely on may literally be taken from us. These experiences, particularly of loss, can enlarge the heart’s capacity for kindness, for showing and receiving mercy and compassion.

A heart made vulnerable by experiences of loss, made fragile by suffering, is a heart that can also become more compassionate, kinder, and able to show itself, greater mercy and love.

It is one of the paradoxes of human experiences. A heart untouched by its own vulnerability will have little patience or compassion for those who have sunk deep into the heart’s vulnerability.

As we journey through life then we have an opportunity to grow in compassion and mercy, to see differently and respond differently to those around us. Once where we might have blamed or accused, we now get alongside and see it from their perspective.

The Christian story is a story of the vulnerability and tenderness of God; a God who does not blame or accuse, but who gets alongside. The loving kindness of God is revealed in the Incarnation, in the image of the Virgin and Child; so tender, so vulnerable, a little child. Jesus is a child of promise, vulnerable to the cruel machinations of the politics of power, represented in the Christmas story by Herod. Loving kindness has no defences, yet it can transform the world. A baby has no power, no agenda, it is nothing. In being nothing, God confronts us with his acceptance of weakness, which does not control or condemn. It is a weak God whose heart is large who comes in tenderness to love and encourage us.

At Christmas we are invited to accept the loving kindness of God, the kindness and mercy as of a mother who cradles, nurtures and protects her child. At Christmas we are invited to enlarge our hearts, to get alongside our neighbour and to receive the loving and compassionate mercy of our God.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Reflections for Advent: It is only an absent God that requires faith.

God’s absence is part of our common, in fact normal experience: ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!’  – O that you would demonstrate your power; make your reality known in a way that we cannot ignore. Because we forget you, we misbehave, we ignore you, because you do not impose yourselves on us! (Isaiah, 64.1-9). It is perhaps this experience of absence that makes most people assume that belief in God is foolish, contrary to experience. But, an evident, loud, noisy God, going around demonstrating Her power, would be one that impinges on the freedom we have been given in creation. God has given us self-determination and freedom. Faithfulness is about living hopefully with the seeming absence of God and the silence of God. It is about living as though God were with us all the time, watching us and guiding us.

Remembering a God who is silent, inconspicuous and gentle is the spiritual discipline supreme.

It is only an absent God that requires faith.

For it is our daily remembrance, we might say prayer, that makes us people of faith.

If we forget God, we are faithless. If we remember him, he changes us.

So, when we talk about prayer or worship, or being with others of faith, what we are saying is, do you make time to remember that you believe in God? For it is only the practice of faith that makes it real. He has given us many signs and ways to fine Him if we look: 'seek and ye shall find'. God is there, but we have to start looking. 

The ‘daily examen’, a spiritual discipline of St Ignatius Loyola, which has received much renewed interest as a spiritual pathway, is about actively looking for God. It requires a person to review the day that has passed looking for signs of God's presence and absence. A life of faith is nothing more or less, but the practice of the presence of God.

How would we live, how would we change our behaviour if we believed in God’s presence, if we really thought God was in the room? The act of faith requires an imaginative leap between our experience of absence, death and decay into hope, joy, rebirth, regeneration; between our experiences of the often harsh realities of our existence and the journey into an alternative understanding of human destiny. Then we start to live, meaning we change our behaviour and our attitude, based on that faith. Intentional daily awareness of God’s presence will transform us. We might start helping at the soup kitchen, we might start giving more to charity, we might temper our anger that’s often betrayed us, and we might make more of an effort with someone that’s always threatened or annoyed us. Small tiny steps, small changes in our reality, small things built upon the practice of remembering God.

That is what we are asked to do in the season of Advent, to wake up to God in our lives, to attune ourselves anew to the melody of God. Wake Up! Be alert!

Advent is a season about expecting God’s presence; not only in the past and not only in the future, but also and most importantly in our present. We wait to celebrate the Incarnation – God’s presence with his people and we look forward to the future presence of God, in the second coming, but we invite God’s indwelling with us now. We open ourselves to his invitation.

And when we do, we may experience the noisy God. The God that through our discipline of patient remembering, starts to trust that he can make himself known to us. The absent silent God becomes the ever-present imminent God; we see God in everyone and everything. But importantly that transformation has not come about by God coming down making the water quake and the earth tremble, but through our faithfulness. We have to make that journey where we are transformed inside out, where our faith is really a part of us. Imposed, authoritarian faith is blind; indwelt, experienced faith is full of sight. And, wow, just wait and see what God lets you see!