Monday, 5 September 2016

Who am I before God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Who do you blame?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How so?

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

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

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

Friday, 26 August 2016

Where was Jesus trying to take his disciples?

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

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

How, if at all, would our identity change?

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

Let us remember it:

Exodus 20:8-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Referendum - Civic Service June 26th 2016

The outcome of the in/out referendum is an enormous political shock that is reverberating around the world – voting trends give a picture of a divided Britain: divided between those who are cosmopolitan and those who are traditional; between the young and the old; between cities and countryside; between the wealthy and the poor; between Scotland/Nr Ireland and England/Wales. Such a huge political decision which ends a 46 year political union, which has toppled a Prime Minister and shocked the political classes, leaves us to wonder at the disconnect between those who lead and those whom they lead. For those who are elated and delighted at the outcome the narrative of victory is one that tells of: freedom from out of touch elites who rule from Westminster and Brussels; power to take back control of our borders; power to change our country for the better

For those who are despairing at the outcome there is shock, anger and disorientation – the United Kingdom they thought they believed in has been radically changed over night; they are fearful of the future and what it holds. For instance, they wonder at the impact on our economy, on our unity as a United Kingdom and on our standing in the world. Those who live here among us as friends from other countries face an uncertain future too. 

There is something quite key for me in this referendum outcome however about a gap between those who feel they have the power and ability to self-define, to make decisions, to have choices, to thrive in a global competitive market and enjoy a multi-cultural diverse country – and those who feel disenfranchised, left behind, forgotten, threatened and not listened to. It is those second voices that we have heard loud and more clearly than the others in the United Kingdom this last week.

For those of you who gather here today, to welcome Councillor Sally Bragg as Mayor, you may well be questioning your response to this new political reality. How do you respond to those you serve, how does your political party? How do you keep your nerve? There are far-reaching questions to answer for the whole political establishment.

The Bible passage that we have just heard from Mark’s Gospel (see below), presents to us a situation in which 2 brothers, James and John, come to Jesus and say: ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you’. Imagine the nerve, coming to someone with such authority and power and saying that! Surely Jesus will send them away and rebuke them for their nerve? Not so, instead of sending them away with a flea in their ear, Jesus asks them, ‘what is it you want me to do for you?’.

Jesus tells James and John that he can’t grant them their request, one to sit on his right hand and one on his left in heaven, for it is not his to grant. But he goes on to tell them what he can do for them – they can share in his baptism and inherit the kingdom of God. 

Jesus’ disciples are indignant – why is Jesus granting James and John such wonderful things! They don’t at first understand Jesus’ model of leadership; they think that there should be a pecking order, that they should get more than James and John. Jesus responds by reminding them (which is the part of the story we’ve heard) of what leadership and greatness looks like in God’s kingdom – serving others makes you great, humility and self-sacrifice reflect God’s love for us. Jesus talks directly about the secular political leaders of his day – and how they misuse their power to subjugate their people. His alternative way of leading is about service: ‘whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant’.

Jesus’ model of leadership has much to teach us today as we reflect on political leadership. Political leadership, if it is to be any good, has to take seriously the duty to serve. In your Mayoral year, Sally, you no doubt will learn something of the joy of what it means to serve your community, as you step aside from party politics and visit, support, encourage and listen. I’m sure that past Mayors will agree that the experience is a life-changing one that brings a new perspective and enables a deeper understanding of the communities that you represent. As you go around and listen, visit and meet, you may want to bare Jesus’ words in mind: ‘What is it that you want me to do for you?’

At this time of deep division in our country, it is important to listen to one another and to have compassion for one another – it is essential that we take each other seriously.  Jesus did not laugh in the face of James and John as they came to him with a serious request and neither should we laugh in the face of others as they present their desires, hopes and dreams. But what we do need to do is to take the time and effort to present the political and economic realities that we face, and not to paint false visions of future happiness out of lies. It’s hard work to tell people the complex reality of the world we live in; it’s much easier to paint in black and white and we’re all guilty of that. Jesus tells James and John clearly what he can’t do for them and then he goes on to say what he can do. Public servants too must be honest about what they can and can’t do for their people – the alternative is a continued erosion of trust in all authority figures.  

The new world we all woke up to on Friday morning demands that together we must tread boldly into the future. To do it well we must do it with a humility which teaches us to put the other first. With Jesus we must all learn to ask one another: ‘what is it that you want me to do for you?’

As you represent Rugby as Mayor this year Sally, in what is a new political reality, my prayer for you and those you serve is that you will listen and you will be compassionate across old political divides and allegiances and I trust that in so doing you will be a great blessing to Rugby.

Mark 10: 35-45

The Request of James and John

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’

 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Queen Elizabeth II's 90th Birthday

This weekend our nation and commonwealth gathers to give thanks for the long life and ministry of Queen Elizabeth II as we celebrate her 90th year. We know that she still leads a remarkably full working life and we may well reflect today on how she has managed to thrive so long in such a demanding and public role.

This week I’ve been on a conference and one of the subject areas was ‘building resilience for leadership’. We could easily have used Her Majesty as a shining example of someone who has displayed a remarkable resilience in leadership; not only is she the longest serving monarch in British history, but also the world’s oldest ruling monarch; and of course during those years there have been trials and challenges.

But what is resilience? It includes the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; a certain toughness and clarity of vision and role. Our Queen remains remarkably steadfast and committed to her task. But, resilience is more than its formal definition suggests. Resilience requires an ability to live in the future, as much as in the past. The Queen has been monarch during a time of great cultural and social change. Prime Minister David Cameron remarked, when in 2015 she surpassed Queen Victoria in the length of her reign, that she has been a ‘rock of stability’ and ‘the golden thread running through 3 post-war generations’. It has been her ability to remain steady and constant through both national, international and personal family crises that have been truly a gift to the nations that she serves and represents.

For example, she has embraced the future by taking an active role in the re-imagination of the British Commonwealth into the Commonwealth of Nations. She has been a moderniser in helping it to leave behind its colonial past and embrace a new way of mutual flourishing and togetherness. Similarly, she has embraced the multi-faith character of contemporary society and worked hard in promoting and enabling inter-faith relations. She has no narrowness of mind nor simplicity of thought, and whilst holding the most traditional and historic title in our land, she is able to live into the future. Hand in hand with this skill is her own deep and committed personal faith. A faith which in contemporary society has become more and more irrelevant, whilst for the Queen it has become more and more relevant.

The Servant Queen and the King She Serves looks more deeply into how the Queen’s faith has sustained and inspired her during her long reign. Rather than being an anachronism for her, the moment of her coronation, was a deeply moving and religious experience. She was anointed in her role and she has grown in the Spirit during her reign. Her quiet faithfulness challenges all of us to reflect more deeply on what sort of society we aim to be. How can her steadfastness be an encouragement to us in the face of continuing change and uncertainty in our culture, nation and world? How might her personal faith, accompanied as it is by generosity, hospitality and a deep respect for all cultures give us collectively a confidence to be ourselves, whilst not shutting down and closing ourselves off from external influences? 

Her Majesty provides each of us with rich resources with which we can walk steadfastly into the future, whilst drawing upon the richness and wisdom of the past. Her genius perhaps is to be a woman of both the past, present and future – a timeless figure, who truly endures for eternity.

God bless you your Majesty, may you enjoy your 90th birthday celebrations and perhaps most of all – thank you.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Compassionate God

Perhaps we could enter imaginatively into the face of God and more importantly into how God looks at us. It might not be easy to conjure up such an image; God’s face being hidden to us, but, what about his regard? How do we imagine him looking at us?

The passages that we’ve looking at for Sunday 5th June from 1 Kings (17:17-end) and from Luke (7:11-17) reveal to us that God looks with compassion on his children, especially those who suffer, mourn and who are the least and most vulnerable in society, as women were.

Elijah and Jesus are shown to have deep compassion on the two widows that they meet. They raise their sons from the dead; they act out of their very real compassion.
Compassion can be costly, compassion asks that we take responsibility for another’s suffering – not just saying a few kind words, but stepping into their world and changing it for them and with them.

Think of the Good Samaritan – how he could have crossed the road and stayed away, at a distance from the suffering of another; but he didn’t, he steps out of his way, into the story and journey of another.

Perhaps that is a good description of compassion, to step into the story of another and walk alongside them. Has anyone ever done that for you? Have you ever done that for another?

As Christians we are called to model the love of God and the love of God is revealed in the compassion of his Son. If we are to live in the light of God’s love we must learn to be people of compassion.

God is looking at you now – his face is radiant with love for you, with compassion for you, in all the many ways that you struggle and strive and suffer. What it is to have a God that looks at us with such a face, with such a care, with such compassion and love. What a church we would have, what a street, what a town what a borough, what a country, what a world if we could all learn to mimic the loving kindness and compassion of God.

May you know the blessing of God's radiant face looking at you with love and may you share that blessing with all your meet. Amen 

Monday, 9 May 2016

Praying for the Spirit

This week is being marked out by the Archbishops of York and Canterbury as a week of prayer in our nation, that ‘thy kingdom come’. At St Andrew’s we have been looking at the Lord’s Prayer and we have been having a go at writing our own version. 

Below are some other resources to help you pray this week.

Christ Has No Body
Christ has no body now, but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks
With compassion on this world.  
Teresa of Avila

Come, Holy Spirit: Come among us, come upon us. Come, Spirit of Truth – enlighten our minds; Come, Spirit of Love – enlarge our hearts; Come, Holy Comforter – strengthen and heal us; Come, Holy Fire – enflame and purify us; Come, Breath of Life – inspire us in our witness: that all may be drawn to know you and to praise you One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Fruits of the Spirit
Galatians 5:22-23

1.         Love
2.         Joy
3.         Peace
4.         Longsuffering
5.         Kindness
6.         Goodness
7.         Faithfulness
8.         Gentleness
9.         Self Control

Collect for Ascensiontide

O God, the King of glory,
you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ
with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven:
we beseech you, leave us not comfortless,
but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us
and exalt us to the place where our
Saviour Christ is gone before,
who is alive and reigns with you, 
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever 

Matthew 6:9-13

“This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.’