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.’

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Meeting the Risen Jesus

I was quite struck by the man who took a photo (wrongly labelled at first a selfie) of himself and the hijacker of a plane, which turned out to be an instance of some love affair gone seriously awry. It got me thinking about personal identity and our modern ability to record and diary everything in the minutest detail. Does such an ability to photograph, record and write the details of our lives mean that there is nothing left to hide, nothing left to learn, everything laid bare? What will historians make of our time and culture; will they understand everything, or does the profusion of information, detail and self-disclosure obscure reality?

Or to put it another way:-

Would the disciples have taken a selfie with Jesus on the beach? If so, would that photo have proved for all time that Jesus was resurrected?

I have a sense that the resurrected Jesus couldn’t be recognised in a photo from the past, even if we did have such a photo.  And I sense this because recognising the risen Jesus is more than seeing and knowing a face; the disciples did not recognise Jesus at first, only when he revealed himself in action. We cannot look at a photo and see the Risen Lord nor can we find anything that will prove for all time that Jesus rose from the dead. Rather, we too are required to develop eyes of faith. Recognising the Risen Jesus, the early accounts tell us, requires faith. Moreover, for those who first encountered the resurrected Jesus, that encounter was also framed by a prior relationship.

Let’s look at the Bible readings we’ve seen today. Firstly, at Peter.
(John 21:1-19 and Acts 9.1-20)

For Peter that prior relationship with Jesus had become overshadowed by his denial of him. It could have been easy for Peter to refuse to see the Risen Lord. However, his encounter with the risen Jesus becomes an opportunity to remake their relationship. In his threefold insistence of his love for Jesus, Peter’s future is redrawn. His future becomes his Christian vocation, no longer a fisherman he will be a ‘fisher of people’. Jesus gives Peter back his former identity as his friend and then extends the relationship, he now too must become part of Jesus’ mission on earth – not only a friend but also a co-worker.

Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ, on the other hand, depends on him not seeing. His three-day’s blindness is a necessary counter to Paul’s determined arrogance that only he knows and is right; he needs to experience the bleakness of his own ignorance. All the same, that encounter was framed by a prior relationship with Jesus, a relationship of opposition and persecution. Note that the voice from heaven asks: ‘Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?’. Jesus’ address suggests a personal relationship, surprisingly, because Paul didn’t know Jesus when he was alive. But Paul’s persecution of the early followers of the way, is framed as personal persecution of Jesus himself. For Paul, like Peter, Jesus comes to him to reframe their prior relationship and to offer a new future, one in which the person who has seen becomes a co-worker in Jesus’ mission.

These resurrection encounters with the Risen Christ extend to our time and to our lives and they follow the same pattern. Having faith in the Risen Lord is not simply knowing the resurrection stories. I believe, we too, individually, can meet the Risen Jesus in our own time and lives. What does that encounter look like?

The Bible narratives suggest that our encounters with the Risen Lord, if indeed we have them, will make sense of our past and offer us a new future. Jesus comes to us not as a stranger but one whom we know, perhaps either as enemy, friend or simply as the one we’ve rejected or ignored. How is that? Jesus is not simply a man, but also God. Therefore, whatever way or ways we have known God in the past, our encounter with the Risen Jesus will redraw the parameters of that relationship.

How we meet Jesus, in what form and what manner will be dependent upon who we have become. But if we personally see the Risen Lord, not with our eyes, but with eyes of faith, it seems unlikely that that encounter will leave us cold or unchanged. We will, like Peter and Paul, and countless others after them, be invited by Jesus to share in his work on earth. That is another way of describing our vocation, the outworking of which will be unique and specific to us.  Vocation doesn’t mean priesthood, vocation means our unique identity formed by God and our co-operation in seeing the unfolding of that identity for the purposes of the kingdom.

We also can be sure that the resurrection stories reassure us that Jesus does not come as judge, but as reconciler and healer. He does not condemn us, rather he wills us to see him. What he requires from us is that we turn around, notice his presence and step-out with him as companions, friends and disciples, willing to suffer anything to be part of his kingdom.

If Jesus came to our society, the records of his life, encounters with him and details of his teaching may proliferate on twitter and facebook, or alternatively, he would die somewhere unnoticed by the eyes of society, by people absorbed with themselves. He would be a footnote in a newspaper or television broadcast, another radical campaigning for justice, who was silenced by the authorities. There may be some reports of people making strange claims about his body and seeing him again, causing divisions in a well-established religion, but apart from that, there would be no general agreement, or well-documented proof. For God is a silent worker, appearing to those and being noticed only by those who have eyes to see.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Bargaining with God?

When my mum was in her 20's she nearly died of a brain haemorrhage. She tells me that her parents prayed that if her life was saved they would give her to God. This sort of bargaining with God at times of crisis is common to all of us and the story of Hannah and Samuel is a similar story – Hannah bargains with God: ‘if you open my womb, I’ll return the gift back to you’ – and she fulfills that vow; she brings her weaned child to the temple to give him as a Nazirite to the Lord. (a Narzirite is set apart, they can drink nothing made from grapes, they can't cut their hair and they must avoid corpses). 

I suppose both these stories encourage us to reflect deeply on the nature of God’s relationship with us – can God really be influenced by the prayers and bargaining of God’s people? Can humans given anything to God and if so what? What are the implications of our answers to these questions?

Answering these questions necessarily brings us up sharp against the gap between God’s identity and our own. As humans we plead, bargain, ask, petition, hope, despair, loan, borrow, give and receive. But, how far is God like that? In the Jewish tradition relationship with God was governed by some leading concepts like covenant and sacrifice. God established a covenant with God’s people that asked for certain behaviours. However, when the people fell short God was merciful to them. The people sacrificed for God as a way of confessing and making atonement for their sins – reciprocity was at the heart of the Jewish description of God’s dealings and therefore relationship with his people. It was a two-sided affair –yes God was in charge, but a response was required and many a prophet argued and bargained with God and is shown to change God’s mind.

What changes, if anything, with Jesus? Calvinism interprets Christianity in a particular way and there are strands of Calvinist thought and practice that appear in Anglicanism. Calvinism takes a particular position with regards reciprocity in the dynamic between God and people. The Calvinist position emphasises free grace (the gratuitousness nature of God’s love). Humans cannot earn God’s mercy, forgiveness, etc. and they cannot influence God. There is, in this theology, no way of pleasing God by our own efforts and importantly God could not be put under any obligation by the actions of humanity: ‘For Calvin no return is possible, and any attempt to make it will lead to the endless obligation or righteousness by works that Luther decried’. Such a theology is still present in Anglican practice most clearly in the Book of Common Prayer:- the ‘we do not presume to come to this thy table merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies, we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table’ prayer puts into words a theology of grace, gratuity and complete unworthiness. God gives; we receive and give thanks.  We do not receive because we have done well; we receive because God is merciful.

In my Lent Group we have been considering the nature and practice of prayer and to my surprise I take quite a Calvinist position in relation to it. Whilst I may bargain with God and ask God for many things, to keep people safe, for protection, for healing – deep down I have a sense that all we can offer God is our thanksgiving and faithfulness and that no bargaining with God is possible – we cannot put God under any obligation to save us, other than in the way that he has already saved us – through Jesus Christ.

God is what God is and he does give to us, fully, utterly and completely in his Son, through whom we are redeemed, blessed and made whole. A true and proper understanding of this, I think, can lead to a life of greater peace because we truly receive life as gift and return our praise and thankfulness to God. Most of human living and human happiness is dependent upon our receiving the things we want to receive; on gaining the things we want to gain and on keeping the things we love. If we have this and get this, we give thanks and our faith remains. For Hannah it was so: here is my adversity, take it away from me and I will return the thanks.

But in asking God for those things we are not living a new life as a redeemed person – we are simply contracting God into the well-established human system. To live anew with freedom and in God’s grace we thank God everyday for the good and the bad, for the failings and for the successes – that is the Christian attitude: ‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord’.

From Calvin’s theology came also three rules or principles which directly impacted not only on Christian community, but on politics:
1)   we act charitably to all human beings, ‘without looking to see if they are worthy or unworthy’
2)   we act charitably with a joyous face and kind words, not making any person to whom you have done a benefit obliged to you in any way
3)   we are not discharged from our duty when we have helped one person – we are in debt to those near to us for all we can provide

These three principles or rules relate to Calvin’s theology that refuses to see the relationship between God and humankind as a reciprocal one: God gives freely and overwhelming to us; Christians should do likewise to one another - giving freely with no judgment and no sense of limit. Such a practical outworking of God’s generosity helps us to live in the world of loss, disappointment and death. Through us God remakes our experience and thereby transforms our common life. In such a way and perhaps paradoxically a different sort of reciprocal relationship between God and creation does appear: we are called to copy God, in so doing we live as the redeemed and joyful ones who include everyone in their inheritance.

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