Sunday, 20 November 2016

we need to talk about donald

Christ the King

Today is the feast of Christ the King. Next Sunday, the cycle of the Church year begins again with Advent, where we wait with hope and expectation on the coming of Jesus. But today we mark the end of the journey, celebrating Christ who, in St Paul's words, ‘…God raised from the dead and seated at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come’ (Ephesians 1.20-21)

As today is the end of the church year, it is perhaps fitting to look back on the last twelve months and take stock. It has been a challenging year in many ways, and the political landscape has been markedly changed by two keys events: the referendum in which Britain chose to leave the European Union, and the election of Donald J Trump as the new President of the USA.

One of the things that links these two events is that they were the outcome of campaigns characterised by barefaced lies, xenophobia and racism. It has been said that we have entered a post-truth era where it no longer matters if what politicians say is true, just so longs as it feels like the truth their supporters want to hear.

This slippery slope is one of the outcomes of individualism — a cultural mindset where people no longer believe in anything except their own truth, experience and feelings. Experts are discarded because nobody wants to listen to someone with real knowledge or experience if it contradicts one's own personal outlook.

The trouble with this approach is that people’s personal truth, if uninformed, is not always shaped by the highest ideals or aspirations, or even by empirical fact, but by fear and anxiety.

Fear causes us to withdraw from one another, to reject those who are different from ourselves. It is the polar opposite of Jesus' command that we should love our neighbours as ourselves. But in today’s politics, people are encouraged to love themselves and hate those who are different.

Much of this is stoked by the press, who have long understood that scare-mongering sells newspapers. And many papers are no longer interested in reporting facts, but in simply selling more copies. So they tell their readers what they want to hear.

Newspapers make their money from advertisers. The more readers that buy their paper, the more they can charge businesses to place advertisements.

But last week, we saw the first brick in the wall tumble in the popular media’s hate-filled, judgemental and prejudiced view of the world. And this was no ordinary brick.

It was a Lego brick.

The makers of the popular children’s construction toy was the first company to be persuaded to stop placing adverts in the Daily Mail because of the hateful, divisive and untruthful stories that particular paper prints about migrants. (They are not the only paper to do so).

The same kind of toxic antipathy towards migrants was also to be found in the pre-election speeches of Donald Trump, which were vile in their language and sentiment about immigrants as well as many other topics.

As with many of you, it was with deep despair that I heard that Trump had won the election. He has given encouragement to racists and bigots across America, and since the election result was announced there has been a spike in hate crime and attacks on minorities by people who feel emboldened by a President-elect who they believe supports their divisive views. And we saw the same rise in hate crime after the Brexit referendum in this country, because some people felt that those who encourage tolerance and inclusion are no longer in charge.

How are we, as Christians, to respond to all this?

Firstly, let us recall St Paul’s words that when we have the Spirit of God within us, our behaviour is characterised by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity and self-control (Galatians 5.22-23). Are these qualities found in the things we say and do? Do they inform the political decisions we make? Are they nurtured by the newspapers we choose to read, or the television shows we like to watch?

And if that long list of qualities feels daunting, why not choose just one to practice this coming week. What if, for example, we all made a conscious effort to practice kindness — in the way we talk about other people, the way we talk to other people, the way we act towards them. What sort of world might it become if each of us paused before saying or doing something and asked ourselves, ‘Is this kind?’

‘Hate is just a bodyguard for grief. When people lose the hate, they are forced to deal with the pain beneath.’ Kindness goes a long way to enabling that to happen in other people. Life is not an ‘us versus them.’ We are all God’s people. All made in the image of God. The Feast of Christ the King is a good time to recall that wonderful vision in the book of Revelation, imagining all God's people standing before the throne of Christ in heaven:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’ (Revelation 7.9-12 NRSV)

When I hear bad news, whether it is the loss of a loved one, or something bad going on in the world, I am so glad that I have a bigger picture into which I fit my understanding of what is taking place.

Things in life will always go wrong. Being a Christian doesn’t mean God magically makes all the bad stuff go away for us (although there are plenty of Christians who do think that is the point — like a kind of divine insurance policy). No, one of the gifts faith gives us is that we have something to anchor ourselves to so that we can better withstand the knocks and blows of life.

And the image of Christ the King on his throne, ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come’ is a very powerful one. Christ rules over all the earth, over all earthly rulers. His rule is eternal (Donald Trump’s is limited to eight years). He is bringing about a new creation, the kingdom of God, where all the troubles of the world will be banished.

And we have this amazing privilege and opportunity, to encounter a glimpse of this when we pray. It is in prayer that we anchor ourselves to the big picture that Jesus shows us, remembering that there is another story unfolding, not the gloom and misery and lies that you’ll find in the newspaper, but the joy and love and truth of a God who reaches out a hand to us in turbulent times and say, ‘Here, grab a hold of this.’

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

on being so heavenly minded to be of no earthly use

Year C | 3rd Sunday before Advent

Luke 20.27-38

Today's gospel reading puts me in mind of an old saying. When someone was obsessively spiritual or overly pious they were said to be 'so heavenly minded they are no earthly use.' It's not an expression Jesus used, but if it had been then I think we find in this passage the occasion on which he might have used it.

Jesus has been called upon to mediate in a religious argument. He is presented with two religious factions. In the blue corner are the Pharisees, who believe in the resurrection of the dead. In the red corner are the Sadducees who don't. They had a vested interest in resisting the idea of the dead rising to life in a new world. The Sadducees, you see, were drawn from families of the aristocracy who were major landowners and whose sons would grow up to become great high priests in the Temple. So they were powerful in both secular and religious terms. (It is perhaps not dissimilar to the Oxbridge-educated sons of the landed gentry who were fast-tracked to become deans and bishops in the Church of England until not so long ago.)

The Sadducees therefore wanted to see everything remain exactly as it was because they were doing very nicely thank you. The idea that the dead would come back to life as part of a new creation threatened their status.

Interestingly, Jesus does not come down firmly on one side of the argument or the other which may come as a surprise, as Christians very clearly do believe in the resurrection of the dead. But it isn't that Jesus doesn't believe in resurrection, he just thinks it's a subject that is too easy to get obsessed about; risking becoming so heavenly-minded to be of no earthlyp use.

Remember, the thing Jesus taught most frequently is that the kingdom of God (aka the kingdom of heaven) is at hand. Through Jesus, heaven has already broken through into the world and become available to us here and now. And he wants his followers to get stuck into the work of the kingdom ('thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven'), not to project all their thinking and energy into what happens after we die, because that is beyond comprehension. The human mind simply cannot conceive of what the after life is like, because it will be so different from the kind of life we experience on earth.

I often think of this passage when people ask me if they will be reunited with loved ones when they die. Will they see their parents and grandparents again, their husband or wife or children? What about pets? And I think the answer to that question is, 'It will be even better than that.' Whatever you imagine is the best thing eternal life can offer, whatever you hope for in the future, I think we will discover that our imaginations are too small, too limited to understand what it means to be perfected and present in the glory of God. We reduce it to the best things we can imagine, based on our experiences of life in this world. But Jesus very clearly tells us life in heaven is different.

But enough about then, what about now?—because this is essentially Jesus' point. Stop wondering about what heaven is like, or arguing about who does or doesn't get in (as too many Christians spend their time doing, cheapening grace in the process). God is not God of the dead, but of the living. It is here and now that matters. For us eternal life has already begun. We are called by Jesus to join in with the work of creating a new order which he came to inaugurate—the kingdom of God. In this realm, as we saw last week, the poor are blessed, strangers are welcomed, the hungry fed, the grieving consoled.

Jesus locates the experience of godly living and spiritual fulfilment in the present. The fullness of life that he offers comes to us by living in the moment, in the here and now. The potential to glimpse an experience of heaven—of stillness and peace and fulfilment and contentment—is not found by getting caught up in questions about the past, as the Sadducees did, or placing all our hope and expectation on the future, as the Pharisees did. The kingdom of heaven is at hand for us when we prayerfully open ourselves to God in the present moment and, in the stillness of now, encounter the God of the living.

This is the spiritual wisdom that Jesus brings to his followers. Don't get caught up in point-scoring religious arguments, instead become caught up in the love of God that is present to us right now, a love that enables us to become agents of change in the world, bringing that love to those people and situations that need to encounter it most in the world today.

Don't become so heavenly minded that you are of no earthly use.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

on keeping the faith

All Saints Day 2016

This church, St Anne and All Saints South Lambeth, acquired the 'All Saints' part of its name from another church which originally stood in the vicinity of what is today the Lansdowne Green Estate (where some of our congregation now live). That church was bombed during the Second World War and the congregation joined St Barnabas Church on Guildford Road, to form All Saints and St Barnabas. Some of our congregation used to go to that church until it closed in the early 1980s, after which the congregation moved here to St Anne’s, to form what is now St Anne and All Saints. So the saints have certainly been all over South Lambeth.

When we get to All Saints Day, which we are celebrating today (though it actually falls on Tuesday), one of the things I like to think about are all those saints who are part of our story; the people of the three churches of All Saints, St Barnabas and St Anne who, over 200 years, have kept the faith in this corner of London.

Just imagine for a moment all the happy occasions they celebrated — the christenings and marriages that took place in these churches; the Christmases and Easters that were observed; the parties and social events that took place in their halls.

Think, too, about all that this city has gone through over the years — the devastating epidemics of cholera in 1832 and 1849, and of smallpox in 1901; the winter of 1814 when the river Thames froze so solidly they were able to hold a fair on it, while a few decades later the ‘great stink’ of 1858 was caused by high levels of untreated sewage in the river during a particularly hot summer. Think of the First World War and the losses experienced by families in every street of this parish; the great economic depression of the 1930s and the grinding poverty that it caused to so many; the Second World War, in which this area was one of the most heavily bombed in London, with people losing family, neighbours and homes; the rationing and austerity of the 1950s, and so on.

For the former congregations of All Saints, St Barnabas and St Anne, we are the people who must remember and give thanks for all that they went through while remaining faithful to God, and keeping the practice of worship alive for us to continue.

So today one of the ways that we can celebrate All Saints Day, and mark our Patronal Festival (as an 'All Saints' church), is to remember and honour all those generations of Christians who stayed faithful through difficult times, trusting in Jesus Christ and in the hope of the kingdom of God.

In that kingdom, we are all saints. Citizens, in fact. And God’s kingdom belongs to God, and nothing or nobody can take it away from us.

In today’s Old Testament reading, Daniel has a weird dream which is a manifestation of his fears and anxieties (we’ve all had those). In his dream he sees four beasts coming up out of the sea. These strange creatures represent the kings of the four countries that have dominated and oppressed Israel for 500 years up to and including the time of Daniel: Babylon, Media, Persia and Greece. The kings of these nations have caused suffering to Israel for generations. Yet the people kept the faith. When Daniel seeks some help understanding what his dream might mean, he is given this reassurance: ‘The holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever.’ (Daniel 7.18)

Whatever earthly kingdom we belong to, whatever nationality we are, we are also citizens of God’s kingdom. And God’s kingdom belongs only to God, and nobody and no catastrophe can take that away from us.

In St Paul’s words, ‘…we have obtained an inheritance…as God’s own people’ (Ephesians 1.11,14). And while the practice of worship has been passed on to us by those who gathered here in years past, our inheritance is given to us by Jesus Christ, whom ‘…God raised from the dead and seated at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come’ (Ephesians 1.20-21, NRSV).

Whatever you have to go through in this life, nobody can take God away from you. And some of the most inspirational stories of Christian saints are those who were horribly abused by those in authority but refused to yield to them and give up their faith, because they had confidence in a higher authority. And there is nothing that drives cowardly tyrants and bullies more crazy than those who lay claim to their citizenship in the kingdom of God above and beyond all else.

And so this is how Jesus can say to us:

'Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God' — poverty cannot take God away from you.

'Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled' — famine cannot take God away from you.

'Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh' — grief and sorrow cannot take God away from you.

'Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man' — persecution and abuse cannot take God away from you. (Luke 6.20-23, NRSV)

But there are things in life that can get between us and God in the way we live:

‘But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. (Luke 6.24-26, NRSV).

'The blessed are those who have caught at least a glimpse of God's future and trust that it is for them.' (Prof Sarah Henrich). The woeful are those who have put their faith in themselves, their money, their comfort, and their reputation. Their eyes look inwards to themselves, not outwards on the world nor on God.

And Jesus goes on to give us some examples of how to keep the faith and live a blessed life:

'Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you... Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6.27-31, NRSV).

We are members of one particular outpost of the kingdom of God, St Anne and All Saints Church and, as such, how will we ensure that we are not only faithful saints in that kingdom but keepers of the faith for future generations?

People in this part of Lambeth are today living thorough the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. There will be more wars in the future, more terrorism on our doorstep. The health epidemic currently threatening the lives of many, including children, is obesity, a condition that comes from having too much and doing too little. We don't know what leaving the European Union, what Brexit, will mean for us, although our currency has lost a fifth of its value and is now the worst performing currency in the world on the money markets. The price of Marmite has gone up by 12.5%, and The Great British Bake Off has left the BBC for Channel 4!

By any measure, these are uncertain times. Yes, nothing can take God away from us. But in 50 years time, or 100 years time, will there still be a community of Christians worshipping faithfully here? Or will the light have died, overwhelmed by those two other great epidemics of our time — apathy and individualism?

As we celebrate today what has been passed on to us from our predecessors in this parish, many of whom lived though times far worse times than our, we must each also ask ourselves, 'What am I doing to keep the faith and ensure it will be passed on for future generations?'

Sunday, 23 October 2016

on the absence of a velvet rope separating the VIPs from the Hoi Polloi in the kingdom of God

Luke 18.9-14 — The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Life isn’t a competition.

You wouldn’t necessary think so to listen to some people. We’ve all met those who delight in getting a bargain, and have paid less for something than others. There’s nothing worse than going on holiday and hearing the people at the next table gloat about how they paid much less for their holiday than you. Or those who get access to something rare and exclusive, then love to crow about it; perhaps a seat upgrade on a plane, or the guest list for a VIP event. The sort of things, in fact, that usually never happen to the rest of us.

And then there are the people who delight in telling you how they talked their way out of a tricky situation, like the time they were caught speeding but wangled their way out of getting a ticket. Or how they managed to claim benefits to which they weren’t entitled, or used clever accountancy to get out of paying taxes, and feel smart for getting one over on the system.

What all those people have in common is they live their lives as if it is a competition and they only feel they have succeeded when they get something over on the rest of us.

Well its easy to think about such people and tut-tut at them, but Jesus tells a story (Luke 18.9-14) in which we might be made to realise that we are all a little bit competitive, that we all have people we like to look down on as a way of making us feel more successful and better. Or sometimes we might even put ourselves down by comparing ourselves unfavourably to others we believe to be better or more successful than us, which is just as bad. It is a kind of competitive way of living which operates through comparisons, out if which we either seek a false sense of security or reassurance about our own goodness, or fuel low self-esteem because we can only see ourselves as a failure in comparison to others who are brighter, more succesful, richer, better looking or more popular.

In the time of Jesus it was the religious leaders who most obviously looked down on others. In this story he illustrates that point:

‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

In Britain we love an underdog: that person who seems least likely to triumph then succeeds against all the odds. Reading this parable of Jesus might easily play to those instincts. There’s the sleazy, swindling tax collector who comes good in the end, while the proud upstanding religious leader is brought low by his own self-regard and pride.

Tread very carefully here. It isn’t a competition. Do not be too quick to identify yourself with the little guy who comes good in the end. Perhaps Jesus is suggesting that the person most of us should identify with is the Pharisee — the one who is not humble enough to see himself as he really is; the one who looks down on others and stokes his own pride by comparing himself with somebody else.

Of course the repentant tax collector does come good in the end. But the Pharisee isn't altogether a bad person either. He really has given away a tenth of his income; he actually does fast twice a week. He is a good faithful person. The mistake he makes, though, is that his righteousness is centred on himself and not on God. This is the point that the cheating tax collector understands. His righteousness comes from God. And when you get that point, you understand that it is not our place to judge other people, to compare ourselves with them or form opinions about whether we are better or worse than them. Because for all of us, true righteousness can only come from God, not through anything we have done but through God’s grace.

As the saying goes, the ground at the foot of the cross is level. There is no cause to play the competitive game of insiders and outsiders, who’s better and who’s worse.

When Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the temple was torn. The very thing that divided the priests from the people no longer existed. There are no insiders in the kingdom of God, nobody gets special access, or attention or favours when it comes to God. No special upgrades, no velvet rope to keep the hoi polloi from the VIPs. It is for all of us. But we can only really claim our status as equal citizens of God’s kingdom when we stop looking down on others, or thinking that others are better than us.

‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Sunday, 2 October 2016

on faith as a friendship, not a superpower

Luke 17.5-10

The followers of Jesus have been listening to him teach about the kingdom of heaven being at hand, about what it means to follow him, about the cost of discipleship, about the pitfalls, and demands, of being a disciple of Jesus.

By the time we pick up the story in today’s reading, we might imagine that they’re beginning to feel a bit panicky and anxious about what they have got themselves into.

‘Increase our faith!’, they demand. We need more faith, bigger faith, better faith — as if faith was just another commodity that could be enlarged and improved upon; like a present day laundry detergent advertised as ‘new and improved; washes whiter; now even better at removing stains; comes in our biggest ever box.’

'Increase our faith!' Jesus chooses to respond to this request in a rather difficult and hard to understand way. To be fair, he has got a bit of form in this regard, which is presumably also part of his followers’ struggle to get to grips with what he expects of them.

‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,"and it would obey you.' (Luke 17.6)

Ever tried that? Ever tried praying really, really hard to make something like that happen? A bush to transplant itself? A mountain to move? Come on! It only takes the tiniest bit of faith for that to work. A mustard seed is so small as to be almost invisible. Such a tiny quantity of faith should be easily manageable.

But garden shrubs don't shift themselves around when people pray, and I think Jesus knows this. What he also understands is that people desire faith as a kind of superpower, enabling them to do great things, all sorts of miracles and wonders. And he, rightly, doesn’t trust their motives for this one bit.

In fact, there are no shortage of religious leaders who claim to have exactly that kind of power. They are the sort of people who tell you that if you get ill, it's because you don’t have enough faith; that if you’re poor it is because God hasn't blessed you (which, of course, is your own fault too). Actually, the real miracle such leaders perform is the transfer of large amounts of cash from the wallets and purses of their hard-pressed followers into their own pockets, which is why these kinds of ministers usually live in mansions and drive luxury cars. They pass their mega-rich lifestyle off as a blessing, because they say God wants us all to be rich.

Funny, then, that Jesus himself was dirt poor, and spent much of his time in the company of other poor people, not making them materially rich but bringing them instead the spiritual richness and fulness of life that comes from friendship with him.

His followers were a real raggedy band, mainly composed of poor, uneducated hillbillies and rednecks, struggling to grasp all this conceptual kingdom of heaven business that Jesus kept telling them about. Not only that, but they went on to become the foundation of the worldwide Church today. These are the very people Jesus entrusts with continuing to spread the good news that he had told them about. Just like he trusts us to do the same. You don’t have to be Billy Graham, or a genius, or a millionaire.

It isn’t status, or wealth, or gifts or talents that makes you a faithful follower of Jesus.

It is living out your relationship with him.

His disciples didn't always grasp what he was talking about, but they trusted him. Faith is not something that can be quantified or measured. It's the same when someone is your friend, then they are simply your friend. That’s the relationship you have with them. You don't measure the size of it, or put a number on it. The only thing that can increase a friendship is the amount of time you spend with one another.

So when we say 'yes' to the invitation that Jesus brings to be God’s friend, then, through Jesus and the time we spend in his company, that friendship grows and increases.

Faith is persistence in reaching out to Jesus (Luke 5.17-26) and trusting in Jesus’ power and authority (7.1-10). Faith is responding with love to forgiveness received (7.44-50), not letting fear get the upper hand (8.22-25), and being willing to take risks that challenge the status quo (8.43-48). Faith is giving praise to God (17.11-19), having confidence in God’s desire for justice (18.1-8), and being willing to ask Jesus for what we need (18.35-43).*

Does Jesus see through his disciples’ request for greater faith? Maybe he understands that behind their question is an anxiety that they cannot do all that he wants of them. So they want the superpower; but Jesus wants them—he wants us—to simply trust him. He doesn't want us doing party tricks to impress our friends, as a way of selling God to unbelievers. That’s a human impulse. Jesus wants us to be his disciples, his friends; to discover what that kind of faith is like, an authentic faith, so that we can pass it on. Then we can share the invitation to be a friend of God, not based on flashy miracles, but on our own experience of having our inner-life transformed and of discovering that our best self is found when we give ourselves to God and to each other.

And that takes even less faith than the size of a mustard seed. However little faith you have, just live it out. It is sufficient. Active faith that is really, really tiny will still be blessed. Don’t worry about whether you have more or less than others. It isn’t a competition.

St Paul writes in his letter to Timothy that God, ‘…saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.’ (2 Tim 1.9, emphasis added). We don’t need the superpower, because God does the heavy-lifting for us.

Faith isn’t something to be sought after for our own ends. It is given to us so that we can join in with the work of God in the world — of building towards the kingdom of heaven. This kingdom, as we read elsewhere in the gospels, is like a fantastic party where everyone is invited. The poor, the disabled, the misfits, the shunned, the loners, the thugs who pretend they aren't really frightened, the ones with the weird personality, the ones who are a bit bonkers, the bad haircuts, the speech impediments, the flat-chested and the tiny-willied, the ones that will never win a beauty competition—even the fat, balding, grey-haired, gay ones from Scotland—and all the other superficial stuff people get all hot and bothered about.

Jesus paints a picture of the kingdom of heaven, not as a place full of shiny, beautiful people who reek of success, but of the very people the establishment and the rich look down on. We're all invited. And, like any good teenager, when we discover this great party, we should immediately text all our friends and invite them too, until we've torn the house apart.

And don't forget, the kingdom of heaven that Jesus talks about isn't just some after-life paradise. It is something that exists for us here and now, and we're all welcome.

Faith equips us to serve God in building towards this vision, and to continue the work that Jesus has started. And that doesn't require superpower levels of faith. That just needs you to start acting out your faith—your relationship with Jesus—however inadequate you feel that is, confident in the knowledge that it will be blessed by God.

* Audrey L. S. West, et. al., New Proclamation: Year C, 2010; Easter through Christ the King, David B. Lott, ed. (Fortress: Minneapolis, 2009), 234.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

on saying yes to an invitation

Harvest Thanksgiving

‘Taste and see that the Lord is good.’ Psalm 34.8

These words remind us that God’s offer to be present to us and draw us into the kingdom of Heaven is an invitation.

‘Try this.’

It is something that is freely offered. We cannot discover it through belief, nor can we cannot earn it through good behaviour — though many Christians have tried both. It is only through participation that we discover how God will nourish us and feed us with spiritual fulfilment.

If I hold out a plate of cake to you and say, ‘Here, have some,’ you will have to choose whether to accept or decline. It is only in accepting the invitation that you get to participate in the pleasure of eating the cake. There’s no point in just looking at it and saying, ‘Well that looks good.’ Neither is there any point in saying, ‘I don’t deserve it.’ I’m not offering it to you because it looks tasty, or because I think you’ve earned it. I’m offering it to you because you’re my friend and I want you to enjoy something good that I have to share. And when we eat it together, there is a kind of special bond that comes from participating in the shared experience.

Eating together has always been something that unites people. An invitation is given, food is prepared, the guests arrive, then everyone sits down together and takes part in the meal; during which they are drawn closer together by conversation, and a shared experience of table fellowship.

Jesus was very big on table fellowship. He chose to eat with those who were most looked down on in society — the poor, the prostitutes, the thieves and swindlers. These were the people to whom he said, ‘I want to be part of your conversation, your shared experience, your table fellowship. I want to draw closer to you by sharing food together.’

And, then, on the night before he died, having supper with his friends, he commanded them to continue eating together in his name, because he would always be present to his followers when they shared bread and wine together.

This is the invitation that the church continues to extend, for you, and for others, to participate in. It's an invitation to participate in something that brings us all closer to the loving heart of God. And in this experience of sharing a love feast together, we are changed. We become closer to Jesus, and closer to one another, just as if we were sitting down to have dinner together.

Christianity is a religion that, first and foremost, is about participation, about accepting the invitation to taste and see that the Lord is good. We are not invited because we believe the right things, or even anything at all. Nor are we invited because we are on our best behaviour. We are invited because Jesus loves us, loves everyone, and wants us to know how good it is to be close to him.

Jesus didn’t ask the sinners he dined with to become perfect before he would sit with them. He didn’t ask them to sign up to a statement of belief before tucking into dinner. They were changed as a result of their encounter with him. When they dined together, participating in the experience of being accepted by him, belief and new behaviour followed.

I know some of you feel that you cannot take communion without passing some sort of test or qualification. Others of you may have been expected to jump through some hoops before you were allowed to take your first communion. But Jesus simply invites you to come forward, to taste and see that he is good. Eat the bread. Drink the wine. Step out on the great journey that is life with him.

When we accept the invitation, Jesus becomes a part of us. When we take his body and his blood into ourselves, we carry him within us, out into the world where we can extend his loving invitation to others. Not judging people first, simply offering them hospitality and generosity, to taste and see that the Lord is good.

Here at St Anne’s we pride ourselves on being a friendly and welcoming congregation, inclusive and hospitable. And we are. Which is why I want us to put these things at the heart of our mission to this community, this parish. That we continue to welcome the stranger, the outcast, the sinners, the frowned upon, and the hungry - whether a physical or a spiritual hunger. And also that we look for new ways to do this for people in our parish and beyond. We have something to share that is priceless. And having accepted the invitation and discovered for ourselves that God is good, we are not here to keep that to ourselves. Just as Jesus has freely and graciously given himself to us, and shown us the way to new life in God, so we must continue to share him with others.

It is hard, though, for us to enjoy table fellowship with one another when we know that there are people both in this neighbourhood and in the world who are hungry. Spiritually hungry, yes, and also physically hungry. So this harvest time we will be supporting people in need in this community, through our donations to the Foodbank. This, of course, is not just something we do once a year. Every week many of you bring in food for people, and put it in our Foodbank box at the back of church. It is one of the ways that we give something back, mindful of all the good things we have received. This is just one practical act of hospitality for those in need, one way of saying to them, ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good.’

And so, shortly, we will bring our offering of food up to the front. As you bring it, you might want to give thanks for all that God has given you. You might want to think about the person to whom this food will be given, and pray God’s blessing on them. That as they share this meal that God has given them through us, they may know what it means to be accepted and loved by a God who gives freely without conditions.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

on choosing the better part

Year C | Luke 10.38-end

Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her (v42).

It isn't the hospitality that Martha chooses to show that is wrong, as she bustles around the kitchen getting refreshments ready for her guests. Showing hospitality is one of the most wonderful things we can do for one another, and it is deeply at the heart of the Christian faith. Eating together is what we do, to bind ourselves together in fellowship and to remember that final supper Jesus had with his friends.

The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews says, 'Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares' (Hebrews 13.2). It is a direct reference to today's Old Testament reading, where Abraham extends hospitality to some visitors who bring him news of the most remarkable blessing from God. When we serve others authentically, we are ourselves blessed.

So, no, Martha's hospitality isn't wrong. But the worries and distractions of serving her guests have prevented her from doing the one thing that matters most. Keeping her attention on Jesus. Instead, she has disappeared inside herself, caught up in her own narrative and resentment about what she is doing, and in her judgementalism towards her sister Mary who has chosen not to help, but to sit instead at Jesus' feet listening to what he has to say. Martha has failed to take up Jesus' offer of a relationship with him, one in which she is called to serve God out of her true self.

Goodness knows, there are plenty of things in life worse than having to put the kettle on that can blow us off track and prevent us from keeping our focus on Jesus.

The Dominican friar, Timothy Radcliffe, in his book Why Go To Church? says:
Most sin is pretending to be someone else, admirable or powerful or sexy, who will have value in other people's eyes and one's own. As with the prodigal son, it is a form of self-exile, taking refuge in an imaginary self.

Our culture promotes this kind of fakery. We are encouraged to style our hair to look like a particular celebrity; or furnish our homes to live like people on television or movies; to buy the latest gadgets or cars to demonstrate our status; to wear certain trainers so that everyone knows we are are part of the cool crowd.

It is all so pretend and illusionary: but the pressure to pretend to be someone else is all around us — on billboards and magazines, television and films, the Internet and peer pressure.

It is causing a spiritual crisis because people do not know who they are anymore. And then they discover that life is complicated, worrysome, full of grief and anxiety and disaster, and that no hairstyle, no matter how many pairs of shoes you own, or games you have for the PlayStation, will help to anchor or ground you.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, discovered that his father was not the man who brought him up, which was the result of a newspaper investigation, he said this: 'My identity is founded on who I am in Christ.'

Martha, I think, is a people pleaser. She does what needs to be done for others so that she will have value in their eyes and in her own. She want to appear admirable. But she is brimming with resentment, because she is not acting out of who she truly is. She is playing the part of a false self, not through the vapid choices of consumerism, but through actions and service which may look terrific but are inauthentic.

Mary, on the other hand, sets aside notions of pretending to be someone she isn't, and chooses to try to be like Christ: to follow him, listen to him, to put him at the heart of her attention and aspirations. She chooses the better part, and it will not be taken away from her. In the years ahead, whatever she does to serve others, to be hospitable, or to put herself out for others in acts of loving service, will come from having Christ as the focus of all she does. Her joy will be that the way she lives her life is an expression of who she is in Christ Jesus. A servant of the kingdom of heaven. And that she will have understood and given attention to her true self.

Clothes go out of fashion. Hair turns grey and falls out (I'm told...). Gym toned bodies become flabby and arthritic. Someone else comes along who is more admirable, powerful or sexy than we could ever hope to be. The ways that we pretend to be a good person get exposed in that hot-headed moment when when we brim over with resentment and self-pity.

But Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. When we seek to be like him, and to live our lives as an expression of our true self, then we choose the better part. And it will not be taken away from us.