Sunday, 1 October 2017

Harvest Thanksgiving
The Parable of the Rich Fool | Luke 12.16-30

John and I were in Kent yesterday and took the dog for a walk along the chalk cliff tops which are a distinctive feature of the coastline in the Dover area. Turning inland we quickly found ourselves on farmland, and took a path between two fields. In the field to our right, little remained of the recent harvest except the straw stubble where the combine harvester had cropped the stems three or four inches above the ground. To the left was a beautifully tilled field already showing the green shoots of the next crop, just peeping above the surface of the earth.

In that moment, between these two fields, the whole cycle of the farmer’s work was visible.

It is easy to take the work of our farmers for granted. City life insulates us from the sights and occasional smells of agriculture. But if you had toast or cereal for breakfast this morning, you have a man or woman with a tractor to thank for it.

We live in a society that too easily takes it blessings for granted, where a sense of entitlement can seem more prevalent than a spirit of gratitude. It is, instead, in the generation who lived through rationing in the 1940s and 50s that I most often find real appreciation for the abundance that many in this country enjoy, while those of us who have never known what it means to go short, let alone hungry, assume it is the norm and have less awareness of how blessed we are.

When we live without gratitude we can quickly lose perspective. Feeling entitled simply feeds a delusion that we somehow always deserve more.

The land of the rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, What should I do for I have no place to store my crops?
— Luke 12.16-17 (NRSV)

Well, perhaps he could have given his surplus to people who really needed it? But as is so often the case with those who have much, the emphasis is instead on how to protect it and prevent others from getting their hands on it.

Jesus poses striking questions with this parable. Do we remember that everything we have comes from God? Do we share from our own abundance rather than storing it up for ourselves — a bulwark, perhaps, against anxiety about our own future needs?

Jesus goes on to say:

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.
— Luke 12.22-23 (NRSV)

His invitation not to worry contrasts with the rich fool’s fear of future scarcity, his hoarding of food for himself. The more he had, the more afraid was he of losing it.

It is hard not to worry. We live in troubling times. Our country’s economy is struggling, meaning many have less than they used to. And some in our community get caught in a trap where it is hard to feed themselves or their family properly. This is where our local Foodbank makes a real difference, and the contribution our congregation has made over the last four years, together with our harvest gifts today, has provided meals for hundreds of people in crisis.

Jesus’ injunction not to worry suggests it is easier to do so when we hold a bigger picture in mind. The birds in the air, the flowers in the park, the turning of the seasons. Allow the beauty and calm of creation to pour balm on troubled souls. Remember that not everything in this world is the consequence of human activity. God’s faithfulness and creative power is present in the works of nature, and from that we can draw strength. And for that, let us give thanks with gratitude for all the blessings we enjoy.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

on lessons for life that a four year old can understand

There is a famous essay by the author and church minister Robert Fulghum, entitled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindgarten. You might want to read a short extract from it before continuing by following this link:

It sounds simple, and it is. Yet, when we look at the world we begin to see that the grown-ups have not mastered the lessons of kindergarten.

Envy; a craving for wealth, power or control; judgementalism towards others; desperation to be liked by others; intolerant of others from whom we are different; the temptation to take what doesn’t belong to us; taking advantage of others to manipulate, oppress or exploit them, and so on.

The Bible has a word for this - sin. But nobody uses the word sin anymore so I prefer the writer Francis Spufford’s alternative - HPtFtU, which stands for ‘the Human Propensity to F*** things Up.’

We get so easily pulled off course from being our best selves by the shiny baubles of desire. The simple rules for living, that even a four year old can grasp, get thrown out the window. Instead, we open our newspapers and switch on the TV, and see the consequences of HPtFtU.

It was into such a world, some 2000 years ago or so, that Jesus Christ stepped with a real message of hope. It doesn’t need to be like this. We don’t need to be driven by the false desires of the world. We don’t need to pretend that we are someone we are not, because we are loved by God just as we are. We don’t need to beat ourselves up about our failures and mistakes, just be honest about them, because we are eternally forgiven.

Christianity is not, despite the best efforts of many, about rules or dogma. It is a spiritual journey towards the heart of God, and in becoming our true self. As Jim Manney SJ has written:

Beneath the love of money, possessions, honour and pride we will find what we really want - like a cook peeling an artichoke to get to its heart, or a sculptor chipping away at marble to find the beautiful form inside.

When we cut through our fakery to find our true selves, then we will discover what we truly desire, and find that this is also what God desires for us.

And this is our hope today when we baptise baby Sebastian: that this will be the start of a journey to discover who he really is. Parents and godparents will, I hope, help him to discern his true self and love him for whoever he turns out to be - just as God already cherishes him.

As his young life unfolds over the coming years we pray that he will find his way in the world, one that is authentic to him and in tune with God’s love for him.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

on examining our daily life

During my sabbatical this summer I discovered a prayer that I have been finding incredibly helpful during personal devotions:

In God’s presence I unwind the past day
Starting from now and looking back, moment by moment.
I gather in all the goodness and light, in gratitude,
I attend to the shadows and what they say to me,
Seeking healing, courage, forgiveness.

Sacred Space: The Prayer Book 2017, The Irish Jesuits

Each part of this prayer is rich in meaning and significance so I want to break it down and look at it bit by bit.

In God’s presence
How do you step, for a time, into the presence of God each day? God is always with us of course, but life easily distracts us so it is beneficial when we take time to consciously attend to God’s presence. Perhaps, like me, you have a mind that constantly chatters away offering a running commentary on the day, on tasks to do, problems to solve, worries to assuage, the people we’ve encountered that rubbed us up the wrong way, and so on. It’s like a radio station inside our heads constantly yakking away and never letting us forget our preoccupations.

Daily prayer enables us to switch channels and tune into God instead, sitting with an awareness of God holding us, the hands of Christ reaching out to us, in the midst of our busy day. And with regular practice it gets easier to switch off Radio Me and tune into God instead. And when this is done consciously, reverently and attentively we begin to feel more in touch with the divine, with the ground of our being.

Like me, you might need a helping hand to tune into God: by reading a passage of scripture, for example, or using a prayer book; by focussing on breathing and stillness to help empty the mind, or to gaze at an icon or image in contemplation. You might find it helps to listen to some sacred music or worship songs, or to pray with a rosary or a holding cross. There is a rich Christian heritage of approaches to prayer to help us step into the presence of God, so don't be afraid to try out different things and discover what works best for you.

I unwind the past day… moment by moment
This prayer invites us to reflect on the last 24 hours. Perhaps that’s something you would prefer to do at bedtime and if that works for you, great. My head is not at its best by the end of the evening but I’ve found this prayer works just as well first thing in the morning.

Whenever one chooses to do it, take time to think over the last day. Starting from this moment, you might imagine in your mind’s eye a film of your day running backwards. Or you may prefer to recall the places you’ve been, the people you’ve encountered, the work you’ve done, and the moments of leisure you’ve enjoyed. Again, the more you do this the easier it becomes.

I gather in all the goodness and light
As you reflect on your day, what are the moments where you have felt most full of life, most energised or blessed? Most loved, even? The wonderful thing about this prayer is that it pushes us to consciously examine our lives, to see the good things that are there, and to name them.

The word gather suggests to me a kind of harvesting. We draw towards ourselves the memory and awareness of all that is good, all that is filled with light, and we hold it close. Don’t let such things go unnoticed or take them for granted, by dwelling only on life’s disappointments and challenges. Use this prayer to help take stock of the things in your life that have nourished and sustained you. And as you do so you’ll discover that, although they won’t go away, problems and concerns gain a new and more balanced perspective. Instead of overwhelming us we can hold them in check, and see them more easily for what they really are.

In gratitude
In what spirit do we undertake this exercise? I gather in all the goodness and light in gratitude.

In Britain today, like much of the world, we have become a nation of consumers, focussed on what we lack rather than what we have. Minds become preoccupied with what's missing in life, on the next thing we must purchase or acquire.

As Christians, we are encouraged to reflect on all God’s gifts to us and give thanks for them, mindful of the joy and gladness that our faith brings us. One of the things we looked at when we ran The Happiness Course earlier this year was how psychologists have identified gratitude as a key skill to master in order to attain a state of contentment, wellbeing and happiness.

Saying thank you, then, isn't simply good manners. It is a way of ensuring we give attention to the things in life that we are blessed with. When we concentrate on what we have to be grateful for, rather than fretting over what we lack, we come closer to experiencing the peace of God, a peace that passes all understanding, and which guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phillipians 4.7).

I attend to the shadows, and what they say to me
The prayer doesn’t try to avoid the tough things in life, and gives a place to acknowledge that life is challenging. The shadow side of life is not to be ignored.

We all carry within us memories, experiences, and thoughts which are painful and difficult. We sometimes become preoccupied with our anxieties and fears, and act out of them rather than love and hope. We have desires and habits that we know are not always healthy or helpful for us. We find ourselves behaving in ways that we are later ashamed of. One of the ways we gain mastery over ourselves is to acknowledge and understand our brokenness.

We can’t always make sense of the shadow side by ourselves. Sometimes we need a companion to help us - a soul friend, a spiritual guide, perhaps a therapist. And while our shadow side can be a dark and complicated place, we have the assurance that Jesus is with us there also.

This prayer seeks self-knowledge and honesty about ourselves. Fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ can also help with this. Our reading from Matthew’s gospel today (Matthew 18.15-20) reminds us that sometimes those we are in communion with us as fellow Christians can help bring to light some of the dark truths about ourselves, provided we are humble and open enough to hear it.

The language of darkness and light is used a lot in scripture, and St Paul draws on it in Romans. ‘The night is nearly over; the day is almost here, so let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light' (Romans 13.12 NRSV).

Seeking, healing, courage and forgiveness
Where does such self-examination lead us? To act and pray for what we most need for ourselves. Healing for the parts of us that are wounded, not just in our bodies but in our psyche and our souls. Courage to face the challenges ahead as we continue to seek to become like Jesus, and journey towards wholeness. Forgiveness for the times we have got it wrong, knowing the cleansing power of facing up to the reality of ourselves and confident in the knowledge that whatever we have done, whatever pain we carry within us, we are utterly and unshakeably loved by God.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

on life through the spirit

Romans 8.1-11

In today’s epistle, St Paul describes for us the invitation to new life brought about by God’s unconditional love for us, and of what happens when we ground ourselves in the Holy Spirit.

He does this by contrasting two states of being: life governed by the flesh and life governed by the Spirit. In verse 5 he writes:

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.
— Romans 8:5 (NIV)

In the following verse he goes on to describes the respective impact of each kind of life: ‘The mind governed by the flesh is death [or, we might say, deadened], but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.’ (Romans 8:6 NIV)

Do we want to feel truly alive, and experience the fullness of life that Jesus promised, the peace of Christ, or do we want to reduce life to going through the motions, seeking out what pleasure we can for ourselves along the way?

I don't know what the language of ‘life in the flesh’ conjures up in your mind. The Church’s teaching, historically, has linked it to morality and hedonism and such like. It might certainly include that but it is a rather narrow understanding of what Paul is talking about here. After all, it is still possible to live a clean-living life but not be living through the Spirit.

Put more simply, Romans 8 contrasts a life that is closed to God with a life that is open to God. Do we navigate our way through life empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit, God’s energising and affirming life force? Or are we mainly occupied with the much more limited (deadening) experience of pleasing ourselves?

Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.
— Romans 8.2 (The Message)

What is this ‘brutal tyranny’? In the previous chapter of Romans, Paul describes the tension between the human ego and life in the Spirit. ‘For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.’ (Rom 7.19-20 NIV).

It is a bit of a tongue twister but is nonetheless a wonderful description of the inner conflict that I am sure is familiar to all. We've each had the experience of making a wrong choice, and falling short of our best intentions or hopes for ourselves. Perhaps we want to be kinder to others, less judgemental or gossipy or critical. Perhaps we want to be more disciplined about living a healthy or ethical life. Perhaps we want to practice being more loving and generous, but the fears and worries of life cause us to contract into ourselves. This inner struggle is the original meaning of the Muslim word Jihad (a term hijacked of late by extremists). I rather wish Christians had such a word that describes this inner wrestling. The closest we get is perhaps temptation but I find that a bit passive, not quite encapsulating the same tangible struggle Paul so memorably articulates in the above verses.

Today’s reading follows on immediately from that section, and describes the power of the Spirit available to us to win this struggle. It is nothing short of God’s offer to us to be transformed through life in the Spirit. I’ve been very helped in understanding Paul’s sometimes tortuous and slightly opaque writing style by the African-American theologian Israel Kamudzandu. With his help I want to make the following three points:

1. Life in the Spirit is not a matter of conservative or liberal theology (preferences that divide Christians in the same way that church denominations do). It is a matter of being citizens of the kingdom of God. Do we lay claim to that status for ourselves? Do we truly understand what it means to take up that citizenship, and define ourselves not as Anglican or Catholic or Pentecostal, nor as Evangelical or Traditional or Progressive, but simply as citizens of God’s kingdom living life in the power of the Holy Spirit? Doing so allows us to focus on what matters most in our walk with God, living as followers of Jesus.

2. Secondly, when we choose to live in the Spirit, we are transformed. For some, that transformation may be radical and swift in taking effect. But for most of us it is a lifelong process. Conversion is not a moment in time, but a long journey, one in which we do better at some points than at others. There will always be moments when we stumble, but it is the act of picking ourselves up and continuing to journey forwards that allows us to grow as Christians. Conversely, when we spend too long idling on that comfy-looking bench by the side of the spiritual path we begin to lose the impetus, falling into the old habits of a life closed to God.

Fortunately, as far as God’s concerned, the number of times we stumble is irrelevant. Nobody is counting. Life in the Spirit is about what God continues to do in us when we are open to God, not a record-keeping of our past failures. Paul suggests that while gratifying ourselves may give momentary pleasure, it doesn’t lead to deep down lasting fulfilment. Even when we face tough situations in life, we will still feel blessed when we ground our lives in the Holy Spirit. That's not always easy, but the door is always open to us to enter into such a way of being.

3. Finally, life in the Spirit means being willing to leave our comfort zones. We must always be ready to break habits and patterns, to step out in faith into new ways of living. And when we are living through the Spirit we become more alert to what these new ways might be.

[The Spirit] opens our minds to new world views, insights and strategies… open to the guiding role of the Holy Spirit whose work is to teach, sustain communities of faith, and guide believers along their faith journeys.’
— Israel Kamudzandu.

This is a kind of liberation, which opens up for us new possibilities in life. We discover new ways through life that break old patterns which can leave us feeling stuck or deadened.

How do we open ourselves to being guided by the Spirit in this way? Through prayer. It's as simple as that. We need prayer-filled lives.

Without prayer the human condition will indeed dominate and destroy one’s relationship with God.
— Israel Kamudzandu

Prayer is like gym membership for the soul. When we keep exercising our prayer life it becomes easier to access all that God is offering us through life in the Spirit. This is why those who live in religious communities have a cycle of prayer that sustains them throughout the day. It is also why Matins and Evensong are still part of the daily tradition of the Church of England (although we call it Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer these days). We have to regularly check in with God in order to keep the Holy Spirit at the centre of our lives.

Have you, lately, asked for God’s Spirit to be present in you, to guide you? Do you pray regularly for the Spirit’s leading? Have you rested quietly, meditatively, in God’s presence letting love and acceptance engulf you? If so, you’ll know what a great gift is offered to us. It's a gift that strengthens us every day, keeping us feeling full of God’s presence, living with a constantly evolving sense of new life, one in which, in St Paul's words, he who raised Christ from the dead also gives life to our mortal bodies because of the Spirit who lives in us (Romans 8.11).

Sunday, 25 June 2017

on managing change

Jeremiah 20.7-13

When someone has a pessimistic outlook or a gloomy disposition they are sometimes described as being ‘a bit of a Jeremiah.’ After hearing today’s first scripture reading you might appreciate why: The opening verses are full of despair and perhaps just a little self-pity.

But Jeremiah gets a bad press unfairly. Although something of a reluctant and, indeed, unconfident prophet in the land of Judah, about 600 years before Christ, he nonetheless served God faithfully for 40 years in the most trying of circumstances.

Judah was a tiny kingdom, surrounded by the large and powerful nations of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. Previously Assyria had been the most dominant of these, but in the days of Jeremiah it was losing its grip and Babylon, under the splendidly named King Nebuchadnezzar, was on the rise.

Jeremiah not only saw the threat that Babylon posed to Judah, but was troubled that the Jewish people were burying their heads in the sand about the looming disaster. To compound matters, they had turned away from God. In past times, when they were more faithful to God, society had been more unified and the country was strong. But lately the people had become selfish and self-indulgent, and society – and indeed the nation – was weakened as a result.

Jeremiah saw how vulnerable Judah had become, and urged the people and their leaders to return to God so that everyone would once again be pulling in the same direction. His message fell on deaf ears, as did his advice to the king to surrender to the Babylonians rather than incur the destruction of an invasion.

But Jeremiah’s advice was ignored, and he was shunned and abused. The final invasion of Judah by Babylon when it happened was worse than anyone could have imagined. Jerusalem and its wonderful temple was destroyed, and Judah’s leaders, priests and other elite were taken captive and transported to Babylon - about 10,000 people.

At the point where today’s reading starts, that invasion hasn't yet happened and Jeremiah is still warning the people to change their ways. He has just been beaten and placed in the stocks by the temple priest, who is fed up listening to the prophet’s warnings. And so begins Jeremiah’s complaint to God: ‘I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me… All my close friends are watching for me to stumble’ (vv.7, 10).

You can begin to see why being called a Jeremiah is an accusation of pessimism. But there’s a lot more to Jeremiah than gloomy predictions.

He understands the inevitably of change, and the folly of ignoring the signs of imminent change. There are always forces at work — social, environmental, political — that lead to change. This is as true for churches as it is for nations, businesses or other organisations. Those that learn to adapt and thrive are the ones which are attentive to changes going on around them, and manage to adjust their activities accordingly.

Perhaps you remember when Blockbuster video rental stores were a feature of every high street? What happened to them? At one point that business was worth $8.4bn. But videos became obsolete, and DVD rentals waned as consumers moved towards streaming movies over the internet. You now don’t even need to leave your house to choose a film to watch tonight.

Or what about Kodak, once a household name that was synonymous with family photographs and holidays snaps? You might assume digital cameras and smartphones did for them, but the rot set in long before.

Kodak’s business model was based, not on making money from the cameras they sold but, on selling film and processing photographs. I remember as a boy the first thing my father did when we got home from holiday was to package up his rolls of film in bright little yellow envelopes and send them to Kodak in Hemel Hempstead for processing. Perhaps about a week or so later the postman would deliver our holiday pictures.

And then one day my friend Kevin turned up with his new camera. It was made by a company called Polaroid and when he pressed the shutter to take a picture, the photograph popped out of the camera instantly.

At the same time as Kodak was belatedly trying to produce their own instant cameras, which they hopelessly mismanaged, Japanese companies were producing regular film that was cheaper and brighter than Kodak’s, so even their core business was put under pressure from competition. The great company that had been a market leader for decades, and had grown comfortable with its success, failed to spot the changes on the horizon or to adapt quickly enough to them.

In Jeremiah’s day, the people of Judah still remembered the time when their kingdom had been safe and strong and secure. But that was 100 years before. The people weren't paying attention to the changes taking place in the political landscape around them. Jeremiah could see it, and see how weakened Judah had become and how strong Babylon was getting.

Managing change is as necessary for a church as for anybody else. We must adapt and respond to the changes taking place around us if we want to stay relevant. With church attendances falling and society becoming more religiously diverse as well as more secular, we can no longer assume that people have even a rudimentary understanding of the Christian faith. A lot of people have literally no idea who Jesus is or what goes on in a church.

I’m reminded of a conversation a friend overheard in a jeweller’s shop, when a young lass asked for a necklace with a cross on it. The shop attendant brought out a tray of pendant crosses for her to look at. She paused for a moment before asking, ‘Haven't you got any of the ones with the wee man on it?'

Whatever the place of Church in society in the past, we no longer hold that position and cannot assume that the kinds of events and activities we used to offer are the most appropriate for today and tomorrow.

That means we need to pull together in the same direction, and be willing to let go of the past and embrace new possibilities for the future. We can either instigate change ourselves in order to adapt to the changing environment, or we can wait for change to engulf us and sweep us away.

At St Anne’s we have a great opportunity to reimagine our mission in the context of the regeneration taking place around us. There is lots of new support and funding that we can access to help with this. A great deal of my time at the moment is spent talking with people in the community, with clergy colleagues, and with the diocese about how we might shape a response to the opportunities that regeneration offers.

We won't be able to do that if we’re constantly looking to the past: whether trying to recreate an experience of church that is long gone, or a reluctance to break habits, routines or practices that leave us stuck in a rut.

Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9.62 NIV).

So how is change here going to happen? Because it will happen. That is a simple fact. Nothing remains the same for long. Will St Anne and All Saints be proactive in initiating the kind of change we can manage and control, enabling us to adapt to a new environment around us? Or will change be imposed upon us because we waited too long, like Kodak and Blockbuster, or we buried our heads in the sand like Judah?

Jeremiah recognised that to manage change effectively, two things need to happen. Firstly, the people have to be united. Instead of pulling in seventeen different directions pleasing themselves he wanted them to unite around a central idea. And for Jeremiah that begins with God. A body of people for whom seeking God's way is at the heart of all they do, become strong, and energised, and engaged, and outward looking. More importantly, they learn to be attentive to hearing what God is calling them to do, not as individuals, but collectively as a community.

Secondly, change needs to start from within the heart. It is spiritual renewal that enables us to deal with the things that daunt us. Jeremiah was not a confident man, and in many ways rather too sensitive to be a prophet. But even in his lament to God, he draws deep on his well of faith. ‘Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord, for he has delivered the needy from the hands of evildoers.’ (v13).

Whatever challenges we face in the days ahead, if we constantly seek to renew ourselves spiritually, and give up our personal agendas to work together as one body, we can be ready to face those changes; ready to adapt and evolve and reimagine the role of St Anne’s in the parish and to share Jeremiah’s confidence that in God we have a mighty warrior by our side (v11) strengthening and enabling us to face the days ahead.

May it be so.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

on being sent out

Matthew 9.35-10.8

Jesus is in his element. His ministry now well-established, he has hit his stride journeying around Judaea and further afield with his message of the good news of the kingdom of God. We've been faithfully following along, us disciples, trekking under hot skies, the dust of the road trapped in our sandals, rubbing the hard skin of our feet.

We're tired but exhilarated. Our master communicates with power and with ease, his voice a blend of authority and compassion. He understands the plight so many find themselves in, caught up in a life of hardship, trapped between the oppressive rule of our Roman occupiers and the impossible-to-please demands of our religious leaders. These twin forces seek to control and manipulate us for their own ends. They tell us it is for our own good. They tell us they are keeping us safe, giving us security. They tell us that if we do as we're told we will be righteous before God. They are so sure of themselves, and yet so contemptuous of those who have not achieved the status they have.

Our master is different. He comes alongside the very least of us, and speaks of hope and possibility. He sees the wonderful potential of people who have been blinded by soulless religion, or struck dumb by those who use power to silence.

Jesus brings ease to those who are dis-eased, drawing out of those who hear him their true self. Everything in life that has crushed them he lifts away, so that backs lengthen, limbs straighten and faces brighten. He is remarkable, and from the first day he called us to follow him we have been on an extraordinary journey.

But now he gives us a real challenge. Jesus is entrusting his message and his mission to us, his followers. He wants us to go out and touch people's lives with the same transforming power that he does.

I can't do that. We all feel that way. Not good enough. Not eloquent enough. Not hopeful, or convincing or charismatic or careful enough. How can he possibly think that we can come anywhere close to being like him?

And yet he insists. Go to those who have lost their way. Seek out those whose lives have become detached from all that is good and just and compassionate, and draw them back to the heart of God.

Tell them what I have been saying to you all along: The kingdom of God is at hand. It is not remote or separate from us, nor is it the preserve of the self-righteous — like an exclusive club. It is for everyone. So, for those who wish they were dead, give them a reason to live. To those for whom illness has been draining, give the energy of hope. For those who are consumed by obsessions, show a wider horizon. To those who are deemed untouchable, reach out your hands.

Give them my love, just as you have known my love.

Jesus’ eyes shine with conviction as he tells us this. There is no hesitation on his part that we can do as he asks. Nor does he doubt that he has called the right people to help bring into the fold of his Father's love all those who have been separated from it.

He wants us to go now, and to do this for others just as he has done it for us. The kingdom of God come near. And so we look around at each other, this rag tag band of disciples — hot-headed, slow to catch on, still simmering from the grudges and squabbles between us — we look at each other and, taking with us nothing but the clothes we stand up in, set off to take our master's life-giving message to those who yearn to hear it.

Loving Lord Jesus,
in a world that seems lost
and riven by poverty, greed, and fear,
remind us of your call
to proclaim the good news
of the kingdom of God,
and tenderly bring wholeness
to your beloved children.
May we turn your compassionate heart for us
inside out,
and give as freely to others
as we have received from you;
willing workers in your harvest field.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

on pentecost

It is sometimes said that Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, a commemoration of the day that the first believers became unified as followers of Jesus Christ. There is some truth in this, as we see from today's Bible readings, but to describe Pentecost simply in these terms is to diminish the gift of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is really about what happens when we open ourselves up to be led by God.

We also diminish Pentecost if we treat the details of the story in Acts 2.1-21 literally. As is often the case with scripture, the imagery used roots Pentecost in the experiences of the people of God elsewhere in the Bible.

Jesus is no longer with his disciples as these events take place. They are gathered in Jerusalem trying to regroup in his absence, figuring out a way forward without their master and teacher. They are sitting together in a house, and we might assume that they are praying and worshipping together.

Suddenly the house is filled with the sound of rushing wind.

Now, wind has special significance in scripture and is in particular symbolic of the Spirit of God. When used in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word is ruach, which can be translated variously as Spirit, wind or breath.

Ruach first appears at the very start of the Bible in Genesis chapter 1:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind [ruach] from God swept over the face of the waters.
Genesis 1.1-2 (NRSV)

In the King James Bible, the verse is translated as, 'the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. So we see how wind and Spirit are closely linked in the translation of ruach: as is the word breath. Rob Bell explains:
The ancient Hebrews... believed that this divine ruach flows from God because, as the writer says in the Psalms, the whole earth is God's, all of it is infused with ruach, crammed with restless creative energy, full of unquenchable life force and unending divine vitality, undergirded and electrified by the God who continually renews the face of the earth... While they understand this ruach energy to be as wide as the universe and powerful enough to fuel and animate and sustain even the stars... they understood [it] to be as intimate and personal as the breath you just took and the breath you're about to take... When they spoke of ruach, [the Hebrews] were talking about the very life force that brings everything into existence, the presence of God in the world, dwelling in every created being, present to everyone and everything all the time.
Rob Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God

That morning, in that house in Jerusalem, the followers of Jesus are given a mighty dose of ruach, reminding them that while Jesus is no longer physically with them God remains powerfully and personally available to them.

Another link to the ancients' experience of God is present when tongues of fire separate and alight on each of the disciples.

Flashback: When the descendants of Abraham escaped their lives of slavery in Egypt, they wandered the desert seeking the promised land that would become their home. The symbols of God's presence to them are described in Exodus 13: 'By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give light...'

The tongues of fire at Pentecost remind us of God's Spirit offering to lead us into new life. We might recollect, also, Jesus saying, 'I am the light of the world.' Jesus was no longer beside those first, bereft, disciples, but as they gather to figure out the way forward they are powerfully reminded that he remains present to them in and through the Holy Spirit, the ruach of God, leading them on.

Fire not only illuminates the way ahead for us, but also warms us. John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement in the 18th century, famously recounted his experience of God when his heart was 'strangely warmed' at a church meeting. And I cannot think about the symbolism of fire in scripture without recalling words said daily in Morning Prayer: As we rejoice in the gift of this new day, so may the light of your presence, O God, set our hearts on fire with love for you.

For Christians, the light of Christ leading us on, and the warmth of God's Spirit within us, continue to find expression in the symbolism of fire. Perhaps this is why, long after the advent of electric lighting, we continue to fill our churches with candlelight, those tiny tongues of fire a visible and tangible reminder of the presence of God's Spirit.

So we have a room filled with rushing wind. And a vision of tongues of fire. Jesus' disciples are invigorated about the way forward by these symbolic reminders of their Jewish heritage. But there is one more event at Pentecost which also spurs them on by recalling the past.

As the ruach of God takes hold of them, they begin to speak in other languages. Immigrant Jews from many other countries who are in Jerusalem at that time are able to hear in their own language what these Spirit-filled disciples are saying. This is a very particular moment in scripture. Nowhere else in the Bible is an event like this described. When St Paul, in 1 Corinthians, writes about the gift of speaking in tongues, he's not talking about a sudden ability to speak in other human languages.

What we are seeing here is something that builds on another Hebrew myth — the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. The original tellers of that story sought to explain the existence of different languages. At Babel the people of the world all speak one language, and come together into one place. They learn how to make bricks and mortar and decide that they will build a tower that reaches up to the heavens. God sees this happening, the myth says, and is troubled by the prospect of what humanity might try and do together. So God gives them all different languages to confound them and frustrate their plans.

It's a rather weird little story and may have served no other purpose than to explain how different languages came into being. Theologically, it perhaps also acted as a cautionary tale (in the same way the temptation of Adam and Eve does) not to attempt to become like God.

St Luke, who wrote the account of Pentecost in the book of Acts, purposefully inverts the myth of Babel to make a new point. The followers of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, become united across boundaries of language, race and nationality. Here, then, is when the followers of Jesus are inspired to take his message of hope to all nations, to work and live together in a single community for the common good.

We are the inheritors of that message, a congregation of people from all around the world, animated by the ruach of God, led by the light of Christ, and inspired to reach out as one body to those around us with the love that has warmed our own hearts.

In the words of St Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, 'In the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.'

Pentecost challenges and reminds us of what it means to be one in Christ. We are united in him so that we can bear witness to his good news. To do so means setting aside our differences, and offering our individual gifts and skills to the mission and ministry of the church. Mary Hinkle Shore writes:
One way to know whether a movement is led by the Spirit of God [according to St Paul] is to listen for its claims about Jesus Christ. By the Spirit, the church testifies that Jesus — not money, security, self-esteem, paranoia, power, or anything else — is Lord... Gifts from God's Spirit proclaim Jesus as Lord. They also serve the common good... Individuals receive gifts from the Spirit, yet each gift is for the body as a whole. This implies that if a gift cannot be shared, and shared for the good of others, it is not from the Spirit.

Last night's terrorist attack at London Bridge is a powerful reminder of what happens when faith becomes corrupted by ego, a quest for power, or a fear of those who are different to ourselves. That is not of God (and we must surely bear in mind that the history of the church is full of equally twisted atrocities where Christians lost sight of their calling to serve the common good).

Pentecost reminds us that God's vital and creative force is available to animate us not just for our own good but for that of others. That means setting aside our own agenda and joining in with the unity of the people of God, sharing our gifts, valuing and respecting the gifts that others have to offer, and reminding ourselves that in a world where there are many things to direct or motivate our self-interest (including, I might add, the election pitches of politicians...) we have chosen another way, the way of Jesus which puts love ahead of self-interest, with the light of the good news of the gospel leading us on to show way.