Sunday, 15 January 2017

on being a saint — yes, you there

2nd Sunday of Epiphany
1 Corinthians 1.1-12; John 1.29-42

The Christmas tree has been taken down. The decorations have been packed away. Turkey dinners and mince pies, now just a memory. Yet Christians continue to celebrate the season of Christmas. In particular, we are in that part of Christmas called Epiphany, where we are reminded of the ways that it became known that Jesus is the Christ (the anointed one; the Messiah).

Last week, we saw how he was revealed first to foreign scholars, even before his own people came to learn who he was. And today's gospel reading recounts how his adult revelation began through the witness of John the Baptiser.

We will come back to that in a moment, but before we do so I want to share a few thoughts about the reading from 1 Corinthians. Because these few verses — from what is a very long letter written by St Paul to the church in Corinth — are packed with encouragement.

There are four things that Paul says in the opening greeting of his letter that I just want to draw your attention to, in the hope that you will find them as encouraging as I do.

1. Called to be saints
All those in every place who call on the name of Jesus Christ are saints. That means you. St Joe, and St Vicky; St Kayode and St Ivy. Why don't you try that on on for size? Say your name with 'saint' before it, and see how that feels. A bit weird, maybe?

We tend to think of saints as the great spiritual leaders and martyrs down the years. And they certainly are saints worth celebrating. But so are you. In last Sunday's epistle St Paul called himself the 'very least of all the saints' (Ephesians 3.8). He had, after all, been a persecutor of Christians before his conversion, so he was very aware of how little qualified he might be to be called a saint. And yet, he is still able to claim that title for himself. Can you? Even if, like Paul, you might feel like the very least of all the saints, can you accept that you are holy? Created and beloved by God and, through your faith in Jesus Christ, however small that is, you are on your way to becoming like Jesus. Christlike. Hallowed.

2. God's grace is given to you
We are recipients of a gift from God, that is freely given, not because we deserve or earn it, not even because we've asked for it. Grace is given to us all simply because God loves, forgives and cherishes us. And what is grace? It is God's love, directed at you: a laser beam that with the utmost care and precision penetrates deep into your soul, cutting through all the clutter and muddle of life, burning away all the mistakes we've made, all our failures — zapped by the love of God!

3. You have been enriched in him
We are changed by our encounter with God's grace. When we follow Jesus, we become 'richly endowed, richer in speech and knowledge and in all things.' The evidence of Christ becomes more present, becomes a reality, in our lives. An epiphany. And we are given all the gifts we need to strengthen us as we wait for Jesus to be fully revealed to us. Your epiphany began when you first encountered Jesus Christ. In turn, Jesus' presence in you reveals him to others around you. And yet you also wait faithfully for his final revelation, when all will become fully clear to you. What an amazing thought. Other people will have their epiphany because of you (no pressure!). That is what it means to be a witness. And in case that feels hard or daunting, then...

4. He will strengthen you to the end
We don't wait for that final day of Jesus Christ unchanged. We continue to grow in holiness and Christlikeness all through our journey as Christians. We are a still being formed, a work in progress. But:
'You don't need a thing, you've got it all! All God's gifts are right in front of you as you wait expectantly for our Master Jesus to arrive on the scene for the Finale. And not only that, but God himself is right alongside you to keep you steady and on track until things are all wrapped up by Jesus.'
1 Corinthians 1.7-9 (The Message)

Now, going back to John chapter 1, we see how Jesus is revealed to the Jews through the witness of John the Baptist.

'Behold the lamb of God,' he says to two of his own disciples (who promptly abandon John to follow Jesus).

Jean Vanier writes:

Those who are witnesses to Jesus do not give out ideologies or even doctrines. They do not seek followers for themselves and their own glory. Rather they seek to lead people to Jesus... They speak of what they have lived, experienced, seen and heard in their hearts...They tell their story.
Jean Vanier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, D.L.T. London, 2004

We witness to Jesus when we are able to speak of how he has changed us.

In the film As Good As It Gets, a rather improbable romance springs up between a young waitress, played by Helen Hunt, and her irascible, rude and bad-tempered older neighbour, played brilliantly by Jack Nicholson. When he tries to explain why he's fallen in love with her he says, 'You make me want to be a better person.'

That's how I feel about Jesus. He makes me want to be a better person. In fact, I would go further and say that I would be a far worse person without him; without him chipping away at ego and self-importance; without the way he nurtures an empathy for others; inspires a heart for social justice; reimagines failure in the context of his love. He instils a peace and stability I wouldn't otherwise know; a bigger picture in which to understand my own small life. Like you, I'm a work in progress, not there yet by any means, but on a journey of gradual transformation.

'Behold, the lamb of God.' Jean Vanier again:

When Jesus comes, he comes not as a spectacular God of power,
but as a gentle lamb,
the Chosen One of God, the Beloved.
He comes in a very simple way, opening our hearts to people
with the breath of peace and a quiet shaft of light, a gentle kiss.
He comes into that part of our being that is our treasure,
that sacred space within us,
hidden under all the fears, walls and anger in us
so that we may grow in the spirit of love.

When we witness to Christ, we must only do so in the same way he comes to us — gracious and gentle and loving. As saints, we grow in likeness to him. As others begin to witness that in us, then, they too, like John, may one day be able to say, 'Behold, the lamb of God.'


Sunday, 8 January 2017

on what happens when we are looking the other way

Isaiah 60.1-6; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12

Epiphany. The moment when all is revealed. God's big ta-dah! moment, when the world is shown how God will redeem humanity. A baby, lying in a feeding trough for cattle, might not seem that promising. For the band of scholars from the East, the Magi, it is a sight that overwhelms them with joy. It is to these foreigners, rather then the religious clever clogs in Jerusalem, that Jesus is revealed.

Jerusalem had been the centre of people's faith for hundreds of years before Christ. The temple there was where it was believed God dwelt. All the faithful people focussed their attention on this one spot. And as they all gaze in that direction, God slips under the radar and is revealed instead in Bethlehem, a nowhere town.


A sink estate.

South of the river.

And it is not to the high priests and scribes (so certain that God is pleased with them) to whom Jesus is revealed. But to foreigners. Jesus, from the very start, breaks down the divisions we humans set up between ourselves

God can still surprise us when we are looking the other way. When we direct our expectations in a particular place, we can easily overlook that God is already busy at work, right under our noses.

Where are the nowhere parts of our lives in which God is already at work? The places that are so banal or everyday that they are easily overlooked? As we busy ourselves in prayer asking for this and that, forgetting that God has already answered by giving us the other. Where has God already been revealed to you, but you've missed it?

The scholars from the East bring gifts. Gold, symbolising royalty. They have come to worship a king after all. Frankincense for divinity, for this is God made flesh, dwelling among us.

And myrrh. What does myrrh symbolise? Bit of a bummer, actually. It stands for suffering. For grief, and pain, and loss and death. This child will grow up and die, just as we shall. He will know great suffering, just as we have, or do, or may one day. His suffering will release God's love into the world.

Perhaps our suffering is the nowhere place where we least expect God to show up. We are so busy praying for suffering to be removed that we fail to notice it is here that God is sometimes encountered most acutely. That can be hard to notice, even when suffering prompts us to pray. It is not easy to notice God when our prayers are so busy asking for things that we forget to listen. When suffering causes us to get so wrapped up in ourselves that we fail to spot God's consolation in, say, those who come to comfort us. That in those who treat and heal our ailments and pain and disease, God is also at work. Do we always see that?

On the night before he died Jesus also prayed about his suffering. "Yet not my will but yours be done."

St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) said:

God the Father sent upon the earth a purse full of his mercy. This purse was burst open during the Lord's passion to pour forth it's hidden contents... Peace is not promised but sent us; it is no longer deferred, it is given; peace is not prophesied but achieved.

It is said that in the centre of a whirlwind it is completely calm. That as the storm sweeps across the landscape, wreaking havoc and destruction, the heart of the storm is still. Can we imagine such a place of peace in whatever suffering we might encounter, a point of stillness where God is present to us?

The gold and incense might at first appear to be the really cool gifts offered to the Christ child. But it is the final gift of myrrh that carries the deepest and most prophetic meaning.

As Jesus is revealed to us, what gifts do we bring to him? How do we respond to the peace and mercy and grace that God has given us through Christ?

St Paul, in today's epistle, tells us what his response was:

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God's grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of the saints, this grace was given me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ.
Ephesians 3.7-8

Paul turns his experience of God's grace into a vocation, in his case to be an evangelist who brings the good news of Jesus Christ not only to Jews but to Gentiles. He works to unite in Christ that which has been divided by humanity.

That may not be your vocation. Whoever you are, whatever age you are, however slight your faith is, the grace of God revealed in Jesus invites a response. What will yours be?

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him: give my heart.
Christina Rossetti

Sunday, 1 January 2017

on the slaughter of the Holy Innocents

I fall for it every year. While still basking in the afterglow of the Christmas festivities, I am brought up short by the horror of events in today's gospel reading — known as the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (Matthew 2.13-23). You'd think, by now, I'd have come to expect it and be ready for it. But no, each year I'm taken aback by having to preach on such a dark episode while we still celebrate the light and joy of Christmas. It is such uncomfortable reading. So what are we to make of it?

This year, our gospel readings will mainly come from Matthew, so it is worth saying a little bit about what distinguishes Matthew's gospel from the others.

Matthew was writing for a community of Christian Jews. And so, in some ways, it is the most Jewish of the gospels. For example, Matthew quotes the Old Testament more than any other gospel writer. And one of the things Matthew is trying to do in his gospel, is to portray Jesus as the new Moses — who, of course, led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, brought us the Ten Commandments, and so on.

Matthew makes this point by placing in parallel the story of Jesus with the story of Moses.

As Marcus Borg has written, Matthew gathers the teaching of Jesus into five major blocks of material, calling to mind the five Books of Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures. He locates the 'sermon of the mount' on a hilltop, unlike Luke's gospel where is is given on a flat plain. Why does he do this? To parallel Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Law, Jesus goes up a mountain to deliver his teaching.

In presenting the story of Jesus' birth, Matthew echoes the story of Moses' birth. Just as the life of Moses was threatened by Pharaoh's command that all male Hebrew babies be killed, so Jesus' life as an infant is threatened by King Herod's command that all male infants in the area of Bethlehem are to be killed. Matthew's meaning is clear. Jesus is like Moses, Herod is like Pharaoh, and what is happening in and through Jesus is like a new exodus.
— Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again For the First Time

In fact, there is no historical record of any such infant massacre taking place during the time of Herod's reign, meaning it was either very localised to the area around Bethlehem (too small to merit recording) or, as seems more likely, it's a literary device by Matthew to make a wider point.

This is not unusual is scripture, where myth, metaphor and symbolism are mixed with history to point to deeper truths. So, as usual, our job is to understand the deeper point that Matthew is leading us to.

The account of Pharaoh's slaughter of the male infants in the time of Moses, is one that has horrified both Jews and Christians over the centuries. A common reaction to that would be that a tyrannical Egyptian ruler who had enslaved a whole nation could very well do something as horrific as that, but of course we never would.

By bringing the same narrative into first century Palestine, Matthew shatters any kind of 'us' and 'them' division that his readers might have been tempted to set up. Such divisions are, after all, always arbitrary.

Given the right circumstances people just like us in this day and age are quite as capable of behaving as badly as Pharaoh or Herod.

That is a thought worth bearing in mind in the light of current Islamist terrorism. When you hear reports on the news of the latest atrocity, be appalled by all means. But be wary of any temptation to use such events to create divisions between 'us Christians' and 'those Muslims.' From the Crusades of the Middle Ages, through the horrors of the Inquisition, to the holocaust perpetrated by a developed Christian nation in the 20th century, 'us Christians' have demonstrated we are just as capable of such dark acts.

By making Herod the new Pharaoh, Matthew's gospel challenged his Jewish audience to see the capacity for darkness that exists in all humanity and to seek out the Christ who can lead us away from the tyranny of sin to new life in him.

Brian McLaren writes:

Herod — and Pharaoh before him — model one way of managing power: violence is simply one tool, used in varying degrees, to gain or maintain power. The baby whom Herod seeks to kill will model another way. His tool will be service. And his goal will not be gaining and maintaining power, but using his power to heal and empower others. He will reveal a vision of God that is reflected more in the vulnerability of children than in the violence of men, more in the caring of mothers than in the cruelty of Kings.
Brian D. McLaren, We Make The Road By Walking

Like Moses, Jesus emerges from exile in Egypt to lead his people away from darkness.

We may have done nothing as horrific as Herod, but do we understand the motivation for those things we do sometimes say and think and do?

Bishop Quodvultdeus of Carthage in the 5th century wrote that Herod destroyed those who were tiny in body because fear was destroying his heart.

Do we understand our own fear and the things it might cause us to say or do? Violence, as a way of gaining or maintaining power, can be found in words just as much as actions. When has fear caused you to say something you regret? When have you spoken harshly or untruthfully simply to score a win over another person? When have you been tempted to create an arbitrary us-and-them divide between you and another race or faith or tribe or category of people, just to make yourself feel superior? What would a Christian response sound like instead: one which, like Jesus, seeks to heal and empower the other?

As Moses led his people out of slavery in Egypt, so Jesus now offers to lead us away from all the dark thoughts of our hearts and mind that can enslave us and bring us to the light and love of God.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

christmas unplugged

I don’t know much about popular music these days. When you reach a certain age a little pixie comes along in the night and takes away your ability to understand what you are hearing played in shops, caf├ęs or while getting a haircut. In fact I now only go to barbers that play those hits-of-the-80s radio stations, just so that I can feel hip again. (Try it. It’s delusional, but needs must).

I remember about 25 years ago that there began a trend for bands to perform ‘unplugged.’ What does it mean to play unplugged? It's to perform live, using only acoustic instruments, and abandoning all the sophisticated electronic and digital technology on which much popular music relies. Just a piano perhaps, or acoustic guitars, maybe some bongos.

It takes courage to play unplugged. Once you’ve removed all the wizardry, your raw talent is left exposed. But a good song performed by able musicians is a wonderful thing. Stripping music back to its basics is one way to tell the gems from the dross.

I love Christmas, not least those aspects that remind me of the magical Christmases of childhood. But you have to admit, these days, it sometimes feels a bit bloated and overblown. I wish we could find a way to do Christmas unplugged. To strip back the baubles and the tinsel, the rounds of parties and over-indulgence, the relentless marketing of gifts we don’t need and perhaps don’t really want, and of the Christmas aisle in Sainsburys getting stocked up at the end of August.

And wouldn’t it be good to jettison the forced jolliness to join in the fun when perhaps for you, like many others, Christmas doesn’t necessarily feel very celebratory. The homeless, the unemployed, the grieving, the lonely, the depressed, the ill and the anxious can’t always just shrug off the challenges of life with a ho, ho, ho.

As it happens, when you strip Christmas back to its basics, the message is tuned exactly to any of us for whom life is, at times, a struggle. St Matthew recalls, in his gospel, the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel, which means God is with us.’

God is with us.

This baby, for whom there is no room at the inn, was born in a stable and will go on to become an asylum-seeker, taken by his parents to a foreign country to escape persecution by a tyrannical king.

And this is God with us, amongst us, alongside us, living out the stark realities of the human condition — not the cushy life of nobility in a stately home, or of royalty in a palace; not the grandeur of a temple or a mighty cathedral, but shivering in a hovel. This baby grows, to live as we do. To eat, sleep and work, just like us. To experience the joys of life as well as its trials. He will laugh with his friends and weep at the grave of his beloved Lazarus. He will roam free across the countryside, living from hand to mouth and tied to no place, yet know the fear and oppression of living under foreign occupation. He will engage in learned debate and education, expanding his mind and intellect, yet understand — and teach us — that God is found in simplicity.

This is God made human. One who does not try to shelter from the harsh realities of life that so many have to face, but who rolls up his sleeves to dig around in the dirt of life. Who comes to touch the unclean lepers, to draw those who are isolated by their disabilities back into the human family, to feed those who starve not just with food but with spiritual nourishment.

God is found in the ordinary.

The old saying goes that in order to fully understand another person you must walk a mile in her shoes. This is how God acts through Jesus. Coming among us to experience human life in all its wild glory and passion and thrills as well as its times of darkness or despair.

God journeys alongside us whatever the circumstances of our lives, regardless of what we are going through or feeling. Immanuel, God with us, is present to us and offers himself to us and — when we choose to open up our inner lives in prayer — begins the work of bringing spiritual wholeness and fulfilment to us. Inner Peace. Courage. Solidarity. Wisdom.

Wherever we walk, Jesus has already trod. And whatever 2017 brings, he will be there with us too. A wonderful counsellor, a mighty God, an everlasting Father, a prince of peace.

So why not try unplugging Christmas this year? Whatever you are doing and whoever you are spending it with, take a moment of quiet away from all that clutters up the season; somewhere still and simple, and open your inner life to the one who has been with you all along. A God who is found in the ordinariness of life and who, in Jesus, became like us so that we can become like him.

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?'