Saturday, 24 December 2016

on 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?'

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.

Friday, 24 June 2016

on freedom from things that try to control us

Trinity 5 | Year Compared
Galatians 5.1,13-25

The letters of St Paul the Apostle, which appear towards the end of the Bible, are full of advice on how to be a Christian. These 'epistles' were written for the early Christians who were part of the very first churches, many of which St Paul himself set up. In them he sets out what it means to live a Christian life as well as how to be a church together.

These brand new churches sometimes got it badly wrong in trying to figure out how to put their faith in Jesus Christ into practice. Paul wrote his letters to help steer them back onto the right track, and they are full of helpful teaching and pointers for us today.

One of Paul's very first letters was to the churches in Galatia, small Christian communities scattered across an area that today is part of Turkey. What prompted this letter was that Paul felt they had already drifted from the truth of the gospel, and were spending too much time squabbling over the question of how Jewish you needed to be as a practicing Christian. (Remember that Jesus and his twelve disciples were Jewish but, as the faith spread, many non-Jewish people starting to become believers. So it all got a bit complicated).

This letter is remarkably bad-tempered, and Paul gets into a real strop in places. "You stupid Galatians," he tells them at one point (Galatians 3.1).

Towards the end of the letter, from where today's reading comes, he seems to calm down a bit and writes very practically about how to be a Christian and in particular what it means to enjoy freedom in Christ.

This idea of Christian freedom, like so much of the way of Jesus, has a strange kind of upside down feel to it. We might be used to thinking about freedom as meaning we are uninhibited and can do what we like. Paul explains that the spiritual freedom which Jesus offers doesn't work like this. Doing whatever we feel like, whenever we want, turns out not be very freeing at all. Paul calls it a kind of slavery, because we become trapped by our desires, compulsions and obsessions, and our behaviour can lead to a breakdown in our relationships with others.

The constant craving to find fulfilment is never satisfied when we think only about ourselves. As Christians our fulfilment comes from God, through Jesus Christ, but when we free ourselves from the tyranny of self-centredness to live for God and for the good of those around us. Or as Paul puts it, "The only thing that counts is faith working through love" (Galatians 5.6).

When we choose to live God's way we discover a new freedom that liberates us from being trapped by our old habits and obsessions, as they give way to a life that bears the fruit of God's Spirit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (v22-23)

Fr John Woolley, in his beautiful devotional book I Am With You, envisions Jesus saying to us:

If you earnestly wish to leave old ways behind I lift you above them! You can take My hand and step out into the realm of freedom … where I am fully in control, and in which there is great blessing for you.

Where in your life could you use more of that? Which of the qualities of a spirit-filled life would you like to be more present in you? As we strengthen our walk with God through prayer and discipleship, these things gradually become more a part of who we are. As our faith and understanding mature, it becomes easier to see where we can show the fruit of the Spirit in our own lives. When we become more prayerful, more open to God's presence in us, more generous in meeting the needs of others, we get to enjoy a taste of all the good things that the kingdom of heaven has to offer. Heaven comes to us here.


It doesn't seem like a difficult choice, and yet we all know how life gets in the way. In today's gospel reading (Luke 9.51-62) Jesus' generous invitation "follow me", an invitation to experience the kingdom of heaven here and now, falls by the wayside for those who are too caught up in their lives to recognise a good thing when they hear it.

What are the excuses we make to that invitation? When Jesus says to you "follow me" and offers you a way to break free from the slavery of those things that try to control you, what do you say?

Paul says:
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." (v13-14)

In trying to arbitrate the squabbles that were tearing the church in Galatia apart, Paul tells them that continuing with the old rituals of the Jewish faith is not what matters. It is in the way we behave and whether we choose to live by the Spirit of God that counts.
Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let is also be guided by the Spirit. (v25)

The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

when words are not enough (and sometimes too much)

This has been a heartbreaking week.

We're used to hearing the media report terrible incidents, but I don't remember a week where so many different bad events took place in the course of seven days.

And I don't know what to say.

I've been glued to news websites and social media all week. In one sense I feel I have nothing new to add to the endless articles and posts that have analysed and commented on this week's terrible events. And there is also a part of me that doesn't even want to try and construct a narrative, to say something that tritely and tidily wraps up this week's stories.

Which is strange, because the one thing I'm clear about is that they are all related.

Instead of writing a sermon I have collated pieces of writing and prayers that others have written about three events —the shootings in Orlando, Florida, the murder of MP Jo Cox, and the dismal depths of the debate about the EU referendum.

The first tragedy we heard about last Sunday after we got home from church. A gunman had walked into an LGBT nightclub in Orlando and shot dead 49 people and injured many more, because he couldn't stand the sight of two men kissing. It was America's biggest singlehanded gun massacre.

'Archbishop Cranmer' a pseudonymous blogger wrote the following response:

An Orlando shooting in which 50 blissful LGBT people were murdered in cold blood. Politicians have tweeted their horror, and the entire civilised world is appalled. There is no apparent end to the column inches and broadcast hours which are being dedicated to analysis of the tragedy. And there is no end to the judgmental agenda-pushing, cause-appropriating, blame-apportioning, score-settling, guilt-inducing commentary. Some target society’s homophobic attitudes, some Islamist terrorism, and some Islam’s view of gays. Others focus on America’s corrosive gun culture, others on partisan delinquencies, and still others on those heartless Christians who seek to uphold the sanctity of holy matrimony. Thousands are offering up a prayer for Orlando, while some tweet their scorn at the futility of those prayers. Even enlightened atheist-secularists can grind an axe in the blood of suffering.

Jesus just weeps with those who weep. He doesn’t only weep with those who consider themselves a touch righteous or morally upright, or with those whose behaviour meets certain standards of chaste perfection. He doesn’t only weep with Christian heterosexuals who live each day by grace, or with repentant LGBT people who have earned his mercy. He weeps with those who weep, and mourns with those who mourn. There are no conditions on his compassion, and no limits to his love.

You can read his full piece here:

My colleague Fr. Simon Rundell wrote the prayer below in response to the shootings:

Jesus, friend to the scapegoat and the victim,
you were always found with those who others hurt and despised.
Stand now with those LGBTI communities who live in fear, suffer violence, and face exclusion.
Come now to challenge human prejudice and restore human dignity.
Strengthen us now, that we would not turn away from anyone who bears the image of God.

While we were still coming to terms with the consequences of one man's inability to cope with those from whom he believed himself both different and better, Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, saw fit to unveil a new campaign poster which drew directly in sentiment and imagery from the Nazi's anti-Semitic propaganda in the 1930s.

This was a new low in the referendum campaign, which admittedly didn't have that far to fall given how dismal the debate has been so far. Both sides have used fear as their main campaign tactic, issuing threat and counter-threat, assertion and denial —as well as peddling barefaced lies.

What has been largely missing in the debate is anything rooted in vision or hope. One of those who stepped into this vacuum was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who has written that our vision for the future of Britain "cannot be only about ourselves."

At the heart of Britain’s Christian heritage are certain glorious principles. They are what make the best of our nation, whether we are Christians, of another faith or of no faith. They come from Jesus’ teaching, especially in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes.

Among those principles are a vision of peace and reconciliation, to being builders of bridges, not barriers. We demonstrated it in the years after 1945. The vision of the founders of the European Union was also peace and reconciliation... Peace and reconciliation exist in Western Europe today. It is the greatest cause for thankfulness that we can imagine. It is a blessing to be shared with the whole world.

The principles Jesus taught and which have so shaped us also include love for the poor, the alien and the stranger. The EU came together in a Europe broken beyond description by war, and has shaped a continent which until recently has contributed to more human flourishing, and more social care, than at any time in European history.

Jesus taught us to love our neighbour, and when questioned about what that meant gave the extraordinary story of the Good Samaritan. In that story the one who turns out to be a neighbour is the one who shows respect, mercy and love to the stranger, even to an enemy.

[He goes on to write about the role Britain played in liberating Europe from the tyranny of fascism, before continuing with:]

Sacrifice, generosity, vision beyond self-interest, suffering for others, helping the helpless, these are some of the deeply Christian principles that have shaped us. They are principles that show us at our best, as an example to other countries, as a home of freedom and democracy, as a beacon of hope that shines around a dark world. They are forward looking virtues. Those who fought in two world wars were not looking back but forward. Those who built the EU after the two wars, in which millions of Europeans had died, looked forward.

The vision for our future cannot be only about ourselves. We are most human when we exist for others.

You can read the full article here.

The Church of England's prayer for the referendum:

God of truth,
give us grace to debate the issues in this referendum
with honesty and openness.
Give generosity to those who seek to form opinion
and discernment to those who vote,
that our nation may prosper
and that with all the peoples of Europe
we may work for peace and the common good;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

The heartache continued on Thursday. In West Yorkshire Jo Cox, a new MP, former aid worker with Oxfam, with a passion for helping the most disadvantaged including Syrian refugees, was shot and stabbed as she prepared for a surgery with her constituents. She died from her injuries. Her attacker is said to have shouted, "Britain First" or "Put Britain First." Jo was married and the mother of two young children.

Is this the outcome of all the toxic language and arguments that have been used during the EU referendum debate? A man charged with her murder appeared in court yesterday and gave his name as "Death to traitors, freedom to Britain."

The words we use shape other people's minds. As one commentator put it:

If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat, that their country has been stolen from them, that they have been betrayed and sold down the river, that their birthright has been pilfered, that their problem is they’re too slow to realise any of this is happening, that their problem is they’re not sufficiently mad as hell, then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap. And then something terrible is going to happen.

Our words matter. But today's politics and press is geared towards toying with people's fears. We are being emotionally manipulated by those who stand to gain from getting our votes, or our readership for their newspaper.

What do the Orlando shootings, Jo Cox's murder and UKIP's vile campaign poster have in common? Vanity, pride, ego, arrogance, hatred, distrust, scaremongering —all seeking to sow seeds of division.

Yet as Christians in the kingdom of God, we are called to unity and not division. St Paul wrote:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3.29-29 NRSV)

In the kingdom of God, Christ seeks to break down the barriers we create with others, knitting us together into one family. That line in Galatians about the offspring of Abraham alludes to the covenant that God made with Abraham, in which God promised to make Abraham the ancestor of a multitude of nations (Genesis 17.4-7). As it turned out, he also became the ancestor of the three great Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

From the start of the Hebrew scriptures in Genesis to the end of the Christian Testament in Revelation, where a multitude of people of all nations and languages are envisioned worshiping God together (Revelation 7.9), it is clear that God longs for us to unite with our brothers and sisters in spite of our differences. Not to sow seeds of division, but to work for the common good and build the unity of the kingdom of God.

But for when there are no words, or too many words, we can stand together in silent unity as we did this morning, lighting a candle as a prayer — for Jo Cox MP, for the Pulse nightclub victims, and for grace in our national politics.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

on how rash judgements backfire

I wonder if Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7.36-8.3) came to regret inviting Jesus for supper? I wonder if he wished he'd bitten his tongue, instead of opening his mouth to pass judgement on the sinful woman who pays such loving homage to the Lord? In speaking to condemn her Simon inadvertently brings judgement on himself.

Which, in fact, is almost always what happens when we are judgemental towards other people. We might think, deludedly, that we are establishing our own 'rightness' over and above another, when actually we are trumpeting to all within earshot how desperate we are to validate ourselves at the expense of others. And who hasn't, at times, wished they could wind back the clock to retract a remark they've made about somebody, knowing how badly it reflected on ourself?

In judging others we broadcast our insecurities to the world: we may be insecure about those who are different from us, with different values or standards; about those who are not part of our narrow set or in-crowd; our judgements may come from a need to scapegoat others in order to avoid confronting our own shortcomings; or a need to keep a tight grip on our pride and not let it crack; or to misdirect attention away from our own sense of shame and throw the spotlight on somebody else instead. When we make rash judgements about others we open the door to our own complicated psychology and allow others to peek at the most disordered aspects of our mind.

There is a good reason Jesus taught his disciples to avoid passing judgement on others, aside from the fact that judgement is God's work alone – which, for us, should be reason enough. But also, when we adopt the mantle of judge for ourselves, our criticisms and put downs invite others to draw conclusions about our own shortcomings; our lack of humanity, or grace, or self-insight. Judge not let ye be judged, indeed.

When the Pharisee passes harsh judgement on the sinful woman, he certainly invites judgement on himself. Jesus shines a light on Simon's failings in comparison to the woman, making it abundantly clear to Simon that he is in no position to judge.

Yet Jesus generally tends to be remarkably non-judgemental in his encounters with people in the gospels. Think about the Samaritan woman at the well; Zaccheus the tax collector; the Roman centurion with the sick slave. All of them are people of whom respectable first century Jewish society would have had plenty of derogatory things to say. Instead Jesus' ire is reserved for one particular group of people — respectable first century Jewish society. Or more specifically, the temple elite. People just like Simon in fact. Pharisees, Sadducees, high priests and scribes often tended to feel rather pleased with themselves because of their magnificent religious credentials and would look down on everyone else.

Jesus' judgement in the gospels did not play the game we play of looking down on others. It was the game itself he judged, and the self-righteous religious hypocrites who played it. That should be enough to cause any Christian pause for thought before speaking to condemn or criticise others.

Which isn't to say that the Church doesn't sometimes have a role to play in speaking out against what is wrong in the world, to be discerning about individuals or to act out of prophetic witness. But discernment about people is slower and more considered than rash judgements (often involving establishing a relationship or offering support) while prophetic witness is aimed at systems and powers which oppress and exploit. Indeed I think Jesus' conversation with Simon is actually an expression of prophetic witness about religious hypocrisy rather than an attack on Simon the man.

Christ is also our judge. Jesus' judgement is not some far off eschatological event, but a gift he offers to us here and now. It is something that becomes present to us when we spend time regularly in prayer and devotion, as these steer us towards self-reflection. When we give attention to Jesus he in turn helps us to build a picture of our true-self. This is a gift because rather than being condemnatory, Jesus judges out of mercy: out of having walked the way of humanity.

When Christ became one of us he entered fully into the human experience, as ‘one who in every respect has been tested as we are’ (Hebrews 4.15). His judgement is tempered by mercy rooted in the incarnational experience of undergoing life as we have. As our judge he is able to ‘sympathize with our weaknesses’. He judges us then, not to condemn us but to illuminate our lives and to lead us on the path of humility, where we let go of all our self-illusions and see ourselves as we truly are. And not just our failings, but our strengths and our good points as well.

This is the life of prayerful self-examination that we are called to as Christians. One where we focus on noticing the plank of wood in our own eye and working to gradually remove it over our lifetime, rather than bickering about the speck of dust we see in our neighbour's eye.

As one of the Desert Fathers put it, 'Abandon the heavy burden of self-justification, and take up the light burden of self-criticism.'

So often the judgements we make on other people are an attempt to proclaim our own self-righteousness. And yet we have no need to expend any energy or effort in justifying ourselves. We've been liberated from that by Jesus who justifies us through our faith in him. We are gloriously freed from any need to be judgemental towards ourselves or others, and simply to live in the confidence that comes from being a new creation in Jesus. As St Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:

2 Corinthians 5:16-19 (GNB)
No longer, then, do we judge anyone by human standards. Even if at one time we judged Christ according to human standards, we no longer do so. Anyone who is joined to Christ is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come. All this is done by God, who through Christ changed us from enemies into his friends and gave us the task of making others his friends also.

Scriptures marked GNB are taken from the Good News Bible published by The Bible Societies/Collins © American Bible Society.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

on luke 7.11-17: the widow of nain

Jesus and his weary band of followers have been walking for over 25 miles. Let's join them and see where they are going.

It is hot and dry, and very dusty. We are all looking forward to arriving and having a long cold drink and something to eat. We can see our destination in the distance, a town called Nain, sitting on top of a rise of land. We'll be glad to get there, our aching legs already have to find the energy for one last push to climb that uphill stretch. Plus we have to walk past the burial caves that line the road here. It's a bit creepy and, given we're followers of the law of Moses, we're mindful of the ritual impurity of coming into contact with the dead. We spur ourselves on quickly, heading for the town gates. A crowd like this, not just the Rabbi Jesus and his disciples, but all these others followers too, are bound to cause a bit of a stir when we turn up in a little town like this.

But as we get closer, we begin to see there is already something of a commotion in the town. A crowd is coming out of the gates and heading our way. Let's hope there isn't going to be any trouble: they don't seem very happy. As they draw closer we begin to see why. This is a funeral procession, making its way to the burial caves with a body on a bier, carried by some of the men of the town.

Hopefully, Jesus will lead us on past this procession quickly and let us get the rest and refreshment we crave. Yet more people continue to pour out of the town gates. This is a particularly large funeral. Half the town's residents must be here. We can soon see why. The chief mourner is a woman, wearing the clothes of a widow. Not only has she lost her husband sometime in the past, but now her only son has died.

You always see a bigger crowd at the death of a young person, and there is nothing more against the natural order of things than a parent having to bury their child. And we understand she won't simply be grieving for her loss. This death is bad news for a widow who, without a husband, would be relying on her son to look after her in old age. She's bound to be wondering what will happen to her now. She may, like many widows, be reduced to begging if there are no other family members to depend on.

Come on Jesus, keep walking. Let's get to the inn where we can rest our tired bodies and slake our thirst. Oh typical. He just can't pass up an opportunity to get involved, can he? He's talking to the widow and comforting her. Honestly, these bleeding heart liberals just don't know when to stop, do they? The crowd is simmering down now, ever alert to the possibility that this wandering Rabbi could do something surprising. He's moved over to the corpse and is putting his hand on it now. Eugh! He'll have to purify himself now before he eats any supper.

Over the hushed murmuring of the people we can just make out what he is saying. "Young man, get up I tell you." He really doesn't know when to stop this Rabbi, does he? Talk about a messiah complex. Sure, he's healed some pretty sick people, but raising the dead to life? Come on.

And then...surely not? It's getting harder to see as the people all crane their necks for a better view, some even sitting on the shoulders of others. But just through a crack in the crowd we can see movement on the funeral bier. The young man is stirring, peeling off his burial shroud and sitting up. Now he's saying something, but we can't hear because the crowd has set up a cry, so astonished are they by what they are seeing.

Clearly this is no ordinary Rabbi, trailing from town to town with his band of grubby disciples. This, surely, is the work of God; this man a great prophet like Elijah. In fact, now we come to think of it, isn't there a story in our scriptures where Elijah brings the only son of a widow back to life? That 's an odd coincidence... This man Jesus must be as great as the greatest prophets of old, maybe even greater.

And now, years later, in our old age we often think back on the events of that remarkable day. Yes, it was an amazing thing to witness, but in the light of later events surrounding Jesus we have come to realise that this miracle is rich in deeper meaning.

Of how it has shaped the way Jesus' followers continue his ministry, by looking out for situations that seem hopeless or despairing and finding ways to bring new life to them. How his church has made it a special mission to seek out people who have nobody to look after them, and offer them care and support. Of the way that this episode perhaps makes us think about our own pain and grief, and the voice of Jesus, full of compassion, saying to us "do not weep", all the while knowing that he weeps with us. As the crowd gasped in awe at the glory of God seen in Jesus, his followers today must never stop being astonished or joyful at how great God is.

Lord of compassion and mercy,
you give back to us
what we fear is lost beyond recall:
may your word resound
to the limits of our grief
and life arise
in place of despair;
though Jesus Christ, to whom all is entrusted.
Steven Shakespeare, Prayers for an Inclusive Church, Canterbury Press 2008

Sunday, 15 May 2016

on pentecost

with guest blogger Irenaeus who was one of the Church's first theologians, and writes here of the Holy Spirit being to the Church what water is to a baker making bread. He also alludes to the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

When the Lord told his disciples ‘to go and teach all nations’ and to ‘baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, he conferred on them the power of giving people new life in God.

He had promised through the prophets that in these last days he would pour out his Spirit on his servants and handmaids, and that they would prophesy. So when the Son of God became the Son of Man, the Spirit also descended upon him, becoming accustomed in this way to dwelling with the human race, to living in them and to inhabiting God’s creation. The Spirit accomplished the Father’s will in people who had grown old in sin, and gave them new life in Christ.

Luke says that the Spirit came down on the disciples at Pentecost, after the Lord’s ascension, with power to open the gates of life to all nations and to make known to them the new covenant. So it was that people of every language joined in singing one song of praise to God, and scattered tribes, restored to unity by the Spirit, were offered to the Father as the firstfruits of all the nations.

This was why the Lord had promised to send the Advocate: he was to prepare us as an offering to God. Like dry flour, which cannot become one lump of dough, one loaf of bread, without moisture, we who are many could not become one in Christ Jesus without the water that comes down from heaven. And like parched ground, which yields no harvest unless it receives moisture, we who were once like a waterless tree could never have lived and borne fruit without this abundant rainfall from above. Through the baptism that liberates us from change and decay we have become one in body; through the Spirit we have become one in soul.

‘The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of God’ came down upon the Lord, and the Lord in turn gave this Spirit to his Church, sending the Advocate from heaven into all the world into which, according to his own words, the devil too had been cast down like lightning.

If we are not to be scorched and made unfruitful, we need the dew of God. Since we have our accuser, we need an Advocate as well. And so the Lord in his pity for us who had fallen into the hands of brigands, having himself bound up our wounds and left for our care two coins bearing the royal image, entrusted us to the Holy Spirit. Now, through the Spirit, the image and inscription of the Father and the Son have been given to us, and it is our duty to use the coin committed to our charge and make it yield a rich profit for the Lord.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, from Celebrating the Seasons: Daily Spiritual Readings for the Christian Year, compiled Robert Atwell, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1999

Sunday, 8 May 2016

on freedom from forces that hold us captive

Today's reading from the book of the Acts of the Apostles (16.16-34), is an extraordinary tale which has much to tell us about the role of Christians in freeing society from those things that can hold us captive, and of the power of a confident relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

It all begins with a young woman, who is already oppressed through slavery and is then being further exploited by her owners for financial gain as a fortune-teller. The words the scripture uses is that she possesses a 'spirit of divination'. In the Bible, being possessed by a spirit or a demon is code for one of any number of conditions that were not well understood in those days, most usually referring to some kind of mental illness.

This slave-girl has been following the apostles for several days loudly proclaiming that they are servants of God who teach the way to spiritual salvation. Which is true. So here's the thing: this girl, in spite of her condition and circumstances, speaks with real insight. She maybe someone who is psychologically unwell, but she is well able to discern what Paul and Silas are all about.

Poor mental health, and the unpredictable behaviour that can arise from it, is very much better understood today — yet not necessarily much better accepted socially than it was in first century Europe, where this episode takes place. Society still has much to learn about how to empathise with and support those who are under psychological pressure of one sort or another. I know this both from my own experience of depression, as well as from my pastoral encounters with others. Sometimes frank and blunt talk is coupled with remarkable insight into other people. Why wouldn't it? Those who have had to, out of necessity, navigate their way around their own mental terrain might sometimes be well placed to recognise what is driving the actions and behaviour of others around them.

I can well see that a spirit of divination in this slave-girl could be precisely the sort of insight arising from her own mental state. As someone once said, in adaptation of a Leonard Cohen lyric, blessed are the cracked for they shall let in the light.

Which isn't to say that people who are a bit disturbed can't also sometimes be quite annoying. I remember coming home after being away from the parish for precisely a day and a half, to find that the same person had left seven telephone messages on my voicemail, written me two emails and had pushed a note through the Vicarage letterbox. It's hard not to feel slightly cramped by such persistence. St Paul clearly feels this, and after several days of being followed around by this girl shouting at them, he has had enough. In some way he is also able to recognise whatever it is that she is captive to and calls it out of her.

This echoes what Jesus did a number of times in the gospels. As Brian McLaren has written:

Thousands come to Jesus with various afflictions and internal oppressions, and Jesus draws into the light whatever oppressive, destructive, disease-causing, imbalancing, paralyzing, or convulsing forces hide within them so they can be freed and restored to balance and health . . . The demonic gives us a language to personify and identify these covert forces that enter groups of us, using us, becoming a guiding part of us, possessing and influencing and even controlling us.

What is is that holds us captive and oppresses us in today's society? The addiction of consumerism? A culture of individualism? Globalisation and power over governments by multi-national corporations? Managerialism and the increasingly excessive burdens and policies of the workplace? The judgementalism of family and friends?

In the slave-girl's case she is controlled by those who own her and exploit her condition for financial gain. Somehow Paul is able to liberate her from this, at least in part, which really annoys her owners.

Today we may be appalled by the idea that a person could be in the possession of another, a commodity to be bought and sold. But slavery is never very far from our presence in 21st century Europe. Not only do many in this congregation have forebears who were enslaved, but it is a practice that continues around the world as we speak. There are domestic slaves living in households in London today, forbidden to leave the house and with their passports confiscated. Women and girls are trafficked to this country to be sex workers. Children abroad are forced into service in the supply chain for products that make their way onto our supermarket shelves and high street stores.

Ten years ago, a good friend of this church, Steve Chalke, set up Stop the Traffik. Today the campaign he founded is an international coalition of activists who remain determined to 'disrupt and prevent human trafficking, its harm and abuse to human beings.' On their website you can read more about the way that people are 'tricked into situations where they are bought, sold, abused and exploited for financial gain.'

Christians believe that we are all equal in the sight of God, that we are all made in the image of God: that there is something of the divine within each of us. And of course you don't have to be Christian to simply believe in the dignity of all humanity.

Just as St Paul does in 1st century Philippi, and as Jesus does before him in Palestine, it remains our calling and our duty to continue to help liberate people from whatever is holding them captive, and from whoever may be exploiting and abusing them.

And that is a risky business. Standing up to vested interests takes courage, as those with power and wealth can bring a great deal of pressure to bear in thwarting those who threaten their activities. The commandment of Jesus to love our neighbours as ourselves compels us to put our necks on the line for others.

The owners of the slave-girl trump up some false charges against Paul and Silas and have them thrown in jail. But are they down-hearted? No, they are not! The apostles, like many persecuted Christians in the intervening two millennia, understand the difference between physical freedom and spiritual freedom.

In one of his letters St Paul wrote:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8.35,37-39 (NRSV)

Paul and Silas, rather than licking their wounds and feeling sorry for themselves, take this spiritual truth to heart. There they are in prison singing hymns and praying in front of the rest of the, presumably bemused, prisoners.

The earthquake that shakes the prison, opening the doors and loosening the prisoners' chains, is probably metaphorical rather than literal. The point being made here is that even imprisonment cannot contain the spiritual freedom that Jesus' followers enjoy.

The jailer who observes these events is so disturbed by witnessing this spectacle that he wants in on it. And why wouldn't he? To see these Christians so centred and anchored by a faith that even serious tribulation cannot shake them. This is Jesus' gift to us, the unity with God that we enjoy through him.

But this is not some thing we keep to ourselves, for ourselves. Like all spiritual gifts it is given to us so that we can be a blessing to others — a blessing to those around us who are held captive, imprisoned, oppressed, exploited, abused, abandoned, hungry, diseased, disturbed; all who yearn for the freedom and liberation that God desires for all his children.

Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

on being blessed

God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
That your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations — Psalm 67.1-2

The word 'bless' has achieved a bit of a revival in common parlance in recent years. Sometimes it's used as a way to respond to a comment that is touching or sweet. 'Ah bless.' Amongst some young people, 'Bless' has become a way of saying goodbye, which is a habit I wouldn't mind catching on. It also gets used, particularly on social media, as a kind of affectionate put down, as in 'My husband has gone to the shed to play with his power tools. Bless.'

Our Psalm today (67) draws on one of the most famous and still widely used blessings, the Aaronic blessing from Numbers 6.24-26:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. (NRSV)

A blessing is 'the authoritative pronouncement of God's favour on people, places, events and objects.'* When we are the recipient of a blessing, we do not become any more blessed than we were already. The priest, or whoever is pronouncing the blessing (and anybody can give a blessing), is simply giving voice to a state that already exists: God's unquenchable love for creation, and in particular humanity. God delights in us, in spite of the mess we sometimes make of our affairs, and of the planet, and continues to bless us. We remain the object of God's favour—and hearing a blessing is a way of reminding us of this.

What, then, changes when we hear a blessing pronounced? Blessing is a currency in the economy of our faith, which is to say that it is used in prayerful transactions: between us and God, and each other. Like the pound in your pocket, a blessing doesn't stay put for long. It gets passed on.

To be reminded of God's favour is something that should always provoke joy within us. If it doesn't then this is something you can pray for, to feel that joy when you are blessed. In turn joy provokes thanksgiving, and fuels our worship and prayers. And when that happens God is blessed, because we are then making God the object of our favour. When we bless God for something, it becomes sacred and holy. So blessing God, and being blessed by God, are at the heart of our relationship with the divine.

Blessings are not simply statements though. For us, they are a prayer that we will continue to be blessed by God. We seek the Lord's blessing for the future as well as recognise it in the present. And Psalm 67 makes clear, that our concern to be blessed by God in future is not just for us. We seek it for everyone. O let the nations rejoice and be glad... Then shall the earth bring forth her increase (v4,6).

In the book of Revelation we see how blessing pours from throne of God; peace and wellbeing for all.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. — Revelation 22.1-2

Blessings are something to be shared. When we give ourselves to others in loving service, we in turn are blessed by that. Lydia in the book of Acts, is quick to understand this. She opens her heart to the good news of Jesus Christ, is baptised, and in response to this great blessing, she offers hospitality to the apostles (Acts 16.11-15). A blessing is something that keeps moving, from God to us, from us to God and from us to one another.

We continue to pray God's blessing on us and for it to be known among all nations, 'then shall the earth bring forth her increase.'

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. Amen.

*The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship

Monday, 25 April 2016

on a new commandment

And now I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples. John 13.34-35 (GNB)

A religious expert, a Pharisee, once came to Jesus and said to him, "What is the greatest commandment in the law of Moses?" (You will remember that, as well as the Ten Commandments, the Mosaic law contained over 600 rules which governed how the early Israelites organised themselves as a community, and worshiped God. By the time of Jesus, many religious leaders were more concerned about the correct observance of the law than about the love the God has for people and creation.) Jesus answered the religious expert by saying, "[The greatest commandment of the Law] is to 'love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind...' The second most important commandment is like it: 'Love your neighbour as you love yourself.' The whole law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments." (Matthew 22.37-40 GNB)

In a heartbeat Jesus slices through all the complexities of religious observance, as well as all the bureaucracy, religious fundamentalism, intolerance, and anything else that causes religious leaders to lose touch with the heart of God.

Towards the end of his earthly ministry Jesus prepares his disciples to continue his mission once he has left them. So he gives them a new, third, commandment: "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another."

Jesus loved his disciples in many different ways: by being alongside them through all their ups and downs, by nurturing their faith and giving them insight into the radical kingdom of God, by being patient and forgiving with their failures, by investing confidence in them, by demonstrating the divine qualities of justice and peace, by willingly giving himself to them and offering his life up for them.

This is our role model, the example for us to follow. And Jesus is telling us that the way the world will know we are his followers is by the way we love one another. The quality of our relationships with each other and the way we behave is to be so distinctive and so rooted in love that it will infect society around us.

This is how the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to be transmitted. Not through cheesy evangelistic programmes, not by telling other people how to live their lives, not by copying the sterile marketing tricks of the corporate world, not by taking to the streets once a year in a 'walk of weirdness', not by rushing to street corners with our guitars and tambourines, not by climbing onto a soapbox with a squawking megaphone.

It is by being a hotbed of 'God-intoxicated misfits'* heavenbent on putting love of God, neighbour and fellow followers of Jesus ahead of anything else - particularly self-interest. Tough call. You can see why crass evangelism and bossy moralising caught on. It is so much easier than actually following the new commandment, to live a life that is so distinctively loving, generous and self-giving that it leavens society and lifts the world into the new life of the kingdom of God. Some of the bad and busy outreach programmes of the church look a lot like the Pharisees measuring their fringes and phylacteries. A lot of effort and energy goes into it, but it does little to convey the love of God.

When we graft ourselves onto the true vine, God's love is able to flow through us and out into our relationships with each other, our families, our neighbours and the world. As long as we keep plugging ourselves into that source of love, then we enable ourselves to pass it on and bear fruit.

It was in response to God's love shown in Jesus that we became Christians; it is in sharing that love with others that we grow in our faith and in ourselves. And as we exercise the kind of love that Jesus demonstrated, we broadcast our discipleship and play our part in building the kingdom of God.

As Thomas Merton put it:

The solidarity of the Christian community is not based on the awareness that the Church has authority to cast out and to anathematise, but on the realisation that Christ has given her the power to forgive sin in his name and to welcome the sinner to the banquet of his love in the holy Eucharist. More than this, the Church is aware of her divine mission to bring forgiveness and peace to all men and women. This means not only that the sacraments are there for all who will approach them, but that Christians themselves must bring love, mercy and justice into the lives of their neighbours, in order to reveal to them the presence of Christ in his Church. And this can only be done if all Christians strive generously to love and serve all people with whom they come into contact in their daily lives.
Thomas Merton, The Power and Meaning of Love (emphasis added)

Scriptures marked GNB are taken from the Good News Bible published by The Bible Societies/Collins © American Bible Society.

*Robin Meyers, Spiritual Defiance: Building a beloved community of resistance