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.