Sunday, 22 October 2017

on seeing God at work in surprising ways

Year A | Trinity 19 | Isaiah 45.1-7

During October we have been thinking about gratitude and generosity — grateful for all that God has given us, and the generosity that springs from such gratitude, mindful that all we have is not ours but comes from God. We simply have stewardship of it.

This outlook is woven deep in the Christian tradition and can have, when we incorporate it into our own way of living, a profound impact on how we choose to use our time, talents and money.

The idea that everything is ultimately in God’s hands is a theme that not only runs through scripture but also in Christian Spirituality during the two millennia since the time of Christ. And it is present in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah.

The book of Isaiah was not, in fact, written by a single author. Rather it is a collection of writings that are set over quite a wide time period. In our reading today, the author is writing about a period of Biblical history known as the exile, which we’ve explored before. The nation of Judah, having been invaded by the Babylonians, has lost many of its leaders and elite to captivity in Babylon — perhaps as many as 10,000 people.

I had initially thought that I might inject a bit of congregational participation into today’s sermon by asking you to cheer when the Judeans are mentioned, boo for the Babylonians and hiss for their king, Cyrus the Great. I changed my mind about that after getting my hair cut this week...

While the barber was at work he asked me where I came from. I told him, ‘Scotland,’ and asked about him. ‘Iraq,’ he said, ‘from the city of Basra.’ And then he launched into an extraordinary diatribe about Iraq’s long and noble history, its rich culture and ancient mathematical and scientific achievements. ‘For you people, history means the Second World War. You have a very tiny history, it is nothing!’

It’s hard to argue with a man when he’s holding a pair of scissors to your head while simultaneously raging and laughing manically.

The site of the ancient kingdom of Babylon is in modern day Iraq. And my barber (probably now my ex-barber...) does have a point. At a time when the British Isles was still pretty primitive and feudal, the Babylonian empire was far more developed and cultured.

So I’ve gone off the idea of booing for the Babylonians. But if you were Jewish 500-600 years before Christ you would have been all too quick to join in. The invasion of Judah and the city of Jerusalem was a catastrophe for people who understood themselves to be specially blessed by God.

Isaiah 45.1-7 is an extract from a poem hailing Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who was also ruler of the Babylonian empire, as God’s anointed. Bit of pub quiz trivia for you here: Cyrus is the only non-Jewish person in scripture to be described as ‘God’s anointed’, and it would have been scandalous to those Jews being held captive to hear him described in such terms.

Bear with me for a bit more history. In these days every nation had its own set of gods. Wars between countries were seen as a reflection of the battles between deities in the heavens. When you conquered another country, your gods were believed to have defeated the gods of the losing side. After all, what use is a god if it lets your enemy triumph over you?

And that’s certainly a question some of the captured Jews in Babylon would have been asking. In response, the writer of this poem asserts three things:

Firstly, there are not multiple gods battling it out with each other. There is only one God, and that God is the God of everybody, regardless of race, creed or nationality. For anyone other than the Jews that was a mind-blowing idea, because ancient near eastern mythology made their gods in the image of humanity. The trials and tribulations that people experienced on earth were seen to be a reflection of the struggles of their deities.

What sets the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob apart was the assertion that there is just one God. ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God’ (v5). We are made in the image of that God (not vice versa), called to grow into holiness by becoming more godly, reflecting the divine characteristics of love, justice, peace, mercy and grace.

Secondly, the poem tells us that not only does this one God hold the world in the palm of his hand but is able to work through other people, regardless of their race, creed or nationality. When the poet says that Cyrus is anointed by God and will be an agent for good in the world, it turns upside down the expectation of every Jew that Cyrus the Great would somehow be destroyed. In actual fact, his reign was to become stronger and even more powerful, as he enlarged his kingdom to become the biggest empire ever seen in history up to that time.

And then he does the most amazing thing of all: he lets the captured Jews go home.

This is the moment of surprise, where God works through a pagan king to save his people. The message is clear: God does not abandon us. Whatever challenging situations we find ourselves in we are reminded to look for signs that God is at work. And not just to look for the obvious, but to be vigilant and prepared to be surprised by God working in ways we could never imagine.

How do we do this? The question ‘Where is God at work?’ can be a bit overwhelming to think about. But if you replace the word God with ‘goodness’, or ‘love’, it may be easier to find clues. Where is goodness at work in your life today? What are the signs that love is present to you in this moment? When you find the answer to such questions such, there you will find God.

Thirdly, there is another message in this extract of poetry. The writer is effectively saying to Cyrus, ‘God says I will give you many things (subduing kings, opening doors and gates, treasure and riches) so that you may know who I am.’

How much, I wonder, do we seek to know who God really is? In what ways do we give credit to God for all the ways our lives are blessed? You may not be a conquering king, but look at what you do have.

There is no evidence that Cyrus the Great ever acknowledged or understood his success was a gift from God. And that may be the point: if we’re not looking for God then no matter how much is given to us — even the kingdoms, power, and wealth of an emperor — the human ego still easily fails to see God at work. Even sending his son to die at the hands of humanity is not enough to convince many of the love and grace of God.

What additional wonders should we reasonably expect to see from God if we take for granted all that has already been given to us, which we perhaps too easily put down to luck, circumstance, or our own hard work or cleverness?

Julian of Norwich was a 14th century English mystic, who left a much loved written account of her spiritual insights. In one of her writings she reflects on a spiritual experience while contemplating a hazelnut in her hand.

I’m going to finish by reading to you from her great work Revelations of Divine Love. You should have been given a hazelnut when you arrived at church today. I invite to pick it up now and place it in the palm of your hand. Study it for a moment: it’s shape, texture, colour and weight. Does it feel cool or warm, heavy or light?

I saw that [our Lord] is to us everything which is good and comforting for our help. He is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us. And so in this sight I saw that he is everything which is good, as I understand.

And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand….

In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it. But what did I see in it? It is that God is the creator and protector and the lover. For until I am substantially united to him, I can never have perfect rest or true happiness, until, that is, I am so attached to him that there can be no created thing between my God and me.

Mother Julian recognised that cultivating an ability to see God at work in our lives need not come from great success or wealth, nor even an absence of problems. It is when we open up our souls to the divine, that even the smallest and simplest of things, such as a tiny nut, can be a gateway to the eternal, to the truth that God holds us in the palm of his hand.

Such are the treasures of spiritual insight, not found by seeing in the way that the world looks, but by putting our attention in a different place so that we, like Mother Julian, can understand that perfect rest and true happiness comes from prayerful union with God.

Acknowledgement: Revd Dr Callie Plunket-Brewton,, for commentary on Isaiah 45.1-7

Sunday, 1 October 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus goes on to say:

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 24 September 2017

on lessons for life that a four year old can understand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 10 September 2017

on examining our daily life

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

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

Sacred Space: The Prayer Book 2017, The Irish Jesuits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 16 July 2017

on life through the spirit

Romans 8.1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 25 June 2017

on managing change

Jeremiah 20.7-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

on being sent out

Matthew 9.35-10.8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 4 June 2017

on pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 14 April 2017

holy week reflection #6 – good friday

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing near by, he said to her, 'Woman, here is your son,' and to the disciple, 'Here is your mother.'
— John 19.25-27 (NIV)

What do you see when you contemplate Christ on the cross? Perhaps you can visualise yourself among the group of women who attend to him in his suffering. Maybe you sense what it is to be the beloved disciple.

Christians around the world will attend vigils today, praying with this image and allowing it to speak into their lives and situations.

In Christ crucified we see all the suffering of the world resting on the shoulders of God. Jesus' pain represents all who suffer in the world today, and the hope of a new world where peace and justice abound as we are drawn into a new family of love.

Those arms, stretched out, draw all of creation to himself so that we and God may be one in Jesus. His love, shown here, is always ready to embrace us.
Incarnational God,
may we know your presence in our suffering,
your call to attend to others in need,
and our place in your family,
beloved by you.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

holy week reflection #5

Jesus said, 'The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.'
— John 12.23

Which of us can imagine that victory could ever lie in prematurely giving up our life? It is hard to perceive the smallness of ourselves in the context of a bigger story. Surely our life is our story? What could possibly be achieved by walking freely into execution?
'Jesus went to his death trusting that his dear Father would bring victory out of what seemed total defeat of his mission.'
—William A. Barry, SJ

Most of us are not called to die for the greater good. Yet perhaps there are things we cling to that prevent us from properly entering into discipleship. What false comforts or security might you give up this Holy Week that would enable you to more fully experience freedom and fullness of life?
Generous God,
As we contemplate the gift of your Son,
and his example of self-emptying,
may we discover the joy of finding new life
in our willingness to give ours up
for his sake.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

holy week reflection #4

'Shall I crucify your king?' Pilate asked.
'We have no king but Caesar,' the chief priests answered.
— John 19.15 (NIV)

The passion narrative is full of treachery: Judas' betrayal, Peter's denial. The religious leaders of the day also play a deceitful game: corruptly engineering the execution of Jesus to protect their vested interests, while at the same time paying lip-service to a Roman regime they despised. 'This is your hour,' Jesus tells them, 'when darkness reigns.' (Luke 22.53)

In what ways do we collude with the values of society or friends, and in turn compromise our most cherished values, or our faithfulness to God? Where in your life is it hardest to discern what following Jesus might call you to do?
Gracious God,
Give us discernment and integrity
to honour your love for us,
and faithfully follow the example
of your Son, Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

holy week reflection #3

‘Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.’
— John 17.25-26 (NIV)

Jesus prays for all who follow him. This prayer is as true for us today as it was when he prayed it before his arrest (see Rom 8.34; Heb 7.25). And his prayer is that the love of God is richly and deeply present in all of us.

To know such love is transformational. Self-doubts and regrets wither in its blaze. Judgementalism and fearfulness about other people fade away. We are invited to step into the light of God's love which draws us into the best of our humanity.

We too can join in with Jesus' prayer of love:
Loving God,
draw us closer to your love this Holy Week
that, through Jesus,
we may know you more deeply,
and grow into people
transformed by you,
ready to touch the world around us
with your everlasting love.

Monday, 10 April 2017

holy week reflection #2

Jesus said, ‘I pray...for those who will believe in me through [the disciples'] message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.'
— John 17.21

What, we might wonder, occurred between Jesus uttering this prayer of unity, and the squabbles of the early church, the Great Schism (between Eastern and Western churches), the Reformation, and the continuing ructions that set Christian against Christian today?

Can we read this prayer as a promise, rather than a hope expressed? That, as followers of Christ, we are united with God through him, and that such unity transcends all human endeavours to undermine it and, indeed, extends to one another across traditions and denominations.

In a week where we mourn for murdered brothers and sisters in the Coptic church in Egypt, may we be mindful that 'in Christ Jesus we are all children of God through faith...' (Galatians 3.26)

Loving God,
As we recall the passion of your son this Holy Week,
we stand together with those
who have been martyred for their faith in him.
May your church be an example of oneness and unity
that witnesses to a new way of living harmoniously,
as one family under you.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

holy week reflection #1

Jesus replied, "You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand."
— John 13.7 (NIV)

We are so keen to make sense of our circumstances and existence that being left with uncertainty or confusion is avoided where possible.

In faith we learn to live with mystery. The human ego reacts against this, always wanting to structure a narrative, ascertain the facts, create a sense of control.

Jesus calls us to hand over our struggling and striving, and invites us to rest in his peace. The narrative will come. We will look back and notice patterns, stepping stones, that enable us to make sense of that which, when in the midst it, seemed unfathomable.

This becomes possible for us when we trust not only that God's loving presence is always available to us, but that Jesus has gone ahead and is already waiting for us in whatever unfathomable or surprising circumstances await us.

give us strength to trust in you
and discernment to look back on our lives
and see where you have been at work in us.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

on being pregnant with possibility

2nd Sunday before Lent
Genesis 1.1-2.3; Roman 8.18-25; Matthew 6.25-34

Each of the readings today have something to say about the creation of the world and our place within it as God’s creatures.

And the first thing to note is how God loads creation with potential. Listen to this:

Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind, and trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. Genesis 1.11-12

Rob Bell writes,

Notice it doesn’t say, ‘God produced vegetation.’ God empowers the land to do something. He gives it the capacity to produce trees and shrubs and plants and bushes that produce fruit and seeds. God empowers creation to make more… Creation is going to move forward. It can’t help it. It is loaded with energy. It’s going to grow and produce and change and morph. This point is central to the story: The garden of Eden is not perfect. Nowhere in Genesis does it say it is perfect. The word the Bible uses is good. Good means changing and growing and advancing and producing new things.
Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis

God is not micromanaging the world. Instead creation has been set running, loaded with all this good stuff to keep it moving and developing and growing.

I wonder if you have ever bought a gift voucher for someone, perhaps when you weren't sure what to buy for their birthday or Christmas? I remember when they used to be a paper ticket stuck inside a greetings card. These days the amount of money you choose to give is loaded electronically onto a little plastic card. The person who receives the card can take it along to the shop and buy whatever they wish up to the value you chose. The card has been pre-loaded with cash. It is up to the recipient to decide what to to do with it.

The earth comes pre-loaded with all this capacity to bring forth more. And we are part of that creation. We, too, come empowered, not just with the capacity to reproduce ourselves, but the potential do all sorts of things that are good.

The fruit trees and the flowers, the crops and the fish, the birds and the animals just get on with fulfilling their potential as part of this fantastic creation. They don’t choose to pollinate and germinate and mate and grow and reproduce, they simply do so. But people are pre-loaded with an extra bit of potential — free will. We have the choice and the capacity to decide what to do with all that we have been given.

So creation isn’t a one moment in time event. It is ongoing. The world continues to grow and evolve and adapt — or at least it does in those places where people aren't busy destroying it for personal gain.

And we continue to be created as life goes on. The cells that make up our blood and flesh and bone and brain continue to replace themselves. Every seven or eight years you grow a new set of lungs, for example. Isn't that incredible? You are quite simply not the person you used to be. You have been replaced many times over.

And this ongoing creation within us is not only true of our physical, material self. It is true of our inner life too, our Spirituality. All of us have a part of us that is hidden from view, which includes our thoughts, our feelings, our imagination, our moods and, most importantly, our soul — the engine room that drives all we do to fulfil our potential, to grow spiritually and to seek communion with God.

The soul is the part of us where the Spirit of God resides. When we pay attention to it, and nourish it and listen to the still small voice of God within, we change and grow as people of faith: learning how to be closer to God, how to allow God to speak into our lives, so that the choices we make not only fulfil our potential and allow us to make the most of all that God empowers us to be, but enables our life and character and behaviour to become an expression of God’s goodness within us.

Creation is not perfect, but it is good. Yes, there are disasters in the natural world that are not always the result of human behaviour — earthquakes and tsunamis and bush fires and droughts and floods. The human body does not endlessly reproduce itself perfectly, but begins to deteriorate over time. Cells get corrupted. Muscles, joints and bones weaken with age.

St Paul writes,

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us… creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay… We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. Romans 8.18ff

Our lives are pregnant with possibility. Yet bringing that potential to birth can be painful. And we live in patience and hope for the final act of creation, in our world and in ourselves, when the glory of God will be brought to bear in all its fullness.

And how do we know this is coming? Look around you. The world and all that is in it, including humanity, bears witness to the glory of God already: a foretaste of all that is to come. ‘Look at the birds of the air,’ says Jesus. ‘Consider the lilies of the field…’ Look around you. It is there to see if you choose to see it. The fingerprints of God all over creation. God is in everything.

St Ignatius, who founded the Jesuits in the Middle Ages, taught his followers much about how to nurture their spiritual life. And one of the pillars of Ignatian spirituality is learning to find God in all things. When we pay attention to God and see even the smallest of things in life as an expression of God’s presence, our love and devotion for God, for each other and for creation grows.

Consider the lilies of the field, and the birds of the air. The sun on your face. The first crocus of Spring. A good conversation.

Undertake the smallest of tasks with purpose and attention, and find holiness in the mundane. Prayerfully take stock of your blessings. And when you find yourself in the midst of a challenging situation, remind yourself, ‘God is here.’

We are made in the image of God. We come preloaded with a capacity to know God and love God, to see God in all around us. To grow into fullness of life and wholeness. It is our choice whether we use that gift or not. We aren’t changed by trying harder, or following rules or all the other things that religion sometimes tries to impose on people. We are changed by attending to God within us, nurturing patience and hope as we wait for all that God will reveal to us.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

on being a firestarter

Candlemas 2017

With my own eyes I have seen your salvation… a light to reveal your will… Luke 2.30-32 (GNB)

Old Simeon’s faithful waiting pays off. Here, in the twilight of his life, he has this moment in which he holds the Christ-child in his arms, and understands that the will of God will be revealed through Jesus.

The old man understands, too, that the salvation and redemption which Jesus will bring is not only for Jews like Simeon, but for the non-Jewish people of the world too. Jesus brings a relationship with a loving God within grasp of us all, and the metaphor for this is light.

Jesus illuminates our understanding of God. He shines a light onto a path the leads us away from all that can make life hellish for us, towards that which is good. His light leads us to our true selves, lifting us out of those base instincts in life that can destroy us; to tame the ego and give ourselves up to the Spirit of God instead. Jesus, the light of the world, shows us instead a heavenly way, where pursuing union with God shapes and changes us for the better, leading us into life and joy. 'Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled' (Matthew 5.6).

In the time of Jesus there were only two types of light: natural light, from the sun; and firelight, such as the flame of an oil lamp. So fire can be as much a metaphor in Christian spirituality as light. The candles that we burn in church, after which Candlemas is named, are naked flames that produce light.

Many of you, at some point of your life, may have lived in a home warmed by the heat of an open fire. You may even have learned the skills of building and lighting such a fire. Our little house in Kent still has the original fireplace from when it was built over a hundred years ago. Sometimes I like to think about all those for whom, over the decades, that fireplace has been a constant. Who else has sat in that room and warmed themselves by that same fire, perhaps sitting in the settling shadows of dusk with only the light of the fire brightening their faces?

We still use the fire and one of the tricks I’ve had to learn in the morning is how to revive a fire from the dying embers of the night before. Some sticks of kindling, a few lumps of coal and, with luck, the fire bursts back into life. But this can take a while, and I’ve noticed that kindling which has been smoking but not yet caught light, can be speeded along by applying a lit match in just the right place. That small flame can enable the whole struggling assembly to catch fire instantly.

It reminds me of the experience of the soul, that part of us in which God resides. The worries and challenges of life, a preoccupation with trying to get everything under control, and the constant tugging desire to have our own way can dim the embers of one's soul.

It doesn’t take much, though, to help that tiny eternal flame within to break out in fire — a prayer, a few Bible verses, a moment of silence and stillness, a good conversation with a soul friend. And whoomf! — we're off.

One of my favourite prayer visualisation exercises is to sit quietly and imagine this tiny flame inside that represents God’s presence in me, and to visualise it growing and filling me, enveloping me with the light and warmth of the love of God. There is a prayer I'm fond of that helps me with this:

As we rejoice in the gift of this new day,
so may the light of your presence, O God,
set our hearts on fire with love for you;
now and for ever.
— Common Worship: Daily Prayer (Church House Publishing, London, 2005)

Set our hearts on fire with love for you. Abbot Guerric of Igny (c.1070-1157) said:

In the presence of the angels our lamps will shine with unsullied reverence when we sing the psalms attentively in their sight or pray fervently; before God our lamp is single-minded resolve to please him alone to whom we have entrusted ourselves.

When we open our inner lives to God, our soul catches fire, drawing us closer to the presence of Jesus, to the light of salvation which shows us the way to life in all its fullness, dispelling troubling darkness and allowing our best self, our true self, to shine.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

on being a saint — yes, you there

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean Vanier writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, 8 January 2017

on what happens when we are looking the other way

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

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

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


A sink estate.

South of the river.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 1 January 2017

on the slaughter of the Holy Innocents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian McLaren writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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