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.