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.