Sunday, October 22, 2017

Render unto Caesar

Render unto Caesar….
(Matthew 22.15-22)

There’s a story I like…about a politician who dies and goes to heaven.  He is greeted by St. Peter who tells him there is a new system in the afterlife. You can spend one day in heaven and one day in hell, and afterwards you can decide where you want to spend eternity.

So the politician spends his first day in heaven, praying with the Lord, singing with the choir, and talking with the philosophers. He's thinking ‘this is alright; not too exciting, but it's got to be better than hell’.

The next day, the man awakes in hell, in a Penthouse suite!  He is greeted by the Devil himself, dressed in an Armani suit, holding out a glass of champagne.  ‘Welcome!’ says the Devil.  You’re going to love it here!’

The man takes the champagne and is told by the devil that in the lobby there is a free bar, swimming pools full of beautiful people, a restaurant with the finest chef the world has seen, and a casino and theatre next door.

The politician thinks to himself, "Wow! This is hell? This is amazing!"  He spends all day pleasuring himself on every possible vice.

The next day, the politician awakes with St Peter asking him that now he must make the decision of where he wants to spend eternity.  The man says "Heaven is OK, but it's got nothing on Hell.  I'm sorry St. Peter, but I think I’m going to have to choose Hell."  St.Peter asks the politician if he's sure of his decision, and the man says “Yes. That’s what I want”

The man awakes to screams of pain and torture, in a dark and unimaginably hot place. He is greeted by the Devil, who is wielding a Trident and laughing maniacally.  The politician says to the Devil, "What's going on? Where are all the beautiful people?  Where's my penthouse suite? This isn't what you showed me that Hell was like!"

The Devil replies, "Well you see, yesterday we were campaigning, but today you voted."
___________

Politics, politics, politics.  It’s a slippery business, isn’t it?  It’s a business that I know something about.  Before I was ordained, I spent five years of my life working in Westminster.  I worked in a building in Great Smith Street, just across the road from Church House – the offices of the Church of England.  Often, I would look out from my ivory tower across the road at the administrative home of the Church I was about to serve…and I would wonder. 

I would wonder at the link between the church and the state.  The formal link between state and church that we have in the United Kingdom is, in fact, a pretty rare thing – compared to the rest of the world.  The link between us – the church - and our nation is cemented in Law, and presided over, on both sides, by our Monarch. 

So how are we to interpret Jesus’ teaching to ‘give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and to God what belongs to God’.  Many have argued for centuries that this link should be ‘disestablished’ – and that Jesus’ words should be taken to mean that’s time for the link to be dissolved. 

But is this actually what Jesus is saying?  Well, as always, when we want to understand anything in the Bible we must remember the three C’s….what have I told you?  Context, context, context.

The first context is the state of the nation at the time of Jesus.  Israel was under occupation, by the Romans.  Taxes had to be paid in Roman coins…coins which had the head of the Emperor, Tiberius Caesar imprinted on them. These coins were considered blasphemous, because they declared the emperor to be God – in Latin words written around the edge. And Roman taxation of conquered nations was hated by all.  Why should they send their well-earned cash off to Rome, to keep the emperor and his cronies in luxury? 

The second context was the Jewish leaders’ increasing sense of disquiet about this Jesus character – they suspected that he too was a blasphemer, declaring himself to be God.  So they set about trying to trip him up with a tricky, tricky, conundrum.  “Teacher”, they said…fawning and faking a sense of teachability on their part.  “Teacher – is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

A very clever question indeed.  For if Jesus said it was lawful, then the Jews would hate him for supporting the Romans.  If he said that it was not lawful, then he would be subject to arrest by the Roman state.  A trick question…designed to trap him.  There was no way Jesus was going to get out of that, was he?

If you think you can trap God with mere words, you’re a poor fool indeed.  Jesus rose, ably, to the challenge.  Taking a roman coin from the crowd, he asked whose head was on it.  “Caesar’s”, they said.  “Then,” said Jesus – probably with a casual shrug of the shoulders – “give Caesar what is his.  But give God what belongs to God”.

Is this a great cry from Jesus for the disestablishment of the church from the state? Is this a cry that religion and politics don’t mix?  Is it heck! 

The third context that we must not forget is the entire body of the rest of Jesus’ teaching, and the law and the prophets’ teaching he came to fulfil.  Jesus stood in the tradition of all the ancient prophets, who legislated for the way that the whole State was to act, in all matters of human endeavour. 

Everything, from…

  • the ways wars should be conducted, 
  • the way prisoners should be treated, 
  • the way aliens should be welcomed, 
  • the way that the poor should be supported, 
  • the way that disputes should be settled
  • the way that the ownership of property should be regulated, 
  • even the way that banking and the charging of interest should be conducted…

...there are laws in the Hebrew Bible for all of these things…and many more. 

And Jesus went even further.  On top of all these laws that he came to fulfil, Jesus proclaimed a new kind of Kingdom.  Kingdom is an inherently ‘political’ word.  Repent!  Turn around!  Do things differently!  Live according to God’s rules and God’s ways.  Live in God’s Kingdom.

The real problem, I want to suggest in conclusion, is that our state, here in the UK, has already become effectively disconnected from its religion.  Our society looks less and less like the religion we claim to respect. 

The poor are neglected and discarded.  For example, the new universal credit system requires people with nothing – no money – to live for a minimum of six weeks without any support from the rest of society.  Whereas the Scriptures teach, boldly and courageously “there shall be NO poor among you”.  (Deuteronomy 15:4).  We ignore that teaching, and then we wonder why desperate people break into churches to steal what they can to live on.

Our economic models are driven by the charging of interest, which the Scriptures call usury, and illegal.  (Exodus 22:24 –commands, “you shall not charge interest on loans to your brother”). 
We take for granted the accumulation and passing on of capital through our families.  Yet the Scriptures, on the other hand, advocate ‘Jubilee’ – the principle that fairly-shared land shall be returned to the original owners every 50th year.  Leviticus 25. 

We define ourselves as ‘consumers’ – it’s a badge that we wear with pride.  We devour consumer magazines, and listen to ‘You and Yours’ – Radio 4’s flagship consumer programme.  And yet the Scriptures invite us again and again to see ourselves not as individualistic consumers, concerned about our own rights and acquisitions.  We are members of a community, with a responsibility to ‘do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God’. (Micah 6:8)

I could go on – at some length.  But you’ll get cross with me if I do and start waving your watches at me.  Let me finish with this suggestion. 

Far from being a call to separate politics from religion, Jesus’ call to render to Caesar and God that which is theirs should constantly remind us that both the state, and God, have a call on our lives.  These two calls must be held in a state of constant dialogue.  A state without a religion is a state out of control – prey to the whims of the mob who would drive it ever towards the human kind’s baser instincts...blame of the other, the fracturing of community, individualism and consumerism, and the total disregard of the poor and the suffering. 

A religion without a state is just as much in danger.  A religion practiced without the tempering reality of human life can also become a deeply damaging thing. Personal religion can so easily become an individualistic search only for personal peace and holy experiences.  The songs of stateless religions are always the songs of the individual search for God…cries for God to ‘touch me, heal me, fill me’.  They are just as much a danger – and just as much worthy of contempt.

The state needs religion.  And religion needs the State.  Each keeps the other in balance.  Each invites the other to think outside of the narrow confines of the self. 

Yes, we must render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.  We are the State – and we owe a debt to the community which sustains us, feeds us, houses us, and cares for us.  But we must also render to God what is his…and never forget his cries for justice, for loving one another, for caring for the poor and the unlucky, and for placing God’s priorities above all else.

Amen.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Servants of the Servants of God

Today, I’m going to take the unusual step of entirely ignoring the readings of the day.  For today is a special day, indeed.  Today, of course, we welcome among us two new deacons!  This is then a jolly good opportunity to reflect a little on what a deacon is.

Perversely, though, let's start with what a deacon is not!  A deacon is not a sort of 'baby priest' - or a priest in waiting -  a priest with training wheels if you like....although there is something of that in David and Vickie’s situation, because we fully hope and expect that they will be ordained as priests within a year.   Being a deacon, is actually at the heart of what it means to be a minister in the church today.  And its worth remembering that no priest ever stops being a deacon.  Even a Bishop is still a deacon...something that Bishop Christopher demonstrated very powerfully yesterday by washing Vickie & David’s feet.

The word 'deacon' comes from a Greek word, diakonos - which meant 'servant', 'waiting man', 'minister' or sometimes 'messenger'.  Deacons, then, are ‘ministers’ in the full sense of that word – but not in the way that the world of politics uses it.    In that world ‘minister’ is a word which sometimes vacates its meaning altogether.  Government ministers – of any political party – have a tendency to perceive themselves as superior beings, demanding that they should be treated with the respect they feel their office deserves.  Believe me, I know.  I used to work in Westminster!  The meaning of the word was even more corrupted with the introduction of the phrase ‘Prime Minister’ – which legally speaking is still only short hand for the post of First Lord of the Treasury.  A ‘prime minister’ should be the greatest servant of all – but they are often the most power-crazed of all ministers! 

But holding and exercising power over others, is very far from the original meaning of the word minister, or deacon.  The first deacons were appointed by the Apostles, who found that during the early days of the church, when everyone was eating together, they were spending too much time waiting at tables, and in general administration.  They were neglecting their primary call to be the theologians, leaders and teachers of their community.

So a deacon – a minister - is first and foremost a servant.  It is the call to service of others which underpins every deacon.  And of course, as you well know, service is something to which every Christian is called.  In many ways, all of us in this parish have diaconal ministries.  We all serve one another, and the world around us, in many different ways.  Welcoming people into church, cleaning and maintaining buildings, sitting on committees, organising events, singing, bell ringing, visiting the sick, serving at the Altar...all of these (and many more) are diaconal roles. 

But David & Vickie, as well as Bishop John, Father Richard and I have all been called – first and foremost among any other roles we may have - to represent that diaconal role in particular way.  We are called to model it as a way of life to which all Christians are called.  We are, in a sense, called to be icons of service to the whole community. 

An icon is any image, or representation, which speaks to us of a deeper truth.  An icon of Mary or Jesus, like those in our Lady Chapel, are not actually Mary or Jesus – but they point us to the deeper realities which Mary and Jesus are.  So when you see one of us with a hand down a U-bend, or lugging tables, or painting a wall, or making the coffee, or filling out the endless paperwork of the Anglican Church!...we're being deacons - called to a ministry of service, just like everyone here.

But as ordained deacons, we are also 'set aside' by the church for some particular ministries.  We have been given rather expensive training for particular specialist servant tasks...especially the tasks of preaching and teaching and leading this community, and its worship.  Ordained Deacons are 'set apart' from some of the day to day servant-tasks of all the people - because communities need leaders, and teachers, and experts in worship....so that all that is said and done in our worship can be of the highest standard possible. 

Ordained deacons also have another particular role in the worship of the church.  Deacons come from the people, called out of the people. They speak on behalf of the people, and to the people... calling the whole congregation to confession, calling them to share peace, calling them to declare their faith, and encouraging them to go out at the end of the Mass to love and serve the Lord.  They also lay and clear the Lord’s Table, as a reminder of the tasks of the very first deacons - who waited at the tables of the first Jerusalem church.

I hope that helps a bit - to understand something of what all of us up here in the fancy clothes are attempting to do with our lives as we respond to the call of God.  It's something we desperately need your prayers for...so please pray for us, and especially for David and Vickie, as they take up this vital task. 

Pray too for Jake and Freddie, as they get used to seeing David and Vickie walking round in strange collars!

David & Vickie’s collars, by the way, like mine, are also a symbol...an important symbol.  The clerical collar – not a dog collar! - resembles the collar of a slave....a ring of steel round the neck.  It's a collar which is meant to remind all of us who are deacons that we are called to be servants of the servants of God.  All Christians are the servants of God...that is your calling.  Remember that wonderful hymn:  “Ye servants of God, your Master proclaim”.  So all of us are servants, but we are called to be your servants!  It's pretty mind-blowing, really!  We attempt to serve you by offering you gifts of leadership and teaching. 

I have often said that the Kingdom of God is an ‘upside down’ place.  Almost everything you can think of about the Kingdom is the opposite of what normal human society looks like.  In the kingdom, forgiveness is given instead of revenge.  In the kingdom, love is offered instead of hate.  Generosity, instead of greed.  Donations, rather than receipts.  Community, instead of loneliness.  And the true calling of leaders is no less topsy-turvy.  In the world, leaders are perceived as those who climb the greasy pole – they seek advancement and enrichment for themselves.  In the Kingdom, leaders descend the ladder of servant-hood, seeking to gain only more opportunities to serve. 

That is why, incidentally, church processions, are the opposite of worldly processions.  It’s why the Bishop, last evening, came at the end of the procession – whilst the Cross was carried at the front. It’s why the ‘president’ of the Eucharist walks at the rear of the procession.  That is the opposite of the way a royal procession takes place in the world of humankind - the opposite of what happens when the Queen processes into Parliament or Westminster Abbey.  In a church procession, the most humble servant – the Bishop – comes last.  For he, or she, is called to be the servant of the servants of the servants of God.

Incidentally – I have to tell you that this can make for some funny conversations when groups of clergy are lining up for a procession.  You effectively find that folks are debating who is the humblest among them.  Does a Rural Dean go before or after a Cathedral Dean?  Is a Canon more lowly than a Reverend?  It can get very confusing, I can tell you, as everyone jockeys for the lowliest place!

So, Mother Vickie & Father David, Reverend and Reverend Morgan, welcome to your new lives as servants of the servants of God.  I pray that the rest of your ministries will be characterised by the serving qualities that you have already shown as lay ministers, but deepened and broadened to yet new joyful depths of servant-hood.  I pray that whether you both become, one day, Vicars, Rectors, Canons, Deans or even Bishops, you will never forget – as I know you will not – that today you were called and set apart for lives of service.

And may their calling, and their example, inspire us all to new and ever deeper and more dedicated lives of service to all.

Amen.


Friday, September 8, 2017

When two or three are gathered...

Matthew 18:15-20
Have you ever found yourself at a church meeting with only a couple of other people?  You know what it’s like - you have organised a venue, booked the room, bought the coffee and biscuits, planned an agenda...and only two other people turn up.

At that point, in most churches I've ever known, someone will usually say "Oh well...when two are three are gathered....".  The rest of the group will smile, weakly, and draw some comfort from the fact that Jesus did promise to be with even the smallest of gatherings!

But is that really the point?  Did Jesus make that promise because he knew that there would be many times that small groups of Christians would gather in dimly lit, scruffy rooms on plastic chairs?  Well perhaps he did.  But I think there was something rather larger going on...

Jesus' statement raises a question.  If it takes two or three of us to gather together in order for him to be present, does that mean that he is not present when we are on our own?  It raises the question of 'where is God?'

There is a tendency among certain missionary Christians to talk about 'taking God' to a certain place.  They talk about 'taking God out into the community' or 'taking Jesus into Africa' - or India, or to the Muslim world or wherever.  In other words, there are some Christians who seem to believe that until God has been taken into a given situation, he is not there.  

But isn't that a bit wrong-headed?  God isn’t some deity that we carry around in our pockets.  There is no-where that God is not.  Psalm 139 sums this up rather beautifully:

Where can I go from your Spirit? 
        Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; 
        if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, 
        if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me, 
        your right hand will hold me fast.

Our task, as people who have encountered God already, is simply - no more and no less - to help other people to encounter him too.  Not by 'bringing God to them' but by helping them to recognise that God is already among them.   You and I - we are the window-cleaners...the people who remove the accretions of the years, polishing the glass so that others too may glimpse the Infinite.  It is our task to point out to people that the creative, life-giving God is already among them.

That is just what the Apostle Paul did - as we've been reading in our mid-week readings recently.  He went to Athens, and there he saw that the Athenians had built many altars, to all sorts of Gods.  But he spied one altar which was labelled simply 'to the Unknown God'.  It was probably the Athenians way of making sure that if they had not yet learned about a certain God, he wouldn't get miffed at them!  But Paul saw an opportunity here.  He told the learned philosophers and teachers of Athens that he had come to tell them about this 'unknown God' - the God whom they already recognised was among them, but whom they didn't yet know.

Many people that I meet already have a clear sense that God is among them.  They have recognised the hand of God in the beauty of nature, or the smile of a friend, or the laughter of a child.  They are unable to conceive of a world of such complexity and beauty as ours which could simply exist by chance.  In those circumstances, my task is often to simply act as a guide...

Have you ever been on a guided tour?  My family and I were in Rome a few years ago - and we rather reluctantly paid an awful lot of Euros for a guide to take us round the Coliseum.  We were jolly glad that we did.  That guide was able to tell us all sorts of things that we would never have worked out for ourselves.  They had learned all these facts and figures about the Coliseum - just by living and working there day after day.  And we were able to tap their knowledge...and begin to grasp something of the story of the place.

Christians are called to be a bit like that Coliseum guide.  We are people who have absorbed something about the reality of God.  We've lived with God - through the good times and the bad. And we have gained some insights into what God is like, and how God operates; insights that some other people haven't yet got.  It is our task, our duty, our joy and privilege, to share our knowledge with those others...to be their guides...to help them find their way along the paths of God.

But there's another dimension to this statement of Jesus' as well - this idea that when two or three are gathered together he is in the midst of us.  I think Jesus is pointing us to another vitally important principle...and that's the idea that Jesus, and therefore God, is most easily found in community.

That's also what the service of Holy Communion is all about.  Did you know that, according to the church's laws and doctrines, I cannot celebrate communion on my own?  The church believes that the transformation of the elements - the transformation of the bread and wine into the spiritual body and blood of Jesus - can only take place when there is more than one person present.  Communion is all about coming together, in community - in communion with one another and with God.

May you and I continue to discover Jesus in our midst, whether there are two or three, or 70 or 80 of us.  May you and I be alert to the signs of God around us, and in us, and through us.  May you and I be guides for one another - showing each other the places we have found God.  And may we never stop coming together for this vitally important task of being in community - in communion - with one another and with God.   Amen

Friday, August 4, 2017

From the Mountain-top

From the Mountain Top
Luke 9.28-36 - The Mount of Transfiguration

Have you ever had a mountaintop experience?  You know, one of those experiences that blows your mind - something you'll always remember?  I've had a few.  I've been at fantastic worship events, where emotion has overwhelmed me.  I've been at family celebrations, which I will always remember.  And I've had literal mountain-top experiences - breathing in the cool air and amazing views at the top of various hills and peaks.

Weddings are mountain-top experiences.  For weeks, months, or even years (sometimes) people look forward to their wedding day.  Everything has to be perfect...the music, the dress, the cake, the food...it's all vitally important.  And then, at the wedding itself...as I well remember...you find yourself caught up into one of those mountaintop experiences.  Your senses are in over-drive - sound, sight, smell, hearing, touch...all are at peak efficiency.  You become determined to drink in every moment.

But you have to come down the mountain again. The next day, there are bills to be paid, journeys to be made.  New wives discover that their new husbands have smelly feet!  And new husbands discover that their beautiful new wife now wants to change them, stop them drinking and introduce them to couscous!  Reality comes flooding in, and life has to be faced again.

Our Gospel story today is of just one such mountain-top experience.  It’s called ‘the story of the Transfiguration’.  The disciples find themselves caught up in an event which underscores the whole ministry of Jesus.  There is a view back through history - as Jesus meets with people who have been part of the story of the past...Moses and Elijah, and is affirmed by them.  And then there's a peering into the future, as God's voice from heaven confirms again who Jesus is, and the importance of his mission. "This is my son, the Chosen One...listen to him!"

The disciples who have accompanied Jesus to the mountain-top are having the time of their lives. They don't want to leave...and they even suggest building shelters for Jesus, Elijah and Moses.  They seem to want to capture the moment, and stay in it forever.  But the thing about mountain-top experiences is - you have to come down from them again.  Discipleship involves following, and going on.

Today, we have heard Luke’s account of the ‘Transfiguration’.  Scholars believe that it is based on Mark’s account - because they are remarkably similar, and Mark is believed to be the earliest gospel.  Mark places this story in a pivotal place...it is dead centre at the middle of his 16 chapters.  Before the Transfiguration, Mark deals with Jesus’ ministry around Galilee - his teachings and his miracles.  Then comes the mount-top experience of the Transfiguration - Elijah, Moses and even the voice of God meeting with Jesus - strengthening him for what is to come.  Then, in Mark’s narrative, Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem...towards challenge, torture, death and ultimately, resurrection.

Mountain-top experiences are part of life - and they are often part of the life of faith.  Some people spend their whole lives trying to regain such experiences.  Mystics and saints have lived lives of ever increasing discipline and piety in the hope of touching, once more, the face of God.

But faithfulness is not achieved by freezing a moment of time...and trying to live in it forever. Faithfulness, and true discipleship, is achieved by following-on in confidence that God is leading...and that what lies ahead is even greater than what we have already experienced.  You have to come down the mountain again...and take what has been seen, learned and experienced on with you...on into the journey.

My hope is that our Sunday services are mini-mountain-top experiences.  They are a moment in the week when we experience God together, and through each other.  They are a couple hours in the week when we climb the mountain, and look beyond ourselves, beyond our day to day lives, and briefly touch the face of God.

But we have to come down the mountain.  We have to keep following on...following God into our every-day lives...taking what we have said, done and experienced with us.  We allow our worship, the words we say, the actions we do, to permeate our daily lives...colouring them, perfuming them.  Because of our mini-mountaintop experience we somehow live lives that are more infused with meaning, more alert to what God is doing in our lives, and through us in the lives of others.

One of the things I hear most often as a priest are the immortal words "you don't have to go to church to be a Christian" – usually from someone who is asking for baptism for their child, or to arrange a wedding - or sometimes from church members who haven’t been for weeks.

Of course you don't have to go to church to be a Christian...but it helps!  It’s a bit like learning to play in an orchestra.  You might be the most talented musician, who can play every scale and arpeggio at break-neck speed.  But, each musician only has one line of music to play.  It’s only when you play in the orchestra that you see how your one line of music fits with all the others - to create the symphony.  Through being together, like the disciples on the mountain-top, we get to drink together from The Source....we get to be inspired for the next week...we receive, together, the same spiritual food for the journey.

But it’s never about the mountain-top...it’s always about the journey.  It should never be about the Sunday Service...it should always be about the day-by-day service...the giving of service to our families, our co-workers, our friends and our neighbours.  Inspired at the mountain-top, we go back into the valley to bring the light of Christ to everyone we meet.  Just as Jesus left the mountain and then set his face towards Jerusalem, healing and teaching along the way, so we too are called from this mountain top out into the world.

As we shall say at the very end of this service: Go, in the peace of Christ, to love and serve the world…in the name of Christ.  Amen.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Healing of Charlie Gard

(Romans 8. 26-39)

Many, if not all of us will have been watching the unfolding story of baby Charlie Gard over the last few weeks - a story which came to its earthly climax on Friday.  Charlie’s story was tragic, on so many levels.  There is much to reflect on about Charlie’s case – not least the way that the general public has so quickly formed an opinion about a medical matter they cannot possibly understand.  But the great issue that many people are probing is this: where has God been for Charlie Gard?  And even more pointedly – why hasn’t God healed him?

The concept of supernatural healing is one of the most endlessly fascinating topics for religious people today.  From those who trek to Lourdes, or who seek the healing properties of certain stones, or holy places, so many of us seek physical healing.  We look to the stories of Jesus and the Apostles, and say to ourselves that if it was true then, it must be true now – for Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.  Isn’t he?

Further still, we all know stories of people we know, who have experienced dramatic, supernatural healing.  Or at least we know people who know other people who tell us that they’ve experienced it.  And we all wonder, when our friends for whom we have been praying recover – how much of their recovery was down to prayer?  And how much to medical science?

I could easily stand here as a preacher, and say to you as thousands of preachers have done before that all you need is faith!  But if I did so, I would be dishonest with you.  I am a preacher – but first and foremost I’m a pastor.  I know how many people I have sat with, prayed with, cried with who despite mountains of faith have still died, or continued to live with awful health conditions. I know how many poor people, in poor nations, have died of disease not because of God’s lack of care, or the dying person’s lack of faith, but because of human selfishness and greed.

Our confusion on this issue is driven by some very important mis-understandings.  Let me list them for you, briefly.

First, we tend to forget that all life is temporary.  It used to be said that the only things you can’t avoid are death and taxes – but some international companies and powerful elites have demonstrated that even taxes can be avoided!  Death, however, remains the one universal experience.  Even the wealthiest billionaire won’t avoid that!

Secondly, we tend to forget what life is forWe do not have a divine promise that life will be pain-free, and devoid of difficulty.  In fact, if anything, the opposite is true.  The Scriptures show us time and time again that it is through the trial of sickness, or other disasters, that the human spirit grows.  It was necessary for Jesus himself to walk the road of pain to fulfil his destiny. 
Life is an opportunity for us to grow – to become all that God intends us to be.  As metal is refined by fire, so we are refined by trial.  Each person’s journey will be different. The challenge we face is not a question of how happy we will be, or how healthy – but how much deeper, and how much closer to the purpose of God for our lives.   The challenge is not to die owning the most toys, or to live the most number of years – but to have become holier – more like God -  as a result of the lives we have led – however long or short.

Just now, in our New Testament reading we heard these words from St Paul:  “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose”.  That is a statement of faith – far greater than the kind of TV Evangelists’ faith in divine healing.  Rather it is a bold statement of trust - that in every circumstance of life – the good times and the bad - God is working for good.  Paul’s letter to the Romans finishes with that great statement of faith, still read at every Christian funeral service:  “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, not things present, nor things to come, not powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God…”

Thirdly, and finally, we forget that the healing of our bodies is actually of secondary concern to God.  The healing of our souls and spirits is God’s primary interest.  Scholars tell us that the oldest text in the Bible is the book of Job.   In it, God permits Satan to deprive Job of everything, his family, his land, his possessions and yes, even his health.  This is all so that Job will come to a deeper understanding of who God is, and of the person God desires Job to be.  “All things work together for good for those who love God”.  It is Job’s good that God seeks – his eternal, existential good.  Job’s health is of secondary importance to the achievement of that good.

So for each of us, whatever state of health we find ourselves in, the question is this:  what are we learning about ourselves through the condition of our bodies?  How does our health – and the way we handle it – impact on those around us.  Are there new opportunities for love to be shown and love to be given, because of our health?  What is God teaching us about the fragility of human existence?  How much are we being reminded that all life is temporary – except the eternal life for which we are preparing?  How much grace is growing inside of us as we learn to live with our own particular health condition?  Are we growing in grace, or growing in grumpiness towards a world of healthy people whom we resent?

I’m reminded of the story of a Bishop who was about to confirm a young man who suffered with motor neurone disease.  The bishop leant over the boy’s wheelchair and asked him ‘how can you want to be confirmed, when God has left you in this condition?’.  The boy looked back at the bishop and said ‘God has the whole of eternity to make it up to me!’.  The boy, of course, was teaching the bishop.  He was reminding the bishop that eternity is our destination – and that the healing of our bodies is secondary to the healing of our souls.

As David told us last week, we are about to re-introduce the practice of prayers for healing during the Eucharist, and the opportunity for accompanied prayer at the end of our services.  I sincerely hope that we will all embrace the opportunity to deepen our connection with God through the ministry that our Prayer Teams will be offering.  Each first and third Sunday of the month, we will offer the opportunity for the laying on of hands – seeking God’s healing of our bodies, yes, but also and most crucially of our spirits, our souls, our minds, our emotions, and our attitudes.  You don’t have to be physically sick to experience the ministry of healing.  We all need God’s healing – in every part of who we are.

And what about Charlie Gard?  Who can say precisely how God has been at work in Charlie’s tragic circumstances?  But if God truly is working for good in all things, we can be confident that he has indeed been at work in and through Charlie.  How many relationships have been deepened through Charlie’s suffering?  How much love has been shared and poured out around his bedside?  How much new understanding of the fragility of life has been communicated?  How much knowledge has been gained?  How many wrong attitudes have been challenged and honed?  We cannot know…for we are not God.  But we can trust that nothing separates us – and Charlie – from the love of God.  And that Charlie now dwells in the very heart of that love.  His short, temporary sojourn on earth is over – just as ours will one day be.  And he now dwells, eternally, completely healed with his loving heavenly father. 

Amen.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Welcome, welcome, welcome.

“Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me” (Matt 10.40)

The topic of ‘welcome’ has been bubbling around the public sub-conscious lately.   Politicians and activists have been debating what kind of ‘welcome’ it would be appropriate to give Donald Trump, when he takes up the invitation for a State Visit. At the same time, the whole nation is quite starkly divided over what kind of welcome we should give to refugees and migrants from across the globe.

The word ‘welcome’ is rooted in two old English words – ‘willa’ (meaning desire or pleasure), and ‘cuman’ – meaning ‘to come’.  So the word can be rendered as something like an expression of joy towards a person whose coming is pleasing.

In the ancient world – the world of Jesus – the giving of a warm welcome was a central plank of how society functioned.  In the days before many hotels and hostels were available, it was customary for individuals to give hospitality to travellers, in their own homes.  It was a sacred duty to provide shelter and food to strangers – whoever they were, and from wherever they came.

This ancient code has been the subject of much learned thought in recent years.  In fact, some have suggested that we need to re-evaluate many of our standard interpretations of Scripture in the light of our new understanding.  Take for example the story of Sodom & Gomorrah…

You might remember that three weeks ago, our Gospel reading came from a few verses earlier than today’s.  Jesus was sending out his disciples to spread the Gospel.  He instructed them not to take extra provisions, and gave them clear directions about how they should stay in people’s homes in the villages and towns.  Then he said this:

“If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust from your feet.  Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.”  (Matt 10.14-15).  Here, Jesus explicitly links the concept of ‘welcome’ and hospitality with the sin of Sodom & Gomorrah.

“Wait a minute!”  (I hear some cry).  “Surely the sin of Sodom & Gomorrah was the supposed sin of homosexuality?  That’s why it’s called Sodomy, isn’t it?”

Well perhaps not.  Perhaps our historical obsession with the subject of homosexuality has put a false layer of meaning onto the story.  Perhaps the original writer of Genesis knew that his readers, in his time would have interpreted the story very differently.  Consider, for a moment, what happens in the story.

Three ‘angels’ – messengers of God – arrive at Sodom, where they are given hospitality by Lot.  They have come to see whether there are any righteous people in the City.  But before they turn in for the night, an angry mob gathers outside the house – demanding that these troublesome inquisitors should be brought out of the house – so that the crowd can ‘know’ them (to use the subtle phrase of the King James Bible).

Lot refuses.  He has granted hospitality to these messengers, and they are now, by the ancient code, under his protection.  He is SO convinced of his responsibility that he even offers his young daughters to the baying mob outside.

Looking at this story, and especially the way that Jesus himself uses it as an example, we are confronted with some very challenging questions.  The first question is whether ‘Sodomy’ actually has anything to do with what we general think it does.  This fresh interpretation suggests that the failure to offer and secure a welcome to strangers is a far greater sin.

The second question is, of course, ‘why then did the crowd want to (cough) ‘know’ the angels’?  The answer is that the crowd basically wanted to punish the angels for coming to judge them.  They wanted to scare them and send them on their way – and they proposed to use rape as their weapon.  Rape of any kind is a heinous crime, and a terrible offence against any notion of hospitality and welcome.  But it has nothing to do with committed, faithful, loving relationships between consenting adults.

Jesus invites us to think instead about the whole notion of hospitality, and welcome.  And if the welcome of strangers was such a big issue for him, how much more so should it be for us?

‘Whoever welcomes you’, says Jesus to his followers, ‘also welcomes me, and the one who sent me’.  What kind of welcome do we offer to people who come to us?  Do we welcome them with the same extravagant love for the stranger that God requires?

There is, I think, much that we do already which is positive and welcoming in this church.  For a start, our wonderful church stewards are here every morning, offering refreshment and welcome to all our visitors.  It would be wonderful if more people could help with that ministry – and I’d love to receive more offers of help.  Ideally, I wish we could offer that ministry every morning and afternoon.

We’ve also provided bright lighting, to especially welcome those with fading eyesight.  Thanks to Peter Elmes, blind visitors to the church can feel the model of the building that he has made – and if they join us for worship, braille hymnbooks are available.  Another welcoming innovation has been the production of our main service sheet, containing all the hymns, readings and prayers.  They are a real help to visitors, who find it so much easier to follow our services – not having to juggle multiple books and sheets of paper.  Further still, we are in the process of upgrading our sound system to make our services more audible.

But there is much more that we need to do to improve our welcome.  This coming week, for example, we will be meeting with our Architect and Diocesan officials to consider how we can make it easier for wheelchair users to access the building.  That’s going to cost a lot of money – a need which I hope will move you all to new generosity.  But if hospitality means anything – it certainly means offering a welcome to those in wheelchairs, or pushing prams.

In the longer term, I remain committed to our Mission Development Plan’s intention of being a place which is welcoming to the young – for looking around here today, it’s clear that we need to do just that.  As well as our Play House CafĂ©, our support of Dynamo Youth Theatre, the Brownies and local schools, and our commitment to Messy Church, we need to find new ways of helping to nurture the faith of young people and children.  This is perhaps the greatest act of welcome we can do.   For Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me’.

The word welcome is indeed ‘an expression of joy towards someone whose coming is pleasing’.  Jesus teaches us that the failure to provide hospitality really was the greatest sin of Sodom and Gomorrah.  And these facts leave us with a challenge.  How shall we, as a church, as a nation, and individuals and as a community, live up to the immense challenge of being those who truly welcome others in Jesus’ name?

Amen.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Easter 2017 - Alleluiah...Christ is Risen

Easter means many different things to many different people.  A sign of new life.  The defeat of darkness.  The Spring Equinox, with all the promise of new life - chicks, bunnies and eggs.  Especially chocolate eggs!  Or, perhaps, the single most important event of all history!

What do you believe?

Let's first review the claims made about Jesus, which we demonstrated just now in the signing of the new Pascal Candle. He is the Alpha and Omega. The Beginning and the End. He is the one who has the power to make all things new...and who promises a new heaven and a new earth. C.S. Lewis spent some time in his book, Mere Christianity, thinking about what it meant for Jesus to come and live as a human being. He wrote: “The Eternal being who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man, but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug.”

Jesus, having emptied himself of his divinity, came to live among us as a human being.  It’s worth remembering that. Sometimes, when we struggle to live like Jesus, it’s tempting for us to think “Well, it was easy for Jesus – he was God!”.  But that is not the message of the Gospels.  Jesus emptied himself of all Godly power.  He became fully human, to show us what a truly full, human, life looks like.  As a human being, he lived and he loved, and he gave up all that he had for others.  He taught us what God was like, and offered us the chance to choose God’s way of living.

But if it wasn’t for Easter...these remarkable actions on the part of God would quite probably have gone unknown, and un-remarked by the rest of humanity. Jesus wasn’t the first man to die in a horribly painful way...and he wasn’t the last. His disciples knew that, and the historical records of the time - the Gospels - tell us that after his death they thought that the whole thing was over. They hid in an upper room - terrified.

But the fact is that Jesus shrugged off death!  Taking back the Divinity he had laid aside as a human, he rose from the tomb!  And what a dramatic impact that had!   It transformed the lives of Jesus’ friends, and from there it transformed lives throughout the whole world.

It is sometimes said that it doesn’t really matter whether or not we believe in the Resurrection. Some people have suggested that Jesus didn’t actually rise from the dead...it was just that his presence with the disciples seemed to live on with them, after his death. Some people suggest that Jesus was only alive in the sense that any dead person is alive to us...in our memories. But I don’t think that interpretation matches the facts.

First of all, people don’t give up their own lives for a memory. We know that many - if not all - of the disciples were persecuted, hated, tried and martyred for their assertion...their absolute certainty...that Jesus had got up from the grave. They could not deny what they had seen with their own eyes...no matter how much they were threatened and beaten. Now in these days we know that people will give their lives for religious dogma - for what they’ve been brainwashed with by the mad mullahs of Al Quaida.  But the sacrifice of the Disciples was something quite different. For them to have denied that they had seen Jesus rise from the dead, would have been like us having to deny that grass is green.

Secondly, if Jesus had not risen from the dead, why didn’t the Roman or Jewish authorities simply produce his body to disprove it? That would have quickly stopped the resurrection rumour in its tracks. But there was no body to produce.

As you know, probably, I’m a pretty liberal Christian.  I’m happy to allow a great deal of latitude in the interpretation of all sorts of theology!  But on this one issue, I am steadfast to the faith we have inherited.  Jesus calls us to follow him, not only because he died for us...not because we feel grateful to him (although of course we should). The message of Easter is that Jesus calls us to follow him because he lives!

As one of us, Jesus not only died, but was raised from the dead and now lives with the Father. And he says that he wants to share his joy and his life with us. Jesus isn’t looking for our sympathy; he’s inviting us to get involved. He’s looking for us to join his followers in proclaiming that there is another way than the way of war and violence and hate, of greed and consumerism and poverty. And he’s inviting us, ultimately, to come home to the love of our heavenly Father. That’s why he died...to give us life, and to call us home. Not to illicit our pity.

So it does matter what we believe. If we believe that Jesus only lived in his disciples’ memories...then he died there too - when they died. And our faith is based on nothing more than a vague wishfulness - a unproveable hypothesis that maybe God exists, and maybe we have somewhere to go after we die.

If, on the other hand - as all the evidence suggests - he really rose from the dead, still lives today, and calls us to life and to heaven...then that is worth something. That is a truth worth hanging on to. That is a fact worth telling our neighbours about. That is something worth celebrating.

Alleluiah...Christ is Risen!