Saturday, January 13, 2018

Can anything good come out of Havant?

John 1.43-end

A few years ago, someone bought me a copy of Grumpy Old Christmas, which suited me down to the ground.    One evening, Clare was sitting alone in one room of our house, when Emily and I heard what we thought was crying coming from Clare’s room.  We were both rather worried, so we looked around the door, and there was Clare, sitting on her bed, with tears of laughter rolling down her cheeks.  She waved my copy of 'Grumpy Old Christmas' in the air, and said "It's you!  It's you!"

Let me read you a paragraph from the book, by Stuart Prebble, just to see if you agree with Clare. In fact, I won't even read from the book...here's some of the blurb about the book from the dust-cover:

"So...'tis the season to be jolly is it?  Well, not in the household of the Grumpy Old Man it isn't.  In his case, 'tis the season to have to put up with even deeper layers of vexation than usual!  Everything about Christmas gets up our snitches.  Everything.  From parents videoing their precocious brats at the atrocious school nativity play, to the 150th opportunity to see 'the Wizard of Oz' on the Tele, to the Xmas turkey which tastes like blotting paper soaked in a puddle.  And how on earth are we really supposed to look happy when someone buys us a tie with a picture of Santa on it?!  Eh?"

Now if I'm honest, I suppose I have to admit it.  I know it will surprise all of you, immensely, but yes, I am a bit of a Grumpy.  There's something about life which brings out the cynic in me.  So I know exactly where Nathaniel was coming from, in today's reading, when he responded to Philip's news about the Messiah having been discovered in the form of Jesus of Nazareth.  "Huh", said Nathaniel.  "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?". 

Nazareth was just a humble little back-water...nowhere important, nowhere posh.  It was full of hard working people, many of whom - probably like Joseph the Carpenter - were working to build the near-by Roman city of Sephoris.  The residents of Nazareth were employed in Sephoris in much the same way as the residents of Portsmouth were historically employed in the dock-yard.

I guess that some of us would have pretty much the same reaction if we were told that the Saviour of the World had been discovered in Portsmouth.  "Portsmouth?!" we might exclaim.  "Can anything good come out of Portsmouth".  Or for that matter, Havant?

But when Jesus met Nathaniel, he recognised a true and upright man...despite his cynicism about Nazareth.  Nathaniel was clearly someone who was open to new possibilities, however, cynical he appeared.  For a start, he was willing to go with Phillip to meet this Jesus of Nazareth...and Jesus saw something in him.  As he approached, Jesus said of him "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit".  Jesus saw great potential in Nathaniel.  Rising into poetic symbolism, Jesus said that Nathaniel "will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man".  Jesus uses an Old Testament image - the image of 'Jacob's Ladder' to say that Nathaniel will be part of God's great plan to touch earth with the power of heaven.  The picture of ‘angels ascending and descending’ is meant to help us see that God is active and alive in God’s world.

It is Epiphany - the time of revelation.  We are those to whom, by the grace of God, has been revealed the news that there is more to life than the simple hum-drum.  We are those who chose to say 'no' to the encroaching darkness of so much human life.  We are those who declare that we believe God has other plans. Like the Wise Men who went to the Nativity, that's why we are here, isn't it?  Week by week, day by day, we pray those words that Jesus taught us "thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven", and in doing so we declare our belief that God is reaching out to touch this dying earth with his living love.  We are those who have learned to see the world with God's eyes...not just a place of terror, war, greed, famine and plague...but a place full of possibility for life, health, peace and justice. 

Quite deliberately, Jesus now has no other hands than your hands, no other feet than your feet.  If words of comfort to the sick and dying are to be spoken, then they are spoken through you.  If acts of hope to the lost and the lonely, the homeless or the desperate are to be done, then it is through your hands that God wants to do them.  That's why we talk about being the 'Body of Christ' - we, you and I, are God's hands, feet and loving hands to a dying world.

You see, in answer to the question ‘can anything good come out of Havant, let me tell you…it jolly well does!  Everyday I see good happening in Havant.  Every day I see people like you, deciding to rise above the dull monotony of so much human existence, and refusing to give in to cynicism. 

A very good example of that attitude can be found in the Portsmouth Street Pastors – about whom we will hear a little more in our notices today.  It is very easy to be grumpy and cynical about young people who get themselves into difficulties on a Friday or Saturday night.  “Well, they brought it on themselves, didn’t they?  Going out in ridiculous clothing and drinking too much”.  That kind of cynicism allows no room for the power of peer pressure – the egging-on that kids do to each other.  It allows no room for the young woman who has been dumped by her drunken boyfriend, through no fault of her own, miles from home, with no way of getting there – all because her boyfriend took a shine to a prettier girl on the dance-floor.  On our behalf, the street pastors go out and offer God’s love to such young people…they introduce them to a God who does care about them, and who longs to see them grow to their full potential.

Can any good come out of Havant?  I want to tell you a little story, to finish.  There is one member of this congregation who is a nurse.  I won’t identify them…to save them embarrassment.  But you might be able to work out who they are.  This nurse and their team recently gave such attentive and extraordinary care to one of their patients, that the patient’s family wanted to give them a gift of money.  The nurse refused the gift – because NHS staff are not permitted to accept them.  Instead, our nurse suggested that the patient’s family might like to give a gift to St Faith’s, in gratitude.  On Friday, therefore, I opened an envelope containing a cheque for £3,000.

That story, and that nurse, is a great example of how we can bring God’s love into our every day life, and of the grateful response that such love and service to humanity can generate.  And all this is because, in the language of today’s reading from Revelation, we are called to be both a Kingdom and priests who serve our God.  This is our sacred calling, and our sacred task – to transform our community so that there can never be any doubt about the answer to this question:  “Can anything good come out of Havant?”

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Power of the Christmas Story

What is it, I wonder, that captures us about the Christmas story?  It’s a story that never fails to warm our hearts, or make is tingle with excitement.    I think that’s because, like all great stories, this one has so many brilliant elements to it.

First it’s a story with a journey at its heart.  There’s a journey from Nazareth, to Bethlehem and then on to Egypt and back again.  Everyone loves a road movie – from the Wizard of Oz to Thelma and Louise, we all recognise, deep down, that road movies are analogies of our own lives…with all their joy and pain.

Secondly, this is a story full of juicy scandal!  From Eastenders to tabloid newspapers, we all like a bit of juicy scandal.  In this case, it’s the scandal of a child born out of wedlock.  Much more horrifying, though, is the scandal of King Herod, who put the children of Bethlehem to death for fear of losing his throne.  This is a scandal about power.  And we recognise it, don’t we?  From scandals in Parliament, to the outrage of ISIS, or the fictional horror of Darth Vader and the Death Star, we recognise the real horror of people who try to dominate others through violence.

Then, thirdly, this is a story full of magic and mystery.  Everyone who has ever enjoyed a fairy-tale or a Harry Potter movie instinctively picks up on those mysterious Wise Men of the East who follow a star.  And of course, let’s not forget the Angels – mysterious beings whom we barely understand, suddenly appearing and proclaiming peace on earth.

Fourthly, there are the animals.  Sheep on the hillsides, cattle lowing in the stable, a donkey faithfully carrying Mary.   Anyone who thinks that human beings don’t like animal stories should check out the number of cat videos on Youtube!  We are all suckers for a baby lamb, or a gently moo-ing cow in a barn.  It brings out the ‘Aaah’ factor in us!

It’s a story rich with characters, too.  There’s the faithful Joseph, who stands by his fiancée even though he must have had great doubts about her story.  There’s Mary herself, forcing us all to wonder whether we could have had her faith to press on.  Or rushing along the road to Bethlehem, trying to get there in time for the birth of her son…just as we rush around , preparing for the same event.  There’s those rough shepherds, men of the hillsides, outsiders who are yet welcomed into the heart of the story.  There are those mysterious wise men; and the fictional inn-keeper, never specifically mentioned in the Gospels, who yet causes us all to wonder how we would respond to a stranger asking us for sanctuary. 

Perhaps we all love this story so much because we recognise ourselves in it.  We know that we are all capable of Mary and Joseph’s faith, or the Shepherds’ wonder.  We recognise that we are capable of being intelligent and thoughtful Wise Men and women.  We also know, when we admit it to ourselves, that we, like Herod, are capable of abusing our power – the power we hold over our families or our work colleagues.  Or, we recognise that we are the victims of such power, if others dominate us.  We also recognise that there are times when we fail to act with the generosity of Joseph or the Inn-keeper.  We know that we need help to be as faithful as Mary, or as brave as the Wise Men as they set out on their quest.

Ultimately, we all know that we can only journey so far through life on our own resources.  We recognise our own weakness in the babe of Bethlehem.  If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we need the help of others – just as he did at that time of his life.  We cannot live in isolation.  We cannot do this thing called life, alone.

Ultimately, this is a story about a god who saw the plight and the drama of human life, and who chose not to remain aloof.  This is not a god who sits on a cloud, demanding worship and dispensing favours in return for the right prayers.  This is a god who decides to engage with all the mess and muddle of human life.  He comes among us as that most fragile form of human life, a baby, utterly dependent on those around him, to show us that this is how we should live too.  We cannot live a life apart.  We need those around us, in our families, in our churches, as much as God needed Mary to bring him to earth.  We need others just as Jesus needed Joseph and the Shepherds, and the Wise Men and even the fictional inn-keeper to welcome him and warm him.

This is our God who dispenses not condemnation on our messed-up human world, but mercy and grace.  He enters into the human condition – he refuses to sit apart from it.  And by his life, his teaching, and then his death and resurrection he offers us a way out, he rescues us, he redeems us – from our solitary, fearful, chaotic lives – from what the old-timers called ‘sin’.   God enters our existence, as a Word – a word of hope, and a word of challenge…and he shines a light into humanity’s darkness.

Sadly, all too often, we are blind to the Light that he shines, and deaf to the Word that he speaks.  That’s why the third verse of our gradual hymn, just now, is so powerful:

"Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
beneath the angel-strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong.
And man, at war with man hears not the love-song which they bring
O hush the noise!  ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing!"

My prayer for all of us is that this Christmas we will hear anew the power of the Christmas story.  May we open our eyes to the Light of Christ, and our ears to the Word who is God.  May we begin to recognise that the Christmas story is also our story – that it contains within it all the challenge we require to turn from our sometimes solitary, often fearful, chaotic, consumerist, self-focused lives – and to turn towards the Babe of Bethlehem, asking him – no, begging him -  to save us from ourselves.


Amen

Christmas Sermon for St Nicholas' Chapel, Langstone

Christmas Sermon for St Nicholas’ Chapel Langstone

I’m sure that you will all want to thank our intrepid 'radio actors' for the two stories about St Nicholas that we have heard this afternoon.  These are, of course, just of couple of the many legends that have grown up around him. 
St Nicholas was of course real...very real.  He was a Bishop in modern-day Turkey, in a town called Myra, around 300 years after the birth of Jesus.  He was a wealthy man - having inherited his fortune from his parents.  Once he became a priest, and then a Bishop, he used his personal fortune to help as many people as he could.  The two stories we’ve heard today are perhaps the most famous, but there are others too.
St Nicholas was especially known for his miracles, and for the power of his prayers.  For centuries, he was especially loved by sea-farers, because of a couple of stories about his connection to the sea.  In one story, he was travelling by sea to the Holy Land, when a great storm blew up.  One of the sailors was killed while tightening the rigging - he fell to the deck, quite dead.  But St Nicholas prayed for the man, and he came back to life, completely restored, and in no pain from his fall.
In another story, the town of Myra was experiencing a great famine.  A ship was in the harbour, full of wheat, bound for the Emperor.  Nicholas invited the sailors to unload a part of their cargo to help the town - which at first, the sailors refused to do.  But Nicholas persuaded them that they would suffer no loss if they did as he asked.  His reputation as a holy man was sufficient for the sailors to trust him - and sure enough, when they eventually arrived in Rome, they found that the volume of their wheat had not changed.  Somehow, the wheat they had given away had increased miraculously in the hold.
Of course it is precisely because of these links with the sea that our chapel here in Langstone is dedicated to St Nicholas.  As boats come and go through our harbour, we ask St Nicholas to continue to watch over all sailors, and to lift them up to God for protection.  In other countries, especially in the Orthodox world, his status as protector of sailors is even greater.  In Greece, for example, he is known as ‘The Lord of the Sea’, and he is the patron saint of the Greek Navy.  Sailors in distress all over the globe are often said to cry out to St Nicholas for help.
St Nicholas is also, of course, the patron saint of children.  And that’s because of a rather grisly story….
Around the time of the same famine we just heard about, a malicious butcher is said to have lured three children into his house, where, tragically, he killed them - placing their remains in a barrel to cure - planning to sell them off as ham!  It sounds like the legend of Sweeny Todd, doesn’t it?! Somehow - we don’t know how - St Nicholas learned of this terrible scheme - and he confronted the Butcher.  He then prayed over the barrels, and the three children came back to life, miraculously.
All of these legends - and many more - have grown up around St Nicholas.  His name sounds different in other tongues.  The Dutch, for example, called him Sint Nikolaas, which overtime became Sinterklaas. It was the Dutch settlers who brought the legends of Sinterklaas to America in the 1700s - and it is from America (and especially the Coca-cola company) that we now have the legend of Santa Claus - the enduring notion of a saint who continues to bring gifts at Christmas time - especially to children, whom he loves.  In fact, St Nicholas doesn’t only deliver presents to children at Christmas time.  In many Orthodox countries, he actually delivers them about a month earlier, on the 6th of December - which is his feast day.  Which I suppose helps him with the task of delivering presents all around the world!
In many ways, I think it is a shame that - collectively - we have forgotten many of the stories about St Nicholas.  For St Nicholas is much more than a sleigh-driver with presents.  As a rich man, who used his wealth to help the poor, he stands as reminder to all people of wealth that we have a responsibility beyond our immediate families.  As the patron saint of sailors, he reminds us of the many merchant and navy folks who will spend Christmas away from their families this year.  As the miraculous resurrector of slain children in a butcher’s barrel, he reminds us that children all over the world are living in sometimes terrible conditions - as refugees or modern-day slaves - and he invites us to take action to save them.  As the reliever of famines in Myra, St Nicholas reminds us that we can all take action to relieve the suffering of others.
The church teaches that we belong to a Kingdom of Heaven, which is coming into being on Earth.  That Kingdom includes those holy women and men, like St Nicholas, who have lived on Earth before us - and in many parts of the church, it is quite normal for us to talk to - to pray to - such saints, and ask for their help.  For, we believe, such saints live with God.  It’s rather like sending a letter to Santa. 
So, this Christmas, perhaps all of us, old and young, might take a moment to pray to St Nicholas - to ask him to teach us more about what it means to love and care for not just our immediate families, but for the whole of humanity...for children everywhere, for sailors, for the starving and for the poor. 
Remembering of course the supreme example of poverty that we have been given - a child from heaven, who was born in a stable!


Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Violence of Christmas

A Meditation for the Rotary-sponsored Community Carol Service (including SDAS - the 'Southern Domestic Abuse Service).

I wish that that the Southern Domestic Abuse Service were not here tonight.  And that’s not because tonight’s collection is going to be split between the church and SDAS!

Actually, I wish – as I’m sure they do - that it was not necessary for them to be here tonight.  But unfortunately, the violence that human beings do to each other makes it vitally important that they ARE here.  

I wonder if you’ve ever contemplated how much violence surrounds the Christmas story.  I’d like to take a few moments to ponder that with you.  But first of all, it might be helpful to define what the word ‘violence’ means.  It is essentially the forcing of one person’s will on another, by the threat or actual use of physical coercion.  It can also mean the forcing of the will of a group of people on another group of people, by physical means.  Terrorism is an obvious type of violence.  Blowing people up, to force your view of the world onto them, is about the most violent thing you can do.  As is military conquest of one nation over another.  But there are other forms of violence too – verbal violence, emotional violence, even intellectual violence – which means the forcing of a particular idea onto others.

Ultimately, violence is about the use of power.  Violence is the way that power relationships go wrong.  When one person (or one group of people) use violence to impose their power onto another, we can usually judge – pretty clearly – that the power-relationship has gone sour.

So what did I mean, just now, when I said that violence surrounds the Christmas story?

Well, first, there is the violence of the state of occupation into which Jesus was born.  The Roman Empire was in control – through violent military conquest.  Their powerful control of the land of Israel was so complete, their threat of violence was so great, that Joseph of Nazareth had no choice but to force his heavily pregnant wife onto the back of donkey, to trek for many days across barren lands, and to have her baby in a barn.  I’m sure that there were countless times along that road that Mary cried out “Why couldn’t we just stay in Nazareth?!”  But the political violence of Rome drove them in another direction altogether.  Violence surrounds the Christmas story.

Then, there is the awful violence of King Herod.  Fearful of losing his power as vassal King over Judea, he plots and schemes to find out where the new ‘King of the Jews’ will be born.  He attempts to manipulate the visiting wise men into being his spies – and when that scheme fails, he slaughters all the male babies in Bethlehem.  Joseph and Mary are forced to flee for their lives into Eqypt to escape the rampant violence of Herod’s henchmen. Violence surrounds the Christmas story.

Those are the obvious examples – but there is other, more subtle, violence too.  Take the Shepherds for example.  Now when I say the word ‘shepherds’, I imagine that most of us have a lovely pastoral picture in our heads.  We imagine a bunch of hearty old men with tea-towels on their heads.  We hear the west-country tones of countless Nativity plays.  “Ohh – let’s go to Bethlehem to see this thing which ‘as come to paaaass!”.  

But this is to miss one of the central themes of the Nativity story. 

Why Shepherds?  Why are Shepherds the group of people specially selected by God to be told the news of the arrival of Jesus.  God could have sent his Angels out to knock on the doors of the ordinary people of Bethlehem -  “bang bang bang!  Wake up – and go down the street to the barn!”.  The Angels could have sung glory in the highest heaven in the local taverns, or over the palace or temple in Jerusalem.  But they didn’t.  

God chose the Shepherds precisely because they were outcasts of their society.  They lived on the edge of towns – they weren’t citizens like everyone else.  They were rough and ready, and they probably stank from all those sheep, their overnight bonfires, and a lack of running water.  Worse still, they didn’t obey all the religious laws – not least the law about not working on the Sabbath…because sheep still need looking after, even on a Sabbath.  So, in religious terms, they were considered unclean and unholy.  Society in general had done violence to them, by essentially excluding them.  They were shut out.  They were deemed ‘unclean’ – which is a kind of religious violence done to them.

You see? Violence surrounds the Christmas story.

Power is misused by the Roman conquerers, by the evil King Herod, and by society in general towards the Shepherds.  Violence is all around – either threatened or real.

So what is God’s response to this violence?  How does he seek to intervene in the violence that humanity does to itself – or in ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ as the old Book of Common Prayer has it? 
If I was God, I think I would have been very tempted to use my almighty power to just sort them out!  If I had sent my son into the world, to establish a new Kingdom, I would have sent him in on a cloud of fire, fully grown, riding a white charger, with all the armies of heaven surrounding him.  I would have had him land on Caesar’s Palace in Rome, told him to string-up the Emperor from the nearest lamp-post, and jolly well take over.  Show them what real power looks like.  That’s what I might have done.

But I am not God.  God knows that the answer to violence is not more violence.  No.  God’s answer to the violence of human beings is to send his Son into the world in the most fragile, dependent, UN-powerful form possible…a new born baby.  And not just a baby – completely dependent on his parents for everything – but a baby born in the most humble of circumstances imaginable.  Not a palace.  Not even a house.  A barn.  A stable.  An animal’s food trough.

The answer to violence is not more violence.  To quote the great Mahatma Ghandi – “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”.  SDAS know this.  The answer to the violence found in some homes is not more violence in return.  It is, first, the gift of shelter and safety – escape, just as Mary and Joseph had to do.  And then it is the gifts of love, compassion and care. 

The answer to violence in the world today is not more violence – it should be bridge-building, understanding, mutual respect and tolerance.  The answer to the violence of terrorism all across the world is not more violence in return – it should be the seeking of understanding, and the addressing of the kinds of basic injustice which drives terrorists to do desperate things.  Education, social justice, the fair and equitable sharing of the wealth of our planet – these are the things that will overcome the violence.  If only we would give them a chance.

The babe of Bethlehem teaches us by his gentle presence in the midst of the violence of his time that there is another way.  And for that simple, profound lesson, we should surely say with all the angels of Heaven, “Glory to God in the Highest, and peace to his people on earth!”.  

Amen.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

John the Baptist or the Baptiser?

Mark 1.1-8

Today, the Church invites us to consider the place and role of John the Baptiser.  We call him that, these days, because he wasn’t a member of the ‘Baptist’ church.  Being a ‘Baptist’ means believing that adult baptism is the only legitimate baptism.  In other words, Baptists believe that the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Methodist and just about every other mainstream church is wrong in baptising children who can’t confess their own faith.  That is a fascinating argument…of course.  But there isn’t time to go into it now.

This year, we are confronted with the opening lines of Mark’s Gospel – or as Mark himself says, “this is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God”.  You’ll notice, I’m sure, that Mark launches straight into his story with Jesus as an adult.  Mark is the oldest of the Gospels.  And yet he makes no mention of the Nativity, the Virgin Birth, or the events at Bethlehem.  It is only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke which contain all wonderful story-lines that we will be focusing on in a couple of weeks – and they were written rather later in history than Mark.  Again, there is a lot I could say about this – but again, there isn’t time.  If you are interested in ‘decoding the Christmas Story’, you might like to join us next Saturday, here in church, for FaithTalk – when I’ll be thinking a bit more about these themes.

Today, though, let’s focus down on John the Baptiser.  Mark launches straight into his story by reminding the reader of Isaiah’s prophecy of a messenger who will be sent ahead of the Messiah.  Mark is absolutely convinced that John is that messenger – so he goes on:
“John the Baptiser appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.

John is the last of the Old Testament prophets. He follows the tradition of living apart from civilisation, and of calling people to repent of their evil ways. So, picture the scene:  Imagine, if you will, a rather dirty fellow, who has probably never visited a barber, dressed in camel-hair, covered in bee-stings (from raiding wild bee hives) with honey stuck to his shirt, and munching on a locust...and declaring at the top of his voice “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near”.

I wonder what our reaction would be if we met someone like that in the streets of Havant – or even here inside the church. I think we’d try to get him some serious help from a mental health professional!

But there was something about John that attracted people to him. There was something about his message which, according to both Mark and Matthew’s Gospels, had people coming out to him in the wilderness from “Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all of the region along the River Jordan” (Mt 3:5)
According to Matthew’s rather expanded account of Mark’s bare-bones passage, John was not a man to mince his words either. He taunted the religious leaders of the day with phrases like “You viper’s brood” (Mt 3:7) He warned them against the complacency of their religion. “Just because you are Abraham’s children,” he would say, “don’t go thinking that gives you an automatic right to heaven” (Mt 7:8 - paraphrased)

There are, in fact, a number of puzzling questions about John. First there is the fact that he didn’t join up with Jesus. Why didn’t he set aside his baptising, and become a follower of the Lord? And then there’s the fact that when he was in prison he sent word to Jesus to ask him if he really was the Messiah.

It’s pretty clear that John had a different vision of what the Messiah would do –  he seemed to expect a Messiah who would be full of swift judgment against the evil people of the day. See what he says in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 3:
“...he will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”. (Mt 3: 12).  

John’s expectations of the Messiah are based in the language and concepts of the Old Testament. He expects the ‘great and terrible Day of the Lord’.  John expects action – he expects the Lord to arrive with a winnowing fork – scattering the grain into the air and separating out the wheat from the chaff – and he expects it to happen soon.  Later, John uses the metaphor of an axe which is being put to the root of the trees – a sense in which ‘any minute now’ the tree is about to be chopped down.

Jesus simply doesn’t match up to John’s expectations of what the Messiah would be like... should be like.  And he was Jesus’ cousin!  I wonder how many of us sometimes do that?  How often do we simply assume that God will be as we expect him to be…rather than how God actually is?  How often do we assume that God must surely agree with our beliefs?  Entire nations go to war over that mistake. To put it in our own terms - how many Tories assume God is a Tory?  How many socialists are just certain that God would surely vote for Jeremy Corbyn?  How many racists or homophobes automatically assume that God agrees with them? How many religious extremists – on every side, assume that God condones their violent actions?

But Jesus has his own agenda. He himself speaks of the coming day of the Lord, and the separation of sheep from goats – later in Matthew’s gospel in fact.  But Jesus places that event at some distance in the future – and in very mythical language.   He won’t actually separate actual sheep and goats – but there is a difference between those who chose his Way, and those who do not. 

John’s language is the language of criticism and warning.  “You’d better do what I say, or God Almighty is going to smite you!”   John’s kind of repentance is a rather mechanistic thing.  “Repent, and be baptised, and you will be forgiven of your sins – you’ll be saved from the wrath that is to come”.  John is offering a rather simple passport to heaven – rather like the indulgences that Martin Luther rightly condemned 1500 years later. 

Jesus, on the other hand, speaks words of forgiveness, acceptance, and love.  John is the apocalyptic doom-sayer.  Jesus offers life and hope.

John is an important figure in the Bible – but we need to see him in his context.  As I said earlier, he is often described as the last of the Old Testament prophets.  He marks the passing of an age when dire warnings were used to persuade people to change their ways.  A great deal of the Old Testament is precisely that…a lot of dire warnings of peril.  It’s great stuff for the news-channels – who like to appeal to our inbuilt fascination for danger. 

Jesus is not immune from that tradition, either.  Certainly he gives plenty of warnings, and he even appropriates John’s use of the phrase ‘viper’s brood’ – to describe the religious leaders of the day. But on balance, Jesus’ tone in very different to John.  His ‘new testament’ is an invitation to join in with the good in the world, not to focus on the bad.  He invites us to commune with each other and with him around a meal.  He even includes Samaritans, Zealots, tax collectors and even his future betrayer into that community.  He even includes women(!) – which in his time was an incredible thing to do.  
Jesus speaks the language of radical inclusion, whereas John speaks of unquenchable fire and winnowing forks.  Jesus invites all of us on a journey of faith, self-discovery, community-life and growth.  He calls it the Way, and the Kingdom.  

Jesus wants us to repent, yes – just like John.  And Jesus also advocates baptism  - but as a sign and a seal on the beginning of that journey.  John’s call is a for a simple legal transaction – “repent, get baptised, and you’ll go to heaven”.  Done.  Dusted.  It’s like those Christians, even today, who are more interested in whether you have ‘accepted Jesus into your heart’ or 'washed in the blood of the lamb' than whether you are actually living Jesus’ kind of life.

Jesus’ call is a deliberate, daily, turning away from human ideas about how things should be, and a deliberate, constant, tuning-in to God’s loving, merciful, ultimately positive view of the universe.  The baptism of Jesus marks the very start of an entire journey of faith.

That’s why, incidentally, I do believe in infant baptism.  For I think that it is never too early, in God’s inclusive Kingdom, to invite another person to journey with God.  

Amen.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Are we there yet? Advent 1

Are we there yet?: Mark 13.24-37 & Isaiah 64.1-9

Have you ever been on one of those very long car journeys with a very young child?  Clare and I once took our daughter on a three-day car journey to Romania, via Belgium, Germany, Austria and Hungary.  She was about five at the time, and we drove for around 14 hours each day.  So I’ll leave you to imagine how often she used the immortal words “Are we there yet?”!

Children have a way of revealing our true natures to us, don’t they?  Questions like ‘are we there yet’ remind us of our own impatience.  None of us like waiting, for anything.  We want what we want, and we want it now!

The Season of Advent is the beginning of the Church’s New Year, and it is designed specifically to be a time of waiting.  For the rest of our society, the New Year starts with a bang and fireworks…with a sense that we’ve ‘arrived’ at something important.  That’s odd, when you think about it.  Why should the simple turn of the Calendar be something to be celebrated with dancing in the street and all night parties?  But the Church, deliberately, counter-culturally , starts its new year with two important words…’Coming’ (which is what ‘Advent’ means)…and ‘Wait’.

In Advent, we celebrate the coming into this world of Jesus, Son of God – our Rescuer, our Teacher.  We look forward to the Christ Mass, when his first coming in poverty is our focus.  But in Advent, we look ahead with hope to his Second Coming, with ‘great power and glory’.  Christians can’t help looking forward, because we see the way the world is now.

This hope that God will one day put all things right is rooted in a long tradition.   The Hebrew Bible is full of longing for the day when God will transform society into something fair and just.  In today’s reading, Isaiah cries out to the Lord: ‘Oh’….he says ‘Oh’!  ‘Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!’  And then, a little later, ‘Consider us…we are all your people!’.

When will this happen?  Well according to Isaiah, peace will break out when all the peoples of the world say ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord…that he may teach us his ways’.  In other words, Isaiah says that the reign of God will begin when the peoples of the world finally accept that human ways of doing things don’t work.  Peace will reign when the peoples of the world turn away from their sin, and ask God to teach them his ways.

And what about Jesus?  What will his ‘second coming’ be like?  Well, Jesus himself is rather opaque on the subject, to be honest.  The language of Mark’s Gospel is all about the Son of Man coming in clouds…which is a pretty strange metaphor.  Could it mean that Jesus’ coming will be hidden – obscured in the way that clouds cover a mountain?  Then, Jesus says one of the most intriguing lines of the New Testament:  “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”.  Well, that’s odd…isn’t it?  Given that he said these words around 2,000 years ago.  Either he was mis-reported (which would mean that the Bible is clearly in error).   Or perhaps there are still some people alive, walking around in secret, who were alive in Jesus time – as some nuttier theologians have suggested.  (Sounds like an episode of Doctor Who, or Highlander, doesn’t it?).  There is another rather convoluted train of theology, which suggests that Jesus was referring to the new 'generation' of his followers - that is, the Church...but I tend to think that's stretching the plain meaning of the text rather too far.

Or perhaps – and this is what I personally believe – Jesus is, in fact, already come, stealthily, in clouds.  That by his Holy Spirit, he is already among us.  That he is even now, continually, gathering his elect – his followers – from the ends of the earth.  Gathering us into churches, love-factories, for the spreading of his message of Love.

As a parish priest, I am often asked how God could stand by and watch the world tearing itself apart.  I tell them this: God is not standing by!  Thousands of years ago he gave us a simple list of 10 rules by which to live – we call them the 10 Commandments.  They included some pretty simple stuff – “don’t kill each other, love God, love your neighbour, and don’t go lusting after things you don’t need or can’t have”.  But did we listen?

So he sent us a whole series of prophets, like Isaiah, who kept on reminding us that peace and justice will only reign when people listen to the teachings of God.  But did we listen?

So he sent us not just a prophet, but a Son of Man who was so much like God that people who knew him said ‘this man is God’.  And he repeated the message of thousands of years before.  Summarising the Law of God, he said, ‘Love God, and Love your Neighbour as Yourself’.  But did we listen?

God has done anything but stand by while the world ‘goes to hell in a hand-cart’. God is neither absent, nor idle, nor just passively waiting.  Having sent his Son, God established the Church – the Love-Factory - who would carry on calling the people of the world to live by God’s laws…and continuing to pray with their hearts and their hands those profound words, ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.

And that is what Jesus calls us to carry on doing…until the time that God’s reign is completely and definitively established.  In our Gospel reading, Jesus reminds us that we cannot know when that day will come. Only God knows when the Kingdom will be finally and fully established.  But, God gives us a sacred task to carry out until that day finally comes.  We are those who, in the words of the Gospel, are to ‘keep alert’.  We are to be constantly ready – like a man who goes on a journey, and commands his doorkeeper to be on the watch.  We are to be alert…alert to every sign of the Kingdom…alert for the moment when the master comes completely, in great power and glory.

But, while we wait for the completion of the Reign of God, there is a very real sense in which God is already among us, already coming – in fact already here.
  • Every time a war-monger lays down his weapons, Jesus comes.
  • Every time a family is raised up out of poverty by the Robert’s Centre, or out of fear by the Southern Domestic Abuse Service, Jesus comes.
  • Every time a lonely person finds a friend in our morning church-opening, Jesus comes.
  • Every time a family is fed by the Beacon Foodbank, Jesus comes.
  • Every time one of the homeless people sleeping all around our church is treated like the human being they truly are, Jesus comes.
  • Every time that an alcoholic, a gambler, a drug user turns up to one of our Pallant support groups, and says ‘NO!’ to their addiction, Jesus comes.  
  • Every time an exhausted and confused mother finds support and help in our Play Café, Jesus comes.
  • Every time a young person develops their human potential through Dynamo, or a person with learning difficulties grows in confidence through Creating Chaos, Jesus comes.

And so, we are entitled to ask, like every small child, ‘Are we there yet?’.  The answer, as every car-driving parent knows is ‘nearly’.    We are nearly there!  Signs of the kingdom are all around us.  Our task, like an alert house-owner, is to keep awake.  To see the signs of the kingdom with open eyes, and join in with the activity of God, wherever it is found. Amen.

Amen

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.