Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Meaning of Atonement


Picture the scene.  It’s the second world war, and the Japanese army is forcing British prisoners to build a railway, from Burma to China, crossing over the famous River Kwai.  At the end of each day’s hard, sweating , labour in the sun, the soldiers are lined up and counted.  Also counted are the shovels they have been given for the day’s work – to make sure that none can be used for escape plans. 

But on this day, it is discovered that one shovel is missing.  The Japanese soldiers scream their anger at the lined-up British soldiers.  “Unless you tell us now who has taken the shovel, you will all be shot!”.  For a moment, there is stunned silence, as each man comes to terms with the news that he might be about to die.  Then, one soldier steps forward.  “It was me,” he says. “I took the shovel”.  A Japanese soldier puts his gun to the man’s head, and shoots him dead on the spot.

Later that day, the shovels are counted again when they work party returns to the barracks. Then it is discovered that there has been a mistake.  All the shovels are in fact there.  There are no shovels missing.  The soldier who apparently confessed his crime, was in fact completely innocent.  He took the punishment that had been threatened to all his brothers.  He died so that they might live.

And there, in this apparently true story, we find an eloquently simple parable of what the death of Jesus meant.  Like the innocent solider who gave his life for others, the church has generally taught that Jesus took the punishment which should be ours.  Evangelical and Orthodox theology calls this the doctrine of ‘penal substitution’.  Jesus takes the punishment due to human beings who ignited the righteous wrath of God.  It’s the picture – or at least something like it - that I guess most of us have in our minds, when we think about the death of Christ.  But there are many other ways of grappling with this idea.

Most theology about the cross rests on the idea of atonement:  that is 'at one-ment' - the idea that somehow, by his death, Jesus managed to bring fallen, sinful humanity to one-ness with God.  Many different images are used in pursuit of this idea.  Drawing from Isaiah's visions of the Suffering Servant, theologians have proclaimed that 'it is by his wounds that we are healed'.  Suffering then, and specifically God's suffering for our sake, is crucial to this theology.  Another popular image is taken from Jewish tradition, when, on the day of atonement, a goat would symbolically have the sins of the people laid on it - and it would then be led out into the desert to die.

Another at-one-ment image is the idea of ransom.   According to that theory, our sins make us the moral property of the devil.  Because we sin, we belong to Satan – whom Jesus described as ‘the ruler of this World’ in today’s Gospel reading.  Jesus, as the only sinless human being who has ever lived, was the only price which could be paid to 'redeem' us back - to pay the ransom demanded by the devil.  He is the priest-forever – the eternal mediator in the order of Melchizedek – who becomes ‘the source of salvation for all who obey him’ – as the writer to the Hebrews put it, in our New Testament readings.

But we would do well to remember that all these images are just that...images deployed by theologians like St Paul, and many after him, to attempt to get a handle on precisely what Jesus was doing that day.  Because, conspicuously, Jesus himself, never explained precisely what was going on.  The nearest we get to an explanation from Jesus himself is the words we use at every Mass:  'this is my body, given for you; do this in remembrance of me'.  'This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.  Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me'.  Clearly, from Jesus lips, his sacrifice has something to do with forgiveness of sins...but what, precisely?  How did it work?  What was the mechanism?  That's what thinking Christians for two thousand years have asked.

For me...it comes down to this.  Whatever all those different atonement images point to...the one, unquestionable fact is this:  Jesus took it.  Jesus took all the hate, all the malice, all the worldly power, all the fear, all the violence that the world could throw at him.  He took it, and absorbed it.  He took it, to the point of utter powerlessness.  He took it to the point where he was so overpowered by the hatred and sin of human beings that his own connection with God was lost.  "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

But the story of the cross doesn't end at Golgotha.  The story of the cross ends three days later, when, having taken all the hate and sin, Jesus rises from the dead.  Death and sin are defeated - but not in some mechanistic kind of way.   Sin is not defeated because somehow our sins were individually nailed onto Jesus.  It's not as if the sin I committed yesterday is somehow floating around the spiritual ether...to be picked up and nailed onto Jesus 2000 years ago.  Sin doesn't exist in the sense of being a real, albeit spiritual thing.  Rather, sin is a description of a way of living that is contrary to the ways of God.  

Jesus rises from the tomb because Jesus could take it.  Jesus is bigger - universally, galactically bigger, than our petty human sins.  And therefore Jesus could overcome them. They simply don't matter to him anymore.   One image, often used in the Bible, is that God covers our sins.  Another is that he forgets them.  The Jews celebrate 'Yom Kippur' - the Day of Atonement.  'Kippur' comes from a root word which means 'to cover, or to hide'.  Another word is 'obliterate'.  Our sins are not an actual thing.  They are actions and thoughts which God, mercifully, is big enough to be able to simply cover over.  In the words of Jeremiah – our Old Testament reading for today – the Lord simply remembers our sins no more.

By his death, and crucially by his resurrection, Jesus pronounces that our sins are as nothing to him.  He can shrug them off as easily as he shrugs off death itself.  Like an earthly parent who shrugs off the mis-doings of their beloved child, Jesus pronounces, by his actions, the forgiveness of sins.  The new Covenant written on the Cross is a Covenant of unconditional forgiveness. 

By his death, Jesus declares that our sins are washed away, in his eyes.  Anyone who turns to him can find forgiveness.  Not a grudging forgiveness.  Not the sort of forgiveness which the world offers.  We human beings will only offer a sort of grudging forgiveness won't we?  Anyone who has ever had to fill in a criminal records bureau check is only too well aware of how conditional is the forgiveness that human beings can offer one another.  "I can forgive....but I can never forget"...is one of the most oft repeated phrases we use.  "I will forgive you for what you have done, as long as you never do it again".  We hold each other in a sort of provisional forgiveness.

But this is nothing like the forgiveness of God. Jesus takes every bit of hurt and sin and anger and power-crazy nonsense that the world can throw at him...and what does he say?  Does he rail at his accusers?  Does he say, "Stop doing this to me, and perhaps I'll let you off"?  No, he says "Father, forgive them, they don't know what they are doing".

Compared to the goodness and mercy and holiness of God, human sin is as nothing.  God wipes away sin, like it was a fly on his nose. Remember the story of the Prodigal Son?  The Father of the prodigal doesn't even demand that his son should repent of his actions and beg forgiveness...he just runs to greet him, and welcomes him home. The son's sin is not even mentioned.  Its dealt with.  It’s done.  It is forgotten.  It just doesn't matter anymore.  It doesn’t even matter what the precise spiritual mechanism is.  Penal substitution?  Atonement? Ransom?  Redemption?  Moral imperative?  Example Theory?  None of these contain the whole truth.  They only glimpse it.

Let me put this another way:  there is nothing you and I could do, no penance, no act of contrition, no wailing and knashing of teeth, no amount of sack-cloth and ashes, no amount of giving up chocolate for Lent! - which could make God forgive us any easier than he already does.  Acts of penitence are good for us – they discipline us, they help us to look to what matters, and not what we fancy.  But they have no effect in themselves on God’s forgiveness for us.

Not only does Jesus death and resurrection declare that he can take everything we throw at him.  It shouts out that these sins are as nothing, compared to the grace and the mercy of God.  "Forgive them, Father...they are like children in the playground.  They don't know what they are doing."

"Come unto me, all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, for I am meek and lowly in heart...and you will find rest for your souls."

Jesus doesn’t invite us into a theological debate.  He invites us instead to trust Him.  He invites us to live our lives as those who are forgiven and freed from our past, and who choose to walk with him along his Way of eternal life.  He calls us to follow his example, of a life poured out for others, in which sins are forgotten, and life is abundant.  That is the way of the Cross.  And that’s the way we travel.

Amen.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

My house should be a house of prayer!


My house should be a house of prayer, but you have turned it into a market place! (John 2.13-22)

There is a wonderful lady who belongs to this congregation.  You’ll know whom I’m talking about (if you are a regular member here).  Every month, during our First Saturday Coffee Mornings, if the weather is dry, she and her husband stand outside the church selling homemade marmalade and other items to passing customers….while the rest of us come inside, into the warm. 

On the one hand, this act of sacrifice on her part – and her husband’s - is a brilliant advert to the community that our monthly coffee morning is on.  But what everybody round here knows is that she also has a worry, directly grounded in this morning’s Gospel reading, that turning the church into a temporary market-place might not be the right thing to do. 

I know – and respect - exactly where she’s coming from. 

There are two schools of thought, essentially, about church buildings.  The first is that they are essentially no more than a dry gathering-place for the people of God and the local community.  Many churches meet perfectly happily in school halls, or plain rooms across the country.  In Africa, I’ve experienced churches which meet in barns, school-rooms, or under canopies of palm branches.  Their worship has been no less real than ours.  No less honouring to God.  And it hasn’t mattered at all that the same space may be used as a market place the very next day.

But there’s another school of thought – in which buildings like ours have something intrinsically Holy about them.  To get a sense of what many in this community feel about our building, you only have to check the visitors’ book, or the prayer book, or just spend a couple of hours in here during the week, watching the people who come and go to pray.

A couple of weeks ago, Vickie and I had one of our annual pleasures – that of introducing Year 5 to St Faith’s as a building.  We talked about the arches – and the way they point us towards heaven.  We talked about how the Nave ceiling is like an up-turned ship, reminding us of Noah’s Ark, perhaps, and the fact that we are all somewhat at sea on the ship of Faith.  We showed the children our beautiful Sanctuary, and some of the silver-ware that we use – telling them how the patten and chalice are made of silver because of the precious blood and body of Jesus that they will contain.  We showed them the font, in which some of them had been baptised, and reminded them of its history.

It was wonderful to watch their little faces looking up in awe at the beauty around them – and gaining a sense that there is more to their town than they had thought. 

Jesus clearly felt something very similar about the Temple in Jerusalem.  As a Jewish boy, growing up outside the big City, the Temple was a special place indeed.  It was the place in which God was said to dwell – although Jesus clearly knew that God was present everywhere, because he talked to God all the time.  But the Temple was special.  It was somewhere where God was especially present, somehow more tangible than in other places.

So when he arrived at the Temple, perhaps 20 years after his first visit as a 12-year old, he was incensed at what he found.  There were money changers, everywhere – because the Temple authorities had insisted that the people’s tithe could only be paid in Temple coins.  So, if you wanted to give a gift to the Temple, in penance for your sin perhaps, you had to exchange your Roman coins – at a loss – with the money changers.  It would be like me printing our own St Faith’s bank notes, and then telling you that you can only give your collection in our money.  And you could only exchange your pounds with us…at the exchange rate I set!

And, Jesus found, the place was full of animals.  The ancient system of sacrifice required that a penitent sinner had to provide an animal to be slaughtered on the Altar.  So, the Temple Authorities set up animal pens, and allowed worshippers to buy the animal they wanted.  A dove, perhaps, for a small sin.  Or a cow for one of the really big sins!

So, instead of a place that made God feel more tangible, more real, more present, Jesus was confronted with a load of money changers making profit out of a bureaucratic law about coinage, and a load of farmers encouraging pilgrims to buy their goat! Is it any wonder that Jesus was furious?  Is it any wonder that he tried to chase them all out of the place?  I’d feel exactly the same if I came in here to find a branch of Money Supermarket.com set up in the Sanctuary, and Colin Hedley standing in the prayer area shouting ‘come and buy my cows!’

This is indeed a special place, and we must be very careful how we use it.”  There is, however, in our typically Anglican way -  a balance to be struck.  When all’s said and done, this is only – at the most basic level – a pile of stones with a roof on top after all.  And because it’s an old pile of stones with a roof on top, we have a legal and social responsibility to care for it – as the oldest piece of heritage in Havant.  And that’s expensive.  And there’s clearly a limit to how much you, as a congregation, can afford to give.  Did you know, for example, that of the £300,000 we raised last year, only £52,000 came from standing orders and cash collections?  That’s just one sixth of the total costs of the parish.

English churches have actually always tried to walk the line between being a holy place and a place for the whole community.  Communion rails were first established to keep animals out of the Sanctuary – because the oldest churches did indeed double as market places.  

Many churches created a separation between the holy spaces and the common places by erecting a screen between the Nave (where the people, or the ‘knaves’) carried out their business, and the Sanctuary where services were said.  The ringing of bells during the Eucharist was first done to invite ‘knaves’ (in the Nave!) to lift their heads from their commerce, and remember for a moment in whose presence they were. 

We used to have such a screen here, in fact.  The evidence is up there in the wall.  That bricked-up doorway would have once led out onto the top of a screen that would have separated you ‘knaves’ down there from the Holy Sanctuary.  Such screens were routinely topped off with a big, wooden cross, known in ancient English as a ‘rood’.  The screens were therefore called ‘rood screens’ – and were also used as minstrel galleries, before the advent of organs.

This little history lesson reminds us of course that we are custodians of a living breathing, changing building.  The rood screen is now gone. The lighting and sound system has been replaced.  This week, we placed an order for a new screen and projector so that in future sermons I’ll be able to show you pictures of what a rood screen looked like, or images of Jesus chasing the money-changers out of the temple.  Other things have changed too.  The pews that you are sitting on were only introduced in the last 50 years…and they are about to be replaced again with more comfortable, useful, stackable ones, if you decide to support the PCC’s plans when they are finalised.  Next week, we begin work on re-painting the inside walls of this space.

My hope, however,  is that along with our “Lady of the Marmalades”, we will never forget that this is first and foremost a place in which God is tangibly more present, more touchable, more knowable, to the whole of the community we serve.  Amen.




Saturday, February 24, 2018

Take up your cross


Take up your Cross

Mark 8: 31-end.

HEALTH WARNING…the first four paragraphs are a parody…to be read in a phoney American accent!

I have great pleasure in announcing that from today, we are changing our name.  From now on, we will be known as the "Havant Branch of the Church of the Blessings of the Almighty Saviour Jesus ".  Why is this? Well let me tell you, brothers and sisters. Last night, I had a vision! The Lord God Almighty spoke to me from the heavens. He said to me...

"Rector", he said, "Rector - I have good news for you! I want to shower you and your congregation with abundant blessings. (Praise the Lord!) I am going to make yours a church of millionaires! You are going to become so wealthy, so full of miracles, so full of powerful acts of God Almighty, that the whole of Havant will flock to your doors!

All your congregation has to do is to show that they trust me. They simply have to sign over the deeds to their houses to the church. Then I will know that they trust me. Then I will bless them with riches from heaven. Then they will become millionaires, and all their problems will disappear". (Praise the Lord!)

So, my brothers and sisters, our Treasurer, Brother Clive, will be standing by, at the ready, with forms for you to sign. Just sign over the deeds of your house to the church, and the Lord God Almighty, in the glorious name of Jesus, will give you your heart's desire! A-men, brothers and sisters. A-men!

----------

It's a bit frightening to think that there really are churches like that in the world.  They feed on people's misery. They create an image of the world which is so pumped up with future hope, that gullible people really do believe that God is in the business of making them wealthy...but they are tricked into making their preachers wealthy instead.  Hmmm…perhaps I’m in the wrong branch of the church?!

According to today’s Gospel text, modern-day prosperity preachers are not the first people to have got the wrong end of the stick. This text comes at a pivotal point in Mark's gospel. Up until this chapter, which comes right in the middle of the gospel, Jesus' disciples have seen him doing all sorts of amazing things. He drives out evil spirits, heals and feeds the multitudes; he’s even walked on water, and been transfigured by shining light on the mountain-top, in the company of Elijah and Moses. But now, in this passage, the whole trajectory of Jesus' life and ministry turns...it pivots, towards Jerusalem, and to the incomprehensible scandal of the Cross.

Verse 31: "He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected...and be killed".(Mk 8:31). You can just imagine Peter's reaction can't you? He probably thinks that Jesus has gone nuts.  Perhaps the Messiah has been working too hard?  Perhaps he needs to go on Extended Ministerial Study Leave! So Peter rebukes Jesus. Matthew's gospel gives us the words that Mark doesn't record: "Never, Lord" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" (Matt 16:22)

But Jesus is adamant. He tells Peter off with really startling words: "Get behind me, Satan!" Pretty stern stuff.  And then Jesus goes on, in verse 33: "You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things". In other words, "You are thinking like a man, but by now you should be starting to think as God thinks...to see things from God's perspective".

Anyone confronted with the idea of suffering might well react as Peter reacts. After all, God can heal, can't he? Jesus' many miracles are proof that God does not delight in suffering.  And yet, somehow, for reasons we might only be able to guess at, suffering enters into God's plan for humanity.  It's there. It was there for Jesus, who suffered on the cross.  It was there for the many whom Jesus encountered but did not heal.   Suffering, somehow, is part of the plan. Christians who are fixated on the Jesus of the miracles have missed out on the suffering Jesus of the Cross.

But that is precisely whom we are confronted with in this text. Jesus had to suffer...it was part of the divine plan.  But Jesus says that suffering is part of the package for us too..."anyone who wants to follow me must deny himself, and take up his cross". (Mark 8:34

Let's notice that there are, in fact, two elements to Jesus stark statement: we are called first to 'deny self', and secondly, to 'take up our cross'. Let's look at those in turn.

First - what does it mean to 'deny self'?

To deny self, when you think about it, is actually about putting others first.  It's a way of living that always looks out for other people. It's a way of living which never asks "what's in it for me?" but rather "what's in it for my neighbours, and for the Kingdom of God?".  Think about this:  if Jesus had asked himself 'what's in it for me?' before embarking on his ministry, he would never have got beyond his baptism.  We too are called to live that way...to live generously…

…And to live lightly upon the earth.  The son of man had nowhere to lay his head.  To deny self, is also about learning to let go of the things we shackle ourselves with – learning that true contentment is not found in great wealth, but in great relationships, with God and neighbour.  There’s a saying among a certain group of rich people which indicates something of the contemporary mindset about wealth:   “He who dies with the most toys, wins”. 

Nothing of course could be further from the truth.  “You fool”, says God in Jesus parable of the farmer with massive barns.  “This very night, your life will be required of you”.  You can’t take any of it with you.  Jesus says:  “Deny yourself.  Build up treasure that thieves cannot break in and steal.  Build up treasure for heaven”.

Secondly, what did Jesus mean by saying we have to take up our cross?

A while ago, I spent time with a parishioner in my previous parish who had become very frail – let’s call her Lucy.   Lucy had spent all her life serving others through the church. She had been at coffee mornings and fundraisers, and served on the PCC, and made endless cups of tea. She had truly denied herself for others.  And yet, Lucy now found herself frail, bed-bound, and unable to serve others anymore. She even had to rely on others to help her to the bathroom.

Lucy’s body was failing her.  But her mind was as sharp as a razor – and she was a thinker.  She said something very profound to me.  She said "perhaps God is teaching me that there was still a bit of pride in me.  I’m learning that I need to let others serve me for a change. Perhaps I'm learning that in the end, we all must rely on God, and on other people.  That none of us can exist in isolation."

I was intensely moved by what Lucy said.  After a life-time of Christian faith God was still teaching her something deep, something profound, about our need for each other, and for God.  There was, for Lucy at least, a purpose in her suffering.  She learned to gladly take up her cross, for what it would teach her and others.

Jesus own suffering clearly had purpose too. But I find it interesting that the Gospels themselves don't provide a definitive answer to why Jesus had to suffer. The task of interpretation is one that was left to later writers, like St Paul - and other great thinkers of the Church.  All that Mark says on the subject, in today's reading, is that Jesus taught his disciples "that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering" (Mark 8:31). The task of working out why is something that Jesus leaves to his Church. We continue to grapple with it...just as we grapple with the reasons for our own suffering, or the suffering of martyrs across the centuries, and even now in other lands.

We continue to grapple - but we also continue to trust...that denying self, and taking up our own cross - participating in our own suffering and the suffering of the world is an essential, central message that is right at the heart of the Gospel.

May you come to know the power of God that is often revealed in suffering. May you come to know the power of denying self, and taking up the cross that is offered to you.  May you come to know that God's power is so often revealed in and through weakness - our own weakness, as well as the weakness of those we encounter.

And it’s alright…you don’t have to sign over the deeds of your house to Brother Clive!

Amen


Saturday, February 3, 2018

John 1 - The Sacrifice of Light

John Chapter 1

I think I can guess what at least some of you are thinking this morning.  “Why on earth are we hearing that Christmas reading again?”  Others of you are probably thinking “He’s taken down the crib – at last – but he’s forgotten to take down the star!”

Well, you’d be wrong.  I haven’t forgotten, you see.  I’ve left the star up quite deliberately.  Because – I think - that poor old star needs a bit more prominence in the Christian story.  As for why we are being asked by the Lectionary writers to think about the Word becoming flesh again….well, let me try to explain.

Everyone loves a story.  Stories are powerful ways to communicate – which is precisely why Jesus used parables, and why we all love movies and books.  The Christmas Story that we’ve just worked our way through is one of the best.  It’s the perfect combination of rustic shepherds, visiting magicians, angels and animals….and there’s a baby in it, just to finish off the ‘Ah!’ factor.  At least, that’s all according to Luke and Matthew. 

But John, writing his Gospel some decades after Luke and Matthew, is not interested in shepherds and wise men.  Scholars tell us that John wrote his Gospel in his old age – after a lifetime of spreading the message of Jesus.  No doubt the stories about wise men and shepherds were already circulating widely.  John didn’t need to re-hash them.  So he goes deeper…much deeper than a typical Christmas congregation is ready to grasp.  Such congregations are usually too high on Christmas Spirit  (of one form or another) to want to do any meaningful theology.  Which is why, I think, the Lectionary writers give us one more bite at the cherry, at this moment in the year. 

After a lifetime of teaching and learning, John wants us to grasp the enormity of the Christmas event, the coming of Jesus, what scholars call the ‘Incarnation’.  ‘Incarnation’ describes the in-dwelling of God in human form.  The ‘Incarnation’ is that moment when God, who is Spirit, takes on human flesh.

There are two words which John especially plays with, in his poetic Gospel introduction.  The first is ‘Word’, and the second is ‘Light’.  Let me see if we can’t break them down a little.
‘Word’ is the English translation of ‘Logos’ – a Greek word from where we get the word ‘logic’.  John is saying that the incomprehensible being we call God is many things – spirit, love, a creative force that binds the universe together.  But God is also mind.  God has thoughts.  He – or indeed she - has desires and intentions for the world that has been created.  God’s thoughts, God’s logic, God’s reason – these are the ‘Logos’ – the ‘Word’.  “In the beginning was the Word” – the Logos – “and the Word was with God and the Word was God”.  It’s one of those great big thoughts that we human beings struggle to get our tiny brains around – that God can be thought of as having different aspects, but each of them is also fully God’.  So, God’s reason, his Word, can be part of God as well being completely God.  “The word was with God and “was God”.

And, John is saying, that ‘Word’ is the aspect of God which became human and dwelt among us.  Again – incomprehensible, isn’t it?  How can an aspect of God become human, while not dividing God up into different people?  If God is on earth, in the form of Jesus, how can he also be still in heaven?  And how come Jesus (God the Son on earth) prays to God the Father in heaven?  Is he talking to himself?  It’s enough to make your brain explode!  And that’s ok.  We are limited, created beings.  We cannot ever begin to grasp the reality of God – and anyone who tells you that they have understood God is a fool.

So, confronted with the sheer enormity of what he’s trying to say, John chooses a different picture.  He uses a metaphor.  He has stated the truth as clearly as he can grasp it, by talking about the ‘Word’ dwelling among us.  But now he chooses a different tack, and begins to talk about ‘Light’.

Ah!  That’s better.  ‘Light’ we can understand.  We know about Light.  We see its effects.  We know that even a tiny spark of light cannot be extinguished by the darkness.  We know that if this church was completely darkened, save for one candle, all our attention would be focused on that single solitary light.

“In Jesus”, says John, “was life, and that life was the light of the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”.

And that, ultimately, is the message of Christmas, and the good news of the Gospel.  Darkness is all around us.  The darkness of war, and famine, and poverty, and homelessness and selfishness and consumerism and racism and fear of the stranger and all hatred and rebellion against the reason and logic of God.  “But the light shines in the darkness”.

In Jesus, through his teaching, his life, and yes even by his death, life is offered to the world.  Jesus’ whole life is offered to us, by John and the other Gospel writers, as The narrow Way to life.  His way of living – generously, lovingly, wisely, sacrificially is offered to us as an example of what God’s logic and reason look like.  Generosity, Love, Wisdom and Sacrifice.  These are signposts for us.  Generosity, Love, Wisdom and Sacrifice.  Lights in the darkness.  Clues to how we too should live, if we truly want to find life.  And clues about how we can choose to live if we truly want to shine God’s love into the lives of those around us.

Last week, at the end of our service, we lit candles and held them aloft, promising to be lights to the world.  Three times, in response to challenges from David at the Font, the whole congregation said “Let us shine with the Light of your Love”.   So let me ask you…how’s it going?  Where have you shined God’s light of love this week, the first week since you made that commitment?

Generosity.  What new generosity have you shown this week?  Who has been touched, or had their life transformed by your gift.  Did you remember to bring a gift for the foodbank to church this morning?  Well done, if you did.  Has the suffering of one Syrian refugee been relieved by your generosity this week.  Thank you.  Or perhaps you gave a gift to help pay for the costs of keeping this church shining as a light in its community, such as the repair to the West Door.  Thank you, if you did.

Love.  Who has experienced your love this week?  Who has woken up this morning feeling lighter, less burdened, more deeply regarded because of the Love you have shown them.  Well, I bless you for showing that Love.

Wisdom.  How have you grown in wisdom this week?  Which passages of the Bible that you have undoubtedly been reading have struck you with new insight?  What wise decisions have you made about the lifestyle you lead, or the consumer-choices you’ve made?

And finally, sacrifice.  Sacrifice is more than simple generosity.  To sacrifice is to give until it hurts.  Sacrifice is what Jesus made on the cross.  Sacrifice is the change of mind which knows that nothing I own belongs to me…but everything is God’s. Sacrifice is the act of giving up everything, all possessions, all rights, all privileges for the greater, deeper, mind-blowing privilege of shining God’s light into God’s world.  It’s about putting everyone else first, holding nothing back…but being poured out completely for the good of the world. 

Stars make that kind of sacrifice.  In order to continue shining their light into the heavens, a star must continue to sacrifice itself, constantly.  To shine, for a star, is to burn up its resources in the service of the Universe.  Eventually, after all the hydrogen in a star is burned up, the Star will die.  It will give itself completely to its task.

That’s why I’ve left the star hanging there for one more week.  We have Christmas in our memories, and the promises of Candlemass in our hearts. May we also be reminded that we too, like Jesus, are called to give ourselves completely to the task of shining God’s light into our world.


Amen.

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 fiancĂ©e 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!