Friday, August 4, 2017

From the Mountain-top

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Healing of Charlie Gard

(Romans 8. 26-39)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Welcome, welcome, welcome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Easter 2017 - Alleluiah...Christ is Risen

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

What do you believe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alleluiah...Christ is Risen!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Mothering Sunday 2017

Preached on Sunday 26th March 2017

Mothering Sunday 2017

Right then.  Let's start with some basic dictionary definitions.  What is a mother?

According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, a mother is:

"A mucilaginous substance produced in vinegar during fermentation by mould-fungus"
"A term of address for an elderly woman of the lower class"
Better.
How about "the Head of a Religious Community"
or
"A quality or condition which gives rise to another, as in 'necessity is the mother of invention'"
or
"Artificial Mother:  An apparatus for rearing chickens"
But of course, the most usual use of the word is the one we give to our Mums...to those who gave birth to us, and who brought us up in the world.

True motherhood though, is much more than the biological function of bringing new life into the world.  That part of motherhood is hard, no doubt.  It takes commitment, devotion, and (apparently!) a lot of pain to fulfil the purely biological process of motherhood.  But, as any mother will tell you - it's after the birth that the real work of mothering begins.

Real mothering takes time, devotion, and skill.  In fact it is very easy to tell new mothers from more experienced ones - especially by the way they relate to their children.

Apparently,
when you have your first baby, you spend a great deal of time just gazing at your baby.
When you have your second child, you spend a good deal of every day just making sure that your first child isn't hitting, poking or squeezing the new baby.
When you have your third child, you spend a little bit of every day hiding from all the children!

There are other signs of an experienced mother too.
You know you've become a mother when you go out for a romantic meal with your husband, and then reach over to start cutting up his steak.
You know you've become a real mother when you start thinking about writing a book called "101 things to do with tumble-dryer fluff and dried pasta shells".
You know you've become a mother when you begin to hope that tomato sauce is, in fact, a vegetable!

But let's face it, not every mother is successful.  In fact, in these days of fractured or highly mobile families, it is not at all unusual for a young mum to find herself bringing up a child, all alone, with no other family members around.  In this area alone I know of many young mums who are isolated beyond belief...stuck at the top of a high rise building, perhaps with the lift broken down, or perhaps with too many children to be able to go out into the world, even to seek help.  For many, motherhood becomes an oppressive almost prison-like experience.

The other uncomfortable fact is that some mothers just shouldn't be mothers.  Too many children grow up in homes that are unloving, or where one parent or the other suffers from addictions to drugs or alcohol.  Some parents routinely use violence to bring up their children, others are too poorly educated to realise that sticking a child in front of a play-station all day does not constitute good parenting!

And that is why Mothering Sunday should inspire us to enlarge our vision of what 'mothering' is.  Mothering is something that the whole of society should be involved with.  Mothering, crucially, is something which the Church teaches should be done by the whole community.

In fact Jesus used some pretty strange language about mothers.  Do you remember the time when someone tugged at his sleeve and said "Your mother and brothers are outside"?   But, according to Matthew Chapter 12, Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

This was pretty weird stuff, wasn't it?  Jesus appears to reject his own Mother, in favour of the larger community of disciples who were following him.  Uh?  What's going on?

For Jesus, the bonds of family were clearly important.  They were so important that when he hung on the cross, one of the things most clearly on his mind was the long-term care of his Mother...which is why he asks John to take care of her.  But before that, by his actions and by his words, Jesus makes it very clear that the family unit - and even the bonds of love between a mother and a child - must take second place to the wider Christian community.

And that's because the Christian wider community is the whole Body of Christ - and the Body of Christ is called, by Christ, to serve and 'mother' the rest of the world.  To those who are sick, or in prison, or hungry, or homeless, Christ says, effectively, "Mother them".  

So for the Church, Mothering Sunday has never been just 'Mother's Day'.  You could even wonder whether Mother's Day is just a secular scam, designed to sell cards and flowers, and rack-up the profits of restaurants, by feeding on our guilt about not having phoned our mothers!

To be a mother is much more than to be the one human being whose sole duty is to bring up one or more biological children.  Motherhood needs to be understood as a calling that every Christian - man or woman - shares...a calling to 'mother' a world which is need of the kind of wisdom, challenge and upbringing that the very best Mothers are capable of.

All of us are called to be that kind of mother to the people of our parish.  By our teaching of the Gospel, by our prayers for the sick and the suffering, by our feeding of the hungry poor, by the visiting of the lonely, by our care for the oppressed, by the provision of opportunities for people - and children - to grow in talent and humanity...we are called to act as a mother to the wider family of the people of Havant.

So here's my prayer for this church, and for this parish:  may we discover the fullness of mother-hood revealed to us through the example of Christ.  May we discover the joy of giving loving, motherly service to the lost, the lonely and the poor of our parish.  May we know that fulfilment which comes from sharing God's motherly love to more than just our own families...but to the whole world to which Christ calls us.

Amen

Monday, February 13, 2017

Adultery, sin, grace and mercy - Matt 5.21-37

There are times, I confess, when I look at the Lectionary and cry out aloud...What on earth are the Lectionary-compilers doing putting this reading in?!  I confess to having had that reaction when I first saw today’s Gospel reading.  Adultery?!  They want me to preach about adultery….two days before Valentine’s Day?!

But that’s the thing about reading the Bible isn’t it?  If we only read the bits we like or the bits we agree with easily, how are we ever going to be challenged and changed?

And the other thing to remember about reading the bible is, as I’ve said before, that we must always remember the three ‘c’s.  What are they?  Context, context context!

So what’s the context of this reading?  Well, it is a part of the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus has started his sermon with promises of God’s favour on the poor, the meek, the pure in heart and the peacemakers.  He has called them (as we heard last week) to be lights to the world, and salt. And then, as you may recall, he said that he had come to fulfil the law.  “Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass away” he said, “until all the law is accomplished”.  (Or as the King James version had it, “one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled!”).

Then, as I hope you remember, he went on, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven”.

That would have been deeply shocking to the crowd who were listening to Jesus, that day.  The Pharisees were viewed by many as ‘holier than thou’-merchants, who created all sorts of laws and practices which they insisted the faithful must follow in order to be saved.  They were a right pain, actually.  And here’s Jesus saying that his own followers must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees and Scribes!  Whatever could he mean?

That’s the background – the context to today’s reading.  Then Jesus goes on – with a whole list of the ways in which his followers would be even more righteous than the Pharisees.  Murder was wrong, of course…but Jesus says that if his followers are even angry with a brother or sister, they will be liable to judgement.  If his followers should insult each other, or call them names, they will be liable to judgement.  And if a follower knows that someone else has something against him, he should take the initiative to go and sort the problem out.

And then comes the adultery warning…brace yourself…Jesus says “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already commited adultery in his heart.”  It would be better to pluck out your eye and throw it away!

And that’s not all…Jesus goes on and on and on in a similar vein, through the rest of today’s reading and onwards still.  Turn the other cheek.  God the extra mile.  Give to everyone who begs. Love your enemies, pray in secret not on street corners, forgive others their sins, fast with a smile on your face, don’t store up wealth for yourself, stop worrying about what you will wear, don’t judge others, and so on, and so on.

It’s enough to make your head spin, isn’t it?  Surely, none of us is capable of living up to these standards!

Now of course, I have never looked at another woman with lust in my heart…honestly, Clare!  But could I honestly say that I have lived up to all these many calls to righteousness?  Have I ever been angry with a brother or sister of the faith?  Have I always gone the extra mile, or turned the other cheek?  Have I given to everyone who begs of me?

No, of course not.  I can’t do it.  I’m just not that righteous.  And that’s where the grace and mercy of God come in.

Do you remember what the difference between grace and mercy are?

Grace is when God gives us what we do not deserve.

Mercy is when God holds back the punishment that we do deserve.

If it was entirely up to us to be righteous enough to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, I suspect that none of us will ever get there.  I mean…you’re all wonderful people.  But is any of us that righteous?  I doubt it.  Perhaps I’m judging you by my own standards – and in judging you, I’m already breaking a commandment of Jesus.  But I know how hard I find it to be truly righteous…so I’m guessing you do to.

But let’s remember the words we sang in our first hymn of this morning:

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than up in heaven;
there is no place where earth’s failings have such kindly judgement given.

In these words, directly based on the wisdom of Scripture, we can find hope.  We can have reasonable and assured hope that our Father in heaven looks down on his failing and weak children with nothing but love and compassion, mercy and grace.  However many times we let him down, however many times we fail to live the righteous lives to which he calls us, ‘there is wideness in God’s mercy’.

And how shall we respond to this news.  Shall we, as St Paul once suggested ironically, keep on sinning and sinning, so that God’s grace may be greater and greater?  No, of course not.  The response to love, is more love.  Valentine’s Day teaches us that, if nothing else.  The response to love, is more love.  As God loves us, we love God more and more.  Each day, aware of our failings, we are also aware of God’s love towards us.  However many times we let God down, he keeps on showering us with blessings – life, health, food and shelter, purpose and direction for our lives.

Lent is nearly upon us – and during Lent we will have extra opportunities to weigh up the sum of our lives, to make amends, and commit ourselves to do better, to live better, to live more righteously.  But at the end of Lent comes the great feast of Easter, with the death and resurrection of Jesus once more laid before us.  In that great story, we will see again the grace and mercy of God – writ large on the Cosmic stage.  We will be reminded that however often we fail, however often we fail to obey his commandments, or confuse Apollos with Paul, or behave according to human inclinations…’there is wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.’

Amen. Alleluiah!


Saturday, January 7, 2017

Epiphany - the 'Bottom-up' God

Preached at Warblington Church, in the neighbouring parish of Warblington-with-Emsworth, on Sunday 8th January 2017

Matthew 2: 1-12

I suppose that many of us will have been on journeys over the last couple of weeks. Some of us have braved wind and rain to visit family and friends in far-flung corners of the British Isles. But I bet none of us had journeys which were as arduous as those of the Wise Men to Bethlehem.  They would have crossed blazing deserts, and freezing mountain passes.  They would have had to wash in streams, and eat food gathered or trapped along the way.  Their journey was remarkable.

We don't know much about the Wise Men. The Bible calls them 'Magi', from which we get our word 'magician' - but that's not the full meaning of the word. The Magi were, as far as we can tell, learned men from another culture. They studied the stars, and no doubt studied the ancient texts of many religions too. They put that knowledge together came to the startling conclusion that a new King of the Jews was being born.

Actually, they were wrong.  Jesus never was the King of Jews in any earthly sense...despite the ironic poster that Pontius Pilate had nailed over his Cross.  In fact, according to John's Gospel, when Pilate asked him point blank whether he was the King of the Jews, Jesus replied "My Kingdom is not of this world".  No, the Magi were wrong.  The stars were not predicting the birth of the King of the Jews.

Another accident of the Magi was in their timing. According to Matthew’s account, they actually arrived something like two years late. (Matthew notes that Herod enquired of the wise men when they had seen the Star appear, and based on that information he slaughters all the boys in Bethlehem who are under two years old.  It’s notable that Matthew also describes the wise men visiting Mary and the child in the house where they were staying, not in a stable.)

So, the Magi were perhaps not all that wise. They failed to correctly predict the timing of the birth of a new King of the Jews - and they were two years adrift even of Jesus birth.  Wise men?  Perhaps not.

So, to those who say that our future can be read in the stars, there is a warning here. The stars do not foretell our future, any more than they did for the Magi. We would be wise not to place our future in the hands of star-gazers too.

And yet...and yet...  The Magi embarked on a journey of faith. They thought they knew where that journey would lead. They assumed it would lead them to a royal palace in Jerusalem.  But God has a way of using the journeys we plan for ourselves, and turning them into something much different, much more profound. Instead of a new prince in a royal cot, the Magi's journey led them, mysteriously, to an unremarkable house in a rural back-water...and to a baby who had been born in a food trough.

And it was when they got there, that the Magi could truly be described as wise men. Recognising Jesus for who he was, much more than an earthly King of the Jews, they knelt in homage to him. When they met him, Jesus was nothing like they expected.

And that’s because, in Jesus-of-the-stable, God was declaring a new way of living, and a new way of thinking. Human beings had tended to think of the Universe as a ‘top-down’ place – with God in heaven, dispensing rules and justice from the sky.  But that was a mistake.  Through Jesus, especially the Jesus revealed at the Epiphany, God was re-forming our picture of where God is.  Not in the sky, looking down…but here among us, one of us, part of us.  No longer the ‘top-down’ God of our ancestors; this is the ‘bottom-up’ God.  The Kingdom of God is an upside-down place – where the poor are the blessed, and the powerful are condemned – as the Magnificat has just reminded us again.  It is the Kingdom in which by losing, we win; and by giving, we receive.

But we still fail to recognise this, don’t we?  Even Christians are duped by the promises of power or celebrity.  We find ourselves ‘looking upward’ in hope towards political dogmas, or individual politicians.  We trust that the powerful of our nation know what they are doing – when in reality they are just as confused as the rest of us…stumbling in the darkness.  Or we look upward to celebrities, modelling our life-choices, our fashions, our financial decisions on theirs.  But we find no peace there either.  Or we look to great church leaders, great Bishops, prominent Christian writers - or even our parish priests - to save us.  But they turn out to have the same feet of clay as all of us.

The ‘bottom-up’ Kingdom of Epiphany teaches us to look for God in the simple and earthy things of life.  The Sky-God is silent – and looking upwards to such a God, or to other powerful beings – will not help us to find ‘him’.  As Moses discovered in front of the burning bush, it is the ground which is holy, not the sky.

When we look for God in a stable, we find ‘him’ in the love of his parents, and the care of a community of Shepherds and Wise Men.  God is found in the love between neighbours and friends.  God is found in the simple sharing of a meal.  ‘He’ is found in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.  ‘He’ is found in a simple act of charity.

The Wise Men had the wisdom to recognise him, and to worship him, in the dirt and squalor of a back-water town. Their pre-conceptions of palaces and earthly royalty fell away; and the new reality of Jesus took their place.

You see, really wise men and women are open to what the Journey will bring. Wise men and women embrace the possibilities for change and growth which arise whenever we put our journey in the hands of God.

I wonder what our journey this year will be like - our journey with God both as individuals, and yours as a parish.  If we are able to listen to God’s voice, in the middle of peace and prosperity, as well as chaos and darkness, we will find God speaking into our situation.  There is always something to be learned, always some new spiritual growth to take place even...perhaps especially...in the darkest times.

I imagine the Wise Men had some dark times along their road.  But through it all, God was with them...guiding them, prompting them in new directions...so that at the end of their journey, they could encounter the God-child himself.

So, my encouragement to you this Epiphany is to be open to the journey.  Make a new year’s resolution, right here, right now, that you will be more alert, more open to what God is doing in your life as a person, and in your life as a church.    Make a pact with God that you will listen to ‘him’ more, searching the scriptures more, worshipping more, giving more, and receiving more.

If God can lead a bunch of mystics across deserts and mountains to a new Epiphany at the manger, then ‘he’ can do the same for us.

But we have to be ready to go.   Amen.