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 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 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.

Friday, December 30, 2016

At the Name of Jesus (New Year 2017)

On the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus.

When I was a lad, I was not the most popular boy in the school. There were a lot of reasons for this, now I look back on it. I was tall and gangly, and had a face covered in acne. I was also the only musician in the school; very different from the rest of my rather macho classmates. I was also extremely allergic to sport...mainly because I was rubbish at it.  And to be honest, I was a bit of a ‘know-it-all’ – though I’m sure none of you would recognise that now!

As a result, I got called rather a lot of nasty names...very few of which are repeatable from a pulpit. My poor parents did their best to try to help me cope, including making frequent use of that old saying, "sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me".

The trouble is, that old saying is a load of rubbish, isn't it? The reality is that name-calling does hurt, doesn't it? Our names are part of who we are...they are a key part of our identity. And when someone replaces our identity with a horrible word like "idiot”, it creates what psychologists call a 'dissonance' between who we think we are, and who others perceive us to be - and that dissonance physically hurts.

The names we use, and the names we call out do matter.

For example, when I think of the name 'Tom' it carries with it a whole load of associations...most of them positive. It’s the name that Clare uses to call me to dinner (which is always a positive experience for me!).   So, the word 'Tom' has a positive ring about it - it’s part of my positive identity…along with many other names that I use, like Dad, and Uncle.

‘Thomas’ - on the other hand - creates a rather different sense of identity. That's the name that Clare (and my mother!) use when I am in trouble. When I hear "Thomas!" from the other end of the garden, I tend to think "Uh oh; what have I done now?!"

So names are important - and they were even more important in biblical times. The bible is packed full of examples of people changing their names in order to mark a change or transformation in their deep-down sense of who they are. Perhaps the best example is that of Abram, the father of the Hebrew nation, having his name changed by God to Abraham. ‘Abram’ meant, simply, 'exalted Father' - a term of respect for an old man. But Abraham meant 'father of many', and was given as a sign that Abraham was to become the father of an entire nation.

Names in the bible, then, are much more than just a word which helps to sort out who is who. Names are words which contain a sense of the full character of the person being named. Today, we celebrate the naming and the circumcision of Jesus.  Circumcision was, of course, normal practice for a Jewish male-child.  By having him circumcised, Jesus’ parents were being faithful to the teachings of the Hebrew, or Jewish Bible.  It placed Jesus in his culture, and literally marked him as a child of Israel, and a son of David.

But it is his name which is most significant.

Interestingly, Jesus wasn’t called Jesus at all!  His actual given name was ‘Yeshua’ which essentially boils down to two words:  ‘Ye’…a contraction of YHWH, or God.  And ‘shua’ which is a noun meaning a cry for help…something like ‘save us’.  So Jesus actual name, the one his Mum would have called him at dinner-time, means ‘God Saves’.

Incidentally, I was once pounced on in a churchyard by a very angry woman of dubious mental stability.  She was adamant that we were not Christians at all, because we don’t worship ‘Yeshua’ by his proper name!  No matter how hard I tried to convince her that ‘Jesus’ is essentially an anglicised way of pronouncing ‘Yeshua’ – she wasn’t having any of it!

Some names were also believed to have power in and of themselves - because of whom they are attached to. So, to 'call on the name of the Lord' was to invoke the power of the Lord himself. (To see this most powerfully demonstrated, you only have to sit in on a service of our friends at the Redeemed Church of God - where every prayer is made, powerfully, 'in the name of 'Jesus'.)

To pray 'in the name of Jesus' is to pray in the presence and reality of Jesus – and to be convinced that it is God who saves, not we ourselves.

Names have power, and so do some particular words.  At this turning-point of the year, I want to ask you to consider the meaning of one more important word – and that’s the word ‘parish’.  We describe ourselves as ‘the Parish’ of St Faith, Havant – not just ‘the church’.  In fact, both are useful words – and we might take a moment to consider them.

Etymologically speaking, the ‘church’ is not this building at all.  The church is the gathered people of God, all those who own the name ‘Christ-ian’ – wherever we might actually worship. We could worship in the Hall at the Pallant Centre (as indeed we did last year) and we would still be ‘the Church’.

We are those whom Yeshua, the Saviour, calls to tell others the good news of how ‘God saves’.  And the place that Yeshua especially calls us, is ‘the Parish’ – the area surrounding our church-building, in which we have been called, placed, and equipped for his service by our worship.

And so, we make no apology for spending the resources that God gives us on more than just this building.  There is much we would like to achieve in this building in the coming year – you can read all about our hopes and aspirations in ‘The Big Build News’, available on the sides-table.  We want to finish the organ restoration, and improve our toilet facilities.  We want to upgrade our PA, and our audio-visual capabilities.  We want to deal with crumbling plaster, and the long-term need to re-roof the building.  We want this building to be the best and most fitting place for the worship of God that we can make it.

But we are also called to serve God, and bring his ‘salvation’ to the wider parish.  That’s why we will continue to invest in The Pallant Centre – the place where we have perhaps more connections than anywhere else with the people of the parish.  In the Pallant Centre, young parents have a café in which to gather for friendship.  Alcoholics, gamblers, drug addicts, and ex-service-personnel all find advice and support.  Young people are stretched and given the space to develop, through Dynamo.  Artists have space to paint, archers have space to exercise.  The Solent Male Voice Choir has space to exercise body and voice, and find friendship and fellowship.  And many more besides.

We do all this, with your help, in the name of Yeshua – the God who saves.  We serve the God who saves us from death by the cross.  But he is also the God who saves us from loneliness, and isolation.  He saves us from idleness and from addiction.  He saves us from selfishness, and calls us to lives of service to others.  He saves us from mediocrity, and invites us to become all that we can be, in his service.

It is Jesus we serve; he whose name is above all names.  We set out, into this new year, confident that in his name, we can overcome the negativity of so much that is present in our nation at the present time.  We believe and declare that the time is coming when the message that ‘God saves’ will be in every heart and on every tongue – when at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow!


Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas Sermon 2016: Meditation on John 1

John 1. 1-14  Christmas Sermon

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.  I wonder what stories you will enjoy this Christmas.  A bit of Sherlock perhaps?  Some new awfulness on the Eastenders Christmas special?  For me, I know that Christmas is finally here – in a secular sense – when I settle down to the Doctor Who Christmas special!

The Christmas Story is sometimes referred to as ‘the greatest story ever told’ (though others argue that the story of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus should be given that epithet).  But what a good story the Christmas story is!

The Gospel writers, Luke and Matthew give us different perspectives on the same story.  This is a story they have heard, and which they then tell in their own way, decades later.  Each of them has a different perspective.  Luke’s faith in Jesus is fired by the way Jesus reached out to the poor and the oppressed.  So he gives us the story of how a bunch of shepherds, outsiders, are invited to be front and centre at the coming of the Messiah.  Matthew, on the other hand, is fired by Jesus’ message that God’s love is meant for all humanity – so he focuses on the coming of Wise Men from Eastern Lands.  These are non-Jews, outsiders, who are brought into the fold of God’s love.

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.  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’ – a posh word which has nothing to do with tinned milk or the flowers often worn at weddings!  ‘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 he is also mind.  He has thoughts.  He has desires and intentions for the world that he has created.  God’s thoughts, God’s logic, God’s reason – these are his ‘Logos’ – his ‘Word’.  “In the beginning was the Word” – the Logos – “and the Word was with 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 who God is as well as being completely who God is.  “The word with 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 really grasp the reality of God.

So John paints 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.  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.  That’s why, on this night of his birth, we are nevertheless going to mark Jesus’ death in a few minutes.  Jesus’ whole life is offered to us, by John and the other Gospel writers, as The Way to life.  His way of living – generously, lovingly, wisely is offered to us as an example of what God’s logic and reason look like.  Jesus’ way of dying – sacrificially, trustingly are still more examples of the Logos of God.  These are signposts for us.  Lights in the darkness.  Clues to how we too should live, if we truly want to find life.

All these things are mysteries.  All of them take a lifetime of thought, reasoning, logic to even begin to grasp – as John himself knew in his old age.

Let tonight be a turning point for you.  Let the light of Christ illuminate and inspire you.  Draw from the spiritual energy he offers around his table, in bread and wine (his body and his blood).  Follow and pursue the light of life every single day from this point on.  It’s what wise men did, 2,000 years ago.   And it’s what the wisest men and women today still do.


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Repent or Repent?

Matthew 11.2-11

John the Baptist is one of the stranger characters of the New Testament. He wore clothing of camel hair – which I imagine was rather itchy – who seems to have lived exclusively on locusts and wild honey. I imagine that getting wild honey out of a wild honey-bee hive is rather a tricky thing to do. So poor old John was probably covered in bee-stings as well.

John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He followed the tradition of living apart from civilisation, and of calling people to repent of their evil ways. So, let’s picture the scene – picture a rather dirty fellow, who has probably never visited a barber, dressed in camel-hair, covered in bee-stings and with honey stuck to his shirt, munching on a locust...and declaring at the top of his voice “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near”.

I wonder what our reaction would be if we met someone like that in the streets of Havant – or even here inside the church. I think we’d probably try to get him sectioned – for his own good!

But there was something about John that attracted people to him. There was something about his message that had people coming out to him in the wilderness from “Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all of the region along the River Jordan” (Mt 3:5) And let’s remember, these weren’t Sunday drivers out for a laugh at the strange fellow in the desert. These were people who would have travelled many hours, and in some cases many days – to hear for themselves the amazing – even scandalous - things that this man of the desert was saying.

John was not a man to mince his words either. He called the religious leaders of the day a “viper’s brood” (Mt 3:7) He warned them against the complacency of their religion. “Just because you are Abraham’s children,” he would say, “don’t go thinking that gives you an automatic right to heaven” (Mt 7:8 - paraphrased).  He warned them to be afraid of the Messiah who would ‘put an axe to the tree’ of their systems and laws.

There are a number of strange inconsistencies about John. First there is the fact that he didn’t join up with Jesus. Why didn’t he set aside his baptising, and become a follower of the Lord? And then there’s the fact (as we’ve just heard in the Gospel reading) that when he was in prison he sent word to Jesus - to ask him if he really was the Messiah...despite having recognised him as such by the Jordon at Jesus’ baptism.

It seems that John had a different vision in his head of what the Messiah would be like – he seemed to expect a Messiah who would be full of swift judgment against the evil people of the day. See what he says in Matthew’s gospel, in chapter 3:
“...he [that is the Messiah] will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”. (Mt 3: 12) John’s mental picture of the Messiah was based in the language and concepts of the Old Testament. He expected the ‘great and terrible Day of the Lord’. And when it didn’t happen quite as he expected, he perhaps proved more reticent to join up with Jesus. Maybe that’s why he sent word from his prison – saying to Jesus, “are you really the Messiah?”.

But Jesus has a subtly different agenda. He also speaks of the coming day of judgment, and the separation of sheep from goats – later in Matthew’s gospel in fact. But Jesus places that event at some distance in the future. First, he has work to do – to call as many people as possible to repentance, and to give the greatest possible opportunity for people to choose God’s way of living over their own.

There’s a difference, you see, between John’s angry, passionate cry of ‘repent’, and Jesus’ loving invitation to ‘repent’.  The emphasis that we put on words really matters, doesn’t it?  John’s cry of ‘repent’ is angry, frustrated, and intolerant of the world he sees around him.  He is motivated by anger, and longs for the vipers and the chaff to be burned up in unquenchable fire!  But Jesus has God’s perspective on the world.  He looks on the mess of the world with compassion and love – like a parent looks on a wayward child.  He preaches tolerance, forgiveness and peace, and even prays for forgiveness for those who crucify him – “for they know not what they do”.  Jesus is prepared, with God’s longing patience, to give time to the establishment of his Kingdom.

He is so committed to that path – and so reluctant to embark on the eventual task of judgment - that he is prepared to give up his own life so that we might find our way back to God.

And I wonder whether we ourselves can sometimes be a bit like John. Certainly, as a human race, we have often been guilty of making God in our own image.  How many wars have been fought in the belief that God approves of them? How many acts of cruelty have been perpetrated in the belief that God is somehow being served through them? Are there ways in which we conduct our lives which are inconsistent with the reality of Jesus – and the way in which he calls us to live?

I wonder if you’ve seen that bracelet that teenagers sometimes wear.  It has the four letters “WWJD”. They stand for “what would Jesus do” – of course – and it’s a phrase from the 1970s (at least!) which has perhaps become dulled by over-familiarity. But it’s still a good question. What would Jesus do in the face of the rampant poverty of the developing world? What would Jesus do in the face of corruption among leaders of so many nations? What would Jesus do when faced with the commercial pressure to ‘spend, spend, spend’ at this time of the year? What would Jesus do in the face of globalisation and climate change?

My daughter once had a t-shirt with the question WWJB - “Who would Jesus bomb?”... but that’s a subject for another discussion altogether!

During this time of advent, the story of John invites us to prepare for the coming of Jesus – the true Messiah – who will probably be nothing like we expect him to be.  We are invited to prepare for the Lord who says “love one another”, and who shows us what real love is like through radical self- sacrifice.  The story of John reminds us that our understanding of who Jesus was, and is, needs to be re-interpreted.  It needs to be seen in the light of Jesus’ advent as the forgiving, accepting, non-retaliatory suffering-servant-king – whose strength is precisely in his meekness.

May you know the peace of Christ as you prepare to celebrate his coming once again this year. May you know the reality of who Jesus really was and is.  By soaking up the stories about him in the Bible, may you deepen your understanding of who he was and what he stood for. And may that knowledge transform you. Day by day.  So that you may truly know who you are...a loved child of God, gently and loving called to repentance.  And by depending that knowledge, may you come to know what you stand for too.


Saturday, October 1, 2016

Slaves for Jesus

Luke 17.5-10  Slaves for Jesus

From time to time, people wonder where I got the title of Canon…well let me tell you.
A few years ago Clare and I gave hospitality for a couple of years to a priest from Ghana, who was studying in the UK at the time.  When his time with us was over, the Bishop of Cape Coast conferred the title of Honorary Canon on me, as a gesture of thanks.  Subsequently, I was made a Canon of Ho as well…after supporting the work of Bishop Matthias there.  So you get two Canons for the price of one with me!

One of the privileges of being a Canon is the right to preach at the Cathedral to which one is attached.  So, a few years ago, I found myself in the pulpit of Cape Coast Cathedral – looking out over a sea of Ghanaian faces.

Cape Coast Cathedral is a very moving place.  The building is, in fact, the former Garrison Church of the British Army, from the days of the slave trade.  It is built just a few feet from the walls of Cape Coast Castle, where so many West Africans were sent out in awful slave ships all around the world.  I will never forget visiting the Castle, where the guide pointed out the door to the slave dungeons, in the courtyard.  Above the doors to the dungeons was a small, white building.  The guide asked “DO you know what that building is?  It was the very first Christian Church in Ghana!”

I’ll leave you to imagine my emotions.  There was I, a recently invested Canon of the neighbouring Cathedral, standing with a crowd of tourists in my clerical collar, being told that the very first church in this country had been built over the doors to a slave pit.

Then, the next day, I stood in the pulpit of that same Cathedral.  It would once have been filled with white faces and British Army uniforms.  But now, I was the only white face in the place.  I couldn’t help reflect what a remarkable transformation God had achieved in that place.  I was grateful, of course, that it was ultimately Christians who brought about the end of the official slave trade.  And grateful too that the ancestors of those slaves had been so blessed with God’s grace, and filled with loving forgiveness, that they could make me – and ancestor of their oppressors – a Canon of their Cathedral.  It was a humbling moment, I can tell you.

Slavery is, of course, a key metaphor of today’s Gospel.  At the time of Jesus, slavery was a normal part of human life.  Even though later Christian writers, like St Paul, were destined to speak against slavery, Jesus didn’t get into that particular inhumanity to man.  Jesus was concerned with all inhumanity to man – and prescribed love for one’s neighbour as the remedy for all the evil we do to each other.  But Jesus also used the world around him, as it then was, to draw out stories to teach his followers.  So, in today’s Gospel, he uses the analogy of a slave.

Jesus describes how no slave could possibly expect to be able to come in from the fields and expect to flop down at his master’s table.  Instead, he would fully expect to keep on serving his master – carrying out the functions of a servant.   Jesus is saying, effectively, ‘don’t expect time off for good behaviour when you are my disciple!’.  Being a disciple of Jesus is not a part-time occupation.  We don’t get to decide to be a follower of Jesus one day, and then to ignore him the next.  That isn’t what the life of faith is all about.

Faith, even as small as a mustard seed, can bring about incredible transformations.  But what kind of faith is this.  Later this morning, in Café Church, we are going to be exploring what the words ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ actually mean.  I will be suggesting – for discussion – that faith is not about believing a set of ideas about God.  It’s something very different indeed.

Our word faith has its root in the Latin words fides and fidelitas – from which we get the word ‘fidelity’.  We normally use that word today to describe the faithfulness between two people in the bond of marriage.  But it has resonance for the bond between us Christians and our Master, too.  To follow Christ is to be faithful to the person of Jesus, and especially to his teachings.  It means trusting that Jesus’s words and teachings have the power to save us from ourselves.

Take the example of Jesus’ attitude to wealth.  Time and time again Jesus warned us of the dangers of accumulating too much wealth.  “Make treasure for yourselves in heaven, where it cannot rust or be stolen”.  “Don’t fill up your barns with wealth – you can’t take it with you when you die”.  “If you have two coats, give one to a brother or sister in need”.  And yet, we – the slaves of the Master – all have a tendency to only follow his teachings so far – don’t we.  I know I do.  We say to ourselves, that ‘a little bit of charity is ok…but let’s not go overboard.  We might not be able to afford that expensive holiday we fancy, or that new luxury car, or that upgrade to our kitchen’.

There’s a story I like, about a rich man who wanted to show his young son what it was like to be poor.  So he took his son to live for a few days on the farm of a poor shepherd.  At the end of their time, the father asked his son what he had noticed about the differences between his life, and life on the farm.  The son replied:

  • “I noticed that I have one dog in my house, but farmer has a whole flock of sheep and three dogs.
  • I noticed that I have a swimming pool which takes up half our garden, but that shepherd had a whole lake at the bottom of his.
  • I noticed that we have lights in our garden at night, but that Shepherd had all the stars of heaven
  • I noticed that we have high walls around our property to protect us, but the Shepherd had friends coming and going all the time, who would protect him if he was ever in trouble.
  • I noticed that we are poor, and the Shepherd is very rich”

I’ve seen just such things in Ghana.  My very good friend, Bishop Matthias, is a poor man.  He drives a car that is 15 years old, and (as I discovered coming down a mountain last year) has broken brakes.  (I’ll tell you that terrifying story on another occasion).  He lives in a very modest house, and has to scrabble-around every month for enough money to keep the lights on.  And yet, his house is always full of children (many of whom he adopts), and the door is constantly being knocked by friends – from all over his Diocese, his town, and the world.

And so, finally, in the midst of all the wonderful work that is going on at the moment in our parish – from the clocks to the re-wiring, from the weathervane to the floodlighting, from the new Play Café to the hall toilets…I have to wonder why it is that we spend so much of our time, as a congregation, raising money from outsiders.  Why do I spend as much time as I do chasing funds from local councillors, the National Lottery, trust funds and organising fundraising events?  Why is so much of our progress made using volunteers who are not members of our congregation – whether they be charity shop workers or volunteer builders?

In other words, why can’t we…the core congregation of this church, simply pay local tradesmen for the work that we know needs to be done for the good of God’s mission here?  Could it be that we, the slaves of our Master Jesus, haven’t yet fully understood what following him really means?  Could it be that some of us think that following Jesus is a part-time occupation – something we do on Sundays for a couple of hours, but something that doesn’t actually touch our lifestyles, and our wallets, during the rest of the week.

How shall we – each of us – judge ourselves and our faith?  How shall we each weigh the level of our commitment to being slaves of the Master?  Well, quite simply, if you want to know what a person’s priorities are, find out what they do with their money.  The choice we make about where we spend the wealth God has given to each of us is the clearest indication of the depth of our faithfulness to the Master.


Saturday, August 6, 2016

What do you believe?

Hebrews 11 – Faith: What do you believe?

Over the last few months we have been grappling with the challenges of this ancient church building, and our buildings in the Pallant.  As we’ve done so, I have been reminded time and time again of the generations of Christians who have worshipped in this place before us.  Sometimes we have uncovered evidence of them, in the walls or in secret corners.  For example, a few weeks ago we removed a heating flue from the old toilets in the Pallant Centre, and we discovered a pencil drawing of Adolf Hitler on the back of the pipe – with the words ‘he is here’.  No doubt this was a joke, at the time that rumours were circulating about Hitler not having really died…but quite disturbing for a moment.

Then on Friday, I was poking about in the organ chamber, and I came across a whole load of signatures, scrawled in pencil on one of the old monuments back there.  I guess they were previous organ builders who wanted to leave their mark.  Again, when installing the refurbished weathervane on top of the tower on Friday, I noticed the number of names that are carved into the cement at the top of the tower steps – quite probably from when the tower was rebuilt in the 1800s.

All these encounters with the past have impressed on me that we are but the latest generation of people who have worshipped here, maintained and improved our buildings, and been witnesses for God in this community.  More than that, we are the inheritors of the faith which they have passed on to us down the ages…the faith which we will declare again together in the words of the Creed – in a short while.

But faith is a slippery thing, isn’t it?  Something I discover more and more as a parish priest is the wide range of things that people believe in.  Some believe in aliens, and some in fairies.  Some believe that the end of the world is coming any day now, and others believe there is a conspiracy of ancient masonic powers who are really governing the world.  Within the Christian church there are also a huge range of beliefs to grapple with.  You pays your collection – and you takes your choice.  Let me ask you to think for a moment…what do you believe about some of the following questions?

Is the Bible the inerrant Word of God, a guide-book for every human decision, or is it a collection of writings about how our ancestors sought to understand God?

What exactly happens at the Eucharist?  Is it simply a memorial to the death of Jesus, or does the bread and wine actually (or just spiritually) transform into the body and blood of Christ?

Is God really three-in-one?  Does the Spirit really ‘proceed from the Father and the Son’ or does he only proceed from the Father?  (That, by the way, was an issue which split the Catholic and Orthodox churches around the year 1000).

How does Jesus save us from our sins?  Does he ‘redeem’ us – by paying a ransom to the Devil?  Or does he take our punishment for sin from an angry God?

Is there such a thing as a Devil?  Or is the Devil a metaphor for the sinful things we humans do?

Is baptism meant for babies, or only for adults who can confess their own faith?

All these questions, and many more, are part of the ‘inheritance of faith’ that we Christians have received.  Before us, generations of Christians have argued, fought and even burned each other at the stake over.

Why is this?

Why has it become so important to believe in certain ideas about God, and reject other ideas?  When you think about it, this is actually a rather odd notion.  It suggests that what God really cares about is the beliefs in our heads – as if believing the “right things” is what God is most looking for, as if having “correct beliefs” is what will save us.

I prefer to think of faith as being more like a trampoline – a flexible canvass platform that is held up by a lot of different springs.  The springs are ideas – ideas which together give the platform its stability.  It is quite possible to take off one of the springs from time to time, without the whole thing collapsing.  One can examine the spring – see how flexible it is, see if it is still working.  Perhaps one might need to grease the spring, or repair it – before putting it back in place.

One of the reasons why we have got into such a pickle about ‘faith’ is that we use the one word to describe what, in the original languages of the Bible, were rather more complex images.  The most common way that we tend to use the word is captured by the Latin word ‘assensus’ – or assent.  We give our ‘assent’ to a certain idea, whether or not there is any evidence for the idea at all.  This is about ‘faith in the head’ – what we choose to believe about God.

But there are many other ways of understanding ‘faith’ – ways that I would argue are far more accurate, and far more liberating.  If ‘assensus’ or ‘intellectual assent’ is ‘faith of the head’, what about faith that is ‘of the heart’.  Such faith is ‘fiduciary’ faith – or faith that is based on trust.  That’s the kind of faith that Abraham had.  He trusted God’s plan for his life, and left his home to follow God’s Way all across the deserts.

Faith as trust is like floating in a deep ocean.  The Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard suggested that fiduciary faith – trusting faith – is like swimming in a deep ocean.  If you struggle, and tense up and thrash about you will eventually sink.  But if you relax and trust, you will float.  Just as in Matthew’s story of Peter walking on the water with Jesus.  When he began to be afraid, when he worried with this brain about what was happening, he began to sink.

Another Latin word often translated as ‘faith’ is ‘fidelitas’ – from which we get our word ‘fidelity’ or faithfulness.  Faith as fidelity means loyalty, allegiance, the commitment of the self at its deepest level, the commitment of the ‘heart’.

Then, finally, another word for faith is ‘visio’ – or ‘vision’.  This is faith as a way of seeing…a lens through which to see the world as God’s place, in which God is working his purpose out.

I wish I had time to explore these ideas some more – but the clock is against us.  Suffice to say that if you would like to think more about these different understandings of faith, that’s precisely what we will be doing at Café Church, later on this morning.

For now, let me leave you with this thought:  true faith is much less about what you believe, and much more about how you believe.  I don’t really mind if you believe in angels or not, or exactly by what mechanism Jesus is the Saviour of the world.  If you are able to see the world as God’s world, if you are able to trust that God is working his purpose out through his people - the Church, if you are able to be faithful to that vision for the world and for Havant, then you are my brother, you are my sister.