Friday, February 8, 2019

Fishers of People - Luke 5.1-11

Reference:  Luke 5.1-11

There’s a technique for contemplation, first described by St Ignatius of Loyola, one of the founders of the Jesuit order.  Ignatius taught that our spirituality could be brought alive by active use of our God-given powers of imagination.  He advised that we should spend time imagining the great biblical stories – seeing ourselves within them, and allowing ourselves (and our Christian discipleship) to be shaped by them.

So, this morning, I want to invite you to engage in a little Ignatian spirituality with me.  I promise you that I won’t embarrass you!  All I want you to do is close your eyes, and listen to my voice.

First of all – I want you to relax. Focus on your breathing.  In, out, in out. Become conscious of your body.  Gently wiggle your toes, and feel your nerves sending messages down from your brain and back again.  Focus on your legs.  Feel how your body is connected to the pew you are sitting on.  Feel your breath, going in….and out.

Now, let your imagination run free – sailing through the air to the Sea of Galilee.  You are by the shoreline.  The sun is hot on your face, and the sound of sea-birds is in the air.  All around you are crowds of people.  Everyone is here to hear the words of the new prophet, Jesus.  There are so many people, all pressing against each other to get close enough to hear what this Jesus has to say.  There are so many, that Jesus himself is in danger of being pushed into the water.

Nearby, are a couple of boats.  Fishing boats, with rough, tough fishermen on board.  You see Jesus hail one of the boats to the shore.  He climbs in, and then asks the fishermen to row a few yards from the shore.  That’s better.  Jesus can see the whole crowd now.  He can speak to the whole crowd now.  He gestures for everyone to sit down on the shore, as he takes a seat in the boat.

There is a moment of silence.  And then Jesus begins to speak.  What does he say…to you? Perhaps he speaks of what his Kingdom is like.  Perhaps he tells one of his fabulous stories – the Good Samaritan, or the story of the wheat and the tares.  Or perhaps he says something only to you.  Take a moment, in silence, just a few silent seconds together, and listen to what the Master is saying to you.

….

The time of teaching is over.  Jesus says farewell to the crowd, promising to teach them again tomorrow.  One by one, the crowd drifts away.  But you remain on the shore, longing for more.  Jesus notices you, and invites you to wade out to the boat, to join him and the fishermen. 

Now you are in the boat, and Jesus encourages the men to throw out their nets.  One of the fishermen, Simon, is dubious.  He says “We’ve been at it all night, and we haven’t caught anything!”.  But Jesus insists, and so the men throw out their nets on to the water.

Suddenly, the water is alive!  Fishing are splashing and slapping the water, wriggling and writhing in the nets.  Simon calls you over to give a hand.  Together, you, Simon, Jesus and the other fishermen are hauling on the nets, laughing out loud, pulling the nets and all the fish into the boat.  The same thing is happening in the other boat, too.  There are so many!  The boat even looks like it might sink!

When the last of the nets has been hauled into the boat, Simon kneels down in front of Jesus on the deck.  You kneel beside Simon too.  Together, you both look up at Jesus.  Simon has awe in his eyes, and he says, “I think you had better get away from me, Lord; for I am a sinful man.” 

But Jesus just smiles.  He looks down at Simon – and you - and says, “Don’t be afraid.  Follow me…and from now on, you will be catching people”

How does that make you feel?  Jesus has just called you – and Simon – to follow him.  He wants you to re-arrange the priorities of your life so that your first task, of every day, will be to lead people to him? 

How do you feel?  Are you wondering what gifts and talents you can possibly bring to such an awesome task?  Are you wondering how you could possibly do such a thing? 

Perhaps you’ve forgotten that when Jesus calls us, he also equips us.  After all, if he can fill nets with miraculous amounts of fish, he can surely provide everything you need.

How do you feel? 

Perhaps you are excited.  Excited at the idea that you might go from this boat today, filled with a new sense of purpose.  For Jesus has just given you a mission…a mission to tell everyone you know about him.

How do you feel?  Take a moment to let what has just happened sink in.  What do you need to change as a result of your encounter with Jesus.


And now, it’s time to come back home.  Become conscious of where you are, physically, once again.  Feel the pew underneath you.  Sense the people around you.  And when you are ready, open your eyes.

I hope you enjoyed that experience.  I find Ignatian exercises very useful as ways of bringing the stories of Jesus to life.

There are just a couple of things I would like to say to wrap up.

First – never forget that Jesus called ordinary people to carry out his work for him.  He didn’t call the lawyers and priests, he called the fishermen, the carpenters, the civil servants.  He has never stopped calling them.

Secondly – Let me just leave you with this thought.  If everyone here today had the courage to ask just one friend or family member to come to church, this congregation would double overnight.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your excellent church website will do the job for you, nor even your parish priest!  The task of calling people to faith – of being fishers of people – is yours.

Amen.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Epiphany 3 - Turning Water into Wine


John  2.1-11
Over my many years of involvement with weddings, I think you could say that I’ve seen them all!  I’ll never forget the bride who had taken rather too much liquid courage, and who went down the aisle waving to all her friends and relations.  “Hello Auntie Freda!”.  “Hello Sarah - thank you for coming!!

                Then there was the bride who wanted the perfect wedding.  Six white horses pulled her carriage some 10 miles from her home.  She had white doves in cages on either side of the church door.  Everything was colour co-ordinated to the ‘nth’ degree - even the bridegroom’s pocket handkerchief had to match the flowers and the order of service.  I had, of course warned her that something was bound to go wrong - for nothing in life is absolutely perfect.  The great moment of her entrance arrived, and as she lifted her foot over the church step, we all heard the terrible riiiip as she caught her petticoat on her shoe!

                I’m very happy to say that my own daughter had heard all these stories over the years - so she knew that expecting perfection was a pointless exercise.  Which is why she was able to be so amused by the fact that at her wedding, the best man left the wedding rings back at their flat - and had to go and retrieve them during the first hymn!

                I have to say, though, that I have never yet been to a wedding which has run out of booze.  These days, I suppose, if that did happen, we’d be able to dispatch the ushers to an off-license to fetch some more.  But such consumerist luxuries were not available to the people of Jesus’ time.  So when the wedding at Cana ran out of wine, no-one except Mary knew what to do about it.  She knew her own son - and even though he had not performed any public miracles yet, she clearly knew what he could do.

              There’s a lovely intimacy to the conversation that takes place between them.  Mary presents Jesus with the problem. “They have no wine”.  Jesus’ response is initially rather defensive.  “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?  My hour has not yet come”.  But Mary knows her son.  She knows that he won’t be able to stop himself from helping.  So she doesn't reply to Jesus - she just turns to the servants and says “Do whatever he tells you”.

                And, of course, you know the rest of the story.  By turning plain water into glorious wine, Jesus performs his first public miracle - and (in John’s words) ‘revealed his glory’. 

                Interestingly, none of the other Gospel writers bothered to record the miracle at Cana.  They were much more interested in healings and exorcisms.  But something in John's imagination resonated with Cana.  He saw, in Cana, a sign that pointed to the very purpose for which Christ had come into the world.  The wedding guests saw water turned into the best wine.  John saw a man who, in this first sign, revealed the very purposes of God.

                It's perhaps worth remembering that only John records Jesus as saying, “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10.10).  This is what the miracle at Cana is all about.  Water, the basic necessity of life, is changed into wine--the symbol not just of life, but of abundant, joyous, and extravagant life.

                Think about it.  Water is good. There is nothing wrong with water.  There is nothing which needed fixing in the water.  Why then should Jesus need to change it into wine?  The message of Cana is that Jesus doesn't only transform the bad into the good (like when he heals the sick or casts out a demon).  The message of Cana is that Jesus has the capacity to make the good even better!  That is one of most persistent themes of John's gospel.  Jesus hasn't only come to give life, but to give life 'abundantly'.

                This, then, is the promise for those whose lives are already pretty good.  The epiphany moment at Cana is the promise for those who are already heading in the right direction--those who have a basic trust in God, those who look out for their neighbour, who do what they can, when they can, to be good Samaritans. This is the message for those whose life is already like good, fresh water - nourishing, and life-sustaining.

                There's a message here:  "enjoy the water...but taste the wine!" God doesn't call us to only live lives of duty and charity...as right as they are.  Yes, we should live by the commandments - but there’s more to following Jesus than simple obedience.  Remember what he said?  “I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.”  Not just life, but abundant life...joyous life...life lived in celebration and exuberance.

                This doesn’t mean that God promises us each a mansion, good health and wealth.  Neither does it mean that we will never experience pain and suffering.  But, it does mean that the good clean water of our lives can be transformed into the best wine through the love of God.  As we begin to taste the new wine of the Kingdom, we begin to look for God's capacity to transform and elevate even the most apparently awful of circumstances.  

                Sometimes, for example, I sit with sick and elderly people who despair of the fact that they now need others to do things for them.  Understandably, they mourn the loss of their independence, and resent the fact that they can do nothing on their own.  But then, I ask them,

                "Tell me.  You have spent your entire life caring for others...your children, your friends in the church, your neighbours.  How did that feel?"  Invariably, the sick or housebound person will tell me, in so many words, that their service to others made them feel needed, wanted, and that they had a role in life.

                "So," I tell them, in so many words, "isn't it time that you gave the gift of your incapacity to others?  Isn't it time that you let others feel needed and wanted - by caring for you?"

                That's just a tiny example - but I think its a real example of how, if we will let it, Love has a way of pouring new wine even into difficult and tragic situations.  Love has a way of helping us find new meaning, richer meaning, better, deeper taste.  The trick is to taste the wine.

                A Christian finds their joy by learning that God is at work in every circumstance of life...changing water into wine. Christians find their joy in the exuberant celebration of each moment of life - trusting that God is present now, that Love is at work now. 

                God is not only found in our Sunday morning Eucharist - though this is the central act from which our whole community-life flows.  Here we drink the greatest wine of all - the wine that offers us food for the journey of faith.  Wine which is infused with the very presence and reality of God.  But God is also found in the concerts and events we enjoy together, in the love shared among the Monday Club here in church, in the sharing of time and talents in our charity shop, in the coming together of community in our Play Café, in the sharing of a warm welcome by our week-day church stewards.

                Sadly, there are some Christians who have a gift for turning the best wine back into water. I mean there are some whose service of God seems so joyless, that its hard to believe they have any good news to share at all.  I’m talking about the kind of Christian who thinks that their personal view of God is the only one possible, and who spend a great deal of their time attacking and opposing other Christians.  It could be said that such people have a gift for turning wine back into water!

                But that’s not what I see here, at St Faith’s.  I see a group of people who are deepening and growing in faith, turning water into wine with every encounter, every meeting, every act of faith.  For every time there is laughter among us, water turns into wine.  Every time that a building is made ready to better-serve the community, we turn water into wine.  Every time we help a homeless person, or set a young person on the journey of faith, we turn water into wine.

                Come on in, and taste the new wine of the Kingdom!  Amen.


Saturday, January 5, 2019

Epiphany 2019


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. )

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.


Saturday, December 15, 2018

What's in a name: Sermon for the Community Carol Service 2018


What’s in a name?

In 2017, the Office of National Statistics recorded the name of every baby registered that year. Seasonal names in 2017 saw 166 babies called ‘Angel’, four were named ‘Gift’, 37 named ‘Star’ and 5 called ‘Merry’.  There were more than 200 girls called Holly who were born in December alone. Nearly 1000 boys were named Gabriel, 400 were called Nicholas, and 120 called ‘Noel’.   Sadly, I couldn’t find proof that anyone had named their child Santa.

Deciding on the name for a baby can be a hard choice, especially if the meaning of the name comes into the decision making process.  Our new Grandson, born this year, was called Lucas – which comes from the Latin word for Light….because he is of course the Light of our Lives at the moment (or so my wife tells me).  I’ve hesitated to point out that the word Lucifer has the same Latin root… because Satan was once an angel of light, according to the myths…just in case my grandson grows up to be a little devil!

In some cultures, you’ll hear names that don’t need any researching to find out what’s behind them, girls called Grace, or Chastity or Patience - qualities that may, or may not come to be realised as the child grows.  The stained glass windows in our choir stalls have three lovely ladies in them, called Faith, Hope and Charity.

Names are important, and the baby whose birth we celebrate every Christmas had a whole heap of them.

The prophet Isaiah, foretelling his birth, called him Wonderful Counsellor, Powerful God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  In other prophecies, he was called ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God with us’.

The Wise Men from the East came looking for the ‘King of the Jews’.   After the visit of the angels, the Shepherds set off to find the Saviour, the Christ, the Lord.

Mary and Joseph though had some very specific instructions from Angels about the baby’s name. Mary’s instructions came in person, Joseph’s in a dream. The child will be called Jesus, because, as Joseph was told, he was going to save people from their sins.

A few years ago, I was accosted in the churchyard by a dear lady of somewhat dubious mental health.  She harangued me for quite a while about the fact that we don’t, in fact, call Jesus by his proper name.  Actually, she was right.  The name he was given was in fact ‘Yeshua’ – which is anglicised to Joshua.  Yeshua means’ God saves’ – and it is what Jesus would have heard when his mother called him into the house for his tea.  Over time, through translations from Aramaic into Greek then into English, the consonants and vowels got changed – leaving us with the modern rendering of his name: Jesus.

Which makes Jesus an extraordinary name for a child to be given, because there was an expectation that he would live up to the name he was given and go on to genuinely save people from their sins.

There’s no mention in the bible of Jesus having a surname, but that isn’t hugely surprising. At the time Jesus lived, an individual would be known by their given name, and then perhaps the place they were from. Jesus of Nazereth would be good example. Perhaps their occupation - like Matthew the Tax Collector; or maybe who their father was, like James son of Zebedee.  What is certain is that Jesus’ surname wasn’t ‘Christ’.  No-one approaching him in the street would have said ‘Good morning, Mr Christ’.  That wasn’t his surname – but rather it is a Title…a word which means ‘saviour’.  So, if you like, you can call Jesus Christ ‘Yeshua Saviour’.  Certainly the old lady in the churchyard would be much happier if you did!

Titles can be useful things.  We have a number of them with us tonight, in fact.  We’ve got the Mayor, our Member of Parliament, and one or two Presidents – past and present - of the Rotary Club.  We have a Director of Music, and at least two church people with the title of ‘Reader’. 

I also have a title – that of Canon…which doesn’t mean that I have a tendency to go bang!  If you’re interested, it’s basically an honorary title, conferred by the Bishop.  It means that, apparently, I can be trusted to teach the faith with authority.  It comes from a Latin word meaning ‘rule’ or ‘measure’ – and it’s a word we use to describe an authorised body of work…like the canon of Shakespeare, or the canon of Scripture.

Titles give us a clue about what function someone carries out, don’t they?  They help us to understand who we are talking to, or talking about.  Sometimes, titles can be a burden to us.  I can think of at least one Prime Minister who is finding her title rather burdensome at the moment!

Other titles can be rather liberating and fun.  Ken Dodd, of blessed memory, sometimes referred to himself as the ‘Chief Tickler of Britain’.  And then there are the plan daft titles which are creeping into the world of work.  Last week, for example, I heard of someone called the ‘Chief Wizard of Light Bulb Moments’.  Turns out he was a Marketing Director.  And I rather like the title of ‘Grand Master of Underlings’…which turns out to be a Deputy Manager! 

There is one title, however, that we can all aspire to because of Yeshua Saviour – Jesus Christ.  The whole point of Jesus living among us was to show us what God is like.  Jesus wanted us to see God differently than how he has been viewed in the past.  Jesus showed us that God wasn’t a distant deity, perched on a mountain-top or a cloud, viewing the world from a distance.  Instead, Jesus gave God a new title – the title of Father…or, actually, the title ‘Abba’ – which means ‘Daddy’.  Jesus, born as a child himself, invites us to view God as a parental figure…the Daddy, or the Mummy, who cares about their children.  And so, we are offered a new title – the title of Child of God.

Of all the titles I’ve been given – Rector, Reverend, Canon…the one which matters most to me is the simplest of all, the one modelled by the baby in the manger…child of God.

I am Tom, child of God.

And Peter, our Mayor, is Peter, child of God.

And Alan, our MP, is Alan, child of God.

And everyone here…we are all children of God.

That title is one which every member of the human race can claim.  We are all God’s children.  The only choice we have to make is whether we choose to be part of the family of God as well. 

Amen.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Advent 2: Prepare ye the way of the Lord


Luke 3.1-6  & Malachi 3.1-4



“In the 32nd year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the 2nd, during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, when Robert Runcie was the Archbishop of Canterbury, and when Torvill & Dean won gold at the Olympics by dancing to Bolero, the word of God came to Billy Graham at Wembley Stadium.” 



That’s something like how Luke’s readers would have heard his opening words of chapter 3. 



Dates are interesting things, aren’t they?  The problem for Luke, when he wrote his Gospel, is that no-one had come up with the idea of dating years by numbers.  In Luke’s day, events were tied to the reigns or activities of significant people.  Which is why he begins his account of John the Baptiser’s ministry with the rather long list of posh people that I had to read out just now!



Luke wants his readers to know that the events he is reporting can be traced to a particular time and place.  He is saying: “Pay attention!  Listen up!  I’m telling you about something that happened in living memory!  A herald came with an urgent message from God”.



And what was that message?  John the Baptiser quotes Isaiah’s vision of the massive earth-works needed to build a road across a wilderness – reconfiguring the landscape shovelful by shovelful.  Because that ultimately is how you build a kingdom…brick by brick, shovel by shovel, or…if it’s a spiritual Kingdom, person by person, or soul by soul.



The prophet Malachi – who wrote our first reading for today – had similarly dramatic ideas of what God’s coming means:  God is in the precious-metals business, refining, purifying gold and silver by putting it through the fire to reveal its pure state; God is a consuming fire.   



In another stunning image, God is a washerwoman armed with fuller’s soap – not soft, perfumed lavender-scented handwash, but abrasive laundry soap that scrubs and scours.  Fulling is the art of cleansing wool – to strip out all the oils, dirt, manure and other impurities.  Pure white wool has been “fulled” – with some pretty abrasive chemicals!



In Jesus, Luke sees a vision of the sheer purity that is the goal for all humans. That holiness is what God made us to share when we were made in God’s image.  God challenges us to be what we were created to be.  And in Advent, these flamboyant images of fire, scrubbing and highway-engineering describe what it is like to prepare to experience the salvation of God.



God’s purpose is always to restore the original beauty that has been lost to sin.  Malachi’s name means “my messenger” – and he was part of God’s plan to clean things up.  He roundly condemned the laxity and corruption of the leaders of his day.  John the Baptiser, in the verses that follow today’s reading, goes on to call the people who heard him a ‘brood of vipers’.  If either of them were around today, they would have many people to hurl such insults at, wouldn’t they?  Corrupt politicians, tyrannical dictators, greedy bankers, ultra-capitalists and extremist preachers.



But John and Malachi would not have confined themselves to the mighty people of society – even if the calendar depended on them!   They would ask not just about bankers, but about how you and I use our wealth and power too.  



The polemicist Libby Purves made a salient point this week.  Writing in the Times on Monday (3/12/2018) she pointed out how sharply our society is divided - not just between Leavers and Remainers, but also between the rich and the poor.   In a very arresting image, she pointed out that the people who queue in Waitrose and those who queue in food banks are not actually from different species.  Her main point was that the rich need to beware of constantly pressing down on the poor.  The rich will suffer just as much, in their own way, forced by their own greed to retreat behind their gated community fences, with bars at the window, and paid security guards.  They will end up living in gilded cages, barely experiencing their country, or connecting with their neighbours at all.



Christmas is a time for giving.  It is good to give gifts to our families and friends, of course. – because friendship is a wonderful gift to celebrate and strengthen.  But we who are among the wealthiest people in the world can choose to level the playing field, to fill up the valleys of poverty, and lower the mountains of greed.  Shovelful by shovelful.  Pound by pound. Penny by penny.



Perhaps we might add up what we will spend this year on Christmas celebrations, and make an appropriate donation to charities on top?  Then, people who have no one to give them a gift can receive a gift from us. 



Getting the balance right over these things is of course only a tiny part of what it means to prepare for God’s coming among us, during Advent.  What does it mean, for example, to prepare ourselves spiritually for the coming of the King?  How can the crooked parts of our lives be made straight?  How can we help to lay the straightening road through the wilderness…one shovelful at a time….one person at a time – beginning with ourselves. 



Both John the Baptiser and Jesus himself learned to say ‘Yes’ to the call of God on their lives.  Are we also learning what it means to say ‘Yes’ – Yes to the chance to go deeper, to live more fully, to expand our spiritual horizons – engaging with all the opportunities that there are in this parish for worship of God, and service to the community?



Advent is a call to wake up and respond to God’s initiative.  “In the 66th year of the reign of Elizabeth the 2nd, when Theresa May is the Prime Minister (at least until Tuesday) and Justin Welby is still the Archbishop of Canterbury, the word of God comes to us: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.  Make his paths straight.”



Amen

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Advent 1 - 2018. Tired of waiting?


When, I wonder, did we forget how to wait for something. None of us like waiting, for anything.  We want what we want, and we want it now!  And, if we are one of the 1% of the world who have enough money to buy pretty much anything we want, we tend to get it…now.  

Clare (my wife and partner) came back from visiting a friends house recently, extolling the joys of the new 'Echo' device.  'It's fantastic', she said.  You can just ask it to play the radio, or for a summary of the news headlines, or what the weather will be!  I really fancy one for Christmas.'

Three days later, one arrived in our house!
The Season of Advent is the beginning of the Church’s New Year, and it is designed specifically to be a time of waiting.  For the rest of our society, the New Year starts with a bang and fireworks…with a sense that we’ve ‘arrived’ at something important.  That’s odd, when you think about it.  Why should the simple turn of the Calendar be something to be celebrated with dancing in the street and all night parties?  But the Church, deliberately, counter-culturally , starts its new year with two important words…’Coming’ (which is what ‘Advent’ means)…and ‘Wait’.
In Advent, we can’t help looking forward, because we see the way the world is now.  We yearn for God to put things right.

That hope - that God will one day put all things right - is rooted in a long tradition.   The Hebrew Bible is full of longing for the day when God will transform society into something fair and just.  In today’s reading, Jeremiah speaks for God, when he says ‘Surely the days are coming when I will fulfil the promise I made’. 

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

And what about Jesus?  What will his ‘second coming’ be like?  Well, Jesus himself is rather opaque on the subject, to be honest.  The language of Luke’s Gospel  - based on Mark - is all about the Son of Man coming in clouds…which is a pretty strange metaphor.  Could it mean that Jesus’ coming will be hidden – obscured in the way that clouds cover a mountain?  Then, Jesus says one of the most intriguing lines of the New Testament:  “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”. 

Well, that’s odd…isn’t it?  Given that he said these words around 2,000 years ago.  Either he was mis-reported (which would mean that the Bible needs to be read with great care).   Or perhaps there are still some people alive, walking around in secret, who were alive in Jesus time – as some nuttier theologians have suggested.  (Sounds like an episode of Doctor Who doesn’t it?). 

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

And, while we wait for the completion of the Reign of God, there is a very real sense in which God is already among us, already coming – in fact already here.
Every time a war-monger lays down his weapons, Jesus comes.

Every time a family is raised up out of poverty by the Robert’s Centre, or out of fear by the Southern Domestic Abuse Service, Jesus comes.
Every time a lonely person finds a friend in our morning church-opening, Jesus comes.

Every time a family is fed by the Beacon Foodbank, Jesus comes.
Every time one of the homeless people sleeping all around our church is treated like the human being they truly are, Jesus comes.

Every time that an alcoholic, a gambler, a drug user turns up to one of our Pallant Centre support groups, and says ‘NO!’ to their addiction, Jesus comes. 
Every time an exhausted and confused mother finds support and help in our Play Café, Jesus comes.

Every time a young person develops their human potential through Dynamo Youth Theatre, or a person with learning difficulties grows in confidence through Creating Chaos, Jesus comes.
You see - signs of the kingdom are all around us.  Our task, like an alert house-owner, is to keep awake.  To see the signs of the kingdom with open eyes, and join in with the activity of God, wherever it is found. Amen.

Amen

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Crucible of War - a Sermon for Remembrance Sunday

Although it is St Faith’s great privilege to host each year’s Civic Service of Remembrance, I don’t normally get the chance to preach.  Normally, as a courtesy, we ask each Mayor’s Chaplain to address you.  But this year, Mayor Peter’s chaplain has – quite understandably – asked to remain with his own congregation at St Wilfred’s.  So you’re stuck with me.

It would be inappropriate to say that I enjoy this service, each year.  How can one enjoy the necessity of remembering all those who have given their lives for us?  But I do confess to gaining a certain satisfaction from our annual gathering.

Why?  Because this is one time in the year when we lay aside our politics, our arguments about the Havant Regeneration Plan, or Brexit, or any number of other contentious issues – and we come together, as a community, to say ‘thank you’ to the Fallen.

It is a strange irony that War, and its effects, has a way of bringing communities together.  United against a common foe, or united in grief and commemoration, something about war – its scale, its sheer horror, enables us to lay aside our petty differences, our political, theological and philosophical struggles – and to come together.  It is sometimes only during war that the very worst – and the very best – of humanity gets seen.  We all know about the very worst, of course.  The awful machines of war – the tanks, and the machine guns which can mow down a whole platoon in seconds.

But the best of humanity can also be seen.  Human ingenuity.  The coming together of communities like the East End of London during the Blitz.  Great art, poetry and music.  Leaps in medical knowledge.  The common endeavour of capitalists and socialists, monarchists and republicans, black and white, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh (for all of them fought with the Allies in the Great War).   And, perhaps above all, the best of humanity is shown by the willingness of human beings to lay down their lives for their families and communities.

When you think about it, that’s an extraordinary thing to do.  In what other circumstance would you, or me, be prepared to give up our life for another?  Let’s say, for example, that you learned today of a neighbour who was dying of a serious heart condition.  But then you learn that this neighbour’s life could be saved, if you (or me) were willing to give them our own heart – but only by dying first.  Which of us would be willing?  Who would raise their hand and say ‘take my heart!’?

And yet War has a capacity to provoke that kind of reaction in us.  There are of course countless stories of senseless slaughter, of troops sent ‘over the top’ by intimidation and the threat of the firing squad.  That’s some of the worst of humanity at work – powerful people sending others to almost certain death.  But there are similarly countless stories of men – and women – who have undertaken suicide missions…actions which they know will lead to their death, and which they do not shy away from.  The best of humanity at work.

War, then, is the ultimate canvass on which to paint the very worst and very best of humanity.  It is perhaps why war is so deeply embedded in the human condition, and reflected throughout all the great religious scriptures of the world.  Our wars reflect the cosmic battle between good and evil.  The battle between light and dark, fought out all around us in space.  The battle between growth and decay – between the gravity that binds, and the entropy which destroys.  The battle, if you will, between God and the Devil.

For Christians, this battle was supremely fought in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.  Demonstrating that greatest trait of humanity – the willingness to lay one’s life down for one’s friends - Jesus volunteered for the suicide mission of the Cross.  He knew what the result of going to Jerusalem would be.  He warned his followers, in advance, that he would be taken by the elite political powers of the day.  And he knew what they would do to him.  And yet, he stepped forward.  He allowed the very worst that human beings can do to each other to overwhelm him…and then, and then, the power of his sacrifice over-came all that death and suffering.  By rising from the dead, he demonstrated that the very best instincts of humanity CAN overcome the very worst.

Jesus announced the coming of a new kind of world – or as he called it, a new kind of ‘Kingdom’.  It was a world in which the greatest traits of humanity would not just be shown in the crucible of War – but in everyday life.  He called his followers to lives of sacrifice for others…not just on the battle-field any longer, but in everyday living.  He called his followers to be prepared to pour out their lives for others, just as he had done.

And what was the result?  The flowering of the best of humanity, flowing from the heart of God.  The Christian church – like all the great religions, became the home of charity.  Great universities of learning, advances in medical science, superlative art – music, poetry, drama.  And the very principle of giving, sacrificially to others – all these flowed from the example of Jesus.

Of course, it was not always rosy.  The cosmic battle between good and evil was fought, and continues to be fought, in the crucible of the church as much as in the rest of the world.  Powerful men gained control of the levers of power, and corrupted the teachings of the Founder.  Power was mis-used to dominate, to fight, to tear down – to even burn each other at the stake.  Because that’s what we human beings do.  We relish the battle.  War is found at our core.  Religion became not the anti-dote to war, but sometimes the cause of it.

Does that mean that we should have nothing to do with religion, anymore?  Of course not.  We do not judge a religion by the stupidity of its followers.  We judge it by the teachings of its Founder.  And in the case of Christianity, the Founder said this:

“Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself”

and

“No-man has greater love than to lay down his life for his friends”

and

“The Kingdom of heaven is among you”

So, today we give thanks for the sacrifices of the past, sometimes compelled by conscription and fears but often offered willingly.  And we find that we too are called to demonstrate the very best traits of humanity.  We too are called to lives of sacrifice for others.  We too are called to be prepared to lay down our preferences, our prejudices, our wealth, our abilities and, yes, even our lives in the service of all humanity.

For that is the example set for us by the Fallen, and the call of the God who sacrificed everything for us.

Amen.