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.




Saturday, October 20, 2018

Sons of Thunder - Mark 10. 35-45 Retold


Mark 10. 35-45 - retold.

         It was a lovely sunny afternoon, that day.  But the Disciples were in shock.  Jesus had just dropped a bomb on them, by telling them what was about to happen to him, when he got to Jerusalem.  About how he would be beaten, and tortured and killed – but then how he would rise again from the dead.  Then, as he often did, Jesus just wandered off, into the shadows, to let his disciples digest the news.

       Simon was the first to speak.  "Well, I believe him," he stated boldly.  "Everything else he has ever told us has been completely trustworthy, hasn't it.”  He turned to James and John, the so called 'Sons of Thunder'.  "Guys, do you remember how Jesus met with Moses and Elijah on that mountain the other day?  When only the three of us with were him?  If he can do that, I can certainly believe that he could rise from the dead."

       "Yes," replied James.  "But what happens then?  Once he's been raised from the dead.  What is he going to do after that?"

       Matthew, the former civil servant, piped up.  "Well, I reckon he'll start a new Government.  I reckon he'll sort out the Romans, and then set up a new, holy Kingdom...you know, that 'Kingdom of God' that he's always been talking about.  I wonder who he'll ask to be Chancellor?"  Matthew suddenly had a far-way look in his eye.

       "And who will he make Prime Minister?" said Andrew.  "Simon...that's going to be you!"  Simon shook his head modestly - but he smiled as well.  Everyone knew that Simon was Jesus' right hand man.

       The Disciples continued to banter among themselves.  Who would be minister in charge of the drains? they laughed.  Who would command the army?  But James and John, the Sons of Thunder, went silent.  They didn't like the way that their friends were talking.  They were not at all happy about having posts in the new Kingdom of God being carved up by the other Disciples like this.  James decided he'd had enough.

       "See you later, guys."  he said.  "I'm off to bed.  Come on John."  John got up off the ground, and followed James down the slope towards the crowd.  When they were a little way from the others, James stopped John with a hand on his arm.  “Listen”, he said.  “Why don’t we go and see Jesus and ask him for jobs in the new government ourselves?  If he says it, the others won’t be able to stop us getting the best jobs”

        “Do you think he won’t mind?” asked John

         James pondered for a moment.  “Maybe”, he concluded.  But if you don’t ask, you don’t get!

         John looked thoughtfully at James.  There was a chance here.  Perhaps they might just make it, and become Jesus' right hand men.  John nodded at James, and together they looked at over at where Jesus was sitting, on a rock, alone on the edge of the camp.  They walked carefully over to him, picking their way between sleeping bodies.  They approached the Master.

         “Um” said James, “Um…Rabbi?  Can we bother you for a minute?”

          Jesus looked up from his prayers, with a knowing look in his eyes.  “Yes, boys.  What is it?”

         “Rabbi,” said James, “We want you to do for us whatever you ask.  Ok?”

          Jesus wasn’t going to make any promises.  He was more canny than that – and quite used to people trying to trap him into saying something he might later regret.

         “What is it?” he said cautiously.

         James got ready to make a well-considered plea , backed up with lots and lots of good reasons as to why they should be important officials in the new Government.  But John couldn’t contain himself.  He was so nervous, that it all came tumbling out! 

         “We want you to grant for us to sit on your left and on your right when you come into your kingdom!   Um…please….”

         Jesus looked disappointed.  He had hoped for better from these two.  He had hoped that perhaps they had begun to understand that his Kingdom was not like that at all.  He shook his head, and said, “You don’t know what you’re asking.  Do you think you’ll be able to drink from the same cup as me?” 

            “Yes” said the Sons of Thunder together.  “Yes, we can do that”

Jesus replied, "You will indeed drink from my cup.  But to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.  These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father." 

            James and John were a bit puzzled, but they were wise enough to know when to back down.  What did Jesus mean?  We will drink from his cup, but the places of honour are decided by God?  That was typical of Jesus.  He always talked in riddles.

         Unbeknown to James and John, however, they had been followed.  Judas, who had never quite trusted the Sons of Thunder, had trailed them from a distance, and had heard the whole conversation from behind a tree.  As James and John turned away from Jesus, Judas slipped back through the darkness to the other Disciples.  “You’ll never guess what James and John are up to!” he hissed, when he got back…and then proceeded to tell the whole story.

        "That's not right!"  "Who do they think they are?"  The Disciples were livid! After a quick discussion together, they decided that this would just not do, and they all strutted over to where James and John were settling down dejectedly for the night. 

        Simon, ever the spokesperson, spoke first.  "What's this we hear?  Have you been up to Jesus to ask for a place on his right and on his left?"

        James looked at the ground, and shuffled his feet nervously.  "Well,  erm…", he mumbled.  "We did just have a chat…".

        "That's not good enough" replied Simon.  "Who do you think you are?  Do you think you are better than the rest of us?  Do you think Jesus is going to choose either of you over us?"

        Jesus, in the meantime, had been sitting on his rock, looking over the camp.  He wasn't surprised.  Disappointed, but not surprised.  He had smiled to himself as he saw Simon stride across the camp over to James and John with the other nine disciples in his wake.  Jesus made a decision.  It's time for me to intervene here, he thought. 

        Jesus climbed down from his rock, and wandered down the slope to where the ten disciples were gathered around the other two.  As he approached, one of the Disciples, Philip, looked up from the argument, and saw Jesus approaching.  He nudged Bartholomew in the ribs and pointed at the approaching Rabbi.  Bartholomew nudged Matthew, Matthew nudged Andrew and in a few seconds, the little group of angry men had ceased shouting, and waited for Jesus to approach.

       Jesus walked up to them and stopped.  He looked around at them with love, but also a little disappointment in his eyes.  Into the anger in the air around him, Jesus spoke gently.

      "You know how the Gentiles do things, don't you?  You know how their rulers lord it over the rest of the people, and how their high officials dominate everyone else?"  A few of the Disciples grunted.  They knew what Jesus meant - they had seen how the Romans bossed everyone else around.  "Well", Jesus went on, "That is not how it shall be with you. 

“Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant - not your Prime Minister," he said, looking knowingly at Peter, "and not your Chancellor", he said, smiling at Matthew.  "And whoever wants to be first among you must be a slave to everyone else. 

“This should not surprise you.  The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.  The Son of Man came to give his life away, not to go lording it up over anyone."

     And then, the Disciples noticed that Jesus' eyes seemed to become distant.  He seemed to be staring off into the distance, over vast miles, and even through time itself.  And then, Jesus' voice was heard in a little church on the coast of Hampshire.  There was a congregation gathered that morning.  A congregation of ordinary people - people just like the Disciples and the other followers of Jesus.  These were ordinary people - but people who had heard the call of Jesus, across the millennia - the call to live in ways that were life-giving; the call to live in love with God, and with each other.  These were people who longed to hear Jesus speak to them, and longed to hear from him how life could be richer, deeper, more meaningful.  And across time, and through the walls of the church that morning, the people of Faith, no SAINT Faith, heard Jesus speaking to them.

     "In my service, there is perfect freedom.  By serving me, in your homes, in your jobs, in your schools, in your church, in your community - you will find me.  By serving me with your time, and with your talents and with your money, you will know me. When you serve others, you serve me.  When you reach out to others, you reach out to me."

     And all the people, in that little church in Havant, said, "Amen".

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Not a building, but living stones...


A sermon on the Patronal Festival, commemorating St Faith of Agen (our 'patron saint)
There are many so called holy places in the world.  They are those places where, somehow, the veil between our mortal world and the spiritual world seems more fragile.  Some people call then ‘touching places’, or ‘thin places’ – places, that is, where one seems to be able to reach out and almost touch the out-stretched hand of God.

According to the Hebrew scriptures (or the Old Testament as Christians call it), Bethel was one such place.  After his prophetic dream, Jacob called the place ‘House of God’ (which is what Beth-el means.  (El was one of the early names for God).  For many generations, it was one of Israel’s holiest shrines.  The Ark of the Covenant was kept there, until it was transferred to Jerusalem.  Prophets and leaders would go to Bethel, to seek God’s wisdom and instruction. 

Ironically, though, for such a holy place, no-one can say with certainty today where Bethel actually was. 

Attributions of holiness have been given to many places over the millennia.  Stonehenge was once considered holy by its builders – as far as we know.  Great cathedrals and churches were considered holy, thin places, because they often contained the bones of great saints.  For devotees of our patron Saint, Faith of Agen, the abbey-church of Conques, France is one such place.  There are laid the bones of the young martyr – cruelly murdered under the rule of the Roman emperor Diocletian, because she refused to renounce her faith in Jesus Christ.  Ask Bishop John and Janet Hind for their account of the place – for they visited it only a few months ago.

Where is your ‘thin place’?  Where is that you find that the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds is somehow made thinner?  For some, it may be a beautiful landscape – the top of a great hill, perhaps.  For others, it will often be a place, like this building, in which hundreds of years of prayer and worship have somehow soaked into the stones.

Holy places, then, are integral to human faith.  Ask a Muslim how he or she feels about Mecca.  Ask a Catholic how they feel about St Peter’s in Rome.  And yet there is a danger, isn’t there, in investing all our energy into buildings.  Anyone who has toured the ruins of great abbey churches around the UK, or sought in vain for the actual site of Bethel, or who has seen the ruins of the Jerusalem Temple should know that faith is not kept alive by holy places alone.  They, like all physical things, must pass. 

Instead, Jesus points us towards a much greater permanence – towards himself.  He is, in St Peter’s words – quoting from Psalm 118 – ‘the stone that the builders rejected, who has yet become the cornerstone’.  He who existed before all time, through whom all things were made, and through whom all things will find their conclusion – he, Jesus, is the ultimate ‘touching place’.  By studying Jesus, getting to know him, we can begin to touch that outstretched hand of God.  In the Sistine Chapel ceiling , we see Michelangelo’s take on that idea.  God reaches out to Man…but Man himself doesn’t seem bothered to make the effort.  Michelangelo asks us – “are you more interested in the beauty of this place, in the artistry of my picture, or in the honest hard work of searching for God?” 

In fact, if we are honest, holy buildings can sometimes get in the way.  In the temple of Jerusalem, for example, human priests created a holy of holies – a place in which God was said to actually dwell.  It was a place so holy, that the High Priest could only go into it on one day of the year, after elaborate rites of purification.  The New Testament tells us that the curtain of that ‘holy of holies’ was torn down at the death of Jesus.  It was not a helpful picture of God.  It had to go.  Now (as the book of Revelation has it), God’s dwelling place was with people – not locked up in a back corner of a temple. In fact, you and I are now where God dwells…not in buildings of stone, but in living flesh and blood.

Even our own beautiful building has some challenges – in terms of the story it tells about God. For example, the way that the whole focus of the church is fixed on the High Altar, could suggest that God is distant from us….that he is far away, and only to be approached on bended knee, in front of a Sanctuary that ordinary people dare not enter.  That is not, I think, the picture of God that Jesus offers us.  He wanted us to understand God as our heavenly parent – the father who cares for his children and who walks alongside us.  Jesus taught us to expect to find God’s spirit along us, leading us into all truth, dwelling within us.  These are not images of a distant God.  A church which has its altar in the centre of the people might well be a much more accurate picture.

Some of our images of Jesus – in this beautiful building – are rather problematic. The blond, bearded man on the cross in our East Window looks nothing like the probably clean-shaven, dark-haired Jewish man who died for us.  What picture of God does this building convey?  It’s a picture of God as an Englishman – a blond one at that!  That kind of image undermines all that Jesus and his followers taught us about being one family of humankind, in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, black nor white.

And yet, as those who steward and care-for this church throughout the week will testify, the building has immense value to all those who enter its doors throughout the week, seeking solace, peace, or a place to seek God.  That is why, for all its theological confusion, I think that our continuing efforts to refurbish this place are worthwhile.    Its very age and architectural idiosyncrasies are precisely what draw in those seekers of a thin place, a touching place.

But at the same time, we must not forget that this building is not ‘the Church’.  It is only a shell…at the end of the day, a shelter from the rain in which the actual church can gather.  Fundamentally it is now difference from the church of St Nicholas in the parish of Nswam, Ghana – which I visited in 2015.  A few palm branches, spread over a frame.  Just a shelter from the elements.

For, as St Peter says, we are “living stones…built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood”.  We are the church – not these stones.  We could – if the Diocese would let us! – tear this whole place down – leaving a pile of rubble in the middle of Havant.  That would not mean that the church was gone.  The people who make up the church would still be here (if a little damp, when it rains!).

And that is why we are now beginning to turn our eyes towards the vital question of our Spiritual  health as a congregation.  For if we are to be strong living stones, capable of being built into the true house of God – a living house of holy priests of God – then we must focus on our own spiritual development.  In just over a week’s time, I will be presenting to the PCC a draft Spiritual Development Plan – a plan for ensuring that every one of the living stones of this church has the chance to grow in confidence and faith. 

So please pray for your PCC, as they ponder the work of the various groups who developed our plan over the last six months.  Pray for them as they seek to hear God’s voice, calling us on beyond restoration of paint and plaster (as necessary as that has been) and into the building-up of a holy house of spiritual people, with heaven in their hearts, and the needs of the world on their mind. 

People with so much faith, that they too, if ever called upon, might also demonstrate the certainty of purpose and belief of our own patron, St Faith of Agen.

Amen.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Who is the Greatest?


Who is the Greatest?

Mark 9. 30-37

What would you do if you knew that you only had a week to live? Assuming you were fit and healthy, that is. If you had full health, and freedom of movement, what would you do with your last few days on earth?

It's a puzzle isn't it?

If it was me, I'd probably want to spend time with the family that I hardly ever see - because they are scattered around the country. Or I'd want to do something really bonkers - like sky-diving. Perhaps I'd go on that trip to Egypt that I've always promised myself. Who knows?

What about you? What would you do?

Of course, this is all very theoretical. None of us really knows when we are going to die. But that wasn't the case for Jesus. He knew that his journey towards Jerusalem was going to result in his death...and he had to decide what he was going to do with his final days. 

He could have gone sight-seeing. Perhaps he could have had a mega-party with all his friends and followers. Being God-on-Earth, he could have held mighty rallies, and shown mighty acts of power to wow the crowd.

But no. Instead, Jesus chooses to spend some of his last days on earth teaching his followers about what it really means to be a disciple. He teaches them about two vital things. Two things that are so important, that he takes his disciples aside to make sure they've got the message. Those two things are:

First, the vital importance of humility, and

Second, a command to reach out to the weakest members of society.

When they arrive at a stop-over in Capernaum, Jesus turns to his followers and asks them "What were you arguing about on the road?" (v. 33). "But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest" (v.34)

Mark adds a nice little detail now. He says; "Sitting down, Jesus called the twelve and said...". Sitting down was what a Rabbi did when they were teaching their disciples. Sitting down was a sign that serious teaching was about to take place. When a Rabbi sits down, you take notice. Now what it is that Jesus wanted his disciples to take notice of? He says to them...

"If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all".

It's the topsy-turvey Kingdom of God again, isn't it? Time and time again, Jesus turns the world upside down - away from people having power over people. Instead, he says that real power is found in service.

The notion of service is absolutely central to the Gospel. Jesus teaches us that it is in serving others that we find the real purpose of life. Rather than being a sacrifice, in fact we find that when we serve one another, there is a kind of freedom, and a kind of joy, that infects us. This is an essential part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Before he died, one of his most significant acts was to wash his disciples' feet. Just imagine that. Smelly, dirty feet. Covered in camel dung. That was a job that usually got done by the lowest member of the household - a slave, or a child. It was certainly not a job that was done by the master of the house. 

A member of our Thursday congregation, the theologian Martin Mosse, actually argues that we should take this washing of feet idea much more seriously.  His thought is that if, instead of celebrating the Eucharist, we washed each other’s feet, we would open up whole new levels of understanding about what it means to be one of Christ’s followers.  It’s a fascinating thought, isn’t it?

Ask anyone who works in our charity shop, or who stewards for our visitors during the day in church.  Ask them how they feel when one of their regulars, perhaps an elderly widow who lives on her own, comes in for some warmth, a smile, and a chat.  Ask one of our pastoral visitors how they feel when they leave the home of a housebound parishioner.  Do they feel that they have wasted an hour of their life?  Or do they feel as blessed by the encounter as the housebound person now feels?

The fact is that the church of God, and the work of God, exists entirely on the voluntary service of its members. Without that sense of service...we could not be here. Without the gifts of time that you give, this church would have closed years ago...and with it would have gone all the good that we are able to do in this community.

But Jesus' message in today's gospel was not only about service. After making his great statement that those who would be great must be the servant of all, he "took a little child, and had him stand among them"(v.36). Taking that child in his arms, he said to his disciples, "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me".

Why did he do this? What's so special about children? Well that's a question you hardly need to ask if you are a parent, or now, (in Clare’s case) a grandmother!  But, in Jesus day, children were treated rather differently. Children didn't have any of the rights that children have today. There was no 'criminal records bureau' protecting them. There was no state education. There was no right to free medical treatment. There was no protection in law against exploitation and child labour.  Did you know that in some circumstances, it was even legal for a father to kill his child!

So children were essentially treated as goods and cheap labour...even slave labour. They were the least powerful members of society. They couldn't change anything. There were no school councils asking for their opinion. There were no youth workers and teachers who tried to help them develop as whole human beings.

Jesus didn't take that child into his arms because he was sentimental about kids. He picked up that child to show that he, Jesus, was on the side of the poorest, the most dis-possessed, the most abused and sometimes despised members of society.

And so that was his message, that day, in the house in Capernaum. Anyone who wants to be considered great in God's kingdom must be the servant of all...and especially a servant to the poorest and most outcast in any society. We are called to bless and serve the poor...not only for the sake of the poor, though that would be a good enough reason. But for our sake too. As we bless others, whether it is with gifts of money or of time, we will ourselves find blessing.

So finally, may you discover the liberation that comes from service. And may you discover the joy of taking the lowest, poorest, most struggling members of our society into your arms - and blessing them.  Amen

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Fear not!


Luke 5: 1-11:  Fear not!

“When Simon Peter saw the miracle Jesus had wrought, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord”

           I wonder whether this is a response to Jesus that you have had from time to time.  I know it has been for me.  When one contemplates the sheer holiness of the son of God, his perfection in all things moral, all things spiritual, all things deep within us all, it is tempting to run screaming for the hills.  I know that I can never attain that level of holiness.  I just don’t have the will power, or the ability to be that good!

Martin Mosse reminded me this week of a song, from the Sound of Music.  I wonder if you know the one...its when Maria, basking in the arms of her new husband sings “Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good”.  Martin’s point in reminding me of this was to wonder what the nuns (with whom Maria had been living) had actually taught her about God.  What kind of warped theology is this? Maria’s song suggests that we only receive good things as a reward for the good things we have done.  Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good - which is why I now have a husband!

This of course is patent nonsense...theologically speaking.  How many people do you and I know - or see on the TV - who have lived dissolute, greedy, abusive lives, and yet seem to have all the wealth and material happiness this world affords.  On the other hand, how many good, honest, kind and loving people do we know who somehow seem to just get bad break after bad break? 

The message of the Gospel is the message of grace.  The salvation which God offers us, through Jesus, has nothing whatsoever to do with the things we have done - and everything to do with what God has done, through Jesus.  As St Paul says, writing to the Ephesians, “it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.  Not by works, so that no-one can boast”.

When Peter falls to Jesus’ knees, begging him to ‘Depart from me’ - ‘Go away from me, for I am a sinful man’ he reflects what all of us must surely say if we are honest about the kind of people we are.  But Jesus responds to Peter, and to you and me, with these simple words:  “Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men”.

“Do not be afraid of your sinfulness - for I am graceful, and can forgive you.  Do not be afraid that you won’t make it to eternity, because if you trust in me, I will take you there.  Do not be afraid that your salvation rests on your own efforts, your own power. For instead, it rests on my efforts, my grace, my forgiveness and my power.”

This is indeed, good news! 

Incidentally, just to finish off, do you know the difference between the mercy of God and the grace of God.  No, this isn’t the opening line of a joke! 

Mercy is when God withholds the punishment that should be ours. 

Grace is when God gives us the reward we don’t deserve.

Let me just break that down a bit:  because of our sins, because we, like Peter, recognise the awful things we sometimes do or think, God would be perfectly within his rights to punish us.  We’ve gone astray, and we deserve to be destroyed as useless to his Kingdom purposes.  But God is full of mercy….and so he offers us forgiveness.

Then, astoundingly, we are not only forgiven by his mercy, but we are given a new role in his Kingdom.  According to St Peter, writing out of his own experience of Jesus by the lake-shore, Jesus by his grace gives us all now jobs in his Kingdom.    In his first letter, Peter says this:  “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”

What gracefulness is this?!  Not only does God withhold the punishment we deserve (by his mercy), he then gracefully gives us positions of honour in his Kingdom...and the role of being his Holy Nation, tasked with proclaiming God himself to the whole world.

To Peter - and to us - Jesus says:

1) “Fear not” - I am merciful.  You have nothing to fear.

2) “From henceforth, thou shalt catch men” - from now on, I’m giving you a new role, a new dignity, a vital Kingdom job...go and tell others about me.

What a merciful, graceful, incredible God we serve!

Amen.