Saturday, May 18, 2019

Radical New Life


Acts 11.1-18, Revelation 21.1-6, John 13.31-35

Radical New Life

I don’t know about you, but I am constantly amazed at how small my brain is.  My wife, on the other hand, is never surprised at how small my brain is – but that’s the burden she bears for living with me.  My brain feels especially small when I try to wrestle with some of the great issues of the day.  I find my mind reeling, for example, when I contemplate the complexities of the Brexit debate, or the climate emergency, or the problems of the Middle East.  Like most people, I find that if I get too deeply concerned with any of these issues, my mind goes round and round in a never-ending circle of worry.  For what can I do about any of them?  These problems are just too big for a bear of little brain (as Winnie-the-Pooh would say).

The same is often true of our encounters with Scripture.  At our first reading, today’s passages don’t appear to have any connection with each other, do they?  We have Peter’s amazing vision of a sheet of unclean animals being let down from heaven.  We have John’s profound vision of the new Jerusalem being let down from heaven, with promises of hope for all humankind.  Then we have Jesus, telling his disciples that the crucifixion he is about to endure is a kind of glorification, which they cannot share.  And a stern command that whatever happens to him, they must love each other.

My brain hurts!  So I imagine that some of yours do too!  Not all of you, of course.  Because some of you are much brainier than me.  But for those of us who are less well-endowed in the brain-cell department, here’s a little phrase that I find helps me at such times:

“What is plain, is main.  And what is main, is plain”.  It’s a pretty good maxim to apply to the reading of all Scripture.

So let’s apply that maxim to these three readings…and see what we can learn.

The main, plain point of the first reading can be summed up in the final line – “…God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to eternal life”.  Peter has been given a vision of all the things his Jewish culture considers ‘unclean’, with a stern warning that it is not his place to decide what is clean or not.  Or which foods are in, or out.  Or which kinds of people are in or out of God’s Kingdom. That’s God’s job.  And in these post-resurrection days, God is making it plain to Jewish Peter, that God’s Kingdom is meant for all humanity.  It is a radical message for one like Peter, brought up in a culture which believed that one could be made ritually ‘dirty’ by even touching the clothes of a non-Jew.  But God’s message is one of radical inclusion.  His message of love is for the whole world – wherever we come from, whatever our background, whoever we are.

Let’s see what is plain, and main, about the second reading.  Well, first of all, this is obviously the language of metaphor.  This is the Apostle John rising to the very heights of metaphorical allegory.  Rather like Tolkein did in the Lord of the Rings, or C.S.Lewis in Narnia, or even today’s script writers of the Game of Thrones.  John paints a picture of a glorious future in which God is experienced so closely, so intimately by us, that we can almost hear him say “See, the home of God is with mortals”.  John gives us the picture of a ‘New Jerusalem’ – a new ‘City of Peace…’Jeru---shalom’.  That is actually a picture of the Church.  We are called to live together in such a way that there will be no more mourning, or crying or pain – because of the way that we care for one another, the way that we love one another.

And that, finally, brings us to the Gospel reading.  How will the world recognise the reality of God? Quite simply, Jesus says, through experiencing the love of God through us.  Jesus says “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples…if you have love for another”.

So perhaps all this theology-stuff isn’t such a brain ache, after all.  Perhaps we just need to take Jesus at his word when he says that the essential message of the Kingdom, the distillation of all the Scriptures’ wisdom, can be summarised in five words:  Love God.  Love one another.

It was love which drove Jesus to the cross, for us.  It was love which is his ‘glorification’ (as he says in today’s Gospel).  It was God’s love which brought him back from the dead.  And it is God’s love which is the fuel in our tank, the energy at our core, the impetus that drives us to create a new City of Peace – a new Jeru-shalom.

What might our branch of that Church look like, if we completely, radically, enthusiastically embraced that message of love?  Well, from today’s readings alone, I think we can draw out some pretty fine examples.

First – we would be a radically inclusive community.  We would be a group of people who include everyone who walks through our doors, wherever they come from, whatever they’ve done, wherever they are going.  That’s the plain, main message of the reading from Acts.  And, I want to say, it’s something I recognise in this community.  We are a pretty odd assortment of backgrounds, aren’t we?  But could we do more?  Could we be still more radically inclusive…to the young, for example, or to the homeless, or to those of other cultures, or those struggling with mental health issues.  I wonder.

Secondly, we would be a community in which there is no more mourning, or crying, or pain – because the kind of love we show to one another would wipe the tears of the lonely, the housebound, the dying.  I wonder whether this is something we could do more about.  Our list of housebound and lonely people is ever growing, and it is frankly beyond our current capacity to tackle.  Is there something you could do to help?  Could you commit to an hour a week, or an hour a fortnight, to spend time in the home of one our housebound or sick parishioners.  The fields are ripe unto the harvest….but the labourers are few at the moment.  If this is something you feel you could so, let me encourage you to speak to Sandra after the service.  She would love to add just a few names to our small list of pastoral visitors.

Thirdly, and finally, we would be a community in which the love we bear for each other, and for God, would be so real, so present, so inescapable, that everyone we encounter would know that we are God’s disciples.  The way we welcome people, the way we love them, the way we include them – all this speaks of the welcoming, loving, including God whom we serve.

That, when all is said and done, is the plain, main message of our Scriptures today.  And it’s the plain, main message of the Gospel too.  We, who live in the light of Easter, are the people of Love.  Amen.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Doubting Thomas


John 20. 19-31

This week, we've received the exciting news, that there is to be a 25th James Bond film.  How exciting, for all of us who enjoy a few hours of complex villains and testosterone-laden conflict!

Back in 1983, Hollywood was stunned when Sean Connery decided to reprise his role as James Bond. By that time he was decidedly middle aged - and had not played Bond since 1971. Movie-legend has it that after he finished filming for 'Diamonds are Forever' he said to his wife "never again". But she was horrified, and replied "no - never say 'never again'!"

The title of the 1983 movie was a bit of a joke at Connery's own expense.  It was a way of him recognising that he had been a bit rash in his original statement.

And that's something I think we've probably all done at one time or another, isn't it?  I know I have.

As a young evangelical, I know that I said I would never ever be seen dressed up in clerical robes….look at me now. I was quite certain that I had understood everything that God had to say on every subject.  Now, after 30 or more years of serious study...I'm not so sure.

Its the same in my personal life.  I grew up on a diet of good old fashioned English food…and I remember a time when I was being taken out to dinner by friends to an Indian restaurant.  “I could never eat that stuff”, I said.  “I’ll only go with you if they also serve egg and chips”.  But when we were there…someone persuaded me to have just a little taste….and I was hooked!

When Peter and the other disciples told Thomas that they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, his response was pretty unambiguous, wasn't it?  "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe".  In other words -"never - I'll never believe what you tell me...unless I see it with my own eyes". (John 20: 25)

Just imagine the embarrassment that Thomas felt when Jesus appeared to him in that upper room!  He must have felt like an absolute idiot!  "Why did I say I would never believe?!  What a fool I was?!  Why didn't I believe my friends?!"

You see, the thing about Jesus is that he has a way of over-turning all our expectations.  His whole life-story is one of apparent contradictions to the way that others expected he should act.  He was born in a stable, not a palace.  He ate and drank with sinners, not the religious leaders.  He taught about love and forgiveness - even towards the Roman occupiers. He stubbornly refused to stay dead...and rose up from the grave.

Jesus overturns all our expectations.  Thomas expected that he could cling to objective proof - that he could depend on his eyes and his own sense of touch to establish what was true.  And that is the fundamental mistake that is made by so many non-believing people today...

God is separate from all that God has made. Above it.  Beyond it.  Outside of it.  We should not be surprised that God cannot be found in a test tube or at the end of a microscope or telescope.  God doesn't want to be found in a test tube.  Instead, God wants us, like Thomas, to discover God with the eyes of faith, and the hands of trust.

Why should that be?  Why is it those who believe without seeing who are blessed?  Wouldn't it be easier for God to make himself touchable, scientifically prove-able?

Well, I would argue that if we could reduce God down to something we could see in a test tube - it would not be God.  God is as far above such reductionism as the sun is above the earth.  God is far more than anything which can been seen or touched. God is a mystery that our tiny brains can only begin to glimpse.  Belief - or faith - in God is not about believing certain facts about God, and rejecting other theories.  It's about setting off on a path, with God as an end-point...being willing to be shaped and changed by the journey.

Evangelicals talk about have a personal relationship with God - which is a phrase I have sometimes lampooned (to be honest).  But actually, the idea of a personal relationship is quite powerful.  

I have a personal relationship with many people - not least 'the present Mrs Kennar' (to borrow from Terry Wogan).  In that relationship, which she has so far heroically endured for 32 years, we have learned many things about each other.  But we still can't read each other's minds.  (Though I do think Clare has a pretty good idea of what's going on in my mind when I see a table of cakes).  But we still have much to learn about each other.  New facets of our personalities, thoughts, preferences, ideas are constantly being revealed, and sometimes surprising each other.

So what does this mean for us - in our daily lives, and in our life as a church?

For our life as a church it means that we - like Sean Connery - must 'never say never again'!  Rowan Williams has famously said that all our language about God must be provisional...it must always be open to being shaped and changed by the God who is outside of all human methods of proof.  That means never saying that we could never do things differently.  It means never saying that we could never change our view about what God is like.  It means accepting that the way we worship, the way we pray, the way we use our time and our money in the service of God must always remain open to the reality of God.

In our daily lives, it means growing in our attentiveness to God in all aspects of our life.  God is not tied down by our decisions, or even by our circumstances.  God has the capacity to break-through even the hardest of situations that life has thrown at us.  He can heal, because he is beyond all human capacity to heal.  He can comfort, because he is beyond human systems of support.  He can challenge, because he is greater than all human challenges.  He can change our minds about priorities, life-style choices, jobs and political allegiances - because he is beyond all such limitations.

God can neither be touched, nor seen...and yet God is present with us in every circumstance of life.  God cannot be boxed or sold - and yet he is the ultimate manufacturer.  God cannot be seen, and yet he is the light.  He cannot be touched, and yet he is the ultimate ground of all being.

At the end of the day, we can, and should, do no more and no less than our brother Thomas the Twin - fall on our knees and cry out, "My Lord and My God". Amen.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Palm Sunday to Easter - Bouncing from happiness to happiness...and missing the point


It seems perhaps a little strange that only the first few minutes of our service today has been focussed on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and so much of it focussed instead on the events of the following week.  This is a mandatory requirement – for all of us who are obedient to the Lectionary.  My best guess is that this is because the Lectionary writers knew, instinctively, that the majority of worshippers across the land will not – or perhaps cannot - come to many Holy Week services.  As a result, for many, the history-changing events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are entirely missed.  Many worshippers will hop from the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, straight to the fantastic news of the Resurrection (which we will, of course, celebrate on Easter Day).

This is, of course, regrettable.  For without the cross, the agony in the garden, the betrayals around the first Lord’s Supper, there is a danger that our faith can appear to be founded on celebration after celebration.  We miss the struggle which is really at the heart of what we believe. 

To jump from ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’ straight onto ‘Alleluiah Christ is Risen’ is to live always on the mountain top.  But as I said a few weeks ago when we contemplated the Mount of Transfiguration – the thing about mountain-top experiences is that you have to come down.

The Easter story, in its entirety, is ultimately about how God transforms our apparent defeats into victories.  Or, if you prefer a less militaristic metaphor, it’s about how God can transform our suffering into healing, or our pain into growth, our hells into heavens, and the mini-deaths we all experience into new life.

Now that’s all very well, as theology goes.  But what does it mean in real, everyday life?  For an answer to that question, we need to look at people like Gordon Wilson, the Northern Irish draper and peace campaigner who was injured in the Enneskillen bomb – while his daughter was killed. 

In an interview with the BBC, Wilson described with anguish his last conversation with his daughter and his feelings toward her killers: "She held my hand tightly, and gripped me as hard as she could. She said, 'Daddy, I love you very much.' Those were her exact words to me, and those were the last words I ever heard her say."

To the astonishment of listeners, Wilson went on to add, "But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She's dead. She's in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night." As historian Jonathan Bardon recounts, "No words in more than twenty-five years of violence in Northern Ireland had such a powerful, emotional impact." 

Gordon Wilson went on to form a Trust which paid for young people from both sides of the Northern Irish troubles to encounter peace.  He exemplified the reality of a Christian life, in which tragedy is turned into triumph.

We can experience tragedy being turned into triumph in our own lives as well.  All of you will know of the sadness that Sandra Haggan has been experiencing of late, as her family business of 96 years has come to an end.  But, out of that sadness, joy has come – with the news that her new-found availability means that she has accepted the role of Pastoral Worker here at St Faiths.  I know that you will all join me in welcoming this news!

But what of other sadnesses and tragedies?  What even of the tremendous losses we have experienced of late within our own congregation?   Judy, Tricia, John Edwards – as well as more personal, family losses.  It is too soon, perhaps, to speak of triumph after such losses.  And yet, I hold within me a deep and sure conviction that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, ‘all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things will be well’.  With all its ugliness and pain, the entire message of Holy Week is that God is constantly at work, even among the worst of times, to bring hope and healing.

So finally, my encouragement to you this week is not to miss the opportunities of Holy Week.  Join us on Tuesday evening, as we walk the Way of the Cross, going from station to station around the church, contemplating each significant moment on the Way of Tears. 

Join us on Maundy Thursday evening, at 7pm, when we will re-enact the painful institution of the first Lord’s Supper, and the washing of feet, followed by an opportunity to watch with the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

Walk with us, if you can, on a pilgrimage from church to church on Good Friday morning.  Or, if such a walk is beyond you, at least join us for an hour of worship at the Cross at 2pm on Friday. 

For a chance to think about all we experience together, why not make a date to join the FaithTalk discussion on Saturday morning, when we will focus on the many historical meanings behind the Cross. 

Do all of this, or at least some of this with us over the coming days, and I promise you that the joy of Easter morning will be that much greater, and that much more profound.

Amen.


Saturday, March 30, 2019

A Mother's Day rant


Mothering Sunday sermons often come in the form of a rant – against the rampant commercialism and guilt-inducing saccharin of Mother’s Day, which – as you all know – completely subsumes the original meaning of the day.  But I’m not going to do that – this year anyway!

Instead, I want to focus on perhaps the most famous Mother of them all…the mother of Jesus, and through him – in a very real sense – the Mother of the Church.   

Now, there’s a lot of theology to debate around Mary.  We could happily wallow around for a while in words like ‘Theotokos’ – the ‘God-bearer’, or the ‘Mother of God’.  We could debate the catholic doctrines of her Assumption into heaven – which is the idea that Mary never died, but was raised bodily into heaven by her son.  Or we could thrash around for a while in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception – which many people are surprised to learn is the idea that Mary’s own conception, in her own Mother’s womb, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.  Oh yes, we could have a lot of fun exploring that together!

We could also spend some time thinking about what it means for us to have a Lady Chapel, currently in the middle of repainting and restoration.  We could ask ourselves what it means to pray through Mary to Jesus, or to seek her prayers for ‘us sinners now and at the hour of our deaths’.   That too would be a fertile area of discussion.

But let me not be so theologically indulgent.  The Mary I’d like to focus on this morning is that Mary who stands at the foot of her Son’s cross.

Let me invite you to put yourself in Mary’s shoes for a moment.  Here is a woman – an ordinary, poorly educated, peasant woman, who has experienced the most extraordinary things.  The birth of her son was announced to her by an angel.  An Angel, for goodness sake!  His birth was surrounded by amazing signs – a star in the heavens, visitors from Eastern lands.  She experienced the horror and fear of having to protect her child from the State, fleeing as a refugee into a foreign land.  She experienced the wonder of seeing him recognised as the messiah by the holiest of men in the Temple. She watched him grow, day by day, until his thirties…wondering, all the time, what his extra-ordinary life was going to accomplish.  Then, as he embarked on his preaching mission, she felt the pain of rejection, as Jesus’ own concept of family expanded to include all his followers.  ‘Who are my mother, my brothers and sisters?’ he said.  ‘Those who do the will of my Father’.  She watched as her son’s public ministry reached its public climax, as he was hailed as the King of Kings, riding into Jerusalem to the waving of palm branches and the adulation of the crowd.  How proud she must have been that day!

After all that, and much more, Mary finds herself standing at the foot of her son’s execution.  All her dreams, all her hopes, dashed.  It seemed that, after all, her son was not destined to rule the nation, or lead it out of bondage to the Romans.  It seemed that, after all he had done and all he had said, everyone had left him, abandoned him – except this little group of women and just one disciple who had stuck with him to the bitter end.  There would clearly be no grandchildren for Mary to dandle on her knee.  All gone, all hope lost.

And yet, Mary remains.  She does not leave.  She does not disown her beloved child, even though one of his best friends, and all but one of his disciples had done exactly that.  She remains.  Steadfast.  Loyal.  Hoping against hope, for a miracle.

This, ultimately, is the heart of a Mother.  Every mother has dreams for their child.  Which true mother does not want their child to be successful, wealthy, or just, simply, happy?  But like Mary, not every mother gets to realise those ambitions.  Disease, poverty, death or just plain bad luck can so often get in the way.  But the true mother never gives up.  She stays, standing at the foot of her child’s cross, praying, hoping, for a miracle.

And that, perhaps, is why the Church has so often been described as our Mother, too.  The church is the place – the community – in which we too are nourished and offered new spiritual life.  The church has hopes and dreams for each one of her children.  The church seeks only the best for us – that hope that we will grow to live fulfilled, purposeful and ultimately happy lives. 

But sometimes we fail.  Bad luck, disease, death, the temptations of ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’ draw us away from our Mother church.  But does she stop hoping and praying for us?  She does not.  She continues, like any true mother, to hope for a miracle.

And when we return, she does not chastise us, she welcomes us.  Like the return of the prodigal son, she sets a table, a spiritual feast for us, at the table of her husband Christ.  She welcomes us home, and invites us in.  She puts on our slippers for us, lights the fire, and puts fragrant tobacco in our pipe!

Mary, you see, teaches the Church what it means to be a mother.  A mother yearns only for the happiness of her child.  She accepts – and loves - her child for who that child is.  The child’s colour, their disability, their wealth or status, their sexuality, their intelligence, their theology – none of these things gets in the way of Mother church loving us, and wanting us only to grow into full maturity and happiness.

So perhaps, after all, I should rant a little about the loss of Mother’s Day as a day to invite a return to Mother Church. We should, of course, thank our own Mothers for all they mean to us.  We should, today of all days, pray for those whose motherhood is an excessive burden or sorrow.  We should remember with love our Mothers who have passed on to glory.  But above all, perhaps we might all commit ourselves anew to returning time and time again to Mother Church?


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 CafĂ©, 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.