Thursday, June 27, 2019

Three year after the Brexit vote...

Luke 9. 51-62 and Galations 5.1 & 13-25

Week after week, as I read the Lectionary of readings set by the church, a remarkable number of mini-miracles take place.  It astounds me how often the Scriptures speak directly into a current situation.  Today, we find ourselves three years on from the historic referendum on exiting the European Union.  And just as they did, three years ago, today's Scriptures speak powerfully into our situation and context.

Take, for example, the today’s set Psalm for Evening Prayer – Psalm 60 – which we will read on the Rectory lawn this afternoon after our ‘Strawberry Tea’.   Bring the current divided state of UK politics to mind, and then listen to these words:
“O God, thou hast cast us out, and scattered us abroad.”  (vs 1)
“Thou hast moved the land, and divided it:  heal the sores thereof, for it shaketh (vs 2)
“Hast thou not cast us out, O God?” (vs 10)
“O be thou our help in trouble:  for vain is the help of man” (vs 11)

It should not surprise us, of course, that God speaks to us through the Scriptures.  The key question on such an anniversary as this, is ‘what is God saying to us, through the Scriptures, about the state of our nation?’

For this, we need always to take account of those three important words that I’ve told you about before…the three words which should always be applied to any analysis of Scripture:  context, context, context!

First we must ask ourselves – what is the context in which an original story was written?  What was going on in history at that time?

Secondly, we need to ask ‘what was the context of the writer of that scripture?’  What did the writer understand the original story to mean?  Why did they chose to include it?

And thirdly, we need to think about our own context, into which the Scripture is read.  ‘What does this Scripture say to us, here today?’

So, let’s apply these three questions to the Gospel reading that we’ve just heard:

First, the context of the story itself.  It takes place at that moment when Jesus turns aside from his teaching ministry, and ‘sets his face towards Jerusalem’.  In doing so, he passes through a Samaritan area.  The Samaritans were a sect within Judaism, made up of a mixture of Jews and Gentiles.  They were, to the people of Jerusalem, ‘foreigners’.  As such, they were routinely hated and despised by many conventional Jews - even Jesus’ own disciples.  When the Samaritans fail to give Jesus a warm welcome, James and John ask Jesus whether they should call down ‘fire from heaven’ to consume them!  But Jesus rebukes his disciples.  They are not thinking straight.  They are forgetting that Jesus himself used Samaritans to illustrate an answer to the vital question ‘ who is my neighbour?’.

As one might expect, that is entirely within consistent with the rest of Scripture – especially the teachings about how aliens and foreigners should be treated by the people of God. As far back in history as the book of Leviticus instructed the people of God as follows:
“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born”.(Lev.19.34).  There is even a strong argument that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was original told to encourage hospitality to strangers, and that it had nothing at all to do with homosexuality.  But that's a topic for another day!

Secondly, we must ask about the context of the writer of this Gospel.  Tradition tells us that Luke was a follower of St Paul.  He was writing at a time when the new band of Christians were beginning to feel the iron boot of Rome on their necks.  They were hiding from persecution, and fearful of their status as religious strangers in a strange land.  So Luke writes to those who are experiencing the poverty of being second or third class citizens in a European super-state, run not from Brussels, but Rome.

Luke encourages them, by reminding them of Jesus’ priority for the poor and the downcast, for the Samaritan and the stranger.  And then, in the second part of the reading – he encourages them to be steadfast in their faith.  He reminds them who have no security, no home, that Jesus himself lived in just the same way for the sake of the Kingdom.  ‘Foxes have holes, and birds have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’.  (Lk 9.58)

Then, the third context, what about our situation…the context into which this Scripture is read today?  Well, we find ourselves in a situation where fear of the foreigner has - at least partly - once again driven a nation into division.  There were many intelligent and thoughtful reasons why many people voted for Brexit.  Many were attracted by the idea of bringing back control of our laws from a distant super-state, and from unelected officials.  Others leave-voters understandably thought they could trust the promise on the side of the famous red bus, that £350 million a week would be ploughed into our ailing National Health Service.  

But, alongside those perfectly legitimate aspirations, there was also a substantial strand of those who cited the influx of foreigners as their reason for voting to leave Europe. We saw them, on our televisions, and heard them on our radios.  Some of the politicians played up to this - not least the infamous poster showing a stream of mainly Arab faces queuing to cross a border. 

Being afraid of the impact of uncontrolled immigration doesn't make you a fact, it may well denote you as an economist, when the problems of housing, schooling and healthcare are factored in.  But pointing the finger at foreigners is the oldest trick in the politician’s play-book.  If we can blame foreigners for our failure to build new homes, hospitals and schools, then we can keep on subsidising big businesses with the lowest corporation tax in the world, while hiding our own wealth in off-shore tax havens, and no-one will notice.

The other modern context into which this Scripture speaks is the culture of wealth.  The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world.  If you have the certainty of a decent wage or pension or benefit payment at the end of every month, you are already more wealthy than 90% of the world’s population.  And yet, at every turn in the EU Referendum, politicians on both sides of the debate consistently focused their arguments on one point: the claim that if we vote for their side, we will be better off.

Into that context, Jesus reminds us that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. (Lk.9.58).  And he points us to a reality that is greater and more magnificent that anything human beings can conjure…the coming reality of the Kingdom of God.

We know what the Kingdom will be like – because Jesus has told us.  It will be a kingdom in which foreigners are loved as much as we love ourselves.  It’s a kingdom in which the humble and the poor will be blessed.  It will be a kingdom, filled by the Spirit, in which St Paul’s fruit of the Spirit will be known:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Sadly, we have seen little enough of these things in the last three years.  Instead, as I warned precisely three years ago, we have seen qualities from St Paul’s other list…the ‘works of the flesh’:  enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions.

“O be thou our help in trouble [O God]:  for vain is the help of man” (Psalm 60.11)

So, finally, what is our calling in this circumstance.  How are we to respond to recent events?  How are we to be agents of the Kingdom in a divided a fractured nation?

Through the Scriptures, Jesus speaks to us across time:  ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God’.  You and I are called to keep on declaring the coming of the Kingdom.  In the face of all opposition, all hatred, all dissension and division.  

In the face of a public dialogue that is all about what we can gain or protect, we hold up a cross.  We hold up the supreme example of a God who pours himself out in sacrifice for the good of all.  We speak not of what we can gain, but of how much we can give for the life of the world, and for the good of all humanity. 

And with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, we can be a place where those who voted to remain can find common cause, friendship and love with those who voted to leave.  In the face of a divided nation, the church continues to welcome all, from every political viewpoint, to gather in love around the Table of our Lord.


Thursday, June 20, 2019

Jairus' daughter and the haemorrhagic woman

Have you ever noticed that there is a certain breathlessness about the Gospel of Mark?

It is the shortest of all the Gospels, at only 16 chapters long.  Many of the stories that Mark relates are stripped down to their bare takes Luke and Matthew to give us more of the detail of many events.

And the language of Mark is breathless, too.  Take a look at tonight’s second reading, as an example.  First of all, we find Jesus under great pressure from the crowd.  As he gets off the boat, ‘much people gathered unto him’.  Then when he sets off to Jairus’ house, Mark says ‘much people followed him, and thronged him’. 

Look then at the story of the haemorrhagic woman.  As soon as she touches Jesus, Mark says ’straightway the fountain of her blood was dried up’.  Then, a line later, Jesus looks around him ’immediately knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him’.

I could go on...but its well worth meditating on Mark’s gospel in your own time, to see whether what I say is true.  You will find, I believe, that Mark’s narrative is peppered with the words ‘immediately’, ‘straightway’, or the phrase ‘and then’,

‘and then’,

‘and then’. 

Just by his choice of language, Mark paints a vivid picture of the Messiah who is urgently carrying out his task of salvation.  There’s no time for hanging around with this Messiah!

Luke, Matthew, and John are rather more relaxed.  In their narratives, Jesus takes time to sit and eat, or to pray in the wilderness, or to hang out with his friends - Mary, Martha & Lazarus.  John especially gives us pages of lengthy prayers, in which Jesus pours out his heart for his church, to his Father in heaven.

But not Mark.  Mark is in a hurry.  And, I think he wants us to be in a hurry too.

For a start, as I’ve already said, Mark’s gospel is only 16 chapters long.  It’s easy to read in a single sitting - unlike Matthew, with its 28 chapters! Mark tells us nothing about the birth of Jesus - he seems not to consider such tales as important.  And yet, Mark’s action-packed gospel contains the most events of all the Gospel.  Mark is ruthlessly chronological, straightforward and concise.  Just like people tell me sermons should be!

Mark is essentially the first century equivalent of a journalist.  His very opening line tells us that this breathless account is of the Gospel - the good news - of Jesus Christ.  Gospels, of many kinds, were common in that time.  The birth of a Roman emperor’s son was announced as a gospel, for example.  Gospels were the first century equivalent of a headline in a newspaper, or a tweet on Twitter! 

Mark’s good news is that Messiah has come, that he has announced a radical change in God’s dealings with humanity, and that we should put our trust in him.

That is what this evening’s stories are all  Jairus, the local synagogue leader, puts his trust in Jesus to save his daughter.  And the woman who can’t stop bleeding trusts that even a touch of Jesus’ cloak can heal her.  And by reading these stories, we too are being encouraged to put our trust in Jesus.  Now.  Urgently.

Do these stories teach us that praying to God, as Jairus and the unnamed woman did, will guarantee our own healing?  Well, perhaps.  But to focus on personal healing alone is to miss the context of the whole of Mark’s breathless story.

In his opening chapter, the first words that Mark selects to put in the mouth of Jesus are these:  ‘The time has come.  The kingdom of heaven is near...’.  Mark wants us to realise that Jesus inaugurated a new kingdom, a new politics,  in which charity takes over from oppression, love conquers hate, forgiveness trumps revenge.  Or, in beautiful words of the Magnificat (so gorgeously rendered by Charles Villiers Stanford in tonight’s setting):

                He has put down the mighty from their seats,

                And has exalted the humble and meek.

                He has filled the hungry with good things,

                And the rich he has sent empty away.

The stories of Jairus’ daughter and the haemorrhagic woman are not there to encourage our prayers for personal healing - for we hardly need any encouragement when we are hurting, do we?  They are there to show us what complete trust in Jesus’ Kingdom looks like.

And what a magnificent vision that is!  If only we would trust Jesus when he tells us that it is in giving that we receive, or that we should turn the other cheek, or that we should forgive our brother 70 times 7, that we should welcome the stranger in our midst, raise up the homeless, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, or that we should be good Samaritans. 

How different our geo-politics would be, if the mighty stopped asking what was good for their country and instead started to ask what is good for all humanity!  How much nearer the Kingdom will be when leaders worry less about continuous economic growth, and more about sustaining the one planet we’ve been given to live upon.

And perhaps now, as we face the heaving politics of our fast-warming world;

perhaps now as the weapons of war are being prepared over the skies of Iran;

perhaps now as our politicians conceptually tear themselves apart in the houses of parliament;

perhaps now, we need to hear the urgency of Mark’s message all the more?


Thursday, June 6, 2019

Sermon for 75th Anniversary of D-Day and the 175th Anniversary of the YMCA

Today marks two great anniversaries, in the life of our nation.  The first, of course, is the 75th anniversary of D-Day - which anyone who has turned on a TV, or tried to drive into Portsmouth in the last 24 hours could hardly miss!  We commemorate with gratitude the lives of the 22,442 men of the British services who gave their lives for the freedom of our French neighbours, and to push back the tide of fascism.

The second, less well-known anniversary, is that of the Young Men’s Christian Association - the YMCA - founded 175 years ago today in London, by one George Williams and his friends.  I have an affection for that great institution because I served as a YMCA Secretary for about 20 years in the last decades of the last century.  The YMCA is now a worldwide youth movement, often quietly going about its Christian mission to be a place where counsel may be sought and friendships formed, among young men and women of all faiths and none.  From after-school care and pre-school centres, through to sports centres and outdoor pursuits centres like the one near us at Botley, through to hostels and homeless projects, the YMCA is a positive, life-giving presence in many towns and villages of this nation, and around the world.

The YMCA played an important part in the War effort too.  They provided YMCA Canteens, in which soldiers could take a break from the front line, and write letters home.  It was sometimes said that they served up ‘tea and comfort’ to the troops, and they were much loved for that. 

There’s a lovely story I remember hearing about a YMCA Canteen which was set up in Portsmouth, near the Guildhall, during the second world war, in the run up to D-Day.  The story gives us an insight into the distinctly British mentality of so many people during that whole conflict.  The story goes that during the bombing of Portsmouth, an excited young man ran into the YMCA Canteen shouting “The Guildhall’s on fire, the Guildhall’s on fire!”.  The YMCA lady serving tea behind the counter looked up, and replied, “so it is dear.  Would you like some sugar in your tea?”.

The Gospel reading we have just heard has been read on this day, the 6th of June, for time immemorial. That’s the beauty of the church’s Lectionary - it allows us to revisit, on certain days texts which have come to have great meaning.  This passage contains a line of Jesus’ great prayer, which, it seems, George Williams and the other founders of the YMCA also appreciated, because they took it as the motto of the YMCA from that day onward.  It is these words:

“...that they may all be one”.

The YMCA has striven over the ensuing years to be a place where true oneness of spirit between people of all faiths and none can be found.  And that oneness of spirit was also the inspiration behind the allied advance on D-Day.  British, American, Canadian and other forces all combined.  Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen, all combined.  Fighters, logistics experts, scientists, weather-men, politicians, and, yes, YMCA tea makers, all combined in one great push to beat back the great evil of fascism.

Jesus’ prayer, is ultimately a prayer about his followers.  He is laying out his heart before the Father, and praying for unity between all believers.  He longs for that Unity, not least because he knows that through such Unity, other people might see the love of the Father at work.  I have no doubt that Jesus must weep when he sees the fractured nature of today’s world, and, yes, the fractured nature of his church.  We human beings, it seems, are not capable of being one...we are just too tied to our own ambitions, or our own limited understand of the world, to be able to truly embrace that one-ness. The result is our constantly competing ideas about how the world, or our faith, should be.

On D-Day, we saw Hitler’s stark and angry vision of the world come into conflict with a greater, higher vision of the world - a world without hatred of others who are not like us.  Thankfully, the greater, higher, vision won - a vision of a world of oneness, in which nations learned to work together for the common good of all humanity.  In the post-war years, thanks to the sacrifice of all on D-Day and throughout the war, the world started to come together in the great institutions:  the United Nations, NATO, the World Trade Organisation, the African Union and, yes, I’m going to say it, the fore-runner of what is now the European Union.

Sadly, we are beginning to witness the fracturing of the oneness that these institutions have stood for.  Nationalism is once again on the rise in the public imagination.  The very thing that the soldiers, sailors and airmen of D-Day fought to defeat - fascism - is rearing its ugly, ugly head on our TV screens and on our streets.

My prayer, like that of the YMCA, is that we will take a moment on this day of commemoration, to remember Jesus’ prayer of oneness. As the bells of St Faith’s ring out after this service, in honour of the sacrifices of D-Day, may we take a moment to re-commit ourselves to the sacred task of working for the one-ness of all humanity.


Sunday, May 19, 2019

Religion and Politics

Religion and Politics don’t mix…?
It is often said that religion and politics don’t mix.  Well, what a load of complete tosh that is!  But before I try to explain my reasoning – let’s start with a little bit of etymology. 

The word ‘religion’ comes from the Latin word ‘relegio’ – which means ‘re-connect’.  It’s the same root word from which Lego comes.  Think of that, the next time you are building an edifice of plastic bricks with a grandchild or child.  So ‘religion’ is the practice of ‘re-connecting’ ourselves to the divine source from which all life springs.  For Christians, that divine source is the originally Jewish concept of God.  But for others, its Allah, or Vishnu, or Mother Earth…or any other number of creative sources.  All religions have in common the idea that if we could just re-connect ourselves to the Love which brought us forth, our lives would be fuller, more complete, more worthwhile.

Politics is, of course, the business of the polis – another Latin word meaning ‘the people’.  It is ultimately about the way that we people choose to live together.  It’s about the framing of laws, and the distribution of the community’s wealth. It’s about caring for the vulnerable in our midst, and, in short, loving our neighbour as ourselves.

So, if religion is – at the core – about reconnecting ourselves to whatever God we perceive, and if politics is about the way that we connect ourselves to one another, we have a simple concept to hang our entire world-view upon.  It was a concept that Jesus expressed most clearly, but which is also common to every great religion.  It’s a concept which can be summed up in five words:  Love God. Love your neighbour.

Around the time of Jesus, there was another great teacher doing the rounds.  His name was Rabbi Hillel, and he was once, famously, challenged to stand on one leg and recite the entire law of God.  He accepted the challenge, stood on one leg, and said: “Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself.  All the rest is just commentary”.

When you think about it, the command to love our neighbour is a profoundly political statement.  Truly understood, it would radically reform the kind of nasty politics which we see around us so often these days.  You know the kind of politics I mean – the kind of politics which blames the homeless and the poor for their own misery, or blames the collapse of our financial system on immigrants. 

Margaret Thatcher knew that religion and politics belong together.  Which is why she famously quoted the words of St Francis of Assisi on the steps of No. 10 in 1979.  “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope’.  I know, it was rather cringy…but we perhaps all remember her entry to No 10 better than any other Prime Minister, before or since, because she had the courage to quote a religious text.

All of this is essentially my way of saying how delighted I am that one of the first things we do, in this Borough, after electing a new Mayor, is that we bring them to church!  For I believe, passionately, that any politics which divorces itself entirely from some form of religion is a poorer politics.  It’s something I believed when I worked as a Government advisor in the early years of this century.  And it’s something I continue to believe as a humble parish priest.

Party politics is essentially the battle of ideas.  It is the assertion of one group of people that their ideas about how the world should be are better than another group of people’s ideas.  The great religions of the world have often inspired politicians to rise beyond narrow party politics, and to embrace a fuller, wider, kinder sense of how the world should be.  A quick glance into history should remind us that it is religions which first inspired the idea of charity.  It remains one of the five pillars of Islam.  It is central to the teachings of the Buddha, and of course to the teachings of Jesus Christ.  

Religions were most often the founders of systems of healthcare, and education.  They were often flawed, sometimes rather narrow in their focus.  But the essential idea that all human beings should have the right to see a doctor, and chance to expand the mind is essentially a religious idea.  

Arguably, the state does a much better job of these things – not least because it has the resources to do so through taxation.  But let us never forget that charity, healthcare and education all arise out of the religious imperative to love our neighbour.

In fact, I would argue that we need more religion in our politics.  When we contemplate the various secular political systems under which we live, we find that we need religions to correct and steer.  All too easily we accept the mantras of secular gurus, without asking ourselves what religions might have to offer as an alternative view.

Take, for example, the concept of economic growth.  The success, or failure, of most modern politics is measured on the basis of GDP.  The stated aim of most western governments is to achieve economic growth of around 2% per year.  That doesn’t sound too bad, does it – until you realise that 2% growth over 10 years would equal 20%.  So we live with an economic model which believes that in 10 years’ time, we could – indeed should - use 20% more of the world’s resources.  Which is nuts, of course.

We find the concept of economic growth in the Scriptures too.  Many times, prophets promise the people that if they will obey God, their flocks will multiply, and their cattle increase.  But set against this are the imperatives of religion too.  Such growth, according to the Scriptures, will only be achieved by a people who give a tithe of all their wealth back to God, and who welcome the stranger, and care for the poor, the sick, the widow and the orphan.  This is a true blending of religion and politics.  Economic growth is achieved not on the backs of the poor, but as a result of generosity to the poor.

So, I’m delighted that in this Borough we continue the debate about religion and politics.  By appointing a Chaplain each year, you open yourselves to the possibility that whatever suspicions we might justifiably have about the motives of some religious people, religions themselves do still have the power to shape and mould our politics.  I yearn, as do most of us I suspect, for a kinder, more humane, more caring society.  And I pray that the interplay between our religion and our politics will continue to march towards such a goal.


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 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.