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.








Saturday, August 18, 2018

Growing up with God


Readings:  Proverbs 9.1-6, Ephesians 5.15-20, John 6.51-58
As you have probably heard by now, I am a Grandad.  As a grandad, I’m re-discovering many of the puzzling questions I used to ask when I first became a dad.  Like ‘why can’t this child tell me what’s wrong with it?’.  Or when’s he gonna to learn to speak English?  Or the most important question of all…when’s he going to be old enough to buy me a pint?

Growing from childhood into maturity is a recurring theme of the Bible too.  The whole of the Bible is, in many ways, a metaphor for growing up.  There are all those wonderful tales of biblical heroes who grow from children into adults – the show-off Joseph with his coat of many colours who grows into the second most powerful man in Egypt.  There’s the young daring boy David, afraid of not even the mighty Goliath, who grows into a wise King and leader, a song-writer and poet.  Even the primary story of Adam and Eve is ultimately a story about growing up and growing beyond the garden of one’s youth.

The very religion that the Bible relates also ‘grows up’ through its pages.  It moves from an early dawn of realisation that this God, this Jewish God, didn’t require child sacrifices, through to an assumption that God wants to lay down lots of complex rules, through to the ultimate revelation of the God of unconditional love and mercy revealed to us through Jesus.  It’s all about growing up, you see.

As we’ve just heard, the book of proverbs echoes this theme.  The wisdom of God, usually characterised as a woman, invite the immature, and the simple, and those without sense to feast at her table of wisdom.  “Come,” she says, “Lay aside immaturity and live – and walk in the way of insight.

Writing to the Ephesians in our second reading, St Paul also encourages his readers to grow up, or specifically to ‘grow wise’.  “Be careful how you live,” he says.  “Not as unwise people, but as wise.”  And then, a little later, “…do not be foolish, but understand”.  Next weekend, I shall be attending the wedding of my oldest niece, at which we will hear those other poetic words of St Paul, from 1 Corinthians 13 – read so often at weddings: “When I was a child, I thought as a child.  But now that I am a man, I have put away childish things”.  St Paul’s own life was a story of growing up.  By God’s grace, he grew away from being an angry Pharisee, who stoned the early Christians to death – into one of the wisest and most revered of Jesus’ followers.

At yesterday’s parish conference, entirely by co-incidence, Mike Fluck introduced us to some further thinking about what it means for us to grow up in our faith.  He reminded us of the thinking of theologian Gerard Hughes, who teaches that mature Christian faith has three stages to it.  The first in the ‘institutional’ stage.  This is the childhood stage of Christian faith.  This is the time when we want certainty, and the comfort of being told what we should believe and how we should behave – both in our lives and in the way we worship.  We want our faith to be institutionalised…so that we know where we are.  Nothing disturbs us.  Our Christian club is secure…and like the Famous Five, or the Secret Seven, we know who are friends are. 

This is the stage in which we want to be led by strong leaders, who will praise us when we do things right, or correct us when we are wrong.  People we can look up to, who we trust to do the hard work of thinking about our faith for us.  Just like we did when we were kids.

But this, says Gerard Hughes, is just the starting point for a Christian.  The next stage – the adolescent stage if you will, is the ‘critical’ stage.  This is when we start asking questions for ourselves.  It’s when we become open to hearing what others might have to say, and when we begin to challenge our more child-like notions about our faith.  For many, this stage can be characterised by things like realising that God is not an old man sitting on a cloud, but a living presence in the world - and not a man at all.  It’s the point at which we realise that all our language about God is meaningless, in the face of the infinite mystery of God-self. 

And these insights lead us onwards into an even more grown-up faith; into the phase which Gerard Hughes calls the ‘mystical’ phase.

The mystical believer is the one who knows that God is not just encountered on the mountain-top, or in the church, but also and profoundly deep within us.  The mystical believer recognises that their life-events have shaped them into the person they are, with the beliefs they hold…and that God is ever at work within them, shaping and changing, moving further and further away from those old institutional certainties into a belief which is so much more profound, so much deeper, so much more rewarding.  Perhaps, it’s the moment when we realise that life is so much more complex than we assumed in our childhood. 

It’s the moment, perhaps, when we realise that our intercessory prayers to the God on the cloud are pointless, because God doesn’t need to be reminded of the needs of the world.   God isn’t an old man on a cloud - God isn’t deaf and forgetful!  It’s the moment when we realise that prayer doesn’t change God, but it does profoundly change us.  Through prayer, we bring the needs of the world into our immediate focus, not God’s. We undertake the vital task of being reminded that we are not the centre of the universe, and the needs of the world are our needs too.  And we reach out to hear the voice of God in our hearts, calling us and equipping us to be part of the solution.  That we are part of the answer to our prayers.  That we are part of the process of healthy growth in the world.

But we are not alone in that task.  Understanding that we are part of the solution doesn’t mean that we have to do it alone.  The mystical Christian knows that he or she is connected spiritually to all of humanity, through the Spirit of God, revealed to us by Jesus.  And Jesus himself offers us his presence and his strength on the path of life…the path of growth.  As we heard in our Gospel reading “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.  Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me”

These are mystical words…not institutional ones.  In these words, are huge depths of meaning which may take us a life-time to begin to understand…and certainly not something I can explain in the two or three sentences left to me this morning.  Perhaps the best that any of us can do, in the face of such depth, such mystery, such profound wisdom is to submit to it, and let it transform us.  Perhaps all we can do is fall to our knees in front of the mystery of the Eucharist, and say to the Lord who calls us:  help me to grow up!

Amen.


Saturday, July 21, 2018

Mary Magdalene - the wealthy witness


This sermon was preached at St John's Purbrook on the Feast of Mary Magdalene - 22 July 2018.
There are rather a lot of Marys to be found in the Gospels.  Mary was a very popular name in 1st Century Israel and Judea.   We know, of course, of Mary the Mother of Jesus.  Then there’s Mary of Bethany (who is sometimes confused with Mary Magdalene, but who was the ‘sinful woman’ who anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair). 

There is another Mary – literally called ‘the other Mary’ - whom Matthew lists as part of the group of women who were witnesses to Jesus’ burial.  In fact, I rather imagine that – in those days - if you were to stand in the street and call out ‘Mary!’ you’d get quite a few responses!

This makes the task of teasing out the story of Mary Magdalene a little bit of a challenge.  So let’s review what we know – and a little bit of the legends which have accreted around her. 

Mary was a Jewish woman, who according to all four Gospels travelled with Jesus as one of his followers.  She was a witness to his crucifixion, burial and resurrection.  According to Matthew, Luke and John’s Gospels, Mary was the one who told Peter and the other male apostles that Jesus had risen from the dead.  So, she is often referred to as the ‘apostle to the apostles’. 

Mary is actually mentioned by name twelve times in the gospels – more than most of the apostles, in fact.  Her ‘surname’, of Magdalene, most likely meant that she came from the fishing town of Magdala, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Luke’s Gospel list’s Mary as one of the women who travelled with Jesus and who helped support his ministry out of their own resources.  That indicates that she was probably a wealthy woman.  The same passage also states that seven demons had been driven out of her.  Seven is a symbolic number in Scripture – meaning completeness.  So to say that someone had seven demons in them was to say that they were completely consumed by whatever illness or malady was afflicting them.  Clearly, therefore, Mary had reason to be very grateful to Jesus, for the healing that she had received.

And that, frankly, is all that we really know about Mary in factual terms.  During the middle ages, there were many other tales told about her.  For a start, as I’ve already said, she was often mixed up with the sinful ‘Mary of Bethany’, or even with the woman caught in adultery (whose name we don’t know…but it was probably Mary as well!).  Even more elaborate medieval legends tell exaggerated tales of Mary’s wealth and beauty, as well as her alleged journey to Southern France.  There were even speculations, somewhat fuelled by various second and third century Gnostic writings, which suggestively described Mary’s as Jesus’ wife, or lover. Maybe even the mother, by Jesus, of the line of Merovingians! But there is nothing in Scripture to support such an idea.  Not that this stops the likes of Dan Brown from creating some highly entertaining stories about the possibilities. 

So if you don’t mind, I’d like to focus on what we DO know about Mary – and to ask ourselves what we can learn from her real story.

I think there are two words which we can hang an understanding of Mary on.  They are ‘wealthy’ and ‘witness’.  Let me see if I can break those down for you.

As I’ve already said, Mary was clearly independently wealthy.  We don’t know why.  Perhaps she was the widow of a wealthy man?  But clearly, she was wealthy enough not to have to work for a living, and to have the leisure to travel around with Jesus.  More than that, as I’ve said, she was one of those who supported Jesus’ ministry out of her own resources.  We must not miss this detail.  It’s tempting for us to imagine that Jesus and his first followers didn’t need money.  Perhaps we imagine that Jesus would just ‘miracle-up’ some food every time they were hungry, or some new clothes when their old ones wore out.  But Jesus’s ministry was rooted in the real world, just as ours is.  And we know that the Disciples carried a purse – in fact Judas seems to have been the Honorary Treasurer for their little group.

And so, right at the beginning of the story of the church, the way in which we use our wealth becomes an important issue.  Mary Magdalene used her wealth to support and enhance Jesus’ ministry.  She understood that the work of God needs money to be invested in it.  It is part of God’s way of working with human beings that he chooses to work through us.  We are God’s hands and feet to a world in need.  God uses our hands to touch the world, our feet to spread his good news, and our wealth to build his Kingdom on earth.  Mary understood that.  I wonder whether we really do?  I wonder what the church of today would look like if all its members really understood what sacrificial giving for the work of God looks like.  Perhaps we would spend much less time holding jumble sales to keep the roof on, and much more time devoted to sharing God’s love with our neighbours in need.

So Mary Magdalene can be an inspiration to us in terms of the way we use our wealth.  And the second word I suggest we hold in our minds about her is the word ‘Witness’.

I’ve already mentioned that according to Matthew, Luke and John, Mary was the one sent to the male apostles with the news of the Resurrection.  We must not miss the significance of this.  According to Jesus law, women were unreliable witnesses.  Anyone from Jewish society of the time who heard that a woman had been sent by Jesus to tell men the news would have struggled to get their head around it.  Even at the moment of his greatest triumph, it seems that Jesus was still keen to declare that in his Kingdom there was no room for old fashioned, patriarchal, misogyny.  The word ‘apostle’ means ‘someone who is sent’.  By being the first witness to the news of the Resurrection, Mary, despite her gender, became the first ‘one who was sent’ – and so, effectively, the first Apostle. 

Now I realise of course that as a church which has recently experienced the ministry of woman, thanks to dear Connie, St John’s Purbrook is not likely to be holding on to out-dated notions of male and female roles in ministry.  But it is our task to make sure that we use each and every opportunity to tell others that Jesus is never concerned about our gender.  Our value to God has nothing to do with whether we are male or female, or perhaps even trans-gender.  Each of us is equally loved and regarded by God. And each of us is called, like the Magdalene, to be a witness to the world.  Each of us, in some sense, is an apostle – for we are sent out with the good news of God’s love for the world on our lips. 

By meditating today on Mary of Magdala, may you come to know how much God wants to partner with you in the work of building his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  May you learn the joy of releasing your wealth to that task, and the joy of knowing that you too are ‘one who is sent’ for the work of God.  Amen.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Sermon for the First Mass of Rev'd David Morgan

Sermon for the First Mass of Rev'd David Morgan and anticipating that of Rev'd Vickie Morgan

A little over 9 months ago, it was my enormous pleasure to welcome David and Vickie into their new roles as deacons of the church.  You might remember that I said then that the word 'deacon' comes from a Greek word, diakonos - which meant 'servant', 'waiting man', 'minister' or sometimes 'messenger'. 

If you want to dig a little deeper into what a deacon is, then you might like to revisit my sermon of the 15th of September last year…available at tomkennar.com, or on the sermons section of the parish website.

But as of yesterday, in the glorious service at Portsmouth Cathedral, David and Vickie have been called to an additional ministry – the ministry of the priesthood - just as I was twelve years ago.  Please notice that I say we were all called to an additional ministry.  We never stop being deacons.  But now, by God’s grace, David & Vickie are also called to the office and role of a priest. 

So, what is a priest?

There are many different answers to that question…depending on what theological tradition you come from.  So what I’m about to tell you is essentially MY understanding of mainstream Anglican teaching.  I’ll leave it to you to go and look up other understandings – including the long history of the Jewish priesthood, on which our priesthood is based.  But I hope my words will at least help you to get a handle on what it’s all about!

For traditional Anglicans and Catholics, a priest is perhaps best described by what they are authorised and commissioned to do – that is to say, the functions of a priest which are different from those of deacons.  These fall into three categories:

Eucharist

Blessing

Absolution

Let’s deal with these in turn…

The first is the ability of the priest to celebrate the Eucharist.  Traditional Christians believe that during the Eucharist prayer, the priest stands in the place of Jesus at the Lord’s Table.  Jesus’ disciples were effectively the first Christian priests, and Jesus said to them that whatever they loosed or bound in heaven was loosed or bound on earth.  This mysterious saying offers assurance to worshippers that when the priest says, on behalf of Jesus “This is my body” and “This is my blood”, then a real, spiritual event takes place.  In ways we do not fully understand, heaven is linked to earth.  Bread becomes body.  Wine becomes blood.  Spiritually.  Mysteriously.  But really.  And through the mystery of the Eucharist, WE become empowered to be Christ’s body in the world.  The risen Christ makes himself present to us in the holy mystery of the Eucharist…so that Christ may then be made present in the world through us, the church, whom he described as his Body.

Whilst the priest stands in the place of Christ at the Eucharist, there is also sense in which the priest also stands in the place of the people.  It has sometimes been said that the priest represents God to the people, and the people to God – a concept with deep Jewish roots, harking back to the veil of the temple, through which only the Priests could go.   At the moment of the Eucharistic prayer he or she is literally standing on the threshold between heaven and earth…acting as a bridge between God and human kind.  It’s an awesome task…and one for which all priests deserve your prayers.

That’s why the celebration of a first Mass is such a key moment in the life of any priest.  For David, in a few minutes, it’s the first time that one has had the chance to participate so fully in such a holy and precious mystery.  It’s a huge privilege, and one which quite often elicits an emotional reaction…so don’t be surprised if you hear David choking back a few tears!

The second function of a priest is to be able to offer Blessing.  Now this one really is a mystery!  Again, the idea is based on Jesus’ assurance that whatever a priest binds or looses in heaven is also bound or loosened on earth. 

A priest who offers a blessing is essentially a co-worker with God, in that moment.  He or she is essentially conferring, or assuring us of God’s favour and kindness towards us.  The Hebrew word most often translated as ‘bless’ is barak, which can mean ‘to praise, congratulate, or salute’.  We find that word throughout the Genesis story – when God blesses the sea creatures and birds, blesses Adam and Eve, and then blesses Abram as he is sent to the promised land – and promises that through Abram, all the families of the earth will be blessed.  All these blessings are plainly associated with happiness and welfare.

So when David offers us God’s blessing at the end of our service, he will be conferring and assuring us of God’s will for us.  God’s desire for all his children is for us to live blessed, happy, fulfilled lives.

The third and final function of a priest is to offer ‘absolution’ – that is God’s forgiveness. Again, the priest stands in the place of Jesus – offering and assuring the repentant person of God’s forgiveness.  Earlier in our service, David offered that Absolution, after our prayer of confession – and it was, I’m sure, a special moment for him and for all of us.  But the ‘general absolution’ during worship is just one way that absolution can be given.  In my ministry – as I’m sure it will be for David and Vickie – the most valuable time that absolution can be offered is in one-to-one pastoral encounters, such as during times of confession or the ministry of reconciliation.  Many times, I have found that having the authority of the church to offer and assure a repentant person of God’s loving forgiveness is a really special gift.

Eucharist, Blessing and Absolution.  These are the three defining functions of a priest.  They are, to an extent, the icing on the cake of a ministry which is otherwise lived out as a deacon.  They are additional to the ongoing tasks of serving the people of God, through leadership, teaching and prayer….as well as unblocking the occasional toilet. 

So to David, and to Vickie who will celebrate her first mass next week…welcome to the order of priests.  I pray that you and all of us will be enriched by what you will both experience and offer.  From working with you over the last two years, I have no doubt that you are going to prove to be a great blessing to all. May God bless you both richly in your new ministries!