Saturday, January 31, 2009
Light of the World?
According to Navy legend, once upon a time, in the early days of naval radar, a United States aircraft carrier called the USS Constitution was making its way into British waters. The Radar operator spotted a blip on his screen, directly in the path of the mighty carrier. So the Captain radioed ahead and said "Unknown Vessel, please change your course by 20 degrees to avoid a collision".
The radio crackled, and a reply came back. "Unable to comply. You change your course." The captain picked up the radio again. "Listen, this is a naval vessel - heading straight for your co-ordinates. Now change your course, or risk being sent to the bottom of the ocean".
The radio crackled again, and the reply came back, "We were here first. You change your course!" By now, the captain of the mighty war machine was incandescent with rage. "Listen, you little British pip-squeek. This is the USS Constitution - the largest air-craft carrier in the world. We won't even feel you when we run over you. Now move!"
The radio crackled for a third time. "This is the Eddystone Lighthouse. Your move."
There's something really special about lighthouses, isn't there? As a boy, I used to spend holidays in the fishing town of Brixham, down in deepest Devon. I loved watching the Berry-head lighthouse, streaming its beam out over the waters. There's something deeply comforting about the regular, pulsating light...the swoop of the beam...the knowledge that this light is making this bit of coastline safe.
Today we are celebrating the feast of Candlemass. Now, being from a rather low church background, this is not a feast that I have particularly encountered before. So I've done a bit of digging on the Internet to try and discover what its all about. According to the Oracle of All Knowledge (also known as Wikipedia - see this link for more details), Candlemass is the time when members of the Orthodox church bring beeswax candles to church to have them blessed by the priest - candles that will be used throughout the year.
The blessing takes place, in some places, after an all-night vigil. So, if we were really to be 'doing' Candlemas properly, we should have been here in church all night...and you should have all brought candles to be blessed at the Eucharist. Next year perhaps?!
Ultimately, of course, however it is celebrated, the symbolism is all about light. It stems from the reading for the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple - the gospel we heard just now. As you know, when Christ had been presented, Simeon the Righteous declared that he had seen the promised Messiah - and that he was now content to die. Crucially, he described Jesus as 'a light'...a light to the non-Jewish world, as well as glory (which is another light-related metaphor)...glory for the people of Israel.
Light is a theme which permeates the whole bible - just like the search-beam of a lighthouse. God's first command, according the Great Legend of Genesis was 'Let there be light'. God led the Israelites through the Sinai Desert by a pillar of fire...a great light. Jesus is described as the light of men, and the light of the world. As we heard last week, Saul was struck by a light on the road to Damascus. And on the nearly the last page of the Bible, in chapter 21 of the book of Revelation, the New Jerusalem is lit not by the sun or the moon, but by the glory of God, and the Lamb, who is described as the light.
Of course, this is all metaphor. We are not meant to picture Jesus as if he had somehow transformed himself into a lighthouse...with super-trooper beams coming out of his eyes! "Tonight the Super-trooper beams are going to blind me, shining like the Sun". Jesus is not an extra from Mamma Mia! Instead, this powerful metaphor is meant to make us ask what life might be like if it was lived in God's way...if life could be lived fully 'in the light' of the teachings of God.
Now, this is the point in many sermons on light when the preacher will give you a list of things you can do to be someone who lives in the light of God. But you don't need me to do that. You know what the difference is between a life that embraces the light and a life that embraces the dark. You know it instinctively...because God's light is in you. You know the difference between getting and giving, between hating and loving. You simply need to decide which way you want to live. No, I'm not going to give you a list of things you should do. Instead, I want to tell you a little story...
I was standing on the steps of St Mark's last week. I was looking around at the whole area. I saw a woman, walking past the church, with a toddler in a pushchair, clutching a balloon. I saw people at the recycling bins, doing their bit to save the planet. I saw a young couple coming out of Blockbusters, bag of DVDs in hand, preparing themselves for a movie-night. I saw a seagull swooping down to pick up some random piece of food off the car-park floor. Pidgeons perched on our church roof. I saw an old woman, making her way carefully along the cracked paving stones. I saw litter - the evidence of little moments of fun - skittering along in the wind. I saw a thousand and one little details of life...all taking place in front of me...here, in our own community.
Suddenly, I seemed to see things differently. It was if God was shining the beam of a light-house across Derby Road. I saw all these things not as the normal humdrum activity of a typical day in North End...but as a moment in time, pregnant with all sorts of possibilities. I saw all these people, all these creatures, going about their daily lives...and I suddenly felt a huge sense of awe at the incredible beauty in front of me. Beauty? In North End? Yes I know what you are thinking. You're thinking I've been working too hard...and I've finally cracked. But no. I think, just for a moment, I got a glimpse of how God sees the world.
God's light is like a golden glow...and extra dimension of seeing, that we are sometimes able to just perceive, on the edge of our consiousness. It's a way of seeing beyond the mess and the chaos, and instead beginning to see the interconnectedness of all things. It's a way of seeing this world of ours, the beautiful mountains, and the litter-strewn streets as all, all the people, all the animals, all of life somehow, radiant with the glory of God.
So I just stood there...and tried to take it all in. I couldn't of course. I'm not God. I can only 'see through a glass darkly' to use St Paul's phrase. But just for a moment...I caught of glimpse of what life in the light of God could really be like.
Seeing the world, and ourselves, in God's light means seeing ourselves as indivisibly connected to all that there is...all of us are the children of God. This entire planet is God's creation. We can all become caught up in the dance of God, if we will only open our eyes to follow his steps.
As I've thought about that experience, through the rest of this week, I've wondered what it might mean...for me, and for all of us. I wonder if we all could glimpse just how truly connected we all are, what that might do to the way we live our lives. Could it be that we could discover, together, even more of what it means to live as a community of people who love one another...who bear with one another, who forgive one another, who offer the hand of support to one another. Perhaps we would truly begin to grasp the idea that whatever love we show to one another, it is love that we show to our Lord as well.
In 1997, the pop group 'Katrina and the Waves' stormed to victory at the Eurovision Song Contest with a song called 'Love Shine a Light'. They won by a margin of 70 points (soixante-dix points!) over the Irish runner up...because their song made such a hit with the audience. Here are some of the words of that song:
Love Shine a light in every corner of our hearts,
let the love light carry, let the love light carry
Light up the magic in every little part,
let our love shine a light in every corner of our hearts.
And we're all gonna shine a light together
all shine a light to light the way
Brothers and sisters in every little part,
let our love shine a light in every corner of our hearts.
That's my prayer for all of us in this parish...that we will begin to shine the light of God's love all around this place. Such light, such love, has the power to transform lives, and to transform ourselves.
If only we will watch for the light-house beam of God as it sweeps across our church, our families and our lives.
And now - as a special treat - Sarah Leslie is going to perform that very song from which I just quoted. Perhaps you'd like to listen to her words, and ponder what it might mean for your life, if you just let the light of God in through your windows.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
The Conversion of Saul - Fact or Fiction?
This story - of the conversion of St Paul - is a bit of a puzzler, isn't it? It makes us wonder why Jesus doesn't call everyone with a bright light, and a voice from heaven. I mean - when you first began to accept the notion that Jesus was worth following, were you struck down by a bright light in the middle of North End? While you were doing your shopping? No...neither was I.
What you may not realise is that there are in fact three accounts of this story - all within the book of Acts. And on each occasion, the facts of the story are reported slightly differently. The first time we hear it, Luke tells the story. Then the next two times, Luke records Paul's own version of events - but each version is slightly different. (If you want to check out the different stories for yourself, then read chapters 9, 22 and 26 of Acts).
Why so many different version of the same story? I suggest that it is because we are not meant to take the story absolutely literally. Who exactly heard it the voice? What exactly did it say? Did the light flash, or shine? It is difficult to get exact answers from the three accounts. This has the feeling of a story which has changed since the original event...one that has been embellished along with the telling, over the years.
You know what it's like. It's like a fisherman's tale of the one that got away. Some poor fisherman catches a fish. It's an enormous one...perhaps about two feet long. But, after a short struggle, the line snaps, and the fish swims away. Later, in the bar, as the fisherman tells his friends about the event...suddenly the fish was not two feet long...it was massive! It was three, or four, or five feet long. It doesn't really matter now...no-one else saw the fish...and this is making a great story. And it wasn't a short struggle followed by a snapped line...it was a mammoth, titanic struggle for hours and hours - the matching of wits and strength between man and fish.
The fisherman isn't telling a lie, as such. There really was a big fish. There really was a struggle. But by embellishing the story, the fisherman makes it memorable...it becomes a story that a whole community can enter into with their imaginations.
I tend to think that the story of Saul's conversion is a bit like that. I might be entirely wrong. You are entirely at liberty to believe that there really was a light, and there really was a voice from the sky. It doesn't make you or me any better a follower of Jesus - whatever we choose to believe. Though I would love you to tell me how the different versions of the story in Acts can all be true...
I rather prefer a more human-scale version of the story. Saul's conversion happened while he was in the middle of a journey. He had just finished persecuting Christians in Jerusalem. He had just been standing in the crowd, holding the coats of those who were stoning the first martyr, Stephen. Now he was on his way to Damascus to persecute more followers of the Way. Saul was a highly religious man, a teacher who knew his Hebrew Scriptures back to front and inside out.
So there he is...walking the 120 miles from Jerusalem to Damascus. He has got a lot of time for thinking - and for musing on the horror of what he has just witnessed. Watching a man being stoned to death - just for believing something different - it must have been a sobering, thought-provoking thing to have seen. As the miles ticked by, at walking pace, perhaps Paul found himself revisiting all the Hebrew Scriptures in his mind. Perhaps he was searching for proof that this Jesus that the 'followers of the Way' were on about could not possibly be the Messiah, the Christ. But the more he thinks about it - the more he realises what the character of God is like...as described in the Hebrew Scriptures...the more he comes to see that Jesus was exactly that...the Messiah, the Christ.
It is as if a light is switched on in Paul's mind. The light is not on the road - flashing or shining. The light comes on in Paul's head. Now he sees himself very differently...as someone who has just participated in the stoning of an innocent man. He begins to ask himself..."why did I persecute that man? What was I doing? The scriptures actually do point to a Messiah who will be humble, riding on a donkey - one who would be 'wounded for our transgressions'. So why am I persecuting Jesus and his followers. I've been such a fool!"
Later, when Paul tells people about his dramatic change of mind...he dresses it up a bit. He's a preacher...a communicator. He knows how to spin a good yarn. You can imagine him saying "It was amazing! It was like this light came on...this blinding light...and it was like Jesus himself was saying to me 'Saul, why are you persecuting me'"
A few more tellings...a few years later...by a few more people...and no longer is this a story about what it was like...but now its a story of lights actually coming on...super-trooper spot-lights from heaven. No longer is it a story of Jesus speaking to Saul through his imagination...no, its a more dramatic story of Jesus actually speaking real words.
Why am I telling you this? Why am I taking the trouble to break down the dramatic story of Saul's conversion that we all love - deconstructing it to something more ordinary...more life-like?
Quite simply because I want you to see that Saul's story can be our story too. I don't know anyone who has experienced the kind of dramatic conversion - the full-blown theophany of lights and sound and action - that the story of Saul suggests. Perhaps such people exist. Perhaps God does act in that way, from time to time, for some people. I don't discount the possibility...God can do whatever God wants.
But for most of us, God works in a much gentler way. Most of us come to a realisation, at some point on life's journey, that the essential underlying truth of God is worth persuing. For some of us that realisation is gradual...week by week, month by month, we find ourselves caught up in the dance of God. For others its a more dramatic moment - like a light being switched on - when all that we've heard about God suddenly, somehow, makes sense.
And it is healthy, I believe, for us to think in these terms - and for us to talk in these terms to our families, friends and neighbours. Too many Followers of the Way go around promising their friends that if they become Christians they will see dramatic, miraculous intervention in their lives by God. I believe that God does indeed intervene...through the miracles of love, compassion, charity, hope, friendship, family, community, healing, wholeness and purpose. But he doesn't very often shine bright lights out of the sky, nor talk with an audible voice.
I suggest that the story of Saul's conversion is just that...a story - rooted in a real event - a life-transforming, paradigm-changing encounter with Truth, and with God. The exciting thing is to realise that this story, and this life-transforming event is available to all of us...every single one of us is invited to embrace the Truth, and to have our lives totally transformed by that knowledge.
May you know the power of Truth in your life. May you encounter God again and again along the road of your own life's journey. And may you, like Saul, become transformed by that knowledge - and like Paul, find yourself led into the fullness of life that Jesus offers to all who follow his Way.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Charlie and the Toilet
Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time there was a boy called Charlie. Charlie was one of those little boys whose behaviour was feared by all his teachers at school. Frankly, sometimes, he acted like a complete idiot. He would shout at his teachers. He would refuse to do what he was asked to do. His language was appalling. Perhaps worst of all, Charlie was a bully to his classmates.
One day, Charlie’s teacher, Mr Browning, had had enough. He had just found Charlie in the boy’s cloakroom - trying to flush another boy’s head down the toilet. Mr Browning grabbed Charlie by the ear, and frogmarched him to the Headteacher’s office.
The head-teacher, Mrs Sanderson, was a scary sort of person. Her hair was tied back in a very ferocious knot. She had a very loud voice, which could stop small children in their tracks at a hundred yards. And she wore some of those half-mooned glasses which she would look over at every child. Even Charlie, who wasn’t scared of many people - even Charlie was afraid of Mrs Sanderson.
Charlie’s teacher pulled him into Mrs Sanderson’s office. “Yes?” said Mrs Sanderson, looking over her glasses. “What’s Charlie been up to this time?”.
“I just found him in the boy’s wash-room trying to flush another boy’s head down the toilet”, said Mr Browning.
“Really?” said Mrs Sanderson. “Charlie - why were you doing that?”
“Dunno” said Charlie. “He looked at me”.
“Thank you, Mr Browning”, said Mrs Sanderson. “Leave this to me.” Browning turned and left the room. “Now, let me get this straight, Charlie,” said Mrs Sanderson. “He looked at you?”
“Yeh,” replied Charlie. And then it all came tumbling out. “He was looking at me and I said to ‘im ‘wot you fink you’re looking at?’ and he said ‘nofink’ and I said ‘liar’ and he said ‘I’m not’ and I said ‘you are!’ and then I grabbed him and got him in a headlock and I flushed his head down the bog just to teach him a lesson”.
“Right” said Mrs Sanderson, in that sarcastic tone that only headteachers really know how to use. “What do you think is going to happen now, Charlie”
“S’pose you’re going to punish me.”
“Actually,” said Mrs Sanderson, “I’m not going to punish you.”
“What?!” said Charlie - puzzled by this term of events.
“No, said Mrs Sanderson, “I’m not going to punish you - I’m going to teach you a lesson”
“That’s just another word for ‘punishment’ isn’t it?” asked Charlie.
“Sometimes,” said Mrs Sanderson. “But today, I really am going to teach you something. Today, Charlie, you are going to learn about grace”
“Grace?” said Charlie. “What - you’re going to teach me how to do that silly praying-thing before I eat my dinner?”
“No” Mrs Sanderson laughed. “No, this is another kind of grace altogether”. Then to Charlie’s surprise, Mrs Sanderson took off her half-mooned glasses, and laid them on her desk. Then, she reached up behind her head, and undid the knot in her hair, and let her hair fall softly over her shoulders.
“Charlie,” she said, her normally hard voice now sounding very soft. “Come here”
Charlie was suspicious. ‘I know what’s going to happen,’ he thought. ‘She’s just pretending to be nice so as she can catch me. If I go over there, she’ll grab me, and batter me.’ So he stayed rooted to the spot, staring at Mrs Sanderson.
“Charlie”, said Mrs Sanderson, “In all the years you have been at this school, have you ever known me to tell a lie?”
Charlie thought for a moment. “Well, no” he replied, hesitantly.
“Well then,” said Mrs Sanderson, “believe me when I say that nothing bad is going to happen if you come over here - if you let me teach you the lesson I want to teach you about grace”
Charlie was intrigued now. What was going to happen? What could Mrs Sanderson possibly teach him? Nervously, he put one foot forward.
“That’s right,” encouraged Mrs Sanderson. “Come to me”
Charlie figured that it might just be worth trying. It was better than getting battered, anyway. So gingerly he made his way across the head-teacher’s office, until he was standing right in front of her desk. He thought to himself, ‘At least the desk will protect me if she tries anything’. Mrs Sanderson smiled. It was a warm smile; a welcoming, friendly smile.
“Now come round the side of the desk, Charlie” said Mrs Sanderson. “Come round here to me.”
Charlie was mesmerised. He didn’t have a clue what was going on. But suddenly he felt drawn to do what Mrs Sanderson asked. Carefully, he made his way round the side of the desk, and stood right in front of her, just one step away...just enough room to make a break for it if he needed to.
“Do you know what I’m going to do to you, Charlie”, asked Mrs Sanderson.
“I’m going to give you a hug, Charlie”
“You’re a loony,” said Charlie.
“No, Charlie, I’m not. I’m going to give you a hug because I know that deep down inside, under all your bluster, and your violence, and your bullying there is a small boy who just needs to know that someone cares about him. Would you like a hug from someone who understands why you behave like you do...who understands that there are bits of your life that are out of your control...who understands that you behave the way you do because you can’t help it...something in you is trying to get control over some part of your life...and you use violence to try to get it.” Mrs Sanderson opened her arms, as if to receive Charlie into them.
Charlie thought about it for a moment. He didn’t really understand what Mrs Sanderson was talking about. All that stuff about trying to get control. All he knew was that he was angry all the time - and that no-one seemed to care about him. A hug? Wouldn’t be the end of the world, he supposed. Never really had a proper hug - not for a long time anyway.
Tentatively, Charlie took a final step, into the arms of this strange, enigmatic woman whom he didn’t understand at all. She was weird. One minute she looked all ferocious and fierce, and then here she was offering him a hug.
Charlie let himself go. He relaxed into the hug. He put his head on Mrs Sanderson’s chest, and he just let go.
Then the tears started. It’s funny how a sudden change of mood can make the tears flow. Charlie hadn’t cried for years. He was too tough for that. But now, here in this strange woman’s arms, Charlie’s eyes filled up, and the tears flowed like rivers down his cheeks.
Mrs Sanderson stroked Charlie’s head. “It’s alright Charlie. I understand. Let it all go. Let me take some of the pain. Because, you know what Charlie. I love you.”
Charlie’s life changed, from that day onward. Somehow, knowing that he was loved, seemed to make a difference. As the weeks and months went by, Charlie’s violent outbursts became less and less. He started to focus on his work, and started to show kindness to his classmates, instead of hatred.
Sometimes, when he knew that all his friends were busy in another part of the school, he would creep into Mrs Sanderson’s office - and they would talk about his plans, and his ideas for the future.
And occasionally, just occasionally, just so that he would know it was real, Mrs Sanderson would give Charlie a hug.
Friday, January 9, 2009
Mark 1: 4-11 The Baptism of Jesus (Rituals and Sacraments)
In fact, the Anglican church I attended during the 1990s was so 'low', that we only celebrated Holy Communion about once every three months...and that was in the evening. We never lit candles (because our priest thought them to be rather too Roman Catholic), and the Lord's table was never dressed in fine linen. We drank from a wine glass, and we ate chunks of real bread, scattering crumbs everywhere...instead of the crumbless wafers that are used here. Our minister (who never referred to himself as a priest) almost never wore a clerical collar...and almost never wore robes either. Robes were reserved for weddings and funerals...never for a Sunday service.
The church in which I served as a Curate was somewhat less closed to ritual...and while I was there, I learned a great deal about the power of symbols, and the value of certain rituals. But I was still a long way from the kind of Catholic tradition you have had here at St Mark's, over the years.
So I came here in fear and trembling. Would I get it right? Would I bow in all the right places? Would I know when to do things, and how to do them, in the 'right' way? But I was willing to give it a go - to see what I could learn from participating. Which is why I now carry the gospel high and proud in the air as we process into church. It's why I willingly go through the motions of carrying the same gospel out into the body of the church, when we read it. It's why I symbolically wash my hands before celebrating the Eucharist. And it’s why we had incense during Midnight Mass, just a couple of weeks ago. (Although the more observant of you will have noticed that I was too scared to do the 'wafting' myself...I got Helen to do it!)
This morning's gospel reading confronts us with a truth that some people find uncomfortable...especially those who would like to rid the church of all symbolism and ritual. That uncomfortable truth is this... Jesus was into ritual. By submitting to the practice of baptism, by allowing himself to be submerged under water in a symbolic action of cleansing, Jesus opened himself to letting the ritual speak to him, and to those around him. The result of his willingness was that voice of God, from heaven, announcing "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased".
And baptism wasn't the only ritual that Jesus engaged with. He worshipped in the synagogue and temple - subjecting himself to all the rituals that would have gone on there. He celebrated the Passover - a ritualistic feast, with a thousand year history. And he instituted new rituals for his followers - the symbolic washing of feet, and the Lord's Supper...the Eucharist which we will soon celebrate together.
Of course, every church, even the least obviously ritualistic, has its rituals. Just the act of gathering together at a set time, is a ritual. Choosing to start every service with half an hour of singing is a ritual. Having coffee and fellowship after the service is a ritual.
And of course, our whole lives are full of ritual. My morning ritual, for example, is very important to me. I wake up, pray briefly, then stagger down the stairs for my first infusion of super-strength caffiene. Clare and Emily will tell you that unless I'm allowed half an hour to come to, coffee in one hand, and (I'm ashamed to admit) a cigarette in the other...then I just won't be human. I need my morning ritual...its part of who I am.
So I completely understand why some of you tell me that you need your church rituals as well. Sometimes, when you tell me you want certain things to happen, I'm afraid I'm a bit naughty with you. Some of you have already heard my question...why? Why do you want to do such and such? What does it mean?
There's a reason why I ask that question. You see, for me, religion should never be about ritual - it should be about relationship. Unless a certain ritual serves to deepen our relationship with God and with each other, then, frankly, it should not be used. Let me tell you why I think that...
You will, I'm sure, remember the story of Moses and the Burning Bush. At the end of his conversation with God, Moses asks God what his name is. "Whom shall I say has sent me?" is the question that Moses has for God. Moses is after God's name...he wants a word which will sum up what God is. He wants a noun for God.
But God doesn't give Moses a noun...a simple naming word. No, God gives Moses a verb...a doing word. God says that his name is Yahweh...which translates as "I am that I am...or I will be what I will be".
Let's just make sure we are all clear about the difference between a noun and a verb. A noun is a naming word. If God had wanted to be known by a noun, he could have said "My name is Eric...or 'Great Big God', or The Creator". But God didn't choose a noun for himself. He chose a verb. A verb is an active word....living, crying, loving, laughing, sighing, moaning, being...these are all verbs. God wanted Moses - and us - to understand that in his very nature...at the very core of who God was and is...there is the concept of being. This is a God who is active and at work. This is not the God who 'created'...but the God who goes on creating. This is not the God once loved the world...but the God who goes on loving us, second by second, minute by minute, day by day.
Just think about that for a moment. Perhaps it might help to think of a light bulb. A light bulb will only keep on shining as long as there is electricity flowing through the wire. We are like that. The Universe is like that. We only exist, and continue to exist, because God continues to give us life. St Paul, writing to the Colossians said about Jesus that 'in Him all things now hold together'. (Col 1:17)
So we don't worship a dead God, a God of the past, a God who can be named, and put in a box. We worship a living God...an ever-creating God...a God who wants to flow into us, through us, and out of us.
So our rituals need to reflect that reality. Dead ritual is ritual which only speaks of how things were. Dead ritual is ritual which is done because 'that's the way we've always done it'. Living ritual is ritual that is connected to our common belief that God is alive among us, and that Jesus calls us to be his brothers and sisters.
So I hold the gospel high...because I want to point to the importance of the words it contains. I carry the gospel out to you, when it is read, because these words point us towards life...and they need to be shared with all the people. I bow to you, the congregation, because in you I see and experience God, and because I want you to know that I am your servant. I celebrate the Eucharist, or the Mass, or the Holy Communion...or whatever you want to call it...because I believe that Jesus offers us his life, as well as his death. By eating and drinking of that life, we ritualistically say 'yes' to living with God at our core...God as our Lord...God as the source of our own lives.
Ritual mattered to Jesus. Signs and Sacraments, like the Baptism he submitted to, and the meal he instituted, were living, visual images of the life that Jesus called us to. By his baptism, Jesus calls us to repent, to 'return' to God, the source of our life. By his last supper, Jesus invites us to drink deeply, and eat heartily, of the life he offers us. By these rituals, Jesus points us to the heart of what it means to be a son, or a daughter, of the living God.