Sunday, April 26, 2009
You have already heard my voice quite a bit this morning – so I’m going to keep these remarks mercifully short!
We’ve done quite a bit of thinking about the past this morning. But I hope you won’t mind if I focus a little on the future for a few minutes. I don’t know about you, but I think God is opening the doors to a really exciting future for us here in North End. As I’ve said in my written Annual report, we have some challenges ahead of us. But we also have some great strengths on which to build.
At St Nicks, for example, we have, in the form of Beverley, one of the most exciting theological brains that I’ve come across in many years – and one of the most gifted liturgists. We also have a core of people who are utterly dedicated to their church, to one another, and to their local community. As far as the worshipping life of St Nick’s is concerned, Ethos is already being spoken of with great excitement around the City – and indeed the country. Some of you may not know that Bev and the Ethos team have been invited to put on an Ethos event at Greenbelt – which is a major Christian Festival. I am really looking forward to seeing what God will do at St Nick’s over the coming year – as the congregation deepens its worship and fellowship – and begins to reach out to the surrounding community.
At St Francis, I think it’s going to be a great year – because of the great foundations that have been laid. In recent months we’ve seen new people added to the congregation, the link with the Fijian Church has become stronger and stronger, and the quality of fellowship between existing members has deepened. Much of this depth has been achieved through Di’s gentle, patient, pastoral care and preaching – and I think a foundation for great things has been laid. There are streets and streets of houses around St Francis who are only just beginning to realise that St Francis is there for them. There is huge opportunity for reaching out with the good news of God’s transforming love.
In St Mark’s, what was, frankly, a rather broken community has found healing, and the grace to forgive and move on. Our new choir is already being spoken of as one of the best in the City. Our family baptism services are drawing in new people – only yesterday I had an enquiry during our gift day from someone whose friend had told them all about how we now baptise children into the church. Thanks to the efforts of many people – but especially Phil Brombley and Jim Booth, the building is looking smarter and tidier than it has for many years – and people are starting to notice. The community cafe – run by people from all over the parish – is drawing new folks under our roof – and new relationships are being formed, constantly.
I wonder if you can see a theme emerging...it’s a theme of relationships. Other relationships are being deepened all over the parish. There are relationships between adults and young people – thanks to the brilliant work of Barbara, Wendy, Mary, Diana – and all their helpers. New relationships have been formed across the parish through the Journey of Life course, and the recent Lent courses. Relationships between churches are strengthened when we get together to support one another’s social events – quizzes, band concerts, table-top sales, gift days and seasonal fayres.
There are many exciting things that we might be able to do with all three of our buildings in the coming years. But a church is not about buildings. The body of Christ is the people of Christ. It’s the quality of our relationships which define who we are. It’s when people see us loving one another, forgiving one another, caring for one another, embracing one another: that’s when we will see God truly at work among us.
So let me encourage you, throughout the coming year, to keep on focusing on those relationships. I can do little better than to quote to letter to the Hebrews, chapter 10, verse 25: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another...”.
I wonder if you have ever noticed that, on average we only get about an hour a week in each other’s company...and for much of that hour, we face forward – singing, praying, and listening. But building a church takes more than an hour on a Sunday morning – it takes regular engagement with each other, and with our local community... people to people, person to person. Over the next year, I pray that we will find more and more ways of being together – and growing together. Then, I suggest, and only then, will the words that the choir sang to us this morning, really begin to bear fruit: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. Then all will know, that you are my disciples...if you have love for one another.”
Yesterday, a newcomer came into this church...during our gift day. Afterwards I was told that she said that the warm greeting she received made her feel as though she had come home. My prayer is that everyone who comes through our doors, everyone who encounters our love for one another, might truly feel that they too, have come home.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
(Preached at our Parish Communion - during which all three congregations of the Team came together - prior to our Annual Parochial Church Meeting. 26th April 2009)
We human beings love stories, don’t we? It’s the first thing that we do to our children, when they are old enough to understand even a few words...we read them a story. I remember it well: “This is Spot. Spot has a ball. Spot has a red ball”. (In my case, just to see if my daughter was paying attention, and to keep me from going quietly mad, I used to try reading some of the pages backwards...just to see if she was listening: “Ball red a has Spot”.)
As we grow older, our stories change - they become more elaborate, more detailed, more complex. Our ancestors told stories around campfires. They created plays of the best stories, and acted them out in Greek theatres. In our time, we watch movies, we get addicted to soap operas, we devour Jane Austin novels (well, Clare and Emily do, anyway). But why? What is it about stories which attracts us? Why do we love stories so much?
Psychologists tell us something that Holy Men have known for millennia: stories have the power to transform us. As we listen to stories, we start to ask ourselves questions: “what would it be like to be in that situation?” “How would I get out of that crisis?” “Would I like to become like the person in this story?”.
Like every Holy Man, Jesus also knew the power of story. That’s why he told so many parables. I wonder - have you ever considered the fact that - as far as we know - Jesus never took the trouble to write down a single word of instruction to his followers? Jesus didn’t leave us a rule-book...like the “Little Red Book” of Chairman Mao. He didn’t write down a precise list of behaviours he wanted us to follow. Instead he gave us stories. Stories of a wayward son who is greeted with love and acceptance by a father whose love has been abused. Stories of a foreigner who acts as a neighbour. Stories of what happens when we let earthly possessions become more important than heavenly treasure.
But the bible doesn’t just contain Jesus’ parables. It is itself a story - in fact someone once called it ‘the Greatest Story Ever Told’. This story weaves history with myth, poetry with fact; and at each turn of the page we are invited, by the Greatest Story-teller, to put ourselves in the place of each character. “Does this story reflect my circumstances? What can I learn from how the character resolved this particular situation?”
Today’s Gospel reading is no exception. Let’s see if we can’t follow that ancient practice of putting ourselves into the story. Let’s see if we can perhaps make some connections between the reading, and our own circumstances...
The first thing I want to observe is that, throughout this story, the Disciples are at a pivotal point in their own lives, and in the history of the church. On the one hand, Jesus death is behind them...he has visibly triumphed over the grave. But on the other hand, the hard work of establishing the church is still ahead of them.
I think we can say that there are some parallels between the disciples’ situation and ours. Certainly there have been some difficult days in our fairly recent past. And certainly, there is a great deal of work still to be done before the Kingdom is fully established in North End and Hilsea. We too, then, are at a pivotal point in our history...just like the disciples.
So let’s look at some other characteristics of their situation - to see what we might be able to learn for our situation.
The first thing I noticed, when I looked more closely at this story was that when Jesus appeared to his disciples, the disciples who had abandoned him, denied him, and run away and hidden while he was being crucified...his behaviour towards them was pretty surprising. You would have thought that the first thing he would have said to them would be something like, “where were you then?”. You might have expected Jesus to insist that everyone in that room who had done him wrong should have got down on one knee and begged for forgiveness. But no. Jesus reaction to seeing those who had hurt him in the past was a very simple one. “Peace be with you”.
Peace be with you. Four simple words...but four words which convey a Universe of meaning. Four words which offer forgiveness, even without apology. Four words which acknowledge that all human beings get things wrong sometimes. Four words which show more than any other how God deals with those who have hurt him, those who have wronged him, denied him, deserted him...he offers them peace.
That’s the kind of God we serve.
The next thing I notice about this story, is that Jesus was in the midst of the disciples’ situation. Verse 36: “Suddenly, the Lord himself stood among them...”. They didn’t always recognise him...in fact, at first they thought he was a ghost! But in time, they came to trust him, and to trust what he taught them, as he unfolded the Scriptures to them.
Jesus explained to them that what they still thought incomprehensible... the very idea that he should suffer and die... was in fact exactly what the Scriptures had said must happen. He taught them, in other words, that God’s ways are not like human ways. He taught them about the topsy turvey Kingdom of heaven - the Kingdom in which death, by a weird twist of Divine logic... leads to life. He taught them that God could be expected to turn over all their expectations of what they might expect God to be like. God was not going to punish them for their sins... He wasn’t going to exact retribution on them. No. In fact, forgiveness was what he was about. Forgiveness and Life. Not revenge-seeking and death.
The next thing I notice, is that the disciples were given a message to preach. Verse 47: “...in his name the message about repentance and the forgiveness of sins must be preached to all nations...” Having revealed himself to them, having clearly forgiven them, Jesus sent them out into the world to preach his message of the topsy turvey kingdom. The disciples were charged with a story to tell - a story which we have inherited and which we are commanded to tell as well. Its a story about the Lord of the Universe who is born in a stable. Its a story about the King of the Ages, who rides on a donkey. It’s a story about a God who dies, so that his creation can have life. It’s a topsy turvey story. It’s a story about how the followers of this God, who have received his forgiveness, go on to offer that forgiveness to other people.
Finally - the last thing I notice about this story - is that the Disciples are promised the Spirit of God. Verse 49: “I myself will send upon you what my Father has promised. But you must wait in the city until the power from above comes on you.” Of course, we know that this promise was fulfilled. We know the story of the day of Pentecost. But the disciples didn’t know. All they could do was trust...trust that the story would come true... Trust that the story-teller was reliable.
And that, finally, is what we must do to. We must trust in the story. As we go forward into the future, as a parish, as families, as individuals, we need to trust that the story we are living will have a happy ending. The “Greatest Story Ever Told” - the Bible - concludes with a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. It’s story with a happy ending that we are living. The promise of this story is that if we will hold on to the story-teller, if we will live as the story-teller invites us to live, if we will draw from the same source as the story-teller - then there is a promise of life everlasting, life to the full, life in all its fullness, for ever.
That’s a story worth telling. Isn’t it?
Saturday, April 11, 2009
The travel writer, Bill Bryson, has some intriuging thoughts in a similar vein. A few years ago, having made enough money from his travel writing, Mr Bryson devoted three years of his life to meeting some of the greatest scientific minds in the world, and learning what he could from them about how the Universe is made. His subsequent book, called "A Short History of Nearly Everything", begins with the following introductory paragraphs:
"Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn't easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realise.
To being with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and curiously obliging manner to create you. It's an arrangement so specialised and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist
this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, co-operative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but general under-appreciated state known as existence...
It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you...
The bad news is that atoms are fickle, and when the modest milestone of 650,000 hours of life - or thereabouts - has been reached, for reasons unknown your atoms will close you down, then silently disassemble and go off to be other things. And that's it for you." (The above quote has been slightly shortened from the original).
Makes you think doesn't it? Bill Bryson is not, as far as I know, someone who believes in God. But this opening paragraph of his book is one of the greatest adverts for the idea of a Creator that I think I've ever read. Life is a miracle. No one really understands how very much of what we call life happens.
Then, there's the miracle of how Jesus rose from the dead. When you think of all the other miracles that we take for granted - life, eating, childbirth, existence...it is perhaps not such a very big leap to think that God could raise a dead body from the grave.
And yet its such a big miracle, whose story has been told SO often...it has become so familiar to us. But it wasn't always like that...
Greek philosophers (the intellectual leaders of Jesus' time) spent very little mental energy thinking about what happened after death. Their concept of ‘Hades' – the ‘world of the dead' – was a shadowy place of disembodied spirits, a place of sadness and yearning. Jewish teachers, including the Sadducees (whom Jesus often debated with) simply believed that after death came dust, nothing more. ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust'. Nothing more.
So, if we had been living at the time of Jesus, the news that someone had risen from the dead would have been mind-blowing. It would have shattered all that we thought we knew about life, and especially about what happens after life. In fact, according to Matthew's gospel, it wasn't only Jesus who rose from the dead. Matthew relates that after Jesus' resurrection, ‘many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised…they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.' (Matthew.27:52-53). Can you imagine what that would have been like? Suddenly finding out about the resurrection – hearing stories like this from your neighbours and friends? What would you have thought?
Let's put ourselves in our ancestor's shoes for a moment – to try to understand the impact of the resurrection on them. Life was a very cheap commodity to the ancient world. Fathers had the legal right to kill their children (in certain circumstances). Masters could kill their slaves on a whim. Thousands of people crowded into arenas to watch gladiators murder one another in public – in the name of entertainment. Entire empires, including the Roman and Egyptian empires were built on the premise that life was cheap. You had to be a pharaoh, or an emperor before anyone spent any time worrying about what happened after you died. If you were a Pharoah, hundreds of thousands of slaves might build you a pyramid. But if you were a normal Joe...when you is dead, you is dead.
Now...use your imaginations.... Suddenly into that dismal world-view, the story of the Carpenter from Nazareth who had come back to life started to circulate. It was such exciting news! God had demonstrated, powerfully, that death was not the end. Jesus had put forward a new and entirely radical idea into the world… that physical death is not the end of our relationship with God, or even with each other. Death is not the end of life. Jesus' resurrection proclaimed loud and clear that all life is precious to God.
Thankfully, here in England, life is not treated as cheaply as it was by those ancient empires. But we need to watch out. Picking up any book on 20th Century history, we are quickly reminded of how urgently we need to be on our guard. We remember how disposable life was to the leaders of the two world wars – on all sides. We remember the genocides of the Soviet Union, and the revolutionary years in China. We think of Rwanda and of the ‘killing fields' of Cambodia and Vietnam. We remember the Balkans and Darfur, the Congo and Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Iraq. We see, horrifically, just how cheap life is to the suicide bomber; and for that matter, how cheap life is to those world leaders who betray their own attitude to human life with the casual words 'collateral damage'.
So the story of resurrection shouts at us across the centuries. It is a divine message of hope. But it is also a divine yardstick against which we are forced to measure the way that we treat life. Through the resurrection, God declares his passion for life – and forces us to ask what our own attitude to the preciousness of life really is.
One way of testing our own attitude to the preciousness of life is to examine where we spend our resources. There are many good and charitable causes that cry out for our attention. What yardstick do we use when we decide to whom we will give our money? After all, it was Jesus who reminded us that ‘ where your treasure is, so will your heart be also.' (Matthew 6:21). Is buying a new computer game really more precious to us than the life of a homeless drug addict? Are those new curtains really more precious to us than the life of a starving African child? Is the preservation of empty stately homes really more important to us than sustaining centres of worship and community in our spiritually dry cities? Of course, we're not saying these purchases – or support – are wrong, but maybe we should consider if they are always at the expense of helping others and more deserving causes. These are tough questions, and uncomfortable questions. They are resurrection questions.
The resurrection has the power to challenge us in other ways to. During the darkest days of the death squads in El Salvador, the church developed a new liturgy (a form of words used in a service). A list of the names of all those who had been ‘disappeared' was read out, and for each name someone from the congregation would respond ‘ Presente ' – ‘Here'. By this simple act, Salvadorian Christians declared their belief in another important resurrection principle. They lived out what the church calls ‘the communion of saints'. That is, put simply, the belief that God is the God of the dead, as well as the living. In fact, the Bible goes a stage further.
In Luke's gospel, Jesus teaches that the dead are anything but dead. He says that God is ‘not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.'Luke 20: 38
For the Christian, therefore, the resurrection message is that all those who have ever lived are ‘presente' to God. So when, in our various Communion liturgies, we say pray ‘with angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven' we are in fact praying ‘with angels and archangels and… and with the butchered of Rwanda, or Iraq, or Afghanistan; we are praying with the young woman who died last night under the Pier after an overdose, and the starving child who died this morning in the deserts of Africa. All are ‘ presente '. The glorious message of the resurrection is that while we might forget these people, God does not. All life is precious to him.
Incidentally, for those who may be concerned that I have not tackled the thorny question of heaven and hell, let me say this: the resurrection story gives us no warrant for arriving at easy conclusions about the ultimate destination of even the most lost of human souls. What it does say, in earth-shattering, tomb-rending terms, is that life is precious to God. All life – ‘for to him all are alive.' The rest we leave to the loving mercy of God.
This is good news. It is resurrection news. It is news that, I hope, will move us to declare again with renewed enthusiasm this Easter that ‘Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!'
Saturday, April 4, 2009
Jesus Enters Jerusalem on a donkey...
Palm Sunday. "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" We hear these words, we sing these songs but I wonder if we understand the impact of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the people of his time? This day marked the end of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the beginning of his end. He was moving into the final week of his earthly ministry - a climactic moment.
It did not just happen - Jesus planned eveything very carefully. He had even arranged for a donkey to ride on, and had agreed a coded message with the owner - so that when the Disciples turned up and took the donkey, the owner wouldn't complain.
It was very important for Jesus that he should arrive in the city on a donkey. He knew the prophecy from the ancient book of Zechariah,
‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
Triumphant and victorious is he,
Humble and riding on a donkey
On a colt, the foal of a donkey’
Jesus’ actions were an unmistakeable claim to be the Messiah, God’s messenger to the world. You see, Jesus normally walked everywhere. This is the only time we see Jesus travelling other than on foot. That is why the people pulled branches from the trees and shouted ‘hosanna’. That's why they threw their garments on the ground to welcome the King of Kings into the holy city...it was an very ancient custom to spread out cloaks for a King...going right back to the story of King Jehu, in 2 Kings 9.
Yes, the crowd certainly understood Jesus' claim to be the Messiah. That is why they began to sing the psalm of praise, Psalm 118 that pilgrims always sang on the way to Jerusalem: a song of victory, a hymn of praise to the God who defeats all his foes and establishes his kingdom:
'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
...With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar!'
But what did his disciples understand by all of this? Throughout the Gospel records we see Jesus struggling to help his disciples understand the sort of kingdom that he had come to usher in. But some of his disciples, even on Palm Sunday, still harboured ideas of Jesus coming to overthrow the Romans and to restore the power of the Jewish State. Whatever Jesus said, whatever Jesus did – it seemed that his disciples couldn't free themselves from some very human notions of power and victory.
You see, Palm Sunday is unmistakably all about power – the power of God. But the power of God is of a different order to the powers of this world. God’s power is not a sort of multiplication of the power of Caesar or of Napoleon or of the USA. Somehow just bigger, better, more powerful power. God’s power is not like that.
That is the point made in one of the crucial moments of Jesus Christ Superstar - the Rock Opera. Jesus and his followers are seen arriving in Jerusalem. Simon the Zealot is urging Jesus to go ahead and get the crowd to follow him to get rid of the Romans. Simon declares. ‘You’ll get the power and the glory for ever and ever and ever.’ And do you know what Jesus replies? Very gently, against all the noise of Simon the Zealot, he sings, 'Neither you, Simon, nor the fifty thousand, nor the Romans, nor the Jews; nor Judas; nor the twelve, nor the priests, nor the scribes nor doomed Jerusalem itself, understand what power is; understand what glory is; understand at all.’
You see - God’s power is shown through Jesus and through his self-giving and sacrifice, and suffering. Jesus Christ and him crucified; that is the power and wisdom of God. As St Paul said, "the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God". (1 Cor 1:18). It's a different order of power that works not through violence and victory but through love, service and sacrifice.
But you know - it is possible for us to see both those kinds of power at work today. On the one hand, we can see the power of violence and victory - as we see armies marching against each other around the planet, as we see selfish companies and individuals grabbing all the riches and wealth that they can, as we see man's inhumanity to man continuing to spread around the world.
But we can see the other kind of power as well. Every time that someone stands up against the violence and greed. Every time someone reaches out a hand to help another human being. Every time a hospital is opened, or a school is started, or a refugee is fed or given a tent - that's the power of God at work...showing us that there is another way...the way of love, service and sacrifice.
And actually - I think - if you were to count up all the people in the world who are involved with education, healing, loving their families, relieving poverty, serving their church or their local community, or working for reconcilliation - and then counted up all the people who are money grabbing war-mongers...you know I think we'd see, pretty quickly, that God's power is very much in evidence. I think you'd see really who is reigning on Earth.
We hear about the atrocities - the terrorist bombs, the famine and poverty - because they are real, and they are horrible. But what we don't hear about is the day to day normality that most people actually live with. God is the God of normality. He delights in the simple loving acts of families, and communities and churches all over the world. He delights in those communities around the world who are not obsessed with grabbing power, and working every hour He sends to buy the latest gadget, or the bigger house. I want to tell you...God delights - those communities, instead, who take just what they need from the land, and spend the rest of their time pursuing friendship and art and community. His power is found there. He is there.
That's why we can sing, with such joy, that Jesus Reigns over all the Earth! Because although we hear more about the bad stuff in the world - the reality is that God is alive...and 'God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year.'
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, on that first Palm Sunday, he was profoundly misunderstood. But the power of God that he was embracing and sustaining and sending forth throughout that first Holy Week has continued to shape and affect lives all around the world ever since.
The power of God is not about war and conquest, it's about love and sacrifice.
The power of God is not about gaining wealth, its about gaining simplicity.
If only we could really get hold of that message in our modern, consumer-society! We live in a society which is raping the earth of all its resources. We are on a road that is leading to disaster. Think on this for a moment...every conflict that our world has ever seen has been ultimately about human notions of power...the power to control the earth's resources...the power to impose my ideas over yours...the power to fill my pockets with gold, while yours are empty.
But Jesus' idea of power is absolutely the opposite to those kinds of notions. Jesus says "God's power is found in love, in serving others, in forgiveness and sacrifice." Unless we repent, and turn away from our selfish, power-grabbing, war-mongering, planet-raping, pleasure-seeking, wealth-hunting way of life...then quite simply, there will be no hope for us.
A final thought...Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey brought him closer to the Cross. The people looked for victory and hailed their hero – many would not have been there if they had known what lay ahead - and indeed they had fled by the time it became clear what was to happen.
And as ever the Pharisees are there, going along on the edge of the crowd, watching everything. They become anxious about what will happen if the authorities in Jerusalem think that this is a messianic demonstration going on. They shout across to Jesus, ‘tell your disciples to stop all this noise and celebration’ and Jesus replies, ‘if they were silent, even the stones would shout out.’
From Jesus’ point of view a great celebration is what there should be, because he is coming to his final act in bringing God’s salvation to the world. Yes, even the stones would cry out if people were silent.
From our point of view - the point of view of those who know not only the story of Palm Sunday but of Good Friday and of Easter, this is a call to cry out in celebration. We are called to be living stones, building up the house and kingdom of God in our time.
And so as we share today in the last supper of bread and wine, let us recall the new age that Jesus came to usher in, an age not based on military power or might but on suffering and service, love and obedience. And let us commit ourselves anew to being people of his Kingdom - people who embrace his way of living...the way of self-sacrifice and love.
As a sign of that commitment, I'm going to ask you to make a gesture this morning. When you come to the rail, to receive the sustaining power of the body and blood of Jesus, we are going to offer you a Palm Cross. After you have received the bread and the wine, or received a blessing, let me invite you to reach out and deliberately take that cross, as a sign that you are taking up the challenge that Jesus offers us. Take that cross home with you - and put it in a prominent place. Let it be a reminder, throughout the rest of this year, of the fundamentally different way of life that Jesus calls each one of us to embrace. Not the way of power, and wealth, and consumerism. The way of love, of self-sacrifice, of simplicity, and of peace.