Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Good Samaritan

The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10): Preached at a baptism service for Harry and Tyler Andrews. The sermon was preceded by a clip from the movie "The Miracle Maker" in which Jesus tells the story.

In a few minutes we will be baptising Harry and Tyler into the Church. But why are we doing it? What's it all about? I mean, its a bit of an odd thing to do isn't it...to pour some water over someone's head in the name of God?

Well, perhaps the first thing to say about baptism is that it is a very ancient practice. We know that for 2000 years, Christians have been doing this simple thing to each other. It stems out of a command that Jesus gave his disciples before he left them to carry on his work: "Go into all the world and make disciples - baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:18)

Jesus himself was baptised, in the River Jordan. So baptism is something that we do out of obedience to Jesus. We do it because he told us to...even though we might not understand it very well.

The second thing we can say about baptism is that it is a sign, a symbol - of something much deeper than what we shall see on the surface. (Note for website only: The technical term for this, within the church, is the word "sacrament" - which, according to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, means something that is an 'outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace".)

We see signs all around us, don't we? On remembrance day, we wear a poppy. On World Aids day, we wear a ribbon. When we drive down a street, we see road signs. What are these things? A flower. A ribbon. Some marks on a circle of metal. But because we know what they mean, these signs have resonance for us. We know that the poppy reminds us of those who have given their lives so that we can live in peace. We know that the ribbon reminds us that AIDS is a disease which millions are suffering from. We know that a circle with the number 20 in it means that we should drive safely.

So what is it that baptism is symbolising? Well, pretty clearly, it's a symbol of washing and cleansing. Christians believe that baptism is an essential part of the process of having our sins washed away.

But what is sin?
Sin is anything that gets in the way of us truly becoming the people that God created us to be. It's the bad stuff, the general rubbish and clutter of our lives, that comes between us and God. It's a difficult word, isn't it? Somehow we have got used to thinking of sinners as being those people who do the very worst things. Murderers, thieves, rapists, and so on. But that's only partly true.

Scripture tells us that 'all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God' (Rom.3:23). We've all 'fallen short'. I'm a sinner...and I hope that you'll forgive me for saying this... we are all 'sinners'. I'm not insulting you...honestly! I'm just using the word in the way it was meant to be used! None of us, if we examine ourselves honestly could ever claim to be perfect. And that's the dividing line. We are either perfect, like God. Or imperfect...and therefore sinners.

But the message of Baptism is that God never gives up on us. God is always reaching out to us, and offering us the chance to become more and more like him. He offers to take away our sin, and helps us to become more and more God-like. More like the people, created in God's image, that God intended us to be.

Baptism is a part of that process. It's an outward sign that God is at work in us. It's a sign of our saying 'yes' to the process of becoming more like God. For Harry and Tyler (who will probably scream when I pour water on their head) - it's a sign that their parents, on their behalf, are saying 'yes' to God as well.

But why would we want to do that at all? Why would we want to become more like God? The story of the Good Samaritan, which we just saw on the screen, might help us to find an answer.

In that story - which Jesus told - a man was going on a journey. While he was walking along, minding his own business, he was set upon by a group of thugs. Various important people walked right on past him. But eventually, a Samaritan stopped and took care of him. The story of the Good Samaritan has all sorts of things to teach us.

Samaritans were generally hated by the people that Jesus was talking to. If he was preaching to us, he might have used a Gypsy or a Traveller, instead of a Samaritan. Or, if he was preaching to the kind of ignorant people who vote for the British National Party, he might have used an African, or a Pakistani man.

We have a young friend who was visiting us last week. At the end of the evening, he set out to walk home, just a few streets away - but accidentally left his keys on the kitchen table. About 10 minutes later, I got a phone-call from him. He apologised profusely, and asked if I would mind coming out in my car to bring him his keys...because he was too nervous to walk back to my house. The reason was that as he had walked down London Road, he had been treated to a torrent of abuse from a group of young people. They shouted and screamed at him that he should go back to Pakistan. The irony is that these young British thugs were too stupid to realise that my young friend is training to be a doctor...someone who would be able to help them if they were ever ill. And worse still, they were too stupid to realise that my friend is, in fact, an African, not a Pakistani! He looks nothing like a man from Pakistan! I really fear for the spiritual health of our nation when our young people show themselves to be that stupid!

The story of the Good Samaritan teaches us about the need to stop judging other people because of their race, or their background. Samaritans were hated. But Jesus tried to show his listeners that such hatred was pointless. A Samaritan was just as capable of being a good neighbour as anyone else.

The story of the Good Samaritan shows us a different way. It shows us that it is possible to live a life that is based on giving, instead of getting. It shows us how generosity has the power to transform lives. The Samaritan in the story simply gave...of his time, his money, his medicine, his bandages... without looking for any reward. Except the satisfaction of simply doing good.

In doing so, he mirrored the way that God acts towards us. God is, by nature, a giver. God gives us his very breath, by giving us life. He gives us an amazing planet to live on, full of beauty and challenge. He gave us his son, to show us what he was like. He gives us healing and forgiveness every time we turn to him. He gives us his Spirit to help us to learn the Truth about who we are, and who He is.

I wonder what our society would look like if all of us lived that way. It's just possible that if more people embraced Jesus' way of living, that this world would be a far happier, far more sharing, far less destructive place for us all to live in. Wars over resources would be solved by people learning to share. Poppies would become a thing of the past. AIDS would be cured because money would get spent on medical research instead of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Ribbons wouldn't be needed anymore.

That's the sort of way of life that Harry and Tyler's parents (and God-parents) are signing them up to today. It takes courage to stand up at the front of a church in the way they are going to do in a few moments. And it takes courage to say "yes" to God's way of living...and "no" to doing things the old way. It takes courage to embrace God, and reject sin. It takes courage to step out on a journey of faith...and that is courage that I welcome and applaud.

Now - let's do some baptising!

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Bread of Life

John 6: 35 & 41-51

Preached at St Francis Church on the Sunday following the funeral of Rob Townsend, husband of the Vicar of St Francis.

It's good to be with you this morning - in the middle of what is, undoubtedly, a difficult time for all - and especially, of course, for dear Diane. Rob's death came so suddenly that it has taken us all by surprise. I want to start by thanking you all for the messages and gestures of love and support that I know you have all been sending to Di. She has told me that she has had more offers of help and support that she knows what to do with...and that she feels immensely loved, and held in your prayers. So thank you for that.

I know that many of you have also lost husbands and wives, and you will know something of what Di is coping with right now. The loss of such a close family member is always devastating - whether one has a Christian faith, or not. But for those of us who have faith, that devastating loss is - albeit slightly - gentled by the knowledge, and the hope, of the Christian story.

As is so often the case, our set Gospel reading for this morning speaks directly into our situation. Jesus refers to himself as the bread of life, and then promises that those who have been drawn to him, by Our Father, will be raised up at the last day. There are three ideas here, woven together:

  • there's the analogy of Jesus as the bread of life.
  • Then there's the idea of God drawing us into relationship with Jesus.
  • And then there's the promise of resurrection.

In those three ideas is found the heart of the Christian story - the story that Rob put his faith and trust in. So in the next few minutes, I'd like to unpack those ideas for us to ponder together.

Bread is one of those metaphors that runs right through the Bible. Bread was one of the most basic foods for the people of the Bible - as it remains for those of us who are not watching our figures too closely today! By referring to himself as the Bread of Life, Jesus was saying that he, and therefore God, is the basic requirement for all spiritual life. That's an idea that remains controversial even in our day. For some people, spirituality is about connection with Mother Earth, or a devotion to nature. For some its about ley-lines, gem-stones and lucky charms.

But to focus on these things is, I think, to confuse the Creator with the created. Jesus called us to go deeper - to focus on the source of all life...the Creator God. There may be power in created objects...because such objects come from God, and are infused with God as all things are. But if we focus on the objects, and not on their Creator, we are missing out on something really fundamental. It would be like focusing on the bread-tin, instead of the bread. The oven, instead of the loaf.

As we come together around the Lord's Table, as we shall in a few minutes - we are encouraged to focus our spiritual eyes on the Bread of Life - the most basic requirement for spiritual life. We are called to eat that bread, and drink that wine as a sign that we say 'Yes' to God's call - to the drawing of us towards himself that Jesus referred to.

And that's the second of those three points. Jesus said "No-one can come to me unless the Father draws them" (Jn 6:44). Many people have, I think, misunderstood that sentence. Many have used it to justify a spirit of spiritual superiority over others, saying "I am a Christian because God has called me...therefore every other religion is wrong". Or, perhaps worse still, "every other Christian who disagrees with my point of view is wrong. I'm saved, because God has pre-determined that I am one of the chosen."

(Web note: This section of the sermon is hinting at the notion of 'pre-destination' - the theological idea that God has pre-determined those whom he will save, and those whom he will condemn. There isn't space for a full discussion of this topic here...but I'd be happy to debate with anyone who wishes to explore it in the comment section of this Blog).

I don't think that Jesus meant his words to be taken in that way. I think that he was pointing out that God never stops drawing all his children towards him...he continually offers his life to all of his creation. In the very next verse, Jesus goes on to explain that the prophets had said "They will all be taught by God" - meaning, surely, that God offers his life to all. Some people respond to that call. Some people chose to feed on the Bread of Life. And some don't. Those that do, like Rob, have the greatest and most significant hope set before them...the hope of resurrection...and the third of my points for this morning.

Some years ago, a lawyer called Josh McDowell set out to examine the evidence of the Resurrection...intending to disprove it in the way that a lawyer would if arguing their case in court. The trouble was, that the more he examined the evidence, the more convinced he became, that the Resurrection was a real event. The book that he wrote as a result - called "Evidence that Demands a Verdict" has been a best-seller in Christian circles ever since.

Now I'm not going to try to summarise a whole book in two minutes. But some of the questions he asked went like this:

If Jesus didn't rise from the dead, who stole the body? If it was the authorities of the time, why didn't they simply produce the body when the Disciples started telling everyone that Jesus had risen from the dead? If the Disciples stole the body, why would they be willing to be tortured and executed for a lie? Wouldn't it have been rather easier to go back to their fishing nets and businesses?

Josh McDowell, and many like him, have concluded that we have good legal-style evidence for believing, with the Disciples, that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. Others have argued that even if he didn't...if perhaps his body was thrown onto the Jerusalem rubbish heap (as happened to most crucifixion victims) his Disciples were so enlivened by their encounter with him, so persuaded of his Spiritual life and force, that they were certain that death could not separate them from their Lord. So certain were they, that they were prepared to be executed and tortured, rather than give up their belief.

We, then, have strong grounds for believing the Easter story. We have strong grounds for believing that Jesus, the Bread of Life, never gives up on us, and that his Father and ours never stops calling us. We have strong grounds for believing that the hope of resurrection is a real hope. We have strong grounds for believing that Rob's life - and that of others we have loved - is not over...in fact that it has only barely begun.

And so, though we are in grief, we press on towards the goal (to use St Paul's phrase). In this church, over this weekend, we have had the sadness of Rob's funeral, but also the joy of marrying Amy Stevenson, as was, to her new husband Carl Lees. This afternoon we will be baptising Maisie Haytor into God's family. And during this last week we have rejoiced in the arrival of Toby Fisher - a new son for Karen and Sean, and a new Grandson for June.

The funeral service from the Book of Common Prayer had the immortal phrase "in the midst of life we are in death". But perhaps, as people who believe in the resurrection, as people who feed on the bread of life, we should better say that as Christians, we can rejoice. We can rejoice because even in the midst of death, even in the midst of such a shocking event as Rob's death, Rob and we are in life.


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Eucharistic Musings

A Sermon for 2nd August 2009

Note: There are lot's of half-educated assumptions about Presbyterianism in this sermon! I would be delighted to be corrected by anyone who knows more about this subject than me!

As most of you will be aware, my family and I have just returned from a two week holiday in Scotland. We’ve walked the hills and lochs, we’ve visited a safari park, we’ve retraced the steps of Robbie Burns, and we’ve sat by a warm fireside in the cold rain! One of the things we like to do when we go on holiday is to explore churches. It’s interesting to see how people in other parts of the country, or indeed the world, worship - and what memorials they feel it’s important to display. Regretfully, in Scotland, we were thwarted in that endeavour, because all the churches we tried to visit on our various walks were shut! Not, as we English sometimes do, out of a fear of vandalism - but for rather different reasons altogether.

The Church of Scotland is a very different organisation from the Church of England. For a start, it is ‘Presbyterian’ rather than Episcopal - which means that leadership rests in the hands of the local priest, or presbyter, rather than in the ‘episcope’ - or Bishop. Each congregation is therefore much more autonomous than we tend to be. Presbyterianism stems from a belief that the very first churches were much smaller entities than the huge dioceses that we in the catholic tradition have constructed. Scripture would seem to support that idea - there is clearly a sense that Timothy, (whom St Paul describes as a Bishop) was the leader of only one or maybe two congregations. In those terms, my role as Team Rector would be much closer to what the New Testament calls a Bishop... So you can call me Bishop Tom now if you like!!

Presbyterianism has its roots very firmly in the reformed tradition of the church. Their church buildings are very plain - just as one would see on the Continent. This comes from a strict interpretation of the Ten Commandments - the idea that we should not make graven images of anything on the earth or above the earth. In this sense, Presbyterians have a lot in common with Islam - which also prohibits the use of statues, images or icons. There is also a much reduced sense of a church being a holy place, as we tend to believe. Without religious art, Church of Scotland buildings are very plain...usually with clear or frosted glass at the windows, plain white walls, and very few memorials. The theological message being sent is that it is not the building which is holy, but the people. That is another reason why many of the churches are not left open for public visitors. Congregations want people to join them for worship, not simply to come and visit an empty ‘meeting house’.

The pews in Scottish churches are often turned sideways, to enhance the sense of togetherness, rather than long-ways as most of our English churches do. People face each other - not the altar - again re-enforcing the idea that the church is the people, not the building. Traditional Scottish churches tend to be focused on a central, raised pulpit...sometimes as much as 20 feet up in the air...as a sign that the preaching and exposition of the scriptures, for the edification of the people, is of prime importance. Long sermons are the norm for Presbyterians! Which is an idea I think we should establish here? What about you?!

The corollary to having such a prominent pulpit is that the Lord’s Table tends to have a secondary, lower position - still central, but at floor level. Always called the Lord’s Table rather than the Altar - on the basis that Jesus did away with altar-sacrifices by his one, perfect, oblation and satisfaction. In fact in many Church of Scotland churches, the service of Holy Communion is only held around four times a year. As I understand their history, this is partly to ensure that people rely on preaching rather than ceremony for their spiritual health - and partly so that the taking of Communion will be done reverently and carefully, and after serious thought and preparation. It is certainly the case that we in the Church of England can be guilty of going through the motions, week by week, without giving the whole concept of Communion very much thought.

The Church of Scotland is by no means the only national church to act in these ways. You will find churches like this all across the world - and especially in those countries which were most influenced by the teachings of John Calvin. I’ve worshipped in similar churches in Hungary and Romania - and I’ve seen many others around the world. There is much I think we can learn from their tradition; much that we would do well to ponder ourselves. Are we sometimes guilty of thinking of our building as the church, rather than its people? Do we place too much emphasis on art and iconography - the works of human beings - rather than the splendour of the works of God outside our walls? Do we give enough attention to the preaching of the scriptures? Should we sacrifice some of our rituals, in order to spend more time learning about the faith that we profess? Do we sometimes go through the motions of Holy Communion, without really engaging with the deep mystery that it presents us with?

It is that last question that I’d like to focus on for the remainder of this short sermon. Our readings this morning have reminded us of some of the layers of meaning that the early church attached to this simple ceremony. The reading from Exodus reminded us of the story of how God fed the Israelites with ‘manna’ from heaven during their time in the desert. What the reading didn’t make absolutely clear is that the word ‘manna’ meant ‘what is it?’ - the cry of incomprehension from the Israelites themselves when they first encountered it. That might be our question too - as we approach the mystery of Holy Communion. What is it? What’s it all about?

Let’s get some terminology out of the way first. Communion is called by many names - Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper, and of course Communion. What do they mean? Well, Eucharist comes from a Greek word which essentially means ‘thanksgiving’. It reminds us that we come together to give thanks for all that God has done for us, by creating us, sustaining us by his Spirit, and healing, or redeeming, us by his Son. Technically speaking, the Eucharistic, or Thanksgiving, refers only to part of the service - to the prayer of Thanksgiving which comes just before the Consecration of the bread and wine...the prayer to which the congregation replies ‘Holy, Holy, Holy...’. But over time, like so many words, the word Eucharist has become expended to include the whole service - because there are so many elements of thanksgiving included...for example through our singing, through many of our prayers, and through our thankful giving of gifts.

The word Mass has its roots in a Latin word...’Messe’ - which means literally a ‘meal’. It is no more mysterious than that. And its where the armed services get the idea of calling their restaurants and canteens ’the mess’. To say that I am about to celebrate the Mass is to say that I am about to celebrate ‘The Meal’ - the meal, of the body of Christ, gathered together around the Lord’s Table.

The word ‘Communion’, or ‘Holy Communion’ is rather easier to digest. It comes from the same root word as our word ‘communal’ - and so it clearly points us to the idea that this is something significant which we do together. But it also brings into its shades of meaning the idea of being joined...that as we commune with each other, we also commune with God. Communion is essentially a communal event - it is the coming together of the people of God, and in doing so the people of God encounter God. You may not know this - but it is actually illegal for a priest to celebrate communion on their own. Or at least, if I were to do so, the church teaches that it would not be communion. The prayers of consecration would have no effect. Communion has to involve at least two people - who come together and encounter God in their togetherness.

The Lord’s Supper - as a phrase - is rather more meaningful, I think. It points us back to the historical event of Jesus sharing his last Passover supper with his disciples...and it reminds us of the layers of meaning that Jesus attached to the elements of that meal. “This is my body”. “This is my blood”.

In many ways, it’s my favourite title for what we are doing together today. It is a phrase which does two things - it points backwards to an historical event. But it is also said in the present tense. It’s not ‘the Memorial of the Lord’s Supper’ - but it is the ‘Lord’s Supper’ itself. By using that phrase, we become participants in that last supper. We become the disciples seated around that table - puzzling over precisely what he meant by labelling a loaf of bread as his body, and a cup of wine as his blood. Some people have taken it to mean that the bread and wine become the actual, physical, body and blood of Jesus - and indeed, wars have been fought over how to interpret His words.

I personally think that goes a bit far. I don’t know what the Church of Scotland teaches on that point, but the Church of England is clear that the only sense in which the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus is a spiritual sense. When we consume them, the bread remains bread, and the wine remains wine, but they are somehow, mysteriously suffused with God. By his ‘amazing grace’, he enters into these things even more deeply than He is already present in everything. They become not just tokens of the physical food that we all need to survive, and which God graciously gives us...but they become tokens of the spiritual food which we all need as well.

But there is a two-way process going on. The Lord’s Supper, the Communion, the Mass, the Eucharist is not just about God giving us ‘manna’ from heaven to sustain us on our spiritual journeys. It is also about us saying ‘yes’ to being part of God’s life on this planet. It is about us saying that we choose to be in communion with God, and with each other, and that we choose to be part of his plan for the healing of the World. This is not a memorial to a long distant event - even a memorial only of the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. Jesus did not give us death by his death...he offered us life. When we eat and drink these things, we say ‘yes’, thankfully, eucharistically, to his offer of life...life for ourselves, and life for the world.

Each Sunday, then, as you approach this Lord’s Table, and participate in this Lord’s Supper, may you approach with a heart that is full of anticipation - full of thanksgiving, yes, but also full of excitement at the knowledge that God has invited you...yes you and me...to participate in His life, and in his plan to heal the World. As you take the bread, and drink the wine, may you silently state your ‘yes’ - your commitment to being part of all that God has in store for you, and for your family, and for your neighbours, and for our World.

And whether you do it every Sunday, or just four times a year as our Scottish brethren do, may you never lose that sense of excitement, wonder, and mystery that is at the heart of this simple meal.