Saturday, December 4, 2010
“In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”.
John the Baptist is one of the more strange characters of the New Testament. He wore clothing of camel hair – which I imagine was rather itchy – and seems to have lived exclusively on locusts and wild honey. I imagine that getting wild honey out of a wild honey-bee hive is rather a tricky thing to do. So poor old John was probably covered in bee-stings as well.
John is traditionally viewed as the last of the Old Testament prophets. He follows the tradition of living apart from civilisation, and of calling people to repent of their evil ways. So, let’s picture the scene – picture a rather dirty fellow, who has probably never visited a barber, dressed in camel-hair, covered in bee-stings and with honey stuck to his shirt, munching on a locust...and declaring at the top of his voice “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near”.
I wonder what our reaction would be if we met someone like that in the streets of North End – or even here inside the church. I think we’d probably try to get him arrested as a Vargrant! We certainly wouldn't take him very seriously.
But there was something about John that attracted people to him. There was something about his message that, according to Matthew’s Gospel, had people coming out to him in the wilderness from “Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all of the region along the River Jordan” (Mt 3:5) And let’s remember, these weren’t Sunday drivers out for an laugh at the strange fellow in the desert. These were people who would have travelled many hours, and in some cases many days, in hot, dusty air – to hear for themselves the amazing – even scandalous - things that this man of the desert was saying.
John was not a man to mince his words either. He taunted the religious leaders of the day with phrases like “You viper’s brood” (Mt 3:7) He warned them against the complacency of their religion. “Just because you are Abraham’s children,” he would say, “don’t go thinking that gives you an automatic right to heaven” (Mt 7:8 - paraphrased)
But, despite his acid tongue, John still managed to draw people to him. One of those who were attracted to John was Andrew – the brother of Simon Peter. According to John’s Gospel, Andrew was a disciple of John’s – until, that is, John pointed out who Jesus was... at which point Andrew switched allegiances, and joined up with Jesus.
I find that an interesting little detail. It’s interesting that although John recognised who Jesus was, he did not himself, become one of Jesus’ followers. Rather, one of his own disciples (Andrew) left his side and went to be with Jesus (which would have been a very unusual thing for any disciple to do in those days).
There are, in fact, a number of strange inconsistencies about John. First there is the fact that he didn’t join up with Jesus. Why didn’t he set aside his baptising, and become a follower of the Lord? And then there’s the fact that when he was in prison he sent word to Jesus to ask him if he really was the Messiah...despite having recognised him as such by the Jordon.
There may be a number of explanations for these strange aspects of John’s behaviour. One suggestion is that he had a different vision in his head of what the Messiah would do – he seemed to expect a Messiah who would be full of swift judgment against the evil people of the day. See what he says in Matthew’s gospel:
“...he will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”. (Mt 3: 12) John’s mental picture of the Messiah was based in the language and concepts of the Old Testament. He expected the ‘great and terrible Day of the Lord’. And when it didn’t happen quite as he expected, he perhaps proved more reticent to join up with Jesus. Maybe that’s why he sent word from his prison – saying to Jesus, “are you really the Messiah?”.
There are some historians who think that John remained ultimately unconvinced about Jesus – and that he actually went on preaching the coming of a another Messiah (having found Jesus to be, in his judgment, just a little bit wet). John continued to have disciples after he had met Jesus, and continued to baptise people in his own way. There are many references to the ‘baptism of John’ throughout the early years of the New Testament – suggesting that in some ways John was almost a rival to Jesus.
That may be... but it is clear from the Gospel accounts, that for at least the one glorious moment of Jesus baptism, John saw the light... he saw clearly who Jesus was, and heard the confirmation of that from heaven itself. But perhaps, just perhaps, John was never quite able to give up his own idea of what the Messiah would be like...should be like. From today’s reading we can see that John expected an imminent judgment to be enacted – he uses the metaphor of an axe which is being put to the root of the trees – a sense in which ‘any minute now’ the tree of human failure is about to be chopped down. John expects action – he expects the Lord to arrive with a winnowing fork – scattering the grain into the air and separating out the wheat from the chaff – and he expects it to happen soon.
But Jesus has a subtly different agenda. He also speaks of judgement, and of separating sheep from goats – later in Matthew’s gospel in fact. But Jesus places that event at some distance in the future. First, he has work to do – to call as many people as possible to turn towards God ( to repent), and to give the greatest possible opportunity for people to choose God’s way of living over their own. He is so committed to that path – and so reluctant to embark on the eventual task of judgement - that he is prepared to give up his own life so that we might find our way back to God. Jesus' first public words, according to Matthew, are 'Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near'. He echoes John's own words: the kingdom of heaven is indeed near. But for Jesus the kingdom of heaven was something tangible, something already present. The Kingdom of Heaven is something that can be experienced now...whenever there is love, whenever there is mercy, whenever there is kindness. In fact, whenever people do exactly what you are about to do when you bring your presents up to the front in a moment...that is when the Kingdom is brought nearest. For a moment, when love and mercy and generosity touch, Heaven touches earth.
And I wonder whether we ourselves can sometimes be a bit like John. Certainly, as a human race, we have often been guilty of making God in our image – instead of understanding that God makes us in God's image. How many wars have been fought in the belief that God is on our side? How many acts of cruelty have been perpetrated in name of God? Are there ways in which we conduct our lives which are inconsistent with the reality of Jesus – and the way in which he calls us to live?
Have you seen those bracelets with the letters “WWJD”? They stand for “what would Jesus do” – as I'm sure you know. Its an old question, but it’s still a good question. What would Jesus do in the face of the rampant poverty of the developing world? What would Jesus do in the face of corruption among leaders of so many nations? What would Jesus do when faced with the commercial pressure to ‘spend, spend, spend’ at this time of the year? What would Jesus do in the face of globalisation and climate change?
My daughter has a t-shirt with the question “Who would Jesus bomb?”... but that’s a subject for another discussion altogether!
During this time of advent, the story of John invites us to prepare for the coming of Jesus – the true Messiah. We are invited to prepare for the Lord who says “love one another”, and who seeks to draw us to himself so that we might discover God’s love.
May you know the peace of Christ as you prepare to celebrate his coming once again this year. May you know the reality of Jesus – and through soaking up the stories about him in the Bible, begin to gain an ever-more-fuller understanding of who he was and what he stood for. And may that knowledge transform you, day by day, so that you may truly know who you are...a loved child of God...and what you stand for.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
Note: This sermon is peppered with quotations from the above Scriptures, but not cited individually everytime they are used. I strongly recommend reading the passages listed above before reading the sermon itself.
A sermon for the first Sunday of Advent, 2010.
I don't know about you - but I'm pretty useless at waiting for things. I hate using buses - because that would mean waiting for a bus to arrive. I'm useless at waiting for the latest blockbuster movie to arrive on a nice cheap DVD - so I end up going to the cinema...or worse still, get tempted to download it, illegally, from the internet. If I see a book that I fancy, I buy it...rather than dropping hints to my family that it would make a nice Christmas or birthday present. So by the time my birthday arrives, there's nothing my family can buy for me...because I've already bought it! Basically, I confess, I'm just not very patient.
Waiting can be a frustrating thing, can't it? Frankly it can also be a terrifying thing too. If you've ever had to wait for the results of an important medical test, you'll know what I mean. The husbands and wives of service-personnel know all about the agony of waiting too...waiting for news, day by day...news that may bring relief for another day, or terrible, life-shattering news. Waiting can instil within us a sometimes toxic mixture of hope and despair. For those who are waiting to die...or waiting with someone who is dying, the daily grind of slight improvement followed by sinking deeper can be exhausting.
For the followers of Jesus, to whom Matthew was writing, waiting had become a terrible agony too. By the time Matthew wrote his gospel, the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman army. Christians were under immense persecution, along with their Jewish cousins. Some were hiding in underground caves - like the catacombs in Rome. Some prominent leaders - Peter, Paul, Stephen - had already been executed for their faith in Jesus Christ...and there was an impending sense of doom that the soldiers would be coming for others very soon.
But there were stories about Jesus, circulating among these scared early Christians...stories of things Jesus had said. And one of the things he had very clearly said was that he would return. He had promised his disciples that he would not leave them, and that he would be seen again.
But what did he mean by that? Did he mean that he would physically return, like some avenging warlord, leading the hosts of heaven into a final cataclysmic battle against the forces of evil? Many people hoped that he would...not least because their present situation was so desperate. Many people drew on the Hebrew Bible - what we call the Old Testament - for evidence that this is precisely how Jesus would return. They poured over the ancient texts, seeking clues for when Jesus would return. They turned to ancient prophecies, like the words of Isaiah, which promised that the Lord could judge the nations - leading them to turn their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks. Nation would no longer lift up sword against nation, neither would they learn war anymore. (cf Isaiah 2:1-5)
There are many people who still cling on to that kind of hope today, despite the passage of 2000 years. The Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, have based their entire theology and world-view around the idea that the end of the world is coming - and that Jesus will soon appear to 'smite the ungodly', and take the godly to heaven. Others spend years of their time pouring over the more obscure books of the bible - using 'numerology' to try and calculate when the world will end...trying to unlock the secrets of books like Daniel and Revelation.
For all such people - in Jesus' day, as well as now...the waiting can be agonising. Each day they wake up and pray..."Lord, let it be today". They live in a constant, heightened sense of expectation that any minute now, Jesus will physically appear, and all the problems of the world will be solved by his mighty and powerful intervention. In the most extreme cases, this agony of waiting can turn into a sense of utter fatalism. There are towns in certain parts of the world where the expectation of Jesus' imminent arrival is so real, that people have stopped repairing their houses, mending the roads, or educating their children. They ask themselves whether there is any point in trying to make society better, if the world's about to end anyway. Why bother? Why not just sit around chatting to the neighbours, and wait for Jesus to come and sort everything out?
For others, the agony of waiting inspires them to try to hasten the end of the world...believing that they are doing God's will. The book of Revelation speaks in poetic terms about great battles in the Middle East, not least on the plains of Meggido (or Armageddon as we know it)...so they work to foment unrest in the middle east. They actually want war, because, they believe, war will bring about the end of the world. Others, who have read that the Jerusalem Temple will be re-established, are doing all they can to have the Muslim's Dome of the Rock demolished - because it is built on the site of the Temple. They have already provided all the priestly robes and sacred objects that will be used in the new Temple. They have raised all the funds necessary for the building itself. They constantly lobby the Israeli Government for the right to rebuild the Temple. An alliance has been built up between orthodox Jews and certain right-wing Christian groups - two groups which would normally have nothing in common. But they are both united in their desire to see the Temple rebuilt...because they believe that will cause the end of the world, and the coming, or the return, of the Messiah. One of the most popular series of books ever published is the 'left behind' series - soon to be turned into a major movie...a series of books all about the coming end of the world.
Yes...for all these people...the Jehovah's Witnesses, the numerologists, the Orthodox Jews, and the mainly American right-wing Christians...waiting is agony. They don't want to wait. They want Jesus to come back now...and to sort out all the worlds problems.
For me, as a student of the Bible and a student of Jesus, this is all very frustrating. I'm frustrated by people who don't understand that Jesus almost never spoke literally...about anything. Jesus always talked in parables and riddles. He used picture-language, not literal language, in almost every part of his teaching. He used complex imagery to get over to his listeners what was essentially a very basic teaching: that the world has two paths: a path of goodness and Godliness, and a path of evil...and that God gives us a choice as to which way we chose to walk. He talked of a wise man who built his house on rock, and the foolish man who built on sand. He talked of rich people being in hell, while poor people ended up 'in the bosom of Abraham'. He talked about seed which fell on stony ground or fertile ground. And he talked about the 'Son of Man' coming at an unexpected hour.
The 'Son of Man' was a title which Jesus gave himself...drawing on ancient Hebrew Scriptures. Like all of Jesus' parables and images, it is a title which is meant to make us ponder and imagine. What did Jesus mean? Son of Man? Surely he should have called himself 'Son of God'?
When we try to get our heads around this, we need to remember that to be the 'Son' of something was not necessarily to be an actual, physical child. When Jesus called the Pharisees 'sons of vipers' (or 'a viper's brood') he didn't mean to suggest that the Pharisees were literally small baby snakes. He was using imagery. To be a Son of Righteousness, for example, was to be someone who lived in a righteous way. To be the 'Son of Satan', was to be someone who lived in evil ways. And to be the Son of Man, surely meant that Jesus saw himself as embodying what it meant to be truly Man...truly human.
For Jesus, to be truly human - truly a Son of Man - was to be someone who lived up to all that God meant a Man, a human, to be. God created human beings with infinite capacities for love and for creativity. God created human beings to live together in community - saying of Adam (the archetypal first Man) that it is not good for Man to live alone. Therefore it surely follows that to be a full Son of Man is to be someone who embraces love, creativity and community. A Son of Man is someone who loves, who gives of that love to others, in a never ending creative communion. A Son of Man is what Rowan Williams calls 'the Human One' - someone who has learned to embrace what it means to be truly human.
We need to understand these two basic facts about Jesus: first that he always taught in imagery, never in literal language. Secondly that he holds himself up as an example of what it means to be truly Human...the Human One...the Son of Man. Once we've grasped those two basic facts about Jesus, all of his teaching about the end of the world takes on a very different light...a very different light indeed.
For Jesus, the Human World was a place of ugliness...a place of violence, a place of selfishness...where the rich got richer, while the poor got poorer. He contrasted this human world, with all its ugliness, with his vision of the 'Kingdom of God'...a Kingdom which he taught was already among us. So for Jesus there are two ideas, being held together - two Kingdoms...the Kingdom of the Human World as it is now, and the Kingdom of Heaven...a vision of a world as it could be, and indeed as it was already becoming through him.
So when Jesus talks about the end of the world, he means that there will, one day, be an end to this world's way of being. He means that one day, the Kingdom of the World would be replaced entirely by the Kingdom of Heaven...which is why he taught us to pray 'Thy Kingdom come'. And this, according to Jesus, would finally take place when the 'Son of Man' comes. In other words, the Kingdom of Heaven will come when true humanity comes. The Kingdom of Heaven will be established when people learn, at last, what it means to be truly human...to live in loving, creative, community with each other...rather than selfish, warlike, community-destroying hatred.
And so, finally, Jesus teaches us that we don't have to wait for him to come like some avenging warlord. That after all, is the exact opposite of the way Jesus always did things. When he could have destroyed those who would nail him to a cross, he didn't. He kept on being true to who he was, as the Human One, as the Son of Man...dedicated to living in loving, creative, community. To suggest that Jesus is going to return with some great show of force is an absolute contradiction of who Jesus is.
No, we are not called to wait around for some heavenly firework display. Instead, in Paul's words, we are called to 'put on the Lord Jesus Christ' - we are to put on what it means to be like Christ, to be people who live in loving creative community. Paul goes further. Using two more metaphors, he says that we are to put aside the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light. We are to live honourably, not revelling in debauchery, quarrelling and jealousy. These are not the ways of the Human Ones. These are not the ways of the Sons and Daughters of True Man.
For the Kingdom to come, we are called to do anything but wait around. We called to be up and active! We are called to alert...like a man who knows a thief is coming to break into his house. We are called to be pressing on towards the prize (another image from St Paul), doing all that we can to be the true Sons and Daughters of Man that Jesus exemplifies for us. This has nothing to do with waiting around for God to intervene...and has everything to do with us taking part in God's intervention that has already begun.
May you learn what it means to be a Son or a Daughter of Man...following the path the Jesus has already laid out for us to follow. May you know what it means to live in loving, creative community with everyone around you. May you be part of the solution to the evil which stalks the streets of our world. May you be Christ to everyone you meet, and ready to embrace Christ's coming wherever, and whenever, it is experienced.
Sunday, November 21, 2010
(2 Samuel 5: 1-3, Colossians 1:12-20, Luke 23:35-43).
I’m sure you’ve heard the quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: "Something is wrong in the state of Denmark". Shakespeare invites us, as he so often does, to hold up a mirror to our own society...to ask ourselves whether there is anything rotten in the state that we live in too. Is there something wrong with the State of our World? Is there something wrong, for example, with a world which, in the last century, slaughtered 150 million people in wars...150 million…that’s more than have died in all the preceding centuries put together. Is there something wrong with a world in which 1 billion people survive on less than a dollar a day...scratching round in rubbish tips for something to eat.
Have you ever wondered how many people is a billion people? Let me give you some idea of the scale....Imagine, if you can, a line of 1billion people, standing 1 yard apart. If I were to get in my car, and drive along the line of people at 60 miles per hour for one hour, I would pass 105,600 people. Do you know how long I would have to drive at 60 miles per hour, all day, all night, without stopping, to pass by 1 billion people? 1 YEAR and 29 days.
Note to my internet readers...here's the calculation:
1,760 yards = 1 mile
At 60 miles per hour, after one hour I would pass 105,600 people standing one yard apart (1,760 times 60).Therefore 1,000,000,000 (1 billion) people, divided by 105,600 tells me how many hours it would take to drive past 1 billion people. The answer is 9,469 hours - which divided by 24 hours in the day, is 394 days (or 1 year and 29 days).
That's how many people live on this planet in abject poverty. That's how many live in refugee camps, reliant entirely on aid agencies or other hand-outs just to survive from one day to the next.
Yes, Beloved, there is something wrong with the State we are in.
In a little while, as bread and wine are consecrated, we will remind ourselves that Christ claims dominion over all creation. We will remind ourselves what His Kingdom is like: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace. How very different that Kingdom is from the one which was in place in the time of Jesus…
The Romans believed that they had a duty to conquer and then rule the known world. Not through ideas, not through love and generosity; but through violence. They brought many good innovations with them...as the 'Judaean Popular People's Front' had to acknowledge in the 'Life of Brian'. "What have the Romans done for us...apart from the roads and the schools and the hospitals and the sewerage systems?" But Roman rule was ultimately based on the idea of 'redemptive violence' - the idea that society, and life in general, can only be improved through conquest and coercion.
That had terrifying consequences for the people of Jesus' day – and there were two ways, primarily, that local people used to resist the Romans’ violent oppression. The first was the reaction of the Zealots. They were a small group of revolutionaries, who believed in defeating Rome by Rome's own methods of violence. They ran small scale attacks on Roman installations, and Roman people...trying to drive out the Romans through a campaign of fear. Today, we would call the Zealots 'terrorists'. People who use the fear of attack to change the mind or policy of a ruling power.
The other reaction to the Romans was the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism. The Pharisees, in particular, established a system of fundamental religious law...and a belief that if only every Jewish person would follow all the Laws of God for just one day, then the Messiah (the St. Saviour!) would come to liberate them from their oppressors. There were other fundamentalist religious reactions too…like that of the Essenes, who escaped to the desert, in an attempt to flee the violence of Rome.
Terrorism and Religious Fundamentalism. They sound very familiar. Don't they? The ancient world was so much like our world. In fact, apart from the fact that we have electricity and fast transport systems, there is actually very little that has changed. The world is still ruled by powerful men. Poor people still starve every day. And ordinary people still lose their lives in pointless wars and conflicts. Power, imposed from above, is so endemic that we all know what is meant by that old joke: “What’s the difference between God and the President of the United States? Answer: God doesn’t think he’s the President of the United States.”
That one little joke opens up a whole wealth of meaning: because it assumes that we know exactly what Presidents are like…power-mad. But it’s a worrisome joke too, because it assumes that we all think of God like some kind of brutal power-monger as well. Our view of God is shaped by the society in which we live…we tend to think of God as a sort of bigger, stronger Prime Minister, or a sort of super-Headmaster….ready to punish or reward us at the end of term. We treat God like some distant Emperor who will be cross with us if we don’t behave, and who stands ready to punish us if we don’t believe the right things, or do the right actions.
St Luke was very conscious of the kind of political and religious world into which Jesus came. He frames his entire narrative in terms of Kingship, as we shall hear again through Advent and Christmas. Chapter 1: "In the days of King Herod of Judaea...' Chapter 2: "...at this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree". Chapter 3: "In the fifteenth year of Tiberias Caesar's reign". Luke framed his story by reference to three rulers...but then, at the end, as we just heard in our Gospel reading, he places Jesus on his cross with the massively ironic legend "King of the Jews" over his head.
But Luke also contrasts the three great rulers with three simple people. In his first three chapters, the references to Herod, Augustus and Tiberius are contrasted with Mary, Zechariah and Simeon: all of whom proclaim a different kind of Kingdom. These are people who, as Rowan Williams says, are 'lifted up by a God who snubs and turns away the powerful'. In Jesus, God has 'turned upside down the assumptions of the world' (see Williams, 2000, 'Christ on Trial' p.51). Jesus presents us with a God who is nothing like the God of our power-corrupted imaginations.
It is perhaps during his trial that we get the clearest sense of what Jesus believed about power. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, for example, Jesus steadfastly resists any attempt to be named as either God's Son, or the Messiah - let alone the King of Kings. He silences the demoniacs, the healed leper, and even Simon Peter when they identify him. But, there does come a point, a crucial point, where he permits himself to be revealed. During his trial, the High Priest invites the prisoner to incriminate himself: "Are you the Christ", he asks, "the Son of the Blessed One?". Jesus answers with the plainest of plain words: "I am".
Why then? Why at that point?
Here I turn again to Rowan Williams for help. In his book 'Christ on Trial' Williams comments that "Jesus before the High Priest has no leverage in the world; he is denuded of whatever power he might have had. Stripped and bound before the court, he has no stake in how the world organises itself. He is definitively outside the system of the world's power and the language of power. He is going to die, because that is what the world has decided. It is at this moment and this moment only that he speaks plainly about who he is. He names himself with the name of the God of Israel, 'I am'…"
(Williams, 2000, Christ on Trial, p.7).
Christ the King is nothing like the Kings we have known. He is much more after the pattern of the gentle Shepherd which David was challenged to pre-figure, in our first reading. According to St Paul's letter to the Colossians, Jesus is the firstborn of all creation, through which everything was made...including even “thrones, dominations, sovereignties and powers”...but his task is to reconcile all that he has made (not dominate it) bringing it together in him, through him and for him by making peace by his death on the cross.
Jesus death on the cross has many layers of meaning, of course. But one of them that we must not miss is that by his death, Jesus unmasks the Kingdoms of this world. He demonstrates that the notion of redemptive violence, practised by the Romans and the Priests, is nothing but a mask for unadulterated evil. By his death, Jesus shows Emperors and High Priests in their true light...bully-boys, whose ultimate achievement through violence is the death of a simple, loving man, and the nailing of God himself onto a cross. It's as though Jesus says, "this is what happens when you live with the lie of redemptive violence...you end up squeezing God out, onto the margins, onto a hill outside the City."
But Jesus redeems even such marginalisation. There, outside the City wall, pushed away by the State, he is still at work. He still works to redeem creation. To the thief beside him he turns and promises "Today you will be with me in Paradise". It's as though having failed to persuade the State to embrace a different way, Jesus switches tactics. If the State will not bow to the love and just mercy of God, then Jesus will start from a different point...he will carry out his redemption one thief at a time, one person at a time.
And that finally is where we come in to this story. There is not much that you and I can hope to achieve in changing the State we are in. We can't hope to halt the armies of the world, as they pound each other to dust. We can't hope to shift the priorities of a world economic system which can find £100 billion dollars to bail out the banks, but which can't help those billion people in a line outside our door. But like Jesus, with the thief on the Cross, it turns out that we can do something, after all. One person at a time. One life at a time. We can love our neighbour. We can sponsor a child - just talk to World Vision. We can give the gift of life to a family in the two-thirds world - just 'Send a Cow'. We can choose to live in love and reconciliation with our neighbours, whether they be local or global, next-door neighbours, or religious neighbours.
We can continue to live with the false myth that the State we are in can be improved through violence and coercion - what we might call the 'myth of redemptive violence', or we can wake up to the call of Christ the King, and embrace a different kind of kingship altogether.
Saturday, October 16, 2010
Now here's a question to conjure with...why are we about to baptise Ashton Philip Michael Davis?
The baptism of children is something that most parts of the Christian Church have done since the earliest days after Jesus walked the earth. But there are some parts of the church - particularly those known as 'Baptists' who would say that what we are about to do makes no sense. They would argue that baptism should only be given to adults who have professed a faith in Jesus. For them, baptism is a sign of conversion...a sign that the person being baptised has chosen to follow Jesus.
But that's not what the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican churches have taught. For us, baptism is much less about our faith, but about what God wants to do in us. Baptism doesn't depend on us...it depends on God. Through Baptism, we declare that God loves Ashton...and that God welcomes Ashton into life on earth, and into the church.
There's a measure of protection offered here as well. For centuries, parents have called priests to the bed of sick children, and asked for them to be baptised. That was my experience in fact. When I was born, I suffered from a condition which twisted my stomach around 360 degrees. It meant that no food would go down into my tummy. Well, as you see, I've overcome that particular difficulty now! But I still bear the very large scar of an operation which was needed to untwist my tummy. But before the operation was carried out, my parents asked for a priest to baptise me. They were seeking a sign of God's protection on their son, and assurance that if anything went wrong...if I had died on the operating table...then God would have continued to protect me. In fact, my poor Mum was so distraught that she prayed "Oh God. If you will only save my son, I will give him to you." I will leave you to imagine her joy when about 30 or so years later, I told her that I was to become a priest!
Just now we watched a video of the time when Jesus stilled a storm. He did so as a way of offering protection to his disciples. He demonstrated that he had power to protect them, power even over the weather itself. But there was a much deeper point that he was making. This was not an invitation for the followers of Jesus to become 'weather wizards'. Rather, Jesus was living out a powerful story - a story in which whatever life throws at us, God offers his protection to us. Whether we live or die, God's protection of God's children never fails.
Because we are human, and we live an earthly experience, we tend to see things only from an earthly point of view. We tend to forget that God sees things from an eternal perspective. For God, even death is only a door-way...a door-way to an eternal existence of never-ending love. Baptism is a sign that God wants only the best for us...God wants us to live life that goes on for ever. God wants us to be God's children - and, through baptism, to offer our children to God as well.
Now here's another question. Have you ever heard the phrase 'born again Christian'. Through baptism, the church has always taught, we are all born again. We are born once when we enter this world...born into the physical reality of our body. But then, through baptism, we are born again of the Spirit of God. Our spirit is awakened. It is enlivened to the presence of God. Baptism is a bit like lighting the touch-paper of our soul.
So that's something of what baptism means - and what Ashton's baptism will mean in a few minutes. Its a sign of God's love. Its a sign of God's protection, through this world, and on into eternity. Its a sign of the awakening of our Spirit. And its an invitation to each one of us who has been baptised that we can live a renewed, energised, transformed life, by the power of God.
So why is it that so many baptised people don't belong to churches? Why is it that people seem to reject God's offer of living a renewed, energised, transformed life? Well, its because ultimately, God only offers his love. God never forces himself on us. God's offer is free, and without charge to us. God's love is free and unconditional - for all of us - and any price was paid by God himself, through Jesus. Fat, thin, black, white, gay or straight, male or female, young or old - God's love is unconditional and free to you and me. But free, unconditional love needs to be accepted. If God were to force his way of living on us, he would be little better than some kind of puppet master...pulling the strings of our life. God says to us, each one of us who has been baptised "I give you a choice. Its up to you whether you choose to live my way, the best way - or whether you try to live life on your own, without my wisdom, without my protection, without the friendship, support, challenge and encouragement of my church."
Whether Ashton one day decides to accept that invitation will be up to him. No-one but Ashton can make that choice. And no-one but you can make that choice for yourself either. But let me offer you this little encouragement and challenge....
There's been a lot of talk in the press recently about football clubs. Pompey's administration, and now Liverpool's take-over. It all reminds me of what a wise friend once asked me. He said this:
"What does it take to be a footballer? You need to practice don't you...if you want to be really good? You need to take that football out into the yard, and then you need to practice keepy-uppy, and smashing the ball into goal against a brick wall, and dribbling the ball around some old traffic cones. If you practice really really hard, you might be able to play keepy-uppy for hours on end. You might be able to score accurately every time. But let me tell you this. You are not a footballer yet. You will never be a footballer until you've been out on a playing field, with a team."
Being a Christian is a bit like that. Oh, its possible to be a sort of Christian on your own. God never stops loving you. God never stops caring about you, even if you rarely pray, and never open your bible. Its possible to believe that God exists, and even that Jesus lived and died for you - without necessarily thinking about things any more than that. But, let me tell you - you will never be fully alive, fully awakened, fully engaged with the things of God until you have joined spiritual forces with the people of God.
Being a fully awake, fully alive, fully 'born again' Christian takes commitment; and it takes persistence. Remember Jesus' story of the widow who kept demanding justice from a judge. Some people confuse this story with the idea that you have to keep on asking in order to get God to listen. Some people think that Jesus is saying that we have to keep battering on the doors of heaven, until God listens. But that is to read the story at much too simplistic a level. After telling the story, Jesus explains what he means. He says "Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them?" Jesus says that God is nothing like a reluctant judge, who gives in to the widow, just to shut her up. Instead, God is willing to act straight away. God longs to bring justice to all those who cry out to him...all the poor of the world, all the oppressed, all the suffering.
But there is a sting in the tale. Jesus concludes: "And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?". It's a rhetorical question. Jesus is asking, "Does anyone care? Will there be anyone living a faithful life, through whom God's justice can be brought about? God is willing, very willing. But are we? Will God find faith, or rather 'faithfulness' on earth...faithfulness to his teaching, faithfulness to the promises of baptism, faithfulness to living the Way of God?" Jesus is asking "who are the people who will stand up for God, and for God's children?". But perhaps we don't care enough. Perhaps we would rather not get involved. Perhaps we are rather too interested in our own lives to care very much about what happens to the rest of God's children.
So that's the question I want to leave with us all this morning. As we come to baptism Ashton, we come to offer him a choice. Its a choice that he is too young to make now...but the rest of us, most of us, are old enough to be able to make that choice for ourselves. Are we content to live half-lives, with our spirits only just awake? Or are we prepared to place ourselves entirely under God's protection, and to be persistent in the pursuit of his Kingdom, his way of life - following his teachings, and living his life which goes on for ever? Are we prepared to stop kicking the ball around on our own, and to get really stuck in to the team? Are we prepared to see what North End could really be like if God's way of life could be released here through us?
The choice is yours. The choice is mine. Let's offer the same choice to Ashton now...
Saturday, October 2, 2010
In the 1980s, I used to run a hostel for refugees, in South London. It was a vast, sprawling, YMCA for about 300 asylum seekers, mainly from East Africa. At the time, there were wars going on between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and civil war had broken out in Somalia. Uganda was under the grip of Idi Amin, and many young Africans had sought peace and shelter in England.
In those days, I was young - believe it or not! Picture a fresh-faced youth, just out of music and drama school, who had decided - idealistically - to lay aside the pleasure of performance in favour of a life a Christian service. I was, I confess, a little naive! And I still had a lot to learn about different cultures, and the ways that different people do things.
There was one particular resident in our hostel who used to really bug me. Every time that I was working on the Reception desk, he would come in and ask for his key, or his post. But he wouldn't do it 'properly'! He used to just put his hand on the counter and say "Room 232". Then, when I gave him his key, he would simply walk off. To me, this behaviour seemed just plain rude! Over a number of days of being treated like this, my temper had started to rise. Then, one day, I saw him walking through the doors of Reception, approaching the counter again. "I'll show him!", I thought to myself. "It's time for a little lesson in politeness".
So when my African guest walked up to the counter and said "Room 232", I just stood there, staring at him. After a brief pause, I said "Room 232 what?" A look of blank incomprehension came over his face. He repeated himself. "Room 232". And I said, "Room 232 please! You have to say please".
Again, there was a moment of stunned incomprehension. Then a little light dawned. "Room 232, please", he said. Satisfied, I took the poor man's key from the hook behind me, and then dangled it in front him. "Now, when I give it to you, you have to say 'thank you'. Ok?". "OK." he said, "Tank you".
I was jubilant. From my perspective, I had taught this rude man some proper English manners! I smiled a nice superior smile as he went off to his room. Then, as he went out of Reception, an elderly, motherly receptionist who had worked at the hostel for 30 years, sidled up to me and said, "You do realise, don't you dear, that in his language there is no word for 'please' or 'thank you'?"
I was crushed. What had I done! I had humiliated that poor man. I had used my power over him to make him feel no longer welcome, but criticised and small. I suddenly saw that I had a lot to learn about him, and about his country. And I swore to try never to judge another human being again, without learning a great deal more about them.
But as well as that little bit of growing up, I had learned another important lesson. I had learned that in some cultures, the concept of 'please', or 'thank you' is an alien idea. In such cultures, people do things for each other for many reasons...but never for thanks. They do them because they can. They do them because the act of giving to someone else is a pleasure in itself. They do them out of a deep sense of duty.
We also have that idea in our culture - especially in the way that good parents look after their children. No-one expects a baby to be able to say please or thank you, but that doesn't stop us from giving good things to them. There is pleasure in such giving - and duty as well.
Today, we are confronted with a parable from Jesus which falls a little strangely on our ears. We don't have slaves - thank God. But here is a story about a slave, and about their master. Jesus says to his followers - "Suppose you had a slave, working for you. When that slave comes in from the fields, do you invite him to come and sit at your table and eat with you? No. You tell him to put on his pinny, and to go and make your tea". In Jesus' day, and in Jesus' culture, there would have been nothing unusual about that. No slave would have expected to be thanked for the tasks he performed. Those tasks were his duties. He didn't expect the word 'please', and he would never have got the word 'thanks'.
Then, having reminded his students of what it was like to be a master, Jesus turns the story around, and invites his followers to see themselves as slaves...slaves of God.
Why does he do this? Are we not Children of God?
This story comes as the climax of a long discussion between Jesus and his disciples about what it means to live faithfully as one of God's children. First, Jesus warns his followers that they should never be a stumbling block to another person's faith. I could start a whole new sermon on that! But essentially, Jesus is essentially warning his followers that we should never act in such a way that others are put off from having faith in God. If the children of God do not represent God as God should be seen, what's the point of being a child of God? Many people might wonder whether the way that certain Christians behave in other countries - dominating them, taking away their natural resources, using armies to enforce obedience...all of these are ways in which the supposed Children of God sometimes let God down.
Then, Jesus goes still further in describing the way that a faithful child of God should behave. He talks about forgiveness...and saying that his followers have the right to rebuke people who do wrong, but they must also be prepared to forgive, over and over again.
But this is too much for the disciples. This kind of faithfulness is hard. So they cry out to Jesus - "Lord, increase our faith". They recognise that the kind of life that Jesus calls us to live has very high standards. Never be a stumbling block. Rebuke the offender, but never stop forgiving them. This is not normal human behaviour! Normal human behaviour is to do what we want, when we want; and to hold a grudge for as long as we want to hold it. The disciples recognise how hard it is to live up to Jesus' standard. So, they look to him for the grace, for the power, to live as he calls them to live. "Increase our faith", they pray.
And that's the key - to this whole passage. The disciples, perhaps at an instinctive level, are recognising that without God's power, we can do nothing for God. They are recognising what St Paul later recognised when writing to the Ephesians; that it is by God's grace alone that life and salvation are found (Eph 2.8). We are incapable of doing anything to earn God's favour...instead God gives us his favour, his forgiveness, his New Life, as a free gift. The very faith by which we live is itself a gift from God!
And just at the moment when the disciples seem to have grasped that essential fact, Jesus goes still deeper. He tells them the story of the 'worthless slave' - the slave who simply gets on with his allotted task, without expecting any reward or praise.
You see, our human instinct, perhaps drummed into us by our earthly parents and teachers, is that we expect to receive some kind of reward, a pat on the back, a word of thanks, when we do what we are supposed to do. Teachers will tell you that reward is a far more potent weapon than punishment when dealing with children. We like a little reward now and then. I like a little dish of chocolate, after a long day at work! Its my little thank you. My little pat on the back after another 18 hour day.
But Jesus' story of the worthless slave challenges this little kink in our character. God owes us nothing for doing good. In God's kingdom, doing good, doing right, doing what God expects, is the norm. We should not expect God to say 'thank you', any more than I should have expected that YMCA resident to say thank you to me for simple doing the job I was paid to do. We do good because it is right. We live faithfully because it is our duty. We forgive others their trespasses, because we are commanded to do so - and because, by the mysterious process of God's grace, we find healing when we do so.
And if we are honest, this is sometimes a difficult thing for us to do. So many of you are involved in serving God in this parish. You pray for others, you serve them through administration, or cleaning, or maintenance, or face-to-face service in the community cafe, or singing in the choir, or teaching our children, or welcoming strangers at the door. Through this parable of the worthless slave, Jesus asks us all to examine ourselves.
Why do we do the things we do?
If we do them because the Rector occasionally remembers to say 'thank you' - then we will quickly be disappointed...because, let me tell you, the Rector will often forget to say 'thank you'. That's Vicars for you.
If we do these things because we hope that others will notice how dedicated we are, and praise us for being fine Christians...then we will be crushed. Sooner or later, we'll do some little thing wrong, step on someone's toes, move someone's precious object...and all the credit we thought we had built up in other people's minds will be wiped out. That's people for you.
If we do these things because we hope that by doing so, God will notice us, and reward us, then we have mis-understood the nature of God's love. God loves us. God loves us, regardless of what we do for him. Do we think that God needs us to tend the flowers, or serve coffee after the service, or preach the sermon?
Perhaps we might consider the question that Eliphaz asked of Job, in the oldest book of the Bible:
"Can a mortal be of use to God?
Can even the wisest be of service to him?
Is it any pleasure to the Almighty if you are righteous,
or is it gain to him if you make your ways blameless?" (Job 22:2-3)
God created the world without our help. God brought us to life, without our help. God sustains this Universe without our help. God saved us from ourselves, through Jesus, without our help. There is nothing we can do to earn God's grace and love. God loves us - regardless of what we try to do for God. God's favour and blessing are matters of grace...they cannot be earned.
Instead, God calls us to live as Children of God. We are called to love others, because it is what God our Heavenly Parent does. We are called to forgive others, because its what Jesus does. We are called to serve others because we are God's willing servants - the ones who at the end this service will pray that God will send us out as living sacrifices.
This is the life of faith. Faith that could uproot a mulberry tree and see it planted in the sea is the kind of faith which just trusts God...trusts that God knows what God is doing when we are called to render service to one another.
There are two kinds of faith. There is the kind of faith which reads the parable of the mustard seed and mulberry tree as an invitation to ask God for miracles. That's a very embryonic kind of faith...its just the first step on a much longer road of true faith. The kind of faith which Jesus calls us to is 'faithfulness' - faithfulness to his teachings, faithfulness to prayer and worship, faithfulness to never causing anyone else to stumble, faithfulness to forgiveness, faithfulness to a life of loving and serving others.
O God, I pray, that you would increase our faith!
Saturday, September 11, 2010
Sometimes there are things to moan about - undoubtedly. I was moaning last night about an appalling system of finding a way to pay online for Elizabeth Bain-Doodu's ticket to the UK! But there was a particular kind of moaning which really got under Jesus' skin...it was the kind of moaning done by religious people who are sure that God loves them, but that he would be far from happy about some other people!
At the beginning of today's Gospel story, we hear that all sorts of "tax collectors and sinners" were coming near to Jesus to listen to him. The text goes on: "Now the Pharisees and the Scribes were grumbling and saying "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!" Jesus response is to tell them the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.
On the surface, these parables are well known to us. At a simple, basic level they teach us that God and the Angels in heaven rejoice over every lost soul which turns to God. But there's something more going on in this story...something, like most Gospel readings, which has the power to challenge us.
As human beings, we have a tendency to judge others - don't we? We are awfully quick to jump to conclusions about the motives of other people. I hear a lot of it, as a priest. People will complain to me about another person, convinced that such a such a person has behaved in a particular way because of some negative characteristic. Such and such a person is said to be 'nasty' or 'cruel' or 'lazy'. Such and such a person 'should have remembered what I told them a few weeks ago...but they forgot. They don't care'. And so it goes on. Time and time again, we are all capable of ascribing attributes to other people - even though we have no idea what made them appear to act the way they did. Perhaps they were stressed. Perhaps they were tired. Perhaps they were distracted. Perhaps they were simply mis-understood. But we feel, don't we, that we have the right to judge them...to complain about them, to moan.
At the same time, we recognise that we are failing human beings ourselves. All of us know, don't we, that we are capable of being all the things that we accuse others of being. We are all capable of being stressed, tired, distracted, mis-understood, uncaring. And we confess that to God...we pray for God's mercy on us. We seek his forgiveness and healing, because we know that we need it. But, as failing human beings, whilst we seek mercy and understanding for our failings, we too often seek justice and retribution for the failings of others.
There's an old Native American saying which is worth us remembering: "Never judge another man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins".
And the challenge of these parables, which Jesus told to those grumbling Pharisees and Scribes, is this: Jesus calls us to celebrate with God, because God has been merciful not only to us, but to others as well - even to those we would not otherwise have accepted into our fellowship.
There's an old Jewish story which tells of the good fortune of a hard-working farmer. The Lord appeared to him one day, and granted him three wishes, but with the condition that whatever the Lord did for the farmer would be given double to his neighbour. The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for 100 hundred cattle. Immediately he received a hundred cattle, and he was overjoyed...until he saw that his neighbour had received two hundred. So he wished for a hundred acres of land, and again he was filled with joy until he saw that his neighbour had two hundred acres! Rather than celebrating God's goodness, the farmer could not escape feeling jealous and slighted because his neighbour had received more than he. Finally, he stated his third wish: that God would strike him blind in one eye. And God wept.
The parables of the lost sheep, told to those grumbling religious-types, expose the grudging spirit that prevents us from receiving God's mercy. Only those who (like the Angels in heaven) can celebrate God's grace to others, can truly experience that grace for themselves.
So what does this mean for us? What is the challenge that we might take away with us today? First, it is surely the challenge to stop judging other people. We know ourselves from the inside - we know every thought and emotion that flickers through our brain. We know ourselves, subjectively. But we can only ever know our brother or sister objectively - that is from the outside skin that they portray to the world. We cannot know what their upbringing has done to the person they are. We cannot know the stresses they are coping with today. We cannot know what has happened to them, and what has affected them, even in the last five minutes...let alone the last day, week, month or year. What right does any one of us have to judge another person?
Secondly, we are challenged to be like the Angels in heaven who celebrate God's grace for others. God's grace is extended to everyone of his sheep - and even most especially to the very lost of sheep. So the next time you encounter someone who doesn't think like you do, perhaps even about the most important of theological issues - don't refrain from celebrating the fact that they too are experiencing God's grace. Whoever that person is, whatever their beliefs and background, if they are communicating to you that they have found God, rejoice with the Angels in heaven. Perhaps they are a Muslim, who believes that God loves them. Rejoice. Don't judge. Perhaps they are a Buddhist, or a Hindu, or Pagan. If their life reflects the grace of God - if there is kindness and love in their being...rejoice with the Angels. They may not have understood God correctly yet...but are you so sure that you've got God taped down? I'm sure I haven't!
Those of us who regularly spend time in the Community Cafe, downstairs, know that from time to time we encounter some very damaged individuals. All of human life passes through the door of our cafe...and I frankly wish that more of you were there to see it and encounter it. There are young mums with restless babies. There are elderly people seeking a friendly word and an encounter with someone - just someone - someone to help drive back the lonliness of living alone. There are people with mental health issues. There are people coping with alcohol or drug dependency. There are people whose personal hygiene perhaps leaves something to be desired! There are workers, and there are lay-abouts. There are creative geniuses, and there are committed volunteers. Time and time again, what we see in the cafe, are small signs of grace. Someone will lay a hand on a shoulder - and a smile will light up a face. Rejoice with the Angels. Someone will offer a lift home to a neighbour, or someone will set up a craft-session in the corner. Rejoice with the Angels. Someone will dig deep, and give money for the work of the cafe - generosity flowing outwards - rejoice. Someone will spend an hour, patiently listening to the old lady with no teeth who can hardly get her words out...just loving her, listening to her. Rejoice with the Angels.
God's grace is at work in everyone. God never stops looking for the lost sheep, or the lost coin. He never stops igniting little fires of wonder in the hearts of his children - even the most apparently unlikely ones.
I tell you, there is more joy in heaven over one lost soul who turns - even an inch -towards God than over ninety-nine Churchgoers who are already secure in their salvation. Let's join in the celebration of God, by walking alongside those who are beginning to turn to God - even as we learn how to get better at turning - at repenting. Let's never judge them...judgement is the job of God, not something he delegates to us. Instead, let's love them, and celebrate every spark of God that shines through.
Saturday, September 4, 2010
Have you ever joined something on a whim? Because it seemed like a good idea at the time? Perhaps you, like me, have been tempted by offers of joining a 'Wine Club', or perhaps signing up for the Reader's Digest. I did that a few years ago, thinking that I might enjoy a monthly digest. But I quickly regretted that decision, I can tell you. Day after day, the Digest would send me offers...tickets for their 'Grand Draw', offers to buy the latest collection of books, holiday packages, money advice. By email and by post, I was deluged! I felt like I was wading through a sea of marketing material. Help me! Save me from all this junk! You see, I really hadn't understood what being a Reader's Digest customer would entail. I had failed to count the cost of membership.
At the beginning of today's Gospel reading we read that 'large crowds were travelling with Jesus'. Who were these crowds? Well, undoubtedly they were - like us - a mixture of people with a whole mixture of motives for trekking round the Galilean countryside with this new prophet. Some of them would have been waiting for Jesus to declare war on the Romans. Some of them would have been simply curious to see what all the fuss was about. Some of them would have recognised something holy, and have been drawn to it. Some of them would have been desperately searching for a miracle - perhaps a healing from a long-term illness, or a miracle that would transform their poverty. Some would have been simply thrill-seekers...waiting for Jesus to turn some more water into wine, or to see him walk on water...just so that they could be amazed and amused.
To all these people, according to the text in front of us, Jesus turns and says: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple". You can just imagine the reaction, can't you? People would have looked at one another, puzzled. "What did he say? Did he really say I have to hate my family to follow him? Has he gone mad?!"
Well actually, they probably wouldn't have said that! Scholars tell me that the word we translate as hate in English bibles should probably be translated as something nearer to 'love less'. In other words, Jesus was saying that we should love our families, and even our own lives, less than we love him. Which is still a pretty stark thing for a preacher to say. I wonder how you would feel if I started demanding that you should love your families, and even your own life, less than me! I think I'd be lucky to get out of here alive!
But Jesus is claiming something really important here. He is claiming that our love for him, and therefore our love for God must come first in all our priorities. He is pointing to the fact that sometimes we are forced to make a choice between what our families want us to do for them, and the behaviour that God requires of us. Because let's face it, our families sometimes have a very strong hold over us. Sometimes our families do things that we know are wrong - perhaps illegal, perhaps even immoral. But somehow, because they are our family we feel that we can't interfere.
Instead, Jesus says that his agenda, his good news, must take priority even over the family.
Just now, at the beginning of our service, we recited the 'Beattitudes'. You know...'blessed are the poor', 'blessed are those who mourn', blessed are the peacemakers' and so on. The Beattitudes are Jesus' manifesto for a broken world. The Beattitudes encourage us to imagine what the world would be like if the poor were blessed by the wealthy. He imagines a world in which the mourning parents of Pakistan and Niger could be comforted by the wealthy pockets of the west. He imagines a world in which his followers become peacemakers who share the Earth's resources, rather than war-mongers who conquer each other's oil-fields.
But if such a vision is ever to come to pass, Jesus says, the change has to start with us. With you and me. You can only change the world one person at a time. And the first person has to be me. Or as the old prayer goes: Lord, let your kingdom come...and let it begin with me.
This Gospel challenges us. It challenges us to begin to put Jesus' priorities first. We are challenged to love our families less than God. If our families try to force us to choose greed instead of generosity - then we are encouraged to follow Jesus, and be generous. If our families tend to lead lives that are inward-looking, then Jesus says "Look outwards".
Here's a thing...how many times have you heard the expression "Charity begins at home"? Many people assume that it is a quote from the Bible. Umm...sorry....it isn't. It was Charles Dickens - and a few other writers before him. Charity - the outward giving of love to others - springs from the heart, and often from the home, but it should touch the lives of everyone around us. The family is a vital, and important unit in our community...but it is the community of God as a whole to whom we owe our allegiance, and our charity.
And there's another challenge in today's reading - which links back to my earlier questions - the ones about the Reader's Digest, or the energy deal we might have signed up for. Jesus says "Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see if he has enough to complete it". And just before that he warns "Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple". The end of the reading is even sharper, and perhaps even more of a challenge: "None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."
These are challenging thoughts. Jesus is laying down a direct challenge to those in the crowd. To those who have come seeking a spiritual experience, or perhaps a miracle, Jesus is saying: "My good news, my gospel, is SO much more than a nice cosy feeling...a beautiful song...or even a beautifully sung Eucharist(!). My Gospel is a completely radical, life-changing, potentially earth-shattering way of life. My gospel has the potential to raise the dead, feed the hungry, heal the sick. It can bring down the mighty from their seats, and lift up the humble and meek. But if it is ever to succeed, I need my followers to Get Serious! I need my followers to understand that my Way is the way of self-sacrifice. My way is the way of putting God's priorities first. My Way demands your life, your soul, your all. If the world is to change...the change needs to start with you."
And then Jesus says, through the story of the man who builds the tower, "Are you sure that you really want to follow me? Are you really up to the challenge that I am setting? Are you going to be the kind of Christian who is serious about the world-transforming Gospel of Jesus?"
Because, let's face it...there are two kinds of Christians. There are the kind who get their sleeves rolled up, who visit the sick, and care for the lonely, and commit to community life, give generously without counting the cost, and so succeed in changing lives. And those who are content to sing the hymns, meet some friends, put a few pennies in the collection plate, and then go home and forget everything that was said. Yes, there are two kinds of Christians: there are those who spend every possible hour, and every possible resource....every possible pound...on the work of the Gospel. And then there are those for whom Church is something kind-of- interesting to do on Sundays, if they can be bothered to get up, and whose wallets stay firmly closed.
Jesus challenge, through the Gospel reading of today is...what kind of Christian are you? What kind of Christian am I? Are you, am I, up to the radical challenge of Jesus? Is this a disturbing message? Is this disturbing you? Well...that's good. For too long, the church of God in too many places has tried to attract Christians with a nice easy message. Come to church, sing some hymns, mumble some prayers, eat some bread and that's all there is to it. Your soul is safe. The church has, sometimes, domesticated the Gospel - reducing its radical community-transforming message into nice easy personal gospel of salvation.
Let me tell you...that is not the church of Jesus Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ is a community of people who are SO caught up by God's agenda that nothing else matters. The Church of Jesus Christ reaches out to the poor, as Jesus did. The Church of Jesus Christ heals the sick, and condemns injustice, as Jesus did. The Church of Jesus Christ loves everyone whom it encounters, and seeks to serve their need...whoever they are...black, white, male or female, gay or straight, able-bodied or differently-abled. The Church of Jesus Christ does not spend its evenings slumped in front of the telly. The Church of Jesus Christ spends its free time in the service of others. The church of Jesus Christ does not spend its money on booze and betting...the Church of Jesus Christ spends its money on lifting the community in which it is placed out of the mire. The Church of Jesus Christ prays "Thy Kingdom come...and let it begin with me!"
That's the challenge of Jesus today...to you and to me. It couldn't be clearer. Either we put God first here at St Mark's, or we put our own lives, our families and our own possessions before God. There could be no clearer choice. Only one question remains...are we up to the challenge?
Saturday, August 21, 2010
"He's an Anarchist! This Jesus is an Anarchist!" You can almost hear the teachers of the Law, the Pharisees, muttering to themselves. Another outrage from the Galilean teacher! "He's telling people to ignore the law of the Sabbath...he's leading people to their death!"
You've got to have a bit of sympathy for the religious leaders of Jesus day. After all, they believed that the Torah...the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, were the actual words of God, written down. They were like many Muslims today, who still believe (despite all scholarly evidence) that the Koran was dictated directly by God. The Pharisees and religious teachers were certain that failure to obey even one of the laws of God would be disastrous. Disobedience to the law, in their minds, should be punished with death. The Law itself said so. In the book of Exodus, chapter 31, the death penalty is prescribed for the crime of desecrating the Sabbath. On the other hand, they also believed that if the whole of the nation of Israel would keep all the laws, for just one day, then God would send the promised Messiah to free them from occupation, and establish the new Kingdom of Israel.
So, when they heard a teacher in their midst telling people that the myriad of these rules didn't have to be followed...we can only imagine their outrage. Here was someone who seemed to be trying to over-turn everything they believed...everything they followed. "He must be an anarchist!". Another word they may well have used to described Jesus was 'anti-nomian'. An antinomian is someone who, literally, is anti (against) laws (nomi). It's a theological word that has been used for 2000 years to hurl insults at people - especially those who have argued that our salvation comes through 'faith alone' (sola fide).
It was a worrying, perplexing time for the Pharisees. "If only people would keep the Law, then the Messiah would come, and we could kick out these Roman overlords. But here's this Jesus, letting people that laws don't matter!" You can understand why they decided that 'this Jesus' had to be got rid of, can't you?
The trouble is, human beings like laws. We use laws to regulate our society - to describe what is, or is not, acceptable behaviour. Laws help us to determine 'right' from 'wrong' - at least for the time being. Of course, laws change - and rightly so. The law which permitted slavery by the British was famously changed by William Wilberforce. The law of Apartheid was rightly over-turned in South Africa. But religious laws are rather more difficult to get a handle on...especially when significant groups of people believe that those laws are dictated directly by God. If you believe that God has ordained a law from on-high, then you are likely to believe that it cannot be changed...at least until God says so.
That's a large part of the trouble we are having in the Middle East, at the moment. Some Jewish people believe that God has ordained, by Law, that they should possess the whole land of Israel. Significant numbers of Muslims believe that adultery should be punished by death, that women should keep themselves covered up at all times, and that Mohammed was God's last great Prophet, whose writings are the actual words of God. Such attitudes are very difficult to change...because they are grounded in a belief that certain holy Scriptures are God-given, and can never be changed. It is no surprise, therefore, that when pressed to change their laws, people with such primitive beliefs about Scripture feel themselves backed into a corner. To them, giving up their laws would be like spitting on God. They cannot conceive of any other way of thinking. And that's essentially why the Middle East in particular, is such a powder-keg. The clash of ideas, the clash of deeply-held, primitive ideas about God, leads to the clash of armies.
But what, actually, was Jesus' saying about laws? What does this story of a simple healing on the Sabbath have to tell us. Was Jesus saying that the Sabbath law should be overturned...that it didn't matter anymore? What Jesus really an anti-nomian, or even an anarchist?
Let's look at his response to the synagogue leader who complained about a healing on the Sabbath. This man was similar to a Vicar in today's society. He was the leader of his congregation - the one charged with holding the faith while, sometimes, his congregation and the local population lived lives that were less than faithful. He would have been keen to point out error wherever he saw it. And to him, to this local Vicar, however wonderful and miraculous a healing might be, it was a bit of work...it was an activity which should more properly be done on one of the other six days. He would have been terrified that God's Law, laid down in the Torah, was being flagrantly disobeyed, right in front of his eyes...right there, in his own synagogue. Because of his background and training, watching Jesus heal someone in his synagogue provoked the sort of reaction you would get from me if someone came in here this morning and started offering odds on the next race at Newmarket!
But listen to Jesus' reaction to his outburst. "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?"
Jesus is not saying that the Sabbath doesn't matter. Instead, he is saying that we need to change our view about what the Sabbath is for. The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath isn't a day for not doing anything. It's a day for healing! The Sabbath isn't a day for restricting activity, it's a day, of all days, for doing something new. Jesus uses the newness of healing, the miracle of Divine love, to show that God doesn't rest on the Sabbath (as the writers of Genesis believed). Instead, God was alive, awake and active in the midst of his people!
What should this mean for us? It means that the Sabbath is the day when we draw aside from the normality of daily life, and embrace the 'numinous' - that is the power and the presence of God. If Jesus healed on the Sabbath, then we too can expect to come for healing, in body, mind and spirit.
Many of our neighbours in this parish have lost the habit of coming to seek God on a Sunday...which is precisely why, as a parish, we are embracing the idea of 'Back to Church Sunday' - on the 26th of September. Back to Church Sunday is a chance for us all to invite friends and neighbours to come with us, to find healing and wholeness through each other's company, and with God. On that Sunday, here in St Nicholas, Margaret Freeman will lead our celebration of Harvest, and baptise a new child into the Church.
I'm hoping that all of you will give some serious thought and prayer, over the next couple of weeks, as to which of your neighbours and friends you might invite to come 'back to church'. Think about those you know who perhaps used to come to church, but over the years have fallen out of the habit. Some people, when they have done that, become nervous of coming back to church...even when they feel that they want to. They worry that people will look at them and say "Hmph! About time you came to church!". Or that they will be pestered with questions..."Where have you been? Have you been to another church? Have you been ill?". Instead, on Back to Church Sunday, we want anyone who sets foot over the threshold of church...perhaps for the first time in many years...to feel completely welcome, loved, and at home. We want to offer them, by our actions and by God's grace, the opportunity to connect again with the numinous...to experience God's healing power...just like the woman that Jesus healed in the Synagogue all those years ago.
Friday, August 20, 2010
Eulogy for Jodie Deeming
It is my task to attempt to sum Jodie up in a few short words. Its not an easy task...because although her life has been short, there is a lot of life to convey. I met Jodie for the first time just a couple of weeks ago...when she was slipping away. Sadly, we didn’t get the chance to talk, because she was already heavily sedated. I’m sad about that, because from all that I’ve heard about Jodie since then, I am sure that she is someone I would have really enjoyed getting to know. There is no doubt that Jodie was a remarkable young woman - as all of you are obviously aware. It’s a testament to the kind of person she was that you have all come to celebrate her life today.
Jodie was born in Birmingham, on the 17th of June 1996. As soon as she become aware of her surroundings, her impish sense of humour started to show through. Initially, Jodie was a little camera-shy. She would dart behind the curtains, or behind the sofa, as soon as anyone pointed a camera at her - though I understand that she overcame that particular trait later in life!
Once, when Jodie was still a toddler, her sister Kerry was babysitting for her. Kerry suddenly became aware that Jodie had disappeared. “Oh no!” Kerry panicked, and started looking everywhere for the missing toddler. By the time Jodie’s mum, Annette, got home, poor Kerry was out of her mind with worry. “Where could Jodie be?” But Annette was wiser...she knew the tricks that Jodie liked to play, even at that age. Annette pointed to the coat cupboard...and there, Kerry found Jodie, curled up and fast asleep - no doubt bored of waiting to be found.
When she was around 3 years old, Jodie’s family moved to Bognor, where Jodie started at nursery school. Here, certain aspects of her character started to assert themselves. With her new friends, Jodie would spend hours doing cartwheels, and then having competitions to see who could stand on their head for the longest. It was at this early stage that Jodie’s artistic streak started to show through as well. Painting and drawing were her favourite activities at nursery, by a long way.
By the time Jodie moved up to Michael Ayres School, as an infant, a certain shyness had started to show itself. Jodie loved dressing up, and taking part in school plays...but she was not one for taking the leading roles. She was happy just to be a shepherd or an angel when it came to Nativity plays.
Her slight shyness was, perhaps , an indication of Jodie’s imaginative streak. She developed a deep love for the whole idea of fairies - after watching the story of two little girls who photographed fairies at the bottom of their garden in the time of Arthur Conan Doyle. The Cottingley Fairies, as they were known, quickly captured Jodie’s imagination...and she began to draw fairies, and look for fairies everywhere. When out for meals at Brewster’s Restaurants, Jodie would delight in having fairy transfer-tattoos stuck to her arm...and would leave them there as long as possible.
Dolphins were another creature which captured Jodie’s imagination. She would dream of swimming with dolphins...drawing them often, and imagining herself in the dolphins’ watery-world. Both dolphins and fairies became really important to Jodie in the later years of her life….they provided her with an escape from the more unpleasant treatments that she had to endure.
A few years later, Jodie and her family moved to Scotland, spending many happy days with Annette’s cousin Jean and her family. Jodie was full of life and fun in those days - she loved swimming, golf at the park with her brothers, badminton and rounders. She loved the park and the fair - especially Strathclyde park with its boats. Of course, few of these activities were cheap...and when I met with them last week, Jodie’s cousin Bernie told me, with a wry smile, “she loved spending my money too!”
As I’ve listened to stories about Jodie, the word which has come up most often has been the word ’laughter’. Jodie had an infectious laugh - and would quickly smile at the slightest funny event. Her laughter has helped to imprint lots of little incidents in her family’s mind - such as:
- the time when both Keiran, and later Anthony, had their sandwiches stolen by seagulls!
- or the time when Annette’s cousin Jean had a bit of a struggle with a British Rail toilet door, which had Jodie on the floor with laughter!
- or the time when the family were visiting the Isle of Wight - which Jodie loved - and missed the last hovercraft home. (That meant a night on the beach...and some difficult walks up and down the steep streets of Ryde, with Jodie, by then in her wheelchair, and the whole family pushing from behind!
Jodie was rather a prankster, it seems. Her early adventures in hiding from Kerry in the coat cupboard turned into a life-long love of little games and pranks. She would often hide things for people to discover in strange places around the house. She would give her friends joke sweets...innocent looking sweets which tasted awful! On one memorable birthday which was held in hospital, she started squirting the nurses with a hypodermic needle. That was no doubt a form of subtle revenge for Jodie, because she hated needles! She would do anything to put off the moment when a needle had to be used...claiming she was hungry, or needed to go to the loo, or just asking ‘But what’s it for?’. Another bit of good-natured pay-back would happen when bath-time came around. If she got half a chance, Jodie would grab the shower-head, and soak the poor nurses!
Throughout the last few, difficult years - Jodie has always been looking for ways to bring joy to those around her. She planted a garden at the family’s home...a garden of fairies and night-lights. She planted shrubs which her family will be able to remember her by. She made a beautiful mosaic pot, which I know Annette will always treasure. Throughout her illness, Jodie has been always full of jokes, smiles and generosity. She has been collecting and giving little gifts for family and friends...little gifts which I know will be treasured for ever.
There is something that Annette’s cousin Jean said to me last week that I think I will always remember. She said “Annette was blessed...because she gave birth to an Angel”. That seems, to me, to sum Jodie up very well. Jodie had a light spirit, a spirit of laughter, a spirit of dreams, a spirit of generosity, and, ultimately a spirit that refused to be held down to the Earth. The illness that she has suffered may have ultimately taken Jodie’s body, but it could not touch her spirit.
Annette told me that on the night Jodie passed away, just a few hours after we had prayed together with her, Jodie had a smile on her face. That smile said a great deal. Perhaps it was a smile of good memories - as Jodie remembered the laughter she has shared with her family. Perhaps it was a smile of cheeky anticipation as she thought about the little things she has undoubtedly hidden around the house for her family to discover in the coming days. Perhaps it was a smile of recognition as she saw relatives who have already passed on, coming to meet her - like her much loved grand-mother. I am sure it was all of these things - but also, I’m sure, she was smiling at the face of the God who loves her, and who wants her to live with him for eternity.
Some of us may be wondering where God has been in the last three years, while Jodie has been battling with her illness. That’s a real question - and a right question to ask. It’s one that I have to confront often as a priest. Let me share with you something of the conclusion I have reached. God has given the human race enormous gifts...gifts of intelligence and creativity. We have the ability to create amazing things, and advance every day in our knowledge. But, sadly, much of the human race seems to ignore the simple rule that God has laid down for his children...the rule that we should love God, and love one another. Instead, ever since Jesus taught us how to live, we have been busy fighting each other. We battle over land, we battle over ideas, we battle because of greed for money and power - and we don’t spend our resources on battling disease.
Last year, the Medical Research Council spent around a billion pounds on finding cures for diseases like Jodie’s. That sounds a lot, until you realise that in the same year, we spent nearly 44 billion pounds on defence, and countless billions propping up our corrupt banking system. Now, I know we need defence, and indeed banks...but that seems a very imbalanced picture to me.
So where was God, during Jodie’s suffering? God was, as God has always been, calling out to a greedy, war-torn, consumer-driven society and saying - “for the sake of Christ, stop fighting and start loving! Spend your resources on things that are holy and healthy, instead of bombs and bullets, banks and bling”
I have no doubt that God weeps over the death of children like Jodie. But God can’t intervene miraculously all the time. If he did, the human race would never learn...never grow...never turn away from greed and war, and turn towards love. Instead, for the greater good of the whole human race, God has to sometimes let children like Jodie slip away...because we are so often blind to the deaths of millions of adults, but the death of a child forces us to confront who we are. It forces us to think about whether the way we live, and the actions we take as a society have, albeit indirectly, contributed to such a child's death. Our insatiable appetite for oil - and for other 'stuff' - leads to wars. Our greedy lust for money, and for living in debt, leads to the collapse of banks. All these ways of living draw vital resources away from medical research, and into the pockets of weapons-dealers and billionaire bankers. Every penny spent on mopping up our western life-style, every penny spent on dealing with alcohol and drug abuse for example every Friday and Saturday night in the centre of Portsmouth, is a penny which could have been spent on medical research.
But there is no doubt in my mind that, for Jodie, this moment is anything but the end. Dying is something we must all do - none of us is immune. But people of Faith believe that death is only a doorway, a doorway to an eternity of life with the Creator of all life.
I have a vision in my mind: it is a vision of Jodie, happy and grateful for the love that she has shared during her short time on Earth...and now, while she waits for the short years before she will be reunited with those she loves, I see Jodie, swimming with dolphins, dancing with fairies, and flying with angels. I see her caught up in the love of God, sharing God’s love and shining God’s love to all who would receive it.