Monday, February 22, 2010

Treasure in a Clay Jar

Today (Tuesday 22/2/2010) we are beginning our series of Lent Talks.  We've called this series 'Treasures in Clay Jars' - which is a deliberate quotation from St Paul.  In his 2nd letter to the Corinthians Paul talked about his faith...what he called 'the light of the knowledge of the glory of God' which for him was a marvellous, amazing revelation of God.  But, Paul says, in chapter 4, 'we have this treasure in clay jars'...acknowledging the fragility of the body and mind which carry around this knowledge and experience of God.  Paul goes on, 'even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day'.  For Paul, the treasure, the precious faith he carries in his heart is what sustains and renews him, despite the fact that his 'outer casing' is wasting away.

Bev, Di and I (blog-note: leading-priests of the North End Portsmouth Team Ministry) all acknowledge that we are clay jars.  We are subject to the same weaknesses of body and mind as everyone else.  We are just as likely to make mistakes as everyone else...we are fragile, clay jars.  But we also carry around treasure, inside of us - treasure that we believe God has placed within us.  Our treasure is of slightly different types. It might be gold, rubies or diamonds...but it is treasure.  And it's this treasure that sustains us in our ministries...and it's this treasure that we want to share with you over the coming weeks.

You will have your own treasure too - we hope.  You will have ideas and feelings that sustain you, and which propel you forward in your own faith.  Hopefully, as we share with you something of the treasure that we hold inside us, you will be helped to recognise and begin to use the treasure you have inside your own clay jar.

It is my task to start this series of talks.  And I want to do so by outlining to you something that I carry around with me as true treasure.  This is treasure which always has value for doesn't rust, and it doesn't ever run out.  Sometimes it gets a little dusty, because I don't always have enough time in my day to day life to take it out and look at it.  But its always there.

The simplest way to describe this treasure is in the form of a question.  It's an important question.  It's a question which gets me up in the morning, and sustains me through the day.  It's a question which, when I really begin to wrestle with it, helps me to find meaning for the life I lead, and the things I do.  It's also a very simple question.  I suppose you want to know what the question is now?  It's this...

Who am I?

That's it.  There are supplemental questions too.  Questions like 'why am I here?'.  And 'where did the Universe come from?'  But at the root, the most basic question that any of us can ask is 'Who am I?'

This is a philosophical question.  And the treasure in my clay jar that I want to bring out to show you today is a love of philosophy.

I imagine that the word 'philosophy' is a frightening word to some of you.  It perhaps conjures up names like Plato, Aristotle, Heidegger and Kant...and long, technical words like existentialism.  But please don't worry.  I'm not going to give you a lecture on the history of philosophy!  Let me just break down the word 'philosophy' itself.  It is an ancient Greek word, made up of two separate words.  Philo - which is one of the words that the Greeks used for 'love'.  The second part of the word, 'sophy' - comes from the Greek word 'sophia' which simply means 'wisdom'.  So 'philosophy' is 'the love of wisdom'.  A philosopher is someone who loves wisdom.  That's all it means.  So please don't let the word frighten you!

Perhaps the best way to approach philosophy is to ask a few philosophical questions.  These are the kind of questions which people of every age, and every culture, have always been asking.  Questions like: how was the world created?  Is there any active, living Will behind what happens?   Or is life just a series of random events?  Is there life after death?  Perhaps one of the most important questions that lovers of wisdom have asked is 'How should we live?'

The question that I said sums up my own treasure in this clay jar was 'who am I?'.  For me, that question acts as a focus for all the other questions.  Am I a random, chance event...just a collection of chemicals that have randomly come together to make me?  Or am I the product of a Force, a Will, a Creator who has deliberately desired that I should live now, at this moment, in this time and place?

Essentially, there are not many philosophical questions to ask.  The ones I've just posed are certainly some of the most important ones.  But history presents us with fascinating and different answers to each one.  The task of the philosopher - the lover of wisdom - is to explore the answers that other people have come up with...and to let those answers help us form our own opinions - and ultimately the basis on which we build our life.

Studying philosophy can be a bit like a detective story.  Some detectives might think that Smith was the murderer, or Jones, or Green.  Or perhaps they were all involved.  Perhaps they all planned the murder, and were all involved - but only one of them pulled the trigger.  How can you tell?  Sometimes the police can solve a crime - but sometimes they just can't get to the bottom of it.  Perhaps there is not enough evidence.  Or perhaps the evidence is in conflict with another piece of evidence.  But whether the crime can be solved or not, there was still a crime.  It's the same with questions of truth.  There may only be one right answer to a question...or there may be many...perhaps different shades of truth.  But there is a solution somewhere - if only we can find it.

It's the same with philosophy - the love of wisdom.  Some philosophical questions can have only one right answer.  Either there is a God, or there isn't.  Either there is life after death, or there isn't.  The philosopher's task, like a detective, is to sift the available evidence - and arrive at a reasonable conclusion.

One of the greatest Philosophers was a Greek man called Plato...who based his writing on the thoughts of his teacher and mentor, Socrates.  Plato believed that philosophy sprang out of human beings' sense of wonder.   Over time, humans had developed the ability to think about themselves.  They became, in the words of another philosopher, "the man who knows that he knows".  That's what the term homo sapiens refers to...and is, in fact a contraction of the original phrase...'homo sapiens sapiens'...the man who knows that he knows.

Have you every thought about that before?  Have you ever wondered what makes us different from other thinking creatures on this planet.  Consider a dog, for example.  If you've ever owned a dog, you will know that dogs can certainly think.  My dog is very able to think about how to sneak food out of the cat's bowl!  Dogs definitely think - and they definitely feel. You should see how depressed my dog gets when she can't get anyone to give her a tidbit from the table.  And how happy she gets when a certain favourite visitor comes to call...especially one who throws a ball for her.  But the difference between me and my dog, is that I can sort of stand outside myself, and realise that I think.  I can think about the process of thinking.  I am a man who knows that he knows.

Once human beings had developed that ability to know that they knew things - many thought that it was astonishing that they had that ability...and astonishing that they were alive at all.  It was so astonishing to be alive that philosophical questions began to arise of their own accord.

According to a modern-day philospher, called Jostein Gaarder, its like watching a magic trick.  We cannot understand how the trick is done.  So we ask: how can the magician change a silk scarf into a white rabbit?  A lot of people experience the world with the same sense of wonder as an audience who watch a magician.  In the case of the rabbit, we know the magician has tricked us.  What we would like to know is how he did it.

But in the world, it's somewhat different.  We know that the world is not all sleight of hand and deception, because here we are, in it; we are part of it.  Actually, says Jostein Gaarder, we are the white rabbit being pulled out of the hat - the world, and our very existence is so amazing, so improbable, that we are a kind of living magic trick.  The only difference between us and the rabbit, is that we know we are taking part in the trick.  We feel we are part of something mysterious and we would like to know how it all works.

Philosophers, throughout the millennia, have tried to help us to get to know how the magic trick works.  They have tried to expand our consciousness of the world around us, and of our place in the world.  They have forced us to ask the hard questions, the deep questions:  why am I here?  Who am I?  How was the world made?

The trouble is, as philosophers have complained all through time, many people just don't want to do the hard work of thinking about those sorts of things.  Many people are happy to go through life just being told what to think - and what to believe.  Many homo sapiens simply never get to the point of being sapiens sapiens!  Worse still, some people never get beyond working at the level of simple instinct...the instinct to survive, or the instinct to destroy, or to dominate, or control.

Earlier this week I walked out of my house to find that a drainpipe from my garage was hanging off the wall.  I thought it was odd.  Perhaps someone had accidentally knocked it with their car while turning in the street? But then, as I walked on down the road, I discovered that the house next door had also got its drain-pipe hanging off.  And the next one.  And the next one.  It quickly became clear that some individual had systematically gone down the street destroying drainpipes.

Why?  What possible reason could anyone have for mindlessly destroying drainpipes?  Perhaps at some instinctive level, someone had simply decided that they enjoyed the sound of drainpipes creaking and cracking before falling off.  Perhaps someone had lost control over something in their life...perhaps a partner had left them...and this small act of vandalism was a way of showing themselves that they still could control something in their life?  Who knows?  What was clear though, was that this was not the act of someone who has asked the philosophical questions.  Who am I?  What am I here for?  This was someone who was acting at a purely instinctive level of a dog who chases reflections endlessly around the lawn.  Pure instinct.  This was someone with no sapiens sapiens.

Sadly, as philosophers have observed across the millennia, this is the standard pattern for many human beings.  We see it, all too often, in our own streets, and among our own families and neighbours.  People get stuck into the dull routine of getting up, going to work, slumping in front of the box...and then doing it all over again.  They so rarely stop to gaze at the magnificence of a sunset, or the intricate beauty of a flower.  Rarely do many people stop to ask themselves even the most basic sapiens sapiens question - like 'what makes my relationship with my partner work?'.  Even less do most people ask themselves the question 'Why am I here?'.

Jostein Gaarder continues his analogy about the white rabbit by saying that we can see the rabbit the Universe.  A wondrous thing, brought into existence by forces that look like magic to us.  And yet, most human beings choose to bury themselves in the fur of the rabbit...where it is warm and cosy...where nothing can frighten or challenge.  Philosophers are those rare individuals who are prepared to climb up one of the hairs, and to peer out at the Universe.  In Gaarder's words: 'Philosophers are always trying to climb up the fine hairs of the fur in order to stare right into the magician's eyes'.

Plato - that ancient Greek lover of wisdom - used another analogy for this same dilemma.  He effectively said to his readers:  most people live as though they were dwellers in a cave.  Such people spend their whole lives standing in one position - staring at the back-wall of the cave.  Behind them is a light, and in front of the light, other people are moving wooden cut-outs of worldly objects - making shadows on the wall in front of the cave dwellers.  For the cave dwellers, this is all there is to life.  To them, a house is just a shadow of the outline of a house.  A tree is just a long shape with a fluffy bit on top.

Imagine what would happen if one day, one of the cave dwellers turned around, and saw what was happening behind them.  How excited they would be to discover that there was more to life...that, in the first instance, a house was not a shadow, but a firm outline made of wood.  Imagine then that our rebellious cave-dweller realises that the light, behind the cut-outs, is coming from further fact from the entrance to the cave.  Astonished at this discovery, the cave-dweller walks towards the light - and then, in the full glare of the sun, he discovers what a house is really like, and how wonderful is a tree!

Plato suggests that this is the kind of journey that philosophers - lovers of wisdom - can make.  Philosophers are those of us who are no longer content with a world of shadows.  Philosophers want to walk towards the light...and find the source of life.

That is my treasure in my clay jar.  That is, ultimately, the force that drives me to want to be a priest.  I like to think that I am one of those people who climb up the hairs of the white rabbit's fur...and try to look the Magician in the eye.    

The philosopher's road has been a fascinating journey for me so far.  I think that I have only just begun to scratch the surface of the big questions - the 'who am I?' sort of questions.  I believe, for example, that my life has a purpose - and that I am not a random accident of fate.  I believe that there is a Creative Force, out there, something greater than I can ever conceive...and that somehow, I am linked to the rest of the Universe, through that Creative Force.

I choose to make my journey of discovery a Christian one.  I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was someone who was more connected to that Creative Force than anyone else who has ever lived...and that he was uniquely in tune with the big questions.  I follow his teachings because they make sense to me, on a philosophical level.  They give me a framework around which I can fine-tune my own, personal understanding of the 'who am I?' question.  Who am I?  I am a child of God.  What is my purpose?  It is to live for God, and to show God to others.  It is to stand in the door-way of the Cave, and to call back to the other cave-dwellers 'come and see what it is like in the sunlight!'.

However, as a philosopher - a lover of wisdom - I don't claim that I have got all the answers.  Do you remember Socrates...the mentor of Plato?  Socrates was executed by people who didn't like the fact that he would spend all his time going around telling people that they don't actually know anything.  He had an irritating habit of seeking out people who thought they were wise, and then like a child who keeps asking 'why', he would gradually reduce them to having to admit that they didn't know anything.  He famously said, "True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us."  Or to put it more pithily: "One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing"

In a rather longer explanation, at his trial which was recorded by Plato, Socrates related how he came to a conclusion about a supposedly wise man whom he had interviewed.  He said this,

"Well I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know."

I take those ancient words, and that ancient warning, right to my heart.  I have chosen the path of being a Christian minister - but I freely acknowledge that this is probably an accident of birth.  If I had been born in Tibet, I would probably be a Buddhist.  If I had been born in Mecca, I would almost certainly be a Muslim.  But I was born in Weston-Super-Mare...and in Somerset, in the 1960s, no-one knew what a Muslim was...let alone a Buddhist!  So I was introduced to Jesus, from an early age, and found in him many meaningful answers to the philosophical questions that I was asking.  Jesus has never led me fact, he has brought me back from going astray on many occasions!  So my allegiance is to him.  But, as someone who fully acknowledges the wisdom of Socrates, I don't claim that I have understood everything there is to know about God, through Jesus.  As a lover of wisdom, I keep my eyes and ears open to what else there may be to learn...what other solutions to the puzzle of life might also be available to me.  Like the policemen who try to solve a complicated murder, I know that there are sometimes shades of grey.

In a moment I'm going to ask you to ponder some of the big questions for yourself.  But let me just conclude with a couple more of my favourite quotes from Socrates...

  • What a lot of things there are a man can do without.
  • Ordinary people seem not to realise that those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death
  • An unexamined life is not worth living.
  • Here's one for an election year:  No man undertakes a trade he has not learned, even the meanest; yet everyone thinks himself sufficiently qualified for the hardest of all trades, that of government. 
  • And finally, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, Socrates said, "By all means get married. If you get a good wife you will become happy, and if you get a bad one you will become a philosopher".

Further reading:  
For those wishing to dip their toe into the world of philosophy, I heartily recommend "Sophie's World" by Jostein Gaarder

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Temptation of Jesus

First Sunday in Lent

Luke 4.1-13:  The Temptation of Jesus

Preparation is everything.  Last year's Olympic athletes prepared for the previous four years for their big chance.  Four years of early mornings, strict diets, punishing exercise routines.  I guess all that is why I will never be an Olympic Athlete!

Jesus believed in preparation.  In fact our best estimates are that he took over 30 years to prepare for his ministry. When he was completely prepared - he set out to be baptised.  But even then, there was still preparation to do.  Jesus needed to complete his preparation by opening himself to the temptations that he knew might plague him as he began his ministry.  So, after being baptised, he went off for 40 days, into the desert, to be, in Luke's words, 'tempted by the devil'.

So -  what happens next?

The devil – who we can see a metaphor for Jesus’ more human instincts - begins to make some suggestions for how his ministry might play out.

"Why don’t you turn those stones into bread?"

Remember that Jesus lived during the time of the Roman Empire.  The Emperors were clever politicians. They understood that simple people needed just two basic things to keep them, and entertainment.  Or, as the Roman expression went, “Bread and Circuses”.  Places like the Coliseum in Rome put on great circuses of entertainment, and fed the crowds with free food.  But Jesus had come to proclaim another kind of Kingdom….

When Jesus was challenged to turn stones into bread, we could say he was being tempted to follow the Roman way…"provide food for people, and they will follow you”.

But Jesus said no. "It is written: Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."

Jesus knew that food alone is not enough. If you feed someone, you only put off the time when they will ultimately die.  But if you can change their heart,  then you open up the opportunity of eternal life with God.  Jesus wanted his ministry to count FOR EVER, not just until the next meal.

So, the devil tried a new tack.  Effectively: "Why don’t you throw yourself off the temple and let the angels catch you?"

Bread...and Circuses. The old Roman trick. The devil was tempting Jesus to use his power to do amazing miracles that would wow the crowd. I mean - I’m pretty sure that if I threw myself off the top of St Marks after this service, and had some angels rescue’d all think I was pretty fantastic. Word would soon spread around the City, and then around the country, of the amazing flying Rector!

But again, Jesus knew that amazing miracles would not turn people towards God. He knew that the changes we need to make take place on the inside, not on the outside. Faith is not about asking God to do amazing feats of supernatural’s about trusting that God is in control, and is with us through every circumstance of life...the mountain-top experiences that we thought about last week, for example...but also when the chips are down, and the going gets tough.

So Jesus rebuked his 'devil' - the darker potentials of his human nature: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."

So the devil tried for the last time.  He took Jesus to the top of a very high mountain and showed him the kingdoms of the world laid out before him.

"Why don’t you worship me...then I will give you all this!"

Bread, circuses...and political power.  The devil was tempting Jesus to establish a kingdom of political power.  To raise up an army which would conquer the world. Many people expected that this was exactly what the Messiah would do.

But again, Jesus wasn’t interested. He knew that all the political power in the world would not create the circumstances that he wanted.   God's way is not the way of political and military power.  God’s way is the way of turning the other cheek, of forgiveness to your brother, and of carrying your brother's burden.  Jesus could have taken political power.  He could have raised an army to smite the Romans.  But unless the hearts of the people were changed, any political solution would only be temporary.

So what was Jesus’ response? "Away from me Satan! For it is written 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only!'”

In other words...what we need to do is put God first. Not bread, not circuses, not earthly power systems...God.  God who made us. God who sustains us. God who has saved us through Jesus Christ our Lord.

So in this period of Lent, let me invite you to take some time to ask yourself what you are putting first in your life. What is it that you trust, and base your life on? What is the most important thing in your life?

A question that Scripture constantly throws at us is...'how are you going to spend your days?'.  Are you going to spend them accumulating wealth that you can't take with you, or soaking up the modern day circuses of TV.  Or are you going to spend your days building community, creating relationships - caring about others, and worshipping God for whose pleasure you were made. Will it be bread and circuses and the vain promises of political power...or will it be life, to the full, through a total dedication to loving God and loving our neighbour.

The choice is ours to make.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Dust and Ashes

A sermon for Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58. 1-12 & Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18 Ash Wednesday.

Do you remember the dustmen's strike of the late 1970s? I do – simply because of one very memorable event – which happened soon after we had moved into a new house. My Dad decided to deal with the overflowing rubbish bin by the simple expedient of having a bonfire in the garden. However, he wasn't quite as careful as he might have been – and accidentally consigned an aerosol can to the flames. Sure enough, the can exploded – sending a missile over the fence at the bottom of our garden, to land in the open kitchen door of a new neighbour.

Our neighbour, who turned out to be the headmaster of our local school, came screaming out of the house. "What on earth to you think you are doing?!" My Dad was, of course, very apologetic – but thought that this rather bossy man was over-reacting a bit. It was only an accident after all. He was then rather puzzled by the neighbour's next question: "What would have happened if a net had been there?". "Well," replied my puzzled father, "I suppose a net would have caught it!". What Dad didn't realise, was that 'Annette' was the headmaster's daughter!

Ashes were something we got used to many years ago. Everyone had bonfires, in the time before smoke-control zones. I guess most of us have had the experience of raking ashes out of the grate, in the days before central heating. Ashes are just rubbish, aren't they? The product of burning something away. Just carbon. Waste, after the heat and light are gone.

So why, tonight, are we going to put this rubbish, this ash, on our heads? I want to suggest three reasons why we maintain this tradition - though I am sure there are more.

First of all these ashes are a reminder of who we are. The Bible tells us that we came from the dust and to the dust we shall return. As I'm sure you know our bodies are made up of about 50% water, and about 22% carbon (which is all that ashes are in the main). Mixed in with that are a couple of pounds of nitrogen (such as we find in good compost) and a couple of pounds of calcium (like the chalk hills of the Downs). On top of that there are about 30 or 40 other trace elements. But if I were to have all those elements here, and threw them all into a bucket, would I be able to make a human being? No, of course not.

The mythological imagery of Genesis tells us that the first human was formed out of the dust of the earth by God and then God breathed life into that dust. That is a powerful image. God is the source of our life – and the ashes we will use later on remind us of our utter dependence on him. Without the breath or Spirit of God moving in us, we are just ashes – dust: lifeless - worthless.

Secondly ashes are also a sign of repentance. As well as being a time of preparation for Good Friday and Easter, Lent is a time of mourning for our sins. It is a time when we are called to repent, turn away from our sin – which why, throughout Lent, we do not sing the Gloria, but focus instead on the Kyrie. "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy". For many of Lent will involve giving up something which we enjoy, as a personal discipline, and as a sign of our repentance.

Repentance is of course a key biblical theme. Time and time again the Old Testament prophets called people to turn away from their way of doing things, and to turn towards God's way. Sometimes, as we heard from Isaiah just now, that even meant repenting about the way that repenting was done! Fasting - or the giving up of food - was (and still is) an excellent discipline. It is designed to train us in the task of looking to God for spiritual and physical sustenance. It was an outward sign of a contrite heart - a heart that longed to be obedient to God.

But in Isaiah's day, fasting had become sort of fashionable, and as a result, hollow. Isaiah, speaking for God, says "Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes. Do you call this a fast - a day acceptable to God?"

Then, as we heard in the reading, Isaiah goes on to outline what true fasting, true repentance will look like. It won't be a mechanistic tradition of wearing certain clothes, and going without certain foods, or, in our case, for example, just performing again the ancient traditions of Ash Wednesday. It won't be the public wailing and showy-ness that Jesus condemmed in our Gospel reading. Instead, true repentance will be the complete changing of our minds to be more like the mind of God. This, of course, means being like the God whose heart is for the poor, and the hungry, and the homeless, and the weak. It means not being religious - but being practical, outward looking, loving our neighbour as we love ourselves. It means moving from a state of receiving God's love for us as individuals, into expressing that love for other people, through our actions, through our prayers, through our giving.

This year various Bishops have suggested that we should give up using carbon for Lent – especially the carbon used by our ubiquitous mp3 players and mobile phones.  That is a really tangible way of loving our neighbour – cutting down on our personal use of planet-destroying carbon emissions – that will ultimately flood, and starve, some of our poorest neighbours around the world.  So let's turn off some lights. If you have any clusters of lights, like a small chandeliers, for example – why not remove one of the bulbs for lent – as both a real contribution to climate change, and a symbolic statement of our commitment to live with less? Perhaps you might leave the car at home? As we are marked with the carbon of Ash, in a short while, perhaps we might like to make a commitment to reduce our own carbon use this Lent...and then, hopefully, throughout the rest of the year.

But there is one final point I want to make. The people in Biblical stories put the ashes on top of their heads - so why do we put them in the sign of the cross on our foreheads? It's not just because we ministers are of those who have just had their hair done! We make the sign of the cross because it is a reminder of how we are marked for Christ. It is in one sense a reminder of our baptism, when we were signed with the sign of the cross. And the cross of ashes also reminds of the mark of the Lamb as it is described in the Book of Revelation. Revelation tells of an angel marking the faithful before the tribulation. These faithful would then be protected. The mark of the cross is a mark of ownership. These ashes tonight remind us that we are Christ's, we belong to him; and that he died so that we might live.

These may be just a few ashes, but they mean a lot. First, they are a symbol of our need for God, for His breath of life. We are nothing but dust and ashes apart from Him.

Secondly, they are also a symbol of our repentance and mourning. They are a way of showing on the outside what is happening on the inside. Our trust in our own powers and abilities has tarnished the image of Christ in us. We have failed to live as he commands us to live. We've allowed ourselves to be seduced by the wealth and comfort of the world, while our neighbours are starving. The ashes are a sign of our deliberate repentance, our turning away - from our way of being, to God's.

Finally, in the midst of our repentance, these ashes, marked onto our forehead, are a sign that we are forgiven and marked as Christ's own. The very burning away of our sin by the fire of God's love makes us God's own. And as his own we are stamped and certified as children of God through the cross.
So as we come today to have the sign of the cross placed on our foreheads, let us

  • remind ourselves of our need of God, the source of our life, without whose life we are just ashes and dust

  • commit ourselves anew to living for him

  • remind ourselves that we are forgiven, and marked as Christ's brothers and sisters; children of our heavenly father.

Mountaintop Experiences

Today, of course, is Valentines Day, as well as being the last Sunday before Lent. I've been doing a little digging - to see what I could find out about the origins of Valentine's Day. As a matter of sheer fact, it might interest you to know that very little is known about it at all!. The feast of St. Valentine was first established in 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who included Valentine among those, he said, "... whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God." As Gelasius implied, nothing was known, even then, about the lives of any of these martyrs. The reason why St Valentine has become the focus of romantic love is one of those really knows. Certainly there is no history that links Valentine with love. He appears to have been a martyr who was be-headed because he would not deny Christ...and there is a legend about him healing his jailer's daughter before his death. But that's about it.

In the very distant past, there was a pagan, Roman festival called Lupercalia, which celebrated the she-wolf who had suckled the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. It was celebrated on the 15th of February, and included all sorts of fun and games...and no doubt a certain amount of, shall we say, 'romancing' used to take place between the young men and women of Rome. It may simply be that the feast-day of the largely unknown St Valentine was closest to the ancient love-fest of Lupercalia...and the two have become entwined. Who knows?

Nevertheless, we are where we are...Valentine's day has become linked to the notion of romantic love...spurred on by the card-printers and that now, all around the western world, lovers of every age are desperately running around trying to find some small token of love....preferably one that they haven't found in a previous year. It's quite a challenge, isn't it?!

So I hope you will forgive me if I pass over the notion of Valentine's Day. Some churches will be using today as a chance to celebrate marriage...but we are going to have our own celebration in three Sunday's time, at the wedding of Perry and Megan, to which you are all invited. So, I'm going to save up my own reflections on marriage for that occasion.

Let's focus instead on the set reading for today...the story of the Transfiguration. In many ways it is almost as mysterious a story as the origin of Valentine's day. Let's attempt to unpack it together...

The first thing to say about this story is that it describes a typical 'mountain-top' experience. It's one of those defining moments when the world seems to stop spinning for a while...and when those who are caught up in the experience are confronted with something new, something defining for the rest of their journey. It's like a hiker who, along the path, finds himself at the top of a hill - able to see where he has been, and where he is to go.

In this experience, the disciples find themselves caught up in an event which underscores the whole ministry of Jesus. There is a view back through history - as Jesus meets with people who have been part of the story of the past...Moses and Elijah, and is affirmed by them. And then there's a peering into the future, as God's voice from heaven confirms again who Jesus is, and the importance of his mission. "This is my son, the Chosen One...listen to him!"

The disciples who have accompanied Jesus to the mountain-top are having the time of their lives. They don't want to leave...and they even suggest building shelters for Jesus, Elijah and Moses. They seem to want to capture the moment, and stay in it forever. But the thing about mountain-top experiences is - you have to come down from them again. Discipleship involves following, and going on. As much as the Disciples were awed and impressed by what they had seen, they still had much to learn about being true followers. Despite seeing Jesus transfigured before his very eyes, Peter still denies Jesus. Despite seeing a vision of heaven, James and John still argue about who will be the greatest in a very earthly kind of kingdom.

Only later, after further following, the grief of the cross and the joy of the resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit - only later would the disciples be ready to speak their witness to what God had done in Jesus.

Have you ever had a mountaintop experience? You know, one of those experiences that blows your mind - something you'll always remember? I've had a few. I've been at fantastic worship events, where emotion has overwhelmed me. I've been at family celebrations, which I will always remember. And I've had literal mountain-top experiences - moments of breathing in the cool air and amazing views at the top of various hills and peaks. The thing about mountains, though, is that after you've climbed them, and after you've drunk-in the view, you have to come down them again.

Despite the fact that I've said we're not going to think too much about Valentine's Day, it does occur to me that weddings are pretty good examples of mountain-top experiences. For weeks, months, or even years (sometimes) people look forward to their wedding day. Everything has to be perfect...the music, the dress, the cake, the's all vitally important. And then, at the wedding I well find yourself caught up into one of those mountaintop experiences. Your senses are totally alert. Your senses of sound, sight, smell, hearing, touch...all go into over-drive. You become determined to drink in every moment.

But you have to come down the mountain again. The next day, there are bills to be paid, journeys to be made. New wives discover that their new husbands have smelly feet! And new husbands discover that their wives are not quite as attractive in the morning as they were the night before! Reality comes flooding in, and life has to be faced again.

Mountain-top experiences are part of life - and they are often part of the life of faith. Amazing worship experiences perhaps. Or times of retreat and prayer in which God seems so close, so intimate...times when we break through what a famous mystic called 'the cloud of unknowing' and seem to touch the face of God. Some people spend their whole lives trying to regain such experiences. Mystics and saints have lived lives of ever increasing discipline and piety in the hope of touching, once more, the face of God.

But faithfulness is not achieved by freezing a moment of time...and trying to live in it forever. Faithfulness, and true discipleship, is achieved by following on in confidence that God is leading...and that what lies ahead is even greater than what we have already experienced. You have to come down the mountain again...and take what has been seen, learned and experienced on with you...on into the journey.

My hope is that our Sunday services are a little bit like mountain-top experiences. They are a moment in the week when we come together to experience God together, and through each other. They are a couple hours in the week when we climb the mountain, and look beyond ourselves, beyond our day to day lives, and briefly touch the face of God.

But we have to come down the mountain. We have to keep following on...following God into our every-day lives...taking what we have said, done and experienced with us. We allow our worship, the words we say, the actions we do, to permeate our daily lives...colouring them, perfuming them. Because of our mini-mountaintop experience we somehow live lives that are more infused with meaning, more alert to what God is doing in our lives, and through us in the lives of others.

One of the things I hear most often as a priest are the immortal words "you don't have to go to church to be a Christian". Of course you don't...but it helps! Through being together, like the disciples on the mountain-top, we get to drink together from The Source....we get to be inspired for the next week...we get to eat food for the journey.

But its never about the mountain-top...its always about the journey. It should never be about the Sunday should always be about the day-by-day service...the giving of service to our families, our co-workers, our friends and our neighbours. Inspired at the mountain-top, we go back into the valley to bring the light of Christ to everyone we meet.

So, as we shall say at the very end of this service: Go, in the peace of Christ, to love and serve the world.


Saturday, February 6, 2010

Stilling the Storm

Luke 8. 22-25

When I was young, I used to make regular trips across to France on a Brittany Ferry - usually on school exchanges.  Because we lived in Devon, the route we took was the longest crossing of the Channel - the Plymouth to Roscoff route. Those were fun voyages.  Freed from the shackles of home, we would buy duty free cigarettes and smoke ourselves silly.  In France we would buy explosive fire crackers, and then, on the way back home, we would set them off in various places around the ship...just to laugh at the reaction of startled passengers.  God only knows where our teachers were at these times - I think they just let us experiment with life while they propped up a bar somewhere on the ship!

However, one particular crossing stands out very clearly in my head...a crossing in which I had a very close brush with death.  We had to cross in a force 9 gale - in mountainous seas.  Nowadays, if you find yourself on a ship in a storm, the doors to the outside decks will be locked - for health and safety reasons.  But back in the 1970s, no-one worried about such things.  Now, let me tell you, this was a storm and a half.  What should have been an 8 hour crossing just went on and on...10 hours, 12 hours, 14 hours.  All the while, the ship battled against the weather...climbing up huge waves, and then racing down the other side of them.  As a result, as you can imagine, most people on board were very, very sick.  I will leave your imaginations to picture what the floors of the ship were like, with so many people being very very ill.  So I decided to go out on deck, into the storm, but also into some rather fresher air.

Outside, I did up my trendy Parker - with it's fur-lined hood - and then picked up a plastic chair that was rolling around the deck, and sat down behind a bulkhead in a relatively sheltered spot.  I was very tired, and so put my head on my chest and attempted to grab some sleep.  Eventually, I managed to drift off...but just at that moment, the ship rolled off the side of a wave, and pitched sideways at an alarming angle.  The plastic legs of my plastic chair buckled underneath me, and I woke up to find myself sliding down the deck towards the railings.  Frantically, I reached out and grabbed the railing, just in time to stop myself sliding off the ship into the sea.  For a brief, terrifying moment I stared into the boiling sea, the foam just a few feet from my face, thinking 'this is it!  I'm a gonner!'  Well, as you can see, I survived!  But that experience has left me always a little wary of the sea, and always conscious of the suddenness with which life could come to an end.

Israelites were wary of the sea too.  They were not a sea-faring nation, despite having the entire Eastern Mediteranean along their shores.  Historians can tell us why this is.  Partly it was because Israelites, through Abraham, emerged out of the desert - and so were naturally and culturally desert-dwellers, not sea-farers.  Partly it was because there were too many powerful nations, like the Egyptians and then the Romans who had gained mastery of the sea before them.  Other nations had effectively taken over all the useful ports along the coast. As a result, the only significant contact with water that Israelites tended to have was through the Lake of Galilee.  Galilee was, and still is, a large lake - large enough to be known to the locals as the 'Sea' of Galilee - but still essentially a lake.

To Israeli minds, the sea was place of danger and of chaos.  Their scriptures always saw the sea as a force to be overcome (like during the crossing of the Red Sea) or a place of doom and trial (like in the very ancient story of Jonah).  Land was where your typical Israeli wanted to keep his feet.  In Genesis, land had emerged out of the sea.  Land was about order and control, life and possibility.  The sea - or 'the Deep' as Genesis calls it, is about chaos and danger.

So, we can now perhaps put ourselves in the position of the Disciples who were accompanying Jesus across the Lake...when a storm blew up.  Not only were they experiencing the normal fear that any of us might feel...being tossed about in a little fishing boat.  Behind that lay all the cultural fears that they carried with them.  The sea, that place of danger and chaos, had turned violent.  The disciples were now being affected by forces they could not control - victimised by it, terrified by it.  And any Jewish audience, listening to this early story about Jesus, would have recoiled at the thought of being caught in a storm at sea.

The sea, then, was a challenge to everything that feels certain and safe in life.  It invoked images of primordial chaos...but it also invoked stories of God creating life out of the chaos, of God delivering Jonah from the belly of the great fish, of God rescuing the Hebrew nation across the Red Sea.  By telling this story about Jesus calming the storm, Luke is helping his readers to make a connection between God and Jesus.  This is an 'epiphany' story - a manifestation of Jesus' divine power and identity.  Luke, and also Matthew and Mark who tell the same story with some different details, are all saying 'this Jesus has the power of God to control even the elements, and bend them to his will'.  Luke ends the story with a characteristically rhetorical question from the Disciples, "Who is this that even the winds and the water obey him?"

It's perhaps worth noticing that this is the first of a series of stories that Luke tells - all of which are designed to show Jesus' mastery over nature, demons, illness and death.  After completing his journey on the Lake, Jesus casts out the demons in the man called Legion. Immediately after that, he heals the woman who suffers from bleeding; and then he raises Jairus' daughter from the dead.  Luke is underlining an essential fact:  the One who brings the Word of God also exercises the Power of God.  'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord' - as we shall remind ourselves during the Eucharist in a few minutes. Luke wants us to realise that Jesus was not just a holy and wise teacher - but someone who was connected to the very forces that create and sustain the world in which we live.

But let's get back to the disciples.  They were, as I've said, being mightily affected by, indeed bullied and victimised by forces that were beyond their control.  Jesus, however, didn't seem to be bothered.  While all this chaos is going on around them, Jesus is blissfully asleep.  He wasn't on a plastic chair on a Brittany Ferry, like I was - but, according to Mark's version of the same story, he was curled up in the stern, on a cushion.  Even when his disciples woke him up, Jesus seems to have remained blissfully unconcerned.  He seems to know that this storm won't be a danger...or at least that he has the divine power to control it.  And he wonders why his disciples are not similarly cool.  "Where is your faith?"  he asks them.  In other words, "Don't you realise who I am...and what I can do?"

That same question rings across the centuries to us.

"Don't you realise who I am...and what I can do?"

This weekend, Clare and Emily and I have had the privilege of hosting Bishop Edmund Dawson-Ahmoah from Ghana.  Something that Christians from other countries often show me is how much they rely on the mighty power of God to intervene in, and transform, human lives.  When our good friend Fr. Joseph first came to live among us, he told me that he had come to England without any idea of where he was going to live.  But nevertheless, he set out on his journey, confident that God would supply all his needs.  Time and time again, people I have met from other parts of the world, have a deep sense, borne out of real experience,  that God is able to still the storms in their life, and take care of their needs.

Sometimes I wonder whether we English are now so self-sufficient that we have forgotten what it is to rely on God - to have the faith that Jesus expected his disciples to have.  In general we English have reached a level of prosperity, and have now lived for so long without war on our shores, that we have stopped looking to heaven, and begun looking only to our own resources.  Could it be that the reason why church attendance is falling is precisely because we now worship Gods of economics, or the God of pensions, or the God of the national health service - instead of the Creative Force behind and beyond all life?

Trusting in God is, instead of in our own resources, is of course a far less predictable path.  "How will God resolve my problems?" we want to know.  "How exactly will he do it?".  We won't give ourselves to God until we have some level of certainty about how God's action will turn out.  But this is not the way of faith.  Fr. Joseph has said to me, many times, that if he had not been willing to trust in God, he would still be in Ghana now, and he would never had made all the new friends and relationships that he has among us.

But this is not the English way.  In general, we live lives that are diaried, packaged, timetabled, planned and executed with ruthless precision.  Ask any English person where they will be at 3pm next Thursday, and they will know precisely.  But I've discovered that if you ask an African the same question, they may very well reply something like "wherever God has put me at that time".  We English have a routine.  We go to work, we come home, we close the curtains, tune-in the TV and tune-out the world.  Bishop Edmund, on the other hand, tells me that every-time his family prepares a meal, they always prepare extra food...for the neighbours or friends who are very likely to just turn up and share in fellowship, conversation, laughter and life.    

I find myself both excited and challenged by this non-English way of looking at God.  This life of faith is a way of living that remains constantly open to the God who stilled the storm, cast out demons, healed the sick, and raised the dead.  It is a way of living which embraces the God who disrupts the normality of life, with dramatic, life-changing intervention.

The life of faith is a way of living that relies on God.  Its a way of living which looks-forward to what God will do in our lives.  It a way of embracing God as God goes through life's storms and celebrations with us.  It is a, it is The Way, which leads to The Truth and The Life.