Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Message

Christmas Message 2011

This has been quite a year, hasn't it?

In the Middle East, the so-called Arab Spring has brought about an earthquake in politics. In New Zealand there were real earthquakes, while in the UK our summer streets exploded into riots. In Europe, the Euro-zone countries are in crisis.    Floods in the Philippines, civil war in the Ivory Coast.  In Russia, Vladimir Putin is accused of rigging elections.  In the Western World, bankers are are getting ludicrously rich while homelessness and poverty is on the rise at least partly because of their greed.  America withdraws from Iraq...which quickly plunges into political chaos.  Refugees are flooding across borders all over the world...desperately seeking a better life.

And that's just for starters....

But you know all this.  You watch the news, like me.  I wouldn't be surprised if, by now, you are wondering what the Vicar going on about?!  We didn't come to church to hear about politicians and war-mongers, bankers and natural disasters did we?.  We've come to church to hear lovely things which make us feel good inside.

But perhaps that's the problem...especially the problem with how we have told ourselves the Christmas story.  At the centre of the story is a baby...yes - and some sheep and camels, and a manger full of sweet-smelling hay.  How quickly we forget the rest of the story, though!

We forget that Jesus was born in an occupied country, governed by the most powerful and war-like Empire the world had yet known.  We forget that the story of a baby born in Bethlehem is the story of a baby born homeless, in an animal's food trough.  We forget that within months of his birth, the local warlord, King Herod, had ordered the slaughter of all male babies in Bethlehem - because he was afraid of losing political power.  We forget that just after his birth, Jesus and his parents had to flee for their lives - becoming political refugees themselves.

There are other aspects of the story we forget too.  We forget that Mary was an unmarried, teenage mother.  We forget that Shepherds - the first visitors on the scene - were thought of as 'the scum of the earth' to much of society.  And we forget that this story which begins with the birth of a baby, will end up with the cruel death of a God-filled man, nailed to a cross by the political and religious powers of his day.

No, my friends, we dare not take this Christmas story lightly.  And we must not assume that our world is any different to the world into which Jesus was born.  Because that is precisely the point.  In the babe of Bethlehem, God enters our world.  The underlying story of the Christ Mass is that God comes to us in the middle of all the chaos.  Surprisingly, God is at work in the middle of all the muddle.

How can this be?  How can God be at work when there is obviously so much horror out there?

An animal's food-trough is a surprising place to find God...but there are many other places where we find that God has been startlingly at hospices and prisons, for example.  In school classrooms, and loving families.  In our community cafe here at St Mark's, and in day-care centres and play groups.  God has been at work in campaigns for global justice, and in the work of Christian Aid and a thousand other relief organisations.  God is at work in lives which are poured out in the service of others, all around the globe - in the lives of men and women who are committed to being peace-keepers of all kinds.  God is at work among the Churches Homeless Action Group in Portsmouth, and in the dedication of social workers, nurses, and doctors, serving the needs of drug addicts and prostitutes.  God is at work in the Portsmouth Women's Refuge, and the Haslar Centre for Refugees.

Everywhere that there is love...Christ is born today.  Every time that a weapon is laid down, and reconciliation is sought, Christ is born today.  Every time that the mighty are brought down from their seat, the words of the Angels come true.

And that's why we are here.  In the middle of night, in the middle of the darkness, we proclaim that there is light, after all.  In the middle of the darkness of the World, in the middle of political and economic chaos, we proclaim that Christ is present...that God remains at work among us.

So, sing choirs of Angels...sing in exultation.  Christ is born today!



Sunday, December 4, 2011

St Nicholas

Sermon for the Feast of St Nicholas

I wonder if everyone here knows who St Nicholas is.  What are some of the names that he is called?  Here’s a clue – for those who don’t already know…in some countries, he is known as “Santa Niclaus” – Santa being a Spanish form of the word Saint.  Sometimes Santa Niclaus gets shortened to “Santa ‘Claus”.    Yes, St Nicholas is the person we know as Father Christmas!  And this is Father Christmas’ Church!
There are lots and lots of traditions concerning St Nicholas – and I’m sure you’ve heard many of them here over the years.  But it’s perhaps worth recapping some of them.

It’s fascinating to see how St Nicholas is celebrated differently, in different parts of the world.  In many places St. Nicholas is the main gift giver. His feast day, St. Nicholas Day, is December 6, which falls early in the Advent season. Some places he arrives in the middle of November and moves about the countryside, visiting schools and homes to find out if children have been good. Other places he comes in the night and finds carrots and hay for his horse or donkey along with children's wish lists. Small treats are left in shoes or stockings so the children will know he has come.

Where St. Nicholas is prominent, his day, not Christmas, is the primary gift-giving day.   Instead of gathering to give presents on Christmas Day, like we do, parties are held on the eve, December 5th, and shoes or stockings left for St. Nicholas to fill during the night. Children then find treats of small gifts, fruit or nuts, and special Nicholas candies and cookies.

One vital difference between the way we receive gifts, in England, and the way that others do it, is that St. Nicholas gifts are meant to be shared, not hoarded for oneself.  Whatever little treats St Nicholas brings – sweets, nuts, fruit, candies – these are to be shared, around the whole family.

We have an icon of St Nicholas in this church, as you know.  It was painted by our good friend Carmen Orastean, who is a Romanian.  In Romania, St Nicholas’ Day is a very great festival.  On the night of December 5th, boots are cleaned and carefully polished to be put by the door or on the windowsill to wait for St. Nicholas' (Sfantul Nicolae) visit. He is generous to adults as well as children, putting a little present in each boot—usually nuts, tangerines, sweets and small items, like new socks. In some areas a walnut branch or thin twigs with gold, silver, or bronze gilded walnuts are left as a warning that behaviour needs to improve.  On the sixth of December, gifts are given to friends, children, and those in need. It is one of the most important Romanian holidays.

More than 800,000 Romanians  are called Nicholas, Nicolae or Nicola – or other variations of his name.  They all celebrate their name day on St. Nicholas day, December 6th.   Over 1000 churches are dedicated to St. Nicholas in Romania, at least 23 are in Bucharest.

It’s worth knowing about some of these traditions – because perhaps they help us to see the our own traditions in a new light.  Perhaps they might even make us think a little about the way we have celebrated Christmas, for the last few decades.  Everyone I meet agrees that we have become far too obsessed with presents, and that Christmas has become too expensive.  And yet, no-one seems to be able to stop.  We all feel under pressure to keep up with everyone else’s idea of what Christmas should be.  The stories about St Nicholas from other countries encourage us to see Christmas as something a little more simple.  A small gift, here and there – a bar of chocolate, a bag of nuts.  Nothing too elaborate.  Just enough to send a message of love.

Of course we all know what it’s like.  You go to Toyz R Us, and you buy the biggest present you can find.  On Christmas morning, you watch the eyes of your child go wide at the possibilities of what might be inside.  Then, the wrapping is torn off, and the child is encouraged to explore the contents.  “Look”, says you, “There’s a complete play-kitchen in here.  There’s a cooker, and some saucepans, and some pretend fruit.  There’s a little chair and table, and a pretend sink for washing up.  Look, there’s a pretend iron and ironing board…so you can do the ironing….just like Daddy!”

But the child has other ideas.  “Look”, says the child, “There’s a great big empty box!  It could be a house, or a castle, or a motor-boat, or a car, or a bed.  It’s fantastic.”  So for the rest of the day, Daddy spends his time assembling small pieces of plastic which his child will never play with, while his child is happily sitting in the box, going “Brummm….brummm”.

St Nicholas invites us to use our imaginations.  St Nicholas himself became famous because he was known as a generous giver.  He understood how much God had given to him – life, health, friends, a community to live in.  And out of his gratitude, St Nicholas wanted to give something back.

There are many famous stories about St Nicholas.  The most famous tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands something of value— called a dowry.  The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband.  Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry.  This poor man's daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery.  Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. And so St. Nicholas is known as a gift-giver.

In France the story is told of three small children, wandering in their play until lost, lured, and captured by an evil butcher.  In the French story, St. Nicholas appears and appeals to God to return them to life and to their families. And so St. Nicholas is the patron and protector of children.

Several stories tell of Nicholas and the sea.  For example, when he was young, Nicholas made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There as he walked where Jesus walked, he sought to more deeply experience Jesus' life, passion, and resurrection. Returning by sea, a mighty storm threatened to wreck the ship. Nicholas calmly prayed. The terrified sailors were amazed when the wind and waves suddenly calmed, sparing them all. And so St. Nicholas is the patron of sailors and voyagers – so a pretty good Saint to have in a town like Portsmouth – and that’s why one of his symbols is a ship (as shown in our stained glass window).

Something that is consistent about all these stories is that Nicholas was someone who constantly looked for ways to help and encourage other people.  Responding to God’s love, Nicholas wanted to share that love wherever he could.  He was constantly on the look-out for ways to help other people.  And his stories encourage us to think in similar ways.

Look, let me encourage you.  Let me encourage you to think like St Nicholas, this Christmas.  In a short while, many of us are going to give gifts which will be given to children throughout the City who otherwise wouldn’t get a present this year.  For that, I am very very grateful – and I’m sure that St Nicholas is too.  But there is one gift that every single one of us can give this year, a gift which can be given and received all through the year. It’s the gift of a question…

Here’s the question…”What can I do for you?”.  Mummy, you’ve been cooking all day.  What can I do for you?  Daddy, you’ve been ironing all morning…what can I do for you?  Neighbour…you haven’t spoken to anyone today…what can I do for you?  Homeless person, sitting in the shop doorway in North End…what can I do for you?  Starving person I’ve seen on the TV, whose crops have failed or been washed away…what can I do for you?

There’s another little thing that St Nicholas can teach us.  St Nicholas is never seen.  If we try to stay awake, to see him coming down the chimney…he won’t come.  St Nicholas always gives his gifts in secret.  He gives what we might call ‘random acts of kindness’.  He gives in secret, without expecting any reward…though I know he’s always grateful for a glass of brandy and a mince pie for the reindeer!  But he gives without looking for thanks – he spreads a little happiness as he goes by.

There are some lovely stories out there about Random Acts of Kindness.  There’s the story of a woman in America who was going through a Starbuck’s Drive-In, on her way to work.  It was a cold, grey morning, and she really didn’t want to go to work.  When she got to the window, a little bit of sunshine broke out when the assistant gave her a cup of coffee, and said “It’s paid for, already”.  It turned out that the taxi driver in front of her had paid for her coffee.  The assistant explained “He does it every day, for one person”.

There are lots of random acts of kindness done in this parish too.  Those of you who have brought presents today…thanks for the act of kindness.   Those of you who are buying vouchers for the homeless – for people you will never meet…thank you for the random act of kindness.  Those of you who filled up Shoeboxes for the annual shoebox appeal  - thankyou.  Those who gave to the Harvest appeal for food, or money for the Bungokho centre in Uganda – thank you.  Those of you who give regularly, sacrificially, to the work of the church…St Nicholas would be proud of all of you.

And doesn’t it feel good?  Doesn’t it feel great to know that today, your life counted for something?  Today, you helped another human being a little further along their journey – however tough that  journey has been.
Jesus taught us that it is giving that we receive.  By giving out, we receive back a thousand fold – especially in that deep sense that today, we know we have made a difference.

St Nicholas stands as an example.  According to all the legends, he is the giver who is never seen…and who is yet loved by all.  That’s not a bad example for any of us to follow.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Sheep and the Goats

Matthew 25: 31 - 46  - The Sheep and the Goats

Today is the last day of the church's year:  the new liturgical year begins next week, with the first Sunday of Advent.  The church's calendar encourages us to begin the year with a time of preparation and contemplation, before the arrival - again - of the Baby in Bethlehem, the celebration of the Christ Mass.

Here, on the last day of the year, we are asked to consider the ultimate destination of that Baby.  The baby who arrives in a manger will grow to be at first a wise child, then an inspiring preacher. He will become a crucified messiah, then victor over the death itself.  He will ascend into a heavenly state, hidden physically from his followers, but will then be found among them again in the form of the Spirit of God.   Then, at what the Bible calls 'the end of the age', he will return as Christ the King - Lord of the Whole Universe.

What are we to make of this final story?  This story of the Christ who separates people into two groups - like a Shepherd separates sheep from goats.  Well, first of all, let's remember that this is a story.  Like all of the stories of Jesus, it is not meant to be taken literally.  It contains lots of story-telling references, which people of Jesus' day would have understood instinctively.

Take, for example, the use of repetition.  Great stories of the Eastern World used repetition all the time.  It was a way of making the story stick in our imaginations.  We have some examples in our own culture.  Take the story of the three little pigs.   How does is it go?

"Little pig, little pig, let me come in"

"No no Mr Wolf, by the hair of my chinny chin chin, I will not let you in!"

"Then I'll huff, and I'll puff, and I'll blow your house in!"

This story of the sheep and the goats uses very similar (but not so comical) repetition:

"I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you visited me"

That litany is repeated four times in this one story...twice for the 'sheep', and twice (in a negative form) for the goats.

There are other, classic, story-telling devices on display here too.  Take, for example, the response of the crowds - either the sheep or the goats.  It is inconceivable that a whole crowd of people, totalling half of all human beings who have ever lived, would respond in exactly the same way to Jesus' statement.  Among the sheep, surely, there would be some who would understand exactly what Jesus meant...those who had read their Bibles, perhaps!  They would not respond by saying "When did we do all these things?".  They would, rather, say, something like "Yes, Lord...we did our best".  Or "thanks for noticing!".  But in this story the sheep and the goats all respond in exactly the same way.  It’s a story-tellers’ trick - like the way that all the children of Hamlyn respond to the Pied Piper, or the way that every girl in the Kingdom wants to marry the Prince in Cinderella.

There is one other little detail about this story that is worth contemplating - before we get to the heart of what it is saying.  When I say the word "sheep" to you - I daresay that you have a vision in your mind of something round and fluffy, with a big thick woolly jumper.  On the other hand, the word "goat" brings to mind something bigger, stronger, with a rough wiry coat, and big horns.  In fact, that was not the image that Jesus had in mind.

A few years ago, when I was in Uganda, I was shown that primitive breeds of sheep and goats are remarkably similar.  Ugandan sheep and goats are very similar to those in the area around Jerusalem.  It is actually quite difficult to tell them apart. Woolly, English sheep, and strong wiry goats are the result of selective breeding over many centuries.  In fact, a shepherd who might be separating them, one from another in Palestine, has only one visible marker to guide him in a hurry - namely that sheep's tails point downwards, and goat's tails point up.

So, knowing that what we have heard is a story...not a description of exactly how things will be, but a grand, metaphorical shall we interpret it?  What does it mean?

The story comes at the end of a long section of Matthew's gospel, when Jesus has been talking about the End of All Things.  It all starts back in Matthew 24, when his disciples say to him "Tell us...what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"

So this parable, which is part of Jesus' response to their question, could easily start with the words "At the end of the age"...or, as we might say, "at the end of the day".

At the end of the day, this parable teaches us, there are only two kinds of people.  They are pretty similar, these people - it’s hard to tell them apart, in fact.  They all lead fairly normal lives, they marry, have children, go to work, watch Eastenders.  But there is a difference.  And the difference is found in the way that they relate to other people.

All the people of the world, the sheep and the goats, are surrounded by others in need.  There are homeless people, and hungry people.  There are thirsty people and naked people.  There are sick people and prisoners, ripped away from their families by their own fault, or by the oppression of the countries they live in.

At the end of the day, the difference between the lost and the saved is indicated by the way they respond to the hungry, homeless, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned.  Jesus is saying "if you want to know who will be saved, look at the quality of a person's the decisions they make about others in need".

Is that it?  Is that all that I must do to save my soul?  Well, yes, essentially.  That is the heart of the story of the sheep and the goats.  At the "end of the age", at the "end of the day", how I have lived towards other people will show whether or not I have attained the salvation of my soul.
But of course, it’s not as simple as that.  How I have lived towards others is only an is the outward sign of something much more profound that is supposed to be going on inside of me.  Every human being is capable of being generous, from time to time. Even the most evil human being you can imagine is capable of generosity, occasionally - if only to their own family members.

I wonder how many of us have supported Children in Need this year?  Good for you, if you did.  Nothing wrong with that, at all.  But woe to you, if that is all you have done for others this year!  I feel nothing but sorrow for those who can only respond to the plight of others when it is put in front of them in graphic detail on the television.  My friends, such people are goats.  They are the ones who look like sheep, but whose obedience to radical call of the Gospel is only skin deep.

Becoming a sheep - a true believer, a true Christ-ian, takes a complete transformation of our inner being...or what the Bible calls being 'born again'.  Crucially, it takes a daily commitment to the abandonment of 'self'.  Earlier in Matthew's gospel, specifically Chapter 16, Jesus says this...listen to him:
"I anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life, will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?"

Salvation, being 'born again, is not achieved at a moment in time...just by saying a prayer.  It is the work of a lifetime, to keep on keeping on...carrying our cross.  When Jesus died on the cross, he gave up his rights to everything, even the robe that he wore, and the life that he had.  But even while he was doing so, he found time to forgive his executioners, make provision for his mother, and give a comforting word to a thief.  When Jesus calls us to 'take up our cross', he means that for us to find salvation, we need to embrace that kind of radical giving.  We need to be willing to give up everything we have, everything we think, everything we are, in order to truly find the salvation we seek.

Now I realise, of course, that this is a hard Gospel to hear.  It's a million miles from the faith that some of us have inherited...the kind of faith which assumes that all I have to do is go to church on Sunday, believe some basic theology about Jesus dying for us, and somehow, our salvation will take care of itself.  But that is the Gospel. Jesus has said it.  "Whoever finds his life, will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it"

As I've said, this is the work of a lifetime.  It takes time to gradually pull down the walls of the ego and the self we have built around us.  It takes years to come to the realisation that it truly is in giving of ourselves that we receive, and that in dying to ourselves we are born to eternal life.  But it is possible to start that journey, that lifetime of work today!  Perhaps we could start with the most basic call of Christian discipleship - the biblical call to give 10% of our earnings to the work of God.  That’s a good place to start.  Perhaps we could join Jeff Harvey and the pastoral team, giving just one hour a week to the task of visiting the sick of this parish?  That’s a good place to start.  Perhaps we could offer a little of our time, once a month, once a fortnight, once a week to a charity which serves others, or to the Community Café.  You don’t have to cook…you don’t even have to serve coffee.  What most of our customers in the café are after is a friendly face, and a listening ear.

But that is only the start.  What Jesus called 'the Way' is a way of life.  It demands a complete re-imagining of what we consider important in life.  It means a complete emptying of self...truly giving up my rights, my desires, my feelings, my wants, my purposes, and the giving out of all my resources to the service of others.  To the hungry and the thirsty, to the naked and the homeless, to the sick and imprisoned.

Anything else is just an illusion of true religion.  And nothing at all like the real thing.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


ALL SOULS  Romans 13.8-10 and Luke 14.25-33

This is a strange time of year, isn't it?  With the feasts of All Saints, All Souls and Remembrance all coming so close together, it can feel just a little bit sad.  Through these feasts, we are encouraged to think about the difficult topic of death.

First, inevitably, we think about the death of those we have loved.  Through these services, we re-member them...that is, we re-connect them, in our minds.  We put their 'members' - their arms, legs, and faces, - back together in our minds.  We re-member them.  And that is good.  It is an opportunity to thank God for all that our loved ones meant to us, and still mean to us.  We might think about what they contributed to our lives.  We might thank God for the love that they shared with that is itself a sign, and a mirror, of the love of God itself.

For some of us, of course, some of the memories we have might be more complicated.  All human beings are complicated, and human relationships are the most complicated of all.  Some people even feel relieved when certain relationships are ended by death...let's be honest, not every relationship is positive and life-giving.  But that's ok too.  We give those relationships to God, just as we give all our loved ones to God.  We trust that in God, and through God, there is healing of past hurts, as well as hope for the future.

Interestingly, however, today's lectionary readings have little to say about the death of those we have known.  Instead, the lectionary encourages us to think about our own lives, and ultimately, of course, our own deaths.  For as the old saying goes, "nothing is certain in life, except death and taxes".

St Augustine of Hippo enlarged on this idea, when he wrote this:

"It is necessary to die, but nobody wants to;  you don't want to, but you are going to, whether you like it or not.  It is hard not to want something which cannot be avoided.  If it could be managed, we would much rather not die; we would like to become like the angels by some other means than death.  We want to reach the Kingdom of God, but we don't want to travel by way of death.  And yet, there stands Mr Necessity saying 'This way, please!' "

CS Lewis, writer of the Narnia books, was even more blunt.  He said this:

"It is hard to have patience with people who say 'there is no death,' or 'Death doesn't matter'.  There is death.  And whatever is matters.  And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible.  You might as well say that birth doesn't matter."

But let's get back to the Lectionary.  What are these two readings saying to us?  First, St Paul, writing to the Romans, seems to speak right into the economic crisis that we who are still alive find ourselves faced with. He reminds us of what philosophers have called 'the Golden Rule' - "Love your neighbour as you love yourself".  But he does so in a very interesting context.  In the previous few lines, Paul has been talking about faithfulness in financial matters.  "Pay your taxes", he says, "because the authorities are God's servants".  Then, "Give everyone what you owe him".  Then finally, "Let no debt remain outstanding".

If only this was the basis on which our financial system was built!  If only we had not built our entire system on debt, then perhaps it would not have come crashing round our ears as it has done in the last few years.  Paul says "Let no debt remain outstanding....except....the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow-man has fulfilled the law"

Just imagine what a different world this would be if the law of loving compassion was the basis of our system of finances and banking!  Just imagine how different life would be for billions, if 20% of the world's population did not control 80% of the world's resources.  Just think how 'loving your neighbour' would truly transform the world!

It is possible to state the so-called Golden Rule in an opposite way.  There is a story about a Jewish Rabbi, a contemporary of Jesus, called Rabbi Hillel.  He was once challenged to stand on one leg, to recite the law of Moses.  The old fellow was clearly up for a challenge, because he immediately stood on one leg and said (and I paraphrase)

"Don't do to others what you would not like them to do to you.  That is the entire Law of God...the rest of the Scriptures are just commentary"

Do you see the difference?  "Love your neighbour" is a positive action, and potentially a rather passive one.  Its relatively simple to go around just loving everybody.  But  "don't treat your neighbour badly" is a way of inviting us to really challenge our behaviour.  "Don't grab selfishly at stuff if you wouldn't like people grabbing at your stuff.  Don't wage war if you would not like war waged on you.  Don't judge other people's opinions, lifestyles, choices, if you would not like other people judging yours"

So here is Paul saying "wake up, people!"  In fact, if we read on a few verses from the small selection of the lectionary, we find Paul saying this:

"The hour has come for you to wake up from your present slumber, because our salvation is nearer than when we first believed."

In other words....death is coming.  Our salvation, through death into the Kingdom of God,  is coming.  Are we content to sleep our way through this 'present slumber' or are we perhaps interested in living Kingdom lives now?  Because, let us not forget, the Departed whom we commemorate today, are living in the Kingdom of heaven - or so we pray.  Our lives are but dull slumber compared to the true life that awaits all those who are transformed by the love of God.

D.L.Moody, a famous preacher, once said this:

"Some day you will read in the papers that D.L.Moody of Northfield is dead.  Don't you believe a word of it!  At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now:  I shall have gone up higher, that is all, out of this clay tenement into a house that is immortal - a body that death cannot touch, that sin cannot taint; a body fashioned like unto his glorious body"

And that is of course the thrust of the Gospel reading we just heard.  Jesus uses a clearly exaggerated phrase to emphasise how unimportant our present priorities are, compared to the priorities of the Kingdom. He says, effectively,

"There is a cost to being a disciple".  

"Any of you who does not give up everything for my sake cannot be my disciple. If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters - yes even his own life - he cannot be my disciple"

Jesus, and the Kingdom of loving compassion that he preaches, has a claim on our lives.  Eternal life is not something which is only given to the departed.  Jesus preached that "the Kingdom of Heaven is 'among you' or 'within you' " depending on the translation (cf Luke 17.21).  In other words, eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven is something which is offered to us now.  Eternal life is life which doesn't stop, even through death, and which can begin today.  It is literally 'life which goes on for ever'.

There is an irony that as we pray for the souls of the departed today, Christian tradition has always taught that of much more importance is the knowledge that those who are in the very presence of God, now, are also praying for us.  Our loved ones, who are themselves caught up in the love of God, are praying for us now, as we pray for them.  By their prayers and ours, a great unending circle of prayer is initiated...a circle of compassionate love, in which we, like them, can be caught up.  A great powerhouse of prayer which can give us the strength, the commitment, the drive, to live as Jesus and Paul his Apostle call us to live.

In most Orthodox churches around the world, over the Altar, there is an image of Christ celebrating the Eucharist with the 'faithful departed' - those who are in his presence now.  Within Orthodoxy, there is a lovely idea that as we celebrate the Eucharist on earth, with the Priest standing 'vicariously'  (as a Vicar) in the place of Christ, Christ himself celebrates the very same feast, eternally in heaven with all those he has welcomed into his kingdom. It's a lovely which I encourage you to hold in your mind as we pray later 'with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven'.

So today, we pray for our loved ones, who we re-member in this act of worship...but we also pray for the strength to live our own eternal lives by the Golden Rule, and for the strength to make the compassionate priorities of the Kingdom our priorities...for ever and ever.


Friday, August 5, 2011

Walking on the Water

Matthew 14.22-36

Have you ever heard of William Walker? Walker was a diver, who was born in the 1800s. He was one of the first divers of the Royal Navy, training in 1887 at Portsmouth Dockyard. As one the nation's earliest divers, he had many exciting adventures. On one occasion, he was called to Wales, to rescue drowning miners from a pit collapse. He was one of the divers who worked on the Blackwall Tunnel, and he held the distinction of being the diving instructor for King George V. However, the achievement for which he is most famous was something rather more local to us.

Between 1906–1911, working in water up to a depth of 20, he shored up Winchester Cathedral, using more than 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks.

Winchester Cathedral, you see, had been built about 800 years before by the Normans. At the time, the land all around the Cathedral was essentially a peat bog. So, with their typically cunning engineering, the Normans built their cathedral on a giant raft. For 800 years, the Cathedral had essentially floated on top of the peat bog. But by the end of the 19th Century, with the peat bog drained away to create the town of Winchester, the cathedral had been in imminent danger of collapse as it sank slowly into the ground. William Walker was responsible for shoring up the walls by putting concrete underneath them. He worked six hours a day—in complete darkness, because the peat sediment suspended in the water was impenetrable to light.

It's a wonderful story, isn't it?...the story of a church floating on water for so many years. And yet, this is actually a very old image. Matthew's story of Jesus walking on the water, begins with a very similar metaphor.  Water, for the Israelites, was a symbol of chaos, and challenge. It was over the waters that the Spirit of God had brooded, in Genesis, before God spoke and brought forth the land. It was through the dangerous waters that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt. Jonah and the Whales. Noah and the Flood...over and over again, the ocean is a symbol of chaos, difficulty and challenge.

So, to a first century reader of Matthew's gospel, the idea of Jesus sending all his disciples off in a boat would have been instantly recognised as another story of challenge on the ocean. The boat, in this story, can very easily be pictured as the church...containing, at that time, all the disciples of Jesus. In fact, Matthew goes still further, to make his point. Where our English translation describes the little boat as being battered by the waves, Matthew's original word, in Greek, was 'tortured'...the little boat was being 'tortured' by the waves, just as the church in Matthew's day was being tortured by the Authorities.

This then is Matthew's picture of the church. Jesus sends out his followers into a leaky tub, into an ocean of challenge, difficulty and chaos. This is not a church which rides above the difficulties of life, but a church which finds itself in the middle of everything life can throw. Buffeted, even tortured, by the world around it, church members look to the shore, desperate for a word of encouragement from Jesus, wondering why he is not in the boat with them.

Because, you see, the little boat on the Sea of Galilee has left Jesus behind on the shore, just as the church left Jesus behind in history. It seems impossible that Jesus could be with us...and yet, as the morning dawns, the disciples in the boat see Jesus...striding towards them, over the chaos of the sea. He calls to them, over the storm..."Take heart! It is I! Do not be afraid".

But like us, Peter still wonders. Can this really be Jesus? He proposes a little test. "If it is you, Lord, command me to come to you on the water". Jesus replies with a single word, "Come". Peter - the first disciple, the archetype for all disciples, steps out of the boat, walking towards Jesus on top of the water! He does what Jesus does. He copies him, and for a while, he succeeds. But as he looks at the storm all around him, he becomes frightened, and starts to sink.

Jesus reaches out his hand, and rescues Peter. He helps him into the boat, commenting sadly, that Peter is of little faith. "How could you doubt?" Jesus asks, sadly.

I wonder how many times you have heard this story. And I wonder how many times, like me, you have been told that this is a story about faith. Certainly all the preachers I heard as a youngster used to tell me that Peter's problem was his lack of faith. "If only Peter had had more faith...he could have overcome his fear, and conquered the act of walking on the water". And therefore, the message to us is often read as "If only we had more faith, we could conquer all our problems in spectacular ways".

But I wonder.

There is a problem, for me, with that interpretation. Can it really be that God wants us to believe that bad things happen to us because we don't have enough faith? Can it be that God wants us to feel guilty when we are sick, or when accidents happen, or when people persecute us...guilty that these things are happening because we don't have enough faith? I'm not sure I can believe that.

Faith is not about being able to walk on the water. Only God can do that. Faith is about believing, in the midst of the storm and the chaos of life, that Jesus is in the boat with us. In spite of all the evidence, faith is the act of believing that God is in the boat with us, sharing our pain, sharing in our weakness. God is made real in the community of faith as it makes its way through the storm, battered - tortured - by the waves.

Are your numbers falling? "It is I: do not be afraid"

Do you struggle to respond to all the challenges of your community, your building, the starving world? "It is I: do not be afraid"

Are you feeling ill or depressed? "It is I: do not be afraid".

Are you doubting the reality of God in your life? "It is I: do not be afraid"

Are you nearing the end of life? "It is I: do not be afraid"

This too is the message of the Cross. On the cross, all the chaos of the world was brought together in one sustained attack on the goodness of God. Christ, the one who mediates between God and Man, is overpowered by the chaos of humanity, and humanity punishes him, tortures him, and kills him. Jesus shares in the suffering of all human beings on the cross...and yet manages to overcome them. He walks on the water, above the chaos. He rises from the dead, above the chaos.

Peter's mistake in the boat was to fail to recognise the transforming power of God. Instead, he tried to do it himself. "Let me walk on the water" was his cry.

I remember my daughter, when she was very small, struggling with a jigsaw puzzle. I got frustrated at her lack of progress, and bent down to help her - and was astonished at her reply. "Do it myself!" she said.
Isn't that what we all do, from time to time, to God? In spite of all that God has taught us about how to live, we still try to 'do it myself'. We try to walk on the water, instead of letting Jesus come and sit beside us in the boat.

Jesus says to us: "Live simply. Do not worry about what tomorrow will bring"
We say "Do it myself!" and hoard possessions and cash in case of the coming storm.

Jesus says to us: "You are members of one body, fruit on the vine of the church"
We say "Do it myself" and decide that we don't need the hassle of coming to church.

Jesus says: "Blessed are the peacemakers - the children of God"
We say "Do it myself" and harbour our hatreds and our lack of forgiveness for decades

Peter's problem was that he didn't understand that Jesus comes to us through the chaos of life. Peter didn't have enough faith in the God who walks beside us on the road, or who comes to sit beside us in the boat. He wanted to get to Jesus, through the chaos - instead of letting Jesus come to him.

We yearn for instant answers, instant solutions. We want to walk on the water too! But Jesus wants to sit beside us in the boat...going through all the things of life....sharing them, and helping us to learn through them. There are two storm stories in the Gospel.  In one of them, Jesus says to the waves, "Quiet, be still".  In the other, Jesus strides above the storm, through the storm.  You see, Jesus doesn't always still the storm...sometimes he uses the storm for greater purposes...

If I am poor, Jesus can show me how rich I truly am. If I am sick, Jesus can show me how well I really am. On the other hand, if I am rich, Jesus can show me my poverty. If I am healthy, Jesus can point me to where my sickness lays. In EVERY circumstance of life, there is something to learn, some new growth for our souls to embrace. Life - the storm, the ocean, - its the proving ground for our souls. It is here that Jesus prepares us for life which goes on for ever. It is here that he sits beside us in the boat.

So, let me ask you. What is Jesus teaching you today? As he sits beside you in the boat, in the middle of your own particular storm, what is he saying to you?
Can you hear him?
If you can't, then seek him out.
How? Well, here are some suggestions:

First, why not speak to another Christian - listen for the voice of Jesus through the voices of other believers. Chat with Christian friends over coffee in the Cafe. Seek out a priest, or a deacon, and share what's on your heart. Listen, together, to what God is saying.

Secondly - and here's a really radical thought...why not Read Jesus' Words! Try actually opening the Bible you keep on your shelf at home! Start with the Gospels, and work through the New Testament...leave the Old Testament until you've got some practice at hearing God's voice.

Thirdly - give yourself some space to think, and to pray. Switch off the TV or the radio from time to time. Spend time in quietness, mulling over the circumstances of your life....asking God to teach you what God wants to teach you...reflecting on all that is happening, and how God is growing your soul today.

Fourth - why not buy a book? We have a book-shop downstairs, full of interesting, challenging, encouraging books which will lead you to think more about what God is saying to you, each day.

And Finally - be diligent about meeting with the rest of us. Don't stop being together in church. We are in this boat together - and together we will hear Jesus calling over the waves: "It is I: do not be afraid".


Saturday, July 23, 2011

Anders Behring Breivik - Massacre in Norway

Romans 8. 26-39
This morning, I’m going to tell you a story.  It’s a fictional story, based on the recent events in Norway, and on today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  I don’t claim that every detail in this story is correct.  But I offer it as a thought…as a story…in the hope that it will open our imaginations to what might be possible in the love of God. Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I shall begin…

Once upon a time, not very long ago, a young man called Anders lived in Norway, the land of the Norsemen, the Vikings.  Anders was blond, and blue-eyed…a true Viking, descended from Vikings.  In his history books he read about the time when the Vikings had ruled vast swathes of Europe, a time when blond and blue eyed people had been in complete control.

But looking around his own country now, he saw that Vikings were no longer in control.  Instead, Norway was ruled by faceless bureaucrats in far away Brussels.  He saw that his country was being too kind, too welcoming to people from other countries.  Foreigners were crowding his streets…people from Africa, people from Asia, people from parts of Europe which certainly weren’t blond.  And worse than that “these people are taking jobs from us Norwegians.  They are claiming money from our Government, living in our houses, and stealing our jobs.” thought Anders.

Slowly, day by day, anger started to grow within Anders.  He couldn’t understand that the world was a shrinking place, in which overpopulation, famine and war were driving desperate people across all sorts of borders, in search of a better life.  No-one challenged his thinking.  When he complained about black people in his city, friends and family members would just shrug their shoulders, and agree.  It was easier to agree…even when they didn’t agree.  Anders always looked so angry about the issue.  It was easier to just go along with him…not to challenge him.

Slowly, slowly, the hatred grew.  Anders began to look around for someone to blame.  Someone had to pay for this situation.  It was impossible for him, alone, to attack all the foreigners in his country…there were too many of them.  But perhaps he could attack those who had let them in?  In his unchallenged, warped mind, his anger turned towards the leaders of Norway.  It was the fault of the Government.  It was the fault of the Prime Minister.  It was the fault of the Labour Party of Norway.

A desperate, angry plan began to form.  Anders gathered his resources.  Guns, bullets, explosives.  He built up a stock-pile, until one day, on the 22nd of July 2011, he was ready to show the Government that they were wrong to let so many foreigners into his country.

So, with deliberate care, and seething rage, Anders planted his bomb.  The bomb would go off right outside the Prime Minister’s office.  Anders planted his bomb, and then waited for it to explode.

Boom!  The bomb ripped a hole in the Government’s main building.  The Prime Minister’s office was shattered.  Anders had started his war.  What next?

Anders knew that there was an island where the ruling party of Norway took its young people for training and indoctrination into their stupid beliefs about the equality of all human beings.  That is where he would strike next.  Gathering his many guns and bullets, Anders set off for the Island.  He would strike a blow not just at the present Government, but at the next generation of politicians.  He would teach them a lesson they would never forget.

Arriving at the island, Anders set to work at his grim task.  He opened fire on hundreds of people, sending them scattering all over the island…they climbed trees, they tried to swim to the mainland, they barricaded themselves into log cabins.  Terrified.

At the end of his days work, 84 people – mainly young people – had been slain.  Another seven had died in the earlier bomb blast.  Anders was content.  He had sent a message to the whole world…a message that no-one could ignore.  He allowed himself to be taken…to be arrested…so that through his forthcoming trial, his message of “Norway for Norwegians” would have the maximum impact, as the press followed every twist and turn.

Then, one day, many years later, after spending the rest of his life in prison, Anders died.  There were many who celebrated that day.  Many of the parents of those children, the ones who were gunned down in their prime, believed that prison had been too kind a treatment for Anders.  “Now, he’ll get what’s coming to him”, they said to themselves.  “Now, he’ll burn in hell”.

Anders himself had thought that would probably happen too.  After years of thinking about his actions in jail, he had come to understand that he had taken the wrong course.  But what could he do about it?  What was done was done.  And if there was a God…well, he’d just have to take the punishment, wouldn’t he?
Anders’ day of judgement had arrived.  He stood, in the presence of God.  An awesome light shone all around him…a light which pulsed with love, and yet also judgement.  There was clarity in that light.  Anders knew that everything he had done, everything he had thought, every warped impulse was seen, judged, weighed in the balance, by that light.  And yet, there was love too…along with judgement.

Anders took his courage in his hands.  He looked into the light.  And said…”I suppose you’re going to send me to hell now?”

“That’s up to you”, said the Voice of God.

“But I have done awful things,” said Anders.

“Yes,” said Jehovah, “you have”.

“So, surely I deserve to rot in hell”

“Probably,” said Jesus.  “But then so do many of my children.  Your crimes were particularly horrible…but you are not the only one.  Many of my children have killed their brothers and sisters.  It started with Cain and Abel…and it has never stopped.  Many have lived lives of hate.  Others have stood by, taking no action at all, while their brothers and sisters have died in famine and war.  Many have carried on partying, taking massive bonuses and living on luxury yachts, while others around them were dying.  Your hatred is great, Anders…but it’s not all that unusual.”

“So what’s going to happen to me?  What are you going to do to me?”

“I’m going to love you,” said the Spirit.

“What?” said Anders, struggling to take it in.

“I’m going to love you,” said God.

“How?  How can you do that?  After all I’ve done?”

“I can’t do anything else.” said Love.  “That’s what I am.  Love.  That’s what I do. Love.  I created you, and the whole Universe out of love.  It was love that brought you into being.  And it is love which will bring you home.”

Anders was speechless.

“Did you ever read the Bible, during the life I gave you?” asked Love.

“Well…” replied Anders, “bits of it”.

“There’s a passage in there that I am especially proud of”, said God.  “It was written by a child of mine called Paul.  Now he was a mess…let me tell you.  He actually started out by murdering followers of Jesus.  But eventually, Love got to him…and he saw the light.  He wised up, and got the message of Love.  Fortunately, for other Christians, he did it while he was still on Earth.  Paul ended up writing this, in a letter to some Roman Christians:  ‘I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’.  Pretty good eh?” said God.

“Lovely,” said Anders, “but what does it mean?”

God sighed, and said, “It means, Anders, that whatever you have done, whatever warped influences you gave into, whatever your weaknesses, whatever your thoughts, whatever you were driven by madness to do, I will never stop loving you.  I will always keep on inviting you to give in to my love.”

Anders didn’t know how to respond to this.  It was so far removed from what he had expected.  He had spent years of seething anger in his cell, watching the little television that he was allowed.  Over the years, countless journalists and commentators on his crimes had convinced him that he was at best , nothing. Or at worse, he was evil personified.  Even if he believed in God, Anders had always thought that there could be no other outcome for him than death and destruction.  In his heart, he had accepted destruction as inevitable.  He had even started to embrace it as welcome.  He looked up to God…

“What if I don’t want to be loved?” he asked.  “I’m not sure that I want it.  I’ve kind of got used to who I am, and what I’ve done.  I’m not sure I want to give that up.”

“That,” replied Love, “is why I said that the decision about whether or not you will go to hell is yours”

“What do you mean?” asked Anders

“I will never stop loving you, Anders.  But I can’t make you want my love.  That’s your choice.  I give you free will to accept my love, or reject it.  After all, I can’t make you love me.  That wouldn’t be love…it would be manipulation.”

“And what happens if I reject your love?”

“You’ll die, forever.  Remember what I told you…I created you out of Love.  My love brought you into being.  My love has sustained you and all people, even through the terrible things you have done.  But now, you have a choice.  If you refuse my love, you’ll gradually wither up, and die.  It’s a bit like food.  If you stop eating, eventually you will die.  If you stop receiving my love, you’ll fade away.  My bible talks about those who reject my love being thrown into the fire, or thrown into the rubbish dump called Gehenna…where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Those are pictures… metaphors that I have used to warn all my children of what happens when they reject my love.  Fading away, becoming less and less real, wailing and crying in the pain of selfishness, until eventually, destruction takes place.  Paul called it “the second death”.  Anders… don’t choose that path.  Despite all you’ve done, I still love you”.

“But what about justice?” said Anders.  “Surely there has to be some justice for the people I killed?”

“Yes,” said God.  “And for all the millions who have died through the selfishness of my other children.  And for all those who lived lives of abject poverty because the people of the West would not share the world’s resources.  And for all those who died in leaky boats escaping wars over oil and gold.  There has to be justice for all of them too.”

“So…how?” said Anders.  “If all the world is guilty of sin…can you punish everybody?”

“I could.  But what kind of Father sends all his children to hell? All have sinned, Anders. All have fallen short of the glory of God.   Love, Anders.  Love is the only way.  My justice is not like the justice of human beings.  My justice is tempered with love.  My judgement sees all that is wrong with the way humans chose to live…and then meets it with love.”

“How?” asked Anders.

“Through a cross.” said Jesus.  “A cross where love and mercy meet.  A cross where God and human beings have the chance to connect, through Love.  A cross where the evil that all human beings are capable of doing is confronted with the force of my love.”

“My Lord, and my God!” said Anders.  “Teach me more about this kind of Love!”


Monday, July 4, 2011

Deacons, Priests and Ministers

A sermon for the Welcoming of Tony Forrest: Assistant Curate
3rd July 2011 - the Feast of St Thomas

John 20. 24-29

Back in 1983, the movie world was stunned when Sean Connery decided to reprise his role as James Bond. He was by that time decidedly middle aged - and had not played Bond since 1971. Movie-legend has it that after he finished filming for 'Diamonds are Forever' he said to his wife "never again". But she was horrified, and replied "no - never say 'never again'!"The title of the 1983 movie was a bit of a joke at Connery's own expense. It was a way of him recognising that he had been a bit rash in his original statement.

And that's something I think we've probably all done at one time or another, isn't it?  I know I have.

It was certainly something that Thomas the Apostle said.  "I will never believe that Jesus has risen from the dead...not until I put my finger in the holes made by the nails in his hands and in his side".  I imagine that he felt rather embarrassed when Jesus turned up in front of him and said, effectively, "Here you are then!  Stick your fingers here....and here".  Thomas, of course, didn't do what he had said he would do, with such bravado. Instead, he fell to his knees and uttered one of the most complete, yet pithy, statements about Jesus in the whole of the Bible:  "My Lord and My God".

Thomas is, of course, known as 'Doubting Thomas'...and yet, I'm not sure that we are being very fair to the poor man.  Just a few verses earlier in John's Gospel we read that the rest of the Disciples were just as unsure about what had happened to Jesus.  Mary Magdelene's first response to finding the empty tomb is to run back to the Disciples and tell them that someone had taken away Jesus' body.  Peter and John doubt what she has told them...and they run to the tomb to see for themselves.  Then, even after Mary has met the risen Lord, (having first mistaken him for the gardener) the Disciples don't seem very keen to believe her.  That same evening, they are locked away behind closed doors, afraid, unsure...all except Thomas who was evidently not with them at that point.  It takes an appearance of Jesus among them for them to finally 'rejoice'. (Jn20.20).  As with Thomas, a little later, Jesus shows them his wounds, and then, the text tells us, "the Disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord"

Thomas, then, was not the only doubter.  He was just the last one to have the opportunity of having his doubts dealt with by Jesus.  The story is, then, not so much about Thomas' doubt, but about Jesus' revelation of himself.  It is Jesus who graciously reveals himself to Thomas, and the other disciples.  It is Jesus who initiates and substantiates their faith.  Faith, as St Paul taught us, is a gift from is something that God himself gives us, not something we manufacture for ourselves.

The Story of Thomas points us to Jesus - who is, in the words of the Writer to the Hebrews "the author and perfecter of our faith". (Heb12.2).  It is God, through Jesus who created the world.  It is God, through His Spirit who Sustains our very existence.  It is God, through Jesus who continually redeems our lives and our world.  Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega....the A and the Z....the beginning and the end.  We are all capable of being doubters...just like the Disciples, who doubted, and denied and even betrayed their Lord.  But God is the Source...the Divine Spark...the energy which sustains us in all we do, all we believe.  It is God, in Jesus, who calls us to live for him; to give ourselves willingly and with faith to our "Lord and our God" - whatever our doubts.

Today, is a very special day for us, here in North End.  Over the last few months, God has been at work among us in some very special ways. He has been going before us, as he went before the Israelites in the desert.  He has been loving us, and serving us, even when we have doubted, like Thomas.  After many changes in staffing over the last year, God has been putting the pieces in place for a new Ministry Team to arise.  This time last year, our Ministry Team had been reduced quite substantially.  After Ruth, then  Di, and then Bev moved on to new pastures, we were left with only one full-time Priest...yours truly...supported only by the fantastic efforts of Margaret Freeman, dear Fr. Joseph - when he could spare the time from his studies, and our two ordinands, Kim and Damon.  For a while, we wondered what God was doing among us.  For a while, I found myself trying, ineffectively, to manage all three churches.

So we prayed.  We prayed for God to send us new Priests - new workers for the vineyard.  And just look how he responded!

First, Linda joined us - tentatively at first, then with increasing confidence that God was calling her to this parish, and to this ministry.  Then Jeff Harvey walked through our doors, wondering whether God might be calling him too.  He was....and Jeff has since been an absolute rock on which we have begun to build our pastoral ministry.  Two weeks ago we welcomed Fr Charles as our new Team Vicar - a new, full-time minister, called by Jesus to be a Shepherd to the people of St Nicholas, and to the whole parish.  Along the way, God has called others too.  I'm not going to embarrass folks by naming them...but we've seen God leading people to cross the threshold of our churches into all sorts of new and exciting ministries.  We've seen others who have returned to our churches after periods of being elsewhere in their lives.  We've seen existing church members taking up new ministries and new tasks...while others have continued faithfully in the calling God has already given them.  In the last year we've had six confirmations, a new Musical Director at St Mark's, new members of the PCC and DCCs, a new Parish Warden, and new volunteers in the Community Cafe.  We've appointed a new verger at St Mark's and we've grown yet another ordinand, in the shape of Barbara O'Sullivan.

God is truly going before us...leading us as individuals, and as a parish, into all sorts of exciting new ventures...despite our doubts, despite our human failings, God is at work.

And I believe God is at work today.  For today we welcome a new minister into our midst.  Not just a new minister for the team, but a new minister full stop.  Tony has been ordained as a Deacon for less than 24 hours - and they don't come much newer than that!  In a few moments, I'm going to invite Tony to read us the legal declarations which he must make on taking up his appointment.  But before that, I thought is might be helpful to make sure we all understand what a deacon is!

Let's start with what a deacon is not!  A deacon is not a sort of 'baby priest' - or a priest in waiting....although there is something of that in Tony's situation, because we fully expect that he will be ordained as a priest in a year's time.  But actually, being a deacon, is at the heart of what it means to be a minister in the church today.  And its worth remembering that no priest ever stops being a deacon.  Even a Bishop is still a deacon...something that Bishop Christopher demonstrated very powerfully yesterday by washing the feet of the all the new deacons.

The word 'deacon' comes from a Greek word, diakonos - which meant 'servant', 'waiting man', 'minister' or 'messenger'.  The first deacons were appointed by the Apostles, who found that during the early days of the church, when everyone was eating together, they were spending too much time in waiting at tables, and in general administration...they were neglecting their primary call to be the theologians, leaders and teachers of their community.

So a deacon is a servant....and in serving, the deacon represents the service to which every Christian is called.  In many ways, all of us in this parish have diaconal ministries.  We all serve one another, and the world around us, in many different ways.  Working in the cafe, cleaning and maintaining buildings, sitting on committees, singing, visiting the sick, serving at the Altar, teaching at Sunday School, administering the papers and finances of the parish...all of these are diaconal roles.  But Tony, and Linda, and Charles, and Margaret and I, have all been called to represent that diaconal role in  particular way.  We are called to model it as a way of life to which all Christians are called.  So when you see one of us with a hand down a U-bend, or lugging tables, or painting a wall, or making the coffee, or filling out the endless paperwork of the Anglican Church!...we're being deacons - called to a ministry of service, just like everyone here.

But as ordained deacons, we are also 'set aside' by the church for some particular ministries.  We have been given rather expensive training for particular specialist tasks...especially the tasks of preaching and teaching and  leading worship. Ordained Deacons are 'set apart' from some of the day to day servant-tasks of all the people - because communities need leaders, and teachers, and experts in that all that is said and done in our worship can be of the highest standard possible.  Ordained deacons also have a particular role in the worship of the church.  Deacons come from the people. They speak on behalf of the people, and to the people...calling the whole congregation to confession,  calling them to share peace, calling them to declare their faith, and encouraging them to go out at the end of the Mass to love and serve the Lord.

I hope that helps a bit - to understand something of what all of us up here in the fancy clothes are attempting to do with our lives as we respond to the call of God.  It's something we desperately need your prayers please pray for us, and especially for Tony, as he takes up this vital task.  Pray too for Linda and Jennifer, as they get used to seeing Tony in a clerical collar - and as they make the transition from East Meon to Portsmouth!

Tony's collar, by the way, like mine, is a important symbol.  It resembles the collar of a slave....a ring of steel round the neck.  It's a collar which is meant to remind all of us deacons that we are called to be servants of the servants of God.  You are the servants of God...that is your calling...but we are called to be your servants!  It's pretty mind-blowing, really!  We serve you by offering you leadership and teaching...teaching which we pray will be transformational for us all!

In a year, we pray that Tony will be made a priest, as well.  You'll be glad to know that I'm not going to explain the difference - or rather the additional calling - which being a priest adds to that of a deacon.  We'll cover that next year!

Now, before I ask Tony to read his declaration to the church, which will mark his formal acceptance by us as our new Assistant Curate, I'm going to offer Tony three symbols of the particular ministry he is called to exercise - as we all are.  I'm going to invite him to accept these symbols, and then to lay them upon the altar, as a sign of offering these ministries to God.

First a Bible:  Teach us, Tony, from these pages.  This book contains all that is necessary for us to obtain the salvation of our souls...and we don't know it well enough.  Teach us...for we need to know what it contains.

Do you accept the charge you have been given?

Secondly:  A Chalice.  Tony, you are called to serve this parish through worship.  During your ministry, you will administer the Holy Communion of Christ to the people of this parish whom you will hold in your heart through prayer.  In worship you will both call and lead the people to repentance, to faith, and to action for Christ.  

Do you accept the charge you have been given?

Finally:  An apron:  Tony, along with every member of the Body of Christ you are called to a ministry of service to other Christians, and to the wider world.  You are called to exemplify that ministry, so that we may all be challenged and encouraged by your example - learning from you the power of serving Christ in one another, and loving as he loves us.

Do you accept the charge you have been given?

{Tony then reads his Declaration to the Congregation, and is welcomed into the Ministry Team}

Monday, May 23, 2011

The End of the World? Harold Camping and all that...

Revelation 21: 1-14

I guess you've all probably heard by now that according to Pastor Harold Camping of California, none of us should be here this evening.  Pastor Camping is a retired Civil Engineer...not a trained priest...but he conducted his own research into the Bible's prophecies about the end of the world, and confidently predicted that the world was going to end yesterday.

He was so convinced that he had got his calculations right that he has been running major advertising campaigns across the USA and other part of the world...warning them that May 21st was judgement day.  Massive advertising hoardings were erected, in English and Arabic announcing 'the great the terrible day of the Lord'. Scandalously, followers of Mr Camping have been selling their homes, and cashing in their investments to pay for all this nonsense.

Oh dear.  I bet he feels a bit of a silly-billy today.

The troubling thing is, Harold Camping is not the first person to have predicted the end of the world.  John of Toledo thought it would happen on 23 September 1186.  William Bell predicted 5 April 1761.  Nothing apocalyptic happened on 28 April 1843, or on 21 September 1945.  Jehovah's Witnesses have predicted the end of the world 10 times in the last century!

It's easy to mock.  Actually its very easy to mock. Especially when one considers where these predictions tend to come from.  They have never been made by any of the mainstream churches.  Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Anglicanism...none of the main churches has ever dared to try to predict the end of the world.  Instead, what happens, is that usually part-time bible scholars, especially those with a mathematical brain, attempt to mine the Bible for hints and clues...usually based on numbers (or what we call numerology...the study of mystical numbers).

That was how Mr Camping arrived at his date of yesterday for the end of the world.  He mixed up all sorts of number assumptions - including an imagined, or assumed date of the Great Flood, probably based on the calculations of a medieval numerologist.  He then took texts like those of St Peter.  In his second letter, Peter says that one day to the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day.  Most Christians would take that to mean that God is not bounded by time in the way that we are.  But for Mr Camping, it was a code...a code which meant he could predict that the end of the world would happen precisely 7,000 years after the Great Flood...because God had said to Noah that he had seven days to warn people of the end of the world.

Numerology is a popular pastime for certain people.  Even Isaac Newton had a go at it...and predicted the end of the world would happen in 2060.  We'll have to wait and see if he was right!

But frankly, numerology its a very silly way to spend your time.  The Bible simply does not contain secret codes for the end of the world.  I'm surprised that none of our numerologist friends have caught on to that yet!

But that is not to say that the Bible fails to ponder what the end of all things might be like.  The writers of the Bible were, almost exclusively, people who lived under oppression.  They were occupied or enslaved people - either by the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Assyrians or the name just a few!  It is no surprise that people who were under such occupation and oppression should begin to tell one another stories....stories about what the world might be like when the oppression was over, when the oppressors were over-thrown and when, from a Jewish perspective, the world would be remade.

This was no different for the early Christians.  By the time that John was writing his 'Revelation' on the Island
of Patmos, Christianity, and Judaism, were going through dark days.  The Temple in Jerusalem had been razed to the ground by the Romans.  Jews were scattered across the known world.  Christians were being persecuted by a Roman political system which insisted that everyone must worship the Divine Emperor.  They were hiding in the Roman catacombs.  Peter had been executed, along with Paul and - tradition tells us - most of the other first followers of Jesus.  It was a dark time, an uncertain time.  Faith was being tested and challenged.

In the middle of this turmoil, St John had a vision.  Some less-than-charitable scholars have suggested that the Island of Patmos was a great place for growing magic mushrooms...but we have no idea whether John was a mushroom picker.  What we do have, as the last book of our Second Testament, is an astounding, poetic, troubling, magnificent vision...a vision of what the world might be like, when all the enemies of God have been  dealt with.

But its not a prediction.  Its a series of complex images...a dreamlike catalogue of angels and demons and great beasts and cities and lakes of fire and multi-headed beasts and anti-christs.  Many is the Christian who has tried to read the book of Revelation, and ended up giving the whole project up, just out of sheer confusion.  Many of the complex, beautiful and terrible images of Revelation mean very little to us.  We don't live in the same world as John...and some of the images he uses have no modern equivalent.  For us to truly understand the book of Revelation would be as difficult as it would be for John to understand a story of blind-dating via the internet.  Our cultures are worlds apart.

And yet, led by the Spirit we believe that the Church has preserved this book for us.  More than that, we believe that this book contains truth, truth which will repay careful study and reflection.  Like all the books of the Bible which the church has so carefully preserved, the Book of Revelation seeks to answer some of the most important questions of life.  Where did we come from?  Where are we going?  Is God involved in our past, present and future?

The book of Revelation's answer to these questions is an emphatic yes.  The whole thrust of Revelation is an assurance that God is caught up the in messy business of this world...he's battling against anti-christs and multi-headed beasts, he's sending out angels and blowing trumpets, he's calling the people of God to battle the forces of evil. The Word of God rides out on a white horse...and has a huge sword coming out of his mouth (which I imagine would be rather uncomfortable).   And crucially, he is promising, in the final chapters, that none of this effort, will be in vain.

John's final great vision is of a holy city...what he calls the New Jerusalem...coming down out of heaven from God.  Interestingly he says that the City is prepared as a bride, adorned for her husband...which is another strange metaphor.  How exactly does a City dress up as a bride?  Maybe some kind of enormous veil? A blue garter wrapped around a tower?  But let's not get hung up on the details!  A wise Bible teacher once told me that the key to understanding the book of Revelation is this:  that what is plain, is main.  And what is main, is plain.  And the plain message of chapter 21 is this:

"I heard a loud voice from the throne saying 'Behold, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them;  he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." (Rev 21.3-4)

This is a resurrection message.  This is a hopeful, passionate, declaration that God is indeed involved with our world...and with our lives.  This is a declaration that God himself will restore the relationship which we human beings have messed up.  He will take away mourning, and crying and pain...and will defeat even death itself.

The people who search the Scriptures for an actual date for Judgement Day are looking for something.  They are hoping, perhaps a little desperately, that among all the awfulness and chaos of this world (in so many places), someone, somewhere, has got things under control.  The point of the book of Revelation is two-fold:  it is to assure us that indeed, someone has got the whole of His Story - history - under control.  But secondly, John writes to seven churches, on behalf of Jesus.  He encourages them, he corrects them, he warns them, and he praises them.  He essentially says to them, through the whole of Revelation that yes, God is in control.  But he chooses to bring about his purposes for the world through us...through me and you...through the Church which bears his name.

And, as Jesus and Paul both reminded us - whether or not the actual world is going to come to an actual end...we are expected to act, always, as if it is about to finish.  Harold Camping may be a numerological crackpot...but he has at least at least reminded us that God calls us to something greater, higher, deeper, broader than the humdrum nature of every-day human existence.  The Holy City, the new Jerusalem, the Bride of Christ - these are all explicit metaphors for the Church...the people of God who are called to work with God, and in God, and through God for the building of God's kingdom on earth.

Will there ever be a Universal Judgement Day?  I don't know.  I suspect not, frankly - not in the sense of a Day when Jesus comes riding on a cloud and winds up human history.  Instead, Jesus comes again every time that there is peace and justice in the world.  Jesus comes again every time a hungry child is fed.  Jesus comes again every time one of us reaches out to our brother or sister with love.  Bit by bit, person by person, day by day...Jesus comes again.


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Just Ordinary Spiritual People

Rector’s Annual Address 2011.

(This is more or less what I said during this morning's service!)

One of the joys of having a computer is receiving 'round robin' emails, which people constantly send me.  One particular email which arrives routinely, every few weeks or so, is one which lists alleged bloopers from Parish Magazines.  Misprints often arise through the use of spell-checkers...those little programmes which look at what you have written, and suggest alternatives. Like last week, when both Christine and I missed the fact that the demon spell-checker has turned Stainer's Crucifixion for next Sunday into Stainer's Cruci-fiction!  Any Islamic readers of our pew news will be delighted...because they believe that Jesus was never crucified!

I have to admit, some bloopers from parish magazines are priceless.  Here's a small selection of my favourites:

"Ladies, don't forget the rummage sale. It's a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping around the house. Don't forget your husbands".

"Today the Vicar will preach his farewell sermon after which the choir will sing 'Break Forth into Joy' "

"Notice in the kitchen of a Church Hall: "Ladies, when you have emptied the teapot, please stand upside down in the sink"."

And here's a special favourite of mine:  "During the Easter Sunday service, Mrs Williams of the Mother's Union will lay an egg on the Altar"

Speaking of eggs - it’s nearly Easter, so this seems as good a time as any to think about them.  Eggs, of course, remind us of new life...and Jesus rose from the tomb in a similar way that new born chicks emerge from an egg.  This year, there has been a campaign to produce a Real Easter Egg - chocolate eggs which actually have the story of the Resurrection printed on the try to help an uneducated public make the connection between chocolate eggs and Jesus.

But there is another way in which we can use the image of the egg to contemplate Easter.

The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr invites us to use the egg to understand something perhaps even more profound than the image of an empty tomb.   He suggests that these three elements of the egg - yolk, white and shell, can provide an image for our growth as children of God.  The three elements can be thought of as three stories...there is my story, then there is our story, then there is the story.  Rohr suggests that true, biblical religion (and especially true, biblical Christianity) honours and integrates these three stories.  He calls that process of integration a 'Cosmic Egg of Meaning'.

Let me explain - if I can - and especially in relation to our life together as a parish.

The first level at which we all exist is at the level of the individual.  This is my story...the essential being that I am.  At this level, I live as a private individual - I make my own choices.  I decide what I will believe, about God, or about the world.  I am the one who has the free will to live a creative life, or to vegetate my days away in front of the television.  This is the level of individualism - which is a concept that has really taken hold in recent years...especially in the Western world.  This is the level at which we embrace concepts like celebrity...where we become fascinated with the intricate detail of individual lives.  Hello Magazine is the herald of the individual. Consumerism is its life-blood. Strictly Come Dancing and the X-Factor are all about the small life of individuals, raised for a moment of fame above the normal boredom of human, individualism.

But on its own, being an individual is a very small stage indeed.  It's the little stage where I do my own dance and where the sort of questions we ask ourselves are "Who is watching me?  How do I feel? What do I believe?  What makes me unique?".  

Each of us is, of course, an individual - a loved, beautifully created, individual child of God.  But doing 'life' by ourselves is not the solution to a happy and fulfilled existence.  Unless we draw from something greater than our mere selves, we are doomed to an endless self-critical, or self-deluding individualism... and we will wither and die.  Jesus calls us to something greater, something bigger than mere individualism.  In John 15, verse 5, he warns that 'the branch which is cut off from the Vine is useless'.  And in today's Gospel, he reminds us that He is both the Resurrection and the Life.  Life, in all its fullness cannot be attained by an individual alone.  

And so we move to the second part of the the 'white' if you like. If the yolk symbolises 'my story', the white symbolises 'our story'.  This is where the life of the individual becomes integrated into the life of a community.  I becomes 'we'.  This is where we find our group...our community, perhaps, or our country,, perhaps our nationality, or our ethnic group.  For many people, the concept of 'us' is often caught up with the kind of music they listen to, or what gang they belong to.  We feel protected inside the group.  We might be members of a Rotary club, or a jam-making club.  We might be supporters of a football team - and gain a sense of purpose by waving flags and signs around.  Now we no longer have to be great by ourselves...we can ride on the coat-tails of other members of our group...other football fans, or other Cocker Spaniel owners.

All of us belong to many groups.  It is necessary for our growth as human beings to move beyond the yolk, into the 'white' - beyond individualism, and into the group.  For Christians, of course, one of the groups that we choose to belong to is the 'Christian Club' - or as we call it, the Church.  Here, with other Christians, we find group identity, and group purpose.  Together we identify what we need to fight for, and fight against.  

For us, in this parish, our mission is enshrined in our Five Year Plan - agreed at last year's APCM. In that plan, we committed ourselves together, as a group, to being a praying, learning, serving, visible church that is diverse and all-inclusive.  That is, in a nutshell...or an egg-shell!...our group identity

In that endeavour, during the last year, we have been prolific together.  We have provided, each week, across the parish, a minimum of 9 services per week. We have ministered to the sick, and to the lonely, to the bereaved, and to the families of baptised children, and to couples preparing for marriage.  We have provided a community cafe, soon to be on five days per week, for our neighbours to meet one another, and migrate from being individuals to being members of a life-giving group.  We have maintained our church buildings, so that the Kingdom is seen in bricks and well as in lives.  We have raised funds, and supported mission in other places.  We have sung, we have prayed, we have laughed and we have celebrated.  We have danced...especially at last week's barn dance!  We've together been in pubs, and in schools, at quiz nights and concerts.  

But we need to go broader and deeper still.  If all we are is a group who like doing things together...then we've missed the point entirely.  Groups can be wonderfully nurturing places...essential for our growth away from the smallness of individualism.  But groups can also be dangerous places.  Just think how many people have thrown away their lives for causes which were all about ‘group identity’…everyone from the Crusaders to the Nazis.  If we are not careful, our group can become our God.  We can end up worshipping the Vine, instead of the source of the Vine's life.  We can end up worshipping our Church, rather than the God who gives his life to the Church, just as Jesus gave life to Lazarus.

How can we escape from that trap?  How can we go deeper and broader, beyond the life of our group, our parish, into the very heart of God?

That is the third part of the egg...the shell.  If the yolk is 'my Story' and the white is 'our Story'...then the shell, which should bind it all together is 'the Story'....the sacred story of a God who creates all life and all possibilities, and holds them in his hands.  The way to avoid our group becoming the reason for our existence is to go deeper...into the Divine Life, into that which transcends our individualism and our particular group - and which opens us up to the incredible potential of life to the full...or 'eternal life' as Jesus called it.  "I am the Resurrection and the Life....and everyone who believes in me will never die".  Or as we were reminded a couple of weeks ago, Jesus is the Living Water:  "anyone who drinks of me will never be thirsty again."

The challenge of Richard Rohr's Cosmic Egg is that we should learn to live with all three of its parts.  Not content with individualism, we embrace the group.  Not content with the group, we embrace the whole...the transcendent reality which is God, in Jesus Christ.  Richard Rohr gives some examples of the kind of people who have managed to become like that…people whose sense of themselves and the groups they belong to are enlarged by their connection to the Divine Life.  He lists people like Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and Julian of Norwich.  And of course, St Francis of Assisi after whom this particular building is named.

But how?

How do we do this?

Here's the nub - and here's the heart of what I want to say to the whole parish today, as my Rector's Annual Message:

I think that I should tell you that I get a great deal of ribbing as I drive around our Diocese and Deanery.  I get teased mercilessly by my colleagues in clerical collars, because I insist on driving around in a car which has stickers on the door. One of my fellow Vicars keeps threatening to turn my stickers upside down, ever since he discovered that they are magnetic! 

Do you remember what the stickers on my door say?  Basically, just four simple words...words we agreed last year would be our motto as a parish..."Just Ordinary, Spiritual People".  

Because that's what we are...or at least, what we aspire to be.  On the one hand, we are ordinary people.  We are individuals, who like many individuals have discovered something of the joy and the challenge of living together in community.  In our case, we live as part of a group we call the North End Portsmouth Team Ministry.  Like other ordinary people, we care about our buildings, and our social programmes.  Like other ordinary people, who belong to other ordinary clubs, we sing in choirs and bands, we run table top sales and fayres, we paint, we dig, we polish, we maintain.  But that is all, basically, the stuff of ordinary people.  Essentially, on that level, there is little difference between what we do and what most community clubs do.  Go into the Buckland Community Centre, or the Baroque Choir, or any charity shop and you will find people who are just as committed, just as passionate about what their organisation, their group, is doing for the community around them.

And rightly so.  And many of our members are members of these other clubs and groups too.

But we aspire to more.  We are ordinary spiritual people.  That's what we claim about ourselves.  We claim that our inspiration comes from a greater, wider, deeper, broader root than pure group identity.  We claim to be people who are spiritual...we are those whose lives are caught up not just with each other, but with the source of all life...the transcendent reality of God.  By our simple claim to be 'just ordinary spiritual people' we claim to be in touch with the whole of the Cosmic Egg...yolk, white, and shell.  We claim to be people whose lives are rooted in the Lord who is the Resurrection and the Life.

So here is our challenge for the coming year. We have laid some strong foundations together in the last few years.  Our buildings are better maintained than they have been for some time.  Our congregation numbers are rising, and our income is holding steady, despite the economic hardships of our age.  But now, we need to go deeper.  Now we need to discover more of what it means to be people who are spiritual beings – those in whom the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling.

We’ve begun to think about what that might mean. Recently, for example, we’ve started holding Healing Services – every two months around the parish - as a chance for us to be touched by God’s healing power for our bodies and our souls.  Soon, you will all be receiving information about a Quiet Day which we plan to hold in Romsey, on September the 24th – a chance to draw aside from the world, and to think about what it means to be God’s Pilgrim People, on the journey of faith.

But I am hoping for more yet.  With new members about to join the ministry team, and with new connections growing with other churches in our Cluster, I hope that over the next few months we will be able to start new groups – home groups, or study groups – so that we can all have the opportunity to go deeper…the chance to meditate upon our faith, and truly begin to connect at a Spiritual level with the source of all life.

But there’s more yet.  What would it mean for us to be truly spiritual people? Could there come a time when anyone who visits any of our churches finds only unconditional love and acceptance.  Sometimes I think we’re nearly there.  Could there come a time when we truly begin to see ourselves as intimately connected not just with each other and God, but with a whole world outside our doors…a world which is desperately lost in the lies of consumerism and individualism?  Could there come a time when we give as much money to alleviate poverty as we currently give to maintain our church buildings?  

That’s the kind of vision that I want to hold before you today.  It’s just not enough for us to be just three churches who happen to have a presence in this area.  God calls us to something greater, wider, deeper, and much more spiritual.  God calls us to be salt and light to North End, Hilsea and Copnor.  God calls us to become the spiritual heart of this community…the first place that anyone turns, when they begin to glimpse that there is more to life than just individualism alone.  We are called to be those who understand the full implications of the Cosmic Egg.  We are called to be those who model what it is to be ordinary, yet deeply spiritual people.