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}