Saturday, November 30, 2013

Advent 1: Are We There Yet?

Advent 1 Are We There Yet?
(Isaiah 2.1-5, Matthew 24.36-44). 

Have you ever been on one of those very long journeys with a very young child?  Clare and I once took Emily on a three day journey to Romania, via Belgium, Germany, Austria and Hungary.  She was about five at the time, and we drove for around 14 hours each day.  So I’ll leave you to imagine how often she used the immortal words “Are we there yet?”!

There is something about human beings that we see most especially reflected in the young – although I think that is because they are less accomplished than us at hiding it.  I am referring of course to our impatience.  None of us like waiting, for anything.  We want what we want, now! 

I am as guilty as anyone.  Here I am, reading this sermon from my new Tablet, which I bought last week.  My family tell me that I am the hardest person to buy presents for, because I have a tendency to just go and get what I want, as soon as I want it!  So it will be socks again for me this Christmas!

The Season of Advent is the beginning of the Church’s New Year, and it is designed specifically to be a time of waiting.  That is a deliberate ploy on the part of the church Fathers. They set out, like Jesus, to do something which would contradict and challenge the normal way that society does things.  In theologian-speak, we talk about this as being ‘counter-cultural’ – that is, a way of doing something that is counter (or opposite) to the culture around us.  

So, the New Year for the rest of society starts with a bang and fireworks…with a sense that we’ve ‘arrived’ at something important (as though the turn of the Calendar was something to be celebrated).  But the Church, deliberately, starts its new year with two important words…’Coming’ (which is what ‘Advent’ means)…and ‘Wait’.

In Advent, we celebrate the coming into this world of Jesus, Son of God – our Rescuer, our Teacher.  We look forward to the Christ Mass, when his first coming in poverty is our focus.  But in Advent, we look ahead with hope to his Second Coming, with justice and mercy in his hands.  Christians can’t help looking forward, because we see the way the world is now.

Last week I spoke about the one billion people in our world who live on a dollar a day.  Do you remember how I told you it would take over a year to drive past that many people at 60 miles an hour?  And we look around at the world in which the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer.  We look at a world in which people regularly open fire on each other.  We shake our heads at the greed which caused punch-ups and injuries on so called ‘Black Friday’ in ASDA super-stores.  We see these things, and we say to ourselves, “this is not how it is supposed to be!”.  And we yearn for the transformation of the world that God promises us through his Son.   We yearn for it, we hope for it.  And naturally, we don’t want to wait for it! 

This sense of hope that God will one day put all things right is rooted in a long, long tradition.   The Hebrew Bible – which Christians sometimes call the Old Testament – is full of longing for the day when God will transform society into something fair and just.  The prophet Isaiah, for example, looked around him at wars between the kingdoms all around Israel.  He despaired of what he saw, but looked forward prophetically to a time when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation”, and when they will “beat their swords into ploughshares, and the spears into pruning hooks”. 

When will this happen?  Well according to Isaiah, peace will break out when all the peoples of the world say ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord…that he may teach us his ways’.  In other words, Isaiah prophecies that the reign of God will begin when the peoples of the world finally accept that human ways of doing things don’t work.  Peace will reign when the peoples of the world turn away from their sin, and ask God to teach them his ways.

But, human beings are too stubborn.  We don’t want to wait for God’s teachings about love, justice and mercy to bring about the change in society that we want.  So we take up arms against those with whom we disagree, and we attempt to bring about justice and peace with the barrel of a gun. There was a pithy saying doing the rounds this week on Facebook – ‘Why do we kill people who kill other people to show that killing is wrong?’

People often ask me how God could stand by and watch people killing, and torturing each other, or oppressing each other, or making their brother and sister live on less than a dollar a day.  I tell them this: God is not standing by.  Thousands of years ago he gave us a simple list of 10 rules by which to live – we call them the 10 Commandments.  They included some pretty simple stuff – don’t murder, and don’t go lusting after things you can’t have. 

But did we listen? 

So he sent us a whole series of prophets, like Isaiah, who kept on reminding us that peace and justice will only reign when people listen to the teachings of God. 

But did we listen?

So he sent us not just a prophet, but his own son – a man who was so much like God that people who knew him said ‘this man is God’.  And he repeated the message of thousands of years before.  Summarising the Law of God, he said, ‘Love God, and Love your Neighbour as Yourself’.

But did we listen?

God has done anything but stand by while the world ‘goes to hell in a hand-cart’.  Having sent his Son, he established the Church – and organisation of people who would carry on calling the people of the world to repentance….calling their neighbours and friends to live by God’s laws…and continuing to prayer with their hearts and their hands those profound words, ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.

And that, finally, is what Jesus calls us to carry on doing…until the time that God’s reign is completely and definitively established.  In our Gospel reading, Jesus reminds us that we cannot know when that day will come.  Only God knows when the Kingdom will be finally and fully established.  But , he gives us a sacred task to carry out until that day finally comes.  We are those who, in the words of the Gospel, are to ‘keep awake’.  We are to be constantly ready – like a house-owner who waits for the thief in the night.  We are to be alert…alert to every sign of the Kingdom.

Because, while we wait for the completion of the  Justice and Mercy of God, there is a very real sense in which God is already among us, already coming – in fact already here

Back in October, I took around £2,500 to Ghana, to bring the simple gift of water to a priest and his family…thanks in no small measure to the donations that many of you made.  Justice and mercy were enacted that day.  In a very real sense, Jesus came to Father Angelo and his family. 

And every time a family is raised up out of poverty, Jesus comes. 

Every time a war-monger lays down his weapons, Jesus comes. 

Every time a lonely person finds a friend in our community café, Jesus comes. 

Every time a poverty stricken family is fed by the Portsmouth Foodbank, Jesus comes.

And so, we are entitled to ask, like every small child, ‘Are we there yet?’.  The answer, as every car-driving parent knows is ‘nearly’.    We are nearly there!  Signs of the kingdom are all around us.  Our task, like an alert house-owner, is to keep awake.  See the signs of the kingdom with open eyes, and join in with the activity of God, wherever it is found.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Luke 16: The Shrewd Manager

Luke 16.1-13:  The Shrewd Manager

Here’s an old story, told by the Rabbis….

Once upon a time, a man caught stealing was ordered by the King to be hanged.  On the way to the gallows he said to the Prison Governor that he knew a wonderful secret and it would be a pity to allow it to die with him, and that he would like to disclose it to the King.  He would put a seed of pomegranate into the ground, and through the secret taught to him by his father, he would make it grow and bear fruit overnight.

The thief was brought before the king and on the morrow the King, accompanied by all the High Officials of State, came to the place where the thief was waiting for them.  There the thief dug a hole and said:

“This seed must only be put into the ground by a man who has never stolen or taken anything which did not belong to him,  I, being a thief, cannot do it”.  So he turned to the Grand Vizier who, frightened, said that in his younger days he had retained something which did not belong to him.  The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that dealing with such large sums of money, he might have entered too much or too little.  The thief turned to the King, but even the King confessed that he had once stolen a necklace belonging to his Father.
 The thief then said,

“You are all mighty and powerful and want for nothing.  Yet you cannot plant the seed, whilst I who have stolen a loaf of bread because I was starving am to be hanged”.

The King, pleased with the ruse of the thief, pardoned him.

Such stories, of clever tricksters, were very popular in Jewish and middle-Eastern folklore.  Even in the Bible, tricksters like Jacob were venerated.  You’ll remember how Jacob cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance, by putting on the skin of a goat. He pretended to have his older brother’s hairy back.  Their blind father Isaac was deceived, and gave his inheritance to Jacob, rather than Esau.

So when we hear this parable of the Shrewd Manager, we must be cautious of how we read it.  Many of Jesus’ parables are quite obvious metaphors…it is quite easy to see what he means when he tells the story of the Good Samaritan, for example.  But this story – known as the story of the Shrewd Manager, is more nuanced.  Jesus is not telling his followers that they should behave in such a dishonest way.  Rather, he is telling a tale about someone being shrewd and clever in their own life, to indicate that we should be shrewd and clever about how we live our lives as Christians.

Each of us has only so many hours in the day available to us.  How should we use them?  Jesus encourages us to use our time and our talents wisely, and for the purposes of building his Kingdom.  This was a theme picked up by St Ignatius, in the second century, who wrote these words  to the church that was under the leadership of St Polycarp:

“Labour with one another.  Struggle together, run together, suffer together, rest together, rise up together as God’s stewards and assessors and servants.  Be pleasing to him in whose ranks you serve, from who you receive your reward”. (Ignatius Polycarp  6.1-2, in Kirsopp Lake, trans., The Apostolic Fathers, LCL (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1912) 1:275)

Each of us is required by our commitment to God, to be thoughtful and mindful about the talents that God has given us, and to be wise and shrewd servants.  We are to be those who employ the talents that we have to the greatest effect, in the shortest possible time, for the good of the Kingdom.

More than that, we are to consider what our unique talents are…those that perhaps only we have available, and which only we can employ.  If I might use a personal example, there are many things that I could do around this church.  When I go down to the Community Café, there is a part of me that is very tempted to get involved with the day to day running of the café.  I’m fit enough to move tables and chairs.  I know enough about cooking to think that I could probably knock up a cooked breakfast, or serve tea and coffee.   And I would enjoy doing those things.  But, if I did, the other talents that God has given me would not have time to be used.  I have to use my time and talents shrewdly.

I’m leaving for Ghana on Thursday, as many of you know.  I have agreed to go to Ghana, not because I enjoy standing around in 40 degree heat for services that last for 4 hours.  I’m going because I believe that God has given me the opportunity and the ability to make a difference in Ghana…for Bishop Matthias and his priests.  It will be hot and uncomfortable…but I will be taking money with me that will make a real difference.  I’ll be spending time, one to one, with certain priests who have asked for my help and advice.
I could, of course, choose not to go.  I could, instead, stay and serve tea and coffee in the Café.   Or paint a wall, or cut the churchyard grass.  There would be nothing wrong with that.  But others are called to those tasks.  Those are not what I am called to do.

Similarly, in our Ministry Team here in the parish, we divide up the tasks of ministry between those whom we believe are the best equipped and talented to do those tasks.   As most of you will have worked out by now, I am not a natural ‘pastor’.  I just don’t have the gifts of listening and compassion which a really good pastor needs.  So, in this Team, Kim takes the lead on pastoring…because as we all know, God has given her just those gifts.  Fr Tony is serving the Diocese as Chair of the Board of Education, at the moment…because he has just the gifts and talents required to do that.   I could chose to try to run the Pastoral Work of the parish…but I’d be rubbish at it.  I could try to chair the Diocesan Board of Education….but I wouldn’t be half as effective as Tony.

Instead, like every Christian, I am called to undertake an honest assessment of the skills and talents that I do have…and then seek to use them, as effectively and efficiently as possible, for the building of the Kingdom.  My task is to be faithful in each small task I can do…so that I might learn to be faithful in the larger ones, when they come along.

A writer called Fred Craddock makes a similar point, like this…

“Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake.  More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday School class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice and fee the neighbour’s cat.  “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much”.  (Fred B, Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990. 193)

So, as I leave to Ghana on Thursday, where I feel called to be and to minister for a while, let me ask you to consider this question while I am away.  “What is your gift or talent?”  It might be the gift of making tea…or the gift of leading the Choir.  It might be counting the money, or painting a wall, or visiting the sick. Whatever you can do it…do it faithfully.  Offer it to God and to his church.

For whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much” (v.10)


Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Lord's Prayer for All

Luke 11.1-13

As many of you will know, I consider myself to be somewhat of a refugee...a refugee, that is, from the more charismatic end of the church.  I have no doubt that in the 25 years since I was an active member of a charismatic church, many changes have taken place.  I'm sure that the whole charismatic movement has matured, and become wiser in the way that it communicates the things of God.

But when I left the charismatic church, there were many reasons why I needed to move on.  One in particular, was their use of language.  They spoke a form of English which a Christian singer, Steve Taylor, called "Christianese".   In other words, there were a number of stock phrases which Christians of that time used, to demonstrate to others that they were committed, faithful, members.  You know the sort of phrases I mean:

"I've asked the Lord into my heart"

"I was washed in the blood of the Lamb"

"Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?"

There was a sort of 'bumper-sticker' theology around in those days, which after a while I found to be just too simple...and frankly too 'cheesy'.  Driving around London, where I lived then, I would see stickers in car windows that said things like:

"Honk, if you love Jesus"

"God is my co-Pilot"


"Let Go and let God"

The trouble was, in those days, that unless you spoke these kinds of phrases, and lived your life in exactly the same way as everybody else, and prayed your prayers with the same intonation as everybody else, the rest of your church would wonder whether you were really a Christian at all.  Steve Taylor summed up this kind of thinking and language in a song called "I want to be a clone".  One verse of his song went like this:

"They told me that I'd fall away 
Unless I followed what they say
Who needs the Bible anyway?
I want to be a clone.

Their language, it was new to me,
But Christianese got through to me,
No I can speak it fluently,
I want to be a clone!

You're still a babe you have to grow,
Give it twenty years or so,
'Cause if you want to be one of his,
You've gotta act like one of us!"

It might not surprise you to know that I was a bit of a rebel!  I was not prepared to tow the line...either in the way I dressed, or the way I spoke, or my stubborn refusal to give up the small pleasure of tobacco.  Consequently, from time to time, church elders and leaders would take me to one side; and they would ask me those questions:  "Do you actually have a personal relationship with Jesus?  Are you saved?"

The problem with those kinds of questions is that they were too simple for me...too black and white...too one-dimensional.  They required a 'yes' or 'no' answer...and such answers eluded me.  Did I have a personal relationship with Jesus?  Well, sort of.  I had read a lot about him, I talked to him, I tried to follow his teachings...but was that a personal relationship?  Unfortunately, I couldn't find anything in the Bible that talked about having a personal relationship with Jesus.  It was too human a concept to describe the sort of interaction I was having with God.  It made Jesus out to be some kind of buddy, or lover...and that just wasn't the picture of Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, that I had in my mind.

As for the question "Are you saved?"...I wrestled with that one for a long time.  Was I?  How would I know?  Was my salvation something I could be sure of?  Or was 'being saved' a kind of process I was going through?

One day, I came upon a story about Archbishop William Temple.  It was said of him that when he was speaking in public - sometimes at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park - evangelicals would heckle him with the question "Are you saved".  His response, apparently quoting John Wesley, was fascinating to me.  He would reply, "I was saved, I am being saved, I will be saved".

For me, reading that story brought about a Damascus moment.  It was the moment I realised that my faith could not be defined in terms that were black or white, this or that, one or the other.  Rather, I discovered, faith was more like a journey...a road trip.  Faith was a process, in which each day I might discover something new and exciting about God or about myself in reference to God.

And today's Gospel reading contains many of the elements of that journey that I was beginning to discover.  Here, Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray.  One of his disciples approaches him and says, effectively, "John the Baptiser has taught his disciples what to pray.  Will you teach us how to do it?"

Prayer, at that time, was a formulaic thing.  Devout Jews had set prayers, which they would repeat in the morning and again in the evening.  They were a sort of mantra, designed to please God, so that God would pour out blessing on the one who prayed.  They were set words, and set phrases, which had to be said in a set way...a little bit like the culture of the Charismatic church I left.   Another feature of prayers at that time...very much reflected in the Book of Psalms...was the prevalence of the word "I".  "Lord, strike down my enemies".  Lord, increase my prosperity" and so on.

But Jesus came at the whole issue of prayer from a different angle.  Rather than trying to get God to do things for me, through the recitation of a 'magic formula', Jesus encouraged his disciples to approach God in an entirely different way.

First, God is introduced as 'Father'...Abba...a word which can certainly imply a kind of relationship, but one which also is used of a Teacher.  (That's why, by the way, priests are sometimes addressed as 'Father' - it simply means Teacher).  And then, Jesus goes on to offer words of praise to God..."Hallowed - or holy - is your name"…reminding us of the glorious supremacy of God.

But then comes the really radical shift.  Rather than prayers to 'strike down my enemies' or increase my prosperity'...the first intercession that Jesus teaches us to say is "May your kingdom come".  The preaching of the kingdom of God was the driving purpose of Jesus' ministry.  Before individual prayers, comes the idea that God is establishing a new way of being that will benefit all people.  A new kingdom...a kingdom of justice and mercy for all.

And that idea of God's kingdom for all is captured in the next lines.  For Jesus did not teach his disciples to ask anything for themselves as individuals but rather as a Community.  In Matthew's slightly longer version of the same prayer, God is introduced as 'Our Father', not 'my Father'.  And in Luke's version, notice that we are taught to ask for our Daily Bread, not 'my' daily bread.  This is a prayer, rooted in the notion of the Kingdom, which asks for enough food for all God's people.  Give us this day our daily bread.

The Christian faith then, according to the way Jesus taught this prayer, is not about my personal relationship with God...but about the relationship of the whole world, as a community, to God.  God is our Father & Mother, and we are God's children.  Of course God loves each one of us individually...but it is the needs of the whole community which are enshrined in the idea of Kingdom.

The Lord's Prayer invites us into a relationship with one another, in community, before God our Father.  It invites us into a relationship of mutual forgiveness - God forgives us, as we forgive one another.  God invites us into a relationship which is marked by persistence...we keep on asking for the Kingdom to come, and by the way we live our lives of mutual forgiveness, and the sharing of daily bread, we find that our prayers are answered.  We ask, we seek, and we find...not Rolls Royces for ourselves, but the coming of God's kingdom.

Prayer then is not a time to list our own needs...God already knows what we need.  It is rather a time to meditate upon God's kingdom, and our role in bringing it to fruition.  It is the time to examine our own lives...and to examine how we are living them in the light of Jesus' teaching.  Of course we may ask for God's help for our personal problems.  What father, if his son asks for fish would give him a snake?  But that should not be, and must not be, the entire focus of our prayers.

Prayer, then, is the opening of ourselves to God, to God's purposes, and to God's ways.  It is the daily, persistent act of saying to God "Here I am...send me".  Or better perhaps..."Here we are...send us"...and then meditating upon the tasks of the Kingdom to which we are called.


Saturday, June 22, 2013

Legion...Madmen and Evangelists

Luke 8.26-39.  Legion…Mad Men and Evangelists

I’m sure that you have all heard this morning’s Gospel reading before.  It’s one of those well-known stories of Jesus which fixes in our imaginations very well.  We can all see the mad-man, haunting the graveyard, filled with a legion of demons.  We can all see the pigs, now filled with the demons, plunging off the cliff into the sea.  But I wonder what reactions the story produces in you.

For example, what do we think about demons?  Clearly, the belief in time of Jesus was that demons were to blame for what we today would call medical conditions.  But in the ancient world, such knowledge was not available.  Demons were believed to roam the earth, looking for any sinner who, because of his sin, would let them dwell within him.  Crucially, for this story, it was believed that demons could only live inside a human, or in the dry desert places.  For some reason, it was believed that they could not survive in water…which is why the demons at the beginning of the story beg Jesus not to throw them into the abyss (which was a word for a deep body of water).  Even today, in some cultures, houses are painted blue…the colour of the sea…as a protection against demons.  That’s something I’ve seen for myself in Ghana, where fear of demons is still very much alive.

I wonder what you think about the pigs in the story.  I’m sure you are all well aware that Jews don’t eat pork…so why is there a herd of pigs in the story?  Well, that’s because this is the one recorded incident of Jesus visiting a non-Jewish area of his country, and of preaching to non-Jews.  The ‘Country of the Gadarenes’ or sometimes the ‘Gerasenes’ comes from an ancient word Gergesenes – which is believed to refer to those who had fled from persecution or fighting…in other words, refugees.   This story, effectively, takes place in a refugee camp.

This then, is a story about how Jesus, the Jew, makes a particular and special effort to spread the news of God’s Kingdom to people who are on the very edge of society.  These were refugees; Gentiles, strangers in a strange land. And that’s not all.  By seeking out the man called Legion, Jesus heads for a man who is on the edge of the edge of society.  Not just a refugee, but a man whose mind is disturbed, and who has been cast out by his own refugee community, to live among the graves.

There’s something else as well.  Did you notice what happened to the man called Legion, after Jesus had healed him?  He first begged to be allowed to come with Jesus and his disciples.  But Jesus refused, and instead gave him a very specific commission.  “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”  In other words, Jesus sent the man out to be an evangelist…to be someone who told others about the good news…the Evangelion…of what God was doing for the poor, the sick and the outcast.

What you may not know, is that this sending of a non-Jew, a Gentile, who had also been a mad-man, happened before Jesus began sending out his own disciples.  This man, this previously-outcast Gentile, is the first significant evangelist of the Gospel of Luke!

Now, I realise that the word ‘evangelism’ is a pretty scary word for many of us.  I know that it can conjure up some pretty graphic images in our minds of TV Evangelists who con lonely people out of their savings.

On the other hand it might remind you of the story about a drunk who stumbles into a baptismal service on Sunday afternoon down by the river. He proceeds to walk into the water and stand next to the preacher. The minister notices the old drunk and says, "Mister, are you ready to find Jesus?" The drunk looks back and says, "Yes, preacher, I sure am." The minister dunks the fellow under the water and pulls him right back up. "Have you found Jesus?" the preacher asks. "Nooo, I have not, Reverend."

The preacher, in disgust, holds the man under for at least 30 seconds this time, brings him out of the water, and says in a harsh tone, "My man, have you found Jesus yet?" The old drunk wipes his eyes and says to the preacher, "Are you sure this is where he fell in?"

After this service, as indeed I did last week, I will be conducting a baptism.  Baptism, is of course, all about water.  As the baptism service reminds us, the Spirit of God brooded over the waters at the beginning of creation.  God led the people of Israel through water out of slavery of Egypt.  Water is a constant theme of scripture.  Just before the story of Legion, Jesus calms the storm on Lake Galilee.  And then, in today’s reading, the demon-filled pigs threw themselves into the same lake.

Baptism, recalls all of these kinds of stories.  Demons cannot live in water, by tradition.  Immersion into water is therefore a way of cleansing us, symbolically and spiritually from all demonic power.  For example, in the baptism service itself, the question is asked “Do you reject the Devil and all rebellion against God?”.  Baptism, holy, symbolic washing, is all about purification, and, as with the Man called Legion whose demons were plunged into water, it’s about a commission…the giving of a new life and new purpose, to all who have been baptised.

Next Saturday, we will gather at Portsmouth Cathedral (at midday, by the way!) to participate in the ordination of Damon Draisey as a deacon and full-time minister.  That’s going to be a wonderful moment for him…an important step along his journey of faith.

But he, like all of us, has already been ordained at an earlier point in our journey.  Our baptism is a form of ordination.  Baptism is the seal of God’s favour, given to every believer.  It is the mark of Christ on our lives. It is our primary calling.  Baptism singles out the children of God, and sets each of us on a path to fully discover God’s calling on our lives.  And, baptism comes with a commission for each one of us.  At the end of the baptism service, this commission from God is given:  “You have received the light of Christ.  Walk in this light all the days of your life.  Shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God the father”

So, let me leave you with this thought.  Jesus called a man who was found on the edge of the edge of his society.   Jesus called him and ordained him to a new ministry of evangelism, despite his past.  Jesus sent him to shine a light into his own Gentile community.

Does he not also call us?  Me and You?    Let me ask each one of us to spend a moment in reflection as I finish this sermon.  And here is the question I invite you to pose:  how have you shone the light of Christ during this last week?  And how will you shine it in the week to come?  The question is for you alone…for you to ponder, and for you to respond to.  You and I are each called, ordained by Christ, to the sacred task of being evangelists, through our words, and our deeds.  We, who have been freed, like Legion, from the madness of sin and self, are called to be mad with desire to share the Good News with everyone…in our homes, in our schools, in our community.  It needs doing with tact, and diplomacy.  It needs doing carefully and patiently.  It needs doing respectfully and sincerely.  But it needs doing.  Take a moment now, as I will also do, to ask yourself those questions I just posed…

How have you shone the light of Christ during this last week?  And how will you shine it in the week to come?


Saturday, June 15, 2013

Women, the Poor and the Outcast

A Narrative based on Luke 7:36-8.3  for the Third Sunday After Trinity

Hello.  How do you do?  My name is Simon.  I'm one of the Rabbis of the Jewish Faith, from the time of Jesus.  In my time, I'm known as a Pharisee.  I suppose your equivalent would be something that I think you call a Bishop.  In other words, I've been studying all my life to be a teacher and leader of the Faith.  I'm a very important man!

I've actually been transported here, through time, for just this moment.  I've come to tell you a story...about the time that Jesus came to eat at my house.

I had been hearing stories about this Jesus fellow.  He was another teacher, another Rabbi, like me.  But my fellow Pharisees and I were hearing strange things about him.  We heard that he was living on the streets, or in friends' houses, telling people that the Kingdom of Heaven was near, healing people, and forgiving their sins!.  It was getting rather annoying, frankly.  All our regular worshippers at Synagogue were talking about him...this new prophet.

I decided that I had better meet the man for myself.

So, I rather reluctantly invited him for dinner.  Mind you, I wasn't going to have my friends think that I was happy about I didn't offer him the normal courtesies.  So when Jesus turned up for dinner, I just gestured to a place at the table, and he sat down.  I was just about to start questioning him about his strange teachings, when all of a sudden there was a commotion in the crowd.  (Our meals are often taken with a crowd of the common people hanging around...trying to listen to our intelligent conversation!).  Out of the commotion suddenly, a woman appeared.  I saw immediately, with horror, who it was.  "No!" I thought to myself.  "Anyone but her!".  But this woman - who, let's say, had a bit of a 'reputation' - carried on as if no-one else was in the room.  She went right over to Jesus, and started to weep all over his feet.  Worse still,  she then unwrapped her hair!  Now I don't know about your culture, but in mine, a woman should never uncover her hair.  Her hair is meant only for her husband to see.  Women who let down their hair in my culture are either mad or prostitutes!  But this woman, this brazen hussy, she unwrapped her hair, and then started to wipe her tears off Jesus's feet with it!  Incredible.

And then, to cap it all, she took out a jar of perfumed ointment, and started to anoint his feet with it!  I couldn't believe my eyes!  And it just proved to me that this Jesus was a fraud.  I said to myself "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him".

Just then, while I was muttering to myself, Jesus looked up...straight into my eyes.  "Simon", he said, "I have something to say".

Between my gritted teeth, I replied "Teacher, speak".

And that was when it happened.  That was when Jesus of Nazareth got through to me.  He started by telling a story about a man who forgave the debts of two other people.  And then, he began to systematically shame me about my total failure of hospitality.  Point by point, he walked me through all the ways I had failed to live up to my responsibilities as a host...the way I didn't have his feet washed, nor did I kiss him, nor did I anoint him.  But this woman, this lost soul, had done all of that...with her own tears and hair.  I was ashamed.  In front of all my friends I felt stupid and embarrassed.  I remembered all those teachings from the Hebrew Bible about how we should greet strangers, and welcome them.  I remembered the story about how the people of Sodom had failed in their solemn duty of hospitality...and how they had been punished for it.

And then, to cap it all, Jesus looked down at the poor woman on the floor, and forgave her for her sins.  He took her gift of love, and gave it back to her a thousand times.

My friends and I were stunned.  We began to look at each other in wonder.  "Who is this, who even forgives sins?".  We realised then, that we were in the presence of someone truly extraordinary.

But more than that, Jesus helped us to think about so many things in different ways.  He had taught us, by his very presence, that we should not judge a book by its cover.  He arrived at my house looking dirty, disheveled, and frankly he could have done with a bath.  But once he opened his mouth, we knew that we were in the presence of Royalty.  I wonder whether you have ever made that mistake?  I wonder if you have ever judged another person to be worth-less because of what they wear, or how they look.  I know I did.  And I'm ashamed.

Another thing that Jesus really challenged us about was the place of women in society, and indeed in our religion.  Not only did Jesus let this odd woman come and wash his feet with her tears and hair, he also let women travel about with him and his disciples.  That was very hard for me to accept, let me tell you.  We believe that a woman's only place is in the home...looking after the children.  But here was this extra-ordinary man, who let women touch him, and even let them travel with him and his disciples!

I came to understand that Jesus' primary mission was to all those who are cast out by the society in which we live.  He wanted to include everyone in the new Kingdom that he was announcing.  Just a quick look at his disciples told us that.  There were fishermen and tax collectors, women, the sick, and even political extremists, like Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot.  Everyone whom polite society would have nothing to do with...Jesus wanted to include them.

He was amazing.  And he blew my mind!

I you ever make the same mistakes as my society?  I'm sure you don't.  After all, you are a Christian country, aren't you?  I'm sure that you now treat women with exactly the same equality as men?  I'm sure, by now, that you must have female Pharisees...or what is it you call them...Bishops?

I'm sure that you don't allow the poorest members of your society to have to live on the bread line.  I'm sure that by now you don't have wealthy money-lenders who lend money at extortionate rates of interest.  Do you?  I'm sure you live by what Jesus taught... "Blessed are the poor - for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven".  I'm sure that if any Government in your day tried to reduce the support it gives to the poorest members of society - while the rich evade taxes and line their pockets -  the members of the church would rise up and protest?  Wouldn't you?  I'm sure you would write to your MP, and protest wherever possible at any such reductions in basic living standards.

Oh, I'm sure that your society must be much fairer, much more just than mine.  I'm sure there must be much more justice and mercy.

And what is more, I'm sure that, as followers of Jesus Christ, you must have learned something about the power of forgiveness.  In my day, we just lock people up when they do something wrong.  I'm sure that you have learned by now that that doesn't work.  I'm sure you now do as Jesus did to that sinful woman: forgive them, and help them to get their life back on track.

What a wonderful world you must live in, if it truly is a Christian world.  I can only dream of a world in which the poor are helped, where foreigners and strangers are welcomed, where sinners are forgiven and restored, and where there is equality between the sexes.

But now, I'm afraid, I have to leave travel back to my own time, to begin the work of building such a wonderful, Godly kingdom.  That's my task.  That's my calling.

Perhaps you still have some work to do in your time, in Jesus' name, too.


Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Diverse and Inclusive Church

A Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter, and prior to the Parish Annual Meeting

Texts:  Acts 11.1-8, Revelation 21.1-6 and John 13.31-35

After our service this morning, we will gather together to conduct the essential business of our Parish.  We will elect our churchwardens and some new committee members.  We will consider a few tweaks to our parish constitution, review our finances and think about our buildings.  As part of that meeting, I'm going to invite you to briefly consider the progress we have made against the Five Year Plan that we set ourselves back in 2009.

When we made that plan together, four years ago, we agreed that we wanted to be a church for North End that was a praying, learning, serving and visible church that would be diverse and all-inclusive.  As you will see, I hope, we have made some considerable progress towards many, if not most, of the specific goals we set.  We set ourselves some targets, especially in the areas of being praying, learning, serving and visible - and I am really proud of all that you, with some help from the Clergy, have achieved.  I think you have the right to feel justly proud that the vision set before us four years ago has been largely and significantly achieved.  In our Annual Meeting, we will look - briefly, I promise! - at the targets that we set ourselves, and think about what comes next.

However, whilst we can rightly have a degree of pride about the things we have achieved together, today's lectionary readings come at a good moment for us.  The readings you just heard were not chosen by me.  They were the readings that just happened to be set for this Sunday of the year.  But as is so often the case, God manages to speak to us even through readings that were agreed years ago, when the lectionary - the list of readings for each Sunday - was first agreed.

In these readings, we are offered a vision of the Church which is very challenging indeed - especially, I suggest, for a church which aims to be 'diverse and all-inclusive'.  First, we heard Peter's account of how God challenged him through a vision to open the Church of Christ to people who were not Jews...those known as Gentiles.  This was a huge challenge to Peter.  As a Jew himself, he had been brought up to believe that Gentiles were fundamentally different to Jews.  They were not God's 'chosen people' - and they were treated with suspicion.  They were people who were not like Peter, and people that Peter would not normally associate with.  And yet God was challenging him - even commanding him - to include such people in his church.

Next, in the vision of John from the Book of Revelation, we are invited to peer into God's future for the world.  It is a world in which God himself dwells with all mortals, and when there will be no more crying or pain.  It's a fantastic vision of God's love for all humanity.

How are we to respond to these readings, I wonder?  Especially we who set ourselves the task of being diverse and all-inclusive?  How are we to extend God's love to those in our community who are not like us?

Who are the people that God may be calling us to include into our diverse and all-inclusive community?  Of course, we already do have a wide variety of people who belong to the life of this parish.  I am so proud of the way that you, as congregations, already do welcome people who are perhaps a little bit different from typical, average, residents of North End.

We have some non-English members...though I wish we had more, because God is not an Englishman, and other cultures help us to see God with different eyes.

We have some members with learning difficulties or physical disabilities...most of whom I know feel loved and welcomed - but there are many more who find our services difficult to understand, or our buildings too difficult to enter.

We have some young people, many of whom sing in choirs or attend Sunday Clubs, or serve at our Altars.  But there are literally thousands of young people in this parish who have very little or nothing to do with our churches at all.  Apart from school assemblies, some of them have no idea what the church can offer them...largely because we are not, ourselves, as clever as we need to be about providing opportunities for them to engage.

We have people in our churches from many different economic backgrounds...but I sometimes wonder why the poorest members of our community don't feel that the church belongs to them.  Could it be that, for someone surviving on ever reducing benefit payments, church feels just too expensive to belong to.  We need, I suggest, to find ways of really blessing the poorest in our community, and of creating more ways of giving that are not about money - more opportunities for the giving of time and talents, for example.

We have a few people in our churches who express their sexuality in different ways from the average, typical, heterosexual person.  But recent pronouncements from the national Church, especially about marriage, are making Gay people feel that they are not welcome in our churches.  We need to work harder, I suggest, at helping all people to feel loved and wanted.

We have a very few people in our churches who would prefer to worship in different styles than our rather traditional Anglican worship.  All three of our churches, in subtly different ways, provide basically the same kind of traditional liturgy on a Sunday morning.  But there are people in our parish who travel long distances every Sunday to worship in other parts of the City, because they find traditional liturgy to be alien.  But it is a challenge for us to change what we do, or to offer something different...mainly because all three of our churches hold their services smack in the middle of Sunday mornings.  I wonder whether any one of our churches might think about having an earlier, contemporary service for young families and younger people - with a more traditional service at a later time.  It would mean a sacrifice, for some of us, of our lunch-hours and of our habits and patterns...but perhaps that sacrifice is being asked of us?

So, this, I believe is the challenge laid before us in the coming years.  How can we really and truly become a church that is diverse and all-inclusive.  How can we move to a position where young people, disabled people, poor people, gay people, black people, children and families can also be welcomed into our worship and our community life?  Not just the occasional example of such groups, but a real, vibrant, living breathing community of diverse human beings!

As we review our Five Year Plan today, I'm going to be asking you, as the Annual Meeting of Church Members, to commission your PCC and Church Committees to begin the process of planning for the next five years.  As they do so, it is my plea that they will hold the challenges of today's readings in their minds and hearts.

Let me give the last word to Jesus.  In our Gospel reading, we were reminded that Jesus taught us that Love was to be the foundation of our community life.  If we are known to be people who truly, madly, deeply Love one another, whoever we are, wherever we come from, whatever we bring or can't bring to the life of the Church, then the rest of the world will truly know that we are Christ's Disciples.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

It is still horribly cold…but the days are beginning to lengthen at last!  And that’s where we get the word ‘Lent’ from.  The old English word ‘lenten’ means the time of lengthening and growing days.  And that time of growth has for centuries been a pointer to the idea of spiritual growth and renewal.

Traditionally, spiritual growth and renewal has always been assisted by penitence, fasting, giving to the poor, and prayer.  None of these ideas are only about self-denial.  Like anointing with oil, fasting was believed to be a purifying and strengthening challenge…a preparation for some challenge yet to come.  And the idea of giving things up for Lent was always balanced by the requirement to give something out to the poor:  for we surely cannot claim to love the God whom we have not seen if we do not love the poor at our door that we do see.

That is why each year our Bishop invites us to participate in his Lent Appeal.  This is an extra call on our purses – at a time when we are encouraged to think most deeply about what it means to be a follower of a Lord who gave up everything for us.  This year, Bishop Christopher is inviting us to contribute to two causes: one at home, and one abroad.  Homelessness at home; and helping those affected by climate change abroad.

This is a time for tidying up and preparing for Spring and Easter.  In our gardens there are dead leaves to clear away, bushes to trim, seed to plant.  And so it’s a time for tidying our spiritual lives as well.  In a moment, I will invite you all to receive the sign of the cross, drawn in ashes and olive oil on your foreheads.  This is a sign of repentance…a sign that we recognise ourselves to be human beings who fail – and who seek the forgiveness of our heavenly father.

The priest and poet John Donne once preached a sermon to King James I, the authoriser of the King James Bible.  In it, he gave a fascinating list of the kind of sins which he perceived in himself.  He said:

“Forgive me O Lord;  forgive my sins, the sins of my youth and my present sins….Forgive me my crying sins, and my whispering sins, the sins of uncharitable hate, and sins of unchaste love, sins against thee, against thy power O Almighty Father, against thy wisdom, O glorious Son, against the goodness, O blessed Spirit of God.  Forgive me my sins against him and him, against superiors and equals, and inferiors; and sins against me and me, against mine own soul, and against my body, which I have loved better than my soul.”

But then he concludes…

“Say thou to my sad soul: ‘Son, be of good comfort, thy sins are forgiven thee’.  Let me be so blessed, that I shall envy no man’s blessedness.  O say thou to my sad soul ’Son, be of good comfort, thy sins are forgiven thee’.”

This then is the heart of Lent…growth and spiritual renewal stem from an appreciation of who we are…failing human beings, who like a plant that needs the sun, cannot grow without the Love, Wisdom and Power of our heavenly father.  That’s why, alongside the Bishop’s Lent Appeal, we also invite you to participate in a Lent Course again this year…a chance to deepen your understanding of the wisdom and power of God.

As we receive the Ashes, today, we will be reminded that we are ‘but dust…from dust you came and to dust you shall return;’.  To the modern ear this sounds a rather morbid thought…but actually it’s intended to remind us, very simply of what we are…

We are made of dust.  Stardust, in fact…our atoms once burned in the heart of the Universe before they became grouped together with the ball of rock we call Planet Earth.  From the nutrients, atoms and molecules of that planet, each of us came forth.  Our mothers ate what the planet provided, and we came forth.  We are the product of a physical and biological process.  But what else are we?

Christians proclaim that yes, we are made of Stardust…but we are also given life by the Spirit and Power of the living God.  It is his power that sustains us, his wisdom that guides us, and his forgiveness which frees us to become all that we can become as Children of God.  From dust we came, and to dust we shall return…but thanks be to God:  our Spirits will sing, and our souls will be set free.

So let me invite you to receive the Ash cross this year, as a sign of your commitment to carry on growing in God…to reach beyond the dust from which you were made, to become the child of God you were destined to be.


Saturday, February 2, 2013


Luke 2:21-32

According to Navy legend, once upon a time, in the early days of naval radar, a United States aircraft carrier called the USS Constitution was making its way into British waters. The Radar operator spotted a blip on his screen, directly in the path of the mighty carrier. So the Captain radioed ahead and said "Unknown Vessel, please change your course by 20 degrees to avoid a collision".

The radio crackled, and a reply came back. "Unable to comply. You change your course." The captain picked up the radio again. "Listen, this is a naval vessel - heading straight for your co-ordinates. Now change your course, or risk being sent to the bottom of the ocean".

The radio crackled again, and the reply came back, "We were here first. You change your course!" By now, the captain of the mighty war machine was incandescent with rage. "Listen, you little British pip-squeek. This is the USS Constitution - the largest air-craft carrier in the world. We won't even feel you when we run over you. Now move!"

The radio crackled for a third time. "This is the Eddystone Lighthouse. Your move."

There's something really special about lighthouses, isn't there? As a boy, I used to spend holidays in the fishing town of Brixham, down in deepest Devon. I loved watching the Berry-head lighthouse, streaming its beam out over the waters. There's something deeply comforting about the regular, pulsating light...the swoop of the beam...the knowledge that this light is making this bit of coastline safe.

Today we are celebrating the feast of Candlemass - the time when members of the Orthodox church bring beeswax candles to church to have them blessed by the priest - candles that will be used throughout the year.  The blessing takes place, in some places, after an all-night vigil. So, if we were really to be 'doing' Candlemass properly, we should have been here in church all night...and you should have all brought candles to be blessed at the Eucharist. Next year perhaps?!

In some churches, today, there will be processions around the church, or around the town, with each member holding a candle.  We're going to do something a little different - using candles as a focus for our prayers of intercession in a short while.  Ultimately, of course, however it is celebrated, the symbolism of Candlemass is all about light. It stems from the reading for the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple - the gospel we heard just now. As you know, when Christ had been presented, Simeon the Righteous declared that he had seen the promised Messiah - and that he was now content to die. Crucially, he described Jesus as 'a light'...a light to the non-Jewish world, as well as glory (which is another light-related metaphor)...glory for the people of Israel.

Light is a theme which permeates the whole bible - just like the search-beam of a lighthouse. God's first command, according the Great Legend of Genesis was 'Let there be light'. God led the Israelites through the Sinai Desert by a pillar of fire...a great light. Jesus is described as the light of men, and the light of the world. Saul was struck by a light on the road to Damascus. And on the nearly the last page of the Bible, in chapter 21 of the book of Revelation, the New Jerusalem is lit not by the sun or the moon, but by the glory of God, and the Lamb, who is described as the light.

Of course, these are all metaphors  -  metaphors which make us wonder what life might be like if it was lived in God's way...if life could be lived fully 'in the light' of the teachings of God.

Now, this is the point in many sermons on light when the preacher will give you a list of things you can do to be someone who lives in the light of God. But you don't need me to do that. You know what the difference is between a life that embraces the light and a life that embraces the dark. You know it instinctively...because God's light is in you. You know the difference between getting or giving, between hating and loving. You simply need to decide which way you want to live.

Last year, as I’m sure you remember, we celebrated the 350th Anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer.  At the offertory, in the old Communion service, we used to use a phrase of Jesus, from Matthew’s Gospel:  “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven”.  (Mat5:16)  The older folks among us will remember that phrase, I’m sure.  It was, and through Matthew’s Gospel it remains,  an encouragement to all of us to live lives that are filled with God’s light…light that overflows to our families, our community, our friends.

Jesus came to be a light to world.  And we are now the bearers of his light, filled with his Spirit, and tasked with bringing his light into all the dark corners of the world that we encounter.  The dark corners of violence, poverty, depression, prejudice, greed and unbelief - to name just a few.  That is our sacred charge, and our sacred duty.

So, may you re-discover, daily, what it means to live as a Child of the Light.  May the light of Christ so fill your heart and your life that it flows out in healing waves to all whom you encounter.  And may your light so shine before all people, that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Heavenly Father.


Friday, January 4, 2013

Epiphany 2013 Wise Men

Matthew 2: 1-12

I suppose that many of us will have been on journeys over the last couple of weeks. Some of us have braved snow and ice, wind and rain to visit family and friends in far-flung corners of the British Isles.
But I bet none of us had journeys which were as arduous as those of the Wise Men to Bethlehem.  They would have crossed blazing deserts, and freezing mountain passes.  They would have had to wash in streams, and eat food gathered or trapped along the way.  They would have ridden on camels or horses, not in cars or trains.  Their journey was remarkable.

We don't know much about the Wise Men. The Bible calls them 'Magi', from which we get our word 'magician' - but that's not the full meaning of the word. The Magi were, as far as we can tell, learned men from another culture. They studied the stars, and no doubt studied the ancient texts of many religions too. They put that knowledge together came to the startling conclusion that a new King of the Jews was being born.

Actually, they were wrong. Jesus never was the King of Jews...despite the ironic poster that Pontius Pilate had nailed over his Cross.  In fact, according to John's Gospel, when Pilate asked him point blank whether he was the King of the Jews, Jesus replied "My Kingdom is not of this world".  No, the Magi were wrong. The stars were not predicting the birth of the King of the Jews.

Another accident of the Magi was in their timing. According to Matthew’s account, they actually arrived up to two years late. (Matthew notes that Herod enquired of the wise men when they had seen the Star appear, and based on that information he slaughters all the boys in Bethlehem who are under two years old.  Its notable that Matthew also describes the wise men visiting Mary and the child in the house where they were staying, not in a stable.)

So, the Magi were perhaps not all that wise. They failed to correctly predict the timing of the birth of a new King of the Jews - and they were two years adrift even of Jesus birth. Wise men? Perhaps not.
So, to those who say that our future can be read in the stars, there is a warning here. The stars do not foretell our future, any more than they did for the Magi. We would be wise not to place our future in the hands of star-gazers too.

And yet...and yet...

The Magi embarked on a journey of faith. They thought they knew where that journey would lead. They assumed it would lead them to a royal palace in Jerusalem.  But God has a way of using the journeys we plan for ourselves, and turning them into something much different, much more profound. Instead of a new prince in a royal cot, the Magi's journey led them, mysteriously, to a cave in a rural back-water...and to a baby in an animal's food trough.

And it was when they got there, that the Magi could truly be described as wise men. Recognising Jesus for who he was, much more than an earthly King of the Jews, - they knelt in homage to him. When they met him, Jesus was nothing like they expected. But they had the wisdom to recognise him, and to worship him. They had the wisdom to let their pre-conceptions of palaces and earthly royalty slip away; and let the new reality of Jesus take their place.

You see, wise men (and women) are open to what the Journey will bring. Wise men, and women, embrace the possibilities for change and growth which arise whenever we put our journey in the hands of God.
I wonder what our journey this year will be like - our journey with God both as individuals, and as a church.  For each of us, individually, the story of the Wise Men from the East encourages us to be open to what God is doing in our lives, in all our circumstances – whether they are happy, healthy and weatlhy, or sad, ill and poor.  Jesus promised that he would be with his Disciples 'always...until the End of the Age'.  We can therefore be utterly certain that God, through Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, walks with us along every mile of our life's journey.

If we are able to listen to his voice, in the middle of peace and prosperity, as well as chaos and darkness, we will find him speaking into our situation.  There is always something to be learned, always some new spiritual growth to take place even...perhaps the darkest times.

I imagine the Wise Men had some dark times.  They travelled through deserts and over mountains, through blazing heat and freezing cold.  At times, they must have wondered if they had gone mad to have embarked on this journey.  But through it all, God was with them...guiding them, prompting them in new that at the end of their journey, they could encounter the God-child himself.

So, my encouragement to you this Epiphany is to be open to the journey.  Make a new year’s resolution, right here, right now, that you will be more alert, more open to what God is doing in your life as a person, and in our life as a church.    Make a pact with God that you will listen to him more, searching the scriptures more, worshipping more, giving more, receiving more.

If God can lead a bunch of mystics across deserts and mountains to encounter the living Lord Jesus, then he can do the same for us.

But we have to be ready to go.