Friday, December 26, 2014

The Holy Innocents

The First Sunday of Christmas

The Holy Innocents

In the midst of the joy of the Christmas season, today’s Scripture can feel rather perverse.  While we celebrate the coming of our Lord, as a baby, Matthew points out one of the most horrific ironies of the whole story…that Jesus’ birth inadvertently caused the murder of every male child under two years old in Bethlehem.  The church refers to these children as ‘the Holy Innocents’.

That mass slaughter was, of course, ordered by Herod the Great – the local King – who wanted to defend his throne from what he saw as the threat of Jesus, the King of Kings.  It is of course tragic that Herod did not realise that Jesus was not interested in taking any earthly throne.  As he later said to Pilate, his Kingdom was not of this world.  But Herod did not grasp this profound truth…like so many men of power, he saw a threat, and reached out to crush it.  He killed defenceless children, in order to defend his own throne.

For many people who struggle with the whole idea of God, human suffering is one of their greatest stumbling blocks.  This is especially true, perhaps, for those who have lost a child. One of the first questions to come to mind is often ‘why?’ or rather ‘How could a loving God stand by and let this innocent child die?’  Perhaps there were mothers and fathers in Bethlehem who had seen the star, and then the shepherds and the wise men arrive.  Perhaps they understood that this child born in their stable was indeed a special, Godly child.  I wonder what they thought of God when the soldiers arrived and murdered their sons.   

And I wonder what the parents of the Pakistan school children think of God, as they continue to mourn their children slain by the Taliban last week.  I wonder what the parents of young Ebola victims think God is doing in West Africa at the moment.  10 years after the Boxing Day Tsunami, in which around 250,000 people lost their lives, emotions are undoubtedly still red raw for many.  Where is God in all this suffering?  If he is a good God at all, how could he stand by and let all this suffering go on?  

The Archbishop of Canterbury was confronted with this same question during the last week, when he was interviewed on ‘Desert Island Discs’ on Radio 4.  The interviewer asked him to talk about the time when he lost his 7 month-old daughter in a tragic car accident.  He was asked whether that gave him a point of connection with other people who have lost loved ones in unexplained suffering.  His response was fascinating.  He said (and I paraphrase from memory) that he didn’t claim to understand the reasons why such suffering is permitted by God.  But instead he tends to point people to the young man who was nailed unjustly to a Cross.  For the Archbishop, it seems, God in Jesus, completely enters our world with all its messiness and ugliness.  He shares in our suffering.  He identifies with it.  He takes it on…and ultimately defeats it.

Is that then the purpose of suffering?  Does God allow suffering in order to use it…to use it as way of demonstrating his greater power over even death?  Perhaps that is part of the picture.  But the issue of suffering is like one of those jigsaws that many of us received on Christmas day.  We’ve already begun to put the pieces together…we might have already found the edge pieces and stuck them in place…but the main picture itself is only just beginning to become clear.

Some of the pieces of the jigsaw of suffering include certainly the kind of ideas that the Archbishop pointed us towards on Desert Island Discs.  God is certainly able to take suffering and transform it. The stories of Jesus’ coming, his teaching, his death and resurrection point to all of that.  Countless followers of God can testify that their own suffering, or grief, have been transformed by God’s love and power.  And we believe with all our hearts that the suffering of this ‘mortal coil’ has been wiped away for those we have loved who now ‘rest in peace’.  

But there is a danger that we must guard against in any discussion about suffering.  It’s the danger of believing, as some in Christianity and other religions sometimes do, that everything which happens is ‘the will of God’.  Was it God’s will that Herod should order the murder of the Holy Innocents?  No.  That was Herod’s will. Was it God’s will that hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern children would spend this winter as refugees all over the Arab world?  No.  That is the will of the politicians and war-lords of the Middle East, as they compete for power with their guns.   

It all comes down to the question of our will, not God’s.  The only sense in which God is involved is in his generous granting of free will to human beings.  God gives humanity the freedom to choose which will to submit to.  He gives a simple choice, a choice in biblical language used at the time of the 10 commandments, between a blessing and a curse.  We either choose to live God’s way, and to be blessed beyond measure.  Or we choose to live our own way, and up cursing ourselves.  Why does he give us this choice?  Quite simply because, like any parent, our Father wants us to choose to love him.  Any other kind of love would be unreal, and pointless.

The notion of free will is a simple explanation for things like the murder of the Holy Innocents.  But does it explain the suffering of Ebola, or that of the Tsunami, or any number of natural disasters.  I think it does.  I think that the jigsaw picture is capable of coming into focus even about such issues.  It is not natural disasters themselves which cause is the human response to them.  West Africans are dying from Ebola at the moment because they are too poor to have the right medical equipment in place, or too poorly educated to understand how to remain safe around it.  That poverty is not the fault of West Africans…it is the fault of all human beings who refuse to share.  The boxing day Tsunami killed so many people because the nations affected lacked early warning systems, or the wealth required to defend their homes and cities against a known threat.

A blessing from God.  Or a curse brought about by man.  The choice which God has always given his people remains our choice today.  It’s the choice of all human beings everywhere…on the international stage, as well as in the local parish.  It’s the choice which you and I face every moment of every day.  Will we live God’s way?  Or will we choose our own?  And how many more ‘Holy Innocents’ do their need to be before we make up our minds?


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Christmas Truce - 100 Years On

This year, all over the world, we have been commemorating the outbreak of the First World War, or the so-called  'war to end all wars'.  It stands out in our collective memory because of its sheer brutality.  It was the first truly mechanised war...the first time that machine guns, tanks and air power became crucial tools for the mass slaughter of 'the enemy'.   Men mowed down like grass.  Trenches, rats, corpses and mud.

And yet we also hear of glimmers of light.  We've heard of 'Woodbine Willy' - the 'trench-priest' who gave woodbine cigarettes and spiritual comfort to the troops.  We've heard many tales of heroic acts of self-sacrifice...of men laying down their lives for their comrades.  But perhaps the greatest glimmer of light is the story of the 'Christmas Truce'.

Very little can be said with certainty about this event.  But it seems certain that something very significant happened on that first Christmas of the war, 100 years ago this very night.  According to the stories, German soldiers began to sing Christmas Carols, and to call to their English enemies across No Man's Land.  Tentatively at first, the English soldiers responded, and then one by one, soldiers from both sides began to climb out of their trenches, to meet one another in No Man's Land.

Gifts were exchanged.  One English soldier ripped a button from his Greatcoat, and attached it to a card with his name and address.  Another gave a Christmas Pudding to a German soldier.  One legend says that several games of football began, right there in No Man's Land.

Among the mud and the bullets, the Christmas Truce offered a glimmer of hope. The possibility that something other than 'total war' could solve human conflict.  A little light shone in the darkness.

The prophet Isaiah, thousands of years ago, prophesied that 'the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light'.  Christians read those lines as pointing to Jesus, the light of the world, who entered the darkness of human existence on that First Christmas night.  In many ways, the world was just as dark then as it was in 1914...

The land into which Jesus was born was under the occupation of an invading army.  Herod the Great, the local ruler, was just as blood-thirsty as any modern day terrorist.  The Taliban of Pakistan murdered children in their classrooms only last week. Herod ordered the murder of children in Bethlehem.  Today we see millions of people fleeing over national borders.  Mary and Joseph were forced to flee into Egypt soon after Jesus’ birth.  All over the world, even today, children are born in tents and slums and stables, without being able to ‘Call the Midwife’! Some even get laid in mangers, animal feeding troughs, just as Jesus was.

Human beings then, just as now, have declared war on God.  By the way we structure our society; we declare every day our active opposition to God.  God tells us to love our neighbour, and to welcome the stranger.  But we ignore our neighbours, and try to keep the strangers out.  God tells us to look after the weak and the sick...but we vote in our millions for politicians who refer to the weak and the sick as 'scroungers'.   God tells us to focus our spiritual lives on him, but we prefer to focus on the acquisition of things...the new car, the new kitchen, the latest gadget.  We hear the angels sing of 'peace on earth'...but we still solve our differences with the barrel of a gun.

Human beings have declared war on God...but God does something incredible in return.  God declares his own Christmas Truce.  In the middle of the night, into the darkness of human greed, violence, poverty and war, God sends a baby. God sends a baby who will grow up to take upon himself all that the human war against God can do.  Human beings will throw everything at this baby that they can think of.  As he grows up they will make him a refugee, they will keep him in poverty, they will throw kings, invading armies and lawyers at him; they will even throw religion at him.  And finally, when every trick in the book of War against God is exhausted, they will whip him, and beat him, and nail him to a tree.

But to even this final act of war, God responds with a Truce.  With the dawn of the sun on Easter morning, this baby will rise ...rising above human war, rising above human hate.  To everyone who gives up the human war against God, God offers life that will go on for ever.  To everyone who cries out to God, God gives them the status of a child of God.  And by that act of Truce, this baby, born in Bethlehem on this night, becomes the first-born of all the sons and daughters of God.  He becomes their brother, and their King.

And so, we are left with only one question on Christmas Night.  How will we respond to God's Christmas Truce?  Will we give up our participation in the War against God?  Will we, like the soldiers of Christmas 1914 decide that our human leaders are just wrong...and seek a new way of life instead?  Will we, like the Wise Men and Shepherds look for a new King, a new leader?

The Christmas Truce of 1914 was a wonderful moment.  But the story has a painfully sad ending.  With the dawn of the next day, hostilities were resumed.  The political power of the leaders of those soldiers was too great.  Within 24 hours, machine guns were once again ripping human beings to shreds.  If only those soldiers had agreed with each other that enough was enough!  If only they had agreed then and there to make the Truce permanent!

And that, finally, is our choice tonight.  We can agree, here and now, to accept a new way of living, a new leader, a new King, born in a stable.  We can say that we've had enough of the human war against God, and decide to live in a completely new way.  Or with the turn of the clock, and the dawn of a new day, we can go back to our trenches and start the war all over again.  I wonder which choice you will make.  Amen.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Advent 4 - Mary meets an angel

An imaginative re-telling of the Annuciation

Mary plonked herself down onto her bed.  "Crikey, I'm tired!" she said.  It had been a long day of household chores.  But now, Mary had one more important job do.  She reached down, under her bed, and pulled out an old basket.  Inside was her nearly-finished wedding robe...the one she had been working on for the past several weeks.

Mary was engaged to Joseph, the old carpenter in the village.  No-one knew why Joseph had not been married before...perhaps he had been waiting for the right girl to come along.  Mary's mind started to wander as she stitched along the hem.  “I wonder what it’s going to be like - being married.  Come to that - what's it going to be like to kiss him?  He's got that great big bushy beard...I wonder whether it will tickle!”

At that moment, unbeknown to Mary, something began to happen in the corner of her room - just over her shoulder.  A twinkle in the air.  Now a soft glow. Then, suddenly, a tall figure with wings on his back appeared in the corner.

"Greetings!" said the figure.

Mary jumped out of her skin!  "Where did you come from?", she demanded.  "You shouldn't creep up on people like that!"

The tall figure with the wings, looked a little surprised at her reaction.  People usually quaked in fear when he appeared.  He wasn't used to being told off.  "Sorry", he mumbled.  "Didn't mean to startle you.  Can I go on now?"

"Alright"  said Mary, thinking that this tall fellow looked a little bit like one of Mrs Cohen's sons, from down the road.  "What's this all about....and why have you got those wings clipped onto your coat?  Are you going to a fancy dress party?"

"They're not clipped onto my coat." said the tall man.  "They're sticking out of my coat...they're my wings."

"Oh," said Mary who was beginning to realise that this wasn't Mrs Cohen's boy after all.  "Who are you?"

"I'm an Angel", said the Angel.
"Get away!" said Mary.  "You're pulling my leg.  What's this...some kind of prank?"

"No, really", said the Angel.  "I'm an actual, real, Angel.  Sent by God.  I've got a very important message for you. You are really very favoured you know.  Not everyone gets a real Angel sent with a message from God."

Mary was distinctly puzzled by now.  An Angel?  Sent to her?  Here in little Nazareth?  What ever can it mean?  Confronted by the reality of the situation, Mary started to shake.  "I'm sorry, Angel," she said, "I didn't mean any dis-respect.  I thought you looked like Nathaniel from down the road...dressed up.  Oh blimey!  What have I done?"

The Angel looked kindly at Mary.  "Don't worry about it, Mary.  Don't be afraid.  It was an easy mistake to make.  Visits from Angels are pretty rare, after all.  Now listen..."

"Ok," said Mary.  "I'm all ears!"

"Mary," the Angel started again, patiently, "I've got really good news for you.  You are to be given the greatest gift that any woman has ever been given."

"Gosh!" said Mary, all agog.

"Yes," the Angel went on, "You are going to have a baby, sent from God.  You are to name him Yeshua"

"What, like Yeshua who led the People into the Promised Land?"  Mary enquired...trying to take in what the Angel was saying.

"Yes," said the Angel, "Just like that...although years from now people will change the way they pronounce it, and will call him Jesus."  The Angel drew himself up to his full height, and started to proclaim, slightly pompously, "He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever."  (The Angel was really working himself up to a climax now...the big finish.)  "His kingdom will never end...and..."

"Erm...", said Mary, holding up a finger.

"What now?!" said the Angel - a little bit annoyed that he had been stopped in mid-flow like that.

"Tiny problem." said Mary.  "Just a tincy wincy little problem"

"What?!" said the Angel

"Well, you see, I don't think I can have a baby.  I'm not married yet.  Haven't even kissed Joseph yet.  Do you know whether beards tickle, by the way?"  The Angel took a deep breath.

A little pomposity crept into his voice again.

"Nothing is impossible for God.  The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  So the holy baby that will be born will be the Son of God."  Suddenly, he had an idea.  "Haven't you heard about Elizabeth?"

"What, my cousin Elizabeth?"  Mary said.  "What about her?"

"She's pregnant....has been for six months"

"Never!" said Mary.  "But she's really old!"

"Nothing is impossible for God", repeated the Angel.

"Well," said Mary.  "It all sounds very unlikely, I must say.  I mean, why on earth would God choose a peasant like me to bear his son. The son of God will be born in the palace, surely? Are you sure those wings are real?"

"I'm completely sure.  You see, God doesn't like the kind of people who lord it over others in palaces.  He's much more interested in the poor and the humble"

"Get away!" said Mary.  "Well, they don't come much poorer than me.  Even got to make my own wedding robe" she said, holding up her sewing for the Angel to see.

"It's always been God's way.  Right back to the dawn of time.  Don't you know your history?  Don't you remember how God rescued your ancestors when they were slaves?  Don't you remember how he gave you a land to inhabit, even though you were just wandering nomads?  God has always had a heart for the poor.  People whose lives are not cluttered up with stuff are so much closer to him.  You know, God said to me only the other day that Moses only become interesting when he had stopped being a prince.  God had been talking to him for years...but Moses only heard him when he had become a poor goat-herder up a mountain."

"Hmm," said Mary, still not quite convinced.  "Let me get this straight.  I'm going to have a baby, right?"

"Yep" said the Angel

"Even though I've not even kissed Joseph yet?"

"Even then"

"And my baby is going to be the Son of God...even though he will be born in this little hut?"

"Well," said the Angel cautiously, "He won't actually be born here..."

"Why not?" asked Mary, suspiciously

"It'll be a bit more rustic than this"

"A bit more rustic?  How much more rustic do you want it?" said Mary, pointing at her surroundings.

"Umm" said the Angel, with a worried look in his eye, "Think donkeys.  And cows"

"What!" exclaimed Mary.  "My baby is going to be born in a field?!"

"Oh no!", said the Angel.  "Nothing as bad as that.  More like a stable"

"A stable!" said Mary.

"Mary..." said the Angel, a little sternly.  "You've got to trust me.  You've got to trust God.  God knows what he is doing.  Yeshua has to be born somewhere that no-one would expect a king to be born.  He's got to be born in utter that God's priority for the poor and the humble can be made clear.  In years to come, people will help one another in his name, precisely because of his humble origins.  He will be one of the people, born like the poorest of the that the people will take him to their hearts and trust him.  Besides, it shouldn’t surprise you if you think about your history.  Right up to the days of King Solomon, God only had a tent to live in – travelling around with your ancestors "

Mary slid forward off her bed, until she was kneeling on the floor in front of the Angel.

"I am the Lord's servant", she said.  "May it be to me as you have said"

The Angel smiled.  Mary had accepted what he had told her.  She had tasted something of her future, and the future that would be shaped by her Son.  Satisfied that his task was complete, the Angel slowly faded from Mary's view.  

Mary's heart was full to bursting...and she sang...

"My soul is bursting with God's news!
I'm dancing the song of my Saviour-God!
God took one look at me, and look what happened -
I am the most fortunate woman on Earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe of him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He has knocked tyrants off their high horses
and pulled their victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold..."

In the corner of Mary's room, the smile of an Angel hung in the air for a few seconds.  And was gone

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Kim the Priest!

Only a few months ago, we had the pleasure of welcoming Kim amongst us as a Deacon.  At the time, I said that part of the role of an ordained deacon was to be a living sign to all of us of the life of service to which we are called.  I said that when each of us engages in some form of self-giving service, we are living out the call of servant-hood which God makes to all his people.

I hope you’ll remember that I said that being a deacon never goes away.  I am still a deacon.  The Bishop is still a deacon.  Being a servant is at the very heart of what it means to be a Christ-ian, just as Christ himself was a servant to everyone he met.

Kim is still a deacon, but as of last Sunday she has also been called a new ministry – the ministry of an ordained priest.  Halleluiah!  And this new role carries with it something of the same idea – that an ordained priest is called to be a living sign (or what we might call an ‘icon’) of the priest-hood to which every believer is called.

Now that’s a sentence that we might want to linger over for a moment.  If you are a Christ-ian, according to the Scriptures, you are automatically considered to be a priest.  Writing to early Christ-ians, Peter said this:  “you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light”  (1 Peter 2.9).

In ancient Israel, priests acted as mediators between God and people – a sort of bridge between God and the World. They ministered according to God's instruction and they offered sacrifices to God on behalf of the people. But then God sent his Son, Jesus, to be the great High Priest for the whole world.  His sacrifice was sufficient for the sins of everybody, and individual sacrifice was no longer required.

This changed the status of those who trusted in God.  No longer were we to be fearful people, worried about whether or not God had forgiven us for our failures, obsessed by worries about whether or not we had performed the correct religious rights.  Instead, through the actions of the Great High Priest, Jesus himself, we could move on from worrying about our own salvation, and devote ourselves to working for the salvation of the whole world.   On Good Friday, the status of all who trusted in God was changed from fearful supplicant, to joyful son or daughter of God.  We went from being a supplicant, to being a priest.

Now, building on the ancient notion of priest, we, all of us have become those who stand as a bridge between God and the World.  We are the ones who, through our prayers, offer the people to God, and God to the people.  We are the ones who plead with God, by our prayers of intercession, for the good of the whole world.  We are the ones who through diligent study of the Scriptures are called to unfold the mysteries of God to our families, friends and local community.  We are the ones who stand on the threshold of heaven, shining heaven’s light into the dark corners of the world.

There are however, three very distinctive tools that we are given to help us in this task of being priests…three ways that are writ-large in the special calling of an ordained priest, like Kim.  As an ordained deacon, Kim has been an icon of Christian service.  I know that you will agree with me that Kim has a very special way of being a deacon.  Her loving gift of service has been appreciated by so many people in this parish and beyond.

However, as an ordained priest, she will also be an icon of the priesthood of all believers, especially in the celebration of this very service, her first Mass.  In this service, the three distinctive gifts of priesthood will be displayed, through Kim’s actions, for all of us to ponder and then live-out for ourselves.

What are these three distinctive ways?  Well let me explain!

The first, Kim has already demonstrated.  Just now, near the beginning of our service, Kim offered us all the sacrament of absolution.  In other words, responding to our prayer of confession, she declared the forgiveness of God to everyone who trusts in God.   Forgiveness is at the heart of our relationship with God.  Without it, we would still be lost in doubt and fear….doubting whether we could ever be made worthy to be called a child of God; fearful that might never make into the presence of God called heaven.

But Christians have a unique and precious message – Good News - to communicate to the whole world…the message that God forgives us.  This is, very simply, the message that no matter how many times we get things wrong, forgiveness is always available to anyone who genuinely seeks it.

Kim has already declared God’s forgiveness to us – and now we are called to offer the same forgiveness to everyone we encounter in our daily lives.  We are not to nurture hatred or resentment towards anyone – but following the pattern of the loving God whose ‘bridges to the world’ we are, we offer forgiveness to everyone.  ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’.

The second tool for our ministry that Kim will display today is the tool of consecration.  In a little while, Kim will for the first time consecrate simple gifts of bread and wine into the spiritual body and blood of Jesus.  To consecrate something is, essentially, to make it special, to make it holy, or to imbue something with new meaning and significance.

The consecration of bread and wine is something reserved only for ordained priests, because of the awesome depth of the significance of this meal.  We are to be invited to spiritually feed on the very stuff of heaven – to draw into ourselves the spiritual power of Jesus our High Priest to help us to live out our calling as individual bridges for God to the world.

This consecration, however, is an icon of the smaller consecrations that all we priests do.  We are called to open the eyes of the world to the activity of God in all things.  We are called to make the world holy, to make it special, to imbue every part of the world with new meaning and significance.  Christ-ians are involved in small acts of consecration every day…every time that eyes are opened to the wonder of nature, consecration take place.  Every time that a starving child is raised to the status of a human being, not a statistic, an act of consecration takes place.  Every time that music is used to praise and glorify all that is good in the world, including God, music itself is made holy.  Every time that a lonely person is made to feel special and loved in our Community Café, consecration takes place.

And finally, the third tool in the box will be demonstrated for us by Kim (for the first time) at the very end of our service.  Before we are sent out to love and serve the world as deacons, and then to bring forgiveness and consecration to the darkness of so many lives as a nation of priests, Kim will offer us God’s blessing.  But what is this thing?  What is blessing?

Blessing is the means by which God’s goodness becomes known and experienced by the world.  Blessing is the activity of God which brings favour, protection and happiness.  In the Beatitudes that we say near the beginning of our service, you could replace the world ‘blessing’ with the word ‘happy’….’Happy are the poor in spirit’, ‘happy are the peacemakers’, even ‘happy are those who mourn’.  By God’s activity in the world, through us his priestly bridge-builders, blessing – happiness – can be experienced by the world.  Kim will offer us God’s blessing, God’s protection, favour and happiness…so that we in turn can leave here today determined to offer that same blessing to those we meet.

Forgiveness, consecration, and blessing.  These are the three distinctive roles that Kim has now been ordained, or set apart, to offer to the church and to the world.  But as I hope you have seen, these are not for Kim alone.  Her priesthood is an icon, a picture, a living example, of the forgiveness, consecration and blessing that every Christian must also offer.   Each time any of us offers forgiveness to another, we live out our calling.  Each time we help another person to feel special, or to recognise the holiness of creation, we live out our calling.  Each time we pray for God’s favour, protection or blessing on another human being, we live out our calling.

My prayer is that Kim’s ministry here in North End, over the coming years, will continue to be a challenge and a stimulus – an icon for every Christ-ian in this place.  And having had the privilege of walking alongside her over the last few years, I have every confidence that that is precisely what she will do.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Advent 1 - Are we there yet?

Mark 13.24-37

Are we there yet?

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.  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!  Last year I complained, in a sermon to St Mark’s, that this results in my only being given socks for Christmas…and half the congregation went out and bought me socks!  I had about 30 pairs of socks to open last year.  So this year, I’m going to complain that all anyone ever does is buy me bottles of wine!

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.

We look around at a 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 super-stores. We see the people of West Africa, dying from Ebola because they don’t have our western systems of healthcare.  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. I wonder, 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 alert’.  We are to be constantly ready – like a man who goes on a journey, and commands his doorkeeper to be on the watch.  We are to be alert…alert to every sign of the Kingdom…alert for the moment when the master comes.

But, 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.

Last year, 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 people from this parish 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.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Matthew 25: The Sheep and the Goats

The Sheep and the Goats

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

As you know, today is the Feast of Christ the King – the Sunday before Advent.  It put here, in the church’s year, to remind us to keep our eyes fixed on the end of the story, while we contemplate the beginning of the story at Christmas.  The humble babe of Bethlehem  was destined to be the King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords…Christ the King.  To help us picture that ultimate destiny, Matthew gives us today’s story, of the separation of the sheep and the goats.  

There is one particular 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.

Something I’ve learned through my trips to Africa in recent years is that primitive breeds of sheep and goats are remarkably similar.  It is actually quite difficult to tell them apart. Woolly, English sheep, and strong wiry English 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.

The story of the Sheep and the Goats 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 not by the way they look, but by the way they behave.  The difference is seen in 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".

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.  Adolf Hitler was famous among his friends for the gifts he gave them.

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 the 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, or 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.  

Let’s look at Jesus himself as an example.  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.  And then, when the moment of testing comes (as it did for Jesus) the way we find ourselves behaving will be the evidence for the kind of life we have led.  

Another thing I’ve observed in Africa has been the immense generosity of people who have nothing.  Before I went on my last visit to Ghana, I told Bishop Matthias that I didn’t want to sleep in a hotel anymore, costing money that could be used for mission.  He had always put me in a hotel because he felt slightly ashamed of the poverty of his house.  But instead I begged him to be allowed to sleep somewhere in his house…anywhere.  A mattress on the floor would do me.  Imagine my surprise (and also my slight horror) when I found on arrival that Matthias and his family had refurbished an entire room for me to stay in.  They had repainted the walls, and even bought some new lino for the floor!  I felt awful…but at the same time reflected yet again that in African Christians I so often see a kind of generosity, even in the midst of extreme poverty, that is a beautiful thing to see.  It flows from a lifetime of responding to the need of neighbours all around.

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. It takes years to realise that God calls us to live not as individuals, but in communities that care for each other.  

What Jesus called 'the Way' is, in fact, 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 refugee, the Ebola victim, to the sick and imprisoned.

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


Friday, November 14, 2014

Parable of the Talents

Matthew 25.14-30

It is very easy to hear this parable as an exploration of the word 'talent'...we can't be blamed, because of course there is an obvious parallel between the idea of a talent as a sum of money, and the talents that we all are given.  But, before attempting to work out any kind of meaning, the first thing that any reader of scripture should do is to examine the context of the passage.  Where do these words fit in the wider story?  What was going on at the time they were written, and the time in which they were spoken.  What do the words on either side of the passage reveal about about the passage itself.  So, let's start there.

This passage of Matthew's gospel comes amidst a long section in which Jesus is talking about the end of the world.  From the beginning of chapter 24, Jesus:

  • foretells the destruction of the Temple, 
  • he describes the signs that will be seen at the 'end of the age',  
  • he predicts the persecutions of the Christians, 
  • he foretells the coming of false messiahs and prophets
  • he describes the 'coming of the Son of Man'

And then he tells a number of parables to illustrate and underline the kind of behaviour that he expects from his followers while we await the end of all things.  He uses the illustration of a fig tree, whose tender leaves foretell the coming of summer to encourage us to be watchful.

Then Jesus turns his attention to the kind of lives that he expects his followers to live, while awaiting the end of the age.  They are to be those whom the Master finds 'at work' when he arrives - not eating and drinking with drunkards, but 'at work' about their Master's business.  Then comes the story of the Ten Bridesmaids, that we heard last week - another encouragement to be prepared and watchful for the coming of the Lord.  Then - at the end of all that! - comes today's story of the parable of the Talents, which we'll deal with in a moment.  Finally, the whole section concludes with Jesus famous story of the end of time, when the sheep will be separated from the Goats.  You all understand that analogy, I'm’s when those who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, and who visited the sick and imprisoned will be separated for all eternity from those who did not.

Can you see the context in which the Parable of the Talents sits?  The narrative force of the whole section is one of pointing us to the end of days, the end of the age, the Second Coming of the Messiah.  What is clear is that Matthew himself believed that this event was going to happen very soon.  He even records Jesus saying that the end of the world will take place while some of Jesus' original followers are still alive.  But that, unfortunately for Matthew, was clearly a mistake.  That should not concern us, however.  Matthew was only human, and like all of us humans, he was prone to the occasional error.  It is the underlying force of what he records that we need to hear...And here is what he is saying:

Jesus is coming again!  Let me say that one more time...Jesus is coming again!  Its something we declare in the 'mystery of faith' during every Communion service...'Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again'.  It is a central tenant of our faith that we believe the Kingdom of God to be both among us now, but also still to come in all its fullness.

But none of us can be sure exactly how Jesus will come again.  Clearly Jesus himself used many different images to illustrate the point..such as:

  • The son of man will come like a thief in the night
  • The son of man will come in glory, and will sit on the throne of that glory
  • The son of man will come on the clouds of heaven

It is impossible for us to discern from such imagery exactly how, or indeed when, these events will take place.  Will Jesus insert himself gently into the world, like a thief in the night?  Will he sit on a throne somewhere, like the United Nations...or will he be seated on a cloud surrounded by angels (however improbable that sounds to modern ears)?  We cannot know.  What we can do is trust that Jesus has come, that he will come, and that he is coming!

There is of course a strong sense in which Jesus has already come. By sending his Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we might very well conclude that Jesus has already come in great power.  And if that is so, then Matthew was completely right in saying that Jesus would come again while his original followers were alive.  But the majority of commentators believe that the Pentecost event was only a foretaste of the ultimate 'Second Coming' of Jesus.  It has been the tradition of the church, throughout the centuries, that we still await a great climactic event, in which God, through Jesus, will finally intervene in the mess that human beings have made of God's world.  He will reign completely over all the earth.

I'm going to leave those thoughts with you to ponder.  It is for you to work out for yourself what you think the most likely scenario is, through your own diligent searching of the Scriptures.  What is utterly without doubt, however, is the manner in which we are to act, behave and be while we await the Second Coming of our Lord.  Jesus' parables are pretty clear on this point, as I've already illustrated.  We are to be watchful, and about our Master's business.

It’s in that context that I want to suggest a slightly different reading of the parable of the talents.  Instead of thinking of the talents as, well, talents...I invite you to think of them as 'opportunities to do the Master's work'.  Take a look, with me at the text...

At the beginning of the story, the Master gives his servants different numbers of talents - 'to each according to his ability'.  The word 'ability' implies the kinds of talents - skills - that each servant already has.  So, we might conclude, the Master is not giving even more skills, abilities or talents to each servant...he is giving them the opportunity to 'employ', to use, the talents that each already has.

We know, don't we, that human beings are gloriously and wonderfully different.  Each of us has a different bundle of gifts and abilities.  Some have so many gifts that they make you sick!  I might use the illustration of someone like Stephen Fry - who can be a comic, an actor, a quiz-show host, a documentary maker, a talented 'audio-book' reader, a singer, a social activist, a writer, a director...and so on.  He makes me sick!  (Smiley face!)

But there are others who perhaps have just one or two talents...perhaps they just know how to make the best cup of tea in the world...or they have the gift of being able to sit and listen to lonely people who just need to talk and talk.  We accept this difference in people as being 'the way things are'.  Some people are simply more talented than others.  But, to quote Jesus from Luke's version of the Gospel, "from everyone to whom much has been given, much shall be required...Much is required from those to whom much is given, for their responsibility is greater"  (Luke 12.48)

Whatever skills and abilities we have, whatever wealth we have been given in financial terms or in terms of talent, Jesus the Master expects us to use them in his service.  We are not to bury them in a metaphorical field...we are to grab every opportunity to use the gifts we have been given for the work of the Master.

What does this mean in practical terms?

Let me quote from a theologian called Fred Craddock (who I don't think is related to Fanny Craddock, the cook!).  He says 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...teach a Sunday School class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice and feed 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))

Forgive me if I give a personal illustration for a moment.  Many of you have asked me why I am choosing to leave this parish now, at this particular point.  Everything is going well...the Cafe is thriving, we have exciting plans for the future of the buildings here and at St Nicholas.  We have a strong ministerial team, and the hurts of the past have been largely healed.  Why should I want to leave just now?

Well, it’s precisely because I feel that God is calling me to use what talents and abilities he has given me elsewhere.  I feel just like the servants in the story who have been given the Master's money, and told to invest it wisely.  I have tried to be 'about my Master's work' for the last nearly seven years...and I think, together, we've managed to make our Master's money grow...there has been visible growth and life.  But, I also sense from the Holy Spirit, that this is not the only field in which the Master needs me to use my particular gifts and talents.  He is now calling me elsewhere...and I need to respond.

And if God is calling me onwards, into new adventures and new ways of employing my skills - what is he saying to you.  Is he offering you new opportunities for serving the Master?  They may be opportunities in another town, another church even...or they may be opportunities that are right in front of your this town, in this church.  I want to encourage each of you to spend some time this week thinking about that very question.  Go into a quiet place, close the door, turn off all electrical devices, and let your mind wander free through God's mission field.  Is there a homeless person who needs your care?  Is there a family member who would be SO uplifted to receive a call from you?  Is there a function within the family of the church that you could carry out...but which you have ignored for a while?  Is there some money you could give to alleviate the suffering of another human being?

And let me finally, ask you to ask that question with the kind of urgency that Matthew wants his readers to hear.  In other words, what will the Master say to you when he comes?  Will he call you one of his 'wicked and lazy slaves'?  Or will he call you his 'good and faithful servant' and cry 'well done!'?


Friday, October 31, 2014

All Saints 2015

Revelation 7.9-17  and Matthew 5.1-12

So, why do we celebrate All Saints?  If we lived in Southampton, we might be forgiven for thinking that today is a day for celebrating a certain football club.  You see, 'the Saints' started life as the All Saints Church Soccer Team?

The Rev'd Richard Coles is a parish priest and public broadcaster whom you may have heard on my favourite Radio Station...good old Radio 4 (or what some people still call 'The Home Service!').  He has published a book called 'The Loves of the Improbable Saints', in which he has written up stories about some of the strange people who have been made Saints by the Catholic Church.

For example, have you ever heard of St Ronald of Buckingham?  Apparently, he was born into the world like any normal baby, and immediately preached an amazing sermon....before promptly dying.  Then there's St Theophilus the Myrrh-Gusher.  Its a great name isn't it?  It refers to the belief that the bodies of certain martyred saints have the ability to ooze a sweet smelling liquid from their wounds.

I've got a few other favourites...there is St Drogo, the patron saint of unattractive people - though there's no-one around here who would benefit from his prayers!.  There's St Isodore, who in the 1980s was designated the patron saint of the Internet, because he was well known as a scholar and compiler of information.  Can you imagine the scene in Heaven when God told Isodore that the Church has just designated him as the patron of the internet?  "I'm the Patron Saint of WHAT?!"

Personally, I'm particularly drawn to St Anthony of Padua...who is the patron saint of lost causes!  And then there's the number one weird saint of all time...the Patron Saint of finding a parking place.  Apparently, in New York, car drivers circling a block can be heard muttering this prayer:  "Mother Cabrini, Mother Cabrini - find me a space for my driving machiny."

Whilst all these Saints might be jolly good fun for us, there is a grain of truth in many of them.  Sometimes, saints become patron saints because of the terrible things they were made to suffer for their faith in Christ.  So, for example, St Apollonia is the patron saint of Dentists, because she had all her teeth extracted as a punishment for believing in Jesus.  I could tell you a lot more horror stories...but its a bit early in the morning for that!

No, the festival of All Saints is nothing about football, and very little about silly or funny patron saints.  Rather it is a reminder to us that we are members of a church which is both here on earth, and also in heaven.  The Bible refers to all Christian believers as Saints.  It's a term which we can all own, if we are followers of Christ.  Hmm...St Tom of Portsmouth....has a bit of ring to it?

The Church has always taught that we are members of not just a world-wide church, but a Universal one.  We, here on earth are known as the Church Militant, and those Saints who have died and now live with God are called the Church Triumphant.  In the same way that we pray for each other here on earth, the Church teaches that we should also pray for those who have died, and that they pray for us.  That is why many churches have of Saints in heaven, whom we can ask to pray for us, as we continue to pray for them.   Orthodox Christians believe that icons are windows into heaven - so much so that the light of heaven itself changes the features of the saints that we see in them.  That's why features in icons are usually slightly elongated.

Our two readings today remind us that, as the Bible says, God is the God of the living, and of the dead.  The dead are held by him, in his love, until the great end of days that we all hope for.  Our first reading, from the book of Revelation, paints vivid picture of what it is like to dwell with God in heaven.  In language that is rich with symbolism, we are given a picture of a great multitude of people from every race, tribe and tongue, gathered before the throne of God.  In a piece of symbolism that only the Bible can pull off, everyone is wearing a white robe, because it has been 'washed in the blood of the Lamb!'.  Its a wonderful vision, isn't it?  I'm personally drawn very deeply to the notion that all these people are gathered from every nation...its not a vision that the likes of UKIP supporters might be very happy with.  Together, all the nationalities of the world are as one...all dressed in white, all waving palm branches.  There is neither rich nor poor, because the text says 'they will hunger no more, and thirst no more'.  The human need to accumulate stuff will be irrelevant, as all peoples focus on loving God.

Some people take the underlying themes of Revelation quite literally - they believe that the visions of John are a prediction that will one day come literally true.  Personally, I'm not quite so sure...I tend to see the visions of Revelation as poetry which points us towards a spiritual reality that we can claim today.  God is already with us.  In Jesus, God has already made his home with mortals.  For those who truly trust in him, whether they be alive or dead, there need be no more mourning, or crying or pain.

That's what Jesus meant, I think, when he declared that the Kingdom of Heaven is among you...and then listed, in the Beatitudes, the kinds of ways in which life would change when the Kingdom and its spiritual values were put into practice on earth.  Jesus promises that a world that is suffused with the Kingdom will be unlike our present reality. In fact it will be upside down to what we've become used to.   Those who mourn will be comforted.  The meekest and the lowliest will be put in charge - they will inherit the earth.

And the the poor will inherit the Kingdom.  According to a report published by Oxfam last week, almost half the world's wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population. And here's another startling statistic from the same report...the richest 85 people in the world own the same amount of wealth as the bottom HALF of the world's population.

Let me ask you a question which might help to bring this home.  Since 2009, just before the last election when the great 'credit crunch' began, how much as your income grown since then?  2%?  3%?  My little NatWest savings account gives me a half of one percent interest on my savings.

During the same period, from 2009 to 2012, the wealthiest one per cent of Americans saw their incomes grow by 31.4%...which the other 99% experienced growth of just 0.4%!

I find it incredible that we Christians seem able to cheerfully ignore those kinds of statistics.  We seem to be content to let these kinds of injustice go on.  We stand by and watch the poor getting poorer and poorer, while the rich simply hoover-up the world's wealth.

Why, for example, is Ebola such a problem in West Africa?  It's because West Africa is POOR.  They don't have the infrastructure, the doctors, the nurses, the medical supplies, the hospitals, the isolation wards that the West has.  They don't have these things because the west refuses to share them.

Jesus points the way to a different reality though.  Jesus points to a world in which there is equality among all people.  Jesus dreams of a Kingdom in which those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled.  Jesus promises a way of life in which the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the poor...who find themselves blessed.

How are we to get there?  How is such a lofty vision to be fulfilled?  The answer saint at a time.  The Saints are those who are in love with God.  The Saints are those who have been so touched by the reality of God, that they will go to extra-ordinary lengths for God's sake, and for the sake of Jesus' vision.  Don't focus on Theophilus the Myrrh-Gusher...I'm sure he was a great guy.  But the Saints we really need to give thanks for are the ones whose lives transformed the lives of others around them.  Saints like our own St Mark, who had the courage to write down the stories about Jesus, as dangerous as that was in his day.  Saints like St Francis, who gave up all his inherited wealth so that he could be one with the poor, and serve them.  Saints like St Nicholas, who rescued children from slavery and abuse.

We continue to remember the Saints because they give us tangible, real examples, of what the Kingdom could be like.  Their lives of self-sacrifice offer us a different way of being, a way that we can embrace if we choose.  We give thanks for those present day saints who are living extraordinary lives right now...lives that our poured out in the service of others.

And we wonder...could God be calling us to that kind of life too?


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Harvest 2014

Here's one for the Teachers...

Did you hear the story about the Teacher who asked her class "Ok Children, what sounds did we hear on our trip to the Farm yesterday?".  Little Martha put up her hand and said "I heard Baaa".  Then Henry put up his hand and said "I heard Moo".  Little Joey put up his hand and said "I heard Cluck Cluck", and then young Thomas put up his hand and said "I heard 'Oi, you...get off that flipping tractor!'"

What is Harvest all about? Many things...of course. But here's my take on some of them:

First and foremost it is, of course, a time for giving thanks for many things:

We give thanks to God for our food – which, in the West, is more abundant and varied than at perhaps any other time in human history. We never have food shortages – the shelves of the supermarkets are always well stocked. But it wasn’t always like this, as those who were alive in the war and before can no doubt remember. And it still isn’t like this in all the world. For so much of the world, our greed drives their need.

Harvest is a time for giving thanks for, and to, our farmers and fishers. But the farming way of life is under threat as perhaps never before. So our thoughts and prayers must continue to be with all those livelihood is precarious, and those who see no alternative but to give up.

Harvest time is also a time for remembering to use the earth’s resources wisely and sustainably:

We need to make sure that the long-term consequences of today’s actions will not jeopardise the lives of generations to come. Did you know that the idea of sustainability goes back centuries? It feels like a really modern thing doesn’t it...for those of us who have grown up in a world 'addicted to oil' (to borrow one of the more positive Bush-isms) and to not worrying about our environment. But sustainability is something that Christians and Jews have been advocating for thousands of years.

For example, in Old Testament times, the ancient Israelites tried to ensure that their agriculture was sustainable; that too much was not taken from the earth without giving it chance to recover. This meant giving the land a rest every seven years, and also every fiftieth, or jubilee year.

The first book of the Bible, Genesis, talks about this very principle of using the earth’s resources wisely. In that great mythological story, we see God giving the Garden of Eden to Adam - under a sort of tenancy agreement. In that agreement, God tells Adam that he must rule over the earth, and take care of it. The sad fact is that ever since those days, we have learned how to rule over the land...but only now are we beginning to understand the importance of taking care of it.

Harvest time is also a time for remembering to share the fruits of the earth:

I mentioned just now that principle of the Old Testament law of letting land lie fallow every seven years. In turn, that was linked with another important Old Testament law...that of the year of cancelling debts. Here are some words from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 15. In verse 4, God is reported to say “There should be no poor among you…” He is setting down a condition of the tenancy agreement which simply says...”You must share what I have given you. You may not keep more than you need...and there shall be no poor among you”. Later in verse 7, God says “Do not be hard hearted or tight fisted towards your poorer brother. open-handed and freely lend him whatever he needs - and when the seventh year comes...the year for cancelling debts...freely forgive your brother your debt to him.

The seventh year had great importance for the Jewish nation. As I said just now, it was the time for letting the land rest, and also for forgiving debts. It was a time of fresh starts - but also for a time of letting go of the possessions that have cluttered up our lives.

Jesus often talked about the perils of having too much and keeping for oneself what should be shared with others. You will remember, I’m sure, that parable of the rich man whose crops were so abundant that he planned to build more barns in order to store them. He did not sell or share his harvest. Then, on the night that he had finished building and stocking his barns, God said to him, “You Fool! This very night you will die!” So he died, and was not able to enjoy the results of his wealth. Jesus said that we should not store up treasure for ourselves on earth, where it will rot. Instead, we should build up spiritual treasure that will last.

So maybe harvest time is an opportunity for trying afresh to get the balance right between providing for ourselves and our families, and building a world which is based on mutual support and help for those in genuine need - rather than on materialism and greed.

There is a new phrase doing the rounds in Christian circles, which I like...and which is a constant challenge to me. It’s the phrase “living light” - and implies that we need to live in such a way that we are not shackled to anything material. That doesn’t mean that we give up all material things - God has given us physical bodies with physical needs - and its right that we should relish in his creation. But we should never let any of them become our masters.

Linked to that idea, Harvest is a time for remembering that God sows spiritual seeds in our hearts, and wants them to bear an abundant harvest. In that story of the man who built huge barns, Jesus reminds us that earthly food is transient, and we should seek the food that lasts for ever - the spiritual food which he offers to those who believe in him, and follow his ways.

You see - God gives us a choice - pure and simple. Either we can live for ourselves, and reap the consequences (for example of an unsustainable world economy). Or we can look for spiritual wealth, through Jesus - and join with all of God’s people in building a better world.

So for me at least, that is what Harvest-time is all about. Yes, remembering to give thanks. But also reminding ourselves to use the earth’s resources wisely; remembering to share the fruits of the earth, and finally remembering that God sows spiritual seeds in our hearts. It is of course entirely up to us whether we listen to these messages, or let those seeds germinate and grow.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Everybody Loves a Wedding

Matthew 22:1-14

Everybody loves a wedding.  And one of my biggest regrets about my recent convalescence is that I missed the wedding of the year, here at St Mark's!  I really enjoyed seeing the photos that Yvonne showed me last week...especially the Bridesmaid's dresses.  I didn't know there was such a colour as Cadbury's Purple...but I want a waistcoat made of it now!

Weddings are a big theme in the Bible.  According to John's gospel, it was at a wedding in Cana that Jesus first demonstrated his power, publicly, by turning water into wine.  Weddings are often used as metaphors for the relationship between God and his people.  In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, Jesus is described as a bridegroom who longs to be married to his bride, the Church.  Jesus used the same wedding metaphor on a few occasions, including the famous story of the 10 virgins who await the coming of the bridegroom, with various degrees of readiness.

But in today's parable, there is real sting in the tail.  Jesus tells a striking and somewhat troubling story in which all the invited guests to a wedding banquet refuse to come, at the last minute.  So the King (who is the host) rounds up a rag-tag gang of street people, who suddenly find themselves at a party they had never dreamed of attending.  Then, when King enters the wedding hall, he finds a man who has not put on a wedding robe, who finds himself thrown into the outer darkness 'where there is weeping and knashing of teeth'.

Many of Jesus' parables are aimed at the rich and the powerful...but this one is aimed full-square at us.  There are dire warnings at play here...warnings which we need to hear.  Before they end up refusing his invitation, the original guests receive invites from two sets of the King's servants.  Jesus' hearers would have understood that he was referring to the prophets, and then the Christian missionaries that God had sent out with the good news of the invitation.  

In Jesus metaphor, some invited guests go to work on their farm, others to their business.  Each of us should let Jesus' metaphors speak to our own imaginations.  But for me, these are the people who put their need to accumulate wealth over and above their duty to the community that they are called to belong to.  Instead of taking part in the wedding feast, they are too busy making money and feathering their nest.

Most of you will know by now that I bought myself a second-hand caravan during my convalescence.  My plan is that from time to time I'm going to slip away from the parish and spend a few days in peace and quietness, and get some serious walking done!  A couple of weeks ago, Clare and I sited our caravan in the Chichester harbour area.  I have to tell's been a long time since I've been in a place that has so much wealth on display.  Much of my ministry of the last few years has been either in North End or Ghana, where I mainly see people who are just managing to get from day to day, with very little wealth or luxury.  But in the Chichester Harbour area, we could not believe the wealth that we saw - only half an hour from North End.  House after house that we passed had high walls, manicured lawns and enormous numbers of rooms.  The harbour itself is packed with yachts and expensive motor-boats...almost too many for other boats to be able to make their way up and down the water-ways!  It's a beautiful area - and I don't blame anyone for wanting to live in such a place.  But I have to wonder at the priorities of the people who live in these vast mansions, and who own such luxury.

Who are these people?  Well, of course some of them will be those who have inherited the houses they live in from previous generations, and who no doubt struggle to keep them going.  But others - and I suspect this means the majority - will be those who have managed to accumulate sufficient wealth in their life-time to be able to afford such luxury.  But here's what troubles me... one only accumulates that kind of wealth by deliberately and persistently keeping as much earned income as possible to oneself.  Such wealth is made by lawyers, bankers, investment managers, and high flying business-people.  Sometimes it’s made by media-stars or football players.  Sometimes it is simply inherited.  Most of it, for most rich people, is made by luck - the luck of being born into wealth, or having been in the right place at the right time when a lot of money was being made, or when the right jobs in the right businesses were being handed out.

What distinguishes these people from the rest of humanity is what they choose to do with their wealth.  There are some people who make millions, only to give it all away - or at least enough of it to make a huge difference, while still affording a reasonable and comfortable living for themselves.  And there are others who hold onto it, knowing full well the voices of the prophets.  They know that billions are starving.  They know that, according to recent figures, more than 2.7 billion people live on less than two dollars a day.  And yet, they do nothing.  Oh, perhaps they write the odd little cheque to charity...especially if it can be written off against their tax bill...

But these are the people who are able to justify to themselves the ownership of multiple houses, enormous yachts and other expensive toys, while eighty per cent of the world lives in squalor.  These are the people who have been invited to the great sharing of the wedding banquet...but who choose to go back to their farm, or to tend to their business.  They are not evil people as such...most of them are lovely folks who one could spend a very pleasant time with over a gin and tonic on the deck of their yacht.  They are the 'Great Mis-guided'...the ones who have missed the point of life.  They are the ones who mistakenly, but genuinely believe that the only real purpose in life is to be the one who dies owning the most toys.  As I drove around Chichester Harbour, I found that I felt profound pity for these people.

There's another group of invitees who are even worse, though.  There are those who, according to Jesus' parable, who seized the King's servants, and then 'mistreated and killed them'.  These are the people who deliberately seek to destroy the work of the King.  These are the ones, like the mad mullahs of ISIS, who are systematically killing Christians at the moment in Iraq, Syria and Kurdistan.  These are the arms manufacturers who deliberately foment war, all around the world, in order to make as much profit as possible out of death.  These are the makers and distributors of illegal drugs on the streets of our cities, who trade deliberately on the addiction and misery of others.  They are the owners of banking institutions, like Wonga, who charge stratospheric interest rates to the poorest and most desperate people in our community.  There is, frankly, no hope for such people - unless they repent of their ways and turn to the King.  Their fate, in Jesus words, is to be ultimately destroyed.  They will not survive the coming of the Kingdom.  They are doomed.

So if these are the people who have ignored the wedding invitation (or who even have killed the Kings servants) who are the guests who actually end up at the wedding?  It is the rest of humanity - both bad and good, according to Jesus, who find themselves there.  God's love for humanity is total.  He invites all - the bad and the good - to the wedding feast.  He wants all his children to be present - and to each one who will accept it, he offers a new set of clothes...what Jesus calls a 'wedding robe'.

Even today, we still understand the value of new clothes for significant moments in life, don't we,  For Yvonne and Neil, it was Cadbury-Purple bridesmaids' dresses, and a beautiful new dress for Yvonne.  For Neil it was a very smart penguin suit!  At baptisms, more often than not, parents will often buy brand new christening gowns for the children.  This harks back to the days of the early church, when those being baptised would cast aside their old clothes at the moment of baptism, and would then be clothed in a brand new white robe as they emerged from the water.  It was a visible sign of the new life that the convert had taken on...the new community to which they now belonged.

But when the King arrives, according to Jesus, there is one guest who is not wearing the new robe.  "Friend," says the King, "how did you get in here without a wedding robe?".  And when the man cannot give an explanation, the King's punishment is harsh.  "Bind him, hand and foot", says the King, "and throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth".

Finally, then, this is where we need to be the most cautious.  For this section of the story is aimed as a loving but sincere warning, straight at us.  This man, without a robe, represents those people who think that the only thing they need to do to be considered guest at the wedding, is to turn up.  This is the kind of person who regularly comes to church.  They sing the hymns, and take part in the rotas.  They might even sit on a church committee.  They might  even wear a clerical collar and be called ''Reverend'!  But all this is just for show.  Deep down, within their hearts, they have not put on the wedding garment.  Deep down, nothing has changed.

This is the person who recites the Lord's Prayer, but who says in their heart 'I will make sure I get myself my daily bread'.  This is the person who says 'we forgive others their trespasses' but who still nurtures hatred and resentment towards another person.  This is the person who publicly offers to be a living sacrifice, at the end of every Communion service, but who makes no effort during the rest of the week to pour out their life in sacrifice to others.

This parable then speaks to the whole of humanity.  It is a warning to the 'Great Mis-Guided', who would rather tend to their business than come to the feast.  It is a warning to most evil people of humanity, who deliberately kill or subjugate others for their own profit.  But it is also a warning to us, that we need to be on our guard against having all the outwards appearance of faith, but none of the substance of it within our hearts.

My prayer is that we might all find the strength, the courage, and the grace to accept the invitation of the King.  I pray that each one of us will accept the wedding garment that we are offered...the new life, and new way of living that is ours for the taking.  It's the way of sacrifice, and the way of love.  It's the way of giving life to others, and receiving life from them in return.  It's the way of living in community and not just turning up to it occasionally.  It's the Way of the Cross, the Way of Jesus.  It's the Way to the only real Truth, and the only real Life.


Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Rise and Fall of Empires

Trinity 16:  Isaiah 5:1-7, Ps 80: 7-14, Phil 3: 4b-14, Matt 21:33-46

One small advantage of my recent period of convalescence has been having some time to listen to the radio.  One of my favourite programmes is 'Gardener's Question Time', which I listen to with a mixture of emotions.  On the one hand, I marvel at how anyone can remember all those funny latin names for everyday plants.  Did you know, for example, that the humble carrot is know by fancy gardeners as Daucus Carota Sativus?  

Another reason I listen to 'GQT' is frankly to make myself feel better.  I enjoy gardening...its great stress-relief, and the obsessive-compulsive in me is never happier than when the lawn has been freshly cut, and there are nice neat lines running up and down!  But the trouble is that although I can handle a lawn mower...I'm useless at pretty much anything else.  Any other plant that I try to nurture - other than grass seed, just dies on me.  I either over-water it, or under water it.  I over-feed it, or under-feed it.  So when I hear members of the public being roundly told off for similar errors on 'GQT' - I feel better.  I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one whose green fingers have turned to autumn colours and dropped off!

As a constantly failing gardener, I find myself with a lot of sympathy for Isaiah, this morning.  He sings a song of the planting of a vineyard, during which the owner goes to enormous lengths to get everything right to grow his grapes.  He chooses a fertile hill, builds a wall around it, clears the ground of stones and even builds a watch-tower to keep off predators.  (Watch-towers were the fore-runner of scarecrows).  But all he gets for his trouble...just like me, so wild grapes - or rather, weeds!

Isaiah's tale would have got sympathy from his listeners too...until they realised what his song really meant.  The sting in the tail was that they, his listeners, God people were the vineyard that had not produced the fruit that was to be expected of them after all God's care.  After building them up as a nation, rescuing them out of Eqypt, establishing them in a new land, giving them laws to live by and prosperity as a nation...the people constantly turned away from God.  They worshipped other gods, they clutched at possessions with greed. They were inhospitable towards strangers, they ignored God's just laws.  God was furious with them, and deeply disappointed.

What was he going to do about it?  Essentially, he was going to punish it.  He would break down the walls of the Vineyard, and trample down the land.  He would make it a waste-land.  Or at least - that's what Isaiah predicted.  What Isaiah's listeners couldn't know (but we do) is that soon after this warning, the land of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian nation - and effectively wiped off the map of the day.  For the Israelites, there were consequences for ignoring God's way of living.  Not for the first time in the history of Israel and its ancestors, they would be thrown out of a garden.  That's exactly what happened to Adam and Eve.

Jump forward a few centuries, into the time of Jesus, and we find the same story being expanded upon.  Jesus focuses his version of the tale onto the Landlord (who of course is God).  This time, the Landlord prepares his beautiful vineyard, but then leases it to others - called tenants - to look after.

This is a fascinating picture because it suggests to us the idea of free-will.  The Landlord has prepared the ground, and given his tenants every chance to succeed... but then he leaves them to work out for themselves how they are going to live.  The Landlord does not force his tenants to love him...but he does send them reminders, every now and again, of how much he loves them.  The Landlord sends his servants - which we might think of as the Prophets.  Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and all the rest.  Time and time again God sends his prophets to remind the people - the tenants - of just whose Vineyard this is.  But time and time again the tenants beat up and kill the prophets.

Finally, in exasperation, the Landlord sends his own son.  Surely the tenants will listen to him?!  But no, they seize him, kill him and thrown him out of the vineyard.  They will not even listen to the Landlord's son!

And what are the consequences?  Jesus spells it out starkly..."The Kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom".  What Jesus' listeners couldn't know, but we do, is that only 30 or so years later, the city of Jerusalem would be completely destroyed by the Romans.  The temple would be torn down...never to be rebuilt.  The once mighty nation of Israel would be scattered to the four corners of the globe, for a period of nearly two thousand years - and even today its great Temple is only a pile of archaeological rubble.

And the task of bringing the Kingdom of God alive would be passed on to a new generation, a new nation. But this time, it wouldn't be nation with land to rule least not for hundreds of years.  This time, the new tenants of the Kingdom would be the Christ-ians...the followers of Jesus Christ.  They would be a people who were bound together not by blood, nor by ownership of land - but bound together by an idea....the idea that by living out the commands of their Lord, the Kingdom of Heaven could truly be established on earth.

But this nation too would rise, and then fall.  History teaches us that there was a time, a sort of Golden Age, when the Christian Church became, effectively, the greatest Empire that the world has ever seen.  Based on the glories of Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, led by the Catholic Church expanded to hold sway over vast stretches of land...all over Europe, much of Africa, and even taking in the newly discovered lands of the Americas for a while, after their 'discovery'.

But even that great Empire fell.  The walls of the vineyard were torn down, once the tenants stopped producing the right kind of fruit.  Instead of justice, the church presided over huge injustice.  The rich princes of the church and the state lived in their castles, while the poor lived in their hovels.  Wars between nations demonstrated once again the fear of the stranger, and the dismantling of the ancient Kingdom notion of hospitality.  Greed, consumerism, pleasure-seeking drunkeness, a falling away from worshipping God to worshipping other false idols...these were the same sort of characteristics that Isaiah and Jesus, and many other prophets, had warned Israel about.

Over and over again...the Empires of Man rise, and then fall.  Epyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, the Church, the Mongol Empire, the Chinese Empire, the British Empire, the Third Reich, the Soviet Union, the USA, the European name but a few.  The list is almost endless.  Time and time again these Empires, these Vineyards - are established with the most noble of motives.  Their initial leaders are often inspiring and charismatic people, with great hearts for their people - just think of the fine-sounding words of the Constitution of the United States.  But time and time again they are brought down by the baseness of human nature.  Over and over again we see the same characteristics emerge just before an Empire collapses.

Historians will argue over what those characteristics are - but I believe that there are common themes.  Most Empires collapse when they become too large to manage, or when leaders become too overconfident in their status, or when resentment builds up towards the over-weaning power of the super-elite.  It is greed that drives expansion...greed for more land, more resources, more money.  Leaders seek more and more resources, and justice towards the original owners of such resources becomes the casualty.  The people themselves seek more and more comfort and luxury, and justice towards neighbour becomes the casualty.  People seek instinctively to protect what they already have, and so hospitality towards the stranger becomes a casualty.  This is the way of the world.  This is the pattern again and again.  From Isaiah to Jesus to Us...this is the way the Vineyard of the Kingdom is built, and then destroyed...over and over and over again.

But WE do not need to be victims of this process.  WE, like the tenants of Jesus' Vineyard story, are given free-will by the Landlord to decide how WE are going to live up to the challenge of the Kingdom.  Are WE going to be those who ignore the prophets?  Are WE going to be those who participate in the murder of the Landlord's Son?  Are WE going to be those who let the base human instincts of greed and fear of the other dictate the kind of people that we are going to be?

Or are we going to be those whose witness to the World is of a God who overflows with love and generosity?  Are we going to be those who, like Jesus, sit alongside the powerless and the weak - the prostitutes and junkies, the homeless and the starving, the refugee and the economic migrant?  Or are we going to hold on to what we've got and protect it from anyone who might take it from us.

That's the choice we face.  That's the free-will which the Landlord of the Vineyard has offered us.

I wonder which we will choose.


Monday, June 30, 2014

Fanatics R Us?

Fanatics R Us?
Matthew 10:24-39

Let's get down to this morning's gospel reading shall we? Tough stuff this, isn't it? Verse 34-36: Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother in law; and one’s foes will be members of one's own household!

Now, as tempting as it is, I have to resist the temptation to tell some mother-in-law jokes at this point...mainly because, as you may know, I choose to publish my sermons on the Internet...and I have a mother-in-law!

And actually, Jesus doesn't seem to be joking when he says that his followers may have to make some pretty tough decisions about where their allegiance is. "Whosever does not take up his cross, and follow me is not worthy of me..."and so on. To us Western Christians, this speech of his seems rather odd, even a bit fanatical doesn't it? It’s the sort of thing that we expect to hear the Mad Mullahs of Al Quaida saying to their brain-washed followers. To us, who have the freedom to worship wherever and whenever we like, all this talk of witness, persecution, poverty and martyrdom seems to represent another world altogether.

But we should remember that in every generation since the time of Jesus, his disciples have been in situations in which these words of Jesus ring true...painfully true. Let me read to you some examples of what I mean – from a series of headlines published by the Barnabas Fund:

18th June:  Around 40 church leaders and members were arrested in Nepal, accused of forcibly converting Hindus.

18th June:  Around 50 people were killed in an al-Shabaab attack on a mainly Christian town in Kenya.  The gunmen went door to door questioning occupants about their faith and shooting non-Muslim men

17th June:  In India, Hindus kill Christian man, mistaking him for his newly baptised son

17th June:  In Tanzania, a church building is burned down by Mulsims in a night-time attack

17th June:  In Cameroon, suspected Boko Haram militants attack a village, and burn down churches.

That’ five separate attacks on Christians in the last week…and there is still no news about the hundreds of children who were kidnapped by Boko Haram last month.

I don't know about you, but these stories - and the many more like it that are going on all around the world, force me to ask some pretty tough questions of myself. Could it be, for example, that we here in the West have somehow tamed the Christian faith, re-fashioned it in our own image to such an extent that it is no longer seen as a challenge to the society in which we live? Have we become so contaminated by the world around us, that the world no longer sees us as a threat to its selfish, violent, materialistic way of life? Could it be that we have become silent, when we should be upsetting the money-changers' tables? Could it be that instead of calling for justice, the relief of poverty, the end to war, and the love of God, we are rather content to let the rest of the world carry on exploiting the poor, blowing each other up, and hating one another?

But there are places in the world where Christians do still stand up for what they believe...and when they do, often find themselves at the sharp end of persecution, torture, and death. Just as Jesus said would happen. The Christian faith, if it is fully and openly declared, is dangerous to the world. It speaks of a way of life that is exactly the opposite of the way that most people chose to live. It is a way of peace, not war. It is a way of self-control, not Friday night legless-ness on the streets of Southsea. It is a way of poverty and simplicity, not materialism and consumerism. It is a way of faithfulness to one another, not sleeping around with as many partners as possible. It is a way of finding contentment through giving things away, not getting more and more of them. It is a way of embracing and welcoming the stranger, not finding ever more complicated legal ways to 'keep the scroungers out'.

So, from another perspective, this chapter need not be alien to us at all. It boils down, into concentrated form, what the Christian life essentially is. And what is it? It is a confession, a stated sure belief, that God has acted decisively in Jesus; it is a way of placing our loyalty to God, revealed in Christ, over and above all other loyalties...even the deepest loyalties of home and family.

Now - let's think about that for a moment. I have lived in or near Portsmouth, for the last 22 years...and I know how important family ties are in this town. When I used to run the YMCA hostel down in old Portsmouth, we once had a young man staying with us who was, how shall I put it, a right old pain in the posterior. I shall call him Johnny Smith - which was not his real name - and he was a member of what we will call the Smith of the 'old families' of Portsmouth. Johnny, unfortunately, was constantly drunk, always abusive to my staff, never paid his rent on time, and often violent. Well after a number of warnings, and a lot of prayer, we had no choice but to evict him from the hostel. As he was ejected out of the doors, his parting words were: "You've messed with the wrong guy...I'm a Smith! I'll get my family to sort you out!"

Sure enough, a few hours later, about half a dozen of his family a right old mood. I honestly thought they were going to smash all the windows in the YMCA. It took just about every ounce of my diplomatic skills to talk them into not kicking my head in... mainly by reminding them why they had kicked Johnny out of their own house in the first place.

There is an old saying, that blood is thicker than water...which is sometimes used to justify all sorts of feuds between families. In some feuds, it doesn't matter who is right or matters only that someone's family has been insulted. It's what the Mafia does. And, frankly, it’s what some families even in Portsmouth do.

I don't know about you...but I think that that way lies madness. If we all began jumping to the defense of someone who was clearly in the wrong, just because they were a member of our family - or our playground gang - then pretty soon the whole of society would crumble.

Now please don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that families are a bad thing. God loves families! God invented families. Families are one of the most important structures in our whole society. The best families give us companionship and love, a place to feel secure, a place to make mistakes, and still be accepted.

But Jesus says to us, through this reading, that we have an even higher loyalty...a loyalty that only a God could claim...a loyalty to Him. And that, Jesus warns, will bring division even between members of the same family. Because God, who made us, and is transforming us and who loves us has an even higher claim on our loyalty than our families....even if our families don't acknowledge him.

But…what did Jesus mean when he said, in verse 34, "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword"?
Well, the first thing we must say is that Jesus was speaking metaphorically. It is abundantly clear from the rest of the Gospels that the last thing Jesus came to do was put a sword in anyone's hand. "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you."

So what sword might Jesus have been referring to? Like so many of Jesus' statements, we are rather left to wonder and ponder his meaning. However, I think we can get a bit of a clue, by turning to one or two other readings from the New Testament. Here's a small selection:

Ephesians 6:17 “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
Hebrews 4:12 “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

In both these cases (and many others in the New Testament) the word sword is used as a metaphor. The sword represents the Spirit and the Living Word of God - something that is so fantastically pure and true that it cuts to the heart of every situation.

It is the Spirit of God which produces the Fruit of the Spirit of God, which we know from the book of Galatians to be: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. And the sword of the Spirit divides the fruit of the spirit from the fruits of the flesh. He offers us the choice. Instead of hate, we could choose love.   Instead of war, we could chose peace.  Instead of anger, patience.  Instead of selfishness, kindness.  Instead of evil, goodness.  

There are so many around us who chose another path. Perhaps they our neighbours or some of the other inhabitants of our city.  Perhaps even our Government, or multi-national corporations founded on greed and materialism.   Perhaps even members of our own family choose not to follow the path of the do we respond?  Who is it who commands our loyalty?

Let's pray...  Heavenly Father...we confess to you that there are times when we forget just how much loyalty we owe to you. You have shown us how to live, in peace and harmony with one another and with you. And yet sometimes we choose to go the way of the world. Will you send your Spirit on us afresh, showing us clearly the path of life you would have us follow? Will you fill us to overflowing with the fruit of the Spirit? Help us to be people who declare your love, your way of living, to those around us - whatever the cost. For we ask it in Jesus' name, and in the prayerful hope of the completion of the coming of the Kingdom of God.