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.


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Kim's a Deacon at Last

So…at last…Kim is a Deacon!  I know she’ll want me to thank everyone who came to the Cathedral yesterday, so support her, Barbara and Damon.

Three ordained ministers in one day, from one parish!  That’s got to be some kind of record – and it’s a testament to all the love and support that the people of this parish have given to the three of them during the last few years.

Today is tinged with sadness, though.  It’s a sad reality that most people who are ordained are rarely able to serve their curacy in their home parish.  I had to leave mine, and Damon left us last year when he was made a Deacon.  Now, as of today, Barbara has also moved on – though thankfully only to the neighbouring parish of St Mary!  It’s quite an important principle – that Deacons and Priests do not offer themselves to their own church, but to the whole church…and often they are called outside the walls of the church in which they were nurtured.

But not for Kim!  By a set of circumstances related to her health and her marriage, and possibly by a little bribery and corruption on my part(!), Kim, we get to keep!  Halleluiah!

Kim has been ordained as a Deacon for less than 24 hours - and they don't come much newer than that!  In a few moments, I'm going to invite her to read us the legal declarations which she must make on taking up her appointment.  But before that, I thought it might be helpful to make sure we all understand what a deacon is!

Let's start with what a deacon is not!  A deacon is not a sort of 'baby priest' - or a priest in waiting.... although there is something of that in Kim’s situation, because we fully expect that she will be ordained as a priest in not too much time.  But actually, being a deacon, is at the heart of what it means to be a minister in the church today.  And it’s worth remembering that no priest ever stops being a deacon.  Even a Bishop is still a deacon...something that Bishop Christopher demonstrated very powerfully yesterday by washing the feet of the all the new deacons.  Some of you might have noticed that when the Archdeacon was with us for our Patronal Festival, I wore my stole across my shoulder, as a deacon – for much the same reason.

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

So a deacon is a servant....and in serving, the deacon represents the service to which every Christian is called.  In many ways, all of us in this parish have diaconal ministries.  We all serve one another, and the world around us, in many different ways.  Working in the cafe, cleaning and maintaining buildings, sitting on committees, singing, visiting the sick, serving at the Altar, teaching at Sunday School, administering the papers and finances of the parish...all of these are diaconal roles.  But Kim and I, and all the other ordained ministers in the Parish, have been called to represent that diaconal role in a particular way.  We are called to model it as a way of life to which all Christians are called.

So when you see one of us with a hand down a U-bend, or lugging tables, or painting a wall, or making the coffee, or filling out the endless paperwork of the Anglican Church!...we're being deacons - called to a ministry of service, just like everyone here.

But as ordained deacons, we are also 'set aside' by the church for some particular ministries.  We have been given rather expensive training for particular specialist tasks...especially the tasks of preaching and teaching and leading worship. Ordained Deacons are 'set apart' from some of the day to day servant-tasks of all the people - because communities need leaders, and teachers, and experts in that all that is said and done in our worship can be of the highest standard possible.  Ordained deacons also have a particular role in the worship of the church – which is reflected in the roles that they take during the Eucharist.
Kim has been carrying out those roles already among us, as what we call a Liturgical Deacon.  That’s because it was Church Law which prevented her from being actually ordained until now – as a result of her re-marriage to Iain.  But the Bishop instructed us to use Kim as a deacon, in all but name.  So you will already be used to hearing Kim lead parts of the service.

And why does she – as a Deacon – do this?  It’s because deacons come from the people. They speak on behalf of the people, and to the people.  They call us at the beginning of our worship to prepare ourselves to meet God in Word and Sacrament.  Then they call the whole congregation to confession, before the Priest offers absolution.  Then, again as the act of someone who is a part of the community, from the community, the Deacon calls the congregation to share peace – ‘saying ‘Let us offer one another a sign of peace’.  This is the Deacon’s instruction, because the Deacon is the one who is set aside for the role of pastoring and nurturing the congregation…the Deacon is the one who best knows which relationships within a congregation are in need of peace.  After the sermon, the Deacon calls the congregation to declare their faith – because the Deacon is the Teacher, the one who nourishes the faith and teaches it to us.  And finally, the Deacon is the last voice we hear at the end of the service, when they encouraging us to go out in faith to love and serve the Lord.

Perhaps it might help if I draw a little bit of a further distinction between the roles of Deacon and Priest.  As I’ve already said, being a Deacon is my primary calling.  Almost everything I do, as a minister, is essentially a diaconal role.  That’s why I can say the Deacon’s words in the Mass when there isn’t another Deacon around.  In fact, I’d go as far as to say that 99% of my daily ministry is the ministry of a Deacon.  The other 1%, is the additional role of priest.  It is only a priest who may consecrate the elements, offer absolution, and pronounce the blessing of God.  So, my priestly roles are only really exercised for a few minutes on a Sunday…the rest of the time, it’s deacon, deacon deacon.

I hope that helps a bit - to understand something of what all of us up here in the fancy clothes are attempting to do with our lives as we respond to the call of God.  I also hope it will help you to see Kim’s new role as anything other than some sort of ‘second-class’ priest.  Priestly duties are special duties, not ‘better ones’.
This ministry is something we desperately need your prayers for... so please pray for us, and especially for Kim, as she formally takes up this vital task.  We, both of us, are called to be present in this community of 20,000 people – offering the love of God in a thousand different ways.  We need your prayers, and God’s strength to carry out such a massive task.

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

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

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

Do you accept the charge you have been given?

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

Do you accept the charge you have been given?

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

Do you accept the charge you have been given?

{Kim then reads her Declaration to the Congregation, and is welcomed into the Ministry Team as  Deacon}