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 CafĂ©, 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.