Wednesday, December 30, 2015

New Year Sermon 2015

A New Year Sermon
For Watch-Night (31 Dec 2015)

There have been a few statistics knocking about in the media this week, about the number of people who manage to keep to their new year’s resolutions.  According to some reports I’ve read, as few as 1 in 10 people manage to keep up with them in any kind of sustained way.

There are lots of reasons given for this – some people make too many resolutions all at once, and then when one falls, so do the others.  Some people only make resolutions under pressure from their families…I know what that one’s like.  “You will give up chocolate this year, won’t you dear?”
But most people, I think, if they are honest with themselves and with their interviewer, would have to admit that the main reason why they fail is because that’s what human beings do.  We fail.  Over and over again.  Which of us can say, with hand on heart,  that we’ve always managed to keep up with our own promises, either to others or even to God?

My brothers and sisters, that is precisely why it was necessary for God to send Jesus.  Prior to him, all that human beings had was the Law, given through Moses or handed down by kings and emperors.  Law is an attempt to govern the behaviour of human beings – who are incapable of moderating their own passions by themselves.  Law is a code, a set of rules, with punishments attached for failing to live up to them.  But Law is never enough.  It might, for a while, force people to behave in certain ways, out of fear or community habit – but it can never truly change the human heart.  It can never enforce the kind of new year’s resolutions which we know are good for us, but which we so often fail to live up to.

In our reading from John’s Gospel, just now, we heard this line:  (vs 17)  “The Law indeed was given through Moses;  grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  In other words, Laws were not enough to change the human heart.  What we needed was a light to shine in the darkness.  We needed the light of God  - (vs 9) “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world”.

Jesus is our light in the darkness.  In this very night, as we hear the bells of the new year ringing out among us, we are invited to embrace the light.  You and I are offered grace from God…grace being a gift that we have not deserved.  We are offered the truth, through Jesus Christ – the truth that we are incapable of obeying the laws of God on our own….incapable of even living up to our new year’s resolutions on our own.

Instead, we are offered a light to follow, and a divine life to embrace.  We are offered the wisdom and teaching of Jesus Christ, and the strength of the Holy Spirit to live as Christ calls us to live.  We are offered the chance to live generous, holy, sacrificial lives – poured out for God, as his was before us.  We offered his light in the darkness, as we enter this new year.

The only question, for each of us, is whether we will embrace the light, or continue to walk in the dark.

To quote, finally, the poet Minnie Haskins,

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way”
So I went worth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And he led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.


Friday, December 25, 2015

The Face of God - Christmas Morning 2015

I had a strange experience a couple of mornings ago.  I was standing in my garden, in the early dawn, when suddenly I saw the face of Jesus looking back at me, from the grass.  Just his though someone had buried Jesus up to his neck on my lawn.  It was quite a shock, I can tell you - until I realised that what I was actually looking at was the remnants of a football which my dog has systematically chewed pieces off, leaving just some bits of white leather hanging on!  In the right light, it looked just like the face of a bearded man, looking right at me.

My first thought was 'E-bay'!  I could make a fortune.  There have been faces of Jesus on pieces of toast, or in the core of a tomato that have gone for thousands!  The face of Jesus on a Vicar's football...that would be worth something!  But then, it set me wondering.  For a start, no-one actually knows what Jesus looked like.  There are no portraits of him by anyone who knew him.  We have a picture of him in our minds - long hair, beard, nice smile and so on.  But actually, the chances are that he would have had short hair.  And probably a typically Jewish nose!  So on reflection, I decided that pedalling dubious images of Jesus wouldn't be very appropriate.  So I booted the ball back up the garden!

I wonder whether you have ever tried to imagine the face of God.  It's impossible of course.  But I think it is possible to imagine God's expression, at least.  I imagine God looking, frankly, disappointed.  I imagine him looking at the mess our world is in, and being rather miffed, to say the least.  He must look at the wealthy bankers getting richer, while the foodbanks and hostels of Havant struggle to keep up with the demand from the homeless and poor.  He must weep over the battles in Syria and all around the Middle East.  He must be distraught at one million refugees who have sought refuge in Europe, just as Jesus himself sought refuge in Egypt.

As well as imagining God's expression, I wonder if we could try putting ourselves in God's shoes for a moment.  Given a world which is systematically ignoring your call to love God and love your neighbour, what would you do about it?  If you were God?

Perhaps you would be tempted to jolly-well sort it all out.  Perhaps you would appear on a thunder cloud, and start laying down the law with an iron fist, coupled with the threat of thunder bolts and lighting (very very frighteningly!  Galileo, Galileo...).  Perhaps you would use your almighty, omnipotent power to force people to be kind to one another.  Perhaps you would reach into human hearts with divine love, and tweak each human soul so that it henceforth only does good things, right things, holy things?

But, if you did might find that you have a new problem.  

Instead of a human race which chooses of its own free will to love you and worship you, you would have created a race of puppets.  You would have reduced the beautiful thing that a human being is - filled with possibilities for ingenuity, music, science, art and creativity into something not much better than a toy.  Adam and Eve would be reduced to Ken and Barbie.  And any love or worship they offered you or one another would be a poor thing indeed.  A mere shadow, a fabrication.

So, what do you do?  How do you persuade human-kind that there is another way?  How do you speak a Word to them that they will hear, and to which they can respond with all their hearts?  Here's what you do...

You send them your Son - a human being who is so filled with God that he can say with integrity "I and the Father are one".  You send them a Word clothed in flesh.  You show them what a human life can be like if it overflows with God. You send them a Word which reveals the full glory of God by living the kind of life that God calls all his creation to live.

You send them...a baby.  You send humanity the most fragile form of humanity that you can conceive, so that humankind might finally wake up to the idea that the glory of God is not shown in acquiring wealth, or looking after number one, or living in hate - but the glory of God is shown in the weakest kind of human being possible...a baby, in a stable; son of a poor unmarried woman in a backwater of the mighty Roman empire.

If you could stand in God's shoes today, perhaps you too would send humankind a Divine Word clothed in flesh.  For today, God comes to us as a human, to show us what it really means for us to be human.  By a life of selfless giving, total sacrifice, total love and compassion, Jesus shows us the heart, and the face, of God.


On Christmas night…A Sermon for Midnight Mass

“On Christmas night, all Christians sing, to hear the news the angels bring”.

What is it, I wonder, that captures us about the Christmas story?  It’s a story that never fails to warm our hearts, or make is tingle with excitement.    I think that’s because, like all great stories, this one has so many brilliant elements to it.

First it’s a story with a journey at its heart.  There’s a journey from Nazareth, to Bethlehem and then on to Egypt and back again.  Everyone loves a road movie – from the Wizard of Oz to Thelma and Louise, we all recognise, deep down, that road movies are analogies of our own lives…with all their joy and pain.

Secondly, this is a story full of juicy scandal!  From Eastenders to tabloid newspapers, we all like a bit of juicy scandal.  In this case, it’s the scandal of a child born out of wedlock (though admittedly, that’s not something we worry about so much these days!).  Much more horrifying, though, is the scandal of King Herod, who put the children of Bethlehem to death for fear of losing his throne.  This is a scandal about power.  And we recognise it, don’t we?  From scandals at FIFA, to the outrage of ISIS, or the fictional horror of Darth Vader and the Death Star, we recognise the real horror of people who try to dominate others through violence.

Then, thirdly, this is a story full of magic and mystery.  Everyone who has ever enjoyed a fairy-tale or a Harry Potter movie instinctively picks up on those mysterious Wise Men of the East who follow a star.  And of course, let’s not forget the Angels – mysterious beings whom we barely understand, suddenly appearing and proclaiming peace on earth.

Fourthly, there are the animals.  Sheep on the hillsides, cattle lowing in the stable, a donkey faithfully carrying Mary.   Anyone who thinks that human beings don’t like animal stories should check out the number of cat videos on Youtube!  We are all suckers for a baby lamb, or a gently moo-ing cow in a barn.  It brings out the ‘Aaah’ factor in us!

It’s a story rich with characters, too.  There’s the faithful Joseph, who stands by his fiancée even though he must have had great doubts about her story.  There’s Mary herself, forcing us all to wonder whether we could have had her faith to press on.  Or rushing along the road to Bethlehem, trying to get there in time for the birth of her son…just as we rush around , preparing for the same event.  There’s those rough shepherds, men of the hillsides, outsiders who are yet welcomed into the heart of the story.  There are those mysterious wise men;  and the fictional inn-keeper, never specifically mentioned in the Gospels, who yet causes us all to wonder how we would respond to a stranger asking us for sanctuary.

Perhaps we all love this story so much because we recognise ourselves in it.  We know that we are all capable of Mary and Joseph’s faith, or the Shepherds’ wonder.  We recognise that we are capable of being intelligent and thoughtful Wise Men and women.  We also know, when we admit it to ourselves, that we, like Herod, are capable of abusing our power – the power we hold over our families or our work colleagues.  Or, we recognise that we are the victims of such power, if others dominate us.  We also recognise that there are times when we fail to act with the generosity of Joseph or the Inn-keeper.  We know that we need help to be as faithful as Mary, or as brave as the Wise Men as they set out on their quest.

Ultimately, we all know that we can only journey so far through life on our own resources.  We recognise our own weakness in the babe of Bethlehem.  If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we need the help of others – just as he did at that time of his life.  We cannot live in isolation.  We cannot do this thing called life, alone.

Ultimately, this is a story about a god who saw the plight and the drama of human life, and who chose not to remain aloof.  This is not a god who sits on a cloud, demanding worship and dispensing favours in return for the right prayers.  This is a god who decides to engage with all the mess and muddle of human life.  He comes among us as that most fragile form of human life, utterly dependent on those around him, to show us that this is how we should live too.  We cannot live a life apart.  We need those around us, in our families, in our churches, as much as God needed Mary to bring him to earth.  We need others just as Jesus needed Joseph and the Shepherds, and the Wise Men and even the fictional inn-keeper to welcome him and warm him.

This is our God who dispenses not condemnation on our messed-up human world, but mercy and grace.  He enters into the human condition – he refuses to sit apart from it.  And by his life, his teaching, and then his death and resurrection he offers us a way out, he rescues us, he redeems us – from our solitary, fearful, chaotic lives – from what the old-timers called ‘sin’.

And that’s why, on Christmas night all Christian sing, to hear the news the angels bring.  For “when sin departs before his grace, then life and health come in its place!”


Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Donkey's Story

This is a Christmas story for Children, who are taught and then encouraged to give the responses in the repeating sections below.

Once upon a time, in a town far away called Nazareth, there lived a little donkey.   The donkey’s name was Twinkle… which sounds like a silly name for a donkey, doesn’t it?  But Twinkle the Donkey had a star-shaped clump of hair, on his forehead.  So everybody said that he looked like a twinkling star.
Twinkle was a lovely donkey.  He was gentle and kind.  He never kicked anybody with his big strong hooves.  He never head-butted anyone with his big strong head.  But there was one thing Twinkle did which used to annoy everyone around him.  Every morning, as soon as the sun came up, Twinkle (who was a happy little donkey) used to feel the overwhelming urge to sing at the top of his voice.
Unfortunately, Twinkle’s voice didn’t sound very nice to the people around him.  He would try to make music, but all he could manage was ‘Hee-haw!  Hee-haw!’.  Nobody liked Twinkle’s singing, especially while they were still asleep.  So every morning, when Twinkle was singing to greet the dawn, all he would hear was the sound of sleepy people shouting ‘Be quiet, Twinkle!’.
‘Be quiet Twinkle!’
‘Be quiet Twinkle!’
One morning, however, something different happened.  Twinkle felt the sun just starting to rise, and he woke up and stretched.  He was just about to start singing…when he noticed that his owner, Joseph, was already standing in Twinkle’s stall.
‘Now, be quiet, Twinkle’, said Joseph, ‘there’s no time for singing today.  We’ve got to go on a long journey – and you are going to need all your strength’.
Twinkle was a good little donkey, and he was happy to think that he was going on a journey.  So, to please his master, he decided not to sing today.
Twinkle stood patiently while Joseph placed a warm blanket over Twinkle’s back, and then led him out of the barn to where Joseph’s fiancée, Mary, was waiting.  Twinkle liked Mary.  She had a kind face, and she always took the trouble to pat Twinkle gently on his neck, every time she saw him.  In fact, Twinkle was so happy to see Mary, that he started to sing!
‘Be quiet Twinkle!’
Mary got onto Twinkle’s back, and together with Joseph, they began their long journey.  The travelled for many, many days.  First, they went to the great city of Jerusalem…it was a beautiful sight.  As they climbed over the last hill, and they saw Jerusalem laid out before them in the golden sunlight, Twinkle’s heart began to soar.  He was so happy, that he began to sing!
‘Be quiet Twinkle!’
After staying for a night in a stable in Jerusalem, Mary, Joseph and Twinkle set off for the rest of their journey.  Twinkle heard Joseph explain that they had to travel to a town called ‘Bethlehem’, because that was where Joseph came from.  Joseph explained to Mary that the rulers of their country had decided that everyone had to travel to their home town, in order to be registered.
Twinkle didn’t understand what any of that meant.  All he knew was that he was having a bit of a holiday, and seeing new and exciting sights and smells.  He liked new and exciting sights and smells.  In fact, he liked them so much, that he began to sing!
‘Be quiet Twinkle!’
Mary and Joseph and Twinkle travelled all day long.  Twinkle heard Joseph say to Mary ‘Don’t worry, my dear, we’re nearly there’.  But after hours and hours of travelling, it began to get dark.  Twinkle didn’t care for the dark – he couldn’t see where all the lumps and bumps were on the road, and occasionally he stumbled over a rock or a stone.  ‘Be careful, Twinkle’, he heard Joseph say, ‘You’re carrying a very precious cargo today’.
Twinkle wondered what Joseph meant by that.  He already knew that Mary was a precious cargo.  Why was Joseph reminding him of that?  He wondered if it had something to do with the strange bump that Mary seemed to be carrying under her dress.   Puzzled, Twinkle kept on plodding onwards, taking special care not to trip over.
When darkness had fallen, Twinkle, Mary and Joseph finally reached their destination.  The town of Bethlehem appeared in the distance, its lights shining out over the desert.  Twinkle was tired, but so happy that they were almost at the end of the journey.  He was so happy, in fact, that do you know what he started to do…?
‘Be quiet Twinkle!’
When they finally reached Bethlehem, Joseph started to look for somewhere for them all to stay.  Twinkle didn’t really understand what was going on.  They just seemed to be wandering from house to house, and the words ‘Sorry, no room’, ‘Sorry, no room’ kept floating out of doorways.  Twinkle was getting so tired, that he could hardly put one leg in front of the other.
Finally, after wandering all over the town it seemed, Joseph led Mary and Twinkle into a barn.  ‘Thank goodness!’ thought Twinkle, ‘I’m just about ready to fall over!’.  In fact, as soon as Mary had got off Twinkle’s back, he sat down on the floor, in a warm pile of hay, and within seconds he was fast asleep!
Twinkle was so tired, that he didn’t notice anything that happened in the next few hours.  He was so tired, that he actually began to snore…and a donkey’s snore is a funny thing.  Every time he snored, Joseph would look over kindly at Twinkle, and say ‘Poor Twinkle’.
(Snore) ‘Poor Twinkle’.
(Snore) ‘Poor Twinkle’.
He didn’t see Mary giving birth to her new baby son.
(Snore)  ‘Poor Twinkle’.
 He didn’t see the star-light which suddenly shone bright above the stable.
(Snore)  ‘Poor Twinkle’
– he didn’t see a group of shepherds who had come down off the hillside to see the new baby.
(Snore)  ‘Poor Twinkle’.
But then, after a good night’s sleep, Twinkle began to feel the sun coming up.  He felt its warmth, travelling across his body.  He opened one eye.  He opened the other eye…and then, he saw!  He saw his beloved Mary holding a new baby in her arms.
Mary looked over at the Donkey.  “Good morning, Twinkle’, she said.  ‘You were tired, weren’t you?  Look what you missed while you were asleep!’
Twinkle wandered over to Mary, and gently nuzzled the tiny baby asleep in her arms.
‘Do you know who this is, Twinkle?’ said Mary.  ‘No, of course you don’t…you’re only a donkey!  Well, let me tell you.  Twinkle, let me introduce you to my son Jesus.  Believe it or not, this tiny baby is going to save the whole world.  God himself, your creator and mine, is born today within the tiny frame of this baby.  This baby is going to turn the world upside down.  Thousands of years from now, people will still repeat the words that this baby will say.  This baby will inspire people, all over the world, to give up living for themselves, and to start living for other people, and for God.  This baby is going to show the whole world that there is a better way of living than the way of violence and greed.  This baby is going to inspire generations after generations to live for God.’
Twinkle really didn’t understand much of this.  He was only a donkey, after all.  But he knew something had changed.  He knew that this was a special day, a happy day.  And he felt that happiness welling up inside him.  He sensed Mary’s happiness, and Joseph’s happiness.  He even felt the happiness of the tiny baby.  The happiness grew and grew inside him, until all he wanted to do was sing!
And this time, nobody told him to be quiet!  This time, when Twinkle sang, Mary and Joseph just laughed and laughed.  ‘Sing Twinkle!’ they cried!  ‘Sing for the Son of God!’
Sing, Twinkle
Sing Twinkle

And that was the Donkey’s story!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Advent 3 - John Calls for Repentance

Sermon for 13 December 2015
Luke 3.7-18

Q: How many Pentecostals does it take to change a light bulb?
A: 10, one to change it and 9 others to pray against the spirit of darkness.

Q: How many Catholics does it take to change a light bulb?
A1: None. They always use candles instead.

Q: How many TV evangelists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: One. But for the message of light to continue to go forth, send in your donation today.

Q: How many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Change?

I thought I’d start with a little light humour today.  Humour seems to get a sermon off to a good start.  All preachers know that a joke helps people to relax, and become somehow more receptive.

So I wonder what on earth John the Baptiser was doing in the opening verse of our Gospel reading.  I not sure that you would be all that receptive if I had started this sermon just now with a cry of “You brood of vipers”!

Well, as always when we read scripture, context is everything.  Remember the three ‘C’s – context, context and context!

The opening verse of this section gives us the explanation of both John’s insult, and his subsequent address:  Verse 7:  “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptised by him, ‘You brood of vipers’.  Who were these crowds?  They were crowds of ordinary people - citizens of Israel.  They were those who, in verse 8, could claim Abraham as their ancestor.  Verses 10 to 12 tell us that among their number were relatively wealthy people - those with more than one tunic -  along with tax collectors and soldiers.  In other words, a cross section of the general public of Israel.  They had all come out into the desert, down by the Jordon, to see for themselves this remarkable prophet who had appeared out of the wilderness.

Were they ordinary people?  John’s description of this crowd as a brood of vipers actually seems to describe them as malicious evildoers.  Again, context is everything. Having described them as vipers, John immediately asks the question, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”.  So rather, or perhaps as well, as describing his audience as malicious evildoers, John invokes a picture of snakes running away from an advancing fire...the fire of the Christ which he promises later, in verse 17, will “burn up the chaff”.

So what have we established about this crowd?  They are ordinary people - soldiers, civil servants,  butchers, bakers and candle-stick makers.  They are relatively wealthy, free citizens (not slaves) who have the freedom to go out into the desert.  They are people who know that something important is going on - who, unlike their contemporaries, have left the security of the city and their homes to go out to meet John. They are people who have a religious and cultural heritage...they describe themselves as the children of Abraham.

Actually...they sound rather like us, don’t they?  We are ordinary people – perhaps not butchers, bakers and candle-stick makers – but certainly civil servants, teachers, engineers, students, pensioners and all the rest.  We are relatively wealthy - compared to 90% of the world.  We have come away from the warmth and security of our homes to worship in our little building in the middle of Havant.  We have a common heritage - we are also children of Abraham in a spiritual sense, though perhaps also children of Cranmer in a religious one!  We too sense that something important is going on here...we are, in a sense, like the snakes who are fleeing from the fire of wrath...wanting to be those who are rescued, and saved, by our Saviour - not burned up like chaff with unquenchable fire.

So, does John’s message apply to us as well?  I think it might.  There is a sense in which as we read the Bible, it has a way of reading us too...scripture has a way of pointing to our lives, and our situations, and saying…”this is for you too, you know”

So what is John’s message to us?  I think it can all be summed up in one phrase, at the beginning of verse 8:  “Bear fruits worthy of repentance”.

In saying this, John acknowledges, first of all, our repentance.  He is speaking to people who have made their confession, been baptised, and received forgiveness.  They, like us, have received their spiritual inheritance.  “But,” he says to them and us, “repentance alone is not enough”.  John calls for a change of lifestyle that reflects the genuineness of our repentance - it must produce fruits.

So what does John suggest will be the sort of fruit that true repentance will produce?  The crowd to whom he is talking are curious too:  verse 10:  “What then should we do?” they ask him.

John was cast in the mold of the Old Testament prophets, and especially of Isaiah.  Filling valleys of poverty, and flattening the mountains of wealth and power are integral to his message.  And so it comes as no surprise to see that the first response John gives to the question “What then should we do?”  is to focus on economic justice.  Verse 11:  “In reply he said to them ’Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”.

But John’s challenge goes further than the simple necessity of sharing.  He says, effectively, “Your entire way of life must reflect the totality of the gospel!.  Share your coat, and your food.  Yes.  But also,” as he says to soldiers and civil servants in verses 12 to 14, “be content with what you have.  And bear fruits...not just a single fruit...of your repentance – for ‘every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Let’s see if something I taught a few months ago has lodged with anyone…what does it mean to ‘repent’?

It means to turn away from human ways of living, and to turn towards a new, Kingdom way.

Truly repentant Christians - and truly repentant churches - will learn to integrate all of the calling of the gospel into our lives.  Our way of life, our priorities, our commitments, our personal relationships, our passion for peace and justice, our planned and unplanned acts of compassion, our prayerfulness, our praise, our prophetic edge...all these, blended together, will give evidence of our repentance – of our willingness to walk on the Narrow Way of Jesus Christ.

Advent, and John the Baptister invite us to be ready to receive the Christ, this Christmas.  But this is not just the candlelight Christ of the Stable, with all the warm, cosy, images that conjures up.  John reminds us, in the final section of this morning’s reading, that this is also the Christ who comes with the Holy Spirit, and with Fire!.  Immanuel - ‘God with Us’ - means God among us, challenging us, stimulating us, leading us – and yes, judging us.  John talks of the Christ who comes with a winnowing fork to separate the useful wheat from the wasteful chaff.  There is encouragement in these words of John...but warning too.

So as Christmas approaches, we are invited to use these final days of Advent to examine ourselves, in truth.  We need to be honest with ourselves, and with God, about the priorities of our own lives.  Perhaps it in only after such self-examination that we are able to really say - as we shall later in today’s service - that we willingly offer ourselves as living sacrifices to our Saviour and Heavenly King.


Saturday, November 28, 2015

Advent 1 - Are We There Yet?

Jeremiah 33.14-16, 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13, Luke 21.25-36

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!  Two years ago I complained, in a sermon to my former parish, that this results in my only being given socks for Christmas.  What happened?  Half of the very cheeky congregation went out and bought me socks!  I had about 30 pairs of socks to open that year.  So this year, I’m going to complain that all anyone ever does is buy me bottles of beer and bars of chocolate!

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 mainly 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.  Jeremiah, for example, looked forward to a day when a righteous son of David would ‘execute justice and righteousness in the land’ (Jer.33:15).

When will this happen?  Well according to Isaiah, that other great Hebrew prophet, 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 and we may walk in his paths’. (Is.2:3)  In other words, Isaiah prophecied 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 and Jeremiah, 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 – an 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 to ‘be alert at all times, praying that we (sic.) may have the strength to…stand before the Son of Man’ (Lk.21:36).  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.

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 companionship with one of our stewards, Jesus comes.

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

Every time a sick or house-bound person is visited by our Pastoral Team, Jesus comes.

Every time the bells are rung to announce the presence of Christ in this community, Jesus comes.

Every time the choir sings, or a baby is baptised, or a couple tie the knot in prayer, Jesus is present.  Jesus comes.

Every time the wider community comes together in celebration and joy in The Pallant Centre, Jesus also 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.  As if watching a fig tree for the signs of summer, we are to look for the signs of the kingdom with open eyes, and join in with the activity of God, wherever it is found.


Saturday, October 10, 2015

Camels, needles and rich men

Amos 5.6-7, 10-15  & Hebrews 4. 12-16  & Mark 10.17-31

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Right now, if I’m perfectly honest, I wish I was in Ghana – as indeed I will be next week.  It would easy to preach on this text among people who are often desperately poor.  It is easy to rail against the inequity of the world, to people who have nothing.  In those circumstances, the preacher can call on all the inbuilt sense of injustice in his congregation.  Ghanaian congregations will call out ‘Amen!’ or, as my friend Matthias frequently does ‘Preach on!’.   The preacher can raise the tone and the excitement of a sermon to fever-pitch.  Oh, I can imagine it now…

This is the cry of God.  This is the two edged sword of the word of the Almighty!  It divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  The mighty word of God cries out to the rich, “Beware!”  You have oppressed the poor.  You have lined your pockets, and built your mansions, while 90% of the world is starving.  You have gold taps, while billions of people have to carry their own water from the river.  Beware!  The day of the Lord is coming like a thief in the night.  Amos accuses you to…You have trampled on the poor.  You have taxed them, so that you can build your fine houses.  Beware!  You have planted fine vineyards…but you shall not drink their wine.”

Preach on!  (I can hear it now).  Ay-men!

Oh yes, it would be easy to preach like that in Ghana.

But here in Havant, it’s a little more difficult, isn’t it?  Here in Havant, it is tempting to offer words of comfort to people who may be fearful that the preacher is about to ask them for their mortgage deeds! 

It is tempting, for example, to repeat the old preachers trick about the eye of the needle.  Over many years, western preachers have offered a little hope to western congregations, by suggesting that in Jesus’ day they used to be a pedestrian-only gate into Jerusalem, called the eye of the needle.  Such preachers would offer the hope of heaven to their congregations by saying that it was just possible to push a camel through that pedestrian passage.  Therefore, they would conclude, it is possible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven.  He just has to work out how to accomplish it.

Unfortunately, however, scholars have more recently shot that particular fox.  There is, in fact, no archaeological or manuscript evidence that there ever was a pedestrian gate called the ‘Eye of the Needle’.  It didn’t exist.  Nothing.  So, the only conclusion that we can draw is that Jesus meant his metaphor quite seriously.  He was talking about an actual camel, and an actual needle – and the practical impossibility of threading the one through the other. 

What we don’t know, and can’t know, is how big a twinkle there was in Jesus eye when he said this.  Was this a joke?  Was he deliberately using a comic image to make his point?

Well, probably, yes.  There’s a lovely moment that Mark captures for us in the text.  The rich young man was keen to show that he had kept all the laws and done all that was required to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  But Jesus’ response, painted by Mark, is lovely.  Mark says:  ‘Jesus looked at him, and loved him’.  That’s not like Mark.  Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the Gospels, and often the most compressed.  There is a sort of breathless quality to Mark’s writing.  He goes from story to story, place to place, very efficiently.  But here, at this moment, he pauses and he gives us this beautiful detail…”Jesus looked at him, and loved him”.

We can use the eyes of our imagination to picture the seen.  We can imagine Jesus looking at the rich young man with a knowing smile and with love in his eyes.  We can imagine him looking deeply into the man’s soul, and realising that for him the problem was material.  He was keeping all the religious laws, but he had this nagging feeling, which wouldn’t go away.  He had this sense that somehow keeping all the laws wasn’t enough.  There was something still preventing him from moving forward in his relationship with God.  So he came to see Jesus.  He came to see if Jesus could diagnose the problem.

And Doctor Jesus puts his finger on the problem.  Wealth.  It was the man’s wealth that was holding him back.  It was the single greatest obstacle on his journey of faith.  Doctor Jesus saw that the only way the man would be able to move forward would be to shrug off the weight of his wealth.

Wealth can affect us all that way, can’t it?  For one thing, it can make us reliant on ourselves, rather than others or God.  We lull ourselves into a false sense of security.  We tell ourselves that with our reliable monthly salary or pension, with our private health insurance, with our substantial well maintained house, all will be well, and we will never have to reach out to anyone, or even to God, for help.

The trouble comes when bad luck, or market crashes, or an unexpected car crash rips away our self-reliance.  Then, we find that we need others, and God, after all.  But, for many who find themselves in that situation, they have forgotten how to do it.  Pride in one’s own self-reliance prevents us from reaching out for help.   

Many such poor souls find themselves lonely and cut-off from the world in their final years.  They are too proud to seek help.  They are too proud to admit that they are lonely.  Too proud to seek out the company of people who they would once have thought beneath them.  And so they choose the alternative – miserable isolation, fear, and hatred of the world outside.  These are the habitual letter writers.  This is ‘Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells’ whose only way of interacting with the world anymore is to write poisoned pen letters to the Editor of the Telegraph.

Wealth was the problem for the rich young ruler.  But it isn’t everyone’s problem.  Many wealthy people manage to live beautifully balanced lives, which overflow in generosity to those around them.  Wealth itself is not evil.  Money is not, in itself evil.  It is the love of money which is at the root of all kinds of evil (as St Paul teaches us).

But there are other obstacles to faith too.  Every one of us is likely to have some obstacle to our own growth in faith.  It’s perfectly natural.  And it’s very real.  Part of the job of a Pastor, like me, is to help people identify what the obstacle in their life might be.

Perhaps it is some unresolved anger, or hatred for another person who has wronged you.

Perhaps it is some habit that you can’t shift, but which consumes you to the point of being fixated upon it day and night.

Perhaps it is an addiction – to sports, to video games, to porn, to alcohol, to gambling – each one calling you away from the life of faith into the dark place of addiction.

Perhaps it is just plain laziness.  Perhaps you (and I) are just too darned lazy to take on the discipline of being a follower of Jesus.

I don’t know.  Only you can know.  But what I ask of you now, as I sit down, is that you ask yourself this question.  What is my personal obstacle to moving forward in my faith?  

If the Rich Young Ruler had to sell all his goods in order to advance in his faith, what do I need to rid myself of?  

What is God calling me to dispense with, to put away, to fundamentally change in order that I might go forward in my faith?

Let’s pause, for a few moments, and think on these things…


Friday, October 2, 2015

Serving the Lord of the Harvest

(Genesis 2.18-24  Hebrews 1.1-4; 2.5-12 & Matthew 25.14-30)

Sometimes, you just have to say “Thank you!” don’t you?  Because we have got so much to be thankful for haven’t we?  Come Ye Thankful people come!  God is just SO very good to us...isn’t he?

I mean - think about it. God is the all-powerful source of all being and life. He did not have to create the Universe like this. He could have created a Universe any way that he wanted to. He could have made one that was entirely black and white - devoid of any colour. He could have made one in which food had no taste - or in which his people had no taste buds.  Imagine not being able to taste what chocolate was like!  He could have made a world that didn’t have sunlight, and mountains, and rivers, and oceans.  He could have just made one which was all flat desert.

But he didn’t. God created a world which is teeming with life, and variety, and colour and sound. He gave us delicious food. He gave us every kind of resource that we could need. He gave us families and friends - and communities in which we can live together.

And so, we come together on a Harvest Sunday to thank Him for all his amazing gifts to us. We come to say, “thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love!”

In our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, just now, we were reminded of words from Psalm 8.  “What is man, that you should be mindful of him?  You have made him little lower than the angels…you have given him dominion over the works of your hands.”   Did you pick that up?  The idea there is that God has given control of the whole world to human beings. 

The theme was picked up in our reading from Genesis, the great mythological creation story, during which God brought all the animals of the world to the first man, to see what he would name them.  Elsewhere in the Genesis story, God gives the Man a command that he should ‘take care of the garden’.

And my goodness, haven’t we done just that!  There is hardly a landscape on earth which human beings have not shaped by their own hands.  The rolling hills of England, for example, were once a dense forest, until we humans cut down the trees, and tamed the land.  The great rolling plains of the Americas have been tamed and tilled into enormous fields of grain.  In land after land, across Africa and Asia, the Americas and the Antipodes, the hand of human beings is seen everywhere.  We have developed the technology to reshape vast swathes of land, and to transport the harvest of the world into every corner of the planet.

But somehow, along with all our technology, all our science, all our cleverness we have forgotten where all this harvest came from.  We have forgotten that all this abundance is given to us - we did not create the world.  None of us, even the cleverest of us, can create life.

Have you heard the story about the scientist went to talk to God and he says, "God, we can now clone humans, make life, and take care of ourselves and we don't need you anymore." and God said "Ok that’s fine, but I want to challenge you to a contest before I let you go. Each of us has to create our own human using nothing but dirt, and the first one done wins." So the scientist agreed and reached down to start making his human, and God stops him and says, "Whoa not so fast!  I made that dirt.  You have to create your own!"

Not only does all this abundant life come from the Creator God, but God also gives us another very special gift.  He gives each of us abilities and talents which can be used – or abused – as we see fit.  God gives us free will, to use our talents for our own self-development, or for the needs of others.  He gives us the ability to make huge differences in the lives of other people, or to make a huge difference for ourselves.  He gives us hands which can work in two directions…either to gather, or to give.  We either sweep the resources of the harvest towards ourselves, or we hold out our hands to others, and share with them.

The same is true of our skills and talents in the life of our church.  Some people come to church because they receive something from coming. 

Perhaps it is the warm feeling of love from other people and from God – which helps them cope with whatever is going on with the rest of their lives.  That is no bad thing.  We all need to be loved and held, especially when life is hard. 

Some of us come because we like the music, or the liturgy, or the architecture.  That’s no bad thing.  We all need a little beauty in our lives. 

But if we only come to church because of what we receive from church, then we have rather missed the point, haven’t we?  The primary functions of the church can be summed up in two very short lines: 
a) to worship God
b) to make God known

Both of those are ‘outward imperatives’.  Neither of them is about what any of us can receive personally from church.  Instead, they are about our calling to look outwards from ourselves.  These ‘outward imperatives’ call us to use our God-given talents and abilities to worship God, and to make God known to the people around us.

So, on this harvest Sunday, as you and I give thanks to God for all his abundant gifts, what are we going to do with the gifts and talents he has given us?  How are we going to harvest our talents in order to worship God and make God known? 

Many of us already give huge amounts of time to those tasks.  All who serve at the Altar or the Choir, or in the Bell Tower.  All who patiently welcome strangers throughout the week.  All who visit the sick and bring them the comfort of communion.  All who raise funds, and steward our resources, or clean our floors, or sell goods in the charity shop.  Each and everyone is using their God given talents in order to worship God and make God known.

But are there some who have buried their talent?  Are there some for whom church is about what they receive, more than what they give?  Are there some who need a little encouragement to learn the deep contentment which comes from using one’s talents for the purposes God created them?  

Have you ever tried to use the wrong tool to do a job?  I know I have.  You know…there’s a screw that needs unscrewing.  But I’m too lazy to go out to the garage and get a screw driver.  “I know!  I’ll use that spoon!”.  It never works, does it? 

Using a tool for the wrong purpose is never a satisfying experience.  Well, we human being are like that.  The Lord of the Harvest made us, and gives us abundance, for one primary purpose:  to worship him and to make him known.   Any other purpose to which we put our talents just isn’t satisfying.  Is it?

I’m going to sit down now…and I’m going to offer you a moment or two for reflection.  Just take a moment, and ask yourself this question:  “Am I using my talents for the tasks God has given me?  As someone built to share, as God’s child, created for the sole purpose of worshipping him and making him known: am I doing what I should?” 

If the answer is yes, then congratulations!  If however, you want to think some more about this question…let’s talk!


Thursday, September 24, 2015

He who is not against us is for us.

Mark 9. 38-41

One of the joys of St Faith’s, is the number of visitors we receive on a daily basis.  I have rarely been in the church during the week, when a visitor hasn't shown up from some corner of the world.  Interestingly, one of the most frequent questions they ask is ‘What kind of church is this?’

As our weekday welcomers will tell you, it is not always easy to explain what an ‘Anglican’ church is – especially to someone from outside the UK.  It’s quite funny to watch people’s faces when you say ‘Well, basically, we’re a catholic church’.  When you say that, a light of recognition dawns….most people, anywhere in the world, recognise the word ‘Catholic’.  They have an image in their head of certain kinds of robes, certain ceremonies.  Everyone has heard of the Pope.  

But then…you deliver the ‘killer fact’ and watch their face become all puzzled again…”But we don’t follow the Pope…we have an elected church government”.  Confusion reigns!  “How can you be catholic, but not follow the Pope?”

To some people, it really matters what kind of church they are in.  In fact some people have been taught from an early age that their kind of church is the only true church.  I remember, as a child, having very strange feelings about walking into another kind of church. 

In my case, in my little Devon village, it was the URC church down the road.  It was weird!  It didn’t feel like a church.  They didn’t have stained glass windows.  The pulpit was in the centre of the building.  The organ was at the back.  There weren’t any memorials on the walls.  Where was the font?  It was all very distressing.  But worst of all, I found myself asking, ‘are these people actually Christians at all?’

Over the years, I have had the blessing and privilege of worshipping in a vast array of churches – all over the world.  Some of them have also struggled to see me as a Christian.  That won’t surprise those of you who know me well…but actually it had nothing to do with my personality!  Rather, some churches in foreign lands have simply never heard of us Anglicans. 

Take Romania, for example.  I first visited Romania soon after the fall of Communism.  The Communists had very effectively squashed all the churches of Romania, between 1945 and 1989. By 1990, when I arrived with a delegation from the YMCA, the only churches left standing after Ceausescu were the Orthodox Churches.  Orthodoxy has some practices which you and I would find very strange indeed...  

For a start, there is the screen of icons around the altar.  They effectively create a ‘holy of holies’ where only the priest may enter to celebrate the sacred mysteries.  Communion is given on a long silver spoon, so that the body of Christ cannot be defiled by being touched with human hands.  Services are routinely three hours long – with some worshippers coming and going throughout for their favourite bits.  As you know, Orthodox worshippers put great store in icons – believing them to be windows to the heavenly realm.  They may ask Saints in heaven to pray for them to God – because, after all, they are nearer to God.

But for me, a member of the Church of England, the National Church, THE church (as far as I was concerned) the strangest thing of all was to be treated by my new Romanian friends with a huge amount of suspicion.  Many of them wondered whether I could be described as a Christian at all.  They guessed that an ‘Anglican’ was another religion all together…perhaps I was like a Muslim, or a Hindu or something.  It took some very patient work to listen to each other, and to work out that despite our differences, we were both Christians.

For me, there was a real joy in this encounter.  I learned a great deal from my new Orthodox friends.  They taught me new ways of seeing faith, and of understanding God. 

For example – and it is only one example – I learned a new theological idea, known as ‘deification’ or Theosis.  The Orthodox Church teaches, like the Anglican and Catholic churches, that we are made in the image of God.  Like us, they believe that human sinfulness has distorted and spoiled that image.  Like us, they believe that through Jesus it is possible for that sinfulness to be removed…and for us to be restored to a right relationship with God.  But then, Orthodoxy goes one step further. 
Orthodox Christians believe that it is possible for us to attain such a state of Union with God, that we can become ‘deified’ – or like gods (with a small ‘g’) ourselves.   The Orthodox Saint Athanasius said it most succinctly:  “Jesus was made incarnate so that we might become gods” (again with a small ‘g’).

Now that’s a fascinating idea isn’t it?  It means that the Christian life is much more than a simple transaction -  we sin, Jesus dies, we repent, God forgives us.  The notion of ‘Theosis’ invites us on a journey of ever increasing holiness.  Theosis offers us the possibility of becoming so much like Jesus, day by day, that we can even obtain the condition of being a kind of god ourselves.  Of course, this process doesn’t happen overnight.  Orthodox saints are those who after a lifetime of prayer, repentance, self-sacrifice, and daily holiness are considered to have become like Jesus in their soul. 

I wonder what you think about that idea?  Does it encourage you?  Does it make you wonder whether, with God’s help, you too could embark on a process of becoming so much like Jesus that you might even be described as a kind of god?  If you are encouraged, or challenged, then that’s the point….that’s the point of exchanging ideas across different churches.  That’s the point of ‘ecumenism’.  That’s the point of movements like ‘Churches Together’.

As we saw in today’s Gospel reading, the Disciples were rather suspicious of anyone who wasn’t in their camp.  They came running to Jesus…”Teacher, Teacher…there’s this fellow over there who is casting out demons in your name!  Help!  Panic!  We tried to stop him….”

But Jesus is much more relaxed about things.  “Don’t try to stop him” he said.  “For no-one who does a deed of power in my name will soon afterwards be able to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us”.

Jesus, it seems, was an ecumenist.  He understood that an infinite God could be revealed in an infinite number of ways.  There are many Christians today who get terribly worried about the vast range of churches that there are in the world.  To some extent, I share their concern.  There are certainly some churches who I think are barely recognisable as Christian – especially any who try to persuade their followers to sign over the deeds of their houses in return for false promises of blessings from above! 
But, by and large, the infinite variety of churches on this planet are, themselves, a reflection of the infinite complexity and depth of our God.  We can, and should, listen to each other.  Each of us has been given something unique and precious.  Each of us, if you like, has our own small window into heaven.  By sharing our perspectives, and learning from each other, we have the possibility of flooding our churches with the full light of heaven.

Therefore, I welcome the chance to work with other churches in this Town.  I welcome the contemporary, modern worship of the Family Church or the Portsdown Community Church at the Beacon.  I welcome the radical ecumenism of the URC, a church created out of a vision that it was a church born to die – when all the churches of the world came together as one, United, Re-formed church.  I welcome the historic rootedness of the Catholic church, who preserve and hand on the traditions and beliefs of the ages.  I welcome the radical social agenda of the Methodists, born among the working classes of England. 

And I hope that we Anglicans can add our distinctiveness to the whole too.  I hope that with our innate sense of ceremony, our wonderful hymnody and musical traditions, our profoundly rich liturgies, and our inclusive vision of parishes – that we too can offer something to our sisters and brothers of other churches. 

He who is not against us is for us.


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Take up your Cross

Mark 8: 31-end.

HEALTH WARNING…the first four paragraphs are a parody…to be read in a phoney American accent!

I have great pleasure in announcing that from today, we are changing our name.  From now on, we will be known as the "Havant Branch of the Church of the Blessings of the Almighty Saviour Jesus ".  Why is this? Well let me tell you, brothers and sisters. Last night, I had a vision! The Lord God Almighty spoke to me from the heavens. He said to me...

"Rector", he said, "Rector - I have good news for you! I want to shower you and your congregation with abundant blessings. (Praise the Lord!) I am going to make yours a church of millionaires! You are going to become so wealthy, so full of miracles, so full of powerful acts of God Almighty, that the whole of Havant will flock to your doors!

All your congregation has to do is to show that they trust me. They simply have to sign over the deeds to their houses to the church. Then I will know that they trust me. Then I will bless them with riches from heaven. Then they will become millionaires, and all their problems will disappear". (Praise the Lord!)

So, my brothers and sisters, our Treasurer, Sister Shelley, will be standing by, at the ready, with forms for you to sign. Just sign over the deeds of your house to the church, and the Lord God Almighty, in the glorious name of Jesus, will give you your heart's desire! A-men, brothers and sisters. A-men!


It's a bit frightening to think that there really are churches like that in the world.  They feed on people's misery. They create an image of the world which is so pumped up with future hope, that gullible people really do believe that God is in the business of making them wealthy...but they are tricked into making their preachers wealthy instead.  Hmmm…perhaps I’m in the wrong branch of the church?!

According to today’s Gospel text, modern-day prosperity preachers are not the first people to have got the wrong end of the stick. This text comes at a pivotal point in Mark's gospel. Up until this chapter, which comes right in the middle of the gospel, Jesus' disciples have seen him doing all sorts of amazing things. He drives out evil spirits, heals and feeds the multitudes; he’s even walked on water. But now, in this passage, the whole trajectory of Jesus' life and ministry pivots, towards Jerusalem, and to the incomprehensible scandal of the Cross.

Verse 31: "He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected...and be killed".(Mk 8:31). You can just imagine Peter's reaction can't you? He probably thinks that Jesus has gone nuts.  Perhaps the Messiah has been working too hard?  So he rebukes Jesus. Matthew's gospel gives us the words that Mark doesn't record: "Never, Lord" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" (Matt 16:22)

But Jesus is adamant. He tells Peter off with really startling words: "Get behind me, Satan!" Pretty stern stuff.  And then Jesus goes on, in verse 33: "You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things". In other words, "You are thinking like a man, but by now you should be starting to think as God see things from God's perspective".

Anyone confronted with the idea of suffering might well react as Peter reacts. After all, God can heal, can't he? Jesus' many miracles are proof that God does not delight in suffering.  And yet, somehow, for reasons we might only be able to guess at, suffering enters into God's plan for humanity.  It's there. It was there for Jesus, who suffered on the cross.  It was there for the many whom Jesus encountered but did not heal.  Suffering, somehow, is part of the plan. Christians who are fixated on the Jesus of the miracles have missed out on the suffering Jesus of the Cross.

But that is precisely whom we are confronted with in this text. Jesus had to was part of the divine plan.  But Jesus says that suffering is part of the package for us too..."anyone who wants to follow me must deny himself, and take up his cross".(Mark 8:34

Let's notice that there are, in fact, two elements to Jesus stark statement: we are called first to 'deny self', and secondly, to 'take up our cross'. Let's look at those in turn.

First - what does it mean to 'deny self'?

To deny self, when you think about it, is actually about putting others first.  It's a way of living that always looks out for other people. It's a way of living which never asks "what's in it for me?" but rather "what's in it for my neighbours, and for the Kingdom of God?".  Think about this:  if Jesus had asked himself 'what's in it for me?' before embarking on his ministry, he would never have got beyond his baptism.  We too are called to live that live generously…

…And to live lightly upon the earth.  The son of man had nowhere to lay his head.  To deny self, is also about learning to let go of the things we shackle ourselves with – learning that true contentment is not found in great wealth, but in great relationships, with God and neighbour.  There’s a saying among a certain group of rich people which indicates something of the contemporary mindset about wealth:   “He who dies with the most toys, wins”. 

Nothing of course could be further from the truth.  “You fool”, says God in Jesus parable of the farmer with massive barns.  “This very night, your life will be required of you”.  You can’t take any of it with you.  Jesus says:  “Deny yourself.  Build up treasure that thieves cannot break in and steal.  Build up treasure for heaven”.

Secondly, what did Jesus mean by saying we have to take up our cross?

A while ago, I spent time with a parishioner in my previous parish who had become very frail – let’s call her Lucy.   Lucy had spent all her life serving others through the church. She had been at coffee mornings and fundraisers, and served on the PCC, and made endless cups of tea. She had truly denied herself for others.  And yet, Lucy now found herself frail, bed-bound, and unable to serve others anymore. She even had to rely on others to help her to the bathroom.

Lucy’s body was failing her.  But her mind was as sharp as a razor – and she was a thinker.  She said something very profound to me.  She said "perhaps God is teaching me that there was still a bit of pride in me.  I’m learning that I need to let others serve me for a change. Perhaps I'm learning that in the end, we all must rely on God, and on other people.  That none of us can exist in isolation."

I was intensely moved by what Lucy said.  After a life-time of Christian faith God was still teaching her something deep, something profound, about our need for each other, and for God.  There was, for Lucy at least, a purpose in her suffering.  She learned to gladly take up her cross, for what it would teach her and others.

Jesus own suffering clearly had purpose too. But I find it interesting that the Gospels themselves don't provide a definitive answer to why Jesus had to suffer. The task of interpretation is one that was left to later writers, like St Paul - and other great thinkers of the Church.  All that Mark says on the subject, in today's reading, is that Jesus taught his disciples "that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering" (Mark 8:31). The task of working out why is something that Jesus leaves to his Church. We continue to grapple with it...just as we grapple with the reasons for our own suffering, or the suffering of martyrs across the centuries, and even now in other lands.

We continue to grapple - but we also continue to trust...that denying self, and taking up our own cross - participating in our own suffering and the suffering of the world is an essential, central message that is right at the heart of the Gospel.

May you come to know the power of God that is often revealed in suffering. May you come to know the power of denying self, and taking up the cross that is offered to you.  May you come to know that God's power is so often revealed in and through weakness - our own weakness, as well as the weakness of those we encounter.

And it’s alright…you don’t have to sign over the deeds of your house to Shelley!


Friday, September 4, 2015

Children and Dogs - the Syrian Woman

Mark 7: 24-37  and James 2.1-17

Insults. I like insults. I confess it. There is nothing quite so pleasing to an old cynic like me than a well-crafted insult.

Take, for example, the anecdotal tale about Sir Winston Churchill. Once, at a party, he is said to have been approached by one Elizabeth Braddock, who exclaimed "Mr Churchill, you are drunk!" Churchill is said to have replied, "Madam, you are ugly. However, come the morning, I will be sober but you will still be ugly."Priceless, isn't it?

In my own family, we have two favourite expressions. If one of us does something stupid (usually me) we get called a 'plant-pot'. Don't ask me just works. "You plant-pot!".

But these are all in good fun. Everyone understands the rules...and no-one is offended. We all know, though, don't we, that insults can easily cross the line between gentle playful fun, and downright hurt and offence.

Certain words have the power to wound...for all sorts of reasons. Which is why it is quite surprising that in today's Gospel we should hear Jesus describing the non-Jewish races around him as 'dogs'. In the Middle East, calling someone a dog has always been a gross insult. And yet, when a Syro-Phoenician woman comes to Jesus to ask for healing for her daughter, Jesus' response is 'it’s not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs'.

Jesus appears to be saying that his ministry, his power, his gifts, are meant only for the people of Israel - not for anyone else.

What a shock! What an insult! To the woman in question, it would have been like me saying that only people of my race can come to this church.  What Jesus said was, on the face of it, a racist statement.

But when we read the Bible, we have to be very very careful. It is too easy to take individual quotes from pages of the Bible, and then to use them to justify our own position on something. There are three words which must always be in our minds when we read the Scriptures: context, context, context!

Only a few pages earlier, in verse 8 of Chapter 3, Mark reports that many people came to hear Jesus from all around the area surrounding Galilee - including the towns of Tyre and Sidon which were well known Gentile cities. There is no sign that Jesus tried to send those Gentiles fact he preached God's good news to them as much as to the Jews from Jerusalem and Galilee.

In Chapter 5, Jesus heals the man called Legion, who was said to have many demons inside of him. This man was also a Gentile... living in a region which kept the pigs into which the demons were sent, over a cliff. (As I'm sure you know, Jews would never keep pigs).

At the end of Mark's Gospel, (16:15) Jesus commands his disciples to "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation".

So the immediate context of Mark's gospel tells us that Jesus was happy to preach to non-Jews, happy to heal them.  He clearly wanted all peoples to know about God.

And that theme is repeated throughout the Gospels. There is a wider context too. John's Gospel, chapter 4, records Jesus' conversation with a Samaritan woman. That was an astounding thing for Jesus to do.  Men of Jesus' time would hardly ever have spoken to a woman in public...let alone a divorced Samaritan woman!

So - let's break down the evidence. First we've got ample scriptural evidence that Jesus was anything but a racist. But then, we've got scriptural and historical evidence that the people all around Jesus pretty much hated each other. So...with that evidence before us...what are we to make of Jesus statement about children and dogs?

Again, I want to drive you back to context. Do you remember what Jesus was up to in the earlier pages of Mark's Gospel? Do you remember how the crowds followed him for all the wrong reasons? Do you remember his theological battles with the Pharisees and Sadducees? He is opposed by his own religious leaders, doubted by his family, followed often for all the wrong reasons by the crowd, accompanied by disciples who only partially understand.

At the beginning of this particular story – about the Syro-Phoenician woman, Mark tells us that after all these battles, Jesus went off to the city of Tyre - some distance from Galilee. He entered a house and, according to Mark, "did not want anyone to know it". Mark presents us with a Jesus in retreat...trying to get away from it all for a while...needing to get his head together in a quiet place without crowds all around him asking for another miracle.

Then along comes this woman - a Gentile - who asks Jesus for another miracle, a miracle of healing for her daughter. Weighed down by the difficulties of his mission, tired, worn-out, it seems to me that Jesus actually appears to snap.  One can imagine him, frustrated that he is not getting through to his own people, saying to himself "I need to focus on Israel...I need to get them to understand before we can take this message any further". He gropes for a metaphor. Tired, he turns to the woman and sighs "First let the children eat all they want...".

Notice the use of the word "first". Jesus' reply doesn't exclude the Gentiles...he simply states that as a Jew, from a nation of Jews, through whom God has chosen to bring salvation to the world - Jesus needs to focus on the Jews first.

Then comes the difficult line: "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs". It's a metaphor. Jesus is trying to soften his automatic response.  In fact, although we translate the word here as 'dogs', scholars tell us that Jesus used a word which referred to household pets. It was a diminutive form of the word for dogs. A playful word. More like a puppy than a fully grown Rottweiler!

But the woman is more than a match for the tired, worn-out Jesus. And she's desperate to get Jesus to change his mind. So she spars with him. "Yes Lord", she replies...accepting for a moment the idea of the Gentiles as being his second priority. "Yes Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs".

You can almost see Jesus laughing at this point. You can see him acknowledging that he was wrong to not give his help immediately...and smiling that the woman had so cleverly turned his own metaphor against him.  Mark tells us that then he told her "For such a reply, you may go: the demon has left your daughter".

So what have we learned from this story - and from this bit of bible-study we've been doing together?

First, we've seen something of Jesus' humanity. We sometimes forget that Jesus was human, as much as he was God. He felt the cold, like we do. He felt hunger, like we do. He felt tired, and stressed, and worn-out like we do. And, like we do, when he was tired and stressed, he was capable of getting things wrong.

There is no sin involved in getting something wrong. Jesus was not sinning when he thought that he should not help this woman. He was simply, for a moment, in error. For Jesus to have sinned, he would have had to continue in his error, after it had been made clear to him.

The same goes for us. It is not sinful in itself to hold a wrong opinion. But it would be sinful to continue steadfastly holding that opinion in the face of revealed truth.  When strong science, or  the Holy Spirit, reveal to us that an opinion we hold is simply wrong, we sin when we refuse to change our mind – to repent, to turn around, to face in the new direction of truth.

Secondly, I think this story reminds us to have some patience with each other when we sometimes get things wrong.  It’s good to recognise that we are all human… that we can all mis-speak from time to time...and being always ready to forgive and move on in our relationships with one another.

How different that approach is from the approach of so many in our society. One wrong word, one misplaced phrase can be quoted back to us for the rest of our lives. Families get broken up and destroyed because of a wrong word at the wrong time...because some people seem to almost enjoy feeling insulted. They revel in it...and take a sort of warped pleasure at being at war. Nations go to war with each other because of an insult cast by one politician towards another. Just think, for example, what harm was done by George Bush when he referred to a whole family of nations as being part of an 'axis of evil'. Words do matter. Words can hurt. But forgiveness is stronger. Forgiveness is holy. Forgiveness is worth pursuing.

Finally, I need to say this:  there is a final sharp irony about this story being read on this particular Sunday.  The Syro-Phoenician woman came from an area of the Middle East which is broadly the same as modern-day Syria.  As we sit in comfort around our Sunday dinner tables today, perhaps we will spare a thought for the modern-day Syrians…including those who are walking from Budapest to Germany at this very moment, and those who have set off in leaky tubs across the Mediterranean.  Could it perhaps be said of us, the children of Europe, that we are in danger of only throwing scraps to the poor ‘dogs’ of Syria?

If that is indeed what we think, in the face of all the teaching of Scripture about welcoming the stranger and giving protection to the alien in our land, then we sin.  And God help us if we treat the children of Syria like dogs.  

Let me conclude by letting the words of the the Letter of James ring in our ears:  "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?  Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace:keep warm and eat your fill', and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, it it has no works, is dead."