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.