Friday, December 30, 2016

At the Name of Jesus (New Year 2017)

On the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus.

When I was a lad, I was not the most popular boy in the school. There were a lot of reasons for this, now I look back on it. I was tall and gangly, and had a face covered in acne. I was also the only musician in the school; very different from the rest of my rather macho classmates. I was also extremely allergic to sport...mainly because I was rubbish at it.  And to be honest, I was a bit of a ‘know-it-all’ – though I’m sure none of you would recognise that now!

As a result, I got called rather a lot of nasty names...very few of which are repeatable from a pulpit. My poor parents did their best to try to help me cope, including making frequent use of that old saying, "sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me".

The trouble is, that old saying is a load of rubbish, isn't it? The reality is that name-calling does hurt, doesn't it? Our names are part of who we are...they are a key part of our identity. And when someone replaces our identity with a horrible word like "idiot”, it creates what psychologists call a 'dissonance' between who we think we are, and who others perceive us to be - and that dissonance physically hurts.

The names we use, and the names we call out do matter.

For example, when I think of the name 'Tom' it carries with it a whole load of associations...most of them positive. It’s the name that Clare uses to call me to dinner (which is always a positive experience for me!).   So, the word 'Tom' has a positive ring about it - it’s part of my positive identity…along with many other names that I use, like Dad, and Uncle.

‘Thomas’ - on the other hand - creates a rather different sense of identity. That's the name that Clare (and my mother!) use when I am in trouble. When I hear "Thomas!" from the other end of the garden, I tend to think "Uh oh; what have I done now?!"

So names are important - and they were even more important in biblical times. The bible is packed full of examples of people changing their names in order to mark a change or transformation in their deep-down sense of who they are. Perhaps the best example is that of Abram, the father of the Hebrew nation, having his name changed by God to Abraham. ‘Abram’ meant, simply, 'exalted Father' - a term of respect for an old man. But Abraham meant 'father of many', and was given as a sign that Abraham was to become the father of an entire nation.

Names in the bible, then, are much more than just a word which helps to sort out who is who. Names are words which contain a sense of the full character of the person being named. Today, we celebrate the naming and the circumcision of Jesus.  Circumcision was, of course, normal practice for a Jewish male-child.  By having him circumcised, Jesus’ parents were being faithful to the teachings of the Hebrew, or Jewish Bible.  It placed Jesus in his culture, and literally marked him as a child of Israel, and a son of David.

But it is his name which is most significant.

Interestingly, Jesus wasn’t called Jesus at all!  His actual given name was ‘Yeshua’ which essentially boils down to two words:  ‘Ye’…a contraction of YHWH, or God.  And ‘shua’ which is a noun meaning a cry for help…something like ‘save us’.  So Jesus actual name, the one his Mum would have called him at dinner-time, means ‘God Saves’.

Incidentally, I was once pounced on in a churchyard by a very angry woman of dubious mental stability.  She was adamant that we were not Christians at all, because we don’t worship ‘Yeshua’ by his proper name!  No matter how hard I tried to convince her that ‘Jesus’ is essentially an anglicised way of pronouncing ‘Yeshua’ – she wasn’t having any of it!

Some names were also believed to have power in and of themselves - because of whom they are attached to. So, to 'call on the name of the Lord' was to invoke the power of the Lord himself. (To see this most powerfully demonstrated, you only have to sit in on a service of our friends at the Redeemed Church of God - where every prayer is made, powerfully, 'in the name of 'Jesus'.)

To pray 'in the name of Jesus' is to pray in the presence and reality of Jesus – and to be convinced that it is God who saves, not we ourselves.

Names have power, and so do some particular words.  At this turning-point of the year, I want to ask you to consider the meaning of one more important word – and that’s the word ‘parish’.  We describe ourselves as ‘the Parish’ of St Faith, Havant – not just ‘the church’.  In fact, both are useful words – and we might take a moment to consider them.

Etymologically speaking, the ‘church’ is not this building at all.  The church is the gathered people of God, all those who own the name ‘Christ-ian’ – wherever we might actually worship. We could worship in the Hall at the Pallant Centre (as indeed we did last year) and we would still be ‘the Church’.

We are those whom Yeshua, the Saviour, calls to tell others the good news of how ‘God saves’.  And the place that Yeshua especially calls us, is ‘the Parish’ – the area surrounding our church-building, in which we have been called, placed, and equipped for his service by our worship.

And so, we make no apology for spending the resources that God gives us on more than just this building.  There is much we would like to achieve in this building in the coming year – you can read all about our hopes and aspirations in ‘The Big Build News’, available on the sides-table.  We want to finish the organ restoration, and improve our toilet facilities.  We want to upgrade our PA, and our audio-visual capabilities.  We want to deal with crumbling plaster, and the long-term need to re-roof the building.  We want this building to be the best and most fitting place for the worship of God that we can make it.

But we are also called to serve God, and bring his ‘salvation’ to the wider parish.  That’s why we will continue to invest in The Pallant Centre – the place where we have perhaps more connections than anywhere else with the people of the parish.  In the Pallant Centre, young parents have a café in which to gather for friendship.  Alcoholics, gamblers, drug addicts, and ex-service-personnel all find advice and support.  Young people are stretched and given the space to develop, through Dynamo.  Artists have space to paint, archers have space to exercise.  The Solent Male Voice Choir has space to exercise body and voice, and find friendship and fellowship.  And many more besides.

We do all this, with your help, in the name of Yeshua – the God who saves.  We serve the God who saves us from death by the cross.  But he is also the God who saves us from loneliness, and isolation.  He saves us from idleness and from addiction.  He saves us from selfishness, and calls us to lives of service to others.  He saves us from mediocrity, and invites us to become all that we can be, in his service.

It is Jesus we serve; he whose name is above all names.  We set out, into this new year, confident that in his name, we can overcome the negativity of so much that is present in our nation at the present time.  We believe and declare that the time is coming when the message that ‘God saves’ will be in every heart and on every tongue – when at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow!


Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas Sermon 2016: Meditation on John 1

John 1. 1-14  Christmas Sermon

Everyone loves a story.  Stories are powerful ways to communicate – which is precisely why Jesus used parables, and why we all love movies and books.  I wonder what stories you will enjoy this Christmas.  A bit of Sherlock perhaps?  Some new awfulness on the Eastenders Christmas special?  For me, I know that Christmas is finally here – in a secular sense – when I settle down to the Doctor Who Christmas special!

The Christmas Story is sometimes referred to as ‘the greatest story ever told’ (though others argue that the story of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus should be given that epithet).  But what a good story the Christmas story is!

The Gospel writers, Luke and Matthew give us different perspectives on the same story.  This is a story they have heard, and which they then tell in their own way, decades later.  Each of them has a different perspective.  Luke’s faith in Jesus is fired by the way Jesus reached out to the poor and the oppressed.  So he gives us the story of how a bunch of shepherds, outsiders, are invited to be front and centre at the coming of the Messiah.  Matthew, on the other hand, is fired by Jesus’ message that God’s love is meant for all humanity – so he focuses on the coming of Wise Men from Eastern Lands.  These are non-Jews, outsiders, who are brought into the fold of God’s love.

But John, writing his Gospel some decades after Luke and Matthew, is not interested in shepherds and wise men.  Scholars tell us that John wrote his Gospel in his old age – after a lifetime of spreading the message of Jesus.  No doubt the stories about wise men and shepherds were already circulating widely.  John didn’t need to re-hash them.  So he goes deeper.  After a lifetime of teaching and learning, John wants us to grasp the enormity of the Christmas event, the coming of Jesus, what scholars call the ‘Incarnation’ – a posh word which has nothing to do with tinned milk or the flowers often worn at weddings!  ‘Incarnation’ describes the in-dwelling of God in human form.  The ‘Incarnation’ is that moment when God, who is Spirit, takes on human flesh.

There are two words which John especially plays with, in his poetic Gospel introduction.  The first is ‘Word’, and the second is ‘Light’.  Let me see if we can’t break them down a little.
‘Word’ is the English translation of ‘Logos’ – a Greek word from where we get the word ‘logic’.  John is saying that the incomprehensible being we call God is many things – spirit, love, a creative force that binds the universe together.  But he is also mind.  He has thoughts.  He has desires and intentions for the world that he has created.  God’s thoughts, God’s logic, God’s reason – these are his ‘Logos’ – his ‘Word’.  “In the beginning was the Word” – the Logos – “and the Word was with with God and the Word was God”.  It’s one of those great big thoughts that we human beings struggle to get our tiny brains around – that God can be thought of as having different aspects, but each of them is also fully God’.  So, God’s reason, his Word, can be part of who God is as well as being completely who God is.  “The word with with God and “was God”.

And, John is saying, that ‘Word’ is the aspect of God which became human and dwelt among us.  Again – incomprehensible, isn’t it.  How can an aspect of God become human, while not dividing God up into different people?  If God is on earth, in the form of Jesus, how can he also be still in heaven?  And how come Jesus (God the Son on earth) prays to God the Father in heaven?  Is he talking to himself?  It’s enough to make your brain explode!  And that’s ok.  We are limited, created beings.  We cannot ever really grasp the reality of God.

So John paints a different picture.  He uses a metaphor.  He has stated the truth as clearly as he can grasp it, by talking about the ‘Word’ dwelling among us.  But now he chooses a different tack, and begins to talk about ‘Light’.

Ah!  That’s better.  ‘Light’ we can understand.  We know about Light.  We see its effects.  We know that even a tiny spark of light cannot be extinguished by the darkness.  We know that if this church was completely darkened, save for one candle, all our attention would be focused on that single solitary light.

“In Jesus”, says John, “was life, and that life was the light of the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”.

And that, ultimately, is the message of Christmas.  Darkness is all around us.  The darkness of war, and famine, and poverty, and homelessness and selfishness and consumerism and racism and fear of the stranger and all hatred and rebellion against the reason and logic of God.  “But the light shines in the darkness”.

In Jesus, through his teaching, his life, and yes even by his death, life is offered to the world.  That’s why, on this night of his birth, we are nevertheless going to mark Jesus’ death in a few minutes.  Jesus’ whole life is offered to us, by John and the other Gospel writers, as The Way to life.  His way of living – generously, lovingly, wisely is offered to us as an example of what God’s logic and reason look like.  Jesus’ way of dying – sacrificially, trustingly are still more examples of the Logos of God.  These are signposts for us.  Lights in the darkness.  Clues to how we too should live, if we truly want to find life.

All these things are mysteries.  All of them take a lifetime of thought, reasoning, logic to even begin to grasp – as John himself knew in his old age.

Let tonight be a turning point for you.  Let the light of Christ illuminate and inspire you.  Draw from the spiritual energy he offers around his table, in bread and wine (his body and his blood).  Follow and pursue the light of life every single day from this point on.  It’s what wise men did, 2,000 years ago.   And it’s what the wisest men and women today still do.


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Repent or Repent?

Matthew 11.2-11

John the Baptist is one of the stranger characters of the New Testament. He wore clothing of camel hair – which I imagine was rather itchy – who seems to have lived exclusively on locusts and wild honey. I imagine that getting wild honey out of a wild honey-bee hive is rather a tricky thing to do. So poor old John was probably covered in bee-stings as well.

John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He followed the tradition of living apart from civilisation, and of calling people to repent of their evil ways. So, let’s picture the scene – picture a rather dirty fellow, who has probably never visited a barber, dressed in camel-hair, covered in bee-stings and with honey stuck to his shirt, munching on a locust...and declaring at the top of his voice “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near”.

I wonder what our reaction would be if we met someone like that in the streets of Havant – or even here inside the church. I think we’d probably try to get him sectioned – for his own good!

But there was something about John that attracted people to him. There was something about his message that had people coming out to him in the wilderness from “Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all of the region along the River Jordan” (Mt 3:5) And let’s remember, these weren’t Sunday drivers out for a laugh at the strange fellow in the desert. These were people who would have travelled many hours, and in some cases many days – to hear for themselves the amazing – even scandalous - things that this man of the desert was saying.

John was not a man to mince his words either. He called the religious leaders of the day a “viper’s brood” (Mt 3:7) He warned them against the complacency of their religion. “Just because you are Abraham’s children,” he would say, “don’t go thinking that gives you an automatic right to heaven” (Mt 7:8 - paraphrased).  He warned them to be afraid of the Messiah who would ‘put an axe to the tree’ of their systems and laws.

There are a number of strange inconsistencies about John. First there is the fact that he didn’t join up with Jesus. Why didn’t he set aside his baptising, and become a follower of the Lord? And then there’s the fact (as we’ve just heard in the Gospel reading) that when he was in prison he sent word to Jesus - to ask him if he really was the Messiah...despite having recognised him as such by the Jordon at Jesus’ baptism.

It seems that John had a different vision in his head of what the Messiah would be like – he seemed to expect a Messiah who would be full of swift judgment against the evil people of the day. See what he says in Matthew’s gospel, in chapter 3:
“...he [that is the Messiah] will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”. (Mt 3: 12) John’s mental picture of the Messiah was based in the language and concepts of the Old Testament. He expected the ‘great and terrible Day of the Lord’. And when it didn’t happen quite as he expected, he perhaps proved more reticent to join up with Jesus. Maybe that’s why he sent word from his prison – saying to Jesus, “are you really the Messiah?”.

But Jesus has a subtly different agenda. He also speaks of the coming day of judgment, and the separation of sheep from goats – later in Matthew’s gospel in fact. But Jesus places that event at some distance in the future. First, he has work to do – to call as many people as possible to repentance, and to give the greatest possible opportunity for people to choose God’s way of living over their own.

There’s a difference, you see, between John’s angry, passionate cry of ‘repent’, and Jesus’ loving invitation to ‘repent’.  The emphasis that we put on words really matters, doesn’t it?  John’s cry of ‘repent’ is angry, frustrated, and intolerant of the world he sees around him.  He is motivated by anger, and longs for the vipers and the chaff to be burned up in unquenchable fire!  But Jesus has God’s perspective on the world.  He looks on the mess of the world with compassion and love – like a parent looks on a wayward child.  He preaches tolerance, forgiveness and peace, and even prays for forgiveness for those who crucify him – “for they know not what they do”.  Jesus is prepared, with God’s longing patience, to give time to the establishment of his Kingdom.

He is so committed to that path – and so reluctant to embark on the eventual task of judgment - that he is prepared to give up his own life so that we might find our way back to God.

And I wonder whether we ourselves can sometimes be a bit like John. Certainly, as a human race, we have often been guilty of making God in our own image.  How many wars have been fought in the belief that God approves of them? How many acts of cruelty have been perpetrated in the belief that God is somehow being served through them? Are there ways in which we conduct our lives which are inconsistent with the reality of Jesus – and the way in which he calls us to live?

I wonder if you’ve seen that bracelet that teenagers sometimes wear.  It has the four letters “WWJD”. They stand for “what would Jesus do” – of course – and it’s a phrase from the 1970s (at least!) which has perhaps become dulled by over-familiarity. But it’s still a good question. What would Jesus do in the face of the rampant poverty of the developing world? What would Jesus do in the face of corruption among leaders of so many nations? What would Jesus do when faced with the commercial pressure to ‘spend, spend, spend’ at this time of the year? What would Jesus do in the face of globalisation and climate change?

My daughter once had a t-shirt with the question WWJB - “Who would Jesus bomb?”... but that’s a subject for another discussion altogether!

During this time of advent, the story of John invites us to prepare for the coming of Jesus – the true Messiah – who will probably be nothing like we expect him to be.  We are invited to prepare for the Lord who says “love one another”, and who shows us what real love is like through radical self- sacrifice.  The story of John reminds us that our understanding of who Jesus was, and is, needs to be re-interpreted.  It needs to be seen in the light of Jesus’ advent as the forgiving, accepting, non-retaliatory suffering-servant-king – whose strength is precisely in his meekness.

May you know the peace of Christ as you prepare to celebrate his coming once again this year. May you know the reality of who Jesus really was and is.  By soaking up the stories about him in the Bible, may you deepen your understanding of who he was and what he stood for. And may that knowledge transform you. Day by day.  So that you may truly know who you are...a loved child of God, gently and loving called to repentance.  And by depending that knowledge, may you come to know what you stand for too.


Saturday, October 1, 2016

Slaves for Jesus

Luke 17.5-10  Slaves for Jesus

From time to time, people wonder where I got the title of Canon…well let me tell you.
A few years ago Clare and I gave hospitality for a couple of years to a priest from Ghana, who was studying in the UK at the time.  When his time with us was over, the Bishop of Cape Coast conferred the title of Honorary Canon on me, as a gesture of thanks.  Subsequently, I was made a Canon of Ho as well…after supporting the work of Bishop Matthias there.  So you get two Canons for the price of one with me!

One of the privileges of being a Canon is the right to preach at the Cathedral to which one is attached.  So, a few years ago, I found myself in the pulpit of Cape Coast Cathedral – looking out over a sea of Ghanaian faces.

Cape Coast Cathedral is a very moving place.  The building is, in fact, the former Garrison Church of the British Army, from the days of the slave trade.  It is built just a few feet from the walls of Cape Coast Castle, where so many West Africans were sent out in awful slave ships all around the world.  I will never forget visiting the Castle, where the guide pointed out the door to the slave dungeons, in the courtyard.  Above the doors to the dungeons was a small, white building.  The guide asked “DO you know what that building is?  It was the very first Christian Church in Ghana!”

I’ll leave you to imagine my emotions.  There was I, a recently invested Canon of the neighbouring Cathedral, standing with a crowd of tourists in my clerical collar, being told that the very first church in this country had been built over the doors to a slave pit.

Then, the next day, I stood in the pulpit of that same Cathedral.  It would once have been filled with white faces and British Army uniforms.  But now, I was the only white face in the place.  I couldn’t help reflect what a remarkable transformation God had achieved in that place.  I was grateful, of course, that it was ultimately Christians who brought about the end of the official slave trade.  And grateful too that the ancestors of those slaves had been so blessed with God’s grace, and filled with loving forgiveness, that they could make me – and ancestor of their oppressors – a Canon of their Cathedral.  It was a humbling moment, I can tell you.

Slavery is, of course, a key metaphor of today’s Gospel.  At the time of Jesus, slavery was a normal part of human life.  Even though later Christian writers, like St Paul, were destined to speak against slavery, Jesus didn’t get into that particular inhumanity to man.  Jesus was concerned with all inhumanity to man – and prescribed love for one’s neighbour as the remedy for all the evil we do to each other.  But Jesus also used the world around him, as it then was, to draw out stories to teach his followers.  So, in today’s Gospel, he uses the analogy of a slave.

Jesus describes how no slave could possibly expect to be able to come in from the fields and expect to flop down at his master’s table.  Instead, he would fully expect to keep on serving his master – carrying out the functions of a servant.   Jesus is saying, effectively, ‘don’t expect time off for good behaviour when you are my disciple!’.  Being a disciple of Jesus is not a part-time occupation.  We don’t get to decide to be a follower of Jesus one day, and then to ignore him the next.  That isn’t what the life of faith is all about.

Faith, even as small as a mustard seed, can bring about incredible transformations.  But what kind of faith is this.  Later this morning, in Café Church, we are going to be exploring what the words ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ actually mean.  I will be suggesting – for discussion – that faith is not about believing a set of ideas about God.  It’s something very different indeed.

Our word faith has its root in the Latin words fides and fidelitas – from which we get the word ‘fidelity’.  We normally use that word today to describe the faithfulness between two people in the bond of marriage.  But it has resonance for the bond between us Christians and our Master, too.  To follow Christ is to be faithful to the person of Jesus, and especially to his teachings.  It means trusting that Jesus’s words and teachings have the power to save us from ourselves.

Take the example of Jesus’ attitude to wealth.  Time and time again Jesus warned us of the dangers of accumulating too much wealth.  “Make treasure for yourselves in heaven, where it cannot rust or be stolen”.  “Don’t fill up your barns with wealth – you can’t take it with you when you die”.  “If you have two coats, give one to a brother or sister in need”.  And yet, we – the slaves of the Master – all have a tendency to only follow his teachings so far – don’t we.  I know I do.  We say to ourselves, that ‘a little bit of charity is ok…but let’s not go overboard.  We might not be able to afford that expensive holiday we fancy, or that new luxury car, or that upgrade to our kitchen’.

There’s a story I like, about a rich man who wanted to show his young son what it was like to be poor.  So he took his son to live for a few days on the farm of a poor shepherd.  At the end of their time, the father asked his son what he had noticed about the differences between his life, and life on the farm.  The son replied:

  • “I noticed that I have one dog in my house, but farmer has a whole flock of sheep and three dogs.
  • I noticed that I have a swimming pool which takes up half our garden, but that shepherd had a whole lake at the bottom of his.
  • I noticed that we have lights in our garden at night, but that Shepherd had all the stars of heaven
  • I noticed that we have high walls around our property to protect us, but the Shepherd had friends coming and going all the time, who would protect him if he was ever in trouble.
  • I noticed that we are poor, and the Shepherd is very rich”

I’ve seen just such things in Ghana.  My very good friend, Bishop Matthias, is a poor man.  He drives a car that is 15 years old, and (as I discovered coming down a mountain last year) has broken brakes.  (I’ll tell you that terrifying story on another occasion).  He lives in a very modest house, and has to scrabble-around every month for enough money to keep the lights on.  And yet, his house is always full of children (many of whom he adopts), and the door is constantly being knocked by friends – from all over his Diocese, his town, and the world.

And so, finally, in the midst of all the wonderful work that is going on at the moment in our parish – from the clocks to the re-wiring, from the weathervane to the floodlighting, from the new Play Café to the hall toilets…I have to wonder why it is that we spend so much of our time, as a congregation, raising money from outsiders.  Why do I spend as much time as I do chasing funds from local councillors, the National Lottery, trust funds and organising fundraising events?  Why is so much of our progress made using volunteers who are not members of our congregation – whether they be charity shop workers or volunteer builders?

In other words, why can’t we…the core congregation of this church, simply pay local tradesmen for the work that we know needs to be done for the good of God’s mission here?  Could it be that we, the slaves of our Master Jesus, haven’t yet fully understood what following him really means?  Could it be that some of us think that following Jesus is a part-time occupation – something we do on Sundays for a couple of hours, but something that doesn’t actually touch our lifestyles, and our wallets, during the rest of the week.

How shall we – each of us – judge ourselves and our faith?  How shall we each weigh the level of our commitment to being slaves of the Master?  Well, quite simply, if you want to know what a person’s priorities are, find out what they do with their money.  The choice we make about where we spend the wealth God has given to each of us is the clearest indication of the depth of our faithfulness to the Master.


Saturday, August 6, 2016

What do you believe?

Hebrews 11 – Faith: What do you believe?

Over the last few months we have been grappling with the challenges of this ancient church building, and our buildings in the Pallant.  As we’ve done so, I have been reminded time and time again of the generations of Christians who have worshipped in this place before us.  Sometimes we have uncovered evidence of them, in the walls or in secret corners.  For example, a few weeks ago we removed a heating flue from the old toilets in the Pallant Centre, and we discovered a pencil drawing of Adolf Hitler on the back of the pipe – with the words ‘he is here’.  No doubt this was a joke, at the time that rumours were circulating about Hitler not having really died…but quite disturbing for a moment.

Then on Friday, I was poking about in the organ chamber, and I came across a whole load of signatures, scrawled in pencil on one of the old monuments back there.  I guess they were previous organ builders who wanted to leave their mark.  Again, when installing the refurbished weathervane on top of the tower on Friday, I noticed the number of names that are carved into the cement at the top of the tower steps – quite probably from when the tower was rebuilt in the 1800s.

All these encounters with the past have impressed on me that we are but the latest generation of people who have worshipped here, maintained and improved our buildings, and been witnesses for God in this community.  More than that, we are the inheritors of the faith which they have passed on to us down the ages…the faith which we will declare again together in the words of the Creed – in a short while.

But faith is a slippery thing, isn’t it?  Something I discover more and more as a parish priest is the wide range of things that people believe in.  Some believe in aliens, and some in fairies.  Some believe that the end of the world is coming any day now, and others believe there is a conspiracy of ancient masonic powers who are really governing the world.  Within the Christian church there are also a huge range of beliefs to grapple with.  You pays your collection – and you takes your choice.  Let me ask you to think for a moment…what do you believe about some of the following questions?

Is the Bible the inerrant Word of God, a guide-book for every human decision, or is it a collection of writings about how our ancestors sought to understand God?

What exactly happens at the Eucharist?  Is it simply a memorial to the death of Jesus, or does the bread and wine actually (or just spiritually) transform into the body and blood of Christ?

Is God really three-in-one?  Does the Spirit really ‘proceed from the Father and the Son’ or does he only proceed from the Father?  (That, by the way, was an issue which split the Catholic and Orthodox churches around the year 1000).

How does Jesus save us from our sins?  Does he ‘redeem’ us – by paying a ransom to the Devil?  Or does he take our punishment for sin from an angry God?

Is there such a thing as a Devil?  Or is the Devil a metaphor for the sinful things we humans do?

Is baptism meant for babies, or only for adults who can confess their own faith?

All these questions, and many more, are part of the ‘inheritance of faith’ that we Christians have received.  Before us, generations of Christians have argued, fought and even burned each other at the stake over.

Why is this?

Why has it become so important to believe in certain ideas about God, and reject other ideas?  When you think about it, this is actually a rather odd notion.  It suggests that what God really cares about is the beliefs in our heads – as if believing the “right things” is what God is most looking for, as if having “correct beliefs” is what will save us.

I prefer to think of faith as being more like a trampoline – a flexible canvass platform that is held up by a lot of different springs.  The springs are ideas – ideas which together give the platform its stability.  It is quite possible to take off one of the springs from time to time, without the whole thing collapsing.  One can examine the spring – see how flexible it is, see if it is still working.  Perhaps one might need to grease the spring, or repair it – before putting it back in place.

One of the reasons why we have got into such a pickle about ‘faith’ is that we use the one word to describe what, in the original languages of the Bible, were rather more complex images.  The most common way that we tend to use the word is captured by the Latin word ‘assensus’ – or assent.  We give our ‘assent’ to a certain idea, whether or not there is any evidence for the idea at all.  This is about ‘faith in the head’ – what we choose to believe about God.

But there are many other ways of understanding ‘faith’ – ways that I would argue are far more accurate, and far more liberating.  If ‘assensus’ or ‘intellectual assent’ is ‘faith of the head’, what about faith that is ‘of the heart’.  Such faith is ‘fiduciary’ faith – or faith that is based on trust.  That’s the kind of faith that Abraham had.  He trusted God’s plan for his life, and left his home to follow God’s Way all across the deserts.

Faith as trust is like floating in a deep ocean.  The Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard suggested that fiduciary faith – trusting faith – is like swimming in a deep ocean.  If you struggle, and tense up and thrash about you will eventually sink.  But if you relax and trust, you will float.  Just as in Matthew’s story of Peter walking on the water with Jesus.  When he began to be afraid, when he worried with this brain about what was happening, he began to sink.

Another Latin word often translated as ‘faith’ is ‘fidelitas’ – from which we get our word ‘fidelity’ or faithfulness.  Faith as fidelity means loyalty, allegiance, the commitment of the self at its deepest level, the commitment of the ‘heart’.

Then, finally, another word for faith is ‘visio’ – or ‘vision’.  This is faith as a way of seeing…a lens through which to see the world as God’s place, in which God is working his purpose out.

I wish I had time to explore these ideas some more – but the clock is against us.  Suffice to say that if you would like to think more about these different understandings of faith, that’s precisely what we will be doing at Café Church, later on this morning.

For now, let me leave you with this thought:  true faith is much less about what you believe, and much more about how you believe.  I don’t really mind if you believe in angels or not, or exactly by what mechanism Jesus is the Saviour of the world.  If you are able to see the world as God’s world, if you are able to trust that God is working his purpose out through his people - the Church, if you are able to be faithful to that vision for the world and for Havant, then you are my brother, you are my sister.


Monday, July 11, 2016

Sermon on the Occasion of Worshipping together with the Redeemed Christian Church of God

Below is the sermon I prepared for a joint service with our friends at the Redeemed Christian Church of God (who normally meeting in one of our parish buildings).  The actual sermon was delivered 'off the cuff' - but the broad strokes of what I said are included here.

Deut. 30.9-14, Col 1.1-14 and Luke 10.25-37

Ever since we realised that we were going to need to move our worship into the hall, this Sunday, I’ve been so excited.  I’m excited because it finally gives us the opportunity to do a couple of really important things…

First, I’m delighted that the congregation of the Redeemed Christian Church of God are able to be with us today.  For about a year now, Pastor David and his team have been leading worship, Sunday by Sunday, in the Upper Room over in Church House.  It’s an absolute delight that worship is taking place there, and, I detect, really exciting to see congregation growing in numbers and confidence.

Secondly, being here gives us an opportunity to reflect on all the fantastic work that goes on here in the Pallant Centre.  Last night, Clare and I attended the latest concert by our friends from the Havant Orchestra.  Fantastic, high quality music from an orchestra who we give rehearsal space to every week.

Next week, I hope all of us are going to buy tickets for the Dynamo production of the Roses of Eyam.  There is no better way of encouraging our young people than to turn up to see their efforts.  Watching some of the rehearsals this week, I just know that you are going to be bowled over by them.

And that’s just the tip of the Pallant Centre iceburg.  We have the Solent Male Voice Choir, rehearsing every week.  We have the Hayling and Havant Bowmen, honing their skills throughout the winter months.  We have the St Faith’s art group, every Tuesday.  We have a Mumbaba group.  We have the fantastic Brownies and Rainbows, who provide high quality learning experiences for young people. We have a whole host of self-help groups – including Alcoholics Anonymous, Al Anon, Gamblers Anonymous and our latest new group, Narcotics Anonymous.  We provide a hope to SSAFA, the armed forces charity – supporting any serviceman or woman – or their families - who has served for as little as one day for their country.

Thirdly, I’m delighted that it gives the St Faith’s congregation a chance to see the work in progress here in the Pallant Centre.  I hope that while you are here, you’ll take the chance to wander around the building and see the changes that have taken place.  Much of the change is currently ongoing.  In many ways, the whole place feels like a building site at the moment.  But, it is impossible to make an omelette without breaking a few eggs…and over the next few months, some really radical changes are going to be taking place.  Work is now well underway on the new toilets for the hall.  In the old Nursery rooms, we will be opening a Family Café in September.  That’s going to be a place where parents and children can gather in an atmosphere of creativity and fun – using the courtyard garden as well.  It’s going to become the place in Havant for young families to be.

There are still some big challenges that we have to overcome.  In the garden, over by Church House, you will undoubtedly have noticed that we are installing new drains…that’s to stop all the rainwater from the car park and from the roof of church house from soaking into the brickwork.  We have a structural challenge to overcome in the small Nursery room – where a warped support beam has to be held up with steel girders.  We still need to install a fire escape from the Upper Room, and we are installing a central heating system for church house in the next few weeks.  There’s certainly plenty to do!

And that is not all that we are seeking to achieve through our Big Build Campaign.  Over in the church itself, there’s going to be a whole lot going on in the next few months.  New wiring and lighting will be installed.  The clock faces and weathervane are being overhauled – and our heritage pipe organ is about to be completely restored.

The question that often hovers on lips is ‘why’?  Who would we do all this work?  Why not just sell all these buildings – even our crumbling old church – and just meet for singing and worship in a school hall somewhere.  Life would be an awful lot simpler if we did!  Why not let someone else have all the worry and the challenge?

Well, to get close to an answer to that question, let me take you back to Jesus’ summary of the law at the beginning of today’s gospel reading.  A lawyer asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life…and Jesus tells him to do just two things…Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself.  This summary of the law was actually something that other teachers of Jesus’ time were using as well.

There’s an old story about a Jewish Rabbi called Hillel, who was challenged to stand on one leg, and recite all the law.  So Hillel lifted up one foot off the ground and said:  “The whole law of God is this:  Love God, and Love your neighbour as yourself.  All the rest is commentary”

In other words – as Jesus would have concurred, I’m sure, Rabbi Hillel was teaching that all the little laws about what we should eat, and when we should pray, and when we should rest, and how we should treat strangers, the fact that we shouldn’t murder people, or steal from them, or covet their possessions – all of this was just commentary on the central teachings of the faith:  Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself.

So why are we embarked on our Big Build Campaign? – because by improving our church, we show our Love for God, by making the house of worship as precious and beautiful as we can.  By improving this Pallant Centre, we show our love for our neighbours – by making it as comfortable and useful to the whole community as we can.  It’s as simple as that really.

There’s one more thing I want to say – to everyone here.  And that’s to underline how delighted I am to welcome the Redeemed Church to our worship today.  The Redeemed Church has its roots in West Africa – and as a result, many of its members are not from the UK by birth.  Right now, after the Referendum, there’s a danger that some of our African friends here today might fear that the whole country is against them.  Well, I want to say, on behalf of the whole St Faith’s community – that’s not the case for us.  You are welcome here.  We are delighted that you are here.  You bring new ways of worshipping, new ways of thinking.  You bring skills and talents…and today you bring food to share as well!  Please believe me when I say that we are glad to have you as our neighbours – and we hope that this last year of sharing this building with you will be the first of many, many years together!

To quote, finally, St Paul’s words to the Colossians:  “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father!”


Saturday, July 2, 2016

Sermon on the Arrival of Vickie and David Morgan

Readings: Galatians 6.1-16 & Luke 10.1-11, 16-20

Once again, the Lectionary speaks uncannily into a very present situation.  Luke 10, verse 1:  ‘After this, the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.’

It is such a pleasure to be able to finally welcome David and Vickie formally into their new ministries among us.  They come to us as a pair, sent by God, just as Jesus sent out those seventy disciples in pairs.

What is it about pairs?  What is the significance of Jesus sending out his disciples like that – two by two. not one by one?  I find my mind taken right back to God’s assessment of Adam’s circumstances at the beginning of Genesis.  Then, he said “it is not good for the man to be alone”.

I know that my own Clare would agree wholeheartedly with that statement.  We are closing in fast on our 30th wedding anniversary…and I have no doubt that she often says to herself “It is not good for that man to be alone”!  Left to my own devices, I would undoubtedly eat chocolate for breakfast, and chips for dinner every day.  My clothes would never be ironed, and I would be late for every meeting!  Clare – as the opposite side to my ‘pair’ – provides balance.  She helps with the tasks I need help with.  She reminds me of what I need to do and where I need to be.  She nudges me towards good choices about food…never nags, just nudges!

The fact is that when Jesus calls us, he calls us into a series of relationships – first with God, and then with one another.  We are called out of ourselves, out of our mistaken belief that we don’t need anyone else to help us function.

It is of course a complete fallacy to imagine that we can live our lives in total isolation.  Some of us dream of doing so…I confess that there are very busy days when I dream of running off to live in a wooden cabin somewhere!  But even then, in order to get to such a cabin, I would need to drive on a road built by others, in a car made by others, to build my cabin from tools manufactured by others.  If I wanted even the most basic of amenities – running water or electricity – they would be supplied by others.  If I became sick, I would need others to care for me.  No, it is all but impossible for any of us to function for any length of time without the companionship of others along the way.

This has always been the case.  Adam was given Eve – both created in the image of God who is himself defined by the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Noah had his family.  Abraham had Sarah.  Moses had Aaron.  Elijah had Elisha.  Even Jesus drew companions and friends around him – not just disciples to be taught, but friends whom he could love and who he could lean on.

So Vickie and David come to us, as newly minted curates, already with that inbuilt support-structure of a family life, and their own marriage to sustain them.  Our task, as their new church family, is to add to that support structure.  Our task is to help them grow towards, and then into, the ordained ministries to which the church believes they have been called.  And their task is to offer themselves to us – offering the gifts and talents God has built into them for the good of this community.

St Paul, writing to the Galatians in our second reading, reminds us of what the character of a Christian community should be like.  To the Galatians, he says “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ”.  It’s worth just pausing for a moment and thinking about that instruction.  Paul tells us that to fulfil the law of Christ, the sovereign instructions of our Master and Lord, we should ‘bear each other’s burdens’.

Here then is a call out of our comfort, and into the messiness of all human life.  We are to be there for each other – each supporting the whole body of Christ as best as we can, with the talents and abilities we have.  For some, that means bearing the burden of leadership – such as sitting on the PCC and helping to steer the whole community into the future.  For others it is the burden of caring for our buildings to be able to better serve the whole town into which we are called.  For others, it is bearing the burden of visiting the sick and the lonely – those whose physical circumstances deprive them of the fellowship and companionship that every human being needs.

We do these tasks together – bearing each other’s burdens.  None of us can do all the tasks that are required.  I frequently find, for example, that bearing the burden of leadership leaves me precious little time for bearing the burden of someone else’s loneliness or illness.  So I rely on our Pastoral Care team for that.  David and Vickie will find too that there simply isn’t time to do all the things one would like to do in ministry.

But that’s ok.  None of us are called to do the whole work of the people of God.  If that were so, what would be the point of being the body of Christ?  But each of us, ordained or licensed, lay person or Reader, we are all called to play our part…to be a hand, or a foot, or an eye, or an ear, of the body of Christ.  To quote again from St Paul, writing to the Galatians: “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

Today, we joyfully celebrate the arrival of new ministers into our midst.  We give thanks that they have heard and responded to God’s call on their lives – the call to enter even more deeply into the loving service into which God calls us all.  Their offering of themselves can be an inspiration to each one of us.   Each of us is called too…out of our individualism, and into community.  What are the ways in which each of us could respond?

This is not just a calling to do more in the immediate community of the church – though more burden sharing would be greatly appreciated!  It is also a calling to bear the burdens of our neighbours – those we encounter in our workplaces and social clubs, in the post office queue and the foodbank.  There are a million and more ways in which our community could become more like the Kingdom of God, if the people of God would roll up their sleeves and live out the calling of God.

If there is anyone here today who would like to think through what such a call might mean for them, I encourage you to get in touch.  Come and chat with me, or indeed with David, Vickie, Damon, Sandra, Mike and Bishop John – and we would be glad to think and pray with you about God’s call for your life.

In the meantime, Vickie and David, Jake and Freddie too – welcome!  It is good to have you with us.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Thoughts after the UK Votes to Leave the European Union

Key Scriptures:  Psalm 60. Galatians 5, 13-25.  Luke 9.51-62

Week after week, as I read the Lectionary of readings set by the church, a remarkable number of mini-miracles take place.  It is astounding how often the Scriptures speak directly into a current situation.

Take, for example, the today’s set Psalm for Evening Prayer – Psalm 60 – which we will read on the Rectory lawn this afternoon after our ‘Strawberry Tea’.   Bring the EU referendum to mind, think about all we have learned about the divided country we live in and the divided Europe our vote has created, and then listen to these words:
“O God, thou hast cast us out, and scattered us abroad.”  (vs 1)
“Thou hast moved the land, and divided it:  heal the sores thereof, for it shaketh (vs 2)
“Hast thou not cast us out, O God?” (vs 10)
“O be thou our help in trouble:  for vain is the help of man” (vs 11)

It should not surprise us, of course, that God speaks to us through the Scriptures.  The key question on such a weekend as this, is ‘what is God saying to us about the European referendum?’

For this, we need always to take account of those three important words that I’ve told you about before…the three words which should always be applied to any analysis of Scripture:  context, context, context!

First we must ask ourselves – what is the context in which an original story was written?  What was going on in history at that time?

Secondly, we need to ask ‘what was the context of the writer of that scripture?’  What did the writer understand the original story to mean?  Why did they chose to include it?

And thirdly, we need to think about our own context, into which the Scripture is read.  ‘What does this Scripture say to us, here today?’

So, let’s apply these three questions to the Gospel reading that we’ve just heard:

First, the context of the story itself.  It takes place at that moment when Jesus turns aside from his teaching ministry, and ‘sets his face towards Jerusalem’.  In doing so, he passes through a Samaritan area.  The Samaritans were a sect within Judaism, made up of Jews and Genitiles – what we might call ‘foreigners’.  They believed many things differently from the mainstream of Jewish belief – but suffice to say that were seen as outsiders by the people around Jesus.  They were different.  They were outsiders.  They were, no doubt, a perceived threat to the ‘good, hard-working families’ of ‘normal decent society’.

As such, they were routinely hated and despised by many Jews - even Jesus’ own disciples.  When the Samaritans fail to give Jesus a warm welcome, James and John ask Jesus whether they should call down ‘fire from heaven’ to consume them!  But Jesus rebukes his disciples.  They are not thinking straight.  They are forgetting that Jesus himself used Samaritans to illustrate an answer to the vital question ‘ who is my neighbour?’.

As one might expect, that is entirely within consistent with the rest of Scripture – especially the teachings about how aliens and foreigners should be treated by the people of God. As far back in history as the book of Leviticus instructed the people of God as follows: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born”.(Lev.19.34)

Secondly, we must ask about the context of the writer of this Gospel.  Tradition tells us that Luke was a follower of St Paul.  He was writing at a time when the new band of Christians were beginning to feel the iron boot of Rome on their heads.  They were hiding from persecution, and fearful of their status as religious strangers in a strange land.  So Luke writes to those who are experiencing the poverty of being second or third class citizens in a European super-state, run not from Brussels, but Rome.

Luke encourages them, by reminding them of Jesus’ priority for the poor and the downcast, for the Samaritan and the stranger.  And then, in the second part of the reading – he encourages them to be steadfast in their faith.  He reminds them who have no security, no home, that Jesus himself lived in just the same way for the sake of the Kingdom.  ‘Foxes have holes, and birds have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’.  (Lk 9.58)

Then, finally, what about our context…the context into which this Scripture is read today?  Well, we find ourselves in a situation where fear of the foreigner has once again driven a nation into division.  I don’t know about you, but I have been struck by how many of the ‘Brexiters’ interviewed on TV and Radio have cited an influx of foreigners as their reason for voting to leave Europe.

What we are experiencing, in front of our eyes, is the old phenomenon of xenophobia – that is ‘general fear of the foreigner’.  This is different to ‘racism’ – the unreasonable hatred of someone because of their appearance or racial characteristics.

Xenophobia is of course, the oldest trick in the politician’s play-book.  Persuade the gullible and uneducated that all the woes of a country can be blamed on a marginal group.  Then the gullible and uneducated won’t bother to challenge the Government itself about its economic decisions, or the disproportionate wealth of the elite.  Roman emperors did it – they blamed ‘the Christians’.    The Ku Klux Clan, and the Apartheid Government used it to blame black people for the problems of American and South African society.  Hitler used it to manipulate the German nation into the Second World War.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to unfold all the ways in which the xenophobia of recent months is unfounded rubbish…but you are all intelligent people.  You can do that for yourselves.

The other modern context into which this Scripture speaks is the culture of wealth.  The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world.  If you have the certainty of a decent wage or pension or benefit payment at the end of every month, you are already more wealthy than 90% of the world’s population.  And yet, at every turn in the EU Referendum, politicians on both sides of the debate have consistently focused their arguments on one point: the claim that if we vote for their side, we will be better off.

Into that context, Jesus reminds us that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. (Lk.9.58).  And he points us to a reality that is greater and more magnificent that anything human beings can conjur…the coming reality of the Kingdom of God.

We know what the Kingdom will be like – because Jesus has told us.  It will be a kingdom in which Samaritans – foreigners - are our neighbours, loved as much as we love ourselves.  It’s a kingdom in which the humble and the poor will be blessed.  It will be a kingdom, filled by the Spirit, in which St Paul’s fruit of the Spirit will be known:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Sadly, we have seen little enough of these things in the last few weeks.  Instead, we have seen qualities from St Paul’s other list…the ‘works of the flesh’:  enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions.

“O be thou our help in trouble [O God]:  for vain is the help of man” (Psalm 60.11)

So, finally, what is our calling in this circumstance.  How are we to respond to recent events?  How are we to be agents of the Kingdom in a divided a fractured nation?

Through the Scriptures, Jesus speaks to us across time:  ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God’.  You and I are called to keep on declaring the coming of the Kingdom.  In the face of all opposition, all hatred, all xenophobia.  In the face of corrupt politics and businesses.

In the face of a public dialogue that is all about what we can gain, we hold up a cross.  We hold up the supreme example of a God who pours himself out in sacrifice for the good of all.  We hold up a Lord who had no palace.  And we continue to speak of not what we can gain, but how much we can give for the life of the world, and for the good of all humanity.


Thursday, June 2, 2016

Sermon Series: “Marks of an Authentic Church” - Sermon One (Introduction)

Sermon Series:  “Marks of an Authentic Church”

Sermon One:  Introduction: “What Kind of Christian Are You?”

There are many kinds of Christ-ians, throughout the world.  There are, of course, the main divisions of the church - Catholic, Reformed, Orthodox, and all the sub-sects of these - Charismatics, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Traditionalists, Baptists, House-churches, and all the rest.   Even within each sub-set there are Christ-ians who focus on different aspects of Jesus.  For some, it is his work as 'Redeemer' which is paramount - he is, for them, the one who pays the price for human sin.  For others, it’s the kind of Kingdom that he wants to establish.  For them, Jesus is the one who leads them to build a new kind of world order.  For others, it’s Jesus the 'High Priest' who is the primary focus of attention - the one who leads them personally to a relationship with the living God.

This got me thinking.  What kind of Christian am I?  What kind of Christian are you?  Of all the different emphases that are open to us, which aspect of Jesus is the one which calls most deeply to us?

It shouldn’t worry us too much that there are so many different emphases. God is infinite - and infinitely able to work with us messy humans in the widest possible ways.  He is more than capable of drawing some people to work with him on one project (say, building the Kingdom) while encouraging others to work on another (say, building relationships with God).  But along the way, I would argue, there are some churches which have managed to get the balance between these issues a little out of kilter.  There are some churches, frankly, which I personally struggle to recognise as Christ-ian at all.  Churches, for example, where a single theological idea has become such a driving thought that it blocks out the full range of experience of God that is available to them.  Take for example the ‘Snake’ churches of the Southern USA – where the handling of venomous snakes is a regular part of their worship.  They do that because of a single line in the New Testament, where true believers are promised that they will be able to handle snakes without fear of death.

So, I want to begin a sermon series today, as we enter this new year.  Over the next several weeks, I want to explore with you what I believe to be the 'Marks of an Authentic Church'.  There will be gaps along the way - not least when other colleagues are preaching.  But, over the coming weeks, through ‘Ordinary Time’ I want to explore what it means, or what it would mean, for us to be an authentic Church.

What do I mean by 'authentic'?  Well, I guess I'm saying that if our church, and our parish, shows these marks of authenticity, then I'll be content that we are at least 'Christ-ian'.  All I'm going to do today is give you a list - a list of what I think are reasonable and accurate marks of an Authentic Church.  I've currently got ten headings on that list (though - I warn you - it is possible that the list may grow!).  As each week passes, I'm going to invite you to think about each one in some depth.  My hope, and prayer, is that as we explore these ten 'marks' of an authentic church we will be prompted to think about how we personally, and together, measure up to them.  Are we people who can claim with confidence to truly be Christ-ians?  Are we authentic?  Does our faith - and our practice of faith - measure up?

Here then, are the ten headings I currently have in mind.  For me, an Authentic Church, should:

1) Reflect Jesus' priority for the poor and the sick.  Jesus clearly cared for the poor and the sick.  Do we measure up to his example?

2) Have a wide and generous understanding of God's grace - Jesus poured out grace and forgiveness to everyone he met.  Are we the same?

3) Understand Sin as the absence of Love - How should we understand Sin?  Breaking Rules?  Who decides what is sin anyway?

4) Encourage Christ-ians to be producers, not consumers - We live in a consumer society. Is there a danger that some of us are ‘consumers’ of Christianity?

5) Have an intelligent understanding of Scripture - How do we approach the Bible?  A hand-written text from God?

6) Blend the scientific with the mystical - Was the world created in six days?  How did Noah get all those animals onto the Ark?!

7) Be tolerant and open to all - How do we connect with other human beings?

8) Embrace tradition while being open to the contemporary - How can we honour the old and embrace the new?

9) Understand that forgiveness is How the World is Set Right - Is forgiveness the answer to the World’s problems?

10) Be a Eucharistic Community - How does taking Jesus into ourselves help us?

One final thought.  You would be entirely right to ask me 'What kind of Christian are you?'.  Every preacher brings to the task of preaching something of who he is, and of what he (or she) personally believes.  So, let me lay my cards on the table.  I generally tend to avoid labels, for myself or anyone else, because people often assume they understand what such a label means.  But I acknowledge that labels do help us to get a sense of where someone is coming from.  So, if you forced me to choose a label for myself, I would say that I am a 'liberal'.  Let me break that down!

What it doesn't mean is that you could instantly pigeon-hole me as a supporter of the Liberal party!  Neither, as some people assume, does it mean that I believe that 'anything goes'.  I take the meaning of the word liberal from the Latin 'liberalis' - which means someone who is generous, munificent or gracious.  It also has, for me, a shade of the way the French use the word 'liberte', meaning 'freedom'.  In other words, by using the term 'liberal' I strive to be someone who is generous about the beliefs of others.  I believe that everyone is free to pursue truth as they wish, and I will be as generous as I can in listening to their insights along the way.  I believe there should be freedom to explore ideas for all, and that anyone who tries to close down discussion with a strict set of rules is probably in error.  Worse, they probably end up, ultimately, closing themselves off from all the depth and complexity of Real Truth.  I try to remain open, and generous-of-spirit to new ideas and new insights, from wherever they may come.

So, I invite you, over the coming months, to journey with me into my weird liberal world.  More than that, I invite you to think deeply about what it means for us to be an 'authentic church' - a church which is authentically 'Christ-like', 'Christ-ian' and which honours and proclaims Christ to the world.


Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Ones Jesus Didn't Heal

John 5.1-9  - The Ones Jesus Didn’t Heal
Today’s Gospel reading finds Jesus at the Sheep Gate of Jerusalem, at a famous pool – the pool of Beth-Zatha.  This pool had a reputation throughout the land as a place of miracles.  It was said that from time to time, an angel would stir up the still waters of the pool, and that the first sick person to get into the water after that would be miraculously healed.  The Bible doesn’t tell us whether or not this was true – only that this is what people believed. 
It's no surprise, therefore, that the area around the pool was packed with sick people, each hoping for their chance to get into the water.  They were all over the place – and Jesus went for a visit on the Sabbath.
Try to imagine the scene.  Jesus stops at the entrance to the pool.  He looks around at the sea of blind, lame and paralysed people.  And his eye comes to rest on a man who has been there for 38 years.  38 years of hoping he would somehow manage to be the first in the water.  But for 38 years, he had had no-one to help him get into the pool.
What follows is a remarkable story of Jesus’ compassion for this man.  He frees him from his sickness.  He frees him perhaps from his superstition too…he frees him from putting all his hopes into a strange story of angels stirring up the water.  Jesus enables this man to start his life over again.  And Jesus does all this on a Sabbath – provoking the wrath of the law-makers of Israel. 
Each of these facts would be interesting enough reasons for a sermon.  But they are not what intrigues me most about this story.  For me, the question is this…why this man, and why not the others?  The text describes an area packed solid with the sick, the lame and the dying.  Presumably Jesus would have had to step over some of the other sick people to get to the one man whom he was about to heal.  Why only one man?  Why not heal everyone there? 
This is a question which of course plagues everyone who believes that God has the ability to heal.  We have all heard tales of miraculous healing.  We all know that cave wall over the healing pool at Lourdes is hung with the crutches of those who have been healed.  I wouldn’t be surprised if most of us have a friend or a family member whose recovery from some illness or other has seemed miraculous. 
And yet, many more of us live with sickness – our own or that of someone we love.  Sickness and frailty are a part of the human condition that God seems to purposefully not heal – despite our fervent prayers.  It seems as though God steps over our sickness, or that of a family member, to get to someone else.  Why?  How does this make sense?
Well, to grope towards an answer, I invite you to use your imagination again.  Imagine an airplane, on which the engines have failed in mid-flight.  Aargh!  The passengers and crew cry out for God to help them, for they are about to crash.  Hearing their prayer, God’s giant hand reaches down from the clouds, picks up the plane, and deposits it safely on the earth. 
I wonder what the effect of such an event would be.  I think this is what would happen…human beings would simply stop bothering to invent and create well-designed airplanes.  What’s the point of implementing rigorous safety protocols, if God is going to rescue any plane in trouble?  In fact, why bother with airplanes at all?  Let’s just throw ourselves off the nearest cliff, in the direction we want to travel…because God will catch us and deposit us where we want to go!
The same analogy applies in every area of human suffering.  If God intervened every time we human beings do something stupid, or thoughtless, or selfish – how would we grow?  How would we develop as a species?  How would we learn right from wrong?  Sickness – and the other challenges of life - provide a crucible for human beings to do wonderful things.  It gives a task to the greatest minds to seek out the cures for diseases.  It gives an opportunity for the rest of us to give sacrificially to medical charities, or through our taxes to Government-funded research.  From the act of caring for someone else with an illness, we learn compassion and care.  From our own illness, whenever we suffer it, we learn humility from realising that we are not, in fact, invincible.  We learn, instead, that we need others to help us function.  We need the care of medical workers – including Junior Doctors!   We need the care of our family and our friends.  We learn that it is in relationship with each other that we are at our best…that we reach our fullest potential.
This was true for the man at Beth-Zatha.  His problem was not a lack of faith.  For 38 years he had believed in his cure.  His problem was that he had no-one who could carry him down into the water.  He was alone.  It was only when Jesus came along, and created a relationship with the man, that he was able to find the healing he needed.

This story then is a model for all humanity.  God can and does heal our sicknesses…there is simply too much evidence to deny the reality of miraculous healing, and it is why we pray for it for our ourselves and our loved ones.  But, until the new Jerusalem of this morning’s reading from Revelation is established, God permits sickness to be a part of the world in which we must live.  He wants us to learn from it, to grow through it.  He wants us to learn the value of charity to others, and the humility of receiving charity from others.  He wants us to embrace the concept of living in community – for, to quote Shakespeare on his 400th anniversary – “no man is an island”.  Just as God finds Godself in the relationship and community of being three in one, Father Son and Spirit – he yearns for us too to discover the beauty and the growth of living in community with one another, and with him.  

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Setting out for the Future Together

Setting out for the Future Together
A Statement from the Rector
to the Annual Parochial Church Meeting 2016

The trouble with thanking people, as every leader knows, is that there is always someone who gets forgotten.  There is almost bound to be someone sitting here today who is quietly seething because I have obviously not noticed their personal act of self-sacrifice…the way they came in that day and quietly made tea for visitors in the church, or the day they put that extra donation in my hand for the Big Build Campaign, or the day they organised some work to be done on the church’s behalf. 

The one thing that has consistently impressed me about St Faith’s is the sheer number of you who do volunteer your time in one way or another.  It seems that almost every one of you is involved in some way – for the good of the whole parish.  Cleaners, flower arrangers, bell ringers, choir members, servers, pastoral visitors, welcomers, sidespeople, musicians.  Then there’s the vast array of committees that we run – there’s the Communications Team, and the Pallant Buildings Development Team.  There’s the Finance Committee and the Capital Campaign Group.  There’s a Buildings Management Committee, and a weekly Site Team meeting.  There’s a Churchyard Development Group, and the Church Electronics Team.  And many more besides.

And this is of course precisely the way it should be.  As we are often reminded, before sharing the Peace, that ‘We are the body of Christ’.  That’s an incredibly profound thought.  Just ponder it for a moment.  With the wave of holy hand, God could surely do everything that needs doing without our help.  We believe in an ‘Almighty’ God, for whom nothing is impossible.  And yet, he invites us to be his serving hands in this community.  He invites us – you and me – to co-operate with him in his mission to redeem Havant and the whole world.  What a privilege we have been given…to be God’s loving hands to a dying world!

I thank God every day for the service you all give.  I thank God that Father Peter, Father David and even Father Brown of blessed memory have faithfully preached this most fundamental message of the Christian faith.  We are a body.  Without each other, without each other’s service to one another, we would achieve precisely nothing.  We stand, or fall, as the people of God in this place entirely on how much we are willing to give up our own desires, and serve the common good.

As we set out for the future together, I find myself joyfully optimistic about what we can and will achieve together, by the grace of God.    Our Mission Development Plan has given us a firm foundation on which to build…a direction in which to travel.  There are many challenges ahead…and there will be many sacrifices to be made along the way. 

It is, of course, the very idea of Sacrifice that stands at the heart of the Christian Faith.  With Good Friday only a few weeks behind us, we have once again reflected on the sacrifice of our Lord – and on how his pouring out of himself led to so much creative energy, that he ultimately burst out of his own tomb.  Just this week, I was at Bosmere School, taking an Assembly and chatting to the children.  A couple of them came up to me and asked “Why is Good Friday called ‘good’”?  The standard answer, of course, is that it was good that Jesus died for the world.  But the deeper meaning is that personal sacrifice, of any description, is ultimately the greatest good that any of us can do.  Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is an icon, a grand metaphor, a prime example, of what can be achieved through sacrifice.

So, as we set out for the future together, don’t be surprised if, from time to time, I ask even greater sacrifice of you.  I’ll ask you to sacrifice the time you normally give to your TV, to come and be part of this community – in worship as well as in fun and fellowship.  I’ll ask you to sacrifice the money you normally save up for that cruise or exotic holiday – so that we can achieve the costly work of maintaining these buildings as signs of the Kingdom.  I’ll ask you to sacrifice the comfort of your sofa, for the distinct pleasure of a plastic chair in the church hall, or a paint-brush, or the sometimes frustrating work of a Committee.  And I will do so unashamedly, and without reserve…because of Christ.

We call Christ our Lord.  And by his own sacrificial death, Christ calls us into sacrifice and service.  He does this for the good of the Kingdom, and also for our own good.  He calls us to sacrifice, because sacrifice is good for us.  It takes us out of ourselves and our own tiny self-obsessions.  It expands our consciousness, and enlarges our heart.  It strengthens our character, and shapes us to be more like Christ.  I preached last year on the way that Orthodox Christians believe that our destiny in Christ is to become ‘deified’ – to become, ‘gods’ with a small ‘g’ – people who are so like God the Father that people see God’s own face in ours.  All of that becomes possible when we offer ourselves, body, mind, heart and soul, to be ‘living sacrifices’ for God.

So, thank you all.  Thank you for the sacrifices you have already made.  And thank you for the sacrifices that you will yet make.  We are the body of Christ, setting out for the future together, to build our designated corner of the Kingdom of God here in Havant.  Looking to the Ultimate Sacrifice of our Lord Jesus as our model, let continuing sacrifice be our watchword, our inspiration, and our path to salvation. 


Saturday, April 2, 2016

Never say 'Never': Doubting Thomas

John 20. 19-31

Back in 1983, Hollywood was stunned when Sean Connery decided to reprise his role as James Bond. By that time he was decidedly middle aged - and had not played Bond since 1971. Movie-legend has it that after he finished filming for 'Diamonds are Forever' he said to his wife "never again". But she was horrified, and replied "no - never say 'never again'!"

The title of the 1983 movie was a bit of a joke at Connery's own expense.  It was a way of him recognising that he had been a bit rash in his original statement.

And that's something I think we've probably all done at one time or another, isn't it?  I know I have.

As a young evangelical, I know that I said I would never ever be seen dressed up in clerical robes….look at me now.

I grew up on a diet of good old fashioned English food…and I remember a time when I was being taken out to dinner by friends to an Indian restaurant.  “I could never eat that stuff”, I said.  “I’ll only go with you if they also serve egg and chips”.  But when we were there…someone persuaded me to have just a little taste….and I was hooked!

When Peter and the other disciples told Thomas that they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, his response was pretty unambiguous, wasn't it?  "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe".  In other words -"never - I'll never believe what you tell me...unless I see it with my own eyes". (John 20: 25)

Just imagine the embarrassment that Thomas felt when Jesus appeared to him in that upper room!  He must have felt like an absolute idiot!  "Why did I say I would never believe?!  What a fool I was?!  Why didn't I believe my friends?!"

You see, the thing about Jesus is that he has a way of over-turning all our expectations.  His whole life-story is one of apparent contradictions to the way that others expected he should act.  He was born in a stable, not a palace.  He ate and drank with sinners, not the religious leaders.  He taught about love and forgiveness - even towards the Roman occupiers.  He rode into town on a baby donkey, not a gleaming white war horse.  He allowed himself to be murdered by the state, instead of calling down legions of angels to protect him.  He stubbornly refused to stay dead...and rose up from the grave.

Jesus overturns our expectations - just as he overturned Thomas' expectations.  Thomas expected that he could cling to the notion of empirical evidence - that he could depend only on his eyes and his own sense of touch in order to establish what was true.  And that is the fundamental mistake that is made by so many people today...people like the now infamous Richard Dawkins, and other prominent secular atheists.

God is separate from all that God has made. Above it.  Beyond it.  Outside of it.  We should not be surprised that God cannot be found in a test tube or at the end of a microscope or telescope.  God doesn't want to be found in a test tube.  Instead, God wants us to connect with him through our souls, through our spirits - through the essential essence of what it means to be God's own creation.  God wants us, like Thomas, to discover God with the eyes of faith, and the hands of trust. 

Why should that be?  Why should Jesus say to Thomas that it is those who believe without seeing who are blessed?  Wouldn't it be easier for God to make himself touchable, scientifically prove-able?

Well, perhaps it would...initially.  But the problem is that in order to be the dynamic, ever-changing world that we experience, the world needs to be constantly on the move.  To quote that wonderful old hymn; "Change and decay in all around I see...Thou changest not, O Lord, Abide with Me."

If God could somehow be scientifically reduced down to a substance that could be seen in a test tube - it would not be God.  God is as far above such reductionism as the sun is above the earth.  God is far more than anything which can been seen or touched. 

So what does this mean for us - in our daily lives, and in our life as a church?

For our life as a church it means that we must 'never say never again'!  Rowan Williams has famously said that all our language about God must be must always be open to being shaped and changed by the God who is outside of all human methods of proof.  That means never saying that we could never do things differently.  It means never saying that we could never change our view about what God is like.  It means accepting that the way we worship, the way we pray, the way we use our time and our money in the service of God must always remain open to the reality of God. 

In our daily lives, it means growing in our attentiveness to God in all aspects of our life.  God is not tied down by our decisions, or even by our circumstances.  God has the capacity to break-through even the hardest of situations that life has thrown at us.  He can heal, because he is beyond all human capacity to heal.  He can comfort, because he is beyond human systems of support.  He can challenge, because he is greater than all human challenges.  He can change our minds about priorities, life-style choices, jobs and political allegiances - because he is beyond all such limitations.

God can neither be touched, nor seen...and yet God is present with us in every circumstance of life.  God cannot be boxed or sold - and yet he is the ultimate manufacturer.  God cannot be seen, and yet he is the light.  He cannot be touched, and yet he is the ultimate ground of all being.

At the end of the day, we can, and should, do no more and no less than our brother Thomas the Twin - fall on our knees as cry out, "My Lord and My God". Amen.