Saturday, February 20, 2016

One year on...

Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18.  Philippians 3.17-4.1.  Luke 13.31-35

It hardly seems possible that today marks the first anniversary of my first Sunday service at St Faith’s.  I don’t know about you, but for me the time has simply whooshed by.
We have achieved a great deal together in the last year.  We've agreed a Mission Development Plan which has set a clear path for our future.  We've considerably improved our physical surroundings, both here in church and over at The Pallant Centre.  We’ve built strong relationships our partners and users of our halls and facilities, and welcomed new partners in the form of the Redeemed Church of God, and the Solent Male Voice Choir.

More than that, through the efforts of so many people, we have consistently kept St Faith’s open to the public – offering a Sanctuary to all.  We've depended our spirituality and our engagement with God through the Following Jesus Course – which is now reaching its climax.  We've started a new service – CafĂ© Church, which has brought new people into thoughtful engagement with God.  Together with partners in other churches, we've put on the amazing Havant Passion Play and formed a Homelessness Trust for the town.  We've brought people together for concerts and social events, art classes and dances, “brews and blues”.  We've improved our communication with the world ‘out-there’ through the magic of social media and some better signage.

And we've done many more positive, creative things together – which time prevents me from expanding upon.

In the face of such a list of achievements, it is tempting to give ourselves a nice big pat on the back.  And, why not?  In many ways, we have followed St Paul’s advice to the Philippians, from our second reading of this morning.  We have ‘stood firm in the Lord’, and followed the paths of community and communion laid out for us by Jesus.  We have kept our minds on heavenly things, and rejected the temptation to live as enemies of Christ – whose god ‘is the belly’ and whose ‘glory is in their shame’.  Paul refers to those who glory in their wickedness; like those celebrities and bankers we so often see boasting of their wealth, their toys, their champagne lifestyles.

Paul offers us a clear choice, a right road and a wrong road.  We can be citizens of Earth – obsessed by food and all the pleasures that earth has to offer.  But that road has only one destination – the lonely, self-absorbed hell of a society in love only with itself.

Or we can choose to be citizens of heaven, from where we expect our Saviour to come.  That Saviour tells us that salvation is to be found through a life bound up with his.  He calls us to lives poured out in sacrifice, always mindful of others, loving God and our neighbours as ourselves.

Much of what we have done together in the last year speaks of that kind of living.  By improving our Church, and especially our community buildings, we demonstrate that kind of living in a very practical way.  We show our love for God in the way we present this building – this symbol of his presence in the community.  We show our love for our neighbour by providing warm, dry, comfortable spaces in which our neighbours can gather, deepen friendships, and seek counsel.

So, some pride in our achievements so far is justified.  But we must never lose sight of whose mission this is.

Let me take you back to the first of this morning’s readings.  In it, we heard how God established his covenant with Abram.  Hopefully you picked up the story – God did a rather strange thing!  He commanded that Abram should divide a number of animals in two – and arrange them on either side of a path.  Then, God caused a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch to pass between the pieces…and the covenant was sealed.

What on earth was all that about?!

Scholars tell us that God was using a practice that would have been common in Abram’s day – some 4,000 years ago.  The idea was that, in a time before writing, paper and scribes, two people who were making an agreement would perform just such a ceremony to seal it.  Animals would be sliced in two – thereby spilling previous blood, the life-force of all living beings.  The two parties to the agreement would then walk together between the carcasses, as a way of saying ‘this is what will happen to us, if either of us breaks this agreement’.

Notice, however, that God changes the nature of this agreement.  He doesn't walk through the carcasses with Abram.  No – he sends a flaming torch and smoking fire-pot through the carcasses. God uses the basic practice of covenant-sealing that Abram would have recognised.  But he subtly changes it.  This is not an agreement between equals.  This is a covenant that God himself is establishing – and Abram has no say in the matter.  His task is only to hear and obey.

For what it’s worth, this is same for all God’s covenants.  His covenants with  Adam, with Noah, with Abram and with Moses – all of them are essentially clear statements of what God will do, and what he requires of his followers in return.

God’s new Covenant – or new testament -  is much the same, established by Jesus in his own blood, over the three days he speaks about in this morning’s Gospel.  Jesus doesn’t negotiate a deal with his disciples – like a certain Prime Minister has been doing in Brussels this week!  This is the act of a sovereign God who declares,  “This is what I will do.  This is my mission.  I will redeem the World, by my blood, not yours.   What I ask of you is that you ‘do this in remembrance of me’”.  In other words, “all I ask of you is that you remember me, and all that I have taught you.  Trust that I am the Lord; I am in control.  This is my mission that you are engaged with. “

So, as we look back with some pride over our first year together, we are taught by today’s readings that it is God who leads us.  Not the Rector, not the PCC…not even the Churchwardens!  Together, we listen for God’s voice, and we follow the Covenant he has established with us.  Our task is continued obedience to task of loving God and loving our neighbours.  To the best of our ability, we press on with those vital tasks that he has set us, engaging with God’s mission, empowered by God’s spirit and listening to God’s voice.  Amen.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Valentine's Day and An Encounter with the Devil

Luke 4.1-13

Today, of course, is Valentine’s Day, as well as being the first Sunday of Lent. I've been doing a little digging - to see what I could find out about the origins of Valentine's Day.  It might interest you to know that very little fact is known about it at all! The feast of St. Valentine was first established in 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who included Valentine among a list of early church martyrs.  According to Gelasius, Valentine was one of those martyrs "... whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God."  As Gelasius implied, nothing was known about Valentine, even a couple of hundred years after his death.

The reason why St Valentine has become the focus of romantic love is one of those really knows.  Certainly there is no factual history that links Valentine with love.  He appears to have been a martyr who was be-headed because he would not deny Christ...and there is a legend about him healing his jailer's daughter before his death.  But that's about it.  There is one story, from the 1400s (more than a thousand years after Valentine’s death) that he was arrested for performing secret marriages of soldiers – who the Roman army preferred to keep celibate, to be better fighting men.  But that is a highly dubious story.

There’s one other potential connection worth exploring.  The Romans had a festival called Lupercalia, which celebrated the she-wolf who had suckled the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. It was celebrated on the 15th of February, and included all sorts of fun and games...and no doubt a certain amount of, shall we say, 'romancing' used to take place between the young men and women of Rome. It may simply be that the feast-day of the largely unknown St Valentine was closest to the ancient love-fest of Lupercalia... and the two have become entwined.   Who knows?

Nevertheless, we are where we are...Valentine's day has become linked to the notion of romantic love...spurred on by the card-printers and that now, all around the western world, lovers of every age are desperately running around trying to find some small token of love.... preferably one that they haven't found in a previous year. It's quite a challenge, isn't it?!

In the light of this lack of information about Valentine, it would be relatively easy to dismiss the whole story as worthless myth – and to refuse to have anything to do with it at all.  But that would be to miss the point of myth.  Myths and fables may not be literally, factually, historically true.  But they always contain truth.  We should always be careful not to confuse fact with truth.  Facts are scientifically testable events.  Truth, on the other hand, is the search for meaning underneath either a fact or a story.

Let’s use a simple example.  If I drop a heavy object while standing on the earth, it will fall to the ground.  That is a fact.  But the truth, underlying the fact, is that the force of gravity acts upon the object to cause it to move towards the centre of the earth, until a solid object (like the ground) stops it from moving.

And that’s the challenge of Valentine.  Any stories you may hear about him are myth.  There is no factual, provable evidence even for his existence.  But the underlying truth of this day that has grown up around him is that love does matter, and the bonds of love between human beings are worth celebrating and nurturing.

Today’s Gospel story is a similarly perplexing tale for anyone searching for objective fact.  For a start, there are no witnesses to the events with the Devil in the desert, except Jesus himself who –perplexingly - never wrote anything down.  We can only guess, therefore, that we have received the story of Jesus’ temptation by him telling his disciples about it, after the event – and we all know how good Jesus was at telling parables.

But facts are not the point.  It is the underlying truth that we are invited to discover.  The truth of Jesus’ encounter with Satan is that God chooses to establish a Kingdom which is based on some very clear principles.

First, Jesus rejects the invitation to turn stones into bread.  He rejects the idea of miraculously feeding the starving poor – and I assume he did so for a very good reason.  The truth of this story is quite simply this: if God was to feed the starving poor of the world, we would learn nothing, as a species, of the value of sharing.

Secondly, Jesus rejects Satan’s invitation to throw himself off the temple, and be miraculously transported to the ground by Angels.  The truth here is that Jesus did not come to wow the crowds with miracles and spectacle.  He did not want people to follow him because he could do magic tricks.  Jesus is not David Blaine!  He wanted people to follow him because they chose to follow a hard road, a narrow way:  the only way that leads to truthful living, and everlasting life.

Thirdly, Jesus rejects Satan’s invitation receive all the Kingdoms of the world, if he will only bow down and worship the Devil.  But the truth is that Jesus refuses that invitation.  His Kingdom will not be based on the Devil’s principles of greed, selfishness, exploitation and warfare.  God’s Kingdom will be based on decidedly different principles – the principles of sharing, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, charity and love.

And here, finally, Valentine and Jesus come together.  It is love which we celebrate on Valentine’s day – human love, ‘eros’ love as the Greeks would say.  But the truth of Jesus is that such love is only a pale shadow of the love that God has for us.  It is only a pale shadow of the love we are called to have for all humanity.  God calls us outwards from the love between two people, and into a divine love which embraces the whole of creation.  Amen.

Friday, February 5, 2016

From the Mountain Top

Luke 9.28-36 - The Mount of Transfiguration

Have you ever had a mountaintop experience?  You know, one of those experiences that blows your mind - something you'll always remember?  I've had a few.  I've been at fantastic worship events, where emotion has overwhelmed me.  I've been at family celebrations, which I will always remember.  And I've had literal mountain-top experiences - breathing in the cool air and amazing views at the top of various hills and peaks.

Weddings are mountain-top experiences.  For weeks, months, or even years (sometimes) people look forward to their wedding day.  Everything has to be perfect...the music, the dress, the cake, the's all vitally important.  And then, at the wedding I well find yourself caught up into one of those mountaintop experiences.  Your senses are in over-drive - sound, sight, smell, hearing, touch...all are at peak efficiency.  You become determined to drink in every moment.

But you have to come down the mountain again. The next day, there are bills to be paid, journeys to be made.  New wives discover that their new husbands have smelly feet!  And new husbands discover that their beautiful new wife now wants to change them, stop them drinking and introduce them to couscous!  Reality comes flooding in, and life has to be faced again.

Our Gospel story today is of just one such mountain-top experience.  The disciples find themselves caught up in an event which underscores the whole ministry of Jesus.  There is a view back through history - as Jesus meets with people who have been part of the story of the past...Moses and Elijah, and is affirmed by them.  And then there's a peering into the future, as God's voice from heaven confirms again who Jesus is, and the importance of his mission. "This is my son, the Chosen One...listen to him!"

The disciples who have accompanied Jesus to the mountain-top are having the time of their lives. They don't want to leave...and they even suggest building shelters for Jesus, Elijah and Moses.  They seem to want to capture the moment, and stay in it forever.  But the thing about mountain-top experiences is - you have to come down from them again.  Discipleship involves following, and going on.

Mountain-top experiences are part of life - and they are often part of the life of faith.  Some people spend their whole lives trying to regain such experiences.  Mystics and saints have lived lives of ever increasing discipline and piety in the hope of touching, once more, the face of God.

But faithfulness is not achieved by freezing a moment of time...and trying to live in it forever. Faithfulness, and true discipleship, is achieved by following-on in confidence that God is leading...and that what lies ahead is even greater than what we have already experienced.  You have to come down the mountain again...and take what has been seen, learned and experienced on with you...on into the journey.

My hope is that our Sunday services are mini-mountain-top experiences.  They are a moment in the week when we experience God together, and through each other.  They are a couple hours in the week when we climb the mountain, and look beyond ourselves, beyond our day to day lives, and briefly touch the face of God.

But we have to come down the mountain.  We have to keep following on...following God into our every-day lives...taking what we have said, done and experienced with us.  We allow our worship, the words we say, the actions we do, to permeate our daily lives...colouring them, perfuming them.  Because of our mini-mountaintop experience we somehow live lives that are more infused with meaning, more alert to what God is doing in our lives, and through us in the lives of others.

One of the things I hear most often as a priest are the immortal words "you don't have to go to church to be a Christian" – usually from someone who is asking for baptism for their child, or to arrange a wedding.  Of course you don't have to go to church to be a Christian...but it helps!  It’s a bit like learning to play football.  You can practice in your back garden all your like….but until you’ve played in a team, you’ll never really understand what football is all about.  Through being together, like the disciples on the mountain-top, we get to drink together from The Source....we get to be inspired for the next week...we get to eat food for the journey.

But it’s never about the’s always about the journey.  It should never be about the Sunday should always be about the day-by-day service...the giving of service to our families, our co-workers, our friends and our neighbours.  Inspired at the mountain-top, we go back into the valley to bring the light of Christ to everyone we meet.  Just as Jesus left the mountain and then set his face towards Jerusalem, healing and teaching along the way, so we too are called from this mountain top out into the world.

As we shall say at the very end of this service: Go, in the peace of Christ, to love and serve the world…in the name of Christ.  Amen.