Saturday, December 15, 2018

What's in a name: Sermon for the Community Carol Service 2018

What’s in a name?

In 2017, the Office of National Statistics recorded the name of every baby registered that year. Seasonal names in 2017 saw 166 babies called ‘Angel’, four were named ‘Gift’, 37 named ‘Star’ and 5 called ‘Merry’.  There were more than 200 girls called Holly who were born in December alone. Nearly 1000 boys were named Gabriel, 400 were called Nicholas, and 120 called ‘Noel’.   Sadly, I couldn’t find proof that anyone had named their child Santa.

Deciding on the name for a baby can be a hard choice, especially if the meaning of the name comes into the decision making process.  Our new Grandson, born this year, was called Lucas – which comes from the Latin word for Light….because he is of course the Light of our Lives at the moment (or so my wife tells me).  I’ve hesitated to point out that the word Lucifer has the same Latin root… because Satan was once an angel of light, according to the myths…just in case my grandson grows up to be a little devil!

In some cultures, you’ll hear names that don’t need any researching to find out what’s behind them, girls called Grace, or Chastity or Patience - qualities that may, or may not come to be realised as the child grows.  The stained glass windows in our choir stalls have three lovely ladies in them, called Faith, Hope and Charity.

Names are important, and the baby whose birth we celebrate every Christmas had a whole heap of them.

The prophet Isaiah, foretelling his birth, called him Wonderful Counsellor, Powerful God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  In other prophecies, he was called ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God with us’.

The Wise Men from the East came looking for the ‘King of the Jews’.   After the visit of the angels, the Shepherds set off to find the Saviour, the Christ, the Lord.

Mary and Joseph though had some very specific instructions from Angels about the baby’s name. Mary’s instructions came in person, Joseph’s in a dream. The child will be called Jesus, because, as Joseph was told, he was going to save people from their sins.

A few years ago, I was accosted in the churchyard by a dear lady of somewhat dubious mental health.  She harangued me for quite a while about the fact that we don’t, in fact, call Jesus by his proper name.  Actually, she was right.  The name he was given was in fact ‘Yeshua’ – which is anglicised to Joshua.  Yeshua means’ God saves’ – and it is what Jesus would have heard when his mother called him into the house for his tea.  Over time, through translations from Aramaic into Greek then into English, the consonants and vowels got changed – leaving us with the modern rendering of his name: Jesus.

Which makes Jesus an extraordinary name for a child to be given, because there was an expectation that he would live up to the name he was given and go on to genuinely save people from their sins.

There’s no mention in the bible of Jesus having a surname, but that isn’t hugely surprising. At the time Jesus lived, an individual would be known by their given name, and then perhaps the place they were from. Jesus of Nazereth would be good example. Perhaps their occupation - like Matthew the Tax Collector; or maybe who their father was, like James son of Zebedee.  What is certain is that Jesus’ surname wasn’t ‘Christ’.  No-one approaching him in the street would have said ‘Good morning, Mr Christ’.  That wasn’t his surname – but rather it is a Title…a word which means ‘saviour’.  So, if you like, you can call Jesus Christ ‘Yeshua Saviour’.  Certainly the old lady in the churchyard would be much happier if you did!

Titles can be useful things.  We have a number of them with us tonight, in fact.  We’ve got the Mayor, our Member of Parliament, and one or two Presidents – past and present - of the Rotary Club.  We have a Director of Music, and at least two church people with the title of ‘Reader’. 

I also have a title – that of Canon…which doesn’t mean that I have a tendency to go bang!  If you’re interested, it’s basically an honorary title, conferred by the Bishop.  It means that, apparently, I can be trusted to teach the faith with authority.  It comes from a Latin word meaning ‘rule’ or ‘measure’ – and it’s a word we use to describe an authorised body of work…like the canon of Shakespeare, or the canon of Scripture.

Titles give us a clue about what function someone carries out, don’t they?  They help us to understand who we are talking to, or talking about.  Sometimes, titles can be a burden to us.  I can think of at least one Prime Minister who is finding her title rather burdensome at the moment!

Other titles can be rather liberating and fun.  Ken Dodd, of blessed memory, sometimes referred to himself as the ‘Chief Tickler of Britain’.  And then there are the plan daft titles which are creeping into the world of work.  Last week, for example, I heard of someone called the ‘Chief Wizard of Light Bulb Moments’.  Turns out he was a Marketing Director.  And I rather like the title of ‘Grand Master of Underlings’…which turns out to be a Deputy Manager! 

There is one title, however, that we can all aspire to because of Yeshua Saviour – Jesus Christ.  The whole point of Jesus living among us was to show us what God is like.  Jesus wanted us to see God differently than how he has been viewed in the past.  Jesus showed us that God wasn’t a distant deity, perched on a mountain-top or a cloud, viewing the world from a distance.  Instead, Jesus gave God a new title – the title of Father…or, actually, the title ‘Abba’ – which means ‘Daddy’.  Jesus, born as a child himself, invites us to view God as a parental figure…the Daddy, or the Mummy, who cares about their children.  And so, we are offered a new title – the title of Child of God.

Of all the titles I’ve been given – Rector, Reverend, Canon…the one which matters most to me is the simplest of all, the one modelled by the baby in the manger…child of God.

I am Tom, child of God.

And Peter, our Mayor, is Peter, child of God.

And Alan, our MP, is Alan, child of God.

And everyone here…we are all children of God.

That title is one which every member of the human race can claim.  We are all God’s children.  The only choice we have to make is whether we choose to be part of the family of God as well. 


Saturday, December 8, 2018

Advent 2: Prepare ye the way of the Lord

Luke 3.1-6  & Malachi 3.1-4

“In the 32nd year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the 2nd, during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, when Robert Runcie was the Archbishop of Canterbury, and when Torvill & Dean won gold at the Olympics by dancing to Bolero, the word of God came to Billy Graham at Wembley Stadium.” 

That’s something like how Luke’s readers would have heard his opening words of chapter 3. 

Dates are interesting things, aren’t they?  The problem for Luke, when he wrote his Gospel, is that no-one had come up with the idea of dating years by numbers.  In Luke’s day, events were tied to the reigns or activities of significant people.  Which is why he begins his account of John the Baptiser’s ministry with the rather long list of posh people that I had to read out just now!

Luke wants his readers to know that the events he is reporting can be traced to a particular time and place.  He is saying: “Pay attention!  Listen up!  I’m telling you about something that happened in living memory!  A herald came with an urgent message from God”.

And what was that message?  John the Baptiser quotes Isaiah’s vision of the massive earth-works needed to build a road across a wilderness – reconfiguring the landscape shovelful by shovelful.  Because that ultimately is how you build a kingdom…brick by brick, shovel by shovel, or…if it’s a spiritual Kingdom, person by person, or soul by soul.

The prophet Malachi – who wrote our first reading for today – had similarly dramatic ideas of what God’s coming means:  God is in the precious-metals business, refining, purifying gold and silver by putting it through the fire to reveal its pure state; God is a consuming fire.   

In another stunning image, God is a washerwoman armed with fuller’s soap – not soft, perfumed lavender-scented handwash, but abrasive laundry soap that scrubs and scours.  Fulling is the art of cleansing wool – to strip out all the oils, dirt, manure and other impurities.  Pure white wool has been “fulled” – with some pretty abrasive chemicals!

In Jesus, Luke sees a vision of the sheer purity that is the goal for all humans. That holiness is what God made us to share when we were made in God’s image.  God challenges us to be what we were created to be.  And in Advent, these flamboyant images of fire, scrubbing and highway-engineering describe what it is like to prepare to experience the salvation of God.

God’s purpose is always to restore the original beauty that has been lost to sin.  Malachi’s name means “my messenger” – and he was part of God’s plan to clean things up.  He roundly condemned the laxity and corruption of the leaders of his day.  John the Baptiser, in the verses that follow today’s reading, goes on to call the people who heard him a ‘brood of vipers’.  If either of them were around today, they would have many people to hurl such insults at, wouldn’t they?  Corrupt politicians, tyrannical dictators, greedy bankers, ultra-capitalists and extremist preachers.

But John and Malachi would not have confined themselves to the mighty people of society – even if the calendar depended on them!   They would ask not just about bankers, but about how you and I use our wealth and power too.  

The polemicist Libby Purves made a salient point this week.  Writing in the Times on Monday (3/12/2018) she pointed out how sharply our society is divided - not just between Leavers and Remainers, but also between the rich and the poor.   In a very arresting image, she pointed out that the people who queue in Waitrose and those who queue in food banks are not actually from different species.  Her main point was that the rich need to beware of constantly pressing down on the poor.  The rich will suffer just as much, in their own way, forced by their own greed to retreat behind their gated community fences, with bars at the window, and paid security guards.  They will end up living in gilded cages, barely experiencing their country, or connecting with their neighbours at all.

Christmas is a time for giving.  It is good to give gifts to our families and friends, of course. – because friendship is a wonderful gift to celebrate and strengthen.  But we who are among the wealthiest people in the world can choose to level the playing field, to fill up the valleys of poverty, and lower the mountains of greed.  Shovelful by shovelful.  Pound by pound. Penny by penny.

Perhaps we might add up what we will spend this year on Christmas celebrations, and make an appropriate donation to charities on top?  Then, people who have no one to give them a gift can receive a gift from us. 

Getting the balance right over these things is of course only a tiny part of what it means to prepare for God’s coming among us, during Advent.  What does it mean, for example, to prepare ourselves spiritually for the coming of the King?  How can the crooked parts of our lives be made straight?  How can we help to lay the straightening road through the wilderness…one shovelful at a time….one person at a time – beginning with ourselves. 

Both John the Baptiser and Jesus himself learned to say ‘Yes’ to the call of God on their lives.  Are we also learning what it means to say ‘Yes’ – Yes to the chance to go deeper, to live more fully, to expand our spiritual horizons – engaging with all the opportunities that there are in this parish for worship of God, and service to the community?

Advent is a call to wake up and respond to God’s initiative.  “In the 66th year of the reign of Elizabeth the 2nd, when Theresa May is the Prime Minister (at least until Tuesday) and Justin Welby is still the Archbishop of Canterbury, the word of God comes to us: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.  Make his paths straight.”


Saturday, December 1, 2018

Advent 1 - 2018. Tired of waiting?

When, I wonder, did we forget how to wait for something. None of us like waiting, for anything.  We want what we want, and we want it now!  And, if we are one of the 1% of the world who have enough money to buy pretty much anything we want, we tend to get it…now.  

Clare (my wife and partner) came back from visiting a friends house recently, extolling the joys of the new 'Echo' device.  'It's fantastic', she said.  You can just ask it to play the radio, or for a summary of the news headlines, or what the weather will be!  I really fancy one for Christmas.'

Three days later, one arrived in our house!
The Season of Advent is the beginning of the Church’s New Year, and it is designed specifically to be a time of waiting.  For the rest of our society, the New Year starts with a bang and fireworks…with a sense that we’ve ‘arrived’ at something important.  That’s odd, when you think about it.  Why should the simple turn of the Calendar be something to be celebrated with dancing in the street and all night parties?  But the Church, deliberately, counter-culturally , starts its new year with two important words…’Coming’ (which is what ‘Advent’ means)…and ‘Wait’.
In Advent, we can’t help looking forward, because we see the way the world is now.  We yearn for God to put things right.

That hope - that God will one day put all things right - is rooted in a long tradition.   The Hebrew Bible is full of longing for the day when God will transform society into something fair and just.  In today’s reading, Jeremiah speaks for God, when he says ‘Surely the days are coming when I will fulfil the promise I made’. 

When will this happen?  Well according to Isaiah – another Hebrew prophet -  peace will break out when all the peoples of the world say ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord…that he may teach us his ways’.  In other words, Isaiah says that the reign of God will begin when the peoples of the world finally accept that human ways of doing things don’t work.  Peace will reign when the peoples of the world turn away from their sin, and ask God to teach them his ways.

And what about Jesus?  What will his ‘second coming’ be like?  Well, Jesus himself is rather opaque on the subject, to be honest.  The language of Luke’s Gospel  - based on Mark - is all about the Son of Man coming in clouds…which is a pretty strange metaphor.  Could it mean that Jesus’ coming will be hidden – obscured in the way that clouds cover a mountain?  Then, Jesus says one of the most intriguing lines of the New Testament:  “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”. 

Well, that’s odd…isn’t it?  Given that he said these words around 2,000 years ago.  Either he was mis-reported (which would mean that the Bible needs to be read with great care).   Or perhaps there are still some people alive, walking around in secret, who were alive in Jesus time – as some nuttier theologians have suggested.  (Sounds like an episode of Doctor Who doesn’t it?). 

Or perhaps – and this is what I personally believe – Jesus is, in fact, already come, stealthily, in clouds.  That by his Holy Spirit, he is already among us.  That he is even now, continually, gathering his elect – his followers – from the ends of the earth.  Gathering us into churches, love-factories, for the spreading of his message of Love.

And, while we wait for the completion of the Reign of God, there is a very real sense in which God is already among us, already coming – in fact already here.
Every time a war-monger lays down his weapons, Jesus comes.

Every time a family is raised up out of poverty by the Robert’s Centre, or out of fear by the Southern Domestic Abuse Service, Jesus comes.
Every time a lonely person finds a friend in our morning church-opening, Jesus comes.

Every time a family is fed by the Beacon Foodbank, Jesus comes.
Every time one of the homeless people sleeping all around our church is treated like the human being they truly are, Jesus comes.

Every time that an alcoholic, a gambler, a drug user turns up to one of our Pallant Centre support groups, and says ‘NO!’ to their addiction, Jesus comes. 
Every time an exhausted and confused mother finds support and help in our Play Café, Jesus comes.

Every time a young person develops their human potential through Dynamo Youth Theatre, or a person with learning difficulties grows in confidence through Creating Chaos, Jesus comes.
You see - signs of the kingdom are all around us.  Our task, like an alert house-owner, is to keep awake.  To see the signs of the kingdom with open eyes, and join in with the activity of God, wherever it is found. Amen.