Sunday, 11 February 2018

Sunday next before Lent : Transfiguration

Mark 9.2-9, 2 Corinthians 4.3-6, 2 Kings 2.1-12


In our Old Testament reading today Elijah seems like he is on a farewell tour, even his own funeral procession, and the company of prophets come out to see him at Bethel, Jericho and the Jordan. They know that Elisha is soon to lose his master, the father of all prophets and insist on telling him. In doing so they are also reinforcing their credentials as prophets.

But Elisha is already aware and seems a bit fed up that they might even think that that he wouldn’t know this. Elisha had ploughed fields before being called as Elijah’s servant so maybe they are reminding him of his previous lowly status and asserting their supposed superiority.

It must have been a stressful and worrying time for Elisha yet Elijah doesn’t seem to be offering much comfort or reassurance as he suggests that he doesn’t journey with him on these final travels, a strange way to treat someone who gave up their work and family to follow you.

Finally Elisha gets his moment alone with Elijah after they cross the Jordan and when asked what he wants as a final gift before he dies Elisha tells him that he also wants to be a prophet, only with ‘a double portion of your spirit’.

Elijah’s importance is reinforced through the dramatic symbolism of a chariot and horses of fire, seen only by Elisha, an incredible affirmation of God’s power, leaving him confirmed as Elijah’s successor. If we were to read on in the second book of Kings we would see that despite these amazing events Elisha doesn’t get stuck in the moment but recognises his calling and is quickly engaged with his work among the people bringing healing and meeting their needs.

Of course the past is important, often full of precious memories we treasure, and events we have learned from but there is also a danger that we can get stuck there if we look back and feel that one great event defines us or that we reached a peak we could never hope to repeat.

We often hear people recounting their sporting prowess, business success or military service in a way that seems to devalue the today.

I recall an American friend of mine who stayed with me for a while. A beer salesman from Seattle, he had an outgoing personality which would become evident as he rose before everyone else each morning with his daily proclamation of ‘Hey guys let’s get going, today is going to be a great day’! We don’t need to be quite so loud about it but the positive sentiment at the beginning of a new day is certainly to be commended.

The opposite can also be true of some people. Fans of ‘Fools and Horses’ will remember Uncle Albert, who only seemed to perk up when events meant he got an opportunity to start telling a story with ‘during the war’. One time when Del Boy and Rodney were moaning about the cold he told them ‘You should have been with me on the Russian convoys, one night it was so cold the flame on my lighter froze’.

Talking of the cold I think of hikes up in the Brecon Beacons, an area not particularly in demand from those seeking long hot days, particularly Pen Y Fan, Welsh for ‘top of this place’. I’ve set off facing rain like stair rods and stumbled through disorientating mist only to reach a high point where suddenly the clouds have parted, the sun has broken through and the majesty of God’s creation is revealed. Sometimes it even lasted 10 minutes before it poured with rain again.

In our Gospel Reading we heard of Peter, James and John as they are taken up a mountain by Jesus, whose ‘clothes became dazzling white’ and they are the only witnesses to Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus. God instructs them to listen to his son. Surely this is a high point for the disciples in every sense of the word leaving them in no doubt as to who Jesus is, only for Peter to put his foot in it by trying to cling onto the moment, make a suggestion that will make the whole experience more earthly, as if God needed his help. As if shelters were required.

Perhaps Peter came out with this just because the experience was so wonderful, terrifying, uplifting and shocking all at once that he couldn’t think straight. I guess we can all look back on times where we wish we hadn’t opened our mouths. Even in the Welsh Mountains it can be hard to find the words for the beauty around you and there’s definitely a time and place just to be still, silent and let your soul be nurtured.

Perhaps there’s a lesson for us, whilst there is a time to speak out when we have good cause to do so there’s also a time not to. Occasionally it’s better to remain silent and risk being thought foolish than to open our mouths and remove all doubt.

Of course, it’s also Peter, James and John who Jesus invites to watch with him in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and that doesn’t run too smoothly either with the disciples falling asleep. It’s as if we are invited to think ‘crikey surely these guys should have done better’ and yet at the same time encouraged. Encouraged because if we reflect on our own failures, we realise that Jesus doesn’t give up on them or us despite everything.

So we have Moses representing the Law of the Old Testament and Elijah the prophets, deferring to Jesus. They are indicating that they had pointed to him in all that went before and that he is their fulfillment.

Jesus brings us quickly back to earth as he tells the disciples to keep this to themselves until he had risen from the dead, knowing that there is much work to do. The disciples are far from clear what the future holds but at least 3 of them have no doubt who Jesus is.

Mark’s account is an important one for us as we move from Epiphany towards Lent. It’s a pivotal point as we revel in the fact that Jesus power and authority are revealed and yet know what he must face up to in order to complete his work.

We start to see that for both Elisha and the 3 disciples, whilst Gods powerful messages made matters clear for them it wasn’t the spectacular events which they were to dwell upon, these were a reference point for their work which lay ahead.

It’s a message for us too not to get stuck on mountain tops, whilst the literal interpretation can also be a bad idea hanging onto those times when everything peaks is to be enjoyed in the moment, then treasured in the past, but we are to return to the valley, back into the mess of everyday life as Jesus did to make God’s message real.

As we contemplate what we hope to achieve this Lent once we set our minds on a course of action let’s see it through even if it proves to be a struggle to do so.

It’s so easy to be motivated and have good intentions when we feel inspired by people or events in a great moment and yet the reality is that the outcomes are the personal responsibility of each of us. Let’s just say that there’s a lot more space in gym again now that January is over!

Perhaps the parents among us might consider the joyful imagery of having children versus the reality of getting up in the night to change nappies and feed them. In the long run we wouldn’t change anything but it’s certainly not a constant mountain top experience.

Maybe the thought of freeing yourself from the shackles of employment to be your own boss versus knuckling down to tax, compliance and responsibility, but it’s still worth it.

Paul is aware that our gospel is veiled to many which can make Christianity a challenge at times. Yet he offered encouragement to the church in Corinth as it faced adversity and his personal authority was being undermined. He pointed out that it can be the distractions that we allow to become our gods which have the potential to blind our minds from seeing the light of Christ.

I doubt whether we can ever have the same clarity that was bestowed upon Elisha and yet we choose to keep following Christ without miraculous revelations because we find the love of God made real in each other, in the Bible and in the Spirit. It’s a message of great encouragement and hope for us as people travelling onward together with purpose.

Our past, both good and bad does not define us or constrain us as we move forward, confident that God wants us, loves us and has a future for us.

Lent is a great opportunity to reflect on those things which may get between us and the light of Christ and to decide whether we are going to do anything about them. In doing so we have the potential to be transfigured ourselves.


Kevin Bright

11th February 2018

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Second Sunday before Lent: Becoming Flesh

There are some wonderful words in today’s readings; delight, rejoicing, pleased, glory. And what links them all is that they are all words which are being used in the context of material creation, of physical existence, of the flesh and blood reality of human life.

There’s been a persistent trend in Christian history to shunt the focus of faith from the realm of the physical to the realm of the spiritual, from this earth which we know and inhabit to some sort of hazy ethereal place in a distant heaven, as if the world to come is the only world that really counts. “Pie in the sky when you die”, is the caricature. It’s a temptation that dates right back to the early days of the church, when the Jewish faith of Jesus’ first Galilean followers was embraced by the Greek-speaking and, more importantly, Greek-thinking people of the Eastern Mediterranean nations beyond Israel. Many schools of Greek influenced philosophy at the time of Christ were very ambivalent about bodies and physical stuff generally. Some held that the world was really the botched initiative of a lesser god, others that the material creation was just a shadow of a better, purer ideal which was beyond our grasp. Many ancient Creation myths viewed men and women as a nuisance to the Gods, or as playthings to be used for divine convenience.

And while Greek sculptors gave us some of the most glorious statues of the human body, like those from the Parthenon, they were very definitely of the body at its most beautiful, youthful and strong. We may think that the obsession with body image is a modern one, but if the Greeks had had Photoshop, you can bet they would have used it to the full. The Greeks may have celebrated the body, but only at its best, and let’s face it, for most of us that’s a fairly unreachable ideal.  Perhaps I just speak for myself here, but it seems to me that most people don’t look like Greek Gods and Goddesses. Human bodies sag and bulge and creak and wrinkle. They don’t work the way we want them to. They let us down at vital moments, and ultimately they let us down completely in death.  It’s no wonder that people have so often preferred to believe that we are really just waiting for the moment when we can cast off this clayey prison and waft up into the air as an incorporeal spirit.

But that’s not what the Bible says. It’s not what traditional Jewish theology says. It’s not what our readings today tell us. Instead, they talk about creation, all of it, including our fallible human bodies, as something to delight in, to rejoice in, a glory and a wonder. Material creation, this stuff which we, and everything else around us, is made of isn’t a second-best, botched job, a ghastly mistake on the part of the creator. It is God’s pride and joy.

In the first reading, from the book of Proverbs, the figure of Wisdom works with God to create the world and then rejoices with him in his “inhabited world” “delighting in the human race.”  The Psalm is another joyful celebration of the world its writer lived in. “How manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all.” God meant us to be as we are, saggy bits and wrinkles and all, growing, changing, stumbling, aging, not in some state of static, botoxed perfection.

The Bible doesn’t downplay or ignore the problems of physical living – its pains and struggles – or the reality of the sins we commit which mar and damage the world. It doesn’t pretend that everything is always as we, or God, would like it to be But that doesn’t mean that God has rejected his creation. I have never been able to get my head around a theology that believes that God has withdrawn from us in some kind of divine huff because, in his holiness, he is somehow allergic to human sin and unable to exist in its presence. Nor can I believe that there was an unbridgeable gulf between humanity and God until Jesus came. The reason that’s never made much sense to me is that when I read the Bible, that unbridgeable gulf doesn’t seem to be there. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Again and again in the Old Testament, just at the point when human beings have screwed up completely and when all hope is lost God is there alongside them. He shows himself in a burning bush, in the vision of a ladder set up to heaven, in a still, small voice that comforts the prophet Elijah as he sits in despair in a mountain cave. He is present with slaves in Egypt and exiles in Babylon. They may not notice him. They may have turned their backs on him, but he is right there beside them all the time.

The famous Gospel reading we heard today rams that message home – “the Word became flesh and lived among us”  - among us! The people we meet in the Gospels – even those Jesus chose as his closest followers – weren’t plaster saints. They were vacillating, cowardly, sometimes treacherous people, people who squabbled among themselves and generally blundered around making things worse rather than better much of the time. They lived in an occupied land, often having to collaborate with the powers that oppressed them and make uneasy moral compromises in order to survive. Many of them had distinctly dubious backgrounds. They were tax-collectors and prostitutes, people whose lives were broken, who felt hopeless and helpless. Yet it was precisely to these people that Jesus came, God with us, God in the mess, God in the chaos, God in flesh and blood – real flesh and blood like theirs, like ours, which bleeds and hurts and dies. Why would God want to “become flesh” if this is what being flesh means?  Surely it was in order to convince us that, despite all this, flesh is still blessed, because his was flesh which also held and hugged, which knew the pleasure of a good meal at the end of a long day, which felt the silkiness of oil soothing rough skin. Jesus’ body is, quite literally, a tangible demonstration of what God thinks of human flesh, and of the world it inhabits. It is a place he wants to be.

The physical body of Jesus, born in Bethlehem, walking the roads of Galilee, sharing bread with the hungry, nailed to the cross, tells us that our bodies, all bodies, are God’s best idea, not some awful mistake. “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” said our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. And “through him” – because of his earthly, physical life, his bodily death, his bodily resurrection  – “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or heaven through the blood of his cross.” Human beings often feel estranged - from God, from one another, even from our own bodies - not because God has withdrawn from us but because we are hiding from him. And when we are estranged from our Creator we tend also to lose sight of the blessedness of what he has made, our fellow creatures and ourselves. Through Jesus, God deals with that sense of estrangement. He shows himself to be as close as he can get to us, in a human body. If he has so honoured human flesh and material creation, who are we to curse it, however troublesome or disappointing it can sometimes be?

I’m in the thick of writing our Lent course for this year at the moment. It’s called “Coming to our senses”, and it will focus on each of our five senses in turn over the five weeks of the course. There’ll also be daily reflections encouraging us to be aware of what we see, hear, smell, feel and taste. What I’ve realised as I’ve prepared it, though, is that you can’t think about senses without thinking about bodies. Without a body we’d have no senses. And that brings us up slap-bang against all our complicated feelings about being bodily people.

I’m very aware that for some, a course on the senses may mean thinking about a body which doesn’t work as we would like it to, or as it once did. We may delight in the beauty of the world, but feel frustrated that we can’t see it as well as we used to. We may celebrate the sounds of nature, but be painfully aware that we are missing out on some of them because our hearing has deteriorated. The sense of touch, of physical sensation, may be fraught with difficulty for us because we are in pain, or because we’ve been touched in ways that have hurt or frightened us. Smell and taste, so important to enjoying food, may have deserted us. Our bodies may not be a source of delight to us, but rather of anxiety, regret or shame.

We live in an age in which people seem increasingly anxious about their bodies and their appearance. Young people take endless selfies to share on social media, tyrannised by the need for others to “like” the images they post. Eating disorders and self-harm are rife, evidence of the profound difficulty many people have in being the people they are in the bodies they have. Older people desperately fight the signs of aging, buying into the lie that the only bodies worth having are young bodies. And if that wasn’t complicated enough, there’s the whole business of sex, with all the confusions that brings…No wonder bodies are often seen as problems.

If ever we needed to be reminded that flesh is good and that it is blessed by the presence of its Creator, however imperfect it feels to us, it is now.

God, in Christ, is “making peace”, says Paul to the Colossians. He makes peace between peoples. He makes peace between us and himself. But it seems to me that he also wants to help us make peace with ourselves, with our own bodies, to accept ourselves as we are, warts and all, as our flesh grows and changes, works and loves, hurts and heals, ages and dies.

So today, perhaps we should go home and look in the mirror and ask ourselves “how is my flesh, my fragile, imperfect flesh, blessed by God? How can I find God within this body, a body that isn’t some Greek sculptor’s ideal of beauty, but the only body I’ve got.” And as we look I pray that we will catch a glimpse of the God who dwells in us, who made us and loves us, just as we are, and that we will delight in his creation – ourselves - just as he does.


Sunday, 28 January 2018

Epiphany 4: On Whose Authority?

Mark 1.21-28, Deuteronomy 18.15-20

Perhaps we come to church in a routine fashion week after week, tired, rushing because we have other duties to fulfil, troubles hanging heavily on our minds. When my children were younger I’ve been guilty of thinking I wonder what the score is so far and whether I’ll make it there for the second half. Are we sometimes distracted to the point that if Jesus Christ himself stood up to speak we might not recognise his divine authority?

It seems a bit like this at the Synagogue, the regulars turn up in their usual frame of mind and when the son of God starts teaching we heard that ‘he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.’

Yet apparently it is only the man described as having ‘an unclean spirit’ who recognises where the authority comes from, that it is direct authority, perhaps this evil which inhabits him has good reason to fear Jesus and his message, to recognise and shout out that he is the ‘Holy one of God’ when no one else does. Like the Israelites on Horeb he senses awe and fear.

The people in the synagogue at Capernaum were amazed at the authority with which Jesus taught. Mark doesn’t give us much detail to draw upon, no hint of what it was that gave Jesus such unquestionable authority. Don’t you wish you could have been there to work it out for yourself? I guess it was more than just the little ‘je ne sais quoi’, of the speaker that has that something you can’t put your finger on. Perhaps the authority was beyond description, clearly it went beyond words alone.

It should make us think carefully about who we really listen to and why.

I’m sure that I’m not alone in hearing a lot of poorly informed hate filled views among people I meet. It is for us to challenge such views and to show a positive different way which encourages tolerance at the least and respect and compassion at the best.

We live in a world crowded with voices keen to be heard and have to make choices about who we listen to. The lazy choice is simply to subscribe to the news sources that paint the world the way we think it should be, which interpret speech and actions to our bias, editing out the bits which might challenge our thinking.

We need to ask on what authority is this person putting this view or policy. Perhaps their authority is derived from quoting reliable facts, personal experience or learning. Maybe they acquire an authority in our eyes because of their passion, conviction or anger. Possibly we feel they have authority because they have the courage to try to achieve outcomes for good when others aren’t willing to take the risk.

Even in church, being a few feet above those listening doesn’t give any authority to be listened to, heard maybe but not listened to.

Let’s come back to the man with the unclean spirit, again Mark doesn’t give us any clues about who he was or where he came from. Was he a visitor from out of town or was he a regular worshipper, part of the congregation, on the equivalent of the PCC perhaps? You get the feeling that Mark’s gospel is deliberately leaving us to run some scenarios in our heads for the things he doesn’t say, to broaden our thinking bringing the events into current times as long as we don’t distort key elements.

It provokes the consideration that the unclean and evil is always among us and sometimes will be us. It’s too easy to label groups of people or political parties as good or bad when the more complicated truth is that we need to look at ourselves and each other as human beings first and foremost.

The setting for today’s gospel events was a synagogue, the focus for Jewish life. One could be found in most towns and they would have had an elevated platform for the speakers, benches for the important people and the commoners would sit on the floor. The synagogue was primarily a place of teaching with 3 elements at a gathering, prayer, reading of scripture and teaching. Although there were many synagogues there was only one Temple which is where the sacrifices took place.

 A synagogue would not have had a permanent teacher or preacher and without any professional ministry it was for the Ruler of the synagogue to call upon a competent person to give the address. Mark does not indicate that Jesus was given any invitation to speak.

Hang on a minute mate I was up late preparing this you know, perhaps that would be my reaction if we had a visitor who pushed me aside this morning because he has something more important to say. Perhaps we’ll find a slot for you another time. Clearly this couldn’t wait. Would the synagogue Ruler have been happy about this? We don’t get to hear how Jesus steps up but clearly he has an authority such that the elders don’t tell him to sit back down and with good reason as he reinforces this by commanding the unclean spirit to leave the man.

Mark’s gospel is fast paced and direct. Events that take several chapters to describe in Matthew and Luke’s gospels are all covered in the first chapter of Mark. Some describe Mark’s style of writing as being like a lion bounding around with urgency and enthusiasm, the symbol for Mark’s gospel is, of course a winged lion. I haven’t even turned the page on Mark’s gospel and he’s already telling us of miracles.

So our readings give us two areas controversial for our modern era, prophets and miracles. Controversial because they can be misused and misinterpreted. Certainly I’m aware of one pastor claiming that he helped women otherwise unable to have children to do so who was later found to be smuggling babies into the country. Others claiming to have prophetic powers have manipulated vulnerable people in many ways for their own benefit.

Who do you think of when we mention prophets from the bible? Probably Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are among those that come to mind but of course they weren’t limited to the Old Testament nor were they all men. For example we are told in Luke’s gospel of Anna a lady of 84 who meets the young Jesus in the temple.

I started with reference to the fact that God promised the Israelites that he would raise up a prophet for them. After Moses died this was an urgent question for the people in our Deuteronomy reading but how would they know a true prophet from a fake?

Well there is biblical guidance beyond the obvious hint in our reading that we shouldn’t trust a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods. Assuming that false prophets are more cunning than that we need to look further and discover that it’s not something we might choose to be. After all Moses didn’t seem at all keen when God addressed him from a burning bush and Jeremiah protested saying ‘I am only a boy’.

Jesus tells us, ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits’ (Matthew 7:15-16). Guiding us to consider whether they are focussed on self benefit or truly serving others.

Perhaps if we look for modern day miracles we shouldn’t be obsessed with instantaneous results, we don’t have to follow the fast paced style of Mark’s gospel. When we stick to our beliefs and try our best to follow Christ slow miracles can happen, perhaps a bit like slow food it takes more effort and time but it’s worth it. Slow miracles are often built on a firm foundation and have lasting results. I have heard of several occasions where someone followed family members to Christ because of the authenticity of their faith over a long period. By living it people can see it makes a difference and may follow.

Of course it’s far more spectacular when someone has a ‘road to Damascus moment’ or is moved by a single event but the slow miracle is no less miraculous.

In fact when you think about it labels for outcomes really don’t matter at all if our focus is to discover the authority of Christ through his teaching and to make his love known through our actions.

It seems to me that our final focus should be on the symbolism of Jesus casting out an unclean spirit or evil spirit as another translation states it. In the few words we heard already it’s becoming clear what Jesus opposes, his powerful teaching message and his popularity with the crowds. At this time of Epiphany it’s wholly appropriate that Jesus reveals his true nature.  Here at the beginning of Mark’s gospel there is no magic spell involved, the man is healed because he recognises Christ and through him understands that he has come to replace evil with good news and hope.

We know that we can’t avoid life’s struggles and heartbreaks but Jesus calls us to cling onto hope through a love that still has authority and power greater than these things.


Kevin Bright

28th January 2018

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Epiphany 3: Water into wine

Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.

There’s an intriguing detail in the story of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee, one which I hadn’t really pondered before. It is that detail of what the water was stored in. Stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification. It’s very specific.

Purification rites were very important in the Jewish law, as they still are. You had to be clean before you came to God, and this was symbolised by ritual washing.

It wasn’t about hygiene – ancient people didn’t know anything about germs. It was about ritual uncleanness, which you could contract in all sorts of ways – contact with unclean animals or dead bodies for example. So at home you’d have to wash before prayer, before Sabbath meals, before breaking bread. It’s no accident, either, that this water is held in stone jars. Pottery jars were thought to be able to pick up uncleanness, while stone didn’t – they were more porous, I suppose. Ritual washing water stored in contaminated pottery might become contaminated itself. So stone jars had to be used to store the water you’d use at home.

And look how much of it there was. Somewhere between 120  and 180 gallons. That’s a lot of water. The kind of ritual you would do at home consisted simply of pouring a cupful of water over your hands. How much of that did they think they were going to have to do? Six huge stone jars full of water borders on the obsessional.

The family hosting this wedding strike me as being a very pious and careful lot. They were very well prepared, religiously speaking. There was no way they were going to be caught out without water to purify themselves. If cleanliness is next to godliness, as they say, then this was a very godly family.  They were ready to do whatever was in their power in order to keep themselves in a right relationship with God.

I don’t doubt that they’d been equally careful in the way they had prepared for this family wedding. I am sure they had laid in wine in large quantities. Wedding parties could go on for up to a week, and even for poor families – perhaps especially for poor families - they had to be as lavish as possible. Your family honour depended on it. So running out of wine wasn’t a trivial matter. It was a source of deep shame, which would have lasted for many years. Your neighbours would never forget that yours was the wedding where everyone had to go home early, disappointingly sober!

But all their efforts to get it right hadn’t been enough on this occasion. The wine was running out, and there was no possibility of getting more. Even if they could afford to buy it, I don’t suppose you could just pop down to the off licence for another bottle or two. It is Jesus’ mother who realised what was going on, maybe she was among the women who were actually preparing the refreshments.  And she knew, somehow, that her boy would help .  And that’s what he did – eventually!

I expect there was other water around, water for cooking, maybe even a well close by, but that’s not where Jesus directs the servants to go. The Gospel story is very specific about it. It is this water for purification that he uses. That matters, it seems to me, because John’s Gospel is always very precise in what it says.

This little detail is a reminder of what Jesus’ ministry, his life, his death, and his resurrection will do for people. Jesus’ actions here proclaim that God wants us to have more than ritual purity, more than that rather cold and grudging sense that we can creep into God’s presence, provided everything in our lives is sorted out and ship-shape. No, said Jesus, what God wants is for us to have lives that overflow with joy, hearts that sing, life “in all its fullness”, as Jesus puts it later in the Gospel.  

And this is a gift, a surprise, not something we create through our own frantic effort, but something God gives. All we have to do, like the servants in the story, is to be open to its possibility, to be be prepared to scoop it up and pour it out, to have our eyes open to see God at work in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

This morning, at our all age worship, I asked people what joys they had had over this past week – the moments, usually unplanned and unforeseen, when their hearts had been lifted. The smile of a grandchild, the sight of the first snowdrops, something going well that they’d expected would be a struggle, unexpected help turning up in the nick of time; these  were some of the answers people shared.  But perhaps if I hadn’t asked, they might not have thought of these things. The moments when water had been turned to wine in their lives, when God had turned up to bless them, might have gone by unnoticed.

Tonight, in the silence, then, let’s think of our own moments of joy, the water that God has turned to wine in our lives, and let’s thank God for those moments, and ask for grace to taste his goodness, the rich wine of his love, in the coming week too.


Sunday, 14 January 2018

Epiphany 2: Being Known

‘Where did you come to know me?’ asks Nathanael of Jesus. ‘Where did you come to know me?’

Jesus’ answer surprises him.  “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you”  That may not make much sense to us. What fig tree? We haven’t heard anything about a fig tree. But that’s the point. Jesus knows something he shouldn’t have known, something the narrator hasn’t even told us.  

Nathanael had originally been very sceptical about this man Philip had dragged him along to see. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he’d asked. We don’t know what he had against Nazareth, but it obviously had a bad reputation in the city of Bethsaida, where he lived. Every area has a town or a district which is bottom of the pile in terms of desirability – the wrong side of the tracks, the sink estate, the place where you know that if you put its postcode on your job application you are probably killing your chances. It may not be fair. It may not be right, but that’s how it is. Nazareth was that place, at least in Nathanael’s mind. He couldn’t imagine that any Messiah would come from Nazareth.

Still, Philip is his friend, so he decides that he will at least go and meet this man he’s so excited about.

But when he gets to Jesus he finds that Jesus, who has never met him, knows him through and through.  “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit”, he says. The word translated as deceit also means cunning, craftiness, the ability to be economical with the truth – an essential quality for diplomats and politicians!  Nathanael isn’t like that, says Jesus. And he’s quite right. We’ve already discovered that Nathanael is a plain speaking man. He wasn’t prepared to accept Philip’s opinion of Jesus uncritically just because it was the opinion of a friend.  He didn’t sugar the pill or pull his punches in expressing his opinion of Nazareth. Blunt would be the less polite description of him, or even rude. This is a man who calls a spade a spade. He doesn’t swim with the tide or blow with the wind. As Jesus says, there’s no deceit in him. He is who he is, take it or leave it. But how does Jesus know this, when they’ve never so much as exchanged a word before?

 “Where did you come to know me?” he asks. Was it a lucky guess, or something Philip had said?  No, it’s not that. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you,” says Jesus. That’s impossible – thinks Nathanael – unless God had showed this to Jesus.

It may not seem a very dramatic thing for Jesus to know, but it’s enough for Nathanael. And just as Nathanael was outspoken in his doubts about Jesus, he is now outspoken in his affirmation.  “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”  Being known is the thing that swings it for Nathanael. He’s not just a-n-other person, he is someone whom the Son of God has seen and noticed, someone whom the King of Israel has sought out and called to himself.

Being known is a fraught business these days. I’ve spent quite a lot of time this week trying to decipher the requirements of the new General Data Protection Regulation – hereinafter referred to as GDPR. It’s a new law that’s coming into effect in May, which strengthens the existing Data Protection rules. It applies to every organisation and business which holds information about people, including churches, just as the old law did, so we need to know about it and put it into practice. If an organisation has a record of your name and address, your phone number, your email address, let alone any information that is more sensitive about you, then it has to comply with these regulations. We have to be clear why we’re collecting data and get explicit consent to use it, for example to send out mailings. We have to store it safely. We have to delete it if people ask us to. It enshrines our legal right to be “forgotten” – to have our details scrubbed from the records if we want to.  

Being careful with data helps to protect against identity theft and fraud, as well as giving people control over who knows what against them. People have a right to their privacy if they want it, something that’s even more important than it used to be now that the internet makes it alarmingly easy to find out all sorts of things about people that they might prefer us not to.

The irony is, though, that this new regulation is coming in at a time when we are also very  aware of the rise in loneliness. We guard our privacy, but we also want, and need, to be known by others, to feel connected, part of a community. The Loneliness Commission, a brainchild of the late Jo Cox, who was murdered before she had a chance to see it really gain ground, has uncovered some alarming statistics from research done by various organisations. A study done by the Co-op and the British Red Cross discovered that over 9 million adults in the UK– more than the population of London – are either always or often lonely. Action for Children found that 43% of young people using their services were lonely and fewer than half felt that they were loved. Age UK says that 3.6 million people over 65 feel that the television is their main form of company. Fifty percent of disabled people say they are lonely on any given day. Refugees and migrants report loneliness and isolation as their biggest challenge according to charities that work with them. Not poverty or the uncertainty of their futures, worrying though those things may be, but loneliness, the feeling that no one notices or cares. Loneliness is now reckoned to be as bad for our health as obesity or lack of exercise. It seems it can literally kill you. Knowing and being known isn’t an optional extra which we can do without; it’s a life and death issue.  And it can affect anyone. People can be lonely in a crowd, lonely at work, lonely in the middle of a family, lonely when they are apparently successful and wealthy as well as when life is tough.

Of course, the new Data Protection regulations are important. Safeguarding personal information is important. We need to keep confidences confidential. But how do we balance that with the equally important need to be connected to others, known by them, open to one another? It’s a puzzle our society hasn’t really got anywhere near solving yet. When does keeping ourselves to ourselves turn into dangerous isolation? When does the friendliness we long for become the nosiness we hate?

As I thought about this in the light of today’s Gospel story, I wondered how I would have felt if I had been Nathanael, what it would have been like to know that someone knew something about me which I thought was private? To be sure, he’d only been sitting under a fig tree – it wasn’t as if he was up to no good – but isn’t it a bit unsettling to feel you might be being watched when you didn’t know about it? You wouldn’t get away with that under GDPR - you’ve got to tell people if you are using CCTV. GDPR would say that you can’t just go spying on people, however you do it, and I don’t think that being the Son of God would be any justification in law! And yet, Nathanael doesn’t seem to feel alarmed. Quite the reverse. He is so touched by the fact that Jesus knows him that his whole life is transformed. He becomes one of Jesus’ twelve closest disciples.

The key is, of course, that Nathanael realises that the one who knows him also loves him, the one who sees him also cares about him. Like the Psalmist whose words we read this morning, he is comforted and honoured to know that he is known. There’s no sense in Psalm 139 that the writer feels his privacy is being invaded.  God created his inmost parts, and knit him together in his mother’s womb. God knows every word on his lips, when he sits down and rises up, where he journeys and where he rests.  You can’t invade someone’s privacy much more thoroughly than that. But the Psalmist trusts God. He knows that God isn’t going to use his knowledge of him to condemn him but to help him.

That raises some  important questions for us. How do we feel about God knowing us? If God were to offer to show us ourselves as he sees us, would we be alarmed or comforted? Would we rather not know? If we are cringing inside at the thought of being so thoroughly known, why is that? It might be that we are feeling guilty about something, afraid of being found out, but it might equally be that we know we have gifts, talents or longings which we don’t want to own up to, because if we did, we’d have to do something about them.

Being known can feel comforting and enabling but it can also feel threatening and invasive. The difference lies in whether we feel we are loved as well as known. If we are truly convinced of God’s love for us, we have nothing to fear from whatever he might show us of ourselves.

The same is true of our relationships with each other. Saying hello to our neighbours and smiling at our fellow commuters is a good first step – hardly rocket science -  but genuinely knowing and being known, which are the real antidotes to loneliness, take trust and courage and most of all love to achieve. We hold back because we’re afraid it might all go wrong and we’ll find we’ve bitten off more than we can chew. But trying to be open to others is worth the risk. It transformed Nathanael and it can transform us and those around us too. We need to start though, where Nathanael starts, by discovering that we are known and loved by God. That enables us to know and love ourselves. That’s the key to creating communities where we can know and love each other, where we can reach out to those around us and let them reach out to us, so that no one need be lonely.


...and here is a recording of the choir singing "View me Lord, a work of thine"  Words by Thomas Campion. Music by Richard Lloyd.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Epiphany Sunday: Mystery revealed

Audio version here 

Isaiah 60.1-6, Eph3.1-12, Matt 2.1-12

Do you want to know a secret?

I’m not actually going to tell you one, but it’s an offer which usually makes people sit up and take notice. We all like to be “in the know”, to have some piece of information that maybe not everyone has. It makes us feel special, honoured, trusted. Depending on what the secret is it might even give us power, make our lives easier, give us leg up in the world.

At the time of Jesus, there were quite a number of what were known as “mystery” religions around.  To join one you’d need to go through some sort of initiation rite, maybe quite demanding. The lure was that, at the end of it, you’d be given some sort of special knowledge or power that others didn’t have. Of course you’d be sworn to secrecy about it then, which is why today we don’t know much of what actually went on in these cults, but that was their appeal. You became part of an elite group if you were accepted. If everyone was in on the secret, there would be no sense of specialness in belonging . 

The early Christians in Ephesus, who Paul wrote to in our second reading today would have been very familiar with these mystery religions. It’s quite possible that some of them had been members of one of these groups themselves. So when Paul uses the word “mystery” in our second reading today, he knows they will get the reference straight away.  Paul tells them that he’s been shown a mystery himself, something that’s wonderful, something that has changed his life, and it can change their lives too. The mystery he had discovered was at the heart of Christian faith. What was it? It was that the Gentiles,  those who were not Jewish, those who had always been treated as outsiders, were actually fellow heirs, part of God’s family , members of his body, “sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” 

That may not sound very mysterious or unexpected to us, but it had come as a complete surprise to Paul. He’d been brought up to think that God was really only interested in the Jewish people.  He’d been a devout and zealous Pharisee, eager to patrol the boundaries of his faith, to make sure that only those who followed the rules and kept the rituals could be part of it.  When he began to follow Jesus, though, after Jesus had appeared to him in a vision on the road to Damascus, he discovered that God’s love was for everyone, his call was to everyone – Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. It wasn’t just for those “in the know”, the religious elite, the exclusive tribe of people like himself.

Ironically, the mystery he declares to them is that there is no mystery. I think he means this passage to be a bit of a joke. The secret is that there is no secret. There is no elite group, no magic formula, no demanding admission ritual. Everyone can draw close to God “in boldness and confidence” he says.  And far from keeping it to themselves, this mystery is one that can and should be shared with everyone, shouted from the rooftops, preached in and out of season, gossiped about, spread in every way possible.

Why did Paul think this was so important? I think it was because he’d learned the hard way that elite groups are bad for people.  Elite groups are obviously bad for those outside them. They’re denied the benefits of whatever that elite group is guarding as their own possession.  But Paul realised that they were just as bad for those inside them too, because if we can’t hear the voices of those who are different from us, we end up impoverishing ourselves as well as them. We may think we have all the answers, but if we aren’t open to others we may not even have realised what all the questions are.

One of the most significant things that happened last year was a classic example of this. In the latter part of the year, a slew of sexual harassment allegations were made against powerful men in many sectors of society. As the stories broke, women started sharing many other stories of day to day harassment, in the office, in the street, on public transport, stories about things that they – we - had often taken for granted. When I was a teenager and young adult we warned each other about  men who had WHT – wandering hand trouble. Previous generations talked about men who were NSIT – not safe in taxis. And those were only the mildest issues. You just learned to put up with it, because it was a part of every day life for women. And yet, when these stories started to be shared, often with the hashtag #metoo, there seemed to be widespread surprise, especially from men. Some men, the ones who wouldn’t dream of harassing women, had just been oblivious to the scale of the problem, but others were surprised because though they knew it went on and maybe did it themselves, it seemed never to have occurred to them that the women they harassed or abused really minded.  They’d convinced themselves that it was ok to behave like this, and because they were the ones who had the power to decide whose voices were listened to, that was that.

That’s the key. It’s an issue of power as well as gender, and if we open our eyes we can see this same dynamic at work wherever there inequalities in our society.  Able bodied people make assumptions about what disabled people need and want . We think we know, when it is actually they who are the real experts in dealing with their disability. Rich people make political decisions that affect the lives of those who are poor without knowing anything about what it really feels like to struggle to make ends meet, and without seeking to know it either. Adults decide what children will want and how they will feel without asking them.  A report that came out a few days ago highlighted the dangers of “sharenting” – parents who post endless pictures of their children on social media, even if the children would rather they didn’t and ask them not to. “Nothing about us without us” is the repeated cry of those who find themselves in some sort of disadvantaged position, yet we often find it easier to talk than to listen.  

Paul says that, for the church to thrive we need to recognise  “the wisdom of God in its rich variety”.  Inclusivity, valuing everyone, isn’t about political correctness. It’s not just a nice idea: it is at the heart of Christian faith. It reveals the presence of God in our midst and releases his power to work among us. He comes to us in one another. His wisdom is found in our diversity. Each one of us has part of the picture he wants to give to us all. So we need each other, just as we are. We need each other’s gifts, but we also need each other’s struggles and vulnerability. They are what opens us up to God’s grace and love. We need each other’s answers, but we also need each other’s questions to make us dig more deeply into our own faith.  Wisdom and variety go together – you can’t have one without the other, says Paul. This was the mystery that had been revealed to him, but unlike the secretive cults  of the ancient world, this was a mystery that needed to be shared with anyone and everyone, because anyone and everyone was part of it.

The story of the Magi is a reminder of this truth. We sometimes call the Magi “wise men”, but in reality they weren’t that wise at all. They may have been clever, but that’s not the same thing. They’d seen a star in the sky, and, like many ancient people, they assumed it meant that a new leader had been born.  They knew some old prophecies about a Messiah who would usher in a better world. But the last thing they were expecting was that this new beginning would come through an ordinary child born to an ordinary couple in the ordinary back streets of Bethlehem. That’s why they went looking for him in Herod’s palace, with disastrous results for the rest of the children of Bethlehem. When they eventually found the right place, if only with the help of that star, they must have been baffled. And yet God had drawn them to the place where they needed to be, the place where they could discover that they were welcome in God’s presence. There is wisdom in this story, but it is God’s wisdom, not theirs.

Mary and Joseph must have been baffled too at these strange visitors with their even stranger gifts, but the arrival of these foreign Magi revealed God’s wisdom, the news that his son was for all people.

The Magi’s visit changed Mary and Joseph, just as it changed the Magi. Matthew tells us that they went home “by another way” – not just a geographical detail but a spiritual one also. And the message of the story is that we can, and need to, be changed as well.

This change can only come though, if we are open to the possibility that God’s wisdom can come to us through people who are utterly different from us, whose language and whose lives we don’t understand and whose experiences seem completely foreign. It can only come when we accept that there are pieces of the puzzle we didn’t even know we were missing,  questions we haven’t even thought of asking, voices we haven’t even realised we weren’t hearing. When we fail to notice them, we fail to notice God too. We may also need to learn that we have gifts to give and stories to tell, and if we don’t tell them, others will miss out on some of God’s precious wisdom for them.

The word epiphany means revelation. God revealed himself to the world in the Christ child two thousand years ago. But he also reveals himself in each of us, friend or stranger, because we are now the body of Christ. Let’s pray that in our rich and glorious variety, we might discover the mystery of God at work in us as we travel together through this New Year.


Sunday, 31 December 2017

Christmas 1: Pondering Christmas

The angels left and went into heaven… the shepherds returned [to their sheep]…

This time of year, the week between Christmas and New Year, is often a time when people are going home from family visits, returning like those angels and shepherds, and picking up the threads of their lives again. My two children were with us for Christmas, but Michael went back to Southampton on the 27th and Ruth flew back to Lisbon on the 28th – from Stansted – she managed to pick the only airport seriously disrupted by the snow to fly out of! Fortunately, she got back safely with only a little delay. Even if you haven’t had visitors or been a visitor, though, there’s often a sense that things are getting back to normal after the Christmas break at this point. People are going back to work, groups and activities are starting again. However good a Christmas you’ve had, that can feel like a relief, especially if you put the tree up really early and now all the needles have fallen off. But there’s a danger that in our haste to clear Christmas away we may miss the chance to hear its message to us.

That’s why it matters that in the church at least, Christmas has only just begun. The Magi haven’t reached Bethlehem yet, and won’t do for another week, and then after that the Christmas season continues, with what you might call the “sub-season” of Epiphanytide, until Candlemas at the beginning of February. We’re a long way from being done with this story of the baby born in Bethlehem.

The reason why we cling on like this is that Christmas isn’t just a day. The work of bringing up a baby, as any parent can testify, doesn’t end with its birth – that’s just the beginning, and it’s what comes next that really matter. That’s just as true for Jesus as it is for anyone else. The person who seems to be most aware of this in today’s Gospel reading is Mary, of course - and maybe Joseph too, though he’s not mentioned here. They are the ones who will have to care for this child, who will have the sleepless nights and anxiety, as well as the joy and tenderness of holding him close.  We are told that Mary “treasured” the words she had heard and “pondered them in her heart.” The Greek word translated as “pondered” is only used in this one place in the Bible. Its literal meaning is to bring together, or more accurately to throw together. It is sunballo if you’re interested.

I like that. It’s as if Mary is carrying a rag bag of emotions and experiences at this point, all the things that have been thrown at her, trying to make sense of them. There was the initial appearance of the angel, and his announcement to her that she would bear a child, with all the risks of scandal that involved. Then there was her emotional visit to her relative Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. Then there was the journey to Bethlehem at the diktat of a foreign emperor. Then there was nowhere for her and Joseph to stay. She’s had to lay her child down to sleep in a borrowed manger far away from home, and then these shepherds turn up in the middle of the night, with stories of more angels. She knew that something extraordinary was happening, that this child, according to the angel, was God’s son, the Messiah, the one who who would “cast down the mighty from their thrones”, which is something  the mighty tend not to be too keen on, so she knew there would be trouble ahead. But what would the future hold? What was she supposed to do now with this child? How could she bring him up with the resilience and the courage he would need? How would she find that resilience and courage for herself?  All these thoughts are jostling for her attention – thrown together in her mind as she holds her child to herself.  

We don’t get that sense of the “thrown togetherness” of all of this in the English translation of that word sunballo – pondering gives a rather different feel to it, but it’s a good word too, a word worth thinking about.  The word ponder is linked to ponderous, of course; it’s about things that are weighty. We get “pound” from the same root. Mary is weighing up all these things that have been thrown at her. They lie heavy in her thoughts. They can’t be cast off like the scrumpled up wrapping paper and Christmas packaging that litters the living room carpet by Boxing Day. They can’t be ignored, they won’t just blow away in the breeze. These are thoughts she will carry around with her all the time. She’ll sometimes struggle to bear them as her child grows and begins to live out his ministry.

Mary ponders in the days after Jesus is born, and if we want Christmas to be more than a couple of weeks of eating, drinking and singing carols, more than a mushy moment in the candlelight, we need to ponder  the thoughts, feelings and questions it has provoked in us too.  We need to allow those thoughts and feelings and questions to have their proper weight,  to have substance and reality in our lives. Where has  Christ been born in us this Christmas? Maybe it has happened in a some small impulse we have felt to set something right, to do something new, to let our lives be changed.  What will we do to turn those impulses into reality? Where has light shone in the darkness for us, and what is that light showing us about ourselves and our world? What will we do to help that light shine out?  The angel told Mary to call her child Jesus – in Hebrew it would be Yeshua, the same name we anglicise as Joshua, that famous Old Testament warrior. It means “God saves”, but how has Christ come as a saviour to us this Christmas. What do we need saving from right now? What do we need saving for? Where do we need God’s help, and how shall we reach out to find it? The Christ child, God’s word and God’s work, lies in the manger of our hearts – what are we going to do to help him grow up and grow strong?

It is easy for Christmas to feel like a bit of a dream, a time out of time, but the questions it asks us are real questions about our real lives, about our relationships, our priorities, our callings. They demand and deserve real answers. Holding onto Christmas isn’t just about keeping the crib up and not packing away the tinsel too soon. It is about finding and nurturing that life which God is trying to bring to birth in us, respecting it, taking it seriously, so that it can grow to fill us, transform us and save us. How shall we do that? That is what we are called to ponder today.