Sunday, 19 July 2020

Wheat and Weeds: Trinity 6

What impression did today’s Gospel story leave you with? What feelings did it evoke in you? If the answer is “anxiety” then I think you wouldn’t be alone. All that stuff at the end about weeping and gnashing of teeth, fiery furnaces and so on, is very vivid. There are the righteous shining like the sun too, of course, but bad news tends to stick in our minds more stubbornly than good, and deep down I suspect all of us know that we can be a bit more weedy than wheaty at times.  

Back in the Middle Ages, when churches were often brightly painted with scenes from the Bible, there was often a painting over the chancel arch called a Doom painting. Doom paintings depicted the end of the world, as their name suggests, with the blessed going up to heaven on the right hand side of the picture, and the damned being dragged down into Hell, often in graphic detail, on the left. The message to those who sat in church face to face with it was clear. You’d better behave, or else!
It was a message which was often used to control and coerce people into doing what the authorities of the time wanted. Be good. Do what you are told, or this could be you. Make sure you are wheat not weeds…!

But when we read the story in context in Matthew’s Gospel we find that’s not really what it’s saying at all.  

When he told this story Jesus had been on the receiving end of harsh criticism from the religious establishment, those who saw themselves as experts. He’d been healing people who others thought didn’t deserve healing, forgiving them in God’s name. He’d been eating with tax-collectors and prostitutes. He’d been telling all and sundry – and some of them were very sundry – that God loved them. He’d been inviting those who “laboured and were heavy laden” to come to him, not just those exhausted by the normal trials of life, but also those who were being crushed by trying to keep impossible religious rules. With two thousand years of hindsight, we might applaud Jesus for his message, but many in authority at the time thought he was a scandalous troublemaker, who was being disrespectful to their time-honoured values, dragging God’s name into the mud by suggesting that these sinners and outcasts were part of his kingdom, accepted and welcomed.  

So Jesus tells a series of stories about the kingdom of God, God at work in the world. And in these stories, like the parable of the sower which we thought about last week, we hear of God’s kingdom being freely given, open to all who want to be part of it. The sower we heard about last week threw his seed about with reckless abandon, on the off chance that some of it might find good soil amidst the stones and thorns. Jesus talked about the kingdom being like yeast hidden in the dough – you couldn’t see it, but it was there, working away in secret- or like treasure buried in a field, underground, not obvious, something you have to go looking for, maybe getting pretty mucky in the process. God is at work, said Jesus, in places, in ways, in situations, in people that his tidy minded critics never imagined.  

Today’s parable continues that theme. It’s another story of seed sowing, but this time, something’s gone badly wrong. The field has been sown with a mixture of wheat and weed seeds, but no one realises this until the grain starts to ripen. Why does it take so long to spot the problem? It’s because the weed in question is darnel, It’s a type of grass, and, like most grasses, like wheat itself, it’s green, narrow-leaved – grassy, basically. It’s only when the seeds start to appear that you can tell the difference, because darnel seeds are black. The problem with it isn’t just that it competes with the wheat for space, water and food, it can also be dangerous, because it’s often infected with the ergot fungus, which can cause severe illness and even death.

So it’s no surprise that when they saw it, the slaves who tended the crop panicked and came straight to their master. “Master, did you not sow good seed…?” they say. Actually I’d be pretty sure that the master didn’t sow the seed at all – you don’t keep slaves and sow the seed yourself.  They are probably terrified that he’ll accuse them of sabotaging the crop, by accident or design. They’re frightened, and they want to deflect the blame away from themselves. But they needn’t have worried. Their master seems completely unbothered. “An enemy did it…” he says, in an off-hand manner. There’s no blame for them - and no suggestion of revenge on this enemy either. It is what it is. It happens. There are bad things in the world, Jesus seems to be saying, and in each of us too – it’s an inescapable fact of life. But what should we do in response?

“Shall we rip up the weeds….?” say the slaves, seizing the opportunity to look good in their masters eyes, since he seems to be in such a good mood.  “No” he says, “just leave them– you can’t pull up the weeds without destroying the wheat as well” Darnel has a sneaky habit of tangling its roots around the roots of the plants it grows among.” We’ll sort it out at harvest-time…” he says. I wonder how those slaves felt about that answer? It was one less job for them, but what about his reputation? What would other people think of him when they saw this contaminated crop in his field? What kind of farmer was he?

The answer is that he was a farmer who didn’t want to risk losing one precious grain of wheat by wading in too early, a farmer who was passionately concerned to preserve every little bit of good that he possibly could. That was far more important to him than what anyone else might think of him, far more important to him than apportioning blame or seeking revenge, just as it was far more important to Jesus to rescue and love the battered and burdened people, than to look good in the eyes of respectable religious leaders, those who had set themselves up as arbiters of what was right and wrong.  

Of course there are times when we need to make judgements about people, for our own safety and the safety of those around us, but this story tells us that we’re never called to declare anyone beyond redemption. For a start, in doing so, we condemn ourselves, because there is not one of us who is all wheat and no weed. It isn’t our job to sort the world into good and bad, friend and enemy, and decide that some people aren’t worth bothering with. It is God alone who searches us and knows us truly, as today’s Psalm reminded us, God alone who knows how his broken creation can be made whole again. And if those other stories Jesus tells are anything to go by, in his limitless, indestructible love he will be far more generous than we can ask or imagine, despite our fears about fiery furnaces and gnashing teeth – and I think they are our fears, not God’s intent. Our job is to nurture what’s good. Our job is to bless our enemies, and not to curse them, because they’re God’s children too. Our job is to look for God’s presence, in others and ourselves, and discover - maybe to our surprise, certainly to our delight - that God is at work where we least expected to find him.

Monday, 13 July 2020

The Generous Sower: Trinity 5

Today’s Gospel reading is a very familiar story, one of Jesus’ most famous parables. If you’re a gardener – and many people seem to have taken up gardening during lockdown – then you probably know all too well the scenario Jesus describes. You start out hopefully sowing your seeds in little seed trays or out in the garden as the gardening gurus tell you to. You wait and watch. Soon, if you’re lucky, some energetic little seedlings poke their heads out of the earth! Success! But not so fast…! As the weeks go by, some shrivel and die, some are overcome by weeds. Even if you mollycoddle them indoors until they are sturdy little plants, the first night you plant them out they are often reduced to ribbons by slugs or caterpillars or birds or rabbits, or dug up by cats or squirrels or another of God’s wonderful creatures who, quite reasonably from their point of view, look on them as a generous gift you put there just for their benefit. It’s enough to drive you to despair…

It was ever thus. As the old saying goes, “One for the rook, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow.”  Jesus description of the wide variety of ways a crop can fail is something every one of his listeners would have been familiar with, just as we are.

And yet, there’s something odd about his little story, and as a gardener it is glaringly obvious when you spot it. Frankly, this sower sounds a bit daft. What is he doing sowing seed on the path, and in the thorny ground or among the rocks? Surely he knows his land. He knew where the path was. He could see that some of the land was rocky. And those thorns are, according to the Greek word, acanthus plants, Bear’s Britches is their common name. They are huge, tough perennials – you can’t miss them if you ‘ve got them. I can imagine Jesus’ audience shaking their heads in bewilderment. In fact the whole scenario is a bit comical , , over the top. If this sower is meant to represent God, what does it say about him?  What kind of person behaves like this, let alone an all knowing deity?

They were right to ask those questions. Humanly speaking, this sower is acting stupidly, because human resources are limited.  If we are sensible we take care of what we do with our resources. We ration them out , whether they are seeds or time or money or love. We’re afraid we’ll run out if we don’t.

You can only behave like this sower if you know your resources are limitless, infinite. God, says Jesus, throws his love around with reckless abandon, because there is no end to his love. He doesn’t need to ration it out, only planting it in lives that are perfect. He lets it fall wherever it will, in the hope that one stray seed might find a gap among the weeds or an unseen pocket of richer soil between the rocks, or be missed by the birds and grow on the path anyway.

This story is meant to sound a bit ridiculous, like many of Jesus’ other parables. We often read them in a po-faced, serious way and miss that. But what kind of shepherd abandons ninety nine perfectly good sheep in the wilderness to go after one who has been daft enough to wander off? What kind of father gives half his money away to his prodigal son, and when he wastes it on parties, welcomes him back again without a word of “I told you so”? How does he know that he won’t just sell the robe and ring he’s been given and do it all again? How does he know he’s really learned his lesson? He doesn’t, is the answer. But the father does it anyway, because he loves him.

Jesus tells stories, again and again, of a God who is ridiculously generous to human eyes, who gives and gives and gives again, beyond anything that we would think was sensible or proportionate. It’s meant to shock and challenge us, just as it did his first hearers.

Of course, human beings are limited, with finite resources, but God isn’t. We sometimes forget that, or never get our heads around it in the first place. That’s why Christians have often been so determined to set boundaries on God’s love, conditions that they say people must meet to receive it, and to police those boundaries, as if they are God’s guardians, as if God needs guarding. They tell others that God will only love and accept them if they live in certain ways, observe certain rituals, believe certain doctrines, say certain prayers, belong to a certain group… Those who’re on the receiving end of that sort of judgement often internalise it, convincing themselves that they deserve it. People tell me they aren’t good enough to come to church. They tell me that they aren’t certain enough of their faith, that they might do the wrong things, or not do the right things. They worry that because of something they’ve done, or something that’s happened to them, God really won’t want to be bothered with them, that he wouldn’t want to waste his time and his love on them.

But all those assumptions rest on the idea that God’s love is a scarce resource which must be hoarded, rationed, doled out carefully, after a proper risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis to make sure it’s not being thrown anywhere except the 100 per cent pure and wholesome soil. This parable tells us otherwise. God’s love is limitless. He is quite content to scatter it about with reckless abandon, on the off chance that a stray seed might find an unlikely, overlooked pocket of soil to grow in. He doesn’t need to hoard, guard, or reserve it for those who can prove they know what to do with it, and we shouldn’t try to do it on his behalf either. The ultimate demonstration of this reckless generosity is in his gift of Jesus to us, the grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies at Calvary, and is buried in a stony tomb – the unlikeliest of unlikely soil. And yet, from that death comes resurrection, and new life which is thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold greater, spreading out through the world and across the ages.

God will win some and lose some as he scatters his seeds of love in our hearts and in our world. There’ll be times when we don’t respond, when our hearts are stony, or choked with weeds, times when the seed never germinates at all, but it only takes one seed to germinate and grow. One plant can fill a field, if you give it long enough. One act of kindness, one word of encouragement, one decision to trust in the goodness of God, to hope rather than to despair can change our lives, and the lives of everyone around us too.

Our God is a God whose generosity is beyond anything we could ask or imagine, a God whose resources are limitless, and whose love is limitless too, a God whose “paths overflow with plenty” as the Psalm reminded us. May we rejoice in that plenty, and walk in those paths, generously giving as we have generously received.

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Trinity 4: Rest for the heavy-laden

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest”.

I expect that line of the Gospel reading spoke to many people today. It certainly did to me. Many people have told me that over these last few months, their concentration is shot to pieces, their sleep is disturbed, and that they’ve found it hard to settle to anything, and hard to rest. Even those who are retired or have been furloughed or aren’t at work have found it wearing and wearying, let alone those who have been working, worrying, suffering or grieving through this time.

It’s understandable that we’re weary, but it’s also worrying, because we’re not through this yet. The virus is still out there. There’s no cure, no vaccine. And we are now dealing with the financial and social impacts of lockdown too, and will be for years to come. The danger with weariness is that it easily turns inward into depression, or outward into irritability and anger, as people either collapse or explode in response to it.

So it really matters that we look at our weariness, and hear Jesus’ words. “Come to me…and I will give you rest” he says.  That sounds pretty good to me right at the moment – “I will give you rest”  - a comfy chair, a G & T, a long lie down, a bit of a holiday. Bring it on, Jesus!

But then he spoils it rather in the next line. “Take my yoke upon you…”  he says. “Take my yoke upon you…”  That doesn’t sound like rest at all. It sounds like work! Yokes are the things you put on the necks of oxen so they can pull a plough, or that dairymaids and labourers used to use to carry heavy buckets…

But perhaps our problem is with this little word “rest”. We tend to think of it as the state of doing nothing – that long lie down. Sometimes that’s really important and just what we do need, but as anyone who is bedbound will tell you, you can be lying down all day but still not feel in the least rested. There’s more to true rest than the absence of work.

In the Bible, of course, the idea of rest is inextricably linked with the idea of the Sabbath, which drew it’s inspiration from the story of creation in Genesis 1. God worked for six days, creating the world and all that was in it, and then he rested. He didn’t rest because he was tired – he was God, after all! – he rested  because he knew a good thing when he saw it. He delighted in it. He could have made an extra animal or two, a bit more ocean, another mountain… he could have kept tinkering, but he didn’t. It was enough, just as it was. It was very good. That’s why he stopped, so that he could enjoy it!

Many years ago I was telling this story of creation to some children. When we got to the end, I said to the children “and then God rested”. They looked at me blankly. What? He’d just made all those wonderful things – trees and worms and whales and all the rest – and now he rested. Clearly in their minds rest was what happened when your dad sent you to bed early, or that your mum came in from work and wanted to put her feet up and not be bothered with demands.  Boring, in other words.

I realised that they were right. A lot of what adults call rest probably is pretty boring. So I wrote a poem, in which I imagined that God was like one of these children, and I thought about what they would do with a new-made world. It’s called , the Seventh Day, or what God did on his day off, and it goes like this.

On the seventh day
God played with his creation.

In the morning
he ran down early to the sea’s edge,
and in the crusted rock pools teased
the waving fingers of sea anemones. 
He let the sand, like powdered silk,
run through his funneled fingers
and the shallow water play around his feet,
drawing a sandy wake around them.
Crashing on the rocks the waves leapt
to greet him with sprayed salt.

In the afternoon
he kicked up leaves,
musty in the dark woods,
and chased the spidery seed children of the
rosebay willowherb,
tumbling idly into their new generation
over dry earth.
He dammed the icy streams
to sail twig boats down rocky rivers
and climbed into the branches of rough oaks
looking for secret squirrels

But in the evening -
in the evening he wanted to talk.
So he sought out man and woman by their campfire,
finding worlds within its embers.
Late into the night,
they listened, with their arms around each other,
to the songs of night creatures,
and invented music.

And God thought the seventh day was good,
because he played with his creation –
and the whole earth joined the game.

The truth is that rest, real rest, isn’t about doing nothing. It’s about finding delight in the life we have and the world around us, and anything which helps us do that can be restful, whether it’s climbing a tree or reading a book or meeting a friend or planting a garden, or whatever does it for you.
Most deeply, it’s about finding the God who plays alongside us, who delights in our lives as we learn to delight in them ourselves. Even the things we’re paid to do can feel restful, or aspects of them can, - if we’re lucky enough to enjoy them and find them worthwhile. Real rest can be quite energetic. It can leave us physically tired, but with a sense of satisfaction and completeness, a sense that we, and the world around us, have somehow been set right, healed, even if only in small ways.

The Sabbath was meant to be a time when people had a foretaste of that “set-rightness” – or “righteousness” as the Bible puts it.

And that, I think, is where the “yoke” Jesus talks about comes in. God’s true rest, that deep sense of peace, comes to us as we share in his work of setting right the world. “You’ve got to be in it to win it,” as the saying goes. We won’t find God’s peace by sitting on the side-lines, carping about what is wrong with the world like the children Jesus talks about in the little parable he tells. In other places in the Gospels he tells stories about weddings whose invited guests refuse to come. They don’t want to be part of what’s happening, and as a result, they miss out on the party. A wedding in the Bible, especially a royal wedding, like the one today’s Psalm talked about, is always shorthand for a new age, a new kingdom. In the ancient world, Weddings weren’t about romantic love; they were about creating a new future for the kingdom – the sons the Psalmist says the king in the Psalm will have and the new household the royal bride will now be part of. The Psalm’s language may sound archaic to us, but the point the Psalmist wants to make is that here is a new world, and the bride and groom can help to make it.  

Our weariness, our exhaustion, is ultimately rooted in our awareness that things aren’t as they ought to be – in ourselves and in our world. No one has a magic wand, and sometimes simply stopping and remembering to breathe is the most important thing that we can do. But if we want to find the deep rest, the Sabbath, the delight God wants for us, we will need to hear his invitation to join in the dance, to walk with him, to work with him, to play with him as he sets his creation to rights.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

St Peter & St Paul: Lockdown saints

Audio version here

Today is our Patronal Festival, the feast of St Peter and St Paul. I’m trying not to think about the fact that in normal years, we’d have been preparing for a lovely strawberry tea this afternoon. It’s just one of many things that have gone by the board over these last few months of disappointment. Of course it’s nothing to the suffering of those who have lost loved ones, those whose health has been permanently damaged, those who’re desperately worried about their jobs, but sometimes the small things hit home in big ways, reminding us that life isn’t as it was, that nothing is certain, not even a strawberry tea.

At the moment, some people are emerging a bit from lockdown, as shops and other places open. We’re thinking about how we might resume some sort of worship in the church building in the coming weeks. But these podcasts will continue even when we do that, for as long as they need to, because I know that for many, that freedom is still far off. Some will need to shield themselves for quite a while yet, and will probably find this time even more difficult as they see others getting out and about. Even for those who can meet physically, there’ll be all sorts of restrictions we’ll have to observe.

It’s no accident that we’ve called this experience “lockdown”. Of course, it’s nothing like really being in prison, but for many it’s been lonely and miserable, especially if they’ve been in cramped or inadequate housing or if their homes are unhappy or abusive places. Even the luckiest among us, have had to deal with severe limits to our freedoms – and we don’t tend to find that easy to cope with.

That’s why, this year, from the vast array of stories about Peter and Paul in the Bible, I chose the one we’ve just heard from the Acts of the Apostles, and the reading from Philippians, because, as we’ll discover, they remind us that our Patron Saints were people who knew all about lockdown.

In the strange story from Acts, Peter is locked down very literally, chained between two guards in King Herod’s prison. James, one of his closest friends, had been killed by Herod, and Peter must have been fairly sure he’d be next. But it wasn’t so. In the middle of the night, an angel appeared to him, wreathed in light – I did say it was a strange story. His chains fell off and the doors sprang open. It wasn’t until he found himself standing in the street that he realised this wasn’t a dream, though; that he really was free.

It seemed equally unbelievable to his friends, particularly the maid, Rhoda, who answered his knock at the door. It’s probably significant that we’re told her name. We don’t need to be for the sake of the story - she could simply have been “the maid”. The fact that she is named probably means that those who first read this story would have known her. “Oh, that was Rhoda!”  Poor Rhoda. I bet she never lived it down! The night she left Peter, the foremost apostle, the leader of the church, standing on the doorstep. But it’s a measure of how astonishing his release was that she did so. Peter shouldn’t have been there. And yet, there he was. Eventually he would be executed by the Romans, but for now he was free, and able to carry on the ministry he’d been called to.

The first reading we heard, from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, might not seem to have any obvious prison connections at first glance. But if we’d read the whole of the letter we’d have discovered that it was actually written from a prison cell. Paul had been imprisoned by the Romans– as he was several times – and he wasn’t  expecting a miraculous deliverance. For all he knew these might be his last days, the end of the story for him. And yet, his letter is full of joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always”, he says – even now, even here. That little phrase sounds very different when you know it was written in prison – these aren’t glib, saccharine words from an inspirational poster, they are hard won wisdom. Paul talks about how he has learned to be content with whatever he has. In those days, prisoners only ate if their friends or family brought them food. The Christians in Philippi have, rather belatedly, sent him money, but he wants to reassure them that, though he appreciates their help, he will be ok, because, as he says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” His body may be in prison, but his soul, his spirit, his heart is free. There are no bars that can confine him. He lives in the wide expanse of God’s love.

Freedom is a theme which runs right through the Bible. Near the beginning of its story, Moses led the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. Later on the Jewish people were delivered from imprisonment of another kind, their long exile in Babylon. The Old Testament was largely drawn together in that time or shortly after it, shaped by and for those who lived with the daily reality of oppression.

By the time of Jesus, Israel was dominated by the Romans, and once again people longed for freedom. They looked for a Messiah, literally an anointed one, who would defeat their enemies and lead them to political independence. If only they could break the yoke of Roman rule they thought that all would be well. At first, the crowds believed they’d found that liberating Messiah in Jesus, but when the Romans crucified him, that  support ebbed away. Just a few of his followers stuck with him, and even they were none too sure what his message had really meant if it wasn’t about the overthrow of Roman rule.

It was the resurrection that revealed it to them. If death couldn’t hold Jesus prisoner, then what was there to fear from any other sort of imprisonment or oppression? The prisons which hold us most securely aren’t the ones made of stone and iron, but the prisons of fear we build around ourselves . Knowing that God hadn’t abandoned Jesus as he hung on the cross, even when all had seemed lost, meant that they were able to face the hardships that came their way too. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” said Paul, in another of his letters (Romans 8). That wasn’t just “pie in the sky when you die” to him, a consoling promise of something better to come in the hereafter. His experience of God’s presence set him free to live fully in the here and now, to “rejoice in the Lord always”, to find peace that passed human understanding, love that overflowed to others, even in a prison cell.

Today, we may not be able to enjoy a strawberry tea together. We may not be able to meet with friends, or travel off on holiday. We may be living with restrictions which chafe and frustrate us – in the short or the long term, because of Covid 19 or for a host of other reasons -  but, like Peter and Paul, we are called to discover the true freedom which comes from knowing we are loved indestructibly by God, an infectious freedom which sets others around us on the road to freedom too. As Charles Wesley described it, in the hymn which will close our worship today, referring to that story of Peter’s release “My chains fell off. My heart was free. I rose, went forth and followed thee.”

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Lives that matter: Trinity 1

There are sometimes odd phrases in a Bible passage which leap out at you as you read them. You suddenly notice something you hadn’t seen before, something that makes you wonder.

That happened to me as I read today’s Gospel story earlier this week. Jesus sends out his disciples to spread his message in word and deed, casting out demons, cleansing lepers, curing the sick, even raising the dead – all this will proclaim that God’s Kingdom has come near. But where does he send them? “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. That was the bit I noticed. I mean, what’s he got against Samaritans and Gentiles – non Jewish people - that these disciples can’t go to them? The answer is, nothing, of course. We know that Jesus loved, healed and mixed with Gentiles and Samaritans in his own ministry, but for some reason he tells his disciples not to begin by going there.

At first I thought he was just being kind to them, figuring it would be easier for them to start in a culture they were familiar with, but then I thought a bit deeper, and wondered if I’d got that the wrong way round. Often the hardest issues to see and to tackle are the ones that are all around us, like the air we breathe, because we’ve never really noticed them. Jesus talks elsewhere about the need to take the log out of our own eyes before we start pointing out the speck of dust in someone else’s. Perhaps he knew that they had to start in their own communities, the cultures that had shaped them, if they were ever to be ready to go anywhere else.  Maybe starting where we are is the toughest challenge of all.

The crowds who came to Jesus were made up of the same kinds of  people these disciples had grown up amongst, the ones they’d probably seen every day of their lives; the lepers forced to the edges of their villages and towns, the beggars they’d stepped over and skirted around, the widows and orphans who’d probably irritated them with their inconvenient cries for help. They were a part of the backdrop to everyday life, yet probably often not noticed as individuals with hopes and dream of their own, stories to tell that were worth hearing. But Jesus, sees these people, we’re told, and has compassion for them – a word that doesn’t just imply a vague sense of pity, but a deep identification, allowing himself to feel what they feel. He sees them as fellow human beings but, “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”. And having seen them, he does something to help, not just by healing them, but by challenging those who’d created a culture which marginalised them, often blaming them for their suffering, as if they’d brought it on themselves. Proclaiming God’s Kingdom meant saying that it couldn’t be like this, It was this unflinching support for the marginalised which led him into conflict with the authorities, and to the cross.  As the Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Helder Camara said "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

Maybe Jesus sends his disciples into their own culture first because he knows they need to see what they’ve closed their eyes and their hearts to first. It has to start with them.

Over the last couple of weeks, speaking as a white woman, I have been acutely aware of that same challenge in our own time, as protests have spread around the world in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a policeman who callously knelt on his neck as Mr Floyd pleaded for his life. “Black Lives Matter” is the simple cry of those who’ve protested. Amen, Amen. Black Lives Matter. Some people have countered that “All Lives Matter” which is, of course true, but it’s black lives which have, again and again, been cut short by racist murders, black people who’ve been disproportionately stopped and searched, imprisoned, denied jobs and housing over the years, black voices which are often silenced or discounted. White people like me may not have noticed that, but that’s because we’re white; we’re not the ones who are suffering.

Black people, along with those from other Ethnic minorities, have died disproportionately from Covid19, and the main reason seems to be that a larger proportion are poor, working in insecure jobs they can’t do from home, without the financial cushions that would enable them to take time off, living in overcrowded, densely populated areas where it’s harder to keep a safe distance.

People have sometimes said that we’re all in the same boat in this epidemic, but that’s not true. We may all be in the same storm, but some of us are weathering it in comfortable, luxury cruisers, while others are in rubber dinghies or barely clinging to driftwood rafts, always at risk of being overwhelmed by the next wave.  Coronavirus hits the poorest hardest, and black people are disproportionately poor.

Why is that? In large part it’s a legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. Although it ended 200 years ago we’re still living with its aftermath.  It was a trade that gave those who profited from it - individuals and nations - an economic and political advantage not just in their own time but for generations afterwards.  Sugar, tobacco and cotton industries, and those who invested in them, including the Church of England - were bound to succeed when the major expense – labour – came free. That advantage spilled over to everyone who was linked to the trade – shipping companies, dock owners and many other ancillary businesses, and the institutions, schools, hospitals, museums that were funded by their profits. Wealth breeds wealth. Power breeds power. If you have it, you are likely to find you can get more of it, and pass it on to your heirs.

The reverse is just as true. Even when freed, ex-slaves were locked into poverty, trodden back down into the dirt by discrimination every time they tried to rise from it. That discrimination fed into colonialism, segregation, apartheid, and all the unrest and inequality that has come in the wake of those things, right up to our own day.  

Our history, for good or ill, is part of what makes us who we are. That’s why it matters that we all – white and black - revisit it together, and debate it afresh, listening for the voices that haven’t been heard, seeing the people who aren’t on the pedestals, honouring the stories that aren’t on the plaques.

Jesus called his disciples to learn to see people as he did, every one as beloved and important as any other - “God’s people and the sheep of his pasture” - and to challenge any situation where that equality was denied. The colour of your skin wasn’t an issue in his time, but the principle was the same. It meant declaring loud and long that lepers’ lives mattered. Beggars’ lives mattered. Widows’ lives mattered. Today he’d be joining in the affirmation that Black Lives Matter. Wherever people are overlooked and silenced, that’s where we’ll find him, listening, seeing, honouring those at the back of the queue.

There are no simple ways to untangle the mess of racism, and many different views about how to protest and what to do with all those statues, but God still calls us first into the places where we are, our own communities, our own hearts, because if we can’t proclaim and live the kingdom there, we can’t proclaim and live it anywhere. Amen

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Enfolded in God's love: Trinity Sunday: A sermon by Kevin Bright

You may have watched the recent Space X rocket launch and seen how quickly the astronauts looked back onto earth after their successful launch. I don’t know about you but seen from this perspective it makes me feel pretty insignificant as all on our planet is viewed from afar. Does my, dare I say our, existence matter? After all none of us are known for building space craft or even electric cars!
Yet in today’s Psalm we heard that the very God who established the moon and stars is mindful of each and every one of us.

Jesus gave us insight into God’s mindfulness of those who feel low, unworthy of attention, lost to God or unable to value themselves. In fact, he sought them out and noticed them on numerous occasions positively mixing with the hated tax collectors, siding with the poor, those shunned because they were considered unclean and numerous other outcasts. This mindfulness came to light as he noticed a despairing woman graze the hem of his garment, even as he was dying and in agony on the cross he was mindful of the penitent thief beside him.

Of course there are plenty of times when we find it hard to acknowledge, accept or even believe that we are constantly held in God’s love but as Paul wrote to the church in Rome ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
Undoubtedly a challenging aspect of our relationship with God is whether we are mindful of him and his love for us. If we can keep this in mind then it’s easier to recognise ourselves as people with purpose and value, ultimately people with a future regardless of wherever we find ourselves in the challenging aspects of our lives.

It then becomes possible to pray not only with thoughts and words but through listening, observing, and patient contemplation.

Words from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi say’ Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross.’

Clearly the mind spoken of by Paul is that which isn’t self-centred but which cares for others, keeps the wellbeing of others in mind even when we cannot be with them in times such as these and it’s encouraging to see this manifest itself in so many forms as people try to support each other. It’s a consoling thought that there must be much in people’s behaviour to each other in this crisis which is pleasing to God.

Matthew’s Jesus tells the 11 to ‘make disciples of all nations baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’
Even though this is the end of Matthew’s gospel it is also a new beginning where those taught by Jesus are to become teachers themselves, however inadequate they may feel for their task.
Is this about building a franchise, dominating an area or pushing our faith upon others? I don’t think so. In my view it’s got much more to do with what we are really rooted in deep down, how we live our lives every day and how we relate to each other.

We need to keep in mind the words of the Psalmist as he speaks of human beings, ‘Yet you have made them a little lower than God and crowned then with glory and honour.’ It follows that we go directly against God every time we fail to recognise how much he loves and values the entirety of humanity regardless of race or any factor we allow to divide us.
Discipleship will involve working alongside each other and serving each other in ways that make it possible for God’s love to be seen and recognised. We need to keep coming back to Jesus to learn from his teachings to ponder his parables.

I was watching a TV programme this week in which the comedian Jack Dee discussed his attraction to Christianity and that fact that he had a selection interview to become a priest as a young man. The panel soon worked out that this wasn’t his calling and now, much later in life, he agreed that he wouldn’t have been suitable for this role. As much as he retains a positive curiosity about Christianity, for him he said it’s always been the Christians that have put him off taking this any further. I guess he’s not convinced by those he’s met, that they don’t show him anything real about God and as such he’s left hanging in a strange space, labelling himself ‘an Agnostic Christian!’
Whilst he was fairly light-hearted about it all it does make you realise that even when we accept the calling to become disciples we won’t always get it right. If we recall the 11 as they heard what has become labelled as the ‘Great Commission’ we realise that we are in good company among ordinary people with weaknesses and failings just like us. Even as they saw Jesus in today’s gospel reading we hear that ‘some doubted’.

Today is labelled Trinity Sunday in the church calendar. I’ll excuse myself any attempt at an explanation of the Trinity (a word you won’t find anywhere in the bible) by quoting John Wesley. ‘Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the triune God!”

However, like many things the Trinity is no less real because of our inability to completely understand it. Countless attempts to explain it will highlight certain aspects which interrelate, overlap, connect and fuse yet as much as we cannot know God wholly in our earthly lives this too remains part of the mystery.

Our faith and trust in God is such that we know there is nothing untoward in that which we don’t know or comprehend so in baptism we are enfolded in God’s love both in what we know of it and what we do not yet know. How could it be otherwise, would Jesus have told his disciples to baptise others if it wouldn’t bring them closer to him?
The symbolism of cleansing water reminds us that forgiveness and a new start are available to all, that a new life is possible and that once we begin our journey that Jesus will be with us always ‘to the end of the age’.

As we journey on through the weeks ahead let’s continue to keep each other and those needing support in mind, turning to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit for guidance.

Kevin Bright

Monday, 25 May 2020

Anxious activism or trustful waiting?: Easter 7

Audio version here

“I wish I had a magic wand”.  I don’t know how many times I’ve said that in the course of my ministry to people facing sorrows and troubles that feel overwhelming to them. I’d love to be able just to make it all better for them. But I can’t bring back the loved one they’re mourning. I can’t cure their illness. I can’t rebuild the relationship they’re struggling with. I can’t stop their business going bust. I can listen, and pray. It’s a huge privilege to do so, and it often seems to help. But there’s almost never anything I can do materially to change their situation.

I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s probably just as well, though. Trying to “fix” things for people usually fails, and often makes the situation worse. It’s what I call “anxious activism”, that frantic desire to do something – anything – whether it’s the right thing or not - in the face of trouble. When I find I am feeling like that, I usually have to ask myself who I’m trying to help. Is it the person in front of me, or is it myself? Am I trying to meet their genuine need, or just my need to be needed?

I’ve sensed quite a lot of that “anxious activism” in people at the moment, the desire to Do Something – capital D, capital S - in the face of the coronavirus. “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” said that famous World War one poster. Perhaps for us it’s “What did you do in the coronavirus epidemic?”  We wonder how we’ll feel about ourselves, how we’ll be judged at the end of all this, especially if we aren’t one of those key workers whose jobs are demanding so much courage of them anyway.

Many people I talk to feel frustrated that they haven’t been able to help as much as they’d like. Over 750,000 signed up for the government volunteering scheme, but apparently most haven’t been called on, and I think some have felt quite put out about this. There are probably all sorts of reasons for the apparent low level of call out. The bulk of the volunteers may not be in the same place as the bulk of the people who need help.  People may not know how to ask for help, or prefer to cobble something together unofficially. In many cases, people need professional help from people with the training and experience. Their needs are beyond the scope of volunteers to respond to, no matter how willing. And some things need structural change, political change, to sort out. For most of us, the help we can offer is always going to be undramatic, small scale, unseen by everyone except those directly involved.  Added together those small actions are just as important as the big things, but they feel like a drop in the ocean, insignificant in the face of this worldwide challenge.

The Bible story we heard today features some people who probably felt equally helpless. When Jesus led them out to Mount Olivet, to the East of Jerusalem, overlooking the city, they thought they knew what was coming next. Tradition said that this was where the Messiah would appear before he entered Jerusalem to announce the Kingdom of God. That’s why they’d got so excited when Jesus rode into Jerusalem from this same place on Palm Sunday. They thought the moment had come when God would intervene in history, throw out their Roman oppressors, restore Israel’s self-government. All it had led to then was a cross, but perhaps now things will be different. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

I can imagine Jesus heaving a heavy sigh. Have they still not understood? They’re still expecting him to produce that magic wand for them. “Lord is this the time when YOU will restore the kingdom to Israel” they’ve asked, but actually it’s they who are going to be doing the work now. “No” says Jesus,”You will be my witnesses” says Jesus. It is their work in living out his Gospel message of love that will matter now, in Jerusalem and Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Just at that moment, when they are trying to get their heads around all this, a cloud comes down, and Jesus is gone. No wonder they stand gawping up into the empty air … What are they going to do now? How will they go about this daunting, demanding task? Normally, they’d have asked Jesus, but he’s not here– definitely not here – nowhere to be seen, however they strain their eyes into the distant heavens.  

But what they do next shows that they have learned at least something from being with him. Because instead of rushing into that “anxious activism”, I talked about earlier, they stop, and remember that Jesus didn’t just tell them about the work they would be doing, but also about the power that would be given to them to do it. He didn’t just say, “you will be my witnesses”. Before that he said, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you”. Then, and only then, will they know what to do, and have the ability to do it. Before they act, they must wait.

And that’s what they do. They don’t start flapping around making action plans or arguing about who is working hardest or being most heroic. They wait, and while they wait they “constantly devote themselves to prayer”.  They pay attention to their own inner lives. They spend time with themselves and with each other in the presence of God. They listen for what God is saying to them. They recall what Jesus has taught them.  They give themselves time and space to acknowledge that they don’t know what to do, or how to do it, that this work can’t be done in their strength, but only in God’s. They listen for his call, which will be different for each of them. Some will be called to work in their own backyard – in Jerusalem and Judea, in their own home towns and villages. That may not feel dramatic, but there’s a real challenge in living out our faith among the people who know us best.   Some will be called to Samaria, a place they’d normally try to avoid. Samaritans and Jews didn’t get along. The challenge there will be to overcome their prejudices. And some will be called to go to the ends of the earth, to strange places they have no experience of at all. One calling isn’t better, or worse, than another. All are needed.

This time between Ascension Day and Pentecost was a time of waiting for the disciples, and it’s good if it is for us too. I’ve created a series of reflective podcasts you can use to help you spend time with yourself and with God - links are on the church website – but it doesn’t matter how we do it, so long as we do. It’s not time wasted. It’s not self-indulgence. It’s the way we guard against anxious activism, and make sure we are listening for God’s call, the call that is right for us, the call we were made for. That might be a call to do great things, but for most it will be a call to do small things with great love, to be faithful in supporting others, to be patient with those around us, and patient with ourselves, to be content with what we have and who we are, and trust that God will do the rest.