Sunday, 20 August 2017

Trinity 10: What has God put into your hand?

There’s a story told of the sixth century Irish saint, St Kevin, a man known for his feats of heroic prayerfulness. He was a hermit who lived in a cave by the side of Glendalough, a lake in County Wicklow. According to legend, at the beginning of Lent one year, Kevin settled down to pray. He stretched out his hands, as he was wont to do, and sank deep into prayer. So deep was his prayer, that he didn’t notice when a blackbird landed on his hand. So deep was his prayer that he didn’t notice either when she flew away and came back again with a twig in her mouth. So deep was his prayer, in fact that he didn’t notice her going to and fro for all that day, hour after hour, bringing twig after twig, weaving them together. He didn’t notice her bring dried grass and weave that into the twigs either. He didn’t notice until right at the end of the day, when he opened his eyes and realised that there in his hand was a perfectly woven nest, and the blackbird sitting in it. And underneath her were three sky-blue eggs.

“Ah!” thought Kevin. “Now what shall I do? Sister Blackbird has honoured me with her company, trusted me with her young. Hmm! Well, there’s nothing for it but to wait, and while I wait, to pray”. So Kevin did. According to the story, he prayed for days and days, sitting quite still, not stopping to sleep or to eat. One week passed, and two, and in the third week he saw the eggs crack open, and little by little the blackbird chicks emerge. But that didn’t mean he could move. Far from it. Now it was even more important that he stayed still as the parent birds brought food to their chicks. So Kevin just carried on praying. By the time the chicks were ready to fledge and fly the nest, Lent was nearly over, and as Easter Sunday came he celebrated the new life of resurrection, and the new life of the chicks that had grown in the nest of his outstretched hands…

Well, you can believe it if you like, but it’s a good story, whether it happened or not.

I like it because it makes me wonder what unexpected thing God might have put in my hands to deal with. Perhaps it is something which I would rather not handle – maybe Kevin had at least the odd moment when he wished that blackbird had nested somewhere else. Often in our lives there are situations which seem to us to get in the way of what we really want to be doing with our lives. We could be so much better, holier people if only… If only, we didn’t have that awkward boss at work, that difficult relationship at home, that illness to deal with, these cares and worries, those doubts and fears. These things seem to us to be distractions, diverting us from the path we planned to take.

And yet, it is often in facing up to and dealing with these awkward realities that we find the greatest blessing. We find our hearts and lives expanding because of them. Sometimes we may find a solution to them. Sometimes we may end up having to live with them, but what looks like a diversion from the straight road we’ve mapped out can be the pathway which leads to life in all its fullness, if we are prepared to let it be.

The Gospel reading we heard today reminds me of that too. Jesus is in the territory of Tyre and Sidon, foreign territory. Tyre and Sidon were Canaanite port towns to the north of Israel. What was he doing there? We aren’t told. Not having a seaside holiday, that’s for sure. Tyre and Sidon were a byword in Israel for sin and trouble, rackety towns where all sorts of people came and went, where sailors did what sailors have always done on their runs ashore. Maybe the father of the little girl whose mother comes to Jesus was a sailor. It’s certainly unusual for a woman to be out on her own like this, taking the initiative in challenging a male leader. Maybe he was a sailor who had gone away to sea and never come back, a sailor with a girl in every port, and she just happened to be the girl in this one. We don’t know. But she is obviously a nuisance, even to Jesus.

His disciples beg him to send her away, and he seems inclined to try, but she keeps on at him until he gives her what she wants - her daughter’s healing – and he doesn’t just do this, he also acclaims her faith.

It’s an awkward story. Commentators have puzzled over it ever since it was written. Jesus seems so rude. They have tried to say that perhaps he doesn’t really mean what he says when he compares her to a dog and tries to send her away, but I don’t buy that, and I think if the Gospel writers meant us to read it like that they would have said so. I think it is what it seems to be; a story about Jesus learning and growing. I think that’s precisely why he went to Tyre and Sidon – to challenge himself. And I think he found there the challenge that, even for him, felt like a bridge too far. But, helped by this woman, who had just seemed like a nuisance at first, his vision expanded to encompass this Gentile. The Gospel writers, I believe, included this awkward story as an encouragement to their hearers, who were also often struggling to accept those who found their way into the early Christian community,. “Even Jesus found this tough, and yet, what a blessing there was in accepting the stranger – however strange!”

So. I wonder. If we stretch out our hands in prayer today, as St Kevin did, what or who will we discover that God has placed into them? What are the inconvenient, awkward, puzzling realities that we struggle to hold, that we would rather put down somewhere and walk away from? Perhaps, like St Kevin, like Christ himself, we might find that, in God’s economy, there might be blessing hidden in the pain, new life hatching in our hands, if we have the patience and the faith to hold still and watch?


Sunday, 13 August 2017

Trinity 9 : Being saved

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” said St Paul in our second reading, from his letter to the Romans. It’s familiar Christian language. You’ll hear the words “saved” and “salvation” a lot in churches. It’s there in hymns and prayers. But what does it mean?

If you’d been a Christian at the time this church was built in the Middle Ages, you’d have had no
Detail from Doom Painting, St Thomas, Salisbury.
doubt. Salvation was about where you were going when you died. Many churches would have had a huge visual reminder of that too, in the shape of what was called a “doom painting”. They were often painted right here on the chancel arch, where you couldn’t miss it as you sat in church. On one side you’d see the saved rising up to heaven; on the other side would be people going the other way, stuffed down into the jaws of hell by gruesome looking demons. Being saved meant being on the right side of that divide, and you’d want to do everything you could to make sure you were. Salvation, as it was commonly preached and believed, was about having a ticket to heaven when you died. But although doom paintings have, thankfully, gone out of fashion, that view of salvation is still quite common.

But if that’s all that being “saved” means to us, then I think we’re missing something, because what the Bible says about “salvation” is much wider and richer than that. It is wider and richer in two ways, in particular, which I think we often miss.

The first is that “salvation” in the Bible isn’t just, or even mainly, about what happens to our souls after death. It is also about what happens to our bodies before it.

We can see that in our readings today. Peter calls out in our Gospel reading “Lord, save me!” – there’s that word again - but it’s nothing to do with the state of his soul. He’s sinking fast in a stormy sea, literally out of his depth and facing imminent death. The rescue he needs is a physical one, but when eventually climbs, coughing a spluttering, into the boat with the rest of disciples, I am sure he is in no doubt that he has been saved.

In the Gospels, Jesus’ healing work is often described as salvation, “‘Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved.’ says Jesus to a father whose little daughter has just died. (Luke 8.50) “‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” he says to a blind beggar who cries out to him for help. There may be spiritual change for the people involved. When the cheating tax-collector, Zacchaeus, repents and repays fourfold what he has stolen from people after Jesus has invited himself to tea, Jesus says to the crowd, “today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19.9).  But often the physical healing is all we hear about and yet it’s still described as salvation for those concerned.

Even Jesus’ enemies taunt him as he hangs on the cross with the words, “‘He saved others; let him save himself “(Luke 23.35). It’s the real, tangible changes he has wrought in people’s lives they are talking about. They know they’ve seen salvation happening as he has healed people. What baffles them is that he doesn’t rescue himself. Salvation, throughout the Bible, is as much about physical as well as spiritual things, about the things people are struggling with right there and then, not just what happens after death. The people of Israel are described as being saved by God from slavery in Egypt. (E.g Exodus 15.2) ;and saved again by God from exile in Babylon (Isaiah 45.17) . The Psalmist pleads for salvation from his enemies, and thanks God when he has been rescued from death or disgrace.

There’s a prime example of someone who needs salvation in our Old Testament reading today. Elijah is running for his life. The Queen, Jezebel, is after him. He’d challenged the prophets of her God, Baal, to a contest, and he – or rather his God – had decisively won.  But Jezebel isn’t the kind of woman to accept defeat gracefully. She is spitting tacks, and she’s after Elijah’s skin. So he runs away, as far as he can, out into the desert. And eventually, after a long journey he finds himself at Mount Horeb, huddled in a cave, despondent and exhausted. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” asks God. It’s a good question. He doesn’t really know how to answer it. All he knows is that he has done all he can to stand up for the God of Israel, to defend the faith of his nation, and it isn’t enough. Elijah feels that it is all over for him, and for the people of Israel too. But God has other ideas. To begin with, he reassures Elijah of his presence. It comes to him not in anything dramatic – wind, earthquake and fire – but in the “sound of sheer silence”, or a “still, small voice” depending on your translation. After all the terror and the tumult Elijah has been through, when he has come to the point where he can’t be the big, brave prophet anymore, he lets himself fall into God’s hands and discovers that in God’s presence all is well, whatever else is happening to him and around him.  And then God shows Elijah, that though he thought there was no way forward, God has a plan. He’s already lined up Hazael and Jehu as kings, and Elisha to take up Elijah’s mantle as prophet too. Elijah is saved from his despair, given the strength and the hope he needs to go on. That is what it means for him to be saved by God. 

Salvation, in the Bible, isn’t some nebulous spiritual thing far off in the future, high up in the heavens. It is practical, personal, immediate. It comes to people as they need it, making a tangible difference to their lives. That’s the first thing we often miss.  

The second thing is that salvation, in the Bible, isn’t just a personal possession.
Paul describes salvation again and again in his letters as something which happens in communities, and in the whole of creation. In the passage we heard today he talks about salvation as a state in which “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek” . That echoes his message throughout his letters that God’s saving power destroys the divisions of class, ethnic background and gender that beset his society. A few chapters earlier, he had talked about the whole of creation “groaning” to see the new thing God was doing in the world through the Christian community.  (Rom 8) Salvation wasn’t something you could enjoy in a private bubble, but something which affected everyone and ultimately could heal everyone.  God was “reconciling to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven”  he said in the letter to the Colossians (Col. 1.19) . The Psalm we read this morning spoke of salvation bringing God’s glory to the land, creating a place of where mercy and truth met together, and righteousness and peace kissed each other. In the Bible, salvation is something we discover together, or not at all. It’s about our relationships with each other just as much as it is about our relationship with God, about politics and economics, the way we work, and shop and shape our families and treat the natural world around us.

So – two dimensions which we often miss when we hear the words “saved” and “salvation. The first is that it’s about the here and now, not just the afterlife. If salvation doesn’t make a difference to our lives right now, it isn’t salvation in the sense the Bible talks about it.  The second is that it isn’t just about us, a personal possession, a private matter; it’s something which is for, and about the whole of creation.

There’s a verse in Psalm 18 which has always summed up salvation for me. The Psalmist says, “[God] brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me because he delighted in me.”  Being saved means being brought into a “broad place”, a place where we find life in all its fullness, where we are freed from all that has bound us and made us less than the people God means us to be.  What that might mean in your life right now is going to be different to what it means in mine, but my salvation can’t be complete unless yours is too. And our salvation can’t be complete unless everywhere else in the world the hungry are fed, the poor lifted up, the oppressed set free, all people enabled to find that “broad place” for themselves too.

And if that makes us feel as if the task is completely impossible for us, then that is just as it should be, because if we could do it, then we wouldn’t need saving.  Whether we are trying to eliminate world poverty, stop North Korea and the US blowing us all to smithereens or just trying to cope with the pressures and demands of our own lives, we’ll inevitably come to a point where we realise, like St Peter, that we are out of our depth, in over our heads. We try to look strong, stay in control, keep all the plates spinning and everyone happy, but we’re not up to it. Life is too hard for us to go it alone. We are saved when we come to the limits of our own power and discover the limitless power of God beyond them.  We are saved when we come to the place of “sheer silence”, when we have run out of words and yet discover that God understands us anyway. We are saved when we finally give up thrashing about in the water on our own, and find the courage to allow other hands to lift us up.

Salvation isn’t a ticket to life after death; it’s a way of life before death. It is found in the journey, not the destination. Walking in the way of salvation day by day brings us into a right relationship with God and one another, a relationship of humility and openness. As we call out “Lord, save us!” again and again, we gradually learn to trust that God is beside us anyway, ready to pull us up from the seas that overwhelm us. And if that is true, then we don’t need a ticket to heaven, because heaven is where God is, and God is where we are, in life and in death, which is right where we need him to be. 


Sunday, 30 July 2017

Trinity 7:The Kingdom of Heaven is like....

Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52, Romans 8.26-39, 1 Kings 3.5-12

The Kingdom of Heaven is like, like what? When you dare to imagine what heaven may be like, do tiny seeds and yeast come to mind?

Perhaps treasure and jewels are there as symbols which are easier to relate to as things which are instantly desirable, discoveries which we want so much that we would sell everything, our house, our car even our mobile devices if it meant we could have these things. It might appear to the neighbours that such people had lost everything but if only they knew what they had found. Jesus was probably trying to get the crowds which had gathered by the lake to see that if they understood what the kingdom of heaven was like they would want this above everything else.
Put another way Jesus was teasing the minds of the crowd to consider the same question that God asked Solomon in our Old Testament reading’ Ask what I should give you’ which I take to mean what is it that you want right now above all else.
What would our answer be? When we are mourning and in pain and can see only a long dark road ahead what we are likely to want, is to know that God is going to be with us in our suffering, each step of the way. Paul reassures the church in Rome that the spirit interprets our deepest longings, the yearnings we may struggle to articulate to God. At these times we are reminded of the fact that no suffering or loss, no pain or worry sits outside the scope of God’s love for us. He never looks at a situation and thinks’ sorry but you are on your own this time’.
The last part of today’s reading from Paul’s letter reminds me of that feeling of security offered to children lucky enough to have loving parents. As a small boy it felt like my parents were superheroes and I couldn’t imagine coming to any harm as long as they were there. As I grew up I realised the limitations every parent faces and that most are just doing their best, muddling through at times.

The beautiful thing is that whether we were lucky enough or not to have had loving parents Paul reminds us that ‘God is for us’, he’s given his own Son for us and secured for us, everything we will ever need. Despite whatever suffering or ordeals we may have to face we cannot be separated from the love of God in Jesus.
So even if we are so down we cannot pray, even when we cannot feel God’s comfort or healing, he is there with us and always will be and the Kingdom of Heaven is no less real.

The fact that today’s readings are just one of several parables and illustrations suggesting what aspects of the Kingdom of Heaven are like makes me think that Jesus was trying to fire up imaginations, find examples that people could relate to in their everyday lives.
We are reminded that the Kingdom of heaven may often be found in places we don’t expect. We need to open our minds, overcome our prejudices and assumptions to have the greatest chance of catching a glimpse of God’s kingdom.

A young woman told me this week how she was shouted at by a homeless man in the street, he didn’t look very friendly so she sped up only for him to run and catch up with her. As she turned to ask what he wanted he presented her with her purse containing cash, cards and travel passes, ‘you dropped this back down the road’ he said as he handed it over.
In the last part of today’s gospel Jesus refers to the ‘master of a household who brings out of his treasure, what is old and what is new. To most of us today it’s not obvious what this is about but those hearing Jesus were meant to see that whilst there is great value in the wisdom accumulated by their ancestors over the centuries there are also new treasures to be discovered in the Kingdom of Heaven.

There’s no limit to these based upon past knowledge and experience, we have to trust in God and dare to imagine a future with him. Each one of us has potential to bear fruit in a new way, we often just need to find the courage to imagine and then pursue this.
Valuing both the old and new we have potential to achieve most when we come together drawing upon the wisdom and experience of older people but combining this with the energy and fresh ideas of the younger people.

It’s so easy to just accept injustices as the way of the world, particularly when we fail to imagine what something better might look like. When we look back to the greatest changes for the better we realise that they were achieved when people dared to imagine, describe and speak out about a better future even though there was no immediate prospect of it becoming real.
Here are the words of one man who could imagine a better future for all…

‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, … one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.’
Of course, excerpts from the speech of Martin Luther King made in Washington DC in 1963, the last part quoting the prophet Isaiah.

Daring to imagine something that doesn’t already exist isn’t easy for us. Maybe part of the problem is that imagination is often referred to in a negative way alongside delusion and untruth. We may grow up hearing ‘it’s a figment of her imagination’ and then it certainly doesn’t sound like it’s something to be encouraged. Yet Jesus is stimulating the senses of those listening to him, he wants them to fire up their imaginations as he refers to tiny things like mustard seeds which are easily missed altogether yet have potential to become something impressive and yeast which needs other ingredients to create a thing of beauty and sustenance, something that on its own appears to have little use turns out to have powers of transformation.
Surely we can dare to imagine what glimpses of the Kingdom of God might be like. Perhaps when something is so beautiful we cannot help but stare, when our mouth is overwhelmed with wonderful flavours, when the warmth of the sun makes us feel good in a way beyond words. When I asked some people what they thought the Kingdom of God is like they told me of peace, justice, forgiveness, love and freedom from suffering.

Easy things to imagine for all, except of course when they are things you have never known or experienced.
It’s worth celebrating the fact that we are all invited to discover our own images of what the kingdom of heaven is like. Listening to and pondering the clues Jesus gives is essential if we are to heighten our awareness, he’s certainly reminding us that we don’t need to be great theologians by the everyday subject matter used, this is accessible to everyone.

We’ve had many pointers towards the likelihood that we may be surprised when we feel we catch a glimpse of the Kingdom and with it a sense that there is a deeper reality to our existence than the superficiality of a consumer society where people are meant to fit in. Jesus implies that we may stumble across the Kingdom of Heaven when doing something else and in doing so find hope that extends beyond our earthly lives.
Ultimately I can’t tell you and you can’t tell me what the kingdom of heaven is like as we each have to discover this for ourselves. But when we do catch a glimpse, the new reality Jesus told of breaks in, and something is made wonderfully new.

Kevin Bright

30th July 2017

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Trinity 3: Enslaved to God?

“You have become slaves of righteousness” says Paul in our second reading. The word “slaves” appears four times in that fairly short reading. Slavery is a concept that probably feels quite alien to us, though in fact, according to the UN there are more slaves in the world now than there have ever been , an estimated  21 million . They work in sweatshops, mines, agriculture, domestic service and the sex trade. Some are trafficked far from home; others are enslaved in their own communities. But slavery is something that is officially outlawed and condemned now, so it’s hidden from most people’s view.

That wasn’t the case in Paul’s day. Slavery was an accepted part of life, part of the fabric of society. The great cultures of the ancient world, Greece, Rome, Assyria, Egypt, couldn’t have existed without slaves. No one challenged it. Slaves might have been captured in battle, or sold into slavery, or born as slaves. Some rose to high office and were trusted and loved by their masters and mistresses, but many suffered degrading and harsh experiences, and none were free to live their own lives, or marry whom they chose, or earn their own livings. They belonged to their owners, and, in Roman society, their masters had power of life and death over them. The idea that all people have the right to liberty and self-determination is a very modern one – most of our ancestors would be astonished at it.

It’s important to know that. Sometimes we assume that the people of the past were basically just like us, except that they wore different clothes and didn’t have mobile phones. In some ways that’s true. They felt joy and sorrow, had hopes and dreams, cared about their children and got annoyed with their neighbours just as people do today. But their understanding of the world and how they fitted into it was often profoundly different. They accepted slavery without question. It was the way the world was, and always would be.  Slavery was regarded as shameful, but the shame was attached to the slaves, not to their owners. It was their fault, their destiny, their place in the world to be slaves.

I’ve laboured that point a bit, because I think it’s important we have it in mind when we hear Paul’s words.  When the Christians in Rome read the letter he had sent them, they knew what he was talking about from the inside, because they saw slavery all around them. Some of them almost certainly were slaves. Others were slave-owners. All would be familiar with the sight of slaves, and with the fear of falling in to slavery, and the shame associated with it.  So, when Paul uses the word “slaves” he knows that it will set up powerful resonances in people’s mind.

But, of course, Paul isn’t talking about literal slavery in the passage we heard at all. He is talking about internal slavery if you like, the slavery that binds our hearts and minds.  He is pointing out to a society that despised slaves, and to slaves who despised themselves, that in some ways we are all enslaved. The only question is, what or who are we enslaved to. As Bob Dylan sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

We may like to think we are all free spirits, independent minded, that we can do what we please with our lives, but it’s not true. All of us, in some ways, however small, have restrictions on our lives, commitments we can’t shirk, ties we can’t break, burdens we have to bear.

Some of those things may feel, and be, profoundly negative. We may feel enslaved by an illness or disability – something we didn’t choose and can’t escape. We may be enslaved by addiction to something – gambling, alcohol, spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need because it makes us feel momentarily better. We may be locked into patterns of behaviour that are harmful and destructive. We may be enslaved by the opinions of others; we can’t be the people we want to be because we’re afraid they’ll disapprove, that they’ll gossip about us at the school gates, or write snarky things on social media. We may feel enslaved by the expectation that we will climb the social ladder, push ahead at work, get that promotion, even if we really don’t want to. That’s what Paul means when he talks of us being “enslaved to sin”.

But the opposite of that slavery isn’t, as we might expect, freedom to do whatever we want. Instead, Paul talks about us becoming “slaves to righteousness” and “enslaved to God.” What does that mean?

He’s not thinking of God as some kind of brutal overlord, ready to crack the whip if we slack off or get things wrong. He doesn’t mean us, either, to adopt an unthinking, unquestioning faith. What Paul means is that our relationship with God should be one that is whole-hearted, touching the whole of our lives. “Let the Gospel and its values have a claim on you”, he is saying, “on the way you live, the way you behave to others, the way you work and shop and play. Let it shape your life and change you”. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul,with all your strength and with all your mind,”  says the Bible.  Being “enslaved to God” means living that out, day by day, week by week.  Maybe we think Paul is pushing his analogy too far by calling it slavery – it is, of course, our choice to follow him, and slaves don’t have a choice, but it’s his analogy, not mine. And he uses it deliberately to emphasize the totality of the commitment he is talking about, a positive, joyful commitment, but one which should have profound consequences for our daily lives.

We probably all have positive commitments like that already. We may not call them slavery, but we make choices which we know will bring restrictions as well as joy. I am very glad to be tied to Philip by the bonds of marriage, and to have two lovely children who will always be there in my heart and mind, even if they aren’t physically close by.  These things don’t feel like slavery at all – if they did there would be something badly wrong! They feel like freedom, but there’s a commitment involved in any family relationship. Our families have a justifiable claim on our time, our attention, our money. We’re not free just to do what we want – to move house or go on holiday, for example - without consulting them or considering the impact it will have on them.

Jobs and voluntary commitments may also involve a sacrifice of certain freedoms. If we’re lucky, we may be doing jobs we have freely chosen, but even in the best job there’ll be moments when we just wish we could take off for the day, or the week- or forever - instead of turning up for work.

All of us in some ways, then, both positively and negatively “serve somebody”, as Dylan said. Or as St Paul puts it “ Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”  Our choices and commitments can be destructive or constructive, deathly or live-giving – to ourselves and to those around us. We need to choose wisely, to let the right things and people have a claim on our time.

In the Gospel, Jesus reminds us that it is the “little ones” who should come first, the ones who have no voice and no power.  We may look at them and think they are nothing to do with us, that it’s not our job to slake their thirst, whether that is for water, or justice, or a helping hand, or a kind word, but we are wrong. If we belong to God, if we say we are part of his family, then all other people are our brothers and sisters.

What does this look like in practice, when people are living a life of committed love, recognising their responsibilities to God and one another? It looks like the firefighters who ran into Grenfell Tower again and again to rescue people, when everyone else was running out of it. It looks like the churches and the mosques and other community organisations who immediately swung into action to care for the survivors – they didn’t know what they were doing, but they knew they needed to do something. It was their job. It looks like the policeman, Wayne Marques, who I saw interviewed on the television news this week. He fought off the terrorists at Borough Market armed just with a baton, and was badly injured himself, so that he could buy time for others to escape.

But it also looks like those who volunteer day by day in less dramatic ways to help in their communities , who staff the charity shops, befriend those going through tough times, or check in on a frail neighbour. It looks like those who speak out at work when they see something unjust happening, or who campaign for those at the bottom of the heap. Closer to home, it looks like the many people here who care for  this church, and build up its  congregation, so that we can comfort those who come here in times of sadness, and rejoice with those who celebrating. We may just give a cup of cold water, but that says to people, “you matter to me.”  It may seem odd to call these things slavery, but doing them takes commitment and the sacrifice of some of our freedom, our time and our energy. Not much that’s worth doing is going to be easy or quick or painless.

So, what are you enslaved to today? What holds you in its thrall? For all of us, there will be a mixture of answers. There may be enslavements which we need freeing from, things that crush our souls and drag us down. Let’s pray for deliverance from them, for God’s grace to find the freedom he wants for us. But there may also be ties that we rejoice in, commitments that are life-giving and good, things we are called to.  Let’s pray for strength to fulfil them, to embrace them whole-heartedly so we can live out our commitment to God, to one another, and to his life-giving Gospel.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Patronal Festival: Being an apostle

Today is a special day, as you know. It’s special for two reasons. First, because it is our Patronal Festival, the feast of St Peter and St Paul, and secondl, because we are all aware that today we are saying thank you and farewell to the Harvey family, sending them out on their journey to the distant shores of Hadlow. Well, it’s not all that distant, of course, but it will be a new start for them, after many years here, as Nicky prepares her ordination as a deacon and then a priest. 

And if you are sending people out, there’s no better day to do it than the feast day of two of the churches most important apostles, because that word, “apostle”, means someone who is sent out. In a sense, the Harvey family are apostles today – sent out from this congregation - and we pray that those who receive them will be nourished and enriched by their gifts as we have been.

They are following, as I’ve said, in illustrious footsteps. We heard a bit about the apostles Peter and Paul in our readings today. Peter is commissioned – sent out – by Jesus himself, given the “keys of the kingdom of heaven”. He will have authority in the new community of Jesus’ followers to open doors that seem closed, to set people free, and to bind things that need binding.  That’s an awesome power to have, though in some sense we all have it – we can make or mar the lives of others very easily, and it’s important that we know that, so that we can choose to be a force for good in the world.

Paul, the second saint to whom this church is dedicated, didn’t know Jesus during his earthly ministry. His “sending out” came in a very different way to Peter’s. He was on the road to Damascus, on a mission to destroy the followers of Jesus, because he was convinced that they had got it all wrong, and that Jesus had perverted God’s message. It was only when he heard Jesus’ voice calling to him from heaven, a place where he thought he could never be, that he realised his mistake. As he sat, blinded and confused, in a house in Damascus, a Christian called Ananias came to him there. He’d been sent by God to pray for his healing, and God had told Ananias that Paul would be “an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel…” And that’s why Paul claims to be an apostle at the beginning of our first reading today. He had been sent out by God too, just as Peter had.

Peter and Paul, two apostles, two men who are sent out and who become the most important leaders of the early church, and it’s easy to see how they exercised their apostolate, what they were “sent out” to do. Peter and Paul both travelled extensively, founded Christian communities, and both, according to Christian tradition, ended up being martyred in Rome because of the message they preached and lived.

But they aren’t the only apostles in the readings we’ve heard today, and thinking about the others in these readings might broaden our view on what it means to be sent by God and used by God. Who are these others who are “sent out”? They both feature in that first reading, the letter Paul wrote.

First there’s Timothy. Timothy, was a regular travelling companion of Paul’s. We don’t know much about him for sure, except that he came from Lystra and had a Jewish mother and a Greek father, but we do know that he was immensely important to Paul. He refers to him often, and always with great affection. Again and again, Paul talks about being glad of his company, or looking forward to seeing him. He’s described as a beloved child, as well as a brother. Paul obviously felt protective of him, but he also knew that he needed him. Timothy supported him practically, travelling on missions for Paul, and he supported him emotionally too, sticking with him when he was in trouble. That sort of supportive role is vital, often far more important than those who perform it realise. I know that many people here have supported Nicky through her training, first as a Pastoral Assistant and then in her ordination training, praying for her, giving her feedback on sermons, taking an interest in what she’s been doing, and many more will support her and Mike and their family in her future ministry, and they will also be vital. Ministry is not something you do alone. You rapidly realise that when you are ordained. It is something you do as part of a community, and without that community, you can’t do anything at all. The Timothys of this world have an apostolic job too, something they are sent by God to do. It’s to walk alongside others, and they are just as important as the Peters and Pauls. 

Peter and Paul are big Christian heroes, and you might have heard of Timothy before too, because there are letters to him in the New Testament. My guess is, though, that the fourth “apostle” I want to think about today is one most of us have never noticed at all. It is Epaphras. Who?  Epaphras. He’s mentioned in passing just twice in Colossians, and once more in the letter to Philemon. A bit of detective work, though, uncovers some interesting things about him. He seems to have been with Paul, who was in prison, when he wrote to the Colossians, but a bit later on in the letter Paul describes him as “one of you” . Epaphras is from Colossae, a leader, and possibly the founder, of the Christian community there. He’s come to Paul with news of the Colossians.  Some things are going well, “He has made known to us your love in the Spirit”, says Paul. Others aren’t – we hear of some of the struggles and arguments in the church later on in the letter. He wants Paul’s advice and help.

It seems likely that he originally met Paul in Ephesus, and became a Christian through Paul’s ministry. But Paul never went to Colossae himself, so it must have been Epaphras who took the good news there. That’s why I want to call Epaphras an apostle. He was sent, just as much as Peter, Paul, and Timothy were. But he was sent home, sent to what is often the hardest place to minister, the place where everyone already knows you!  In every generation there are Peters and Pauls, people who travel with the gospel of Christ to new places, as Nicky and Mike will do, and as I have done in my ministry. But for many others throughout history, their calling is to stay put, to bloom where they are planted, to transform their own backyards, their own communities, their own workplaces, to stick at it even when the grass looks greener elsewhere. Epaphras was an apostle to his own people, in his own place, just as many – perhaps most – Christians are called to be. That might not always feel very exciting, but without those local apostles, the church will soon wither and die. So if that is your calling, then live it!

In a moment, the choir are going to sing a setting of the Magnificat in G Major by Sumsion, that song of Mary which reminds us that God, in Jesus, is transforming the world.  He is putting down the mighty from their seat, exalting the humble and meek, filling the hungry with good things, and sending the rich away empty, challenged to change their lives. It’s a song that’s all about God’s mission, and Mary’s astonishment that it is happening through her.  At the end of this Eucharist, as we send Nicky, Mike and the family out with our love, our blessing and our prayer, we need also to remember that God sends us out too, into our own apostolate, wherever that is.

Each of us is called. Each of us is sent. God has a purpose for each of us, something that we, and only we can do. It might be far away, or it might be right here. We might be a Peter or Paul, a Timothy or an Epaphras, called to travel, or called to stay put, called to lead, or called to encourage, but each of us matters and can make a difference. Paul’s prayer for the Colossians is that each of them will bear fruit, grow in wisdom, build his kingdom. That’s my prayer for Nicky and Mike and their family, and I am sure that it is their prayer for us too as they leave us today.


Sunday, 11 June 2017

Trinity Sunday: Remember, I am with you...

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day when I am supposed to explain to you the mystery of how God can be three and one at the same time, probably using dodgy analogies of ice, water and steam or images of shamrocks or long theological words like perichoresis.  You’ll probably be quite glad to hear that I’m not going to do any of that.

But that doesn’t mean that I think the idea of the Trinity doesn’t matter. It’s just that it seems to me it is something to explore, not explain, to wonder at, not to dissect. The idea of the Trinity started with the experience of the early Christians, and it’s when we let it speak to our experience that it really starts to make a difference to us.

In particular, it grew out of their experience of the truth of the words Jesus spoke to them at the end of his ministry, the words we heard in our Gospel reading just now. “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” says Jesus. So if we want to start exploring the Trinity, this is a good place to begin. To do so, though, we need to take a step back and think more generally about the Gospels.

We have four Gospels in the New Testament. They all tell the story of Jesus in different ways.  The authors choose to shape their stories in different ways, pulling together memories of those who had been with Jesus and stories that circulated around the early Church. They were written a generation after Jesus, between the 60’s and 90’s AD, soon enough to capture those first hand memories, but as far as we know, none of the Gospel writers had been with Jesus in his ministry. They were written for different audiences too, who needed to hear messages for their own context, messages that would help them to deal with the challenges that they faced and the questions they were asking.

So, although the Gospels have a common core, each one tells the story in a slightly different way. You may know that only two have stories of Jesus’ birth, and that we can’t really mash them together without doing violence to one or the other, not that that stops us trying in our Nativity plays. The same is true of the Easter stories, the stories of Jesus’ resurrection, and, especially the stories which come after that, of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples.  If I were to ask you how Jesus’ earthly ministry ends, my guess is that most of you would say, “With the Ascension, that story of Jesus rising up into heaven through the clouds, from the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem  ”. It’s there in the creed that we’ll say in a minute. But in fact that story only comes in the Gospel of Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles, which was written by the same author. The other three Gospels end quite differently. Mark ends with the women who have come to the tomb finding it empty and running away terrified. John ends it with a lakeside breakfast and some words addressed to Peter giving him the task of leading the church. And Matthew, as we have seen today, ends it on a mountain in Galilee, with what is called the Great Commission, and those reassuring words “I am with you always”. After that, nothing. Matthew doesn’t say a word about what happened to Jesus’ physical body after that. There is no going up, no “exit stage left”. Matthew doesn’t seem to be at all bothered that he hasn’t explained where or how Jesus went, or why he stopped appearing to his followers.

Why is this? It could be that Matthew doesn’t know the story Luke tells – their Gospels were written around the same time. But I think it’s more likely that Matthew is simply making a different point. Luke emphasizes that Jesus is going away at this point. The disciples stand gawping up into space until angels appear to tell them go back to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit.  But Matthew wants to emphasize the fact that though they may no longer see Jesus, he has not, in a sense, gone anywhere at all. “Remember, I am with you always”. His story isn’t about absence; it is about presence.

And it has been so right from the beginning of his Gospel. He is the one who describes an angel appearing to Joseph telling him that Mary will bear a child who will be called Emmanuel – he is quoting from the prophet Isaiah. And what does Emmanuel mean? It means “God is with us”. Matthew is the one, also, who tells us that when we do anything to help the least and last in the world, we do it for Christ; he is present in the hungry and thirsty and homeless. If we ignore them, we miss seeing him too. He compares the Kingdom of Heaven to yeast, hidden in the dough, indistinguishable from it, and yet transforming it from a solid lump to good bread.
“The kingdom of Heaven has come near” says Matthew again and again. (Mt. 3.2, 4.17, 10.7)

And that brings me back to the Trinity. I haven’t forgotten about the Trinity!

The early Christians were convinced that God was Father, Son and Holy Spirit because that was their experience. It wasn’t  a dry and complicated doctrine, but a living reality for them.  They knew of God as creator and loving parent from their Scriptures. That was foundational to Jewish belief. When they met Jesus they had the sense that they were meeting someone who showed them what God was like, who bore God’s likeness, the family likeness. And when Jesus was no longer physically present, they sensed him through the Holy Spirit, who came to them in prayer, and in the new communities they formed, and in the people they reached out to, people who they might once have shunned as unclean outsiders, different from themselves.

“Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus” said Paul to the Romans (Romans 8.39). They realised that God wasn’t – and had never been – hiding in a distant heaven in untouchable perfection. He was all around them and within them.
That doesn’t meant that they thought there was no heavenly realm beyond their earthly experience. They knew that they hadn’t seen heaven in all its fullness yet, but they discovered that it all started here and now. There was no separation between humanity and God. In Christ, and in the Holy Spirit, God was where they were, going through what they went through. And that changed them utterly.

Just imagine what a difference it would make if we fully understood this ourselves, if we truly realised that God was present in us, and in each other. How would that change the way we treated each other, and ourselves?
Just imagine what a difference it would make if we fully understood that God was present in our homes and workplaces. Save him a desk in the office, or a seat at the dinner table, and see how that affects the decisions we make at work and at home.
Just imagine what a difference it would make if we truly believed that God was present in every part of his creation. Wouldn’t we care for the world rather better than we do now?

It was the sense of God’s presence with them, first in Jesus, then in his Holy Spirit, known in prayer, known in the communities they formed, known in the people they reached out to, which transformed those early Christians and made them so excited that their message spread to the ends of the earth.

But it took practice to learn this – it didn’t happen by magic, and that’s something we need to take note of if we want to know the presence of God. It’s obvious from our second reading, in which Paul tells the Corinthians to “put things in order” and “live in peace with one another”  that they weren’t doing that. It is only as they do that they will become aware of the “God of love and peace” being with them, says Paul.

Perhaps that’s why Jesus doesn’t just say “I am with you always”. He says remember, I am with you always” or, to translate it more accurately, behold, I am with you always”. The Greek word is “idou” and it means “look”. If we want to see God’s presence, we have to look for it, and doing that will shape the way we live.  

If we never pray, how can we know the one we never pray to? If we never come together how can we know the one who dwells in our brothers and sisters? If we never reach out beyond ourselves, how can we discover the God who is out there on the margins ?

Until I was in my twenties I knew nothing about gardening, and I wasn’t very interested. Gardens were full of green things, indistinguishable to me from any other green things. A leaf was a leaf was a leaf. It was only when I started gardening myself, that I started really to look. I needed to differentiate the seedling I wanted to nurture from the weed I needed to pull out. It’s the same with God. He doesn’t usually shout at us. He doesn’t write in golden letters in the sky. He doesn’t force himself on us if we don’t want him, but if we open our eyes to him, we learn to find him. And eventually, if we keep our eyes open, we discover that he is at work in all people and places, in all times and seasons, in sorrow as well as in joy. And that discovery changes us, as it changed those first disciples, like that yeast that leavens the dough.

“Remember – behold – look - I am with you always,” says Jesus. The good news that Matthew proclaims from beginning to end in his Gospel is that God has never abandoned us and will never abandon us. He is Emmanuel, God with us; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a trinity of love, woven inextricably through the life of the world. He calls us to see him and know him, to trust him and work with him. Let’s pray for the grace to open our eyes to his presence.


Sunday, 4 June 2017


John 20.19-23, 1 Corinthians 12.3-13 & Acts 2.1-21

When horrendous acts are perpetrated such as those last night in London Bridge and Borough not everyone is in the mood to hear of the Holy Spirit or anything much to be honest. We are saddened, sickened, angry, even the morning sunshine doesn’t lift the feeling that a dark cloud hangs over us.

Deep down as mature Christians we know that nothing has changed in our relationship with God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, yet we feel for all affected, particularly those who have lost people they love, for them everything has changed and life can never be as good again.

I’m sure many of us haven’t slept much, praying through the night for all who would oppose this evil, from the police who had to make the decision to kill the attackers, medics trying to save lives and many brave and kind people who did all they could to help.

If your thoughts drift away to the victims in the next few minutes I understand and I’m sure God willingly receives them.

We heard in our Acts reading how the Holy Spirit came as wind and fire to the disciples also bringing new powers of speech but there isn’t much time to dwell upon this as the main focus moves quickly to the work they are to do and suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of a busy crowd hearing of their amazement at the clarity with which they could hear God’s message.

Perhaps that’s a helpful starting point as we consider the facets of the Holy Spirit, one element is its ability to cut through confusion, pomposity and religious complexity.

Peter is able to do this as he takes the words of the prophet Joel but instead of interpreting them as horrendous condemnation he is there for the people to show that God is offering salvation and hope for the future.

If we are open to allowing the Spirit to come alongside us the result is that we will become more alive, more aware of what we can do to play our part in God’s kingdom. Just as the Spirit shows all who would have Jesus crucified as a sinner that we are the sinners we start to see and understand things anew.

 As we do God’s work and run into barriers and challenges then we will be pleased to have a comforter in the way that a reliable friend or loved one can support us through difficult times and an advocate in the way of someone seeking the best outcome for us.

Perhaps the spirit weaves her way through our lives in more ways than we care to think, perhaps it’s not all such a remote concept when our minds are open.

But what about all those languages? Those much cleverer than me know that the peoples referred to starting with the Parthians to the east in Iran, Pontus to the north in Turkey, Cyrene to the west in Libya and the Egyptians and Arabs to the south either side of the Red Sea together with all the other references radiate out in all directions from Jerusalem.

We hear that the God of Pentecost can be understood by people in their own language, he is multilingual to the point that there is no one he struggles to communicate with, a reminder to us that he loves his entire creation and is not constrained by our man made borders. This is a really challenging thought when we consider how much difference those borders make to people’s life chances. The Holy Spirit cannot be contained by race, borders, sects or religions she is everywhere.

One aspect of the Spirit I read described her as ‘the windswept protest of a borderless God, standing against humanity’s misguided preference for the empty language of the powerful.’ This is as true today as it was when it was applied to those who wanted to confine God within the walls of their temples, coming alongside the powerful and apparently respectable.

The disciples had gathered in Jerusalem during the festival of Shavuot, Hebrew for weeks, coming 7 weeks after the Passover and then a Jewish harvest festival. Pilgrims from around the known world had gathered for the celebration when suddenly the disciples burst forth into the packed streets. From the mouths of a bunch of uncouth, uneducated, disreputable Galileans comes a multilingual message of all the magnificent works of God.

It became clear that God wouldn’t be found only in a temple or a church but on any street near you. It became clear that you don’t have to be posh, ordained, or wear funny clothes to tell people about God and his love for them, anyone can do it. God was as happy for the occupying Romans to tell of his love in their imperial Latin as he was for it to be told in any language whatsoever by rich or poor, powerful or powerless.

As you are probably aware, many here at Seal have taken part in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s prayer initiative ‘Thy Kingdom come’. If you look on the dedicated website you can see parts of the globe lit up in locations where people have taken the time to pledge their prayer. The names of places on the map have changed a bit since the day of Pentecost but many lights still shine brightly across the Middle East from those taking part, even if the number of pledges is greater across Britain, Europe and North America.

It’s a beautiful thought that so many have been united through prayer , in so many languages, each seeking a perfect translation of God’s message through the Spirit.  We pray that we and all humanity might know the love of Jesus and that we may understand that the way we live our lives themselves are prayer.

In church many have written prayers and created focal points for prayer and I’m certain that God can even decipher the thoughts behind the writing which is incomprehensible to the human eye! Even more he discerns our deepest thoughts and emotions this morning.

In our prayers we are helped by the spirit, we often pray in the power of the spirit and in union with Christ. We may find Paul’s words from his letter to the Romans helpful this morning as we struggle to articulate our feelings, he wrote ‘we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.’ In plain English the Spirit helps us to pray when words simply are not enough, going far deeper, opening us up to God.

Certain disciplines and exercises may help our daily prayer, many find God in nature, in stillness, meditation, study and imagination. Involuntary prayer occurs when we receive news be it good or bad.

If we’re honest we sometimes find prayer hard and may often only think of it in formal terms but being open to the Spirit is prayer in itself. Devoting work and the proceeds of all types work to God are prayer. Stepping outside our comfort zone to do stuff that pleases God is prayer.

Using words can often feel difficult, clumsy, inadequate, ask anyone who ever leads prayers publicly, doing so can make the person feel exposed, what if people think my prayers are stupid, offensive, too short, too long, I hope no one imagines that just because I’m prepared to have a go that I think I’m Holy or devout or more able to pray than they are. This can only ever be one small part of each person’s prayer life and it would be a mistake to think ‘that’s me done for another week’.

Then we have to try and avoid the selfish prayers, I remember the story of a man returning home to his village after a day at work and he sees smoke billowing over the hill, ‘O Lord please don’t let it be my house that is on fire’ he instinctively prays.

Sometimes when different generations use evolving language it can be difficult to keep up, how many of us would have thought that if something is ‘absolutely sick’ that the person means ‘it’s great.’ Hey God the trees look absolutely sick at the moment, we don’t need to worry whether they look fantastic or are diseased, God will know what we mean.

We sometimes hear a techy person using terms we can’t relate to, we wonder are they speaking English and it’s clear that even in our common language there’s plenty of problems understanding each other.

It can be the same when some people hear about generosity, trust, compassion, sacrifice and God’s unconditional love. It’s no good them being told about or reading of this if they never experience it. The experience is the point of crystal clear translation, which is where we come in, where we can make the Holy Spirit a reality for others. What a great revelation it must be to those who come to know what these things really mean for the first time, finally someone is speaking their language.

In considering our written prayers over the last few days amongst many others they seek compassion for the bereaved, life with God for the dead, mending of broken relationships, peace, healing and support for physical and mental health challenges, continued joy from the support of community, family and friends. To prayers for those suffering from the Manchester attacks we add all affected in London last night.

As we look around our congregation and beyond to the wider community it is evident that the Spirit is alive in the varied gifts we have among us and the way that people employ them. We collectively possess Spiritual Gifts that can work towards a great deal of what people have prayed for, our prayers can be answered at least in part by the way we serve each other and we may discover that much of what we pray for can be found very close to home.

May our response to evil be inspiration to live lives that make God’s love a reality.


Kevin Bright

4th June 2017