Sunday, 19 February 2017

2nd before Lent: Do not worry (Breathing Space Communion)

“Do not worry,” says Jesus. Well – easier said than done. If we were to stop and share at this point all the things we have worried about in the last week, I expect the list would be quite a long one. Some of the worries might have been fleeting ones – whether we would make the train we were aiming for, or whether we’d have time to fit in the things we needed to do. There’s a time limit on those sort of worries – once their moment has gone, it’s gone.
Other worries might be more persistent; worries about a family member, fears for our health, financial concerns. Then there is that that sort of generalised anxiety that convinces us that the world is going to the dogs, and that we are doomed with it – the political situation in Europe and the US doesn’t help us to feel at ease.

So when Jesus says “don’t worry” it is easy to write off his words as naivety. But let’s remember that this was a man who lived in an occupied country, and who was deliberately going head to head with both the Jewish and Roman authorities. He was asking for trouble, and he knew that he would be very likely to find it. After all, his cousin, John the Baptist, had just been arrested, and was languishing in Herod’s prison for preaching much the same message as him.

So what does Jesus mean? How can his words help us in the midst of our very real anxieties? How can we reclaim them from the rather sentimental images with which they have often been illustrated –chirruping birds singing sweetly in blossom-laden trees and sunlit meadows full of flowers? It can’t just be a matter of distracting ourselves from harsh realities with pictures of baskets of kittens, can it?

Perhaps it helps if we read this Gospel passage in the light of the first reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul was convinced that God was going to intervene dramatically in history at any moment, that Christ was going to return to wrap up the whole sorry mess of the world. He may have got the detail wrong – that literal second coming didn’t happen – but I think his instincts were spot on. Something different was happening, something new, because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He had seen it in his own life. A dedicated, ruthless opponent of Jesus and his movement, he had committed his life to rooting out what he saw as the dangerous heresy that he had brought. But after Jesus had spoken to him in a vision on the road to Damascus, his life had been turned around. And it wasn’t just the change in his own heart that had bowled him over, but the reaction of the Christians he had been hell-bent on persecuting. Instead of hating him, they had welcomed him, sheltered him, cared for him. Whatever they had, he wanted; that capacity to love, no matter what the cost. No wonder he writes so often of love – love that does not keep score of wrongs, that endures, that heals, that extends to enemies just as much as to friends. He had been on the receiving end of it. Something new had happened in his life, and through his ministry it was happening to others too. A new world was being born.

The imagery he uses in his letter to the Church in Rome is of that new birth. “The whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now” he says, but look, the birth is happening. He has seen the “first fruits of the Spirit”, like that moment when the baby’s head crowns, the moment when, even if you are the mother in labour, you really do feel that it is nearly all over, and the child you long for is really going to arrive.

We thought this morning at our All Age Worship about God at work, God who works to bring about his creation, labouring six days for something he acclaimed as “very good” as it says in the opening chapters of Genesis. Our epistle today echoes that first creation. God is still at work, it says, making a new creation out of the mess we have made.
We thought about our own work this morning, our daily realities, with all their delights and their pressures, and we tried to look for God at work in them, because if we can’t find him there, we won’t find him anywhere.

And that is where it seems to me that this reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans – and that Genesis account of creation – touch on and enlighten Jesus’ words to his followers. Don’t worry, he says. Don’t worry, not because there is nothing to worry about, not because everything is fine and dandy, but because God is at work, in us, in our lives, in our world. That doesn't mean that nothing will hurt, or fail, or die – Jesus himself dies – but that whatever happens is not the end of all our hopes. In and through the things that seem to have gone wrong, God can bring to birth a new creation.  That’s the good news. Tomorrow is in God’s hands. We are in God’s hands. Whatever goes wrong – and whatever goes right – is in God’s hands. God is at work, and that means that, ultimately, there is nothing to worry about.


Sunday, 12 February 2017

Third Sunday before Lent: Tough statements

It’s a tough Gospel passage we’ve heard today. If we didn’t wince or feel uncomfortable at some point in it, we probably weren’t listening. Jesus presents his disciples with a long list of challenges. He doesn’t pull his punches, and the spread of those challenges is so wide that something in it must have hit home to all of them, just as it probably did to us. What does he say? “You may not be murderers or adulterers but that doesn’t mean that you have got it all sorted out, that you are off the hook, that nothing needs to change in your life”. I mean, who hasn’t called someone else a fool at some stage? If that’s the level at which we should start to worry, then we’d all better pay attention.

It’s all a bit depressing. How can we ever meet God’s standards if they’re so high? We might as well all give up, do as we please, eat, drink and be merry, because we are never going to be good enough.

That’s so at odds with the general drift of Jesus’ message in the Gospels  that we ought to be wary of leaping to conclusions, though. It’s always important to know the context of what we read, and it’s doubly important here.

This is part of a much longer passage, which we now call the “Sermon on the Mount”.  Matthew groups together all sorts of sayings of Jesus, probably not all delivered at the same time, because he wants to spark comparisons in people’s minds with another “sermon on the mount” from the Old Testament. He wants his hearers to be reminded of Moses, coming down Mount Sinai with the laws of God inscribed on stone tablets, the laws which would shape their lives in the Promised Land they were going to. Jesus is leading his followers into another Promised Land, the kingdom of God. His words here give them a flavour of what that will be like, and how they can help to make it “on earth as it is in heaven”.

Again and again he repeats words which hammer that home. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… but I say to you.” God is doing something new, says Jesus, something utterly different, and we will need to change from the inside out if we want to be part of it.  

Jesus isn’t just substituting a new set of rules for the old ones, but Christians have often struggled to see that. Let’s face it; we like rules, so long as we think we are on the right side of them. They make life simpler and more predictable. Keep them and you can convince yourself you’re ok.

You mustn’t get angry. You mustn’t call anyone a fool. You mustn’t look at a woman lustfully. You mustn’t divorce your wife, except for adultery, and you mustn’t marry a divorced woman. (Please note that this is framed through a man’s view point). Finally, you mustn’t swear oaths.

It sounds tough, but maybe it’s doable, we think, if we try hard enough. But in practice these rules present us with a whole new set of difficulties. How literally are we meant to take them, for example?

If you can’t call someone a fool, can you insult them in some other way. Does any insult or criticism matter, or is it just this one? And what about the prohibition on getting angry? There are no exceptions given here, yet Jesus himself gets angry, driving the money changers out of the temple for example. Has he broken his own rule?

Some Christians, like the Quakers, have refused to swear oaths in court because of this passage. That’s why you can make an affirmation instead – it was a concession to their consciences. But is Jesus really just talking about what form of words we use?

People haven’t very often cut off their hands or plucked out their eyes in obedience to these verses, but they have done all sorts of other things to “mortify the flesh”. They’ve worn hair shirts, whipped themselves, gone without food, drink and warmth in an attempt to tame what were seen as unruly desires because of this passage. That  isn’t a healthy attitude at any level, but it has also created an environment in which abuse thrives. Perpetrators can argue that they are only acting for the good of those they abuse. Just this week we’ve seen a shocking example of this surface, in the abuse committed by John Smyth. One victim, Andrew Watson, now the Bishop of Guildford, commented that John Smyth, “tragically play[ed] on the longing of his young victims to live godly lives.”

These may seem like extreme examples, and most of us wouldn’t dream of taking these statements of Jesus at face value now, but there’s one passage which, until very recently, was read as an absolute and unchanging prohibition by large swathes of society, and was enshrined in civil as well as religious law. It’s the prohibition on divorce and remarriage. As a divorced and remarried woman myself, I know what it feels like, even in the 21st century, to have to face the accusation that those who challenge the literal interpretation of this passage are going soft on scripture.   

But this passage too, needs to be understood in context. Jesus’ words were very much rooted in his own culture, a culture in which men could divorce women on a whim. They would be left destitute, since they couldn’t support themselves independently. They often had to resort to prostitution, or marry any man who would take them in order to survive. The lot of a divorced woman was desperate – and Jesus’ demand that they not be put in that situation makes a lot of sense.  But later generations have used his words as a chain to bind people – often those same vulnerable women – instead of letting them find freedom and hope. People have been forced to stay in abusive or loveless marriages because there was no option to do otherwise, and many parts of the church still refuse to allow them to marry again, even if the new marriage is clearly full of healing and hope.

When we rip his words out of their context, we do the exact opposite of what Jesus meant us to do. Jesus challenges us throughout this passage  to see beyond the letter of the law to its spirit, to have the courage to ask, “what’s the loving thing to do, the thing that will bring freedom and life?” even if it’s not what “we have heard said in ancient times”. He challenges us to be prepared to think new thoughts and go in new directions if love demands it. When we turn those challenges into rules that oppress people we pervert his intentions completely.

It seems to me that we are doing just that in much of our current debate about homosexuality – something Jesus doesn’t mention here, or anywhere else for that matter. It’s on the agenda again for next week’s General Synod meeting, following the publication of a paper from the House of Bishops. The C of E has been having what were called “Shared Conversations” between people with all sorts of views on homosexuality, including gay, lesbian and transgendered Christians, who paid a considerable emotional cost in taking part. The report calls for a change in “tone and culture”, but as it doesn’t give any indication that policy or practice might change, it’s hard to see how that can happen. The sticking point is, as always, a handful of Bible verses from a culture entirely alien to our own, with meanings we can’t even fully understand, which condemn anything other than heterosexual expressions of love. Like the majority in UK society now, I have no problem with people loving other people. It seems to me that it’s the quality of our relationships that matters, not the gender of the people in them. I long to see a time when all people can live lovingly and faithfully in the relationships to which God calls them, relationships which sustain them, and enrich the rest of us too. But here we are again, going over the same ground. Please pray for the Synod, whatever your views, and for all who are feeling bruised and battered by this ongoing struggle.

“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses” said Moses in our first reading. His blueprint for life in the Promised Land included some things we’d still recognise and affirm – treating widows, orphans and strangers fairly, for example. It also included things which we’d now think very odd, though; not eating shellfish, or wearing clothes of mixed fibres, or sowing the seeds of two different crops together. There’s nothing new in having to revisit what seemed like rules set in stone for eternity. Slavery can be, and was, justified from the Bible, well into the 19th century by some Christians. Polygamy was never outlawed in the Bible, and was still very much accepted and acceptable in the Palestine of Jesus’ day, but I doubt you’ll hear calls for its return in General Synod any time soon, however biblical a pattern of marriage it is!

“You have heard it said… but I say to you…” said Jesus to his disciples. But what is it that he says to us? Perhaps, “look again at your own hearts, your own motivations, your unexamined prejudices and assumptions before you sit in judgement on the lives of others.”

If we find ourselves insisting on the enforcement of rules that crush others so that we can stay on the safe side of a punitive and wrathful God, I am sure we have missed the heart of the Gospel. “Those who live in love, live in God and God lives in them.” says the Bible.  God calls us to treat all people with respect – that’s the underlying message of this Gospel passage - to call no one worthless, to treat no one as a sexual object or a possession, to be people of integrity, whose inner motivations match up with our outer behaviour, letting our “yes be yes” and our “no be no”. That might look different in 2017 than it did in the time of Jesus, but the calling is the same.

Jesus’ words are challenging. They may make us feel uncomfortable, but let’s make sure that is for the right reasons, so that they can guide us into the path that leads to fullness of life, not just for us, but for everyone.


Sunday, 5 February 2017

Goat Couture or Haute Couture, does it matter?

Matthew 5.13-20, 1 Corinthians 2.1-16, Isaiah 58.1-12 The words in our Candlemas service last week reminded us that we have moved away from Christmas and now look towards Lent, today being the 4th Sunday before Lent and, of course, the first Sunday of February. I don’t know about you but I’m pleased to see the back of January, I find it the most difficult month of the year. Short on light and cold, often something to just get through. It’s not a very politically correct thing to say, and everything hereafter has the caveat that the Church of England encourages responsible drinking, but I can’t relate to those who do ‘dry January’ when a glass of ‘bottled sunshine’ from the previous year helps lift the mood on a dark evening. Even worse, the same people who were drinking for England before Christmas are now so sanctimonious as they tell all how much weight they’ve lost and how they haven’t had an alcoholic drink for a whole month. Of course I dare not say to anyone that ‘God is tired of meaningless fasts and empty rituals.’ Forget dry January have a glass of wine and give some money to charity to help someone and you’ll probably feel much happier as a result of both. It wouldn’t really have been fair when the closest I came to a dry January was sticking with the dry white wine for an evening. I know that I’m being a bit unkind here but I have to admit that this type of behaviour came to mind as I read the words of the Prophet Isaiah. The people are fasting and denying themselves in a religious manner, and making sure everyone knows about it but they are getting pretty fed up because God doesn’t seem to be taking much notice, look at us with our itchy goat’s hair sack cloth and ashes piled on our heads. My interpretation of God’s response is ‘I don’t care whether you wear goat couture or haute couture; you’re totally missing the point of this fasting business’. Isaiah’s words of gentle sarcasm on God’s part are far more subtle. They indicate where the people are going wrong. He says ...’day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness’. AS IF. The sort of thing a teenage child says to a parent when they say ‘of course I’m still faster than you over a hundred metres’, without looking up from their mobile device they utter ‘yea as if’. It’s a tough thought to face but for most of us God must sometimes think why do you do all this praying and worshipping AS IF you’re serious about it and then slip back into your old ways? We really need to think more about why we do stuff and what it means to God. Isaiah tells the people observing strict religious practices that they need to widen their horizons until they start to see the world through God’s eyes rather than setting up systems of elaborate worship and hoping that God starts to see it through our eyes. Formal worship at its best can connect us with God, make us aware of his love and forgiveness, energise and equip us for each week. Formal worship at its worst can be a routine we fall into that makes us lazily assume that we are Christians without ever really stopping to challenge ourselves. The Prophet is pretty clear about where God’s priorities lie. The people have failed to notice or perhaps care about those suffering injustice, oppression, hunger, homelessness and poverty in their midst. Most of us can pick up and drop our fasting at will but God cares about those who don’t have that choice. What is the point of it? It can bring focus and self-discipline into our relationship with God but it’s not a task to be undertaken competitively or as a means of impressing others. Surely an element of true fasting means giving up a portion of what we have to share with those who do not? It’s worth keeping this in mind as Lent approaches. Giving something up may well be good for us but sharing the benefits of doing so could be good for many others. This could take the form of money, time, or practical help to those in need. If we share in God’s vision to include all we can’t help but act and speak when we see injustice. It’s so easy to get frustrated or feel down about some global matters but as Christians we need to be actively looking for the opportunities where we can make things better, to remain optimistic about the changes we can bring to other people’s lives by the way we live ours day in and day out.. God wants us to create systems of justice, free the oppressed, feed the hungry, house the homeless and clothe the poor. Opportunities to help do these things are plentiful if we open our eyes and when we do, we are told, ‘your light shall rise in the darkness’. We are probably familiar with the concepts of salt and light from the Sermon on the Mount. Well-worn words can sometimes be hard to interpret afresh but it’s worth considering whether we relate to salt in the same way that those who heard Jesus say ‘you are the salt of the earth’ would have done at the time. I read this week that it’s likely that Palestinians from the 1st century placed flat plates of salt on the bottom of their earthen ovens to activate the fire, this had a catalytic-like effect on the fuel, causing it to burn. The most readily available fuel was animal dung. After some years, the salt plates in the earthen oven underwent a chemical reaction due to the heat. The result was that the salt no longer facilitated the fire, but stifled the burning of the dung. It is in this sense that salt used for this purpose lost its saltiness, its ability to facilitate a fire. Would the people hearing Jesus actually thought we are the salt of the earthen-oven; but if salt has lost its saltiness, its ability to facilitate the burning of dung, it’s no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot. In this way Jesus language is finely tuned to the people’s culture, a culture familiar with conflict. In some respects it’s not that different from us now but without journalists and social media to endorse or put people down publicly spoken words in front of crowds performed a similar function. Insults and honours, their delivery and timing became an art form followed by many who loved the theatre of it all. People’s ears would have pricked up as Jesus spoke, after all who wouldn’t love to receive such a positive endorsement ‘you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world’. Not words spoken to pious religious leaders but to common people who had become disciples. The message is that we don’t have to do something to become salt and light that is how God created us, that’s what Jesus wants to remind us. We each have great potential for good but it’s up to us whether we obscure or lose that. It follows that each one of us is called to live today in a way that recognises that Jesus came to show us that we have a future with him which we can start living straight away, that his light can shine through us like that which passes through our stained glass windows. We are left to consider where this is and isn’t true for us both corporately as a church and individually. We will fall short but when we do so we are reminded that God’s doesn’t want us to focus on sackcloth and ashes but delights in seeing us refocus on the things that matter, his love for us all reflected as real love for each other. Amen Kevin Bright 5th February 2017

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Candlemas and Baptism: Light of the world

When Emma and Leon asked if Henry could be baptised on this particular day, as they’ll tell you, I jumped at it. It was, I assured them, an ideal day for a baptism – the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, otherwise known as Candlemas.

Perhaps when you heard the words I just read from the Gospel you understood why. What was the story about? It was about two parents bringing their first born son for God’s blessing, and about his community of faith, or at least, two members it, welcoming and affirming him. And that’s what we have here this morning too, except that there’s a whole church full of people for whom Henry is the star of the show this morning.  The other difference is that Emma and Leon haven’t had to bring a sacrifice with them, as Mary and Joseph did, but frankly, that’s a profound relief. I really don’t know what I’d do with a pair of live pigeons this morning!

The feast of the Presentation of Christ marks the end of the Christmas season in the Church’s calendar. It began at midnight on Christmas Eve when we celebrated Christ’s birth, and went on throughout the next forty days or so until now as we’ve pondered, along with Mary and Joseph, what the birth of Jesus might mean, how it might change us. Today that season comes to an end as we hear this story of Simeon and Anna recognising a light in the infant Jesus which would light up the world, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of God’s people Israel.” It’s that association with light which gives this day its alternative name of Candlemas, and it was traditionally the time when the candles that were used in church through the year were blessed. Often people would bring candles from home for blessing too. In an age before artificial light, the flickering light of a candle was all that stood between you and the darkness of the night. We rarely encounter real darkness now. It can be banished with the flick of a switch. For our ancestors though, light was a precious commodity. Candles were used sparingly, and valued highly. It’s no surprise that people wanted to have them blessed. They had spiritual significance as well as practical value, symbols of the God whose first act of creation had been to say “let there be light”.

In Jesus, Christians saw God making a new creation, bringing light again into a darkened world, light which even death on a cross couldn’t put out. In pictures of his birth, artists often painted him as literally light-filled, a “glow in the dark” baby – perhaps you had some of those sort of images on your Christmas cards? Of course, he didn’t really look like that but that was the only way of capturing in paint the inner truth they were trying to convey. This was the child who would light up the lives of those he met. This was the child who would come into the darkness of despair, loneliness, and failure, and transform them with glory, who would bring people out of the gloomy prisons of their oppression, into the sunlight of God’s love.

As Mary and Joseph approached the Temple to present their child there and make the sacrifice the law demanded, they didn’t seem to have seen more than a glimmer of this light though. Despite the angels announcing his birth and the shepherds coming to wonder at him, they hadn’t grasped the immensity of the change he would bring, and why should they have?  Of course their child was special to them – every child lights up the lives of its family and friends - but we often struggle to see beyond this. Try as we might we can’t imagine our babies as adults,  as High Court judges, engineers, actors, nurses, solicitors, software designers, shopkeepers, or whatever  their path through life will lead them to. For Mary and Joseph, imagining Jesus as Messiah must have been even more of a stretch. You know how it goes in the Life of Brian, “He’s not the Messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy…”

As they made their way through the crowded precincts of the Temple, then, they weren’t expecting anything special to happen. They were simply doing what the law required, what every family did. The Temple would have been full of people like them bringing sacrifices and prayers for all sorts of reasons. There would have been people debating, talking, praying, pushing and jostling, and animals too, being brought , perhaps noisily, for sacrifice. Who would notice one little peasant family in the midst of all this hubbub?

There is no logical reason why Simeon and Anna should have spotted them, singled them out. Luke doesn’t explain how they knew this child was different, other than that the Spirit of God told them he was. What we do know, though, is that these two elderly people had spent their lifetimes tuning into God, and perhaps that’s why, when it mattered, they heard and saw what no one else did.  Simeon was devout and looking forward to the moment when God would act, we are told.  Anna had spent most of her long life fasting and praying in the Temple. Both of them were people of prayer and people of hope, in the habit of being on the look-out for God, despite long years of waiting. And they had had to wait. They were old enough to remember when the Romans had taken over their land some 60 or so years before. Where was God when that happened, and in the dark years afterwards? While many might have despaired, Simeon and Anna held onto their faith, waiting, watching, living right, when the world around them seemed hell-bent on going wrong, listening for the voice of God. And on this day, because of that faithfulness, they heard it. This was the child. This was the one who would change everything, the light that would light up the world.

But what’s all this got to do with Henry and his baptism? After all, he really isn’t the Messiah… And yet, the promise of Christian faith is that the light of God which shone in Christ shines in all of us too, if we will let it. Today’s service, being Candlemas, will have a lot of candles in it. But candles are a part of every baptism service, as a reminder of that truth.  At every baptism service, we light our Paschal or Easter candle, the candle which reminds us of the story of Christ dying and rising on Easter Day. At every baptism too, we light a candle from it, for the family to take home, to keep, to light when they want to pray for and with their child. That candle reminds them of the light of Christ which burns in their child, maybe sometimes covered over, obscured, hard to see, maybe sometimes flickering and unsteady, but there nonetheless – a light that nothing can put out.

At this service of Candlemas, though, we will all remember that together. At the end of the service, we’ll all hold lit candles, and during the responses that close the service, we’ll blow them out, as we say goodbye to this Christmas season. That might seem an odd thing to do, but it isn’t a sign that Christ’s light has gone out, so much as that his light has gone in, that it has sunk in to us, becoming part of our lives day by day, night by night, guiding our footsteps and lighting our path.

We don’t know who Henry will be when he grows up, or what he will do. We don’t know what he’ll be remembered for. We don’t know what successes he’ll achieve, what failures he’ll have to deal with, what struggles he’ll have to face. But like Simeon and Anna, we welcome him today, and we confidently proclaim that the light of Christ shines in him, as it does in all of us, and that God holds him in the palm of his hand.


Sunday, 22 January 2017

Epiphany 3: Confronting the powers

About a hundred years before Jesus was born a great victory was won by a man you may never have heard of called Aristobolus I – no, I hadn’t heard of him either. He was the king of Judea, the territory around Jerusalem – he had seized power for himself after a family feud. If that wasn’t enough, he was also high priest.  

Aristobolus wasn’t content with the power he had though. He wanted more. He was a bit of a megalomaniac. In particular, he had his eyes on the lands to the north of Judea, between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean. Once they’d been part of Israel. They were the ancient tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, but 600 years before him the Assyrians had conquered them and scattered their populations around their vast empire. They’d resettled the land with people from other countries and faiths.  It had become a ragbag of nationalities, cultures and backgrounds. That was why the prophet Isaiah called it Galilee of the nations, that’s why he described it as a place where people walked in darkness, a place where those defeated tribes had been brought into contempt, a place of anguish.

Aristobolus wasn’t having it. He wanted to make Israel great again – sounds familiar? So he marched north with his armies and, after a bitter war, he won.  But now what? The problem was that many of the people of Galilee weren’t Jewish. They were descendents of that ragbag of nations the Assyrians had settled in the land. Aristobolus’s answer was simple. If they weren’t Jewish they would have to become so, by force if necessary – which it mostly was. He wasn’t taking no for an answer. They were made to convert. As far as Aristobolus was concerned the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali had been reborn. The people who walked in darkness had seen a great light, his light, whether they wanted to or not.  He, Aristobolus had “made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.”

Of course it didn’t last. In fact he’d hardly had a chance to enjoy his conquest when he died, and about 40 years later, the Romans conquered not only Galilee, but Judea too, and parcelled up his kingdom among puppet kings like Herod. So much for making Galilee glorious, making Israel great again. So much for casting light on people who walked in darkness. His mighty conquest had been no more than a flash in the pan.

So when Matthew quotes that very same passage from Isaiah, and applies it to Jesus, he is being much more provocative than we think. This was all very recent history to the people of Jesus’ time. We often tend to read the Gospels in a very individualistic, spiritual way when at the time they were political bombshells, full of subversive messages.

Right from the start of Matthew’s Gospel he sets us up for a story that is going to be about power and how it is used, kingdoms and how they are built and ruled. It’s Matthew who tells us the story of Jesus’ birth through the lens of the visit of the Magi – there are no shepherds and manger in his version. They go straight to King Herod initially and spark off a firestorm which ends up with the massacre of the children of Bethlehem and the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt as refugees. Then Matthew tells us about John the Baptist, who thunders at those who oppress others and confronts those who thought they held the reigns of religious and secular power. We follow Jesus out into the desert, where he confronts powers of a different sort, the spiritual powers which threaten to derail his ministry before it starts. Is he going to win a following through miracles. Is he going to heap up glory for himself?  What kind of leader will he be – one like Aristobolus, leading by force, ambitious for worldly acclaim and wealth?
Jesus rejects that temptation – his way is going to be completely different.

And that’s where today’s Gospel begins. Jesus comes out of the desert and hears that John has been arrested. He could have decided to give it all up there and then, but he doesn’t. He steps straight into the space John has prepared for him, and begins to preach the same message. And it is the same message, exactly the same message, word for word, which John had preached just a chapter earlier in the Gospel. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. Jesus knows that he will face the same corrupt political forces which had imprisoned and would eventually execute John, but he carries on preaching anyway.

That’s the backdrop to the calling of his first disciples, Simon and Andrew, James and John. They aren’t just called away from their settled lives to the hardships of a travelling ministry. They aren’t just called away from their families and their private, self-contained lives. They are called into a battle with some mighty and very dangerous opponents.

The safest thing, if you live under an oppressive system, is to keep your head down and hope no one notices you. But they decide to take up the company of someone who is very deliberately challenging the powers that be. The danger to Jesus and to his followers couldn’t be clearer. When they rise up and follow Jesus they are embarking on a path which will lead most of them, ultimately, to suffering and to death.

So whatever made them do it? Why did they chuck in their comfortable lives and head off into the unknown? What did they see in Jesus, in that split second that he called them, which convinced them that he was worth following? What did he see in them?

Let’s think about the first of those questions first. What did they see in Jesus. Matthew doesn’t give us any clues about why those fishermen chose to follow him. All we know is the message he was preaching. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It doesn’t sound like a very appealing message at first hearing. We don’t tend to like the idea of repentance these days, sackcloth and ashes are out of fashion. But the real meaning of the word translated “repent” is “change your mind”.

Repentance is about finding a whole new outlook on life.
We might be used to looking at the world with cynicism and despair. “Change your mind,” says Jesus, “learn to see the hope God has for you.” That’s repentance. Or we might feel that our lives are pointless, that we are just on an endless treadmill. “Change your mind” says Jesus, “you matter, your life has a purpose, God is at work in you”. That’s repentance too. Or we might look at the forces, political, personal, ranged against us and think, “what chance have I got against all that”. “Change your mind,” says Jesus, “God’s light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. “ That’s what repentance looks like in practice. It’s not about despair or misery; it’s about hope.

If that’s the case, no wonder these fishermen leapt up and followed Jesus. Things could be different, were going to be different.  “The kingdom of heaven has come near” he said to them. “God is here. He’s at work in the world, at work in you, if only you open your eyes to see it.” Put that way, I’m not surprised that these fishermen leapt to their feet and followed him. They had sat too long already in the darkness of oppression, injustice and hopelessness, but now the light had dawned. Of course they wanted to know more. Of course they wanted to follow.

But if that’s what they see in Jesus, what is it that he sees in them? Why does he call these ordinary fishermen to be his followers? Again Matthew doesn’t give us much of a clue, but I think that’s the point. It’s not who these people are the matters but who they aren’t.  They aren’t superstars. They aren’t particularly rich or well-educated. They aren’t even necessarily good or religious people. In Matthew’s version of this story they are simply the first people Jesus comes across. God doesn’t just call extraordinary people, Matthew is telling us, people with gifts and talents that single them out from the crowd. He doesn’t just call those who are especially intelligent, resourceful, strong or brave.  He calls everyone.

For most of us, thank God, that calling won’t involve martyrdom, but all of us are called to do something – or maybe a succession of somethings during our lives – which will make a difference in the world in some way or other, to work with God in creating his Kingdom where we are, in our workplaces and neighbourhoods. We create that kingdom as we stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, as we love those others have no time for, as we learn to react with mercy and forgiveness, not fear and hatred to those who hurt us. This is a ministry we are all called to. There are no exceptions. There is no one too young, or too old, no one too insignificant, and no one too important either, to be called by God to do this work.

This week, as we have watched a divisive president take up office in the US, when our own nation is debating what sort of future it wants, what sort of kingdom we are, it is all the more important for us to realise that we all have a part to play in shaping the future. God calls us very urgently to work with him now, just as he called those fishermen two thousand years ago. He calls us to create a future where we can be drawn together by love, not driven apart by fear, where we build bridges, not walls, where we learn to seek and to find God in the stranger, and even in the enemy, as well as in the friend.

If God could work through the random bunch of people we find following him in the Gospels - people who get it wrong as often as they get it right - he can surely work through us too. All we need to do is to change our minds about ourselves, to learn to see ourselves as God sees us, full of promise, full of hope, chosen and called. “Repent – change your mind – for the kingdom of God has come near.”

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Epiphany 2 Breathing Space: Remaining with Christ

“They came and saw where Jesus was staying, and they remained with him that day.”

Near the beginning of John’s Gospel, we find people making their way to Jesus. He doesn’t seem to seek them out, as he does in the other Gospels. Instead, they seem to be drawn to him.

John the Baptist has pointed him out. “The Lamb of God” he calls him, but it’s an enigmatic title. Lambs were for sacrifice, associated particularly with the Passover festival , that great moment when the people of Israel remembered the time they had been led from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The Passover festival was a great time of rejoicing for the people, but not such good news for the lamb. What is John saying about this man? Who is he? What is he going to do? Why will it matter?  Nothing is clear to these followers of John, but they want to know more.

So off they go after him, following at a distance it seems. Maybe they want to be noticed, maybe they don’t, but Jesus realises they are there and turns around to talk to them.  “What are you looking for?” he asks. Their answer sounds a bit odd. “Where are you staying?” It sounds as if he has caught them off guard, as if they are a bit lost for words. They don’t ask him who he is or why he has come or what he has come to teach. As answers go, it is a bit inane – what difference does it make where he is staying?

Jesus could have answered by simply giving them his address – “third house on the right beyond the butchers shop,” or wherever it was. But he doesn’t. He hears what they mean rather than just what they say. He hears the hunger lurking under the surface of this apparently trivial question. He knows them better than they know themselves.

Their deepest need isn’t to know where he is; it is to be where he is. That is a whole different thing.

Knowing where Jesus is, knowing about him, is something we can do from a distance, without getting involved. If these men had had his address they could have said “Ok, fine – we’ll drop in sometime” and never done it. We can study the theological literature about Jesus, listen to the sermons and debate our opinions without ever being touched by him personally. But Christian faith calls us to more than that, just as Jesus calls these disciples to more than simply knowing his address.

“Come and see”, he says them. And they do, “remaining with him that day”. It was about four o’clock when they were invited to go with him, so we have to assume they sat with him as dusk fell and night came. What did they do? Well, I am sure they talked – about God, about themselves, about him. I am sure they shared ideas and argued about theology. But if they “remained with him that day” they must also have prepared a meal, chopped the onions, cooked the bread, done the washing up, lit the lamps, stoked the fire, all the everyday things that people do when they spend a decent length of time together. As well as the talk there must have been silences, as well as the deep theological stuff there must have been small talk – “pass the salt”, “mind that chair- it’s a bit rickety”. Maybe there were other people around too, family members and friends dropping in and out, making them welcome, joining in the discussion or just wanting to know when dinner would be ready.  

The joy of this image of these two men “remaining” with Jesus, for me, is as much in its ordinariness, its picture of Jesus simply being with these two curious disciples of John, letting them see him as he was in all his raw humanity, letting him see their raw humanity too.  

The word “remain” in this story – “they remained with him” – is translated in some versions as “abide”. There’s quite a lot later on in John’s Gospel about “abiding”. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples that they need to “abide in him” and let him “abide in them”, just as he “abides” in his Father. He uses the image of a vine, with branches grafted onto it, with the life of the parent plant flowing through them. It’s no good if those branches are just tied on for an hour or two now and then, though. For a graft to take it has to be permanent, abiding.

It’s the same for us. We are invited first to “come and see”, but the hope Jesus has is that having “come and seen” we will then remain and abide. God calls us, says St Paul, “into the fellowship of his Son”. His invitation to us is to share his life, and let him share ours, day by day, on Monday mornings as well as Sunday nights; in the ordinary things we do as well as the special things.

In the silence tonight, let’s imagine ourselves in that house with Jesus, making ourselves at home with him, just as he hopes we will do. How do we feel about “abiding” and “remaining” with him, and letting him remain with us.


Sunday, 8 January 2017

Epiphany Sunday: God in the mess

Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. It’s an ancient feast, going back into the early centuries of the Church, and it was the main celebration of Christmas at first, as it still is in some parts of the world. It was especially popular once Christianity became the imperial faith of Rome and then the faith of kings and emperors across Europe in the Middle Ages. It’s easy to see why when you look at how the story has been presented in paint, mosaic and stone over the years. The Magi were pictured as exotic visitors from the East. Their feast was the ideal opportunity for a bit of bling, for fine fabrics, rich colours, shiny gold and silver and precious stones. They were much more appealing to royal courts than a bunch of drab looking shepherds in homespun clothes.
Gentile di Fabriano. 1423 Adoration of the Magi. Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Medieval kings were fond of staging re-enactments of the Epiphany story as part of their court celebrations, and you can guess who got to play the part of the Magi – they did! They weren't letting anyone else hog the limelight and the best costumes. The story of the Magi was used to legitimise their power and wealth. If they had been welcome at the crib, so would any powerful, wealthy person. That’s true, of course, but they didn't stop to ask whether it mattered how you came by your wealth and power, or what you did with it. Medieval kings shoehorned themselves into the picture, no matter how much they had to distort it in the process. That’s why these Magi gradually became thought of as kings, despite the fact that Matthew doesn't call them that at all, or even hint that they might have been. The only king in Matthew’s story was the murderous king Herod, but no one who valued their lives was going to point that out to a Medieval monarch.

But if these visitors weren’t kings, who were they? There’s a lot of debate about that. In the ancient world, a Magus – that’s the singular – could be any of a large range of people. Originally, they seem to have been priests of the Zoroastrian faith, from Persia, but by the time of Jesus, the word could be used for anyone who practiced what were seen as magical arts – magic comes from Magi. Some Magi observed the natural world – the stars and planets – looking for divine messages in them, and gave birth unwittingly to what we now call science. Others were philosophers or gurus, claiming some special secret knowledge which they would share with their devotees. Some were no more than snake-oil salesmen, con artists, people looking to exert power and gain wealth by trickery.

These visitors to the infant Christ obviously had an interest in astronomy – they spotted the star - but we don’t know much more about them than that. They were rich enough to afford costly gifts, but it might be that the gold, frankincense and myrrh they brought was all the wealth they had. They certainly weren't the kings that later history turned them into, and they weren't even necessarily the “wise men” our modern translations tend to call them. After all, going straight to the reigning king to tell him that he had a rival in the shape of a vulnerable baby was hardly a sensible move. So all we can really say is that these Magi were from far away, Gentiles not Jews, and that they were seekers. They were people who knew that there was more to know, people who knew that they needed something, and that they needed it enough to trek a long distance and give gifts of great value to find it. They didn’t know where they were going, or what they were going to do when they got there, or what difference it would make; they just knew they had to make the journey.

Their story is really a long way from the gilded, shiny tale those Medieval monarchs wanted it to be. It’s a story of confusion and terror, a story with a bloodbath at its end, as King Herod tries to obliterate the competition for his throne. The Holy Family become refugees in Egypt as a result.
The whole thing is, in short, a bit of a mess. 
And yet it proclaims that in the midst of that mess, God is present. He’s present for people who don’t know what they are doing or why they are doing it, for people who get it spectacularly wrong. He’s present in the midst of bloodshed and grief, in the face of hatred and jealousy. He’s present for those who don’t fit in, for those who come from far away and feel like clueless outsiders. He’s present for those who live in “thick darkness” as the prophet Isaiah put it in our first reading. He’s present for people who are in a mess, people who have made a mess. And that, surely, means he’s present for us, because somewhere in that messy list, we can all find ourselves, if not now then at some point in our life. So this story is very good news, not just for kings and emperors, but for everyone.

Mess has been a bit of a theme for me this week. As you may know, on Wednesday morning I discovered that the church hall had been broken into and vandalised. Broken crockery everywhere, broken windows, and a plate of spaghetti hoops thrown at the kitchen wall. The perpetrators had obviously had a field day, high on something or other. Fortunately, a team of people swiftly rallied round and cleared up, and Martin got the insurance claim underway and sorted out the glass repairs. Mercifully too, the newly refurbished kitchen hadn't been damaged, apart from the aforementioned spaghetti hoops. So it could have been worse. But it was no fun discovering this scene of devastation on Wednesday morning, and of course, although the insurance will cover the damage there’s the excess to pay and the nuisance of sorting it all out.

It wasn't just the physical mess that struck me as I surveyed the wreckage though. That was fairly easy to deal with. It was the other mess which really saddened me, the mess of the lives of those who had done it. What kind of state do you have to be in, how hopeless and purposeless do you have to be to create such wanton destruction? What does the future hold for you if you’re that far out of control, so disengaged from your own community that you can trash a space that’s there for you too? How far awry does your moral and emotional compass have to be for you to do things like this?  

It’s easy for us to feel angry about the damage done to the church hall, but I believe God wants us to be just as angry about the damage that must have been done to the lives of his children to turn them into mindless vandals who are capable of this.  That doesn't mean the law should be soft on them if they’re caught, but it matters that we understand that God is just as much with them and for them as he is for us. He longs for them to see the starlight that’ll lead them home to him, just as much as he longed for the Magi to see it. He longs for them to find meaning and purpose for their lives, to know they’re welcome, as the Magi were – you don’t have to break in if you know you’re welcome! 

This story of the Magi is for them, but of course, it is also for the rest of us too. Most of us probably wouldn't smash up other people’s property or throw plates of spaghetti hoops at the wall, but we’re all capable of making a mess of life – our own and others, deliberately or accidentally. We can vandalise people’s spirits by putting them down, smashing their confidence, disregarding or condemning them. That can cause damage that is far harder to put right. We can all find ourselves stumbling about in the “thick darkness” Isaiah talked about, directionless, lost, causing mayhem as we go. We all need that star to call us home.

The Magi weren't really the shining heroes those Medieval kings wanted them to be. They were just people who knew their need of God, and were desperate enough to make a messy, costly journey to try to find him. When they did, it wasn't in the political and economic heart of the nation – King Herod’s palace. It was at the heart of an ordinary family who had an extraordinary willingness to welcome those God sent to them, whoever they were and wherever they’d come from, even if it threw their own lives into turmoil. That’s exactly how the adult Jesus behaved – this foreshadows his adult life. He allowed his life to be messed up so that others could find the love of God.  The Magi go home, we’re told, “by another road”. That’s not just a geographical detail; it is a spiritual one too. They’ve been changed by the journey, and the welcome at the journey’s end.

There’s an old Epiphany tradition in which priests bless small pieces of chalk.  The chalk is then taken home and used to write a message above the doors of those who receive it. The message reads, rather cryptically, 20 + C + M + B + 17. The 20 and the 17 are the year, of course. The C,M and B are either Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar – traditional names given to the magi in Western Christianity – or alternatively they stand for “Christus Mansionem Benedicat” – Christ bless this house. Altogether it is a sign to anyone who sees it that this is a house committed to giving a Christian welcome to those who are looking for it, wandering Magi, the questioning and confused, and  to Christ himself, who comes to us in everyone we meet.  

I have some chalk this year, which I’ll bless later in the service. If you’d like to you are welcome to take a piece home and to write that sign over your door. If you live somewhere you can’t really chalk, I've made some little signs which you might be able to fasten to the door, or put in a window instead.

Like those Medieval kings, we all like a bit of bling in our lives, but in the end, the light of God’s love, known in the love we give and receive, and in the welcome we extend to others, is far brighter and more glorious than earthly gold, far sweeter than frankincense, far better for healing than myrrh. May that light shine in our hearts today.


The Blessing of the Chalk
Welcoming God, who led the Magi to their true home in the heart of Christ by the light of a star, bless this chalk today. May the signs of welcome we make with it be matched by the welcome we give in our hearts; to the wandering and confused, to the lonely and the lost, to those who seek for you, and those who do not know what they seek. May they find you in us and may we find you in them. In the name of Christ. Amen