Thursday, 13 December 2018

Advent Breathing Space 2: God is this time

The theme for our series of talks at Breathing Space this Advent is “God is here”, the message which underlies every other message angels bring. They represent God to humankind. They are a reminder of his presence. Last week we thought about what it might mean to remember that God is here in this place. This week we are going to think about the God who is here in this time, in this moment, now.

Our two readings both told the story of people who had visits from angels; unexpected, mysterious visits. In some ways they are very similar stories. Both Abraham and Zechariah were old men at the time these stories happened, and their wives, Sarah and Elizabeth, were childless. At the age of seventy Abraham had been promised descendants more in number than the sand or stars in the sky, that God would make a great nation out of him. It seemed too late even then, but the decades passed and Sarah didn’t conceive. He fathered a child by her slave Hagar – we’ll hear more of her next week – but that had ended up creating bitter rivalry and making Sarah feel even worse than she already did. Now Abraham was nearly a hundred years old, according to the Bible – perhaps an exaggeration, but we get the point. He, and Sarah, were really way too old to embark on parenthood together, by any logical reckoning. But God had other ideas, and nine months after the visit we heard about in our reading, Isaac was born. His name meant laughter, perhaps because the whole situation seemed so ridiculous, perhaps because it meant that Sarah and Abraham – and God – had had the last laugh in the end. The tribe of Abraham eventually became the whole Jewish nation and through them, indeed the earth has been blessed.

And then there is Zechariah and Elizabeth, people who were, again, too old to have children, but found themselves becoming parents anyway. They had long given up hope – there had been no divine promises to them as there had been to Abraham – but God, in God’s time, gave them what they longed for, a son, who was to grow up to be John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah.

Abraham and Zechariah were astonished, amazed, rendered speechless in Zechariah’s case, when God turned up in their lives. Neither of them were expecting anything special that day. Abraham was sitting under a tree in the shade. Zechariah was doing his duty in the Temple, offering incense at the time of prayer. And yet, at that moment, in that “now”, God came to them.

Human beings have no choice but to live in time, one moment after another, but we rarely find it easy to live in the “now”. We either hanker for the past, or wish our lives away hoping for something better in the future. It is hard for us to believe that this moment, the moment we are in, has its own purpose, its own blessing, that God might come to us in it.

We may feel, like Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah and Elizabeth, that we are too old for God to do anything meaningful with us, that we have missed the boat. We may feel too young to be much use. We may feel that we are just in too much of a mess right now for God to turn up in our lives, that we’re not ready for him, or, conversely, that we are getting along fine on our own at the moment, thanks, and don’t need him. But these stories remind us that God comes to us when God comes to us, in his time, with his purpose, that every moment can be blessed, every day can be holy, that the angels of God can appear when we expect them least, if we open our eyes to their presence.
In the silence today, let’s think back over the day that has gone, then, and look for the angels’ footprints in it, the moments when God showed up, with his message of love and life, and ask for his grace to recognise the holiness of “now”. 

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Advent Breathing Space 1: God is this place

Our three Advent Breathing Space reflections this year are all linked to our Daily Advent Angel reflections, at least in the fact that they will all feature angels.

Angels represent God in the Biblical stories in which they appear. Whatever else they communicate, whatever their specific message is, they tell people “God is here, God has seen you, God is with you”. In many Old Testament stories, indeed, it’s not always absolutely clear whether the figure that people encounter is an Angel or God himself. Sometimes the language shifts halfway through the story – what started out as the words of an angel become those of God himself. That’s not surprising. They speak and do what God has commanded them, and like human messengers in the ancient world were far more than mere postmen. They stood in for the person who had sent the message. 

So in the Angelic stories we’ll be looking at over this next three Thursdays, the theme will be the proclamation that “God is here – in this place, in this time, in this person.”
And maybe – though I’m not expecting an angel to show up here – it might help to remind us that God is in the places, times and people we encounter too. 

The readings we heard tonight are both about people who meet God in a place where they never expected he would be. 

Jacob is on the run from his home, having cheated his brother out of the birthright that should have been his, the blessing of his father on the future head of the household. I suppose it seemed like a good idea at the time, but having got what he wanted, Jacob realised that if his brother was going to be angry with him for the rest of his life, then it wasn’t a prize worth having. He’d end up looking over his shoulder forever. So he ran away to relatives in a distant city. And on the way he stopped in the middle of nowhere, and lay down on the bare earth, with a stone for a pillow, because there was nowhere else to stay. And during the night he had his famous dream of angels coming and going up and down a ladder fixed between earth and heaven.  

In the morning he declared in awe “‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ … This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ It’s as if you stumbled into what you thought was a cheap hotel late at night and woke up to find it was Buckingham Palace. God was here, even here, right where Jacob was. He might have run away from Esau, but he couldn’t run away from God. God seemed to be content to run right along with him. 

The shepherds in the Gospel story, equally, did not expect God to show up on their hillside. Why should he? And yet, it was the sky above their heads which was filled with angels – heaven opened all around them. And not only had God’s glory come to them in the glory of the angels, he was present, they were told, in flesh and blood in a child in their town, a child not lying on silken sheets, but in a manger, in an ordinary house, squashed in with the animals. That the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem wasn’t a surprise – if he was going to be born anywhere surely it would be in the place King David had grown up – but to be born into such humble circumstances, in a home like their own, amazed them. 

We are perhaps so familiar with these stories, that we forget the shock of them, but for Jacob and for the shepherds,  where they were was the last place they expected to find God. And I suspect we are the same. Our little village of Seal isn’t particularly famous. Nothing much that is noteworthy on a national or global scale has happened here. William the Conqueror’s soldiers apparently camped here on their way up to London after the battle of Hastings. A friend of Jane Austen’s lived in the Grey House when Jane was a teenager – the friend was the daughter of the vicar - so I choose to believe she might have worshipped here at some point, but even that is stretching the evidence somewhat. Apart from it being the start – or end – of the traffic jam that is the A25 through Sevenoaks, it doesn’t really seem to register on most people’s consciousness at all. People tend to say “Oh yes, I’ve driven through Seal many times…” and that’s about it. 

But the good news is that that puts it absolutely into the same category as Jacob’s late night resting place, and that Bethlehem hillside, because they were places where nothing much had happened or was expected to happen, and yet the best thing of all did – God was found in them.  These ordinary places were the ‘the house of God, the gate of heaven.’ And, if we open our eyes, so can the ordinary places we inhabit be. Our homes, our workplaces, the back streets and housing estates, the skanky bits of towns and cities where no one goes after dark if they can help it. God is there. God is here, in this place, and in all places. If we don’t believe that, then we don’t believe in God at all, because the earth is his and everything in it, according to the Bible. 

So this week, as we go about the business of whatever it is we need to do – work, shopping, caring for our families – let’s pause now and then and say to ourselves “This is the house of God and the gate of heaven” and see how that changes those places for us, or changes us within them. 

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Hopeful Signs: Advent 1

Audio version here 

1 Thessalonians 3.9-13, Luke 21.25-36

“There will be signs,” says Jesus,” in the sun the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations.”

“There will be signs…”

The world is full of signs. They’re all around us - road signs, street signs, advertising signs, logos, icons. Signs are powerful. Get them right and you can communicate a whole world of meaning; the golden arches of McDonalds, the Nike swoosh, the red and white logo of Coca-Cola. We all recognise them and know what they stand for.

The first signs human beings learned to read were natural ones, of course; the position of the sun in the sky, the behaviour of animals, the tracks of footprints in the mud that told them where to hunt, or what was hunting them. Being able to read those signs kept our ancestors alive.

But that’s the crucial thing, isn’t it. A sign is only any use if we know how to read it, if we know what message it’s meant to convey.

Ancient people were far better at reading those natural signs than most of us are. We’re insulated from nature by artificial light and central heating, and in any case, most of us don’t depend for our food on what we catch or grow for ourselves. We learn to see what we need to see. That means that we may not recognise the tracks of a deer on a forest floor – we don’t need to – but  we can spot the golden arches of a McDonalds from half a mile away and know we’ll find food there.  

A sign is only any use if we know how to read it correctly. 

And that’s what’s bothering Jesus, I think, as he talks to his disciples about signs in the Gospel reading we heard today. 

To be honest, this passage probably feels rather baffling to us - even more than it was for those who first heard Jesus words -and I think we need to acknowledge that before we delve into it. Most of us probably don’t believe that Jesus will literally come again in in a cloud, as the sky splits open. Apart from anything else, we don’t think of heaven as literally “up there” any more, as the people of Jesus’ time certainly did.  But that doesn’t mean that passages like this don’t have something important to say to us.  

To hear that message we need to know the context. Jesus is in the Temple. It is just a few days before his arrest and crucifixion. He knows he’s heading for a confrontation with the Roman authorities, and he knows how that confrontation will end, but his disciples still don’t seem to be able to see it. They still seem to be convinced that God will swoop down and prevent anything bad happening to Jesus. When it happens, then, Jesus’ crucifixion will seem to them like a sign of disaster, a failure, a waste.

There’s another audience we need to be aware of when we hear these words too. Luke wrote his account of the life of Jesus in the early 80s AD. A decade before, in 70AD, the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and expelled its people out of their land into a diaspora that didn’t end until the twentieth century. The Jewish people were reeling from the shock of this, and the early Christians, who still saw themselves as essentially a reforming movement of Judaism rather than a separate faith, were as devastated by this, and the recriminations that followed it as the rest of the Jewish people.  They were also facing intermittent persecution and hostility.  

What were they to make of this trouble that had fallen on them? Did it mean God had abandoned them? Did it mean all was lost? Did it mean that evil had won? How should they read the signs of their times, the things that were happening to them? What did they mean? 

So Luke shows us Jesus, talking about the future. There will be signs, he says, and they won’t be ones you want to see. There will be distress. There will be fear and forboding. The heavens will be shaken. It will feel as if the whole cosmos is coming apart. So far, so obvious – these were people who were used to terrible things happening. They lived in a terrifying world. But then comes the twist in the tail of these words. When these bad things happen, says Jesus, when you see these terrible signs, you have a choice about how you read them. You can look at them as signs of failure, signs of the end of everything, or you can dare to hope that they are actually signs of a new beginning, signs of the moment when God breaks through into the world, into your lives, in a new way, when you can “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption – the moment when God rescues you – is drawing near.”

“Look at the fig tree” he says “and all the trees.” In winter they look dead, branches bare and lifeless, but when spring comes, apparently miraculously, new leaves unfurl from the bark. Summer is coming.  For these people, so much more dependent than we are on what they could grow for themselves, summer meant crops, food, the promise of life. It doesn’t look likely, but it happens, year after year. “You’ve learned to look for the signs of summer on the bare branches of the fig tree” says Jesus, “So learn to look for life even in the midst of death. Learn to look for hope, even in the midst of despair.”  Jesus’ crucifixion, which these disciples are about to witness, will look like failure, but it will turn out to be triumph, the gateway to resurrection.  If they can open their eyes to God in these dark times, they will discover that they are completely safe in the hands of God, the God whose love is stronger than death. 

And those people for whom the Gospel was written, facing persecution and turmoil in the times of the early Church? The message is the same for them. In the midst of death and terror, God comes to them, with new life and hope, if they have eyes to see him, giving them the strength “stand up and raise their heads”. 

We may be tempted, when we come across passages like this about the second coming, for us to feel that they are all rather outdated, obscure, irrelevant, fodder for fundamentalists to argue over, but not really having anything to say to us, but we’d be wrong. I don’t believe we should worry too much about the details of these prophecies, the how and when – Biblical writers don’t give a consistent picture of what they believe the future will hold anyway – but I think we throw the baby out with the bathwater if we ignore them completely. 

That’s because they aren’t really about the future at all. They are about the present. What matters isn’t what might happen in some age to come, but what’s happening now, as we encounter the “distress among nations” which we see on the news, and the distress we encounter in those around us and in ourselves too.  We live in anxious times too – Brexit, nuclear weapons, terrorism, climate change, austerity, the mass migration of desperate refugees…  Every human being, sooner or later, discovers what it is like to be afraid. It doesn’t have to be a global disaster either. Serious illness, family troubles, financial worries can make us feel like we are confronting the end of our world, and that can feel just as devastating and final to us. 

If we are to find the courage to “stand up and raise our heads” in these times we need, just as much as the people of the first century, to train our eyes to look for the signs of life and hope in times of distress, to be alert to the presence of God.

Paul shows us one way of doing that in the second reading we heard, his letter to the church in Thessalonica. His first visit there had been a disaster. (Acts 17) The Jewish community had been so angry at his message that they’d started a riot. He and his companion, Silas, had had to run for their lives. 

It looked as if the church in Thessalonica was dead before it had even been born. And yet, a very short time later – this is thought to be the earliest document in the New Testament - Paul writes the words we heard, words of joy and confidence. “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?”  He doesn’t deny the reality of the obstacles and opposition in his letter, but he chooses to focus on the signs of hope, the people who have responded to his message and are learning to “abound in love”. God is at work in them and that’s what matters – their love is stronger than the hatred of those around them. Paul sees it and says it, so that they can see it too when they feel weighed down with worry.

Hope is a discipline, something we learn through practice, a habit we build up by choosing to look for signs of life, noticing small acts of kindness, rejoicing in the love we share, the care we take of each other. It doesn’t mean denying the reality of pain and darkness, but it does mean seeing, and saying, that pain and darkness aren’t the whole of the story, the things that define what that story is about. 

And that brings me to Advent, this season which begins today. It isn’t just meant to be few weeks of frantic preparation for the Christmas festivities. It’s meant to be a time when we learn hope, when we practice hope, when we train our eyes to see where Christ comes to us, not just in Bethlehem long ago or in some far distant future, however we imagine that might happen. The rituals and practices of Advent, the Advent candles and calendars, the opportunities for prayer and reflection, the stripping away of decoration which gives us space and stillness, are all designed to help us do that. That’s why they matter. So, this Advent, I pray that we’ll learn to read the signs of our lives and our world as God means us to, with hope, so we can learn to see his presence with us in times of trouble , failure, darkness and distress, which is just when we need him most.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Christ the King: What planet are you on?

“What planet are you on?”
I wonder how often you’ve thought or even said that, perhaps in the heat of an argument. “What planet are you on that you could say that or do that?” Or perhaps you’ve said it as you’ve watched the news. “What planet is the person on who can abuse a child, or scam a vulnerable person, or watch a police officer be beaten up and decide to film it on their phone and share it on Youtube rather than helping? What planet are they on? ”

It’s the question that lies beneath the story we heard in today’s Gospel reading, for this feast of Christ the King. Pontius Pilate and Jesus are, to all intents and purposes on different planets as they meet in the story we heard. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, was appointed to rule the troublesome province of Judea by the Emperor Tiberius. Here he stands face to face with Jesus who had been arrested by the Jewish Temple guard, interrogated through the night by the High Priests and beaten by the soldiers. And now he has been dragged before Pilate, who alone has the power to order his crucifixion or to pardon him. The charge against Jesus is that he’s claimed to be the Messiah, God’s anointed one. People thought this Messiah would be like their ancient king, David, a military leader who would throw out the Romans. You might think that the Jewish authorities would be glad to acclaim him, then, but in many ways it was in their interest to maintain the status quo. “What had the Romans ever done for them?” Well, quite a lot, actually, and they didn’t want to bring down the wrath of Rome because of this jumped up carpenter’s son.

So Jesus and Pilate find themselves face to face, but on different planets. Planet Pilate, if we can call it that, is one where Rome rules, where might is right, where you make decisions based on what will keep the emperor happy, even if it is plainly unjust. On Planet Pilate Kings wear crowns and command armies, and generally  throw their weight around. Pilate is baffled at the sight of this battered, bedraggled man standing in front of him. “Are you the King of the Jews?” The order of the Greek words has that emphasis. “What, you – a carpenter’s son, a man of no account, a man who has no armies, no weapons, no one fighting for you at all, a man who doesn’t even seem to be fighting for himself?  What planet are you on? How can someone like you ever think you could be a king?” On Planet Pilate, Jesus seems about as unkingly as it’s possible to be.

But Jesus is looking at the world from a completely different viewpoint. As he says, his kingdom – his planet - “is not from this world”, the world that Pilate inhabits, that world of power and self-interest.

This isn’t about the physical world and the spiritual world. Jesus isn’t talking about this live versus the life to come either. Jesus is deeply committed to the physical reality around him, the nitty gritty of ordinary life. His whole ministry shows it. He feeds people. He heals people. He preaches about politics and economics and relationships – the material things that make or mar our lives. John calls him the Word made flesh, not the word made spirit. He cares about the world he is part of. It’s Pilate’s world view he’s rejecting, Pilate’s values and priorities – Planet Pilate. He invites us instead to come and live on Planet Jesus, or, as he calls it, the Kingdom of God, and that’s a very different place from the kind of kingdoms Pilate has in his mind.

The poet R.S Thomas put it better than I ever could in his poem “The Kingdom”:

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

That’s Planet Jesus, but Pilate is a million miles away from it, and he shows it in the way he deals with the demands of the Jewish authorities for Jesus’ death.  Pilate doesn’t actually think that Jesus deserves execution. He doesn’t think Jesus is guilty, but he can see that if he gets on the wrong side of the Jewish leaders, if he refuses to crucify Jesus, he risks a revolt, and if there is a revolt, the Emperor Tiberius is not going to be pleased, and if the Emperor Tiberius is not pleased, then Pilate’s life – if he gets to keep it – won’t be worth living. So whether Jesus is guilty or not, he is going to be condemned.

Pilate’s is a world of fake news, a world where things are real because you want them to be, and not if you don’t. It’s a world ruled by what I like to call Tinkerbell philosophy. You know that moment in Peter Pan when Tinkerbell is dying, and Peter appeals to the audience. “Every time a child says they don’t believe in fairies, a fairy dies. So if you want Tinkerbell to live, you all have to believe in fairies. Do you believe in fairies? – clap if you do!” And everybody does, of course, and Tinkerbell revives. That’s fine in a story, but it’s dangerous when we apply it to real life. Climate change denial is the fruit of Tinkerbell philosophy. Climate change frightens us. It demands sacrifices from us that we don’t want to make. It feels much easier to deny that it’s real,  as if that will make the rising sea levels and extreme weather events vanish.  Unfortunately, of course, in the end reality will always win. It’s like deciding that we don’t believe in the law of gravity. It’s fine until you step off a tall building expecting to be able to fly. Unfortunately, by the time you’ve discovered you’re wrong it’s too late, and you’re hurtling towards the ground.

“I came into the world to testify to the truth,” says Jesus. And in our first reading, he is described as the “faithful witness”. He’s the one who tells it like it is, the one who enables people to face reality. For some, that is a joyful experience. Jesus bears “faithful witness” to the presence of God work in them, even if they can’t see it themselves. He sees potential in ordinary fishermen and despised tax-collectors and prostitutes, potential that they’d never imagined. He calls people into friendship with him who’ve been rejected by their society. “Come and see a man who told me all I ever did” says one excited Samaritan woman to her neighbours (John 4). He’d met her by a well in the heat of the day, collecting water on her own, and somehow he’d known that she was a woman who had been divorced by five husbands, cast off by them like rubbish, her self-esteem sinking with each rejection. But Jesus saw the person inside and honoured her, took her seriously, talked theology with her – a Samaritan woman who everyone else steered clear of - and that transformed her. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” says Jesus.

Truth-telling and truth-hearing can be liberating experiences, but bearing faithful witness can also be dangerous, as whistle blowers have found throughout the ages. Jesus’ truth-telling makes him a threat to those who have something to hide, something to lose, people like Pilate.

Pilate is an interesting figure. We know a bit about him from other historical sources than the Bible. The writer Philo describes him as “inflexible, stubborn and cruel” (Philo 41 AD). He seems to have blown hot and cold in his relationship with the Jewish leaders, flip-flopping between giving in to them and brutally putting them down. The stories in the Gospels about him seem entirely in character then. He’s painted in the Bible as a man who, just for a moment, toys with the idea of sticking up for Jesus, but then almost instantly reverts to business as usual, goes with the flow, bends with the wind. What’s one more crucified man on his conscience? He’s probably killed hundreds.

We don’t know for sure how Pilate’s story ended, but we do know that he was eventually summoned back to Rome to answer to the Emperor after he’d mishandled some other trouble in Judea, and then seems to have fallen out of favour, when he backed the wrong man in an Imperial power struggle. You’ve got to be very clever, and very lucky, if you want to live by the rules of Rome, and it seems that Pilate wasn’t quite clever or lucky enough.

I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for him, a man whom history has only really remembered for this one cowardly capitulation to the plots of powerful people, but this is a story which invites us to ask ourselves what planet we are on? And why we choose to live there. Do we prefer to live on our own planets, in our own bubbles of self-interest and self-delusion, or do we dare to live on Planet Jesus, a place of integrity, a place where we are honest with ourselves and honest with each other, where ? Do we dare to live in the place where “the poor man/ Is king and the consumptive is/ Healed; mirrors in which the blind look/ At themselves and love looks at them/ Back; and industry is for mending/ The bent bones and the minds fractured/ By life.”

It takes courage to decide to live there, and work, but it is the place where ultimately we will find we – and all God’s children - are most truly loved, and most truly free. Amen

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Now what? Remembrance Sunday

Audio version here

Micah 4.1-4, Rev 22.1-5

Four years ago, the nation embarked on a long project, remembering and marking the anniversary of the First World War. In different ways, communities and individuals have been telling and retelling the stories of those terrible times. We’ve heard that long litany of battles, Passchendaele, Ypres, Gallipoli, the Somme, and less familiar stories of campaigns on the Eastern Front, in the Balkans and the Middle East and Africa, where the colonial powers fought over their foreign territories.  We’ve remembered over these last four years the four, far longer years when the war ground on, killing 11 million military personnel and 8 million civilians and ruining the physical and emotional health of many more who survived. Land was devastated, communities torn apart. The world would never be the same again.

But finally, finally, here we are, recalling the moment 100 years ago on this very day when the Armistice was signed and the guns fell silent.

But then what? For those who were there at the time, 100 years ago, the emotions on that 11th of November were very mixed. Vera Brittain, a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse working in London at the end of the war, who had lost her brother, fiancĂ© and closest friends during the war, wrote this: “When the sound of victorious guns burst over London at 11 am on November 11th, 1918, the men and women who looked incredulously into each other’s faces did not cry jubilantly: “We’ve won the War!” They only said: “The War is over.”
From Millbank I heard the maroons crash with terrifying clearness, and, like a sleeper who is determined to go on dreaming after being told to wake up, I went on automatically washing the dressing bowls in the annex outside my hut [at the hospital]…”
The reality of the Armistice in her life hit her later that day: “For the first time I realised, with all that full realisation meant, how completely everything that had had hitherto made up my life had vanished with Edward and Roland, with Victor and Geoffrey. The War was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were dead and would never return.”

She described how the war had “condemned me to live to the end of my days in a world without confidence or security, a world in which every dear personal relationship would be fearfully cherished under the shadow of apprehension; in which love would seem threatened perpetually by death, and happiness appear a house without duration, built upon the shifting sands of chance. I might, perhaps, have it again, but never again should I hold it.”

Her words could have been echoed by millions of others. Four years ago here at Seal, we gathered together some of our own family stories of WW1. I put them together in a file which you can see in our display here, and I’ve also put a link to it on the church website. I called that project “The Long Shadow” because I wanted to emphasize the way in which WW1 had cast a shadow far into the future which can still affect families today. There are stories in our collection of the effects on future generations of living with survivors who had come back with physical and mental wounds which never quite healed. One contributor talked about her father who died prematurely of lung disease caused by being gassed. My own grandfather suffered for the whole of the rest of his life from the emotional scars of having fought at Gallipoli. There are stories in the collection of relationships formed during wartime too. My husband’s grandfather and grandmother met in Valenciennes at the end of the war when he was looking for a billet in a place which would also take the army dog he had rescued. Her family took them both in and the rest is history. There are stories in our collection of pride and of sorrow, of opportunities destroyed, and opportunities created, of faith lost and of faith found, of the courage of those who fought, and the courage of those who refused to fight.

They are stories which began in war, but shaped the world that came after it for those families too. As the war ended, people found themselves having to make new lives. It was as if whole populations of people had been washed out to sea in the storms of war, and cast up as driftwood on what looked like a completely alien shore.

“Now what?” was the question people had to ask themselves. “What do we do, how do we live, from now on?” It was the question that faced individuals – war widows and orphans, those wounded in body, mind or spirit, the jobless and homeless. It was the question that faced nations and governments too. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd-George, in his post-war election campaign urged the creation of a “fit country for heroes”, a phrase that has passed into common parlance, War had had exposed the poverty and poor living conditions of so many in the country. “We have seen places we have never noticed before, and we mean to put these things right,” he said. Internationally, the “now what?” question led to the formation of the  League of Nations – the precursor to the United Nations - the first really large scale attempt to find ways for all the nations of the world to hold each other to account and work together.

But just 21 years later, the world was at war again, on an even larger scale. And for all the worthy intentions, war has been a constant reality somewhere around the world ever since. India and Pakistan, Korea, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo – people have been killing each other, communities have been torn apart, nations have been impoverished by war continually, and always it is the most vulnerable who suffer most, children, women, the elderly and disabled. We dream of peace, just like the people who wrote the Bible readings we heard today. We dream of a time when people will beat “swords into ploughs” and never prepare for battle again, of a time when “there will be no more night”, as the Book of Revelation put it. But we wake up to conflict, insecurity and fear just as we always have done. We are living now in what seem like particularly frightening and dangerous times, where the threat of nuclear war has been revived, where the ties that have bound nations together in peace are being dissolved, where charismatic, in love with their own power, seem to be gathering followers.

Perhaps part of the problem is that, swamped by our own personal concerns – the school run, the job, the mortgage – we tend to outsource the business of making and keeping peace to leaders and governments. It’s nothing to do with us. We can’t do anything about world events. We forget that we are all called to be peacemakers. We forget that, in fact, if we don’t make peace where we are, there is absolutely no chance that governments will be able to make peace for us, because peace and war are born in the human heart.

War is born out of the small acts of vengeance and anger we commit every day, out of the rage that rises in us when someone pushes in front of us in the supermarket queue, out of our suspicion of those who are different from us. It is born out of our greedy desire to have the latest gadget at the lowest prices, and never mind who gets exploited as a result or what conflicts are triggered in finding the raw materials. But peace is born when we take the time and trouble to listen to one another, to get to know each other, to assume the best rather than the worst of one another. It’s the day to day actions of ordinary people which make or break the grand plans of the world’s governments, because together we create the climate in which war or peace can grow.

But in the short term, at least, it often feels easier to live in ways that lead to war than in ways that lead to peace. Becoming peacemakers means confronting our greed, our laziness, our insecurity. It’s hard and uncomfortable work, and we human beings – frail, fallible, mixed up, damaged – are never going to be able to do this by ourselves.

That’s why those Biblical images of peace that we heard today don’t focus just on what we should be doing. They talk too about what God can do for us and with us. It is God who teaches and leads us in the right paths, God who gives the strength we need to settle disputes rather than letting them spill over into war. It is God, these readings say, who is the light that never goes out, who heals the nations.

Later on in this service we are going to sing the hymn “I vow to thee my country”. It’s a stirring anthem which reminds us of the sacrifice of those who have been prepared to give their all. But it also talks of “another country” where things are very different from the ravaged and torn battlefields we recall at this Remembrancetide. It’s about the “other country” which Christians call the Kingdom of God. That’s not just a kingdom which we find after death, according to the Bible, but one which can be built where we are, in this present moment, if we are prepared to walk in the ways of gentleness and the paths of peace. It is built “soul by soul”, day by day, as we become the change we want to see.

“Now what?” was the question that people asked, when WW1 ended. “Now what?” is still the question for us.
Now what are we going to do about the rage in our own hearts?
Now what are we going to do break down barriers and build bridges rather than walls?
Now what are we going to do to grow into the people we need to be if we want to build a world of peace, that “other country” we dream of, the Kingdom of God?

We’ve remembered, over the last four years, a century old conflict as it unfolded. It’s good to remember, but if that’s all we do, we’ll betray the very memories we think we are treasuring. What matters is that we let those memories challenge us in our own time – to care for those who suffer the effects of war, to learn, teach and value the things that make for peace, and, most of all to ask God for the help we need to become peacemakers in our daily lives, so that we can see that “other country” grow in our midst, and the guns can fall silent forever.

It was great to have Seal Cubs and Beavers with us doing a reading and carrying flags .Some of Year 6 at Seal Primary School shared moving and imaginative poems they had written, imaging what it might be like to have been a soldier in WW1. 

Many thanks to Jenny Bensted for the knitted wreath...

...and to Pauline Rosser for the "There but not there" Tommy.

Monday, 5 November 2018

All Souls: Do not fear

“Do not fear”, said the prophet Isaiah, twice in the passage we heard in fact. “Do not fear”.

Fear is a horrible emotion. It sets our hearts racing. It fills our minds so we can’t think of anything else. It wakes us in the night and refuses to let us get back to sleep. It can be all-consuming, overwhelming.  And it’s not at all unreasonable to be afraid. The world can be a terrifying place. Accidents happen. Illness strikes out of nowhere. The job and home and family that seem so secure could all be lost. Underlying all our fears is the big fear, the fear of death. Death is frightening. Most people, most of the time, will go to great lengths not to think about it, so they can kid themselves that it won’t happen to them. They don’t want to make a will, or make decisions about their funeral service, because deep down they hope that if they don’t acknowledge it it will go away.  We play with our fears of death – that’s what Hallowe’en is about – to try to put it in its place, but most people find it very hard to stare it in the face seriously.

And we don’t just fear for ourselves. We fear for our families and our friends as well. Every time they are late home or out of contact, we imagine the worst. And once our imaginations are engaged, and fear has taken hold, it is very hard to get rid of.  Whether we genuinely have something to be afraid of, or are just torturing ourselves with “What ifs” makes no difference.

But of course we’re not the first generation to be afraid. We’re not the first generation to look for reassurance, hope and comfort.

The words “do not fear” or “do not be afraid” occur in the Bible well over a hundred times. I know because I counted… It’s the opening line of pretty much every angel who ever appears to anyone – the Christmas story is peppered with angels telling people not to be afraid as they swoop in with news that will turn their worlds upside down.  Jesus tells people not to fear in the midst of storms or when he heals them. And the prophets, like Isaiah in the reading we heard earlier, are full of exhortations to people not to be afraid.  

The people of the Bible lived in even more terrifying times than we do. Their lives were fragile and precarious. They had precious few defences against illness, poverty and political instability. They had plenty of good reasons to be very afraid.

The first reading we heard tonight was written at a time when they had been in exile in Babylon for 70 years. Jerusalem had been destroyed. They’d been carried off into captivity. They were powerless and far from home.  Would they ever return?  Yes, says Isaiah to them. God will gather you from all the places you’ve been scattered. It was good news, but even good news can be scary. What would happen when they got home? There were many challenges ahead.  But God says to them, through the prophet Isaiah, “Do not fear”.

It’s really important, though, to understand why he thinks they should not fear, otherwise it just sounds like a platitude. He doesn’t say that there is nothing to be afraid of. He doesn’t say that he’ll wave a magic wand to make all their problems go away. There will be deep waters and raging flames, real troubles to face, but when they go through these things, he promises them that they won’t be alone. “I am with you. You are mine.” He says. That’s what makes the difference.

St Paul, in his letter to the Romans has the same message. This early Christian community lived right at the centre of the mighty Roman Empire. They faced persecution. They’d witnessed brutality which no one should see, friends and family killed. Paul doesn’t promise them that they won’t experience pain or physical harm – they wouldn’t believe him if he did. He’ll be killed by the Romans himself in the end. What he promises them is that nothing will separate them from God’s love. We can face the most terrible things if we know we are loved, if we know that we aren’t alone. That’s what he wants them to remember.

In Evangeline Paterson’s poem, she speaks of the reassurance that comes with knowing you aren’t alone too. She writes about the strange experience of knowing that someone you love is dying, even as you go about your own daily life. You can’t make the journey for them, but there is a sense in which you can make at least some of it with them. “In the midst of my life, I am living your death, seeing with your eyes the shining of sun on the leaf. All day I am keeping pace with your slow journey.” It’s a wonderfully comforting poem, a poem that is unafraid of death because Paterson trusts that her friend is “from love to Love going”.  So the boat she imagines taking her away can “launch out gently into the dark”. It is safe for her to go, because her origin, her destination, and the very sea she floats on is love.  

Today, as we remember those we love who have died, and inevitably ponder our own deaths too, we may be afraid, or recall times of fear. It’s human. It’s natural. No one can say to us, “Cheer up, it may never happen”, because it has happened. But we can look around us and remind ourselves that we are not alone , and that those we love and see no longer aren’t alone either. They are held in the loving hands of God, but we are surrounded by love as well – the love of family and friends, the love of communities like this one in this church, and most of all, the love of God whose promise is still “I am with you. You are mine”. In life and in death, we are going from love to Love, and that means that there truly is nothing to fear.

All Saints' Sunday: Jesus wept

“Jesus began to weep” says our Gospel reading this morning. Or, as the old King James version of the Bible simply puts it, “Jesus wept”. It’s famous for being the shortest verse in the Bible, and yet there’s a whole world of meaning - and a whole world of questions – packed into it. .

“Jesus wept.”
But why is Jesus weeping? What is he weeping for? On one level it’s obvious. His friend Lazarus has died. But when we look at the whole story Jesus’ tears are a bit more puzzling.

A few days before, somewhere on the other side of the River Jordan, Jesus had received a message to say that his friend Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, was ill. His disciples expected him to rush to his side and heal him, but Jesus didn’t go. For two days he waited. Then, all of a sudden he announced that they were going to Lazarus after all. But by the time they got there, it was too late. Lazarus was dead. Lazarus’ sisters were as baffled and distressed.  “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” said Mary. It looks to them and to the other disciples as if he is playing games with their brother’s life. What right has he to weep? And if he knows Lazarus is going to be raised, why not just get on with it?  Why stand around crying?

Tears are strange things. Some people cry at the drop of a hat, others hardly ever, but generally speaking, people can’t cry to order. Tears come when they come. They are a sign of real , deep, genuine emotion, that is too important to be able to stifle. We cry because we can’t not cry.

Why does Jesus weep in this story? For the same reason, it seems to me. He weeps because he can’t not weep, and his tears reveal what is going on in his heart, just as ours do. They remind us that he is fully human, fully part of the world into which he has been born. As the opening of John’s Gospel tells us, in Jesus “the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us”. Jesus came to be right where we are, in the middle of our stories, in the muddle and mess of the present moment, not in some shiny future where everything has been resolved.

Stories are great. People love them. And part of the reason for that is that they have a beginning, middle and end. There is a definite conclusion. The princess finds her prince. The murderer is unmasked. The mysteries are revealed and the loose ends are tied up in some way or another. We can shut the book with a sigh of relief and move on – we literally have closure, if you like.  The stories of our own lives aren’t like that, though, because we are in the tale, and it won’t be fully told until we have taken our last breath, and it will be others who will read it. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. We live in the middle of the story.

A Chinese folktale tells of a farmer whose horse ran away. “What bad luck! “, said his neighbours. “I don’t know if it is bad or good,” said the farmer. “Time will tell.” 
The next day the runaway horse came back, with a wild horse it had found wandering in the countryside. “What good luck!” said the farmer’s neighbours. “I don’t know if it is good luck, or bad” said the farmer, time will tell, “ answered the farmer.
The next day the farmer’s son decided to try to tame the wild mare. But she threw him and stepped on his legs, breaking them badly” O what bad luck after all!” said the neighbours, “ I don’t know if it is bad luck or good”, said the farmer once again, with a sad sigh, “time will tell.”
Not long afterwards, the country was forced into war by a cruel emperor, who conscripted all the able bodied young men, but the farmer’s son, still suffering from his injuries was left behind when all the others were marched off. The neighbours turned to the farmer and said “What good luck that your son is able to remain behind.”  But the farmer shook his head and said once more “I don’t know if it is good luck, or bad. Time alone will tell”. The traditional ending to this tale is “This is a story without an end. Take from it what you will, my friend.”

It’s a rather unsatisfactory tale, because it breaks that rule that stories need a conclusion, but that’s the point. In real life, we never get to the conclusion. To be honest, I’m not sure I‘ve ever met anyone with the sort of detachment that farmer had, and I certainly don’t achieve it myself, but that Is also the point – we know how hard it is to look beyond the present moment – it is the only thing that is real. The past has gone, the future hasn’t arrived. As human beings, we live in the “now”, and we often judge how are lives are going by how that present moment feels. If all is going well, we assume it will continue to do so. If life is tough, we find it hard to imagine that it can change. We are convinced that nothing will ever be good again.  

When Jesus weeps in this story, it seems to me that his tears recognise and honour that present moment, and allow us to be there. Yes, Lazarus will be raised, but right now he is stuck in the tomb, lifeless, gone, just as so many of those we love are. Yes, Martha and Mary will rejoice, but right now they are devastated, bitter, baffled, angry, desperately missing him, just as we do when our loved ones die. To Martha and Mary this agonising moment of grief may as well be eternal. They don’t know, can’t know, that it will pass. They weep, and Jesus weeps with them. Where they are, he is too. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He is present in our “now”, in the moment which we have to live in, whatever that moment is like.

This week, eleven people’s lives were taken away from them in a moment when a gunman burst into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. A day or so ago, nine Coptic Christians were killed by another gunman in a church in Egypt. We don’t know how such hatred can be healed, and even if we did, we couldn’t take away the sorrow of those bereaved families.  Jesus weeps.

This week, millions of people in Yemen are facing starvation because other, more powerful nations are fighting their own proxy battles on their soil. We don’t know how that situation can be resolved. Jesus weeps.

This week, I know that people in our own community are struggling with personal crises – illness, bereavement, family problems – which seem as if they will have no end. No one can know when or how those things will be resolved. Jesus weeps.

Sometimes that’s all we can say, and all we need to say, that Jesus weeps. Sometimes there is no choice but to sit in the darkness. But Jesus’s tears tell us that he is willing to sit in the darkness with us for as long as it takes. Sometimes that’s all we can hear and all we need to hear. If that’s where you are today, that may be enough.

But while we are sitting there in the darkness, maybe it’s worth taking in a little of what our other readings say too, because they were also written for people who were in the darkness, in the middle of their own, very difficult and painful stories.

Exiled by the Romans on the dry, dusty island of Patmos, an early Christian leader called John worries and weeps for the congregations he has had to leave behind. They face the same persecution as him. What will happen? How will they cope? God doesn’t wave a magic wand and make the Roman Empire disappear – maybe that wouldn’t be the answer anyway - but he does give John a vision to share with his churches, a promise that the time will come when they will weep no more. Their tears will be wiped away. It might be this side of death or beyond it, but this current suffering is not the end of the story, the whole of the story. The end is in God’s hands, not the hands of Rome.

In the first reading we heard, from the book of Wisdom, people were also going through struggle and pain. It was written a couple of hundred years before the time of Jesus. Israel was under the thumb of Greek rulers. Many had died for their faith. Were their deaths in vain? Was it all a waste? It must have looked as if it was. No, says this writer. “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God…In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction, but they are at peace.”

What we see now is not all there is to be seen. We can’t force or hurry our way through to the end of our stories. We have to be where we are – that’s what it means to be human - but God is with us in this moment, and in every moment that comes after it. The beginning, middle and end of the story are in his hands, not ours, not the worlds. That’s what these writers discovered, in the midst of suffering and fear at least as appalling as anything we will experience. This message is their gift to us.

Today is All Saints' Sunday, when we remember the “great cloud of witnesses” as the Bible describes them, people like those who wrote these Bible passages, people who have dared to believe that though they might be defeated, God is not defeated, that though they might die, God is not dead.

Saints aren’t superheroes, people with special powers to endure times of trouble. They are just people who, stuck in the middle, like us all, sitting in the darkness weeping, as we all sometimes must, heard Christ weeping alongside them, and knew that if he wept with them, suffered with them, even died with them, there could also be the possibility that they would rise with him, live with him, rejoice with him too. That was enough for them, and it can be enough for us too id we will take it to heart and ponder it. So whether you are sitting in the darkness, or shining with light today, Christ is with you, weeping or rejoicing.