Sunday, 23 October 2016

Bible Sunday: Gracious Words

“All were amazed at the gracious words that came from Jesus’ mouth.”

You know how you can read something year in year out and not notice the detail? Well that’s what happened to me when I looked at the very familiar Gospel reading we heard today. It was that little phrase “gracious words” which made me suddenly sit up and take notice. “All were amazed at the gracious words that came from Jesus’ mouth.” “What does that mean?” I asked myself.  What are “gracious words”? I wonder what you think.

Today we tend to say that someone has spoken graciously if they’ve got a nice turn of phrase, or if they’ve managed to say something difficult or painful in a way that’s easier for others to accept. Responding graciously to an insult means not sinking to the level of your attacker, but finding something positive to say in answer to them.  It would be great to see some more “gracious words” in the US election campaign!

Thinking about graciousness might lead us on to think about other closely related words too – words like “graceful” and the word that gives rise to them both, “grace”. What do these words mean to us? The dictionary lists some synonyms – elegance, agility, refinement, polish.
Talk about grace and what do you think of? Maybe the kind of serene poise of Audrey Hepburn or one of those other old fashioned, impeccably groomed film stars. A good dancer might be called graceful too, someone who can place every step perfectly and effortlessly.
Gracefulness is often seen as a quality you’re either born with, or not.

But the grace of Jesus’ words in that synagogue in Nazareth wasn’t anything to do with eloquence or elegance. The congregation there wasn’t amazed by his clever arguments or uplifting sentiments or sophisticated style.

To understand what they might have meant when they called his words gracious we need to dig back to the Greek and Hebrew words for grace – the ones Jesus’ congregation would have known and used.  They are charis in the Greek and khen in the Hebrew, if you’re interested. And once you start to look, you find those words all over the place in the Bible. Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord, it says. David found grace in the eyes of King Saul – at least at first. Ruth, a Moabite refugee to Israel, found grace in the eyes of Boaz, who ended up marrying her. The letters of Paul are full of prayers that people might know the grace of God. We use one of his greetings as a prayer we call the Grace – the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Some Bibles translate khen and charis as “favour” instead of grace. It’s the word Gabriel uses when he tells Mary she will bear Jesus. “Hail, favoured one, the Lord is with you.” “Hail Mary, full of grace” as older translations put it.

All this gives us a clue that for the people of the Bible, grace was much more than an Audrey Hepburn like polish. Fundamentally, it was something that had to do with relationships. Grace –or favour if you prefer – was something granted by someone who had power to someone who needed their help. It wasn’t an innate talent, something you were born with; it was something you were given. If you found grace in someone’s eyes it meant that they affirmed you and accepted you, supported you and sheltered you, gave you their protection and approval. In the Bible most often it is God who is the giver of grace – in fact it’s one of the things that defined God for the Jewish people   “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” - that’s Psalm 145. Again and again when they were in need they cried out to God for grace. “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted,” says Psalm 25.


In the New Testament, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are described as charismata – graces -  everything from dramatic things like prophecy and healing to the less obvious like administration and helpfulness. Charismatic people aren’t people who are charming or persuasive; they are people who are filled with the gifts of the Spirit, deeply connected to the life of God and dependent on him.


According to the Bible, then, being a gracious, or a graceful person, means being secure in our relationship with God, knowing that he accepts and loves us, confident that he’ll support and uphold us.


So let’s go back to that synagogue in Nazareth and those “gracious words” which Jesus spoke. The thing which amazed people that morning was not that he spoke fluently, but that what he said reflected enormous confidence in his relationship with God.  


He‘d read words some very familiar words from the prophet Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor”. Isaiah was one of the best known, most quoted books of scripture at the time of Jesus, so his hearers would have known knew these words like the back of their hands. But who was Isaiah talking about? Interpretations varied.  Some people thought it referred to the whole people of Israel; others saw it as a prophecy about a particular promised leader, a Messiah – literally an anointed one. But people wouldn’t normally have applied it to themselves as Jesus did here. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.  To do that would have sounded presumptuous, a bit mad maybe – unless, of course, it was true.


But the fact that these are described as “gracious” words implies that, to some of those who heard them, at least, Jesus claim seemed authentic, grounded, powerful. It rang true to them. And let’s not forget, these were people who knew him. In other places in the Gospels, people are amazed at the authority with which he speaks too, so it wasn’t just them. This is a man whose words are shot through with assurance that God is with him and for him. That’s why they are called “gracious”. He knows he is secure in the grace of God. He doesn’t just speak gracious words, he is the Gracious Word – God’s word of grace -who  “became flesh, and lived among us…full of grace and truth” said John (1.14)


So, we might say, that’s all very well – it tells us something about Jesus – but what difference does it make to us?


It makes a difference to us because this man, who was so secure in his Father’s love that he was prepared to die for his message, didn’t just believe that he was “graced”; he believed that we were too. “You are the light of the world,” he said. “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” “Ask and it will be given to you”. The joyful, hopeful message of Jesus is that all of us are chosen, called, “graced” by God, brought into a relationship with him that is safe, certain, indestructible. All we have to do is to learn to trust it.


But of course, that’s easier said than done.  The disappointments and betrayals we encounter in life often damage our ability to trust. If we’re lucky, there’ll be people in our lives whose love we can rely on, but most people, in my experience, struggle at least some of the time to believe they really are acceptable and accepted, and for some it is a lifelong battle to feel secure.  Why should anyone – let alone God - be with us and for us? But according to the Bible that’s the message which Christ lived and died to proclaim, and if we call ourselves his disciples, which literally means learners, then this is the most important lesson we need to learn.


And perhaps  that’s where these Biblical ideas of grace do, in fact, connect with the images we started with.  Graceful dancers know where to put their feet because they’ve practiced, repeating the steps time and time again until they are secure in them.  Gracious speakers can rise above the level of those who insult them because they are sure of their own worth. They are sure of their ground. They have learned that they don’t need to put others down in order to win the argument. Gracefulness and graciousness aren’t magical qualities which some people have and some don’t, even if it sometimes looks that way. They’re things we have to learn and practice if we want them to be embedded in our lives.  


That’s true for the dancer or the public speaker, but it’s also true for us in our normal daily lives. If we want to be graceful, grace-filled people we need to practice, to take in day by day the truths God wants us to learn about him and about his love for us. We practice that through prayer, through coming together for worship and fellowship, learning from and with one another. We practice, too,  through reading the Bible – today is Bible Sunday – taking into ourselves the gracious words of scripture which were written, said our first reading so that  “by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”  


Last week at our All Age Worship, I talked about Promise Boxes – boxes of cards printed with Bible verses. have a look on the red table if you’d like to know more about that. They are one way of taking in the gracious words of God day by day, but however we do it, it is important that we learn to recognise and own the grace of God that is given to us, that message of security – or salvation if you want to use a more theological word – which Jesus died to proclaim.


It matters because it’s the knowledge of God’s grace, his loving acceptance of us, with all our faults and failings, that gives us the confidence and courage to speak gracious words to others, even when they hurt us, insult us, let us down, misunderstand or ignore us.  And the world surely needs as many gracious words as it can hear today!


So today, on this Bible Sunday, as we give thanks for the gracious words of God, may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, now and evermore. 




Sunday, 16 October 2016

Trinity 21 - Justice

Luke 18.1-8 & 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5 If we look around us examples of injustice both large and small are very easy to find, ranging from a leader of a poor country laundering corrupt money overseas to that person passed over for a job or promotion because of the prejudices of the decision maker. It’s the decision maker that holds the power, he or she may be the recruiter, the allocator of housing or as in today’s gospel reading, the judge. It doesn’t seem an unreasonable expectation that those appointed to positions of power should do all they can to make honest unbiased decisions and uphold justice, particularly for the poor and weak who may struggle to obtain access to the system. We know that problems occur, not when an honest error of judgement is made but when the system is corrupt, or remarkably, in today’s reading when the adjudicator really can’t be bothered. Perhaps he justifies his apathy by reasoning that the event is now in the past but we know that justice matters beyond logic, right to our very soul, even when there is no prospect of punishment of or compensation from the offender. There are so many high profile examples over recent years that I’ve had to limit my examples. One purpose of the parable must be to encourage us as Christians to persevere in our faith even in times when we feel it is against all odds. A man called Adria Tempany was in the stadium at the time of the Hillsborough disaster and only 27 years later was the account of both him and many others in attendance at the time 96 fans were crushed to death, and many others injured, believed. The jury’s decision meant so much to those who knew they were not responsible for the deaths, it could not change the sad situation but he was one of many who had to live with the state and popular press blaming them for what happened. Of course, some never lived long enough to see their version believed. Access to justice can be limited by money or comprehension of the process, a point many are arguing as many cuts to our legal system take effect. It would have been even more difficult for the lady in the parable. It is no coincidence that Jesus tells us that she was a widow. Not only were individuals required to bring their own case to the judge without a prosecution service, but a woman without male representation or support would have been right at the bottom of the pile, no doubt the judge thought such an apparently powerless person would soon realise they were wasting their time, as no doubt many others had done before her. In our parable the judge, admits to having no fear of God and no respect for anyone, not the sort of credentials you would imagine finding on a judges CV. But Jesus’ point is to illustrate the fact that those who are persistent in prayer and in their love of justice will not be let down by God. After all even this corrupt judge grants justice eventually, if only because the woman is driving him nuts and probably also to avoid the potential shame of his unsuitability and many inadequacies being exposed. But if this is the case how much more can we rely upon a God who loves both justice and his people. We are being told to keep going despite all the setbacks we may encounter, to keep pursuing the truth even if we may not see the conclusion in our lifetime. The message reinforces Jesus teaching about prayer found earlier in Luke’s gospel when he said "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (11:13). We might compare by interpreting today’s parable: "If even the most unjust of judges will finally relent to the relentless campaign of widow, then how much more will God, who loves justice, answer your prayers!" Jesus concludes the parable by asking ‘when the son of man comes will he find faith on earth?’ What do you think the answer is? Will we persist in prayer and maintain hope for justice or will we have given up like the lazy judge was hoping that the widow would? Similarly in Timothy’s community the people have ‘itching ears’, they hear of stuff which sounds easier than staying faithful, perhaps they can tweak their beliefs to suit their lives but it is for Timothy to keep them on the path that reflects consistent, long term faith in our unchanging God. It’s never going to be a clean cut business in our earthly lives but we have seen enough apparently hopeless situations change for the better to give us the sustenance to keep trying and keep in mind Jesus words ‘will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?’ We each see our personal victories occasionally but also shouldn’t forget that, the Berlin wall opened, the apartheid regime crumbled, peace broke out, people were believed. We may be tempted to despair at the injustice of many things, not least war and poverty in the world, it’s hard not to. But Jesus message is clear, let our faith set us apart as people who pray persistently with real hope despite many signs of hopelessness and let us be people who play our part in a world where God delights in every act that builds justice. Amen Kevin Bright 16th October 2016

Promise Boxes

In this morning's All Age worship we thought about promises and in particular the promises of God, which, unlike some of our promises are never broken. We thought about the faithfulness of God, shown to us in the life of Jesus, who showed us what God's faithful love looked like.
I introduced the congregation to the tradition of the Promise Box, which didn't seem to be something people had come across before. It seems to have originated in Victorian times, but was a very popular devotion, especially among evangelical Christians, through the 20th Century. It has rather dwindled now, but Promise Boxes, containing cards or scrolls, with Bible verses on them, can still be bought. I bought the ones I showed this morning (pictured ) here. - this one has cards with prayers on the back
and here... - this one has tiny scrolls, and comes with some tweezers to pull them out with. 

Like many Promise Boxes both of these use the traditional words of the Authorised Version, but if you find this a bit difficult to understand you can always look up the verses in a modern Bible instead. I have put them on the red table at the back of church if you'd like to take a look and are in our neck of the woods.

I also printed out some Biblical promises on sheets of card for people to take home and cut up themselves to make their own Promise Boxes. The printable sheets are here, if you'd like one.
There are only 36 promises here, while Promise Boxes usually have hundreds, but I tried to pick 36 very good ones!)
I passed around these promise cards during the service and invited people to take one home with them to ponder. Jenni Pascoe kindly sent me some feedback after the service, which she gave me permission to share.

"Thank you for the promises stuff. The best one for me was the first one... the levelling of the mountains [I will go before you and level the mountains…so that you may know that it is I the Lord, the God of Israel who call you by your name. Isaiah 45.2-3] , I hope I pick it out every day!!! Often I need someone to do that for me. Please share on the facebook page if you wish. I wonder what other folk think. Jenni."
I got a lovely verse from Revelation 21 "God will wipe every tear from their eyes."

Promise Boxes have their limitations. It certainly shouldn't be the ONLY way we read the Bible - our Biblical knowledge will be a bit thin if it is - and taking Bible verses out of context can distort their meaning, so this needs to be balanced with more in depth, informed, thoughtful reading of the Bible. But there are times when we just need to hear one thing, when one verse - or even one word - can make all the difference, and a Promise Box is a lovely, playful, personal way to hear God's voice.

What do you think ? Are Promise Boxes a familiar devotional aid for you? If you were there this morning, did you get a promise that hit home to you or made you think?

If this has really piqued your interest, there is an interesting blog post here
and a more in depth article here about how Promise Boxes have been used.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Trinity 20: Where are you?

Do you know where you are this morning? I hope the answer is yes, at least in the most obvious sense. You're in Seal Church - TN15 0AT.  If you thought you were somewhere else, or were meant to be somewhere else, I won’t be offended if you leave…

Knowing where we are is very important, but it’s not just about geography. These days we can pinpoint our physical locations using the GPS on our phones, and we have maps that are accurate to a very fine degree, but we can still feel disorientated. We may have been bereaved, or diagnosed with a life-altering illness or gone through the breakdown of a relationship or lost a job. “I just don’t know where I am anymore” we say. “I don’t know whether I’m coming or going”. The familiar landmarks in our lives are gone, and it takes us a while to recognise and negotiate the new landscape.

Locating ourselves can be about relationships too. We like to “know where we stand” with people – that’s about position too. We talk about “knowing our place”, knowing where we are in the pecking order.  

Place is very important in our Bible readings today. There are people in them who feel out of place and disorientated, just as we sometimes do, people who are catapulted into new landscapes and struggle to find new ways through them.

First there’s Naaman, in our Old Testament reading, the commander of the armies of the King of Aram. Here was a man who, up till now, had been quite sure where he was and where he stood, in the top tier of his society. Aram, roughly where modern-day Syria is, was a powerful nation, and he held one of the most powerful positions in it. He was one of the King’s right hand men. But then he caught leprosy and that changed everything. Leprosy didn’t just make you ill, it also meant you would be ostracised, shunned, shut out of the normal life of the community. People were afraid of catching it, and they thought it was a divine punishment. It was a social and spiritual disaster, as well as a physical one. What place would Naaman have now? As the disease took hold he faced being thrown from the inner circles of power out to the margins of his world.  If ever there was a man who was entitled to feel disorientated, it was Naaman.

But a recommendation from a little slave girl, captured on a raid in neighbouring Israel, seemed to hold out at least a glimmer of hope. She knew of a holy man, Elisha, in her own land, who could help. After some delicate diplomatic negotiation, Naaman set off. But when he got there his disorientation became even more acute.  He was used to being respected, honoured, or at least feared. But this Elisha – a member of a nation which was far weaker than Aram – didn’t even bother to come out to greet him. And instead of some complicated ritual, which would at least have felt like Elisha was taking his illness seriously, all Naaman got was a rather off-hand message telling him to bathe in the River Jordan seven times. Naaman wasn’t used to being treated like this. Maybe it seemed like a taste of his future – no longer the capable, proud commander, but someone who others avoided? It was a whole new landscape for him, and he didn’t know the way through it. His first reaction was to stomp back off to the land he knew and bathe in its rivers, even if there was no hope of them curing him. At least he’d feel at home.

His servants persuaded him to give it a try, though. He’d come this far. He had nothing to lose! You can hear their frustration.  And to his surprise, it worked. He was cured, and, more than that, he realised that it was the God of Israel who had done it. In those days, people generally assumed that their gods were territorial; their power was limited to their own lands, like a tribal chief’s power. Naaman would never have thought to look for healing from a foreign God, in a foreign place – why should someone else’s God care about him? But he discovered that it was only when he was as far out of place as he could be that he could receive the healing he needed.

Place is also significant in today’s Gospel story. The ten lepers Jesus met were living on the edge of their village, banished from their homes because of their disease. Not only that, they were in a region which is in itself between places. Luke describes it as “between Samaria and Galilee.”  The Galileans, who were Jewish, distrusted the Samaritans, and vice versa. They both worshipped the same God, but each thought the other had got it badly wrong. There were lots of similarities between between them, but that only made the differences stand out. Jews worshipped in Jerusalem; Samaritans on their sacred mountain Gerizim, for example. They usually went out of their way to avoid each other. These lepers, a mix of Jews and Samaritans, had been thrown together in an uneasy alliance by their disease, though, their religious identities blurred. They were living on the edge in every sense, on the edge of a town which was itself in a border land, on the edge of their society and religion, on the edge of life itself as their disease progressed. They were about as marginal as you could be, and they knew it.

When they saw Jesus, they kept their distance. They knew their place, and it wasn’t amidst healthy, respectable people, those who were still in the centre of everything. But obviously they’d heard that Jesus had a reputation as a healer, so they cried out to him anyway, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And his response was instant, as if he was expecting them, as if he’d come here on purpose to see them.  “Go and show yourselves to the priests”, he said. That might seem an odd thing to do, but the law said that only a priest could declare that a leper was healed. So off they went, and as they headed into the village, they looked at each other and realise that the tell-tale signs of leprosy had vanished.  But what would they do now?

Nine of them just kept going, back to their old lives. That might seem quite reasonable – they just wanted to get back to normal, to get back to where they were. But one of them realised that nothing was ever going to be normal again – there was no going back.

This story is often told – especially to children – as if its main message is that we should always remember to say thank you. That’s a very good thing to do, of course, but it’s profoundly not what this story is about. The leper who returned did thank Jesus, but it wasn’t the thanks that Jesus focused on. It was the fact that he came back to Jesus “to give praise to God”. The tenth leper – who happened to be a Samaritan, we are told, rather pointedly - was the only one who seemed to realise that whatever had happened, had happened because of the presence of God in this man, this carpenter’s son, Jesus.

As I said, one of the main differences between the Jews and Samaritans was where their chief holy place was, God’s headquarters on earth, if you like. Did you go to Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim to encounter him? But this tenth leper saw that God wasn’t confined to a holy hill – whether it was in Jerusalem or Samaria. He was found in the flesh and blood of this man, Jesus, who had come out into no-man’s-land to find and heal him, out beyond the boundaries of respectable society. God was at work in a new place.

“The word of God is not chained” wrote the author of the letter to Timothy we heard this morning – it’s probably not by Paul, despite the traditional ascription to him, but it contains words that could easily have been his, and these are an example. “The word of God is not chained” – Paul was imprisoned many times, but God’s word couldn’t be confined. Paul’s central message was that in Christ, God had broken down the barriers that divided people from one another and from God. In Christ, God came to us where we were, even, or especially, if that was out beyond the pale, far from home, in the wilderness, lost and wandering. He wasn’t shut up in a Temple or barricaded behind walls of laws and tradition. He was wherever people needed him, where the sick needed healing, the poor needed lifting up, oppression needed challenging.

When Jesus died on the cross, one of the thieves crucified with him mocked him, but the other told him to leave Jesus alone. “This man has done nothing wrong”, he said.  In the original Greek the word he uses is atopos, which literally means “out of place”. Jesus had done nothing “out of place” and yet here he was, out of place on the cross, out beyond the city walls, hanging in a grim and terrifying execution site. He became “out of place” to save those who had been pushed “out of place” through sin, through illness, through simply not fitting into their society.  The word of God was not chained, not restricted to safe, religious enclosures, just for an inner circle. In the person of Jesus, the Word made flesh, it came to us where we needed it, with hope, with love, with healing.

So, where are you today? That’s a question you might need more than a Satnav or a GPS signal to answer. But wherever you are, God is in that place too. That’s the promise of the Gospel. No place is “out of place” to him. He’s with us when we are disorientated, lost, wandering, stubbornly heading in the wrong direction, longing for home, but not knowing how to get there. He makes his home in whatever distant, back of beyond, middle of nowhere place we happen to be, and because of that we can be at home anywhere, safe, and rooted firmly in his love.


Sunday, 2 October 2016

Harvest: The seasons of our lives

As you can see from the decorations on the pillars, we had a good time last week at Messy Church thinking about the seasons of the year. Our pictures reflect some of the joys of each – winter with snowflakes, spring with its promise of new life, summer with the shining glittery sun, and autumn with its profusion of wonderful textures, colours and smells. We thought about which season was our favourite - I wonder which is yours?

Whichever season is your favourite, the fact is that they’re all vital. We may not like the bleak, dreary days of February, but that period of cold, when the plants are dormant, is just as important for them as the glory days of April and May when they are growing apace. Without the dormancy, the growth couldn’t happen. The autumn leaves which descend into a sodden mass on the ground feed the soil. Without the death that is part of this season of the year, the earth on which we depend would soon become sterile.

Ancient civilisations knew this well. They were in tune with the passing seasons in the lands where they lived. They had to be. They knew that their lives depended very directly on what they could grow. If the crops failed in their fields, starvation was a real and immediate possibility, as it still is for many around the world today.

That’s why the ending of the story of Noah which we heard this morning, was so important to them. It finishes with God’s promise that the seasons would be restored after the flood.  “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”  God hadn’t forgotten them as they floated in the ark on that endless ocean, even though it might have felt like that. He had never let them out of his sight, and now they could start afresh and life could begin again.

Most of us are probably far less in tune with the passing seasons than our ancestors were. We can put on the central heating, buy food flown halfway round the world, freeze our surpluses to keep us going, but in the long run we still depend on the rain and sun, cold and warmth coming when it should. The food in our supermarkets doesn’t get there by magic. It still has to come from somewhere on this one earth we live on. Eventually we will go hungry too if it stops producing its bounty. There is no Planet B, as the saying goes. That’s why the threat of human made climate change is so frightening and urgent; it may not have affected us much yet, it has affected others in the world, and their stories should be a warning to us.

One of the things I have noticed over the years we’ve been supporting the Diocesan Poverty and Hope appeal is that climate change increasingly rears its head in the stories of the projects it supports. This year is no exception.  There’s a project in Burkina Faso, helping communities learn to grow crops which will do better in the droughts that are increasingly blighting their lives. In Rochester’s twin Diocese of Kondoa in Tanzania, our money will help build a vocational centre to train local people in different trades because they’ve realised that they can’t rely on agriculture any more as the climate grows less predictable. Another project supports communities in Argentina working to prevent deforestation. Felling trees, the lungs of our planet, makes climate change worse. What might it mean to these communities to hear God’s promise that “as long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter…shall not cease” ? How can that promise be fulfilled for them? Part of the answer lies in our hands. We have the political and financial power to make or break their communities, often without even knowing it. We can help to save them from the flood or allow them to be swept away by it. We may not yet be suffering as they do, but we will be in time – we are all in one ark together.

So there is a very direct and obvious message for us as we celebrate Harvest today in this story of the flood and its aftermath. It’s a message about the real, practical action we need to take to make sure that “seedtime and harvest” endure for all of us, and especially for the most vulnerable people in the world. We are called to “work together with God,” as St Paul puts it.

But that work can sometimes seem impossible. It’s hard to hold onto hope when the challenges are so great. That’s why it matters that we understand that this story of Noah isn’t just about literal seedtimes and harvests. It can speak to us in other ways too.

The story of a cataclysmic flood is found in many ancient civilisations. There’s an ancient Greek version, a Mesopotamian version, a Viking version, a Mayan version from Central America and others from the original inhabitants of North America too, as well as the one we know. The details differ but they all tell of a catastrophe which swept away the world as they knew it. Experts argue about why this story is so widespread, but  some think that it may reflect an ancient memory of the end of the last Ice Age, when melt water caused devastating floods across the world in a very short space of time around 6000 years before Christ. We know that the land bridge which originally connected Britain to continental Europe broke suddenly – geologists have found the evidence all along the south coast of a layer of rocks which were obviously deposited in one cataclysmic flood event . The Mediterranean was formed around the same time, when the Atlantic broke through at what is now the straits of Gibraltar, probably in a matter of months. What would it have been like to live through something like that? Imagine the scale of it and the impact on societies that had no knowledge of what lay beyond their own area? No wonder the stories talk of the world being washed away; it must have seemed like that.

We’ll never know for sure whether that’s what sparked off these flood myths, but the stories continued to resonate with people, as they do with us, because you don’t have to be on the receiving end of Ice Age meltwater to understand what it feels like to be out of your depth and drowning.

The Biblical story of Noah was written down in the form we know it while the people of Judah were in exile in Babylon. There wasn’t any water involved in that disaster, but it certainly felt like a flood had closed over them. Their city of Jerusalem with its beautiful Temple had been destroyed. Their whole society and way of life had come to an end, submerged by the might of the Babylonian empire.

But this story reminded them that however deep and stormy the waters, God wouldn’t forget  or abandon his creation.  However great the destruction, they weren’t alone and they would, one day, begin again. This story helped them acknowledge the awful reality they’d been through, but it also spoke of hope, of the possibility of a new start.

God is with us, it said, in all the things that happen to us, whether we know it or not at the time. Open your eyes and you will see him. Open your ears and you will hear his voice, calling you to hang on in there.

St Paul had found that to be true too. He endured many storms, as the reading we heard reminded us. There were times of “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots labours, sleepless nights, hunger.” His determination to tell people of the love of Chrsit constantly brought him into danger. Often it must have looked as if it was all pointless.  But in all these times he’d learned to look out for God’s presence, to trust that he was there. And because of that he’d found that he could be “dying; and see - we are alive…punished and yet not killed, …sorrowful, yet always rejoicing;… poor, yet making many rich, …having nothing, yet possessing everything.”  The flood may have swept away everything he had, but he couldn’t lose God, and that was what mattered most.

God’s presence may not always be obvious, but like the seeds in Jesus’ parables, the fact that you can’t see something doesn’t mean there is nothing there. When a seed is first sown it looks for all the world as if it has died and gone, but from it can grow a mighty tree, with room for all in its branches. What looks like death is actually the start of new life. Winter is full of the promise of spring, if only we have eyes – and faith - to see it.

So today, whatever season it is in our lives, we’re invited to look for God’s presence in it, to open our eyes to see him at work, and to work with him too. We can do that through our giving to Poverty and Hope, helping others to find spring in what look like hopeless, wintry situations. We can do that closer to home in our own community, in the loving service we are called to for others. But holding onto hope for others is impossible unless we have first discovered it for ourselves. That’s why we also need to learn to look for God’s presence in our lives, to be aware of what the landscape in us looks like. Is it winter, dark and cold in us? Are there fragile shoots of springtime which need nurturing and protecting? Are we thirsting in the hot summer, in desperate need of living water to refresh us? Or is it autumn, a time to give thanks for what we have, but also to learn to let go of the things which belong to the past, like the leaves which the tree must release back to the ground?

Whatever the season in our lives, God is with us. In summer and winter, in springtime and autumn, in life and in death, today and tomorrow, and no flood can sweep his love away. That’s the hope that will take us through whatever life throws at us, and overflow to others to give them hope as well.


Monday, 26 September 2016

Trinity 18: the life that really is life.

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.”

“Sumptuously” - now there’s a wonderful, evocative word. It’s an interesting word too, with a long history. It comes from the Latin word  - “sumptus” - expense . Throughout history nations have passed what are called “sumptuary laws”, laws which govern what people of different classes are allowed to wear. In Ancient Rome, only the Emperor was allowed to wear purple, dyed with the fantastically expensive Tyrian purple dye made from the tiny murex shell . Senators were allowed a purple stripe on their togas, but that was all. There were sumptuary laws in Medieval England too, laying down what kinds of fabrics and furs different ranks were allowed. Again, purple was a restricted colour. Only the royal family could wear it on outer garments. Lower ranks of the aristocracy could have it in the lining of their clothes, but ordinary people couldn’t wear it at all.  The whole complicated business was designed to reinforce the pecking order. Just by looking at someone you could tell how important they were.

The rich man in Jesus’s story is dressed in that exclusive purple (presumably hoping the emperor won’t notice), and he’s feasting sumptuously not just now and then, but every day.  He isn’t just rich, he is seriously rich. This is the man who has everything. The man who has believed his own PR and is quite sure he’s Somebody, with a capital S.

The original Greek word translated as “sumptuously” captures that meaning in a slightly different way.  It’s the word lamprōs.  It gives us our English word lamp, so you won’t be surprised to hear that it means shining, brilliant, splendid. This man’s wealth shines out of him. It announces his importance just like his purple robes do.

There’s an effortless sense of entitlement about him. He glides through life, expecting that it will all go his way. Even after death, when he’s in torment in Hades, he still feels entitled. “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue” he says. Why on earth should he think that Lazarus is going to traipse all the way down there to him, when he is, for the first time in his life, safe and comfortable at Abraham’s side? Yet still somehow he assumes that he only has to clap his hands and his needs will be met. And when Abraham tells him that isn’t going to happen, he still can’t give up the feeling that the universe owes him something. “Send him to my brothers then” he says… He hasn’t caught on that Lazarus isn’t at his beck and call.

The rich man assumes he is entitled, important, someone whom others should notice. And yet there’s a fascinating thing about this story. He may think he’s entitled, but actually in this story, he has no title, no name at all. It is the beggar, Lazarus, who is named.  It’s the only time in any of Jesus’ parables that a character is named, so it’s certainly deliberate. The rich man could be any rich man, but Lazarus who has been treated like a nobody, is a precious individual.  Luke has a habit of focussing in his Gospel on the people no one else notices. Right at the beginning, Mary sings the praise of God who “puts down the mighty from their seats and exalts the humble and meek.” This story is an illustration of what that looks like.

So, although the rich man may seem at the beginning to be the star of this story – the one who shines brightest – actually it is this overlooked, forgotten beggar who is its real heart.

So let’s put that brilliant, shiny rich man to one side and think about Lazarus instead. What are we told about him – and what are we not told about him?
Let’s start with the first half of the question.
When the story begins he’s lying at the gates of the rich man’s house, presumably because that seems like a good place to beg from, a place where people with the means to help will see him. Except that they don’t. Despite the fact that this rich man must have had to step over him and around him every time he went in and out, he seems to take no notice of him at all.

Lazarus lies there covered in sores.  He’s helpless. We’re told that he “longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.” He doesn’t want to “feast sumptuously”, just to have enough “to satisfy his hunger”, but even this is denied to him. He’s out by the gate, far from the table, and the rich man can’t even be bothered to send the leftovers out to him.

Even the dogs lick his sores, we are told. Dogs were regarded as unclean, so this is the final degradation for a man who has fallen about as low as it is possible to get.  If the rich man represents  the epitome of wealth, Lazarus represents the epitome of poverty. But it’s all about to change.

Lazarus dies, and we are told that he’s “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham”. It’s a wonderful, flowery image – it could have come straight off the front of a sympathy card. In stark contrast , all we’re told about the rich man is that he “also died and was buried”. No angels, no Abraham, no wafting through the skies for him!  But Lazarus is safe, at Abraham’s side, honoured in death as he never was in life.

So that’s what we are told about Lazarus. But what we aren’t told is, in some ways just as important. We aren’t told that he’s good, or pious, or holy or deserving. We aren’t told that he was a hard-working man who, through no fault of his own had fallen on bad times.

Jesus’ parable was almost certainly based on a well-known folktale of the time in which a poor but honest man and a rich, dishonest one find their positions reversed in the afterlife. It’s a theme which you’ll find in folktales through the ages, but Jesus’ puts his own distinctive slant on this story, and, in fact, cunningly subverts it.

This poor man is lifted up simply because he is poor, and because his abject suffering is an affront to God in itself. This is not how God wants his world to be. Throughout the Bible he tells us so.  The laws of ancient Israel, given by God to Moses, were designed to prevent wealth being heaped up by the powerful. Land couldn’t be permanently bought and sold. Debts must be forgiven every 50 years. Fields weren’t to be reaped to the edges, so that the landless could share in the harvest. It was all meant to stop inequality becoming entrenched. If God’s  people lived as they should, there shouldn’t be beggars at anyone’s gates. 

This parable isn’t about a poor but honest man finally being rewarded for his goodness despite the fact that both rich and poor have often told and heard it that way. The rich have told it as a sop to appease the poor.   “Accept your lot gracefully now, and you’ll have your reward in heaven later.” The poor have told it as a rather desperate wish-fulfilment. If I am good enough and clever enough it will all come out right for me in the end. But this parable doesn’t say either of those things. Instead it’s a blistering reminder that no one deserves poverty and that those who allow it to happen when they could have prevented it will one day have serious questions to answer. It tells us too, that poverty damages both poor and rich in different ways. If we define people’s worth by their wealth, as this rich man does, we blind ourselves to the true humanity and  personhood of those we think are beneath us. We miss the gift they bring, the blessing of God that is in them.

We’re told that this parable is addressed to “those among the Pharisees who loved money”. Pharisees weren’t usually people of high status. They weren’t necessarily rich, but it seems that some of them wanted to be, and the reason they wanted to be was that they believed that God gave wealth to those he specially loved, that it was a sign of his blessing. If you were poor it meant you’d fallen out of his favour.  “There but for the grace of God, go I,” as we say. Jesus story was a stark reminder that that was nonsense. Lazarus looked as poor as you could be, but God loved him and held him close.  The rich man, dazzled during his lifetime by his own brilliance, found that when his light went out in death, he was on his own.

The first reading hit the nail on the head. It warns us that those who “set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches” are riding for a fall. “We brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it” says the reading. If we want “the life that really is life” then we will only find it letting our lives be shaped by God. It is his unconditional love for us which gives us the security we really crave, an unconditional love that extends to everyone around us too. When we have that security, we are able to be “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share”.  We don’t have to hoard what we have or put others down to feel that we matter.

Next week we celebrate our Harvest Festival and, as usual, we’ll be taking a collection for the Diocese’s Poverty and Hope appeal. You were given a leaflet with some details of the projects it supports as you came in. It’s very easy for us to skim this and forget it, even if we stuff some money in the collection next week anyway, but in some ways the stories in the leaflet are as important as the money. They tell us that what might seem like an anonymous, needy crowd, is really made up of people like us; our brothers and sisters,  people with names and hopes and dreams, people with gifts to give, people in whom God lives and works, people who are an infinitely greater blessing to the world than the money we have in the bank. So I hope you’ll take the leaflets home, read them, pray about them, and give generously, so that both they and we can “take hold of the life that really is life”.


Sunday, 11 September 2016

Trinity 15 A reason to party?

Luke 15.1-10, 1 Timothy 1.12-17 & Exodus 32.7-14
The weather is just starting to turn a little autumnal, the first leaves are parting company with the trees, school and work are back in full swing. Well, at least this was preceded by a few weeks of fine sunny weather and it was during this time that I asked a friend ‘how was your weekend?’ She told me that the great weather resulted in her throwing a spontaneous party in the garden to celebrate and enjoy the warmth, share it with friends, have a BBQ with music and dancing into the early hours of the morning. ‘Sounds great’ I said, ‘well some neighbours didn’t seem to think so’ she replied, ‘after complaining once they returned to tell us they were calling the police.’ They obviously couldn’t understand the need for this outpouring of joy and celebration because summer had finally arrived in England. Or more likely they just had work to do or children who needed to sleep. I can remember my late uncle telling me that the first flat he ever lived in was below a man that loved to play loud reggae music into the early hours of the morning. He finally had enough and went to ask the man why he did this to which he received the disarming reply ‘it’s coz I love you man, I don’t just share my music with anybody!’ It might sometimes be inconvenient to us but we often don’t appreciate why people feel the need to party.

In our gospel reading today Jesus tells us of a man who leaves his 99 sheep to find 1 sheep lost in the wilderness. When he finds the sheep he ‘comes home, calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them rejoice with me for I have just found my sheep that was lost’. You can cut the tension with a knife between the groups of people listening to Jesus tell this parable. ‘This isn’t how it works’ the Pharisees and temple legal experts are thinking, if a sheep is stupid enough to wander off into the wilderness it brings the consequences that follow upon itself. Many had a similar attitude to those who were outcasts and homeless, forced into begging and prostitution to survive, they brought this upon themselves. But to the others, including tax collectors hated by most because they collected money for the occupying Roman army and sinners, including people labelled as such because they couldn’t keep the countless laws around ritual washing, there is a message of great hope to be heard. Their ears prick up and we are told that they ‘were coming near to listen to Jesus’.

 Jesus is telling both groups that there is hope for them but a bit like people who can’t see the reason for a party, who like consistent order and predictability, the Pharisees don’t want to know. They think that they already know God and this was a direct challenge to their established system of sacrificing animals to him in the temple to atone for sins, their mistaken belief was that surely God wants something in return. By thinking in this way the Jews made God small, tidy and contained. Jesus came to tell all willing to listen that God isn’t like this, he’s bigger than we can understand, his love for us is unconditional, extravagant, and some might even say crazy. Yet if we will simply accept the love he offers there is much rejoicing in heaven. We too can be mean minded and guilty of trying to restrict his love sometimes because of what we are often brought up to perceive as fair play.

If we were in a class at school and had all worked hard to get our homework in on time we might be a bit peeved if we are left sitting in the classroom while the teacher goes off to find the child who is playing truant and gently guides him back. If we’ve spent all our lives praying, worshipping, being people that belong to a church it’s important that we help people who do none of these things to know that God is just as interested in them as us. People often feel unworthy turning to God only when their lives go ‘belly up’, perhaps facing bereavement, ill health or having exhausted all the other things that they hoped would make their lives meaningful. They might have a sense that God won’t want them now, that they are trying to sneak in through the back door, but they are met with a God who welcomes them with open arms and proclaims ‘ you come in through any door you want, even climb in through a window if you like but just make sure you do come. God loves his entire creation, every single person matters.

We become conditioned to accept that there is always a certain percentage of wastage. Supermarkets accept that a certain amount of food will never be sold and therefore wasted and tragically nations can even come to accept that a certain amount of civilians will be accidentally killed during wartime bombing campaigns. God is not like this, his love extends to everyone, including the Pharisees but the problem is that they don’t want to explore a relationship with God beyond the confines of their system.

Some here will know that to carry a small child can be more than a matter of simple transportation, it can be an expression of love and a feeling of joy. Though there are also occasions when you might retrieve the child because it has done something bad, small children often emit unpleasant smells and have been known to wriggle, kick and embarrass adults by screaming out loud in public places as if they were being tortured. I don’t know if you can remember being carried as a child yourself. Several people have said to me that they would pretend to be asleep after arriving back home at night in the car in order to be carried to their bed by their loving parent, enjoying a sense of warmth and protection. To me there’s a hint of this in the parable, if you can allow yourself to imagine it, God the mother or father is prepared to lay us his children across his shoulders and bring us home. Even if we’ve been bad, even if we’re smelly and horrible there’s no sense that he wants to come and kick our backsides, make his forgiveness conditional upon future behaviour, He just wants us back with him. The second parable we heard was about the woman who lost a coin. Oh well, she had 9 others just like it. Those hearing the story may well have immediately related to the 10 silver coins which traditionally comprised a Jewish girl’s dowry so this wasn’t the equivalent of losing a pound coin down the back of the sofa. In Jewish marriage it was considered that the family of the groom gained, and the family of the bride lost, a valuable member who helped with all household tasks. It therefore seemed reasonable that the father of the groom should pay the father of the bride the equivalent of her value. Over time the dowry lost its original meaning as a purchase price paid to the father for his daughter and became a gift to the relatives of the bride, a kind father would give the dowry to his daughter. So you can see that those hearing the story would have been anxious for her to keep the precious gift whole and they would have appreciated the joy and relief when felt when the coin was found.The process of patient and methodical searching for the coin suggests that God is prepared to devote endless energy into finding one of his which has gone astray, shining light into dark places to find what he is looking for.

In Paul’s letter to Timothy he aligns himself with the lost sheep as he tells of his personal experience of God’s ridiculously generous grace to him, a man who was previously a violent persecutor of Christian’s. In the knowledge that Jesus came to save people just like him and us his reaction is also an outpouring of joy and praise. It all sounds like neat and overly simple evangelism on the face of it, but there is a hint of the complicated messy reality that is experienced by many of us when Paul refers to the fact that ‘Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience’. As we look at ourselves I expect we think that he’s going to need every ounce.

If we read on in Luke we would immediately come to the story of the Prodigal Son completing a trilogy proclaiming aspects of God, to be found in a searching shepherd, a searching woman and a loving father. Often studying the bible results in us sensing a call to take practical action but it’s equally important to appreciate that sometimes we are called to inaction. God just wants us to sit quietly for a moment and acknowledge who he is, what he has done for us and how much each one of us is loved. That’s it, no catch, no conditions. If that happens to result in an outpouring of praise in the next hymn or any other time, we can be sure that God is there ready and waiting to get the party started.

Kevin Bright 11th September 2016