Monday, 9 December 2019

Breathing Space for Advent 2: God's message of love to Elizabeth

Psalm 85, Luke 1.39 – 45

Last week we thought about Jesus as God’s message of love to Mary. This week we move on to the visit she made to Elizabeth, and find that the message of love is starting to spread.

Elizabeth is some kind of relative to Mary – the Gospel isn’t precise about what their relationship is – but she is obviously someone Mary trusted, because the reading starts by telling us that “in those days Mary set out and went with haste” to see her. In what days? In the days after the angel had told her that she would bear the Son of God. In the days when the reality of that statement was starting to become clear, not only to her, but maybe to others as well. She went “with haste”. Why? Maybe because she knew her pregnancy would soon start to show, and there would be a scandal, which would put her and her unborn child at risk. So she goes to a place where she hopes she will be safe, where she hopes she will find a welcome. And she is right to have chosen Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is also living in extraordinary times. She is pregnant herself despite being long past the age when that should have been possible. Her husband had heard from that same angel who came to Mary that their child would be the forerunner of the Messiah, the child we know as John the Baptist. When she heard she was to bear a son, and a special one at that, she said “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

Of course, we would want to say to her that there is no disgrace in not being able to have children, but the reality was that in her society, women’s main role in life was to marry and bear children. When we read the Bible we have to read it from within the thought-world of its characters if we’re going to understand it.

In her time, fertility was seen as a sign of God’s favour, and infertility a sign of his curse. She had felt, and others had probably encouraged her to feel, that being childless meant that she and Zechariah must have done something to displease God, but now she realises that was wrong, and that God is much bigger than she’d been taught. God had a purpose for her. She was beloved of God all along, and so is this other mother-to-be who has come to her in her moment of need.

Artists have imagined this scene – the moment when Elizabeth and Mary meet – in many ways over the centuries. Often Mary looks a little tentative. What will the reaction be? Will she be met with scorn or suspicion? But always the answer is no. Without needing Mary to say a word, Elizabeth welcomes her, recognising that God is at work in her too. Sometimes there is laughter in the pictures, a bubbling over of joy. Sometimes Elizabeth puts her hands out to feel Mary’s “bump”. Each of them has been cherishing a private joy. Now, for the first time, that joy spreads beyond them and is recognised and acknowledged by someone else. “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other”, said our Psalm tonight, and that might be a caption for this moment.

Of course, for both these women there will be pain ahead. Both will lose those precious sons in brutal and cruel circumstances, but they know that their children will change the world, that they will have given the world a great gift. Elizabeth and Mary discover that their lives matter. They’re called. They’re chosen. In a world where most women, most of the time were invisible, and encouraged to be so, they proclaim that each of us, however ordinary we feel, is noticed by God, valued by God, vital to God, called to bear good news.

In the silence tonight, perhaps we could think about how much we feel our lives matter, how much we feel our choices matter, how much we feel our response to God’s call matters. Like Mary and Elizabeth, that call may not look the way we thought it would. It may come later or earlier than we think it ought to. But these women’s stories remind us to be ready for that moment when the life of God leaps within us for joy, ready to recognise the life of God in others too, ready to rejoice in it and share it.


Claudia Williams

Carl Bloch

Jacques Daret

Domenico Ghirlandio

Rogier van der Weyden

Modern Icon of the Visitation 

Corby Eisbacher

Sunday, 8 December 2019

A journey in search of itself: Advent 2

Audio version here

“The people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to John, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptised by John in the River Jordan”

The Judean desert
 Earlier this year, Philip and I went to the traditional site where John the Baptist is thought to have done those baptisms we heard about in the Gospel reading. The river Jordan is a narrow, muddy river, just a dozen or so metres wide, which now forms the border between Israel and the state of Jordan on the other side. You could cross it in a hop, skip and a jump, though you’d be foolish to try, because there are soldiers armed with submachine guns on both banks.
The plains beside the Jordan
The baptismal site, with the State of Jordan on the other bank.

It’s quite a trek to get there from Jerusalem. It’s about 26 miles from the city, steeply down through barren, rocky hills, on the same road that features in the story of the Good Samaritan, the one which starts with a traveller being ambushed and left for dead, and it’s easy to see how bandits could have lurked unseen in this landscape.  Once you’re down in the Jordan valley you have to cross a baking hot plain, and then drive down a road bordered by barbed wire to left and right, and festooned with signs warning you that you are crossing a minefield, the legacy of decades of warfare between Israel and Jordan.  

Of course the mines weren’t there in Jesus’ time, but our visit brought home to me how hard and dangerous this journey must have been back then. And yet Matthew tells us that large crowds went out to see John, ”people of Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region along the Jordan”. It’s not the only time Matthew describes large scale reactions like this. The Magi’s arrival in Jerusalem, looking for a new baby king not only frightens King Herod, but “all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2). When Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, just before his death, Matthew tells us that “the whole city was in turmoil”. The events that surround Jesus’ life aren’t quiet and polite, they are rabble-rousing, disturbing happenings, which no one can miss, whether they approve of them or not.

At this point, though, it is John the Baptist’s preaching which has electrified the area. Everyone wants to go and see him, and they’re prepared to go to great lengths, quite literally, on that long hard journey to do so.

Imagine you were part of that crowd. What might have drawn you there?
There’s an old definition of pilgrimage that says it is “a journey in search of itself” – you only discover why you needed to make it as you make it , through the thing the things that happen along the way, the struggles and the joys, the conversations you have, the times you lose your way and find it again. But something has to propel you out in the first place.  

Some of the crowd might simply have been curious or bored. It’s a long way to go for that, but boredom can be a sign of a deeper restlessness, a search for meaning in our lives, so it might have been enough. Maybe some were looking for guidance,  wanting to know how they should live. Others might have been carrying old burdens of shame or guilt – justified or not – and set off to see John hoping that he, at last could  wash their guilt and shame away where all the others had failed, finally allowing them to feel clean. 

But the implication of this Gospel story is that some of those who came to John really hadn’t thought it through at all.  They knew John was a fiery, challenging preacher, but they seemed to think that whoever John might challenge it wasn’t going to be them. They were the good guys, the religious “in crowd”, the ones who knew what was what, the gate-keepers. They came for baptism, we are told, but they don’t seem to have thought there would be much to wash away.  

That’s the only explanation I can think of for the presence in this crowd of Pharisees and Sadducees. Pharisees were religious experts, people who cared about the law, the word of God, the heritage of faith that had been handed down to them. They had great influence in the synagogues, among the ordinary people. Sadducees were more often associated with the Temple and its rituals, drawing their support from the ruling classes. They often seem to have had that effortless sense of entitlement that ruling classes everywhere have. Both groups probably expected John’s approval. It must have been a shock to them when they didn’t get it.  “You brood of vipers!”  thunders John as they come towards him, demolishing that sense of entitlement it in a few fiery swipes.

“You think you are the guardians of the faith, the true inheritors of God’s blessing, children of Abraham, because you can trace your family lines back to the patriarchs God first made his covenant with? So what?” says John. “God doesn’t care who your father and mother were, how far back you can trace your family line, where you’ve come from. He cares about where you are going, whether you are walking his path of justice and peace, helping to create the world Isaiah spoke of where wolves live with lambs and leopards lie down with kids, whether you are prepared to make the changes in your own lives that will bring that about.”

Genealogy – family history - was very important to ancient people. That’s why we get so many genealogies in the Bible, long lists of people’s ancestors. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, which opens his Gospel, traces Jesus’ own family line right back to Abraham. Jesus is the real deal, he says, to those who think it matters. But he mischievously throws in five women who disrupt that neat lineage along the way. There’s Tamar, who had to trick her father-in-law into fathering a child with her because that was the only way of getting the support she needed. There’s Rahab, a prostitute, who protected the Jewish people when they first entered the Promised Land. There’s Ruth, a widow from the enemy territory of Moab, who came to Israel with her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi. And there is “the wife of Uriah”, Bathsheba. King David committed adultery with her, though as she probably had no choice it would probably be more accurate to call it rape. She eventually bore him the future king Solomon. And, of course, at the end of Matthew’s genealogy there is Mary, who, scandalously, was pregnant before her marriage to Joseph, in circumstances which looked pretty suspicious to those around her.

John the Baptist’s message to the Pharisees and Sadducees reminded me of that subversive list.  God can make a family out of whoever he wants to, says Matthew, incorporating people who might seem very unlikely at first glance. “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘we have Abraham as our ancestor’  for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”  There’s a play on words here which we miss. In Aramaic, the language John and Jesus spoke, children are “banim” and stones are “abhanim”. So much for the lineage you are so proud of! It’s no more godly than a heap of stones, says John to these Pharisees and Sadducees.

Paul’s letter to the Romans makes the same point. It was written against the backdrop of bitter infighting between Christians who had been born Jewish, and Christians who had been born Gentile. The Jewish Christians looked down on the Gentile Christians, and vice versa. Which of them was more important? Which group should have the upper hand, the casting vote in this new community of faith? If you have to ask the question you’ve already got it wrong, says Paul. Instead of fighting about  who is top-dog you should “Welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you”.

The first bit’s fine. It’s the second bit that should pull us up short. “Welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you”.   How did Christ welcome us? What is it about his welcome which Paul is drawing attention to?  Paul is surely reminding us that Christ’s radically inclusive welcome came at a great and terrible cost to himself. Tax-collectors, prostitutes, Roman soldiers, riff-raff of all sorts and varieties, anyone who wanted to be part of his movement was in, just by wanting to be in.  It scandalised the respectable people, the ones who thought they were the gate-keepers of God’s family, and they killed him for it. If we want to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us”  then it will almost certainly mean that we are sometimes scandalised too, taken out of our comfort zones, challenged to open our ears, our eyes and our hearts to people who we wouldn’t normally get along with.  

I was deeply moved this week by the reaction of Jack Merritt’s parents to his murder along with a fellow worker in Fishmonger’s Hall last week, by a man who his organisation had been trying to help. In the midst of their grief at his death, his father said he knew that Jack would “be seething at his death, and his life, being used to perpetuate an agenda of hate that he gave his everything fighting against.”  His work had opened up a door, he said, to a place “where we do not lock up and throw away the key… where we focus on rehabilitation not revenge”  Borrow his intelligence” his father went on, “ share his drive, feel his passion, burn with his anger, and extinguish hatred with his kindness. Never give up his fight.”

I have no idea what, if any, faith the Merritt family have, but these words could have come straight out of John the Baptist’s mouth. They express kingdom values. We often say of a child, “he’s got his mother’s nose, she’s got her father’s eyes”, but these words display the family likeness of God’s people, that determination to love, to hope, to welcome in the face of all that would destroy those things.

The readings we’ve heard today can be uncomfortable, especially to those of us who are old hands at Christian faith, and who all too easily fall into the trap of thinking we know what’s what. Like those who made that pilgrimage to John the Baptist , that “journey in search of itself” these readings ask us what draws us to God’s presence, and what we expect to find when we get there? They challenge us to ask ourselves how we are being formed into the family likeness of God, not just ticking the box marked Christian on the census form but learning to welcome as he did, with costly love that’s open to all.  

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Advent Breathing Space 1: God's message of love to Mary

Nazareth McDonald's, where Jesus used to get his burgers...
Earlier this year, as you may know, Philip and I visited Nazareth, the site of our Gospel story. It’s a busy, crowded town now, and the coach dropped us off at a rather unimposing square beside the main road, opposite Nazareth McDonalds.
The reconstructed (but not functional) well head,
built for the millennium celebrations
In the centre of the square stood a not terribly inspiring reconstruction of an old well head, with three spouts, but no water, under the shelter of a semi-circular modern structure. Behind it was an ancient Greek Orthodox church – there had been a church there from the  4th Century, though it had been rebuilt many times -  which housed the spring that fed the well. To get to the spring you had to squeeze down a narrow passage, to a rather dismal looking damp hole in the ground lit by bright lights powered by a tangle of very dodgy looking electric wiring. It was almost completely empty of water, but that didn’t seem to have deterred the pilgrims who had thrown a large number of coins and prayers written on scraps of paper into it. Like many sites in the Holy Land it was an incongruous mixture of ancient and modern, sacred and mundane.
The original spring, in the Greek
Orthodox Church of the Annunciation

This, we were told, was the main water source in Nazareth at the time Jesus was born. Its significance, though, lay in the story we have heard in the Gospel today. Luke’s story of the annunciation is set in an unnamed location, but the assumption is that Gabriel comes to Mary in her home.  But early legend, in a document called the “Protoevangelion of James” says that the angel made not one but two visits to Mary, and that the first of them was at this well. She’d come to gather water when Gabriel spoke to her, but she was so alarmed by his message that she ran off home. He had to come to her again there, in the story Luke tells us.

Whether it’s true or not, I like that tale. Hearing angelic voices is probably terrifying enough in itself, but if that voice tells you that you are going to bear a child when you know that ought to be impossible, and you also know that it will cause a scandal which might destroy you, it’s quite understandable that you might not want to stick around to hear more. Some news takes a bit of getting used to. Sometimes it’s only when it’s repeated that we find the courage to believe it. It can take even longer for us to realise that challenging news might also be good news. But that’s what happens to Mary. Whether it took one visit or two, she found the courage to say, “Here I am Lord, ready to do your will.” She had the faith to see that whatever was happening, if God was part of it, it was going to turn out to be good news.
Mary's house, allegedly, in the Roman Catholic
Basilica of the Annunciation

In the Psalm we heard today, the psalmist made the same declaration of faith. “Here I am; I delight to do your will, your law is within my heart”  He has learned, it seems, that God is a god of steadfast love and faithfulness. He has learned it by heart, by deciding to trust God’s word again and again and again until it becomes second nature, something he can’t help but pay attention to.  

At our Messy Church session a week or so ago, we made a giant picture frame for people to have their photos taken in – it’s at the back of church. Around its edge it proclaims“Jesus is God’s message of love,” but we’d be forgiven for not immediately seeing that message of love in the circumstances of Jesus' birth and much of what happens to him in adulthood too. He is born as a poor baby, with only a manger for a bed, to parents who have already been driven the length of the country on the whim of the distant Emperor of Rome, and will soon have an even longer journey, fleeing the wrath of another ruler, Herod, and becoming refugees in Egypt. When he is grown he will wander the countryside with nowhere to lay his head, challenged and opposed at every turn by those in authority, until they finally crucify him as a trouble maker.  As Teresa of Avila is supposed once to have said when she and her nuns were enduring hard times, “ if this is how you treat your friends, God, is it any wonder you have so few of them”. And yet through this beleaguered and man, battered and bruised, despised and rejected, all the world will be blessed. “You have given me an open ear” says the Psalmist. Mary could have said the same thing. Her ears are open to God, open in the faith that whatever God is up to, he is a God of love, and so he can’t be up to anything but love in and through what he is asking of her.

In our next two Breathing Space communions we’ll try to open our ears to the good news that Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist hears, and the good news that the Shepherds hear on their cold dark hillside, but I pray most of all that we will have an “open ear” for the good news that God is speaking to us this Advent, the messages of love he sends to us in the birth of the Christ child.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

The Thief in the Night: Advent 1

Audio version here

Isaiah 2.1-5, Romans 13.11-14, Matthew 24.36-44

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and for many people preparations for Christmas are already well underway. Some of you very organised people probably already have all your presents bought and wrapped, and maybe you’ve written letters of your own to Father Christmas, or dropped big hints to loved ones about what you would like to receive yourself. A study reported in the Independent newspaper a couple of years ago estimated that in the UK alone, 1.1 billion presents were bought during Advent  . It’s a frenzy of giving and receiving. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Christmas celebrates the gift of Jesus to us, after all, who was himself greeted with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

But our readings today on this Advent Sunday strike a very different and rather sombre note. There’s not much giving or receiving going on in these passages. In fact it’s quite the opposite. They are full of images of things, and people, being taken away, of thieves in the night.

But before we look at those passages in more detail, we probably need to think a bit about the idea that ties them all these readings  together, the idea of the “Day of the Lord” or the coming of the “Son of Man”.

If you’ve ever lived through tough times, or are living through them now, you’ll know what it feels like to want something to change - it almost doesn’t matter what – something to break the logjam of misery and fear. It’s the waiting – you don’t know how long for – which is the killer.

Most of the Bible comes out of hard times like that. The Old Testament was largely shaped during a time when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon, and then oppressed  by a succession of powerful empires afterwards. The New Testament was written around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, a time of great crisis and persection for Christians and Jews alike.  The people who first heard these words, and the people who wrote them, knew what it was like to endure suffering with no end in sight, to be afraid every day. But they were also people who believed in the love of God, who trusted that pain and fear wouldn’t have the last word.

They looked back to times when God had come to them in the past, freeing them from slavery in Egypt, for example, led by Moses. Inspired by that, they looked for a new Moses, a new leader, a Messiah – the word literally means an anointed one, because anointing was what you did when you made someone a king. Through this Messiah, also called the Son of Man in some places, God would break into history, overthrow opp
ression. That was the “Day of the Lord”. There were lots of different ideas about what it would be like, and who the Messiah would be, but they trusted that the God they worshipped wouldn’t leave them to suffer forever.

The first Christians believed  that Jesus was that Messiah, and that through his life, death and resurrection that great “in-breaking” of God had started to happen.
They looked forward to a time when God would bring this work to completion. That’s what they meant by the “Day of the Lord,” or the “coming of the Son of Man.”

So, back to those passages we heard today, and that observation that I started with that there seemed to be a lot of things being taken away rather than given in them.

There’s the Gospel reading, for example. Matthew describes the Day of the Lord in terms that echo the story of Noah, when people were suddenly swept away by the flood. It will be like that, he says. He describes this day as like the coming of a thief in the night. It’s an uncomfortable image of God – if you’ve ever been burgled you’ll  know how traumatic it feels. It’s not just the material things which are stolen, but your peace of mind, your sense of safety in the world. Of course, as Matthew points out, a householder who is awake will be ready, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the picture of God he paints is of someone who takes away, who doesn’t just give.

And it’s not just Matthew who uses this image. The description of God as a “thief in the night” is used in the first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 5.2) in the second letter of Peter (2 Peter 3.10) and in the Book of Revelation too,(Rev 3.3 & 16.15) books written over many decades, so this was obviously an image that was in common circulation in the early church. Why would that be? Why would the first Christians have thought of God in such an apparently negative way?

Perhaps it’s because they already knew very well that following Jesus  involved challenge and loss as well as gain, threat as well as opportunity. Those who’d crucified Jesus had understood that. Pontius Pilate and the Jewish authorities had known that Jesus represented a threat to the status quo, and to the stability of the nation too. That’s why they killed him. But his friends and followers suffered losses too. Old patterns of life were disrupted. They might lose their security, their status in the world, their families, who sometimes rejected them. Some lost their lives. Following Jesus brought real risks, as it still does for many Christians today. You didn’t choose to do it lightly. For anyone, persecuted or not, though, being a Christian wasn’t – and still isn’t - a shortcut to health, wealth or happiness, and anyone who says it is, is lying. Those who follow the way of Jesus need to do so because they believe it is right, not because of any short-term reward they think it will bring them. Yes of course there is joy and peace and love to be found, but they come as the result of deeper change that can be costly.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul spells out some of the changes that the Romans might need to make if they chose to follow Christ. Rome was the hub of the Empire, its political and economic powerhouse. It was a place where social networking was vital, were built on schmoozing and boozing, like the networks of the powerful and would-be-powerful today. If you wanted to get on, you had to join in, and turn a blind eye to the ethical corners that were being cut. Like so many powerhouse cities today, it was a place of excess for those who could afford it, a dog-eat-dog world for everyone.  But in God’s kingdom that wouldn’t do; “lay aside the works of darkness” says Paul. That old way of life has to go, he says, the “revelling and drunkenness, licentiousness and debauchery, quarrelling and jealousy.”  Conduct yourself with integrity and honour. This isn’t a diatribe against alcohol or against enjoying ourselves; it was the world that excessive behaviour represented, a world of cliques and social climbing, a world where those who couldn’t keep up were elbowed aside.  In the new Christian communities, it wasn’t supposed to be like that, but there would be losses to face in living differently for many in the Roman church.
Christian faith wasn’t – isn’t - a bolt-on, the ultimate gift for the person who has everything. If you are going to “put on” Christ, to be clothed in him, there will be things you need to take off first.

In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah gives us the same message. When God breaks into our lives there will be losses as well as gains, things that must be given up. Swords will be beaten into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks.

Swords and spears were costly in terms of metal and the time of the blacksmith who forged them, and you might never actually need them. Ploughshares and pruning hooks were a far better use of those scarce resources. But if we feel unsafe, if they are afraid of attack, it’s a weapons we reach for.  Giving up those precious weapons so they can be re-forged into ploughshares and pruning hooks takes real trust. It’s a real sacrifice. To do it, we need to give up the suspicion and fear which make us defensive, the tribalism which makes us divide people into us and them, friend and enemy.  If we could live like that, says Isaiah, we wouldn’t need swords and spears. But in reality it is very hard to be the first to disarm. It takes deep change in our hearts, our lives, our communities, our politics, our economic structures before people feel safe enough to lay aside their weapons and learn to live together. We won’t beat the kind of terrorism we saw the other day on London Bridge unless we start deep down though. It’s not just a matter of fighting back with bigger, better weapons than those who attack us.

Of course, the swords and spears we cling to may not be literal ones - I am hoping none of you have come to church armed to the teeth today. Our weapons of choice may be cutting words, but they can do just as much damage, if not more because they are subtle, killing the soul, not just the body. Whatever our swords and spears look like, the question is the same, though. Why do we find it so hard to give them up? What are we afraid of if we take down our defences, stop trying to fight our corner all the time? What is stopping us from re-forging those weapons into tools that bring life and growth instead?

In churches, Advent is a time of stripping away, making space for God to come to us again, day by day. But to make that space we need to let him take away what gets in the way of our relationship with him and one another, those things which we cling to to make us feel safe . Advent  confronts us with the need to disarm, lay down the weapons we cling to, the patterns of life and of thought which need to be changed in us if we are to join in God’s work of changing the world.

If we can let God do that, then we might find that the “thief in the night” we fear so much was actually the friend we needed the most all along.

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Christ The King

Luke 23.33-43 & Colossians 1.11-20
There are rather a lot of stories in the news at present about people seeking power and about people who hold or have held positions of great influence and power. I’m sure that you can easily bring at least one to mind.
Our Gospel reading today is a major challenge to what passes for power in human terms. It’s a difficult subject. People cry out for strong leadership and clear direction in matters of national policy, military conflict, religion and in workplaces but as soon as that leadership doesn’t behave in the way they feel is right they turn against the people leading and accuse them of not listening. In a worldly situation it will never be possible to provide leadership and decision making acceptable to all.
Is it different with God, accepting his rule and being willing subjects in his kingdom? Well, kind of, but it’s still not straightforward, it depends what we believe the kingdom of God looks like.
Is the whole world ready to consider the fact that we are all God’s children, made to live together in community? Unfortunately not, even many who call themselves Christians have different interpretations of what Christ’s kingship is calling them to do sometimes twisting it to suit their argument or excuse their failings.
We may say to others that your God is not my God if he doesn’t believe in pursuing compassionate solutions which put the interest of refugees first, and which recognise our common humanity. Your God is not my God when the ministry of women is devalued and ignored by sections of our own church or when LGBTQ people are ridiculed and made to feel unwelcome.
Churches Together in England say on their website …’ Our vision is to create the space in which fruitful collaboration and mutual understanding can grow…’ yet, quoting verbatim from The Quakers website, ‘Plans to appoint a further President for Churches Together in England (CTE) have faltered because not all denominations in membership of CTE would accept a nominated President, who is a Quaker in a same-sex marriage.
To view this from the outside with criticism is easy, and I admire those who don’t walk away from situations such as this, but stay to try and build understanding, they are certainly worthy of our prayerful support.
At this time of great division and tension in so many spheres I found an example that shows we don’t always have to go back thousands of years to find wise words, it’s a tweet from a social justice campaigner which states, ‘We  can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist’.
Our lectionary labels this Sunday as ‘Christ the King’, the hinge between Ordinary Time and Advent which starts next week. When we think of Jesus’ kingship in the bible we may recall the time the Magi got King Herod worried when they asked ‘where is the child who has been born king of the Jews, or when Jesus was in the wilderness and refused an offer to have all worldly kingdoms if he would worship the devil. Perhaps the easiest image to conjure up is that of Christ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as the crowds laid cloaks and branches in his path ‘Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey…’ 
These earlier events have already taught Jesus’ followers that this is no normal king but someone who has come to show them what real kingship is about. But even to them it must have been a challenge to recognise the pinnacle of Christ’s kingship upon the cross with one commentator claiming it to be as nonsensical as ‘being enthroned on an electric chair.’
Even on the radio now certain stories are preceded by a warning to listeners that ‘the following news story may contain harrowing and upsetting elements’ in order that, if they wish to, they can switch channels for a few minutes until something easier returns. So it really makes us think when we consider that the Kingship of Christ and the love of God was demonstrated to us through a situation of sickening violence and appalling suffering on a wooden cross. As Christians this is something we are called upon to prayerfully consider, not avoid, and in doing so we will better understand God’s love for all.
We heard in Luke’s gospel how one of the criminals being crucified alongside Jesus adds his voice to the abuse, ridicule and mockery aimed at him shouting ‘if you are the King of the Jews, save yourself’ but you sense a mood change which would surely have shocked those looking on as the other criminal calls out ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom’.
This criminal has heard Christ say ‘father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing’. He sees that this is a king who doesn’t blame the ordinary people, the carpenters and the soldiers,  carrying out the orders of the powerful. Even in agony on the cross he can’t stop caring for others.
The criminal recognises in Christ a power that sets people free and a truth that doesn’t need to make compromises, surely this is the sort of kingdom we would all like to make our eternal home.
Those who mocked Jesus might have felt affirmed if he had replied in a way that confirmed their view of all that was happening. Some of his followers might even have expected to hear him reply to the call of ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom’, along the lines of:-
·       Kingdom what kingdom, do I look like a king to you, can’t you see that I’m finished mate?
·       Sorry who said that, I’ll have to have my royal crown adjusted as these thorns are so tight the blood runs through my eyes?
·       Surely you aren’t taking seriously the inscription stating ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’, are you? That’s just Pilate having a laugh, being ironic, antagonising the Jewish leaders as he scoffed at the idea of me challenging the kingship of Caesar.
Instead we know that Jesus took this last earthly opportunity to remind us that God never stops reaching out in love to us, keen to welcome us into his kingdom.
Despite the obvious fact that the criminal on the cross had done much wrong he receives Jesus personal assurance that he will join him in Paradise making it clear that it’s never too late to turn to Christ and that nothing we do can separate us from God’s love.
As he hangs on the cross Christ continues to throw open the gates of his kingdom to exactly the sort of people that worldly power would turn its back upon.
As we begin to understand the type of kingship we see in Jesus it helps us recognise a clear mis-match with much of what we value. We need to think hard about why we are doing things and if they seem right to pursue them with a degree of humility.
There is a great deal of difference between those that accept positions of responsibility and service aware of their weaknesses and reliance upon the support of others and those that seek self-importance and power. The real question is whether leaders want to rule over or to live in community with others.
One of the primary characteristics of our king, Jesus, is a commitment to solidarity with and in our suffering. The criminal who turned to Christ found him immediately willing to offer hope and died knowing that the Son of God suffered with him.
We know that there is a great deal wrong with our world but we also need to be people who can recognise God’s kingdom when we see it in each other. Despite many terrible things happening in and to our world, as Christians we remain people of hope, seeking peaceful resolution of our differences and not giving up in our efforts to collaborate with people of all faiths and none where this benefits others. We get a glimpse of Christ’s kingship each time we see kindness and forgiveness in action that seeks no reward, even more so when it is for those we don’t know, find hard to help or even like.
In doing these things we are not keeping God’s kingdom to ourselves but allowing others to experience it and share in it.
We each play a part in building Gods kingdom every time we refuse to turn our back on people in need, every time we have the courage to stand up against what we know to be wrong and every time we try to put God’s desires above our own. We could think of it as bringing the cross and all it stands for into our world.
It sounds logical but it’s easy to get worn down and distracted from our good intentions, we run into difficulty, disappointment and even danger for some. It’s therefore important that we support and encourage each other remembering that we are not alone in this. We, together, are the body of Christ and we have the potential to breathe new life into all we see around us.
Christ as a baby, Christ resisting temptation and Christ being adored as he rides into Jerusalem all offer palatable aspects of his kingship. Christ on the cross must be as raw a vision of God’s kingship as we can bear yet it is here that the paradise Jesus talks of becomes a reality for each one of us.
Kevin Bright                 
24th November 2019

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Good news for bad times: Second Sunday before Advent

This is the homily from our Breathing Space Communion service this evening.

Our two readings tonight couldn’t be more different. One, a joyful psalm of praise, the other a rather terrifying warning about future. “There are bad times just around the corner,” as Noel Coward sang. What are they doing alongside one another?

The first thing to say is that there really were bad times just around the corner for the people Jesus was talking to. This passage comes just before  his arrest and crucifixion, when the dark clouds were gathering around him. The Roman and the Jewish authorities wanted rid of him because they saw in him a threat to the status quo, to the uneasy equilibrium they lived with. Judea was always a troublesome province to the Romans, with periodic rebellions, people popping up claiming to be the long-awaited Messiah and what was seen as the cussed insistence on believing in one God. The Romans were baffled by this. They didn’t much care who people worshipped, so long as they were also willing to worship the Emperor. They just co-opted the gods of those they conquered into their already huge pantheon without a backward glance, and they couldn’t understand why this was a problem for Judaism.

Jesus knew when he arrived in Jerusalem for that final time that he was walking into the lion’s den. But he also saw that the trouble wouldn’t finish with him. It wasn’t hard to predict that sooner or later the Romans would lose patience with Judea, that the fine Temple, the city itself, would be reduced to ruins, that there would be times of great suffering. That eventually happened in AD 70 when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and exiled its people. Jesus knew too, that his followers would not have an easy road ahead. If the powers that be had hated him, why would they feel any better about his disciples? Luke’s Gospel was actually written in the 80’s AD, just after that great destruction, and the things Jesus had described here had taken place. In the aftermath of that Roman destruction there had been bitter arguments between the many strands that made up Judaism, including those who followed Jesus of Nazareth, which was, essentially, still a Jewish sect. The Christians had been cast out of the synagogues and many had faced persecution and even death because of the message they preached.

Bearing in mind this  gloomy picture, what Jesus goes on to say is quite surprising. I don’t know about you, but if I knew that bad times like these were coming, I would want to be as ready as I could be for them. I was never a Scout, but I do like to be prepared. But Jesus seems to suggest the opposite for his followers. “Make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance,” he says. Why? He goes on to say, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” Depending on themselves and their own cleverness won’t be the answer in these dark times. They won’t have the answers, or the resources, no matter how carefully they prepare. What will carry them through – in life or in death – will be the knowledge that they are loved and upheld by God.

And that’s where our Psalm comes in. “Sing to the Lord a new song” it says, a song about God’s greatness, God’s love, God’s faithfulness.  Sing it “with the harp and the voice of song, with trumpets and the sound of the horn”  And if you can’t remember the words or the tune, listen to the world around you. Let the sea make a noise, let the rivers clap their hands, let the hills ring out with joy. I love that. Rivers don’t actually have hands, so how can they clap them? What does it mean for a river to praise God? Surely it is just by being what God had created it to be. Rivers praise God by flowing, by being "rivery". Hills praise God by being "hilly". They’re not trying to be clever, to be better rivers than the next river, or more hilly than the next hill. They just are what they are, and that’s enough.

In the same way, it seems to me, we are called to rest in our own identity as children of God, beloved of God, God’s creation and delight, especially in times of trouble. We don’t have to figure life out or rescue ourselves. That’s God’s job. And, living or dying in him, we are safe. We can’t fall out of his hands, whatever happens.

Jesus trusts that when he died on the cross - the pain was real, the fear was real, his death was real, but the loving faithfulness of his Father was real too, and its reality trumped all those other realities.  That’s why Jesus tells his followers not to try to come up with some clever defence when they are dragged into court, why he assures us that, though there really may be “bad times just around the corner” – none of us knows what tomorrow may bring -  God is around the corner too, and that is what matters.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Living hopefully: Remembrance Sunday

Audio Version here

Isaiah 43. 15-21, Romans 8.18-25

If I were to ask you how hopeful you feel about our world, our nation, life in general at the moment, on a scale of 1 to 10, I wonder what score you would give? Minus numbers are permitted! 

There might be some optimists here who believe that everything is just fine but my guess is that many of us are disturbed by the political instability and uncertainty we see around us. Debate between political parties and individuals is increasingly polarised and vicious. Truth seems to be an optional extra. Trust is thin on the ground.  Even experienced commentators, who’ve seen governments come and go for decades, haven’t got a clue what is going to happen next.

And it’s not just domestic politics that worries us. The climate crisis is already having an impact on communities around the world, especially those already prone to flooding, drought, hurricanes or wildfires. People are losing their homes, their livelihoods, and even their lives, and its effects aren’t limited to the places directly affected. Climate change is causing mass migration, both because land can’t support the people who live on it anymore, but also because conflict is erupting over access to water and other natural resources, driving the refugee crisis that is touching us all. That’s why climate is relevant on this Remembrance Day, because it’s becoming a cause of war.

War doesn’t come out of nowhere. It starts with small arguments, petty disputes and resentments often rooted in greed and fear. It is fuelled by lazy stereotyping which demonises others, carelessly hurtful language, a lack of respect for the humanity of those we disagree with, which leads us to feel that we can ridicule and speak ill of them without it really mattering. These impulses lurk in all our hearts all the time– they are part of being human – but when they start to become an accepted part of our public discourse, as they seem to be doing now, we are on dangerous ground. 

But what can we do that will make any difference? 

One hundred and sixty years ago, on 24th June 1859 to be precise, a Swiss businessman called Henri Dunant arrived in the town of Solferino in Northern Italy. He’d come for a business meeting with Napoleon III, the Emperor of France at the time.  But France was at war with the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Solferino had just, rather unexpectedly, become the front line. The day before Dunant arrived a huge and bloody battle had taken place there. Twenty three thousand men, from both sides, lay on the battlefield, injured, dying or dead. No one was doing anything for them. That was how warfare was at the time. If you were injured you just had to take your chances. Armies provided very few resources to care for their own wounded, and no one felt they had any responsibility at all to care for their enemies.

Dunant was horrified at the scale of the suffering he saw. But instead of turning tail and running away, he decided to do something about it. He went to the nearby towns and villages and mobilized the women who lived there. He organised medical supplies, food and water for the injured of both sides. The women who responded to his appeal, inspired by his vision, called those whom they nursed “tutti fratelli” – all brothers. It didn’t matter to them which side they’d fought on. If they needed help, they got it. We might take this for granted now, but at the time it was revolutionary, something completely new

That traumatic, life-changing experience inspired Dunant to found what is now the International Red Cross. The Geneva Convention was born from it too, setting protocols for the way nations should behave in war, protecting those who are injured or taken prisoner. Indirectly it was the foundation of the whole idea of international standards of justice, but it all started with one man who decided to do something new, something loving, in the face of evil. 

Dunant was one among a long line of people who’ve chose hope over despair in times of war, who have refused to settle for “business as usual”  - the endless cycle of retribution – and who’ve changed the world for the better as a result. 

Around the same time as Solferino, Florence Nightingale was revolutionising the care of the wounded in the Crimean war, and, in the process, transforming the whole idea of nursing from a haphazard business which no self-respecting woman would want to be part of, into the respected and skilled profession it has become. A century later, the peoples of Coventry and Dresden, both bombed almost to obliteration, chose a path of reconciliation after World War 2, and still work together for peace. Our own welfare state and NHS grew out of the darkness of war, when rich and poor were thrown together and saw each other’s lives more clearly.  At the darkest moment of the war, when there was no guarantee that Britain wouldn’t end up under Nazi rule, William Beveridge chose to believe in a better future in which what he described as the   “giants” of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness, were defeated.  The system he created may not be perfect. It may be creaking at the seams. It may need reform. But it is a whole lot better than what went before it, which was nothing for many people. In more recent times, Nelson Mandela chose to forgive those who had imprisoned him, an almost unimaginable act of generosity and courage. He  paved the way for a new beginning for the people of South Africa. None of these people had a magic wand to wave over the suffering of the world. None of them was perfect. But when everything around them spoke of despair, they chose to open their eyes, and the eyes of those around them to a future that could be different, to do something new.

In a few minutes the choir are going to sing a setting of some words from the book of Isaiah. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace.” Those who act hopefully in the face of hopelessness are messengers like that, people who announce good news to us all, the news that the future doesn’t have to be the same as the past, that there can be another way to live, that love is stronger than hatred. .

Our Bible readings today gave us the same message. The cubs read us another passage from Isaiah’s prophecy. Like most of the Bible , it was written in times of trouble. Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians. Its people were in exile in Babylon. It looked as if it was all over for them, that they would never go home. But Isaiah tells them that God is “about to do a new thing.”  “Do not remember the former things” he says. Don’t get caught up in revenge, locked into old patterns of hatred and fear. This is the God who can make a new way, a way in the wilderness, a path through the sea – roads where we would never imagine there could be roads.

In the New Testament, St Paul talks about a new creation coming to birth. Giving birth can be hard work, and painful too, but at the end of it, if all goes well, there is new life, a new beginning, a new future.  Paul, and those he wrote to, had every reason to despair. They followed a man, Jesus of Nazareth, who’d been crucified by the Romans as a troublemaker, but who they said had risen from death.  They were committed to living a way of equality, love and respect for each other, breaking down the social order which separated slave from free, Jew from non-Jew, male from female. None of this was likely to endear them to those in power – the same people who had crucified Jesus. Many were killed for their faith, including Paul himself.  This new Christian movement had no money, no buildings, no armies, no influence, no seat at the tables of power. It ought  to have been doomed before it started, and yet here we are still telling the story of Jesus two thousand years later, still inspired by his life, death and resurrection, still finding in it wellsprings of hope for our own lives and for the world.

Hope might sometimes feel fragile and hard to find, but in reality it’s remarkably difficult to kill off entirely. It’s a bit like bindweed or ground elder, weeds which you can dig up, poison, burn year after year, but which grow back, and even multiply, from the tiniest root! Speaking as a gardener I don’t much like bindweed or ground elder, but you have to admire their stubborn tenacity, and I think hope is a bit like that. Just when you think it is all wiped out, there it is rising again in the lives of those who keep on keeping on, the often unsung heroes who build community, care for their neighbours, staff foodbanks, man helplines, care for those wounded by war, work for reconciliation, protect the environment, steer troubled teenagers away from crime. It’s there in everyone who “publishes peace” and “announces good new” as the song we’re going to sing puts it, reminding us that there are other options than war and hatred.

So, to go back to the question I started with, on a scale of 1 to 10, how hopeful are we this morning? The answer, it seems to me, is in our own hands. The hope that God calls us to roots itself in our hearts and lives, when we choose to act hopefully, to listen respectfully, to speak of others in the way  we’d like them to speak of us. It grows in us as we learn to look for God’s new creation in every situation, however bleak, and treat everyone we meet as a child of God, beloved and precious to him, just as we are.  If we can do that, then hope will never die.