Sunday, 9 February 2020

Knowing Christ, and him crucified: 3rd Sunday before Lent

Audio version here

1 Cor 2.1-16, Matthew 5.13-20

“When I came to you, brothers and sisters,” says Paul to the Corinthian Christians, “ I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” 1 Cor 2.2

The church in Corinth was just a small group of people who were trying to follow the way of Jesus, meeting together in one another’s homes, breaking bread together, trying to puzzle out how they should live out the message of God’s love . Paul had brought them that message, staying for eighteen months in Corinth, living with a couple called Priscilla and Aquila, who were tent-makers like him. But then he’d moved on to other places where they needed to hear about God’s love.

And in his wake, another travelling preacher had turned up. And that was where the problems had started. We hear a bit about this new kid on the block in the Acts of the Apostles (18.24). His name was Apollos, and Acts tells us that he was “an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures” and that he was “a native of Alexandria”, That last bit might not mean much to us, but it would have said a lot to the people of his time.

Alexandria, an Egyptian city, was one of the great centres of learning in the ancient world. It housed one of the most magnificent libraries of its time, and it was stuffed to the gills with very clever people, philosophers from every nation and culture talking about the things that philosophers talk about - life, the universe and everything - debating fiercely, determined to win their intellectual arguments.

Apollos had grown up in the ancient equivalent of Eton and Oxbridge. It’s still the case that that sort of privileged background can give people a sense of self-confidence and destiny which makes them charismatic and attractive leaders. They believe in themselves, so others believe in them too – which is great if they do know what they’re talking about, but very dangerous when they don’t.

The Book of Acts suggest that Apollos was one of those “golden boys”, a natural leader who assumed everyone would hang on his every word, but who found out the hard way that he wasn’t as right as he thought he was. In fact, the tent-makers, Priscilla and Aquila have to set him straight on some fairly basic bits of the Christian story.  Apollos almost certainly meant well, but if it never occurs to you that you might be wrong, if you’ve never had to cope with failure, if you’ve never come to terms with your own fallibility, then you can be very dangerous indeed. 

Paul wrote this letter to the church in Corinth because he had heard that bitter divisions had arisen. In chapter 1Paul tackles the problem head-on.  “It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul, or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas, “ – [that’s Peter, the head of the church in Jerusalem] or “ I belong to Christ”. ‘How can this be, asks Paul? “ Has Christ been divided? “ Later on he tells them. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth, so neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth”.

That’s the background to the words we heard today, and it’s important to hear them with that context in our minds.  “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. [Like that clever Alexandrian Apollos, we are meant to understand] .I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

Paul was was a clever man too; he could do “lofty words and wisdom” as well as Apollos if he wanted to. He’d been brought up in Tarsus in what is now Southern Turkey,  another city with a tradition of learning. He’d been “well-schooled in the scriptures” like Apollos. He’d been a Pharisee who studied the Hebrew Bible with care. But the confidence he’d once had in his own cleverness had been thoroughly knocked out of him one day as he travelled along the road to Damascus, on a mission to persecute the followers of Jesus. He’d been convinced that they were dangerous heretics. They insisted that Jesus was the Messiah,but how could that be? If Jesus was the Messiah, why had God let him be executed, and on a cross too, a death deliberately designed to shame the one who suffered it? Surely God wouldn’t have allowed this to happen to his chosen one. Paul – then known by his Hebrew name of Saul - had campaigned viciously against Jesus’ followers. His determination to root them out had cost many Christians their freedom, maybe even their lives.

But as he travelled towards Damascus, he was thrown to the ground by a bright light, and face down in the dust, he heard the voice of Jesus, apparently speaking to him from the right hand of God, enthroned in heaven. Everything Paul thought he knew crumbled to pieces. All that certainty was gone in a moment!  And now what? Blinded by the light, Paul was led into Damascus, and he sat there, with no idea what to do next. He couldn’t go back to his old life, as the chief persecutor of Jesus’ followers, but surely they wouldn’t want to welcome him as one of them, would they? That  was far too much to ask. But, amazingly, miraculously, the Christian community did accept him. Ananias,  surely one of the bravest men in Scripture, was told by God to go and pray for him, and Ananias went – to this man who he ought to have run a mile from.

And Paul soon found himself surrounded by the love of the Christian community in Damascus, healed by their love, turned around by their love. It’s no wonder that he talks about love so often, and so movingly, in his letters. Love that is patient and kind, that keeps no score of wrongs, that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things. Those familiar words from 1 Corinthians 13 aren’t about romance, however often they are read at weddings. They’re about the people who dug deep into themselves to forgive this man who’d  had  people like them – maybe even their own friends and families - arrested, persecuted and even killed perhaps.

Paul was a clever man, like Apollos. He knew his way around the Hebrew Bible, and Greek philosophy, like Apollos. But he also knew that the most important lesson he had ever learned had been the one which came to him when he was flat on his face in the dust on the Damascus road. For us too, it’s often only when we have been thrown down from our high horses, when we’ve  lost everything, when we’re broken and spent, that we find what we most need to know, that God loves us when we feel that there is nothing loveable about us, when we are disgraced, ruined, bereft, just like that unlikely Messiah, who hung on a cross, seeming like a complete failure to those who saw him, a man whose mission had come to nothing. When Paul talks about knowing “only Jesus Christ, and him crucified”, he is proclaiming that the Messiah we need isn’t one who can win every argument hands-down and blast his opponents to smithereens, like an Alexandrian philosopher. It is one who has faced the humiliation, the failure, the many different forms of death which come to us as we go through life. That kind of Messiah liberates us to be who we are, not who we think we ought to be, to stop pretending and hiding, because we realise that it is the people we are that God loves.

And that brings me to the Gospel reading.  It is easy to read this passage as being about evangelism, as an exhortation to get out there in the world and be salt and light to others, brightening up their lives, bringing flavour to them. But that can just make us feel guilty and pressured. Are we salty enough? Are we shiny enough?

And I’m not sure that this is really what Jesus is saying at all. He doesn’t say “you ought to be the salt of the earth”.  He says “you are the salt of the earth”. He doesn’t say “you should be the light of the world”. He says, “you are the light of the world.”. Salt can’t help but be salty;  if it isn’t salty, it isn’t salt. Light can’t help but shine – if you don’t want it to illuminate things, the only thing you can do is put a bucket over it, which, as Jesus points out, is just daft. I don’t think Jesus is really talking about  evangelism here at all. I think he is talking about authenticity, trusting that God will be at work in us if we are being the people he has made us to be, whether we are succeeding or failing, in good times or in bad.

This passage follows straight on from what we call the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…  Blessed are a whole lot of other people, says Jesus,  who are going through hard times and whose lives are falling apart, as Paul’s did. Why? Because these are the times when we usually discover most deeply the love of Christ, the comfort of Christ, the presence of Christ, “and him crucified” ; Christ who is with us when everything else we trusted in has been taken away, Christ who calls us simply to be who we are, and know that, as we are, we are blessings to the world, because we are made in the image of God, who is the source of all blessings.

Sunday, 2 February 2020

Coming to the Temple: Candlemas

Audio version here

This past week has been an eventful one. It began with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. There was moving testimony from those who lived through that terrible time. Never again, they said.  But of course, it hasn’t been as simple as that. Genocides continue to happen. Conflict continues to erupt. And those who hoped that the founding of the state of Israel would at least give a secure and peaceful home to those who had suffered so much have discovered that it is all far more complicated than they had thought, as it was bound to be, in hindsight.

In our own nation too, some have rejoiced while others have mourned as Brexit day dawned. We don’t know what the future holds, but the one thing we can be sure of is that it won’t be simple, and that Brexit is far from “done”. We are just at the beginning of a process which will take years to complete.

Human beings don’t like complexity. We all long for simple solutions, for “happy ever after endings”.  The people Malachi was prophesying to in our Old Testament reading were no different. His words probably date from some time in the century after the Israelites had returned from exile in Babylon. They’d been there seventy years, so when Cyrus, the king of Persia, overthrew the Babylonians and sent them home, they were elated.  

Their prophets, Isaiah and Ezekiel, had told them God hadn’t forgotten them.  Ezekiel had had a vision of the new Jerusalem, and the new Temple that would replace the one the Babylonians had destroyed.  He saw the God coming back to dwell in it.  “The Glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east;” he said, “the sound was like the sound of mighty waters and the earth shone with his glory… As the glory of the Lord entered the temple…the spirit lifted me up, and brought me into the inner court; and the glory of the Lord filled the Temple.” (Ezekiel 43.1-5).

But the hopes they’d had as they set out for home soon evaporated. The Temple they rebuilt was a shadow of the one they’d lost.  Many of the treasures that had filled it had disappeared or been destroyed by the Babylonians,  including the Ark of the Covenant, the box with the Ten Commandments in it, which had symbolised the presence of God in their midst. The splendour that Ezekiel had envisaged never really became a reality. The glory days never arrived. They were still ruled over by other nations. Where was the fulfilment of the prophecies of Ezekiel and Isaiah? “Is this it?” they are saying. “Is this as good as it gets? Why doesn’t God pull his finger out and make us great again?”

It was against this backdrop that the idea of a Messiah really started to develop, a leader who’d finish the work that the return from exile had started. That’s what Malachi promises them. “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” he says. But there’s a caveat, a warning, for them. This won’t be like some superhero swooping in from the sky to magically make everything right from the outside. The change they look for will start within them, and it will be painful and costly. Malachi compares it to refining silver and gold, something that involves crushing rock and heating it until the metal runs out. He compares it to fulling cloth, a process in which the cloth is basically trampled on, beaten up, to make it smooth and firm.  There won’t be any short cuts or opt outs. When God gets to work, don’t expect an easy ride, he says.

If they want God’s glory to be revealed in their midst, it will involve changing the way they treat each other – living lives that are faithful and honest, not oppressing the hired workers so they can get a cheap deal. It will mean caring for the vulnerable , the widows and orphans, welcoming the strangers in their midst. Living justly isn’t easy – it can be costly and threatening – that’s why we so seldom achieve it. But  we can’t expect to shine with God’s glory if we won’t let him clear away the muck that obscures it in us.

But that’s not an easy thing to accept. We don’t want hard work or pain. We want a superhero who will wave a magic wand over our troubles to make them go away.  

Perhaps that’s why, in our Gospel reading, only two people in the Temple spot the moment when God actually does show up in their midst, when the Lord does indeed “come to his Temple”,  because anything less like a superhero is hard to imagine. He is just a tiny, vulnerable baby.

When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple to make a sacrifice for him, they were just doing what every new family did. It was laid down in the law. No doubt there were many other people there doing the same. The Temple would have busy, crowded , noisy. But in the midst of all of this hubbub, Simeon and Anna were praying and watching, as they had done for years, asking the same old questions. “Come on God. Where are you? When will you act?”

We don’t know what makes them notice this one little family among so many – there is nothing to distinguish them. Maybe it is just that, after so many years of prayer, they are tuned in to the voice of God’s Spirit. But somehow they know that this is the moment, that the Lord has “suddenly come to his Temple”, and it’s not at the head of an army, not in clouds of glory from the sky. This Lord has no power; he can’t even talk. He seems to have nothing to offer. He’s utterly dependent. But that means he’s also utterly open to those around him. Babies can’t judge or discriminate. They have no preconceptions. They take things, and people, as they are. They have to.

If we are looking for God, this story tells us, this is where we are most likely to find him, not amongst the powerful, but in those who who are needy and vulnerable, not in times when everything is going well, but in the times when we know it isn’t, not in tidy, simple solutions – which usually turn out not to be solutions at all – but in mess and muddle and compromise.

It goes against the grain, of course. As I said earlier, we don’t like complexity. So Donald Trump and Benjamin  Netanyahu declare a peace plan for the Middle East, without actually involving the Palestinians in the discussions – it’s easier that way. And both sides in the Brexit debate convince themselves that if only those other people would think like them it would all be fine. We shut our eyes to the mess, and try to pretend that it isn’t there.  

But if we shut our eyes to the mess, to the powerlessness, to the complexity of life, we shut our eyes to God, . We miss him in the crying baby, in the person whose life is falling apart, in the situations we have given up for lost and walked away from. We miss him in the places where we need him most. Ultimately, this child in the Temple will end up nailed to a cross-  “a sword will pierce your own soul,” says Simeon to Mary. But that very act will show us that even there, in the messiest, most helpless place possible, God is present. 

As the letter to the Hebrews said, God, in Christ, became “like his brothers and sisters in every respect”  because that was the only way he could help us. He doesn’t  offer a quick fix, or a happy-ever-after magic wand to wave over our troubles; even if he did, that wouldn’t really help us, because it’s not what we need. We need a saviour who is where we are, who starts small, as small as a baby, if we’re truly to be transformed.

I read a book recently by the late Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen, and I’d like to finish by telling you a story from it. In the mid 1980s, Nouwen gave up his respected academic job at a university to live as part of a community with adults with learning disabilities .  He was still in demand to give talks around the world, but the community made a decision that whenever he travelled, he should be accompanied by one of the learning disabled adults, so they could do the work together. That meant that, on one trip to an academic conference in New York, Bill came along too. Bill had a whale of a time in the swanky hotel where the conference was taking place, and as Nouwen climbed up onto the platform to give his lecture, Bill got up and joined him, pitching in now and then with comments of his own – after all, they were supposed to be doing this together, he said.  Later Bill did the rounds at the reception, chatting to people enthusiastically, and in the morning at breakfast, he made sure he’d said a proper goodbye to all the new friends he’d made, the learned scholars who had come to the conference. “We did it together” said Bill to Nouwen as they left. As Nouwen reflected on what had happened, he wrote this: 
In the past, I had always given lectures, sermons, addresses, and speeches by myself. Often I had wondered how much of what I had said would be remembered. Now it dawned on me that most likely much of what I said would not be long remembered, but that Bill and I doing it together would not easily be forgotten. I hoped and prayed that Jesus, who had sent us out together and had been with us all during the journey, would have become really present to those who had gathered in the Clarendon Hotel in Crystal City.

Malachi looked for a time when “the Lord would suddenly come to his Temple,”  when God would show up and get to work. Simeon and Anna recognised that happening in the shape of a tiny, helpless baby. Nouwen recognised it happening  the openness and trust Bill showed to those around him, which transformed an academic discussion into a place where true friendships were made.  I wonder where we might recognise it in our lives this week, if we can find the courage to  open our eyes to it?

Nouwen, Henri J. M.. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership . The Crossroad Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Seeing the light and being the light: Epiphany 3

It was a great joy to baptise Charlie in this morning's service! Here's the sermon I preached for it.

It’s January 26th. 2020 is well underway. New Year’s resolutions have probably been made and forgotten by now. Veganuary is nearly over. The end of dry January is in sight, if you’ve been observing it. But here in the church, it still seems to be Christmas. If you’re visiting us, you may have noticed that  the crib is still up under the Lady Chapel Altar, and wondered why. Are we just too lazy or disorganised to have taken it down?  But actually we haven’t gone daft, because as far as the Church’s calendar is concerned, it is still Christmas.

It didn’t start until Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve; we don’t begin to celebrate Christ’s birth until he’s born, which makes sense when you think of it. But then we carry on celebrating it, through the twelve days until Epiphany Sunday on Jan 6, and on through Epiphanytide – a sort of sub-section of the Christmas season, until the Feast of Candlemas on February 2, next Sunday, when we end the season with the story of the baby Jesus, at six weeks old, being taken by Mary and Joseph to the Temple in Jerusalem, where Simeon and Anna, two elderly people who are looking for God’s promised Messiah, acclaim this ordinary baby as the one God has chosen, “The light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of his people Israel” as Simeon puts it.

Light is the dominating theme of this season. The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek and  literally means “shining forth”. The stories we tell at this time of year are full of that light. There’s the light of the angels who announce Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, dazzling them with a vision of glory. There’s the light of the star which leads the Magi to find him. But all the stories that feature in our Bible readings at this time of year have something to do with light, with sight, with revelation. In many different ways, people who walk in “deep darkness see a great light”, as our readings today said. They understand the world, themselves, Jesus, God in a new way, in a new light, as we might say.

In modern parlance, it’s the “lightbulb” moment, the moment when we have a new idea, a moment of inspiration. But people were having lightbulb moments long before there were any actual lightbulbs.

In the Bible reading we’ve just heard there’s one of those lightbulb moments.  Jesus is in the fishing village of Capernaum, walking along the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. He’d moved there when the people of his home town of Nazareth had rejected him. It was a busy place, with a thriving fishing industry. There are numerous beaches along the shore where boats could be launched onto the waters of the fish-filled inland sea. And fishing was a lucrative business, especially with all the Roman soldiers around - Galilee was a base for the Roman occupation of the area. The Romans loved fish. They ate a lot of it. They were particularly fond of a concoction called garum which was made from fish guts fermented in brine – I’m probably not really selling that to you – but they thought it was great, and they put it on anything they could, including porridge. It was the ketchup of its day. They were convinced most things were improved by a slug of it.  

Anyway, the point is that fishing was an important and fairly secure occupation. And in this story we meet four young men – two pairs of brothers - who are obviously doing well from it. Simon and Andrew are standing in the lake, casting nets into its shallow waters.  I stood in that same lake last year, and the shallows were still full of fish, nibbling your feet if you let them. James and John, were in their father’s boat, mending the nets – the perennial task of fishermen.  It’s a picture of ordinary people doing what ordinary people did – and still do – minding their own businesses, getting on with the job of providing for their families, not expecting anything out of the ordinary to happen.

But then Jesus comes walking along the shore towards them. He stops by Simon and Andrew and simply says “Follow me” And “immediately” says Matthew, they left their nets – the precious and  valuable tools of their trade – and followed him. He gets the same reaction when he calls James and John. They are out of that boat like a shot – their father’s thoughts aren’t recorded! – and off after Jesus.

It’s a baffling story in some ways, because the Gospel writer doesn’t tell us what they are thinking, what it is that induces them in that one moment to leave behind their settled lives and follow Jesus. But perhaps that’s the point. We are left to wonder, to think about what would make us do such a thing. All we know is that something changes in their lives at this point. Suddenly their priorities are transformed. They see a whole set of different possibilities, and they want to find out more.

I guess we’ve all had moments like that, moments when we know we need to seize an opportunity or it will be gone, moments when we see something, or someone, anew, and know we have to do something about it. It may be the moment when we realise we’ve fallen in love, and need to say so, or when we see that job advert and know we have to apply for it. It may be the moment when we know we need to blow the whistle on something unjust, or take some action to oppose it. Tomorrow is Holocaust memorial Day, the day when we remember those who were murdered by the Nazi regime, those millions of Jews, Gypsies, LGBT people, and political dissidents who were swallowed up by the machinery of evil in the concentration camps. But it is also a day to remember those who survived, often because of the split-second courageous decisions of others to shelter them or enable them to escape, despite knowing that it might cost them their own lives if they were discovered.

Each of us has moments when we glimpse a light that reveals a new way, new hope, new life. The light may have been there all along, but it’s only at that moment that our eyes are opened to it, that our attention is caught by it. In the language of the church, it’s an Epiphany moment.  

What is it that captivates those first disciples on the Capernaum seashore? We can’t be sure, but it’s likely that they’d already heard something about this new preacher who’d come to town. He’d been preaching about a new kingdom, a new way of living, where all were equal, equally loved, equally valued.  There were no insiders and outsiders; everyone was in. Women and children, poor and rich, Jew or non-Jew, saint or sinner; it didn’t matter. The lowest and least person was as worthy of notice, of time, of listening to, as those who thought of themselves at the top of the pile. It was the message that got him crucified in the end, because it was a radical challenge to the rigid hierarchies of his day, as it still is today, a radically different view of how the future could be. Somehow, in this lightbulb moment, these fishermen get a glimpse of a different world – light shines in the darkness, and they know they want in.

And maybe the call is so compelling because it isn’t just a call to see the light, but also to be the light.  

Jesus doesn’t just call Simon and Andrew to follow him, to look and learn, he tells them that they will be “fishers of people”. We need to be a bit careful with this image because the problem with it is that the fate of a fish caught by a fisherman is to be battered and deep fried and served with a side order of chips and mushy peas. That’s not what Jesus means Simon and Andrew to do– you should never push an image too far! What I think he’s actually saying is that he wants them to use the skills they have built up as fishermen - patience, courage ,persistence -  to notice the people around them, to care for them and love them, to gather them together into a new community where they can learn to live as Jesus teaches them to. Jesus calls them to make a difference, to be the light for others that they have seen in him.

And that brings me to little Charlie here. Epiphanytide, this light-filled season, is a great time to be baptised, because light is central to baptism too. In a few minutes we’ll light our big candle here, the Paschal or Easter Candle. We have a new one every Easter to remind us of the story of Jesus dying and rising to new life, light that the darkness of death couldn’t put out. It’s in that light, which tells us of God’s never ending love, that we make our promises to love and care for Charlie. And then, at the end of the service, we’ll light a small candle from that big one, for you to take home, to remind you that the same light of God’s love shines in Charlie. Don’t just put it away in a safe place, a reminder of this day. Light it as often as you want, to pray for Charlie, and with Charlie, so that it can remind him that, like all of us,  he is  called not just to see the light, and to live by it, but to be the light for others, shining with the love of God for a world that still so desperately needs it.


Monday, 20 January 2020

The God who names us: Epiphany 2 Breathing Space

Names matter. We choose them with care. If we are parents we know that we take risks when we name our children – we might get it right or wrong. They may hate what we call them. We just can’t be sure what they will grow up to be and do, and what name will suit them in the end – a serious, plain name, or something exotic or frivolous.  

For God, says Isaiah, it is different. “While I was in my mother’s womb [God] named me” he says. Like a lot of Isaiah’s prophecy, there are all sorts of ways of interpreting this passage. Isaiah might be speaking about himself, or it might be the unnamed figure of the Servant, who might even be the people of Israel themselves, that this refers to. In a way, it doesn’t matter, though. The point is the same. Each of us comes into the world as unique, with gifts and a calling which only we can fulfil. We don’t know what it is. No one knows what it is, except the God who made us. Whatever our parents call us, it is that name that really matters, the name that expresses our truest and deepest selves.

In today’s Gospel reading, names are also significant. It’s a wonderfully told story, not just because of what is in it, but also because of what is left out. Two as yet unnamed disciples of John the Baptist are pointed towards Jesus – “follow him”, says John, “not me”. So they do, quite literally, tagging along behind him through the streets, until Jesus, knowing they are there, turns to speak to them. “What are you looking for?” he asks, and perhaps caught  off guard by his question, they seem to say the first thing that comes into their heads, which isn’t really at all relevant. “Where are you staying?” What difference does it make? “Come and see”, says Jesus. And they do, going to Jesus’ home, and then…then what? We aren’t told where the house is, what happens, what they talk about, what they do at all – that’s what This morning I asked people to  imagine that house where Jesus took them, and what happened in it, and we came up with a very wide variety of stories of how and where the day unfolded. Whatever happened though, the end result was that those disciples were convinced that this man, this Jesus, was the Messiah.

It’s one of a number of names and titles he is given in this passage – we counted either 7 or 9, this morning, depending whether you count the translations. He is the “Lamb of God”, “the one who ranks ahead of me,” “the one who was before me”. He is “the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit”. He is the “Son of God”. He is called “Rabbi “ translated as Teacher. He is the “Messiah”, translated as Anointed. And of course, he is also Jesus, a name with its own significance, because it means “God Saves”. In Hebrew it’s the same name as the Old Testament leader Joshua, who led Israel into the Promised Land.

We thought a bit about what name, what description we would use for Jesus – friend, confidante, leader, guide, saviour, mighty counsellor, healer, welcomer… For those two disciples it was the name “Messiah” which was the most significant, the anointed one, the chosen one, the one they had been waiting for. But the fact is that, just like those disciples it’s only when we spend time with Jesus, living as he told us to, meeting him in bread and wine, in the words of the Gospels, in one another, that we really start to discover who he is to us, that he becomes not some figure from a distant, shadowy past, but someone who has the power to change our lives.

That’s the effect he had on those two disciples. Jesus stepped out of the crowd, and into their lives, to transform them forever. And now we discover, after all that has happened, that one of those who went to Jesus’ home was Andrew, the fisherman, who promptly went to fetch his brother Simon, full of excitement.

And that’s where we find that it’s not just Jesus’ name which matters in this story, because Jesus takes one look at Simon and tells him “You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas, Peter – the Rock”, He will be the one on whom Jesus eventually comes to build his new community. He looks into Simon’s heart and he sees in him things which Simon hadn’t seen in himself, new possibilities, new hope.

Names matter. The names we call Jesus, the perception we have of him matter. They tell us what we see in him, what we hope for in him, what we are looking for in him.
But as we look at Jesus and ask to see him more clearly, he is also looking at us, hoping that we will see our own reflection in his eyes, and that by doing that, we will discover what our true name is, what our unique gifts are, what we are called to be and to do.

In our silence tonight, you might like to imagine yourself in that house, and imagine what it would be like to look at Jesus, and have him look at you, and ask him what his name for you might be.


Sunday, 12 January 2020

This Time Tomorrow: Baptism of Christ & Plough Sunday

Audio Version Here

Isaiah 42.1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10.34-43, Matthew3.13-17

Today is the feast of the Baptism of Christ, but it’s also known as Plough Sunday, because according to very ancient tradition, going right back into the Middle Ages, tomorrow is Plough Monday. Plough Monday is the first Monday after Epiphany, January 6, and it was the start of the agricultural year, the moment when ploughing started to prepare the ground for the coming year’s crops. At a time when people were much more aware of their dependence on the soil, it was a very important moment. Agricultural labourers would be touting for work, desperate for an income in the dark months of winter. Farmers would be hoping for good weather to get the preparation for seed-sowing done.

So prayers would be said in church on this Sunday for the coming agricultural year. Some churches even kept a parish plough in the back of the church for those who didn’t have their own to use, and candles would be lit in front of it.

And on Plough Monday itself, ploughs would be dragged around the village, accompanied by singing and dancing. The villagers might dress up, disguising themselves, and appeal not only for work, but for money to help tide them over through bad weather when ploughing couldn’t be done.

My guess is that most of us won’t be trying to do any ploughing tomorrow, but this time of year is definitely a “back to work” time for many, or a time of getting back to a more normal routine if you aren’t out at work. How you feel about that depends on what your work or your “normal” day to day life feels like. If you have a job, and it’s a job you enjoy, work is a blessing, but work can also be tough and challenging, precarious and insecure, consuming every waking moment, or not paying well enough to live on. The worst of the winter weather is often still ahead of us, and there are no Christmas lights to brighten the dark nights that still lie ahead. This is it.

That’s why it seems a good idea to me to mark this day, even if most of us have never laid a hand on a plough. Plough Sunday proclaims that daily life matters, our work, our everyday routine matters. If our faith doesn’t impinge on that, then it isn’t a faith work having. Faith is not just about what happens in an hour on a Sunday morning in church. What we do here on a Sunday morning is meant to strengthen us for the calling we all have Monday to Saturday. To help us think about that, the C of E has launched some resources called “Everyday Faith” – there’s a series of 21 daily reflections you can sign up for on the Church of EnglandWebsite,  in an app or by email, starting tomorrow, and a booklet available too – I’ll put a copy on the Red Table to look at. They are all designed to help us think about where we find God, and show his love day by day wherever we are.

Our readings today are a great way to set us off on those reflections on everyday faith.  Today’s Psalm invited us to listen for the voice of God in the world around us, to see God at work in the forests and oceans, not just in the sacred space we have carefully roped off for him.

Isaiah, in the Old Testament reading, talks about the servant of God who brings good news to others by his patient care – not breaking bruised reeds or quenching dimly burning flames.  Biblical scholars argue about who or what he had in mind when he wrote this, though of course, Christians have seen Jesus as the perfect example of it. But towards the end of the reading, it is clear that God is calling the whole nation, all his people, to be “a light to the nations” setting people free from oppression, living the faith they profess.

In the reading we heard from Acts, Peter, an ordinary fisherman, does just that. He proclaims the message of God to a Roman Centurion, Cornelius, and his household. He doesn’t leave it to some religious professional – this is his story, and he is going to tell it. He hasn’t been to theological  college or got any academic qualifications, but his life has been shaped by walking with Jesus, day by day, learning to see himself as Jesus sees him, getting it wrong and being forgiven, falling down and being picked up again. It’s the fruit of spending three years close to Jesus, learning from him, being changed by him. Cornelius and his household can see that he knows what he is talking about because he’s lived it.

But it is the Gospel reading which gives us the most powerful demonstration of what it looks like to have a God who is with us where we are, in every situation, 24/7.

Jesus comes to John the Baptist at the River Jordan, to be baptized. John can’t understand why. His baptism is a baptism of repentance, based very closely on the kind of ritual washing which would have been a regular part of everyone’s religious practice, and still is in both the Jewish and Muslim faiths. Ritual washing was a way of symbolically purifying yourself before you worshipped, having your sins washed away. But John couldn’t see why Jesus needed it. He hadn’t done anything wrong. ”I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?”, he says.

But Jesus wouldn’t be put off. This needs to happen he says, “to fulfil all righteousness.” What on earth does that mean?

Righteousness is a clumsy word. We easily confuse it with self-righteousness, that “holier-than-thou” attitude which looks down on others, in an attempt artificially to bolster our own sense of self-esteem. But righteousness isn’t that at all. Righteousness is how things are when everything is as it ought to be – relationships, attitudes, body, mind, soul, spirit. It is about the whole of life, the whole of creation.  It often goes with peace in the Bible, because it’s the only route to real peace. (e.g. Ps 85.10) We can paper over cracks and hope for the best, we can negotiate cease-fires in the trouble spots in our world, or in our neighbourhoods and families, but unless we put things right at the root level, the trouble will all be there waiting to break out again afresh.

Jesus comes to “fulfil all righteousness”, to do what is right, to put right what is wrong, to mend what is broken, to heal what is hurting, to bring together what we have divided through our prejudice and suspicion of one another.  To do that, he needs to get at the root of the problem, in the depths of human hearts and human experiences, and that means being where we are, not just when we are on our Sunday-best behaviour, but when we are feeling exhausted and fractious trying to spread ourselves too thinly in a job that’s impossible to do, or at loggerheads with our boss, or feeling worthless because we can’t find a job at all. It means being where we are when we are anxious about our loved ones, or feel we have let them down. It means being where we are when we are succeeding too, because sometimes it’s the good times which are most damaging to our faith, when we start to believe that we can go it alone without God and others, that our success is all down to our own brilliance.

Throughout his life Jesus, shows this commitment to being where we are. It starts with his birth, a tiny child laid in a manger in a world that has no room for him, just as it has so often got no room for the vulnerable and the weak. It is seen throughout his ministry in his friendship with those who are outcast. Ultimately it will lead him to the cross, where he’ll die the death of a criminal, entering into the worst of human experience. But his baptism is a significant moment in his identification with us too. Jesus goes down into the waters of the Jordan just like any of those lost, battered, guilty, confused people who have flocked to John hoping he can wash away the mess of their lives. He identifies with us so that we can identify with him, so that we can hear the words God speaks to him, “This is my Son, the beloved” so that we can know that he means to include us in those words too. Just as Jesus is God’s beloved son, so are we all his beloved children.

I spoke earlier about the Church of England’s Everyday Faith initiative, and I’d like to finish by inviting you to share in a little activity inspired by their resources. It’s called “This Time Tomorrow”. I’ve given you all two post-it notes. If you haven’t got any, there are spares in the pews. I’d like to invite you to take one and think about what you will be doing this time tomorrow. Maybe you’ll be at work, doing whatever you do – happily or unhappily. Maybe you’ll be caring for a family member, or doing the housework or on a journey. I will probably be hovering around the church, in case I’m needed to sort anything out with the plasterers who are starting work on the North Aisle tomorrow.  I’d like you to write on the first note whatever it is you’ll be doing, and stick it on this noticeboard as you come up for communion. Let it be a way of giving that Monday morning activity to God, and sharing it with all the rest of us too, so we can pray for each other.

The second post-it is for you to take away. I’d like you to write on it – perhaps at the end of the service - something which you want to recall and hold onto from this morning’s worship – a word, a thought, an experience, a feeling. And then, “this time tomorrow”, I’d like you, if you can, to look at it again. Let it be a reminder that the God you meet in church is still with you then, wherever you are. Let it be a reminder to you that you are still his beloved child, whatever you are doing, treasured, valued, called, with a job to do for him, with love to share, and good news to proclaim.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Useless Gifts: Epiphany Sunday

Audio version here

There’s an old and rather sexist joke which often circulates around this time of year, saying that if only it had been wise women rather than wise men who came to see the baby Jesus, they would have googled the directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, swept the stable, and brought nappies, a casserole and some formula milk…

As I say, it’s rather sexist. Women don’t have a monopoly on common sense, but let’s face it, the Wise Men who came to Jesus don’t really seem all that wise at all – going to Herod was a big mistake! - and their gifts were certainly not very practical. But I suspect that may have been part of the point Matthew was making.

Gold, frankincense and myrrh were the kind of symbolic gifts which would have been common in diplomatic or political gift exchanges, things given by people wanting to impress others with their wealth and status, as well as their loyalty. That’s why they stand out to us as odd. What is this tiny child, of poor parents, going to do with them? Nappies, casseroles, formula, and a helping hand would have been far more useful. But it’s because these gifts weren’t sensible, because they weren’t really appropriate for an ordinary child born to ordinary parents, that we notice them. Matthew is very deliberately upending that world of political gift giving, so that he can point out how different this child is going to be.

The world his Magi have come prepared to encounter is the same one our first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, evokes. Isaiah’s prophecies were spoken to a people in exile. The people of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians many years before and many of them taken away as captives. Jerusalem had been  smashed to smithereens, looted, humiliated, reduced to a vassal state, like all the other nations which had stood in Babylon’s way. The people had no realistic hope of going home or restoring their land. But Isaiah’s prophecies said otherwise. God hadn’t finished with them.

One day, he said, the boot would be on the other foot. The nations they had paid tribute to would come to pay tribute to them, bringing the best of what they had as gifts. Those who first heard Isaiah’s words would have seen great tribute processions like this, with vassal nations bringing gold, spices, slaves and livestock. They were memorialised in the great friezes which decorated Babylonian monuments – you can see them in the British Museum now - a permanent reminder of who was in charge, who ruled the roost.

But Isaiah says that one day the balance of power will be turned around.  The abundance of the sea, the “wealth of the nations”, camels from Midian, gold and frankincense, will be brought to Jerusalem by foreign kings. That’s how the Magi got turned into kings in later Christian imagination, by the way. It’s borrowed from this reading. If it sounds a bit like a revenge fantasy, then perhaps that’s understandable; Isaiah was trying to speak hope to a people who felt hopeless, reminding them that God hadn’t abandoned them, however it felt right then. But there’s a subtlety here that is easily missed. This isn’t going to be about Israel’s own greatness. It’s not them who will have won the victory. It is God whom these foreign kings will have come to honour with their gifts. They will “proclaim the praise of the Lord!”, not the power of the generals and kings.

As I said, it is a subtlety that is easily missed, though, and that’s what makes Isaiah’s words, and the image they create, dangerous. They were meant to give hope to the powerless, but have often been misread by empire builders as justification for their quest for riches and honour for themselves. If you are wealthy and powerful, and all look up to you – even if only through fear – then God must be blessing you, you must be in the right.  I have no doubt that Herod, the king we meet in our Gospel reading, thought like that.

Herod is known to history as Herod the Great, and he really was great, if you count greatness by wealth and the ability to get things done that you want to be done. He was responsible for some of the largest building projects of ancient history – the restoration and extension of the Temple in Jerusalem, the  building of aqueducts, the building of the great port of Caesarea Maritima on the coast of Israel among them. Maybe his most peculiar project though, and the most revealing, was the fortress of Masada.


Masada stands near the shores of the Dead Sea on a high plateau, in a baking desert, at the very edge of the vast, barren mountain range which border it. Philip and I visited it last year. Mercifully there is now a cable car to take you up to the fortress, which is surrounded by sheer drops on every side. Hardy souls can walk up to it, on a precipitous path, but in temperatures approaching 40C, we were very glad not to! It’s about as inaccessible as it can possibly be. It’s certainly impressive, but there isn’t really any natural beauty about it, unless your taste is for bleak and inhospitable! It’s not even defending any borders. Why on earth would Herod choose to build here?

The simple answer was fear. Herod was a paranoid megalomaniac, convinced that everyone was out to get him – and to be fair, quite a few people were, but if you behave as he did, ruthlessly eliminating any challenges your power, you’re not likely to endear yourself to people.  This fortress was his hiding place of last resort, a place where he thought that he could escape from his enemies. But he discovered, as perhaps all tyrants do, that ultimately walls don’t make you safe,  however high and thick they are. He couldn’t see that the darkness and danger he feared was mostly coming from inside him, not from others. That’s why he had several of his wives murdered, and a number of his children too. There’s no independent record of a slaughter of children in Bethlehem, but it’s the kind of thing he would have done without batting an eyelid.
He spent his whole life on a desperate quest to feel as great as his name suggested, but he died in the end, very painfully, of a ghastly disease, the symptoms of which are far too gruesome for a Sunday morning…

Greatness is a popular word at the moment. President Trump promises to Make America Great Again. Populist nationalism is springing up all across the world, including in our own country – after all, we’ve even got “Great” in our name, Great Britain. But what does it mean to be great? How do you know when you are? Populist leaders appeal to people by equating greatness with wealth and power,   being able to have what we want, keep what we’ve got, make things happen the way we want, have influence in the world. And it works. It sells. It gets the crowds on your side. That kind of greatness promises security, and in a dangerous world, that’s something people crave, but often it has a hidden cost, injustice is tolerated, prejudice is justified, and those at the bottom of the heap pay the price.   

That’s why the Magi’s offering of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus is such a subversive act. Not only does he have no real use for them, but the Magi who give them to him aren’t going to gain anything for themselves by doing so.  These gifts could have bought them Herod’s friendship, or what passed for it, but what has this poor, vulnerable child got to give them? Nothing at all. When they lay down their gifts before him, they aren’t just giving up some of their wealth, they are laying down a whole world-view of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”, the cynical game- playing which diplomatic gift giving is usually all about.  They pay Jesus “homage” says the story, instead of paying homage to someone who could offer them some worldly reward for it, like Herod.

The word homage comes from the French word “homme” – man. Knights paid homage to their Lords in the Middle Ages, allying themselves to a leader they thought was worthy of their service. Paying homage said “I’m your man,” yours to command. But these Magi are putting themselves into the hands of the least powerful person in the story, someone who seems to have nothing to offer them. Many more people in the Gospel stories will go on to do the same; fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, and some leaders too, will throw in their lot with Jesus, a carpenter from the backwater town of Nazareth. They will lay down the tools which might have brought them power and security, their fishing nets, their businesses, their status in society, their whole way of life, and follow him to the cross and beyond. Like the Magi, they’ll have to take “another road” through the world, and it will often feel scary, tempting to try to play the old power –bargaining games. Matthew’s story reminds them that the only power worth allying yourself with is the power of love.

That’s why I think it’s important that the Magi didn’t actually bring Jesus nappies, casseroles and formula – sensible gifts that he might actually need. Jesus came to show us that we don’t need to bargain with God, even if we could. The only gift worth having in this story is the gift of Jesus, freely given to us. We can come to him empty handed, because there is nothing we need to do, or could do, to make God love us more than he does already. We don’t need to try to manipulate our way into God’s favour, or buy a place in his kingdom. We’re there already. It’s ours already.

If we read this story aright, it challenges us to look at ourselves, and the games we play to try to big ourselves up in the eyes of the world, and even in the eyes of God. It challenges us to ask ourselves why we feel we need to play those power games. It challenges us to be aware of the precarious situation of those who have no worldly bargaining chips, through poverty or disability, and to remember that in God’s heart they have pride of place. Most of all it invites us to put ourselves into the hands of that child of Bethlehem, to be his people, and to ask him to show us the “other way”, his way of love.

Sunday, 29 December 2019

The Juxtaposition of Pain and Joy

Matthew 2.13-23, Isaiah 63.7-9, Hebrews 2.10-18

This is always a challenging Sunday to preach, not just because in most people’s minds Christmas is now over for another year, Christingles, nativity plays and carol concerts are all done. After all with many Christmas celebrations starting in late November some have been enjoying the season for over a month now and feel that it’s time to move on.

We will welcome in a new decade in a couple of days’ time and then we can all get back to more routine lives.

But hang on a minute, today is the first Sunday of Christmas and today’s readings are an important part of the Christmas story, even if they spoil the warm glow of mangers, shepherds and wise men on our Christmas cards, which will remain in place for a little while yet.

Coming after the Christmas celebrations of this week the Gospel reading is the slaughter of the children under King Herod. Not a joyful story.

Perhaps this is a good thing. Perhaps we need to be reminded that great joy and great suffering exist right beside each other. Certainly this is a message we find in our readings today. Perhaps we need to be reminded that even as some celebrate, others grieve and I know from what several people have told me recently that many find themselves doing both simultaneously.

It’s exactly this, finding joy and love in others while recalling regret and loss which reinforces our Gospel message. Those of us who have lived a bit, loved, lost and still managed to keep our faith know this to be true.

God is there for us, unchanging throughout the ages, and this this is reinforced by the words of Isaiah we heard reminding the people of all that God has done for them, of his merciful, steadfast love.

Perhaps it’s good for us to go directly from “Peace on earth and good will to humanity” to a story of misused power, selfish violence and suffering inflicted by Herod, so that we can renew our commitment to the Christmas message in a more balanced way rather than a celebratory vacuum out of sync with the reality of the world around us.

When you think about it, Emmanuel – God-with-us – wouldn’t really mean all that much if it was only God with us during the celebrations and times which leave us with a warm glow. Speaking with someone who lost her adult daughter recently, despite the fact that she remained heartbroken, she told me that there was an irrepressible inclination to count her blessings, being thankful for the good times in her daughter’s life and for the grandchildren who love her.

Of course we don’t have to try very hard to find a continuous stream of sad stories from around the world about slaughter and displacement by modern day ‘Herods’ or would be ‘Herods’ including that of Christians executed in Nigeria this Christmas day.

Christingles and nativities seem far removed from such brutal realities and stories about cruelty, fear and despair don’t match with the idealistic fantasy of Christmas but as Christians we want the full picture.

As our faith deepens and matures we find that in facing up to a reality which includes the unjust, sad and tragic elements of life that God is in there, somewhere. This is exactly the world he chose to be born into, a world of injustice, cruelty and danger. Where leaders demonstrated their power by killing those who threaten their status and continue to do so today.

King Herod (‘the Great’) executed anyone he perceived as a threat to his throne, even including three of his sons and a wife so the elimination of some infant males in a small village would not have been big news to those that knew him. He was prepared to protect his privileged position with brutal force without a shred of guilt over the unbearable suffering caused to their loved ones. This was his definition of security and one which has been repeated through the ages.

Contrast this display of power with that of a God who reveals himself as a small, vulnerable and powerless baby. Indeed so vulnerable that his parents must seek refuge in Egypt if they are to avoid the same fate as the other baby boys.

It is to recognise the grief of God in the cry of the mothers who lost their children.

Matthew refers to the voice of ‘Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’

We are introduced to Rachel in the book of Genesis where we can read of her great beauty and how Jacob is besotted with her.

Rachel dies giving birth while on the road to Bethlehem. In the midst of her suffering, the midwife tries to comfort her with the news that she is having another son who she calls Ben-Oni (son of my suffering) though Jacob named him Benjamin. Her child is the cause of her weeping but also her hope for the future.

Matthew tells us that the massacre by Herod is the fulfilment of a prophecy from Jeremiah.  Rachel weeps again, on this occasion over the slaughter of the children at Bethlehem. But the next verse offers hope as it tells of Herod's death and the return of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to the land of Israel.

Time and again we are given examples of why God offers hope that lives on but which we can sometimes find hard to see among the desperate sadness.

Let’s be honest, all this is pretty heavy going isn’t it but if we want to go beneath the surface of Christianity, to dare to discover what God’s love for us really looks like then elements of that journey will be painful.

If we read enough of the bible over a long enough period of time we will experience a range of reactions and emotions, partly due to the text and partly due to where we find ourselves on life’s journey.

I love to find humour and lightness in our readings, sometimes throwing a joke into a sermon, if only to see whether anyone is still listening!

As we lament about children being born in African refugee camps and acts of genocide today we are faced with the stark reality that God has experienced this first hand.

Matthew’s depiction of events is one of those passages which kind of ‘stop us in our tracks’. It’s part of the beauty of scripture and the power of the crafted word which should inspire us to read more of the bible.  

It makes Jesus even more real when we work and think about scripture.

As we explore Matthew’s gospel further over the coming year we will have the opportunity to go deeper and my prayer is that we have the disciple, courage and passion to seek out the authentic Jesus.

Sometimes we have to look a little beyond the immediately obvious to find true meaning. We are all probably guilty of wanting to believe a certain version of events knowing that the reality is going to be a bit harder even it proves to be more enduring and have more real meaning. Christmas is very much like that, we enjoy the socialising, the carols and the cosy images but how much richer can our lives be if we scratch beneath the surface to seek the real love God sent us in Christ? Love that is so strong that it can be with us in every aspect of our life’s journey through sadness and suffering as well as in the good times. Love for all of us for every day, rather than for a season.

Much of the truth we find in the bible is uncomfortable, disturbing and inconvenient but then absolute truth cannot be moulded to suit the circumstances. If we choose to wrestle with this then we are truly engaging with God.

Hebrews pictures Jesus as the pioneer who opens the way to God. Our challenge is to take the imagery from the Christmas cards, the stained-glass windows even, and seek the man who walked our earth in the first century.

As we continue to learn, to be inspired and strengthened we need to think deeply what difference our allegiance to Christ makes to our lives and the lives of others.

Many will choose to dismiss our Christmas celebrations as a fanciful Christmas fairy tale but it becomes a lot more difficult to dismiss when it manifests itself as a gritty determined love which suffering and pain cannot overwhelm.

If we each play our part in sustaining this reality, wherever we find ourselves, it can also be a celebration of justice and a call to life in all its fullness.

Kevin Bright

29 December 2019