Sunday, 21 August 2016

Trinity 13: Sabbath holiness

I wonder what your feelings are about Sundays, the Christian Sabbath? It might depend on your age. In the sixties, when I was born, most shops were closed on Sundays, and there weren’t the Sunday sports activities there are now, but the rather grim attitudes which had forbidden children from playing or reading anything other than improving books had largely faded away. I remember it as a quieter day than normal, a different day, a day which normally included church and Sunday school, but not a solemn or boring day. Looking back it may have been a high point in Sabbath observance, preserving the sense of rest, but in a way which didn’t seem repressive – at least not in my family.  Some of you may recall a much stricter Sabbath observance, or, if you are younger, may never have known a time when this day was really much different from the rest.    

At the time of Jesus, the Sabbath was a major preoccupation of the religious experts, one of the things which singled out their nation among all the others of the world. Who were these strange people who refused to work, or even to fight in their own defence, on this one day of their week. Those religious experts argued endlessly about what, precisely, constituted work though. You couldn’t carry anything – that was work – but what distance did that apply to? Did carrying a chair across a room count? You couldn’t travel, but how far couldn’t you travel? You needed to get to the synagogue after all. Arguments raged among the lawyers.

In the story we heard in the Gospel, Jesus runs up against one of those religious experts, the leader of the synagogue he had come to on this particular Sabbath. He already had a reputation as a healer, and maybe that’s what drew the woman in this story to the synagogue on this day. She’d been ill for 18 years already, bent double by some disease, excluded from normal life by her disability, unable even to look other people square in the eyes. At this time disease was thought to be a punishment from God, so she may have been treated with suspicion by her neighbours as well. She wasn’t going to push herself forward though. It was Jesus who called her forward, laid his hands on her and lifted her up to standing again. Cue great rejoicing; the crowd seem to have been amazed and delighted. But the synagogue leader couldn’t see the wood for the trees. It was the Sabbath. Healing was work. Work was forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus had broken the law. The fact that a desperate woman’s life had been transformed meant nothing to him. He just “kept saying” to the crowd that they should all have come on another day if they wanted healing…

Jesus wasn’t having any of it. The law permitted people to take their livestock to food and water on the Sabbath, so why should it forbid the healing of this poor woman, he argued. In fact, Jesus went further than that. It wasn’t just that he believed he was allowed to heal on the Sabbath; this was precisely what he ought to be doing. Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years be set free from bondage on the Sabbath.”

His answer hints at a much broader understanding of the significance of the Sabbath than the synagogue leader has, but it wasn’t really anything new; it was firmly rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures.

According to the book of Genesis, God created the world in six days, and on the seventh day ceased from his work. It wasn’t that he’d run out of ideas, but that when he looked at what he had made he knew that this was enough - good enough, rich enough, diverse enough. He didn’t feel the need to labour on and on, heaping up creation, striving after anything. It was good, just as it was, and it didn’t need a single extra thing to make it perfect. What it needed, was to be enjoyed, treasured and shared.
The story went on to tell how that first perfection was lost, but human beings never quite forgot it, deep down in their spirits, the Bible said, and they longed for a time when they could enjoy it again, longed for God to bring about its healing. The Sabbath was supposed to be a foretaste of that time, a foretaste of heaven. It wasn’t just a break to give tired bodies and minds time to rest – valuable though that is – before re-entering the real world of work. The Sabbath was the day that really mattered, a glimpse of a world made right, the goal of our work on the other six days.  

That’s why God said, through the prophet Isaiah in our first reading, that Sabbath joy was inextricably tied up with justice and righteousness. You couldn’t have a good Sabbath if you ignored those who were hungry and afflicted, if you spoke evil of others, if you just pursued your own aims. Remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy, the commandment God gave to the Israelites, wasn’t just about what you didn’t do on this special day; it was about what you did do on it, and on all the other days too.  Only then could the Sabbath be a day of delight and joy, as God had meant it to be. That’s why Jesus could so confidently say that healing this woman on the Sabbath wasn’t just permitted; it was compulsory, the task for which that particular Sabbath had been made.

So how do we feel about this Sabbath which is just ending? What glimpse of heaven have we caught in it? What call have we heard to service in it? Where have we encountered God in it? And how are we going to share in God’s healing work tomorrow, as a result of this holy day?


At our All Age Worship today I read this poem, which I wrote many years ago after working on the story of creation with a group of Sunday School children, who were rather unimpressed with the idea of God “resting” on the seventh day – not what they would have done if they had just made such a wonderful playground!

THE SEVENTH DAY - or what God did on his day off

On the seventh day
God played with his creation.

In the morning
he ran down early to the sea’s edge,
and in the crusted rock pools teased
the waving fingers of sea anemones. 
He let the sand, like powdered silk,
run through his funneled fingers
and the shallow water play around his feet,
drawing a sandy wake around them.
Crashing on the rocks the waves leapt
to greet him with sprayed salt.

In the afternoon
he kicked up leaves,
musty in the dark woods,
and chased the spidery seed children of the
rosebay willowherb,
tumbling idly into their new generation
over dry earth.
He dammed the icy streams
to sail twig boats down rocky rivers
and climbed into the branches of rough oaks
looking for secret squirrels

But in the evening -
in the evening he wanted to talk.
So he sought out man and woman by their campfire,
finding worlds within its embers.
Late into the night,
they listened, with their arms around each other,
to the songs of night creatures,
and invented music.

And God thought the seventh day was good,
because he played with his creation –
and the whole earth joined the game.

Oct. 88.    Anne Le Bas

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Trinity 12 2016: Trouble ahead

To listen to this sermon, click here.

Jeremiah 23.23-29, Psalm 82, Hebrews 11.29-12.2, Luke 12.49-56

“There may be trouble ahead,” says the old song, but in truth it’s not a question of “may be”. We can bet on it that at some point in our lives there will be trouble. Collectively or individually we are bound to hit hard times and challenges. They might take the form of illness or loss, or they might be national or international crises, like the looming challenge of climate change, which threatens to make large parts of the world uninhabitable. No one is immune from trouble. Most people, though – and I include myself in this – prefer to ignore the problems until they hit us, by which time it is often too late to do anything much about them.

If you’re a fan of the Hitchikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, you might remember the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, who features in it, a creature described as so mind-bogglingly stupid that it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you. So all you need to do to protect yourself from it, despite it being very ravenous, is to wrap a towel round your head. You can’t see it, so it can’t see you. Problem solved.

The Bugblatter Beast doesn’t exist outside the world of fiction – I hope - but its way of thinking certainly does. We can all behave like this. Seeing and acknowledging a problem makes it real to us, and we very often think that it is better to turn a blind eye and hope it goes away by itself. That’s what the prophet Jeremiah was complaining about in our first reading. He was called by God to speak to the people of Jerusalem at a time when there was definitely trouble ahead. The Babylonian army was advancing on the city, and it was obvious – if you didn’t have your head wrapped in a towel – that things weren’t going to turn out well.

But the people of Jerusalem preferred not to think about that, and most of their prophets were happy to reinforce their blindness. “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” they said – in the ancient world the gods were often thought to speak through dreams. But their dreams, said Jeremiah, were no more than “the deceit of their own heart”. It would all be fine, they said.  God would stop anything bad happening to them.

God called Jeremiah to break through this wall of denial. His words would be  “like fire…and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces” . They would be just as vulnerable to the looming destruction as the nations round about them, he said, and they’d better wake up and prepare themselves for what was to come. You can imagine how well that went down. They preferred the dreams that comforted to the reality that challenged them, just as most of us would.

Jesus had an equally tough message to deliver to his disciples. They saw his popularity with the crowds. They heard his wisdom. They felt great when they were with him, as if they could do anything. Surely they were on a one way trip to glory. Jesus’ opponents would fall like dominoes as God swept him onto the throne of Israel! Then everything would be perfect. The lion would lie down with the lamb, swords would be beaten into ploughshares and best of all, they would get ringside seats for the whole thing.

The early Christian audience for which Luke wrote his Gospel probably nurtured the same sort of hope of easy triumph. When following Christ caused  them to be rejected by their families or put them at risk of persecution , they thought they must be doing something wrong. Why wasn’t it all working out the way they thought it should?

That’s why Luke reminds them of Jesus’ words. God was in control, love would win in the end, but there wasn’t going to be a shortcut to glory. The immediate future, which was the bit they would have to deal with, would contain sadness, loss and conflict. It was inevitable if they were challenging injustice. They just didn’t want to see that inevitable reality.  

And who can blame them? They were people like us. One day we’ll look back and see with 20/20 vision the threats we are blind to today, like the  threat of climate change, or the warping effects of inequality – things we could do something about, but rarely take as seriously as we need to. Deep down we know they matter, but most of the time we act as if they don’t.  One day we, or the generations that come after us, will ask how we could have missed their importance, why we didn’t act sooner.

Jesus asks his disciples “why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” and we might ask ourselves the same question. But beating ourselves up for not having our eyes open won’t do any good. Instead, we need to ask ourselves what it is that makes us keep them closed. Why do we so often put off dealing with things that really need our attention.

There are probably as many answers to that question as there are people asking it. It may be that we are just plain lazy. Acknowledging a problem means doing something about it, and that means work. But my experience is that few people are really genuinely idle.  In fact it can take as much, if not more, work to avoid a problem than to fix it. We drink, eat or work to excess, we engage in risky behaviours, we worry about things that don’t matter, all to distract us from what we really need to do. The real problem isn’t laziness, it is fear.  We are afraid we won’t be smart enough or brave enough to do the things we need to do, afraid that we’ll find we have bitten off more than we can chew, afraid that we are in over our heads and drowning, with no one to come to our aid.  

But Jesus had said it would be like this, that life would often feel as if it was a mess. His own life had ended in humiliation on a cross – that is the baptism he talks about at the beginning of the passage. He’s going to drown in the deep waters of death. But that wouldn’t be the end, however final it appeared. And it wouldn’t be a sign that he had been abandoned or that he had done wrong. God would be with him in the squalor of the cross, and the darkness of death, and would bring him through it to new life, and if God could be with him in these terrible places, he could be with anyone, anywhere. “Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” God had said to Jeremiah. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?”

What do we need in order to face up to the challenges that confront us, the ones we work so hard to avoid seeing and acknowledging? Just the same as Jesus needed. We need to know that God is with us, that we are not alone, that we are held safely whether things seem to be going well or disastrously, that we can’t fall out of God’s hands, in life or in death. Knowing that gives us the courage to deal with whatever comes our way, to look at what we are most afraid of square in the face, secure in the knowledge that it cannot destroy what God has created and redeemed in us.

Ultimately it’s a matter of trust, which is really what the Bible means when it uses the word “faith”. To many people faith is what you believe, intellectually, in your heads – that list of propositions we find in the creed, but the original Greek word we translate as faith really means trust, which is quite different. Trust is far more active, something you do when you put your life into another’s hand. It’s the commitment couples make here at the chancel steps when they marry each other. It’s what an adult child does when they phone their parents in the middle of the night because they are in trouble, knowing they’ll get the help they need.  It’s what you do when you turn up on a friend’s doorstep, maybe after years, knowing that they will be glad to see you, and won’t mind you dropping in, even if the house is a mess and there’s nothing to eat. That is trust, and it is a vital part of our emotional and spiritual health.

Trust creates a safe space to grow and to change. If we believe that someone loves us deeply and strongly enough, we can make demands on them , try things out , get things wrong, take the risks we need to take. We know that they will stick with us. But it’s a chicken and egg situation. Often we need to take the risk in order to discover and develop the trust in the first place.

It is just the same with God. Our trust in him grows when we live our faith, when we practice forgiveness, when we are generous rather than anxiously hoarding what we have, when we answer God’s call to serve, when we love those who will never be able to repay that love, and let ourselves be loved by them too, when we face the things in our lives which need sorting out. All these things push us out into the deep waters with God, but through them we learn that, as the Bible says, “underneath are the everlasting arms” of God’s love.  (Deuteronomy 33.27, NIV translation)

I don’t know what your challenge is today – it may be deeply personal, something that is unique to you, or it may be a common challenge we must face together, but whatever it is, it is safe to open our eyes and look at it, because we do so in the company of God, from whom nothing is hidden, and whom nothing can defeat.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Trinity 7: Let me not be humiliated?

AUDIO VERSION I've been playing with the possibilities of recording sermons. You can find my first attempt by clicking on the link. Let me know if you find it helpful and if there are any problems with playback!

There’s a story told about an early Christian theologian called Origen. He lived around 200 AD, at a time when the Roman authorities were still persecuting and sometimes killing Christians. His own father had been killed in one wave of persecution, and although Origen felt sad, he also felt proud of his father. Martyrdom seemed like a noble thing – to give your life for your beliefs. Origen was fired up with enthusiasm. He decided he wasn’t going to hide away. He was going to go out there in the streets and declare himself as a Christian and embrace his fate.

Origen’s mother felt differently.

She’d already lost a husband, and she wasn’t about to lose her son if she could help it. But how could she stop him? She hit on a brilliant idea. As he slept, she took away all his clothes. In the morning, he literally didn’t have a thing to wear. It worked. Martyrdom was one thing, but having to run through the streets naked was quite another. Origen stayed at home and wrote theology instead.

Whether that really happened or not we don’t know, but it has a ring of truth about it. Humiliation is a powerful thing. People often cope better with physical pain and danger than with humiliation. If I asked you to tell me your most frightening experience, you probably could, but most people are extremely reluctant to talk about the times when they’ve been made to look a fool.  We’ve all got memories that make us cringe when we recall them… and if you think I’m going to tell you about mine, you can think again.

So perhaps we can empathise with the Psalmist’s desperate prayer in our Psalm today. “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; let me not be humiliated” Ps 25.1

He’s not just afraid of falling on his face while everyone watches, or being the butt of some practical joke, though. He’s talking about the humiliation of being defeated by his enemies. Humiliation has always been a powerful weapon of war  – remember those photos from Abu Ghraib? It often breaks the spirit more quickly than physical pain.

Our Gospel story this morning is about humiliation, though it might not seem like that at first glance.

It all began when a lawyer stood up up to test Jesus. Lawyers then, like now, worked in adversarial ways, debating and disputing.  Like lawyers today, he knows he has to look strong and in control, to believe he’s in the right, so he can convince others of that.  

He poses what he thinks is a challenging question to Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He wants to test Jesus, to find out what his core beliefs are, to get into a philosophical debate. He knows how to handle that. But Jesus responds to  his question with another question, and the lawyer is forced into giving an anwer a child could have given. “Love the Lord your God…and your neighbour as yourself” was so basic, that it probably felt a bit insulting. So to try to “justify himself”  - to take back the moral and intellectual high ground the lawyer follows up smartish with another question. “Ok then, Mr Clever-Clogs Jesus, answer this one! Who is my neighbour?”

But still Jesus won’t be provoked into arguing back. Instead, he tells a story – the story we call the Good Samaritan.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” We don’t know why. We don’t know who he is. We don’t know what nationality or religion he belongs to. We don’t even know  for sure at the beginning that he is a man – the Greek word is anthropos, which just means “a person, a human being.”  This is everyperson – it could be anyone. It could be you. It could be me. Someone commented to me recently that this person is like a blank canvas. That’s a great way to describe him. Jesus means us to identify with this man. The story’s told from his view point. We aren’t told anything he wouldn’t have known and experienced as this story unfolds.

He’s going down the notoriously dangerous road, about 18 miles long, that winds down from Jerusalem in the hill country, through rocky, deserted wilderness to Jericho, near the Dead Sea. Like many travellers on that road, he’s set upon by robbers, who beat him up and leave him lying by the roadside, naked and half-dead.

Don’t forget that Jesus means the lawyer, and us, to identify with this beaten up victim; so what would we feel in that situation? We’d feel helpless, exposed and probably foolish as well, full of regrets; why hadn’t we taken more precautions?  

But all is not lost. A priest and a Levite come along – our countrymen. Surely they will help. But they don’t even come over to investigate. Why? We aren’t told, because the man lying by the side of the road wouldn’t have known either, and we’re seeing this through his eyes. Maybe they were afraid they would be beaten up too. Maybe they didn’t want to risk the ritual uncleanness they’d contract  from touching a dead body. They both had important religious roles after all. Or maybe they just didn’t care. We can only speculate, because that is all desperate man could have done as he watched them disappear into the distance.

But here comes a third traveller; this would have been good news, except that he’s a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans, near neighbours in the land we now call Israel,  hated each other, for reasons too complicated to explain. They just did. They had no time or respect for each other. Each believed that the other was just plain wrong, wrong in their beliefs, lifestyle, everything.  

So how might the victim of this mugging feel as he sees the hated Samaritan coming? If you were vulnerable, helpless and naked – especially naked -  who would you least like to see you in that state? Maybe it would be your boss, or a colleague who is always trying to get one up on you, or some relative you don’t get on with, or a member of some group you mistrust, and maybe have cause to mistrust.

The Samaritan is that person. The victim in this story might be half-dead, but he’d rather be completely dead than have this man see him in this miserable state. What is the Samaritan going to do? Gloat? Put the boot in further? Take some photos and post them on Facebook?

But, of course, that’s not what happens. He comes near, says Jesus, and he’s moved with pity, not with triumphalism. To the priest and Levite the man may as well have been a lump of meat. But to the Samaritan he was a real human being. He was prepared to have a real relationship with him, commit time and money to his care, now and in the future. Thank God he came along.

I’ve read and told this story many times. I’ve explored it with countless groups and I’ve discovered that a funny thing tends to happen to us as we think about it.  You’ll remember that I said that Jesus means us to identify with the man who was beaten up, that blank canvas of a man. But my experience is that somehow or other by the end, our attention has always slid away from him. We end up either identifying with the Samaritan, or aspiring to, hoping that we would have helped, or we identify with the priest and Levite, and feel guilty because we fear we wouldn’t have done. Somehow or other, we make it a parable about them, because it’s more comfortable that way. They may respond or not to the needs around them, but at least they are in control, they have a choice. We miss the fact that Jesus’ focus is on the victim, that’s where he wants us to put ourselves in this tale.

“Which of these three was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” he asks. “The one who showed him mercy” says the lawyer – the one who helped him. So who is the neighbour we are commanded to love? It is the one one who helps us. This isn’t a story about loving and helping those in need, or failing to. It is a story about acknowledging our own need, our own humiliation, and accepting help wherever it comes from.
Christians ought to have a head start in understanding this. After all we follow a humiliated leader, one who was himself ridiculed, beaten, and left to die on a cross. Christian faith starts, or should do, with an acknowledgement that we need God, that we need help, that we can’t do it ourselves. But that is as challenging and uncomfortable for us as it was for the lawyer who asked that question.

Perhaps it might help us to remember that  the word “humiliation” shares a root with the word “humus”, that good rich soil which grows the very best crops. Humiliation brings us “down to earth”, but in the end, the earth is the place from which true life grows.

That’s the message the hot-shot lawyer needs to hear. He doesn’t have to be in the right all the time. He doesn’t have to win the argument, to show his strength and competence. In fact, if he is determined to act like that he will never find the life he was asking about at the start.

A few weeks ago Boris Johnson promised people an “Independence Day”, but, whatever we feel about the EU referendum result, there is no such thing. There never has been and there never can be. We can’t be independent, none of us, no matter how strong and clever we are. We need each other, whether we label each other friends or enemies. Everything we do affects others, and everything they do affects us. We have one planet to share. There is no planet B, nowhere we can ultimately separate ourselves from those we find inconvenient or troublesome.

That sometimes feels like bad news, but it is really the best news of all. Eternal life isn’t a trophy to be won and owned independently. It is something we discover springing up in us and around us as we learn to see and accept each other  – friend or foe – as human beings made and loved by God.


Sunday, 3 July 2016

St Thomas the Apostle: God in the darkness

There is a fascinating man in one of our Bible readings today, a man who found out the hard way what true faith looked like. I’m not thinking of Thomas, whose feast day it is today, and who features in our Gospel reading. The man I’m talking about is Habakkuk. Who? The prophet who wrote the book from which our first reading came. 

If I pressed you to name some famous figures from the Bible you might come up with Jesus, Mary, Peter and Paul, Abraham, Noah, Adam and Eve, but my guess is you wouldn’t think of Habakkuk. The book he wrote is only three chapters long and it’s sandwiched between Nahum and Zephaniah, equally obscure writers, in the section of the Old Testament known as the minor prophets, but it’s a real gem and it has words which seem to me to be spot on for the times we are now in, times of turmoil and uncertainty.

Habbakuk was a prophet who lived around about 600 BC in Jerusalem and probably worked in the Temple. It was a frightening time for his city and nation. The mighty Babylonian army was advancing on Jerusalem, and it was obvious to everyone that the prospects for the future were grim. People tended to assume then – and some  still do now – that when bad things happened it meant that you’d done something wrong and that God was punishing you. So what did the looming catastrophe mean? Had the people brought it on themselves? Most of Habakkuk’s contemporaries probably thought so, and you’ll find that view in some of the other prophets writing at this time. But Habakkuk wasn’t convinced. Could it really be as simple as that?

His book begins with an angry lament. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?...Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.”  We could all cry out like that sometimes, in a time of personal crisis, or just watching the 10 o’clock news. Habakkuk is honest with God. “Why… are [you]  silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?   It’s that age old question, “why do bad things happen to good people?” That can be the question that kills faith completely for people, but Habakkuk doesn’t give up.

This morning’s reading follows on from that anquished question.  Habakkuk isn’t going anywhere till he has an answer. “I will stand at my watch-post” he says
, “ I will keep watch to see what [God] will say to me.” 

God doesn’t leave him waiting long. “Write this down” he says.  “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end and does not lie” It might look to Habakkuk as if it is all over for his nation, but God takes a longer view. This looming catastrophe is just a chapter in the story, not the end of it. “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come!”  

Those people who are proud, the reading goes on- literally puffed up – sooner or later will discover that their self-centredness has eaten away at them. “Their spirit is not right in them” says God to Habakkuk. But those who have put God at the centre of their lives, those who do right to their neighbours, they will live – and the word “live” doesn’t just mean exist. It’s about fullness of life, purposeful life, life that reflects the life of God. There’s no arbitrary punishment or reward going on here. People are shaping their own lives by the choices they make. “The righteous live by their faith” – literally it means they live faithfully, steadfastly, and that makes all the difference. Their lives may not look successful or glamorous to anyone else, but they have a kind of life that will sustain them through whatever trials come their way, and overflow to bless others too.  That’s Habakkuk’s message.

And that brings us onto Thomas, that doubting disciple in the gospel reading whom the church celebrates today. Thomas too seems to believe that worldly success is a sign of God’s blessing.  It’s not just that he doubts the physical fact of the resurrection; it was that he couldn’t believe that God could be in the awful events he’d just witnessed at all, the agonising death of Jesus on the cross. The Old Testament taught that anyone who was crucified was cursed by God, so surely he would never let such a thing happen to his Messiah, the one he’d chosen. The crucifixion wasn’t just an emotional, personal blow to Jesus’ followers; it was a spiritual and theological blow too. They had believed that Jesus was sent by God, that God was in him, but how could that be if he’d met with this awful fate?

So, when the rest of the disciples say to Thomas “We have seen the Lord”, he’s shocked. It isn’t just the possibility of resurrection that he can’t grasp, but the fact that they are calling Jesus “Lord” – giving him that status. How can he be Lord, if God has let him die on a cross?

That’s why it isn’t enough simply for him to see Jesus, raised from death. He needs to see Jesus’ wounds too. Only then can he get his head around the idea that his crucifixion wasn’t a sign of rejection and failure. Only then can he start to believe that God might be at work in disaster, in woundedness, in brokenness.

And it was going to be vital for Thomas to understand this. According to tradition he went on to take the Gospel to India and was martyred there. His death must have looked like failure too, just like Jesus’, yet the Indian church which still bears his name, the Mar Thoma church, sees it as the beginning of their story. As Habakkuk said,  “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie” and it isn’t the kind of vision we have, a short-sighted, limited vision, but one which is rooted in the endless love of God, which sees things we are blind to.

We need Habakkuk and Thomas’  message, because we struggle just as much as they did to see God’s presence in times of trouble. This week, the people of Turkey suffered another appalling attack, at Istanbul airport. Many people were killed and injured. Where is God in that? And that’s just one in a long litany of disasters in a world that is wracked with hatred.

Closer to home I expect we have all been watching with concern the ripples spreading out in the aftermath of the EU referendum. Whether you were a “leaver” or a “remainer” or didn’t vote at all, anyone with a heart would be concerned about the reported rise in racist harassment which has happened over the last week. Many immigrants are reporting verbal attacks and intimidation. None of us can feel happy, either, at the spectacle of our two largest political parties fracturing, effectively leaderless. That can’t be good for the nation.

Many people who have spoken to me this week have expressed shock – including those who voted to leave. We struggle to see God in all of this – it just feels like a mess. We’d rather it all just went away. Our instinct is to smooth things over, to try to ignore the turmoil. But that may not be the best way forward.

The former bishop of Tonbridge, Brian Castle, wrote a very thought provoking blog post in the aftermath of the referendum. It was rather oddly titled, “Now is NOT the time for reconciliation.” That seems strange, and anyone who knows Bishop Brian will know that he is a very peace loving man, so what can he have meant? Here’s an extract from what he said, which might make it clearer.

“Working for reconciliation now would be like putting sellotape on a septic wound.  It may hold everything together on the surface, but beneath there is poison festering away, ready to break out once it has built up pressure and momentum. While we need to be kind and charitable to one another, aware of the deep hurt and divisions caused by this divisive campaign, we should not try to bring about reconciliation.  Reconciliation can only happen when the roar of battle has died down, when all involved regard themselves as equal (there can be no ‘victims’ when pursuing reconciliation) and when people can talk to each other about their hopes, aspirations and fears.  Reconciliation also requires all parties to be open to change for the sake of the other. To do all this requires an honest look at the campaign and a willingness to face up to some of the demons that were and are prowling in the darkness.”              

What he is saying is that rushing to make it all feel better means ignoring the real issues, the mess, the demons in the darkness. We want to do that because it feels more comfortable to us, but real healing means staying with the hurt, staying with the difficulty, believing that God can be in that hurt and difficulty, the God who gives life in all its fullness, who brings Jesus through the darkness of death, rather than sidestepping it. Jesus suffers the wounds the world inflicts on him, so that he can open the way for us all to find in our woundedness new life that is real and lasting. 

Habakkuk’s prophecy ends with one of the most beautiful bits of poetry in the Bible. It is a hymn of praise, to be sung in the midst of trouble, not denying it or skirting round it, a hymn which affirms that God is present even when there are no easy answers and no miraculous escapes on offer.
I’ll leave the last words to him.  

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold  and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;  he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
   and makes me tread upon the heights.                                (Habakkuk 3.17-19)


Sunday, 26 June 2016

Patronal Festival of St Peter & St Paul: Pilgrim people

1 Corinthians 15. 1-11, Luke 5.1-11

Yesterday, a group of our more energetic church members walked from Seal to the mother church of our Diocese, Rochester Cathedral. I joined them for the last five miles or so of their 18 mile trek, which may seem like cheating a bit, but I thought I had better leave myself some energy for this morning…  Some of the journey was great. Some of it was hard going. The rain poured down towards the end, but our spirits weren’t dampened – or not much at any rate. There may have been a blister or two along the way, but everyone made it to the end, and no one got lost. There are some photos here, and I’m sure any of our pilgrims will be happy to supply a few travellers’ tales if you ask them.

The choice of the choir anthem for today – “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of them that bringeth glad tidings” – wasn’t entirely prompted by the Rochester walk, but it seemed appropriate. I don’t know how beautiful the feet of our walkers are this morning, but I hope they felt they were bearers of glad tidings, to each other if not to anyone else, encouraging each other on the journey.  

Pilgrimage is an ancient custom, of course. Pilgrims have walked as our walkers did  since the

Middle Ages, going to Rochester or Canterbury, or even heading to the channel ports at the beginning of longer journeys to Compostela or Jerusalem. Pilgrimage isn’t just a feature of Christianity either. Muslims make pilgrimage to Mecca, Hindus to the Ganges, and long ago our pre-Christian forebears seem to have headed for places like Stonehenge at significant moments too. There’s probably always been an element of simple fun and curiosity about pilgrimage –  an excuse for a change of scene and a break from routine – but for most who make these sacred journeys there is much more to them than that. It isn’t just the destination that’s important. True pilgrimage is about the journey itself; what you learn on the way about yourself, about your fellow pilgrims and about God.  It’s been said that a pilgrimage is “a journey in search of itself” – you have to make it to find out what it is about, and sometimes it’s not until afterwards, looking back, that you see its significance. The power of pilgrimage is that, in some sense it is a symbol, even a microcosm, of life itself. It is a reminder that the whole of life is a pilgrimage. We are all pilgrims, on a journey through our lives, finding the way, losing the way, coming to turning points and forks in the road, sometimes walking through the sunlit uplands, sometimes battling grimly through mud and rain, enjoying the company of our fellow travellers, or feeling at odds with them, yet knowing we all somehow need each other.

Our pilgrimage was timed to coincide with this Patronal Festival weekend, of course, and it’s a very appropriate way to celebrate it, because our Patron Saints, Peter and Paul, travelled great distances themselves, not only physically, taking the Gospel out into the world, but spiritually as well. Their lives were pilgrimages which took them along very different routes as they journeyed with God. We are given glimpses of their journeys in our readings today.

St Paul’s faith journey was dramatic and unexpected. “I am the least of the apostles” he says – the least of those send out to proclaim the good news of Christ  - “because I persecuted the church of God.” He had started out bitterly opposed to Jesus and his followers. He didn’t change his mind until he was struck down, dramatically, on the road to Damascus, where he was heading to root out and arrest members of the church. He was the last person anyone could have imagined becoming a Christian, but the fact that the community he’d once persecuted accepted, loved and forgave him transformed him completely. There is a lot in his writings about forgiveness, inclusion and the breaking down of barriers – he preached this message because he knew its truth and power in his own life.

Peter’s pilgrimage of faith was different, in some ways less dramatic, a more gradual process. The Gospel story we heard today wasn’t the first time Jesus and Simon had met – Simon was his birth name, and it’s the name he is mostly called in this passage. In the stories in Luke’s Gospel that lead up to this one, Jesus had arrived in Capernaum, Simon’s home town, by the side of the sea of Galilee. His first port of call was the synagogue. He’d made quite an impact there, healing a man possessed by demons. We don’t know if Simon was present – if he was, it’s not mentioned - but straight afterwards Jesus headed for Simon’s house for some reason- we’re not told why. And when he got there he discovered that he had walked right into the middle of a crisis. Simon’s mother in law was ill with a fever, a dangerous thing in the days before antibiotics. With one word from Jesus, though, the fever abated, and she was healed. Again, we don’t know whether Simon was present – he’s not mentioned. If he was there, he was in the background, apparently saying and doing nothing.

Jesus went on with his mission, healing and preaching, and at some point, perhaps days later, maybe weeks, he came back to the shore at Capernaum.  A great crowd gathered around him, but again, Simon wasn’t one of them. He was nearby, mending his nets, but seeming to take no notice of what was going on until Jesus asked to borrow his boat. Even when Jesus suggested directly to him, after the crowds had gone, that he put out into deep waters to let down his nets again, Simon was politely sceptical. Simon didn’t  mind humouring him – after all they were out on the lake now anyway – but he didn’t expect anything to come of it. What did a carpenter from Nazareth, 20 miles inland, know about fishing? 

Of course, the rest is history; the nets were filled to bursting point. Simon had never seen anything like it.

This is the moment when it finally sinks into Simon’s heart that Jesus is not only a man with a message, but also a man with a message for him.  This demonstration of the generosity of God touched something deep in Simon – we know nothing of his life before this, but maybe he had grown up, as so many people do, expecting very little out of life and not feeling worthy of more. Now he discovers a God who gives him more than he can ask or imagine, just as he is.  At first, Simon falls to his knees and begs Jesus to leave him – a common reaction in the Bible when people realise they are in the presence of someone or something holy. But Jesus takes no notice, and far from going away, he calls Simon to follow him, and eventually he will call him to lead the church too.

The pilgrimages of Peter and Paul – their journeys through life - are very different . One starts from a position of indifference and apathy, and the other starting from fanaticism and bitter hatred. Paul is suddenly turned around by God, but Peter’s change of direction is a gradual one. It’s good to have these two very different stories to ponder. I wonder which is more like your own?  You are here today, and something has drawn you here, but what is it? If you could draw a map that described your pilgrimage to this point, what would it look like? Maybe it would be a dead straight line, with never a doubt, never a question – not many are like that, but if that’s yours then that’s fine. Maybe you have gone along every diversion and back alley possible and are amazed to find yourself here at all. Maybe you’ve  gone backwards and forwards on the path – David Cameron once memorably described his faith as like the radio signal for Magic FM in the Chilterns, coming and going. Maybe you have very deliberately walked away at some point, and then come back again. Maybe you are hovering at the entrance, on the way in, or tempted to leave. Maybe you are at a fork in the road, aware of a nagging sense that God is calling you in a new direction. Maybe you are eager to explore that, or maybe inside you are kicking and screaming against it, sitting down stubbornly and refusing to go on at all. If you want to talk about your pilgrimage, your journey of faith, where you are now, and where you might be heading, do make a time to come and chat – I will be glad to travel with you.

Our pilgrims yesterday knew the route they had to follow, or at least they knew someone who did – Stephen had prepared it impeccably. Our journeys through life are not like that. Even if we think we know where we are going, and think we can imagine the route ahead, the future can’t be mapped and predicted precisely. All we can do is listen, as we travel, for the voice of God, and trust that however unlikely the path looks, he will be with us on it.  And vague though that sounds, it’s enough for me, because  where God is, there will always be blessing, love as abundant as the fish which filled Peter’s nets, forgiveness as freely given as that which Paul found.

That’s good news for all of us in our individual pilgrimages thorough life, and good news for us as a nation at this time of change and turbulence. Let’s make sure that wherever the path leads us, we look for God’s presence, so that we can “bring glad tidings” to those around us.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Trinity 4: Breathing Space: One in Christ.

Today’s readings have a lot to say to us about identity. Who do we think we are? Who do others think we are? How do we, and they, feel about our identities?

In the first reading, Paul writes to the church in Galatia, a church which seems to have been tearing itself apart. The Galatians – Galatia is in Central Turkey – weren’t ethnically Jewish. But that hadn’t made any difference to Paul. When he had brought the Gospel to them he had been clear that God loved them as they were. But after he had moved on, they had begun to doubt that, influenced by teachers who took other views, who felt that only if they kept the Jewish laws and customs could they really be a follower of a Jewish Messiah. Some of them felt that they needed to be circumcised and keep the food laws to be acceptable to God. They are having a communal identity crisis – are they the real deal or not, properly part of the family of God? Paul writes to them to reassure them that they are. Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female, and any other distinction they care to think of – it doesn’t matter. They are all one in Christ.

The identity crisis we see in the Gospel reading is even more severe and distressing. Jesus travels to Gerasa, across the sea of Galilee from his own area, into a region which had been settled by Alexander the Great, and which was mostly Gentile and Greek speaking. It was also an area in which many Roman soldiers were stationed. The area around Galilee was the breadbasket which fed the Roman army, an important base for their operations throughout this part of the Middle East. So it’s no accident that the man Jesus meets among the tombs calls himself Legion – the largest unit of the Roman Army. There are real Legions all around him. His homeland has been overrun by dangerous  forces beyond his control, and that’s how he feels inside himself too, overrun by hostile spiritual forces.. He’s lost sight of who he is. His own voice has been drowned out by the voices which accuse and threaten him.

But Jesus sees the human being, unique and precious, beneath the mask of madness, and banishes the demons that have possessed him. When his friends and neighbours come to see him he is described as being “in his right mind”. He is himself again. It ought to be a cause of great rejoicing, and maybe for some of his friends it is, but overall the response of the local people is decidedly underwhelming. They beg Jesus to leave them. It seems like they’d rather keep things as they are. Why? Because his healing is even more inconvenient and unsettling than his illness was. One herd of pigs has already been lost – someone’s livelihood, and possibly intended to feed those Roman hordes. No one with any sense would want to come between a Roman soldier and his bacon butty. What effect is Jesus going to have on their local economy, and the fragile understanding that exists between them and the military?  If one man has to suffer to maintain the status quo, so be it – the cost of his sanity, the herd of pigs, was too great for them. It suits them for one man to be mad and living among the tombs; he bears the demonic load on behalf of them all.

Many people today are forced into living lives distorted by fear because it suits others that they should do so, excluded, scapegoated, bearing burdens imposed on them by others. The reactions of the LGBTI community to the shooting in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando have demonstrated that. Many spoke of the bone-deep exhaustion of living in a society where things straight couples take for granted – walking down the street holding hands, for example – can result in abuse and violence. And last week they discovered that even in a nightclub where they had always felt safe, they weren’t.

Hatred is closer to the surface and more endemic than we might realise if we don't happen usually to be on the receiving end of it. The killing of Jo Cox was another reminder of this. One man consumed with rage that someone held different views from himself, blasted away any complacency we might have had about the strength of our democracy. The bitterness around the debate about the EU referendum should give us pause for thought too – it’s all too easy for arguments about policies to become brutal character assassinations of individuals who think differently from us.

For those who are followers of Christ, diversity should be in our DNA. Jesus lived and died proclaiming the love of God for all people, breaking down the barriers that his society had erected between people and people, between people and God. Sadly, though, the church has often been among the worst of the oppressors, and that is something we can’t ignore. It is an offence which cries out for repentance. It seems to be deeply ingrained in us to fear difference, and to feel that others should be like us to be acceptable.  But in Christ, says Paul, we are all one,  Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, gay or straight, left or right-wing, “leavers” or “remainers”, united by the identity that is deepest and truest in us, our identity as God’s children, loved by him and therefore held in one embrace. 


Thanks to Stephen for the photo

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Her Majesty the Queen's 90th Official Birthday

2 Samuel 11.26-12.10,13-15, Galatians 2.15-21, Luke 7.36-8.3 We’ve all overheard conversations in a bar or restaurant, maybe on a train where people are telling each other where public figures have gone wrong. Government policy is corrected, sports managers selections slated. You know the sort of thing…’of course what they need to do is pass a law stopping anyone who hasn’t lived in the country for at least 20 years from buying a home’ or ‘where Roy went wrong was playing Rooney too deep behind the front two’, it’s a national pastime. Some people were asked last year what they would change if they were King or Queen for the day and had absolute power. Ideas included making the joining of a communal choir compulsory for everyone with daily public performances, turning Eton and Harrow into social housing provision and the return of national service, for everyone younger than the proponent. Of course yesterday marked the 90th anniversary of Her Majesty the Queen’s official birthday. Our longest ever reigning British Monarch looked resplendent in lime green and there were numerous celebrations across the country, including Seal, to mark the occasion. In our reading from Samuel today we heard about a monarch who behaved in a way we could not believe possible now. King David has taken Uriah’s wife and had Uriah killed. The prophet Nathan has come to the king who seems to be able to separate what he has done from his relationship with God. In a smaller way it’s probably something many of us do, convincing ourselves that something is justified and keeping it separate from our prayer and worship so that it never comes under the microscope of examination. Nathan tells the king a story of a rich man with all he could ever want who takes a poor man’s one treasured lamb to feed a traveller, despite the fact that he has an enormous flock from which he could have chosen. In doing so he dehumanises the poor man, he thinks only of what he wants and needs at that moment. Because he is rich and self-important he has a sense of entitlement to whatever he wants, in his view the poor man’s needs don’t matter and he proceeds without thinking. Naturally the king flies into a rage upon hearing this stating that ‘the man who has done this deserves to die’ before Nathan points out that ‘you are the man’, the king is the subject of the story and now understands the parallel with his own actions and the acknowledgment of his grave sin follows. Of course a constitutional monarchy limits the powers of our Queen but she still has a position of great privilege and influence, representing the country in various ways and meeting regularly with the prime minister. She must have got to know Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair extremely well, meeting more or less weekly with them over 11 and 10 years respectively with both saying that they valued the engagement. When you think about it so many people actually have positions of power which have a direct affect upon the lives of others, managers in the workplace, teachers and those marking exam papers, people allocating housing, government officers in all their forms and each of us in the choices we make every day. Like Her Majesty the Queen we all need to think whether having some power means we can now get our own way, or hopefully realise what we are being given is responsibility, an opportunity to serve. Nathan the prophet was very brave to challenge the king as he did but thankfully our own monarch is somewhat less terrifying. I was introduced to her as a young man and she thanked me for making the tea and doing the washing up as part of a huge team behind the scenes at the Buckingham Palace garden parties. The tea made in huge vats looks so much nicer as it is poured from small silver tea pots. Goodness knows how many people she must have shaken hands with on the posh side of the marquees, as up to 8000 people are invited to each garden party, so it’s hard to imagine that meeting a group of porters (as we were called) at the end of a busy day would have been the highlight of her schedule but she was attentive and interested to an extent that surprised us. In 1964 when the Queen was introduced to the stars of the Royal Variety Performance the comedian Tommy Cooper asked her if she would mind answering a personal question. ‘No’ she says, ‘But I might not be able to give you a full answer.’ ‘Do you like football?’ ‘Well, not really,’ she replies (despite the nonstop singing of the National Anthem by England fans throughout each international match) So Cooper responded ‘In that case, do you mind if I have your cup final tickets?’ So we start to think about whose serving whom. Clearly I’m serving the tea but her majesty is serving her subjects day in and day out as she fulfils her duties. Her commemorative booklet says it all in it title’ The servant Queen and the King she serves.’ It speaks of her trust in Christ and her faith weaves it’s way as a rich thread through every aspect of her life from many happy occasions through to her ‘Annus Horribilis’ in 1992 when Prince Andrew separated from his wife, Princess Anne divorced her husband, there were numerous revelations about the unhappy state of Charles and Diana’s marriage, all topped off by a fire in Windsor Castle. Demonstrating a living Christian faith day by day hasn’t proven to be any barrier to excellent relations with people of other faiths. Rabbi Sacks says that Jews have great respect for the Queen. They value her because they know that she values them. She makes them feel not strangers but respected citizens at home. As supreme governor of the Church of England it might be expected that she would assert its authority over other denominations and faiths but speaking a few years ago she said ‘The concept of the established church is occasionally misunderstood and I believe commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead the church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country. We should all give thanks for this great privilege which we mostly take for granted. We can regularly see the appalling consequences around the world when this freedom and mutual respect is not upheld. In Luke’s gospel we heard how Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus to his house. It seems that Simon has plans to show his standing in society by entertaining and debating with this interesting man among his friends. A typical home for a man of such social standing may have been in a courtyard set off the main thoroughfare, open to passers by who may call to listen to the teaching. Reclining was the usual posture for eating in Jesus' time, laying on one side keeping the right hand free to eat so it was not difficult for the woman to start bathing Jesus feet with her tears. We shouldn’t underestimate the shock value of the woman wiping Jesus feet with her hair. Here she was a woman described as a sinner and assumed by many to be a prostitute letting her hair down in public, something which was reserved for privacy at home with husbands by decent women. Jesus contrasts the loving extravagance demonstrated by her actions, knowing that her sins are forgiven with Simon’s lack of awareness of his snobbery and failure to recognise his own sin and need for forgiveness. At least King David could recognise his sin when it was explained to him whilst Simon is far more begrudging as he and his guests question Christ’s authority to challenge them saying ‘who is this that even forgives sins?’ Sometimes we fail to see that our own lack of compassion and indifference to the plight of people that are not close to us can be far more damaging than an overt wrongful act. The Queens life to date is one which publicly makes Christ real, serving him by serving his people. When we see inspirational figures such as her it’s hard not to examine ourselves and ask what can we each do to serve. We see loving forgiveness in Christ at the Pharisees home but it is not enough for us just to see it, understand what is being illustrated through the parable we need to be changed by it. Mark Oakley, a priest at St Pauls wrote ‘I am capable of being moved into the heavens during a liturgy or when reading something about God, but afterwards I am capable of being as shallow, bitter and ungracious as ever I can be.’ We shouldn’t beat ourselves up over our failures because the message from our readings today is one of loving forgiveness but we do need to keep coming back to God through Christ to be fed, receive guidance and to make his love know through the way we live our lives. Amen Kevin Bright 12th June 2016