Sunday, 29 November 2020

The First Sunday of Advent


Mark 13.24 – 37 & Isaiah 64.1-9

If your job is to collect the refuse, nurse the sick, construct buildings or serve customers in food stores then it’s highly likely that your boss can see what you are doing, how well, and when.

However, if your work, pre-Covid was usually done sitting at a screen in an office then there is a high probability that you are now doing this from a room in your home.  It turns out that the execution of many knowledge-based tasks can be done pretty much anywhere that the technology reliably functions.

Some managers and employers I have speaking with don’t like this. They can’t always see what time the employee starts and finishes work, what they have open on their screen, and worry that their cat, or family member will distract them when they should be labouring away producing easily measurable outputs.

A business article I read recently observed that the combination of automation and artificial intelligence is changing the nature of work. Basic tasks are being stripped away, and work is skewing towards the things that tech can’t do as well: creativity, persuasion, empathy, and complex problem solving. Thinking, often in combination with others, rather than just executing processes is now the essence of much work.

I believe that taking readings from the bible and sharing some thoughts on them currently falls outside the scope of automation, just in case you felt that this sermon sounds like it was written by a robot. Our individual heart felt reactions to our bible readings certainly don’t feel threatened by technology despite its ever growing prevalence in our lives.

Back in the new workplace, in many cases also known as your bedroom, most people are highly conscientious and put in a full shift, and some, without the need to be seen doing so. It’s evident that in many cases working at home has proven highly productive for certain sectors of the economy and whilst it’s not the long term answer for all it has helped shift the focus from presenteeism to productivity, a much more positive way of thinking about work.

It’s not a bad starting point from which to approach our Gospel reading on this first Sunday of Advent, ‘Keep awake for you do not know when the master of the house will come’ we are told, but Jesus doesn’t tell us exactly what we should be doing. The message for the disciples hearing this and for us today is initially both frightening and confusing.

Are we to constantly be busy at work which God approves of? Well that can’t be a bad thing but God also wants us to make time for reflection, rest and recreation so I feel that Jesus was saying more than this.

Perhaps we are to be awake, aware of God in our midst in a way that we hadn’t previously been able to see.

It sounds good but it’s so much easier to passively receive what we are fed by all forms of media, and get angry with various groups of people we will never encounter than to take a moment to breathe deeply, still ourselves and think where we might find God among us.

It could be that the way we understand Mark’s apocalyptic language now is very different from how those who heard Jesus directly.

I read that the Greek word from which our ‘apocalypse’ comes meant uncovering or revelation. Consider then whether this is about the end of the world as we know it or whether it’s more realistic to see it as God being revealed to people otherwise blind to him, offering new hope in previously hopeless situations.

Our reading from Isaiah is a lament by people who feel that they can no longer see God among them. They want him to be like he was in the old days, you know make some mountains quake, tear open the heavens, send fire that makes the waters boil!

God hasn’t changed, God hasn’t gone away, perhaps the people have busied themselves to the extent that they have crowded God out of their lives and entered into a period of spiritual dryness.

In in a moment of calmness and reflection the people recall that God is their creator and Father, ‘we are all your people’ they eventually say.

Particularly at the present time when our freedoms are severely constrained no one could be blamed for focussing on the negatives, and there’s no denying that these are very real for many. Yet it’s also essential that we don’t let copious amounts of sad news stories accumulate into a wall that we cannot see over.

Times of bad news, sadness, stress and exhaustion don’t always feel like times of growth with God, of deepened spirituality, but as God has proven over and over they are exactly the situations into which he welcomes an invitation to journey with us.

We must resolve to look around us again with open hearts and minds aware of the possibility to see things anew in our current reality, not always putting it off until things are better in the world or until we are in a better place. God is able and willing to meet us where we are now whether it be in a dark place or a challenging time.

We need to keep in mind that the weeks of advent lead us towards a God who came to us as a vulnerable baby and is who no stranger to suffering.

For all the challenges many face some will also see anew how blessed they are to have family, to live where they do, for the people they walk among and take for granted. Enforced time at home can make the wonder of God’s detail in the natural world more vivid if we make time to enjoy and celebrate it, an antidote to staring at screens for hours.

We do not know when the time will come that Jesus speaks of or indeed whether it will be the same for any of us but neither do we need to wait for it to experience his revelation, by serving each other, regardless of background or belief, we may well find that God becomes more real to us.

For some an apocalyptic second coming of Christ might be more attractive than playing their part now in the ‘new heaven and new earth, spoken of by the prophet Isaiah later in his book.

Maybe the same Jesus who spoke of the Kingdom of heaven as like a net thrown in the sea, like a merchant in search of fine pearls, like treasure hidden in a field and like a mustard seed, wasn’t being literal when he spoke of stars falling from heaven.

Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion are near in Mark’s gospel. But no matter how much he was to suffer and no matter those who chose to follow him may do so the imagery of stars, clouds and winds of the earth serve as signs that our imaginations can start to fathom which tell us there is so much more. It could be more than we can cope with but it’s there to remind us that there is a parallel story where Jesus remains king of all seen and unseen.

Perhaps this difficult year still has time to be an apocalypse for us, a revelation of God into our imperfect lives.


Kevin Bright

29th November 2020

Sunday, 22 November 2020

Christ the King

Audio version here

Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24, Matthew 25.31-46


There’s a story told about St Elizabeth of Hungary, who lived in the early 13th century which always comes into my mind when I hear today’s Gospel reading. Elizabeth had wanted, from an early age, to enter a convent and devote herself to God. She had been very much influenced by the Franciscan movement – she was a contemporary of St Francis-  and she wanted to live the life of radical simplicity, helping the poor, that Francis did. But Elizabeth was a princess, the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary, and princesses didn’t get to choose what they did with their lives. They were valuable bargaining chips in making alliances and building up power bases. Elizabeth had been promised in marriage from early childhood to Louis, the Landgrave, or Lord, of Thuringia. She was married at 14 and bore him three children in quick succession, but still held onto her Franciscan ideals. Her marriage was happy – she and Louis grew to love each other - but the same can’t be said of her mother-in-law. She was very sceptical of Elizabeth’s care for the poor and sick. Elizabeth would be more likely to be found helping a filthy beggar than mixing with the high and mighty as her mother-in-law thought she should.


What infuriated her most, was Elizabeth’s habit of taking in waifs and strays, the sick and destitute. On one occasion, says the story, while Louis was away, Elizabeth and her mother in law were left behind to manage the castle. Before long Elizabeth began to fill it with the needy. The castle was overflowing with people. But just when it seemed that even she would have to call a halt, a leper turned up at the castle gates, filthy and covered in sores. What was Elizabeth to do? There was no more room, no more beds. Except, she realised, one. With Louis away, his bed was empty. Elizabeth promptly installed the leper there, washed and fed him, and left him to sleep. Her mother in law was incandescent. How dare she! She sent a message to Louis telling him that his wife had put another man in his bed, leaving him to imagine what that might mean.


Louis took the bait and stormed into the castle and up to his room. He flung open the door, but whatever he expected to see, it wasn’t this. There on his bed, lay Christ himself, fast asleep. Louis shut the door quietly and went away. In the morning, when he looked again, there was the leper, healed and well, and able to go on his way rejoicing.


It’s a lovely story, whether you believe it or not, and it clearly draws on the imagery of the Gospel reading today. In Jesus’ parable, those who help others eventually discover that they have, completely unawares, helped Jesus himself.


But that’s the important thing to note. They are completely unaware of what they’ve done.  The “sheep” in Jesus’ parable, the ones who are singled out for praise, have no idea what he means when he says that they saw him hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, in prison and looked after him, any more than Elizabeth thought she was helping Jesus when she took in that leper. She and the people in the parable cared for those in need simply because they were in need. It was their humanity, not their divinity which mattered to those who helped.


To be honest, when I am in need, I don’t want people to help me because they see Jesus in me. I want them to help me because they see me, as I am. I want to know that I am of value in myself. Being seen and known as ourselves, as someone unique and precious, is often the thing that helps us most when we are in trouble. Being acknowledged and noticed, knowing you aren’t just a number, a set of case notes, a bed in a hospital ward, a nameless bundle of needs; that’s what empowers us and gives us dignity in times of trouble. When we read the parable of the sheep and goats as an invitation to look on everyone as if they were Jesus, we risk denying people their own individuality, implying that they aren’t worth our help as themselves, and that turns the parable on its head. It’s even worse, of course, if we see helping people as a way of getting our own ticket to heaven, and those we try to help will soon pick up the fact that they are being used for our own selfish ends.


Today is the feast of Christ the king, It’s the last day of the Church’s Year, the end point of the great cycle of stories that takes us through the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ,  the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost to inspire his followers. It all leads to this, to the recognition of Christ as king, whose kingdom we pray will come, and his will be done “on earth as in heaven” as we pray so often.


But what kind of king is he? The image that Jesus’ first followers would have had of kingship, would have been based on the rulers they saw around them – the Roman Emperors, or local kings like Herod. Like so many leaders throughout history, their main aim was to get and keep power, whatever the cost, like the leaders the prophet Ezekiel denounced in our Old Testament reading. Power was what counted in the ancient world. The belief that the Roman emperor was divine was first established during Jesus’ lifetime. The Emperor was, quite literally, to be put on a pedestal and worshipped.  Rulers behaved as if they should get whatever they wanted and be obeyed unquestioningly. It was all about them, as it still so often is with leaders today. All too often, they climb the greasy pole to get themselves into positions of power because they need to be needed, recognised, adored. It’s a dangerous thing, because that sort of need can never fully be met. It’s like a permanently hungry monster, always needing more.


Jesus upends that image of leadership completely, in this parable though, as he did throughout his life. It’s not all about him. He doesn’t look for glory. He doesn’t need adulation. He’s perfectly secure in the love of his Father. He can serve others without ever feeling diminished himself. And he teaches his followers that it is in loving those around us, just as they are, that we do his will and delight his heart, without us even knowing it.  


To serve, and to lead, like that is difficult and demanding, though. No one can affirm the worth and dignity of another unless they have a good sense of their own worth and dignity. “We love,” as the first letter of John puts it, “because God first loved us.” (1 John 4.19) We can only treat others as beloved children of God, if we know that we are too. We can only listen to others with full attention, and give them space, if we know that we’ve been heard and have our own secure space in the heart of God.


In Christ, God comes among us, becomes one of us, but not as some kind of superhero, who covers our feeble humanity with his glorious divinity. Christ comes to show us that this flesh and blood which God made and gave to us, is already blessed. He came to show us that always and everywhere we’re standing on holy ground, because of our humanity, not despite it, that we and everyone, are his gift, his good idea, to be cherished and celebrated.


Monday, 16 November 2020

Treasuring our treasure: Second Sunday before Advent

 Audio version here 

Zephaniah1.7.12-18, Matthew 25.14-30


Well - Zephaniah was a bundle of laughs, wasn’t he? What a miserable Old Testament reading we heard today. “Distress and anguish, ruin and devastation, darkness and gloom, clouds and thick darkness, trumpet blasts and battle cries.” I didn’t choose it deliberately. It was just the reading set for today, but I’m glad we got the chance to hear Zephaniah’s words, from his very short book of prophecies, just three chapters long, sandwiched between Habakkuk and Haggai in the Old Testament. Zephaniah gives searingly honest voice to deep human emotions here. He says what people so often feel when things go wrong, that they are being punished for something. We may not agree with him – I certainly don’t see God like this, and other parts of the Bible put very different views. It’s often in dialogue with itself. But whatever the true cause of the disasters which hit us, it can feel like this when a day of reckoning falls on us and all our usual landmarks are swept away. During this pandemic, as many people have struggled with illness, bereavement, economic catastrophe and exhaustion, they  have cried out, ‘Why me? Why us? Why now? Why this?’


Zephaniah had good reason to feel so desperate. He was writing not long before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, just as it started to become obvious that the writing was on the wall for his nation. This isn’t some vision of a far distant apocalypse. It was what he saw happening around him, as nation after nation fell to this all-conquering army. There were still some people who wanted to deny reality, “surely, it can’t happen to us!” But the axe soon fell on them too, just as Zephaniah said it would. His words remind us that it’s all right to howl at God, to howl at the world, to tell it like it feels. We don’t have to pretend things are ok when they’re not. In fact, it’s only when we stop doing that that that we have any chance of moving forward.


Zephaniah’s people were coming to a day of reckoning, which would reveal their vulnerability and powerlessness, just as our own day of reckoning has to us. This pandemic has shown us that everything in our garden is far from rosy. It’s revealed the inequalities in our society and the precariousness of so many people’s lives. It’s stripped away the illusion that we could protect ourselves from everything that threatened us. If we were resting ‘complacently on our dregs,’ like some of those Zephaniah was writing about, we certainly aren’t now.


The story Jesus tells in today’s Gospel reading is also a story about a day of reckoning, and what is revealed by it. It’s a story about a rich man who entrusts his fortune to three of his slaves when he goes away. And it is a fortune. A talent was originally a unit of currency – nothing to do with the ability to sing or dance or juggle!  It was, specifically, a weight of gold or silver - about 4 stone– 28 kilos – to be precise. It was worth a huge amount. One talent represented about 15 times the annual salary of an ordinary working man. 


So, a talent was treasure beyond the wildest dream of most people. This master is placing a serious amount of trust in his slaves. The first slave gets 5 talents to look after; that’s 75 years’ worth of wages. The second gets 2 talents – 30 years’ worth – and even the third slave is entrusted with 15 years’ worth of wages. Their master doesn’t say what they’re to do with it, but the first two trade with it and double their money.


The third slave though, is afraid, and we probably sympathise. Trade is risky. Investments can go down as well as up, as financial advertisements are always careful to tell us. What if he loses it all? Just as Zephaniah believed God was wrathful, rightly or wrongly, so this slave believes, rightly or wrongly, that his master is a harsh man. We don’t know whether it’s true or not, but, like Zephaniah, it’s what he thinks, and he allows that to shape his actions. He doesn’t want to risk losing a penny of what he’s been given. So, he digs a hole and buries it.


But when his master comes home, it’s precisely that caution, that lack of appreciation of the trust that was placed in him which makes his master furious. He could at least have put the money in the bank, where it might have made some interest! The slave is unceremoniously thrown out into the darkness. That probably seems unfair to us - but I think Jesus means us to feel that way. I think he means to play on our empathy for this slave whose fear has made him too cautious to do anything with the treasure he’s been given, because very often we’re like that too.


I said earlier that times of reckoning can reveal uncomfortable truths about ourselves, and sometimes that is because they show us the treasure we have been given, and ask us what we’ve done with it -  the treasure that is the people around us – family, friends, neighbours – the treasure of this beautiful world, the treasure of faith, of the Bible, of fellowship, of prayer, the treasure of life itself, with all its opportunities. How have we “treasured our treasure”? Have we shared it, used our precious opportunities, have we hidden our treasure in a hole in the ground, where it won’t be at risk, but won’t do us, or anyone else any good either. If it’s the latter, this story asks us, then why? Are we afraid of trying something new, going deeper, in case we get it wrong? Are we afraid of what others will think of us, of what God will think of us if it all goes pear-shaped?


Those fears are quite understandable. It could have all gone wrong for the first two slaves. The business ventures they invested in could have gone bust. But its important to note what the master says to those first two slaves when he returned. He didn’t say, “well done, good and successful slave”, he said “well done, good and trustworthy slave”. It is the slave’s faithfulness, their willingness to join in with the master’s work, to try to further it, which he praises, not the amount of money they’ve made.


During this pandemic it has been great to see people in our community and our church here at Seal  having a go, taking a chance, connecting with others, responding to need as they can, where they can, not waiting until they can be sure of success, but doing something to help – using their treasure. Not everything may work out, but some things do, things that would never have happened otherwise.


Life can be hard, and it’s quite right, along with Zephaniah, to tell it like it is, to be honest about pain and loss, but Jesus’s story reminds us that although suffering is real, love is real too. We have treasure, great treasure, treasure beyond counting; the treasure of one another, the treasure of a new day, every day, the treasure of God himself, with us, walking beside us. We are called to treasure that treasure right now, at this moment, not by hoarding it or keeping it to ourselves, but by working with the generous God who gave it to us, letting it multiply and grow as we use it, so that it can enrich the world.


Sunday, 8 November 2020

Remembrance Day

Video sermon here

Micah 4.1-8, Matt 5.38-48

There’s an old story from the Muslim Sufi tradition which goes like this…

A traveller was once walking along the road when he came upon a holy man, a dervish, sitting by the side of the road quietly praying. The man was old and frail, and had obviously been sitting in this place a long time. 

As the traveller watched, a young man on a great white horse came riding hell for leather along the road towards them. When he got to the place where the holy man sat, he reined in his horse, jumped down and started beating the man savagely. The traveller started forward to defend him, but the young man leapt back up into the horse’s saddle and rode off down before he could reach him. 

The holy man struggled to his feet and looked down the road after his young attacker, who was vanishing from sight in a cloud of dust, and he shouted after him

“May you get what your heart desires!”

The traveller was astonished at this and said to the old man, “Tell me, why did you shout that at a man who had so brutally beaten you? It’s not at all what I would have shouted at him”.

“Ah” he said  “But, you see, the thing is, the person who has what their heart desires will not need to go about the world beating up holy men.”

I’ll let that sink in. “The person who has what their heart desires will not need to go about the world beating up holy men.”

This year has seen a great deal of loss for many people. The death toll from Covid 19 stands at over 46,000 in the UK, and there have been many other deaths from disease and natural disaster too, like the recent earthquake in Turkey. But today, on Remembrance Sunday, we’re not remembering those death, deaths caused by viruses, or the shifting of tectonic plates, impersonal forces. Today, as if all that was not enough sadness, we are mourning deaths which were caused deliberately. People have different opinions, of course, about when and whether war is justified, but I don’t think anyone with a shred of decency would say that it’s good, or desirable. It’s always a sign of failure. Wars don’t spring from nowhere. They are born from petty disagreements, suspicion, prejudice, fear, which only escalate into cataclysmic destruction because we can’t find or won’t seek other ways of resolving differences and we often don’t realise the importance of doing so until it is too late.

That’s the tragedy of war; the knowledge that it didn’t have to happen at all. When we look at the names on our war memorials we know that these people, young people for the most part, could have lived full and happy lives, had brilliant careers, formed relationships, seen their children grow up, and their grandchildren too, if it hadn’t been for the wars into which human failings catapulted them. 

In our first Bible reading, the prophet Micah, amidst the loss and violence of his own time, had a vision of a better world. There are grand images in his vision, of nations streaming to Jerusalem, for example, but it’s the small things which really stand out for me, because it’s often the small things which matter most to us. Micah dreams of a time when people will be able to sit under their own vines and fig trees without the fear that an invading army is going to take it all from them. Sitting under your own vine and fig tree? It’s not so very much to ask, is it? And yet, for so many people, in every age, even that simple dream is beyond them. War steals their dreams, along with their lives, their loved ones, their homes, their futures. War slaughters them in the trenches, gasses them in the concentration camps, drives them out as refugees, causes them to die of starvation and cold as they try to seek safety. And we know, deep down, that it didn’t have to happen. 

As that Sufi story implied, violence isn’t inevitable. It springs from a sickness in the human heart, but it’s a sickness that seems so endemic that we all grow up infected by it to some extent. It produces in us a deep insecurity, which makes us cling to what we’ve got instead of sharing it, and grasp at what we haven’t got, thinking it’ll be the magic wand which makes us finally feel safe and loved and worthwhile.  That Sufi mystic knew what made for peace; not, in the end, diplomatic treaties backed up by sophisticated weaponry, but the healing of the human heart. 

The way of life Jesus calls his followers to in today’s Gospel reading depends on us finding that kind of healing and wholeness. We can’t live a life of radical generosity, we can’t love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us unless we’re secure in ourselves, and Christians believe that security ultimately comes from discovering we’re secure in God. We find that security by trying to live as Christ did, and failing, and being forgiven and trying again, and failing again and being forgiven again, until we realise that we can’t destroy God’s love for us, that nothing can separate us from it, “neither death nor life nor anything else in all creation” as St Paul put it. 

Today, as we look at these long lists of names - far too many – names that are echoed on war memorials all over the world, of course, we long for peace, from the depths of our broken hearts. The invitation of Christ is to bring those broken hearts to God, to let him heal them, casting out the fear and hatred which destroys peace, and filling them with his love, so that it can overflow to others. Then maybe, we will realise that we have what our hearts desire, and we won’t need to go about the world beating up holy men, or anyone else, for that matter.


Friday, 30 October 2020

Bible Sunday

Nehemiah 8.1-12, Matthew24.30-35


Today is Bible Sunday, the day in the church calendar when we ask God’s help, as today’s special prayer put it, to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the words of Scripture.


I wonder how you feel about the Bible? You may be an old hand, who’s been reading it for many decades, but for many people it’s a closed book – in every sense of that phrase – a baffling tome that seems so irrelevant and outdated. What on earth is it about? Where do we even start? How can we understand it? Do we need to take it all literally if we want to call ourselves Christians? If these are your questions, then you aren’t alone.


It probably won’t surprise you to hear me say that I think reading the Bible is a Good Idea. That’s not just because I’m a vicar, but the Bible records the voices of countless people who’ve gone through the same human experiences and trials we all do, and encountered God within them. As we listen in, we can often hear that “still small voice” speaking to us too.


The Bible isn’t a simple instruction manual, though. It’s not even one book, but many different writings put together over a period of more than 600 years. It’s not always internally consistent. Why should it be? No one who wrote the books that made it up ever imagined they would all be bound in one volume.


It’s often in dialogue with itself. Jesus himself argues with the Scriptures. “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’” he says, quoting the Old Testament book of Exodus(21.24) . “But I tell you not to resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  In fact the ancient law was intended to place a limit on the retribution people could inflict if they were hurt – they could only take an “eye for an eye”, not more, as they might be tempted to – but Jesus calls his followers to show generous mercy.


He wasn’t doing anything new in reinterpreting the words he’d grown up with. It’s what serious students of the Hebrew Bible were expected to do, weighing up the many different images of God it contained, different understandings of life and death, and what comes after it, different ideas about how people should relate to each other, arguing with one another, reinterpreting in the light of new experience. If we want to read the Bible seriously, and feel the breath of God coming off its pages, we need that same open-minded, open-hearted approach to it.


The Bible is a treasure chest to delight in, and if ever we needed its rich array of stories, poetry and wisdom it is now, because it was almost all written in times of crisis and trauma, times when its writers and readers had their backs to the wall, when the future looked bleak - times like our own, in other words.


The books of what we call the Old Testament – the Hebrew scriptures of the Jewish people – were largely drawn together just before, during and after their deportation into exile in Babylon. The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem, and taken its people away across the desert. In a foreign land, powerless, often brutalised, many of them became convinced that this was the end for them. But others looked back at the ancient stories that they’d heard and told around their camp fires for centuries and found new meanings in them in the light of the present disaster. Eventually they shaped them into a new narrative which spoke to them of God’s love and faithfulness. The world had been created good, and God had delighted in it, said the stories. He wanted nothing more than to be close to his people and have them close to him. But  soon things went wrong – the story of Adam and Eve cast out of Eden symbolised that. But did God give up on them? No. He went out into the wilderness with them, calling to them, guiding them, forgiving them, turning up again and again, looking for goodness amidst the self-inflicted chaos of the world, nurturing small seeds of hope. Even when the people became slaves in Egypt, said the story, God didn’t forget them. He raised up an unlikely hero, Moses, to confront Pharaoh and lead them out of slavery. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.


Imagine hearing those stories, reframed by this new time of trial in Babylon. “God was with us then,” they said, “even though we didn’t always know it at the time. Even when we’d given up on God, God never gave up on us. And if he didn’t then, maybe he hasn’t given up on us now either.” It was a message of hope in a time when hope seemed all but extinguished.


Today’s Old Testament passage told the story of the reading of those old stories of Moses shortly after the exile, when some of the exiles had returned to Jerusalem. How should they rebuild? What could they make of the ruins they’d been left with, along with those who’d been left behind, abandoned to try to survive amidst the rubble?  The ancient tales, reshaped, brought them to their knees in mourning and repentance for what had gone wrong, but also gave them hope for the future, which sent them home rejoicing.


The New Testament too was written against a backdrop of trauma. It was written for small, scattered groups of Jesus’ followers who were trying to live out the message he had taught against a backdrop of intermittent persecution. The Gospels date from between 30-50 years after the time of Jesus crucifixion – a bit like writing about the 70s and 80s now - far enough away to reflect on with a bit of perspective, but well within living memory for many. By the time the Gospels were being written, the beautiful city of Jerusalem had been destroyed again, this time by the Romans, and its people driven out around the ancient world, This disaster resulted in savage arguments and infighting in the Jewish community, and the followers of Jesus were often caught up in this, because Christianity was still just a reforming group within Judaism at that point. It looked as if this tiny new movement would be swept away before it had a chance to grow. But the Gospel writers, like those earlier Hebrew scribes, pointed their readers back to the story that had begun their movement, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was a story of apparent failure and hopelessness, his humiliating execution, but it had become the well-spring of their faith. Jesus’ resurrection had upended the expectations of the world, which said that the might of Rome, like that of Babylon, would always rule, and that cruelty and hatred would always have the last word. “Heaven and earth will pass away” says Jesus in the passage we heard today, “but my words will not pass away.” His words would be the words that endured.


And so it has proved to be. The Roman Empire, like the Babylonians before it, is long gone, but people still find life and hope in the words of Jesus.


So, should we read the Bible? Yes, we should. That doesn’t mean taking it literally, and certainly not looking to it for easy answers, but if we read it with open minds and hearts, we can still feel the breath of God come from its pages to breathe his life into our weary souls, to revive us and give us hope amidst the fears and troubles of our present age.


St Luke


Today is the feast of St Luke. He’s the patron saint of doctors, which isn’t surprising, because, according to the Bible, he was one – St Paul calls him “the beloved doctor” in his letter to the Colossians. (Col 4.14). Rather more curiously he’s also the patron saint of artists, because according to legend, he painted an image of the Virgin Mary on visits he made to the house she shared with St John in Ephesus after the Ascension of Jesus. Jesus had entrusted Mary and John to each other’s keeping as he hung on the cross, and tradition says they lived together for the rest of Mary’s life. Quite why Luke painted her isn’t spelled out in the legends, but they say that as he did so, she shared with him the stories of Jesus’ conception and birth – you have to talk about something while you’re being painted! That’s why, say the legends, Luke’s Gospel’s the only one to have the story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary, the journey to Bethlehem, the manger and the shepherds. Sadly, it’s highly unlikely that this legend is true, but if Luke didn’t paint Mary in pigments, he certainly painted her in words far more vividly than the other Gospels.  


Luke seems to have been a companion of Paul, and he’s traditionally thought to have written the Acts of the Apostles, which tells Paul’s story, as well as the Gospel that bears his name. Whoever wrote them seems either to have been a Gentile, or what’s called a Hellenistic Jew, a Jewish person who’d grown up in a Greek-influenced environment. Luke’s Gospel shows a particular care for those who were outsiders in some way, as the Gentiles were, and for those who were sick or disabled, so maybe it’s not so far-fetched to think it was the work of that “beloved doctor”. But if the author was a doctor, he was certain one who believed that healing was about more than curing individual bodies of individual diseases. The healing of souls mattered just as much to him, and so did the healing of society, and ultimately the healing of the world. It’s in Luke Gospel that Mary sings of the God who has “put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble and meek” , who has “filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty”.


Isaiah has the same sort of vision for the world in our first reading. He looks forward to a time when not only the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped, but also waters will break forth in the wilderness, a time when healing will come to the whole of creation.


In Hebrew, this vision of wholeness is called “shalom”. It’s often translated simply as “Peace” but it means far more than just an absence of war. God’s shalom is the state where everything is as it ought to be. And don’t we just long for that right now? On this day dedicated to Luke the healer, we’re all aware of how much the world needs healing, not just physical healing from coronavirus, but healing for all that this pandemic has revealed about our society; the inequalities it’s exposed, the precariousness so many are living with, the strains in communities and families. The effects of this tiny germ have been, and will continue to be, profound. We long for shalom, for peace, wholeness, healing.


In today’s Gospel reading, shalom is the first thing that Jesus’ disciples are told to announce to those they are sent to. “Whatever house you enter,” Jesus says to his disciples, “first say ‘Peace to this house!’. In fact, peace is the only thing they’ll have to  give, because Jesus tells them not to take a purse or a bag, or sandals, with them. They will be turning up on people’s doorsteps destitute, powerless and barefoot.


They’ve even got to leave their personal scruples behind. They’re to eat and drink whatever they’re given – a challenging thing for people brought up to keep the Jewish food laws. What if their hosts give them unclean food to eat?


Jesus doesn’t pretend it will be easy. They’ll be like lambs amidst wolves – a combination which usually isn’t too promising for the lambs! And there’ll be more to do than they can ever manage – the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few. If this is meant to be a pep talk, I wouldn’t have been feeling very “pepped”.


But Jesus’ advice has wisdom in it. With nothing to offer, they’ll be the ones in need, and they’ll have to be open both to the people they’re going to and to God. And because of that they’ll be much more likely to discover God’s presence, to find that he is already there, close at hand, wherever they end up. They’re told not to move about from house to house, looking for a more congenial place to be.  Wherever they are, God will be there, and where God is, there is peace.


They’ve seen this as they’ve watched Jesus at work. They’ve seen the peace of God in him, in the midst of storms, in the face of opposition, as he’s crossed boundaries to heal and welcome people who others shunned. They’ve seen Jesus go into all these unlikely places, trusting that his Father will be at work. Now it’s their turn to find that out for themselves. This mission is a “great God hunt”. Jesus isn’t going to equip them with “quick fixes” or pre-packaged answers to impose on people – In fact, the less they have to offer the better. But he’s hoping rather that they’ll discover that God is already there. All they will have to do is join in with what God is doing, and they will discover that “the kingdom of God has come near.”


It is so easy to feel we should rush in with our own solutions when we’re trying to help people, rather than listening and waiting with them, trusting that God has the situation in his hands, that it’s his job to do what needs to be done, in his time and his way. We get anxious. We’re desperate to do something, to look useful, but our quick fixes usually turn out not to fix much at all, and quite often we make things worse. The best helpers are usually those who realise they have little to offer but themselves, their time and attention. In the space we make when we do that, often, often, we find the healing peace which is God’s gift to us, peace within the storm, peace which gives life to the spirit, even if the body dies.  


There’s a wonderful challenge for all of us in this story. How would it change our lives if we greeted each day, each place, each person with the words “Peace to this house. Peace to this time. Peace to this place, this person” expecting that we’ll find God, the God of peace in it? What difference would it  make to that conversation we’re dreading,  the task that seems beyond us, or the dull grind of something we’ve done a million times before, if we go into it trusting that God will reveal himself to us in it? Perhaps this week, we should try that. Perhaps we should say those words to ourselves as we pick up the phone, or compose that email, or start a new shift at work, or set out on a journey? “Peace to this place”. Perhaps if we did so we might discover more often that the “kingdom of God had come near?”  and that the healing we long for is already growing within us.



Sunday, 11 October 2020

Getting Changed: Trinity 18

Audio version

 Isaiah 23.1-9, Matthew 22.1-14


There are two versions of the story we’ve just heard in the Gospels. Both Luke and Matthew include it, but they tell it slightly differently. In Luke’s Gospel, it’s a simple tale of a rich man who throws a feast, and invites other rich and important people to it.  But they send excuses, and don’t come, so he invites all and sundry to take their place, dragging bewildered beggars in off the streets to make sure the food is eaten and the feast enjoyed. It’s a story about inclusion and welcome.


The story in Matthew’s Gospel is much darker, though, and it’s set at a much darker point in Jesus’ ministry. It’s the last week before his crucifixion and he’s in the Temple, speaking to the priests and the Pharisees – we’ve heard a series of readings over recent Sundays from the same extended conversation. These are the people who have the power in Jesus’ society, political power as well as religious power. They’re the ones who expect to be listened to and obeyed, and they’re offended that this carpenter from Nazareth seems to be attracting a following.


The story Jesus tells them challenges their sense of entitlement.

The main character in Matthew’s story isn’t just a rich man. He’s a king. And the feast isn’t just a feast. It’s a wedding banquet for his son and heir. In the Bible, weddings aren’t about love – two people’s eyes meeting across a crowded room, undying affection, hearts and flowers and all that stuff. Biblical weddings, especially royal ones, are about alliances, dynasties, politics, property, kingdoms. They’re specifically about the future of the kingdom, because after the wedding, it’s hoped, a new generation of rulers will be born.


So this is a royal wedding. And that means that when the invited guests refuse to come, it wouldn’t just have seemed rude; it would have looked like treason. The king would have seen it as a deliberate, public refusal to support him at a crucial turning point in the nation’s life. Imagine doing this to Henry VIII at one of his many marriages. You soon find your head was literally on the block.


It’s no wonder that the king in the story is furious. Matthew’s hearers would have expected him to be. No king worth his salt in the ancient world would have put up with what looked like a deliberate snub like this. It’s important to understand at this point that Jesus isn’t saying that the king is God, or that God would behave like this. Parables aren’t supposed be point-for-point comparisons like that. He is telling a story – a rather exaggerated, over-the-top story – to make his audience think, to open a door into their own hearts and minds.  These powerful people Jesus is talking to claim that God is their king, and that their power derives from God, but they’re so busy with their own agendas – like the guests who went off to their own farms and businesses – that they’re missing the moment when God actually shows up in their midst.


But they aren’t the only people to come in for stick in this story. Right at the end there’s a detail which many people find deeply puzzling and disturbing. A man is found in the banqueting hall, who isn’t wearing a wedding garment, and the king is as furious with him as he was with those who didn’t turn up at all, ordering him to be cast out into the darkness.


This sounds unfair to us. What if he couldn’t afford special clothes? After all, he wasn’t expecting to go to a wedding that day. He’d just been dragged in off the streets. Is God really bothered about what we wear? Commentators have suggested explanations. It would have been fairly common for hosts to provide clothing for their guests at a wedding, for example, so perhaps he’d been given something, but wouldn’t wear it.. But the truth is that we’re probably just asking a twenty-first century question of a first century text. The implication is clear. This is a man who doesn’t want to recognise the importance of this wedding. He’s sitting at the table, eating the food, but he’s not prepared to get changed, to enter into the joy of the occasion and the future it promises. And perhaps that’s even worse than refusing to come at all, because he’s quite prepared to enjoy the party, without investing anything in what the party is for.


We don’t have to openly rebel against God in order to sabotage the work of his kingdom. We can do it just as effectively, perhaps more so, by paying lip-service to it, by turning up, by calling ourselves Christian, but not letting our faith make any difference to our lives. Like this man, we can refuse to “get changed”, to address the parts of our lives that we know aren’t right. We can sit in the pews, or stand in the pulpit, or even sit on a Bishop’s throne, but not live out the kingdom’s values.


This week, the Church of England – and especially its leadership – was heavily criticised in the latest report from the Independent Inquiry into Childhood Sexual Abuse, which has been looking at abuse in many sectors of society – education, politics, the care system but also in churches. Those involved with children and vulnerable adults in churches will know that safeguarding has become a huge priority over recent decades, as it is here at Seal, with DBS checks and safeguarding training mandatory for a wide range of people. The Inquiry recognised that progress, but it found that it was all too often stymied by the culture which pervaded some parts of the Church, a culture of deference, cronyism, Old Boys Networks, attitudes to those with power which made it hard for the voices of those without it to be heard - particularly the victims and survivors of abuse . The Inquiry report makes for painful reading, but I’m afraid I wasn’t at all surprised by its contents. Wherever there has been power, throughout human history, there has also been abuse of power. The Church ought to be different, but it isn’t, and it can only become different if each of us who calls ourselves a Christian is prepared to “get changed”, to let God transform us. Christian faith is meaningless if it doesn’t change us, but it’s easy to become complacent,  to enjoy the wedding banquet, but not be prepared to live the life of the kingdom it’s meant to herald.


Matthew’s story is a big story, a deep story, a challenging story.  Do we want to be part of what God is doing? Or not? Are we prepared to let God change us, as we need to be changed? Or not? Are we up for new life, new beginnings, new hope for ourselves, for our communities, for our world? Or not? The choice is ours.