Sunday, 22 January 2017

Epiphany 3: Confronting the powers

About a hundred years before Jesus was born a great victory was won by a man you may never have heard of called Aristobolus I – no, I hadn’t heard of him either. He was the king of Judea, the territory around Jerusalem – he had seized power for himself after a family feud. If that wasn’t enough, he was also high priest.  

Aristobolus wasn’t content with the power he had though. He wanted more. He was a bit of a megalomaniac. In particular, he had his eyes on the lands to the north of Judea, between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean. Once they’d been part of Israel. They were the ancient tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, but 600 years before him the Assyrians had conquered them and scattered their populations around their vast empire. They’d resettled the land with people from other countries and faiths.  It had become a ragbag of nationalities, cultures and backgrounds. That was why the prophet Isaiah called it Galilee of the nations, that’s why he described it as a place where people walked in darkness, a place where those defeated tribes had been brought into contempt, a place of anguish.

Aristobolus wasn’t having it. He wanted to make Israel great again – sounds familiar? So he marched north with his armies and, after a bitter war, he won.  But now what? The problem was that many of the people of Galilee weren’t Jewish. They were descendents of that ragbag of nations the Assyrians had settled in the land. Aristobolus’s answer was simple. If they weren’t Jewish they would have to become so, by force if necessary – which it mostly was. He wasn’t taking no for an answer. They were made to convert. As far as Aristobolus was concerned the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali had been reborn. The people who walked in darkness had seen a great light, his light, whether they wanted to or not.  He, Aristobolus had “made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.”

Of course it didn’t last. In fact he’d hardly had a chance to enjoy his conquest when he died, and about 40 years later, the Romans conquered not only Galilee, but Judea too, and parcelled up his kingdom among puppet kings like Herod. So much for making Galilee glorious, making Israel great again. So much for casting light on people who walked in darkness. His mighty conquest had been no more than a flash in the pan.

So when Matthew quotes that very same passage from Isaiah, and applies it to Jesus, he is being much more provocative than we think. This was all very recent history to the people of Jesus’ time. We often tend to read the Gospels in a very individualistic, spiritual way when at the time they were political bombshells, full of subversive messages.

Right from the start of Matthew’s Gospel he sets us up for a story that is going to be about power and how it is used, kingdoms and how they are built and ruled. It’s Matthew who tells us the story of Jesus’ birth through the lens of the visit of the Magi – there are no shepherds and manger in his version. They go straight to King Herod initially and spark off a firestorm which ends up with the massacre of the children of Bethlehem and the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt as refugees. Then Matthew tells us about John the Baptist, who thunders at those who oppress others and confronts those who thought they held the reigns of religious and secular power. We follow Jesus out into the desert, where he confronts powers of a different sort, the spiritual powers which threaten to derail his ministry before it starts. Is he going to win a following through miracles. Is he going to heap up glory for himself?  What kind of leader will he be – one like Aristobolus, leading by force, ambitious for worldly acclaim and wealth?
Jesus rejects that temptation – his way is going to be completely different.

And that’s where today’s Gospel begins. Jesus comes out of the desert and hears that John has been arrested. He could have decided to give it all up there and then, but he doesn’t. He steps straight into the space John has prepared for him, and begins to preach the same message. And it is the same message, exactly the same message, word for word, which John had preached just a chapter earlier in the Gospel. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. Jesus knows that he will face the same corrupt political forces which had imprisoned and would eventually execute John, but he carries on preaching anyway.

That’s the backdrop to the calling of his first disciples, Simon and Andrew, James and John. They aren’t just called away from their settled lives to the hardships of a travelling ministry. They aren’t just called away from their families and their private, self-contained lives. They are called into a battle with some mighty and very dangerous opponents.

The safest thing, if you live under an oppressive system, is to keep your head down and hope no one notices you. But they decide to take up the company of someone who is very deliberately challenging the powers that be. The danger to Jesus and to his followers couldn’t be clearer. When they rise up and follow Jesus they are embarking on a path which will lead most of them, ultimately, to suffering and to death.

So whatever made them do it? Why did they chuck in their comfortable lives and head off into the unknown? What did they see in Jesus, in that split second that he called them, which convinced them that he was worth following? What did he see in them?

Let’s think about the first of those questions first. What did they see in Jesus. Matthew doesn’t give us any clues about why those fishermen chose to follow him. All we know is the message he was preaching. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It doesn’t sound like a very appealing message at first hearing. We don’t tend to like the idea of repentance these days, sackcloth and ashes are out of fashion. But the real meaning of the word translated “repent” is “change your mind”.

Repentance is about finding a whole new outlook on life.
We might be used to looking at the world with cynicism and despair. “Change your mind,” says Jesus, “learn to see the hope God has for you.” That’s repentance. Or we might feel that our lives are pointless, that we are just on an endless treadmill. “Change your mind” says Jesus, “you matter, your life has a purpose, God is at work in you”. That’s repentance too. Or we might look at the forces, political, personal, ranged against us and think, “what chance have I got against all that”. “Change your mind,” says Jesus, “God’s light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. “ That’s what repentance looks like in practice. It’s not about despair or misery; it’s about hope.

If that’s the case, no wonder these fishermen leapt up and followed Jesus. Things could be different, were going to be different.  “The kingdom of heaven has come near” he said to them. “God is here. He’s at work in the world, at work in you, if only you open your eyes to see it.” Put that way, I’m not surprised that these fishermen leapt to their feet and followed him. They had sat too long already in the darkness of oppression, injustice and hopelessness, but now the light had dawned. Of course they wanted to know more. Of course they wanted to follow.

But if that’s what they see in Jesus, what is it that he sees in them? Why does he call these ordinary fishermen to be his followers? Again Matthew doesn’t give us much of a clue, but I think that’s the point. It’s not who these people are the matters but who they aren’t.  They aren’t superstars. They aren’t particularly rich or well-educated. They aren’t even necessarily good or religious people. In Matthew’s version of this story they are simply the first people Jesus comes across. God doesn’t just call extraordinary people, Matthew is telling us, people with gifts and talents that single them out from the crowd. He doesn’t just call those who are especially intelligent, resourceful, strong or brave.  He calls everyone.

For most of us, thank God, that calling won’t involve martyrdom, but all of us are called to do something – or maybe a succession of somethings during our lives – which will make a difference in the world in some way or other, to work with God in creating his Kingdom where we are, in our workplaces and neighbourhoods. We create that kingdom as we stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, as we love those others have no time for, as we learn to react with mercy and forgiveness, not fear and hatred to those who hurt us. This is a ministry we are all called to. There are no exceptions. There is no one too young, or too old, no one too insignificant, and no one too important either, to be called by God to do this work.

This week, as we have watched a divisive president take up office in the US, when our own nation is debating what sort of future it wants, what sort of kingdom we are, it is all the more important for us to realise that we all have a part to play in shaping the future. God calls us very urgently to work with him now, just as he called those fishermen two thousand years ago. He calls us to create a future where we can be drawn together by love, not driven apart by fear, where we build bridges, not walls, where we learn to seek and to find God in the stranger, and even in the enemy, as well as in the friend.

If God could work through the random bunch of people we find following him in the Gospels - people who get it wrong as often as they get it right - he can surely work through us too. All we need to do is to change our minds about ourselves, to learn to see ourselves as God sees us, full of promise, full of hope, chosen and called. “Repent – change your mind – for the kingdom of God has come near.”

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Epiphany 2 Breathing Space: Remaining with Christ

“They came and saw where Jesus was staying, and they remained with him that day.”

Near the beginning of John’s Gospel, we find people making their way to Jesus. He doesn’t seem to seek them out, as he does in the other Gospels. Instead, they seem to be drawn to him.

John the Baptist has pointed him out. “The Lamb of God” he calls him, but it’s an enigmatic title. Lambs were for sacrifice, associated particularly with the Passover festival , that great moment when the people of Israel remembered the time they had been led from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The Passover festival was a great time of rejoicing for the people, but not such good news for the lamb. What is John saying about this man? Who is he? What is he going to do? Why will it matter?  Nothing is clear to these followers of John, but they want to know more.

So off they go after him, following at a distance it seems. Maybe they want to be noticed, maybe they don’t, but Jesus realises they are there and turns around to talk to them.  “What are you looking for?” he asks. Their answer sounds a bit odd. “Where are you staying?” It sounds as if he has caught them off guard, as if they are a bit lost for words. They don’t ask him who he is or why he has come or what he has come to teach. As answers go, it is a bit inane – what difference does it make where he is staying?

Jesus could have answered by simply giving them his address – “third house on the right beyond the butchers shop,” or wherever it was. But he doesn’t. He hears what they mean rather than just what they say. He hears the hunger lurking under the surface of this apparently trivial question. He knows them better than they know themselves.

Their deepest need isn’t to know where he is; it is to be where he is. That is a whole different thing.

Knowing where Jesus is, knowing about him, is something we can do from a distance, without getting involved. If these men had had his address they could have said “Ok, fine – we’ll drop in sometime” and never done it. We can study the theological literature about Jesus, listen to the sermons and debate our opinions without ever being touched by him personally. But Christian faith calls us to more than that, just as Jesus calls these disciples to more than simply knowing his address.

“Come and see”, he says them. And they do, “remaining with him that day”. It was about four o’clock when they were invited to go with him, so we have to assume they sat with him as dusk fell and night came. What did they do? Well, I am sure they talked – about God, about themselves, about him. I am sure they shared ideas and argued about theology. But if they “remained with him that day” they must also have prepared a meal, chopped the onions, cooked the bread, done the washing up, lit the lamps, stoked the fire, all the everyday things that people do when they spend a decent length of time together. As well as the talk there must have been silences, as well as the deep theological stuff there must have been small talk – “pass the salt”, “mind that chair- it’s a bit rickety”. Maybe there were other people around too, family members and friends dropping in and out, making them welcome, joining in the discussion or just wanting to know when dinner would be ready.  

The joy of this image of these two men “remaining” with Jesus, for me, is as much in its ordinariness, its picture of Jesus simply being with these two curious disciples of John, letting them see him as he was in all his raw humanity, letting him see their raw humanity too.  

The word “remain” in this story – “they remained with him” – is translated in some versions as “abide”. There’s quite a lot later on in John’s Gospel about “abiding”. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples that they need to “abide in him” and let him “abide in them”, just as he “abides” in his Father. He uses the image of a vine, with branches grafted onto it, with the life of the parent plant flowing through them. It’s no good if those branches are just tied on for an hour or two now and then, though. For a graft to take it has to be permanent, abiding.

It’s the same for us. We are invited first to “come and see”, but the hope Jesus has is that having “come and seen” we will then remain and abide. God calls us, says St Paul, “into the fellowship of his Son”. His invitation to us is to share his life, and let him share ours, day by day, on Monday mornings as well as Sunday nights; in the ordinary things we do as well as the special things.

In the silence tonight, let’s imagine ourselves in that house with Jesus, making ourselves at home with him, just as he hopes we will do. How do we feel about “abiding” and “remaining” with him, and letting him remain with us.


Sunday, 8 January 2017

Epiphany Sunday: God in the mess

Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. It’s an ancient feast, going back into the early centuries of the Church, and it was the main celebration of Christmas at first, as it still is in some parts of the world. It was especially popular once Christianity became the imperial faith of Rome and then the faith of kings and emperors across Europe in the Middle Ages. It’s easy to see why when you look at how the story has been presented in paint, mosaic and stone over the years. The Magi were pictured as exotic visitors from the East. Their feast was the ideal opportunity for a bit of bling, for fine fabrics, rich colours, shiny gold and silver and precious stones. They were much more appealing to royal courts than a bunch of drab looking shepherds in homespun clothes.
Gentile di Fabriano. 1423 Adoration of the Magi. Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Medieval kings were fond of staging re-enactments of the Epiphany story as part of their court celebrations, and you can guess who got to play the part of the Magi – they did! They weren't letting anyone else hog the limelight and the best costumes. The story of the Magi was used to legitimise their power and wealth. If they had been welcome at the crib, so would any powerful, wealthy person. That’s true, of course, but they didn't stop to ask whether it mattered how you came by your wealth and power, or what you did with it. Medieval kings shoehorned themselves into the picture, no matter how much they had to distort it in the process. That’s why these Magi gradually became thought of as kings, despite the fact that Matthew doesn't call them that at all, or even hint that they might have been. The only king in Matthew’s story was the murderous king Herod, but no one who valued their lives was going to point that out to a Medieval monarch.

But if these visitors weren’t kings, who were they? There’s a lot of debate about that. In the ancient world, a Magus – that’s the singular – could be any of a large range of people. Originally, they seem to have been priests of the Zoroastrian faith, from Persia, but by the time of Jesus, the word could be used for anyone who practiced what were seen as magical arts – magic comes from Magi. Some Magi observed the natural world – the stars and planets – looking for divine messages in them, and gave birth unwittingly to what we now call science. Others were philosophers or gurus, claiming some special secret knowledge which they would share with their devotees. Some were no more than snake-oil salesmen, con artists, people looking to exert power and gain wealth by trickery.

These visitors to the infant Christ obviously had an interest in astronomy – they spotted the star - but we don’t know much more about them than that. They were rich enough to afford costly gifts, but it might be that the gold, frankincense and myrrh they brought was all the wealth they had. They certainly weren't the kings that later history turned them into, and they weren't even necessarily the “wise men” our modern translations tend to call them. After all, going straight to the reigning king to tell him that he had a rival in the shape of a vulnerable baby was hardly a sensible move. So all we can really say is that these Magi were from far away, Gentiles not Jews, and that they were seekers. They were people who knew that there was more to know, people who knew that they needed something, and that they needed it enough to trek a long distance and give gifts of great value to find it. They didn’t know where they were going, or what they were going to do when they got there, or what difference it would make; they just knew they had to make the journey.

Their story is really a long way from the gilded, shiny tale those Medieval monarchs wanted it to be. It’s a story of confusion and terror, a story with a bloodbath at its end, as King Herod tries to obliterate the competition for his throne. The Holy Family become refugees in Egypt as a result.
The whole thing is, in short, a bit of a mess. 
And yet it proclaims that in the midst of that mess, God is present. He’s present for people who don’t know what they are doing or why they are doing it, for people who get it spectacularly wrong. He’s present in the midst of bloodshed and grief, in the face of hatred and jealousy. He’s present for those who don’t fit in, for those who come from far away and feel like clueless outsiders. He’s present for those who live in “thick darkness” as the prophet Isaiah put it in our first reading. He’s present for people who are in a mess, people who have made a mess. And that, surely, means he’s present for us, because somewhere in that messy list, we can all find ourselves, if not now then at some point in our life. So this story is very good news, not just for kings and emperors, but for everyone.

Mess has been a bit of a theme for me this week. As you may know, on Wednesday morning I discovered that the church hall had been broken into and vandalised. Broken crockery everywhere, broken windows, and a plate of spaghetti hoops thrown at the kitchen wall. The perpetrators had obviously had a field day, high on something or other. Fortunately, a team of people swiftly rallied round and cleared up, and Martin got the insurance claim underway and sorted out the glass repairs. Mercifully too, the newly refurbished kitchen hadn't been damaged, apart from the aforementioned spaghetti hoops. So it could have been worse. But it was no fun discovering this scene of devastation on Wednesday morning, and of course, although the insurance will cover the damage there’s the excess to pay and the nuisance of sorting it all out.

It wasn't just the physical mess that struck me as I surveyed the wreckage though. That was fairly easy to deal with. It was the other mess which really saddened me, the mess of the lives of those who had done it. What kind of state do you have to be in, how hopeless and purposeless do you have to be to create such wanton destruction? What does the future hold for you if you’re that far out of control, so disengaged from your own community that you can trash a space that’s there for you too? How far awry does your moral and emotional compass have to be for you to do things like this?  

It’s easy for us to feel angry about the damage done to the church hall, but I believe God wants us to be just as angry about the damage that must have been done to the lives of his children to turn them into mindless vandals who are capable of this.  That doesn't mean the law should be soft on them if they’re caught, but it matters that we understand that God is just as much with them and for them as he is for us. He longs for them to see the starlight that’ll lead them home to him, just as much as he longed for the Magi to see it. He longs for them to find meaning and purpose for their lives, to know they’re welcome, as the Magi were – you don’t have to break in if you know you’re welcome! 

This story of the Magi is for them, but of course, it is also for the rest of us too. Most of us probably wouldn't smash up other people’s property or throw plates of spaghetti hoops at the wall, but we’re all capable of making a mess of life – our own and others, deliberately or accidentally. We can vandalise people’s spirits by putting them down, smashing their confidence, disregarding or condemning them. That can cause damage that is far harder to put right. We can all find ourselves stumbling about in the “thick darkness” Isaiah talked about, directionless, lost, causing mayhem as we go. We all need that star to call us home.

The Magi weren't really the shining heroes those Medieval kings wanted them to be. They were just people who knew their need of God, and were desperate enough to make a messy, costly journey to try to find him. When they did, it wasn't in the political and economic heart of the nation – King Herod’s palace. It was at the heart of an ordinary family who had an extraordinary willingness to welcome those God sent to them, whoever they were and wherever they’d come from, even if it threw their own lives into turmoil. That’s exactly how the adult Jesus behaved – this foreshadows his adult life. He allowed his life to be messed up so that others could find the love of God.  The Magi go home, we’re told, “by another road”. That’s not just a geographical detail; it is a spiritual one too. They’ve been changed by the journey, and the welcome at the journey’s end.

There’s an old Epiphany tradition in which priests bless small pieces of chalk.  The chalk is then taken home and used to write a message above the doors of those who receive it. The message reads, rather cryptically, 20 + C + M + B + 17. The 20 and the 17 are the year, of course. The C,M and B are either Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar – traditional names given to the magi in Western Christianity – or alternatively they stand for “Christus Mansionem Benedicat” – Christ bless this house. Altogether it is a sign to anyone who sees it that this is a house committed to giving a Christian welcome to those who are looking for it, wandering Magi, the questioning and confused, and  to Christ himself, who comes to us in everyone we meet.  

I have some chalk this year, which I’ll bless later in the service. If you’d like to you are welcome to take a piece home and to write that sign over your door. If you live somewhere you can’t really chalk, I've made some little signs which you might be able to fasten to the door, or put in a window instead.

Like those Medieval kings, we all like a bit of bling in our lives, but in the end, the light of God’s love, known in the love we give and receive, and in the welcome we extend to others, is far brighter and more glorious than earthly gold, far sweeter than frankincense, far better for healing than myrrh. May that light shine in our hearts today.


The Blessing of the Chalk
Welcoming God, who led the Magi to their true home in the heart of Christ by the light of a star, bless this chalk today. May the signs of welcome we make with it be matched by the welcome we give in our hearts; to the wandering and confused, to the lonely and the lost, to those who seek for you, and those who do not know what they seek. May they find you in us and may we find you in them. In the name of Christ. Amen

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The Naming & Circumcision of Jesus

Luke 2.15-21, Galatians 4.4-7, Numbers 6.22-27

What’s in a name?

I’m sure we would all agree that 2016 was an eventful year both politically and by the sheer number of celebrity deaths. It was heart breaking to see the death and suffering in many places around the world, particularly Syria where I’m sure we all pray that the first shoots of peace may grow and take hold.

We enter 2017 with hope and for those of us who have made it here today we mark this festive day in the Christmas season which is the feast of the Naming and circumcision of Christ. It’s a good theme to preach on as I found new paths to explore in a way that can be hard to find in the major Christmas services when so many have their own ideas and preconceptions about what Christmas is or what they want it to be.

I don’t know whether you can think of anyone who is particularly arrogant but if so there is a fair chance that you find them somewhat irritating at times. In certain situations such people seem to often have a sense of entitlement. Many political commentators state Hillary Clinton’s apparent sense of entitlement to be US president as a factor in her defeat. In my early years of employment I worked at a family owned firm where colleagues of a similar age had a sense of entitlement to promotion and business ownership because they knew that nepotism rather than meritocracy would prevail.

It’s one thing to think that we may be entitled to a certain status or job but what happens when this extends to our relationship with God? This would have been a real consideration for Paul. Raised as a Jew he would have been told as a child that he was one of God’s chosen people giving rise to the possibility that he felt entitled to God’s love in a way which was distinct from having a faith or recognising God’s love for us.

We know that Paul was once a persecutor of Christians changed when he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus which fundamentally altered his arrogant expectations into a meaningful relationship with God. A potential problem with entitlement is that it can be a ‘one way street’ where the expectant recipient knows everything that they should have but fails to balance this against the acceptance of responsibility, duty, service and sacrifice.

In the short passage from Galatians we heard that’ God sent his son, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so we might receive adoption as children.’ A more constructive relationship with God emerges as Paul starts to realise that all he has to do is accept the generous love he is offered. In doing so humility takes over as Paul understands the sacrifices God has made for us and the relationship shifts from entitlement to grateful acceptance. In this form it is impossible not to be changed ourselves, leaving little space for arrogance to survive.

Mary is also forced to think about her relationship with God. Maybe she thought to herself that the angel Gabriel could have given her more information when he came with a message as she finds herself with visitors who seem to already know a lot about who Jesus is. No sooner has she followed through God’s will to bring a child into the world, something which understandably would have her feeling rather special, than God teaches that the child will have to shared for all. Following some reflection she completes the instructions from the angel and names her son Jesus and has him circumcised on the eighth day after his birth in accordance with Jewish rituals which were so important they even allowed circumcision on the Sabbath when every other form of non-essential work was forbidden.

She follows instructions found in Genesis 17: “And God said to Abraham: ‘As for you, you shall keep My covenant… Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations…’

Do you ever wonder whether Mary liked the name Jesus, would she have chosen it herself? It’s certainly better than Kevin, I’d certainly have never chosen that for myself. When I looked it up it seems Kevin is the anglicised form of the Irish name CaoimhĂ­n. Saint Kevin established a monastery in Glendalough, Ireland in the 6th century and is the patron saint of Dublin. The name peaked in popularity in 1960’s.

If you haven’t already done so try looking up your own name. The naming of a child is something parents often agonise over, my niece and her husband changed their daughter’s name after a couple of months reminding us how difficult the process is for some. The chef Jamie Oliver’s children are called Poppy Honey, Daisy Boo, Petal Blossom, Buddy Bear and River Rocket Blue Dallas but there’s no suggestion that any modifications are being considered.

The former Bishop of Rochester Michael Nasir Ali would always explain the meaning of each persons name at a baptism or confirmation, reinforcing the importance of the choice made.

Shakespeare challenges our thinking on this in Romeo and Juliet. Spoken by Juliet, Romeo & Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2 “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet is not allowed to associate with Romeo because he is a Montague. If he had any other name it would be fine. She’s complaining that his name is meaningless. If the rose had any other name it would still be the same. So with Romeo; he would still be the same beautiful young man even if he had a different name.

“What’s in a name? The name Jesus didn’t have the significance that we understand today. It was a typical Jewish boy's name, a common name of the common people. This seems to be the point, to give Him the name as one of His people. In Latin America, the name Jesus is still common. Jesus (and Joshua) both meant ‘Saviour or God is salvation’ in Old Testament times.

The naming of Christ also signifies the beginning of a confrontation between the kingdom of God embodied in a small child named Jesus and the might of the Jewish and Roman authorities, they would all come to know Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is also known in countless other ways as Lord, Saviour, Master, and Redeemer. But of the 90 times Jesus was addressed directly in the gospels, 60 times he was called Teacher. This was the word the multitudes used. This was how the disciples referred to him. Jesus himself used the term when he said, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and rightly so, for that is what I am” (John 13:13).

Jesus Christ can be known to us by many names, our Prince of Peace, our Counsellor, our Advocate and ultimately our Saviour. Our understanding of God may also lead us to the conclusion that we have always been known, that we, like Jesus, have been both known and ‘named’ before we were conceived. Think of the Psalmist’s meditations on an all-knowing God: For it was you who formed my inward parts; You knit me together in my mother’ womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works that I know very well. Psalm 139: 13-14 (NRSV)

So as we embark on a new year unsure of what lays ahead for us, good or bad, we can draw strength and comfort from the fact that we are each wholly known by God in a way that goes beyond our earthly names. God who loves us so much that he sacrificed his only son and gave him the very name which offers us salvation.


Kevin Bright

1 January 2017

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Christmas Day Story: Old Tom

There are many animals in the Bible; camels and donkeys and cows and sheep, locusts and frogs and even rock badgers, whatever they are. There are some dogs, too,  though they don’t usually get a good press.
But there’s one animal which doesn’t get a look in at all, not a single mention, and that is the cat. There’s not a single cat in the Bible, not one, unless you count lions. There are no moggies or mousers, although there must have been plenty around.

Madonna del Gatto. Leonardo da Vinci,
British Museum
But that didn’t stop people inserting a few here and there as they retold the stories. By the Middle Ages, there were several legends doing the rounds about cats at the birth of Jesus, and I’m going to tell you a story based on those tales.

This is the story of Old Tom.

Old Tom was a scraggy old cat, with matted fur and raggedy ears from fights he’d been in in the course of his long life. Old Tom didn’t belong to anyone – no cat really does, of course – but Old Tom really didn’t have anywhere to call home, any lap that was his to sit on, any fireside to curl up beside. Once he’d had a mother and brothers and sisters, but that was long, long ago, and anyway, just like him, they’d been homeless alley cats. The people of Bethlehem tolerated Old Tom, because he was a good mouser, but they weren’t so keen when he helped himself to the meat pie they’d left out to cool, or the milk they had collected to drink. Old Tom was used to dodging the boots they threw at him, making a sharp exit when he heard shouting. That’s how he knew what his name was, from the things they shouted. “Who’s taken our supper?” “ Oh – it was that old tom again,” he heard them say to each other.

One cold night in the middle of winter, Old Tom had found himself a quiet place to curl up and sleep, in the corner of a barn, on a warm pile of straw. It was dark in his corner, out of sight. No one would notice him here, which was just the way he liked it.

But he’d no sooner settled down, when the door of the barn creaked open, and in came a man and woman, leading a donkey – Mary and Joseph, they called each other, as they made their way in. Old Tom opened one eye, but stayed quiet. The man and woman didn’t see him as they led the donkey into a stall alongside the ox who usually lived there. He was well hidden, and, besides, they had their minds on other things, because, blow me down, if the woman didn’t lie down on the straw, right there and then, and give birth to a baby!  Old Tom had been born in a barn just like this, but he knew that humans generally had their young in more comfortable surroundings, not out here with the animals.

And no sooner had that baby been born – wailing like a kitten, and laid in the animals’ feeding trough – than a whole lot of other people showed up. The first visitors were strange creatures indeed, shining things, with wings like birds – and my, how they could sing! Old Tom liked a sing-song now and then, when the moon was full and the spirit took him – that was usually another moment when boots starting flying through the air towards him – but no one would have wanted to shut these creatures up. Then came the shepherds. Old Tom was more used to them, but what they were doing here, kneeling in front of the manger? Shouldn’t they be out in the fields, watching their sheep?

It was hours before the little family  – and Old Tom – were left in peace, and he could tell that the woman was very tired, and needed her sleep. The man walked up and down with the child, while she lay down on the straw and slept. The ox nodded off, and so did the donkey. In the end, the child slept and the man laid him down in the manger, and stretched himself out wearily to rest. Old Tom relaxed – now at last he might get the sleep he had been looking forward too. Being a canny cat, though, used to the dangers of the world, and always alert for the possibility of a quick meal, he was never quite off guard and so it was he alone who spotted something moving in the straw on the stable floor.  Was it a mouse? or a rat? But no, it seemed too long a thing for that. And it was green, and smooth. Old Tom knew what he was looking at. It was a snake!

Now , Old Tom didn’t like snakes, not one bit. They weren’t good eating, and if they bit you, it was bad news – Old Tom knew that. The humans didn’t like snakes either. He’d heard them talking about a snake who, right at the beginning of everything had whispered poison into the ears of the first man and woman – not literal poison, the kind that would kill your body, but the lies that can poison your spirit. “God doesn’t love you” “ You can’t trust him” “ look out for number one!” And somehow that had spoilt everything.

Old Tom had heard them saying, too, that one day a child would be born who would show them how to live and set right what had gone wrong back then. They didn’t know who the child would be, but he would be special.

Old Tom thought about those strange visitors who’d shown up when this child was born , and the shepherds who’d left their sheep. Maybe that always happened when a human kitten was born, but somehow he doubted it. What if this child was the one who was going to put right what was wrong?
And what if that snake, slithering closer and closer to the manger, were to bite him and put a stop to that wonderful healing before it had even begun? That couldn’t be? But no one had seen the danger. Everyone was asleep – the ox, the donkey, the man and the woman, the child himself – everyone slept as the snake crept closer and closer to the manger.

Old Tom knew he’d have to do something. He stood up, slowly, slowly, the way cats do when they’re hunting. He lined himself up like cats do, slowly, slowly, so the snake wouldn’t see him. And then….voomph! – off he went, yowling and hissing and screeching straight for the snake which slithered off like greased lightning. The baby woke up and started crying, the ox woke up and started bellowing, the donkey woke up and started heehawing. The man and woman woke up and shouted “Stop, cat!” They couldn’t see the snake; they thought Old Tom had just gone mad, like cats sometimes do. But Old Tom took no notice of them. He just kept charging along after that snake, round the walls, across the floor,  across the backs of the ox and the donkey, in and out of the legs of the manger. “Quick! Grab the baby, Joseph!  before he tips the manger over”. Joseph snatched the baby up just in time as the manger came crashing down. Mary and Joseph were too busy checking that the baby was all right to notice the moment when Old Tom finally cornered the snake under the manger and, with one bite behind its head, killed it.

Tom sat down and looked up at the little family, who were desperately trying to comfort the wailing child while the ox and donkey bellowed away in the background. He waited for their thanks, but Mary just turned to Joseph and said – “that cat has to go!”. And Joseph turned to Old Tom and said “You! Out!” pointing to the stable door. Old Tom was confused. Hadn’t he just saved their child? But Joseph picked him up, marched across the stable, opened the door and slung him out into the darkness of the cold, wet night. Well! If that was going to be all the thanks he got that was the last time he was ever going to help a human! He slunk across to the other side of the road, and sat down under the dripping eaves of the house opposite, in the darkest spot he could find.  He licked himself here and there, so it would look as if he really wasn’t bothered, but inside he was furious and humiliated. He had just wanted to help, and look where it had got him.

Back in the stable, the baby was still crying. Mary couldn’t stop him. Joseph couldn’t stop him, but at least, he thought, he could restore some order. He picked up the manger from where it had crashed down onto the floor, and there, underneath it he saw – the snake. It wasn’t moving, but Joseph prodded it with a stick just to be sure. As he looked more closely he saw that there was one, cat-sized, bite mark just below its head.
“Oh, Mary,” he said. “Look at this snake. The cat must have seen it coming towards our child and killed it! And we’ve just thrown him out into the cold and the wet! “

“Look outside, Joseph” said Mary. “See if you can see him. Bring him back so we can thank him and apologise.”

Joseph went to the stable door and peered out into the darkness, but Old Tom was well hidden. “Puss, puss,” called Joseph, “We’re sorry! Please come back into the warmth.” “Pah!” thought Old Tom, from his damp dark hiding opposite. “They needn’t think they can bring me round with  a bit of ‘puss, puss, pussing…”

“It’s no good Mary, I can’t see him anywhere!”

“Maybe he would come if we gave him some food. Isn’t there some cheese left in our bags?”

Joseph rummaged around a bit and sure enough, there was a little lump of cheese. He broke it up and put the pieces in a line just outside the stable door. “Puss – there’s some cheese here if you want it – just to say thank you and sorry.”

‘Cheese!’ thought Old Tom. “Now, I do like cheese. It can’t do any harm to go over and just have a nibble. He crept back across the road and sniffed at the first piece of cheese. Smelt ok! Tasted ok too. He wolfed it down, and then the next and the next and the next. The last piece of cheese brought him to the open stable door. It looked warm and inviting to him. Surely it couldn’t do any harm if he sat just inside the door.

Mary and Joseph saw him there. Mary was sitting in the straw, jiggling the baby on her shoulder trying to stop him crying. The baby’s cries went right through Old Tom. Suddenly he could remember crying like that when he was a kitten, and just wanting someone to comfort him. He crept closer and closer. Mary stretched out a hand to him and began to smooth his matted fur. She scratched him just behind his ear, where he liked it. “Thank you for saving our son. We’ll never forget it.” she said. “If only you could send him to sleep too!” Tom put first one paw, then the other onto her lap and reached his face up towards the baby’s. The baby, fascinated by this new creature, reached out a pudgy hand and laid it on his head, forgetting to cry as he did so.

Suddenly a strange peace spread through Old Tom, from the tips of his whiskers to the end of his scraggy tail. Old Tom, who had never belonged anywhere, suddenly knew that he belonged here, with this child, to this child. He didn’t need to be wary of him, on guard. To this child, even scraggy alley cats were welcome, trust was restored, love was renewed. He was the special child – Tom knew it.

And deep within Old Tom something started to happen, something that hadn’t happened since he was a kitten. Old Tom started to purr. At first his purr was a bit rusty and hesitant, but soon it filled the stable, and lulled by it the baby dropped off to sleep, and so did his mother and father, and the ox and the donkey in their stall. And the stable was at peace once more, but Old Tom’s peace was the deepest of all.


Midnight Mass: The beginning of Christmas

I wonder what this moment feels like to you, on the cusp of the midnight that ushers in Christmas Day?  When we were small, we were probably full of excitement, dreaming of Christmas stockings, wondering what was in those parcels under the tree. Maybe now it is a bit more complicated, and feelings are more mixed – but whatever our experience, this is the moment when Christmas Day starts. Even if you are a real Grinch or Scrooge, a Christmas refusenik, it’s hard to resist the hopefulness of this moment when Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day.

The problem is, though, that by this time tomorrow, this moment of expectation will be behind us. The wrapping paper you’ve so carefully applied will be rubbish for the recycling, and the Christmas meal you’ve lovingly cooked will be reduced to leftovers and washing up. In the space of twenty-four hours, anticipation is often replaced by anti-climax. Even if your family festivities have been full of joy and happiness, you may realise at that point that nothing has really changed, and your life will soon be back to the same old, same old.  The problems you had before Christmas will still be waiting for you after it. That’s as true for the world around us as it is for us as individuals. We may send each other cards wishing “Peace on earth”, but the earth will be just as war-torn on Boxing Day as it is now. We remember that famous World War 1 truce, when English and German soldiers played football and sang carols together, but we forget that the next day they all went back to shooting at each other.  

Christmas isn’t magic, no matter how magical we try to make it. It can’t cure the world’s ills, make people happy when they aren’t, draw together feuding relatives, or mend marriages that are crumbling. It can’t put right in a day what has taken months, years, lifetimes to go wrong. It takes more than a bit of glitter and a tub of Quality Street to mend a broken world.

Christmas Day can sometimes seem disappointing, but I wonder whether that might be because  we see it as an end, when it’s meant to be a beginning.  

When Jesus came into the world at Bethlehem of course there was a sense of fulfilment and achievement. After all the hardships and tensions of the pregnancy, and that unplanned journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the child was born. Even if the only bed he had to lie in was a cattle stall, he was safe and well. Of course Mary and Joseph were relieved, and delighted by their new born son. But for them, just as for any new parents, this wasn’t the end of the story. This was where it started. Parents usually treasure their first moments with their new baby, posting endless photos on Facebook, spending hours just gazing at their little miracle, but they wouldn’t really want their child to stay like this forever. There would be something seriously wrong if they did. The joy of parenting lies in seeing your child grow up into the person they were meant to be. Along the way, there’ll be pain and challenge too – for any child, not just for Jesus, but growing and changing are what life is all about. Birth is a beginning, not an end.

There’s a lovely poem by a poet called Luci Shaw about the new born Jesus, which perfectly captures that moment when all his life lay ahead of him, unknown and unimaginable. It goes like this:  

In sleep his infant mouth works in and out.
He is so new, his silk skin has not yet
been roughed by plane and wooden beam
nor, so far, has he had to deal with human doubt.

He is in a dream of nipple found,
of blue-white milk, of curving skin
and, pulsing in his ear, the inner throb
of a warm heart’s repeated sound

His only memories float from fluid space.
So new he has not pounded nails, hung a door,
broken bread, felt rebuff, bent to the lash,
wept for the sad heart of the human race.
(Kenosis, by Luci Shaw)

It’s a poignant poem, which acknowledges that this child is going to have sorrows to face as well as joys.  But it also reminds us of the gift he will be to the world. He’s the one who will weep “for the sad heart of the human race”. He’ll share our sufferings and by doing so, he’ll transform them. His death and resurrection will show us that however dark the night, God can bring his light into it and give us a future with hope.  In him, God will break into our human experience, not so that he can understand what it feels like to be us – he knows that anyway – but so that we can understand how much we’re loved.

And it all starts here with this child cradled in a manger, not an end but a beginning;  a small beginning who reminds us of the small beginnings each of us is called to make, the journeys which start here and now.

Tonight we may cradle in our hearts a dawning hope that change is possible, for ourselves or the world around us. But what are we doing to feed that hope, to help it to grow, to become the reality we long for?

Tonight we may cradle in our hearts a tiny flicker of faith, a desire to pray, a new born longing for God. But what are we going to do to nourish it so that so it can be a source of strength to us for the rest of our lives?

Tonight we may cradle in our hearts a sense that there’s something we’re meant to be doing with our lives, a meaning and purpose we need to search out. But what are we going to do that will help us to listen to that calling and respond to it?

Hope, faith, purpose; these are the sorts of things that are born in our hearts tonight. They are God’s gifts to us, but just like a new born child, they are small, vulnerable, easily destroyed. They are just beginnings. It is what happens next that matters, and if we want to help those “children” of ours grow up, if we want our hope, faith and purpose to develop, it will take more than good intentions.

It will take time and patience and will sometimes come at a cost. It will take other people. It takes a village to raise a child, as the saying goes. Mary and Joseph seem to have been alone in Bethlehem, but God soon gathered some very unlikely people around him to form a family around them. There were shepherds from the hills, and foreign magi summoned from far away by a star. These aren’t the people you’d expect at the crib side – where are Jesus’ aunties and uncles, grandparents and cousins? Later on there would be fishermen and tax collectors and prostitutes, a strange “DIY” family to support Jesus and be supported by him. “Family” for him was never going to be simply about blood relatives – it was for anyone and everyone who wanted to be part of it.  That’s why Christian faith has always been a communal faith, one in which coming together is valued. We need one another - all of us - with our gifts and our scars, struggling to get along and learning to love and be loved as we do so.

That’s one of the reasons why you have all been given one of these pink slips tonight, so that, if you want to, you can let me know that you’d like to be kept in the loop, or maybe have a chat in the New Year. There are no strings attached to this offer; I just didn’t want people to go out into the night wishing they’d done something to take the next step. If you’d like to keep in touch, fill in the form and give it back to me, and I will make it happen.

It’s good for us to have our moment of wonder and joy tonight, but what God really wants is for us to have a lifetime of wonder, a lifetime of joy. It’s good that we can celebrate this child born in a stable tonight, but what God really wants is for Christ to be born in our hearts as well, and to grow and thrive there.

So, happy Christmas – it all starts here!  But let’s make sure it doesn’t end here too.
Amens, and foreign magi summoned from far away by a star. These aren’t the people you’d expect at the crib side – where are Jesus’ aunties and uncles, grandparents and cousins? Later on there would be fishermen and tax collectors and prostitutes, a strange “DIY” family to support Jesus and be supported by him. “Family” for him was never going to be simply about blood relatives – it was for anyone and everyone who wanted to be part of it.  That’s why Christian faith has always been a communal faith, one in which coming together is valued. We need one another - all of us - with our gifts and our scars, struggling to get along and learning to love and be loved as we do so.

That’s one of the reasons why you have all been given one of these pink slips tonight, so that, if you want to, you can let me know that you’d like to be kept in the loop, or maybe have a chat in the New Year. There are no strings attached to this offer; I just didn’t want people to go out into the night wishing they’d done something to take the next step. If you’d like to keep in touch, fill in the form and give it back to me, and I will make it happen.

It’s good for us to have our moment of wonder and joy tonight, but what God really wants is for us to have a lifetime of wonder, a lifetime of joy. It’s good that we can celebrate this child born in a stable tonight, but what God really wants is for Christ to be born in our hearts as well, and to grow and thrive there.

So, happy Christmas – it all starts here!  But let’s make sure it doesn’t end here too.


Thursday, 22 December 2016

Advent Breathing Space 3 : The two way street

In our Breathing Space services this Advent I've been exploring a little of what it means to have a communicative God, a God who speaks and listens to us.  In this last session I’d like to shift the focus from God to ourselves, because communication is a two way street. We can communicate by giving a lecture – or a sermon – or through a letter or poster or email or text message, but if that was all we ever did we would end up feeling very lonely.  We might get our message out but we’d never build any relationships.  A relationship in which the parties simply make announcements to one another or lecture one another isn't going to last very long! So it is with God. What he longs for is not simply a mute and obedient audience but a conversation, something dynamic, something alive.

Often people have modelled their relationship with God on the relationship they might expect to have with a great and powerful sovereign. He is so often called King and Lord, that it’s easy to simply assume he is like an earthly ruler, writ large.  I've been watching Lucy Worsley’s television programmes about the six wives of Henry VIII over the last few weeks. They've been fascinating as a glimpse into the world of the Tudor court, and the extreme care with which everyone had to approach the king, fitting in with his whims, observing the strict etiquette, knowing that if they put a foot wrong they would be in deep, and possibly fatal, trouble. That was how kings were, in Tudor times and in the times of the Bible.  But it’s not how God is.   

We might think of him as a king, but he isn't one who expects us to wait to speak until we are spoken to, or to guard our words with exaggerated care around him. This is the Creator who came walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening looking for the man and the woman he had made simply for the sake of their company, and was bitterly disappointed when he discovered they were hiding from him. This is the one who wants us to cry to him “out of the depths”, as the Psalmist put it.  We don’t have to guard our words with him, any more than we would with our best friend. A friend is someone who we know will continue to love us when we are less than sparkling company or need someone to have an unreasonable rant at, someone who wants to hear what’s troubling us, even if ends up troubling them too. God wants to hear from us. We don’t have to wait for a gilt-edged invitation, as we would for an audience with the Queen. We don’t have to worry that a word out of order will see us consigned to the outer darkness.

A true friend listens to us, but equally a true friend is someone who we want to listen to as well. If our relationship with God is true and deep we’ll want to listen to him, to trust his good intentions for us, to take seriously what we hear from him. Sometimes that might mean a very definite message – that happens more often than you might suppose. Sometimes, though, it will be a Bible verse that strikes us, or a conversation with someone else which has an impact beyond what we would expect, or it might be something that happens in our lives. It’s important that we test out those perceptions – not every stray thought that pops into our heads is a message from the Almighty – but if we take our relationship with God seriously then we will want to take time to weigh up what we think he might be saying to us. After all the extraordinary circumstances of the birth of Jesus, Luke tells us that Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” She didn't just shrug her shoulders and say “probably just the hormones of childbirth swilling around – I expect everyone imagines angels and shepherds and such like…” She pondered all that had happened, turned it over in her mind, took it seriously, even if she didn’t fully understand it at the time.

The shepherds too responded to what they’d heard, in a very different way. They told others, and glorified God.  The news was so good they couldn't contain it. The sovereign God, the one who they thought of as dwelling in unapproachable light in a far distant heaven, was lying in a manger in a smelly stable in their own village, and he’d chosen them to reveal this news first of all.  

The Word was made flesh in Christ. Perhaps that was the only way we would ever really be able to grasp how God feels about us.  He came to us as a human child, not so that he could understand what it is to be human, but so that we could understand how deeply we’re loved. In Christ, God spoke to us from within our human condition, in that speechless child, so that we would know that even when we have no words to express ourselves he is with us.

In the silence tonight let us, like Mary, ponder these things and treasure them in our hearts.