Sunday, 10 June 2018

Trinity 2: Mad, bad and dangerous to know?

Audio version here

I was having a conversation with someone the other day about cream teas, as you do. The thorny subject came up of whether you should put the cream or the jam on your scones first. Apparently, cream first is the Devonian way, and jam first is a sure sign you are Cornish. I have to say that, coming from the West Country myself, I don’t ever really recall this being a “thing” when I was growing up, but maybe that is because as a Devonian, it never occurred to me to do anything other than what is quite obviously right – cream first. I hadn’t realised it was a tribal marker until recently, but if it is, then it’s clear which tribe I am in! The person I was talking to said “Oh, I see. So there’s a Devonian way and a Cornish way  “No,” I said, “there’s the Devonian way and there’s the wrong way!”

Tribalism – which I was most certainly guilty of - is at the heart of the Gospel reading we heard today. People around Jesus are puzzling over his words and actions, but for many of them the question isn’t so much about the merits of his message, but whether he is like them or not, one of them or not, part of their tribe or not. Does he do things the way they do, see the world the way they do? If he does, he’s obviously a good thing; if he doesn’t then he is mad or bad and probably dangerous to know as well.

Even his family are behaving like this. Mark’s story is topped and tailed by reports of their concern for him. “He has gone out of his mind,” his family say. This will end in tears. They can see that. And they’d like to spare him, and themselves, the inevitable trouble which will come from annoying those in power.

Still, at least they care about him as a person. The scribes are much more brutal,. They accuse him of being in the pay of Satan.

The local Pharisees already have it in for him because of his apparent disregard of the Sabbath laws, but these religious experts have come all the way from Jerusalm to see what’s going on, and their verdict is damning. “ He’s possessed!”  they say. “He’s a servant of Beelzebub”. They can’t argue with the facts. He has been healing and exorcising. But they argue that he’s been doing it through the devil’s power, because they can’t believe that God would use someone like him, a carpenter from Galilee who mixes with sinners.

They demonize him, quite literally, but that’s something we can all do, even if we don’t believe in actual demons at all.  We demonize people by ascribing dark motives to those we’ve fallen out with or whose political  or religious views we don’t share. We suspect them of hidden agendas. Nothing they can do is right or good, even if it really is right and good.  

Our distrust spreads to things that have nothing to do with the real differences between us. Their dress is the wrong dress. Their football teams are the wrong football teams. The way they eat their scones is wrong, wrong, wrong. We forget what we originally fell out about. Now everything becomes a marker of our difference, and the result is that we can’t see anything good in them any more, or hear what they are really saying above all the clamour of all the stuff we’ve decided to hate about them.   

Demonization poisons communities. That colleague or fellow member of the congregation who we disagreed with about something once, or who hurt us or made us look bad, now can’t open their mouths without putting our backs up. Our hackles rise as soon as we think of them.

Jesus demolishes the scribe’s argument with one blow. They’re saying that he’s casting out demons by the power of Satan. But why would Satan give him power to do that? The demons are Satan’s henchmen. It wouldn’t be in Satan’s interest to have them cast out of anywhere. He’d be fighting against himself, shooting himself in the foot. The scribes haven’t got an answer for that, but his clever logic isn’t going to be enough to convince them that God is with him, because they’ve already made up their minds otherwise. As he discovers, you can’t defeat demonization with logic.

Essentially demonization is what Jesus goes on to describe as the “unforgiveable sin”. It’s the sin of calling good things bad, saying that the work of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, is the work of Satan. It’s unforgiveable not because it’s worse than other sins but because when we commit it we don’t see that we are doing anything wrong. How can God forgive us, Jesus is saying, if we don’t think we need forgiveness, if we’re blind to what we are doing wrong? It’s only when our eyes are opened, as Adam and Eve’s are in our Old Testament reading, when we see that we are naked, that God can start to set us right again.  Until we come to that  painful realisation, God can’t get anywhere with us.

The scribes demonize Jesus, and their demonization of him eventually sends him to the cross. But there’s a real danger when we read Gospel stories like this that we do exactly the same to them. Christians throughout the ages have twisted these Gospel stories, lumping together all Jewish people with the few who opposed Jesus, a Jew himself, of course.  It’s true that scribes, Pharisees and other Jewish groups tend to  get a rather bad press in the Gospels, and it’s understandable too. The Gospels were written in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD70. Bitter arguments broke out within Judaism about why this had happened and who was to blame. Some Jewish groups – the Pharisees in particular – blamed the Christians, still very much part of the Jewish faith, because they said they’d polluted the faith by admitting Gentiles to their fellowship. They expelled the Christians from their synagogues.

Tempers were running high and in the midst of all that, it’s not surprising that the Gospels don’t tell us much about the scribes and Pharisees who supported Jesus, or that those who didn’t weren’t necessarily bad people, and that even when they do, as, for example in the story of Nicodemus, we have often missed those details. In truth, many scribes and Pharisees cared deeply about their nation and their faith and were just concerned that Jesus’ revolutionary ideas would bring down the wrath of Rome on them. They wanted peace, just as the Christians did. They just differed in how they thought it would come about. In the bitterness of the argument, though, the nuances got lost, and what we’re left with is probably far more black and white than it should be.

That’s a pity, because it’s meant that Christians have often done exactly what Jesus warns us against here. Instead of looking at the issues, we look at the tribal markers. Other people are either “our tribe” or “not our tribe” and we declare them “right” or “wrong” as a result. We forget that we’re all, first and foremost, children of God, each of us flawed and failing, but all with something to say that’s worth listening to, part of the truth that we all need.
I’m going to be dashing straight off at the end of this service because I am going to take part in a march in London commemorating the hundredth anniversary of women getting the right to vote. As a woman priest, I know I wouldn’t be here in this pulpit if other women hadn’t lobbied and fought, often at great cost, to win me that very basic right. Looking back now, it seems like a no-brainer. How could people have ever thought it was wrong? But they very genuinely and sincerely did.

I came across a pamphlet written by Lord Curzon, entitled Fifteen Good Reasons against the Grant of Female Suffrage. It sounds very bizarre now. Argument number four, for example, reads:
“Women have not, as a sex, or a class, the calmness of temperament or the balance of mind, nor have they the training, necessary to qualify them to exercise a weighty judgement in political affairs.” It continues in a similar vein through all fifteen dreadful clauses.   [,]

Everything in me recoils from Curzon’s “Good Reasons”, but, but… if I take Jesus words seriously, it matters that I don’t just write off what he says as pompous twaddle, because behind his awful rhetoric, there were concerns that were legitimate have been concerns that were quite legitimate. For example, he thought that giving the vote to women would be the start of the wider emancipation of women, and that this would have an effect on family and community life. And he was right. It has done. Now that most women as well as men do paid work outside the home, the vast army of stay-at-home wives and mothers who once provided childcare, elderly care and all sorts of voluntary community work has shrunk almost to nothing. No wonder voluntary organisations and churches struggle so much for help now.  

Of course, I don’t agree with his solution to this – keeping women chained to the kitchen sink, subservient and silent. The answer lies in men and women together figuring out a pattern of family life that is healthy for them, and all of us together taking responsibility for  sustaining community life , but painful though it is for me to admit it Curzon’s anxieties about this weren’t wrong, even if he didn’t express them in a very helpful way.  Refusing to listen to our opponents, just because they have opposed us, isn’t the way to find the wisdom we all need.

It’s always tempting to think “my family right or wrong”, “my faith, right or wrong”, “my country, right or wrong” but Jesus said “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” even if it’s someone who we’ve always thought was our bitterest enemy.

Christ calls us to look for the real issues behind the posturing, the real person behind the stereotype, to listen for God’s voice amidst the clamour of our rivalries. It’s a calling to humility, a tough calling, which is why we so often fail at it, but it’s only by doing this that we’ll escape the endless cycles of bitterness which poison our attempts to build the kind of world God wants, and we need. It’s only by doing this that we’ll find that we are all one tribe – his tribe, his beloved people.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Trinity 1: "Stretch out your hand"

Audio version here 

Deut 5.12-15, 2 Cor 4.5-12, Mark 2.23-3.6

“Stretch out your hand”, says Jesus to a man he meets in the Synagogue in Capernaum. That’s what caught my eye and my imagination as I read this Gospel reading. It’s an intriguing detail. There’s no real need for this man to stretch out his hand in order to be healed. Jesus often healed with just a word, or even at a distance. But this man seems to need to stretch out his hand to receive his healing.

As I said, it caught my attention, and it led me to think about this action, this gesture of stretching out a hand and what it might mean.

As it happens there’s another outstretched hand – or rather an arm – in today’s readings.  It is in the Old Testament passage from the book of Deuteronomy. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” The outstretched arm here is held out in a gesture of power, of authority, of agency, the gesture of someone who is going to get something done. There are plenty of other examples, in the Bible or out of it, of outstretched arms wielding power. Moses stretched out his arm, holding his staff, to part hands the waters of the Red Sea. In folklore, wizards stretch out their arms, holding their magic wands, to make a spell. Kings hold out sceptres. Priests hold out their arms in blessing.  

Stretching out a hand or an arm isn’t alway a gesture of power, though. Hungry refugees stretch out their hands for food when the truck bringing supplies comes around. A drowning person stretches out their hands in hopes that someone will pull them from the water. And maybe, in answer, someone stretches out a hand to feed and to save them. 

Whether we are giving help or asking for help, casting a spell or making a command, praying or blessing though, the outstretched hand is a hand that is doing something. We stretch out our hands because we believe, or at least hope, that something will happen as a result.  

“Stretch out your hand” says Jesus to this man, but what is it that he wants to happen? Why does he need this man to make such a public gesture? Why can’t he heal him with a quiet word, or a private meeting?

To understand, I think we have to consider what this disability and its healing would have meant both to the man concerned, and to the rest of those present in that synagogue. 

Let’s start with the individual. 

Just imagine what it might have been like to be him. Daily life with a hand that doesn’t work properly is very difficult. We use our hands for so many things; eating, dressing, washing, as well as the tasks we need to do to earn our living. In the ancient world, without the machines and technology we now have, it was even more important to be able to use your hands. How could you grow your food, cook your food, gather firewood, build, make clothes, look after livestock one handed?  The fact that he can’t use this hand probably cuts off any real possibility for supporting himself, and maybe affects his prospects of becoming a husband and father too. He was probably dependent on others, and most people find that pretty tough. 

And to cap it all, he wouldn’t have been able to take a full part in the religious life of his community either. All adult men were supposed to offer sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem at least three times a year, but no one with a disability was allowed to enter it, because disability was seen as a sign of God’s displeasure, so he couldn’t even worship with everyone else.

What might this disability have done to his sense of himself as a person, as a proper grown-up? We don’t know, but it’s likely that he would have lived with a fairly constant sense of shame and exclusion. And this hand which Jesus is asking him to stretch out, was the cause of it. How difficult must it have been to him to let others see it, the source of his weakness and humiliation? 

So why did Jesus put him through this? Maybe because he needed to acknowledge the problem before he could be healed. As long as we are ashamed, as long as we hide what troubles us, from ourselves as well as others, as I imagine this man might have hidden that withered hand, nothing can change. Sometimes it is making that doctor’s appointment, going to that support group meeting for the first time, picking up the phone to the friend who has offered to help which really matters; that’s the moment , that first step, when change can start to happen.

That may be one reason why, on a personal level this man needs to “stretch out his hand” in this public way before he can be healed. His disability has made him feel helpless, mired him in a completely undeserved sense of shame. When he acts, when he stretches out his hand, he is doing something for himself, taking hold of life and hope and dignity again. It is Jesus who heals him, of course, but his brave, public act is a vital part of the process. 
But it’s not just him who needs healing and change. Equally significant in this story is the change and challenge which Jesus offers to those who witness his healing, because in some ways his society is even more disabled than he is. 

The fact is that the people who should have cared for him, the Pharisees, the so-called religious experts, don’t seem to have seen him as a human being at all. It’s nothing to them that he is struggling and needs help. To them, he is just a lure to trap Jesus. All they seem to care about is their arcane arguments about Sabbath observance. Never mind the miracle, what matters to them is that Jesus has healed on the Sabbath, and that, in their eyes is work.

We’ve already seen them get hot under the collar because his disciples have snacked on grains of wheat as they have walked through a field.  That’s harvesting, as they see it, and harvesting is forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus tries to justify it with an appeal to a rather obscure Old Testament story, but they aren’t having any of it. So when he comes into the synagogue they are just looking around for some way to get him into even more hot water. Whether it is just a convenient coincidence that this man is there, or whether they have set him up we don’t know, but which ever it is, they see him just as an opportunity to advance their interests. Their agenda is the only thing that matters to them, not this man and his problems. 

That’s what makes Jesus so angry. That’s why he is “grieved at their hardness of heart”. They can’t see the wood for the trees, and they aren’t even trying to. They are quite happy with the status quo, in which they have power and respect, and they don’t see what damage it is doing to them as much as to anyone else. They don’t see that they are even sicker than the man whose sufferings they are so ready to exploit. 

The man with the withered hand has been disabled emotionally and spiritually by a world view which puts power on a pedestal, because his physical  problems mean he has very little, but the Pharisees are just as disabled by that way of thinking. When people shame or stigmatise those who are poor or disabled, it is usually a sign that they are terrified of losing the wealth and ability they have. They need to put others down so that they can stay on top. It’s a risky strategy though, because no one is immune to the vagaries of illness and misfortune. That’s why tyrants are so often paranoid and fearful. But we can all behave like this, becoming defensive and prickly when our little empires are threatened, and these Pharisees are a perfect example of this. 

Ironically, though, both their lives and the life of the man with the withered hand might have been made much easier if they had really understood the issue at the centre of the stories we have heard today, the Sabbath and what it was meant to be for. 

God’s command that people should have one day of rest in every seven was meant to be a safeguard against the idolisation of power, a weekly reminder that we don’t need to have it all or do it all in order to keep ourselves safe. Only God can do that anyway. Keeping the Sabbath, choosing not to work every hour there is, dares us to trust that we aren’t on our own in a hostile world, with only ourselves to rely on, but in the hands of God who loves us. It dares us to trust, too, that we are part of a community, in which each is responsible for the others. The Sabbath says “enough is enough”; it was intended to provide a built in safeguard against inequality and injustice, stopping the powerful heaping up money at the expense of those who couldn’t keep up.  It reminded those who observed it that it was God who provided, God who empowered, God who gave to each person, whatever their ability, a dignity that couldn’t be taken away, the dignity of being his children frail and fallible but beloved and precious too.  

We are all clay jars, as St Paul put it, but clay jars can still contain treasure; we don’t have to pretend to be solid gold when we’re not and were never meant to be. That’s what Jesus went to the cross to prove. The clay of his flesh was shattered and torn apart.  Like the man with the withered hand, he was despised and rejected by those who saw him die this humiliating death, and yet, in his powerlessness, as his arms were outstretched on the cross, God declared our powerlessness, our failure, our death to be places that could be fountains of blessing, however unlikely that seems to us when we are in those places.

“Stretch out your hand”, said Jesus, and the man with the withered hand found liberation and life when he did so.  “Stretch out your hand”,, says Jesus to us, and maybe, if we do, we can find the same as we discover the blessing that comes from naming our need and accepting his help.

Sunday, 27 May 2018


John 3.1-17, Isaiah 6.1-8, Romans 8.12-17 Trinity Sunday It’s always interesting when preaching and attempts to make the bible relevant spark a reaction. Bishop Michael Curry Reading from his iPad, waving his arms in the air, smiling, raising his voice in tone and volume had the impact that he did largely due to the stark contrast of the solemn, monotone, stationary announcements that preceded him. Quoting from Martin Luther King to begin and end the speech he brought African American vigour and challenge to a congregation and onlookers expecting something much more mundane, and shorter. For many it was a refreshing highlight of energy and passion in an otherwise formulaic ceremony, for some it was unexpected intervention to hear about God on their Disney like day out and they thought he’d never end pointing out that even when he said ‘and with this I’ll sit down, we got to get y’all married’, he went on for another 3 of his 14 minutes. Perhaps Bishop Curry simply focuses on talking of what he knows to be true of God’s love without worrying too much whether his style suits the perceived reserved style expected by the British establishment. In our Gospel reading there’s a sense of this in the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. Nicodemus compliments Jesus on his teaching while at the same time pointing out that he is someone who can recognise God. It feels like an attempt to seek affirmation of his rather limited view of God but Jesus is having none of it he simply speaks what he knows to be true regardless of the fact this won’t suit Nicodemus whose version of God’s love is limited, sensible and fits neatly with rules and systems. The God Jesus speaks of offers a love without limits or preconditions, expressed in God as Father, Son and Spirit. Paul in his letter to the Romans encourages us to be open to the Spirit, to look beyond the physical and logical in order that we might know something greater. In my experience it’s essential that we stay open to God as Father, Son and Spirit and that in doing so we may experience heavenly surprises at times. This was highlighted when some of us were recently looking at ways to pray creating an open space within us for God through quiet, imagination, creative play and repetition. We may all find God in different ways as individuals but we need an open mind willing to explore, experiment and also be prepared to sometimes experience apparent nothingness, yet still persist. Think of all the different ways we might encounter God outside of this building, all the materials, tools, media, apps and technology which make the bible, preaching and teaching more accessible than ever. Many who read sermons and other material from this church may never worship here with us yet we are all connected through God’s love and our desire to experience, find, share and give thanks for it. Some people have even admitted to reading sermons on their mobile device whilst sitting on the toilet. Others still prefer to have a paper copy. Particularly in respect of my own work I prefer not to consider whether the two activities are connected! Getting back to the detail of Jesus conversation with Nicodemus there’s a sense that he’s asked a question but is unwilling to explore a possible answer. He doesn’t want to openly engage in an exploration of Jesus reply simply pointing out that one cannot enter a mother’s womb for a second time. So when Jesus talks of being born of water and spirit to Nicodemus he’s referring to baptism in water started by John the Baptist and baptism in the spirit being the new life that he’s come to offer the people. He’s telling Nicodemus that the family of God is thrown wide open to absolutely everyone and this is very much distinct from enjoying privileges which come with being born in the right place, the right time or the right family. You couldn’t blame Jesus if he had said to Nicodemus why have you come to ask questions with a closed mind, unwilling to invest time or thought in my explanation? He’d come to Jesus under cover of darkness looking for neat replies which would allow him to return without being seen by his fellow Pharisees but he would go away with much more to contemplate if he chose to do so. Trinity Sunday is challenging for me, I’m someone who struggles to think of the Trinity let alone explain it. I’m grateful for God as Father, Son and Spirit and open to all but feel that we are in danger of being a bit like the Pharisees ourselves by labelling them as Trinity, it feels to me that we are trying to control God, even limit him to Trinitarian ways. The word ‘Trinity’ never appears in the Bible. It would be possible to find other people’s explanation of what the trinity is and share those, to talk of overlapping circles and clover leaves but I’d be doing so without conviction. Talking of all the places we can encounter God this is the second time the bathroom has come up, it is possible to find God in many other places, even in church sometimes of course! I have a radio in my bathroom and happened to hear someone criticising ‘thought for the day’. The accusation was of forced links of contemporary news items with stories from the bible. One example given was of the Maundy Thursday thought of how the Aussie cricket team, after being exposed as cheats started to fall apart among suspicion and betrayal a bit like the disciples at the last supper. Another less credible example claimed that Gordon Ramsay ranting in the kitchen quickly led to a thought about Jesus as a guest for dinner. If we are being kind it maybe that these events chimed with the relevant scripture for those expounding their thoughts and there is always a danger of being ridiculed for finding God in the days news. The same could be said of offering trite explanations of the trinity that I can’t fully own. Why are you preaching about it then you may ask? Because it’s good to struggle with stuff about God which makes us uncomfortable, stuff we can’t neatly resolve and put away in the back of our minds I might reply, to my own question. Having said that I struggle with the neatness of this systematic theological term doesn’t mean that there’s nothing found worth sharing. For a start the concept of trinity reminds us of relationship with God in different ways and that this is really important. The church throughout the world and this church we are part of must seek positive relations with each other and those we encounter outside the church otherwise we become self-serving, self affirming people unwilling to step outside our comfort zone. It’s a sobering thought that God seeks relationship with others through us. The relationship part of God is inconvenient to all who seek to limit God only for those like themselves, it makes a mockery of everyone who seek to exclude others from a fair share of all the earth has to offer as if God doesn’t want an equally valuable relationship with all. So even though I can’t start to offer an explanation of the trinity I can see that it matters to us as Christians, that it really influences the way we live our lives, derive our values and relate to each other through our common humanity. There’s been a lot of talk about race in the light of Harry and Meghan’s recent marriage but the most helpful comment I heard was that there’s only one race that matters, and that’s the human race. Looking to Jesus for an explanation of the trinity is likely to take us back a step to think of how we approach the challenge. Christ himself would pray alone before he taught and then it was usually followed by a parable or story rather than offering a neat technical explanation. Surely this tells us something, that through Christ and the Spirit God reveals enough for us, perhaps as much as we can cope with, hardly a systematic approach. The collage of God, a book by Revd. Mark Oakley is one I’ve found helpful. In one part he points out that many of us may find different meaning and experience in the same piece of scripture. The subsequent debate and discussion is healthy but whilst our understanding can sometimes divide us we should be united in our agreement that the bible offers us places of shared sacred encounter. So if we are to take anything away from today’s readings, for me we need to think about whether we are truly open to and prepared to give quality time to hear and understand God’s message of love and we mustn’t come to God with questions if we are not sometimes prepared to learn uncomfortable truths that may require us to change. Ultimately it’s all about relationship with God and each other. If we are prepared to try and play our part in all this then we can echo the words of Isaiah ‘Here I am; send me’. Kevin Bright 27 May 2018

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Pentecost: The wind, the fire and the still, small voice

Are you ruled by your heart or your head? Are you known for your impulsive, devil-may-care attitude to life, or do you weigh up every decision with the pros and cons on a spreadsheet before you do anything? Do you love to be in a wild crowd, carried away by emotion, or are you happier when you know pretty much what’s going to happen next?

Of course, it’s not really an either/or. It’s a spectrum, but we probably all have quite a good idea where we are on it. And correct me if I’m wrong, but my guess is that quite a lot of us in this congregation probably err more on the side of caution rather than wildness. And that’s especially true, I think, when it comes to worship.

When I first came to this church twelve years ago, I was told again and again that “we’re not a happy-clappy church”. Actually I think that is only half right. I’ve discovered that there’s plenty of happiness around, and a warm welcome – there’s nothing stiff or unfriendly about Seal. But I think I’d be pushing my luck if I expected you to do too much in the way of clapping along to the hymns. Please, by all means feel free to do so if you want to. Dance in the aisles if that’s what you feel like doing…Raise your hands in worship if you’d like to – I often do behind the altar!  But I’d be a bit surprised if Seal suddenly turned into a place where displays of unbridled emotion and ecstatic worship became the norm. That sort of style has never quite made it into the DNA of Seal Church.

So how would we feel if what happened to Jesus’ first disciples on the Day of Pentecost happened to us? There they were, gathered in an upper room, waiting, praying, but not really sure what for. Jesus had told them them that God would send his Spirit on them to help them in the mission he’d given them, that little task of taking the good news of his love to the ends of the earth. At this point, they probably didn’t even know how they’d take it to the end of the road, so how would they even find the courage to begin?

But then, suddenly something happens. They aren’t sure what, but it’s a pretty emotional experience. Luke is obviously struggling to find images to describe it. It sounded like a rushing wind, he says, but there was no wind. It looked like they were on fire, but no one got burned. And somehow their stumbling Aramaic words communicated to people from all corners of the known world, each in their own languages. They can’t explain exactly what is happening. They can’t control what is happening. All they know is that they have been suddenly swept off their feet. Their rationality has been bypassed. They’ve been caught up in something bigger than themselves, something that blows them out of their comfort zones, physically, emotionally and spiritually.  

It’s a dramatic story. And we might enjoy hearing it. But how would we feel about experiencing it for ourselves? Like I said earlier, it seems to me that we, at Seal Church, generally prefer a rather more “measured” approach to worship, shall we say.

That’s not the case in some other churches, of course. I spent much of my late teens and early twenties in charismatic churches where ecstatic, exuberant worship was standard. Church wasn’t church without some singing in tongues and people standing up to prophesy and pray spontaneously. I’m glad to have had that experience; sometimes it’s good to put aside our English reserve and I needed to at that point in my life. But I quickly realised that emotionality isn’t the be-all and end-all of being Spirit-filled or Spirit-led. I’ve also heard the voice of God in a Book of Common Prayer Communion service with two or three people present, and felt the touch of God’s hand in our ordinary Sunday morning worship. Often God comes to us in the still, small voice, not the wind and the fire.

The tension between emotion and reason in worship – the heart and the head - goes back to the earliest days of the Church. Paul tells the Corinthian church that they shouldn’t all pray or speak at once, no matter how excited they are.  God is a God not of disorder, but of peace” he says (1 Cor 14. 31)  But in his letter to the Romans he tells them that when they haven’t got the words they need, “the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words”.  The fact that they couldn’t, with their rational minds, think of what to say, didn’t mean that they couldn’t pray.  They needed to “let go and let God”.

In the third and fourth Centuries, a Christian movement called Montanism caused huge controversy. The Church was just beginning to be accepted as respectable by the Roman Empire, but Montanist worship was often spontaneous, led by anyone who felt inspired, including women. It was seen as rather scandalous, and eventually declared heretical. I suspect that the problem wasn’t so much its theology as its worship style.

In the Middle Ages emotionalism in worship bubbled up again in movements like the Franciscans and many other lay spiritual movements. Ordinary people, not monks or priests, felt inspired to preach, teach and pray. They developed new forms of worship, like the Christmas crib, which originated in this era, things that appealed to people’s hearts. Often, though, these initiatives fell foul of the Church authorities. They were suspicious of anything they couldn’t control.

In the eighteenth century it was John and Charles Wesley who were in trouble because of their outdoor preaching and their energetic, popular hymn tunes that anyone could pick up and join in with. John Wesley dated the turning point in his faith as 24th May at 8.45pm – it was as precise as that - when, during a prayer meeting he felt his heart “strangely warmed”. Suddenly the faith he had known in his head connected with his heart, and it changed everything. But for the rather staid Church of England at the time, in the midst of the rationalist Enlightenment, this was all too much to take.  The downtrodden masses in the Industrial slums or the impoverished countryside thought it was great, but the powers that be were, at best, embarrassed and at worst afraid this emotional excitement was the precursor to revolution. The Wesleys were accused of being “enthusiasts”  - and not in a good way. “Enthusiast” literally means someone with God - “Theos” - inside them. Who did they think they were?

The same kind of tensions have divided the church in modern times. Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians sometimes look down on those who worship using set liturgical forms, calling them the “frozen chosen” or “high and dry”. They describe themselves as “Spirit-filled” as if those who worship differently aren’t. The more traditional churches, though, write off their more emotional forms of worship as – yes – “happy-clappy”, as if that’s all there is to it. It’s hard to find the right balance. If our worship is all head we dry up, it lacks reality, but if it’s all heart, all emotion, we risk blowing up, disintegrating into a touchy feely mush.  It’s hard to get it right. But I think that even if we did, we’d be missing the point of today’s readings, missing the point of Pentecost.  

The symbols of fire and wind that Luke used to describe the Spirit on that first Day or Pentecost weren’t primarily symbols of excitement. Fire and wind, for ancient people, were about movement and transformation. Wind filled the sails of their ships. There’s evidence that it was used to power irrigation systems and other machines too. Fire was an agent of transformation. If you had fire you could turn rock into metal, sand into glass, mud into pottery, raw food into something delicious and sustaining.

Likening the Spirit of God to wind and fire was a way of saying that the Spirit caused real change in real lives, real movement from somewhere to somewhere else. Jesus’ disciples – the word literally means learners – were transformed into apostles, literally people who are sent out.

Our worship, our faith, should touch our hearts, but it’s not just about stirring up emotions. We may describe our experience of worship as “moving”, whether it is ancient or modern, but the question should always be “where has it moved us to?” A roller coaster moves us- it throws us about and churns us up – but it then deposits us right back where we started.  Genuinely Spirit-filled worship is worship that changes us, and it can’t be engineered by music, words, or beautiful surroundings. In fact, it can’t be engineered at all. The Spirit is God’s gift to us, God himself with us, far more than a passing moment of excitement. The Spirit , as the Gospel says, guides us into truth, speaks to us and through us, gives us the words we need when we have none of our own, and strength beyond our strength and wisdom beyond our wisdom. We can’t make the Spirit come to us by the way we organise worship. All we can do is know our need and open ourselves to God’s gift, and then, according to God’s promise, he will show up, whether that is in wind or fire, or in that still, small voice.

That’s what happened to those first disciples on the Day of Pentecost, and whatever style of worship we like, it can happen to us too. And we surely need the Spirit’s strength and wisdom; in our personal lives, in our families and neighbourhoods, in our world. We surely need it in a world where millions still go to bed hungry, where people are still oppressed and marginalised, where people still need to hear good news as much as they did in Jesus’ time.  We surely need God’s help, God’s Spirit, because we can’t do the work we’re called to on our own. 

So, however we worship, however we encounter God, quietly or exuberantly, privately or for all to see, let’s be open to God’s Spirit – in our heads and our hearts. Let’s be ready to be changed, ready to hear good news, and be good news to those we are sent to, in the power of the Spirit.


Sunday, 13 May 2018

Easter 7: "Say one for me"

“Say one for me!” That’s a cry that priests often hear.  “Say one for me!” Sometimes it’s said in jest. Sometimes it’s said in deadly earnest. People want to be prayed for, and if a priest won’t pray for you, who will? Often it is all I can do for people, but I know that it’s important, so if I’m asked to pray, however flippantly, I do.  

Praying and being prayed for matters to people, whatever we think prayer is or does, and in my experience it isn’t just the paid-up card-carrying members of churches who value it. Again and again I have found that people who say they have no religious belief or allegiance both pray and appreciate being prayed for. The vigils that spring up spontaneously after disasters, the piles of flowers, teddies and lighted candles , what are they if not signs that people are praying, even if they can’t always articulate who they are praying to or what they are praying for?  I often find, too, that people who may never come to church tell me that they pray regularly, in the garden, at bedtime, as they walk the dog. They put those they love into the hands of whoever they feel might be listening. They ponder  the mysteries of life. They take time to give thanks for a beautiful view, or something or someone precious to them. The numbers of people at Sunday worship can be a really misleading guide to the landscape of faith. The story you hear in the media is that faith is about to disappear; the evidence on the ground, sometimes literally on the ground in the case of all those flowers and candles at impromptu shrines, says that prayer at least is as important to people as it ever was. That’s why, when people shout out “say one for me!” I take them seriously!

But in today’s Gospel reading there is something far better than my prayers on offer, because in this passage Jesus prays for us. It’s a passage that is sometimes known as the “High Priestly prayer”. Jesus acts here like the High Priest of his Jewish tradition, whose job was to pray for the people of Israel in the Holy of Holies, to stand before God in the most sacred part of the Temple with the needs of the people on his heart. Jesus doesn’t need a Temple, or an official position to do this, though. He is confident that he has his Father’s ear wherever he is.  

In this instance, he is in the Garden of Gethsemane; this is the fourth Gospel’s account of the prayer he prayed there on the night before he died, while all his disciples were sleeping. There’s no way of knowing whether this is really what he said, of course – everyone was asleep, and in any case the fourth Gospel was written far too late to be by an eyewitness. But the person who wrote it would have known people who had known Jesus – the Christian community was still small and close at this stage - so it’s reasonable to suppose it reflects Jesus priorities, the kind of things he would have prayed for.

It’s a prayer that’s for others, rather than for himself, for those he will leave behind when he dies. It’s a prayer for people who live in a world ruled by force and fear, where standing out against the powers that be is always going to be costly, as it will be for him,  and where the weak and the outcast are seen as expendable. It’s a prayer for people who are about to be hit by an event that will knock them sideways, for people who are facing a cataclysmic threat to their faith and to their sense of security. And so, in a sense, it is a prayer for all of us, because our world, for all its claims to civilisation and progress, isn’t so very different.  If you are a refugee or a helpless victim of civil war or terrorism you know that– we have seen harrowing pictures coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo this week to add to those from Syria and Yemen and many other places. If you’re a member of a community that is already dealing with the effects of climate change - floods, droughts, hurricanes - you know that. If you are dealing with a personal tragedy – illness, bereavement, redundancy, homelessness – which has come at you out of a clear blue sky, you know that too. Life is fragile. Health, wealth and security can disappear in a moment. That was true in the time of Jesus, and it is still true now.

So this isn’t just a prayer prayed in a particular time and place, the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before the crucifixion. In a sense it is the prayer that Christians believe Jesus offers continually. Christian tradition says that Jesus “intercedes for us at the Father’s right hand”. This prayer is for all of us as we try to live as Christians in the midst of a troubled world. So what does Jesus pray for us? He prays, according to this Gospel, for three things specifically; that his followers may be “protected from evil”, that “they may be one”, and that they may be “sanctified in the truth”. These are the things which will help them – us – to weather the storms, and more than that, to “have his joy made complete in us” as Jesus puts it. What do these things look like in practice?

Being “protected from evil” isn’t a prayer that nothing bad will happen to us. After all, when Jesus prays it, something very bad is about to happen to him – crucifixion – and the writer of this Gospel passage knew that many of Jesus’ first followers had been killed because their faith too. This isn’t a prayer for an easy life. It’s a prayer that we might deal with the bad things that hit us with grace, without losing our moral compass, without becoming embittered, without resorting to scapegoating others, without scrambling for our own security at their expense. Evil creeps in not because bad things happen to us, but because we don’t trust that God has us in his hands when they do, so we grasp at whatever other straws of comfort and security we can find, however dodgy or unreliable they are.

In a way, the next two things Jesus prays for help us to learn the trust we need. He prays that his followers “may be one”, that they will turn to each other so that they can find the support they need in one another, and the strength that comes from mutual accountability. In times of trouble it’s easy to let prejudice and factionalism take hold, driving us apart. What starts off as a small argument becomes a rift that never heals.

Individually, when life is hard for us, we may hang back from the communities whose support we need because our lives feel like a mess, because we don’t want to be a burden, because we feel we have nothing to offer. It isn’t so, but it feels like that. At the very moment when we need each other most, we withdraw.  Jesus knows what he’s talking about when he prays “that they may be one”. We are gifts to each other, lifelines, safety nets. We need each other, and we shouldn’t forget it.

And finally Jesus prays that God would “sanctify us in the truth”, which sounds like a very grand bit of religious mumbo jumbo. Translated into English it is prayer that we would be transformed, that the life of God would grow in us, changing us bit by bit, day by day. Are you the same as you were ten years ago? Twenty years ago? If so, then something’s gone wrong. God calls us constantly to be on the lookout for his presence in us and in the world around us, to listen for his voice, to respond to his challenge, to wrestle with questions, to acknowledge doubts, to learn to love and be loved, so that our faith is bigger, broader, deeper, stronger and more resilient today than it was yesterday. If we’re going to weather the storms we need a faith that’s real, and rooted in our own experience, a faith that makes sense in our everyday live, that helps us make sense of our everyday lives. “Sanctify them…” prays Jesus – “let their faith be real enough to make a difference to them.”

Prayer matters, as I said earlier. Knowing that someone is praying for you gives you strength. But it’s not just we who are praying. The good news is that Christ is praying too, praying for us, just as he did for his first followers on the night before he died.  

I find that an awesome thought, but it makes me wonder, “What is he praying for me, for us?”  What would we hear if we could listen in?

What would it be like for me to hear him pray “Protect Anne from evil”– insert your own name there!
What evil do I need protecting from? What compromises and temptations threaten my walk with him right now? What help od I need to respond to those threats with grace? What do I need to wake up to?  

Or what would it be like to hear him pray “that Seal Church might be one?” What might he be praying for for this church if we could overhear his prayer? Where does he see division in our community, or lack of love, or people hanging back because they’re not sure they’ll be accepted?

Or what change might he be praying for in each of our lives? “Sanctify Anne, Sanctify [insert your name here]…Make her different, make him grow, make their faith be real to them… What growth is he praying for for each of us?

Prayer matters, but when we pray we don’t pray alone. Jesus prays too. He “says one for us”. I wonder what he is praying today for me and for you? And what might we need to do in response to that? Let’s end with a short time of silence to let those questions sink into us, as we listen for the voice of Jesus, praying for us today.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Easter 5: Abiding in God

I spent the inside of last week away on a Diocesan training course. Odd though it might seem, it took place in St Andrew’s Abbey, a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery a few miles outside Bruges in Belgium. The Diocese often uses this monastery for courses like this, partly because it means we can spend some time surrounded by the rhythms of prayer and daily life of the monks who live there, worshipping and eating with them, sharing the healing balance of their daily routine.

But as we were leaving on Friday, we realised that their routine was being thrown out of the window temporarily. They were setting up to mark a very special occasion. One of their number was celebrating his Golden Jubilee, the fiftieth anniversary of him taking his permanent vows as a monk. There was going to be a special festive meal, and a service of celebration. And quite right too. Half a century is a long time. This was evidently a monk with considerable stickability.

Benedictine monks and nuns make three vows when they commit themselves to the monastic life. They take a vow of obedience – to God, to their abbot, and to one another.  They take a vow of “conversion of life”, a commitment to a continuous process of renewal, growing in God’s love. And they take a vow of stability, literally to stay put, in that particular community, in that place, with those people, for the rest of their lives. Some do get moved around, of course. Monks from St Andrew’s Abbey had founded monasteries in West Africa, Brazil and China; so there was some coming and going from those places, but only at the instigation of the order. They aren’t free suddenly to nip off on holiday, or move jobs, or even to wander off into town for a bit without permission. And they certainly aren’t free to seek out more congenial companions if they aren’t getting on with their fellow monks.

From my conversations with monks and nuns over the years, whether Roman Catholic or Anglican, it’s often this vow of stability, which is hardest to keep. If the other members of your community irritate you, as they will do, that’s tough. You have to find a way to bloom where you are planted, to get along together.  That’s part of the reason why the 1500 year old Rule of St Benedict sets out a way of life in which boundaries are clear, and silence plays a big part. If you are going to be thrown together year after year, you have to find ways of allowing each other space and privacy. I noticed the monks at St Andrew’s Abbey didn’t feel under any obligation to acknowledge each other, or us, every time they passed. They didn’t put on fake smiles and false bonhomie. They obviously cared about each other and knew each other well, but they’d learned to let each other be, rather than continually interfering in each other’s business.  It’s a wise way of living that could help us in any community where we live closely with others – families, workplaces, churches.

There’s a word in this week’s Gospel reading which came to life for me as I watched them. It’s that little word “abide”. “Abide in me as I abide in you, “ says Jesus to his disciples on the night before he dies.

“Abide” isn’t a word we probably use much in daily conversation, but it’s a good and powerful word. Maybe it reminds you of the hymn “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide”, a prayer for God’s presence at the evening of the day and the evening of our lives. Or maybe, using it in a negative way, you’ve sometimes said in exasperation “I can’t abide Mrs X!” or “ I can’t abide it when people do such and such!”  - we can’t bear to be around that person, or that behaviour. Or maybe you have described yourself as “biding your time”. Abiding is about staying put somewhere, sticking to something, even if nothing really seems to be happening, but it’s not a passive word; it is about actively waiting and watching for the right moment to say or do something. Our “abode” is the place where we live, the place where we feel at home, the place which nurtures and sustains us, but also the place where we have responsibilities.  Much though I enjoyed my stay in Bruges, I was glad to get home to my “abode”, to Philip, to this parish, to the tasks I’m called to, and to you, the people I’m called to. There would have been something wrong if I wasn’t glad to be home.

The man we met in our first reading, the Ethiopian official, longed for that sense of abiding, for a place to belong. He’d been to Jerusalem to worship, we are told, or at to try to worship. What he would have found, though, was that, as a eunuch, he wasn’t allowed in the Temple. The law expressly forbade it – you had to be physically perfect and whole to worship there.  Those who’d been castrated were singled out for specific exclusion. We aren’t told what Philip and he talked about when they met, but the fact that he was reading the book of Isaiah gives us a clue, and the particular quotation is even more of a clue. Isaiah talks of a time when God will use and bless someone who is like a sheep before his shearers, a lamb who will be slaughtered. If we read around this quotation we would find that this figure was someone who was   “despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”, someone who was marred and disfigured. No wonder this man is puzzled. If God could love and use this suffering servant, why couldn’t he love and use this Ethiopian eunuch? Philip answers by explaining  “the good news about Jesus”,  a crucified, broken man who had been raised from death – and therefore blessed –by God. In him, God proclaimed that no one now was beyond his love, outside his family. Everyone could belong. Everyone could abide in him, as he abided in them. You didn’t even have to go to the Temple. God was wherever you were. The Ethiopian loses no time. “Here is some water for baptism! Let’s get on with it! I’m in!”

He discovered that he could abide in God, because God was already abiding in him, and it transformed his life – he instantly knew it for the precious privilege it is. And tradition says that discovering he belonged changed the course of history, because according to Ethiopian belief, he brought his new found faith back home with him, and founded a Christian community which is still there to this day. It has to have got there somehow, so why not through him?

Abiding in God, which also means abiding in the places and situations he’s called us to, is just as much a privilege for us, something we should be delighting in. But let’s be honest, abiding can be tough too. It can be tough because we find ourselves stuck in situations we can’t escape, and which we didn’t choose – illness, sorrow, challenge that we’d give anything to be able to walk away from. But it can be just as tough when we do have choices, because we have choices. We live in an age where choice is king, where the freedom to change our minds, change our direction, follow our dreams is often held up as a basic human right. Abiding takes commitment, though, and commitment can feel frightening and limiting. Committing ourselves to something  or someone means cutting off all sorts of other possibilities. If we take this job, we can’t take that one. If we live here, we can’t live there. If we spend our time on this thing, we can’t spend our time on that thing. We can become like the proverbial donkey that starves to death between two bales of hay because it can’t decide which one to eat first. We’re eternally restless because we can’t settle to anything or settle for anything.  The grass is greener on the other side of the fence, and the fence beyond that, and the fence beyond that, ad infinitum.

Abiding means saying no to many things, so that we can say yes, fully and freely, to the thing that really matters; to the job, the relationship, the activity God calls us to. And how do we even know what that is? I’m always happy to listen if you want to reflect on that with me. You may remember that a couple of years ago I began to invite people, to come and talk to me, asking them three simple questions. The first was: “What do you think God is calling you to at the moment?” The second was “How can I help you to fulfil that calling?” and the third was, “Who else should I be talking to who might appreciate this chat?” I had a lot of very fruitful conversations, and I’m happy to have more, or to talk again if you’d like a follow-up chat.  

Wherever each of us is called to be, to abide, specifically, though, our fundamental calling is to abide in God through Christ, to discover our home in him. Jesus uses the image of a vine to describe this.  He is the vine. We are the branches. If we don’t abide in him, if we don’t allow ourselves to be connected to him, through prayer and worship, through fellowship with each other, through loving service of others, then we eventually shrivel up and die inside. We are not created to go it alone. We are called to each other and to him.   

Abiding can be hard work. I’m sure that monk who’d just clocked up fifty years of faithful service in his monastery could have told us that. In our choice- hungry, freedom-obsessed age it often feels counter-intuitive to commit ourselves to one thing, one place, when we have so many possibilities. It can take time and prayer and effort to discern our calling, but these readings remind us of the age-old wisdom that true freedom isn’t found in rootless wandering. We can only become truly free as we allow our lives to be grafted into the life-giving vine of God’s love and learn to abide together in its life. And if we abide there, the life of God will flow through us, like the sap through the vine, and give us the strength to abide wherever he calls us and to abide whatever he calls us to.


Sunday, 22 April 2018

Easter 4: Shepherds and Shepherding

Audio version here 

“What’s your occupation?” That’s a question I often have to ask people. If you are getting married or having a child baptised it goes in the register, recorded for posterity. A couple of centuries ago, every other person would probably have been an agricultural labourer, but now the answers are very varied, and often quite puzzling. It’s all project managers and consultants and the like. I often have to ask, “so, what do you actually do?”

Sometimes the people answering the question are just as baffled, though. New parents booking Christenings are often at a time of flux in their lives. One or other of them may be taking time off to care for their children.They may not be sure what their plans are for the future. Maybe they won’t go back to the job they once did. But are you still a hairdresser if you don’t dress hair? How long can you call yourself a brain surgeon if you aren’t performing brain surgery?
Unemployment and retirement can lead to the same uncertainty, and it can be quite a crisis for people . “Who am I now that I haven’t got that convenient label anymore? “

I was reading a commentary earlier this week on the 23rd Psalm. It’s the set Psalm for today, Good Shepherd Sunday, which is why we sang one of the many hymns based on it at the beginning of the service. The commentator, an expert on ancient languages called Sarah Ruden, made the point that the first line, as we normally know it, really isn’t an accurate translation at all.  “The Lord is my Shepherd.” That’s what’s familiar to us.  But Sarah Ruden pointed out that the word we translate as shepherd isn’t actually a noun – a word for a thing - at all. It’s a participle – a part of speech derived from a verb, a doing word, if you’re interested in the grammatical technicalities. It doesn’t say “The Lord is my shepherd” ; it says “the Lord is the one who is shepherding me”. Ruden points out that in the ancient world the idea of having one occupation  would have seemed rather strange to most people. They did a wide range of jobs - whatever they needed to do to provide for themselves and their families, just as subsistence farmers and smallholders do today. In the course of a normal day they might be shepherding one minute, sowing the next, or building a wall or taking goods to market to sell. There were specialists in various trades and crafts, but Ruden says that job titles were rare for ordinary people. You just did whatever came your way to put food on the table and clothes on your back.

So the psalmist isn’t giving us a title for God here; he’s telling us what God does for him, a vulnerable sheep. Shepherding involves providing food and rest, guidance and protection, being with the sheep in the dark valleys, rod and staff at the ready to defend them. You may call yourself, but if you aren’t doing these things then the title is meaningless. I expect we’ve all had experience of people set over us who bear the title of “line manager” but never take any interest in managing us, or people who are called “assistants” who don’t assist. Having a title on your contract is one thing, but it’s actually doing the job that counts.

Shepherding wasn’t an image people in Biblical times used just for God, though. They looked to their human leaders for shepherding too, for care and sustenance, but often they fell far short of God’s ideal. The Old Testament prophet, Ezekiel, thundered at the leaders of Israel who’d failed to care for God’s people, “Thus says the Lord God. ..You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals...
thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. ( 34.3-6 & 11)

So when Jesus called himself the  Good Shepherd in the Gospel reading we heard today,  people knew exactly what he was saying, and it was deeply challenging, deeply political, and deeply offensive to many of them. A carpenter from Galilee, was setting himself up as  a leader of the people of Israel, and indeed of those beyond Israel too – the “other sheep that do not belong to this fold”. No wonder people were shocked. But if we look at the context of these words, we find he has good reason to claim the title, because “shepherding” is exactly what he had been doing.  

These words come right at the end of a story which started back in chapter 7 of the Gospel. Jesus was in Jerusalem for the feast of booths or tabernacles, Succoth in Hebrew, a festival that celebrated the end of the harvest. During it, according the Bible, everyone had to build temporary structures – the booths of the title – and live in them. This was a reminder that , however prosperous and self-sufficient they felt, with their crops gathered in around them, they had once been homeless, hungry refugees from Egypt, and it was only God’s love and care, his shepherding, that had brought them safely through that time of trial. They were, and would always be, sheep in need of a shepherd.

But during this particular feast, on the Sabbath day that fell within it, Jesus happened to come across one sheep who didn’t need to build a booth to remind him of his dependency. This man had been blind from birth, unable to earn a living, excluded by his disability from the Temple and its worship as well as facing all the other physical, emotional and social obstacles that being blind involved. What did Jesus do?  He healed him. Of course he healed him, because he needed healing. It was the compassionate, sheperdy, thing to do. And the man’s life was transformed, just as a rescued sheep’s would be when it was brought back into the fold.

But all this had happened on the Sabbath, and that was a day when you weren’t supposed to work. Healing was work. Jesus was in trouble. He’d already put the backs up of the religious authorities at this feast. They’d already  accused him of being possessed by demons and he’d  accused them of betraying their heritage, of being unfaithful to God. The authorities had sent  the Temple police to arrest Jesus, and picked up stones to stone him, but hadn’t followed through, afraid of the reactions of the crowd who supported him.  Tempers were already running high. And then there was this business with the blind man.

The powers that be hauled in the blind man and his parents, bombarding them with questions about who had done this and how and why . “We don’t know, and we don’t care”  they said, “All that matters is that someone who was blind now sees – hallelujah! - how can that be wrong?”  And surely anyone with any compassion themselves would simply say, Amen. But that’s not what happened.
Jesus is entitled to call himself the Good Shepherd, because he is , one who has done the good shepherding, the one who has rescued this lost sheep from a life that was dangerous and miserable. But all the religious leaders can see is that the law had been broken. They are the hired hands in Jesus’ parable here, jobsworths, who, when they see the wolf coming, the challenge to their own neat ideas, the threat to their religious comfort zone, decide it is above their paygrade and hightail it out of danger. And they were in the right, according to the law. But Jesus was in the right according to the sheep, and it’s the sheep’s perspective that counts if you want to call yourself a shepherd.

But what’s all this got to do with us? What difference does it make to us? I think it is just as important for us as it was for the people of the Bible to understand that shepherding is a verb, not a noun. We all have the opportunity to be shepherds in the roles we fulfil, whether that is in our families, in church, in our workplaces or neighbourhoods, but it’s what we do in those roles that matters, not what we call ourselves. You can call yourself a parent, but it’s parenting that will make the difference to your children. You can call yourself a carer, but if you aren’t caring, that means nothing.

Today we hold our Annual Parochial Church Meeting. In the light of this passage I wonder what difference it might make to us if, instead of calling ourselves a church, we called ourselves people who are “churching” -  doing things which build up the Body of Christ and gather people together in our community? What might those things be, the things we can do to make other others feel cared for and welcomed?
I wondered what difference it might make to us as individuals if, instead of calling ourselves Christians, we called ourselves people who are “Christing”, living out his love in our everyday lives? That’s what counts, say our readings today – not what you call yourself, but what you are actually doing, not the nouns but the verbs.

So, what is your occupation? Forget the job title or the trade you trained for, what is it that actually occupies, and pre-occupies, you? What do you spend your time and energy doing? What have you done today, what will you do tomorrow that will actually make someone else feel loved, safe, noticed – those things we all need as vulnerable sheep in a wolf-filled world?

Our church, our community, our world doesn’t need people who call themselves Christians, or institutions that call themselves churches. It needs individuals who are “Christing” and groups of people who are “churching”, day by day and week by week in the places that God has put them. That’s what makes the difference.