Sunday, 10 February 2019

Full Stop : Fourth Sunday before Lent

Today I’m going to preach about a full stop. Just one little, tiny dot in today’s Gospel reading.

That’s probably cheered you up no end, because it sounds as if it will be a short sermon – but I’m afraid that may not be the case, because this particular full stop contains the whole of the Good News of Jesus Christ. If we can grasp what this full stop is about, we have grasped the Christian faith.

So where is this wonderful piece of punctuation?

It’s between the first two sentences which the fisherman, Simon, says to Jesus. “Master, we have worked all night long, but have caught nothing - There’s the full stop -  Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

Simon, of course, will eventually become Peter, St Peter, the Rock on whom Jesus will build his church, one of its first and greatest leaders, but all that is in the future. At this point Simon is just an ordinary working man, one of many fishermen who earned their living around this lake. He’s doing ok for himself. He’s prosperous enough to own his own boat, but not so wealthy that he doesn’t have to work in it himself. He’s mending his nets on the seashore when Jesus comes along. Jesus is right at the beginning of his ministry but he’s already attracting a crowd. In fact, so many people want to listen to him on this day that they are “pressing in on him”, says the story. No one can really hear or see him clearly. So he asks Simon to take him out in his boat a little way from the shore, so he can use the boat as a platform to preach from. Simon is happy enough to help – he can mend his nets just as well in the boat as sitting on the sand.

We aren’t told what Jesus says to the crowd, what he is teaching. We aren’t told whether Simon is really paying attention to it – he wasn’t one of the crowd who’d sought Jesus out that day– though presumably he can’t help overhearing it. When Jesus finishes whatever it is he has to say, he turns to Simon. What is he going to say? “Thank you for the loan of the boat? Could you row me in to shore again now?”   But no, Jesus says to Simon “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Now, if I was Simon, at this point I would be thinking “Who does he think he is?” Jesus may be a good preacher. He may be a halfway decent carpenter. But he isn’t a fisherman. What does he know about fishing? Why does he think Simon is going to accept fishing tips from him? It would be like me turning up at Stonepitts Farm and telling Martin how to grow strawberries. He would be daft to take my advice, because I don’t know anything about strawberry farming.

And anyway, Simon happens to know that there are no fish to be caught. He’s tried. “Master,” he says “we’ve worked all night” – we fishermen, we who actually know what we are doing, as opposed to carpenters and preachers who don’t - “but we’ve caught nothing”.

But then comes that full stop. A pause.  A moment when, perhaps, Simon realises what he has just said. He, an experienced fisherman, has caught nothing. All his skill, all his hard work, have come to nothing. There is not so much as a minnow for supper, let alone any fish to sell. The full stop isn’t just on the page, it is right there in Simon’s life, a failure, something beyond his power to change.

We all come to a full stop at some point in our lives – most of us come to one many times over.

We come to a full stop when the relationship we are trying to mend can’t be mended, because the other person doesn’t want to mend it. There is nothing more we can do.
We come to a full stop when our business runs into difficulties because of global political and economic forces that are beyond our power to change.
We come to a full stop when illness or bereavement strike us out of the blue, and all our plans for our lives crumble into dust.
Full stops come in many forms – small ones and big ones – times when there is no solution, no magic wand, nothing we can do, try as hard as we might.
And eventually death itself brings us all to a full stop. No one escapes it.

It doesn’t matter how skilful we are, how powerful, sooner or later life reminds us that we are not all-powerful, and never can be. There are limits to what we can do – limits of time, energy, ability – and we can’t get past them, no matter how clever or dedicated we are. There’s a common mantra around these days , often repeated to children, that “you can be whatever you want to be, if only you believe in yourself and try hard enough.” It’s an appealing idea, and of course no one should squash anyone else’s dreams and aspirations. But sadly that mantra isn’t true. We can’t be whatever we want to be. I might want to be an Olympic pole vaulter, but at 58, and built more for comfort than agility, I think I can cross it off the list of possibilities. Not everyone can be a famous footballer or rock star or brain surgeon or rocket scientist. You’ve got to have the aptitude, the basic natural ability, as well as the opportunity and a dose of good luck. It’s not just about self-belief. And even if we achieve our dreams, sooner or later we have to let go of them again, like Andy Murray, who spent so long working to get to the top of the tennis world, but is now having to face the fact that his body won’t let him stay there. It’s not the end of everything, not the end of the world, but my guess is that it feels like a pretty big full stop for him.

For Simon the fisherman, the full stop comes in the form of empty nets. “We have worked all night long, but have caught nothing.”  It may just turn out to be a one night failure, but what if there are no fish the next night, and the night after that? How long will it be before he and his family are in serious trouble? It’s a dilemma which faces many people today, subsistence farmers, zero hours workers, people who can’t be sure where the next meal or the next pay packet is coming from, or whether it is coming at all.

James Tissot. The Miraculous Draught of Fishes. Brooklyn Museum
This is Simon’s full stop moment, a moment when he has to confront his own limitation, but because of it his life changes completely. Simon can’t do anything to make the fish appear and yet this preacher in his boat seems to think that he can. And something about him , about the preaching he’s overheard that day perhaps,  convinces Simon that he can put his future into Jesus’ hands, that he must put his future into Jesus’ hands, that there are no other hands that can hold him and lead him in the way he needs to go. “We have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets”  says Simon. This self-sufficient, “can-do” man discovers that he “can’t-do”, that he isn’t all-powerful,  but also that he doesn’t need to be, and that God never meant for him to be. It’s not easy for him to accept this -  most of us struggle to accept help.  “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” he cries when the enormous, miraculous catch of fish is finally landed. It’s not just the catch that is too much to take on board; this holy encounter is too big for his mind as well as his nets.

In the Old Testament reading, Isaiah has a similar, transformative, full-stop moment when he is confronted with God’s glory. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips…”.

St Paul’s full-stop moment came on the road to Damascus, when God confronted him with his own hatred and prejudice, which was leading him to persecute the followers of Jesus. “I am the least of the apostles” he says in his letter to the church in Corinth. But, like Peter and Isaiah, he found that his full stop was the beginning, not the end. He lost his grip on his own life, but that enabled him to fall into the hands of God, who gave him a whole new one.

The word Paul uses for that discovery is grace. Grace is God’s gift of himself to us. We can’t earn it or deserve it, but it’s there for us, at all times and in all places.  Like Paul, Isaiah and Simon, we often only discover it when all else has failed and we find ourselves at a full stop, but the more we learn to look for it and be open to it, the richer and fuller our lives can be and the more that grace can overflow from us to others.  “Put out into the deep water” says Jesus to Simon, not just the deep water of the lake, but the deep waters of love and joy and peace and purpose to which God calls him and calls us all.

I said at the beginning that this little full stop around which Simon’s life turns is really all we need to know. In it we find the whole of the Gospel, the good news of Christ. It reminds us that we are frail and fallible and mortal, people who get it wrong, mess it up, fail and fall, but that when we do, we fall into the hands of God, who, in his grace, holds us and heals us and guides us into new life with him.   

As our collect today put it:
O God, you know us to be set
in the midst of so many and great dangers,
that by reason of the frailty of our nature,
we cannot always stand upright:
grant to us such strength and protection
as may support us in all dangers
and carry us through all temptations;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit
one God, now and forever. Amen

Sunday, 3 February 2019


Luke 2.22-40, Malachi 3.1-5, Hebrews 2.14-18

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

I can’t believe it’s February already many people are saying, it seems like it was only Christmas yesterday, where did January go? With the snow and cold weather this week it feels like we are truly in the grip of winter yet Candlemas marks an important point in our calendar and is an underrated festival in my view. Its timing is symbolic of change, it’s one of those pivotal points in the Christian year between the crib of Christmas and our preparations for lent. Hold onto that crib image and the new born Jesus as we scroll forward from the time of his birth.

The official feast day for Candlemas is 2nd February, obviously this is the Sunday nearest. The Church of England rules for the Christian year state that it is a principal feast day like Ash Wednesday or Ascension day for example, yet it is one with which we are often less familiar. We may also know it as ‘The Presentation of Christ in the Temple’.

Traditions grew based around light, perhaps the light of Christ revealed in the temple mixed with pagan recognition that we are half way between the shortest day, moving away from the season of darkness, and the spring equinox, and this date was adopted as the day when a church would bless all its candles for the year, obviously important when there was no electricity, hence the name Candlemas. Candles can only share their light by burning themselves away, resonating with self-sacrifice, service and love.

Including Christmas day we are now 40 days on from Christ’s birth day. Some of you probably know that Jewish law considered a woman unclean for 40 days after she had given birth to a boy and for even longer after the birth of a girl. During this time the mother would have been excluded from the temple. At the end of this they were brought to the temple to be purified, and also brought the child to present him to God and give thanks, after which the woman would be permitted to join in worship once again. As we strive to make this church a place that is welcoming to everyone it’s hard to hear how the temple at the time of Jesus excluded so many through its various rules and we are reminded to keep in mind how we can make others feel welcome.

So here we have Mary, mother of Jesus attending the temple for her ritual purification 40 days after the birth of her son Jesus. Luke emphasises the humble state of Mary and Joseph as they bring the offering designated for the poorest: two turtle doves or pigeons rather than a lamb. While they offer these sacrifices for their son, it’s a sobering thought that he will grow up to offer himself one day as the sacrificial lamb upon the altar of the cross.

As Christ is presented in the temple there is a strange mix of the ordinary and extraordinary. It’s quite possible that this routine ritual was being observed by several couples who have come to dedicate their babies at the same time, as we sometimes do with christenings. Every parent feels that their child is special but one is clearly more special than the others who are somewhat upstaged by what happens next!

The extraordinary is made real by Simeon and Anna. Luke gives them credibility and respect, a sort of character reference describing Simeon as ‘righteous’ and ‘devout’ and stating that ‘the Holy Spirit rested upon him’. We hear how Anna worshipped in the temple ‘with fasting and prayer night and day’. They are each of a good age and there is a sense that they are the people who could be relied upon to recognise the ‘Lord’s Messiah’ if anyone could. They had been waiting, watching, longing and preparing patiently over the years. 

Simeon, a total stranger, takes Jesus from Mary’s arms and begins to proclaim loudly about him. ‘My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’. 

Simeon and Anna are able to sense the incredible power emanating from this little baby and realise that God has filled the temple, Simeon’s reaction is to praise God, light and hope have been born into the darkness, he’s effectively saying that nothing greater could happen in his life, to the extent that he was now ready to accept death peacefully as a fulfilled and joyful man. Anna starts sharing the good news with those seeking the Messiah. 

Of course the words of Simeon have been incorporated into our ritual worship, as the Nunc Dimittis, from the Latin, ‘now you dismiss’. Said regularly at Evensong they become familiar words of comfort, one commentator describing them like a cup of Ovaltine before bed, creating a mood of contentment before the final rest of the day. But when we recite these familiar words we should remind ourselves of the reality and emotion of the events. 

But we should also remember that Jesus’ parents must have been disturbed and frightened to hear that many will oppose their son and that struggle and pain were in the future.

As we reflect on Simeon and Anna there’s encouragement here for us to keep a patient faith alive. We can all struggle to maintain a vibrant relationship with God at times, and there’s the temptation to drift or just fall into a pattern of worship which is as routine as the weekly ironing. Yet with patience, persistence and mutual encouragement we are far more likely to recognise God at work in each other, know that his love for us is real and that he is with us in our hard times.

After all Anna and Simeon have not stumbled across God by chance, it’s clear that they haven’t lost their hope even as they began to recognise that the years ahead of them were few.

It’s hard to imagine a starker contrast than that between the enduring faith of Simeon and Anne versus the post exile Jews which the prophet Malachi describes. No longer trusting God’s justice and doubting his covenant love, they began to lose hope.

They have totally lost their way and degenerated into a form of worship which had no real meaning, they no longer took the law seriously, tithes were ignored, the Sabbath was broken, intermarriage with pagans was taking place, and the priests were corrupt.

I guess many of us may have had a memorable moment when we receive truths which are hard to hear about what we have lost or our lifestyle, a wakeup call which points out the potential consequences if we don’t change and here we find Malachi doing exactly that and he doesn’t hold back.

The imagery is about separating the bad from good with a great heat that leaves only the pure silver and gold remaining. The ‘fuller’ would beat and tread clothes using alkaline substances to clean them, highlighting the effort that can be needed to become clean again, perhaps not an image so strong for us now we throw a capsule in the washing machine and wait for the bleeps to tell us that all is clean.

Who is the Lord who will suddenly come to his temple that Malachi speaks of? If it is Jesus and his presentation we heard of today which took place over four centuries later then ‘suddenly’ we hear spoken of makes more sense when understood as ‘unexpectedly’, just when you least expected it or had even given up hope.

The challenge of Candlemas, then, is a challenge to find the presence of God in our midst, to look for his love at work among us at home, at work, at school even in church.

As we move closer to Lent now is also a great opportunity to decide how we might use the season to break habits that stop us seeing God at work in each other, might we even learn to be a little more ‘Simeon like’ in our faith, patience and expectation?

So there are several strong messages in our bible readings today but it feels as if they cluster around central messages about our need for enduring faith and an acceptance that God’s time is so immense that we can struggle with this at times, but thinking about our own church might help.

Even though we didn’t have a sermon last week we kind of did really, even if they didn’t realise it, as we were reminded by Vanessa, Mark & Gesiena of our need to show enduring faith in the way we play our part in this church.

A little while back I was reading some old parish newsletters which you may have seen at the back of the church. In one from the 1960’s, when I was born, an appeal was made for all in the congregation to prayerfully consider their giving, people were leading groups, worship patterns were being discussed and much tea and cake was being consumed.

I am extremely grateful to these people as without their devotion I can’t be sure whether I would have found the faith that I now have and I almost certainly wouldn’t be standing here spouting now. Of course many others who have followed have also come to know of God’s love for them here but I wonder how often we look back in thanks that the previous generations had enough faith and love to keep all this alive for us.

Thus it has been for 800 years. Now it’s our turn to enjoy all that we are offered here and keep it going for the next generation. All else we can trust to God’s timing.

Kevin Bright  
3rd February 2019


Monday, 28 January 2019

Giving to Seal Church - Stewardship Sunday

We handed over the "sermon slot" this Sunday to a team from the PCC, who told us more about how the money we collect at Seal Church is spent and outlined the growing demands on our finances. 
If you would like to know more about giving to Seal Church, there is more information on our church website here. 

Vanessa Griffiths, our Treasurer outlined the situation in the following talk: 

I have been coming to Seal Church for about 12 years now and joined the PCC nearly 2 years ago as Treasurer.
·         Basically this role means overseeing the finances of our church.
o   I have an enormous spreadsheet where I record money in and out and allocate it to the various bank accounts we hold, making sure everything balances!
o   Each year I prepare the year end accounts which are then audited and presented at the annual PCC meeting in April.
o   I also hold the cheque book!
·         I’m greatly assisted by Mark Turner, who does our gift aid or tax rebate claim twice a year, plus Denise Firth and Sally Bright, who count and bank the money each month.

We’ve taken over Anne’s sermon slot to talk to you on behalf of the PCC about where the money goes - how your current contributions benefit and maintain our church, the projects we need or want to do and how you could contribute further and the different ways to do this.

Our church
Firstly, I’d like to remind us of all of what a beautiful church we are!
·         By beautiful I don’t just mean all of us (!) but of course this beautiful Grade I medieval building where we all meet together to worship God each Sunday.
·         We are a welcoming church and we have a strong sense of being part of our church family, helping each other out when we’re in need but also getting involved in fund raising events for our church.
·         We are an active church too and play an important role in our local community; such as The Talking Village at Birch’s and Lavender Fields, Friday Group, Children’s Choir and Music groups, KYN bringing the church and village together.

I’m sure we are all very proud to be part of this wonderful church serving God and our community.

However, it’s not surprising that this church, which nurtures us and our community, also needs nurturing itself. It’s old – over 800 years old in fact - and it needs money spending on it to keep it going; to keep a dry roof (literally!) over our heads!

I love being in a church which illustrates the finances
with actual cake, rather than boring pie charts...!
Many thanks to Jenny Elliott - it was delicious! 
The costs involved are significant as you would expect; however, before I talk numbers, the PCC want to say A Big Thank you to everyone for all your contributions, both to the finances in whatever way you do this, as well as the many other ways in which you support our church / church community. Your generosity makes our church what it is today and keeps it going.
And one particular way that keeps us going and which we do really well in this church is…..baking cakes!

So how does the cake fit in with finances ? Well, we are using this as a hopefully easy, and definitely tasty way, to show you the main areas of expenditure in 2018.

It cost £ 1,450 per week last year to run our church (including the churchyard, church hall and vicarage); that’s over £75,000 for the year.

So back to the cake, let’s look at how the costs break down:

1.      Diocesan Payment or Pledged Offer (which every church in the Diocese pays) was 67% or 3/4 of our overall costs (£47,060). What are we getting for this? Essentially
o   it’s Anne i.e. her salary (£21,750), her pension and also the vicarage …. yes she does go home sometimes! That’s nearly 90% of the amount we pay.
o   the rest is our contribution to the wider church community; for future ministry (e.g the selection committees which Anne is involved in), training (Nicky Harvey now fully ordained), and to provide other assistance and support as we may need it.
This cost is likely to rise steadily each year
2.      Running costs (24% or £18,000) such as heating, lighting but also costs to support the services like the music
Again, these costs are budgeted to rise some of which are specific for 2019 (Anne’s sabbatical) others because energy costs are going up for example.
3.      Charitable Giving (7% or £5,500) examples of these are donations to Seal School, Sevenoaks Area Youth Trust, Sevenoaks Christian Counselling
This is an area we are reviewing in our budget as it may no longer be sustainable.
4.      Maintenance Projects (6% or £4,800).
These can represent general maintenance as well as major repair works. These may seem quite low but we offset the roof works by specific fund raising ( the successful ‘Folking for the Roof ‘) and also by using funds from the Loan fund (we pay £200 into this fund each month). However, this is one area which is challenging because of the age of the building; t is constantly in need of care and attention and this often involves significant costs. When there’s not enough money we have to prioritise what we can do.

Gesiena, one of our churchwardens, then outlined some of the repair work and projects we plan to do this year - replastering areas around the font and the North Wall and fixing the chandelier and font cover hoists (required because of insurance demands that hoists otherwise need inspecting, with costly scaffolding, every year). We are also planning to install a Tea Station, with washing up and storage facilities, in the North Aisle, and have a grant from Marshall's Charity to help with the cost of this.

Mark Turner, who organises our Gift Aid tax refunds each year told us about the variety of ways in which we can give. You can find out more on the website here, or pick up a leaflet in church. 

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Water into wine: Epiphany 3 Breathing Space

Epiphany 3 2019
Spot the miracle happening in the bottom right hand corner!
“…and his disciples believed in him”.  Well, yes, I suppose they would. Water into wine is a very convenient and wonderful miracle! But this isn’t just a story about a party being rescued by Jesus, it is also, and mainly, a story which points us to some new insights for all of our lives, and in particular for those problems which seem impossible to solve.

There was no way this family at Cana could do anything about their shortage of wine. They faced shame and disgrace in a culture where you were judged on your hospitality. They would never live it down. Jesus’ action rescued them from a situation where they had no resources to draw on.

We may never be in a situation where we need water turned to wine, but my guess is that most of us will have been, or will one day be, in situations where we are aware that our lives are watery and thin, when we know that we haven’t got the resources we need to respond adequately to the challenges that face us.

If we look around us at the moment, we see plenty of examples of that. Take Brexit. What’s the answer to the dilemmas that poses? What’s the way ahead? No one seems to know. Or the perennial challenges of poverty and injustice? It often feels like there is nothing we can do to make a dent in the sorrows of the world. In our personal lives and families too there are often problems that just don’t seem to have any solutions within our grasp. We long for a magic wand, but there is no such thing.

This story of the Wedding at Cana is the story for those moments when we have to own up to the fact that “we have no wine” – we have no answers, no resources. We are stumped, beaten.

In particular, it seems to me that the Wedding at Cana has four suggestions which might help us to cope when we come to that moment.

The first is "invite Jesus to the party". The story tells us that “Jesus and his disciples had also been invited”, and that’s just as well, because if he hadn’t been there, there would have been no miracle. It’s tempting to compartmentalise our lives, to put faith in one box and everything else – “real life” – in the other. People will often tell us that “faith and politics don’t mix,” or faith and sport, or faith and money or some such. That’s nonsense. Either our faith is about everything or it is about nothing. It is either for all times and places in our lives or none of them. Compartmentalising can also mean keeping God for Sunday best, not letting him into the bits of our lives where we are ashamed, or struggling. But that’s just where he wants and needs to be most of all. Invite Jesus to the party.

The second insight from this story is “Do what he tells you”  in the words of his mother. I don’t believe that God tells us what to do on a micro level very often – choose this parking space rather than that, shop in Sainsbury’s today and not Tesco. I don’t even think he is necessarily going to tell us what job to do or what person to marry. But there is a general sense in which he tells us how to live. “Love one another”. "Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly". He tells us that , when in doubt we should do what benefits most those who are most vulnerable and least powerful. If an apparent “solution” to our problems involves lying, cheating or stealing, if it oppresses or exploits others, it isn’t what Jesus tells us, and it will lead us into more problems in the long run. “Do what Jesus tells you.”

The third bit of guidance this story gives is in Jesus' instruction to the servants - “Fill the jars with water”.  They must have been very baffled. What good would that do? They couldn’t serve people water. That would be worse than serving them nothing. But they did it anyway. They used what they had. They did what they could, and Jesus did the rest. So often we decide that if we haven’t got what we need we can’t do anything. We see a bereaved friend and we know we haven’t got adequate words to comfort them, so we cross the road to avoid saying anything. Actually we could have just said, “I don’t know what to say, but I wanted you to know I was thinking of you” and that would have helped immensely. Fill the jars with water – do what you can, offer what you have - God will do the rest.

The fourth and final point from this story is “be the servant.” When the water that has been turned to wine is brought to the steward, he has no idea where it has come from but, we are told, “the servants who had drawn the water knew.” What a wonderful privilege they have, to have witnessed this miracle and known that it was Jesus who had done it! The guests may have got the wine, but they got the message, and that meant that, when their lives felt “watery” in future they would know where to go and who to go to. They found not just wine for a day, but wine for the whole of their lives. For us too, it is often when we take our eyes off ourselves, and do something for others that we find the presence of God at work in our midst. “Be the servants”, says this story.

So – invite Jesus to the party, let him be involved in the situation, whatever it is, that feels so insoluble to you. Do what he tells you. Fill the jars with water – give what you have, but don’t worry about what you don’t have. And be the servant.

Those are the keys to this story, the keys which enable us to find God at work and join in with him, turning the water of our lives into rich and satisfying wine that will make our hearts and the hearts of others glad. Amen

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Beloved: Baptism of Christ

Audio version here

“What a world would this be, were everything beloved as it ought to be!”[1]

Those words, printed out on a scruffy scrap of paper, are stuck above my desk in the vicarage, so that I see them every time I raise my eyes from my laptop. They’re the words of a seventeenth century poet and priest, who was largely unknown until the beginning of the twentieth century. Some of his works were literally rescued from a smouldering rubbish heap by a passer-by looking for spare parts for his car. 

The writer’s name was Thomas Traherne, and he knew what he was talking about in this passionate plea for a world more aware of love. He lived through one of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history, the English Civil War. He was born in 1637, and died in 1674. He grew up in the midst of bitter fighting between Royalists and Parliamentarians. Families and communities tore each other apart. Traherne was the son of a shoemaker from Herefordshire, who went on to study at Oxford, and then became vicar of the parish of Credenhill at a time of fervent and often brutal religious dispute. By all accounts, though, he was a gentle and much-loved pastor. The worst criticism anyone seems to have had of him was that he was “so wonderfully transported with the Love of God to Mankind…that those that would converse with him, were forced to endure some discourse upon these subjects, whether they had any sense of Religion, or not” [2]

That rings true from his writings, which are full of love and delight in the world around him.  “You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you… till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own: till you delight in God for being good to all: you never enjoy the world.” [3]These are the words of someone who has seen what hatred and greed can do, and has come to value their opposites, love and generosity of spirit.

“What a world would this be, were everything beloved as it ought to be.”

That word “beloved” came up in our Gospel reading today too. Jesus is baptised in the River Jordan by John. And as he comes up from the waters, the heavens open, the Spirit descends like a dove, and God’s voice is heard. “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased”. “My son, the Beloved.” 

We might say, “but of course! This is Jesus after all! He was a great teacher and healer, a hero with the courage to endure the cross. Of course God thought he was beloved!” But this story comes before all of that, before Jesus has begun to preach, before he has started to heal people, before he has done anything to deserve God’s praise. He’s just a carpenter’s son from Nazareth.

Straight after this story we’re told that he’s about thirty years old, and that is significant. Thirty was the age in the ancient world when men were regarded as fully grown, independent, mature, able to take on the responsibilities of governing and leading. It was the age when Roman men could stand for public elected office. It was the age when Jewish men from priestly families started their work in the Temple. Women, sadly, were never regarded as grown ups, able to run their own lives, but for men thirty was the magic number. Jesus is just beginning, says Luke. God doesn’t call him beloved because of what he has done, or what he will do. He calls him beloved simply  for who he is, because he exists. 

That’s good news for all of us, because it’s clear from the Bible that God doesn’t just feel this way about Jesus. In the Old Testament the prophet Isaiah wrote to the Israelites in exile in Babylon.  They believed that they’d lost the love of God because of the way they have behaved, that the exile was their fault, but God tells them, through Isaiah, that didn’t matter.  “You are precious in my sight and honoured, and I love you”, he says. They are beloved, whatever has happened, whatever they have done.

When families bring children for baptism here I often tell them this story of Jesus’ baptism. Names matter, I tell them.  The names they have chosen for their child matter. There’s usually a reason for the choice they’ve made. It’s a family name, perhaps, or a name with a special meaning or association for them. But whatever they have decided to call their child, I remind them that he or she already has a name, given by God. God names their child “Beloved”, because he names us all “Beloved”. We’re “beloved” when we’re newborn, powerless and dependent, when we’ve done nothing yet to be loved for. We’re beloved when we hit the terrible twos, or the turmoil of adolescence, when we strain our parents’ patience to breaking point.  We’re beloved when we’ve grown up, but don’t feel it, when we’re making a mess of life, or losing our way. And we’re just as beloved when we’re aging, losing our power, maybe going into the blur of dementia. We may look in the mirror and call ourselves useless, or even forget our names completely, but God still knows and names us as “beloved”. There are no ifs, no buts about this, no exclusions in the small print.  Our “belovedness” doesn’t depend on what we’ve done. It can’t be earned or deserved - and that means it can’t be lost either. God loves us because we are here, and we are his – for no other reason than that.

Now, I would quite understand if some of you are thinking at this point “This is all very well, but isn’t it a tiny bit self-indulgent, sort of “new-agey”, warm and fuzzy…? We’re all beloved… yes, but so what?”  And you might be right. But I don’t think the Bible goes to such great lengths to tell us we are beloved simply so we can have a nice, feel-good moment now and then. It tells us we are beloved because when we know that thoroughly, deeply, it can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that can, because when we know that we are beloved, simply because we exist, we have to accept that everyone else is too.  How much suffering could have been prevented in Traherne’s time if the Royalists and Parliamentarians had seen each other not as enemies, but as fellow children of God? How much suffering could be prevented in our own time if we could look at those around us – especially the ones who hurt or humiliate us and see the same? “What a world it would be, were everything beloved as it ought to be” said Traherne. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” said Jesus to his disciples. But we can only love others as God does, for themselves rather than for what they have done, if we have learned that we are loved like that too. If we are still trying to earn our place in God’s heart, if we’re afraid we’ll lose it if we do something wrong, then how can we possibly believe that he could love those who we don’t even like, those we disapprove of, those we think have it in for us? 

“We love because God first loved us”  says the first letter of John,(1 John 4.19) and it’s the truth. It is the knowledge of God’s love which sets us free to love those around us.

Traherne said that we are “as prone to love as the sun to shine”[4], that loving is in our deepest and truest nature, but it’s often a challenge to believe that in the face of so much that undermines it; the brutality and oppression and simple carelessness that poisons our world and seeps into our souls.
Jesus heard a voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the beloved”. We may not have any such obvious reassurance, so it matters that we keep our ears, and our hearts, open for the messages we do hear that tell us of our worth to God; the messages of the Bible, the messages of those around us who carry on loving us whatever we do, the moments of blessing in our lives, the moments when we see God at work – even if they are just moments. It matters that we recognise the ways we drown those messages out too, by putting ourselves down, convincing ourselves that we are unlovely and unloveable. To do that is like pulling the plug out when you’re trying to fill the bath – the love just runs away down the plughole.

Believing in our belovedness, and the belovedness of others, doesn’t mean that we don’t need to take seriously the things that are wrong in our lives or that we don’t need to challenge what is wrong in the world around us – to be truly loving means to do both of those things - but we need to know, and affirm, and trust that nothing we, or anyone else, can do can destroy God’s love, for us or for them.

“What a world would this be, were everything beloved as it ought to be!” 

This season of Epiphany is a season of revelation – that’s what the word “Epiphany” means.  The stories we hear at this time are all about the love of God being revealed in Jesus; revealed to the Magi, revealed to wedding guests at Cana when Jesus turns water into wine, revealed to Simeon and Anna in the Temple in Jerusalem when they see in Jesus the light of the world. But all those stories happened long ago and far away. The most important revelation of God’s love we need in this season of Epiphany is the one we find within ourselves and within each other, the discovery that we, and all the world, are called beloved. That’s what transforms us, and when we are transformed the world around us is transformed too. 


[1] Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations, 2:66-8.
[2 “Happiness and Holiness” by Denise Inge, p 9.
[3] Centuries of Meditation 1.29, 30
[4] Centuries of Meditation 2.65.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Ultima Thule and beyond: Epiphany Sunday

It’s been a good week for astronomers, this first week of 2019. A few days ago the Chinese landed an unmanned spacecraft on the far sideof the moon, and earlier in the week, on New Year’s Day, NASA scientists successfully flew their New Horizon spacecraft past an interplanetary object which they’ve called Ultima Thule, after the land which the ancient Greeks thought lay at the northernmost end of the world – off the north of Scotland in case you’re interested. This new Ultima Thule is the most distant object that we’ve ever been able to get a close up look at in space – yet.

Those scientific teams haven’t really got much data to analyse yet, so it’s too soon to tell whether either mission will tell us much that is new, but that didn’t stop them being really excited. I expect you saw the scenes on the news of them rejoicing and hugging each other in their control rooms. Whatever the scientific significance of these missions, they were obviously of great human significance to those who were part of them. They’d seen things no one else had ever seen, done something no one else had ever done. They weren’t celebrating lumps of rock as they whooped and high fived; they were celebrating human ingenuity, curiosity and perseverance. Ultima Thule and the far side of the moon were signs to them, and to us, of hope for the future, of new possibilities.

In the Gospel today we meet astronomers from a very different age, but they too found meaning in the stars which went far beyond the mere scientific facts. The Magi in Matthew’s Gospel were probably from Babylon, the place where much of our modern astronomy was born. Babylonian scientists gave us the sixty minute hour, the 24 hour day, the seven day week, among many other things.

They were ardent stargazers, even if they started from a very different set of assumptions to our modern scientists, and had a different purpose when they looked up into the sky. They assumed that what they saw conveyed messages from the gods. In particular they would have taken for granted that if a new star appeared, it meant that a significant person had been born.  According to popular legend, stars had appeared when the Roman Emperor Augustus was born, and Alexander the Great, and many others. When a story started with a new star, those who first heard it would have known exactly where it was going. It was going to be a hero tale, with armies and glory and a golden throne. Matthew sets up his hearers to expect this when he starts his tale.   

The idea of visitors coming from the East to Jerusalem would have been familiar too. Five hundred years before, the people of Judah had been in exile in Babylon, convinced that their story was over. But the prophet Isaiah told them of God’s promise that one day the situation would be the other way round. Those who had enslaved them – people from this powerful Eastern kingdom – would be queueing up to bring their tribute to Jerusalem. “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”   It’s this prophecy which prompted Medieval Christians to turn these wise men into kings with camels to ride on. Matthew doesn’t say anything about that, but his story of wealthy visitors bringing gifts and looking for a king to give them too is certainly meant to evoke Isaiah’s imagery of the oppressors  bowing down, just as the people of Jerusalem had once had to bow down to them. 

Matthew sets up this story quite deliberately to play into these well-worn, familiar expectations; the star that indicates a royal birth, the destination – Jerusalem – the visitors, representatives of nations that had once oppressed Israel now coming to pay homage and give tribute.

But then, all of a sudden, the story takes an unexpected twist, because they discover that no one in the great city of Jerusalem, no one in Herod’s palace, least of all Herod himself, has any idea what is going on. Baby? What baby? King? What king?

Herod’s Jewish advisers, who are meant to be his own “wise men”, offer the suggestion that the Messiah might be born in Bethlehem, the birth of King David, but, very significantly, not one of them goes to look for themselves. Bethlehem’s only a few miles from Jerusalem. You’d think that they might feel curious. Perhaps they feel it’s too dangerous, though. What if they find this king? Herod is hardly going to be pleased  to hear he  has a rival. Best to stay well away. Ignorance is bliss.

So the story of the Magi starts with lots of familiar elements, but it ends up being a story of confusion and bafflement, a story which turns people’s expectations upside down. They expected a king like the great king David, a kingdom like the one he’d ruled over, and Matthew sets everything up to play into that. The royal star. The travellers from the East. The precious gifts.  And yet that’s not what happens. Instead, the Magi find themselves in an ordinary home, faIling to their knees in front of an ordinary family.

And after they leave, it goes from bad to worse. If we read on a bit, we would find the Holy Family on the run, desperate refugees from Herod’s massacre of the children in Bethlehem. The star is a sign of God’s blessing, but maybe that blessing doesn’t always look the way we expect it to, says this story. That’s going to be important later on because this child will grow up to favour the outcast and the powerless, and will end up dying on a cross, so anyone who is expecting a re-run of King David is in for a surprise.

My guess is that most of us are not engaged in interplanetary space exploration, and never will be. Nor are we likely to be packing up gold, frankincense and myrrh and trekking across the desert chasing a star. But we all have a journey to make. We are all called to be part of God’s work. The summons to that work isn’t likely to appear in the heavens. God’s sign to us is more likely to take the form of an awareness of a need around us, someone who is lonely who we might be able to help, or some wider need in our community which we could answer. Or it might be something in our own lives or family that needs sorting out. Or it  might  be a hunger for something – meaning, forgiveness, purpose - which nags at us. It might be an inner sense, or the prompting of others to make some commitment that we’ve been hanging back on -  to baptism, to confirmation, to ministry of some sort.

Like the star that shone on the Magi, it’s often pretty obvious when we finally acknowledge it. My experience is that people usually know there is something they should be doing, something that needs to change. It’s naming it and acting on it which is the challenging bit.  We may struggle to believe that God could really be calling us – surely he means someone else - or, like Herod’s advisers we may feel the journey is too costly, that too much might need to change for us to make it. But if we shut our eyes to the starlight, we miss the joy it leads us to, the awareness of the presence of God in our lives.

When the Magi kneel before Jesus, they don’t  just fall down in wonder; they also “pay homage”, we’re told. Homage is a word that shares a root with the French “homme” – man- and with the word “human”. When you pay homage to someone you are putting yourself into their hands. You are saying, “I’m your man, your woman, yours to command” it says. It’s about commitment , about recognising and affirming where you belong, and who you belong to.

The Magi thought they would be paying homage to a king when they set out. That’s why they took the kind of gifts a king would expect and headed for the palace. They didn’t expect to be paying homage to a carpenter’s son. And yet there they were, putting themselves, lock stock and barrel, into his hands convinced that he was the only one they could give their trust and loyalty to, just as later, people will put their lives into the hands of the adult Jesus, following him through hardship and death, yet finding in that commitment, joy and purpose and true belonging.

Matthew tells this odd, incongruous story because he wants the people who hear it to lift up their heads and see the star which shines for them, for us, the star which represents God’s call to the journey he has for all of us, a journey he wants us all to take into greater love, compassion, justice, deeper faith, stronger  community.  Unlike those space missions we heard about this week, this journey really isn’t rocket science. It’s about seeing where God is at work around us and joining in. But the simplest things to understand can be the most difficult to put into practice, and as the Magi found, the journey can be challenging, leading us to people and places that weren’t in our plan, disrupting the script we thought we were following for our lives. God’s promise is, though, that it will be full of unexpected blessing and transform us utterly.

Whether our journey this year is to Ultima Thule and beyond, or just around our own backyard, in the orbit of our own family and neighbourhood, may we embark on it in faith, walk it in the company of Christ and one another, and find at the end of it the same overwhelming joy that the Magi did.  

Sunday, 30 December 2018

Christmas 1 Looking for Jesus

Audio here 

Luke 2.41-52, 1 Samuel 2.18-20 & 26, Colossians 3.12-17

Families and Christmas go together don’t they. Hopefully most of us will have got together with family and friends over recent days and if not there’s certainly been no shortage of opportunity to join this church family with the wide range of worship and celebration around Christmas.

A gift to me this year was a musical one, not something I can physically hold but an app for my ‘phone which gives access to an apparently infinite library of music via ‘Spotify’. Now I have my own account my children won’t be texting me when listening to their music in the gym only to be interrupted by me using their account to listen to my outdated tunes from Paul Weller or Bryan Ferry!

It almost goes without saying that I had to grudgingly ask for some help setting it up from someone many years younger than me. In many areas of life the recent decades have produced the largest number of situations in living memory where the older generation turn to the more tech savvy younger people for help and advice.. But outside of technology, has this also produced an older generation who think that children and young people should be listened to more, or does it stop there and revert to type in all other matters?

At the time of the 12 year old Jesus we heard of in Luke’s gospel today a patriarchal, hierarchal system would have meant that until this point Jesus would have been raised and looked after by the women of the family and wider group. Children would rarely have any meaningful contact with the men until this age and would suddenly find themselves thrust from their over protective Jewish mothers into the harsh male environment. Yet rather than being overawed by this new experience Jesus is immediately at home in the temple, testing, probing and provoking the teachers with his questions.

I guess anyone who has ever taught anyone else anything has had that moment when there is no real answer to a question, or it’s clear that the student is thinking far wider than you anticipated. When told by her grandmother that women can be any shape or size they want the little girl in the TV series outnumbered asked ‘what even a hexagon’?

Going deeper than the quirky and amusing challenges young people may present it’s clear that if we close our minds to what they have to offer we will be the poorer for it.

Those reading Luke’s words at the time they were written would have recognised how Jesus was being presented as a future leader in accordance with Greek and Roman traditions. Parallels could be drawn with Roman heroes like Emperor Augustus who at the age of 12 confidently gave the main speech at his grandmother’s funeral Julia Caesaris, the sister of Julius Caesar. But the young Jesus is even greater than Augustus as he shows a wisdom way beyond that expected, giving an indication of his future challenge to the established authority.

You may recall a few years ago when parents of a 12 year old girl who died from cancer discovered some of her writings as they were clearing her room. They were published and can still be found in full on the web. They included wise and thought provoking sayings such as “Love is not about who you can see spending your future with it’s about who you can’t see spending your life without’ and ‘If someone loves you then they wouldn’t let you slip away no matter how hard the situation is.

I guess that it’s the reverse of seeing an older person doing something foolish. It’s all about expectation and preconception.

As we’ve been focussing on the wisdom of young people and particularly Jesus in the temple I almost forgot to address the fact that for 3 days his parent have been frantically looking for him. Upon hearing that Jesus’ parents noticed that he wasn’t with them what was your first reaction? How could they not have noticed, what sort of parents were they? After all we are told that they travelled for a day without noticing that he was missing.

Today in our Western culture men and women travel together because were usually hopping on a plane, train or in a car. But it would have been traditional for women in a caravan, a travelling group, to set out earlier than the men who would catch them up in the evening when they had settled a camp and it seems likely this was when Joseph would have said to Mary and Mary to Joseph…’I thought he was with you’ followed by a sickening feeling in the pit of their stomachs!

So after 3 days Jesus’ parents find him in the temple with many others. Luke doesn’t say that his mother took him to one side or asked for a quiet word in private, so it seems possible that the Son of God, among temple leaders and many impressed by his wisdom, gets a rollicking from his mum. It is likely that she was both relieved and angry in equal measures and showed her emotions as she said ‘child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ What he was told by his mother to look at we don’t know, maybe a distressed looking pair of parents, exhausted, filthy with tears in their eyes. We are given a glimpse of the more human side of the meek and mild Blessed Virgin Mary we often sing of.

Put in his parents shoes would you be happy with an answer that begins ‘Did you not know’? It implies surely you would have thought to look for me here at an early stage, yet clearly they didn’t know.

Perhaps it was a message to Joseph and Mary as to who he regarded as his true Father, perhaps a landmark moment as Jesus matures and builds his own awareness that he is the Son of God in a truly unique way. God’s approval had become more important than that of his parents as he started to grow into his mission and Jesus seemed surprised that his parents didn’t get it.

We are told that Mary treasured all these things in her heart. Upon reflection she may have come to understand more about the significance of these events.

It’s a good discipline for us all to draw upon, calm reflection and contemplation about something we may not have fully appreciated or understood at the time or something which we find disturbing. For some a quiet space is needed but for many Christ’s wisdom can be found as we dig the garden, sit on the train or iron the shirts, maybe for Mary it was in times of cooking and weaving.

Jesus went with his parents to Nazareth ‘and was obedient to them’. As I read our Colossians reading we hear the writer telling church members to ‘clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience’ I thought what greater meekness is there than knowing who you are together with so much power and potential and yet the Son of God was obedient to his loving earthly parents.

As we contemplate Jesus as God’s son we consider that our reading from Samuel is also part of story about different kinds of sonship. Samuel is not Eli’s son but is growing up to see him as a guiding figure that he respects, ministering under him in the temple, learning from him and accepting him as a father figure.

Contrast this with Eli’s actual sons who exploit the temple for their own ends causing their father great sadness in the way they behave. Normally Eli’s sons would succeed him but God has chosen Samuel, a fact which becomes clear from later events in this prophet’s book.

So we are challenged to broaden our thinking about parenting. Clearly it has potential to extend way beyond our own blood lines both in our opportunities to lead and nurture those we can help but also to recognise God’s ultimate call as Father of all.

Again and again in the bible matters don’t follow predictable time trodden routes. Eli’s sons would have scoffed at the thought of Samuel succeeding their father, as their complacency for their rights of succession made them lazy and sinful.

Later others would scoff and mock Jesus as the son of God, what right could a person of such humble heritage possibly have to proclaim such greatness.

As we reflect on what the words from the bible mean for us today I would suggest that we can give thanks that our church benefits from a wide range of ages and be open to learning from each other regardless of years accumulated.

The great philosopher and comedian Peter Kaye made a lot of sense to me when he said ‘knowledge is knowing a tomato is (scientifically) a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.’

We need to discern the difference between knowing what the bible has printed in it or the words we hear read and how we might employ our understanding to make God’s love known. What difference would it make if we were to clothe ourselves in Christ as suggested in the letter to the Colossians, above all ‘clothe yourselves with love’ we are told. Maybe we should put a sticker to this effect on the inside of a drawer or our wardrobe, particularly those who are grumpy in the mornings, and arise each day determined to live our lives in Christ the best we can.


Kevin Bright

29th December 2018