Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Journey to Freedom


Luke 2.1-20, Isaiah 62.6-12, Titus 3.4-7

Journey to Freedom

Earlier today I checked the news and saw that on top of all the travel problems caused by the wind and rain that a cable fire means that trains are not running between London and Gatwick airport. It’s not an information article for those of you dashing off to catch a flight after this service just an acknowledgment of the misery this will cause on top of so many other travel problems including fallen trees and flooding making roads impassable, flights cancelled and delayed and loss of power to many areas, including part of Gatwick airport should anyone eventually be able to get there.

No doubt this will leave lots of families anxious about whether they can get together in time to share Christmas Day, after all who are they going to argue with if they don’t make it.

I guess we are used to relatively civilised travel most of the time so how distressed we get with delays is relative to what travellers are used to. I read one account of a traveller stuck in a traffic jam in Cairo where apparently no one ‘walks like an Egyptian’, they all drive. Not only are there more cars than road, there are more people in each car than there is space for with distorted faces pressed against windows. The constant sound of car horns irritated him at first but after a while he concluded that with so many crammed in each car one body part or another was bound to be pressing against the horn.

Back in Great Britain the official advice is not to travel unless it is absolutely necessary. It’s hard to define ‘absolutely necessary’ journeys, especially when it’s likely to involve distress and hardship.

In Luke’s gospel we heard that Caesar Augustus clicked his fingers in Rome, demanding a census of his empire, probably for taxation purposes. This caused hordes of people to get on the move including Joseph and Mary making the ‘absolutely necessary’ journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Now the people stuck in airport lounges and train stations have my sympathy but their surroundings would seem luxurious compared to the 80 mile journey Mary and Joseph would undertake. A Polish carol has Mary plead ‘please go slowly, Joseph…look what a load I bear…’ Yet the journey is made, despite the inconvenience, the discomfort, the primitive accommodation available, there’s a sense of the journey being obediently completed to achieve God’s purposes.

It makes you think, doesn’t it, not just about travel delays but about life’s journey we all know that it’s not always plain sailing, parts of the journey involve pain and difficulty, there are times we feel progress is slow and it’s easy to lose sight of the destination we hoped for.

Of course many of our journeys at this time of year are made to spend time with people we love. Church congregations change as relatives move around to share Christmas with families and the commuter traffic has gradually disappeared from London’s roads as many who work there return home to other parts of the country, or to their home country.

As I lay awake in the early hours of this morning listening to the howling wind I couldn’t help but think of the words ‘silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright’ and wonder if an angel were to descend to shepherds on a hillside in this weather whether they could avoid being blown away, or whether the shepherds would shout out ‘I’m sorry but we can’t hear a word your saying in this wind!’

Obviously in more peaceful conditions God is announced to lowly shepherds, people looked down upon by the orthodox Jews as they were unable to maintain ceremonial laws, particularly relating to all the meticulous hand washing. In stark contrast with the imagery brought to mind of young children in nativity plays with tea towels on their heads shepherds were banned from many towns and their testimony was not admissible in court, they were classed as outcasts and the Pharisees spoke of them in the way they also spoke of tax collectors and prostitutes.

We’ve all seen individuals and groups shunned and excluded by society stop caring what people think, turning inwards on their small world and giving up hope of anything better. So when they realise that God has not given up on them, in fact he has specifically chosen them to spread his message of joy, it’s no surprise that the shepherds are shocked and terrified.

It’s clear that the shepherds journey to see Jesus is one of trust in the message they received, motivated by love of the Saviour and new hope for the future.

After a long journey, particularly a difficult one, we look forward to some comfort whether it be a relative’s house or a hotel room, something that clearly didn’t work out for Joseph and Mary.

The best welcomes have to be those where we don’t have to ring the doorbell and wait but where the host is expectantly looking out for our arrival. Excited children have been known to stare impatiently out of the window willing the guests to arrive and rushing out to hug them before they have barely got out of the car, and I don’t mean just at Christmas when they arrive bearing gifts.

There’s a similar sense in our Old Testament reading of watchmen eagerly looking for the salvation Isaiah speaks of, people who call out to God to restore peace and security. He tells of Jerusalem being restored, the city doors being flung open and a highway being made clear in order that it’s easy for the lost to return.

For the excited people in Isaiah and Luke’s shepherds the message is that God has brought freedom. Paul’s letter to Titus reminds us that the freedom God offers is not something we have to earn, but that it is a freely given gift available to us all.

As we each ponder where we are on life’s journey we start to see that God draws us towards him and the freedom he offers.

There are clues to God’s nature in the way that Jesus, the new King came into the world in unexpectedly humble surroundings suggesting that God is prepared to meet us wherever we are on life’s journey, not where we wish we were with all the accompanying regrets, not where we kid ourselves we are or where other people see us but where we really know ourselves to be.

The author Margaret Silf illustrates the everyday falsehoods we have to live with when she describes her manager calling her in for the annual appraisal, an important factor in career progression and salary review. The manager asks ‘how do you see the job developing over the next three years?’ She considers two possible answers.

‘I hope to be leading a team in three years and taking on more responsibility.’

Or, ‘I hope that in three years I’ll be able to afford to get out of all this and do the things I really want to do with my life.’ Here, I hasten to add, that I’m not offering career advice!

The point is that there is often a tension between how we are living and where we feel drawn to be. It will apply to numerous aspects of our lives but by acknowledging and sharing these tensions with God we begin to see that God is where the truth lies.

Contrast the falseness of having to put a brave face on a miserable situation against the truth of the feelings inside you when you first fell in love. Contrast the drudgery of tasks that have to be completed against the passion we feel for work we love, maybe art, music, sport. It’s not that the first isn’t important but the latter is where we find our true selves and a spirit of freedom.

Many of us expend a great deal of energy maintaining the fa├žade of being in control, showing no fear, or being happy with a  situation when we would be far better off admitting to God where we truly are because that’s where God most wants to meet with us.

So we are invited to take a breather on our journey this Christmas and consider where we will spend it both physically and spiritually. The food and wine, decorations and gifts should all be enjoyed but let’s also make some time for quiet reflection and be honest with God about where we truly are and where we truly see him at work.

We all know the truth is that right now many are sad as they see family and friends suffer declining health, we know it is true that mourning of loved ones lost is brought into sharp focus at this time of year as they are missed at gatherings and we know it to be true that some people are so down that they have given up on God all together.

These are the very places into which we invite the Christ child this Christmas secure in the knowledge that this is exactly where he will feel most at home.

This is what makes sense of our Christmas celebrations and gives authenticity to our praise when we sing ’glory to the new born King’.

Amen

Kevin Bright

Christmas Eve/Christmas Day 2013

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Advent 4: Graceful names




It would be easy for someone who knew nothing about Christmas to look around at the way our culture celebrates it and assume that it was basically a festival for children. School nativity plays, Christingles, trips to see Santa at the shopping centre, and in the middle of it a baby, greeted with joy by those who come to seem him in his manger crib. It all seems very simple, very magical, very comforting.

Today’s Gospel reading, though, reminds us of how selective the stories we tell our children tend to be. For all sorts of very good and understandable reasons we tend to sanitise the story of Christ’s birth for them, and eventually we forget that the cosy story we tell is really only part of the truth.
The Christmas story is actually full of violence and fear – King Herod’s murderous rampage is central to it . It is a story of homelessness and exile, and, as we see here, it is a story about shame, or the threat of it.

Matthew’s version of the story, unlike Luke’s, puts the emphasis firmly on Joseph. Mary is hardly mentioned, and completely silent. Her opinions, thoughts and feelings are not recorded at all.  They are not even considered. In a culture like that of first century Palestinian Judaism that’s not surprising. The position of women varied across the ancient world. In some cultures they were freer than in others, but in the land of Jesus’ birth their lives were often very restricted, just as they are in some parts of the Middle East still. Respectable women kept themselves firmly in the background. So it’s not surprising that Matthew doesn’t even seem to ask how Mary might be feeling as her pregnancy becomes obvious and her child, in time, is born. Luke’s focus on her is unusual, an indication, probably, that he was from a non-Jewish background or that he particularly wanted to highlight the way Jesus brought women out of the shadows and gave them honour and dignity.

Matthew concentrates on Joseph , though, and the appalling dilemma he finds himself in. Nowadays the pregnancy of an unmarried woman wouldn’t be likely to cause much comment. Almost half of babies born today in the UK are born to mothers who aren’t married, who are either on their own or, more often, just living with their partners. Most couples I marry here are living together; many have children already. No one bats an eyelid; we are just happy to be able to celebrate with them as they make a public commitment. Unintentional pregnancy might still cause problems, but few people see it now as a disaster, or something shameful.

You don’t have to go back very far, though, to a time when attitudes were very different, when a birth out of wedlock was a scandal, something to be hidden, something which could cause misery to both mother and child alike. In first century Palestine it was even worse. Mary would have faced not only disapproval but also very real danger when her pregnancy became known. So-called “honour” killing is nothing new; the penalty for adultery in the time of Jesus was death.  As well as the risk to her, her pregnancy would have brought shame on her whole family, and on the man who was engaged to be married to her. No wonder Joseph is worried. What were people going to think of him? Either that he had slept with her before her marriage, or that someone else had and he had been fooled into taking on a child who was not his. He would either seem wicked or weak. If he stuck by her he risked  landing himself with a wife who everyone would be whispering about behind her back for the rest of their lives – tight-knit communities never forget these things. If he cast her off, though, what would happen to her? She could well have been left with no support at all, no home, no respectable way of earning a living.   

It was a desperate situation, and Joseph is in a desperate dilemma. He is a good and compassionate man, and he wants to do the right thing. He has just devised the best solution he can think of, to dismiss Mary quietly, in the hopes that somehow her pregnancy can be concealed, when the angel appears to him in a dream, assuring him of… well, assuring him of what?

All the angel really tells him is that the child who Mary has conceived is  “from the Holy Spirit”. It’s hard to know what the people of Jesus’ own time would have thought this meant. They didn’t understand the process of conception, and they knew nothing about  genetics and DNA, whereas we can’t “unknow” those things. There is such a gulf between our world view and theirs that it is really quite impossible to climb back into their minds and work out what they thought this phrase might imply on a physical level about Mary’s pregnancy.  There were plenty of stories from Greek and Roman mythology of gods fathering children on human mothers who they just happened to have taken a fancy to, producing half-human, half-divine offspring, but the early Christians were at pains to try to make sure people didn’t see Jesus in those terms. He was fully human yet somehow also fully divine too, not some hybrid, and they would have been quite horrified to think of God acting like those pagan deities, of any sort of physical or sexual act taking place between God and a human woman. Whatever Matthew and Luke were saying, they weren’t saying that. But if we can’t be certain about what they thought physically happened, we can be very sure what they thought it meant spiritually, and why it mattered so much to them.

In saying that this child was “from the Holy Spirit”, the angel meant, at the very least, that he was coming into the world in accordance with the purposes of God. His birth wasn’t a mistake or disaster, however shameful it might look to other people. God was at work in this child and through this child.
Miraculous birth stories are quite common in the Bible, a sign that a child is destined for a special role. They might be born to women too old to conceive, as Isaac is to Sarah, and John the Baptist to Elizabeth. They might be born to younger women who seemed unable to conceive, like Hannah, the mother of Samuel. But none of those births were to unmarried women, none of those births would have caused scandal –quite the reverse, they were joyfully received when they eventually happened.

In the child of Mary, though, God is doing something quite new. That’s what Matthew is telling us. God is revealing himself, his grace, in the midst of what looks like dis-grace, he is declaring holy a situation which to everyone around looked completely unholy. Jesus’ birth points us forward to his death on the cross, when he will hallow a squalid form of death reserved for those the Romans wanted to humiliate. His birth, like his death, proclaims that there is no situation God will turn his back on, no darkness too deep for him to light up, no place and no person he cannot dwell in and call his home. Matthew echoes the words of the prophet Isaiah. This child is Emmanuel – literally “God is with us”. That’s what the angel wants Joseph to know, that this child is God’s work, God’s gift, not an unwanted embarrassment whose arrival will wreck the lives of those around him, but a child who’ll bring hope and joy and love.

The children of unmarried parents, or parents married too late to be quite respectable, have often been called names which hurt and scar – illegitimate, bastard -  but the angel is clear with Joseph “You are to name this child Jesus. It’s a beautiful name, the same name as the ancient Israelite hero Joshua, and it means “God saves”. “He will save his people from their sins,” says the angel. No matter what it looks like to others this is a child whose life will be a blessing not a curse. God is with us, God saves – those are his true names.

And that is good news, wonderful news, for all of us, because we can all find ourselves in a mess, or having to deal with a mess inflicted on us by others. It’s easy to feel at that point that there is no hope, no way back. But even in those moments, this story tells us, especially in those moments, God is present, and where God is, blessing and life abound.

I’d like to finish today by reading a meditation written by Sally Foster-Fulton*, which imagines what Joseph might have said to us.

“I gave him a name — he needed a name. We all need to know who we are. I gave him the name Jesus: the name the angel whispered in my ear. And I gave him a family — everybody needs a family, folk who love you because you’re theirs. Not much is said of that and that’s fine with me — I didn’t do it to gain recognition or status. I don’t really know why I did it. At the time, things were so unreal — but the baby was definitely real and so was the danger to its mother if I didn’t do the right thing. I just needed to figure out what that was. I decided at some point that the right thing was love. The right thing was trust. The right thing was the hardest road, and so we started down it together.

I gave him a name — he needed a name. We all need to know who we are. And I don’t think we really understood who he was or that that name would echo through time — long after our journey was through. I gave him the name Jesus: the name the angel whispered in my ear — and now it whispers in your hearts as you sit here [ in the quiet of this night.]

I gave him a family — everybody needs a family, folk who love you because you’re theirs. And I don’t think we really understood who he would add to our family — who he’d gather to himself: how he’d make you all not just his family, but his body, his very soul.
It was the right thing — love. The right thing often leads you onto the hardest road, but it’s also the most beautiful. Let’s start down it together.”

Amen


*Sally Foster-Fulton from “Hope was heard singing”.

Sunday, 15 December 2013


Advent 3: Are You The One?


Matthew 11.2-11 & Isaiah 35.1-10
When you think about life together with all its twists and turns, how often have we all heard someone say such things as, I never thought I’d end working with these people, or living here, or with these responsibilities, or in some sad cases losing that loved one so early or under such circumstances.
In a positive way it can be all the effort you put into securing a new piece of business which results in something totally different, the football cross that you mis-hit which ends up going straight in the net as the fans laud your genius, the unrecognised plant bulb which you shove in the ground anyway only for it to bloom beautifully the following spring.
Reflection, particularly as the years accumulate, makes us realise that the harder we try to pretend to others that we are in control, the more we demonstrate our insecurities and the more our humanity is eroded.
Herod is a prime example, criticised by John the Baptist for marrying his brother’s ex-wife and feeling threatened by John’s preaching about a new kingdom he has him put in prison. From prison we heard that John sent his followers to Jesus to ask ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another’?
It seems a strange question to us with the benefit of history, but clearly John had some doubt. We know of John’s fiery preaching, warning people to flee from ‘the  wrath to come’ so why was he who prepared the way left languishing in prison, never to see the light of day again, if this is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke?
Is it unreasonable that he might expect to have his release demanded by the messiah he prophesied of, that he might have some role in all that he foretold? It looks like John has grounds for feeling very hard done by. It’s too early and dangerous for Jesus to reveal himself as messiah so all John receives is a cryptic message which quotes directly from our Isaiah reading. We can’t be certain how John reacted but they would have been familiar words and no doubt John would have been forced to recognise Christ in a different way from that what he had expected.
As Christians we learn that we don’t often understand where we fit into God’s plan and that can be extremely challenging to our faith. There’s an irony to the fact that as people of faith we can often end up feeling that we make life harder for ourselves. When we do things we regret it’s saddening to know we have gone against God’s will whereas the person of no faith may just shrug it off.
I’ve heard of people who say at their lowest or their time of greatest suffering that they’ve felt closest to God. However this isn’t the case for all people of faith, when faced with life changing and life threatening situations some find they feel as if nothing is there. The people Jesus talks of wearing ‘soft robes in Royal palaces’ are clearly not those suddenly forced to consider whether his message is real. At testing times many of us may ask as John did ‘are you the one’? Perhaps a bit like John it is asked because this isn’t what we expected, we thought we would feel your presence stronger even that you might set us free from our suffering in a way we can understand this side of heaven.
Of course there is no sugar coated way to deal with doubt or suffering a crises of faith but honest thinking and talking about it has to be start. Understanding that faith may not be a constant makes our support of each other more real.
Words of scripture and lessons learnt in better times may sustain us in hard times but it’s in these times that our faith is tested like never before and our true relationship with Christ is revealed.
Amen

Kevin Bright

15/12/2013

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Advent 2: Voices in the wilderness



“The voice of one crying in the wilderness” . If ever there was an appropriate week to hear those words it is probably this one, when the news has been dominated by the death of Nelson Mandela. His “wilderness” was the prison cell on Robben Island where he spent 27 years of his life, but even from there his voice was heard, his presence was felt. Like John the Baptist, he called for radical change, for justice, and for repentance, and great crowds listened, eager for the message.

Amongst the many people interviewed this week in the wake of his death, I caught a brief contribution from Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, and something he said struck me as particularly interesting. “”Most politicians represent an interest group, a community of people who vote for them and whose interests they serve. Nelson Mandela was different; he represented a community that did not yet exist, a community he hoped would come into being.“ South Africa is far from perfect now, of course but, at least in part that community Nelson Mandela hoped for has become a reality, a community where black and white work as equals, where there has been reconciliation rather than  an endless search for revenge.  It was something many thought was impossible; they had never known it before and they couldn’t imagine it ever being so.   Mandela’s genius and his gift was his ability to see , proclaim, and most importantly to live something that didn’t yet exist, to live forgiveness, to live hope, which meant that others could live those things too.

John the Baptist was doing the same thing as he preached in the desert to the crowds who came to see him. “The kingdom of heaven has come near”, he cried. Like Mandela, it was as if he could see something on the horizon which others hadn’t yet spotted, a new possibility for their lives that they had never imagined. The future didn’t have to be the same as the past, he told them – indeed it certainly wouldn’t be. What mattered was that they were ready to embrace that new beginning when it came. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” he said. “Make it possible for God’s peace and justice to take root, by living justly yourselves”. And people flocked to him.

They were eager to hear the good news of this coming kingdom. What did they think it would be like? Many would have in their minds the words of the prophet Isaiah which we heard today – Isaiah was one of the most read, most quoted books of prophecy at the time. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid…” he said. Isaiah was writing when Israel was in exile in Babylon, but he looked forward to a time of righteousness and justice, of prosperity and safety, just as John the Baptist did, a time when a new community would be built which would cross the barriers that had separated people from each other, when even the animals lived in peace.

Both Isaiah and John, like Nelson Mandela, knew at first-hand how cruel the world could be, how much suffering human beings could inflict on one another – they had no experience of a world of peace - but despite this, they believed that things could be different. Suffering gave birth to hope in them, rather than the cynicism which we might expect,  and hope gave them the strength to keep going when they felt like giving up.

Another great modern prophet, Martin Luther King once said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  I think that is true, but I also think that it is important to say that it doesn’t bend that way all by itself. It is the readiness of people like him,  like Mandela, like John the Baptist, like anyone else who lives aright in the midst of a twisted world which causes that arc to bend. It is the actions – small or great - which each of us takes which make the difference.

This was the message which those who came to John for baptism were responding to.  
They didn’t come out to protest or to campaign or to demand that others did something to sort the world out. They came, we are told, to confess their sins, to acknowledge their part in the mess of the world. They came because they realised that what they did really did matter. They came to receive the forgiveness of God for the times they had failed, forgiveness that would enable them to go out and try again, rather than giving up in despair.

Or at least, that is what some of them came for. It is clear though, that for others , there was a different agenda entirely as they made their way out into the desert. John denounces a group of Pharisees and Sadducees who come to him, members of powerful religious movements in Judaism. He calls them “broods of vipers”. He doesn’t mince his words.  It might not seem quite fair to us – or polite. They are, after all, apparently asking for baptism just like everyone else, but what John says next gives us a clue to what the problem is.

“Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” he asks. That’s the key. These are people who are running away from something, not towards something. They have had privileged positions. They shape the religious landscape of Israel. They have a lot  – a lot of power, of money, of influence – but that means they have a lot to lose as well. If change is in the air, they know that it might not be to their good. They can see trouble coming – threats from Rome, civil unrest, religious tensions and perhaps an uneasy suspicion that God might have something to say about the way things are too. They want John to tell them that it is all going to be ok. They want to find some sort of secure position in a protected enclave, where things can go on as they always have, and they can keep their place at the top of the heap as the people who make the rules. Change might be coming, but not to them, not if they can help it.

I am sure that many of them were good people, sincere people, but when you know that reform threatens your own position it is hard to want it whole-heartedly. White South Africans in the apartheid era faced the same challenge. Justice for all meant that those in power would have to give some of it up, and that goes against every human instinct for self-preservation.  Nelson Mandela apparently said that one of the things which encouraged him to feel that his dream might become reality was when he walked out of prison and saw that amidst the crowds cheering him on there were many white faces, people who were prepared to support him even though it would almost certainly mean a loss of privilege for them.

John the Baptist knew that God’s kingdom couldn’t be a place of separation where the favoured few could hide from all the rest. It had to be a place where people learned to live with those who were different from themselves, where wolves could live with lambs, and lambs could live with wolves. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he says. If you want to be part of this kingdom you have to live it. “Be the change you wish to see” as the modern slogan puts it.

This is true of nations. It is true of churches and communities. It is true in our personal lives too. This Advent, as I said last week, you will spot a theme of “Home” running through a lot of our services and activities. One of the challenges we all face as we try to make homes, whether those are the bricks and mortar places we live in with our families or the homes we make of our communities, churches and nations, is that they are never simply ours. Even if you live alone there will be people whose lives are tied up with yours, friends and family with opinions and needs, people you feel responsible for and people who feel responsible for you. If you share your home with others, that will be even more the case. When a couple moves in together, when a new child comes along, or an adult child comes home having flown the nest, when elderly relatives comes to live with you there is often an awkward stage of adjustment. Whose home is it? Who sets the tone, makes the rules now?

The same thing is true on a larger scale too. Who do our churches, neighbourhoods and nations belong to? Who is entitled to claim them as home? ” Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you,” said St Paul to the Christians in Rome, a mix of people from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds who were struggling, and evidently failing, to live together peacefully. Every generation has to face these tensions. Living with difference is one of the most basic struggles we face in a crowded world, which is why inclusion is so basic to Christian faith.  

Nelson Mandela dreamed of, suffered for, worked for “a community that did not yet exist”  in Rowan Williams’ words. This week as we celebrate his life and mourn his passing, we give thanks for the seeds of peace which he sowed in the nation he gave his life to. But we should also remember that we are all called to this task too; to imagine a community that does not yet exist, the kingdom of God, a kingdom where all are welcome. We are called to live it into being by welcoming one another as God has welcomed us, so that we can make this world he has given us into a home for all humanity. The voices that cry in the wilderness cry out to us too – “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
Amen

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Advent 1: Home for Christmas?




Where will you spend Christmas this year?  Throughout Advent I find people giving me their apologies at the church door. “We won’t be here for Christmas - we’re off to see the children or the parents or the aged aunts and uncles. We’re off to the other end of the country or the other side of the world…”
I don’t worry too much about the church being empty though, because I know that there will be just as many people coming in the other direction, landing up here in Seal for what may be an annual visit to family here. It all evens out in the end. It is just how it is. Christmas is a great time for home-going and home-coming, when people gather together with those they love, or those they feel they ought to love.

Adverts, tv programmes, magazines and films are full of the imagery of the ideal home at Christmas; the family gathered round a groaning table or a roaring log fire, everyone getting along, children playing happily together…  at which point we know we are well into fantasy land! But it’s a fantasy we are very ready to buy into, quite literally, spending our money in the hopes that it will be like that for us too this year, even if our houses and families are far from that ideal.

The advertisers’ images might all seem very far from the story of the baby in the manger we’ll tell here at church, but nonetheless it seems to me that there is something very holy about that desire to come home, to feel “at home”, to be in a place where we know we are loved and welcome. That longing for home is echoed in the Bible stories we hear in Advent, which begins today.  

Advent means “coming”.   Something’s coming, it hints. Someone’s coming – and its not just Santa. The kingdom of God is coming. It’s just around the corner, close by, on the horizon - you only have to reach out a bit and you can touch it – that’s the message. But Advent isn’t just about what, and who, is coming to us. It’s also about the journey we are taking, the journey that leads us to our true home, that place of welcome we’re looking for. Just as Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem, the shepherds to the manger crib, the wise men from their distant lands, we are called to be on the move in Advent, coming home to the God who loves us, and trying to make the little bit of the word we are responsible for a place of welcome for others too.  We do that through prayer and reflection, but we do it also as we give to those in need, as we campaign for justice and peace.

That  theme of home-coming is there, loud and clear, in our Bible readings today.
In the Old Testament, Isaiah writes at a time of turmoil for the people of Jerusalem, when they are in exile in Babylon, far from home, knowing that Jerusalem has been destroyed and its splendid temple looted. But it won’t always be so, says Isaiah. They mustn’t lose hope. They will go home and when they do, their city will be a place that everyone else wants to call home to as well. “Come, let us go up to the house of the Lord…” they’ll say. It is a picture of home-coming on a grand scale – the world will find a welcome in this place, Isaiah says.

His vision is echoed in the Psalm we read together – “I was glad when they said to me, ‘ Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

But when we get to the Gospel reading the emphasis, and the tone, shifts. This time it is God who is coming home, in the person of this mysterious Son of Man. And frankly it sounds like a homecoming that has a rather dark edge to it – like one of those moments in East Enders when the doorbell rings and a long lost character everyone thought they were well rid of is standing there on the doorstep. It might all sound a bit bizarre to our ears, but this is an ancient text, from a world very different from our own, though, so we need to do a bit of work if we want to understand what it is really saying.

At the time of Christ there was a widespread belief in some sort of dramatic moment when God would intervene in the course of human affairs to overturn injustice and usher in a new age. Oppressive powers would be thrown down and the poor and humble would be lifted up. Many people at the time of Christ longed for this time to come. Faced with the might of Rome, little control over their lives it sounded like very good news… provided, of course, that you were on the right side of that dividing line when the Son of Man made his judgement. Naturally enough, those who embraced this vision tended to assume they were. What Jesus is trying to do here, though, is to get his followers to see that the changes they really need aren’t going to start “out there” with God sorting out other people, but in their own lives. As long as they are convinced that they are ok, and it is just those other folk who need to mend their ways, they are going to be in for a shock, because the mess of the world isn’t that simple. We are all involved in it. We are all oppressors in some ways, all victims in others.

Paul echoes that message in his letter to the Christians in Rome. “Now is the time to wake from sleep” he says. What we do matters, he says. How we live shapes us and the world around us, for better or worse. “Live honourably”, he says, because living honourably makes us more ready and more resilient for times when trouble strikes, as it inevitably will in every human life sooner or later. You don’t need to believe in a literal Day of Judgement, with the sky splitting open and Jesus coming in clouds of glory to know that.

Sudden change can come upon any of us. In a moment the walls of our world can crumble, the foundations crack. It might be an illness, a bereavement, a job loss, a relationship breakdown –no one is immune, however well-shielded they think they are. These times of trouble have an uncomfortable tendency to reveal things we’d rather they didn’t. They show us what we are made of, what inner resources we have, or haven’t got. They show us what others are made of too – who our friends are, how strong our relationships are. They may well reveal our society to us in a new light as well. We might discover the kindness of strangers, but often when the props are kicked away people also find out just how cold and mean the world can be to those who are  already on their uppers. Cuts to public services that seemed like nothing when you didn’t need them, now make the difference between life being bearable or not, and instead of sympathy and support, people are very ready to label you a scrounger or shirker.

When Jesus warns his disciples of tough times coming he knows what he is talking about. For him the cross lay ahead – this passage comes from just before his arrest and crucifixion. For many of his followers there was persecution coming too. For everyone in his society there was political turmoil that would lead in AD 70 to the destruction of Jerusalem and an expulsion of the Jewish people from their homeland which would last nearly 2000 years. These times would either be an end – the end of all their hopes and dreams, the moment to give up - or they would be a new beginning, launching them out with a new vision and new hope into a new age. It all depended on how they looked at the situation, and who they looked at it with.  He knows how much it will matter that they have sunk deep roots into the love of God, that they have a good and loving network of support around them. 

When trouble comes home to us, when truth comes home to us, God can come home to us too, feeling close in ways that he didn’t before, and that can make all the difference.  “Be at home in God,” runs an old saying “and the whole world is your home.” Whatever is happening you’ll have what you need to deal with it.

This Advent the theme of home-coming and home-going is going to be running like a thread through our preparations for Christmas, giving us a chance to ask ourselves what home means to us, where we get that sense of belonging and love which every human being needs to live well. The travelling crib set which is going to start its journey round the parish today with a week or two in school is a part of that. Can we make a home for the Holy Family? How does it feel to have God show up in our home or classroom? I’m also posting daily reflections on the theme of home on the church blog, with poems, Bible readings, music and questions to think about – there are paper copies here too.

My prayer for Advent is that somewhere in all of these Advent thoughts and activities, each of us will find some moment when we come home to God and he comes home to us, when we discover afresh what it feels like to be “at home” with him, loved, safe, welcome, just as Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and wise men were welcome at that manger in Bethlehem and that we will be transformed as they were, by that knowledge.

Amen  

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Christ the King


Luke 23.33-43 & Colossians 1.11-20

What springs to mind when Kings are mentioned? Possibly it’s medieval kings with elaborate garments, crowns and thrones enjoying banquets. These people had real power and privilege often maintained by ruling with an ‘iron fist’, making unpopular decisions and passing all this on by birth right to people who may be entirely unsuitable for the job.

It hard to imagine anyone higher than a king, the word instantly implies absolute supremacy. After all it wouldn’t have been the same if they had called Elvis the President of rock ‘n’ roll would it? When a football team wins the European Championship we often see the headline ‘Kings of Europe’ if it was Prime Ministers of Europe we’d need to check again to see if we were really reading the sports pages.

Our lectionary labels this Sunday as ‘Christ the King’. We could have been reflecting on the time the Magi got King Herod worried when they asked ‘where is the child who has been born king of the Jews, or when Jesus was in the wilderness and refused an offer to have all worldly kingdoms if he would worship the devil. Perhaps the easiest image to conjure is that of Christ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as the crowds laid cloaks and branches in his path ‘Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey…’ 

These earlier events have already taught Jesus followers that this is no normal king but someone who has come to show them what real kingship is about. So it follows that on the day set aside to recognise the kingship of Jesus we find ourselves at the cross.

We heard in Luke’s gospel how one of the criminals being crucified alongside Jesus adds his voice to the abuse, ridicule and mockery aimed at him but you sense a mood change which would surely have shocked those looking on as the other criminal calls out ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom’.

The criminal has heard Christ say ‘father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing’. He sees that this is a king who doesn’t blame the ordinary people carrying out the orders of the powerful, the carpenters and the soldiers. Even in agony on the cross he can’t stop caring for others.

The criminal recognises in Christ a power that sets people free and a truth that doesn’t need to make compromises, surely this is the sort of kingdom we would all like to make our eternal home.

Those who mocked Jesus might have felt affirmed if he had replied in a way that confirmed their view of all that was happening. The opportunity to admit final defeat was there and some of his followers would even have expected to hear him reply to the call of ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom’, along the lines of:-

·         Kingdom what kingdom, do I look like a king to you, can’t you see that I’m finished mate?

·         Sorry who said that, I’ll have to have my crown adjusted as these thorns are so tight the blood runs through my eyes?

·         Surely you aren’t taking seriously the inscription stating ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ are you? That’s just Pilate having a laugh, antagonising the Jewish leaders as he scoffed at the idea of me challenging the kingship of Caesar.

·         Who was the last king you saw that hung around with outcasts, sinners and the oppressed?

·         Didn’t you see that soldier offering me sour wine from a rag on a stick If I was a true king wouldn’t I have a royal cup bearer?

Instead we know that Jesus took this last earthly opportunity to remind us that God never stops reaching out in love to us, keen to welcome us into his kingdom.

Despite the obvious fact that this man had done much wrong he receives Jesus personal assurance that he will join him in Paradise making it clear that it’s never too late to turn to Christ and that nothing we do can separate us from God’s love.

The Colossians recognise God’s rule in everything and understand that they are set free by it. It goes beyond the language of kingship recognising God’s power in creation itself, power that transcends heaven and earth the visible and invisible. Free to live lives that understand who is ultimately in charge despite all they see around them.

God’s kingdom isn’t just our hope after death but we are invited to recognise its challenge to our understanding of human power.

Its worth us thinking about the things we do which fail to recognise Gods kingdom, the things that would make God small.

As we begin to understand the type of kingship we see in Jesus it helps us recognise a clear mis-match with much of what we value. Many of us will have come across the term ‘empire builder’ in the workplace the type of person always looking to increase the size of their team, their budgets, the size of their office until it is clear to everyone else how very important they must be. We need to think hard about why we are doing things and if they seem right to pursue them with a degree of humility.

There is a great deal of difference between those that accept responsibility and service and those that seek self-importance and power, between those who want to rule over others and those who want to live in community with them.

We know that there is a great deal wrong with our world but we also need to be people who can recognise God’s kingdom when we see it in each other. We get a glimpse each time we see kindness and forgiveness in action that seeks no reward, even more so when it is for those we don’t know, find hard to help or even like. Surely these are glimpses of paradise?

In doing these things we are not keeping God’s kingdom to ourselves but allowing others to experience it and share in it.

We recently had a future king recognise the source of all power as his son George was baptised into our church. The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby spoke of how we are all related through baptism, all part of the same family regardless of ethnicity or class. He was keen to point out that this is not something only for a future king but available to us all offering a gentle reminder that titles are meaningless to God.

We each play a part in building Gods kingdom  every time we refuse to turn our back on people in need, every time we exercise our capacity for forgiveness, every time we have the courage to stand up against what we know to be wrong and every time we try to put God’s desires above our own. We could think of it as bringing the cross and all it stands for into our world.

It sounds logical but it’s easy to get worn down and distracted from our good intentions we run into difficulty, disappointment and even danger for some. It’s therefore important that we support and encourage each other remembering that we are not alone in this. We, together, are the body of Christ and we have the potential to breathe new life into all we see around us.

Christ as a baby, Christ resisting temptation and Christ being adored as he rides into Jerusalem all offer palatable aspects of his kingship. Christ on the cross must be as raw a vision of God’s kingship as we can bear yet it is here that the paradise Jesus talks of becomes a reality for each one of us.

God as man and all the vulnerability that implies is the pinnacle of his kingship and the greatest ever demonstration of love, on the cross there is an eternal fusing of God to us which is hard to articulate. I find some words from Ted Hughes poem ‘The Crow’ helpful:-

‘So man cried, but with God’s voice. And God bled, but with man’s blood.’

Amen

Kevin Bright

24th November 2013

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Welcoming judgement: 2nd Sunday before Advent Breathing Space




Advent is just around the corner. In the Church’s tradition it’s a time for considering what are called the Four Last Things – heaven, hell, death and judgement. These days, though, I’m not sure that would exactly chime with the popular mood. A Christingle service on death…? A carol service on hell…? It’s just not going to work, is it?

But I’m glad to say that those rather more serious themes haven’t been wiped out of the Church’s year completely. When the services of the Church of England were revised at the millennium, some bright sparks noticed that actually there is a little season of festivals and commemorations in November which seemed to go together – All Saints, All Souls, Remembrance and Christ the King. They decided to call it the Kingdom Season (its colour is red, as you can see). And what are those services all about? Heaven, hell, death and judgement… In effect, just as Christmas crept forward into Advent, so Advent has crept forward into November.

Today’s theme is very definitely the last of the four - judgement. That’s not something people like to talk about much these days. Most of us don’t like being judged. Philip’s school has had the Independent Schools Inspectorate in this week – the private school’s equivalent of Ofsted. It has not been fun… Being watched, knowing you are being weighed up is very hard work and stressful, even if you are good at what you do.

If we don’t like being judged, we also often don’t want to do the judging either. We don’t want to be seen as “judgemental”. We’ve seen the damage it can do to others. Who are we to say what is right and wrong for others? Most of us are quite rightly reticent about doing so.

And often we take those feelings about judging and being judged and project them straight onto God in a way that is far from helpful. Many people still picture him sitting on a throne, high above them, with a frown on his face, just waiting to come down on them like a ton of bricks.  It is something that both secular and religious leaders have sometimes encouraged; with a God like this on your side, it is much easier to keep people in line. But it is any wonder that with all this baggage about people often prefer to avoid thinking about judgement if they can?

Our readings today are not nearly as coy about judgement as we tend to be, though. Jesus talks about the fact that there are tough times coming, times that will test people, but the Psalmist goes further. In his Psalm he makes it clear that it is God himself who is the judge.

But the odd thing is that he doesn’t seem at all worried by this. In fact, quite the reverse. He greets the idea of God’s judgement with joy, not terror.

 “Sing to the Lord a new song,” he says. “Shout with joy”. There are harps and trumpets. Even the natural world gets to join in – the sea makes a noise, and all that is in it. The rivers clap their hands and the hills ring out. They are joyful, he makes it clear not despite God’s judgement, but because of it. This joy will erupt “when he comes to judge the earth.”

The reason the Psalmist is so happy at the prospect is because he trusts that this God who is coming to judge is going to do so “in righteousness”, in order to set right what is wrong and heal what is broken, and he knows how badly needed that healing is.  His will be a judgement rooted in love, not in some petty desire to catch us out and see us suffer.

The raw truth is that judgement matters. We need to be judged. If I go to my doctor I very much hope that she’ll exercise judgement about me, otherwise how can she help? I don’t want her to say “no, no, you are fine...” when I am obviously not. I want her to see what is wrong, so that whatever ails me can be treated. 
We need to make judgements too, and we do so all the time. We need to decide what we should spend our time, energy and money on, who we should listen to and learn from and who we might need to be more cautious about. If we just shrug our shoulders and accept whatever happens around us, we will soon be in a great mess.

Most of all we need to let ourselves hear the loving judgement of God, because he is the one who sees us most clearly and cares about us most deeply. We can trust him to tell it like it is, even about those things which we so carefully try to hide in the darkest corners of our lives. In our silence, let us ask God what it is he would say to us tonight, what needs to change in us, and let’s remember that as he does so, all there is on his mind is love.

Amen 



Sunday, 10 November 2013

Remembrance Sunday: True Patriotism

Remembrance Sunday 2013


“I vow to thee my country,” which we’ve just sung is what you might call a Marmite hymn – people tend to either love it or hate it. A lot of people find it stirring and beautiful, a celebration of their love for their country, and a reminder of their calling to build the kingdom of God too. But others are less enthralled by the appeal to absolute obedience in its first verse. Is it really wise to offer “love that asks no questions” to any cause, however good? Questions need to be asked before we put the lives of others at risk, they say. It is a perennially controversial hymn, and I noticed just yesterday that the battle lines were being drawn again over it in the Daily Mail, following an article about it by a priest who had gently it should be rewritten to reflect these concerns.

It didn’t, in fact, start out as a hymn at all. It was written originally in 1908 as a poem, by Cecil Spring-Rice, an official with the Foreign Office working in Sweden. In 1912, he became ambassador to the United States, where he was key in persuading the president, Woodrow Wilson, to abandon America’s neutral stance in 1917 and join Britain in the war on Germany.
Spring-Rice was called back to England in 1918 just as the war was drawing to a close,  but on the voyage home he died of a long-standing illness, so he never heard his poem in the form we are now so used to, set to a tune by Gustav Holst. 

It caught on and became popular rapidly, but as I said, it is a Marmite hymn, dividing opinions., and often people can’t understand why others don’t feel as they do about it, however that is. Like a lot of patriotic hymns, it can actually set people against each other, which is ironic for something which ends with a vision of gentleness and peace.

Perhaps the problem is that we‘ve often not asked ourselves what we really mean by patriotism, and that’s what I would like to think about a bit this morning. What does it mean to love your country? This is very much a live issue; we can see that in the way people react to groups like the English Defence League, or in the discussions around Scottish independence, or in  the tensions between EU countries about how member nations should support each other. We see it in the perennial issue of violence at international sporting events. Does loving your country mean hating someone else’s? Does it mean pulling up the drawbridge and looking only to your own narrow national interests even if that hurts other people? Is it about making sure that your nation comes out on top?

The language of patriotism doesn’t always help either. The patriotic songs we love so much are fine when it comes to expressing grand ideals, but they have nothing to say about the nitty-gritty of everyday life, the complicated realities we actually have to deal with, which are often the enemies that are hardest to defeat. Many disabled WW1 veterans found themselves jobless, homeless and destitute in the Great Depression of the 20’s and 30’s, and wondered what had happened to all the patriotic fervour that had sent them off to war. Still today injured or traumatised members of the armed forces can find themselves struggling to make ends meet. The British Legion has featured the story of 28 year old, Aron Shelton, from Bridlington in their publicity. He was injured in Afghanistan in 2007 and had to have a leg amputated. He will probably lose the other in the near future too. But Aron was told he wasn’t  "disabled enough" to continue receiving Disability Living Allowance (he filled in a form honestly saying 'on a good day he could walk 400 metres'). The Legion intervened and represented him at a Tribunal to appeal the decision; it took a year to fight his battle. In the end it was successful and his allowance, which pays for a car, was returned to him but should he have had to struggle so hard to get help from public funds, when he had given so much, and will have to live with his disability for the rest of his life? George Orwell commented ruefully in a diary entry in the middle of WW2 that “no one is patriotic when it comes to paying taxes” and that might be a thought that Aron would second.
Of course the question of what it means to love your country isn’t a new one. The Bible readings we heard today show us that people many thousands of years ago were struggling with the same issues. The people who wrote the Bible believed that their land had been given to them by God  and they loved it; they loved its hills and woodlands, its produce and pastures. In the Bible they wax lyrical about it often; it is a land flowing with milk and honey. Was it really better than anywhere else? Probably not, but it was home, the place they felt they belonged, the place where their memories were, the place where the people they loved were.  
It was a place, though, that was very often under threat.  It lay at the crossroads between Europe, Africa and Asia, and every great power in the ancient world wanted to control it. So little Israel was overrun by nation after nation. Sometimes that meant its people had to live under occupation, as they were doing at the time of Jesus. Sometimes it meant they were taken away to the lands of their conquerors by force. Most of the Old Testament was put together while they were in exile in Babylon, and it shows; it is full of wistful longing for home. “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion”

But alongside that longing there was also a hard edged challenge for those exiles, an awareness that for all its beauty, things had not always been as they should be in their homeland, and that when – if ever – they got home, the society they rebuilt needed to be different from the one they had lost.  God wanted to create “Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight” in the future, said Isaiah. What would that new Jerusalem look like in practice? It would be a place where people could grow old, rather than dying of hunger, disease or warfare before their time. It would be a place where they could build a house and actually live in it, plant a crop and get to harvest it; it wouldn’t be destroyed by invading armies. These are very simple desires, but they seemed far out of reach then, just as they do for many who live in war-torn regions now.

Isaiah knew that this kind of peace, peace which enabled people to live their lives to the full, would only become a reality if they could create a society which was built on the values God had taught them –  caring for one another, supporting the vulnerable, loving the stranger, putting justice for all before their own narrow self-interest. It wasn’t going to come about through grand patriotic gestures and fine sounding words. Isaiah’s God is not a big fan of pomp and circumstance, even when it came in the form of worship of him “I have had enough of your burnt offerings…” he says earlier in the book, ”….cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1.11&17)

It is a hard lesson to learn though; splendid ceremonial is a lot easier, and more fun, than caring for the poor. Five hundred years later, Jesus was making the same point as he lamented over Jerusalem which was under Roman occupation, and weakened by internal struggles for power. “If you had only recognised, even today, the things that make for peace!” he cried. Somehow they kept missing the point, missing the moment when God showed up among them -  “the time of your visitation from God” - missing the chances to make a real difference. They missed them because those holy moments weren’t the grand and obvious ones, they were the moments when a hungry person needed feeding, or a vulnerable person needed an advocate – the kind of advocacy the British Legion gave to Aron Shelton, that young ex-soldier.  It is these things, often small and humdrum, which really shape our communities and our nations.

What does it mean for us to love our country, to be truly patriotic? It means, first and foremost, caring about the place where we are and the things that make life better – or even just bearable - for those who share it with us. It means living with compassion and integrity in that place, responding to the challenges and the joys that are right in front of us.  Most of us are not called to lay down our lives in battle, thank God, but we are called to lay down our lives in service to those around us, and there is no shortage of opportunity to do so. We don’t necessarily have to “lay upon the altar the dearest and the best” in order to love our country. Often it is just about giving up a couple of hours on a Thursday night to help with the cubs, beavers and scouts, or offering to sit on the Parish Council and wade through paperwork that is probably far from thrilling so that the voices of your community are heard and represented, or even simply knocking on your neighbour’s door to get to know them, so that when they need you, or you need them, you aren’t complete strangers to one another.

Cecil Spring-Rice’s hymn tells us, in its second verse of “another country” to which we owe even greater allegiance than we do to the land of our birth. That country is the kingdom of heaven. I don’t know what Spring-Rice understood that to mean, but in the Gospels it is not a place that exists only after death in some world to come. Jesus says that it comes to birth in us and around us whenever we live out God’s love in practice in the place where he has put us. We can wave our national flags and sing stirring hymns if we want to, but it is love in action which is the patriotism that really matters. 


Amen

Sunday, 3 November 2013

All Saints Sunday: A Glorious Inheritance


Dan 7.1-3, 15-18, Eph 1.11-end, Luke 6.20-31 

“In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance” says Paul to the Ephesians. I wonder what it might have felt like to have heard those words when they were first written. Just imagine you were one of those early Christians in Ephesus. There probably weren’t more than a handful of you, but you’d have been a very mixed bunch. Some of you might have been wealthy – but many of you wouldn’t be – the Christian faith seems to have appealed most strongly to the poor, to women and to slaves in its early days. Many of you would probably never have dreamed you’d inherit anything – if you were poor or a slave what would anyone have to leave to you?  But here is Paul telling you that you have a “glorious inheritance among the saints”. He talks of riches and of the “immeasurable greatness of God’s power”.

All our readings today speak of inheritance in one form or another. Daniel hears in a vision of God’s promise that his holy ones – the ones who have stayed true to him during the Babylonian Exile – will receive a kingdom. And Jesus in the Gospel also promises that those who suffer now, those who seem poor now, will be rewarded, while those who have wealth that leaves others in poverty will find that they have received all they are going to get.

Today is All Saints’ day, so all this talk of inheritance is very appropriate. Today we are celebrating the inheritance of faith which the saints have handed down to us, the message of the Gospel which they have taught and lived. We are reminded too, that we have the task of handing on that inheritance to others in our turn; we are the saints for future generations. But what is this inheritance? Why does it matter? What do we need to do to get it? What should we do with it once we have got it?

Inheritance can be a very fraught business. Families often fall out over who gets what when someone dies. Nations descend into civil war over who should inherit the power to rule. People squabble over who are the true inheritors of the legacy of a great leader – who is carrying on their vision most faithfully. Sometimes, though, by the time the matter is settled the inheritance has been worn away to nothing by the struggles of those trying to get their hands on it or so spoiled that it isn’t worth having.

I was reminded of that earlier this week, when Philip and I were in Tewkesbury for a short break. We were wandering around Tewkesbury Abbey when all of a sudden we came across a very familiar name. There in front of us was the very grand effigy of Sir Guy de Bryene, lying in rather splendid state at the entrance to one of the side chapels. Now, anyone who knows this church well will know that we have a de Bryene here too. We’ve got Sir William deBryene, whose brass memorial lies just to the left of the altar, dating from 1395, and he happens to be the son of Sir Guy de Bryene, who we discovered in Tewkesbury.

Sir Guy de Bryene was a very wealthy and influential person, a close advisor to King Richard II and an ambassador to the pope. He had lots of lands mostly in Dorset, Devon and Wales. His name still lingers in place names there – Torbryan, Bryanston… He had three sons – Guy Junior, our William, and another called Phillipe. But Guy Junior and Phillipe died before their father so William was left as the only male heir. You’d expect that he would then be first in line to inherit all those fine lands and titles, but that’s not what happened. He is described on his memorial her just as “the Lord of Kemsing and Seal”, titles he’d inherited through his mother’s line. Now of course we might think that was a very fine thing to be, but I’m afraid that as far as Sir William was concerned, it was the booby prize. What had happened to those Bryene lands and titles which surely should have been his? Thereby hangs a tale… and it’s not a very edifying one.

It seems that when Guy de Bryene’s eldest son died in 1385 Guy senior decided to change his will. Instead of leaving everything to his second son, our William, as would have been normal, he cut him out completely, and left it all to Guy junior’s daughters – just little girls at the time.  We don’t know why, but perhaps his father knew a thing or two about William, because William promptly started to manoeuvre and plot quite disgracefully in order to try to discredit the offending will, or even make it disappear completely. He threatened witnesses to the will, trying to get them to say that his father was insane when he made it. He was even imprisoned in the Tower of London after he had been caught climbing the walls of one of his father’s castle in Pembrokeshire in order to break in and steal documents from a chest kept there which would have undermined his claim.  In the end, though, none of this finagling came to anything. William didn’t get the inheritance, and as it happened, he died just five years after his father, without any children of his own, and the de Bryene line soon petered out completely.

It’s an object lesson in the damage that inheritance, or the hope of it, can do. The inscription on William’s tomb asks that God should be merciful to him, and perhaps he knew he needed that mercy!

The kind of inheritance that the Biblical writers are talking about is not one of land or titles or material wealth, of course, but it can be just as fraught and divisive, especially when we bring to it the baggage of insecurity and greed which so often poisons our disputes over material inheritance.

Whatever form it takes inheritance is usually as much about belonging as it is about belongings. When families fall out over who gets the property of someone who has died, it is usually not so much because they want the cash they could raise by selling it, but because it symbolises how much they think that person valued them.  Siblings are often really fighting about who mum or dad loved most when they fight over who gets what. Someone who felt overlooked by a parent in life may well feel slighted in death too if they don’t get what they expect in the will.

The “glorious inheritance” Paul wrote to the Ephesians about is also, at its heart, an assurance that we are loved, that God is with us and for us, that we belong to him, that we have a secure place in his heart and in his family.
That sense of belonging was something which the Jewish people of Paul’s time held very dear. It had been promised to them through Abraham and restored to them through Moses after their slavery in Egypt. Again and again in the Old Testament God says that his dream was simply that “I will be their God and they will be my people.” Again and again he laments when that relationship is broken. Again and again, his people learn the hard way that, like all relationships, this one needs working at, it needs commitment from them to make it real. Again and again, when they turn back to God they find him ready and waiting to forgive.

There is a strong strand of thought in the Bible that this relationship is not meant exclusively for them; they are meant to share it. But that view kept being pushed aside in favour of a narrow nationalistic view of themselves as the sole inheritors of God’s love.

That’s no surprise. Just as siblings often fight for their parent’s love, grasping at it because they can’t quite trust that there will be enough to go round, so people tend to treat God’s love as if it’s in short supply and must be rationed out carefully. That usually means building walls and setting up barriers to keep those they think of as unworthy out.

The good news that Paul discovered on the Damascus road, though, was that this love was for everyone, that there was more than enough to go round, that however much of it was poured out, there was always an infinite amount left. His narrow vision of faith – so narrow that he was intent on physically destroying anyone who challenged it - was blown open by the voice of the risen Christ calling to him, and by the love of the Christian community that welcomed him with joy when he would have expected them to hate him. His good news was that the “dividing walls of hostility” as he puts it later in this letter had been broken down (Ephesians 2.14). God’s peace was for those who were “far off” as well as those who were “near” (2.17)

In today’s Gospel Jesus reminds us also that we can’t tell who is “in” or “out” by external appearances and circumstances either. Being poor, broken hearted, reviled is not a sign that you have done something wrong or are less loved by God. Conversely, being rich, popular and successful might tell you that you have made it in the world’s eyes, but it isn’t a sign of God’s blessing, and may in fact get in the way of it.

Today there are many things we could celebrate as our Christian inheritance, things we might treasure just as we do the precious vase an aunt left to us, or our grandfather’s war medals. We can celebrate the stories of faith, the music and prayers of the Church, the examples of service and courage of those who have gone before us, and it is right that we do so. But the most precious inheritance of all, and the one which is most easily lost, is the message that all these other treasures are supposed to convey, that assurance that we belong to God, all of us, whoever we are and whatever we’ve done, whether we are new through the doors, or cradle Christians, whether we think we deserve it or whether we know we don’t. It is an inheritance made all the more precious because it is for everyone. It is something we can afford to share with the same generosity as it was given to us, because it is endless and eternal. Today, whatever else we celebrate as our Christian inheritance, let us make sure we celebrate that inclusive love – a glorious inheritance indeed.
Amen