Sunday, 27 May 2018

Trinity

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

Sunday, 20 May 2018

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Easter 7: "Say one for me"






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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