Sunday 11 February 2024

Sunday before Lent

 

I came across a video earlier this week, made by an American comedian and radio presenter called Tommy Edison in which he challenged people – ordinary passers-by at a conference he happened to be attending - to describe colours to him. https://youtu.be/91VUFVp1eXk?si=CX1QAY9iEvq4ff_I

The twist in the story is that Tommy Edison was born totally blind, so he’s never actually seen colours. It wasn’t something he felt he was missing, because he’d never known it, but he wanted to try to understand what colour meant to those who could see it, because we so often use the language of colour metaphorically – we “see red” or “feel blue” or “spot the green shoots of recovery”.

 

The people he stopped had a good stab at describing the colours they saw around them.“Red is a colour that stands out,” said one, “a strong colour, so we use it for things that we want people to notice, like fire engines…” “Green is the colour of leaves, of growing things, the colour of spring,” said another.

 

But it was clearly a struggle, and however hard they tried, Edison’s interviewees knew, and so did Edison, that they would never be able fully to convey what “redness” or “blueness” or “greenness” were. Colours are something that we have to experience, and its not an experience we can pass on to someone who hasn’t had it.

 

There’s a word for that sort of thing. It is the word “ineffable”. Something is ineffable if it is beyond human power to communicate, to pin down, to explain to someone else. It’s something that can’t be described, however clever we are, or the person we are talking to is; It can only be experienced.

 

Colour, though it is all around us, is ineffable, but it’s not the only ineffable thing we encounter on a regular basis. Love is ineffable. We can talk about the effect it has on us. We can talk about the people we love and what it is we love about them. But no one has ever really been able to define love or capture it fully in words. Grief is often ineffable too. “How do you feel?” says the TV interviewer to just about anyone who is dealing with some great tragedy. The interviewee stumbles to produce some words, often cliches, but anyone who has suffered great grief will know that it is stranger than anything you can put into a soundbite, subtler, more different, unexpected, and ultimately a mystery.

 

Jesus’ closest disciples, Peter, James and John, have an experience which is “ineffable” in today’s Gospel story. They see Jesus shining with the glory of God, flanked by Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They have absolutely no idea what is happening or why. “Peter did not know what to say,” the story tells us.

 

Unfortunately, though, by this point, he has already said something. I love that little detail. He speaks first – “Rabbi…let us make three dwellings…” but it’s only after he’s opened his mouth and the words have come pouring out that he realises he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. We’ve probably all been there, discovering we’re spouting nonsense, but too late to stop ourselves. That’s the danger with ineffable things. We try to make them “effable”, to say something, anything, just to fill the silence, but in doing so, we usually miss the mark, and reduce that huge and complex experience to something banal, like that crass question from the TV interviewer about grief. What is there to say that can ever do justice to the biggest feelings we have? Often, it’s better just to sit in silence with someone, to sit in silence with yourself, to acknowledge that you haven’t got words, and that perhaps, words aren’t all they are cracked up to be anyway, to let the experience be what it is, something to be pondered, but not pinned down.

 

Perhaps that’s why Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about what has happened on the mountain; because he knows that anything that they can say, at this stage at least, is likely to be so wide of the mark as to be worthless. The Transfiguration will always mysterious, but it would have been even harder to understand it at the time it happened, before the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The disciples need those events to even begin to understand this one. They need to discover that God’s glory isn’t just found in shining light on a mountain top, but in a man dying a humiliating death on a cross, that God’s Son is beloved then too, because that will help them to understand that they are beloved as much in suffering and failure as they are when all is going well.  

 

The story of the Transfiguration is always set as the Gospel story for this Sunday in the Church’s year, the last Sunday before Lent.  Lent is a time when we often try to take ourselves in hand, try a bit harder in our Christian lives, give something up, take something up, do something different. But ultimately, it’s not about that. It is about making space for God to come to us in our need, to acknowledge that we can’t do this by ourselves.

 

This Lent we’re going to be looking in our Lent course at a set of statements called the Five Marks of Mission, devised some forty  years ago to help churches ponder whether they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. It’s just as helpful a list for us as individuals too.  The five marks can be summarised by five words, conveniently all starting with T.

First: Tell – proclaiming the good news of Jesus

Second: Teach – helping people to understand and deepen their faith

Third: Tend – caring for those around us

Fourth: Transform – challenging injustice

And Fifth: Treasure – caring for God’s gift of creation

 

We’re going to be unpacking those things together, to see what they mean to us, and how we see them at work – I am hoping we do – in the life of Seal Church.

 

But there’s a danger in these Five Marks of Mission, because they are all about what we do. They are very active, and unless we are very careful, they can lead us to think that living God’s way is just a matter of us endlessly trying harder, doing more. We can end up like Peter, rushing to knock up shelters for those heavenly visitors, and miss the bit that needs to come first, listening, pondering, becoming aware that we can’t pin down, control or manipulate the ineffable love of God. That’s why in the course I’ve written, as we think about each of those T words, the things we do, we will also be thinking about the things we first need to receive and to experience in order to do them.

 

We can’t tell our stories of faith, if we haven’t first heard them, and understood what they mean to us, and heard the stories of others who bring God’s good news to us too.

We can’t teach our faith, if we aren’t also constantly learning and exploring it.

We can’t tend to others’ needs safely, if we don’t let God, and those around us, tend to us and care for us.

We can’t transform unjust situations if we aren’t being transformed and challenged ourselves.

We can’t treasure God’s creation unless we know that we are part of it, treasured creatures too.

 

Like all those other ineffable things, God’s love can only be experienced, never fully captured in words, but we can’t take people to a mountaintop in Galilee to see Christ shining in glory. All we can do is hope people might get a glimpse of it in the one “shone in our hearts” as Paul puts it.

“This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him” says God to these gob-smacked disciples. This Lent, we are called, before we do anything else, to do the same, to listen, to ponder and to let God be God. Amen

Sunday 21 January 2024

Epiphany 3 2024

 Rev 19.6-10, John 2.1-11


There’s sometimes a danger in our worship for us to get a bit above ourselves, I think. Already today, for example, we’ve heard about great heavenly visions of ranks of angels. Our hymns and songs and prayers are full of grand language, the transformation of the world and so on. It’s stirring stuff but what is it all about in practical terms?

I don’t know what was on your mind as you came to church today, but my guess is that it wasn’t the redemption of the cosmos. It was more likely to be the Sunday lunch, or the deadline at work, or the children’s homework, or that tetchy conversation you had yesterday with a friend that you really ought to sort out.

Daily life for most of us, most of the time is small scale. For me it’s “have we got the right service sheets? Have the Messy Church glue sticks dried out?” Even if you do a genuine life-or-death job – like nurses or doctors – you probably find you spend a lot of time on things that seem trivial; box ticking and form-filling and having meetings that don’t really go anywhere. 

That’s why our Gospel reading today is such an important one. It’s a miracle, of course, so not exactly mundane, but it is a miracle which happens in very ordinary circumstances, to very ordinary people, at an ordinary wedding in an out of the way village in Galilee. In fact, most of those present don’t even know it has happened. “The steward tasted the water that had become wine and did not know where it came from” says John. Neither the newly-weds, nor their families, nor the vast majority of the guests have a clue that a miracle has taken place in their midst. If they were aware that there was a problem with the wine, they probably just assume someone has found an extra barrel hidden somewhere.

Apart from Jesus and his immediate circle it’s only the servants who know what is going on. “The servants who had drawn the water knew” John tells us. He puts it in brackets. It sounds like an aside, but actually it’s not. It’s one of the most important points in the story because it sets the tone not only for what Jesus does here, but for his whole ministry, which is primarily going to be focussed on people like these servants, the poor and overlooked. God almighty, the creator of heaven and earth, the Lord of time and eternity, the giver of all good things is at work in this wedding, but most people don’t spot it.

And what is this miracle for, anyway? What does it achieve? World peace? The overthrow of Roman rule? No, it just saves a family from the shame of having their wedding go down in village memory as the one where the wine ran out. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t seem to matter at all. But to that family at that moment, it mattered completely. Their happiness, their ability to hold up their heads in front of their neighbours – not just on that day but for ever afterwards - hinged on it.

This miracle is absolutely characteristic of the miracles of the New Testament. In the Old Testament, miracles are usually done on a grand scale and a very public stage, in the interests of national survival; the parting of the Red Sea, the Manna in the Wilderness, the fall of Jericho. That’s because the Old Testament was written by and for a nation trying to establish its identity. Its stories are mostly about kings and prophets, wars and alliances, national victories and defeats. There are domestic and small-scale stories too, like those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but these are people who will become founders of the nation, highly significant.

The focus In the New Testament is completely different. It was written by and for a persecuted minority – the early Christians – a tiny group of people, mostly poor, powerless and insignificant, like the servants at the at this wedding feast. People who would never be remembered by history, and who didn’t expect to be. But Jesus’ message, in words and actions, was that whoever you were, you mattered to God and your concerns were his concerns too. Jesus’ miracles are almost all done for people who are anonymous. Unnamed deaf people hear and blind people see, a woman with a haemorrhage which has kept her from being part of her society is healed, another who is bent double is enabled to stand upright and talk to her neighbours face to face again.  They have no obvious influence on the sweep of history. Jesus doesn’t provide miraculous wine for emperors and kings. He doesn’t meet King Herod and the Roman Governor until the last week of his life, and only then because they have dragged him before them to accuse him.  He heals and helps people because they need it, not because he hopes the to win them over to his cause. He doesn’t seem to worry about whether they will follow him afterwards or help to further his wider mission. He welcomes them if that happens, but it is their need, and his ability to meet it that really matters to him.

There are grand themes in his preaching, of course; the kingdom of God and the healing of humanity, but these things grow, says Jesus, from small and humble beginnings in the ordinary lives of ordinary people, people like us. A tiny speck of yeast, a mustard seed, a grain of wheat, says Jesus; this is where God’s work has to begin. The small things are, in the end, the big things. 

In my experience, too, the holiest places in our lives are often those that others might see as rather trivial – those pesky issues at work, the ups and downs of family life, whether we’ve got enough wine for the wedding – because these are the things that make a real difference to us, and through us to the lives of others too. These are the places where we can hurt, or heal, each other, where we can wrong others, or set those wrongs right, where we can lay good – or bad - foundations for the future.

I’d like to finish with a favourite poem by David Scott. It’s called “Letters from Baron Von Hugel to a Niece”. To understand it you need to know that Baron Von Hugel was a very much respected late 19th Century spiritual writer and guide. He is probably best known, though, for a series of letters he wrote to his beloved niece, a young woman who struggled with her health and eventually died young. 

His day was not really complete until

he sealed with a gentle middle finger

a letter to his niece, heralding the arrival

of books. It smelt of camphor. The advice 

was a comfort to her: “Give up Evensong,

and even if dying never strain.”

It was surprising counsel from one so scrupulous;

whose sharp pencil noted on both margins of a page,

and hovered, like a teacher’s, over spelling. 

Walking into Kensington with the letter,

his muffler tight against the frost,

he reassures himself that directing a soul

is not only a matter of angel’s talk, it is 

also the knack of catching the evening post.

“Catching the evening post” – a small thing but one which mattered. The small things are the big things, because in them we find God at work. Whatever concerns you brought to church with you today, if they matter to you they matter to God. And if you pay attention to them, who knows, you might find that they are the places where God is turning water into wine in your life, making it rich in love which can overflow to others.

Amen


Sunday 14 January 2024

Epiphany 2 2024

 

1 Samuel 3.1-20, John 1.43-end

 

In today’s readings we have two stories about people who took a bit of getting through to, who just didn’t seem to be able to hear or see something which they needed to. Nathanael can’t believe that Jesus might be the Messiah; Samuel takes all night to realise that God is speaking to him and the old priest Eli has been unable or unwilling to hear the voice of God for many years. I expect we can all sympathise with them. I’m sure we’ve all been confronted with a truth about someone or something which, looking back, we feel we should have known all along. Worse still, perhaps we realise that we did know it, but couldn’t acknowledge it.

 

Why didn’t governments see Covid coming and make better preparation for it?

Why couldn’t the Post Office have seen that the financial losses they had spotted were a glitch in the computer system, not a sudden outbreak of widespread criminality among their subpostmasters and mistresses.

On a personal level we might ask ourselves why we didn’t we take notice of the niggling symptoms that later turned out to be a serious illness?

Or Why we didn’t spot the warning signs of a relationship that was getting into difficulties?

Or Why it took us so long to realise that were called into, or out of, a particular role or career?

In hindsight it all seems so obvious, but so often our vision is clouded and our ears stopped.

 

In Nathanael’s case it seems to be prejudice which gets in the way of him seeing the truth about Jesus. “A Messiah from Nazareth! You’ve got to be joking” he says to his friends. We’re not sure why Nazareth seemed such a dodgy place to hail from, but presumably people at the time would have understood. It might have been because the northern territory of Galilee was more mixed ethnically and religiously than the southern lands of Judea around Jerusalem. It was also where the majority of the occupying Roman soldiers were stationed, forcing the people into greater collaboration with them. Or perhaps Nazareth just had a bad reputation – a backwater, hicksville place people wanted to avoid. Whatever it was though, Nathanael seems convinced that Nazarenes are not Messiah material, and he can’t get past that.   

 

It‘s only when he meets Jesus that he realises his mistake. This man knows him, somehow, even better than Nathanael knows himself, because he sees Nathanael’s potential as a disciple, something which was also way off Nathanael’s radar. Seeing a new truth about Jesus enables him to see a new truth about himself.

 

The Old Testament story of Eli and Samuel is a more complex tale, and a sadder one. Eli was the old priest at the shrine of Shiloh where the Ark of the Covenant – the symbol of God’s presence in Israel - was kept. He had two adult sons who should have followed him as priests in this important position. But they had gone off the rails and are abusing their positions. They are stealing the offerings that people are bringing to Shiloh. Eli knows this at some level, but he’s never quite found the courage or energy to confront them. In the end, of course, they are responsible for themselves, but at least Eli could have tried to influence them, and it seems he hasn’t.

 

And that’s where Samuel comes in, a young boy whose mother, Hannah, had brought him to the sanctuary for Eli to bring up as his own. It might seem like an odd thing for a loving mother to do, but there is, of course, a back story. Hannah is one of two wives of her husband, Elkanah . The other wife has borne him lots of children, but Hannah hasn’t been able to conceive, and her co-wife and step-children never let her forget it, making her life a misery. In desperation, Hannah comes to the shrine at Shiloh and prays for a child. Her prayers are so passionate that Eli thinks she must be drunk, but when she explains the situation, he assures her that God had heard her prayer, and that she will have a son. It all happens as he said it would and once the child is weaned, Hannah decides that, in thanksgiving, she will entrust the child to Eli to help at the shrine as soon as he is old enough to leave her. As I said, it seems like an odd decision, but maybe he will be safer there than at home with step-brothers and sisters who treated his mother so badly, and will probably do the same to him. Whatever Hannah’s motivation, it is clear that Hannah has realised that her child matters, not only to her, but to the people of Israel and that God is calling him to do something important.

 

But, as the story says “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread”, so when God literally calls to him, one dark night as he lies asleep in the sanctuary at Shiloh, it takes a while for both Samuel and Eli to work out what is going on. And when Samuel finally does say, “speak Lord for your servant is listening”, the message he is asked to give Eli is grim.

 

It is the end of the road for Eli’s household. His sons will eventually be killed in battle, and Eli himself will die of sorrow. No wonder Samuel seems reluctant to pass this message on. But Eli finds the courage to urge Samuel to tell the truth, no matter what it is, and by doing that he teaches Samuel a vital lesson which he will need to draw on often in the future – that the truth, however painful, can’t be avoided forever.

 

Samuel goes on to be one of Israel’s most important prophets, instrumental in the lives of King Saul and King David. He is often called by God to challenge them – and those who challenge kings need all the courage they can muster. I like to hope that Eli would have been glad, for all his own failures, to know that he had been able to play at least a little part in God’s work.

 

And that is what it is about – God’s work. Because it is most often where the pain and the mess are that God is. We see this in Jesus, born in a dung-strewn stable, growing up in that dodgy town of Nazareth, dying on a cross, alone and reviled, looking to all the world as if he had failed. Who would have thought that God could be in these squalid places, in these squalid things? Not the Magi who headed first for Herod’s palace. Not Nathanael with his blinkered views. Not the horrified disciples who ran away from the crucifixion. But that is where God was, at work in the world through Christ. And that is where he still is. In the places, the people, the situations we would rather not see at all – the things within ourselves we’d rather bury or ignore. It is there that God waits patiently with his healing and his love because it’s there that we need him most. Turn away from that place and we turn away from God too.

 

I wonder what would happen today if we were to say, as Samuel does, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening?” I don’t know, and that’s why it frightens me, as perhaps it does you, but if we are serious in our search for God’s presence in our lives and in our world then the places where we least want to be may turn out to be the very places where we will find him. Amen

Sunday 7 January 2024

Mysteries: Epiphany Sunday 2024

  

Ephesians 3.1-12, Matthew 2.1-12

 

Back in December, quite a few of you followed the Advent reflection series I produced, looking at a picture from the National Gallery which depicted – sort of – the story we have heard today, Jan Brueghel’s “Adoration of the Kings”. The reflections are still available on the church blog, if you missed them first time round.

 

It's a wonderful picture, but packed with detail. Brueghel sets the story in a typical late Medieval Flemish landscape– the landscape he knew - rather than in 1st century Judea. In the background there is a town, with narrow streets and imposing churches, but it seems eerily still, dark and deserted, because all the action is happening in the foreground, across the river from the town, in a muddy field, around an extremely dilapidated stable.  

 

What’s drawn everyone to this out of the way spot? A small baby, enthroned on his mother’s lap, reaching out his pudgy hands to bless some fine visitors who are kneeling in the mud in front of him.

The picture is packed with detail. There are all sorts of people in it. Some are concentrating on the child, some seem to have other agendas – looking to make a profit from these fine visitors and their retinue or just having a day out - but they are all there, in some sense, because of him. And it’s not just the human population that has noticed that something important is happening. There are ducks and chickens, dogs and wild birds, and a cat, surveying the scene from a high spot in the stable, a bit aloof, as all proper cats are, but watchful nonetheless.

 

Brueghel takes all sorts of liberties with the Biblical story, of course. He crams the shepherds into his scene, though they aren’t found in Matthew’s account. And Matthew never calls his protagonists kings – they are Magi, astrologer priests. But in a way, this doesn’t matter.  The point is clear – Jesus’ birth has turned normal expectations upside down. Important, finely dressed, mature men shouldn’t be kneeling before peasant women and their babies. Significant events shouldn’t happen in tumbledown buildings on the wrong side of the tracks – or the river in this case. Foreigners from a different culture, with what would have seemed like dodgy religious beliefs to good Jewish people, shouldn’t be the ones taking the lead in recognising and worshipping a Jewish Messiah.

 

The biblical nativity stories and Brueghel in his depiction of them are all designed to tell us that in Jesus, God is doing something new, something unexpected, unforeseen, which overturns the patterns we expect, our lazy assumptions about how the world works.

 

It’s impossible to know how much, if any historical reality there is in the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth, but Matthew and Luke tell us truths about Jesus– a story doesn’t have to have to be real in order to be true. They may not have actually known much about Jesus’ birth – how much do we know about anyone elses, or even our own, often – but they do know things about the adult Jesus. Well-attested stories circulated freely in the Christian community in the decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, told by people who were his closest friends. Matthew and Luke are pointing us towards those real-life memories, signalling in the stories of Jesus’ birth what to expect from this baby when he grows up, a man in whom God was at work, a man who welcomed all and loved all, a man to whom worldly power and glory were irrelevant; a beggar or a small child were just as important to him as any of the King Herods of this world. The nativity stories tell us to expect the unexpected if we follow Jesus, to expect things to change, and know that we are safe in God’s hands when they do.

 

That was the experience of Jesus’ first disciples, and it was the experience of St Paul, too, although he hadn’t known or followed Jesus during his earthly life. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul talks repeatedly about the mystery of God’s kingdom, the mystery of the way God works in the world. The Greek word he uses, musterion, doesn’t mean what we often mean by “mystery” though; it’s not like a murder mystery, where we can work out whodunnit if we are clever enough and pay close enough attention. The mysteries Paul talks about are things which are beyond our understanding. We can only know them if they are revealed to us.

 

Paul is playing with his readers a bit in using this word “mystery”. In his time many people followed what were called “mystery” religions, cults to which you only gained admission to through taking part in secret rituals. They attracted people with the promise of hidden knowledge, but they were only for the initiated, those who had committed themselves, and once you were in, there were dire penalties if you told anyone else the secrets you’d been made privy to. But the point Paul is making is that the “mystery” that has been revealed to him is quite different, because there is nothing secret about it.

 

There is plenty that’s surprising, astonishing even, about the message of God’s love in Jesus, but it’s open to everyone, wherever they come from, whatever their background.

 

That was the revelation that came to Paul on the road to Damascus, and it changed his life completely. He thought he knew all about God – a God who was accessible only to those who kept the Jewish law, like him, and most certainly not to  those who followed Jesus, who he thought was a disgraced, dead heretic. But on that Damascus road, he heard Jesus’ voice calling to him from heaven, from the right hand of God, the last place Paul expected Jesus to be, and that broke his vision of the world to pieces and threw him into total confusion. Blinded, he was led into Damascus, where he was healed physically through the prayers of a Christian called Ananias, but more importantly healed spiritually by the courageous welcome Ananias gave him. No ifs, no buts, no maybes – Paul was loved and forgiven and made part of the Christian family. Through Ananias’s love Paul discovered, as one hymn puts it, that “the love of God is broader than the scope of human mind”.

 

It has sometimes been said that there are only two things we need to know to have a healthy Christian faith; first, that there is a God, and, second, that it isn’t us. That’s really hard for most of us to get our heads around, though. We like to be in control, to feel we have worked things out for ourselves. But often it isn’t like that, and actually, Paul has discovered, it is far better that way, because, knowing we don’t have it all sorted out, we are set free to receive the “wisdom of God in its rich variety” as Paul puts it, wisdom which may come to us in unexpected people, people who aren’t like us, wisdom which may come to us in unexpected situations and places – places we might have thought were god-forsaken.

 

Every Epiphany Sunday here at Seal, I give out little pieces of blessed chalk, and we mark the doors of our church and our homes with the number of the year, and the initials C, M and B – Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, the traditional names of the magi. It’s a reminder to us to keep our doors are open to any wandering wise men who might pass by, to the “wisdom of God in its rich variety”. Life is full of mysteries, but the greatest and most marvellous mystery, a mystery we can treasure but never understand,is that we are loved unshakeably by the God who keeps turning up and making his home with us where we are, even if we have nothing to offer him but a stable.

Amen  

Monday 25 December 2023

Christmas story: No word of a lie

 

No word of a lie – a story for Christmas Day 2023

 

There was once a man who farmed the steep slopes of the hillsides near the town of Bethlehem, growing wheat to make its people’s bread. His name was Samuel, but the local people had long ago given him a nickname – “no word of a lie” – because Samuel always told the truth, even when a little white lie might have been kinder or wiser. If his wife, Hannah, had spent days and weeks and lots of money making a new dress and asked him “does this make me look fat, Samuel?” He would look carefully, his head on one side and then say “well, no word of a lie, yes, it does, just a bit?” Oh dear - bad decision, Samuel! If a new parent showed him their beloved baby and asked him, “have you ever seen a more beautiful child?”, he would say, “well, quite a few actually. In fact, no word of a lie, I think he looks plug ugly at the moment.” The parents were usually up in arms, but others would tell them, “What did you expect from “No word of a lie Samuel”? If you don’t want to know what he thinks, don’t ask him!

 

One day it so happened that Samuel was out sowing wheat seed. Up and down the fields he went, scattering the seed around him, until, by the end of the day, every seed was sown. Samuel looked at his work “A little rain, a little sun and in three or four months time, this field will be full of wheat, ready to harvest” He thought about the little seeds, tucked up in the good earth. He thought about the little roots that would grow down into the soil, slowly, slowly, and the green shoots that would grow up towards the sun. He thought about the ears of wheat swelling up and the green gradually turning to gold as the wheat ripened. Samuel gathered up his tools, and sighed with pleasure, as he turned to walk home. But as he did so he noticed something. Two weary looking travellers walking along the road, a man and a woman, and – what was that the woman was holding – it was a tiny baby, wrapped in rough cloth. They looked worried. They were going as fast as they could, but with a child, and a mother who had recently given birth, they were struggling, and they looked so tired. Samuel thought of his own children, grown up now, and his little grandchildren – he wouldn’t like to imagine them looking like the bedraggled family he saw before him.

 

Samuel hailed them “Where are you going so late in the day, and why the rush?”

We’re heading for Egypt with our child, said the man. He is in danger, and we must hurry.

Well you won’t get to Egypt tonight, said Samuel – no word of a lie – it’s hundreds of miles away, and you look so tired. Why don’t you stop the night with me and my wife. We’d be happy to feed you and give you a bed, and you’ll go along much faster tomorrow with a good night’s sleep and some food inside you.”

 

The man and the woman looked at each other, and whispered together something that Samuel couldn’t quite hear.

“It’s kind of  you,” they said, but we’re afraid we’d put you in danger,” they said. King Herod is after us. He wants to kill our child, and anyone sheltering us might be at risk if he found them.

 

Well, that settles it, said Samuel – you must definitely come back with me. I’ve no time for Herod. He’s a cruel man – no word of a lie. I’m happy to take the risk to help someone who’s on the wrong side of him, and so will my wife be. There’s no need to go a step further. You’re coming home with me, and you can get on your way in the morning bright and early. It can’t make that much difference, if we are careful. Our little house is out in the middle of nowhere, so no one will know you are there.”

 

So the man and the woman – whose names, they said, were Mary and Joseph, - came home with Samuel. When they got there, Samuel took Hannah aside, and told her what Joseph and Mary had said. “Are we putting ourselves in danger by sheltering them, “ asked Hannah”. Yes we are, said Samuel, no word of a lie, we are, but we can’t let them go on. They need us. “ and Hannah agreed, as he knew she would. And she  welcomed them with open arms, made them sit down, made a fuss of the baby – Jesus, he was called – and bustled about sorting out some good food for them all to share together. Darkness fell as they sat and ate and talked in the one roomed house. And Mary and Joseph told them a strange story about how they’d come from Nazareth, about angels, and shepherds, and travellers from distant lands, and a star in the sky, and the news they’d been given that their child was sent from God to show the love of God. And Samuel and Hannah thought it just possibly be true, because, in the darkness of the room, they could swear that there was a light coming from the

, a light that shone in the darkness and chased it away.

 

In the morning, Hannah and Samuel got up early, but they found that Mary and Joseph were already packing their bags, ready to go. “Must you go so soon,” said Samuel. Yes, said Joseph. I keep having these awful dreams about Herod, and the danger our child is in. “Well, at least take some food for the journey, said Hannah – some of our good, fresh bread, made from our own wheat, and cheese, and vegetables – you’ve got to keep your strength up!”

Take one of our donkeys too, said Samuel. You’ll get along much faster with it. If you ever come back this way, you can bring her back, and if not, you can pass her on to someone else who might need her.”

 

So Joseph and Mary loaded their belongings onto the donkey, and Mary climbed up on its back, holding her child close to her, and as quickly as they could, they said their goodbyes and their thank yous and went on their way, just as the sun rose.

 

An hour or so later, Samuel was getting ready to go out into the fields again. There were some stone walls that needed mending – best to do it before the wheat grew, to protect the young plants from animals. He was lost in thought, pondering that little family, and hoping they would be all right when he got to his fields. Then he lifted up his eyes, and saw something that astonished him…

But before he could even take in what he’d seen, he  heard a sound which drove away all other thought, which struck fear into his heart – the sound of galloping horses and clanking weapons…

He turned around to see a band of soldiers heading his way.

 

“You, peasant! Stop and answer us in the name of King Herod!” the leader of the group said.

 

“What is it?” said Samuel, quaking in his boots a little.

 

“King Herod has sent us out to question everyone on the roads leading out of Bethlehem. You must answer our questions honestly.”

 

“Oh, he’ll certainly do that, said one of the soldiers. I come from hereabouts, and I know this man. We call him “no word of a lie Samuel” . He couldn’t tell a lie to save his life.”

 

“Good”, said the leader, “in that case, I ask you, have you seen a man and a woman with a small baby, coming along this road?”

 

Samuel looked up at him.

 

“No word of a lie – yes I have. It was on the day that I sowed the wheat seeds in this field here.” And he pointed to the field behind him.

 

And the soldier turned to his men and said “Well, there’s obviously no point in us going on, lads. They must be long gone by now… Look at that field… “

 

And they looked, and they saw what Samuel had seen, the thing that had astonished him so much. That field where he had only the day before sown those tiny seeds, was filled with fully grown wheat, ripe and golden and ready for harvest.

 

And without another word to Samuel, the soldiers turned their horses around and galloped back the way they had come. And Samuel was left shaking his head, wondering what on earth had just happened.

 

He couldn’t make any sense of it, but he could see that there was work to do, so he went back to the house, and told Hannah what had happened. And they fetched their scythes and started to reap their unexpected crop, grateful for the extra harvest, but even more grateful that the little family were safe.

 

They never heard what happened to Mary, Joseph and their baby,  but many years later they did hear about a preacher from Nazareth – and hadn’t that been Mary and Joseph’s hometown? He was called Jesus too, and people said he’d lived out a message of God’s love and welcome for all, and been killed for that message, but some said he’d risen from death. And when  Hannah and Samuel heard those stories, they remembered that tiny child, and the light that seemed to chase away the darkness, not just in their room, but in their hearts too, they wondered…no word of a lie … they just wondered, whether their courage and hospitality might have been more important than they thought on that night so long ago. And maybe we should wonder the same about whether our small acts of courage and hospitality might make more of a difference than we think.

Amen

 

 

Midnight Mass 2023

  

Heb 1.1-4, Luke 2.1-14, John 1.1-14

 

It came upon the midnight clear/ that glorious song of old/ from angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold; “Peace on the earth, good will to men, From heaven’s all gracious king/ the world in solemn stillness lay/ to hear the angels sing.

 

Every Christmas night service I have taken since I arrived in this parish 18 years ago has begun with that carol. I inherited the tradition from my predecessor here, and I have no idea how far back it goes. But, working on the principle of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, I have never felt the urge to do something different. It’s a good place to begin, a profound prayer for peace, calling us all to “hush the noise, ye men – and women - of strife” so we can hear God’s message.

 

It was written by a Unitarian minister, Edmund Hamilton Sears, in Wayland, Massachusetts.  Sears imagines angels singing not just to the shepherds, but to the whole world, announcing a new way of peace to any who will listen, but it’s a carol tinged with sadness, because men – and women  - “hear not the love-song which they bring”.. Sears wrote it in 1851, a decade before the American Civil war, at a time when tensions were already mounting as states took different positions on the abolition of slavery: it didn’t take a genius to see that trouble was brewing.

 

This year, once again, we are confronted daily with scenes of warfare, nearly 175 years after Sears wrote his carol; nothing much seems to have changed. It’s as easy for us to despair, in our “weary world” as it was for people in his times.  

 

The fact that one of today’s wars is being fought out in the lands where Jesus was born seems to have added an extra edge for some people.  Some churches have decided to mute their Christmas celebrations this year, in solidarity with the Christians of the Holy Land, most of whom are ethnically Arab. Bethlehem’s own world famous public services in Manger Square have been abandoned this year – no one had the stomach for them -  and one Lutheran church in Bethlehem, instead of their conventional crib scene, has created one out of rubble, like the rubble in which so many children – Palestinian and Jewish – have died this year. The Christ child lies in the midst of the ruins, as vulnerable as them.

 

Some churches across the world, too, have decided to leave one of the candles in the Advent wreath, the second one, which traditionally symbolises Peace, unlit this year. How can we light it, they said, when there is no peace in the land where Jesus was born?

 

At Seal, though, that wasn’t the decision I made. In fact, if anything, it seemed even more important to light that candle of peace this year. Firstly because the candle is a prayer for peace, not a self-satisfied statement that we already have it, but also because if we didn’t light it this year, when could we light it? There has never been a Christmas when men, and women, haven’t been at war with each other. Should it have stayed unlit last year, because of the outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine? What about Yemen, where the fighting has lasted 9 years, and shows no sign of abating, or any of the other places in the world where people are maiming and terrorising and killing each other, and have been, in some cases for decades.

 

And, of course, the world into which Jesus was born was no less war-torn. He was born in an occupied country. According to Luke’s story, it was an arbitrary ruling by the Roman Emperor which sent Mary and Joseph on the trek from Nazareth to an overcrowded Bethlehem to be counted. And Quirinius, the Roman Governor who implemented the census locally, was a brutal military leader, not a pen-pushing civil servant.

The Romans promised peace to the nations they conquered, the Pax Romana, but all it really consisted of was a clamping down on internal divisions or skirmishes between neighbouring countries under their rule. That might have been welcomed by some, especially those whose economic interests it served, but peace which is enforced at the point of a sword, peace which is maintained by keeping people in fear through public demonstrations of cruelty like the gladiatorial games, isn’t really a peace worth having

 

The peace which the angels proclaim is very different, and the fact that it is proclaimed first to a bunch of shepherds out in the middle of nowhere tells us that. They are ordinary people, nameless people, people with no influence in the world, no seat at the table of power, no voice in international diplomacy. All they can do, when they hear the song of the angels, is to let it change their own lives, which it seems to do. And yet that is enough. In Luke’s Gospel they stand for and point towards those whose lives will be changed by the adult Jesus. He will continue to spend his time disproportionately with those who have no worldly influence; a rather random bunch of fishermen, tax collectors and prostitutes will form the core of his followers. He will welcome children; telling people that they have vital things to teach us about the Kingdom of God. He will choose women to be the first to bear witness to his Resurrection, despite the fact that women weren’t trusted as witnesses in a court of law.

 

It seems like a ridiculous strategy for changing the world, and yet, here we are 2000 years later, and far away from Jesus’ homeland, still telling their stories, still finding inspiration in them, still being changed by them. People are still challenged by the Jesus they meet in the pages of the Bible, the Jesus they meet in worship, the Jesus they meet in one another, challenged to love their neighbours as themselves, to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, to see themselves, and all people as beloved by God, to feed the hungry and work for a world in which no one is hungry. We don’t always manage to live up to that challenge, which is why the global peace and justice we long for is so elusive, but it’s Jesus’ words we keep returning to, Jesus’ words which so stubbornly challenge us, not the decrees of the Emperor Augustus or Quirinius the Roman Big Shot about whom most people, let’s face it, now know nothing at all.

 

Confronted with the pervasiveness of the human suffering and sin we see around us, we feel despair. What can we do about it? We feel swallowed up by the darkness. Yet, as the anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. The Christmas story is a powerful reminder of that truth.

 

Anonymous shepherds, foreign Magi from distant lands, a peasant couple, only just married – too recently to be respectable – and at the centre of it all, an infant – infans literally means unable to speak. What hope is there that their stories can make a difference? None, humanly speaking, and yet, with the help of God, by the grace of God, they have made a difference, and will continue to do so. The light of Christ isn’t one big, blazing fireball, it is billions of tiny, flickering flames – held in your hands, held in mine - kindled whenever and wherever we show the love of God. And in the end, the darkness can never overcome that kind of light.

Amen

 

 

 

 

Sunday 10 December 2023

Advent 2 2023

Isaiah 40.1-11, Mark 1.1-8

 

“Comfort, O comfort my people.” Those words, from the book of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah are probably familiar. Those who know Handel’s Messiah may have the music running through their heads already, because they are the first words in his oratorio which will go on to tell of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection. For Handel at least, this is where the great story of Jesus begins - with God’s declaration that his people need to be “comforted”.

 

But if this is what it’s all about, then that little word “comfort” is obviously an important one, and it matters that we understand it.

 

What does comfort mean to you? Snuggling into an armchair under a blanket, in front of a log fire, with a mug of cocoa? The Scandinavian concept of ‘hygge’ has been all the rage in recent years; it’s a good way of selling  fairy lights, thick socks, scented candles, and all the other things that get people through long hard winters.

 

But that’s not really what Isaiah had in mind. You can’t buy the kind of comfort he was talking about. Even in English, that wasn’t originally what comfort meant. The “fort” in comfort gives that away. It’s linked to fortifications and fortitude. Soldiers live in forts. To be comforted was originally to be strengthened, not wrapped in a fluffy blanket.

 

But the Hebrew word Isaiah used carries an even richer set of meanings. It’s the word ‘nacham’, and it’s very hard to translate. It’s to do with changing someones mind or heart. Sometimes in the Bible “nacham” is translated as “repent” – not a very cosy word at all – or relent, or regret, or pity or have compassion on. In the book of Genesis, God decides to destroy the world he has made by flooding it, but he sees that there is one good man in it, Noah, and so, the story says, God “repents” – nacham - of his decision, and saves Noah, his family and a  pair of every living animal so that they can begin again. Nacham is a word that describes the things that transform you, the things that reach and change the places in you nothing else can, setting you on a different track.  That’s not something that a mug of cocoa and a log fire can do – at least not by themselves.

 

One of the great privileges of my job is that, as a priest, I get to listen to a lot of people’s stories. Clergy soon discover that people – sometimes completely random people – tell us stuff about themselves, about their hopes and fears, their regrets and sorrows, stuff they may never have told anyone else. There’s not usually anything we can do about what they tell us, but I sometimes wonder whether that’s precisely the point. All we can do is listen. We can’t write prescriptions or fix what is broken in their lives. We aren’t gatekeepers to the benefits system, but often simply to be heard and seen is the most powerful help of all, and something that is surprisingly rare in many lives. Whether we are priests or not, just being present to people as they are can be completely transformative. When people are listened to in love, not judgement, often they heal and blossom of their own accord. It seems to me that’s a good example of the power of “nacham”, that transformational comfort God calls Isaiah to proclaim. 

 

But there’s an added dimension to the “nacham” Isaiah is talking about. He was prophesying to people who had been in exile in Babylon for several generations, far away from home, and – they thought - far away from God. They thought God had abandoned them, and some thought they’d deserved that abandonment.

 

What is the comfort Isaiah is told to bring them? Isaiah isn’t sure at first. What shall I cry? he asks God.  The passage gradually works up to the big reveal. “Get you up to a high mountain, , O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength , O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear,; say to the cities of Judah – what are they going to say? – “here is your God!”  That’s it. “Here is your God,” God is present with you, on the journey with you as you return home, feeding the flock, carrying the lambs who can’t yet manage the journey by themselves, but most of all just being there. “His reward is with him” Isaiah says - or to put it another way, his presence is the reward. That presence tells them that the love they thought they had destroyed is indestructible. The God they thought had forgotten them is right there with them. That’s the comfort, the nacham, that they need to know, the knowledge that will transform them.

 

In the Gospel reading John the Baptist restates that message as he points people to Jesus. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming”, says John “the one who will baptise you with the Holy Spirit”.  “Here is your God” in this man.

 

Christianity can be made to sound very complicated, full of long theological words like atonement and sanctification and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. We can get ourselves lost in debates about the Trinity or the Eucharist, transubstantiation and consubstantiation and all the rest. But actually it’s very simple and it is all summed up in those four words. “Here is your God”. Four words, and none of them longer than one syllable. “Here is your God”, in the child in the manger, born to a poor family, in the friend of sinners, who sits with those others avoid, in the man on the cross, humiliated and beaten. “Here is your God,” the one who walks beside you, who is found not only where you expect him to be, but also where you don’t, not only in the love and goodness of our lives, but also in the grubby broken places we’d rather keep hidden. He is the one who sees us and hears us, knows us and loves us, whether we think we are lovable or not. A mug of cocoa by a warm fire is great, but this is the comfort we really need, the good news that can change us completely.

Amen