Sunday, 25 December 2011

St Brigid's Christmas: a story for Christmas Day

St Brigid’s Christmas

There are many tales told about St Brigid of Kildare.  So many that we have no idea how things really were at all. She probably lived in the 5th Century. She was probably the abbess of a double monastery of monks and nuns, by tradition the first monastery in Ireland. She was certainly respected and loved as a holy woman.  The stories that tell of her are told in many different ways by many different storytellers. Each of them reweaves the tales in their own ways. This is my telling, my story of Brigid…

Brigid hadn’t always been a nun.
She grew up as the daughter of a pagan Irish chief. Her mother was a Christian, but she had been sent away by her father. Brigid held her mother’s Christian stories in her heart though, and she wanted to live the life of love and generosity that she saw in those stories. Whenever she came across someone in need, Brigid would give away her own possessions to them – didn’t the Gospels say that to serve others was the same as serving Christ himself, that he could be found in those you helped? The only problem was that she really had nothing of her own to give. All she had belonged to her father, and her generosity to every passing beggar infuriated him. “How will I ever find you a husband if you keep behaving like this?” he said. Brigid had no answer, but then, she didn’t want him to find her a husband. She wanted to become a nun and live out her faith that way. This was even worse for her father, and he despaired of her.

One day Brigid’s father had to visit an neighbouring village for the day. It was a difficult time in Ireland. Famine had struck the land and everyone was struggling to find enough to eat, even a chief. “Brigid, I am leaving you in charge, but you must promise me that you will let no one over the threshold and that you will give nothing to anybody. All we have is on that shelf – a little bread, a little cheese – if you give it away we will have nothing for ourselves.” Her father rode off on his horse leaving Brigid alone. But not long afterwards, she saw a young couple coming up the road towards the house. They looked tired – another starving family like so many she had seen. As they came nearer though she saw that the woman was pregnant. She looked close to her time and exhausted. The couple came to the door and looked desperately at Brigid. “Do you have any food you could spare?” said the man. ”It’s not for me – I don’t mind the hunger – but for my wife who is about to have our baby”.

Brigid remembered her father’s words. She looked at the bread and cheese on the shelf. It was all they had. But she knew she couldn’t let this woman go hungry, not with a child on the way. So she invited them in and gave the woman the bread and cheese. She ate some and Brigid insisted she take the rest, wrapped in a cloth. “You need it more than we do, “she said. The young couple rested that day with her, but as the afternoon wore on they insisted they must leave and continue their journey. As luck would have it though, just as they set off down the road, Brigid’s father came riding back home.  He saw the couple, carrying a cloth he could swear was from his own house. And he saw Brigid standing at the doorway watching them go.

He stormed up to her. “Have you disobeyed me? Have you given our last food to those beggars?” “But father, they needed it more than we did.” Her father wouldn’t listen though. “This is the last straw. Are we to starve because of your foolishness? There is no chance of finding a husband for you when this story starts to spread, as it surely will. You might as well go and found your precious monastery. Go now. I never want to see you again!” And right there and then, in the clothes she stood up in, Brigid walked off down the road. And her father went into the house, and looked on the shelf where the food had been, and to his amazement, there it was, just as he had left it, in fact he could swear there was more than there had been. He rushed out, but Brigid was gone.”

So Brigid founded a monastery, gathering nuns and monks around her. Years passed, and she devoted herself to looking after all who needed help from the community about her. One night, just before Christmas, Brigid had gone to bed in her cell. She fell fast asleep, but in the middle of the night she was woken by a cry. “Brigid, come and help us!” Surely it must be someone shouting from outside, someone in trouble. She got up, wrapped her cloak around her and stepped out of her cell. But instead of finding herself in the cloister of the monastery she found herself on a strange hillside. How could this be? Down at the bottom of the hill she saw a small stable, with a dim light coming from it. Again she heard the shout, “Brigid, come and help us!”. It was coming from the hut.

Brigid hurried down the hill. She pushed on the door of the hut and it swung open. There inside was a worried looking man – it was his voice she’d heard – and his wife who was lying on the bare earthen floor amid the straw. Brigid looked again. It was the couple she’d given her last food to all those years ago. “My wife’s time has come and she is about to give birth. She has no one to help her, no woman to look after her in labour, no midwife to keep her safe. I know nothing about childbirth, and I feel so helpless.” Brigid knew that something very strange was happening - so much time had passed for her, but for them it was as if they had only just left her, but there was no time to ask questions. Brigid had helped many women give birth from her community and she knew just what to do. She reassured the woman that all would be well. She asked the man to find water and cloths. She talked gently to them both and very soon, the woman gave birth to a fine strong baby son.

When his mother had fed him and held him and admired him together with his father, Brigid took him from her so that they could rest. Soon they were fast asleep, leaving her with the baby. She took off her cloak and wrapped it round him. It was a plain, ordinary, homespun cloak, but it would keep him warm. And she laid him down in the animals feeding trough – it was all there was to act as a bed. And suddenly Brigid knew who this child was, and who the young couple were too – this was the Christ Child and she had delivered him safely into the world. Brigid was so happy that she began to sing, a gentle lullaby to send Jesus to sleep, and as she sang it seemed to her that somehow all creation was singing with her – the birds and the beasts, all the angels in heaven and the people of earth. The child fell asleep, and Brigid stretched out on the ground and slept too.

But when she awoke in the morning she found herself, not in the stable but back in her own bed, in her own cell in her own monastery. “It must have all been a dream – though it seemed so real and vivid. Still it was a good dream if that is all it was, and I am glad to have had it, for aren’t we all called to bring Christ into the world in the things we do for others.”
And then she got up and went to put on her cloak, which was hung in its usual place on the back of the door – that plain, homespun cloak. But something strange had happened. Woven into the plain brown cloak were threads of gold. And the pattern they made formed pictures all over the cloak, pictures of birds and beasts, and all the angels of heaven and all the people of earth, singing for joy at the birth of their Saviour.

And that’s my tale, and you can believe that it happened if you want to... but even if you don’t it is still a true tale, because whether Brigid delivered the Christ Child in Bethlehem or not, she was right that we are all called to deliver him into the world today. Like Brigid, whenever we come to the help of another we help that little child of hope and joy and peace to be born again. Brigid is known and blessed the world over as the midwife of Mary, but she would have wanted each of us to claim that title too, to bring Christ into the world in the things we do for others – not just at Christmas but all the year round.

Midnight Mass Sermon: Room for us all

Midnight Mass 11

There’s a story told in Northern Spain about a local saint from the tenth Century. At this time, in the far north of Spain, in the Cantabrian mountains, the Christian faith was unknown to most people. It was a remote area, and if there had been any Christian influence before the collapse of the Roman Empire, it had long ceased.
But there were Christian communities elsewhere in Spain, and one monk who was part of one of those, decided that he wanted to take the Christian faith to these isolated peoples. His name was Brother Froilan. Full of faith and energy he set off alone, and built himself a hut near a village high in the mountains. Surely, he thought, the villagers would be as excited by the story of God’s love as he was and would be eager to hear it, eager to know that God welcomed them, that they were part of his family. 
It was not so. Perhaps their lives were too hard for them to want to consider any new ideas – it was enough of a struggle just getting by, without having to think about the deeper things in life. Perhaps they were suspicious of this newcomer, unused as they were to anyone from the outside world showing any interest in them. Froilan met with a wall of apathy; they just weren’t interested. In a culture where even the next village might as well have been another world, what could some religion from thousands of miles away have to do with them? They ignored Froilan completely, treated him as if he just wasn’t there. He became very dejected. What was the point? He might just as well go back down the mountain to where there were people who wanted to hear his message.

The only people in the village who really noticed him at all were the children. Unlike their parents they were curious rather than fearful of this stranger, and often came and hung about near his hut. Froilan was quite content to let them and sometimes, to amuse them he would carve them small toys out of wood, something he was very skilled at. He would take a piece of wood, whittle away for a while and then suddenly, there was a bird, or a cat. One day, Froilan had an idea. When the children turned up, he picked up a small piece of wood and his knife. He worked away for a little while as they waited to see what would happen. Before long he was finished, and there in his hand was a woman. He started to work again, and soon there was a man to go with the woman. Then there were some sheep, and shepherds, a strange winged creature he told them was called an angel, a messenger from God, and some richly dressed strangers bearing gifts, and finally a baby in a manger, just like the ones their own farm animals used. As he carved he told them about the woman, called Mary, and her husband Joseph, about their journey to Bethlehem, and the birth of the child who had to sleep in that manger crib, about the shepherds and the wise men who came to visit. The children were enthralled, and in the days that followed they came back, demanding that he told them the story again and again. But every time he told it they insisted that he had to carve another Mary, another Joseph and all the rest. Soon Froilan had many sets of nativity figures in his hut. He couldn’t give the children the figures because their parents were so hostile to his message, so all those Marys and Josephs just piled up around him.

Christmas was coming near, and suddenly Froilan had an idea. In the middle of the night on Christmas Eve he crept out into the village with those figures and left them here and there around the village. In the morning – a morning just like any other to the villagers of course – as they went around their work they found that everywhere they went they were coming across a tiny woman and man and baby or an angel or a shepherd with some sheep or an exotic foreigner with a gift in his hands.  What on earth was it all about? They had no idea. But of course their children knew, and they explained to their parents – this is Mary, this is Joseph. They had nowhere to stay, nowhere to have their baby. These are shepherds, who heard a wonderful message. These are foreigners from far away, who were made welcome. The children’s eyes shone with excitement as they told the story to their parents. They had heard it so often from Froilan that it had become their own story, about their own fears and hopes and dreams .And as they told it, in their own words, from the heart of their own lives, their parents listened, as they never would have done to Froilan, and they heard its message of hope themselves. And before long Froilan found that he and his message were welcomed and loved and respected in that village, and he was never forgotten, becoming the patron saint of that region and is still celebrated there.

Brother Froilan’s villagers heard a story which was almost a thousand years old even then, and had happened in a distant part of the world which they could barely imagine. And yet, once they had opened themselves up enough to listen they somehow found themselves within it – it was about them too. It came home to them with power and it changed them. It is an odd thing, that, because another thousand years on, in our world of the 21st Century, it still has power. It still resonates inside us. It won’t go away. Even if we are sceptical, or downright disbelieving of nine tenths of it, it still seems to speak to us.

And you don’t have to be able to prove that there actually were shepherds or wise men, or a star or angels in the sky to be affected by its promise of hope and peace and love. Why should that be so? I don’t think it is just wishful thinking or the effect of too many mince pies or too much booze.

I think the reason it is still so powerful is that it is based on fact. Not the fact of a baby laid in a manger and visited by an assortment of odd guests, but on the fact of the adult Jesus and the impact he had on those he met. The stories of Jesus’ birth, told only in Luke and Matthew, are a type of story known as midrash in Jewish tradition. This sort of story doesn’t have to be factually accurate, but it illuminates the essence of the matter. The stories of Jesus’ birth prepare us for what is to come. They tell us about the person he’ll grow up to be, the message he’ll teach and live. We’ll never know how true they are to the historical facts, but we can know that they are true to the experiences people had of him when he had grown.

 The Gospel writers knew people who had known Jesus, and it was their stories they wove into the Gospels, which were written well within the living memory of Jesus’ ministry, within thirty or forty years of his death, and circulated among his first followers.
Here were people who had been fishermen, tax collectors, revolutionaries, prostitutes, housewives – all sorts – but they’d been drawn together into a new and very different community of faith, one where they were all equal, called to serve one another, where the old hierarchies and assumptions had been swept away. The Gospels reflect that, and the nativity stories prepare us for the story of how that community came into existence.

So in the nativity stories we meet Mary whose unexpected pregnancy puts her at risk not just of disapproval, but of stoning. This reflected the experience of many vulnerable women who found in Jesus an acceptance and a dignity which astonished them. There’s Joseph, who has to summon every ounce of courage he has to make a choice to do what is right and honourable for Mary rather than responding with the harsh judgement that his society would have expected.  Jesus’ first followers often found themselves challenged to swim against the tide in the interests of justice and love. They recognised themselves here. There are shepherds, uncivilised, the bottom of the social heap, frankly a bit smelly. The crowds that came to Jesus were full of people like this; amazed that someone thought they mattered. Then there were those foreigners, the wise men, outsiders to the Jewish faith, excluded from God’s family. But Jesus broke down boundaries like that again and again in the Gospels. This good news of God’s love is for everyone, he said, or it is not good news at all.

The stories of Jesus’ birth point towards the story of his adult life. They say “this child is going to be for you, whoever you are. This story is your story too”. They said that to the people of the first century. They said it, through their children, to Brother Froilan’s villagers, and they say it to us too, even in our sophisticated, technological, globally connected world. We find our own hopes and dreams and fears reflected here too. And lying in that crib we find the one whose life still tells us that we are loved, that we matter, that we have something to give, even if we feel that we are unlovable, insignificant or useless.

Tonight, as you think about this story, I wonder where you find yourself in it? If you could take one of our crib figures home – please don’t, by the way! – but if you could, which would it be? Are you Mary, feeling vulnerable and facing something you’re afraid you don’t have the strength to endure? Are you Joseph, knowing that you have a challenge to rise to which will put you at odds with the status quo? Are you one of those shepherds, feeling that you are just too insignificant to matter, or too much of a mess for anyone to cope with? Or are you like one of those foreign magi, an outsider who doesn’t fit in? Whoever you are, there is a place for you in this story. Look carefully and you will find you are already there. There is a place for you at the manger crib. There is a place for you in the heart of God and among his family too. You are welcome and you belong. This is for you.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Breathing Space for Advent 3: There and then, here and now

During these Breathing Space talks we’ve been thinking about that famous phrase from the beginning of John’s Gospel “The Word became flesh”. We’ve thought about what kind of Word Jesus might be. We’ve thought about flesh and what that means to us. So there’s not much left to think about, just that word in the middle – became.  But actually that is a word full of meaning for us too in this context.
The Word became flesh.

At a specific time, in a specific place, something happened, says the word “became”.  I became a priest when I was ordained. I became a mother when I gave birth. We become successful if we manage to achieve a goal. “Becoming” can be a sudden event. All in a moment things change. Or “becoming” can be a more gradual process. However long it takes, though, we can look back and see that things have changed and that there is no going back because of what has happened.

When that change is a dramatic one there is one reaction which is very common. It is common whether the event in question is tragic, like the shooting this week in Liege, or happy, like a lottery win. “Who would have thought that such a thing would happen here and now?” people tend to say. “In this place, at this moment, in our neighbourhood, to me, to us…who would have thought it?” There may be no real logic to this. Such events are essentially random – as likely to happen to us as to anyone - but somehow we don’t expect it. Unless we have delusions of grandeur, most of us tend to think of ourselves as basically ordinary, living ordinary lives with broadly predictable courses. Why should anything specially good or bad happen in our neighbourhood, here and now?

The Christmas story, with its assertion that “the Word became flesh” challenges that though. If God was going to become flesh, it had to happen in one particular place and one particular time. That’s the nature of flesh. Human beings, no matter how hard we try, can’t be in more than one place at a time.  We are here, where we are, or we are nowhere. Biblical scholars argue about the historical accuracy of the nativity stories in the Bible but one fact is indisputable. Jesus was born. He grew up in the Galilean town of Nazareth in the early years of the first Century. As our Gospel reading tonight told us, he was born in the reign of the Emperor Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Luke pins it down in time and space very deliberately. There and then this thing happened. He knew it was true – whatever the details – because Luke knew those who had known Jesus, and he had seen the impact of his life on their lives. They had spread his message around the Mediterranean, at considerable personal cost. Many had been martyred. If Jesus hadn’t been real, none of that would have happened. What they had experienced in knowing him had convinced them that this was the work of God among them, that Jesus was God’s message, God’s word. Much to their surprise, I am sure, God had shown up in their world, in their lives, through Jesus, and it had changed everything.

In the Old Testament reading Moses is confronted by the same amazing fact, that God is where he is. He meets God in a burning bush out in the desert, while he is minding the sheep one day. Who would have thought it? Moses had long ago abandoned any idea that he could help his people, and had run away.  Whatever God might be doing to rescue his people – if anything – Moses was convinced he wasn’t part of the plan. But God had other ideas, and out there, in the middle of nowhere, God makes his appearance.

William Blake wrote, in his poem Jerusalem, “and did those feet in ancient time/ walk upon England’s pastures green?” He was referring to the old legend that Jesus had come with Joseph of Arimathea, who happened to be his uncle, on a trading visit to Glastonbury when he was just a boy. Legends like that reveal that, despite our scepticism and our disbelief, deep down we long to feel that God might just show up where we are. That legend isn’t terribly likely to be true – though I wouldn’t say that too loudly in Glastonbury – but ironically the story of the birth of Christ tells us that our yearning isn’t really so far-fetched. Turning up where we are, in the nitty-gritty reality of human lives, is precisely what God is about, whether that is in a scandal hit young mother in Bethlehem or in the muddle and the mess of our lives now. All we need to do is open our eyes and our hearts a bit wider so we can see him.

The Word – God’s own expression of himself – turned up and dwelt with us in human flesh in Bethlehem. That is the Christian Gospel, and it is truly good news, because if he came there and then to ordinary people in ordinary places then there is no reason why he can’t come here and now to us. Wherever and whenever we are, God is with us. In the silence tonight, let us think of the places in us where we might least expect to find him, and let us ask him to be born in us here and now, just as he was there and then.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Breathing Space for Advent 2: Wondrous Flesh

These three Breathing Space talks for Advent are focussing on the statement so familiar from the beginning of John’s Gospel “The Word became Flesh”. Last week we thought about what kind of Word Jesus was, how God spoke through him. This week we will think just a bit about what that Word became - flesh.

Flesh – we can’t live without it, quite literally, but we often have problems living with it too. It is subject to disease, injury and pain, and to the wear and tear of time. In the end it fails us completely; we all die. Sooner or later some vital part of it gives up, no matter how fit or careful we are.
Even its pleasures can lead us up the garden path into trouble . Food and drink are great in moderation, but too much of the wrong kind and we know there is a price to pay. Then there is that fraught, delightful, complicated business of sex. It’s a wonderful gift, but it can cause emotional mayhem, betrayal and hurt as well. No wonder people through the ages have struggled with their bodiliness, and sometimes wanted to be able rise above it to what seems like a much more serene, spiritual existence. No wonder negativity about the flesh is so persistent – popping up in many cultures and religions. Blame for that negativity in our culture is often laid at the Church’s door, and sometimes that is fair criticism, but there is really nothing in Christian faith itself to justify such an accusation. In fact, once we start looking, we find it is quite the opposite.

The book of Genesis, as we heard just now, begins with a great hymn of praise to all things material. God looks at his creation, this immense variety of physical stuff that he has brought into being and proclaims over and over, “it is good”. The crown of that creation is humankind in this account, men and women, made in God’s image - a “wondrous being” as Haydn describes it in his Creation oratorio. That’s us! Wondrous beings – in all our physicality.

So where did the negativity come from? The problem is that Christianity doesn’t just have Jewish roots. It was also shaped, more profoundly than it realised at times, by the Greek thought world in which it spread during its early centuries. Greek philosophy was very varied, but there was a strong strand in it which distrusted the physical world, which insisted that perfection was spiritual and that to reach it you had to leave the clay of your body behind. The Jewish idea of the goodness of matter was impossible to reconcile with this, and in some ways we have lived with the fallout of the cultural clash ever since.

The idea that flesh is inferior to spirit has often won the day, I suspect, because it chimes with our experience of ourselves, especially if the flesh we inhabit seems less than glorious to us – and that can often be the case. When all we can feel are our aches and pains, and the mirror shows us more wrinkles than we want to see it is hard to think of ourselves as one of those “wondrous beings” that Haydn celebrated. We can understand why people might have felt that it would good to leave their bodies behind. We can all get fed up of them sometimes.

But there was one big challenge to that negativity, one reason why it never completely triumphed in Christian faith. And that was the incarnation, the idea that in Jesus, the word and will and identity of God became this troublesome flesh. That God himself felt its pains and delights, and ultimately endured death, just as we all must. For those early Christians of Greek origin, this was very difficult to get their heads round. It was counter intuitive, faintly disgusting. But they couldn’t just ignore what was, after all, a foundational doctrine of their faith, and there it has been, a highly inconvenient but ultimately wonderful challenge, ever since. The Word was made Flesh, says John. We don’t quite know what John, of his fellow early Christians, understood by that, but it is clear that they believed it. God, the mighty God, was one of us, like us, suffering and delighting, living and dying. And if you believe that, then you have to believe that flesh is blessed not cursed, loved not hated. If incarnation was good enough for God surely we should be enjoying it and treasuring it too, recognising flesh for the gift it is.

That doesn’t just affect how we think about ourselves, but how we think about others too. If our flesh matters, then so does everyone else’s, including those whose physical existence is painful, those whose bodies are starving, or cold or crying out for loving touch. In our Gospel reading we heard of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet. I am very glad that when he showed us what love and service look like he didn’t just choose to say a prayer or demonstrate a particularly sensitive counselling technique. Good though those things are, washing feet was an infinitely better choice. You can’t wash feet from a distance. You can’t wash feet in an ethereal, spiritual way. You’ve got to get down on the ground and take them in your hands and touch them.

The Word became flesh, and thank God for that. God became a “wondrous being” to remind us that every other being – even me, even you - is wondrous too.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Advent 2: Repent!

“Repent! Repent!”

John the Baptist comes striding out at us from the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, a wild man, clothed in camel’s hair, with wild words that called people to change, uncompromising words that confront them with themselves. If he went around like this today he would probably be sectioned, or at least swiftly moved along by the authorities. “Nothing to see here, just a man who’s had a bit too much of the desert sun…” I expect there were those in the first Century who felt just the same way – going out to see him simply to gawp at the latest local excitement.

But they got more than they bargained for. Somehow what he said touched a chord in them which they hadn’t expected. They found themselves confessing their sins and being baptised, moved to respond to his strange call.  That’s a bit surprising, because what he had to offer doesn’t really seem attractive at all. There are no miracles on offer, just that tough call to repentance.

In his description of John the Baptist, Mark echoes the words of the prophet Isaiah, “a voice crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord,” “Get ready for God to come among you” both these men say, “but don’t kid yourself that it is going to be easy or  painless. Valleys will need to be filled up, mountains laid low, for that straight road to be built.”

We know about road building in Seal at the moment. We’ve been practically marooned up here at the church while emergency work has been going on to repair a collapsed sewer on Childsbridge Lane. It would have helped if the diversion signs had made any sense, but frankly, even if they had, there was never going to be an easy or convenient way to do the work that needed to be done. It was bound to cause severe disruption.  If that’s true of roadworks now, it was even more true in ancient times, when there was no machinery to speed the job along. Building roads, let alone levelling mountains and valleys, was hard graft – you wouldn’t do it unless you really had to.

But John the Baptist believed and preached that this was the only way. There would need to be radical change if God’s kingdom was going to take root in people’s lives. And that radical change started with repentance. You can’t set things right if you don’t admit first that they are wrong.

The trouble is that most of us really hate doing that. We don’t like to feel guilty or ashamed – feelings that almost always go with owning up to sin and failure. In fact we’ll often do almost anything to avoid those feelings.

The Leveson inquiry into the phone hacking scandal is an illustration of this. I guess we have all been horrified at the suffering caused to entirely innocent people by the cheap and nasty tactics of some sections of the tabloid press. “How could they do these things?” we ask. It seems so obviously wrong. But the journalists and newspaper proprietors called to account for this seem determined to try to wriggle out of their responsibility somehow – first trying to conceal what they’d done, then blaming each other or justifying their actions as just part of their job.

We’ve been shocked, I expect, by their refusal to admit their fault in all this. But what about our fault in it? If we buy the papers which print this stuff we create a market for it. And even if we don’t buy them I don’t think we are off the hook. My guess is that we all engage in unkind and unfounded gossip about others from time to time, and by doing that we encourage the unhealthy appetites which the tabloid press feeds with its scandalmongering. We pass snap judgements on people whose lives and circumstances we can’t really know about, and so we make it seem acceptable for others to do the same. It might not be in the same league as aggressively door-stepping the families of victims of crime, but we all, in some sense, create the climate in which that can happen.  It is easy for us to tut in horror at the journalists involved, but what does all this have to say to us about our own behaviour? Have we changed as a result? Are we making a greater effort to show restraint and generosity in what we say about others, respecting their privacy rather than feeling we have licence to spread our own, usually ill-informed opinions about them? “Repent, repent” calls John the Baptist. “Make a straight pathway for God”.

Well, all this is rather depressing, isn’t it? This is tough stuff. And it hardly seems to square with the opening  words of today’s Gospel reading, words, in fact, which open Mark’s whole Gospel.  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” Where is the good news in all of this grim talk of repentance?

Christians are often stereotyped as people who are addicted to misery, inclined to beat themselves up all the time. Historically there is some justification for that. Guilt and shame have far too often been used to scare people into obedience, though far less now than was once the case. Of course, we need to be careful that we don’t end up carrying guilt and shame that isn’t rightly ours, but we mustn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater either. A right awareness of sin still matters, and that is evident in the place we still give in our services to confession.

Traditionally the Church of England hasn’t insisted on individual confession to a priest on a regular basis, as the Roman Catholic Church has, but a corporate act of penitence is part of almost all our services, and there are good reasons for that.

Firstly, the fact that we begin with confession reminds us that we need to come out of hiding when we come to worship. If our relationship with God isn’t based on honesty then it is not going to get very far.
But secondly the regular practice of confession tells us that it is safe to come out of hiding, safe to be ourselves, safe to present ourselves to God, warts and all, and that’s where all this gloomy talk of repentance becomes a message of good news.

The first letter of John tells us that “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.”  Let’s hear those crucial words again. “He who is faithful and just will forgive us.” That’s not a maybe or perhaps; it’s a definite. “He who is faithful and just will forgive us. “ Often we find it hard to repent, hard even to acknowledge there is anything to repent of, because deep down we think there is nothing that can be done about it anyway. We think that it’s unforgiveable, irreparable. No wonder we want to hide it. We are afraid it would overwhelm us if it came up into the light. We claim to believe in God, but actually we don’t. We only believe in us, in our own ability to set ourselves straight. If we can’t think of a way to deal with our sin, we assume that God won’t be able to either, so it is best to keep it all firmly under wraps and hope it stays that way.

Mark tells us, though, that this is not the case. There is good news. That good news isn’t that we are just fine and dandy as we are, though. It is that God is not defeated by our sin – not even by the sins of those who nail Jesus to the cross. The love and forgiveness that seem quite beyond us – to give or to receive - are not out of God’s reach at all.  “I have baptised you with water, but Jesus will baptise you with the Holy Spirit,” says John. Our efforts to wash away the things that seem to stain our lives may be watery, but God’s are not. That doesn’t mean that there’s an easy answer or a magic wand, but it does tell us that the change we need can happen.

To help it happen we need to be prepared to do some work, and I’d like to suggest two things that might be useful. There’s an ancient practice called the Examen of Consciousness, originally devised by Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, which I would commend to you. The handout I have given you today contains a guide to it, but it is really just enlightened common sense. It is a method of looking back over our day and asking God to help us see ourselves and him within it.  By doing day by day we will gradually grow into the honesty and the trust we need to enable God to heal and change us.
The second suggestion I would make is that it really helps if we can find someone to share the ups and downs of our spiritual lives with, someone we trust not to reject us but who can be straight with us when we need it. You might already have someone who can do that, but if not have a think about who that spiritual travelling companion might be. I’m around of course, and always willing to listen, but there are plenty of other people, in this church or elsewhere who could do this too. It doesn’t matter who it is, so long as it is someone you trust. 

“Repent! Repent!” These are not words of condemnation. They are words of release, words that point us towards the freedom God wants for us. Practicing repentance – and it does take practice – may not seem like the most attractive aspect of Christian faith, but it is probably the one that will make most difference to us. The growth it leads to won’t be complete on this side of the grave but it will help us move towards that time when “righteousness will be at home” in us as the epistle puts it. And that won’t just make our lives richer and better, it will also bring freedom and joy to those around us as well, because ass we make straight the pathway for God into our own lives, others will find him closer at hand as well.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Breathing Space for Advent 1: The Word became flesh

During Advent we hold three Thursday evening "Breathing Space" Communion services at 8pm, in the candlelit Lady Chapel. This is the talk from the first of those services, which will all be based around  the theme of "The Word became Flesh", and what that might mean for us. The second and third of these services take place on Thurs 8th and 15th Dec.

Breathing Space 1:  

“In the beginning was the Word,” says John’s Gospel. There are no shepherds, wise men or angels at the start of his account of the life of Christ. It is just straight in with the theology – beautiful theology, it’s true, but harder work than stories of mangers and starlit journeys.
But there is a big clue in John’s opening line to help us understand what he is telling us, because we’ve heard something very like this before; back in the book of Genesis, in fact, where it all began. “In the beginning” was how that story started too, with the creation of the world and everything in it. All it took then were some words. “Let there be light…”, said God, “and there was light”. 

People who study words and the way we use them call this a “performative utterance”, words which make something happen. A marriage vow is a performative utterance. It’s saying the words “ I, N, take you, N, to be my husband, to have and to hold, for better for worse” which actually makes you married. In English law it’s not signing the registers which does this, it is saying the words. Once you have said the words, everything is different.

God’s performative utterance in creation “Let there be…” brings into existence the sun and moon, the land and sea, the elephant and the earwig, and everything else, including us according to the book of Genesis. When John  echoes these words, “in the beginning” he is trying to tell us that God is about to speak again, to utter a new Word in the person of Jesus who will bring about a new creation, a new kingdom, a new beginning for anyone who is prepared to let his life take root in them.

But what kind of word is Jesus? Words are expressions of ourselves, our wishes, our opinions, our beliefs. The kind of words you can write on a page can be precise and unambiguous. But a Word made flesh – a person - is a very different thing. There’s no way you can fully describe another human being. You have to meet them to know them, and in any case, people are different at different ages and in different situations, different with different people.

You can understand a word on a page. You can pin down what it is saying, but you can’t do that with a person, a Word made Flesh. That’s why the lawyers around Jesus were so frustrated by him. They loved words, and they loved to be precise with them. Jesus baffled them. What was he saying? What did he mean? What might God be saying through him? What they didn’t realise was if you really wanted to hear this Word, God’s Living Word, you had to get to know him. It was the relationships he built with all sorts of people which really spoke the loudest about who he was. In meeting him they discovered they were loved and precious – they became  a new creation because of him.

God’s word changes the world, not by giving us a new rule to keep or a new set of beliefs to subscribe to – dead words on a page - but by inviting us into a new relationship with him. He speaks to us in a Son, says the letter to the Hebrews, a Son who comes to show us that we are all God’s children, part of his family. Through his life, his death and his resurrection Jesus shows us what that means. We are ultimately safe in God’s hands. God does not give up on us because, like the best of loving parents, he just can’t. It is impossible, unthinkable for him. Because of that we can be sure that we  have an enduring place in his family, room to be ourselves, to grow and change, to get it wrong and put it right, to become that new creation he wants us to be.

In the next two Breathing Spaces we’ll be exploring a bit further what it means to call Jesus the Word made flesh, but for tonight I’d like to leave you thinking about that family of love into which we are called through Christ. Are you confident of your place there, or do you hang back, peering through the windows and wondering if it really means you? Come on in, says God, through his Living Word – it’s a whole new creation and it is for you.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The magnificent seriousness of Advent

Advent 1 and Baptism 2011

Today is Advent Sunday, the first Sunday of the Church’s year. Through the year we tell a great cycle of stories covering the birth of Christ, his ministry, death, resurrection, ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, but it all starts here, with the whisper of a rumour of a suggestion that God is about to do something, if we have our eyes open to see it. As Advent goes on we’ll hear stories which point towards a new kingdom God is building. We’ll hear of two very unlikely pregnancies. Elizabeth, an elderly childless woman discovers that she will give birth to the one who will prepare the way for Jesus, John the Baptist. And Mary, of course, hears from an angel that she will be the mother of the Messiah himself. Two babies who will change the world are on the way.

That’s why this is such a good day for a baptism, because Max, like every child, is the beginning of something new as well. We have no idea what he might do, who he might be in the future, but he will change the world too. I say that with confidence, because we all change the world by our presence in it – for good or ill, or more likely a mixture of the two. Through our acts of love and creativity we enrich those around us, build up our communities, open up new possibilities. Through our wounds and our failings we obstruct growth or twist the path of others. Whatever the overall balance is, the world will be a different place because we were in it.

Max’s baptism, his Christian beginning on this Advent Sunday, reminds us that this can be a new beginning for us all. It gives us a chance to look at ourselves and the impact we are having on the world, to be aware of where we need to grow and learn if the difference we are to make will be a good one. You are never too young - that’s why we pray for Max now, long before he can make conscious decisions for himself. But you are never too old either, as John the Baptist’s parents found out. As far as we can tell they had lived lives of complete obscurity until their famous son was born. They never expected a new beginning at their age, but God had other ideas.

Whoever we are, wherever we’ve been, whatever we’ve done or failed to do, things can change if we want them to, if we are prepared to let them. Advent is a moment when we are encouraged to wake up to the reality of ourselves. There is something magnificently serious about it; it reminds us that we matter, and that what we do matters. Its magnificent seriousness invites us to take ourselves seriously. That is a very valuable message, and in my experience people are hungry to hear it. We can easily feel as if we are drowning in a tide of triviality, in C-list celebrities and consumer “must-haves” - glossy distractions to mask our fear that there is no real point in committing yourself to anything or believing in anything, no real point in caring about anything, no real point to your life at all in fact. Advent challenges that, with its summons to pay attention, to have our eyes open to see what God is doing in the world because he wants us to be ready to join in with it.

That’s what the Gospel reading we’ve just heard was telling us.
It is easy to get side-tracked by its dramatic imagery– the stars falling from heaven, the clouds, the power and glory. But those apocalyptic events are precisely not what Jesus wants his hearers to focus on – quite the reverse, in fact. He believes that all that stuff will one day happen (that was the world view of his time, and I have no doubt that he shared it), but speculating about when or how is a complete waste of his disciples’ time and energy. It is what they are doing now that really matters. They can’t know about the future, he tells them.  “The day and the hour no one knows” not even him. Don’t be diverted by all that, says Jesus to them. Pay attention to the present instead. Make sure you are building God’s kingdom now “on earth as it is in heaven”, and then whatever happens in the future, you will be ready for it. We don’t have to share that first century apocalyptic world-view to realise that this is still good advice. The threats that face us are different – climate change, economic crisis, not to mention all the personal challenges that come our way. The future is just as uncertain for us as it was in Jesus’ time, but it is the things we do now – individually and as communities - which determine how we will cope with them.

“It’s like a man who goes on a journey,” says Jesus, “leaving his servants to get on with the work of the household in his absence.” He doesn’t expect to come back and find everyone asleep at their posts, with nothing done. “Stay awake”, says Jesus. And he doesn’t mean that their gaze should be continually fixed on the gates for the master’s return so they can spring into action when he arrives. This is not about “look busy, the boss is coming”. The point is that the work the servants have been entrusted with needs to be done whether or not the master is there – the life of the household has to go on anyway if that household is going to prosper. The servants aren’t just keeping it in stasis for the master’s return, but actively cultivating it for its own sake, as a place where all its members can thrive. It’s their household just as much as his. Their work matters, not just for his sake but for their own and for that of the whole community.

This passage comes from Mark’s Gospel. We’ll be hearing a lot more from Mark over the next twelve months. We focus on a different Gospel each year and this year is Mark’s turn. They were living through times of immense change, either just before or just after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. For decades before that there had been unrest, stretching right back to the time of Jesus. But the rebels and political agitators who longed for Jewish independence were up against the might of the occupying forces of Rome and there was only one way that was going to end, with the city and the Temple being sacked and the people dispersed around the Middle East. The crisis this led to wasn’t just physical and political, it was spiritual too. What was God doing? What was this about? Surely he would do something to help his people, but how and when, and what would it look like when he did? The people Mark was writing for desperately needed to hear the message he was giving them here.

God had already come to his people to rescue them, he was telling them, in the shape of Jesus, who had preached a radical message that all people were equally loved and equally valued by God, a message which had transformed the lives of many who heard it. What was more God was still coming to his people– even though Jesus was no longer with them. Through his Spirit at work in whoever was open to it God was building his kingdom, person by person, act by act, day by day. That kingdom was being built not by military force but by people learning to treat one another with dignity and love. The kingdom was like the unseen yeast which leavens the dough, like a tiny mustard seed which becomes a tree – it might look small and insignificant, but it has a life of its own, and it can grow into something which is beyond our power to imagine.

God’s kingdom wasn’t  just a spiritual realm you entered after death, but something that was very much in the present, to do with people’s ordinary lives, so that was where the attention of Jesus’ followers should be focused. Never mind the unknown future, says Jesus here, what are you doing now? Because it is what you are doing now that God cares about most.

It’s great to hear that message today as we baptise Max. In Baptism we are saying that Max’s life matters. He is precious and irreplaceable, not just a number, an anonymous child floating through the world, but absolutely himself, loved by God, known by God, called by God to make a difference. The reason that is true for him is because it is true for all of us – each one of us is loved, known and called too. So, as we hear that message for him, let’s make sure we hear it for ourselves as well. Let’s hear it in all its magnificent Advent seriousness and ask ourselves whether we truly believe that our lives matter. What difference do they make? How is the kingdom being built through us? Where do we need to wake up to ourselves, to the world and to God this Advent?