Sunday, 24 April 2011

Easter Sunday 2011 : The Easter Gift

Jeremiah 31.1-6, Acts 10.34-43, Matt 28.1-10

Holy Week is a really busy time for me, as you can imagine, because of the sheer number and variety of services. All human life is there in the story of the arrest, trial, death and resurrection of Jesus – sadness and joy, disaster and triumph. It’s a wonderful, moving week, but there’s a lot to do from the priest’s point of view, just as there is at that other great feast of the Christian year, Christmas. In fact, in many ways Easter is much more demanding, which is why I am glad that there is at least one way in which it is very different from the festivities of Christmas. It’s a great relief to me that gift giving has never really caught on as an Easter tradition, despite the best efforts of the advertising industry. An Easter egg or two is about the limit for most families, and often in my household we don’t even manage to get around to that – sorry Philip! At this festival at least we don’t have to deal with the endless shopping lists, or the desperate search for the perfect present for Auntie Mabel . We may have to contend with the Easter Bunny, but he isn’t half as weighed down as Father Christmas.
I don’t suppose I’m the only one who quietly thanks the Lord for this. I doubt whether many of us would relish the idea of two big buying sprees in the year – emotionally or financially.

But while it is Christmas that we most naturally think of in connection with gifts, actually Easter has just as much to do with giving and generosity. In fact, I’d like to suggest that Easter has an even more profound gift at its heart than the child of Bethlehem.

At Christmas we celebrate God’s gift to us of a baby, God coming to us in human flesh. It’s a moment of very simple and innocent joy. He is given to Mary and Joseph, given to the shepherds, given to the Wise Men, given to the world. But what does the world do with this great gift when he grows up. The world takes him and kills him, nailing him to a cross, entombing his body in the cold stone of the grave. Perhaps we can understand that response from those who were challenged and threatened directly by his message – the secular and religious authorities whose cages he rattled. But even those who apparently hung on his every word end up doing nothing to defend or help him, Those who have gained most from him, those he has healed, those he has befriended when no one else would - they hide their faces as he is taken away to be killed. It is a shocking response to God’s gift, a shocking response to the love he has shown. But what does God do? In the story we hear today, he gives that gift, that precious son, right back to us again in a mighty and dramatic act of resurrection. He puts him back into the hands of those who have betrayed him, rejected him, and killed him. The baby in the manger in Bethlehem was a great gift, but this second act of giving shows a generosity which seems completely over the top. It something that no one could have expected.

Jesus’ resurrection clearly comes as a huge surprise to his disciples – there is no way in which they were prepared for it. We might think that was quite understandable – why would anyone expect it? It goes against all the laws of nature. But it probably wasn’t the physical fact of the resurrection – a dead man rising – which astonished the disciples most on Easter morning. They didn’t have our scientific knowledge or our scientific attitude to the world. As far as they were concerned it was God who gave life in the first place, not nature, so there was no reason why he couldn’t, if he chose, give life back to one who was dead. There are a number of instances in the Gospels where Jesus apparently raises people to life from death by the power of God, and however amazed they are no one says “it can’t be done!. The truly astounding part of this story for the disciples was that God wanted to restore Jesus to them. The resurrection wasn’t just a sign of God’s power over death, it was also – and maybe more importantly - a sign of his forgiveness for them, a sign of his continuing commitment to them despite their failure and their weakness.

“I have loved you with an everlasting love,” says God in our first reading, which dates from 500 years before the time of Jesus. It was an old message, but people had always struggled to take it on board, as I think we probably still do. When do we ever experience love like this, everlasting, unconditional love, which survives anything we can throw at it. We may be wonderfully blessed with the love of family and friends – but everlasting love? That’s another matter. For Jesus’ disciples, who had run away when he was arrested, for Peter, who had denied knowing him, the crucifixion had seemed like the end not just of his life, but of his love for them too. Surely he would want nothing to do with them. And yet here he is, in the cool of this garden graveyard, eager to be with those faithless disciples again. There’s no trace of reluctance, or recrimination. The slate is wiped clean.
Who would have thought it? Who could ever have expected a love like this? That’s why I say that this story, even more than the story of Christmas is a story about generosity.

This generosity transformed the disciples from a terrified bunch of men and women paralysed with remorse and regret into people who somehow found the courage to take Jesus’ message out across the world, often facing humiliation, persecution and death themselves. If God was for them, who could be against them? as St Paul later put it. The generosity of God’s love changed their lives, and it can make all the difference to our lives too.

There’s a traditional Russian Easter song which captures this perfectly; I’ve printed it on your pew leaflets. It was this song, and the link it makes between Easter and giving, which started me pondering all this in the first place.

“Easter eggs! Easter eggs! Give to him that begs!
For Christ the Lord is arisen.
To the poor, open door, something give from your store!
For Christ the Lord is arisen.
Those who hoard, can't afford, moth and rust their reward!
For Christ the Lord is arisen.
Those who love freely give, long and well may they live!
For Christ the Lord is arisen.
Eastertide, like a bride, comes, and won't be denied.
For Christ the Lord is arisen.”

What is it that holds us back from living generously? Our gifts of time, money or effort are signs of the love we have for others – we give because we care. But often we are afraid that if we give of ourselves too freely we won’t have enough left to meet our own needs, and who will help us then? We hoard, we ration, we calculate what return we might get - what’s in it for us - because we’re afraid of running out. We are especially cautious about giving to those who seem like poor risks, those at the bottom of the pile, those who don’t seem sufficiently deserving or grateful, those who won’t go along with our agendas. We might recognise their need as very genuine, but will they scratch our backs if we scratch theirs?

But that Russian song tells us that when we think like that we have everything upside down. “Those who hoard, can’t afford” it says. Hoarding simply shows how poor we feel, and how alone – no one will help us if we don’t help ourselves. But the message of Easter is that we can afford to love, and to love generously, because we are generously loved, loved by a God who gave his son to us not just once, as a child, but again when he raised that son from death after we had beaten, mocked and rejected him the first time round. “Give to him that begs.” says the song. Why? “For Christ the Lord is arisen.” “To the poor, open door” Why? “For Christ the Lord is arisen” God pours out his love from an infinite store. There is no danger that it will run out, no danger that it will be diminished or destroyed, not by anything, not ever.

Jesus preached this message of abundance throughout his ministry. God’s kingdom of love was like yeast, he said – one tiny speck enough to raise the whole loaf, something that just kept on growing. It was like a single seed falling in the ground apparently rotting away, and yet from it could grow a rich crop or a tree big enough to shelter all the birds of the air. It was like a shepherd, prepared to leave a whole flock on the hillside so he could search for just one which had gone astray or a father who welcomed home his prodigal son even though he had wasted his inheritance and caused him grief. Jesus talked about water that welled up eternally, grain in full measure, pressed down and running over so that it couldn’t be contained. There was enough for everyone, and everyone was welcome. And he lived the message he preached, willing to be condemned for mixing with prostitutes and tax collectors, the despised and outcast, because these were the people who needed him most.

“Do not be afraid,” says the risen Jesus to the women who find his empty tomb.
“Do not be afraid,” he says to us too. The good news of Easter is that nothing we have ever done or failed to do, no sin we have committed, can destroy his love for us. It is a gift, freely given, and given again out of his abundance. On Easter Sunday, and on every day, he declares to us afresh that everlasting love, and invites us to draw on it for ourselves and for others, so that we can live with open hands and hearts like his.

Those who love freely give, long and well may they live! For Christ the Lord is arisen.


Friday, 22 April 2011

Good Friday: Sleeping and Waking

As you can imagine I spend a lot of time in this building – leading worship, preparing, tidying up, just sitting and thinking. You’d think I would know it really well, but there is always something new to spot, and I noticed something recently which had somehow passed me by before. It was a detail in our East Window here, something which the artist who made it clearly intended to be significant.

Click on pictures for bigger version
The window tells the story of Holy Week – the Garden of Gethsemane, the crucifixion, the burial and the resurrection. But it is far more than a simple storyboard – the detail I noticed confirms that. It is in this bottom layer of the picture. In the bottom left panel you have the three sleeping disciples. Jesus has asked them to stay awake and watch with him on the night before he dies, but they just can’t. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, says the Gospel.

In the bottom right panel, though, you have three other figures – neatly mirroring them – who are also either asleep or just waking. These are the guards who’ve been set to watch the tomb. The artist shows them being woken, with a shock, as Jesus bursts from it. The artist is telling us something about sleeping and waking here.

There’s an implied criticism in both these panels. The disciples shouldn’t have slept. All Jesus wanted was a bit of company – someone to be there with him and for him at this moment of great anguish. The guards certainly shouldn’t have slept, and I’m sure they would have been in trouble for doing so.

Yet the reality is that everyone is asleep, says this window, oblivious to the great events that are unfolding around them, missing it all somehow. The Gospel reading we’ve just heard confirms that. No one really seems to have a clue what is going on, or if they do they aren’t awake enough to care, and the result is that Jesus is cast into that apparently final “sleep” of death. We see his burial in the middle panel.

There is an appalling carelessness and thoughtlessness about this story. The chief priests are asleep not only to Jesus’ suffering, but also to Judas’ last minute repentance. When he tries to return their blood money they just shrug. “What is it to us?” they say.

Pilate makes a half-hearted attempt to do justice, but in the end decides he can’t be bothered, and literally washes his hands of the whole business. The soldiers abuse Jesus, the crowds mock him without any thought that he might actually be the king, the messiah, the names they taunt him with. They don’t even have their eyes open enough to see that he is a human being like themselves; if they did, they could never treat him as they do. To them he is no more than a worthless victim.

And the disciples? Where are they? Apart from the women, who watch from a distance, they are nowhere to be found. They are keeping their heads down – I bet some of them really are asleep, trying to blot the whole thing out.

Everyone is oblivious, asleep – literally, emotionally or spiritually.
“Wake up!” we want to say to all these sleep-walkers. “Wake up and see what is happening among you!” But they can’t hear us and perhaps that’s just as well, because they might turn round to us and ask whether we would have done any better, whether we do do any better, in fact, because there is no shortage of people suffering the effects of casual cruelty, thoughtlessness and carelessness today; anonymous martyrs in conflicts not of their own making, people whose longing for justice puts them in the firing line, and those whose plight is simply overlooked because we are too busy to notice them.

This story of the death of this innocent man makes us aware of our failure to act, our failure to notice, our tendency to close our eyes and sleep when reality gets too troublesome. However we dress it up in fine music and dignified words, this is a squalid story of a humiliating death, which should make us all feel ashamed and at least a bit grubby, not just for what happened then, but for what happens now as well.

And yet Christians call this day Good Friday, not Bad Friday. We proclaim that on this day, somehow, everything changes for those who are prepared to let it. Christians have come up with many different ways of explaining that, using many different images, speculating on the metaphysical mechanics of the crucifixion, but in the end all that we can say for certain is that this death matters; it transforms those who witness it. Even those careless soldiers say at the end, “this man was God’s son”, and countless others through the centuries have found themselves changed as they encounter this overwhelming act of love and commitment. We see a man refusing to turn back from the inevitable consequence of the message he preaches, allowing himself to be pinned down, helpless, allowing himself to be overcome by the utter powerlessness of death, trusting that somehow his Father God is in this, and that though he sleeps in death, God’s eyes will never close for a moment. Jesus may not know what God will do, but he knows he is safe in his hands, which willl be working for good, even when he can do nothing himself.

Our stained glass artist tells us this too. He has painted the hand of God high up in the window above the cross – you have to look to find it, but it is there, a reminder that he is still at work, reaching down into the half-asleep, chaotic, deathly muddle of the world.

The liberating power of the cross is its proclamation that God is not defeated by our uselessness. Christian faith does not begin with well-meaning activism. It does not start with what we do for God, for others and ourselves. It starts with what God does for us, forgiving us, healing us, helping us when we are powerless to act for ourselves. It starts when we are fast asleep and helpless.

And oddly, when we learn to trust that truth, we often find that is the moment when we begin to wake up; to wake to God, to wake to ourselves, to wake to the needs of those around us, so that we can live with the fullness of life for which we were made.


Sunday, 3 April 2011

Clothe yourselves with compassion: Mothering Sunday and baptisms - a sermon by Anne Le Bas

Col 3.12-17, Luke 2.33-35

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion…” said the first of our Bible readings today.
It’s a very good reading for Mothering Sunday, because if there is one thing mothers are notorious for it is fussing about with clothes. Fathers can do it as well, but to be honest it is more often mothers who are guilty of it. “Put a coat on – you’ll catch your death out there.” “Take your coat off or you won’t feel the benefit when you go out…” “You’re not going out looking like that, are you?” “Pull your socks up! Tuck your shirt in!…” It’s very irritating when you are a child, but, speaking as a mother, I have to say give us a break – we can’t help it! Historically it has been very much our job to keep our children warm, clean and dry, and it is hard to resist the temptation to fuss. It all springs from that moment when we realise that this impossibly tiny, impossibly fragile looking creature is totally dependant on us, its parents, for its survival. Left on its own, it has no chance. It is an awesome responsibility and my experience is that new parents usually feel totally overawed by it, and sometimes really quite scared. I certainly was. Our instinct is naturally to want to wrap our children up, if not in cotton wool, then at least in a warm blanket, to hold them tight, to put whatever protective shields we can between them and the vagaries of a world that suddenly seems very large and very frightening. Clothing them is a symbol of that desire to protect them – no wonder we fuss about it so much.

I’ve still got the first babygro I clothed my children in. I had chosen it carefully before my first born arrived to bring him home from hospital in, because it was my favourite. Somehow it then acquired a significance for me, so I used it again, a bit more battered and well-washed, when I brought my daughter home two years later. Up until then, both children had been wrapped in hospital issue clothing – it was the first thing I clothed them in, and somehow that mattered, which is why I have kept it. The tiny 5lb 14oz son who was once swamped in it is now over six feet tall, and my daughter would look pretty silly trying to get into it too at the age of 26 but that doesn’t matter to me. It was the first bit of “clothing” I did for my children, as I took on the responsibility for their warmth and wellbeing in the world.

Today we will be clothing Arthur and Jonty as part of their baptisms. It is an ancient feature of the baptism service. Not all churches observe it, but I think it is a particularly lovely gesture. We wrap the children in a white shawl after they’ve been baptised to symbolise the fact that they are wrapped in the love of God. When we come to that part of the service, as you’ll see, I use the words of a 13th century Christian writer, Dame Julian of Norwich, “As the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the heart in the whole, so are we, soul and body, clad in the goodness of God, and enclosed.”

They are beautiful words, but they’re not pious sentimentality. Julian lived as an anchorite, a sort of nun who lived in a small cell attached to a church in Norwich, at a time when the Black Death was raging across Europe. All around her people were dying – well over a third of the population of Europe was wiped out. It was a very traumatic time, and it might seem unlikely that anyone could believe they were wrapped in God’s goodness in the midst of it all, but Julian did, and famously proclaimed that “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” It wasn’t that she thought nothing bad would happen to her or those she cared for. She simply knew that God was with her, upholding her, and that meant that whatever happened, in health and sickness, in joy and sorrow, in life and in death, she would have the courage and strength to face her troubles. If you are deeply rooted enough in the love of God then nothing that happens can destroy you utterly. You are living from a deeper place. On the surface the storms may rage, but below that the ground is firm and trustworthy.

When we wrap these children in their shawls, we aren’t saying that we think nothing bad will ever happen to them. Baptism isn’t a magical protection against the vagaries of life. It is a reminder that through those vagaries, we are not alone, but surrounded by God’s grace, and it is this which will ultimately keep them safe – not preventing bad things happening, but safeguarding them at the deepest level so they can come through them. But of course for these children really to understand that it needs to be more than a one-off symbolic action today. Wrapping them in a shawl once is a good reminder, a good start, but clothing themselves in the goodness of God has to be something which becomes a daily habit.

As St Paul tells us it is about putting on compassion, kindness, humility and patience, day by day, living what we believe, putting it into action. Faith, hope and love aren’t learned in an instant. And just as at first others must clothe us, so at first it is those around Arthur and Jonty who will need to show them how to live like this, with gratitude for what they have, not resentment of what they lack, live with generosity of heart and spirit day by day in the ordinary things they do. Parents, godparents, family and friends, as well as the church which pledges its support to you today are all involved – it takes a village to raise a child. When they were born, their parents clothed them. Today at their baptism I shall clothe them. But in reality it is a task we are all called to do, giving the children which are the future for us all the emotional and spiritual resilience they need to meet the challenges which are sure to come their way.

In our Gospel reading today, we heard Simeon’s words to Mary. She and Joseph had brought Jesus to the Temple as a baby to perform the rituals prescribed for the new born. Simeon, an elderly man who worshipped there daily, recognised that this child would be something special, God’s Messiah. He would be a blessing to the world, but it would be a costly ministry not just for him but for his parents too – “a sword will pierce your own soul too” he warns Mary. I am sure that parents everywhere can identify with the fear those words inevitably evoke. We want our children to live perfect lives, happy, healthy and safe, but we know that life isn’t like that. However carefully we try we can’t prevent bad things happening to our children, no matter how many warm shawls we wrap them up in. What we really need to do is clothe them in love, and in the goodness of God, and teach them to clothe themselves in them too as they grow, putting on those things which will make their spirits strong. That sort of clothing is far more important than anything you can get from Mothercare. It’s clothing which never fades or wears out, and which they never grow out of.