Sunday, 22 May 2011

Easter 5: Where love is, there is God.

Acts 7.55-60,  John 14.1-14

If you didn’t know the context of today’s first reading it might have been a bit baffling, like catching the tail end of a film, the bit where everything comes to a crashing climax, full of explosions and high drama. But if you haven’t watched it from the beginning it is very difficult to know who’s doing what to whom, and why?
It is the very end of the story of St Stephen, whose dubious claim to fame is that he is the first follower of Jesus to die for his faith. We don’t know where he came from or what he was doing before he joined the church. He might have been a follower of Jesus from the beginning of his ministry, or he might have been a new convert after the day of Pentecost. We aren’t told. He just seems to appear from nowhere.

What we do know about him, though, is what he does in his very brief ministry. The early church had seen huge growth in its first days. Thousands joined it. It united Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor. And, we are told, all these diverse followers pooled their resources, sharing out what they had to support those among them who were in need. That sounds great, but logistically it was a nightmare, because people being what they are it wasn’t long before bitter squabbles broke out. The Gentile widows complained that the Jewish widows were getting more food than they were, and no doubt the Jewish widows fought back. Peter and the other apostles were spending all their time sorting out disputes over sacks of flour and legs of lamb. Clearly something had to be done. “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God to wait on tables”, they said. But someone was going to have to “wait on tables” otherwise they would have perpetual disagreements to deal with. So they decided to appoint seven men to oversee the distribution of food. One of these was Stephen. This was his first and only job in the church, waiting on tables, doling out loaves, listening to complaints, trying to make it fair for those whose lives were probably crushingly difficult already.

I don’t know whether this was what he thought he’d be signing up for when he decided to follow Jesus, but I rather doubt it. It’s hardly glamorous or exciting or noble.
Still, you would have thought it would at least have been a bit safer than the life of one of the leaders of the church like Peter. How controversial can it be to chop vegetables? How much trouble can you get into stirring a pot of soup?

But Stephen manages to find that trouble. Someone denounces him to the Jewish authorities, accusing him of blasphemy.

He finds himself hauled before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, and told to explain himself. Which, according to the book of Acts, he does, at length and pulling no punches.

He tells these religious experts their own story, the story of the relationship between God and Israel, the one recorded in their scriptures. He begins with Abraham, a surprising choice to be the founder of the nation, a childless man well on in years. Yet God promises that he will be the father of a multitude, and so it turns out to be. He moves on to Moses, the hero, the saviour, who rescues his people from slavery in Egypt. But he is an unlikely choice too. He was born to a Hebrew mother, but brought up in the Egyptian court, in an Egyptian culture – probably speaking Egyptian better than Hebrew. As he leads the people through the wilderness, they constantly doubt him and grumble at his leadership. They just don’t trust him – his face doesn’t fit.

The prophets too were never accepted either, says Stephen – it was only in hindsight that anyone saw any wisdom in their words.

Again and again, said Stephen, we have missed God at work, even worked against him, because he didn’t appear in a way we recognised.
The Sanhedrin and the crowds listened in silence. Frankly there was nothing they could argue with in this. It was all there in the scriptures, just as he said. But then he went on to Jesus – just as our ancestors got it wrong then, you are getting it wrong now, he says. Here was God, in your midst, the Righteous One, the Messiah, the one sent to do God’s work, and you didn’t see him. In fact you betrayed and killed him.

The crowd is furious. Criticising their ancestors is one thing; criticising them is quite another. They cover their ears and shout to drown out his voice, then they drag him out and stone him. And yet, as he dies he prays for God to forgive them, just as Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of those who killed him.
The thing that impresses me about Stephen is his confidence in his faith. He seems so sure that God is with him, so sure of his message. He sounds like a man who knows what he is talking about because he has experienced it, a man who has seen God at work and knows what it feels like when he is present. That’s why he doesn’t turn back from preaching this bold, disturbing message, even though it costs him his life.

I started to wonder as I pondered this where that confidence came from. What gave Stephen such certainty, such courage, and the love too to pray for those who killed him? Well, the only thing we know about him, the only thing we’ve been told, is that he waits on tables, that he works at the nitty-gritty of the church’s task, sorting out the practical problems of feeding the hungry and caring for the destitute. Waiting on tables in our culture – feeding people – isn’t usually regarded as a very high status occupation. It wasn’t in Stephen’s time either. It was something servants and women did. But dealing with this practical, basic stuff brings you into contact with the reality of people’s lives, their need, their hunger, their stories in a way that nothing else does. When you serve people in practical ways you start to see them as individuals; you start to feel their sorrows, and their joys. Stephen no longer just sees people as faces in a crowd, but as children of God, suffering and struggling in a world that denies them the dignity even of a secure income and adequate protection. Serving others in practical ways brings you into contact with the reality of your own life too, your own aching feet, your irritation, your tiredness, but also that growing sense that your life matters, your actions matter, you can make a difference, God can work through you. In other words, when you serve others you meet God in them and in yourself in a way you probably never can in high-flown theological conversation. You get used to the idea that God will show up, even if he doesn’t look quite as you imagined he might.
I am firmly convinced that it was waiting on tables which shaped Stephen’s faith, which gave him the strength to stick to his message. Waiting on tables has shown him why Jesus’ message of the infinite value of each person to God matters so much; he has seen God’s work of transformation close up in real human lives, as the hungry are fed and people discover that they are loved. He sees a vision of Jesus, at the right hand of his Father as he dies, but that’s no surprise, because his eyes are open to God day by day, in the people he helps.

In a sense I think Jesus was trying to make a similar point in our Gospel reading. It was the night before he died, and he was at supper with his friends, the last supper he would share with them. He knows they will feel abandoned and alone when he is gone, and he tries to prepare them. “I won’t be far away,” he says, “I am just going to prepare a place for you, but I will be back – and you know how to find me – you know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas comes straight back at him, “No we don’t – we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” But Jesus answers, “I am the way”. What does that mean?

Earlier in the evening he had washed these disciples’ feet – another job, like waiting on tables, that you would expect a servant to do – and he’d told them to do the same. “This is how people will know that God is at work in you, that you follow me, when you do things like this,” he’d told them. As they live according to the pattern he has shown them, a pattern of love, of nitty-gritty, real practical service, they will find that he is there among them.

They won’t have to go searching for him in some distant heaven. They won’t have to undertake some mystical quest to find. They will find him in the sharing of their love. As the first letter of John says “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

Today marks the end of Christian Aid week. This year the campaign has focused on a project Christian Aid are supporting in Nicaragua, a coffee co-operative, which has enabled local people to get a fair return for their labour, and to work in conditions which are safe and give them dignity and protection from harassment – something of a rarity there. This project, like all the work they do, is about far more than simple economic uplift. These people have discovered a pride in themselves, a dignity, a capacity to serve their community – the profits from the co-op have enabled them to build a school, for example. This is the work of God – the transformation of human spirits, the discovery of hope, of fullness of life. This is the coming of God’s kingdom “on earth, as it is in heaven” as we pray so often.

If you have come here today looking for God, I hope you will find him in the prayers, in the music, in the sacrament of Communion, even in the sermon. But the best way to be sure you’ll meet him is to go out from here and find someone to help, someone to serve, someone to love – and to be open to the help, service and love of others too, because the one thing we can count on, as St Stephen did, is that where love is, there is God.


Sunday, 15 May 2011

Breathing Space Sermon: "I shall not be in want"

Easter 4 11 Breathing Space
Psalm 23, John 10.1-10

Our Old Testament reading today is probably one of the most famous in the Bible. That famous song of the Shepherd, Psalm 23. I can’t begin to count how many times I have said it and sung it and read it. And yet it never seems to wear out because all human experiences is here in this description of a journey through life that is as true today as ever it was. We may not be shepherds, but we know these landscapes too.

The green pastures and still waters; places where we are refreshed, where we can rest and be at ease. The paths of righteousness; the times when we have to agonise over the right route, the right course of action, when we have to keep going, hoping that we aren’t heading into a dead end. The dark valleys, where we know death threatens us, not just physically, but the death of hopes or dreams. And of course the place where the table is spread, the feast prepared, the house of the Lord, the place where we come home to God.
But It isn’t just a description of life. What the Psalmist is trying to tell us is that he has realised that in all these times and places God is with him, and because of that, he has what he needs to face whatever comes. The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not be in want.
We can’t dictate what happens to us in life. The journey takes us where it takes us, through whatever landscapes happen to be along the way. We have to face the challenges and seize the joys, as we come to them. Life can be a frightening business; how can we be sure we’ll cope? We can’t. Do we really have the wisdom, the strength, the skills to handle life? Of course we don’t. Most of us, much of the time probably feel we are making it up as we go along. Our plans are no more than guesswork. No matter how clever we are, we can’t do it all or know it all and we often feel out of our depth. It is tempting just to stay at home and hide, never set out on the journey at all, or look for a shortcut when the going gets tough, even though there isn’t one actually.
This Psalmist is no different from the rest of us. He faces the same challenges, and yet, he tells us he has everything he needs. He will not be in want. And the reason for that is that God is with him, and that is all that matters.
Sometimes he experiences God’s presence in a very active way – God leads, makes him lie down, revives, guides. At other times that presence is less obvious. In the valley of the shadow of death God doesn’t seem to be DOING anything, but he is still there, “you are with me” says the Psalmist, “your rod and your staff comfort me.” (Notice how he starts to slip into “you” language here, speaking to God directly for the first time in the Psalm, as if to emphasize his closeness.) God is there, and that is enough. We all know that sometimes the most powerful thing we can do for someone is simply to be there, not trying to fix what is wrong, but just sticking around in the darkness with those we love. That’s what God does at that point.
And the fourth landscape, the welcome home, the table that is spread? Although we can think of that as the final destination of our journey, in a sense it describes something that is true of all of it – it sums up the message of this Psalm. We dwell in God’s presence, it says, all the days of our lives. His goodness and mercy follow us on the journey. He spreads a table in the presence of those who trouble us, gives us the food we need in the midst of our difficulties, not necessarily taking us out of them.
So, what landscape are you in right now? Perhaps it is one of green pastures and still waters; perhaps you are struggling to find the right pathway, perhaps you are in a place of real fear and darkness. What do you need in order to live there? Do you feel you have what you need, or do you feel “in want” tonight? God’s promise to us is the same as his promise to the Psalmist, that he is with us wherever we are. Because of that we lack nothing. That doesn’t mean there are easy answers or magic wands, but by his presence we have the strength and courage we need.

In the silence tonight I invite you to ponder where you are right now, to turn to God and let him help you to live abundantly, as Jesus puts it, in whatever place you are right now.


Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Evensong Sermon: Resurrection then and now

Dan 6,1-23, Mark 15.46-16.8

There is an ancient and obvious connection between the two stories we’ve heard today: Jesus being raised from death and Daniel being drawn out of the lions’ den. Both have been delivered from a stone tomb – or at least a place which was meant to be their tomb. The cave where Jesus’ body is buried is intended to be his last resting place, and the lion’s den is somewhere no one expected Daniel to emerge from. There should have been nothing left of him in the morning but a few bones.
This was meant to be it for both of them, the end. But it is not so. Although we might think of just the second of them as a resurrection story – THE resurrection story – in fact both of them witness to the belief that God is a God who brings life from death, a God of resurrection.

It is easy to think of Jesus’ resurrection as a one-off, something utterly unique, which happens to him because he is different from the rest of us, the Son of God. But if we do that, resurrection can easily become something which has nothing to do with the rest of us, at least not in the here and now. Pairing the story of his resurrection with the story of Daniel, though, reminds us that resurrection is a far greater theme in the Bible than simply one tale of one man coming through death to a new physical existence. God was in the business of resurrection long before Easter Sunday, perhaps not in the literal sense, but in many other senses. He was a God who defied the powers of death and despair time and time again. No matter how hopeless things looked, God was not defeated.
Christian commentators over the centuries found numerous stories in the Old Testament which they claimed foreshadowed the resurrection of Jesus, pointing forward towards it. They called these “types”. I have some misgivings about that approach, because it can narrow our appreciation of the Old Testament, making it no more than a trail of clues to lead us towards Jesus, rather than having a wisdom and a life of its own, but is worth recognising the ways in which Old and New Testament resurrection stories echo and enrich each other, so I thought tonight I would look at three of those Old Testament resurrections, starting with this one we’ve heard tonight from Daniel.

Daniel’s resurrection isn’t a literal one. He doesn’t die. But he might as well have done. Death looks certain. There is no human agency which can save him. Even the king, who has been manipulated into condemning him to death isn’t able to save him, because the decrees of the Medes and Persians were irrevocable. He tries, but there’s no way round it. He tells Daniel it is up to his God to save him. Daniel is clear that he can’t fight off the lions by himself either. It is an angel sent by God who has shut their mouths. His life should be over, if it weren’t for God’s actions. That’s why this is a resurrection story, even if it is one without any actual death in it. Daniel is as powerless as he would be in death, but God is not. He can act when we no longer have the power to.

Another “resurrection story” in the Old Testament is that of Jonah. He spends three days in the belly of the whale, as Jesus spends three days in the tomb. He assumes he will die. But God has other plans, and he is spewed forth to new life. But his “resurrection” isn’t just about life and death, it is the resurrection of his calling too. He has been told to go to Ninevah the capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire, the ruling force of the time to preach a message of repentance to the inhabitants. This a terrifying prospect – surely this notoriously brutal people are not going to take kindly to some two-bit Israelite prophet telling them what to do. But more important than that, Jonah doesn’t really want them to repent anyway, because he believes God will then forgive them, and he doesn’t want that to happen. They can rot in hell for all he cares.

His time in the belly of the whale makes him aware of his own dependence on God and his own weakness and fallibility. His self-righteousness and smug assurance dies inside that whale. It’s not all plain sailing when he gets to Ninevah; he still hopes they won’t repent and be forgiven, and is very cross when they do, and are. But at least he goes there. The message of his story is that if our vision of God is going to big enough to believe we can love even our enemies , it will often mean that something in us needs to die, so that there can be a resurrection of compassion in us.
A third Old Testament resurrection story is that of Ezekiel and the valley of the dry bones.

Ezekiel was in Babylon, an exile there, when this vision came to him. All around were the dried up bones of a might army, the aftermath of a battle. “Can these dry bones live?” he is asked. “You know, O God” he answers, not wanting to say yes or no. He knows that God is beyond his understanding, and sure enough, as he fulfils God’s command to “prophesy to the bones” he sees them come together, cover themselves with flesh and sinew and skin, and eventually, filled with the breath of God, stand upright. Why does God show him this? It is a way of helping him to understand that though the people are in exile in Babylon, their own city of Jerusalem in ruins, and every indication is that this is the end of their national identity, actually God is more than capable of rebuilding the nation. It is a resurrection of hope.

The former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, was once hauled over the coals by some sections of the church and media for describing the resurrection of Jesus as “more than a conjuring trick with bones”. He was accused of denying the reality of the resurrection. I think this was entirely unwarranted, and in fact it was his critics who were failing to see the true scale and depth of the meaning of that first Easter Sunday.

Resurrection, for Jesus, for those Old Testament characters, and for us, has many meanings. If we make it simply about life after physical death, however important that is, it is we who are making it too small. We may long for life after death, but we also ought to long for life before death too, life that is lived in all its fullness, life that is lived compassionately, with hope and dignity. We can be conscious and breathing, but still feel dead inside, and for many around the world, the constant struggle to exist means that the kind of rich and satisfying life God meant us to have is a pipe dream. We need resurrection now, and so does our world.
The question all these resurrection stories ask us is what kind of resurrection needs to happen in our lives, now, today. We might need a resurrection in our relationships, the healing of old quarrels or resentments. We might need inner resurrections as we deal with the faults and failings that pull us down. We might need resurrections in our attitudes to those around us, so that we don’t write people off, considering them beyond redemption but trust that God can help them, even if we don’t know how. And I often come across people glumly predicting the death of the church, though personally I think it is far from moribund myself. Perhaps we need a resurrection of hope there – God is not dead, so how can his church be?
It is easy to despair, easy to give up, but if we say we believe in a God of resurrection, we should at least leave room for him to surprise us. We may be gazing sorrowfully at a sealed tomb or a sealed lion’s den, but these stories tell us that God is at work, just as he always has been, bringing life out of death and hope from despair. Amen