Tuesday, 28 June 2011

On getting it wrong

1 Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 139, Romans 12:1-8, Luke 5.1-10

I’d like to begin by telling you a story from India. It’s a rather silly story, I’m afraid, but it seems to me to be appropriate for this morning nonetheless. It goes like this.

In a little village in India there was once an old potter. One evening he got on his donkey and rode down to the village inn as he always did at the end of the day. Frankly, he was a little more fond of the drink than he ought to have been, and by the end of the evening he was well and truly sozzled. Now, it was a filthy night, pouring with rain and pitch black, and when he came out of the inn into the wild, dark, wet night, he just couldn’t’ remember where he’d left his donkey. He stumbled around for a bit and then, all of a sudden, he felt a rough hairy coat – ah, good, here it was.
What he didn’t know was that during that stormy evening, a tiger had come out of the jungle and, disorientated by the thunder and lightning, had taken shelter under the eaves of the inn. It wasn’t the donkey he had come across in the darkness at all...
Now the tiger was already pretty terrified by the storm, and when the potter climbed on his back, he was so surprised by this turn of events that he decided the safest thing was to do just what the potter told him. So he carried the potter back through the village to his house. The potter got off and tied him to the fence, still none the wiser. “Good donkey… faithful donkey… shleep well…” he said as he went inside.

In the morning he was woken by cries of amazement from outside the house. A crowd had gathered and were shouting out. “Hooray for our brave potter, who has tamed a tiger! What a hero!” The potter tried to set them straight, but they were having none of it, and pretty soon the tale of his amazing feat spread throughout the region and finally reached the ears of the Rajah himself.

Now it so happened that at this time the Rajah was fighting a war against a neighbouring country. The battle lines were drawn up and the two armies faced each other across a broad plain. The Rajah knew that what he needed more than anything was a leader for his army, someone who could inspire people with his courage. Who better than this potter he’d been hearing so much about? So he sent for him straight away. He presented him with his largest, strongest, finest horse, and made the potter climb up onto it. The potter tried to protest, but the Rajah took no notice, thinking that it was just false modesty.

The potter had never ridden a horse like this before. It was a long way down, and he was sure he’d fall off, so while the king wasn’t looking he tied himself firmly to the saddle. Then the king suddenly gave the horse a slap on the rear and with a great shout from the army, sent the potter galloping off towards the enemy lines.
At this point, alas, the potter, clinging on for dear life, realised with a sinking feeling that he had no idea how to make the horse stop. He shouted and screamed but that only made the horse go faster. Then he had a flash of inspiration. There was a small stand of trees ahead. If he could only make a grab for one of them as they passed, surely that would bring the horse to a halt. He lunged for the nearest one, but the horse was big and strong, and the tree roots were shallow. Up came the tree, with the potter still hanging onto it, and on they galloped.
In the distance, the enemy army watched all this with alarm .Who was this mighty warrior who was hurtling towards them, shrieking like a banshee, a man so strong and fearless that he used trees as weapons? They weren’t going to wait around to find out. They all turned tail and ran as fast as they could. And that was the end of that war.

And as you might imagine, the Rajah showered the little potter with wealth beyond his imagination, and he never wanted for anything again.

That story, of course, is not at all the kind of story one ought to tell in a sermon. It is full of deceit and drunkenness for a start, but there’s a message in it that I think is very appropriate for a day like today. Today Stephen begins his priestly ministry among us. Today is also our patronal festival, when we think about the life of this church, and the calling that comes to all of us to serve our community here. We’ve heard Bible stories about calling and ministry. We’re singing stirring hymns about service. It all sounds rather grand and noble, thinking of all the great things we’d like to achieve. But there’s an awful danger that we might get too high-flown for our own good.

You see, the raw truth, from my experience of ministry anyway, is that, just as that Indian potter discovered, a lot of what really matters, what really makes a difference, actually comes about completely by accident, while we thought we were doing something else entirely. It is often the odd, unplanned conversations, not the beautifully crafted sermons that hit home. The things we get wrong are sometimes more important in the end than the things we get right, if we are prepared to let the grace of God shine through the cracks in our lives.

That’s not just the case for priests, deacons or Readers; it is true of anyone who is seriously trying to live out their calling as Christians, whether that is in their job or their family or in some voluntary service they are giving. Love your enemies? Live the Gospel? Who can do these things, really, truly, all the time? Who do we think we are? Why would God think we could make a difference? And yet he does.

That sense of surprise permeates the stories we heard from the Old Testament and the Gospel today. Samuel was just a boy, trying to sleep in the dark of the Temple. He’d never heard the voice of God before, and neither, it seems, had Eli. The whole story seems faintly ridiculous; all Eli wants is a good night’s sleep, but again and again Samuel is there, standing beside his bed with his questions. Why should it occur to either of them that God would want to speak through this child? What did he have to give?

And then there were those Galilean fishermen. Even their fishing skills seemed to have deserted them on the day Jesus met them on the lakeside. They’d fished all night, but caught nothing. Why on earth would Jesus choose them to fish for people?

Simon Peter’s story doesn’t get any better either as he goes on from here. More often than not he seems to get it spectacularly wrong, jumping in with both feet and absolutely no sense of tact and discretion, and when it really counts he denies knowing Jesus at all. When he first meets Jesus he cries,“Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man,” and maybe he knows himself better than we give him credit for. But Jesus chooses him anyway.

Our other patron, Paul, isn’t exactly promising “saint” material either. When we first meet him he is hell-bent on destroying the followers of Jesus, convinced that their message is dangerous and wrong, because they are saying that God is for everyone, Jews and Gentiles. The fact that he eventually becomes the apostle to the Gentiles, the one who, above all others, spreads the message of Jesus to non-Jewish communities shows us, at the very least, that our God has a sense of humour.

Samuel, Peter and Paul end up as heroes of the Bible, but like the potter in my story, they don’t owe that position to any skill, talent or effort of their own. They stumble forward through a series of accidents and failures; but as they get it wrong, again and again in some cases, they discover that God is there with them anyway, and that gives them the courage to believe that if he is there with them, then he can be with anyone else too, anywhere, no matter how badly things seem to have gone wrong for them.
Of course, it is right that we do our best, use our natural talents, act professionally and responsibly with care and love, in priesthood or in any other sphere. But we shouldn't assume that it is our skills and successes which will, in the end, have most impact on others. It’s not about us and what we can do; it is about God and what he does through us, which may include things we’re weren't expecting and wouldn’t have chosen. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”, says Samuel when the penny finally drops. Our part in the whole enterprise is to be open to the idea that God just might be there, in the darkness, in the deep water, in the times of failure as much as in the times of success. Knowing that will give us the courage we need to go forward, but we usually only learn it by first looking back at the course of our lives up till now.
When we do that, what do we see? If we are human, and honest, we probably see a path that is full of twists and turns, times of confusion when we went round and round in circles, times when we took what seem like pointless detours, going miles in the wrong direction before we turned round. Half the time we probably felt as if we were in the wrong place completely, not at all where we should have been. What a waste…!

But the truth is that, wherever we were, God was with us, and knowing that changes everything, because no time with God is ever really wasted in the end. In his love the failures of our lives become the wellsprings from which living water flows, teaching us lessons which we could never have learned in any other way, giving us gifts that are unique, and precious to others.
I know that today Stephen will be hoping to get it right, to read all the words in the right order and not drop anything too important. He might even manage it. But I hope that he, and all of us, will know that it is when we learn to get it wrong and still know we are loved that God is most powerfully at work in us.


Sunday, 19 June 2011

Soaring with eagles?: A sermon by Kevin Bright

Matthew 28.16-20, 2 Corinthians 13.11-13, Isaiah 40.12-17, 27-31

‘They shall mount up with wings like eagles’, I think I prefer the word ‘soar’ used in the NIV version instead of ‘mount up’. It better matches the images, probably influenced by posters with these words on of a majestic eagle soaring above mountains, tree tops and rivers, effortlessly riding the wind and looking down on terrain which land animals have to work hard to traverse.

Despite all out technological advances it’s still so far removed from our own day to day experiences. As I’m stuck in a jam on the A2 on a wet Monday morning the ability to soar like an eagle seems worlds away. Even getting airborne doesn’t come near, Easy jet doesn’t quite have the sense of majesty as you bundle for a decent seat and I’ve never really fancied hang gliding.

The beauty and romance of this timeless image offers an enduring hope to all who feel exhausted, weary, downtrodden, physically weak or forgotten, like the people in exile that the second section of Isaiah is addressing.

First he reminds them of God’s power and greatness, how our God created everything without any need for help from man, ‘nations are like a drop from a bucket, as dust on the scales’. These words alone wouldn’t offer much comfort and are easily misunderstood as telling the people how small and insignificant they are compared to God. Yet despite their lack of trust in God they are the beneficiaries of an inexhaustible love which is there to be drawn upon when all else fails.

We heard both Paul and Matthew end their writings with references to the trinity, Paul using the words we know as ‘The Grace.’ Where we say ‘fellowship’ of the Holy Spirit Paul says ‘communion’. Jane Williams describes how Augustine called the Spirit ‘the bond of love’ between Father and Son. It seems that without the Spirit the two are somehow separate. So as we wish for the communion or fellowship of the Holy Spirit to be with us all we are praying to be unified, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to be inseparable and to find meaning in each other. Something to think about next time we utter these familiar words!

This is what Paul is hoping for as he writes to the church in Corinth. They have been challenging him, questioning his authority and bickering among themselves so he wants to end his letter with a final encouragement telling the people to strive for God’s ways. He seems to be telling them that if they can live in peace with each other then there may be space for God’s love to flourish.
It’s hard to imagine that a group of Christians might be interested in our advice as to how they should live isn’t it, but if you felt that a certain section of the church today would benefit from your advice what would you write, particularly the ending where you want to summarise your message?

I think I would suggest that they root themselves in reality. Reality of the knowledge that we are all loved but also reality that we are not supermen or women and God is delighted to see us doing what we are able to do that reflects his love. The other advice I’d offer is to get on and do it now. Don’t wait until you feel you are a better Christian, until you’ve kicked all those lingering bad habits, just get on with what you know is right and pleasing to God despite other things which could get in the way.

In Matthew’s Gospel we heard what has become known as ‘the Great Commission’. Judas has killed himself by this stage so we hear how 11 disciples have their final meeting with Jesus and receive instructions to go out and ‘make disciples of all nations’ stressing the importance of baptism and teaching. Put in this form it seems quite daunting and sounds like work most suited to ordained ministers.

If we allow ourselves to think like this it would be a serious misunderstanding. If people can see even a glimpse of God in the way we live our lives there is a chance that they will also be encouraged to find out more about what motivates us. Baptism may follow this, signifying new life in Christ. Whilst we may not be equipped to teach academic theology the greatest lesson we can offer is when we don’t behave in the way others expect because of our faith. For example we can show that the least cared in society mean a great deal to God.

I said that the Great Commission could seem quite daunting and after struggling to summarise it into a few words I’ve reached the conclusion that it is not quite daunting it is very daunting.

Yet despite this we are motivated by the love of God to try and follow the instructions of Christ. Sometimes we will feel useless and sometimes we will grow weary. But we don’t face the world alone, in communion with each other we are stronger than any individual and through God the renewal of our strength is possible.

We may not always have that feeling of soaring like eagles but God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is always there for us and no matter how much we bombard him with our regrets, hopes, prayers and worries we can be assured that he never grows faint nor weary.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Called to glory. A sermon by Anne Le Bas

Acts 1.6-14, Psalm 68.1-10,32-35, 1 Peter 4.12-14, 5.6-11, John 17. 1-11
There’s a word you’ll hear a lot in today’s prayers and hymns and bible readings – it’s the word “glory”. Today is the Sunday after Ascension Day, when we remember the story of Jesus going back to the glory of heaven. We pray in the collect to God who is the “King of Glory”. In the second reading we heard about “the spirit of glory, which is the spirit of God,” and about being “called to God’s eternal glory,” and in the Gospel Jesus prays on the night before he dies for his Father to glorify him, so that God himself is glorified. He prays too that he will be glorified in us. I’ll talk about those passages in a moment, but before I do I’d like us to think a bit about this word “glory”.
I wonder what you think of when you hear the word “glory”. My guess is that it conjures up images of great processions, of trumpets, of impressive displays of wealth, of cheering crowds, of mass adulation and acclaim. And what colour is glory? Well, it has to be gold, doesn’t it? There’s nothing retiring about glory – it is something bright and shiny, something that announces itself, that can’t be missed.
Our English word comes from the Latin gloria, which meant fame or renown – your reputation and image. The equivalent Greek word makes that even more obvious. It is doxa, which comes from a word that means to think or to seem – glory has to do with what people think about you, how you seem to them. This sort of glory was really important in the ancient world. Rulers were obsessed with their image, putting on grand spectacles to entertain the crowds, building vast and impressive buildings. Roman Emperors even declared themselves to be divine, and you don’t get much more of an image uplift than that. Of course, underneath it all they were no different to anyone else, subject to the same frailties and weaknesses as all human beings, but what mattered was that the image was preserved, that people were awestruck by what they saw on the surface. Later monarchs felt just the same. Think of Louis XIV of France, the Sun King, as he called himself, who built the ridiculously huge palace of Versailles, with its hall of mirrors , its 700 rooms and 1400 fountains in the grounds… If you’ve ever been there you’ll know that it’s not exactly cosy or practical, but it’s very, very impressive. No one needs a house that big, and I can’t say I’d want to live there, but you don’t build something like that for comfort. You build it to show that you can. The message is clear. “If I can build like this, I can do anything – so don’t mess with me!”
That is glory in the sense that we usually think of it. An external display.
But that’s not what the Bible means when it talks about glory, and it talks about glory a lot, especially the glory of God. The Hebrew word, which comes again and again in the Old Testament, is “kabod” [pronounced kavoth] and its root meaning is “heaviness”. Kabod is a weighty word. It’s not just about image, it is about substance; what something really is, not just what it’s trying to look like. It’s about the inner essence of a thing, not just the outward appearance, however splendid. The kabod of God is often described as a shining light in the Bible, but it’s not the reflected light of a gilded statue, it is light that comes from within, pure goodness, the light of the one who is light.
So the Hebrew authors of the Old Testament were quite clear what they were talking about, and it was far more than just show or image or reputation. The problems started when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, because there was no exact equivalent for this untranslatable word in Greek, nothing that really captured its unique meaning. The nearest the translators could get was doxa, that word I told you about earlier. It wasn’t really accurate – God’s glory didn’t depend on what others thought or said about him. The New Testament writers followed their lead and use doxa too, because that was the only word they had. And when the Bible was translated from Greek into Latin, doxa became gloria, so we end up with glory, with all its rather misleading associations with bling and trumpets, worldly acclaim and wealth.
All this matters, because, as I said, the Bible talks about glory a lot. Our readings today were full of it. But if we have those glittering Greek and Latin images running around in our heads we are going to be seriously confused by them. The first letter of Peter says that “if you are reviled for the name of Christ you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.” But what has being reviled and suffering got to do with glory? Nothing; not if you think of glory as a shiny, impressive thing at any rate, not if you think it is about looking good in the eyes of others. Suffering is painful; being reviled is humiliating. Calling it glorious seems to insult those who suffer.
It’s not just about getting a reward in heaven after you die either. The author says “you are blessed” not “you will be blessed”. Right here, right now, in the midst of the suffering and the shame, the spirit of glory IS resting on you he says.
In the Gospel reading we heard today, Jesus talks about being glorified, too. But he is speaking on the night before he dies. He knows what is coming, and it doesn’t sound like glory to me. He’s not going to be sitting on a golden throne in the morning; he’s going to be nailed to a cross. Those who follow him won’t have it easy either – most of his first disciples died painful deaths. How can any of this be glory?
It doesn’t seem to make sense.
But the authors of these passages aren’t thinking of glory as the Greeks and Romans thought of it, as an outward appearance of success. Their image of God has been formed by the Hebrew Scriptures, and what they have in their minds here is that untranslatable Hebrew concept of kabod, that weighty, real, substance of God, God’s presence in our lives. When we suffer and are reviled for the sake of truth, justice and love, the letter of Peter says, God is with us, working in us – we are sharing in his kabod. Jesus’ death on the cross is the clearest demonstration we could have of God’s presence with us – his kabod - in our own suffering and death. Those awful, grim times in our lives are not just a senseless waste, these passages say, but times when we can find God at work in the depths of ourselves, and reveal God to others too as they see us living in that darkness with integrity and love.
I have the privilege often of seeing that kabod – the transforming presence of God - in the people who come to talk to me at times of trouble in their lives. They may be sad, angry, confused and ashamed, but there is often a sense as we talk that we are on holy ground, that this is a place where things can change in their lives. It doesn’t feel glorious in the conventional sense of the word – far from it - but God is there, and that means that these can be times of real blessing, however painful they are.
Finding kabod isn’t automatic, though. It depends on our willingness to deal with the reality of our lives, their substance, not their image, and that is often very hard for us to do.
Human beings are very image-conscious. That’s been obvious over the last couple of weeks. The media have been full of talk of super-injunctions, attempts to block reports of misdemeanours committed by public figures. I’m not sure I need or want to know everyone else’s private business, but I do think there’s something wrong when people spend more effort on concealing what they have done than addressing why they did it, or what they need to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The best way to prevent the tabloids writing about your extra-marital affairs is not to have extra-marital affairs in the first place. It’s not our image we should pay attention to, but our substance.
Then there was Sepp Blatter, whose main concern this week seems to have been that FIFA’s image might be damaged by the accusations of bribery flying around. Again, it seems to me, it isn’t the image that is the real problem, it’s the substance. If people are bribing others, there is something rotten at the heart of his organisation. A bit of clever P.R. isn’t the answer.
Whether it is problems with organisations or individuals, though, it often seems easier to tinker with the exterior appearance than tackle what is going on within. Perhaps that is because we don’t really believe that anything can be done. Perhaps we think that the healing and forgiveness we really need is impossible to find, that if the truth about our lives was known no one would love us – not even God.

So we slap on another coat of whitewash, sprinkle a bit of glitter about and hope no one looks at us too closely. That is a tragedy, because by doing that we cut ourselves off from the help and the hope we really need, the life changing kabod of God. It is a tragedy too, because it doesn’t need to be that way.

The strange story of the Ascension, reminds us that in Jesus our humanity, along with his, is taken up into the heart of God. With all our frailty and our failings we are welcome on God’s “holy ground”. We are called to dwell in God and let him dwell in us, so that the substance of our lives can be transformed to be like his - loving, honest, good and true. “Humble yourselves,” says the letter of Peter, “under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you…and the God of all grace who has called you to his eternal glory – to his kabod - in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.”

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Sharing the news: Sermon by Kevin Bright

John 14.15-21, Acts 17.22-31, 1 Peter 3.13-end

How do we share the good news of the gospel? How do we explain our understanding of what God is to others when there is so much scope for disinterest and misunderstanding?

I read recently about two young Roman Catholic priests on a roadside and as a car approaches one runs out in the road waving at the driver to stop whilst the other holds up his placard proclaiming ‘the end is near’. The startled driver swerves to avoid them shouting out ‘leave me alone you religious nutters’. The next thing they hear is a screeching of brakes and an almighty splash. One priest turns to the other and says ‘maybe we should change that sign to read BRIDGE DAMAGED! Perhaps it’s important that people hear our message in the right context.

If you walk up to a stranger and tell them that God loves them the chances are that most people will back off suspicious of what your motivation is.

I guess it shouldn’t be rocket science to discover that there’s a far greater probability that they will listen if you take some trouble to learn about them, know them already or if they have initiated the conversation.
Apply that logic to Paul in Athens and we would see that upon arrival he immediately began speaking in the synagogues. This was his normal practice and was also his most fertile approach. Paul was an expert in the Jewish law and was comfortable with Jewish culture. He knew that Jews had a hope for a Messiah and that he could show in Jewish scripture that Jesus was that Messiah. It is not surprising that Paul went to the synagogues. That was his comfort zone.

Bearing in mind that he has left behind Silas and Timothy after angry crowds made life difficult for him in Berea it is surprising that he seems prepared to go to places around Athens where he is less certain of the reaction he will receive.

In the market place he gets into religious debate with the Athenians drawing crowds interested to hear about what they perceive to be the latest god. Clearly he engages the people enough that they invite him formally to come and present his ideas to the Areopagus, the governing authority, ruled by the learned and respected of the City and this is where today’s reading from Acts began. He has done his preparation, walked around the City, looked at the idols, talked to the locals and heard of their hopes and concerns.

Good communicators will often start their talk with a positive affirmation of something their audience welcome hearing; it tunes their ears leaving them eager to hear more.

In President Obama’s speech to both Houses of Parliament this week he began by putting the relationship of the U.S. and Great Britain in historical context and praising the British idea for the creation of NATO.
Paul starts by complimenting the Athenians stating ‘I see how extremely religious you are in every way’ and in my mind I can see the audience nodding smugly as they hear these words.

Having got their attention Paul moves on quickly to a subtle blend of flattery and criticism. Maybe my ears were a little more receptive this week as I had these readings in mind but it seemed to me that in an even more subtle way Barack Obama may have been following a similar pattern.

He stated that ‘being American or British is not about belonging to a certain group; it's about believing in a certain set of ideals…that is why we hold incredible diversity within our borders…it's possible for hearts to change, and old hatreds to pass; it's possible for the sons and daughters of former colonies to sit here as members of this great Parliament, and for the grandson of a Kenyan who served as a cook in the British Army to stand before you as President of the United States.

Of course there is no actual mention of British suppression, land grabbing or racial inequality in colonial times nor does he specifically challenge this generation of Brits (us) to make real our stated ideals of fairness, democracy and opportunity. But to anyone really listening there was plenty here to reflect upon, particularly from a Christian perspective.

Paul also challenges the Athenians by first agreeing with them that we all share a common humanity derived from God but then his talk of the resurrection causes some to scoff, they aren’t ready for this message they like novelty, variety, chosing which god to worship and keeping all options open by offering sacrifices at many different altars.

It sounds confusing and exhausting to me. Can you imagine Friday prayers in the Mosque, Saturday at the Synagogue and Sunday mornings in church? Perhaps the other 4 days could be filled with Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism and some Japanese Shinto. Like some Athenians the danger is that you end up confused and flitting between whatever is your flavour of the month, never going deep enough to discover if something is real. Paul challenges them to swap their multi faceted approach to religion for faith in one man and for some it seems this is just too much to ask.

What is most obviously lacking in the Athenians idolatrous worship is, of course, a relationship based on love and trust. In John’s gospel we heard Jesus explain to the disciples how when he can no longer be with them his spirit, also described as an advocate will be there to plead our case to God. Imagine that, our own pesonal advocate, who knows and cares for each one of us without any hourly rate to worry about!

In Pauls’s letter to the Romans he reaffirms this stating ‘ that the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words’ and ‘ the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God, explanations it seems the Areopagus didn’t have the patience to hear.

In Peter’s first letter we heard that gentleness and reverence are the way in which we should show our faith to others. At the time the letter was written Christian persecution and suffering would have been commonplace (as it still is for some today) and the message is therefore not to respond to this with violence and sustain a vicious circle.

Whilst I have noticed a lot of horses coming and going in the paddock behind the vicarage I’m not aware that anyone in Seal is imminently seeking volunteers for a crusade but in a world where faiths and cultures have to live in ever closer proximity an assertion of our faith has to respect who others are and be prepared to listen to their views. If we don’t do this we risk the gospel message just being heard as cold words which stand in isolation.

It is also true that, if we live out the gospel as best we can in whatever setting we find ourselves be it home, school, work, family or sports club it takes on warmth, practical meaning and cultural relevance.
It was only when I got to the end of preparing my notes for this sermon that it occurred to me that I could recall 3 recent occasions where non church going people have initiated a conversation with me about Jesus that I can only assume is triggered because of actions rather than words. It’s not something that can easily be explained as individuals are very different but a common theme was that each time I had entered their environment without any religious agenda.

You’ve probably got your own examples of occasions where small things done because you believe in one true God show others that our lives have meaning, that to us he is not an unknown god like the inscription on the Athenian altar but a God which cares, motivates and abides with us in good and bad times through his Spirit.