Friday, 23 March 2012

Mothering Sunday Breathing Space

I often struggle with the set readings for Mothering Sunday when it comes to planning our morning service. Frankly the official choices – printed on the pew leaflet - are rather grim. Moses being left to take his chances in the bulrushes. Hannah, desperate and childless, and yet when she does bear the child she has longed for, she gives him up to be raised in the Temple. In the Gospel there is either Simeon warning Mary that her child will one day cause her pain, or the reading we’ve just heard, Mary watching that prophecy come true as Jesus dies on the cross.  It is all a very long way from the images on the Mothering Sunday cards. These stories are powerful reminders of the cost and pain of parenthood – sometimes too painful for All Age worship. 

There’s another way in which the set readings are often hard to reconcile with the popular view of Mothering Sunday, though, because they challenge the idea of what it means to have a family, what Godly families might look like – families where God can be found and known. These stories don’t give us Ladybird book “Peter and Jane” pictures of mum and dad and two kids gathered happily around the tea table. They are stories of groups of people – related or not - managing somehow, to create family arrangements that work for them. These often seem somewhat ramshackle – fostering your child out to an elderly priest in the Temple, or, worse still, into the hands of a genocidal Pharaoh would be hardly likely to be recommended practice now, and yet Eli loves Samuel, and Moses finds a safe enough place to grow up – and perhaps skills which God later needs him to have as a leader – because he grows up in Pharaoh’s court. . And in the Gospel we see Jesus entrusting his mother to the keeping of John -  not some male relative, which would have been the respectable thing to do – and entrusting him to her too, creating a new family for them now that he is dying.

The early Christians would have found this image particularly helpful. Many of them had had to leave family ties behind, or perhaps been pushed out of their families. Often too they knew that following Jesus would expose their families to danger, and had to make the appalling choice between keeping their families safe, or being true to their commitment to Christ. Those who campaign for justice and truth face the same dilemma today – think of Nelson Mandela, or Aung San Suu Kyi , whose families have paid almost as high a price as they did because of the choices they made.

That’s why this new community, this new family that Jesus called them into was so important to them, despite the fact that it seemed so unorthodox to others. When they met together  slave and free, men and women, Jew and Greek, rich and poor were drawn into one family, and it was every bit as close and committed as any of the families they can come from and utterly essential to them.

Christianity is often seen as a bulwark of traditional family values, but actually, a lot of what we find in the Bible is very far from the stereotype of mum and dad and 2.4 children. There is a huge variety of familial expression within the Bible – polygamous marriage was perfectly normal and accepted, for example, up to and well beyond the time of Jesus. It was the Romans and Greeks – pagans - who gave us monogamy, and it is only because the Church developed first in their milieu that we think of it today as the norm.

The Biblical writers are, above all, realists. They recognise that what matters is that people love and care for each other. What pattern that love and care come in is of very little moment, so long as it works.

This is all very relevant at the moment, of course, because of the debate around gay marriage. You’ll all have your own opinions on this, of course – personally I am all for encouraging love and commitment whatever form it takes. But whatever we feel about this specific issue, the Biblical picture is that families come in many forms, and the ones that work may not look the way we expect them to. What matters is that each one of us can find a place to belong, people to belong with, where we can be clothed with love, and where the peace of Christ can rule in our hearts. Amen

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Lent 3: What kind of Temple? A sermon by Kevin Bright

One of many frustrations in business, particularly with larger organisations is getting decisions made in good time. Often there are so many layers of bureaucracy to work through that you end up wondering exactly who is responsible for giving the appropriate authorisation. I know I get more like Victor Meldrew every day but the other thing that really winds me up is faceless corporations where you are a number in the system and they ask you to hold as they transfer you to their call centre!
Contrast this with the experience of the Israelites at Mount Sinai. They get their instructions direct from the CEO. Not Moses interpretation, no messengers, no prophets, and no preachers putting their own bias on his instructions here we find God speaking directly to his people. If they want a meaningful relationship with God, one which reflects his glory, then the Ten Commandments set out the essential ingredients for this.
Everyone will find something to challenge them here, and the most difficult challenges may change over generations. We might need to update our ideas about coveting what belongs to our neighbour I thought to myself yesterday as he took his convertible Porsche out of the garage for a spin in the Spring sunshine.
Possibly one of the biggest challenges of our generation, partly because of working practices which assume you are always available and partly due to economic pressures to minimise down time is finding ‘Sabbath time’. The priest and author David Adam says ‘that this must be the first generation which has sought to destroy the sanctification of time.’ It’s an elegant description of something which we will be much the poorer for if we lose, which risks breaking the natural rhythms of life which need to include stillness and rest as well as time set aside for God.
You’ll probably be aware that several people from our church will be confirmed on Palm Sunday this year, 3 weeks away, on 1st April, April Fools Day. Paul’s letter talks about perceptions of foolishness and he was a living example of what it meant to be a fool for Christ. Saul of Tarsus was originally a strict Jew and Roman citizen, he persecuted the early church but eventually he gave all this up, taking the new name of Paul as he set about building up Christian communities. As a result the Jews turned against him and he suffered imprisonment at the hands of the Roman authorities. To any person who didn’t know about the compelling love of God through Christ he would have certainly appeared a fool but he knew he was doing the right thing and was happy to be called a fool for Christ’s sake.
If the Jewish authorities thought Paul a fool what label would they give to Jesus himself after his actions in the temple? If we saw this happening in a public place today we would be shocked but this wouldn’t come near to how the Jews felt as the man from Galilee who was challenging people to turn their values upside down was now doing the same thing with their tables, as well as tipping out coins and driving animals away.
It’s worth considering what the temple was and what it symbolised for the Jewish people in order to appreciate how truly shocking Jesus behaviour was. In several places it has been described as the beating heart of Judaism, their centre around which all else is organised. It was the place where the people could meet with their god, make sacrifices and receive forgiveness. It was the centre of Israel’s national and political life and the power of the Chief Priests extended far beyond its walls.
Isaiah had said the temple should be ‘a beacon of hope and light for the nations, the city set on a hill which could not be hidden’ but it had become a place of systematic injustice and corrupt economic gain.
Things had come to a head at the festival of Passover. Large numbers of people would travel long distances to attend and offer their sacrifices. Sometimes despite transporting an animal over a long distance the temple authorities would rule that it was of unsuitable quality to offer as a sacrifice and it would therefore be necessary to buy one from them as a replacement. This would test your patience in itself but as you reluctantly reach for your coin bag they advise you that it is not possible to use Roman coins with the emperor’s head on it that would be idolatry, but you are permitted to change your coins for special temple currency. Your early ‘Bureau de Change’ had arrived only it wasn’t being operated as an open commercial enterprise it was charging a margin to worshippers under the pretence of being part of their religion.  The crowds for the festival were being ripped off in the same way the some people propose charging 10 times the normal price for renting their flat out during this summer’s Olympics.
Jesus fully understood all this and more so his actions were not those of some madman. As Jesus had preached and acted out his ministry he felt called to be what the temple should have been for the people, particularly those disadvantaged and oppressed. He was offering them a new way which didn’t involve the temple building which had been carefully constructed over forty six years. He offered a new dwelling place for the glory of God and all could have access to God through him. Of course all this meant that he was set on a collision course with the authorities.
We can see the purpose in Jesus actions but can we still find ourselves in the story today? Can we feel that we’ve sometimes exploited the needs and lack of alternatives facing others? Or perhaps we feel that we are on the receiving end and wish that someone would stand up for our concerns.
I don’t think Jesus would be too interested if we told him that we feel we pay too much tax or that the neighbour’s cat keeps messing up our garden but I feel certain that he is still enraged when he sees the likes of Assad in Syria or Gaddafi before him in Libya living with every imaginable luxury whilst their own people suffer and are brutally oppressed when they speak out.
A lot of us will own up to getting grumpy and moaning about things we see and read about but how often is that translated into justifiable anger which motivates us to do something radical in an effort to make it better? I’m not suggesting that you storm into the offending organisation and start smashing the place up but I’m sure you will admit that it’s so much easier to shout at the TV than it is to take positive action.
Whilst I’m not entirely clear of the aims of the ‘Occupy’ movement in both London and New York, if their objectives included a debate about corruption and greed then they have achieved something. Their anger and frustration manifested itself in mostly peaceful action and their location between St Paul’s Cathedral and the London Stock Exchange highlighted tensions which resonate with the temple.
The encouraging thing is that many among us do ‘get’ the many reasons why Jesus was furious and we have some great examples of reactions to suffering and injustice here in our own church community. Where children are seen suffering and facing danger some collect for the Children’s Society, where we see injustice and suffering in the poorest parts of the world some collect for Christian Aid, where we care about local democracy and accountability some serve on committee’s and Councils, where ex-servicemen seem abandoned many help though the British Legion and Help for Heroes.
When we stop to think about it many of us are actually doing something to act against the things which seem wrong and unfair and in doing so we join our actions with the righteous anger of Christ.
God leaves us to decide what sort of temple we choose to be in. There’s the type that fits our convenience and self interest or there’s the one that he inhabits. If we feel we’ve slipped into the former, Lent offers an excellent opportunity to move back to the temple in which God dwells.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Lent 2: Stuck in the middle

There are some parts of the Bible which can feel like a bad joke, moments when we wonder what on earth God is doing. Today’s readings are a perfect example.

Here is Abraham, who has been called by God to leave his settled existence in the city of Haran in Mesopotamia, to go out into the wilderness of Canaan and found a new nation with his wife Sarah. But they are childless, and Abraham is already 70 when the call comes. Sarah too is well past the age of childbearing. How can they be the parents of a multitude when they aren’t even the parents of one? Nonetheless, seduced by this promise, they go. But decades pass, and still the child doesn't appear. God keeps promising – today’s reading comes nearly thirty years after that first promise – but nothing seems to be happening.

What is God up to?

The truth is that Abraham and Sarah are about as unlikely a pair of candidates for the founding of a nation as it is possible to imagine. There must have been plenty of young, fit, and fertile couples in Haran who could have done the job far better. Why did God have to choose them, and put them and those around them through so much misery in the process? What is the point?

And then there is Jesus in our Gospel reading. There's nothing obvious about God's choice of him as Messiah either. Born to an ordinary family in an out of the way part of the nation, with no connections and no influence; who is going to listen to him? Why not choose someone with some clout to start with? If this is God's master plan, then it doesn't look very masterful.  Still, by hard work, courage and dedication Jesus has managed to build up a considerable following by the time our Gospel reading is set. He has healed people all over Galilee, been acclaimed as a teacher, wowed the crowds with his stories, touched the lives of many individuals. St Peter has just had a moment of revelation. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” he has exclaimed. Jesus’ mission finally seems poised for take-off.

But suddenly he starts talking about being rejected and being killed. What's gone wrong? Surely this can't be God's plan. What would be the point of all that earlier hard work if it ends on a cross? It makes no sense to Peter and he lets Jesus know what he feels in no uncertain terms. There was a widespread conviction at the time that God's Messiah would be a triumphant leader. Indeed that was one of the ways you could tell that he was the genuine article, the real Messiah, that he would be successful in his mission, that his enemies – the enemies of God – would all fall before him. Suffering and death were signs of failure. A crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms.

With hindsight we know, of course, that Abraham and Sarah do indeed have a child in the end, and Jesus’ death on the cross is followed by the resurrection. But that is no comfort to Abraham and Sarah, or to the confused disciples at this point. As far as they can see, disaster is looming, and all their efforts have been for nothing. How stupid must Abraham and Sarah feel, repeatedly insisting that God has promised them a child at their age, when that child shows no sign of coming? And the disciples are surely starting to think they have been taken for fools by this man in whom they placed so much trust but who seems now to be hell-bent on a confrontation that is bound to lead to his death. No wonder they all run away when he is arrested.

What the Bible describes in these stories is an experience I suspect we have all had at some time, that moment , stuck in the middle of something, when we think, “What’s the point?” Perhaps we have been slogging away at some job which seems to be going nowhere, or fighting some battle which we are beginning to realise we will never win. We question why we ever started, how we were so stupid to ever think it was going to work. Cynicism and despair eat away at our energy, and it is tempting just to throw in the towel.

The Roman Christians St Paul writes to probably asked that question often.  There they are, living at the very heart of the Roman Empire, dealing daily with an oppressive regime the likes of which we can scarcely imagine, seeing their friends and family arrested and dragged off to die squalid, degrading and terrifying deaths in the arena. It must have often seemed to them that this new Jesus movement hadn’t got a hope in hell of surviving. There are so few of them, and the forces ranged against them are so great. And did it really matter anyway? Was this message really worth dying for, or was it all a waste?

Paul points them to these stories of Abraham, Sarah and Jesus to help them through these hopeless moments. Don’t read into what is happening to you a message that you have failed, or that God has, he says. God is still with you, just as he was with Abraham, Sarah and Jesus at their lowest moments. In fact, God’s choice of these unlikely heroes and the experiences they go through only serves to underline the fact that this is God’s work, not theirs. Through Abraham and Sarah he is showing that this nation is his gift, not something that they have earned or won for themselves. In Jesus’ willingness to face a humiliating death rather than go back on his message, he is demonstrating his absolute solidarity with those who most need him, those who are condemned and cast out.

Today's Psalm put it in a nutshell. “He does not despise … the poor in their poverty  It's not just that he wants to help those who might, with a bit of a hand up be able to sort themselves out  and give something back to repay the investment. There is nothing calculating in his commitment. He does not despise the poor in their poverty, it says. Even if they are never going to amount to anything in the world’s eyes they are still precious to him. Again and again in the Bible we see God coming to people who are helpless; slaves and exiles, childless women, refugees, the discarded and discredited of the world, those who just don't count and don't matter to others. God is still committed to us even when we have nothing to offer, even if we will never have anything to offer. It’s not just the deserving poor he loves, but the undeserving poor too. He loves them, not because they can return his love, but precisely because they can’t, and so they need him all the more.

And it’s not just about poverty of material things either. It’s about poverty of spirit, poverty of aspiration, poverty of ability, poverty of hope, poverty of imagination – all the things that keep people down, the things that they may never be able to do anything about. None of these things is a barrier to God’s love.

Of course it is good if we come through, if we grow, if we succeed, if we find peace and the assurance that it has been worth the struggle. It is good to get to the moment of resurrection. It is good to discover that Sarah did, eventually, give birth. But those are Easter moments, and for now we are still in the midst of Lent, not sure what will happen in our own unfinished stories, not knowing if it will all come out right one day, still living with the questions and the doubts.

Yesterday quite a few of us went to visit Canterbury Cathedral. We heard about Thomas Becket, the medieval Archbishop who was famously murdered there by a bunch of knights who thought they were doing their king a favour. “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” he had exclaimed in exasperation, probably never intending that anyone would take him literally. But those knights had done just that, and soon Thomas lay struck down in the Cathedral and dying. What a singularly pointless way to go – all for what was probably a misunderstanding. After Thomas’ death the king repented, very publicly, in sackcloth and ashes, and the Cathedral itself became a centre of pilgrimage. Many people found strength or healing by visiting the site of his death. Much good came from his death, but Thomas didn’t know that as he fell and lay there dying. All he knew was that his life was being snuffed out on the cold stone, snatched from him for nothing, when he was unprepared.
In modern times too, many have died as political prisoners at the hands of unjust regimes – did they have any idea that their deaths were anything but a useless waste? Did they think that one day the cause for which they fought would triumph? They couldn’t know. They were stuck in the middle of the story, and I am sure that many have sat in prison cells wondering if their sacrifice had any point to it at all.

The good news for them, and for us too when we feel like that – stuck in the middle of a story we can’t know the end of – is that whether our lives end in outward success or failure, acclaim or ignominy, whether we achieve our goals or feel that we have never really amounted to anything in the world's eyes, we are just as precious to God, who "does not despise the poor in their poverty". Today, in mid-Lent, let’s not hurry on to the happy ending of Easter. Let’s take the time to realise that just where we are – even in poverty, of spirit, of money, of hope – God is with us and God loves us, and then perhaps we can let Easter come in its own proper time.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Lent 1: Seeing God afresh. A sermon by Kevin Bright

I was listening to BBC London on Shrove Tuesday as I was driving home from work this week on and the discussion was about whether people still observe Lent.
Pancake Day still seems popular together with many pancake races all over the country but does it signify a final indulgence before a period of self denial and reflection or is it just a good reason for a bit of fun?
The Church of England commissioned some research sampling over 2000 British adults and discovered that over one fifth intended to observe Lent in some way though around one third of them hadn’t decided what they would give up or take up when the survey was conducted around 10 days prior to Ash Wednesday.
Women were more likely to observe Lent than men (27% versus 20%), with age-based observance peaking, perhaps surprisingly, among the 18-24s (30%). Does this suggest that Lent is making a comeback?
Of the 68% planning to observe Lent in 2012 who had also got as far as deciding what they would do the most popular choices were as follows
 ■Try to do more positive/kindly acts (21%)
 ■Give up chocolate or other treats (17%)
 ■Stop shopping for non-essential items (17%)
 ■Give money to charity (10%)
 ■Take up doing something spiritual like praying or reading the Bible (9%)
 ■Stop swearing (9%)
 ■Give up alcohol (8%)
 ■Cut back on social media/gaming (7%)
 ■Volunteer for a charity (7%)
 ■Stop smoking (6%)
 ■Something else (4%)                                  
The radio programme read out all sorts of calls, emails, texts and tweets saying what people were planning on giving up or doing, one even stating that he was giving up religion for Lent!
The clear message is that many people want to use this point in the Christian calendar as a catalyst for something positive. Giving up booze or treats can only be a good thing but having regained our self discipline we often find that we can go further and deeper and ask ourselves really challenging questions like what am I here for, what really matters to me?
In Mark’s gospel we heard ‘as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart’. What could that mean? In physical terms I can only imagine the clouds and skies parting to reveal something otherwise unseen. The imagery might be a starting point but we need to go much further than that to realise that it’s about a whole new dimension in our relationship with God. It’s challenging to find the right words because it can be a personal thing but some may have glimpses in such moments as when they suddenly realise that God has a purpose in their life, for others it may come from a sense of knowing that they are truly loved by God in the same way that Jesus heard at the time of his baptism.
As we go through lent let’s heighten our awareness of those moments when heaven is torn apart for us, when we can see things afresh, often uncovered by breaking the routine that allows us to relax into our indulgences.
Mark’s gospel points the way. Its direct punchy style is like a shaft of sunlight highlighting a single object. Our attention is focussed on Jesus and what Lent can be about for those of us too absorbed in daily routines to see it for ourselves.

Jesus urges us to draw closer to God when he invites us to ‘repent and believe in the good news’. At the beginning of lent this might mean stop doing what you know is wrong or get off your backside and do those things you keep meaning to get around to and do it because you trust in me and believe that I am the good news.

When we travel back to the events in Genesis we find more reasons to trust God as we hear how he makes his covenant with creation after the flood, not just with Noah and his descendants, not even all future human beings but with every living creature. It’s a reminder to us to look beyond ourselves, beyond the human obsessions expressed through our media and rediscover the connection between humanity and all else God has made.
When I was quite a bit younger I went camping in Australia with some locals who had become friends. They told me that wherever possible if you get bitten by a spider try and catch it so you can get the correct anti-venom, particularly if it’s a funnel web spider mate. I awoke in the early hours of one morning to feel something quite big crawling across my face, not being sure if he had bitten me whilst I slept I thought I’d better catch him or her so I closed my hand around the creepy intruder and found my torch. As I gingerly opened my hand I was relieved to see that it was the largest cricket I’ve ever set eyes upon, with some relief I flung it out into the night and tried to get off to sleep. 
I was reminded of these events when I read the part where Mark tells us that Jesus ‘was with the wild beasts’. I suspect that there were hazards above and beyond poisonous spiders and the thought of living outdoors for 40 nights with wild animals prowling around is hardly one that would let most of us get a good nights sleep. There is a sense that Jesus is plunged into a time where the safety nets of dwellings and people to protect him have been removed. With all else stripped away he is back to the state where he must rely upon God, trust him and accept his will.
We know that it goes against our natural instincts to move away from what we know, what we feel safe with even when called to do so but Jesus shows us that at certain times it is the right thing to do.
Whilst Mark’s gospel doesn’t talk of fasting nor of specific temptations as Matthew and Luke do we hear a confident sounding Jesus arrive in Galilee to begin his ministry after his time in the desert. It is clear that time spent in the wilderness offers us potential to grow closer to God if we are prepared to let go of some of our routines and make time where we can be open to his message.
For most of us entering the wilderness will not mean camping out in the cold but we will need to find space where pretence fades away and honest vulnerability becomes possible. Public image will become unimportant and we will find freedom to confess the sometimes complicated and messy reality that is our lives. Maybe the temptations we have to overcome should focus more towards our fundamental attitudes, for example our inclination to turn a blind eye to the needs of some, or our willingness to exploit each other.
Of course some of our wildernesses are not of our own choosing. Wildernesses are thrust upon us or it may seem we are thrust into them. Challenges in life can often make us see how vulnerable we are, and whilst it’s not always obvious at the time, we will come to a point where it is clear that we worship a God who keeps his promises.
We know from experience that our faith does not spare us suffering and distress but we also know that our path has been trodden by Jesus before and that he is still there to share it with us today.
My prayer is that Lent will be a journey where the heavens may be parted for each one of us, that we may see God afresh and arrive at Easter knowing that like Jesus, we are God’s beloved children and with us he is well pleased.