Sunday, 27 May 2012

Pentecost 2012: Coming home to God

I don’t know what your garden’s like at the moment, if you have one, but if it is anything like mine, over this last week or so it will have just exploded with life. All that rain, followed by long-awaited warmth has meant that everything is growing, fast, and in every direction at once. It always seems to catch me out when it does this, though it happens every year. One minute you are impatiently waiting for plants to creep into growth, and the next minute you are engulfed in greenery. Quite a lot of it is weeds, of course - let’s face it, they didn’t get to be where they are by hanging back politely – but that’s how it is, “life in all its fullness” to quote the words of Jesus, whether you want it or not.

Today we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the moment when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus’ disciples propelling them out into the world with the message of his love. In a way, the images Luke uses to describe this event remind me of that exuberant explosion in the garden. He talks of wind and flames, things that are by their nature uncontrollable, violent, disturbing and overwhelming, with a life of their own. Before they know what is happening, the disciples find themselves out on the streets proclaiming the good news in languages which they don’t understand. Their words are recognised instantly  by the polyglot crowd in Jerusalem, though, the Parthians, Medes, Elamites and all the rest. They have come all the way from their homes to this place which seems so distant and foreign to them and yet to their surprise here is a God who speaks their own language. In their heart of hearts they had probably thought of God as an Israelite – but no, he is one of them too. They had come as strangers, seekers after truth or just sightseers, but suddenly an experience they thought they were looking at from the outside becomes their experience.  God comes home to them and the effect is explosive, changing their lives completely.

These ancient events described in the Bible can seem so strange to us as to make no sense at all. What has all this to do with us? But my experience is that far more people than we might imagine at some time feel the presence of God with them in a way which overwhelms and changes them. They might not see flames or hear a rushing wind. They might not speak in strange languages or understand them, but many people – perhaps most people – at some point in their lives will have had a moment when they have felt touched by something beyond their understanding, moved in ways that they can’t account for. A chance encounter, a poem that strikes home, a piece of music, a loving gesture they weren’t expecting gives them a glimpse of some deeper reality beneath the surface of their lives, and perhaps gives them the strength and courage to do something which they thought was quite impossible.

I watched a television programme this week called  Hitler’s Children 1. It was about  the children and grandchildren of some of the most notorious Nazi war criminals, people whose whole lives had been blighted, through no fault of their own, by the surnames they bore. One of them, Rainer Hoess, was the grandson of the commandant of Auschwitz. His father, just a child at the time, had grown up in a villa on the other side of the wall from the camp, but the family photos were full of happy images of the children playing in the garden there, no hint of the horrors taking place over the wall. Rainer decided that he needed to visit the camp, though he was clearly very anxious about it. What would happen if people recognised a family likeness? How would he be received? As it turned out, he was there at the same time as a group from an Israeli high school, and bravely he agreed to talk to the young people. As he struggled to express his sorrow, and the guilt he felt at what his grandfather had done, an elderly man called out from the crowd. He was a survivor of the camp – one of few left now. Could he come out, he asked – why? -  because he wanted to shake Rainer’s hand?  As the two of them embraced, the survivor explained that he’d spent his life visiting schools in his town in Germany, talking to the young people there about what had happened to him. He wanted to say to Rainer the same thing as he said to them. “You weren’t there. You didn’t do it…” It was a profound and moving moment to watch, but for Rainer, as he dissolved into tears, it was absolutely transformative. It lifted a lifetime of guilt, guilt which had never been rightly his of course, and afterwards he said that he had felt for the first time a profound sense of inner joy.  It was utterly unplanned, unsought and unexpected, a moment of complete grace when love broke through the barriers that awful history had built, and it spilled out to those who witnessed it as well as into the lives of these two men.  Love and forgiveness are possible, it said, even in these circumstances. We can be infinitely more and better than we think.

It might not seem that such a story has anything to do with Pentecost – there was no rushing wind, no speaking in tongues, no mention of God at all – but it seems to me that it captured the essence of what this feast is all about, the moment when we find ourselves opened up to power beyond our power, when a peace that passes our understanding comes to rest in our lives. And like many of those moments when we feel ourselves to have been touched by the Spirit of God, it was also something which couldn’t be predicted, controlled or contained.

What those visitors to Jerusalem found on the Day of Pentecost was that God wasn’t the property of the Jewish people, to be doled out in carefully measured doses to those who met their criteria of righteousness. They didn’t have to become something other than they were in order to know God and be accepted by him. They thought they had come as strangers to visit God in his Jewish Temple, but actually he had been with them all along, at home in their native land, speaking their native language, just as much present in their lives and customs as in those of the Jewish people. That lesson was crucially important for the early Church which was a mixture of Jew and Gentile, but it is just as important for us today.

God is no respecter of human boundaries, says this story of Pentecost. He is a free-range God. You can’t cage him, and if you think you’ve managed to then what you have in your tidy box is not God at all. You can’t tell him what to do or where to go or who to associate with. The Spirit of God is like the wind, says Jesus, which “blows where it chooses. You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (John 3.8) One of the delights of ministry is that I find I come across God at work in all sorts of unexpected contexts, in people who have never set foot in a church, in people who have no intention of setting foot in a church, in people of other faiths and of none. Children who haven’t got the language to describe what they have experienced tell me things of great depth as we sit in the school quiet garden. People on buses and trains talk about their deepest longings and their deepest joys. Sometimes people ask for baptism quite out of the blue; something has made them realise that there is more to life than meets the eye and they need to affirm that. They may have little or no idea what the Church thinks baptism is all about – they just know they need to do it, to acknowledge the divine possibilities in their lives. People are promted by the Spirit, moved by the Spirit, called by the Spirit constantly.

The medieval Sufi poet Rumi – a Persian Muslim - wrote of this moment when we are drawn by a call like that, an experience beyond our understanding. Among other images, he likens it to a hunting bird summoned back to his master by a distant signal.
He said:

Sometimes you hear a voice
through the door calling you, as fish out of
water hear the waves or a hunting falcon
hears the drum’s “come back”.
This turning toward what you deeply love
saves you.       2

Rumi may have been from a different faith and culture, but the Spirit, which blows where it wills, had clearly blown through his life too. Jesus says in our Gospel reading that the Spirit of Truth calls us into truth. St Paul says that all creation groans for the touch of God’s love (Romans 8.22). We may call this experience by many different names, understand it in many different ways, but the sense of longing is the same, and we know it when we find it. “Turning toward what you deeply love saves you.”

In our hymns and prayers for Pentecost we often ask God’s Spirit to come to us. “Breathe on me, breath of God.” “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us” we ask, but good though it is to issue the invitation, the hallmark of the Spirit is that we can’t make him come to us by order, and we don’t need to. He is here already, calling to us in our deepest loves and longings. It may be a call to forgiveness, to healing, to reconciliation, as it was for Rainer Hoess. It may be a call to embark on a journey or make a commitment. It may be a call simply to learn to rest in God. It may come through familiar channels – the words of the Bible, a hymn or a prayer. But it may also come from way outside the Church and in some form that takes us utterly by surprise. When we find it, though, however strange a form it takes, it will also feel like coming home, like the falcon responding to the drum’s signal or the fish slipping into the water again, coming home to the God who dwells at the heart of all things.

1. Hitler’s Children BBC Two
2. [Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks, (from “Saved by a Poem” by Kim Rosen)]

Monday, 21 May 2012

Easter 7: Who'd be an apostle?

Breathing Space Sermon: Easter 7

I have often wondered about Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, who we meet for the first and last time in tonight’s reading from Acts. They were both, presumably, part of the crowd of disciples who had followed Jesus during his ministry, but not part of the inner circle – the twelve. When Judas’ suicide takes the number down to eleven, it is felt that someone has to take his place, to make up the numbers. Twelve was a very important number to Jewish people. There had originally been twelve tribes of Israel so twelve meant “all” to them, the whole people of God. Jesus came to announce a new kingdom, a new people of God which was open to all and in which everyone had a home. Of course, the new people of God had to have twelve leaders, just like the old one had. So here they are, trying to find someone to fill the gap. Their method might seem strange to us, whittling it down to a shortlist of two and then casting lots, but it didn’t to them. The assumption was that God, who controlled everything could control the way the lots fell so that he would have the final word.

In this case, Matthias was chosen, Joseph was rejected. But I wonder how these two men felt when the result was announced. Was Joseph gutted – had he always wanted to be an apostle? Or was he secretly relieved? Did Matthias rejoice, or did his heart sink at the responsibility that was being thrust upon him? There’s no mention of them being asked whether they wanted the job. It makes me wonder how I would have felt – probably completely overawed, and absolutely unready for this, full of doubts about whether I would be up to the task. Apart from the daunting realisation that this precious message was entrusted to my hands, I am sure I would have wondered whether I might find myself sharing the same fate as Jesus had – not an appealing thought.

I expect that many of us would rather be Joseph than Matthias, left in comfortable obscurity rather than being thrust into the frontline. But let’s not be too quick to heave our sighs of relief, because the truth is that we are all chosen, all called to bear witness to God’s love anyway. The word “apostle” literally means “sent out”. We are all apostles, because we are sent out “to love and serve the Lord”, as the communion service puts it, in whatever situations we find ourselves. We might not be asked to be great leaders, or stand on street corners sharing our faith or go to the ends of the earth and live among the destitute, but we are all placed daily in situations where we find ourselves challenged. That might be at work or at home, as parents, children, neighbours or friends.  Are we able, when push comes to shove to do the loving and good thing, despite the fact that the selfish thing might be infinitely easier? The small choices we make in those situations often have a far deeper and wider impact on those around us than some grand, heroic gesture would. We all notice and appreciate those around us who act with integrity and trustworthiness, those who show us genuine love and care, those who go the extra mile. We ask what inspires and strengthens them. There is nothing that speaks more powerfully of the love of God than the loving lives of those who claim to follow him.

So we are all called to be apostles. The lot has fallen on us. But if we feel daunted we would do well to remember the words of Jesus in the Gospel reading, because he seems to have a great deal more confidence in our ability to live lovingly than we probably do ourselves. This Gospel reading is part of his final words, his farewell message on the night before he died. He prays for his disciples, and for those who will follow him in the future too –us in other words. “The words that you gave to me,” he says, “I have given to them”. He doesn’t beg God to help us out of the hole we will surely get ourselves into. He doesn’t say, “Look frankly, Father, they haven’t got a hope in hell.” Instead his message is that whether we know it or not, whether we dare to believe it or not, we have what we need, the word of God, working deeply within us.

In the silence tonight I’d like to invite you to ponder those words. Do you feel that you have what you need to deal with the situations you face? What are the sources of strength you draw on when you feel challenged beyond your own capabilities? Perhaps in the silence you might like to repeat to yourselves that phrase that Jesus spoke so confidently “the words that you gave to me, I have given to them”, and ask God to show you where those words, that wisdom, is to be found in your life.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Ascension Day

A minister called Greg Crawford, who is part of a preaching discussion list on the internet which I am part of made a comment recently about Bible reading which I thought was so good that I pinched it. He said "In a way, I don’t think we can really hear a book of the Bible addressing us until we first realise it is not addressing us."

I think this is especially important when it comes to the story of the Ascension, because it is terribly difficult for us to swallow. It assumes that heaven is up there in the sky for a start, and we know it isn’t. But it was written for people who inhabited a completely different thought world, so while we are stymied from the outset, it wouldn’t have troubled them at all, and they would have cut straight to the meaning of this story.

So what we need to do tonight is try to forget the twenty-first century, and hear what the Bible has to say as if we were hearing it through their first century ears.

The first thing we need to know is that they didn’t have one story of those final days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, they had five – four in the Gospels and one in the Acts of the Apostles. Only two of those accounts mention the Ascension, and they were both written by the same person. Luke, who also wrote Acts, is the only one of the Gospel writers to tell us that Jesus was taken up into heaven. Matthew, Mark and John not only don’t tell this story, they don’t tell any story of how Jesus came to be gone, so to speak. Matthew and John have some resurrection appearances and final words– Mark doesn’t even have these – but they say nothing about what happened next. Jesus could have just wandered off into the crowd for all we know from their versions.

A bit like the birth stories, which are just as patchy and inconsistent, that tells us that the detail wasn’t really important to the early Christians. What did matter was the message that they drew from the stories they told of those final days.

And that message was that though Jesus obviously wasn’t physically present with them anymore, that didn’t mean they were abandoned. Jesus’ absence isn’t a mistake, but a part of the plan. Whatever shape these final stories take they are full of peace and a strange sort of confidence.  Of course this odd assortment of people – fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes – can go out and change the world. Why ever shouldn’t they be able to? That’s the message.They have what they need – or they soon will have when the Spirit comes. They don’t need to cling to the apron strings of Jesus. He is in them, with them where it matters. They don’t need all the answers, to have it all spelled out. They are safe in God’s hands, just as Jesus is safe.

Luke underlines it for the community he is writing for in the words of those angels – “why are you looking into heaven?” They ask. “There’s work to be done, and you are the ones who will do it.” He underlines it too with what to us is a singularly unhelpful image of Jesus being carried up into heaven, but which to his hearers would have been a reminder of the stories of  Elijah and Enoch, whose bodily ascent to heaven was taken as a sign that they had been blessed and honoured by God. Perhaps Luke’s community particularly needed that to strengthen them in the face of persecution – we don’t know - but it’s not the detail of the story that matters, so much as the  message it communicates.

So to go back to Greg’s point, that we can’t really hear the Bible addressing us until we realise that it isn’t addressing us, what is it of the voice of God that we can hear in this story? Actually it is precisely the same message that those first Christians heard. God is with us. We don’t need to stand rooted to the spot waiting like robots for instructions to be fed to us. We have what we need to face the challenges – personal, national, global – of our own age. I may have blown out our Paschal Candle this evening, but the light hasn’t gone out. Quite the opposite. It has gone in, into our hearts, into our lives, where we really need it.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Easter 5 (with baptism); Who belongs?

In my job I get to see the inside of a lot of people’s extended families, as well as my own of course. Families can be wonderful things, networks of love and care. But let’s be honest, they can also be pretty difficult. Most of the extended families I have come across have at least the occasional moment of tension, a few members who really don’t get along, the odd argument now and then…
But however deep the resentments, there is one rule that they all seem to share, and that is that while members of the family are allowed to criticise one another all they like, heaven help an outsider who tries to do so.  Everyone in the family might agree that Uncle Dennis is a pain in the neck, but pity the hapless visitor or next-door neighbour who tries to suggest that he might be anything less than a saint. “Who do they think they are to butt into our family business? It’s nothing to do with them?”

Recognise the scenario?

It’s exactly the same in workplaces, clubs and other organisations. You only know you really belong when you can complain about something without being lynched for overstepping your welcome, when you can make a suggestion without feeling that everyone is looking you as if to say “What would you know about it anyway?”

It was the same in the first century. The first followers of Jesus hadn’t intended to found a new religion – they just thought they were reforming the old Jewish religion that most of them had been born in. But very soon people started joining them who weren’t Jewish, people who had grown up in Greek and Roman cultures – Gentiles as they were known - with very different ways of living and attitudes. It was a real struggle for these two different groups to get along. The Jewish Christians thought the Gentile Christians should take on board the kind of rules they’d grown up with –give up eating pork and so on. But the Gentile Christians said that the whole point of Jesus’ message, as far as they could see, was that those sort of rules didn’t matter anymore.  To add to the trouble, the Jewish Christians found that their old Jewish friends weren’t so friendly any more – in fact they were making it pretty clear that they weren’t part of that family at all now. They were accused of betraying their heritage, turning their backs on their old faith.  Who belonged? Where did they belong? Who was in and who was out – and what were they in or out of? And who got to decide? These were questions which really bothered the early Christians, and they run all through the New Testament.

In today’s Gospel Jesus talks about the kingdom of God as a grapevine. It was standard practice to graft grape vines onto a different rootstock – it still is. It means you can combine the strength of one grape with the flavour of another. Jesus says that the old rootstock – the Jewish faith – is still there, still strong, with God’s life in it, but new branches are being grafted onto it so that new and old share God’s life. If you know anything about grafting, though, you’ll know it involves having to cut into both the old wood and the new before they can be bound together. If the vine could feel, it would tell us it was a painful process, and full of uncertainty. Will the graft take? Only time can tell. No wonder those first Christians were struggling, and our first reading showed us one example of them doing so.

In it, we hear of the Apostle Philip sent out in the wilderness by an angel to go to the help of a very confused court official from Ethiopia – possibly a Jewish man by birth, who just happened to live in Ethiopia, possibly an Ethiopian who was interested in the Jewish faith. Whatever his background he was returning from Jerusalem where he had been to worship in the Temple, or at least he had tried to. What the story doesn’t spell out – because it would have assumed it to be obvious – was that this man’s visit had almost certainly been a bit of a disaster.

Jewish law was very strict on the issue of who was allowed into the Temple. In Jewish thought, God was utterly holy, and that meant to them utterly perfect too. Therefore, the law said, everything and everyone that came anywhere near God also had to be perfect. When you offered a lamb for sacrifice, it had to be a perfect lamb, not blemished or injured, not the runt of the litter, but the best you had. And those who came to worship had to be healthy and whole as well. If you were ill, disabled or disfigured in some way you couldn’t come in. Disease and deformity were thought to be signs that you had done something wrong, so you weren’t fit to come close to God; if you did you risked bringing down his wrath not only on yourself, but on the whole community.

So, what’s the one thing we know about this man in the story, apart from the fact that he was a court official from Ethiopia? It’s that he is a eunuch. Sorry if it makes you wince, but the man’s been castrated – probably deliberately and not by his own choice - and according to Jewish law that ruled out completely any chance he had of getting into the Temple, ever. This poor man had trekked all the way from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship, across the desert, risking God-knows-what threats and dangers, but at the end of his journey he would have been turned away, through no fault of his own, and there was nothing he could do about it. How would he have felt? Humiliated, frustrated, baffled, rejected. He is a lonely man as he travels back to Ethiopia, and he is also confused.

When Philip meets him he is reading from the Prophet Isaiah,  words that any Jewish person would have known well. In it, Isaiah talks about what a true servant of God is like. He’s looking forward to a day when God will send a servant like this to help his people.  But it is a strange picture. This servant of God would be like a sheep led to the slaughter, someone who had to endure mockery. The rest of the passage talks about him being “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” He would be disfigured and wounded, someone others could hardly bear to look at. It wasn’t the picture you’d expect. God’s chosen servant wouldn’t be some comic book hero, all rippling muscles and effortless power. He’d be someone whom life had treated very badly indeed, someone who didn’t look the part at all; in other words, someone not so very different from this Ethiopian himself. But despite all this, God’s suffering servant, said Isaiah, was faithful to God and loving to others, just as the Ethiopian was trying to be. It didn’t make sense. Did God love people like him, or not? Could God welcome and use people like him, or not?

The Ethiopian asks Philip to explain, and Philip tells him about another man who was wounded and disfigured, treated like dirt and rejected, and yet a man whom God had blessed, in life and in death, raising him from the grave. He tells him about Jesus of Nazareth, who had touched lepers and eaten with people others despised, who had treated everyone as children of God, precious and valued, part of the family, whatever had happened to them, whatever they’d done.  The Ethiopian is bowled over. He learns that he might not be welcome in the Temple, but he is most certainly welcome in the heart of God. “Look, here is water” he says, seeing an oasis by the side of the road, “what is to prevent me being baptised?”  Nothing at all, is the answer, and so he is baptised.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, he discovers, God is there with you. You don’t have to trek to Jerusalem and beg to come into his presence; you’re already in his presence anyway.  You don’t have to be something you’re not. Belonging to him isn’t about keeping some rule or other. You belong simply because you are, simply because he loves you. When we baptise Joanna, Olivia and Amelia in a minute we’ll be affirming something that is already true, that they are God’s children, loved by him and known by him long before we ever knew them.  Over the centuries the Church has often forgotten that, taking on itself the task of setting and keeping the boundaries of God’s love and approval, but every baptism we do should be a reminder that it was never up to us to decide anyway. It was always in the hands of God.

That Ethiopian went home knowing that whatever some Temple official might have said, God’s word to him had been “welcome home” as he stepped into the water. I pray that Joanna, Amelia and Olivia, and all the rest of us, will hear those words for ourselves too, and hold them fast, no matter what anyone else says to us.