Monday, 29 April 2013

Easter 5 "As I have loved you": A sermon by Kevin Bright

What have you done this week that is motivated by love? Answer - loads of things.
I read of a London marathon runner who last Sunday knelt before his fiancée after 23 miles and asked her to marry him in front of the crowd. Luckily she said yes or it could have been a long last 3 miles.

Of course love goes way beyond romantic gestures. Love of your dog motivates you to take it out for a walk even when it’s raining, cold and dark. Love of your children results in you sacrificing your own luxuries so they can do activities and go on trips. Love of elderly parent’s means you find yourself helping in ways you could never have imagined when you were younger.

There is no doubt that real love can cause us to behave in all these ways yet the love that Jesus talks of in our gospel reading today is a great deal broader than this.

We find ourselves at the last supper, Jesus has already washed the feet of his disciples and our reading joins us with events at the point where Judas has gone out ready to betray him. Jesus says words familiar to us ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’

This is when being a Christian (or at least trying) really challenges our selfish instincts. The type of love Jesus talks of isn’t restricted to those who might love us back, the hint is in the fact that he’s just washed Judas’ feet along with the other disciples, this is the sort of love that is difficult to define.

To love others as Jesus loved us. Does this mean we have to care about the poor, the unjustly discriminated against, the outcasts and all sorts of other unsavoury characters that Jesus befriended and showed love to?

If we are to obey the commandment the obvious answer is ‘yes’ and whilst for some this might mean walking the streets looking for people who need help, for the majority of us it means using our brains and responding to the opportunities that arise naturally in our day to day lives.

When we start to think about it love for others can be shown in so many ways. We can give time and money to charities which help those most in need, make donations to the food bank, we can shop ethically supporting the best trading and manufacturing processes, we can speak out against the everyday injustices and prejudices we come across and if we really try hard we might even be able to show kindness to those we find it very difficult to like.

As a church we are called to be a body which reflects God’s love yet whilst in small local ways a great deal is done which shows this, high profile failures including the women bishops debacle and arguments about sexuality do not always leave the church shining as a light in the darkness for those unsure of which way to turn.

Jesus’ command to love one another is entangled with events that demonstrate how love must persist and overcome despite all the disappointments and failures which threaten to make us give up. The timing of the commandment cannot be coincidental between Judas leaving to betray and the forthcoming denial of Peter. Just before today’s part of John’s gospel Peter has said that he would lay down his life for Jesus, yet Jesus knows that it has to be the other way round.

The cross is inescapable for Jesus now that Judas has set off to betray him and at the same time the imminent revelation of God’s love through Christ also becomes unstoppable making sense of Jesus talk of glorification.

In this season of Easter the good news that Jesus has conquered death is celebrated. Yet I suspect that for all facing hardship, pain, fear and sadness it can sometimes be a light that burns dimly, a hope to be clung to rather than something we feel we can always boldly embrace.

Daily experiences can build cynicism and cause us to put up barriers, sometimes making us blind to so many good things happening in our midst.

Yet it is among betrayal and disappointment that Jesus proclaims ‘now the son of man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.

When you think of glory what comes to mind? Quite likely we first think of success which leads to public recognition or even adoration be it sporting, academic, musical or in any other pursuit. Yet the cost of the achievement is rarely evident or mentioned and the all-conquering heroes can appear super human.

We have to guard against this when we consider the glory that Jesus refers to, Rowan Williams refers to him as ‘the one who-visibly-has suffered death. He is recognised by his wounds….wounds that show how much He loved us and wounds without which there is no glory.
We know that God wants his church to include all people overcoming barriers so that all can share his love. We heard how Peter broke the ancient Jewish purity laws when he ate with gentiles. His strange dream where he is told to eat and kill all sorts of animals actually had little to do with food and everything to do with making God’s love known to the Gentiles.

There’s a lesson to all of us that form the church today that we mustn’t let our traditions and patterns of worship be limited to our time in church buildings but that we have to take our church out with us every day into our work places, homes, and every aspect of our daily lives in a way that shows we care about people different to us showing people who don’t worship with us that they matter to us and to God.

If Peter can be forgiven and become the man chosen to bring good news to Cornelius and his household then there is probably still hope for each one of us!

As I often struggle to offer some insight into our bible readings by the time the deadline of Sunday arrives I try to start reading and thinking about them as early as possible, in this case on the Monday, and then carry the words around with me, taking them to work, home and out on the streets with the hope that they will come to life and I might have something worth sharing.
In an absolutely manic working week with colleagues on leave I received a telephone request for information that would take some time to prepare from what I would describe as an’ inner city kid’ who didn’t have much clue as to what he needed. Being terribly busy and obviously having many urgent and important tasks to complete I said ‘sorry I can’t help you.’

In this church and among many other Christian communities there are people who are incredibly kind, gentle and only seem to look for opportunities to help and serve others, truly wonderful people. Unfortunately I wasn’t one of them.

Anyway a couple of days after the ‘phone call I received an email from the ’inner city kid’ explaining how he needed our help in order to put together his application for funding from the Princes Trust and it made me recall the days when I had more time, when I was a nicer person and did some work for them. The words from the bible I was carrying around with me were starting to feel heavy, what the point of carrying them around all week if they don’t come to life. What’s the point in reading the bible at all if it doesn’t make any difference?

Sparing you unnecessary detail… providing this information required me to ask for help from already over worked colleagues who didn’t hesitate to remind me how I bang on about thinking commercially and making time productive. Needless to say we did what was asked for and it felt as if the words I was carrying around took on some life.

The love that Jesus talks of includes but also extends way beyond love that may be reciprocated. It’s inconvenient love, it’s sacrificial love, at times it will be painful love. ‘As I have loved you’, we know the cost, we have heard of the holes in his hands and the wound in his side which make this type of love real.

Accepting that we are loved and trusted by God equips us to understand what Jesus was talking about and to share this in a way that makes a real difference to a world that needs it as much as it ever did.

I started by saying what have we done last week that was motivated by love and will end by saying what will we do in the forthcoming week which reflects the ‘as I have loved you’ love of Jesus. Let’s carry the words around with us and see if we can bring them to life.


Monday, 22 April 2013

Easter 4: love in the small things

A sermon for Breathing Space Holy Communion

Today’s first reading is one of my favourites from the book of Acts, the story of Tabitha – Dorcas in Greek. Here is someone who might never have featured in any history book, whose life would have passed entirely unnoticed if it weren’t for this story. She was evidently just a kind woman, a good neighbour, who simply wanted to do what she could to help others, the kind of person I have met many, many times, not showy, not looking for praise, but always there when you needed her. Dorcas’s particular skill, it seems, was needlework – perhaps that’s why I have always had a soft spot for her, since that’s something I do a lot of too. Dorcas made clothing for those in need, by the sound of it – this seems to be the “acts of charity” the story refers to, and clearly it was something that others valued so much they just couldn’t imagine a world without Dorcas and her needle.

I recall many years ago, before I was ordained, a young couple had started coming to the little church I was a member of, which was on a very poor council estate in Bridgwater. They were still in their teens, both estranged from their families, very poor, not married, and she was heavily pregnant. It was a pretty chaotic situation, but they were doing their best, and they had decided, that, with the baby coming, they wanted to get married. So a date was fixed for a small, simple wedding, just them and their friends, and some of the church community. We all said we’d bring some food and put on a little do in the church hall afterwards.

Everything was set until about a week before the wedding, when a friend of mine in the church suddenly wondered to herself what this girl was going to wear on her big day. We’d never seen her in anything other than jeans and t-shirts or baggy, shabby, borrowed maternity clothes.  So she asked her. The girl just looked blank and shrugged her shoulders. “Just my normal clothes” she said. “I haven’t got anything else”. I don’t think she had even allowed herself to think about it. But it didn’t seem right. Of course she could perfectly legally get married in jeans if she wanted to, but not to be able to dress up on what was supposed to be one of the most important days of your life seemed like a pretty sad thing to my friend. So she decided to do something about it. She roped in a few of the rest of us and the word went out. Did anyone have a wedding dress stored in the attic that might fit this girl? A few were produced, but she was seven months pregnant – none of them stood a chance of fitting her. There was only one that came near, a dress which had been worn by one of our number who was, shall we say, generously proportioned.  It would be too big in many dimensions, but at least we thought it might go round the bump. The bride to be tried it on, and sure enough it did go round the bump. Unfortunately that was about the only place it fitted though. She might as well have been wearing a marquee. We were all very glad there was no mirror in the room so she couldn’t see the true scale of the problem. “Hmm, “ we said as cheerfully as we could manage, “it just needs a few alterations here and there, and it will be fine, “

I don’t think any of us were convinced, though, and by this stage we only had about two days before the wedding. I think we virtually took that dress entirely to pieces. We might as well have started from scratch in the end. I remember working late into the nights, attaching bits of lace here and there to cover the more obvious alterations. But we finished just in the nick of time, on the morning of the wedding.  There were moments when I’d wondered whether this was really worth it. But when “our” bride walked up the aisle, all those questions faded to nothing. It didn’t look like an expensive designer creation, but it did look like a wedding dress, and she looked like a bride, a real, proper bride, which was something she had never imagined she would be.  She was utterly transformed. It wasn’t really the dress that did that, but the fact that she now knew there were people in the world who cared enough to have done such a crazy thing for her.

I wonder whether that is why Dorcas’ death seemed so terrible a loss to those who wept so noisily for her and waved the garments she had made in Peter’s face until he just had to do something about it. They hadn’t just lost a companion. They’d lost someone who’d shown them what love really looked like. Sometimes – perhaps often - love isn’t a matter of great dramatic gestures. It comes in the shape of something as small as a needle and thread, or a bag of groceries from the Loaves and Fishes foodbank, or a quick phone call to check someone is ok, or a steady commitment to some unseen, unsung task which is nonetheless vital.

Not everyone who loves like this will be brought back to life as Dorcas is, but there is a sense in which that kind of love can never really die. It is life-giving in itself, transforming those it touches, bringing them to life, giving them new opportunities, new vision, and maybe that’s enough.

In the silence tonight, perhaps we could give thanks for the Dorcases we have known, and pray for the grace to be a Dorcas to others too, paying attention to those small things that make the big difference to others.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Easter 3: Seeing with new eyes

I deal with many funerals in the course of my work. Each one is different, with its own challenges. Often they involve a certain amount of behind-the-scenes diplomacy; I’ve hardly ever come across a family where there weren’t some tensions between family members or differences of opinion over how best to organise things. But I am heartily glad not to have had to deal with the particular challenges of the funeral we have all been aware of this week, that of Margaret Thatcher. As well as the inevitable complications of such a large scale public event, it also seems to have stirred up a hornet’s nest of disagreement. Perhaps that ought not to come as a surprise; opinions were always so divided about her. But it’s clear that even 20 years after she left office people still feel just as strongly, for or against. If I were foolish enough to take a straw poll here today, I am sure that would be as true here as anywhere else.  And I am equally sure that whatever our opinions were, on this as on any other divisive subject, we would all like to think that our view was simply the logical, rational view, the view supported by the evidence, the view which anyone in their right minds would come to if they only saw the issue as clearly as us…!

The reality is, though, that people rarely make decisions as rationally as they like to think. All sorts of factors influence us that have nothing at all to do with the facts. We see things from our own perspective, and find it hard to accept that what is good for us might be bad for others. We are often swayed more than we’d like to admit by family and friends, preferring to go along with them to keep the peace – or perhaps sometimes to rebel against them for the sake of it. There is almost always far more going on beneath the surface than we’d like to admit when we take up a position on something contentious.  But having formed our opinions we tend to stick to them, even if the evidence mounts up against them, even if we know deep down that they don’t quite hold water any more.

I recall a conversation with a man in a church where I once worked. I’d been there several years, but this man had never came up to receive communion. I hadn’t taken much notice of this, though, because there are many reasons why people don’t take communion in church.  But  one day, there he was at the altar rail, and after the service he decided to explain what had happened. It turned out that before my arrival he’d been an outspoken opponent of the ordination of women. “I realised that I was wrong ages ago,” he said “not long after you’d arrived here, in fact. I just hadn’t been able to imagine a woman priest, so I thought I was against it. But the problem was that I’d been so vocal about it that everyone knew what I thought, so I felt I’d look foolish if I took the bread and wine from you. I’m sorry it’s taken so long, but I’d painted myself into a corner, and I had to wait for the paint to dry…”

There can be all sorts of reasons why we find it hard to change our position. Sometimes it is just inertia or even just laziness; it’s hard work thinking things through again, so we don’t bother unless we really have to. Sometimes we think, like the man in my church, that changing our minds will be seen as a sign of weakness. But often too we are simply blind to the way in which our opinions have actually been shaped not by logic and reason but by old wounds that need healing, old grudges and hurts, old insecurities we tried to cover up by sounding sure of ourselves.

That was the case for three of the people in our readings today. The first and most obvious was Saul who becomes Saint Paul, one of the most influential founders of the Church. At the start of the story, though, he’s dead set against it and utterly convinced that this is the only reasonable way to be. He’d grown up believing that it was the duty of every good Jewish man to uphold the traditions and laws of his people just as they had been handed down to him. He was sincere, well-meaning, sure that this was the only way to safe-guard the future of Israel and obey the will of God. We first meet him at the stoning of St Stephen. He is holding people’s cloaks so that they can take better aim at this follower of Jesus. He’s not wicked. He’s not a sadist. He’s just desperate to put a stop to what he sees as heresy, and he thinks that the end justifies the means. In our first reading today he’s on his way to Damascus. He has heard there are followers of Jesus there and he wants to stamp out this movement wherever he finds it. As far as he is concerned Jesus can’t be the Messiah. If he was, God wouldn’t have let him be crucified.

That’s why he’s so confused when he is felled by a bright light on the Damascus road. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” a voice asks him in the darkness he has been plunged into. “Who are you, Lord?” he asks. Somehow he knows that this voice is a voice from heaven, the voice of someone who has God’s blessing, his chosen one, his Messiah, but he’s stuck in his own circular logic. God’s Messiah can’t have been crucified, so whoever this is, it can’t be Jesus. But then the voice comes again, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting…” The blindness that has fallen on Saul isn’t just about his physical ability to see, but his ability to make sense of the world at all. Suddenly it’s as if down is up, black is white, and nothing at all makes sense.   

Title: Conversion of St. Paul
[Click for larger image view]
West, Benjamin, 1738-1820. Conversion of St. Paul,
 from Art in the Christian Tradition,
a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library,
Nashville, TN.
But it’s not just Saul who has trouble seeing straight in this story. In Damascus there is a Christian called Ananias, who also hears a heavenly voice. He knows it is God, but he can’t quite believe what it is telling him to do.  Go and pray for a man of Tarsus named Saul? Ananias knows who this Saul is, and frankly he’s the last person in the world he wants to seek out. This is his most dangerous enemy – it must seem suicidal to Ananias to go and look for him deliberately. And even if that weren’t so, surely it’s a bit much for God to expect Ananias to want to help him. Why shouldn’t Saul suffer a bit, after all the harm he has done to others? But Ananias is one of the bravest and best men in the Bible, an overlooked saint, and he decides to do as he is asked. He gives up his desire for revenge and plays his part in letting God heal Saul. Just as Saul is healed of his blindness, so Ananias learns to see afresh too, and discovers that the man he thought was his worst enemy is actually his beloved brother in Christ.

Saul has to change his mind about who Jesus is. Ananias has to change his mind about who Saulis. But in the Gospel, Peter has to change his mind about who he, himself, is. He’s been on a roller coaster ride from hell. He’s watched the crowds acclaim Jesus as king, and then crucify him as an outcast heretic, all in the space of a week or so. Worse still, as all this has unfolded he’s come to realise that he isn’t the brave, loyal friend he thought he was. He has cowered in fear, denied even knowing Jesus when the chips were down. And just when it seemed it couldn’t get any worse, here is Jesus, back again, raised from death. That ought to have been a good thing… except that now Peter just doesn’t know where to put himself. How can he ever look Jesus in the eye again? Peter used to think he was Jesus’ right hand man. Jesus had called him Petros, the rock. But now he feels more like sand, useless, washed away by the storm of the crucifixion. Surely Jesus will never rely on him again. But Jesus thinks otherwise. “Do you love me, Peter?” “Yes, Lord – you know I do…” says Peter, perhaps more in hope than expectation that Jesus will believe him. “Then feed my sheep…” It’s not that Jesus is blind to Peter’s failings and weaknesses; he has always been aware of them. He’s always known Peter better than Peter has known himself. And he knows that what Peter really needs isn’t the superhuman perfection he’s been longing for, but the courage to honestly accept himself as he is. Jesus’ vote of confidence in him – “feed my sheep” – given in the full knowledge of Peter’s frailty and fallibility, enables Peter to find the forgiveness and healing he needs, and with it the courage to start afresh.

I began by talking about how hard we find it to change our positions, to accept that things aren’t always as straightforward as we assume, that we might be wrong, or need to reconsider what we think. Paul, Ananias and Peter all had to learn that the hard way. Their stories both challenge and reassure us. They challenge us to look again at God, at others, and at ourselves, to be open to new perspectives. That can be as hard for us as it was for them. But these stories also reassure us, because each of these men, in doing that, found life, love and joy which they would otherwise have missed. Whatever else the resurrection of Christ proclaims it most certainly reminds us that in him there is a new creation, a new way of seeing, in which old enmities are put aside and old barriers broken down, old sins forgiven and old hurts healed. It calls us to look at the world through the eyes of love; love for God, love for others and a proper love and respect for ourselves too. Wherever we stand on the contentious issues of the day – and we might look again and still come to the same conclusions -, if we can make it a habit to start by remembering that everyone is a child of God, beloved by him, then there is a fighting chance that God’s kingdom might be born in us even when we disagree.


Sunday, 7 April 2013

Easter 2: Good news

In our first reading, from the book of Acts, we hear one of the earliest stories of the spread of Christian faith. The apostles, Peter, James, John and the rest have been been preaching and healing, and many have been drawn to them by their message. The authorities are none too happy. They thought they had finished with all this nonsense when they killed Jesus, but within weeks the mission seems to be back on, and even stronger than it had been, since there were now many more people preaching the message. They arrest the apostles, but miraculously they are released from prison and rather than being warned off by their experiences, they seem to be keener than ever on making themselves heard. Once more they are summoned  before the Jewish authorities to answer for themselves. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us”  Peter answers for them all. They can’t shut up. Their lives have been changed by Jesus, and they must bear witness to that change.

These are people who have good news, good news they can’t not share, good news which others seem to be responding to in numbers. Spreading their faith seems to be as natural to them as breathing. But what about us?

Many years ago, I was a student at Hull University. In case you don’t know Hull, the most noticeable thing about it is that it is dead flat, and as a result, the city planners tended to build their streets broad and straight. One day as I was walking home along one of these streets I saw in the far distance an elderly man on a bicycle. The bike looked pretty ancient too, but he was pedalling along as fast as he could manage as it clanked and whined beneath him. There was only him and me on this otherwise deserted street, but I became aware as he got closer that he was shouting something, and eventually he was close enough for me to make it out. “Believe on the name of the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, “ he called out – apparently to me, because there was no one else around – “Have you given your heart to Jesus as Lord and Saviour?” By the time he got to the end of his little sermonette he had gone past me, so I didn’t get the chance to tell him that, actually yes, I had. Evidently there was no time to wait around and a world of sinners needing to hear his gospel.

I’ve never forgotten that experience, but I’ve never quite known what to make of it either. I don’t know whether he was systematically working his way round every street in Hull, or whether this was a one off declaration, for my ears only. I can say, though, that as a method of evangelism, it left quite a bit to be desired…

I’m sure we’ve all experienced people trying to spread their faith in ways which leave us cold, and it’s not just the eccentric street preachers, whether on a bike or not, who can miss the mark for us. Personally I am just as averse to the slick presentations that are sometimes on offer, with a “celebrity” who happens to be a Christian as the draw, or some other crowd pleasing sideshow to get the punters in before slipping them the message that Jesus is the answer, even if it has never really been established what the question is.

Evangelism should be about sharing good news. It is there in the word itself. That’s what evangelism means – from the Greek euangellion -  good news, so what really makes it authentic and powerful isn’t the presentation, but the content. If we want to share good news, first we have to have some, and second we have to know what our good news is. It has to be good. It has to be news, but most of all it has to be ours.

The apostles were very clear about their good news. It had been born out of their direct experience of being with Jesus. As they had travelled with him round Galilee they had heard his message again and again, and seen him live what he preached; justice for the poor, dignity for those whom his society disregarded, forgiveness and love, with a way of living in which the rich and powerful did not have the last word – indeed the only word.

As they had followed him round Galilee, his disciples felt that they were catching glimpses of God in him, glimpses of the kingdom promised in the Old Testament, a place of peace where all were valued as the children of God they really were. When Jesus was crucified, though, it seemed as if all that had been no more than a delusion, nothing but nonsense. If Jesus had been right , if he had  really had been speaking God’s truth, then why would God have abandoned him to die on a cross? Why didn’t he send squadrons of angels to rescue him? It must have all been a lie, they concluded. If you want to win in life you just have to play by the rules of the mighty, grab what you can and look out for number one.

But then Easter Sunday happened… We don’t know what Jesus’ disciples saw, what we’d have seen if we’d been there, but whatever it was, it was powerful enough to make them sure, absolutely utterly sure, that  Jesus was alive. They understood that to mean that God had affirmed his message, that God had not abandoned him, and that he would not abandon them either as they continued to preach and try to live that message too. The joy and peace they had found with Jesus in Galilee, the sense that their lives had suddenly gone from black and white to full vibrant colour, came flooding back. It was good. It was news – to them and to others. And it was theirs, something they had experienced first-hand . They saw it and they touched it, not just, as Thomas was invited to in the flesh and blood of Jesus, but in the reality of their own transformed lives and the lives of those around them. In Christ there is a new creation, said Paul – not “will be” but “is”. If we had asked them what salvation looked like,  this is what they would have pointed to – not a theological theory about getting into heaven when you died, but the revolution they were living right there and then as they discovered God at work amongst them, breaking down old barriers, bringing forgiveness and healing, a new start and new possibilities. It wasn’t an easy way of life, but the early church grew because in it people saw real love, real hope, real joy, the living witness of lives that were richer and deeper now.

When I talk to people about what it is that really matters to them about their faith, I often find that they give me the same sort of answers. For some their good news, their sense of salvation, has a lot to do with being part of a community – not a perfect one, but one where people are at least trying to love one another, trying to treat each other as equals. Where love is, there is God, says the Bible. Others find their good news in the sense of mystery they encounter in prayer, the feeling that there is something beyond them and their immediate concerns supporting them and helping them making sense of their lives. For many faith is good news because, like those early apostles, it gives strength and encouragement as they try to build justice, to do what is right.  Often people tell me that they find – maybe now and then, maybe often – the “peace that passes understanding”,  the sense that they are finally spinning on their true centre, drawing on living water, rooted in good soil – the images vary, but the sense is the same, a sense of rightness, of purpose, of home-coming to God.

For me, the longer I go on, the more I feel it is all those things, and more besides. When I live my life in the framework of faith, enriched with its stories, nourished in prayer, surrounded by a community of fellow-travellers, I become more and more the person that I am meant to be. That doesn’t mean it is easy, or that I don’t have all sorts of doubts, or that I don’t fail or get fed up, but it becomes something that I can’t just walk away from, any more than a tree can pull up its roots and go for a stroll.

This isn’t the sort of faith you can declaim from the back of a bicycle – and you will be glad to hear that I don’t intend to try. Nor can it be packaged into some glossy presentation – and I’m not going to do that either. It is something that must simply be lived, and allowed to spill over into the lives of others, I hope, as the good news in their lives also spills over into mine.

All those of us who claim to follow Jesus should be able to say that we are evangelical, in the richest and truest sense of the word, that we have discovered our good news; not a formula that gets us into heaven when we die, but something that helps us to live as children of God right now, that lets the fruit of the Spirit grow in us, the fruit of love, joy, peace , patience, kindness , goodness gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. The question on this second Sunday of Easter is what that good news is for us, and how others can see it lived out in our lives.