Sunday, 29 September 2013

St Michael and All Angels

Today is the feast of St Michael and All Angels, the day in the Church’s year when we give thanks for those mysterious, perplexing heavenly visitors which flit in and out of the Biblical story, messengers from God, signs of his presence to those who encounter them.

Michael is one of four Archangels who are named in the Bible. We heard him mentioned in the reading from Revelation this morning. The others are Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel, if you are interested.* But Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions have included and named others – in varying numbers with varying names. Angelology has never been very precise. It’s something that developed gradually and there’s never been any real agreement about it.

It’s not just Judaism, Christianity and Islam that talk about angels, and the idea of them didn’t originate with these three linked faiths.  Angels in some form or another – supernatural beings - are a part of almost every culture and faith, and sometimes they are very strange creatures indeed. Biblical angels are sometimes just as strange – huge, powerful winged beings – but surprisingly often they seem to those who encounter them utterly human. It’s only with hindsight that they realise what they are.

Abraham welcomes three apparently ordinary travellers, and only realises they have come from God when they tell him that he will finally have the son God had promised him.  Jacob wrestles with a man as he tries to cross the river Jabbok, a man who is so strong that he eventually has to concede defeat. It is never quite spelled out who he is, but Jacob knows that he speaks with authority that is more than human, and that, in him, he has come into contact with something of the divine. It’s not the first time Jacob encounters angels. In today’s Old Testament reading he dreams of them while he is on the run from his family, having cheated his brother out of his inheritance. He is out in the middle of nowhere, surely far from God, alone and abandoned. But as he sees the angels ascend and descend a ladder between earth and heaven, he realises that even here, God is with him. 

The common factor in every story of angels in the Bible is that they come bearing messages. Both the Hebrew and Greek words used of them – malak and angellos – mean “messenger, and that’s what they are. Whatever form they take they communicate something from God and of God to those they appear to. They tell them something or show them something that they need to know, and otherwise would have missed.

So that’s a brief overview of what the Bible tells us about angels, but what are we to make of these stories today? Are they just quaint and interesting relics of a worldview that is long gone, fine for adding colour and interest to faith, but not something any sensible person would take seriously?

We might be tempted to think so. In fact we might wonder whether angels were actually an obstacle to faith today, making it seem irrelevant and outdated.

But the odd thing is that when I talk to people outside the church, who might not describe themselves as religious at all, the one belief I find they often do cling to is belief in angels.  Messages on funeral wreaths and at roadside shrines often mention angels – angels caring for the one who’s died, or even that the dead have become angels. Angels are popular on Christmas cards even when the rest of the nativity story is ignored. New Age philosophies commonly involve guiding or protecting angels. Trinket shops know that figures of angels sell like hot cakes, and people often really treasure them. It is easy to write all this off as sentimentality, but my experience is that for many people, their attachment to angels is deep and real, and it is surprisingly common for people to swear blind to me that they have seen one or felt one. It’s tempting to dismiss this as nonsense, but I’ve learned to be very cautious about writing off other people’s spiritual experiences and beliefs too quickly and easily as wish-fulfilment, imagination or a trick played by brain chemistry that’s gone temporarily awry.

An encounter from early in my ordained ministry rammed this home to me, and I’ve never forgotten it.

I was stopped in the street in Gosport by a middle aged lady of Chinese origin, who had wound up in this country after marrying an English sailor. Much to my surprise she came straight out with a request to be baptised. She didn’t know anything much about Christian faith, but she’d brought her daughters to a carol service at the church and something had touched her deeply.  

So we arranged to meet, and she told me her story. She’d been born in mainland China, but as a young child her family had given her, or perhaps sold her, to a family in Hong Kong as a domestic servant. They’d taken no notice or care of her, and she’d never had any formal education. She couldn’t read, either in English or Chinese, and she had no religious education at all in any faith. So I just had to start at the beginning and simply tell her the story of Jesus – she couldn’t read it for herself. It was all news to her and she was all ears to hear it. I began with the annunciation by the angel Gabriel to Mary, and I was rather apologetic about it. This was just how people thought then, I said, implying that now we would be much too sophisticated for all this angel talk. But this lady came back at me, quick as a flash. “No, no,” she said, “I have seen angels…”  There was a lot she didn’t know about faith, but this was something she was definite about, even if she had only now been given a way of naming her experience.

She told me how as a child she had fallen gravely ill. The family that employed her wouldn’t get her any medical treatment. They just left her in bed to take her chances. She got worse and worse and thought she was dying  - maybe she was. She was utterly alone and terrified. But as she lay in her bed she suddenly became aware of shining figures all around her, walking to and fro around the bed. And they turned their faces towards her, she said, and looked at her with kindness. And somehow she knew that, whatever happened, all was well. She had no words to talk about this, and no one to hear her anyway, but this vision had sustained then, and continued to do so throughout her often appallingly difficult life.

She knocked me right off my rationalist, educated, confident perch that day. We might say it was just an hallucination, the product of a literally fevered imagination, but the fact was that whatever caused it, this experience had communicated to her, as nothing else could have done, that she wasn’t alone, that she was loved, that she mattered to someone somewhere, even if she didn’t know who or how. And in a way it doesn’t matter where that vision came from or what caused it – it was the message it conveyed that mattered. We have many experiences which are more than the sum of their physical parts. A hug, in physical terms, is simply someone putting their arms around us, but it’s what the hug tells us that’s important matters, the message of comfort, concern, connection, care it gives…Whatever happened to that sick and lonely Chinese girl, it was quite literally angelic, bringing her a message she couldn’t have received any other way in the isolation and neglect of her life.

Whether we believe in the literal existence of angels or not, they are powerful reminders that what we see is not necessarily all there is. Rowan Williams once wrote that angels remind us thatRound the corner of our vision things are going on in the universe, glorious and wonderful things, of which we know nothing.” ** Whoever we are that’s an important thing to realise. If we think we already know all there is to know, we may never discover the things we really need if we are to live life to the full. 

In today’s Gospel reading Nathanael has fallen into that trap. When Philip comes to him and tells him that he has met with God’s Messiah, his chosen one, Nathanael is dismissive. “Can any good come out of Nazareth?” For some reason - we don't know why - he is sure this isn't a place the Messiah could come from. His meeting with Jesus blows that assumption right out of the water, when Jesus seems to know more about him than is logically possible. But Jesus says that if he sticks around there is far more and far better to come. He’ll see angels ascending and descending - as Jacob did – not just in Nazareth, but wherever Jesus is, in the things he does and says. In Jesus himself he’ll see God at work, heaven touching earth, love working miracles. Nathanael’s tidy view of the universe is busted open. “Round the corner of his vision” “glorious and wonderful things are going on”, in the person of Christ, someone he'd never have thought could be God's Messiah, as Rowan Williams puts it, and it changes him completely.

Today we might have come to church complacent, certain that we have our faith all sewn up, armoured against questions and doubts. We might desperately need a glimpse around the corner of our vision of a God who is infinitely greater and more mysterious than we’d imagined. Or we might have come to church anxious or afraid or weighed down by burdens or crushed by regret, and sure nothing can ever change. We need to see round the corner of our vision the possibility of joy and hope for the future, and of consolation now. We don’t always have all that we need in our own grasp already. Sometimes it needs to come to us in messages which we weren’t looking for, weren’t expecting, borne on mysterious wings.

None of this might explain who or what angels are – if you were hoping for that I apologise. But as we celebrate their feast day, perhaps we will at least be reminded that what we see is not necessarily all there is to see. Perhaps they will bring us a message that God is closer to us than we think, with hope and joy we thought was out of reach, and love that was bigger than we could imagine. 

*Michael: Daniel 12.1: Jude 1.9: Revelation 12.7

Gabriel:  Daniel 8.16 Daniel 9.21 Luke 1.19 Luke 1.26

Raphael: Tobit 5.4 (Apocrypha)

Uriel: 2 Esdras 4.1(Apocrypha)

**Rowan Williams. Tokens of Trust

Monday, 16 September 2013

Trinity 16: Breathing Space - Which one of you...?

Which one of you, says Jesus, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?
What woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them does not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?

Which one of you, asks Jesus, would not behave like this?

I guess the honest, true answer would be that most of us would draw the line long before the shepherd or the woman in his stories. We’d soon decide that it was a bit daft to get quite so worked up about one scraggy sheep that didn’t know what was good for it, or to waste good lamp oil looking for a coin which you’d no guarantee you were going to find anyway. This woman probably spent more looking for the coin and celebrating its finding than it was worth in the first place, and as for that shepherd, what a crazy risk to leave ninety-nine perfectly good sheep in the wilderness to search for the one that was lost. What if he had come back and found a wolf had got the rest? 99 sheep are plenty. 9 coins are surely enough to be going on with.

Jesus knew perfectly well that in telling these stories he’d be tapping into the some very ambivalent feelings in his hearers. Of course we’d go to the ends of the earth to search for someone precious to us, a child we’d been separated from, a lover who had disappeared, and we’d keep searching until we’d found them. We’d never be able to let go completely even when we knew there was nowhere left to look. Of course we would rip apart a house to look for something of surpassing worth to us. But that is the problem. Our willingness to stretch ourselves, to take a risk, to keep going is determined by the value to us of what we are seeking. For all the precious things and people we’d endlessly search for, there are many others, in practice, whom we treat as “easy come, easy go”, two a penny, dispensable, forgettable. It is a real struggle to do otherwise, and Jesus knew that.

These Pharisees and scribes were not uniquely careless or heartless – they were just human, as we all are, and they saw things from their own, human, perspective, as we all do.

They operated from an assumption of scarcity for a start. There was only so much of God’s love and favour to go around, they figured, so it was important that it was directed to those who could make the most of it, those who were already on the way to being as God wanted them to be – themselves in other words. It seemed perfectly reasonable, perfectly obvious, and perhaps it would be if God’s love were limited.  

But Jesus’ parables tell us that it isn’t like that. God doesn’t start from a position of scarcity. He’s not in danger of running out of anything. He doesn’t need to ration his love, and he doesn’t need us to ration it for him either, doling it out in miserly portions to those who believe and live as we think they should.

In reality, as human beings, we have our limits – there comes a point when we can do no more for someone in our own strength. But that doesn’t mean that God has given up on them, so no one can ever be declared  a hopeless case. Our strength might be exhausted, but God’s never is.
That’s good news for those we might be tempted to write off as a waste of effort. But it is also good news for us, because all of us come to a point sooner or later when we realise that we are more lost than we thought we were, when we feel dispensable and forgotten, brought low by some failure or weakness we thought we were immune to, or just worn down by the burdens of life. There comes a time – if it hasn’t happened yet then it surely will one day – when we all find ourselves longing to feel the grasp of a loving shepherd as he pulls us out of whatever thicket of guilt , grief or worthlessness we’ve got stuck in. And more than that, when he comes to us in that moment, he comes not with the grudging attitude of one who feels he must, but with the boundless and joyful energy that comes from knowing how great the party will be when he finally gets us home.


Thursday, 12 September 2013

Trinity 15 (with Baptism): Choose Life

Deut 30.15-20, Luke 14.25-33

We live in an age and in a society where choice seems to be king. We are offered choices in almost every area of life. We take it for granted that it is better to have a choice than not. There are more than 250 products to choose from in the coffee aisle of Tesco online. I counted, so you don’t have to! Instant and filter and expresso, strong, medium, smooth, from different parts of the world, fairtrade and organic, individual servings or catering size tins… No wonder most of us just go for the same thing every time – it would take for ever to consider all the options.

If all that choice is difficult in small things, it is even worse in the big things - schools, medical care, jobs, houses… The world is your oyster, is the message of our age – all you have to do is decide what you want and go for it. Of course, it’s not really true. We are all restricted to some extent; by our income, our ability, our family responsibilities and so on. But we are at least aware of the many paths through life we could take, in ways that our ancestors probably never dreamed of. They mostly did what their parents did, lived where they’d always lived, and never thought it could be otherwise. Are we better off? Probably, but it can feel pretty exhausting. Whatever we choose , we know there might have been a better option that we missed.

The trouble is that when you have a choice, you feel you have to make a choice, and we often don’t really know how to. Whether it is choosing a partner, having a family, putting our roots down in a community, embarking on a career, we find it hard to commit ourselves, because we don’t want to close off other options. And the years pass and eventually we realise that somehow, not deciding was just as much a decision as deciding would have been. Our lives have been shaped just as much by the choices we didn’t make as the ones we did.

We have many options our ancestors didn’t have, but our Bible readings today hint that when they did have a choice, they sometimes found it just as challenging as we do to make that decision.

In our Old Testament Reading – the first one we heard today – Moses speaks to the Israelites. They’d spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, and now, finally, it is time to cross the border and settle there. Reaching the Promised Land isn’t the end of the journey though – in fact it is just the beginning of the real work. They aren’t just facing a new geographical landscape as they look across the River Jordan; they are facing new social and spiritual landscapes too. These ex-slaves aren’t used to running their own lives and organising their society. So Moses calls them to remember all they’ve learned as they have wandered in the desert about themselves, each other and about God. Those forty years in the wilderness have taught them - often the hard way - what really matters to them, their values and priorities – encapsulated for them in the 10 commandments. Even though the physical journey is coming to an end, says Moses, you need to keep walking on that spiritual path, because that is the path that leads to the blessings you long for. Choose that path and you will choose life.

In the Gospel reading Jesus isn’t promising his followers an easy journey either, but he too encourages people to ponder what route they will follow, what pattern they will live by, because their choices will have consequences for them. Many of them were persecuted for their faith, so they needed to be sure that they knew what they were committing themselves to, and why those commitments mattered.

Today, Jon and Rebecca are making decisions and commitments about the way they want to bring Seth up. Of course, when he’s grown, he will have his own ideas about how he wants to live and that’s exactly as it should be, but right now, in this as in so many other things, they have to make choices for him, decisions that will shape his future to some extent at least. Baptism might not seem as immediately important as some of the other choices they’ll make, choices about nurseries and schools, food and drink and routines of life, but it actually touches on some very profound and fundamental questions about the basic orientation towards life they want to encourage him to have.

In a few minutes I’ll be asking them three short questions. “Do you turn to Christ? Do you repent of your sins? Do you renounce evil?” I’m not asking “Are you good people, people who have it all sorted out?” – no one could answer yes to that. I’m not asking “Will you make Seth, by hook or by crook, grow up to assent to a particular package of doctrines?” Frankly that would be impossible to promise – Seth will make his own mind up and will have his own ideas. In any case it’s not about theological abstractions – it is far more important than that, and far more real. What those questions really ask is “which way are you heading, what direction are you facing in, what will Seth see in front of him, what will be on his horizons, as you lead him through his first steps in life? Do you turn to Christ, to the way of life he preached, to the things he lived and died for? Do you turn your back on the things that might pull you – and Seth – away from those ways of love and peace?" Those are tough, and very real, questions. If they feel a bit daunting then that’s because they are daunting.

But I’ll also be asking for some other commitments too, not just from you but from the whole congregation; the commitment to give you and Seth the support you’ll need as he grows up, and to share with him the tools for living, the wisdom and the gifts which Christian faith has to offer. Christians – like those of other faiths and none - have stories to share, travellers’ tales , things that might help him when the road seems tough. We can help him too, to learn to reflect, to pray, to wonder, to care for others. Most of all we can remind him when he struggles that God walks alongside him, even if he is going in the wrong direction; that God remembers him, even if he should forget God, and that God loves him with a love that nothing can destroy.

We live in a world full of choices, and we often struggle to commit ourselves to anything in case we miss out on something else. In the end, though, life takes us on one path or another, whether we like it or not, and if we don’t choose consciously, we will find the choices have been made for us. Today Jon and Rebecca are making a deliberate choice to open up this particular pathway of Christian faith for Seth and take the first steps along it with him. For all of us, though, this is a day to ponder our lives, to ask ourselves whether we are heading in the direction we really want to, the direction that leads to joy and hope and justice and peace. It’s a day to ponder what we really value, what really matters to us and to set our steps towards that. And it’s a day too, to remember God’s promise that wherever we walk he walks beside us. Choose life, says Moses. Choose life.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Trinity 14: a place on the top table

There have been two anniversaries celebrated in the media this week. The first was the fiftieth anniversary of the civil rights march in Washington D.C. at which Martin Luther King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. The other was the first anniversary of the opening of the Paralympic games in London. Both were events which had an impact because they enabled stories to be told and voices to be heard which had often been neglected, ignored or even actively silenced. After the March on Washington, no one could pretend they didn’t know about the suffering of African Americans. After the Paralympics no one could pretend they didn’t know about discrimination against disabled people and about how much these Paralympians had achieved despite that. There is a long way still to go on both fronts but after those events it was as if  the genie was out of the bottle, and it wouldn’t go back.  

And that brings me onto today’s Gospel reading.  Martin Luther King had a dream, but he’d have been the first to say that it didn’t begin with him. His dream grew out of the dream, the vision, that Jesus had, a dream of the kingdom of God, where people would live according to the ways of God, where the first would be last and the last first, where every person would be regarded as God’s beloved child. It’s the dream that inspired Jesus words at the dinner we heard about today, which took place at the house of a leader of the Pharisees, a powerful religious figure. Everyone was watching Jesus at this dinner, we’re told, but he was also watching them. In particular he was watching the way they chose their seats – the subtle power games they were playing, which revealed a lot more about them than they realised.

Jesus points this out by asking them to imagine another hypothetical celebration. “Imagine,” he says, “that you went to a wedding banquet and discovered, too late, that you had sat in the place reserved for a guest far more important than you. Imagine that the host came in and unceremoniously demoted you? What would you be thinking as you took that long “walk of shame” down from the highest place to the lowest?”  Almost anyone anywhere would cringe at the thought of this, and Jesus’ hearers would have done too. If it were me I’d feel mortified. How could I have got it so wrong? Why had I thought this place was mine?

And that’s what Jesus is hoping his hearers will be asking themselves too. How do they decide who fits where in the pecking order? What are the assumptions they make when they calculate the worth of others and of themselves? Most of us judge far more than we ought on the basis of appearance, wealth, family background, educational achievement. But God’s view is quite different, says Jesus, and those who want to be part of his kingdom had better get used to it. Mary sets the tone in Luke’s Gospel, in the song she sings when she hears she will bear Jesus. Through him “God has put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.” The way the world ranks people and the way God ranks people are completely different.

I don’t suppose that either those words or ideas are unfamiliar. I hope not, anyway, because they are absolutely fundamental to the Christian message and if you come to church at all regularly you shouldn’t have been able to miss that. But knowing a thing in our heads is different from feeling it in our hearts, let alone living it in our actions. We may think we’ve understood Jesus’ message, but if it were really so then there should have been no need for a March to Washington for civil rights, and no need for people with disabilities to have to struggle against the attitudes of a world that makes their lives twice a difficult as they already are. We’ve had 2000 years to make Jesus’ dream a reality, but often we don’t seem to have got very far. The 17th Century mystic Thomas Traherne wrote “What a world would this be, were everything beloved as it ought to be!” Amen to that! But it wasn’t so then, and it isn’t so now either.

So how do we get from where we are to where Jesus calls us to be? It goes without saying that it’s not an easy journey, otherwise we’d be there by now, but today’s Gospel gives us a clue. It’s all tied up in the image Jesus uses of that place of honour, the seats on the “top table”, if you like. Sitting there wasn’t about having a chair with more legroom or thicker cushions or a better view, like a first class train seat or a place in the dress circle at the theatre. What mattered was that it was a seat near the host. It was a coveted place in Jesus’ time, and still is today, because when you sat in that special place you had access to whoever was throwing the party, someone of power and influence – the king, the boss, the leader. You could make your point, pitch your idea, lobby for your cause over the course of the meal, and the fact that they had put you in that position implied that they wanted to hear what you had to say, that they believed it was worth hearing.

It’s really important that we grasp this because it changes what Jesus is saying. It isn’t about kind to the poor or caring for the downtrodden; it is about listening to those whose stories are different from our own, listening and taking what we hear seriously, listening with the possibility in our minds that what we hear might change us.   That applies both to the one to one conversations we have here and now, but also to the way we listen to history and to the wider world. Whose stories do we hear and record and take notice of? Whose voices get swept aside and forgotten? And what wisdom might we have lost as a result?

To many people at the time Jesus himself was an outsider, a shocking law-breaker, stirring up trouble with his message. His was a voice that many people would rather have ignored. Repeatedly his critics try to put him in his place – a place of silence.  “Who does he think he is? How could the son of a carpenter from a backwater of Israel be God’s Messiah, God’s chosen one? Surely if God speaks it will be through the High Priest, or a member of a leading family…or at least someone who keeps the laws and obeys the rules.” They are offended by the acclaim he gets from the crowd when he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. “Can’t you keep your followers quiet?” they demand. “If I could,” answers Jesus, “the stones would start shouting hosanna instead…” You have to wonder though – if it hadn’t been for the resurrection, would Jesus’ words have been forgotten, like those of so many other dead martyrs?

Perhaps because he knew how it felt to be pushed aside, his own ministry focussed on those who didn’t usually get noticed. A blind man who called out for his help was told to shut up by the crowd, but Jesus heard and healed him. A Samaritan woman, apparently ostracised by her own community, who met him at a well, found herself deep in theological discussion with him in no time at all. Women brought their children to him, despite the disciples’ best efforts to send them away, and he gladly received them – the babble they brought to the conversation was just as important to him as the words of the learned religious experts. We treasure and ponder the words that Jesus spoke, but his ability to listen had just as much impact. It was this which communicated to people that he really did mean it when he said that God valued them.

Jesus reminds us that the voices of the marginalised need to be heard, not just out of kindness, but because they have things to say which matter. A part of the picture, a part of the message God speaks to us through one another is missing without them.
“If you just invite your friends and family and rich neighbours to dinner” says Jesus, “you will have received all the reward you are going to get.” You’ve had a pleasant evening together, with everyone saying the same old things about the same old topics, reinforcing the status quo, but that’s that. It’s a closed circle. There’s no chance of hearing a different perspective, a challenging viewpoint, a new thought. It might feel more comfortable to stick with what we know and those we know, but doing so leaves no room for God, no room for the transforming joy of his kingdom to break into our lives. It’s when we give up those games of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” and simply let ourselves meet people as they are that we will find the blessing we really need. Fifty years ago the voices of African Americans enriched all those who heard them as they told their stories both of suffering and of the hope that sustained them in it. Last year, the voices of Paralympians did the same in different ways. 

So today’s Gospel reading leaves us with the same questions as it did those guests at the Pharisee’s dinner.
How do we decide who matters and who doesn’t, who gets to sit at the top table, who has a voice worth hearing?
What about our own voices? Do we think we have anything to say? The testimony of the Bible says that we do, whoever we are. If our voices aren’t heard then others miss out on the gifts God wants to give them through us.
Most of all this story calls us to listen like God listens, not just to those who have the gift of the gab but to those who can only manage a few halting words, not just to those who are at ease in the corridors of power, but to those who struggle get by at all.
Every one of us has something of God to share, a sacred story to bring to the great and loving conversation which is God’s dream for his world. Amen