Sunday, 24 November 2013

Christ the King

Luke 23.33-43 & Colossians 1.11-20

What springs to mind when Kings are mentioned? Possibly it’s medieval kings with elaborate garments, crowns and thrones enjoying banquets. These people had real power and privilege often maintained by ruling with an ‘iron fist’, making unpopular decisions and passing all this on by birth right to people who may be entirely unsuitable for the job.

It hard to imagine anyone higher than a king, the word instantly implies absolute supremacy. After all it wouldn’t have been the same if they had called Elvis the President of rock ‘n’ roll would it? When a football team wins the European Championship we often see the headline ‘Kings of Europe’ if it was Prime Ministers of Europe we’d need to check again to see if we were really reading the sports pages.

Our lectionary labels this Sunday as ‘Christ the King’. We could have been reflecting on the time the Magi got King Herod worried when they asked ‘where is the child who has been born king of the Jews, or when Jesus was in the wilderness and refused an offer to have all worldly kingdoms if he would worship the devil. Perhaps the easiest image to conjure is that of Christ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as the crowds laid cloaks and branches in his path ‘Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey…’ 

These earlier events have already taught Jesus followers that this is no normal king but someone who has come to show them what real kingship is about. So it follows that on the day set aside to recognise the kingship of Jesus we find ourselves at the cross.

We heard in Luke’s gospel how one of the criminals being crucified alongside Jesus adds his voice to the abuse, ridicule and mockery aimed at him but you sense a mood change which would surely have shocked those looking on as the other criminal calls out ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom’.

The criminal has heard Christ say ‘father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing’. He sees that this is a king who doesn’t blame the ordinary people carrying out the orders of the powerful, the carpenters and the soldiers. Even in agony on the cross he can’t stop caring for others.

The criminal recognises in Christ a power that sets people free and a truth that doesn’t need to make compromises, surely this is the sort of kingdom we would all like to make our eternal home.

Those who mocked Jesus might have felt affirmed if he had replied in a way that confirmed their view of all that was happening. The opportunity to admit final defeat was there and some of his followers would even have expected to hear him reply to the call of ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom’, along the lines of:-

·         Kingdom what kingdom, do I look like a king to you, can’t you see that I’m finished mate?

·         Sorry who said that, I’ll have to have my crown adjusted as these thorns are so tight the blood runs through my eyes?

·         Surely you aren’t taking seriously the inscription stating ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ are you? That’s just Pilate having a laugh, antagonising the Jewish leaders as he scoffed at the idea of me challenging the kingship of Caesar.

·         Who was the last king you saw that hung around with outcasts, sinners and the oppressed?

·         Didn’t you see that soldier offering me sour wine from a rag on a stick If I was a true king wouldn’t I have a royal cup bearer?

Instead we know that Jesus took this last earthly opportunity to remind us that God never stops reaching out in love to us, keen to welcome us into his kingdom.

Despite the obvious fact that this man had done much wrong he receives Jesus personal assurance that he will join him in Paradise making it clear that it’s never too late to turn to Christ and that nothing we do can separate us from God’s love.

The Colossians recognise God’s rule in everything and understand that they are set free by it. It goes beyond the language of kingship recognising God’s power in creation itself, power that transcends heaven and earth the visible and invisible. Free to live lives that understand who is ultimately in charge despite all they see around them.

God’s kingdom isn’t just our hope after death but we are invited to recognise its challenge to our understanding of human power.

Its worth us thinking about the things we do which fail to recognise Gods kingdom, the things that would make God small.

As we begin to understand the type of kingship we see in Jesus it helps us recognise a clear mis-match with much of what we value. Many of us will have come across the term ‘empire builder’ in the workplace the type of person always looking to increase the size of their team, their budgets, the size of their office until it is clear to everyone else how very important they must be. We need to think hard about why we are doing things and if they seem right to pursue them with a degree of humility.

There is a great deal of difference between those that accept responsibility and service and those that seek self-importance and power, between those who want to rule over others and those who want to live in community with them.

We know that there is a great deal wrong with our world but we also need to be people who can recognise God’s kingdom when we see it in each other. We get a glimpse each time we see kindness and forgiveness in action that seeks no reward, even more so when it is for those we don’t know, find hard to help or even like. Surely these are glimpses of paradise?

In doing these things we are not keeping God’s kingdom to ourselves but allowing others to experience it and share in it.

We recently had a future king recognise the source of all power as his son George was baptised into our church. The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby spoke of how we are all related through baptism, all part of the same family regardless of ethnicity or class. He was keen to point out that this is not something only for a future king but available to us all offering a gentle reminder that titles are meaningless to God.

We each play a part in building Gods kingdom  every time we refuse to turn our back on people in need, every time we exercise our capacity for forgiveness, every time we have the courage to stand up against what we know to be wrong and every time we try to put God’s desires above our own. We could think of it as bringing the cross and all it stands for into our world.

It sounds logical but it’s easy to get worn down and distracted from our good intentions we run into difficulty, disappointment and even danger for some. It’s therefore important that we support and encourage each other remembering that we are not alone in this. We, together, are the body of Christ and we have the potential to breathe new life into all we see around us.

Christ as a baby, Christ resisting temptation and Christ being adored as he rides into Jerusalem all offer palatable aspects of his kingship. Christ on the cross must be as raw a vision of God’s kingship as we can bear yet it is here that the paradise Jesus talks of becomes a reality for each one of us.

God as man and all the vulnerability that implies is the pinnacle of his kingship and the greatest ever demonstration of love, on the cross there is an eternal fusing of God to us which is hard to articulate. I find some words from Ted Hughes poem ‘The Crow’ helpful:-

‘So man cried, but with God’s voice. And God bled, but with man’s blood.’


Kevin Bright

24th November 2013

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Welcoming judgement: 2nd Sunday before Advent Breathing Space

Advent is just around the corner. In the Church’s tradition it’s a time for considering what are called the Four Last Things – heaven, hell, death and judgement. These days, though, I’m not sure that would exactly chime with the popular mood. A Christingle service on death…? A carol service on hell…? It’s just not going to work, is it?

But I’m glad to say that those rather more serious themes haven’t been wiped out of the Church’s year completely. When the services of the Church of England were revised at the millennium, some bright sparks noticed that actually there is a little season of festivals and commemorations in November which seemed to go together – All Saints, All Souls, Remembrance and Christ the King. They decided to call it the Kingdom Season (its colour is red, as you can see). And what are those services all about? Heaven, hell, death and judgement… In effect, just as Christmas crept forward into Advent, so Advent has crept forward into November.

Today’s theme is very definitely the last of the four - judgement. That’s not something people like to talk about much these days. Most of us don’t like being judged. Philip’s school has had the Independent Schools Inspectorate in this week – the private school’s equivalent of Ofsted. It has not been fun… Being watched, knowing you are being weighed up is very hard work and stressful, even if you are good at what you do.

If we don’t like being judged, we also often don’t want to do the judging either. We don’t want to be seen as “judgemental”. We’ve seen the damage it can do to others. Who are we to say what is right and wrong for others? Most of us are quite rightly reticent about doing so.

And often we take those feelings about judging and being judged and project them straight onto God in a way that is far from helpful. Many people still picture him sitting on a throne, high above them, with a frown on his face, just waiting to come down on them like a ton of bricks.  It is something that both secular and religious leaders have sometimes encouraged; with a God like this on your side, it is much easier to keep people in line. But it is any wonder that with all this baggage about people often prefer to avoid thinking about judgement if they can?

Our readings today are not nearly as coy about judgement as we tend to be, though. Jesus talks about the fact that there are tough times coming, times that will test people, but the Psalmist goes further. In his Psalm he makes it clear that it is God himself who is the judge.

But the odd thing is that he doesn’t seem at all worried by this. In fact, quite the reverse. He greets the idea of God’s judgement with joy, not terror.

 “Sing to the Lord a new song,” he says. “Shout with joy”. There are harps and trumpets. Even the natural world gets to join in – the sea makes a noise, and all that is in it. The rivers clap their hands and the hills ring out. They are joyful, he makes it clear not despite God’s judgement, but because of it. This joy will erupt “when he comes to judge the earth.”

The reason the Psalmist is so happy at the prospect is because he trusts that this God who is coming to judge is going to do so “in righteousness”, in order to set right what is wrong and heal what is broken, and he knows how badly needed that healing is.  His will be a judgement rooted in love, not in some petty desire to catch us out and see us suffer.

The raw truth is that judgement matters. We need to be judged. If I go to my doctor I very much hope that she’ll exercise judgement about me, otherwise how can she help? I don’t want her to say “no, no, you are fine...” when I am obviously not. I want her to see what is wrong, so that whatever ails me can be treated. 
We need to make judgements too, and we do so all the time. We need to decide what we should spend our time, energy and money on, who we should listen to and learn from and who we might need to be more cautious about. If we just shrug our shoulders and accept whatever happens around us, we will soon be in a great mess.

Most of all we need to let ourselves hear the loving judgement of God, because he is the one who sees us most clearly and cares about us most deeply. We can trust him to tell it like it is, even about those things which we so carefully try to hide in the darkest corners of our lives. In our silence, let us ask God what it is he would say to us tonight, what needs to change in us, and let’s remember that as he does so, all there is on his mind is love.


Sunday, 10 November 2013

Remembrance Sunday: True Patriotism

Remembrance Sunday 2013

“I vow to thee my country,” which we’ve just sung is what you might call a Marmite hymn – people tend to either love it or hate it. A lot of people find it stirring and beautiful, a celebration of their love for their country, and a reminder of their calling to build the kingdom of God too. But others are less enthralled by the appeal to absolute obedience in its first verse. Is it really wise to offer “love that asks no questions” to any cause, however good? Questions need to be asked before we put the lives of others at risk, they say. It is a perennially controversial hymn, and I noticed just yesterday that the battle lines were being drawn again over it in the Daily Mail, following an article about it by a priest who had gently it should be rewritten to reflect these concerns.

It didn’t, in fact, start out as a hymn at all. It was written originally in 1908 as a poem, by Cecil Spring-Rice, an official with the Foreign Office working in Sweden. In 1912, he became ambassador to the United States, where he was key in persuading the president, Woodrow Wilson, to abandon America’s neutral stance in 1917 and join Britain in the war on Germany.
Spring-Rice was called back to England in 1918 just as the war was drawing to a close,  but on the voyage home he died of a long-standing illness, so he never heard his poem in the form we are now so used to, set to a tune by Gustav Holst. 

It caught on and became popular rapidly, but as I said, it is a Marmite hymn, dividing opinions., and often people can’t understand why others don’t feel as they do about it, however that is. Like a lot of patriotic hymns, it can actually set people against each other, which is ironic for something which ends with a vision of gentleness and peace.

Perhaps the problem is that we‘ve often not asked ourselves what we really mean by patriotism, and that’s what I would like to think about a bit this morning. What does it mean to love your country? This is very much a live issue; we can see that in the way people react to groups like the English Defence League, or in the discussions around Scottish independence, or in  the tensions between EU countries about how member nations should support each other. We see it in the perennial issue of violence at international sporting events. Does loving your country mean hating someone else’s? Does it mean pulling up the drawbridge and looking only to your own narrow national interests even if that hurts other people? Is it about making sure that your nation comes out on top?

The language of patriotism doesn’t always help either. The patriotic songs we love so much are fine when it comes to expressing grand ideals, but they have nothing to say about the nitty-gritty of everyday life, the complicated realities we actually have to deal with, which are often the enemies that are hardest to defeat. Many disabled WW1 veterans found themselves jobless, homeless and destitute in the Great Depression of the 20’s and 30’s, and wondered what had happened to all the patriotic fervour that had sent them off to war. Still today injured or traumatised members of the armed forces can find themselves struggling to make ends meet. The British Legion has featured the story of 28 year old, Aron Shelton, from Bridlington in their publicity. He was injured in Afghanistan in 2007 and had to have a leg amputated. He will probably lose the other in the near future too. But Aron was told he wasn’t  "disabled enough" to continue receiving Disability Living Allowance (he filled in a form honestly saying 'on a good day he could walk 400 metres'). The Legion intervened and represented him at a Tribunal to appeal the decision; it took a year to fight his battle. In the end it was successful and his allowance, which pays for a car, was returned to him but should he have had to struggle so hard to get help from public funds, when he had given so much, and will have to live with his disability for the rest of his life? George Orwell commented ruefully in a diary entry in the middle of WW2 that “no one is patriotic when it comes to paying taxes” and that might be a thought that Aron would second.
Of course the question of what it means to love your country isn’t a new one. The Bible readings we heard today show us that people many thousands of years ago were struggling with the same issues. The people who wrote the Bible believed that their land had been given to them by God  and they loved it; they loved its hills and woodlands, its produce and pastures. In the Bible they wax lyrical about it often; it is a land flowing with milk and honey. Was it really better than anywhere else? Probably not, but it was home, the place they felt they belonged, the place where their memories were, the place where the people they loved were.  
It was a place, though, that was very often under threat.  It lay at the crossroads between Europe, Africa and Asia, and every great power in the ancient world wanted to control it. So little Israel was overrun by nation after nation. Sometimes that meant its people had to live under occupation, as they were doing at the time of Jesus. Sometimes it meant they were taken away to the lands of their conquerors by force. Most of the Old Testament was put together while they were in exile in Babylon, and it shows; it is full of wistful longing for home. “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion”

But alongside that longing there was also a hard edged challenge for those exiles, an awareness that for all its beauty, things had not always been as they should be in their homeland, and that when – if ever – they got home, the society they rebuilt needed to be different from the one they had lost.  God wanted to create “Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight” in the future, said Isaiah. What would that new Jerusalem look like in practice? It would be a place where people could grow old, rather than dying of hunger, disease or warfare before their time. It would be a place where they could build a house and actually live in it, plant a crop and get to harvest it; it wouldn’t be destroyed by invading armies. These are very simple desires, but they seemed far out of reach then, just as they do for many who live in war-torn regions now.

Isaiah knew that this kind of peace, peace which enabled people to live their lives to the full, would only become a reality if they could create a society which was built on the values God had taught them –  caring for one another, supporting the vulnerable, loving the stranger, putting justice for all before their own narrow self-interest. It wasn’t going to come about through grand patriotic gestures and fine sounding words. Isaiah’s God is not a big fan of pomp and circumstance, even when it came in the form of worship of him “I have had enough of your burnt offerings…” he says earlier in the book, ”….cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1.11&17)

It is a hard lesson to learn though; splendid ceremonial is a lot easier, and more fun, than caring for the poor. Five hundred years later, Jesus was making the same point as he lamented over Jerusalem which was under Roman occupation, and weakened by internal struggles for power. “If you had only recognised, even today, the things that make for peace!” he cried. Somehow they kept missing the point, missing the moment when God showed up among them -  “the time of your visitation from God” - missing the chances to make a real difference. They missed them because those holy moments weren’t the grand and obvious ones, they were the moments when a hungry person needed feeding, or a vulnerable person needed an advocate – the kind of advocacy the British Legion gave to Aron Shelton, that young ex-soldier.  It is these things, often small and humdrum, which really shape our communities and our nations.

What does it mean for us to love our country, to be truly patriotic? It means, first and foremost, caring about the place where we are and the things that make life better – or even just bearable - for those who share it with us. It means living with compassion and integrity in that place, responding to the challenges and the joys that are right in front of us.  Most of us are not called to lay down our lives in battle, thank God, but we are called to lay down our lives in service to those around us, and there is no shortage of opportunity to do so. We don’t necessarily have to “lay upon the altar the dearest and the best” in order to love our country. Often it is just about giving up a couple of hours on a Thursday night to help with the cubs, beavers and scouts, or offering to sit on the Parish Council and wade through paperwork that is probably far from thrilling so that the voices of your community are heard and represented, or even simply knocking on your neighbour’s door to get to know them, so that when they need you, or you need them, you aren’t complete strangers to one another.

Cecil Spring-Rice’s hymn tells us, in its second verse of “another country” to which we owe even greater allegiance than we do to the land of our birth. That country is the kingdom of heaven. I don’t know what Spring-Rice understood that to mean, but in the Gospels it is not a place that exists only after death in some world to come. Jesus says that it comes to birth in us and around us whenever we live out God’s love in practice in the place where he has put us. We can wave our national flags and sing stirring hymns if we want to, but it is love in action which is the patriotism that really matters. 


Sunday, 3 November 2013

All Saints Sunday: A Glorious Inheritance

Dan 7.1-3, 15-18, Eph 1.11-end, Luke 6.20-31 

“In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance” says Paul to the Ephesians. I wonder what it might have felt like to have heard those words when they were first written. Just imagine you were one of those early Christians in Ephesus. There probably weren’t more than a handful of you, but you’d have been a very mixed bunch. Some of you might have been wealthy – but many of you wouldn’t be – the Christian faith seems to have appealed most strongly to the poor, to women and to slaves in its early days. Many of you would probably never have dreamed you’d inherit anything – if you were poor or a slave what would anyone have to leave to you?  But here is Paul telling you that you have a “glorious inheritance among the saints”. He talks of riches and of the “immeasurable greatness of God’s power”.

All our readings today speak of inheritance in one form or another. Daniel hears in a vision of God’s promise that his holy ones – the ones who have stayed true to him during the Babylonian Exile – will receive a kingdom. And Jesus in the Gospel also promises that those who suffer now, those who seem poor now, will be rewarded, while those who have wealth that leaves others in poverty will find that they have received all they are going to get.

Today is All Saints’ day, so all this talk of inheritance is very appropriate. Today we are celebrating the inheritance of faith which the saints have handed down to us, the message of the Gospel which they have taught and lived. We are reminded too, that we have the task of handing on that inheritance to others in our turn; we are the saints for future generations. But what is this inheritance? Why does it matter? What do we need to do to get it? What should we do with it once we have got it?

Inheritance can be a very fraught business. Families often fall out over who gets what when someone dies. Nations descend into civil war over who should inherit the power to rule. People squabble over who are the true inheritors of the legacy of a great leader – who is carrying on their vision most faithfully. Sometimes, though, by the time the matter is settled the inheritance has been worn away to nothing by the struggles of those trying to get their hands on it or so spoiled that it isn’t worth having.

I was reminded of that earlier this week, when Philip and I were in Tewkesbury for a short break. We were wandering around Tewkesbury Abbey when all of a sudden we came across a very familiar name. There in front of us was the very grand effigy of Sir Guy de Bryene, lying in rather splendid state at the entrance to one of the side chapels. Now, anyone who knows this church well will know that we have a de Bryene here too. We’ve got Sir William deBryene, whose brass memorial lies just to the left of the altar, dating from 1395, and he happens to be the son of Sir Guy de Bryene, who we discovered in Tewkesbury.

Sir Guy de Bryene was a very wealthy and influential person, a close advisor to King Richard II and an ambassador to the pope. He had lots of lands mostly in Dorset, Devon and Wales. His name still lingers in place names there – Torbryan, Bryanston… He had three sons – Guy Junior, our William, and another called Phillipe. But Guy Junior and Phillipe died before their father so William was left as the only male heir. You’d expect that he would then be first in line to inherit all those fine lands and titles, but that’s not what happened. He is described on his memorial her just as “the Lord of Kemsing and Seal”, titles he’d inherited through his mother’s line. Now of course we might think that was a very fine thing to be, but I’m afraid that as far as Sir William was concerned, it was the booby prize. What had happened to those Bryene lands and titles which surely should have been his? Thereby hangs a tale… and it’s not a very edifying one.

It seems that when Guy de Bryene’s eldest son died in 1385 Guy senior decided to change his will. Instead of leaving everything to his second son, our William, as would have been normal, he cut him out completely, and left it all to Guy junior’s daughters – just little girls at the time.  We don’t know why, but perhaps his father knew a thing or two about William, because William promptly started to manoeuvre and plot quite disgracefully in order to try to discredit the offending will, or even make it disappear completely. He threatened witnesses to the will, trying to get them to say that his father was insane when he made it. He was even imprisoned in the Tower of London after he had been caught climbing the walls of one of his father’s castle in Pembrokeshire in order to break in and steal documents from a chest kept there which would have undermined his claim.  In the end, though, none of this finagling came to anything. William didn’t get the inheritance, and as it happened, he died just five years after his father, without any children of his own, and the de Bryene line soon petered out completely.

It’s an object lesson in the damage that inheritance, or the hope of it, can do. The inscription on William’s tomb asks that God should be merciful to him, and perhaps he knew he needed that mercy!

The kind of inheritance that the Biblical writers are talking about is not one of land or titles or material wealth, of course, but it can be just as fraught and divisive, especially when we bring to it the baggage of insecurity and greed which so often poisons our disputes over material inheritance.

Whatever form it takes inheritance is usually as much about belonging as it is about belongings. When families fall out over who gets the property of someone who has died, it is usually not so much because they want the cash they could raise by selling it, but because it symbolises how much they think that person valued them.  Siblings are often really fighting about who mum or dad loved most when they fight over who gets what. Someone who felt overlooked by a parent in life may well feel slighted in death too if they don’t get what they expect in the will.

The “glorious inheritance” Paul wrote to the Ephesians about is also, at its heart, an assurance that we are loved, that God is with us and for us, that we belong to him, that we have a secure place in his heart and in his family.
That sense of belonging was something which the Jewish people of Paul’s time held very dear. It had been promised to them through Abraham and restored to them through Moses after their slavery in Egypt. Again and again in the Old Testament God says that his dream was simply that “I will be their God and they will be my people.” Again and again he laments when that relationship is broken. Again and again, his people learn the hard way that, like all relationships, this one needs working at, it needs commitment from them to make it real. Again and again, when they turn back to God they find him ready and waiting to forgive.

There is a strong strand of thought in the Bible that this relationship is not meant exclusively for them; they are meant to share it. But that view kept being pushed aside in favour of a narrow nationalistic view of themselves as the sole inheritors of God’s love.

That’s no surprise. Just as siblings often fight for their parent’s love, grasping at it because they can’t quite trust that there will be enough to go round, so people tend to treat God’s love as if it’s in short supply and must be rationed out carefully. That usually means building walls and setting up barriers to keep those they think of as unworthy out.

The good news that Paul discovered on the Damascus road, though, was that this love was for everyone, that there was more than enough to go round, that however much of it was poured out, there was always an infinite amount left. His narrow vision of faith – so narrow that he was intent on physically destroying anyone who challenged it - was blown open by the voice of the risen Christ calling to him, and by the love of the Christian community that welcomed him with joy when he would have expected them to hate him. His good news was that the “dividing walls of hostility” as he puts it later in this letter had been broken down (Ephesians 2.14). God’s peace was for those who were “far off” as well as those who were “near” (2.17)

In today’s Gospel Jesus reminds us also that we can’t tell who is “in” or “out” by external appearances and circumstances either. Being poor, broken hearted, reviled is not a sign that you have done something wrong or are less loved by God. Conversely, being rich, popular and successful might tell you that you have made it in the world’s eyes, but it isn’t a sign of God’s blessing, and may in fact get in the way of it.

Today there are many things we could celebrate as our Christian inheritance, things we might treasure just as we do the precious vase an aunt left to us, or our grandfather’s war medals. We can celebrate the stories of faith, the music and prayers of the Church, the examples of service and courage of those who have gone before us, and it is right that we do so. But the most precious inheritance of all, and the one which is most easily lost, is the message that all these other treasures are supposed to convey, that assurance that we belong to God, all of us, whoever we are and whatever we’ve done, whether we are new through the doors, or cradle Christians, whether we think we deserve it or whether we know we don’t. It is an inheritance made all the more precious because it is for everyone. It is something we can afford to share with the same generosity as it was given to us, because it is endless and eternal. Today, whatever else we celebrate as our Christian inheritance, let us make sure we celebrate that inclusive love – a glorious inheritance indeed.