Monday, 29 December 2014

Holy Innocents

A Sermon by Kevin Bright

Matthew 2.13-18, Jeremiah 31.15-17, 1 Corinthians 1.26-29

Well that’s it all over for another year, ‘thank goodness for that’ some will say whilst others love it all so much that they call the words of the Elvis song to mind as they think ‘why can’t every day be like Christmas’!

I guess it all depends on what we really mean by Christmas.

I was looking online at what the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury had to say about it. Not that Justin Welby has been well enough to say anything much in person due to Pneumonia.

In his sermon, released in statement form, the archbishop said of the World War One truce: "The problem is that the way it is told now it seems to end with a 'happy ever after'.

"Of course we like Christmas stories with happy endings: singing carols, swapping photos, shaking hands, sharing chocolate, but the following day the war continued with the same severity.

"Nothing had changed; it was a one-day wonder. That is not the world in which we live, truces are rare."

It’s not a cheerful message but it is one based on centuries of cold facts.

Those who heard Anne’s midnight mass sermon (which is available on the website for any who were tucked up in bed) will have heard that ‘of the Christmas cards received there were a few pictures of Mary and Jesus, but the biggest subject by far was the wise men, offering their gifts or travelling on their camels. ‘Mary and Jesus together with the Shepherds were way behind by number.

Of course there are always plenty of snowy scenes and Father Christmas images as well but unsurprisingly imagery relating in any way to the slaughter of young boys by Herod in Bethlehem doesn’t get a look in. Of course I understand why but it doesn’t make these events any less a part of the Christmas story, it’s just that we don’t want to dwell on this even though it’s very much part of the sad reality in our world.

If we are trying to think of an example we don’t have to go back very far to recall the 132 children killed in a Taliban attack in Pakistan recently.

Christingles and nativities seem far removed from such brutal realities and stories about cruelty, fear and despair don’t match with the idealistic fantasy of Christmas.

After we have developed a nice warm feeling inside with festive dining, gifts,  and best wishes for peace on earth around our Christmas trees, Matthew brings us back to reality as sharply as the sudden drop in temperature we are experiencing at the moment. As we are physically reminded that it is winter we are similarly jolted into facing up to the reality of our world.

The cold winds of winter take some adjusting to but once we do so we are reminded that there is beauty to be found in a frosted landscape. As our faith deepens and matures we find that in facing up to a reality which includes the unjust, sad and tragic elements of life that God is in there, somewhere. This is exactly the world he chose to be born into, a world of injustice, cruelty and danger. Where leaders demonstrate their power by killing those who threaten their status and continue to do so today.

King Herod (‘the Great’) executed anyone who he perceived as a threat to his throne, even including three of his sons and a wife so the elimination of some infant males in a small village would not have been big news to those that knew him. He was prepared to protect his privileged position with brutal force without a shred of guilt over the unbearable suffering caused to their loved ones. This was his definition of security and one which has been repeated through the ages.

Contrast this display of power with that of a God who reveals himself as a small, vulnerable and powerless baby. Indeed so vulnerable that his parents must seek asylum in Egypt if they are to avoid the same fate as the other boys.

The Pope reminded the world that little has changed over the last two thousand years when he stated that ‘advances in Iraq by Islamic State militants have forced tens of thousands of Christians and people from other religious minorities to flee’.

Matthew refers to the voice of ‘Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’

We are introduced to Rachel in Genesis and hear of her great beauty and how Jacob is besotted with her.

Rachel dies giving birth while on the road to Bethlehem. In the midst of her suffering, the midwife tries to comfort her with the news that she is having another son who she calls Ben-Oni (son of my suffering) though Jacob named him Benjamin. Her child is the cause of her weeping but also her hope for the future.

The prophet Jeremiah draws upon this message once more stating that ‘Rachel is weeping for her children’ this time because they are being led into captivity and exile. He then offers hope that her children will return. Once again, her offspring are both her cause of weeping and her hope for the future.

Matthew tells us that the massacre by Herod is the fulfilment of a prophecy from Jeremiah.  Rachel weeps a third time, on this occasion over the slaughter of the children at Bethlehem. The next verse which we didn’t hear today offers hope as it tells of Herod's death and the return of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to the land of Israel.

Each time we are given examples of why God offers hope that lives on but can be hard to see among the desperate sadness.

Sometimes we have to look a little beyond the immediately obvious to find true meaning. We are all probably guilty of wanting to believe a certain version of events knowing that the reality is going to be a bit harder even it proves to be more enduring and have more real meaning. Christmas is very much like that, we enjoy the socialising, the carols and the cosy images but how much richer can our lives be if we scratch beneath the surface to seek the real love God sent us in Christ? Love that is so strong that it can be with us in every aspect of our life’s journey through sadness and suffering as well as in the good times. Love for all of us for every day, rather than for a season.

It occurred to me that perhaps it’s worth going back to look at bit harder at the Christmas cards. When I searched inside there are many messages of love, friendship and encouragement, personal heartfelt messages, some of us will have written to people who particularly feel the loss of a loved one at this time. In doing so each message makes real the idea of an empathetic God who knows the pain of a parent forced to watch their child suffer and die.

I turned the Christmas cards over and was reminded that many are selected with thought and care, to publicise and support those who seek to alleviate human suffering with money going to Cancer Research, The Red Cross, Oxfam, Help for Heroes, Burrswood Christian Hospital, the Neighbourhood food collection, Hospices, Crisis and particularly poignantly of this Sunday when we remember the slaughter of the ‘Holy Innocents’ Save the Children.

I can’t imagine the agony of all who love the 132 Pakistani children killed recently and it’s hard to know how we can help. But as we pray for them our faith takes on an honesty which acknowledges that we don’t have neat answers to all the problems we face. Yet as people of the incarnation rooted in God’s love we also know there will always be hope worth clinging to.

After today’s sermon I don’t expect many will ask me to be Santa for next year, there hasn’t been a lot of ‘Ho Ho Ho’ has there. The reality of Christmas is a lot less attractive than many images on the cards but ultimately also far more compelling. I know today’s message requires some mental hard work and possibly some painful personal reflection but despite this, it is, and always will be, a message of joy and hope.

What many choose to regard as a fanciful Christmas fairy tale becomes a lot more difficult to dismiss when it manifests itself as a gritty determined love which suffering and pain cannot overwhelm.

Kevin Bright

28 December 2014

Thursday, 25 December 2014

The gift of the star: A Christmas Story

Merry Christmas! This is the story I told in place of a sermon on Christmas Day morning. 

There are many tales told of the wise men who came to visit Jesus. The Bible tells us very little, not even how many there were. We just assume there were three because there were three gifts, but many legends talk about a fourth wise man, or sometimes woman, who tags along somehow, and this is one such story. It originally comes from France – but this version is my own.

There were four friends who lived in the East. They were all astrologers, who looked to the stars for messages. You may know of three of them, called Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, but there was a fourth too, and his name was Ziba.
Ziba, to be frank, was a bit of a dreamer. He just couldn’t make decisions about anything. There were just too many possibilities to consider. But that meant that at least Ziba kept his eyes and his mind open. And maybe that’s why it was Ziba who first saw the star. A new star, shining in the night sky; a bright star that surely meant something, but what?

Ziba called to his friends to come and see, and all of them agreed that this must mean that something important had happened. “It is said,” said Caspar, “that when a star appears a great leader must have been born somewhere.” The others agreed, but who, and where…? They asked all the wise people they could find, of every nation and faith, and finally they discovered that a nation far to the West of them, called Israel, was longing for a new king, a king sent by God, who would lead them in God’s name and establish God’s kingdom of justice and peace in the world.

“That sounds like a very fine hope, and surely, “they said, “this star must be the announcement that he has been born. We must go and visit him!”
“But of course, “said Melchior “ we must take gifts. Kings deserve gifts”
“Fine gifts,” said Balthasar. “What shall we take?” They agreed to go away and think about it, and, in the morning, when they set off they would each reveal what they were taking.

The morning came, and the camels were prepared for the long journey. When everything else was loaded, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar came out carrying their gifts, wrapped in silk.
“I am taking the baby some gold – Gold for a king who comes from the splendour of heaven, gold to remind us that in him are all the riches of God’s love.”
 “And I am taking frankincense,” said Melchior “like the frankincense which is burned in the Temple, whose sweet smoke goes up to heaven as a symbol of our prayers, to remind us that this king shows us the face of God and brings us close to him.”
“And I am taking myrrh”, said Balthasar, “the ointment which we use for healing, because this king will come to heal the broken hearted.”
All four agreed that these were fine gifts.

“So, Ziba, what are you taking,” asked the others. “I don’t know,” said Ziba, miserably, “I can’t decide. I want it to be really special, but I can’t think of anything special enough – still, perhaps I will find something on our travels. By the time we get there, I’m sure I’ll have something to give.”

The other three rolled their eyes – typical Ziba – still, what could you do about him? He’d just have to come as he was!

So the wise men set off, heading westwards, in the direction of the star. It was a long journey, across the desert, stopping at towns and villages along the way. And everywhere they stopped, Ziba hunted for a gift for the newborn king. He looked in the bazaars. He looked in the libraries – perhaps a really special book would do, a precious book, full of wisdom. But there was nothing that was quite special enough. The days passed and the weeks passed, and still Ziba had nothing to give the child when – if – they found him.
When they got to Israel and to the court of King Herod – where else would a king be born? – Ziba even looked around there. Perhaps the King could suggest something? But somehow he didn’t trust Herod, and he was quite glad when Herod sent them on to Bethlehem. That was where King David had been born, so perhaps it was worth a try.

And when they got there – look – the star appeared. It was shining down on… that couldn’t be right! ordinary little house, and not even on the house, but on the animal shelter at the back. A king? Born here?
The wise men stopped and looked at each other. No one wanted to say it, but could this possibly be right? They got down off their camels and wondered what to do next. At that moment, a man came out of the stable. “Can I help?” he asked.
“I know this sounds daft, but we are looking for a baby sent by God, born to be a king, following that star, and this is where it seems to be shining…”
“Well,” said the man, “ I don’t know about messages in the stars and all that, but our baby is certainly a king to us, and a gift from God – come on in and see for yourself.”
Suddenly the wise men knew, somehow, that this was the place and this was the child. Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar reached into their saddlebags for those gifts they had packed so carefully, but Ziba, of course, had nothing to give.
Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar set off towards the stable. “Aren’t you coming, Ziba?” they said. But Ziba just looked miserable. “I have nothing to give the child. I can’t come in there with you,” he said. “ I will stay here and look after the camels – you go on in.”

So the three went in to the stable, and poor Ziba was left outside. “Well, while I am here I might as well do something useful. I expect these camels could do with a drink. I’ll fetch some water from the well for them.”
There was a well in the stable yard, and a bucket beside it. Ziba went across to the well in the stable yard and picked up the bucket beside it. He looked down into the well. It was very deep, and the water at the bottom was still as glass. And on the surface of the water Ziba saw the star, which had led them all this way, reflected in it. It was bright as day, and beautiful. “What a wonderful star” he thought, “What beautiful light it has. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
And suddenly Ziba had an idea. “What better present to give to the child than the very starlight that brought us here? If the star shines in the well, surely it will shine in the water I bring up in my bucket,” thought Ziba. “Yes, that’s what I’ll do – draw up the starlight in my bucket , and take it to the child in the stable.”
So, Ziba lowered the bucket down the well. When it hit the water the starlight shattered into a million pieces, but soon the water became still again and there was the star, shining in the bucket, just as it had before. Ziba carefully pulled the bucket up, and still the star shone there. Then he took the bucket by the handle and eagerly walked to the stable. He opened the door and stepped into the darkness of the stable. There were Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, kneeling in the straw in front of the baby and his mother, with their gifts laid on the floor in front of him.

They looked around to see who had come in, and Caspar came over to him. “Shh! The baby’s sleeping. What have you got there? “ he hissed. “ A bucket? We don’t need water in here...” “No,” said Ziba “ I’ve brought a present for the child.” “Huh! What?” “I’ve brought him the starlight. It was there in the well, and now I’ve got it in my bucket!”

“Oh Ziba,” said Caspar with a sigh. “Don’t you realise that it was just a reflection of the star above you. Now you are inside the stable, you won’t be able to see it. Look!”
And Ziba looked, and sure enough, all he could see reflected in the bucket was the wooden roof of the stable, and his own miserable face staring back at him. As he looked at his reflection, a big, fat tear rolled down his cheek and splashed into the water. “What a fool I am – not a wise man at all. And I still have nothing to give to the child.”

Ziba heard someone moving behind him, but he didn’t want to look around. He felt so stupid. He gazed down into the bucket again. If only he had been able to bring in that starlight – it was so beautiful.
“What’s the matter?” said a gentle voice behind him, and reflected in the water he saw the child’s mother bending over the bucket to look in it, and the reflection of the child in her arms too. And then a strange thing happened. The water in the bucket began to glow – brighter and brighter. The light was coming from the child’s face, and it filled the bucket, and it filled the stable, and it filled Ziba’s heart too. It was even brighter than the star, and more beautiful too. And suddenly Ziba realised that it didn’t matter that he had nothing to bring for this child. It was enough that he had brought himself, just as he was, dithering and confused. God loved him and welcomed him anyway.

And the wise men, all four of them, slept that night in the stable with the Holy Family and then the following morning began their long journey home again. At the end of their first day’s travel they stopped in a village for the night.
 The villagers were intrigued to know where these vistors had come from. So the four of them told them about their long search for the child, led by the star, and how they had found him in a stable and given him their gifts. “What gifts?” asked the villagers. “What did you give him?” “Gold and frankincense and myrrh”, they said – “and then there was Ziba’s gift….!” And Ziba told the story of how he had thought he could capture the starlight in his bucket, and how daft he’d been – it was just a reflection – but how the light of the child had filled the bucket and filled the stable, and filled his heart. “It was just an ordinary bucket, like this one,” said Ziba, picking up a bucket that was standing nearby. And he looked down into it,
And a strange thing happened. The bucket was filled with light, but this time it was his own face that was shining - lit up by this story he was telling, lit up by the love of God. And even stranger, when the villagers told the story later, to their friends and neighbours they found that the same thing happened all over again. Their faces lit up too.

And so it has been ever since. As the story has been told, so the lives of those who have heard it and told it in their turn have been lit up, with the light that shines in the darkness. And the darkness, however dark it is, cannot put it out. And maybe your face, and mine, might glow a little brighter this morning, as we hear and share the story of the child who is the Light of the World.

Based on a French Legend. My telling is adapted and developed from a version by Mary Joslin in The Lion Classic Christmas Stories.

Midnight Mass: Who'd be a shepherd?

A few days ago I was looking at the Christmas cards we’ve received this year. They are all very nice cards, of course, and thank you to those who have sent us your Christmas wishes. But when I looked at them I noticed something odd.

A lot of the cards we’ve received have religious themes – it comes with the territory – but the thing that intrigued me was which elements of the Nativity story they showed. There were a few pictures of Mary and Jesus, but the biggest subject by far was the wise men, offering their gifts or travelling on their camels.  And there were just two that depicted the story we’ve just heard, the story of the shepherds. That may just be chance, but it set me wondering. The people who make Christmas cards presumably know what sells, and it seems that kings are the sure fire winner. I wondered whether this was a recent thing, so I started doing a little research into the way the Nativity has been depicted in history, and sure enough, I discovered that across the centuries, it has been the wise men who get the lion’s share of the artwork.

The earliest depictions of the birth of Christ, from the fourth century or so, are almost always of the wise men. It was around that time that Christians stopped being persecuted and Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Suddenly wealthy and influential people wanted to be associated with this new faith. They had their coffins carved with Biblical scenes, and they built grand churches, adorned with glittering mosaics – the shinier the better. One of their favourite scenes was the procession of the wise men – who gradually turned into kings - bringing their gifts to the infant Jesus as he sits on Mary’s lap.

File:Magi (1).jpgIt was no accident that they were so popular. After all, they had built-in bling. You could sprinkle them with glitter, give them crowns and brightly coloured clothing; all the fun stuff. You could add exotic touches of oriental grandeur. These were people from far away, symbols of international prestige. They would lend you a bit of reflected glory as they shimmered on your church walls. Why would anybody want poor shepherds, dressed in browns and beiges when you could have these glamourous figures?

There’s another reason why the wise men featured so strongly in early art, especially the art that featured on coffins, and that was the fact that they came bearing gifts. The wealthy people buried in them wanted to remind people – and perhaps God – of their generosity. Sometimes their reminders were pretty blunt. Some of the gifts carried by the Magi have numbers inscribed on them, representing the sums of money the donors had given… *

There are pictures of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in this early artwork but the real shepherds of Luke’s Gospel story don’t get a look in. It’s only much later, in the Middle Ages, that they appear in art, at a time when there was a spiritual movement to emphasize far more the human emotions, the down-to-earthness of Christ’s birth. But if my Christmas cards are anything to go by, they’ve never really achieved the status of the wise men. They’re just not photogenic enough.

The shepherds were popular in Medieval drama though, in the great cycles of Mystery plays, which were based on Bible stories. These were a form of community theatre, each scene being acted out by amateur actors from different trade guilds, played in the open air from the back of carts. But though they were popular, the shepherd plays don’t given their subjects much dignity or reverence. In a typical cycle of plays from Wakefield we first meet the shepherds out on the cold hillside, complaining about the weather and their wives and the stinginess of their employers. We expect the angels to arrive any minute, but no, their first visitor is Mac the Sheep-stealer, a notorious local rogue. After a bit of banter he manages to put some sort of spell on them so that they fall asleep, and when they wake up they find that Mac has gone, and so has one of their lambs. Mac takes the lamb home to his wife Gill, who lambasts him for his stupidity; the shepherds are bound to know who the thief is, she says. Just at that moment, sure enough, they see the shepherds heading towards the house. Gill has an idea. She picks up the lamb and stuffs it in an empty cradle standing by the fire and covers it with a blanket, then sits down on a chair nearby and begins to moan and groan loudly to cover the sound of the lamb bleating. The shepherds burst in, full of accusations. “No, no” she says “We haven’t got your sheep. All there is in the house besides us is this newborn baby in the cradle, one of twins, and I am about to deliver the other baby. I swear it’s true, and if I am lying I will eat the child in the cradle”, which is exactly what she plans to do, of course.

And the shepherds fall for it.

They beat a hasty retreat, and Mac and Gill think they’ve got away with it and start taking the lamb out of the cradle. But just at that minute the shepherds return; they’d forgotten to give the new baby a gift and have come back with a sixpence for him. The trick is discovered, and Mac gets a beating. The shepherds retrieve their lamb and go back to the hillside, at which point, of course, the angels appear.

The message of the Mystery play is clear. These shepherds aren’t just poor, they are thick as well, so thick that they can’t tell the difference between a lamb and a baby. They stumble through life more by luck than judgement.  I’m quite sure that shepherding is actually a highly skilled job, but that’s not how shepherds were seen in the Middle Ages, nor was it in the time of Jesus, when they also had a reputation for dishonesty, grazing their sheep on other people’s land. And yet  in the Gospel story the angels come to them with the news of Christ’s birth. These are the ones who are chosen. They haven’t done anything to deserve it, but they are chosen anyway.

“If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb” it says in the carol we’ve just sung, but actually in the Gospel story,  the shepherds take nothing with them at all, nothing but themselves.  Maybe they didn’t think of taking a gift. Maybe they had nothing to take. But it doesn’t matter. All they need to do is turn up and be there in that stable. God will do the rest, showing them something that will fill them with joy and wonder, showing them that he is with them, in the reality of their ordinary lives. It is a theme that is picked up through the rest of Luke’s Gospel as fishermen and tax-collectors, prostitutes and outcasts are called to follow Jesus, and are given new dignity and hope as they do so.

I’m not surprised that the Kings make it onto the Christmas cards far more often than the shepherds. They are the people our society values, just as much as it did 2000 years ago – wise and powerful, in control, with gifts to give to others. They’re probably the people we’d like to be, deep down. But if we’re honest, I suspect that most of us, most of the time, feel more like the shepherds. We are just muddling through. We might try to look as if we know what we are doing. We might do our best not to fall flat on our faces. But sooner or later it happens. However wealthy and well-put-together we look, inside most people are all too aware of their insecurities, weighed  down by dreams that have crashed and died. Even our sins are usually more cock up than conspiracy. Few people are serial killers or multi million pound fraudsters. The things that louse up our lives are usually not very exciting. We open our mouths before we engage our brains. We get enmeshed in petty arguments that spin out of control. We don’t mean to hurt others, but somehow we do anyway.

Most lives are more farce than epic, if we’re honest. And yet, says this story of the shepherds, God comes to people like us, in the midst of our ordinary messes, in the midst of our awkwardness and embarrassment, and plants his kingdom within us. He puts his work into our hands, just as he put the Christ child into the hands of those shepherds. We may feel we have no more to give him than they did, but that’s the point. All we have to do is turn up, with our eyes open, our hearts open, our hands open, and he will do the rest.

The shepherds go back to their flocks, says Luke, back to their families, back to their lives, telling everyone who will listen this message they have heard, that God is with them - even them - that God cares about them- even them - that God wants them to be part of his kingdom, building a world where his peace rules. And if God wants them and welcomes them, then surely he wants and welcomes each one of us too, ridiculous, fallible, broken as we are.

*The Journey of the Magi: Meanings in History of a Christian Story

Richard C Trexler p 24

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Advent Breathing Space: Something to sing about 3: The Gloria

The third in our series of reflections on the Canticles of the nativity looks at the song of the angels to the shepherds - the Gloria.

In the last of our three reflections on the songs of the nativity we come to the main event, the birth itself, and the shepherds, abiding in the fields, minding their own business until heaven bursts into their lives and the angels’ song chases away any chance of sleep.

These shepherds are interesting characters and their significance has been interpreted in all sorts of different ways. Some commentators have seen in them echoes of the shepherd images in the Old Testament; of King David the shepherd boy who becomes a king, and God himself, the shepherd who leads us beside still waters and feed us in green pastures. But the truth is that shepherds at the time of Christ were often regarded as very disreputable. They seem to have had a reputation for dishonesty too, often accused of grazing their flocks on other people’s land.  So maybe these shepherds are meant to foreshadow all the other sinners and outcasts whom Christ welcomed and honoured.
There is a third possibility too. These are, specifically, shepherds living just outside Bethlehem, which is just a few miles from Jerusalem. In ancient times this seems to have been where the lambs were raised that were used as sacrifices in the Temple. These lambs had to be perfect, without any blemish if they were to be acceptable. Maybe Luke is reminding us that Jesus is the Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice that ended the need for sacrifice? It’s all speculation – Luke doesn’t spell it out and we probably miss things that would have been obvious to those he was writing for. But whoever they are it is clear that the shepherds aren’t the kind of people who would have expected to be first in line to hear about a royal birth. This kind of thing just doesn’t happen to them. Except that now it has.

A multitude of angels appear in the sky, praising God and singing the song which forms the beginning of the canticle we sing every Sunday at communion, the Gloria. “Glory to God in the highest heaven. and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”, or, as we know it, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.” The Greek can be translated in a number of ways, but the key to it all is the first word, Glory. This is a song that acclaims the Glory of God, the glory that is now spilling out onto the shepherds.

Glory was a very significant word in both the Old and New Testaments. Luke uses the  Greek word -“doxa” – but it is the direct equivalents of the Hebrew word “Kabod” (pronounced “kavothe”). Kabod wasn’t just a metaphor or an abstract noun to the people of the Bible. The Glory of God was an actual thing, a distinct phenomenon. The root from which it is derives means heavy or substantial. Although it is often described in terms of shining light, there was nothing ethereal about it. It was a weighty thing, full and abundant, but often terrifying as well.  Moses encountered the glory of God on Mount Sinai and  “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire,” we are told. (Exodus 24.17)  And when he came down the mountain, his own face shone with glory so brightly that he had to wear a veil to stop it dazzling people.
It was the visible sign of God’s presence. Ezekiel the prophet described seeing the glory of the Lord leaving the Temple in Jerusalem before the Babylonians destroyed it. It wheeled up into the sky and over the mountains that surrounded the city until it was gone from sight. It was a powerful symbol of his despair for his nation. But he also had a vision of it returning just as it had gone. One day the Temple would be restored.

But now this kabod, this glory, is spilling out of heaven and landing where? In the midst of a bunch of shepherds. It isn’t shining in the Temple. It isn’t shining on some High Priest or king. It is shining on some anonymous, poor, ordinary shepherds.  And it is directing them to a manger, not a palace, and to the son of a couple around whom there was at least a whiff of scandal – a child born too soon after their wedding to be strictly respectable. This is where God’s glory is now coming to rest. This is where God’s presence is. Who would have thought it?

 “Peace among those who he favours” sing the angels, which sounds like a rather barbed comment. It’s fine if you are one of the favoured ones, but what if you aren’t? But the good news of the angels’ message is that in this child God’s favour rests on anyone who is open to it. Jew and Greek, slave and free, men and women, the respectable and the outcast, the rich and the poor.

As Paul reminds the Colossians we can look into ourselves and into each other and see “Christ in you, the hope of glory”. We don’t have to go up Mount Sinai. We don’t have to look in the Temple. We don’t have to wait for some religious expert to dispense it to us. God has come to live in each of us, and in those around us, in all his glory. In the silence tonight, let’s ask ourselves whether we really believe that – about ourselves, about others. If the answer is no, or not as much as we should do, let’s ask ourselves what difference it would make if we really did.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Advent Breathing Space: Something to sing about 2

Something to sing about 2: The Benedictus of Zechariah

I can’t really remember what my first words were to my children when they were born. I was probably too worn out to say anything profound. I certainly didn’t manage to break into poetry, like Zechariah in tonight’s Gospel reading. Of course, he’d had a bit longer to think about it; it was a week since his son had been born. But despite that, these were his first words on the subject. He had been literally struck dumb when the angel told him his wife was going to have a baby, and it’s no wonder. They had been hoping for children for many years, with no success. It seemed as if it was too late now.

In the ancient world, having children was vital. It ensured the survival of your name. It meant there would be someone to look after you in your old age too, which was very important when there was no social security. But more than that,  it showed that God had blessed you. Children were a gift from God – there was no real understanding of why women might, or might not, conceive, and it was assumed that it was simply God’s will – or not. So Zechariah and Elizabeth had endured many years of sorrow and longing, perhaps believing that they had somehow offended God. It had cast a dark shadow over their lives. When the angel appeared to Zechariah and told him that Elizabeth was going to bear a son, it was more than he dared believe. And we are told that as a result he was unable to speak until the child was born.

But the child arrived as promised, and now, at eight days old everyone has gathered for his circumcision. What is he going to be called? Surely it should be a family name, after such a long wait for an heir to continue Zechariah’s line. But no. The angel had said he should be named John -  which means “God is gracious” and Zechariah knew that that was exactly right.  God had been gracious to him and Elizabeth. He had given them the gift they longed for. But his song tells us that he knew this child wasn’t just a gift to them, but also a gift to the world. This was the one who would prepare the way for Christ, who would call people to a new awareness of themselves and their need for repentance, who would remind them of God’s loving forgiveness.

It’s all there in the song Zechariah sings as his lips are opened again.  John will “go before the Lord to prepare his ways” He will “give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”  They will know they are safe in God’s love – that’s really what salvation means – because they will know that God has forgiven them. John’s message is not going to be “there, there, it’s all right”, or “I’m ok, you’re ok” and that’s just as well. Because often it isn’t all right, and we aren’t ok. His message will be far better news than that sort of papering over the cracks. He will tell people that God loves them and sticks with them no matter how far from all right they are, and can turn them around and heal them.  

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us,” says Zechariah. If you’ve ever sat through a long dark night, you might know the relief of seeing the first, pale light of dawn. That would have been even more true at a time before electric lights. At least when the dawn comes you can see what’s what. You might even be able to do something about it. You can see the help around you, too, and discover perhaps that you weren’t as alone as you thought you were.

For Elizabeth and Zechariah the birth of John, their son, was a light that chased away the long darkness of childlessness they’d endured. For the rest of us, his ministry was the first encouraging sign that God was on the move, coming in Christ to bring us the love and life we long for. “Now is the time to awake out of sleep” says St Paul. “The night is far gone; the day is near.” As we look at our lives this Advent, and at the world around us, it can sometimes seem as if the darkness could last forever, but God’s promise is that his light is stronger, and that the dawn will always come.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Advent 2: Finding God in the waiting

I wonder how good you are at waiting. It’s part of life – standing in a queue, waiting at the traffic lights, waiting for a repair man to turn up, waiting for your shift to end, waiting for a hospital appointment, waiting to arrive at your destination. Most of us don’t much enjoy it. Despite the fact that many things are now available almost instantly – instant communication by email and text, travel that is faster than our ancestors could have dreamed of – it can seem that we have even less patience than we’ve ever had. In places where we have to queue – at the post office or the bank for example - there are often tv screens displaying adverts or information to while away the moments. And we whip out mobiles or other devices to fill in the empty time whenever there is a delay on a journey. You might even have a car with multi-media screens in the rear seats so that children never have to be bored enough to ask “are we nearly there yet?”, though I expect they still do anyway.

There’s a lot of waiting in our readings today. The Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, writes for the Jewish people in exile in Babylon. A whole generation has passed away since Jerusalem was destroyed and they were taken away from their homeland, a generation that has gone like the grass that withers and dies. Is anything ever going to change, or are they stuck there forever? Some had given up hope of a return. They had stopped waiting, and had decided simply to abandon any thought of returning. Some believed that what had happened was their fault anyway; they must have done something wrong for this calamity to fall on them, so why would God even bother to rescue them? But Isaiah tells them that help is on the way, and it is worth waiting for. God is coming to lead them home, and nothing is going to stop him – the mountains will be levelled, the valleys filled in. If they don’t wait, if they don’t hang on in there, they’ll miss the moment.

For those who did wait, history tells us that help came. The Persian king Cyrus overthrew Babylon and allowed the exiles to return to their own lands. The Jewish people went back and rebuilt their Temple and their city. The waiting may have seemed endless, and some of them didn’t live to see that return, but it came eventually. The exile wasn’t going to be the end for the Jewish people after all.

In the Gospel reading John the Baptist is waiting too, waiting for the time when God would send his Messiah, his chosen one, who’d bring in a new kingdom, a new way of life. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; …I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.” Like Isaiah, his faith wasn’t misplaced, and when Jesus began his ministry, it was John who pointed him out, sending his own disciples to follow him.

Both these readings tell us about people who were waiting for things that did in the end happen. In the light of history we know that they didn’t wait in vain. Their waiting had a happy end. The people in today’s other reading, from the second letter of Peter, had a rather different experience, though.

The early Christians believed that  Jesus would return to earth very soon; maybe this month, maybe next, perhaps next year, but surely no longer than that, they thought. They believed he would come in clouds of glory, breaking open the sky. It’s all there in the letter; the heavens passing away, the elements dissolved, the earth and everything that is done on it disclosed. It would be something no one could miss, and when it happened it would signal the beginning of a new age, dramatically different from all that had gone before. They shaped their lives accordingly. St Paul told people who were single not to get married – why bother if the world as you know it is about to pass away? Everything was going to be different. All bets were off. If parts of the New Testament sound rather odd to our ears it is because it was written during a time when most Christians thought like this. The Gospels assume this is going to be the case. We can’t know whether Jesus believed it himself, but the Gospel writers certainly seem to think he did.

But the months passed and the years passed, and where was this second coming they were expecting? The decades passed and there was still no sign of it, at least not in the way they were envisaging. It was a real crisis for them.  Right up to the end of the first century, this belief was central to their faith. The fact that they were prepared to keep waiting shows how strongly they believed it, and of course it has resurfaced  from time to time ever since. There are always Christians proclaiming that this or that event is proof that “the end of the world is nigh”.

When Jesus hadn’t reappeared by the end of the first century as those early Christians expected, some of them probably abandoned their faith, but most began – quite sensibly – to ask themselves whether they had been correct in their expectation in the first place. In their eagerness for the mess of the world to be cleared up and for the kingdom of God to be fully established, they had fallen into looking for the quick fix, the apocalyptic magic wand, God’s dramatic intervention. They’d missed the subtler, quieter message of Jesus that the kingdom would come like yeast raising bread dough, or a seed sprouting unseen in the ground, fragile at first, but growing into a tree that gave shelter to all. They’d also missed his message that it would come through them, through their love and care for others, their work in the world.

“We wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” said the writer of this letter – and so do we all. One glance at the news tells us how much we need the world to change, for it to be a place where “righteousness is at home”. But the question is whether we see that just as a divine gift, landing from the heavens, entirely separate from anything we are doing, or whether we see ourselves as having a part in making that new world.

The thing is that waiting can take many forms. Sometimes it is passive. There’s nothing you can do to hasten it, nothing you can do while you are waiting that will prepare you for what is to come. Shuffling along in an endless post office queue is a bit like that. Assuming you’ve got your parcel wrapped up and addressed, or your forms filled in, all you can do is stand there until your turn comes round. What you are doing while you are waiting makes no difference. The length of time you have to wait makes no difference – it is just that bit at the end when you finally reach the counter that matters.

But there are other sorts of waiting that are active, where what you are doing as you wait affects what will happen at the end of the wait. If you are pregnant ,the time you have to wait until the baby is born isn’t just wasted time. During those months, the child is growing inside you, being built out of the very stuff of your body. As any pregnant woman knows, what you do during that time, what you eat and drink, how you take care of yourself profoundly matters. It is a source of huge anxiety, in fact. The list of dos and don’ts gets ever longer. You can’t make the baby’s birth come any sooner by anything you do, but what you do is crucial to how that baby grows. There is a natural process going on which you can’t control, but which you are vital to. It’s like the yeast growing in the bread dough, or the seed sprouting, to use the metaphors that Jesus used of his kingdom. They take as long as they take to do their work. You can’t hurry them, because you need a good process to get a good result.

“Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation”, says Peter. No matter what strange beliefs he may have had about the future, he’s onto something very true and sensible here. It is in the waiting – God’s waiting and our waiting – that we have the chance to grow to be the people we are meant to be. How does the world become a place where “righteousness is at home”? a place where goodness is natural and normal, as it should be? Through our lives becoming  places where “righteousness is at home”, where we have learned to live with kindness, respect and love towards others; that’s how.

In a sense all of life is waiting; we are all time travellers, heading for a future we can’t predict or control or hurry along. We wait to be born. We wait to grow older. We wait, in the end, to die. It all takes the time it takes. But if all life is waiting, then waiting is also life. Each day is a gift, each day a day in which what we do makes a difference to the future.

I wonder what you will have to wait for this week; for the kettle to boil, for the lights to turn green, for the queue to move on? How would it be if, instead of reaching for something to distract us from the wait, or tutting and fuming, we tried to wait actively? How would it be if we used those moments to pray for someone, to notice the world around us and the people we are waiting with?  How would it be if we took that time to ask, “what needs to change in my life? What can I do so that righteousness is at home in me?” Maybe if we do, we will find that that God has showed up in our midst, after all, with the love and the peace we were waiting for all along.


Friday, 5 December 2014

Advent Breathing Space: Something to Sing About: 1

This is the first of three short talks delivered at our candlelit Thursday evening "Breathing Space" Communion services, which will focus on three of  the songs that feature in Luke's account of the nativity, which are known to the Christian church as the Magnificat (the Song of Mary), the Benedictus (the Song of Zechariah) and the Gloria (the Song of the Angels).
This first talk focuses on the Magnificat. At the end of the service we heard this version by Orlando Gibbons, from his Second Service.

Our daily Advent meditations this year focus on Christmas carols, so I thought in these three Advent Breathing space Communions we might think about three Biblical songs associated with the Nativity. We’ll be thinking about the Song of Mary, which we call the Magnificat, the Song of Zechariah, (the Benedictus), and the Song of the Angels to the shepherds, which is the beginning of the Gloria. They have become well known and well used in Christian liturgy, but they were initially drawn from Luke’s Gospel.

Tonight we heard the first of them. After Mary discovered she was pregnant she went to be with her relative Elizabeth, who was also expecting a child – John the Baptist. Both pregnancies were miraculous according to the story. In the ancient world that was a sure sign that the child to be born would be special. But although Mary and Elizabeth had something in common because of that, their pregnancies were also very different. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah hadn’t been able to have children, so when she unexpectedly conceived her neighbours would have seen this as a wonderful and joyful event. But Mary’s pregnancy looked like a disaster. She wasn’t married. She had no business being pregnant according to the social conventions of the time. There was a real risk she would be rejected by her husband-to-be and by her community. She could even have been accused of adultery and stoned to death. Is she seeking for refuge when she goes to Elizabeth? I wonder what she thought as she sought her out. Would Elizabeth reject her?  
But she needn’t have worried. Not only did Elizabeth rejoice to see her, even her child “leapt within the womb”. Mary’s relief comes through in her song. Elizabeth’s joy gives her permission to rejoice too, not just for herself but for others as well. And in fact it is the whiff of disgrace around her son’s birth, which is at the root of her rejoicing. This child, born against a background of disapproval, will, throughout his ministry lift up those who are shamed and trodden down by society. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones;” sings Mary, “and has lifted up the lowly.”

Luke put these words into Mary’s mouth many years after the event, of course. He wrote his Gospel around 80AD. But he didn’t just pluck these scenes out of the empty air. Luke’s imagination is guided by what he knew about the adult Jesus and his impact on those who followed him. He was part of a Christian community which had seen and been involved in the transformation of people’s lives as they came into contact with Jesus and his followers. Luke also wrote the book of Acts, from which our first reading came, and in it we heard about one of those transformations.  Peter and John, after the Resurrection and Ascension, had become leaders of the early church. One day as they were on their way into the Temple to pray, they came across a beggar, disabled from birth, unable to support himself any other way than begging. It was hard to avoid him. He was sitting at the gates of the Temple. It was a good place to catch people who might want to assuage their guilt with a quick donation. But he was also there because he couldn’t go any further in.

Disability and disease were widely understood as punishments from God, a sign that you were ritually unclean, so this was as far as he could go.  There he sat, day after day, as people went past him, probably not even looking at him. When he asked Peter and John for money, though, Peter didn’t respond as he expected. He didn’t just toss him a handful of small change, or hurry past averting his eyes. He stopped and “looked intently at him,” the Bible says. What was going through Peter’s mind? Perhaps he remembered the crowds of sick people who had come to Jesus “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”? “I have no silver or gold,” said Peter, “but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk”. And he “took him by the right hand and raised him up.” And the man was healed, not just physically, but emotionally, spiritually and socially too. “He entered the Temple with them” – this place from which he had been barred –“walking and leaping and praising God” – filled with joy, with his life restored to him.

The words Luke gives to Mary in her song are not just pious poetry, they set down the real experience of seeing people at the bottom of the heap receive their lives and their dignity back.  However we feel about the physical healings in the Bible, which don’t sit easily with our modern ways of thinking, it’s clear that “the lifting up of the lowly” wasn’t just a noble aspiration, but somehow part of the DNA of the early church.  And it is still part of the DNA of the church today. I spent this morning in the Hospice in the Weald, visiting someone there. I couldn’t do much but sit and hold her hand and pray, so that’s what I did, but it seemed to help. Dying can be a low place to be, and maybe my hand held out to hers lifted her up just a bit.  I talked to the chaplain there too, who day after day, lifts up those who are beaten down by illness or fear, and I know there is an army of volunteers there who in their different ways make that a blessed place to die. They aren’t all Christian, of course, but many of them are, because this is what we do. We do it in the foodbank too, and in countless other projects, as well as in the personal, neighbourly “lifting up” that goes on unseen and unsung in our community. This is what we do, and we do it because God in Christ has first done it for us - lifted us up, given us dignity, love and life in him.

Tonight we might be the ones who lift up those who have been brought low by life, or we might be in need of that lift ourselves, but whichever it is, in that outstretched hand, we touch the hand of God, and, like Mary, we rejoice.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Advent Sunday: At the very gates

 Isaiah 64.1-9, 1 Cor 1.3-9, Mark13.24-37

I overheard a small child talking to her mother outside a shop last week. It must have been a hard day because mum sounded quite frazzled even before this exchange took place, but the little girl had seen the Christmas decorations on sale in the shop, and she was full of excitement. “Mum, can we put up our Christmas tree when we get home…” The thought of whatever that might involve was too much for her mum. She thought for a moment, and then, as if she was reading from some book of unbreakable laws, she announced . “No – I’m sorry - you can’t put Christmas trees up until it’s December…”  Well, I suppose  at least she bought herself a few days’ grace …

It was a fascinating little exchange because it illustrated what I think really was the perception of both mother and daughter. December was the month for putting up the Christmas decorations. The celebrations kicked off on December 1, and continued – probably quite frantically – until Boxing Day, at which point everyone collapsed in a heap of tinsel and leftover turkey to recover. At this point , though, that mum had it all ahead of her, and she wasn’t looking forward to it one bit.

Of course, here in Church things are rather different. As everyone else is putting up decorations we are taking them down, stripping the church of flowers, dressing it in sombre purples. And the readings we’ve heard today – well, they’re not exactly Christmassy either. There are no chestnuts roasting on an open fire, or reindeer with shiny noses. It all seems to be suffering and calamity. “In those days,” says Jesus ” the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the heaven and the powers of the heavens will be shaking…” Well, Season’s Greetings to you too, Jesus…!

It can be quite difficult explaining to people why the Church is so much at odds with the rest of the world during Advent, with readings full of doom and gloom and calls to repentance.   Are we just a bunch of kill-joys who are never happy unless we are miserable? That can certainly be the case, but it’s not really what is going on when we stubbornly cling to the penitential, reflective nature of these weeks leading up to Christmas.

The fact is that we need to start here, like this, with penitence, with sorrow, with longing, because Christian faith is about reality – my real life, your real life, the real lives of those around us, and real life is not all a bed of roses, or of tinsel either.

Earlier this week I heard an interview with someone who was talking about the introduction of the new Universal Credit system for paying benefits, which is proving very tricky to set up. The interviewee, who’d been brought in to try to sort things out, said that part of the problem was that the bodies responsible for it suffered from what he called “a culture of good news”. That sounded odd. I wondered if I had heard right, but that was what he’d said – a culture of good news. What he meant was that everyone was determined to say how wonderful everything was and how well everything was going, even when it wasn’t. The “good news” was really a lie, of course – the news wasn’t good at all - but it made people feel better in the short term to pretend it was. Perhaps it was a kindly instinct, wanting to sound encouraging. Perhaps it was just defensiveness, wanting to ward off criticism. But the relentless positivity meant that no one could ever admit that anything needed to change or improve, and so nothing did.

We all do this sometimes. I don’t think it is just pride – wanting to look good in the eyes of others. I don’t think it is just laziness either – not wanting to pull our fingers out and make the effort to change. I think it runs deeper than that.

It seems to me that we often take refuge in this false “culture of good news”, because we don’t believe that anything can really be done about the things that are wrong in our lives or in our world. The “culture of good news” masks a culture of despair. What’s the point of admitting things need to change if we can’t change them? So let’s pretend that everything is fine, talk ourselves up, talk each other up, even if there is no foundation for that, even it if means we come crashing down all the harder in the end.

So when the Bible goes all apocalyptic on us, proclaiming that the end of the world is nigh, it’s no wonder we’d rather skate quickly over it. The end of the world is about as bad as it gets, after all, and it certainly beyond any of our powers to sort out. We certainly don’t want to dwell on it with Christmas just around the corner. Let’s hurry on quickly to the baby in the manger, and the angels singing, and all that nice, cosy, tinselly stuff that makes us feel good. There’s a danger, though, that when we do that, we are simply buying into our own version of  that false “culture of good news” and that leaves us not just with a theological problem but with a personal one to, because Christian faith, as I said, is about reality, real lives, yours and mine.

It’s ironic, because the message of the Gospels is all about Good News  – that’s what the word “Gospel” means – but it’s genuine good news we are being offered, not something that’s just designed to shield us from the truth.

To understand the difference, to find Good News that is real, we need to spend time with these uncomfortable readings that say things which we’d rather not hear.
Most of us probably don’t take these apocalyptic words of Jesus literally, but you don’t have to take them literally to appreciate their power.
Jesus can see that disaster is looming. The Romans occupied the land and Israel was always on the brink of catastrophe. It eventually came in AD70, when the Romans lost patience and destroyed Jerusalem, sending its people into an exile which really only ended in the 20th Century.

Whether we take Jesus’ words about the sun and moon and stars failing as literal predictions or not, we can see that those who went through the events which were just around the corner would have felt as if this is what was happening. It wasn’t just a political event for them, but a cosmic one. It affected their whole world and that’s something we can all identify with at some level. Things happen that might as well be the end of the world for us, too, things that change our lives irrevocably. It feels as if the sun has gone out. It might be the diagnosis of serious illness, the end of a relationship or the loss of a job or home. It might be war, which destroys communities for ever, or epidemic diseases like Ebola or Aids, which take away lives and futures. It is International Aids day tomorrow, and a good time to remember that for many, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, this is still a massive scourge, which has wrecked families, wiping out whole generations and leaving children orphaned. Calamity can be just around the corner, and we have no idea it’s coming. And when it does come it can so easily feel as if there is no future left to look forward to.

But the Gospel says that the disaster is not the end of the story. It is the beginning. “When you see these things,” says Jesus, these disastrous things, “ you know that he is near” - the Son of Man, the one who represents God.  The time when things are at their bleakest, when we are faced by tragedy that seems cosmic in scale, as if the stars are falling, is the moment , he says, when God is “at the very gates” , the gates of our lives, the gates of our hearts. This is the moment, if we are prepared to acknowledge our need, if we are prepared to let him, that God can come into our lives anew, and who knows what can happen then?

That’s why Advent matters. These few weeks help us to own up to the fact that actually, we can’t do it; we can’t sort ourselves out, we can’t prevent bad things happening, we can’t, however superhuman our efforts, sort out all the pain of the world. It is the time when we allow ourselves to drop that false “culture of good news” for the truth that leads us to the real Good News, the news that we are eternally loved by the God who comes to us in Christ. When we do that, we find ourselves in a whole new world, with a whole new life ahead of us.
I’d like to finish with a poem by Jan Richardson, which really sums up this message far better than I can. It is called “Blessing when the World is Ending”.

Blessing When the World is Ending
Look, the world
is always ending

the sun has come
crashing down.

it has gone
completely dark.

it has ended
with the gun
the knife
the fist.

it has ended
with the slammed door
the shattered hope.

it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone
the television
the hospital room.

it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
your heart.

But, listen,
this blessing means
to be anything
but morose.
It has not come
to cause despair.

It is simply here
because there is nothing
a blessing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.

This blessing
will not fix you
will not mend you
will not give you
false comfort;
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.

It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
will come,
gathering itself
about you
as the world begins

– Jan Richardson

© Jan Richardson.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Christ the King: Hopeful kingship

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. It’s not an ancient feast. It was only instituted in 1925 by the then pope, Pius XI. He wanted a feast that made people think about power, who had it and how it should be exercised. It was just a few years after the end of the First World War, when people had images of that industrial scale, nameless, faceless slaughter in their minds. But the war hadn’t brought peace. Instead communism, fascism and nationalism were on the rise.  Pope Pius had been the previous Pope’s representative in Poland in 1920, when the Red Army of the new Soviet Union had advanced on it. He could see how destructive the new powers of this age could be. Towards the end of the 19th Century the Vatican had lost many of its old territories to the new united Italy, too, so the introduction of this feast certainly had an element of defensiveness about it, reasserting the power of the Catholic Church.

But however mixed the motivations for this feast might have been, I think it has a valid place in the Church’s year. The point that Pius was making was that above and beyond the empires of the world was the kingdom and kingship of God. The Red Army might be on the march, but Christ was on the throne of heaven. Fascism and nationalism might be gaining ground, but God still reigned. He was saying that the power of God is greater than the powers of the world. That included, of course, the power of the Church, though I don’t know if Pius would have seen it this way.

Christ is king, says this feast, not our human ideologies and economic structures, however powerful they seem.

But what does that mean?
Christ is king. It sounds great. But what does it mean?

What does it mean to say that Christ is king if you are suffering from Ebola, or have just lost your family to it?
What does it mean to say that Christ is king if you are homeless and living on the streets as winter sets in?
What does it mean to say that Christ is king if your life has gone haywire, if you are suffering from depression that nothing seems able to lift, if some terrible wrong has been done to you for which there is no redress?

If that’s your life, then simply declaring that Christ is king won’t do, however loudly and splendidly we proclaim it.

Most people throughout human history would have assumed that the first job of a king, or any other leader, was to keep their subjects safe, to provide for them. The word Lord comes from the Anglo-Saxon Hlaford, which means loaf giver. If you couldn’t come up with the bread to feed people, how could you expect them to follow you?  Often people feel the same about God. “What does it mean to say that Christ is king when this bad thing has happened to me?” they ask, quite understandably.

There aren’t any easy answers to that question, and it’s not a new one. People throughout the ages have asked it. We live in a world in which bad things happen, often for no reason we can fathom. It’s no surprise that people sometimes lose their faith in these situations.
What truly ought to surprise us, though, is that is that so many others keep theirs, or indeed find faith for the first time. Yet, in my experience,this is what often happens. “I wouldn’t have been able to get through this” they say, “if I didn’t have my faith to support me.” The tough things might still be tough. They may be clinging to faith by their fingertips, but they know it matters to them that they hang onto it, because God is in their somewhere. They may have met him in the stillness of prayer or in worship or in the words of the Bible. They may have met him in the love of others – often we need others to hold onto faith for us for a while when we can’t hold onto it ourselves. However it has happened, though, they’ve discovered that they’re not alone, and that’s given them the strength they need to keep going.

It seems to me that the Anglo-Saxons may have been wrong to equate Lordship with loaf-giving. Of course people will follow someone who fills their bellies in the short-term. But what we really need in times of crisis isn’t just short-term sustenance, but long-term hope. We need a sense of confidence that we can get through this, that there is a future, even if it is different from the one we’d imagine, that something good can come out of the present mess, even if we don’t get to see it this side of death.  A good leader has to believe that there is a future worth leading people towards, otherwise, why would they bother to lead at all? They have to be hopeful that the situation can change, and they have to be hopeful as well for the people they are leading, believing that they are worth encouraging, that they matter.

Paul felt that way about the Christians in Ephesus. My guess is that they weren’t too different from any of the rest of us, each one a mix of good, bad and ugly, each one with their faults, but Paul looks at them and gives thanks for their faith and love. These are people, he says, who are called by God to a “glorious inheritance”, people with a future, people whose lives are of such great value to God that he sent his son among them to go through the darkness of death with them. They may think they are just Joe Bloggs from some back street of Ephesus, but Paul tells them that God thinks they are worth everything he has. “I pray…that you may know the hope to which he has called you” he says. If each one of them knows this for themselves, then they will surely treat themselves and each other with the care and respect God wants them to.

To go back to those questions I asked earlier, what does it mean to say that Christ is king when you are in the midst of a catastrophe like Ebola? Well, perhaps Christ’s kingship – that hope for the future - is seen in the shape of people like Will Pooley,  the nurse who went to Sierra Leone to help, contracted the disease and then, having survived, has gone back to help again. Scientific opinion, he says, suggests he is now immune – probably – but I’d want a bit more than “probably” if it were me. His actions show his sense of hope for the future of Sierra Leone and its people – they are worth the risk he is taking. I don’t know whether Will Pooley has any religious belief at all, but I am quite certain that God is present in the work he is doing, and that the Ebola hospitals where he and so many others are working , and often dying, are holy places.

And that brings us to the Gospel reading which is also about holy places, places where people have encountered God. What is the difference between the sheep and the goats in the parable Jesus tells? Both groups met the same people – people who were hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, in prison. The difference is that only one group saw them as people who had a future, people for whom they had hope.

There are a lot of things going on when we turn away from people in need. We might be afraid or exhausted, or have no idea how to help, but fundamentally, whether we like it or not, if we ignore the suffering of others we are saying something about whether we think there is any future in them and for them. If we knew that the person we were allowing to die of starvation in some famine struck land was the one person in the world who had the secret that would cure cancer, would we want to keep them alive? I bet we would. Yet who knows how many gifts are wasted because the people who bear them never get the chance to thrive, or even to live?  It’s not just about economic or scientific usefulness either. Love is worth nothing in economic terms, yet we know that if it was a loved one of ours who was in need, we’d go to the end of the earth to help them if we could. Their love makes all the difference to our lives. The person we write off as hopeless might be or become  the irreplaceable person in someone else’s life, the person who unlocks their potential and their power to love others. Who are we to know? Doesn’t that make them of infinite worth too?

A medieval theologian called Meister Eckhart wrote that “Every creature is a word of God.”  Which of God’s words isn’t worth hearing? What might we miss if we aren’t listening to some of what he says?  
After all, in Jesus’ parable, it isn’t the helpers who are the king in disguise, it is those who need the help. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” he says. Christ the king is found not just in those who give, but in those who receive too, in the whole, holy encounter. If we believe in God, we have to believe in people and hold onto hope for them, because God is present in them.

Christ is king, but, as Pope Pius wanted to remind people, his kingship doesn’t look like the kingship that most of the world, through most of history, has experienced. It is discovered when we find ourselves hoping, believing, trusting, that God is at work around us, even when everything seems to say he is absent.

I am reminded of the extraordinarily brave words of the parents of Abdul-RahmanKassig, the US hostage recently murdered by ISIS. “Our hearts are battered,” said his mother, “but they will mend. The world is broken, but it will be healed in the end. And good will prevail as the One God of many names will prevail.”  Rather than letting the darkness overwhelm him,” his father went on “he has chosen to believe in the good – in himself and in others…. his life is evidence that he’s been right all along; one person can make a difference.”  Do we dare to believe this, for ourselves and for others too? Do we dare to live out that belief? The just and gentle rule of God takes hold in the world little by little whenever we do.