Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Easter 5: At Home with God - by Kevin Bright

John 14.1-14 & 1 Peter 2.2-10

What do we associate with home? If we are lucky it may be a familiar place where we feel comfortable. It may be a productive place where we have what we need to do our work. It may be a space where we are free to express ourselves by our choice of d├ęcor and furnishing.

Home can also mean much more than physical space. Fortunate people look back on their childhood and even if they didn’t care much for the building that was home they recall familiar smells, bread making or simmering stews that gave a sense of comfort. When going through the difficulties and confusion of growing up home may have offered the one place where security was a given, at it’s very best where unconditional love lived.

There’s a TV show called ‘Gogglebox’ which has proven to be an unexpected hit. If you haven’t seen the programme it simply shows a cross section of British people in their homes watching the week’s television. There’s an Indian man with his two sons who are often making fun of him, a gently spoken gay couple, one of which must think he’s in the swearing Olympics, an outspoken vicar who curls up on the settee with her husband and their greyhound occasionally spilling their tea and a well to do couple from Tenterden with a bar in their front room which contains the widest range of alcoholic drinks outside of a hotel cocktail bar. Clearly these people, even though on TV, appear to be relaxed at home and free to behave without judgement.

Jesus was moving on peoples thinking about what his Father’s house really meant. You will be familiar with the time when Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple telling them’ stop making my Father’s house a market place’. He wants them to cease thinking that the temple is the only place they can meet with God and expand their horizons to consider the possibilities of a new relationship that gives access to God’s house via Jesus.

Our readings today challenge those of us who find comfort and security in our homes by suggesting that the world is not our home. Jesus describes a mansion so big that there is space for many of us to dwell there with God. He’s obviously not referring to a trip to John Lewis when he explains that he will prepare a place for us and come back to take us there.

Peter’s letter is for a diverse group of people who are starting to realise that Jesus isn’t going to be taking them to dwell with God just yet. The impact of this is that they will need to find meaningful existence on this earth for longer than they may have planned for and this would include facing up to persecution because of their faith.

Away from the comfort of a secure building I heard a homeless artist speaking on the radio this week that as long as he could set up and paint then he was at home anywhere. He didn’t need a fixed abode just the ability to work.

Perhaps this is a bit more like what God offers. He knows our physical needs and shelter are much desired but when it comes down to it if we want to be at home with God we find our security in different ways. It’s a sense of home available to everyone, particularly those who have not been lucky enough to have a safe peaceful home in their lives. When Thomas asks ‘how can we know the way’, the way to God, Jesus replies with those famous words ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ Effectively he is telling Thomas that if you want to know what God is like, he is like me, and if you want a room in his mansion you will find it through me. If we want to be at home with God we need to be at home with Jesus and we don’t have to wait until we depart this world to move in.

We know that God loves the world and it’s people and he shown us that there is no limit to this. So as long as we are on this earth the way we live our lives gives us an opportunity to respond to his love in the way we relate to each other regardless of our differences.

In fact we are told to get building straight away by Peter. He describes us as living stones that can be built into a spiritual house. There’s nothing here that says we can’t blob out on the settee and watch telly sometimes but if that becomes what home means for us then we need to think again.

Kevin Bright

18 May 2014


Sunday, 11 May 2014

Easter 4: The voice of the shepherd

(During the service today we baptised Lyra, Ottilie and Mylo. It was lovely to welcome them, and their families and friends, to Seal Church. )

“I am the good shepherd” says Jesus in the reading we’ve just heard. The idea of Jesus as a good shepherd is so familiar to us today that we probably don’t give it a second thought. We are very used to seeing pictures of Jesus carrying lambs – there’s one in the stained glass window behind the font, so you’ll be able to see it if you’re close enough when we baptise Lyra, Ottilie and Mylo.  Of course, Jesus wasn’t a shepherd – he was a carpenter. But we understand what the image is saying. Shepherds are leaders, guiding and protecting their flock from danger, finding good grazing and water for them. That’s the point. It’s about leadership and care.

But when Jesus first likened himself to a good shepherd, and when the early Christians first wrote about him like that, it would been a real surprise and huge challenge to many people.

Imagine you were one of those early Christians, in the first few decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, as his message was starting to spread around the Mediterranean. They were a mixed bunch, so if you were one of them you might have grown up in the Jewish faith, like Jesus, or you might be from a Gentile background, non-Jewish – maybe Greek or Roman.

If you were Jewish you’d have been very familiar with the idea of the leader as a shepherd. Your scriptures, the books we call the Old Testament, were full of shepherding language. It went back to that great king of Israel, King David. He’d started out as a little shepherd boy who killed the giant Goliath. There’s a picture on the back of your hymn sheets to remind you of the story.

He’d learned his courage and his trust in God from being a shepherd, he said, fighting lions and bears who threatened his sheep. If you were Jewish he was the greatest leader your people had ever had, so it’s no surprise that shepherding had become a model for leadership. The scriptures even described God as a shepherd, the best shepherd of all. “The Lord is my shepherd” said the psalm we’ve just sung as a hymn.  So if you came from a Jewish background it was all this imagery you had in your mind when you heard Jesus calling himself the Good Shepherd. 

If you were Greek or Roman, though, you’d have had images of your own to draw on. Look at the second of the images I’ve put on your sheets.
At first sight it looks as if it might be Jesus, but it isn’t. It’s actually the Greek god Hermes. He was often pictured carrying a lamb, which was meant to represent your soul. Hermes was the one who carried you into the afterlife. So if you were one of those Christians who had a Greek or Roman background, this was the kind of shepherd you’d have been thinking of.

Either way – Jewish or Gentile – for Jesus to call himself the Good Shepherd sounded rather presumptuous, and it’s no wonder that those who were opposed to him found it hard to stomach. Who did he think he was? Another King David, a god like Hermes? To many he was just an upstart young carpenter from a backwater of Israel, and one who had ended up crucified for his impertinence. And wasn’t that the final proof that he was a pretty useless leader? How could God be with him and have blessed him if he had ended up dead on a cross?  

But his followers stubbornly kept walking in his footsteps anyway, proclaiming that he had risen from the dead, that the cross had not been the end of the story. Whatever they understood and meant by that, the fact that they were so convinced of it – convinced enough to die for preaching it – tells us that they’d experienced something pretty powerful. As far as they were concerned he was still very much with them, and he was a leader worth following. They were convinced too that his way was a good way, a way that led to life – the way of a good shepherd. The shepherd imagery and language they’d grown up with was the natural way of reflecting that for them.

The third picture on the sheet, from around the time Christianity was eventually accepted by the Romans is very similar to the Hermes statue, but is probably meant to be Christ.
And by the fifth century the transformation is complete.
In the mosaic from Ravenna the shepherd has grown a halo and carries a cross – this is obviously Jesus.

Anyway – that is the history lesson over. Why does any of this matter? Why, especially, does it matter when we come to baptise Lyra, Ottilie and Mylo?

It matters because one of the biggest worries any parent has – and I speak as a mum myself – is about who and what our children are going to be led by, what will influence them and what direction their lives will take as a result. Like all of us, they will be surrounded by a thousand voices calling to them, beckoning them, driving them this way and that. There will be the voices of the media – traditional and new. There will be politicians and campaigners and advertisers. Buy probably still the strongest influence of all will come from their peers. Peer pressure is as old as the hills, but has lost none of its power. People generally want to fit in with those around them, to do what their friends do.

We might like to think we are rational, independent people who carve out our own path through the world, but the truth is that we all follow leaders of one sort or another, and so will our children. And we know that. What matters is that as far as we can, we make a conscious choice, for ourselves and for them, about which of those voices we will pay heed to, which paths to follow,  so that we, and they, don’t just end up drifting along, trailing after whoever sounds loudest or most superficially attractive.

Baptism is a service with a host of meanings. It speaks of God’s love for each of us, of his promise that nothing can destroy that love. It reminds us that we are part of a family, wider than our own family, the family of God. But parents who come to me to ask for baptism for their children often tell me that an important reason for them is that they want to set them on a good road, to give them a good path to follow. In a moment I’ll ask these children’s parents and godparents “Do you turn to Christ?”  I’ll ask them to choose their direction of travel, to choose what they are heading towards. I’ll ask them to put behind them whatever it is that blocks that path, sin and evil, the things that weigh us down. I will ask them to make these promises not just for the children, but for themselves as well, because we can’t take others where we haven’t been ourselves.

Walking that path isn’t easy; listening for the voice of the shepherd, in the midst of all those other voices around us, isn’t simple. We can’t just say the say the right words, learn the rituals, wear a cross and think we’ve got it all done and dusted. We can’t just do the things that Christians have done in the past, parrot their beliefs and understanding, and assume that will be fine either. There’s wisdom to be found in old ways, but every generation of Christians has to find out anew what following Christ means for them as they face the questions and challenges of their own time.
But if we aren’t sure of the way ahead we can be sure that the way of Christ is a way of love, which leads to people growing in love. It’s a way of justice, which gives priority to those at the bottom of the heap, who need it most. It is a way of service, not one in which we cling anxiously to our own status and security. If we hear a voice calling to us and it’s not calling us towards those things, if it is calling us towards a life that is smaller, meaner, less loving, then whatever it is, it isn’t the voice of the Good Shepherd.

Today, we pray for Mylo, Lyra and Ottilie. We pray that they’ll learn to pick out the voice of Jesus from the babble of all those other things that will call to them, so that they can follow a path that leads to abundant life, full of the love and joy that God wants for them. It’s worth the effort, worth the risk, taking that journey, because along the way there are green pastures, still waters, comfort and strength in the dark valleys too. And they will be welcomed and loved by the Good Shepherd, with a place at his table, whatever happens to them, whatever they do. And God’s promise is that the same is true for all of us.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Easter 3: Known in the breaking of bread

Two people walking along a road are joined by third traveller in today’s Gospel reading.  They are soon deep in conversation. Emmaus, the village they are heading for is about 7 miles from Jerusalem, so there’s plenty of time to talk. The two disciples are on their way home from Jerusalem, dejected and confused. A few days before this Jesus, whom they had followed has been crucified. But - and this is the odd thing – stories about his resurrection have already begun to circulate and these two know about them. Yet they are still heading resolutely in the wrong direction, away from the place where new life and new hope is springing into being. It seems they are just exhausted with the whole business, worn out by the ups and downs of this saga. They’ve had enough; they can’t find the energy to hope any more, no matter how good the news might be.

We know that their fellow traveller is Jesus himself, but they apparently don’t, despite having been his disciples for some time, and that is something which has perplexed people ever since. Why didn’t they recognise Jesus?

Perhaps the sun was in their eyes, people suggest.
Perhaps neither of them wanted to make a fool of themselves by suggesting that it might be Jesus – after all, hadn’t they seen him die?
Perhaps he looked or sounded different in some way.

You can come up with all sorts of explanations for their failure to recognise him, but to be honest, this sort of debate really misses the point of the story. It isn’t about why they didn’t recognise Jesus, but why in the end they did. It’s about how we can all learn to see God at work too, God among us, Jesus walking beside us.

These disciples, we are told, eventually recognised him  “in the breaking of the bread,” in that ordinary act of blessing and sharing food. We’re not told how. It’s not explained. But perhaps that’s a good thing. It gives us room to ponder it for ourselves.

The Celtic Christians used to refer to their holy sites – sacred wells and other shrines - as “thin places” , places where somehow the divine shone through into everyday life, where you somehow caught a glimpse of God. This breaking of bread at Emmaus seems to be one of those “thin places” for these disciples. Light floods in and they suddenly see their whole encounter with this stranger in a new way. The words he’d spoken to them on the road – hadn’t they burned within them? Well, yes, though it was only in hindsight that they recognised this. The fact that he had walked with them all that way – in the wrong direction, away from Jerusalem where they really needed to be – that must have seemed significant too. Who else would have done that but Jesus, who had told them stories of lost sheep sought out by the shepherd , no matter how far off the beaten track the sheep had  strayed?

It was the breaking of break which finally enabled them to see through the barriers of their grief and exhaustion that God had been with them. They thought they had left Jesus firmly behind in Jerusalem. They thought they’d done with him, but every step they imagined they were putting between him and them, he had taken with them, and because of that the whole of life became for them a “thin place.” God was with them everywhere. And that included the wrong journeys and the half-understood conversations they got into.

The breaking of bread was to become a central part of Christian worship and experience, of course. It was already at the heart of the early Church’s worship when Luke wrote his Gospel, though it would have taken a very different form to the service we know. It would have been a full meal, for a start, not a small wafer and a sip of wine.
As the first Christians ate together they remembered the many times that they had eaten with Jesus, and they felt his presence with them once again. We tend to think primarily of the Last Supper as the model for Communion, but this “bread-breaking” at Emmaus is just as important, along with the feeding of the 5000 and the numerous meals we are told Christ shared with people he met – the good and the bad, tax-collectors, prostitutes, Pharisees. Jesus spends a lot of time eating and drinking with people, and talking about eating and drinking too, telling stories of feasts that are shared with all-comers. It’s no surprise that that a meal became the central act of Christian worship.
Gathering behind Westminster Abbey

In the great throng of 1994 ordinands
Yesterday I went for a walk that ended in a meal too. Not at Emmaus, but at St Paul’s Cathedral. The walk was a procession of witness from Westminster Abbey, and the whole thing was designed to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood in 1994. All those of us who were ordained in that first year, as I was in October 94, were invited to be part of this celebration, along with women who’d been ordained since then and all our supporters and friends. I’m not a great party person, but this was one party I didn’t want to miss, and a wonderfully joyful occasion it was too.

Outside St Paul's with my husband and no.1 supporter, Philip

One of the distinctive roles which priesthood involves is to celebrate Communion, blessing, breaking and sharing, on behalf of the people of God, the food which sustains us on our journey through life. This year marks for me 20 years of celebrating communion. I can vividly remember the first time I did this. I wondered how I would feel and what I would be thinking as I stood behind the altar. The first thing was a huge sense of home-coming – that I was doing what I was put here for – which was a relief, since at that time the idea of a woman priest was still quite strange to a lot of people. If it hadn’t felt right to me at that point I would have been quite worried. The second thing, though, was the sense that as I broke bread I was opening a door, and holding it open, so that whatever encounter people needed to have with God was made a little easier. That’s all. No magic. No trumpets. Just holding the door open. You – and God – do the rest.

The fact that that place of encounter is made of bread is significant. The thing about bread is that it is a staple food. Everyone needs it, or something like it. You don’t have to understand it or explain it for it to do what it needs to do. You just have to eat it; if you don’t you’ll starve. It is the stuff of life. Bread is real too. It’s not a theological idea or a philosophical opinion. And because of that, in a sense, it stands for everything else that is real too. The essence of reality is that it is what it is. It comes to us whether we like it or not. It’s not ours to control. It is a gift of the earth to us, a gift of God, created from the soil and the sunshine and the rain. We can play a part in its production, but we can’t make it happen.  All we can do is receive it.

When I take the bread at our Communion service into my hands to ask for God’s blessing on it, it is this reality that we are all dealing with that comes into my mind. Perhaps that’s one reason why it matters that women do this as well as men; it helps to make women’s realities present on the table as well as men’s. I find myself thinking as I take the bread: “Here it is God, all human life , all the things people have brought with them today, the hopes and the disappointments, the niggling fears, the stuff that annoys them, the things they’ve achieved, the people they love, and the people they hate too, all our pasts and presents and futures.” And as I break the bread I think– “Ok, God, and you are here too, in all that stuff. It cost you. It broke you on the cross, but even then you didn’t leave us. Feed us with the food we really need as we deal with all that stuff, reveal yourself to us in it so that we go home changed today, just a bit.”

And the strange thing is that when I do that, very often I start to see my reality in a new light, just as those disciples at Emmaus did. The roads I’ve taken that seem like complete wrong turnings – God was with me in them. The apparently irrelevant conversations I’ve had and the words I’ve read again and again from the Bible have fresh meaning.

Every Communion service is an invitation to see God in what is most real in all the rest of our lives – the bready stuff that makes up everyday experience. Every Communion service, in a way, is a little journey to Emmaus, a small pilgrimage. In our confession at the start of the service we acknowledge that we are all too often walking in the wrong direction, and hear the promise that God is walking with us, with forgiveness and healing the minute we realise that. There are words from the Bible to ponder, in which we can come to recognise the sound of God’s voice. And at the end there is the breaking of bread, as we bring our reality to God and find him within it.

“He was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” What we do at the altar is meant to let the light shine into our lives so that we can see God’s presence not just there, but everywhere else too, in the things that are beyond our comprehension, in the detours and diversions, in the companions we travel with, and the strangers too, in the things we rejoice in and the things we regret, because if we can learn to see God in these things then we shall find we are feeding every day on the Bread of Heaven, the food we really need.