Sunday, 22 February 2015

Lent 1: God in the wilderness

 We had the immense joy at this morning's service of hosting the baptism of Florence McCall- Edwards, who was baptised by her grandmother, Revd. Adie McCall. Adie often worships with us when she isn't helping out at other churches, and has led services when I have been away as well. It was a very joyful occasion and we were delighted to be able to be part of this important moment for Florence and her family.
This is the sermon I preached for the occasion.

Genesis 9.8-17, 1 Peter 3.18-22, Mark 1.9-15

Today is the first Sunday in Lent. Traditionally Lent is a time when Christians recall the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness. He went there to prepare himself for his ministry, to be clear about what it was his Father was calling him to do. In the reading we’ve just heard Mark gives us the briefest account possible of that time. He doesn’t even tell us what Jesus was tempted to do. Other Gospel writers fill it out a bit. He is tempted to turn stones into bread, to meet his own needs. He is tempted to throw himself off the top of the temple and expect God to catch him, to do spectacular things to draw attention to himself, even if they don’t benefit anyone else. He is tempted to bow down to Satan – to fall in with the powers of the age – in order to get political, worldly influence. But Mark just tells us that he was tempted, and that means that perhaps we can fill in the gaps for ourselves, and wonder what we would be tempted by in his situation. Whatever our answer, we can be certain that we wouldn’t have found this experience a walk in the park either.

 We sometimes think of desert places as beautiful, as places to get away from it all. We imagine Jesus going there to find peace and space to think, but for the people of the time deserts were seen as battlegrounds, dangerous places. And of course they were right. We might romanticise the desert, but that’s because we’ve mostly lost touch with what it is like to be on our own, without the back up of a mobile phone and well-equipped emergency services

To add to the physical dangers, at the time of Jesus deserts were seen as spiritually dangerous too, the haunt of demons and other evil spirits. Far from being a place to retreat to, they were the frontline in a spiritual battle. And again, the people of Jesus time were right to think this. If you are out on your own in the desert, with nothing but your own thoughts to keep you company, nothing to distract you from whatever inner baggage you have taken with you, you are going to have a tough time. You don’t have to have a literal belief in demons to know this. Most of us can’t manage a half-hour train journey into London without having some electronic device to plug ourselves into , or at least a newspaper to read. Banks and post offices and takeaways have tv screens playing adverts or news while we wait in case we should get bored for a millisecond.

But out in the desert, with nothing but the clothes on your back, your own thoughts are all you would have. And  in the middle of the night, with the wind and the wild beasts howling around you, it’s easy to see how you would feel overwhelmed, plagued by the fears and regrets that are normally buried in busyness. Out in the desert you soon find out who you really are, and what you are really made of.

This dry, dusty Judean desert isn’t the only wilderness in today’s readings though. The Old Testament reading talked about a very different sort of wild place. It came from the very end of the story of Noah. It’s a story that we often think is familiar. We remember the procession of cuddly animals, going two by two into the ark, and beautiful rainbows – but actually that childhood version doesn’t really do justice to the gritty reality of this story.

It’s a story about a disaster so great that it wipes out almost all living things. Variations on this flood myth crop up all around the Mediterranean in many different cultures and religions. Either there was a widely shared folk memory of some ancient cataclysmic flood, or a story told in one culture had travelled around, as good folk tales do, being adapted and changed subtly by each society it came to. Random disasters were a part of life anyway – floods, droughts , plagues. No one knew why they happened, so you’d expect people to try to find reasons for them, and the natural thing was to blame whatever deity you believed in. To us, this seems strange. “What kind of God is this?”, we ask. It’s a problem for us, but ancient cultures just assumed it was the way gods behaved, so they wouldn’t have been surprised at all. What would have surprised them, and what is genuinely different about the Biblical story, is that as the story unfolds we find that the God it speaks of genuinely cares about humanity and is committed to his creation for its own sake, not for his. That’s not true of other versions of this myth, where humanity either survives by their own cunning or because the gods have some sort of ulterior motive in keeping them alive.  The God of the Bible saves Noah and his family because he just can’t bear not to, and although Noah feels alone as the Ark floats on the wilderness of these waters , the story makes it clear that God hasn’t forgotten him or abandoned him. It is not the devastation which is the point of the story – that would have been taken for granted as a natural part of life - it is the fact that Noah and his family and the animals are saved, and they are saved because God loves them. The story ends with a promise that whatever disaster comes, God’s love can’t be drowned.

So, there are two wildernesses in our readings today, two places where people have to sit through times of terror and doubt. Noah doesn’t know if he will ever see land again as he waits through the 150 days of the flood. He doesn’t know whether the Ark is simply going to be a floating coffin. Jesus must have wondered whether he would survive the heat and hunger of the desert, and the jaws of the wild beasts. And in a way this story is a foretaste of his death on the cross – so perhaps we’ve really heard about three wildernesses this morning. When Jesus is crucified he’ll once again find himself in pain, afraid, with no guarantees about what is going to happen next.

But in all these wildernesses, there turns out to be hope. Noah and Jesus feel alone, but God is, in fact, present. Noah hasn’t been forgotten, and the rainbow tells him that he never will be. Angels come to wait on Jesus, signs of God’s care, and at the end of that third wilderness, the wilderness of the cross, there will be the new life of resurrection.

When things are difficult in our lives it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that what we see at that moment is the whole story, the eternal truth, something that will last forever. It is hard to hang onto hope that things can change. We can’t see into the future. We don’t have hindsight when we need it. What we can cling to, though, is the promise that is embedded in these stories that feeling alone isn’t the same as being alone. When we are anxious or depressed we often feel isolated – sometimes when we don’t need to be. We cut ourselves off from others, because we don’t want to burden them, or we think they can’t cope, but that just makes everything worse.  It may be that all we need to do is reach out a hand or pick up a telephone to find help, but that can feel so hard to do. But even when human help seems to be unreachable, Christian faith proclaims that the love of God is always there; nothing can destroy it. It can’t be withered by the heat of the desert. It can’t be drowned by the waters of the flood. It can’t be killed by the cruelty of the cross.

That’s a message that is especially important to hear today, because it is one of the most basic messages of baptism; that God is with us, come what may.  
The waters of baptism are meant to remind us of life in all its fullness, not just the good, easy aspects – the water that cleans and revives – but also the times when we feel out of our depth, all at sea, like Noah floating on the endless ocean. The prayer we use to bless the water speaks of Jesus coming through the “deep waters of death” to the new life of Easter Day. I am quite sure that Adie isn’t going to let Florence drown in the font, but the symbolism of this act reminds us – and hopefully Florence one day – that though we may sometimes feel as if we are in the desert, God hasn’t deserted us and never will.

We can’t wave a magic wand to make everything in Florence’s life go smoothly, however much we would wish to. The gift we claim for her in baptism,though, is far more precious than a magic wand. It is the assurance that God is with her always, known through his Spirit, known in the stillness of prayer, and known in his Church - through all of us, who will in a moment commit ourselves to supporting her.

Whatever deserts she may find herself in, we pray that she will have that knowledge secure in her heart to sustain and keep her.


Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Taxing Questions - By Kevin Bright

Mark 2.13-22, 2 Corinthians 3.1-6, Hosea 2.14-20

With about 3 months to go until the general election tax was in the news a lot this week. Our country needs more money to keep public services going and increased taxes after the election seem almost certain.

The accountants PwC have come in for criticism because they have advised large corporations on how to minimise their tax bills. When we see the deductions at source in a pay slip or transfer self-assessment payments to HMRC does it bring a smile to our face? Well at least we can see hospitals, emergency services and schools providing valuable resources to us even if we often suspect it could all be done a lot more efficiently.

It wouldn’t have been like this for Levi, the Jewish tax collector, called Matthew in Luke and Matthew’s gospels. The Romans would auction districts and the man buying it would have to provide them with a set amount of money from the area in taxation. Of course many tax collectors were considered to be cheats and profiteers who collected far more than they handed over to the hated Roman authorities.

We can see why Levi was an outcast, the Jews would pay temple taxes but saw the money collected on behalf of the Romans as pagan taxes forced upon them.

As we have come to expect it is the nature of Jesus to align himself with the outcasts and he shares a meal with Levi, his tax collector mates and others which the Jewish authorities considered to be sinners. Clearly this is going to upset the Pharisees and the tension between them and Jesus continues to build.

Then the Pharisees want to know why Jesus and his followers don’t fast in the way that they do.

In addition to no eating, no drinking and no sex, they would cover their hair, their faces and their clothing with ashes. The whole purpose was that all should be clear that these Pharisees were fasting, they would pray publicly and noisily, it was important that others saw and acknowledged their behaviour. For many the most important aspect of their faith had become religious rituals, rules and regulations and they became very angry when others didn’t comply.

Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians states that "...the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." We have the phrase ‘doing things to the letter of the law’. Blindly following every rule just because it is there is life sapping, not creative or energy giving in the same way as when good things are done because of positive motivation. We see the effect when unions choose to ‘work to rule’, production slumps and goodwill disappears.

Jesus challenges the Jews knowing they considered Israel as God’s bride when he describes himself as the bridegroom, what you the man who doesn’t even follow temple rules! He infuriates the Pharisees further and their determination to make him pay grows. Jesus knows that his message will have painful consequences and says ‘ the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away..’

Jesus wants to bring new life, new ways, new ideas, new energy to people’s lives and he needs to get among them to share and explain this which is why he is a ‘doctor for the sick and for sinners’.

If Jesus was to sit down with us now what is the everyday sort of stuff he might engage in conversation about? Sport, traffic congestion, health problems, money, education? Maybe, but food and wine would still be up there wouldn’t they.

It’s funny how certain things can trigger memories from long ago. As I read ‘how no one puts new wine into old wine skins’ it made me think of how my father and his neighbour used to do home brewing and making their own wine. I think the trigger was the bit where Jesus says ‘otherwise, the wine will burst the skins’. Several times as a child I was  awoken by exploding alcohol and cursing voices as the fermentation process caused another cork to mark the ceiling and stuff, which looked like no wine I have ever drunk, poured out making a smelly mess.

The amateurs Jesus tells of may well have got a wet back and a great sense of disappointment when the old goat skins they were carrying like a rucksack didn’t prove flexible enough for wine that was still expanding and therefore burst when being carried.

Strangely enough Jesus didn’t tell us this because he wanted to encourage and educate Home brewers and wine makers he wanted us to have minds that still had room for expansion to take on new truths and recognise God’s love for them in new ways. 

Similarly he tells that patching old clothes with new material will cause them to tear when the material shrinks. The time for patching is over and the opportunity to recreate has arrived in Christ, though of course many minds were not open enough to recognise this.

Our reading from the prophet Hosea is a poetic parallel where his wife became a prostitute representing the unfaithfulness of Israel to God. After falling into sin and worshipping false gods the part we heard today gives an insight into one element of God’s character as a husband who can’t stop loving his wife despite the betrayal and shortcomings.

We hear the language of a tender and merciful love that entices, a seductive love that wants to restore the relationship and offer the possibility of a new future. Again we need minds that are not closed to new possibilities if we are to recognise that this is offered to each one of us.

Perhaps in the way that Jesus chose a tax collector as a disciple it may serve to remind us all to be open to the potential of each other rather than labelling people or leaping to assumptions because of their appearance.

Listening to the radio yesterday I heard of a project called ‘street pianos’ where pianos which are surplus to requirements are left in public places such as St Pancras station covered in artwork saying ‘play me I’m yours’. There are loads of videos of people playing on You Tube but the one that has had millions of hits really challenges our prejudices as people are blown away by a scruffy looking homeless man who sits down and plays beautifully.

Why is it so difficult to see potential in each other and to want to see this flourish into the best it can be?

I was recently reminded how far removed I am from church politics and the people within it that must have minds like inflexible wine skins when I read an article by Jane Williams . I was initially bewildered by the fact that after all the progress made in connection with women bishops she still felt it necessary to state ‘God calls women to be disciples of Christ, just as God calls men. Women can’t be disciples just through marriage or through relating to men who are disciples, our discipleship is about personal call, just as it is for men.’ Then I felt a bit lazy for not staying engaged enough to realise how deep many divisions remain and how truly hurtful the actions and words of some can be.

I wish I could say come and have a look at the world of commerce and we’ll show you how people should behave but a recent survey showed that large numbers of women are still being paid significantly less for the same work as men.

The problem manifests itself in a cross cultural ways as well. I have attended several meetings over recent months with people of other faiths where they are prepared to shake my hand but refuse to do the same with my female colleague who simply smiles and gets on with business regardless.

As soon as any of us think we are better than other humans and take action to keep ourselves separate from them we are saying ‘I don’t want to be tainted by you’. It’s quite hard to come up with a worse insult.  As soon as our tradition and customs stop us from including everyone they are killing off the phenomenal potential for good that the spirit has given us.

When we do separate ourselves from others whether it be because of preconceptions and prejudices, tradition and customs or simply because people seem different from us we draw a line between us and them. On which side of the line do you think we find Jesus?

Despite all our shortcomings God doesn’t give up on our potential to respond to his love and we should take this into the week ahead keeping in mind that this response has to begin with the way we relate to each other.

During lent I shall be exploring prayer over a number of weeks and the first session will be ‘prayer as relationship’, thinking about our relationship with God and drawing insights from our relationships with other people. Today feels like a good start on that.  Anyone interested will be most welcome.


Kevin Bright

8 February 2015


Sunday, 1 February 2015

Candlemas: The Lord and his temple

“The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple”, said the prophet Malachi in our first reading.

He was writing sometime in the 5th century before Christ and it sounds as if everything was going pear-shaped for the people of Israel. They’d come back from exile in Babylon full of hope that they could rebuild a better, stronger, more just nation, but human beings are human beings and it hadn’t worked out that way. From the end of the reading we can tell how much of a mess things had got into. Personal relationships were poisoned by unfaithfulness and manipulation, injustice was rampant, the vulnerable were exploited, those in need went unsupported, trust had failed.  It sounds depressingly familiar. It could be today, really. But then or now, where do you even start to sort it all out? Malachi was clear that he knew. In the Temple, that was where. The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple, he says.

That might seem a bit odd. Surely the answers should lie in politics or economics, in new laws or better administration. But I think Malachi was right, and to understand why we need to know a bit more about the Temple. For Jewish people the Temple was at the heart of their national life. Originally all they’d had was a tent, made to house the Ark of the Covenant which contained the Ten Commandments God had given them. Eventually King David decided that a tent wasn’t really grand enough for his God. He’d built palaces for himself, so surely God deserved a better house than this tent. According to the prophet Samuel, who advised David, God wasn’t really all that bothered. A tent would do fine – after all the world and all that was in it was his home, as we heard in our Psalm today – but David insisted that only a fine stone temple would do, and his son Solomon finally built it. After the exile a new Temple was built and eventually King Herod almost completely rebuilt it.

So the buildings came and went, but the significance of the Temple was always the same. It was the place where the people of Israel believed they met with God. It was where they offered the sacrifices that were central to their worship, where they came to pour out their hearts, where they came to set themselves right with God.  It was where they were reminded about who they really were Gods children and what they were called to do to “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God”.
It was a place of encounter.

The word temple comes from the Latin templum  which literally means a place that is marked out. We get template from it too. It is a shape,  a space that is set aside.  But it is only a space. On its own it is empty. The point of a temple wasn’t the building but what happened inside it.

Time and time again the people of Israel forgot this. They were distracted by the splendour and the magnificence of the building, their work, and missed the real point of it, to meet with God, to bring themselves, their joys and their sorrows, into his presence. It’s something that we fall into just as easily. We love our church building, with all its history and beauty. We cherish it and we are proud of it. We take seriously its importance to us and to others, and we do our best to take care of it. But it’s not supposed to be an end in itself, and there is an ever-present danger of that happening.   We may value our buildings but the true Temple, the true meeting place we have with God isn’t supposed to be made of stones; it is in our hearts. If we are going to encounter him here or anywhere else for that matter - it will be because we have made a Temple, a space, for him within us.

Perhaps that’s why it is only Simeon and Anna who recognise and acclaim Jesus when he comes to Jerusalem on the day we heard about in our Gospel reading. The Temple would have been crowded that day; people bringing sacrifices, priests and other officials bustling around, people debating theology and philosophy. It would have been full of the noise of animals too, and the smell of blood. Into this melee come an anonymous looking mother and father carrying their six week old son. They could be anyone.

There are probably plenty of other families there on the same mission. Every family had to present an offering when their first child was born. This baby doesn’t glow in the dark; his parents don’t have haloes. They aren’t rich or important. They bring the smallest sacrifice the law allows as a thankoffering for their child, two pigeons ; it’s all they can afford.

So how do Simeon and Anna recognise him? We aren’t told, except that it is clear that they have spent long years waiting, long years praying, long years with their eyes and ears open to God, and in doing so they have created a Temple within themselves, a space where God can dwell. Over those long years of prayer their hearts have become tuned in to his heart.
Everyone else goes on with business as usual that day in the Temple. After this encounter Mary and Joseph slip away with Jesus, still unnoticed by the crowd. But for Simeon and Anna the world is utterly changed. 

On that day in Jerusalem, just as Malachi promised, God has indeed come to his Temple, but it isn’t the building but  the people who are that Temple, and it will be in them in people like Anna and Simeon - that God will get to work, building his kingdom. 
For most of the early centuries of Christian faith places didn’t really matter at all to Jesus followers. They didn’t set up shrines in Jerusalem why would they want to mark the tomb where he had lain, or the cross where he had died? Jesus wasn’t there; that was the whole point. They met in one another’s houses, or down in the catacombs the burial chambers under their cities - sometimes in secret. There were no church buildings. It wasn’t until the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire that places started to become important.

The Emperor Constantines mother, Helena was partly responsible for that. She decided to set out todiscover”  the sites where Jesus ministry, death and resurrection had taken place and mark them, just as other faiths marked their sacred places. Before long a thriving pilgrimage industry grew up often little more than tourism really. Churches began to be built, on the pattern of the grand Roman basilicas audience chambers where powerful rulers met their subjects. If Christianity was going to be a proper religion, fit for an emperor, surely it was going to need the trappings of empire too.

But Christian faith was never meant to be about bricks and mortar. In its essence it is a matter of flesh and blood. That is what is so distinctive about it. Its message is that God comes to us in the body of Jesus, in a child, in human form. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, a living person. Living people don’t stay still like bricks and mortar do. Our meeting with Christ isn’t tied to a particular place, any more than our meeting with anyone else would be. If we bump into each other in Sainsbury’s we are the same people as if we met in church or at work or on the train. We may be doing different things in each setting, but we are the same people. It is the quality of our relationships which will determine whether that meeting is worth having, not where we have it. We can pass each other by with barely a nod, or we can share a smile or a greeting or a word or two that uplifts or comforts. It all depends on the space in our hearts we have made for each other, our willingness to listen and be open to one another.

It’s the same with God. If we make space in our hearts, a Temple, a place where we are ready to welcome him then we will find him wherever we are. The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple.” He may not come in the form we expect, or with the message we expect, any more than that little child of a poor family was what people expected, but he will show up. It may be in a moment of wonder. It may be as we are helping someone in need. It may be through the words of the Bible or in the stillness of prayer but he will show up, and his presence will change us if we let it, refining us like silver or gold. Our part is to make that Temple, to make time and space, to lift our eyes and ears, if just for a moment, from the busyness that consumes us, from the self-important bustle of our lives.

Today we celebrate the feast of Candlemas. At the end of the service, I will go to the font, the place of baptism, the place where we are first called to  open up our lives to God. We will light our candles to remember Christ, the Light of the World, but then we’ll blow them out. We do that to remind ourselves that that light we really need is now inside us, in the Temple of our hearts, where the living God promises always to be present.