Sunday, 25 December 2016

Christmas Day Story: Old Tom

There are many animals in the Bible; camels and donkeys and cows and sheep, locusts and frogs and even rock badgers, whatever they are. There are some dogs, too,  though they don’t usually get a good press.
But there’s one animal which doesn’t get a look in at all, not a single mention, and that is the cat. There’s not a single cat in the Bible, not one, unless you count lions. There are no moggies or mousers, although there must have been plenty around.

Madonna del Gatto. Leonardo da Vinci, British Museum
But that didn’t stop people inserting a few here and there as they retold the stories. By the Middle Ages, there were several legends doing the rounds about cats at the birth of Jesus, and I’m going to tell you a story based on those tales.

This is the story of Old Tom.

Old Tom was a scraggy old cat, with matted fur and raggedy ears from fights he’d been in in the course of his long life. Old Tom didn’t belong to anyone – no cat really does, of course – but Old Tom really didn’t have anywhere to call home, any lap that was his to sit on, any fireside to curl up beside. Once he’d had a mother and brothers and sisters, but that was long, long ago, and anyway, just like him, they’d been homeless alley cats. The people of Bethlehem tolerated Old Tom, because he was a good mouser, but they weren’t so keen when he helped himself to the meat pie they’d left out to cool, or the milk they had collected to drink. Old Tom was used to dodging the boots they threw at him, making a sharp exit when he heard shouting. That’s how he knew what his name was, from the things they shouted. “Who’s taken our supper?” “ Oh – it was that old tom again,” he heard them say to each other.

One cold night in the middle of winter, Old Tom had found himself a quiet place to curl up and sleep, in the corner of a barn, on a warm pile of straw. It was dark in his corner, out of sight. No one would notice him here, which was just the way he liked it.

But he’d no sooner settled down, when the door of the barn creaked open, and in came a man and woman, leading a donkey – Mary and Joseph, they called each other, as they made their way in. Old Tom opened one eye, but stayed quiet. The man and woman didn’t see him as they led the donkey into a stall alongside the ox who usually lived there. He was well hidden, and, besides, they had their minds on other things, because, blow me down, if the woman didn’t lie down on the straw, right there and then, and give birth to a baby!  Old Tom had been born in a barn just like this, but he knew that humans generally had their young in more comfortable surroundings, not out here with the animals.

And no sooner had that baby been born – wailing like a kitten, and laid in the animals’ feeding trough – than a whole lot of other people showed up. The first visitors were strange creatures indeed, shining things, with wings like birds – and my, how they could sing! Old Tom liked a sing-song now and then, when the moon was full and the spirit took him – that was usually another moment when boots starting flying through the air towards him – but no one would have wanted to shut these creatures up. Then came the shepherds. Old Tom was more used to them, but what they were doing here, kneeling in front of the manger? Shouldn’t they be out in the fields, watching their sheep?

It was hours before the little family  – and Old Tom – were left in peace, and he could tell that the woman was very tired, and needed her sleep. The man walked up and down with the child, while she lay down on the straw and slept. The ox nodded off, and so did the donkey. In the end, the child slept and the man laid him down in the manger, and stretched himself out wearily to rest. Old Tom relaxed – now at last he might get the sleep he had been looking forward too. Being a canny cat, though, used to the dangers of the world, and always alert for the possibility of a quick meal, he was never quite off guard and so it was he alone who spotted something moving in the straw on the stable floor.  Was it a mouse? or a rat? But no, it seemed too long a thing for that. And it was green, and smooth. Old Tom knew what he was looking at. It was a snake!

Now , Old Tom didn’t like snakes, not one bit. They weren’t good eating, and if they bit you, it was bad news – Old Tom knew that. The humans didn’t like snakes either. He’d heard them talking about a snake who, right at the beginning of everything had whispered poison into the ears of the first man and woman – not literal poison, the kind that would kill your body, but the lies that can poison your spirit. “God doesn’t love you” “ You can’t trust him” “ look out for number one!” And somehow that had spoilt everything.

Old Tom had heard them saying, too, that one day a child would be born who would show them how to live and set right what had gone wrong back then. They didn’t know who the child would be, but he would be special.

Old Tom thought about those strange visitors who’d shown up when this child was born , and the shepherds who’d left their sheep. Maybe that always happened when a human kitten was born, but somehow he doubted it. What if this child was the one who was going to put right what was wrong?
And what if that snake, slithering closer and closer to the manger, were to bite him and put a stop to that wonderful healing before it had even begun? That couldn’t be? But no one had seen the danger. Everyone was asleep – the ox, the donkey, the man and the woman, the child himself – everyone slept as the snake crept closer and closer to the manger.

Old Tom knew he’d have to do something. He stood up, slowly, slowly, the way cats do when they’re hunting. He lined himself up like cats do, slowly, slowly, so the snake wouldn’t see him. And then….voomph! – off he went, yowling and hissing and screeching straight for the snake which slithered off like greased lightning. The baby woke up and started crying, the ox woke up and started bellowing, the donkey woke up and started heehawing. The man and woman woke up and shouted “Stop, cat!” They couldn’t see the snake; they thought Old Tom had just gone mad, like cats sometimes do. But Old Tom took no notice of them. He just kept charging along after that snake, round the walls, across the floor,  across the backs of the ox and the donkey, in and out of the legs of the manger. “Quick! Grab the baby, Joseph!  before he tips the manger over”. Joseph snatched the baby up just in time as the manger came crashing down. Mary and Joseph were too busy checking that the baby was all right to notice the moment when Old Tom finally cornered the snake under the manger and, with one bite behind its head, killed it.

Tom sat down and looked up at the little family, who were desperately trying to comfort the wailing child while the ox and donkey bellowed away in the background. He waited for their thanks, but Mary just turned to Joseph and said – “that cat has to go!”. And Joseph turned to Old Tom and said “You! Out!” pointing to the stable door. Old Tom was confused. Hadn’t he just saved their child? But Joseph picked him up, marched across the stable, opened the door and slung him out into the darkness of the cold, wet night. Well! If that was going to be all the thanks he got that was the last time he was ever going to help a human! He slunk across to the other side of the road, and sat down under the dripping eaves of the house opposite, in the darkest spot he could find.  He licked himself here and there, so it would look as if he really wasn’t bothered, but inside he was furious and humiliated. He had just wanted to help, and look where it had got him.

Back in the stable, the baby was still crying. Mary couldn’t stop him. Joseph couldn’t stop him, but at least, he thought, he could restore some order. He picked up the manger from where it had crashed down onto the floor, and there, underneath it he saw – the snake. It wasn’t moving, but Joseph prodded it with a stick just to be sure. As he looked more closely he saw that there was one, cat-sized, bite mark just below its head.
“Oh, Mary,” he said. “Look at this snake. The cat must have seen it coming towards our child and killed it! And we’ve just thrown him out into the cold and the wet! “

“Look outside, Joseph” said Mary. “See if you can see him. Bring him back so we can thank him and apologise.”

Joseph went to the stable door and peered out into the darkness, but Old Tom was well hidden. “Puss, puss,” called Joseph, “We’re sorry! Please come back into the warmth.” “Pah!” thought Old Tom, from his damp dark hiding opposite. “They needn’t think they can bring me round with  a bit of ‘puss, puss, pussing…”

“It’s no good Mary, I can’t see him anywhere!”

“Maybe he would come if we gave him some food. Isn’t there some cheese left in our bags?”

Joseph rummaged around a bit and sure enough, there was a little lump of cheese. He broke it up and put the pieces in a line just outside the stable door. “Puss – there’s some cheese here if you want it – just to say thank you and sorry.”

‘Cheese!’ thought Old Tom. “Now, I do like cheese. It can’t do any harm to go over and just have a nibble. He crept back across the road and sniffed at the first piece of cheese. Smelt ok! Tasted ok too. He wolfed it down, and then the next and the next and the next. The last piece of cheese brought him to the open stable door. It looked warm and inviting to him. Surely it couldn’t do any harm if he sat just inside the door.

Mary and Joseph saw him there. Mary was sitting in the straw, jiggling the baby on her shoulder trying to stop him crying. The baby’s cries went right through Old Tom. Suddenly he could remember crying like that when he was a kitten, and just wanting someone to comfort him. He crept closer and closer. Mary stretched out a hand to him and began to smooth his matted fur. She scratched him just behind his ear, where he liked it. “Thank you for saving our son. We’ll never forget it.” she said. “If only you could send him to sleep too!” Tom put first one paw, then the other onto her lap and reached his face up towards the baby’s. The baby, fascinated by this new creature, reached out a pudgy hand and laid it on his head, forgetting to cry as he did so.

Suddenly a strange peace spread through Old Tom, from the tips of his whiskers to the end of his scraggy tail. Old Tom, who had never belonged anywhere, suddenly knew that he belonged here, with this child, to this child. He didn’t need to be wary of him, on guard. To this child, even scraggy alley cats were welcome, trust was restored, love was renewed. He was the special child – Tom knew it.

And deep within Old Tom something started to happen, something that hadn’t happened since he was a kitten. Old Tom started to purr. At first his purr was a bit rusty and hesitant, but soon it filled the stable, and lulled by it the baby dropped off to sleep, and so did his mother and father, and the ox and the donkey in their stall. And the stable was at peace once more, but Old Tom’s peace was the deepest of all.


Midnight Mass: The beginning of Christmas

I wonder what this moment feels like to you, on the cusp of the midnight that ushers in Christmas Day?  When we were small, we were probably full of excitement, dreaming of Christmas stockings, wondering what was in those parcels under the tree. Maybe now it is a bit more complicated, and feelings are more mixed – but whatever our experience, this is the moment when Christmas Day starts. Even if you are a real Grinch or Scrooge, a Christmas refusenik, it’s hard to resist the hopefulness of this moment when Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day.

The problem is, though, that by this time tomorrow, this moment of expectation will be behind us. The wrapping paper you’ve so carefully applied will be rubbish for the recycling, and the Christmas meal you’ve lovingly cooked will be reduced to leftovers and washing up. In the space of twenty-four hours, anticipation is often replaced by anti-climax. Even if your family festivities have been full of joy and happiness, you may realise at that point that nothing has really changed, and your life will soon be back to the same old, same old.  The problems you had before Christmas will still be waiting for you after it. That’s as true for the world around us as it is for us as individuals. We may send each other cards wishing “Peace on earth”, but the earth will be just as war-torn on Boxing Day as it is now. We remember that famous World War 1 truce, when English and German soldiers played football and sang carols together, but we forget that the next day they all went back to shooting at each other.  

Christmas isn’t magic, no matter how magical we try to make it. It can’t cure the world’s ills, make people happy when they aren’t, draw together feuding relatives, or mend marriages that are crumbling. It can’t put right in a day what has taken months, years, lifetimes to go wrong. It takes more than a bit of glitter and a tub of Quality Street to mend a broken world.

Christmas Day can sometimes seem disappointing, but I wonder whether that might be because  we see it as an end, when it’s meant to be a beginning.  

When Jesus came into the world at Bethlehem of course there was a sense of fulfilment and achievement. After all the hardships and tensions of the pregnancy, and that unplanned journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the child was born. Even if the only bed he had to lie in was a cattle stall, he was safe and well. Of course Mary and Joseph were relieved, and delighted by their new born son. But for them, just as for any new parents, this wasn’t the end of the story. This was where it started. Parents usually treasure their first moments with their new baby, posting endless photos on Facebook, spending hours just gazing at their little miracle, but they wouldn’t really want their child to stay like this forever. There would be something seriously wrong if they did. The joy of parenting lies in seeing your child grow up into the person they were meant to be. Along the way, there’ll be pain and challenge too – for any child, not just for Jesus, but growing and changing are what life is all about. Birth is a beginning, not an end.

There’s a lovely poem by a poet called Luci Shaw about the new born Jesus, which perfectly captures that moment when all his life lay ahead of him, unknown and unimaginable. It goes like this:  

In sleep his infant mouth works in and out.
He is so new, his silk skin has not yet
been roughed by plane and wooden beam
nor, so far, has he had to deal with human doubt.

He is in a dream of nipple found,
of blue-white milk, of curving skin
and, pulsing in his ear, the inner throb
of a warm heart’s repeated sound

His only memories float from fluid space.
So new he has not pounded nails, hung a door,
broken bread, felt rebuff, bent to the lash,
wept for the sad heart of the human race.
(Kenosis, by Luci Shaw)

It’s a poignant poem, which acknowledges that this child is going to have sorrows to face as well as joys.  But it also reminds us of the gift he will be to the world. He’s the one who will weep “for the sad heart of the human race”. He’ll share our sufferings and by doing so, he’ll transform them. His death and resurrection will show us that however dark the night, God can bring his light into it and give us a future with hope.  In him, God will break into our human experience, not so that he can understand what it feels like to be us – he knows that anyway – but so that we can understand how much we’re loved.

And it all starts here with this child cradled in a manger, not an end but a beginning;  a small beginning who reminds us of the small beginnings each of us is called to make, the journeys which start here and now.

Tonight we may cradle in our hearts a dawning hope that change is possible, for ourselves or the world around us. But what are we doing to feed that hope, to help it to grow, to become the reality we long for?

Tonight we may cradle in our hearts a tiny flicker of faith, a desire to pray, a new born longing for God. But what are we going to do to nourish it so that so it can be a source of strength to us for the rest of our lives?

Tonight we may cradle in our hearts a sense that there’s something we’re meant to be doing with our lives, a meaning and purpose we need to search out. But what are we going to do that will help us to listen to that calling and respond to it?

Hope, faith, purpose; these are the sorts of things that are born in our hearts tonight. They are God’s gifts to us, but just like a new born child, they are small, vulnerable, easily destroyed. They are just beginnings. It is what happens next that matters, and if we want to help those “children” of ours grow up, if we want our hope, faith and purpose to develop, it will take more than good intentions.

It will take time and patience and will sometimes come at a cost. It will take other people. It takes a village to raise a child, as the saying goes. Mary and Joseph seem to have been alone in Bethlehem, but God soon gathered some very unlikely people around him to form a family around them. There were shepherds from the hills, and foreign magi summoned from far away by a star. These aren’t the people you’d expect at the crib side – where are Jesus’ aunties and uncles, grandparents and cousins? Later on there would be fishermen and tax collectors and prostitutes, a strange “DIY” family to support Jesus and be supported by him. “Family” for him was never going to be simply about blood relatives – it was for anyone and everyone who wanted to be part of it.  That’s why Christian faith has always been a communal faith, one in which coming together is valued. We need one another - all of us - with our gifts and our scars, struggling to get along and learning to love and be loved as we do so.

That’s one of the reasons why you have all been given one of these pink slips tonight, so that, if you want to, you can let me know that you’d like to be kept in the loop, or maybe have a chat in the New Year. There are no strings attached to this offer; I just didn’t want people to go out into the night wishing they’d done something to take the next step. If you’d like to keep in touch, fill in the form and give it back to me, and I will make it happen.

It’s good for us to have our moment of wonder and joy tonight, but what God really wants is for us to have a lifetime of wonder, a lifetime of joy. It’s good that we can celebrate this child born in a stable tonight, but what God really wants is for Christ to be born in our hearts as well, and to grow and thrive there.

So, happy Christmas – it all starts here!  But let’s make sure it doesn’t end here too.
Amens, and foreign magi summoned from far away by a star. These aren’t the people you’d expect at the crib side – where are Jesus’ aunties and uncles, grandparents and cousins? Later on there would be fishermen and tax collectors and prostitutes, a strange “DIY” family to support Jesus and be supported by him. “Family” for him was never going to be simply about blood relatives – it was for anyone and everyone who wanted to be part of it.  That’s why Christian faith has always been a communal faith, one in which coming together is valued. We need one another - all of us - with our gifts and our scars, struggling to get along and learning to love and be loved as we do so.

That’s one of the reasons why you have all been given one of these pink slips tonight, so that, if you want to, you can let me know that you’d like to be kept in the loop, or maybe have a chat in the New Year. There are no strings attached to this offer; I just didn’t want people to go out into the night wishing they’d done something to take the next step. If you’d like to keep in touch, fill in the form and give it back to me, and I will make it happen.

It’s good for us to have our moment of wonder and joy tonight, but what God really wants is for us to have a lifetime of wonder, a lifetime of joy. It’s good that we can celebrate this child born in a stable tonight, but what God really wants is for Christ to be born in our hearts as well, and to grow and thrive there.

So, happy Christmas – it all starts here!  But let’s make sure it doesn’t end here too.


Thursday, 22 December 2016

Advent Breathing Space 3 : The two way street

In our Breathing Space services this Advent I've been exploring a little of what it means to have a communicative God, a God who speaks and listens to us.  In this last session I’d like to shift the focus from God to ourselves, because communication is a two way street. We can communicate by giving a lecture – or a sermon – or through a letter or poster or email or text message, but if that was all we ever did we would end up feeling very lonely.  We might get our message out but we’d never build any relationships.  A relationship in which the parties simply make announcements to one another or lecture one another isn't going to last very long! So it is with God. What he longs for is not simply a mute and obedient audience but a conversation, something dynamic, something alive.

Often people have modelled their relationship with God on the relationship they might expect to have with a great and powerful sovereign. He is so often called King and Lord, that it’s easy to simply assume he is like an earthly ruler, writ large.  I've been watching Lucy Worsley’s television programmes about the six wives of Henry VIII over the last few weeks. They've been fascinating as a glimpse into the world of the Tudor court, and the extreme care with which everyone had to approach the king, fitting in with his whims, observing the strict etiquette, knowing that if they put a foot wrong they would be in deep, and possibly fatal, trouble. That was how kings were, in Tudor times and in the times of the Bible.  But it’s not how God is.   

We might think of him as a king, but he isn't one who expects us to wait to speak until we are spoken to, or to guard our words with exaggerated care around him. This is the Creator who came walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening looking for the man and the woman he had made simply for the sake of their company, and was bitterly disappointed when he discovered they were hiding from him. This is the one who wants us to cry to him “out of the depths”, as the Psalmist put it.  We don’t have to guard our words with him, any more than we would with our best friend. A friend is someone who we know will continue to love us when we are less than sparkling company or need someone to have an unreasonable rant at, someone who wants to hear what’s troubling us, even if ends up troubling them too. God wants to hear from us. We don’t have to wait for a gilt-edged invitation, as we would for an audience with the Queen. We don’t have to worry that a word out of order will see us consigned to the outer darkness.

A true friend listens to us, but equally a true friend is someone who we want to listen to as well. If our relationship with God is true and deep we’ll want to listen to him, to trust his good intentions for us, to take seriously what we hear from him. Sometimes that might mean a very definite message – that happens more often than you might suppose. Sometimes, though, it will be a Bible verse that strikes us, or a conversation with someone else which has an impact beyond what we would expect, or it might be something that happens in our lives. It’s important that we test out those perceptions – not every stray thought that pops into our heads is a message from the Almighty – but if we take our relationship with God seriously then we will want to take time to weigh up what we think he might be saying to us. After all the extraordinary circumstances of the birth of Jesus, Luke tells us that Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” She didn't just shrug her shoulders and say “probably just the hormones of childbirth swilling around – I expect everyone imagines angels and shepherds and such like…” She pondered all that had happened, turned it over in her mind, took it seriously, even if she didn’t fully understand it at the time.

The shepherds too responded to what they’d heard, in a very different way. They told others, and glorified God.  The news was so good they couldn't contain it. The sovereign God, the one who they thought of as dwelling in unapproachable light in a far distant heaven, was lying in a manger in a smelly stable in their own village, and he’d chosen them to reveal this news first of all.  

The Word was made flesh in Christ. Perhaps that was the only way we would ever really be able to grasp how God feels about us.  He came to us as a human child, not so that he could understand what it is to be human, but so that we could understand how deeply we’re loved. In Christ, God spoke to us from within our human condition, in that speechless child, so that we would know that even when we have no words to express ourselves he is with us.

In the silence tonight let us, like Mary, ponder these things and treasure them in our hearts.


Saturday, 17 December 2016

Advent Breathing Space 2: The God who listens

Last week we thought a little about God’s communicative nature. God who spoke the world into being, who speaks to us in the Bible and who, ultimately speaks to us in Jesus, the word made flesh.

This week we are going to develop that a bit further, because communication isn't just about speaking; it’s also about listening. In fact, perhaps I have done these sessions a bit backwards, because for speaking to be effective, listening really has to come first. In the Bible, there is just as much emphasis on God being a God who listens as there is on his speech.

Take that first reading we heard, from the book of Exodus. It is a crucial moment in the story of Moses. In fact it is THE crucial moment. If it hadn't been for this moment, when Moses turned aside to see what was happening when he came across a bush on fire, yet not being burnt up, then he would have been unknown, and the Hebrew people would have remained slaves in Egypt, never returning to their Promised Land. It all turns on this moment.

Moses is on the run, out in the desert. He had had high hopes of making a real difference to his people, the Israelites, but it had all gone wrong and in a surge of rage he had killed an Egyptian and hidden his body. He had to scarper fast, and when he got out into the wilderness beyond Egypt he soon figured it was safer to stay there and make his home there.

In any case, what was the point of going back? His attempt to help had backfired. There was no hope of liberation for the Israelites, and it seemed their God -  his God – had forgotten them or just didn't care.

That’s why it matters so much not only that he encountered God in this burning bush, but what God said to him from it. The first thing, the main thing, God wants him to know is that he, God, has heard the cries of the Israelites. He hasn't been deaf to them, as Moses thought, or forgotten them. And having heard, he is going to answer their cries , through Moses as it happens. God has heard. God is listening.

In the Gospel reading, Zechariah makes the same, startling discovery. He was a priest, one of many who served in the Temple, taking their turn to do the most sacred jobs. Burning incense in the sanctuary was one of those, a real privilege. As a priest, Zechariah took the prayers of the people into the presence of God for them. But there was a prayer of his own which he had long since given up on, a prayer that he and his wife, Elizabeth, might have a child. They had waited and waited, but now it was too late. There’s something very poignant about Zechariah’s faithfulness in offering the prayers of others while apparently having put to one side the thing he most wanted in the world, evidently thinking that it would never be granted.

But when the angel appears to him, the first thing he tells him is “Zechariah, your prayer has been heard”. Impossible though it seems, Elizabeth is pregnant. What is more, not only will there be a child, but that child will be the forerunner of the Messiah. When he is born, Zechariah sings that in him  “by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death and to guide our feet in to the way of peace.” (Luke 1.78)

Listening is often the most precious gift we can give to another, hearing them truly, giving our full attention. If you've ever experienced being listened to like that you’ll know how precious it is. Listening is a big part of my work, and one of its greatest privileges, but it saddens me how often I find that people are unused to being listened to and don’t expect to be heard. Why should their stories matter? Why should anyone be interested in them? It can be utterly revolutionary for someone to be listened to, something that changes their life completely.

For Christians that listening is rooted in the listening of God. “We love, because God first loved us”, says the first letter of John. The same is true for listening, “we listen” – or at least we should do – “because God first listened to us.” It is only when we take in the awesome truth that God hears us, that God cares, that God believes that what we have to say – the deepest and most secret cries of our heart – are important and worth his attention, that we can learn to pay attention to others. Real attention doesn't just want to fix them, or humour them, or impress them with our own goodness or cleverness. Real attention – simply hearing – opens the gateway of grace for them, enabling them to know that God hears and loves them too. 

Tonight we meet the God who listens. In our silence, we might like to ponder whether we believe that, and ask what God might be hearing in our lives at the moment, the cries that we hide from others, and maybe even from ourselves, the fears and hopes that we have buried because we think no one is listening to them.


Sunday, 11 December 2016

St Peter and St Paul, Seal: The Children's Society

St Peter and St Paul, Seal: The Children's Society: Glad to be supporting the Children's Society at our  # Christingle  service this morning. There&...

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Advent Breathing Space 1: The Word of God.

Lovely, peaceful, Advent Breathing space tonight. The address - the first of three - is below. Join us on the next two Thursday evenings (15th and 22nd) at 8pm for a chance to catch your breath and reflect amidst the hubbub of the run up to Christmas.

Advent Breathing Space 1 2016

One Word
Hebrews 1.1-3
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. 

 John 1. 1-14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

If you are following our Advent series of daily reflections, online or in the printed booklet, you will know that this year’s Advent theme is “One Word”. Each day there is one word to think about, a word linked to the Advent and Christmas stories in some way. It just seemed to me that at this time of year there is so much noise, so much chatter – advertisers shouting at us, demands and requests coming at us, background music everywhere, busy parties and family gatherings with everyone speaking over everyone else - and I just wanted to stay “stop!”. Let’s be quiet and give some space for the words that really matter to sink in. So, each day, there’s just one word, with some questions to prompt our thoughts – “expect”, “silence”, “hope”, “child”, “danger”, “peace”, “fear”, “manger” – these are the words we’ve had so far.

But in a sense they can all be summed up in the One Word who is at the heart of the story, that baby born in Bethlehem, the Word of God.

It’s no accident that John’s Gospel describes him like that - as a word. Words are one of the most important ways in which we express ourselves, explain ourselves, share our thoughts and feelings. They are the way we pass on wisdom.  The same is true for God.

The Bible pictures God as an avid communicator, someone who wants to get his message across. The Bible begins with him speaking into the darkness and chaos “Let there be light”- and there is light. God speaks creation into being. His words make something happen.

These sort of words are known technically as “performative utterances” – words that change things. Marriage vows are performative utterances. They are what tie couples together, not the signing of the registers in English law. Words can change us in other ways too. We never forget words from childhood which build us up, or tear us down.  Words matter.

God’s words matter most of all. It’s not just physical creation which they call into being. They can make a new creation in us too.  “ I have loved you with an everlasting love,”   he says through the prophet Jeremiah  ( 31.3) “I have called you by name, you are mine.”  - that’s Isaiah (43.1) How different would we be if we really let those words sink in? 

But, for Christians, the supreme way in which God speaks to us is in the Word made flesh – Jesus himself. For those who met him in his earthly life, Jesus seemed to sum up God, to express what he was about in a way they couldn’t miss. You didn’t need to read him in a book.  Through his life, his death, his resurrection, in the whole of his humanity, with all the complexities of any human life, he said “God”, to them. The letter to the Hebrews says that in him, God spoke to us “by a son” - “sonwise” , as the old translations put it. 

Why did that matter? Perhaps because, great though words are, they can never be a substitute for a flesh and blood encounter.   I often have to try to sum up a person at a funeral, maybe someone I have never met, and I am always well aware of the impossibility of such a task. Even if I get all the facts right, and even capture something of their spirit of the person, I know that to those who are listening there will be a whole world of complexity in their own memories which I can never capture, a richness which can never be pinned down. They will have been different things to different people at different times.

It was the same with Jesus. It was the whole encounter people had with him that spoke to them; not just his words , but his presence, his touch, his gaze, his attention to them. To some he communicated God’s challenge, or God’s call; others heard encouragement, gentleness, acceptance.  And though today we can’t physically take his work-roughened hands in ours, or look into his eyes, God’s promise is that, through the Spirit, he is with us, part of our lives, if we will let him be.

So through this Advent series, in these services at least, let’s slow down, silence the clamour that fills our life, so that we can hear what the One Word of God is saying to us. In the next two sessions we’ll think a bit more about speaking and listening –how God speaks and listens to us, and how we might speak and listen to him, to ourselves, to others – but I’ve said enough words for tonight.

We’re going to spend a few minutes in silence now, as we always do at our Breathing Space services. As we do, we ask that the Word of God will speak to us. It may be just a faint whisper; it may be may be a clarion call, loud and clear.  What is the Word of God saying to you tonight?

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Advent 2: Family Trees

“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

I've been thinking a lot about family trees this week, partly because I spent the first few days of it down in Exeter with my mother, catching up on a few things that needed doing. Amidst those jobs was one which we've been putting off for ages, a job which had just seemed too daunting to attempt. That job was to sort through the vast quantities of – mostly loose – family photos she has accumulated, as most of us do, over the years. There are photos from holidays she took with Dad, photos of my and my brother’s childhood, photos of our families, photos of her childhood, photos inherited from her parents, and my father’s parents, photos of friends, and photos of people whose identity is a complete mystery and probably always will be. We got there in the end, at least sorting them into rough categories, but of course each of those pictures was far more than a photo. They were full of memories and stories, pictures of people who had in some way had an influence on my and my mother’s lives. Whether they were related by blood or were friends, they had played some part in shaping the people we were, part of our family tree in one way or another.

That’s why the task had seemed so daunting.  It wasn't just the quantity of photos; it was the quantity of memories they represented which loomed so large.

It was a timely coincidence, then, that our Bible readings today are about a family tree as well, the tree that “comes out of the stock of Jesse” as Isaiah put it. Jesse was the father of King David, and that made him very important to the Israelites; their line of kingship started with him.  At the time Isaiah was writing, though, it looked as if that family tree was coming to an abrupt and brutal end, as the Babylonian army swept across their land. The family tree had been cut down. It was all over for the nation. But Isaiah tells them that it isn't so. Just you can fell a tree in the garden, only to find that new shoots come from its trunk – often more vigorous than the ones you chopped down – so God would enable a new nation to grow, a new family tree to spring up from the old roots.

Many centuries later, the early Christians had an “aha!” moment when they looked at this verse. Hadn’t Jesus fulfilled it? they thought. He was descended from the line of David, born in David’s city of Bethlehem, and in him they’d found a new family, a new kingdom. It was exactly as Isaiah had said.

Jan Mostaert, c. 1500,
By the Middle Ages the Jesse Tree had become a very popular motif in art. Many Medieval churches had representations of Jesse Trees in them – painted, carved, rendered in stained glass. There are many around still. They try to portray the “family tree” of Jesus. Often the tree literally sprouts from the sleeping body of Jesse – it’s quite an odd image – and perched in its branches are all sorts of Old Testament characters who in some way foreshadow and prepare the way for Jesus. People sometimes make Jesse Trees through Advent too – we are doing so at Seal School this Advent – hanging pictures of Old Testament characters in the branches. It’s the equivalent of that process of gathering the family photos as I did with my mum earlier this week, pondering who these people were, and why they mattered.

As I said, the idea of the Jesse Tree came from that “aha!” moment which the early Christians had, when they saw that the “shoot that came from the stock of Jesse” could be seen to culminate in the life of Jesus. He came at a time when, once again, the nation was under threat, this time from Rome, and when many people felt that they didn't, in any case, have much of a place in the “family tree” of Judaism. That’s why his message was received so enthusiastically by those who were at the bottom of the heap; slaves, women, the poor, those whose lives had fallen apart, those who were looked down on by others.

But, as John the Baptist said in our Gospel reading, God was an expert at starting from scratch,  capable of cutting down that old, exclusive “family tree” and growing a new one. “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham”  he thunders at the Pharisees and Sadducees who come out to see him – these are the ones who make the repressive rules which keep people away from God, telling them they are unworthy. This new family tree wouldn't be based on physical descent or being a religious insider; it would be one with room for everyone.

But what would this new tree look like? That’s where the analogy breaks down a bit – you can only ever push these sort of pictures so far. When a tree puts out a new shoot from its stump, the new growth will be genetically identical to the old. It will have leaves, bark, flowers, fruit, just like the old tree did. It may be a slightly different shape, like the coppiced trees which fill our woodlands around Seal, with many stems instead of one, but otherwise it will basically be the old tree all over again.

But the new growth God wants to give us isn't just the same old, same old. Isaiah knew that. The new nation he speaks about is one which looks very different from the old. It is a nation where wolves live with lambs, leopards lie down with kids, lions eat straw and little children are in the lead. That’s a very odd vision indeed. The people of his time had never seen anything like it, and we probably haven’t either.

In the New Testament, the early Christians saw what God was doing in Jesus as something radically new too, as strange as Isaiah’s vision. John the Baptist talks about the axe lying at the root of the tree, the fire of the Holy Spirit, the grain being threshed and winnowed. It is all change for those who want to share in the new growth God offers.

In our second reading, we got a glimpse of one aspect of this revolution. Gentiles – non-Jews – were welcomed on equal terms; the old tribal barriers had been abolished. The “family” wasn’t just for those who were genetically related, part of the existing tribe. It was for anyone who wanted to be part of it. “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you,” says Paul, writing to a church where people are obviously struggling to see the family likeness in some of those who are part of their fellowship.

Families can be wonderful, but they can also be restrictive, abusive, forcing people into moulds that don’t fit them, but Jesus challenged this stranglehold and set people free to be who they were called to be. He drew his followers into fellowship with people very different from themselves.  Remember Isaiah’s vision of wolves living with lambs, and leopards lying down with kids? Being part of Christ’s family, his kingdom, means learning to see anew, making friends out of enemies, taking a risk on trusting those you have viewed with fear.  It means listening to those who might seem to have little to offer – “a little child will lead them”- paying attention to the wisdom that might come from those at the bottom of the heap.

The idea of that “peaceable kingdom” was, and still is, a very attractive one, but the reality is that it is hard to live like that. We can’t do it in our own strength, and we can’t do it if we aren’t secure that we belong and are of worth to God ourselves. As Paul reminds us, we are only able to welcome others because we have been welcomed by Christ ourselves.  

Our readings today, then, call us to look both outward and inward. We’re called to look outward into a world which is full of threat and danger. Where we belong and what we belong to has been a hot topic this year. A lot of old certainties have been challenged.  The EU referendum, the rise of a new, sometimes rather aggressive nationalism across Europe and in the US is shaking up old assumptions and allegiances.  What does the future hold? No one knows but it’s clear that it will be frighteningly easy for the weak to be swept aside, for ugly prejudice to get the upper hand. We should never be complacent about that. It’s a moment when it’s really important for us to be clear about what a Christian vision for the world looks like - where wolves and lambs live together, where those who are most vulnerable are most protected, where, above all, we think of ourselves as part of one human family, the family of God.  

Most of us probably don’t feel we have much power to influence international events, but in reality, the changes that matter most are usually local ones – they are things that happen here and now. Our neighbourhoods, our nation, our world, are made up of individuals – us - either loving each other or not. We’re part of God’s work where we are, either building his kingdom, growing his family tree, or not.

But if we’re going to be able to look outward, and play our part, we have to look inward too, into our own hearts, because that’s where the fears and hatreds that warp the world begin.

Those who flocked to John the Baptist in the desert were desperate for hope, and hope was what they found, but it was hope that came wrapped up in challenge. The same is true for us this Advent. Will we go out into the desert, into the place we don’t know and make the real changes in ourselves that lead to change in the world, or will we stick with the same old, same old, and wonder why it doesn't work? Will we risk welcoming people we've been suspicious of, loving people we fear, letting God form us into a new family, where all can feel welcome and have a place? Our families are often precious to us, and so they should be, but the most important family we can ever belong to is the family of God, whose family tree is broader than any we can ever imagine.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

First Sunday of Advent

Advent 1 Matthew 24.36-44, Romans 13.11-14

Did you hear about the young boy who ran up to the preacher after the sermon and thrust a five pound note in his hand? ‘What’s this for’ said the man, ‘well I thought you needed it more than me as my dad says that your one of the poorest preachers we’ve ever had in this church’!

So here we are at the beginning of another Advent and what does it mean to us? Perhaps you think this means Christmas is near now and you’ve done nothing to prepare? If so then that’s kind of the point of it but not in the sense of getting the tree lights out and the food in, more that it’s time to think about what the birth of Christ means for us and where each one of us personally fit into the story.

Do we hear the words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel as talking about events for the end of the world, about what we are found doing at that point in time? Our view on this will depend upon our relationship with and understanding of God.

It’s clear to me that we should avoid a lazy literal interpretation of what form the second coming of Christ will take or when it might happen, but that’s not the same as recognising that what we will experience in the future will be different from what we understand now. God through Christ calls us to enter into a loving relationship with him now. Perhaps like the best marriages you don’t always know where the journey will take you but you set out in faith based upon trust and love.

Advent is all about God joining humanity in the ordinariness of life and in this season we are reminded that we should guard against becoming comfortable with life being routine and predictable because one thing is certain, it is not going to stay that way. My reaction to today’s gospel passage is not to focus on God wreaking havoc as he dispenses justice but so much more on his love and sacrifice for us and how we can respond to that.

This year has been one where worldly events have offered reminders that life is not predictable with the referendum here and the US elections confounding all experts and pollsters. In fact if you had put a one pound bet on an EU exit vote, Trump as President and Leicester City to win the league you would have netted in excess of £4.5m! It shows how unexpected the events were in the fact that not a single person did.

We suspect that great change lies ahead for the world, change that will be hard to predict. As Christians our stability is found in our unchanging God.

I find some people’s understanding of God difficult to relate to if they think he would pick us off when we are least suspecting and at our weakest, perhaps slumped on the settee with a glass of wine in hand after a hectic week to tell us bad luck it looks like you got your timing wrong. If this were his way then surely he’d be more likely to call on a Sunday morning and at least give us a chance to be at prayer.

Matthew tells us of Jesus warning that a great crisis was to come to Jerusalem, it’s likely he wrote his gospel in the time period before Jesus words were realised around 70 AD when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the second Temple. Some people explain the prediction that ‘one will be taken and one will be left’ as an apocalyptic setting with God swooping down to take away the righteous person and leaving the person found in sin, but when you consider it in the context of a savage Roman military machine finally breaking the Jews and conquering Jerusalem after years of attrition it’s likely that those taken away would have faced a life of slavery with those left behind either dead or considered worthless to the Romans.

I’m convinced that God knows us better than we know ourselves, he has no need to call unannounced as if we know him he’s with us all the time, we don’t need to worry whether our hair is tidy or whether the house is a tip as he’s seen it all before. He’s far more interested in how we relate to him, each other and the planet we live on.

I was at the opening of some boutiques, delis and wine bars in old railway arches around Deptford Station this week, part of the London & Greenwich Railway, London’s first railway line. One man there was telling me how he could never have imagined this when he was a boy with steam and foul smells coming from the arches as people kept their nags in them after a day collecting old iron and lumber around the streets of south London.

It is true that we often cannot predict the changes that lie ahead but we can plan for a future with God by the way we live our lives now. In his letter to the Romans we heard Paul warn about missing out on all that God offers, perhaps through laziness, indifference to his message or a misplaced reliance upon our own ability to determine matters, this may be the ‘slumber’ he tells us we need to wake from.

At advent we find ourselves with a focus on both the past and the future, as a church we affirm that Christ has come, that He is present in the world today, and that He will come again in power. As individuals we can take this opportunity to consider our spiritual journey so far and consider where change is needed.

In the season of Advent we are reminded that we don’t have to just sit back and accept the world as something that happens around us and to us but God wants us to take part, use our influence for the better, get involved.

In a secular sense we could count the days to Christmas by opening little calendar windows and lighting candles over advent (all of which I’m in favour of), but once the warm glow of Christmas fades we could also sink into depression over the dark cold months that follow.

For us the point of advent can be that we live with the expectation and anticipation that ends in Christmas, as the story unfolds we realise that we are sewn into its very fabric. As we understand God a little more becomes apparent that it neither began nor ends there but is even greater than we imagined. I found the words of Nick Baine, Bishop of Leeds helpful when he said ‘… Advent, in asking us to question our fixed expectations, also invites us to look differently at who and how God is. We often seem to be obsessed with maintaining our purity – not being contaminated by the nasty or dodgy stuff of 'the world'. Yet, we are being opened up to the fact that at Christmas God opted into the world of joy and muck, and did not exempt himself from all that means. In other words, God decided that, rather than worrying about being contaminated by the bad stuff, he would contaminate the world with good stuff: generosity, grace, love, mercy, justice, hope.

That sounds like a good challenge to set ourselves this Advent, to contaminate the world with good stuff, to refuse to accept the status quo where we know God wants better.

If we are looking for examples I was very moved this week by the courage of the footballers who came forward to tell how they were abused as youngsters. It was clearly an extremely painful process for them to go public about their horrific experiences but their motivation was to seek justice for others, to raise awareness and increase protection for those currently at risk.

There’s no shortage of opportunities to play our part in creating glimpses of God’s Kingdom on earth and our efforts to do so will change us as people. For many it may not be as dramatic as the horrific wrongs unfolding in the football world but we face prejudices, injustices and selfishness every day which we can challenge and sometimes we have more influence than we realise.

Advent people aren’t worn down and defeated by the wrongs in our world, we are people who are sustained and energised by the sure and certain knowledge that we have a future with God, which unlike everything else in our world is fixed and unchanging.

Kevin Bright
 27 November 2016

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Remembrance Sunday: Living among the ruins

Aleppo: Reuters, Hosam Katan
 The picture I’ve printed on your service sheet today is one we might see on the news any night of the week at the moment.  A city in ruins; houses with their front walls blown off, and a man, picking his way through the rubble strewn streets. As it happens, this is the Syrian city of Aleppo, and the picture was taken by a news photographer, Hosam Katan, whose home town it is. The eastern part of Aleppo, controlled by a variety of rebel forces, has been under attack from President Assad’s forces for years, and is currently besieged. An estimated 200,000 people are still living there, under horrific conditions. There is very little food, water, power or medicine. There are only about 30 doctors, trying to treat the wounded and sick in hospitals which are repeatedly being bombed. Often they have to operate on people on the floor, without anaesthetic, because there is none. Many of their patients are children.  

As I said, though, we see scenes like this so often now on the news that it’s easy to forget that they are individual places, with individual people like us living in them. This picture could be any generic set of ruins anywhere. It could be Mosul or Homs or a hundred other places around the world.

And this scene is, in some ways, timeless as well. It could be WW2 London, or Plymouth or Dresden or Stalingrad. A hundred years ago it could have been Ypres. It could have been a city torn apart in the Crimean war, the American civil war, the wars of the Roses, the Crusades… Someone, somewhere in every generation has to live among ruins, as the people of Aleppo do, dreading the next attack, struggling to stay alive when everything has been stripped from them. No time or place is immune from the ravages of war.

The Bible readings we heard today remind us of that. They are both about living among ruins, or fearing you’ll have to.  The first reading, from the Old Testament, was written just after the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC. Much of the tribe of Judah, who lived there, had been taken into exile in Babylon. The Temple had been smashed to pieces and all its wonderful treasures seized. The author of this book puts into words the heartbreak of those who survive and try to eke out a living there. “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” It’s the lament of a broken people, stunned, helpless. It’s not just the buildings that have been wrecked; the social fabric has been destroyed too. The Temple was the heart of the nation’s life, but now, instead of joyful processions, the roads leading into Jerusalem are empty. And no one has come to Jerusalem’s aid. Where were her supposed allies – her lovers – when she needed them?  

The second reading comes from 600 years later. The Temple had been rebuilt by then, and splendidly enlarged by King Herod. It had only just been finished. But it wouldn’t be there for long, said Jesus. It would soon be torn down again, just as it had been before. And the physical destruction would only be the start of the nation’s troubles. He foresaw a time of great turmoil, a time when people turned on one another, when those who followed him would be scapegoated; we all tend to look for scapegoats when times are tough.

As you can imagine his words went down like a lead balloon. This prophecy of disaster was one of the accusations which was thrown at Jesus when he was arrested. It was bad for morale to talk like this.

The Western Wall of the Temple complex in Jerusalem
But he turned out to be right. In AD 70 the Romans finally got fed up with this client kingdom of Judea after a long series of rebellions and destroyed it, scattering its people across the Empire into a diaspora which only ended in the twentieth century. The Temple was demolished, just as Jesus had said. If you go to Jerusalem now, all you’ll see is the remains of its western wall. It didn’t take uncanny prophetic power to see this coming, though. If you annoyed the Romans for long enough this would always be how it ended, but the people of Jesus’ time didn’t want to see that.  It was too frightening. And who can blame them?

The problem is that denial, however attractive, doesn’t get you anywhere in the end. The possibility of disaster is never as far away as we would like to think. Even if it hasn’t happened to us, the fear that it might can disturb us profoundly. The political upheavals we’ve seen this year – the EU referendum, the US election, the refugee crisis and our reactions to it, the threat of terrorism at home and abroad; all these things unsettle us. Whatever our political opinions we see that old certainties are crumbling.

It’s not always the big things “out there” that threaten us either. We may find ourselves living among our own personal ruins; the ruins of a failed business, the ruins of relationship that has turned sour, the ruin illness wreaks in our lives. It all just feels like a mess, and there seems to be nothing we can do about it. 

Those who first heard Jesus’ words didn’t want to believe them – why would they? But they aren’t intended to make us despair. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. “When you hear of wars and insurrections,” he says, “do not be terrified.”  “Not a hair of your head shall perish,”  he goes on. This may seem like an overstatement – many of those who followed him lost far more than their hair! – but his message is clear. It is possible to be all right, in a deep sense, even when everything around you is all wrong.  “By your endurance you will gain your souls”, he says.

To understand what he means by this you need to know that in Hebrew thought your soul wasn’t some ethereal entity that would waft up to heaven when you died. He’s not saying, “don’t worry, you’ll get your reward in the afterlife – pie in the sky when you die”. Your soul was the whole of you; it was what made you you. It was as much to do with life before death as after it. “Gaining your soul” is about clinging to what is good and true, so that you end up still able to look at yourself in the mirror, with your integrity intact, having acted with honour, as the person God intended you to be. And if we can be that person, there will always be hope for the future. We will, in the deepest sense, survive.

Survival isn’t about building bunkers and stuffing them full of baked beans and bottled water. It isn’t about pulling up the drawbridges and, dare I say it, building walls. All that does is to isolate us and feed the fears and hatreds that are the enemies of lasting peace.  Survival, in the way that Jesus meant it – gaining that vital soul - is achieved by connecting with something bigger than yourself. He talks about his followers being given the words they need. They’ll have within them the knowledge of his presence, even when he’s not physically there any more. They’ll be rooted in a vision that’s broader and deeper than their own limited view, in a goodness that’s greater than the evil they face, and that will enable them to be the best versions of themselves rather than the worst.

We connect to something greater when we look outwards in our communities, when we offer our help to others, when we open ourselves up to learn from them and receive their help too. We connect to something greater when we work for peace and justice, when we care for the victims of war – whether military or civilian – when we welcome refugees or give to charities which care for them here or abroad. We connect to something greater when we listen to those who are different from us, when we get to know them as people, not as stereotypes. What matters is that we don’t just retreat to our bunkers and look out for number one.

I began by telling you a little about the struggles of the people of Aleppo. It all looks so hopeless for them. They have every reason to despair, and I am sure they often do, and so would I. But they also have reasons to hope, and it’s clear that some of them are able to do that too. In the midst of the terror and the awfulness there are many stories of courage and love. There are teachers, gathering children together to give them some semblance of normality and support in makeshift schools. There is that small band of doctors, assisted by whoever can help them, making heroic efforts to heal the sick. There are the White Helmets, civil defence volunteers trained in first aid and rescue techniques, who go into danger when there is an airstrike or a bomb, digging people out of the rubble with their bare hands. Aleppo has many people in it who are “gaining their souls” daily, being and becoming the people they were meant to be, people of honour and goodness. That doesn’t cancel out the pain, but it reminds us that death and hatred aren’t the whole of the story and never will be.

Anne Frank, faced with the worst which human beings can do during WW2, wrote this in her wartime diary. “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again.” She may not, herself, have lived to see it, but she wasn’t wrong.

On this Remembrance Sunday, when we might look around at the world in our time and sometimes feel it is in ruins, or heading that way, let’s hold onto hope and faith like hers, let’s look beyond ourselves and keep walking towards the light, that “light which shines in the darkness,”  the light of love which no darkness can overcome.



Kent Refugee Action Network
Independent charity supporting young unaccompanied asylum seekers and refugees.
Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without borders)
White Helmets. Syrian Civil Defence working in areas being attacked by government troops
Combat Stress  Veterans Mental Health Charity

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Third Sunday before Advent: Life and death

What does it mean to be alive? In one sense it’s obvious – a heartbeat, brain activity, a pulse. But instinctively we know there’s more to it than that. We can be walking and talking, up and around, but still feel dead inside.

Being alive is about energy and enthusiasm, a sense of purpose and belonging. Falling in love, having a child, doing a job that brings us real satisfaction, having an intense experience, seeing a wonderful view – it may be a fleeting moment or a lasting state, but we know it when it comes, and we know when it’s not there too.

Our Bible readings today are all about life and death, but again, it turns out that it’s not just a matter of having a heartbeat.

In the Gospel reading Jesus is approached by some Sadducees, who, as Luke helpfully explains, don’t believe in resurrection.

The Jewish people at the time of Jesus had many different views of what happened after death. The earlier parts of the Old Testament hardly mention the afterlife, and generally speaking early Jewish faith was far more interested in this life and this world. At most they seem to have believed there might be a shadowy sort of underworld – Sheol – but it was a place of silence and forgetfulness, really just a sort of nothingness.  . “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down into silence.” said Psalm 115.
The idea of a conscious afterlife only developed slowly. By the time of Jesus, there were many different groups within Judaism, just as there are in Christianity today. Some groups believed in some sort of resurrection, but others didn’t. The Sadducees didn’t. They were often drawn from the wealthier and more powerful sections of the community, so maybe they worried that in the afterlife there might be a rebalancing of the scales, and they’d be worse off!

So that’s what’s behind the Sadducees’ question to Jesus in the story we heard. They present what sounds like a very far-fetched scenario; a man marries, but dies without any children. In Jewish law, there was an obligation for his brother to marry the widow. Any children he fathered with her would count as the dead brother’s, so his name and lineage wouldn’t die out. But in this hypothetical case, the second brother died too, and so the next brother married her. On and on it went, until she had worked through all seven brothers. Then she died. Whose wife would she be in the afterlife?

I may have lost you in all of that – you may have switched off somewhere along the line. If so, don’t worry, because I think that’s what Jesus did too. Effectively, his response is “O, for crying out loud, you’re missing the point completely!” Whatever life after death is like, it won’t just be a souped up version of what we know now.  It’ll be so different, he says, that the everyday questions just won’t apply. All that will matter is that we will be with God. The questions which might bug us on earth won’t even occur to us in heaven. We’ll be too alive to worry.

But Jesus is also, I think, trying to take the focus away from speculation about the unknown future, and remind the Sadducees that the true life of God – eternal life – is for the present moment too. The kingdom of God, is among you, and within you, Jesus says elsewhere. Eternal life isn’t a consolation prize to pick up after death;  it’s the experience of radical love, connection, joy which is indestructible, right now.

I’m reading a book at the moment which is the fruit of a week’s worth of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who are old friends. The book, written by Douglas Abrams, is called The Book of Joy, because that’s what they came together to talk about. Neither of their life stories looks as if it should have produced much joy. The Dalai Lama has lived most of his life in exile from his native Tibet, trying to sustain the Tibetan Buddhist community against a backdrop of persecution by the Chinese. Desmond Tutu led the Anglican Church in South Africa through the apartheid period and beyond it as the nation tried to rebuild. He’s also been through two bouts of cancer, and was very unwell at the time of these conversations. And yet, again and again, Abrams describes the infectious sense of joy these two men showed. If ever there were people who were fully alive, it is these two. What does eternal life look like – it must be something like this.

It’s not about happiness. Desmond Tutu says that “Joy is much bigger than happiness. While happiness is often seen as being dependent on external circumstances, joy is not.” In other words, joy comes from a connection with something bigger than ourselves. Desmond Tutu calls that something God; the Dalai Lama prefers the Buddhist idea of compassion, but the effect is the same. It’s also about connection with other people. Desmond Tutu answered a question about his current struggle with cancer. “I think we ought not to make people feel guilty when it is painful. It is painful and you have to acknowledge that it is painful, but actually, even in the midst of that pain, you can recognise the gentleness of the nurse who is looking after you. You can see the skill of the surgeon who is going to be performing the operation on you.” Joy isn’t about going around with a fake smile stuck to your face, pretending everything is all right when it’s not, but to find it we do need to lift our eyes from ourselves.  

We can easily let ourselves become prisoners of the here and now. If things are going well, we think life is good, God is good, we are good, and somehow deserving of our good fortune, but if something goes wrong, then we decide that life is pointless, God is a monster, or that we are failures. We forget the good times when the bad times hit. Our horizons shrink to our own immediate concerns. That’s very understandable, but it’s not usually very helpful. What Abrams discerned in the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu was their fearless ability to see beyond themselves, and beyond whatever they were currently suffering, to set it into a bigger perspective.  

The reading we heard from the Old Testament today, from the book of Job, echoes that, in a rather different way. Poor Job. He’s a byword for suffering and misery, and when you know his story, it’s easy to see why. At the start of the book all is well with him. He’s comfortably off, with his family around him, but then disaster after disaster strikes. His crops fail and his livestock is destroyed. His family die, and he gets ill. He sits in misery, scraping his sores with a potsherd. His friends come along to console him, but what they say makes things worse, not better. They try to persuade him that he must have done something wrong, something to deserve this, and that if he repents, maybe things will get better. He’s adamant, though, that he’s kept the law, and gone beyond its requirements too, and that he is innocent. And  according to the story that’s the truth.

So why is he suffering? He doesn’t know, but instead of giving up on God, his bafflement makes him stick even closer. He shouts at God, argues with God, demands an answer from him, but he doesn’t deny him, or his claim on his life. In the end, the only answer he gets is to be told that even if God explained, Job wouldn’t be able to understand. That has to be enough and it is enough. The point is though that  Job doesn’t give up on God, any more than God gives up on Job. Throughout this nightmare, Job is still plugged into God, connected to the source of life. That’s what keeps him going.

Job is a fascinating book, because it refuses to give the easy answers we long for – the winning formula for making everything go smoothly in our lives. It shows us that it is quite all right to be angry with God and to argue with him.  But it also shows us Job’s faith. He never stops believing that he is in God’s hands, and that that is where he needs to be. “I know that my Redeemer lives,…and in my flesh I shall see God”. What kind of God will he see? A God who is on his side, he says, a God who is for him. Job’s friends have a dead, rule-bound relationship with God; he is no more than a heavenly slot machine to them, dispensing justice impersonally from a great distance. Job’s God, though, is close, intimate, passionate, alive – and so Job has a life that is deep enough to carry him through his troubles too.

The second reading, from 2 Thessalonians, finished with a prayer for the Thessalonians, who obviously felt  that the end of the world was just around the corner. They were “shaken and alarmed”.  What do they need in the midst of all this? Not a detailed plan of the end times or a description of the afterlife, says the writer. This is his prayer for them, that God “who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, [will] comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” The word comfort, repeated twice here, literally means to be called alongside someone. It’s linked to the word for an advocate or a helper, someone who is present with you and for you. When we are comforted by God, strengthened by his presence, even if we don’t know the answers, even if we don’t know where the road leads, we are safe.  

I began by talking about life and death, so here’s a question to end with. How alive are you this morning? Not, how happy are you, or how well is life going, but how alive are you, on a scale of one to ten? If we want to make sure it’s ten and not one, we need to be securely connected to the life of the God who is life; through prayer, through stillness, through the Eucharist, through the Bible, through service of others, in whom we can meet him afresh.  Whatever’s going on in the world around us, whatever might be hurting or worrying us, we have a God who is on our side, at our side, with life to pour into us that nothing can destroy.  

*The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams. ISBN-13: 978-0399185045