Sunday, 24 January 2016

Epiphany 3: Today

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
“Today” is an important word in Luke’s Gospel. It’s used at a number of significant points. When the angel appears to the shepherds outside Bethlehem he says “to you is born today a saviour who is Christ the Lord”. Later on in the Gospel, Jesus comes across a tax collector, Zaccheus, a man who is despised by his neighbours. He has climbed a tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus, but Jesus calls him down and says to him “ ‘Zacchaeus, …I must stay at your house today.”  When the crowds start to grumble at this  he turns to them and says Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. And then, almost at the end of the story, the thief who is crucified beside Jesus asks, “remember me when you come into your kingdom”. But Jesus can do better than that ; today you will be with me in Paradise”  he promises.

Luke is telling us something with all those “todays”. He’s telling us that God is already at work, already doing the things that need to be done. He’s not waiting for people to be ready, for them get it all together and come up with a plan, set up a structure, recruit a team, and go through a training programme. He’s getting on with it himself, in the person of Jesus, and he is doing it “today”. We can join in or not, but today’s the day we need to choose.

It seems to me, though, that “today” is something many of us struggle with. It can feel so much easier to live in yesterday or tomorrow.  When we live in yesterday we look back nostalgically to a golden age, even if it never really existed. We cling to our souvenirs. We even lug around regrets and old animosities too; they are burdens, but they are familiar burdens, our burdens, and we can’t quite bring ourselves to leave them behind.  That’s living in yesterday.

But living in “tomorrow” can be just as problematic. We dream of a time when all will magically be sorted our in our lives. We wait for the perfect moment to do something we’ve been putting off. Living in “tomorrow” can leave us permanently dissatisfied.  Whatever we need to make us happy is just around the corner, over the horizon, in the next job, the next relationship, if only we could get there.

Why are we so fond of our yesterdays and tomorrows?

Maybe it’s partly because there are so many of them.
All of history lies behind us to be recalled and dwelt on; all the future lies in front of us to be imagined and dreamed of. But today is just the small patch of ground under our feet right now, the place where we are standing for this fleeting moment. We’ve hardly got time to notice it before it is gone.

But another reason why we might also prefer yesterday and tomorrow is that we can’t do anything about them. We can’t change the past and we can’t control the future either. In a sense we are off the hook. Today, though, makes immediate, urgent demands on us, maybe inconvenient or costly ones. It’s the only moment we can act, but do we want to?

The people who came to the synagogue in our Gospel reading were probably just as bad at living in the present as we are. They certainly treasured their “yesterdays”. They had a long history, and it was precious to them. In particular they liked to recall the stories that reminded them of their relationship with God; the stories of Abraham, called to found a new nation, and of Moses leading them out slavery in Egypt. God had chosen them. God had been faithful to them. God had spoken to them through the prophets, prophets like Isaiah, whose words Jesus was about to read.

Isaiah’s words were already 600 years old by this time, and they were favourites, much copied, much quoted, comforting, reassuring just because of their familiarity. So as Jesus began to read, some of his congregation were catapulted straight back into their yesterdays , and would have happily stayed there.

Others, though, were thrown forward into their tomorrows. Isaiah was one of the first prophets to speak of a Messiah, an anointed, chosen agent of God , someone who would bring in a new kingdom in which God ruled. It was a vision of the future which had caught hold of the popular imagination. By the time of Jesus, people had many different ideas of what the Messiah would be like and what he would do. Some thought he would be a righteous teacher, some a military leader, some a priest, some a prophet. The more they dreamed, the more detailed the dreams got, but those dreams were always in the future, tomorrow, “somewhere over the rainbow, way up high”. Now and then someone would say they had found the Messiah and there would be a brief stir of excitement, but most people just carried on, chugging along as they were. A Messiah was a nice idea, but did you really want the disruption it would cause if he actually turned up in your time?

So when the congregation settled down to listen to this reading, the “yesterday” people were all ready to hear comforting words from their past, and the “tomorrow” people were all ready to hear visionary words about the future. But what they got from Jesus was a bombshell. They got the word “today”.  Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  

What was their reaction? If we had read on we would have heard this. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But in the next breath they started to wonder. “Is not this Joseph’s son?”  How could someone from their own time and place be the Messiah? And, in any case, he didn’t seem to be sticking to the script they had written for their anointed one. In fact , he hadn’t even stuck to the script of Isaiah.  

The quotation he had read had stopped in the middle of a sentence. Isaiah’s original words don’t finish with “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”. What Isaiah actually wrote was “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God”, which is a very different kettle of fish.  Although Isaiah did believe that God was for everyone, not  just the Jewish people, there was often more than a hint of revenge fantasy about his words. He looked forward to a time when all those nations which had enslaved and oppressed Israel would come to Jerusalem to offer tribute, when the boot would be on the other foot. Yes, they would be welcome. Yes, there would be a time of peace and plenty, but that would be because Israel was now top dog, and they were the vassals.

What the crowd in the synagogue heard was that Jesus was having none of that.  And his life would be one long proclamation of that message. Through him, God would put a stop to vengeance, taking the burdens and the guilt of the world on himself on the cross, suffering without calling for retribution, offering forgiveness and a new start. This was all well and good if you wanted forgiveness yourself, but it was much more challenging if God was planning to forgive your enemies, and make them part of his family on an equal basis with you. And this radical, disturbing move wasn’t a story from the distant past or a dream for the distant future. Apparently, according to Jesus, it was going to start now, in him.

As this began to sink in to the congregation in Nazareth, the mood began to shift. In the end, they drove him out of the synagogue, intent on throwing him off a cliff. He managed to get away, but it was a dangerous moment, and it was all sparked off by that word “today”.

So where does that leave us? Would we have reacted any more constructively? We might like to think so, but I wonder.  God called Jesus to bring good news to the poor, freedom to the oppressed, recovery of sight to the blind in first century Palestine – in the “today” of those people in Nazareth - but there is just as much need for this in our “today” as there was then. Those who claim to follow him are called to exactly the same mission. In fact, as St Paul reminds us , we are the body of Christ. The word “Christ” is just a the Greek translation of the Hebrew word, “Messiah” – both mean “anointed”. So that means that Paul is saying it is we who are chosen, we who are sent, all of us, together and separately. We may each have different gifts and abilities, but each of us is vital to the health – and the work – of the whole.

We can’t rest on the laurels of those who answered God’s call in the past – yesterday - or hope that someone will do something at some unspecified time in the future- tomorrow. It’s today that matters. It’s today that we will get the chance to befriend someone who is feeling lonely, and either take that chance or not. It’s today that we will hear about some need for volunteers somewhere, and decide to help, or not. It’s today that we will feel that urge to pray for someone we know who is going through a hard time, or pick up the phone or send a text or an email or a card, and we’ll either respond, or push the thought to one side. And it’s today that the people we help, or fail to help, will feel the effects of that choice; for some it might be the turning point between despair and hope, a small action that makes a huge difference.

So let’s not take shelter in our yesterdays, or sink into daydreams about our tomorrows. Let’s ask God to show us what he wants us to do today, as the body of Christ, his hands and feet, and then let’s go and do it, today.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Epiphany 2: Abundant Love

“…and Jesus’ disciples believed in him”. Of course they did. Who wouldn’t? Someone who can produce somewhere between 120 and 150 gallons of wine out of nowhere is bound to be worth following.

It’s probably fairly easy to put ourselves into the shoes of the people who organised this wedding party. If we’ve ever thrown a social gathering ourselves, and I guess we all have, we are familiar with that dilemma of trying to work out how much food and drink to provide, and the quiet messages passed around of “family hold back” if it looks like they are running short. That's what happened on this occasion. Disaster loomed.  It would bring great shame on this family if they couldn’t provide for their guests, and this was a culture where loss of family honour was vital. But fortunately, Jesus was there, and quietly, discreetly, so that only the servants knew what had happened, he transformed water into wine and saved the day.  

John doesn’t just tell us this story to amaze us, though. He calls it a sign. Signs point to things, they convey messages. So what message does this one give us? There are many things we can draw from this story, but here are just two to ponder tonight.

The first is about scarcity and abundance. So often we live with the fear that we won’t have enough of what we need. We are born helpless and utterly dependent on others. If we are lucky our parents feed and care for us. But if they don’t there’s nothing we can do about it. We will starve. That’s why babies cry so desperately when they are hungry or left alone. How do they know that anyone will ever come to feed them again? If that neglect is persistent and extreme people often grow up anxious, driven to hoard and to grasp. The stories of people who survived concentration camps often reveal this very vividly.  
One article I read about orphans of the camps who came to Britain after the war is typical. It said this:

The new arrivals had suffered such hunger during the war that their survival instincts would take over and at meal times huge quantities of bread would disappear into children's mouths and pockets.

Minia [a helper] remembered: "They were saying, 'We are hungry, we are hungry,' all the time. 'We want to eat.'

"And whenever they brought the bread, there was never enough. The boys were putting it in their jackets. They thought they would never get any bread any more."

We don’t have to have been through extreme poverty, though, to feel that anxiety about whether we will have enough to meet our needs, and most of us to some extent stockpile and hoard, just in case there’s no more coming.

When Jesus turns the water into wine, though, he reminds us that whatever else we are short of, we can never exhaust God’s love and grace. That doesn’t mean that nothing bad will happen to us, but we have access to resources far greater and deeper than we think. “You shall be a crown of beauty in the hands of the Lord, “ said our first reading – that’s what God is thinking as he looks at us, however frail, feeble and poor we feel. When the apostle Paul was going through a hard time - as he often was - he heard God’s voice say to him  “My grace is sufficient” 2 Cor 12.9.
So our sense of scarcity may be real and frightening. We may feel we have run dry of energy, patience, hope, meaning, but God’s promise to meet our needs with his abundant grace is real too, something we can trust and draw on.

That’s the first message we might draw from tonight’s Gospel. The second might sound trite or flippant, but it’s not meant to be. It is that this story reminds us that, if you are having a party, you should always remember to invite Jesus.

Think about it. If he hadn’t have been there, he couldn’t have helped. It was only because someone had invited him, and at the vital moment turned to him, that the situation was saved.

If you’re having a party, remember to invite Jesus.  And by “party” I don’t just mean something involving balloons and cake, I mean any life event, any experience, any part of our day to day existence. If you are going to a tricky work meeting, remember to invite Jesus. If you are fretting about a family problem, remember to invite Jesus. If you are spending the day with your friends, or going for a walk on your own, or nipping to the supermarket, take him along with you. Be aware of him, listen for his voice, think about what he might be thinking. Only when we do that do we start to see our lives through his eyes, in the light of his abundant love. If we leave him locked up in church, only to be visited on a Sunday how can he possibly help when we run out of wine, or energy or hope or all those other things that feel scarce to us?

So, two messages to ponder from the Gospel reading. In Christ we see God’s abundant love, his grace, sufficient and more than sufficient for our needs. But if we want that love to pour into our own hearts and lives, we need to remember to invite him to the party.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Baptism of Christ: God in the queue

We’re now in the season of Epiphany. It’s not just one day, the day when we remember the coming of the wise men to Jesus, but a whole season – part of the greater season of Christmastide. Epiphany means revelation, shining forth. We’ve probably all had “lightbulb” moments in our lives, moments when the penny drops, when a new idea strikes us, when we see something for the first time that was really there all along. That’s what epiphany is all about.

Each week during Epiphany we hear another story of people having that lightbulb moment, spotting God at work in the midst of their own lives, right under their noses in the person ofJesus.

So, last week we heard about the wise men finding God in an ordinary family in Bethlehem, rather than in Herod’s palace.
Next week we’ll flip forward to the adult Jesus preaching in his home town of Nazareth, the local boy suddenly seen in a new light.
Then there’ll be the story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana, a revelation of God’s transforming power at work through a seemingly ordinary wedding guest.
And finally at the feast of Candlemas we’ll go back to the baby Jesus, and to Simeon and Anna, who’d seen thousands of babies come through the Temple gates, yet somehow recognised this one as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to [God’s] people Israel.”

These are all Epiphany moments, moments when the boundaries between heaven and earth seemed to dissolve. The Celtic Church called some special sites “thin places” – shrines, churches, holy wells – places where they felt the light of heaven shining through. These Epiphany moments are “thin places” too; places of revelation where God seems to break through the veil of ordinary life. They are times when people see God in an unexpected way, an unexpected person, an unexpected event.

And in some ways the most unexpected of them all is the story we heard today, the story of the Baptism of Christ by John in the river Jordan.

To understand why it’s so surprising we need to be aware of what this baptism was about.  Forget the baptisms you might have seen here or in other churches, like baby Elliot’s last week. The baptism Jesus went through wasn’t a joyful family occasion, with a white christening gown, and friends and family coming to celebrate a new birth. It wasn’t even like an adult baptism would be today, a time when someone who has made a personal commitment to Christian faith is welcomed into the Church with rejoicing.

Tintoretto: Baptism of Christ 1579-81 

There were no parties, no gifts at this baptism. It was a baptism of repentance, a baptism offered to people who felt grubby, at rock bottom, desperate for a new start. Luke sets the scene in the passage immediately before the one we heard today.  The crowds came flocking to John in the wilderness, but his message was a tough one. “You brood of vipers” he started off, which is not how I’d start a baptism service! It must have rung true, though, because they stayed for more.  The truth is that sometimes we do behave like vipers – all of us. We are venomous to others, toxic and destructive. It’s never easy to hear it, but it can also be a relief when someone speaks the truth to us, and that seems to have been the case with those who came to John.

“What then should we do?” they asked him. He replied “If you have two coats, share them with those who haven’t got any. If you are tax collector, don’t defraud people. if you are a soldier, don’t throw your weight around, extorting money by threats or false accusations. Be satisfied with what you have.” And then he dunked them in the water. They came up, spluttering, drenched, but ready to start again.

That’s the context for the story we heard today.  We need to imagine a long line of desperate people; people who knew their lives were a mess, collaborators, oppressors, people whom others had shunned.  They came and they lined up and they slid down that muddy river bank to be pushed under the water by a wild preacher who’d come out of the wild desert, because there was no one else who held out any real hope for them.

And in the midst of that line of desperate sinners was Jesus. What was he doing there? Why did he, who was love and goodness personified, think he needed the baptism John was offering?

That’s a question which was as baffling to the early church as it is today.  In some of the Gospels, John tries to argue Jesus out of his baptism. Jesus should be baptising him, not the other way around. Luke just implies that awkwardness in his Gospel – “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals” says John of the coming Messiah.

Wherever it was that people expected to find the Messiah, it wasn’t in a place like this, in a crowd of sinners waiting to be baptised. But Jesus insisted. This was how it had to be. This was what had to happen. In him, God came to stand in line with the rest of us, to take on our imperfect, flawed humanity, to go down into the water with us, and be drowned, and rise to new life.

So this is a story full of surprise, just like those other Epiphany stories. They ask us, “Can God be found in a baby born to ordinary, poor parents, whose mother wasn’t even married when he was conceived? Can he be found in the village carpenter, or in an ordinary wedding guest? Can he be found in the man next door, the person you’ve passed in the street a thousand times without a second glance. Could this be the one of whom God says “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”?

Christian faith proclaims that God showed up in the world, in a way he hadn’t been seen before, in a particular man, in a particular place and time. It’s something people have always struggled to get their heads around, though. Theologians call it “the scandal of particularity.”  What’s so special, they ask, about first century Nazareth, about Mary and Joseph? Was this a uniquely holy time and place? Were these uniquely holy people?  If they were, does that mean that other times, places and people are somehow less special?

We tend to make matters more complicated by putting the Holy Family on a pedestal – quite literally -  painting them with haloes as if they really glowed in the dark. We call the ground they trod “the” Holy Land, as if it were somehow different from all other places, the only place Christ could have been born. But the Gospel writers don’t do that. In fact, they seem to go out of their way to stress the ordinariness of the situation into which Jesus was born.

Their message was that God had chosen what was ordinary, or even despised and rejected, and had proclaimed it blessed. They wanted to open our eyes to the possibility that God might be found at work anywhere and at any time. He might be next door in Nazareth or next door in Seal. He might be standing in the crowd at the Jordan waiting for that baptism of repentance, or in the crowd in the migrant camps at Calais or the queue at the foodbank. 

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”, said John’s Gospel. Amen, we say, joyfully. It is much harder, though, for us to believe that he loves the family member we don’t get on with, the co-worker who let us down, the neighbour who behaves unreasonably towards us, the particular  people with whom we have to deal. It can be hardest of all to believe that he “so loves” us with all our faults and failings. It is easy to love in the abstract and to believe in a God “out there” who also loves in the abstract; it is when love gets specific, when it is about us and the people we know that we struggle.

But that is the message of Epiphany. God stands in line with us. He immerses himself in our lives, even in the bits that we would rather not acknowledge. He came to us in a particular person, in a particular place and time, not because they were special, but to show us that he could be found in anyone, anywhere at any time, including the here and now, the particular circumstances of our lives.

There is an old folktale that puts it in a nutshell. It tells of a Jewish Rabbi and a Christian Abbot who were great friends and often talked together. The Abbot used to share with the Rabbi the troubles and frustrations of trying to hold his community together. Like all communities there were tensions and resentments now and then. But what could the Abbot do about it?  The Rabbi offered to help. He came to the monastery and met with the monks and told them that he had a message for them., “The Messiah is one of you” he said.

What did he mean? Who did he mean? The monks had no idea. They looked around at each other and thought, surely the Messiah couldn’t be him, or him, or him  - those irritating brothers who drive me up the wall.  But then they started to wonder. Maybe it was that annoyingly pernickety monk; at least he helped the rest of them see what they needed to do. Or maybe it was that infuriatingly dreamy monk; he had the imagination that the rest of them lacked. They each looked at their fellow monks, one by one, and realised that each one had a unique gift.  In each one they could see God at work. They even looked at themselves and wondered, “could it be me?” By the time the Rabbi and the Abbot met again the fractious monastery was thriving and at peace. The Rabbi’s words had opened their eyes to God’s presence among them.

I don’t know whether the week ahead for you will be easy or difficult, mundane or extraordinary, but the promise of today’s gospel story is that God will be in it with you. Maybe he’ll be next to you in the bus queue, or ahead of you in the traffic jam, or behind the checkout.  Let’s pray that our eyes are open to see him, so that every place can become a “thin place” where we can find the God who transforms us. 

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Epiphany Sunday: gifts for a king

It’s great to welcome Elliot and all his family and friends here to Seal for his christening, and it’s especially good to do so on this day, Epiphany Sunday. The feast of the Epiphany is actually on 6th January but we celebrate it on the nearest Sunday so that everyone can be part of it. It’s the moment when we remember  the visit of the Magi to Jesus in Bethlehem, a feast which centres around a child, so it’s seems like a goodday for a baptism.

My guess is that, just like the Magi, many of Elliot’s family have come bearing gifts, but I suspect that they are rather different from the ones Jesus was given. I suppose it is just possible that there might be some gold, but I very much doubt there’s any frankincense and myrrh on offer.

I am sure, though, that any gifts Elliot is given today will have been chosen with great care. The gifts we give to new babies say something about what we hope for the child, what we believe about them. At the most basic level they say “you matter”, “you’re special” but they are often given with one eye on the future. If you google “christening gifts” you’ll often find things like money boxes, photo frames, or Bibles, things the child can’t use yet, but which the giver hopes they will grow to appreciate eventually.

The gifts the Magi brought  to Jesus were no different in that sense. They said something about who this child is and what the givers believed about him too.

In the second century, a Christian writer called Irenaeus suggested that each of the gifts had a specific meaning. His interpretation is still preserved in the carol “We three kings” which we’ll sing later in the service. He reckoned that gold was for king, frankincense symbolised divinity, because people burned it as part of their prayers, and myrrh reminded us of Jesus’ burial, because it was an ointment used to anoint the dead.

Frankly I think he may have been overthinking it. There’s no evidence that Matthew meant to be as specific as this, but he certainly did mean us to notice these gifts, to be aware of what kind of gifts they were. The really significant thing about them is that they were expensive. These aren’t bargain basement presents; they are luxury items.

Gold is obviously precious, but frankincense and myrrh were just as valuable in the ancient world. Frankincense and myrrh weren’t just used in prayer and for anointing the dead; they were, and still are, also used to make medicines and as perfumes. I’ve brought some along today, both in resin form and as oil – pass it around and have a sniff. 

They both come from trees which grow on the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa – modern day Yemen and Somalia. But harvesting them is no mean feat. The scrubby bushes that produce them have to be painstakingly tapped,  then the resin oozes out and dries. Eventually it’s collected by hand and transported across the desert. You can’t produce them on an industrial scale, even now, so they are still expensive.

When Matthew tells us about the gifts the Magi bring he is telling us that they’re intended for a child who is very important. These are all gifts for royalty. The Magi packed them because they were expecting to find a royal child at the end of their journey.

As we see from the story, their first attempt at finding him led them up a very dangerous blind alley. They went to Herod’s palace. And why not? It was the obvious place to go. But of course there was no baby there, and Herod sent them on to Bethlehem. We know that Herod meant to have the child killed – he wasn’t going to tolerate any rivals for his throne -  but they didn’t, and so, quite innocently, they went on their way. 

And this time they did find the child, guided by the star which they believed was the sign of his birth. But instead of being in a palace he was in an ordinary home with an ordinary family. This can’t have been what they expected at all, and yet, oddly, they don’t seem to be at all disappointed. They kneel down and pay him homage, as they would have done to a king in a fine palace, and they have no hesitation in handing over their expensive gifts.  They don’t look at each other awkwardly and mutter that they could have got away with a couple of babygros and a bag of disposable nappies.

But if the Magi aren’t surprised by this turn of events, I think Matthew means us to be. He’s signalling to us something about who this child is going to grow up to be. He’s going to be a leader, a king, but not one like King Herod, or any other king people of his time had encountered. His kingship will be wrapped in humility. His power will be expressed in love and self-sacrifice.

Matthew was writing, just one generation after Jesus, from his knowledge of the adult life and ministry of Jesus, based on the memories of people who actually knew him. They spoke of a man who had had an authority that people sensed straight away, despite his very ordinary background.  That’s why they followed him. But what kind of leader had he been? He didn’t raise an army or start a revolution. He didn’t amass wealth or build fine palaces to live in. And he ended up on a cross, hardly a place for a king. The Roman soldiers mocked him, jamming a crown of thorns on his head. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, nailed a sign above his head on the cross saying “The King of the Jews”. He meant it ironically, but the truth is that Jesus has had more influence on the world than Pilate, or King Herod, come to that.
Matthew’s stories about Jesus’ birth point us forward to this; this was a man whose kingship was always going to look very different.

Yet billions of people have followed him, and follow him still, looking to his life for guidance. We often don’t get it right, of course, but the path he showed us is still one which many, many choose to follow. To call ourselves Christian is to acknowledge his authority over the decisions we make, to allow the pattern of his life to shape ours. His kingship is seen when our lives start to look like his, even if it’s only a bit, even if the likeness is dim. It is seen when we manage to love and serve others, when we work for justice and peace, when we befriend the friendless and feed the hungry, just as he did.

So, gold, frankincense and myrrh; it might seem strange to give them to an ordinary child in a Bethlehem back street, but it turns out to be quite appropriate.

But what has all this got to do with Elliot’s christening?

There are lots of different things going on in a baptism service. We are giving thanks for a new life. We are praying for Elliot’s future. We are reminding him, and ourselves, that God is with him and will always be. But we are also saying something very profound about who he is and who he might grow up to be. Every child is a child of God, we believe, and part of his royal family. But so often we don’t recognise or acknowledge that, in ourselves or in others. We think that ordinary people can’t make a difference, that ordinary lives don’t really matter, that it is only the rich and famous who count. But according to the Bible that’s not so. Each one of us has a royal calling. Following Jesus means learning to be who we really are, royal children.

That’s why, after his baptism I will anoint Elliot with special oil called oil of Chrism. It is the same oil used to anoint kings and queens at their coronation, and it’s scented with frankincense, that royal perfume.  It is a reminder that this is no ordinary child, but a child who can change the world for the better, as we all can, loving and serving others like that child in Bethlehem whom the wise men worshipped.