Sunday, 29 May 2016

Trinity 1: Just as we are

It was a great joy today to christen baby Ethan and welcome all his family and friends to church.

1 Kings 8.22-23,41-43, Luke 7.1b-10

The most important person in the Bible story we’ve just heard, apart from Jesus, is the one who isn’t actually there at all. He’s just a voice offstage. He’s the centurion whose slave Jesus heals. First, he sends some Jewish elders to Jesus with a message, then, when Jesus heads for his house, he sends out some friends. But he never shows up himself.

So who is this man? Actually, we can tell quite a lot about him, even though we never meet him, and the fact that he doesn’t appear himself is one of the most important clues of all.

Why doesn’t he come to Jesus? Why does he send others? Is it that he can’t be bothered? Is he too busy? Does he think he is too important? No, actually it is quite the reverse.

He is a centurion, we are told; and that means that he is a Roman soldier.  The Romans were occupying what is now Israel. Galilee, where this story is set, was the area where most of their garrisons were based. The people of Galilee had to feed, pay for,  put up with these soldiers, thousands and thousands of them, tramping all over their land, throwing their weight around. They were an ever-present, visible reminder of the fact that they were under the thumb of a foreign power, and a brutal power at that. Added to that, these Romans were Gentiles, not Jewish. They followed laws and customs which the Jewish people found abhorrent. They ate food that was forbidden. They worshipped foreign gods. Eating with them, even casual contact with them could make you ritually unclean, as well as leading to the suspicion that you were a collaborator.

Of course, some of them were perfectly, good, decent, kind people – as this centurion seems to have been. He is respected and liked by the Jewish elders. He even paid for their synagogue to be built, they say. He’s probably interested in Jewish faith, an admirer. But he can never really belong, not fully, not properly, because you have to be born Jewish. Conversion was possible, but it was difficult, and some people would always have looked on you as an incomer. An incomer who was an enemy soldier, part of the system that was causing so much suffering to the Jewish people, would be even worse. You would know that some people would never fully trust you.

That’s why this centurion doesn’t come to Jesus himself. He’s internalised the suspicions and fears he sees around him. It would be hard not to. He knows that many teachers, holy men like Jesus, wouldn’t even want to come near him, never mind enter his house. He doesn’t want to make Jesus uncomfortable, or show him disrespect. “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof”, he says, and he means it.

But he’s desperate. The slave who is ill is obviously dear to him. That isn’t as strange as it sounds. Slavery was an unquestioned part of the social system, but it was quite common for slaves to become valued members of the household in their own right. This slave is more than just a unit of production to the centurion; it sounds as if he’s a friend, and the centurion is prepared to try anything to save him. So he summons up his courage and asks for help, although he knows that he could be rejected.

And, as we see, the gamble pays off. Jesus heals his slave, and praises his faith as well – not just the faith that Jesus can heal, but the faith which gives him courage to ask for that healing at all from someone who had every reason to hate and fear him, every reason to say no.

That’s why this story is important. That’s why it is so powerful, because how many of us have ever felt we weren’t good enough, or felt humiliated by our shortcomings and our needs? My guess is at least 99.9% of us, and the 0.1% are probably just kidding themselves. As a priest, I often have the privilege of seeing the underside of people’s lives, the bits they hide from others, and I’ve discovered that feeling unworthy is a universal human experience. That sense of unworthiness comes out in all sorts of ways, and it starts early on. We rapidly take in the messages of the world around us that we aren’t clever enough, or thin enough, or organised enough, or strong enough, or whatever our Achilles heel is. We’re not good enough parents. We’re not good enough at work. We’re not good enough in our relationships. We may be good at pretending – that’s why everyone else looks as if they have it sorted out - but the truth is that under the surface we are all the same, a mess of self-doubt.

Like the centurion, we don’t want other people to come under our “roofs” – the roofs of our hearts as well as the roofs of our homes. What will they think when they see the real us?

But Jesus isn’t put off, despite the centurion’s protestations. It doesn’t even seem to occur to him that he shouldn’t go and meet the centurion. That’s entirely in line with his behaviour throughout the Gospels. He’ll sit and eat with anyone who will sit and eat with him. Fishermen, Pharisees, prostitutes, collaborators, lepers, women and children, foreigners, outcasts of every stripe; it’s all the same to him. There’s no condescension, no revulsion. There are no conditions, no hoops to jump through. You don’t have to be good enough, holy enough, clever enough, strong enough to deserve his company…you just have to be human.

The whole of the Gospel, the good news that God loves and accepts us as we are, is in this little story so it’s a great story to have at a baptism. You can be baptised at any age, of course – it is never too late – and the message is the same. God loves you and accepts you as you are. But when we baptise a baby, that message is particularly clear.

Ethan is six months old. He’s a lovely baby, of course, but let’s face it, he hasn’t yet got many achievements to show for himself! He hasn’t got a single GCSE. He hasn’t earned a penny, let alone made a fortune. He hasn’t won Britain’s Got Talent, or the Olympics. He isn’t at all famous, except to his family and friends. He might be one day, but right now he can’t even manage to feed himself. But in baptism we proclaim that God – like us – looks at him and loves him. Nothing will ever make God love him any more or any less than he does right now. We make him the star of the show today, the centre of our worship, because just as he is, he is precious, not because of what he’s achieved or might achieve, not because of the honours the world might one day heap on him, but just because he is. Baptism, first and foremost is a celebration simply that Ethan James Lee is here, a child of God, beloved and infinitely special.

But Ethan’s baptism also reminds us that we are all just as precious. Ethan is a message from God to us today, no matter how inadequate we feel, no matter how harshly we’re judged by our bosses, our social circle, or by our own hearts, which are our fiercest critics.  Ethan says to each one of us today that just as we are, God love us. Just as we are heaven rejoices at our existence – mine and yours, and yours. May we have the courage, like the centurion in the story, to dare to trust that love and live in its light.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Pentecost: Speaking our language

Pentecost 16 Breathing Space

The Bible has a huge amount to say about the Holy Spirit, whom we celebrate particularly today. From the moment of creation when the Spirit hovers or sweeps over the waters of chaos, to the prophets who are caught up by the Spirit of God and filled with his words, to the Spirit overshadowing Mary to fill the child in her womb, to the Spirit which descends like a dove on Jesus at the moment of his baptism, to the Spirit which is the lifeblood of the infant church, guiding them, inspiring them, driving them out into the world: the Spirit is everywhere. People may struggle to describe it, but it is life-changingly real to them.

In the story we heard from the book of Acts, the Spirit gives those who are filled with it the rather puzzling gift of speaking in tongues. Visitors from every corner of the Empire hear the message they proclaim and understand it. In fact, they don’t just understand it, they feel certain they are hearing it in their own native language. They have travelled all the way from Pamphylia or Cappadocia or Libya, expecting to feel very much like outsiders in Israel. Some are probably Jewish by origin, but have grown up elsewhere  - maybe over several generations – and whether they like it or not, they are not as much at home in the motherland as they thought they would be. Others may be complete outsiders, traders, travellers, even part of the occupying forces of Rome. What unites them is the sense that they are a long way from home. But in the midst of this alien land, they find something so familiar to them that they are transported right back to the deserts, mountains, pastures, coastlands, of the land of their birth – they hear their own language spoken like a native.

What is happening here is something we can debate endlessly, and completely fruitlessly. The author of the Acts of the Apostles isn’t presenting us with a puzzle to be explained. He is telling us a deeper truth about the God whom he follows and serves. That truth is that God is at home with us, deeply, permanently at home with us, wherever we are from, wherever we are, wherever we are going. The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. He knows it, and us, better than we can know ourselves.

In Psalm 139, the Psalmist asks “Where can I go from your Spirit, where can I flee from your presence?” Happily the answer is “nowhere”. God is there in the depths of the grave and in the heights of heaven, from the East to the West, the beginning to the end, in life and in death. In Paul’s letter to the Romans we are told that  the Spirit prays within us “with sighs too deep for words”. When we can’t think of the words to pray, when we can’t dig down into the depths of ourselves, he is already there, knowing us perfectly. It’s not just the outside world the Spirit inhabits, but all that is within us too.

The Spirit drives the church out into the world at Pentecost, giving the first Christians the courage to face the unknown as they journey to the ends of the earth. But that courage is rooted in the knowledge that God is at home in them, and they in God. For that reason, every place and every situation is home to them.

Today you may be feeling at home with yourself, at peace and at ease, or you may be feeling dislocated, alienated or restless, or carrying in your heart others who are. The good news of Pentecost is that wherever we are and whatever we face, the God who created and loves us is at home in us.

I’d like to finish with a sonnet by Malcolm Guite, written for this day.

Pentecost - a sonnet by Malcolm Guite

Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings

As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire, air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in every nation.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Easter 7: Being one

There are some things in life which are entirely predictable – somewhere in England today a newspaper will have a headline reading something like, “phew, what a scorcher!” The media can be equally predictable whenever Church leaders say anything about governments or financial institutions. If a bishop challenges injustice or corruption, someone will be quick to harrumph that “the Church should keep its nose out of business and politics”. Of course, Church leaders sometimes deserve criticism if their statements are na├»ve or hypocritical, but the idea that Christians should concentrate on the purely spiritual reflects a real misunderstanding of what faith is for and about. It’s also usually a sure sign that there’s something fishy going on which someone should ask hard questions about.

The truth is that anyone who thinks Christian faith can be divorced from the world of money and politics can’t have been reading the Bible. It’s full of challenges to injustice; this is its lifeblood.

Our first reading today is a case in point. and Silas are in Philippi, a Roman colony in Macedonia, which had been deliberately populated with Roman Army veterans, so it was a place where the power and wealth of Rome were very visible. Paul and Silas were there proclaiming the message of Christ, and they were having some success, but one of their keenest followers wasn’t entirely welcome at first. In fact she was quite a nuisance. She was a slave girl who is described as having a “spirit of divination”. She would probably be diagnosed as mentally ill today, but in the first century the kind of outbursts she was coming out with, the visions and messages she felt compelled to pass on, would have been attributed to spirit possession. This was a culture where people looked to all sorts of things to predict the future – the flight of birds, the condition of the internal organs of the animals they sacrificed. It gave them the illusion that they could control the chaotic world in which they lived. Fortune tellers like this girl were sought after, and this girl’s owners had obviously realised they had a real money spinner here. They were exploiting her mental illness for their own ends – that’s why they were so furious when Paul and Silas healed her. To them she wasn’t a human being, a person who was disturbed and deserved help; she was a unit of production, and Paul and Silas had put her out of action.

The slave owners complained to the authorities, who entirely agreed that this sort of thing must be stamped out. It was bad for business. Paul and Silas were flogged and thrown into prison, but in the middle of the night an earthquake struck, breaking open the doors. You’d expect the prisoners to make a run for it, and so did the jailer. He knew what would happen to him if they escaped. It wasn’t just his job but also his life that was on the line. The Romans had ways of making death extremely painful and humiliating when they wanted to make an example of someone, and he decided it was better to kill himself rather than wait for them to do it. Paul and Silas called out to him just in time, though. The prisoners were all still there. He had no need to fear. The jailer was so impressed by the fact that they even thought of his predicament that he was converted and baptised that very night. And when that had been done, Paul and Silas went back to their cells to wait for the law to take its course.

To his employers the jailer was a tool of the state, an instrument they could use to carry out their will, just as the slave girl was an economic tool to her owners. They were no more than cogs in the machinery of the world around them, to be used and abused, picked up and discarded at will. They had no rights, no status, no voice, no control over their own lives. Their worth was limited to the job they did, the money they brought in.  But Paul and Silas saw them differently, as people with their own feelings and opinions, their own God-given dignity, and it changed these people’s lives. Maybe it complicated them in some ways, but it seems like they felt it was worth it. Paul and Silas weren’t creating trouble for the sake of it when they interfered in the economic and political life of Philippi; they weren’t trying to build a rival empire for themselves either. They were just responding to human need, but they couldn’t do that without challenging the structures of power which had kept the slave girl and the jailer in their place.

It was the word “integrity” which came into my mind as I read these stories from Acts. Paul and Silas acted with integrity; they walked the talk. They followed the path they had to in order to live the message they were preaching, and they went where that path led them, no matter what it cost them.
Integrity is fundamental to the Gospel reading too.

Integrity is all about being one, being whole, holding things together rather than compartmentalising them. The slave-owners and rulers of Philippi compartmentalised their lives. They probably loved their children and were kind to their friends; they put them in one compartment. But they thought of other people – slaves, jailers - as disposable, not really human at all; they were in another compartment entirely, a compartment for things that didn’t matter, people for whom you didn’t have to have empathy. If they’d stopped to think about what it was like to be that slave girl, or that jailer, if they had imagined their daughter or their friend in that position, they couldn’t have treated them the way they did.

There’s a name for this process of distancing yourself from groups you don’t want to think about. It’s called  “othering”. There’s us. We matter. Our joys and our sorrows are real. Then there are the “others”; people we don’t want to think about. We convince ourselves that they don’t feel the way we do. When they are beaten or starved they don’t hurt like we would. Their suffering doesn’t count.  “Othering” is what the Nazis did to the people they annihilated in the concentration camps; Jews, Gypsies, gay people, the disabled; they were all “other” to their Nazi overlords, so what happened to them didn’t matter. Today we still do this to people ; Muslims – well, they’re all terrorists, or might be, so why should they expect any rights?  The poor? They’re just feckless; we would find work, save, organise ourselves better, if we were in their shoes.  We “other” the people who produce the cheap goods we buy too. We prefer not to think about the pressures they are under, the short cuts their employers make to offer such a good deal, the risks they are exposed to. We wouldn’t tolerate their working conditions, but we convince ourselves that they don’t really mind the way we would.

Living with integrity, though, is the opposite of “othering”. It means seeing our shared humanity rather than our differences, taking on board that every person is a person like us. It means allowing ourselves to feel empathy for people, to love them as we love ourselves.  It is fundamental to the Christian Gospel, which proclaims that everyone is a child of God and that we’re all held together in God’s love.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus prays that his followers will be one, as he is one. It’s a reading full of oneness, which is just another word for integrity. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, … The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.” If all that sounds rather tangled, that’s because it’s meant to. We are meant to be tangled up with God and one another. If we are serious about our faith we can’t compartmentalise it. We can’t put it in a box marked “spiritual”, to be opened for an hour on Sundays and then firmly locked up for the rest of the week. If it is real at all it will eventually invade every part of us, shaping the way we think about ourselves, the way we think about others, the way we do our jobs, the way we treat our families, the way we make political and economic decisions. God is one, and in him everything else is one as well.

The integrity Jesus wants for his followers - the oneness he’s praying for here - isn’t just a superficial matter of being nice to each other. It is the kind of integrity that holds everything together; the bits of ourselves we like, and the bits we don’t, the people we choose as friends and those we are tempted to discount and push away, the material and the spiritual, prayer and money, worship and politics . It’s the kind of integrity that holds our beliefs and our actions together. If we believe that all people are made in the image of God , how can we ignore the way poverty and oppression mar that image? If we believe that God calls everyone and gives them a unique role, how can we ignore the injustices which rob people of the power to control their own lives and speak with their own voice?

Should Christians stick their noses into politics and economics? Of course they should, and not just their noses but the whole of the rest of themselves too. In fact, whether we like it or not, we are already thoroughly mixed up in these things, shaping the world and being shaped by it. Our challenge and our privilege is to make sure that is a process which leads to life, dignity and hope for all. The only way to do that is to live with integrity, as Jesus has called us to, as people who are one with ourselves, one with each other, one with those who are discounted and oppressed, and one with God who holds all things in heaven and earth in one embrace.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Godparents' Sunday: Easter 6 16

Today is the first ever Godparents’ Sunday in the Church of England, and I think it is a great idea. Churches all over England are doing what we are doing, helping people remember their godchildren and godparents, that unique relationship which starts at christenings, but continues for life. Godparents matter. That’s something you soon discover in my job. New parents coming to request a baptism for their child have nearly always given a lot of thought to who the godparents will be, and godparents are thrilled to be asked. It is a great gesture of trust on the part of the parents, and a great privilege. So it is good to be able to celebrate and pray for that relationship.

For some of you, the Godparent/child relationship may have been very important and very real – it can be something that lasts a lifetime and which you look on as very influential in your growth in faith. Other Godparents and godchildren may have quickly lost contact, though, as families move and friendships loosen. You may not even know who your godparents were, but if you were baptised as a baby you certainly had some, and those who came to faith later may have had sponsors, or people you regard as godparents who supported you in your faith.

So today might be a good day to reconnect with a godchild or godparent you haven’t spoken to them for a while, to let them know you’re thinking of them and praying for them. It might be a good moment to ask questions of your family, to find out who your godparents were if you don’t know, or simply to pray for those who supported your journey of faith at its beginning, whatever their formal role was, whether you knew about them or not. Each of us can make of it whatever we need to.

The role of godparents has varied across the ages and across cultures, but in its various guises it goes right back to the early centuries of the church, so I thought you might appreciate a quick canter through its history.

You won’t find godparents in the Bible, though of course many people were baptised. We heard about one of them, Lydia, in our first reading today. The baptism she went through was a sign of her decision to become a follower of the way of Jesus, sharing symbolically in the death and resurrection of Jesus, going under the water and coming up again as a new person, and as a member of a new community, part of the family of God.  In those early days, people were often baptised quite quickly, almost on impulse, as Lydia seems to have been, along with their households. Godparents aren’t mentioned, but the support of experienced Christians was very important . After Lydia was baptised, she invited Paul to come and stay with her, and under his guidance she eventually formed and led a church in her home. So in a sense, Paul was a godparent to her, the person she looked to for advice and help.

As Christianity spread though, godparents - or sponsors as they were known – became a vital and indispensable part of baptism. Becoming a Christian could be a risky choice. The Christian community was intermittently persecuted, sometimes quite savagely, so Christians often met in secret. If someone was interested in Christian faith you wanted to be sure they were genuine and serious about it, that they weren’t going to betray you, either deliberately or through carelessness. So enquirers had to have a sponsor, someone who’d vouch for them, someone who could make sure they really understood the risks they were taking on, and the danger they might pose to others, before they made their final commitment. Preparation could often last for two or three years. It wasn’t so much about understanding the ideas of faith, as about sorting out your life so that your sponsor could present you as someone who could be trusted. During your preparation, you wouldn’t be fully admitted to services. You might not even know where the Christians were gathering. Only when your sponsor was convinced you were ready would you be baptised and be able to join in worship. The safety of the whole Christian community was in the hands of the sponsor.

It was only when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire that godparenting started to take on the form we know today. When Christian faith became the norm most adults were baptised as children, so godparents were appointed to help them grow in faith, and often to give them worldly support too. If you could, you wanted godparents for your child who had influence or wealth , to give them a bit of a leg up in the world. Apparently to this day, in Belgium if you are the seventh son or the seventh daughter in an unbroken line of sons or daughters, you are entitled to have the King and Queen of Belgium to be your godparents. I have no idea whether it ever happens, but allegedly it is so. The idea that godparents can be powerful allies also lies behind the Mafia use of the term, of course - let’s hope none of the Godfathers here at Seal have that model in their heads!  A gentler version of the protecting godparent is the fairy godmother of folk tale, who keeps a watchful eye over her godchild, and has a little magic up her sleeve when the need arises.
So godparents can be protectors, allies, influences for good.
An old English word for a godparent takes us in a slightly different direction though. In England godparents were once also called Godsibs, short for Godsiblings. “Sibling” today tends to mean just a brother or sister, but originally it was any blood relation. Your Godsibs were related to you through God, rather than blood. They were people you treated like family, people you trusted and felt close to as you would a family member. Interestingly the same prohibitions applied to marriage between god parents and children, to blood relatives; you couldn’t marry your godchild, or members of their close family.

Because of the Godsibs role in baptism they would often be around when the baby was first born, maybe even at the birth, because christenings tended to happen very quickly. They’d be the people you’d expect to find sitting around the new mother’s bed, nattering with her, or wetting the baby’s head with dad. And that’s where we get the word “gossip”from – it’s a corruption of godsib. That informal, intimate chit-chat, that “gossip” suggests, was exactly the kind of conversation you’d expect to have with these closest of friends, people you could share your secrets with – or the secrets of others. Christenings were sometimes called Gossipings, because they were the moment when those godsib relationships were formed. Today, when parents choose their friends as godparents, people they feel at ease with, they are unconsciously drawing on that old tradition.

So godparenting is a very flexible relationship; it has taken on many forms, to suit its contexts and the individuals concerned.  Over the centuries it’s been about forming the faith of a new believer, protecting and helping them, and providing that listening ear, sharing their intimate concerns.

Godparenting today doesn’t carry any legal weight as it once did.
But despite that, Godparenting is still a very meaningful relationship. In fact it may be because it has no legal force that it feels so significant to us. It’s a freely chosen relationship; parents choose godparents, godparents choose to say yes to that responsibility and privilege. And in that sense godparenting is really a symbol of what the whole Christian community is supposed to do for one another. Even if you’re not a godparent or a godchild, you have something to celebrate and think about today.

Those first Christians, people like Lydia, became part of a new community when they were baptised, a community drawn together by faith, not blood or legal obligation. For many it was the only family they had. Some were slaves who’d been separated from their families of origin. Some had had to leave their families, or been thrown out, when they chose to follow Jesus. Some were widows or orphans, or one of the many outcasts who Jesus gathered  to himself.  They came together in his name; they were bound together by his love.  That  didn’t mean that their families or other social networks didn’t matter or shouldn’t be honoured, but they saw themselves as part of a bigger family now too, the family of God. It was a very diverse family, made up of people of all all social classes, all abilities, ages, races and backgrounds, joined in one equal fellowship. It was sometimes a challenge to live in a family like that, but it was a real joy too, and it still is. It takes a village to raise a child, as they say, and it’s quite true. However good our parents are, we need the support of a whole network of people who have chosen and promised to support us if we are going to grow into the people God wants us to be.

Whatever else they are, godparents are a symbol of this wider family. They help us to see beyond the inevitable limits of our family of origin. They remind us that we are all called to support and accompany one another on our journey of faith. That’s why, at every christening, I ask the whole congregation this question “People of God, will you welcome this child and uphold them in their new life in Christ?” and you all answer, “With the help of God, we will.” Whether we have ever been asked to be a godparent or not, we are all godparents to one another, and it is good that it is so.

Today, then, we celebrate our godparents, and we remember all those who may not have officially been godparents but nonetheless nourished and supported us. We pray for our godchildren, and for all the children who are part of our Christian family. And we ask for God’s grace to be his people, loving and supporting one another as we learn and grow together.