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