Sunday, 28 April 2019

Easter 2: Holy flesh

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.  John 1.1 & 14

You may have wondered whether I have slipped a season or two – those are words which we often hear at Christmas, the final reading at traditional carol services, the reading which opens Midnight Mass, as a tiny light is brought into the darkened church.

They’re the opening words of John’s Gospel. Like all the best opening words they give us a clue about what the rest of the book will be about. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” You don’t need to know the plot of Pride and Prejudice to know that we are in for a story about a rich young man’s journey towards the married state. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities, set during the French Revolution starts with a clear signal that we are in for a roller-coaster ride of triumph and tragedy.

John’s Gospel begins with words that tell us equally clearly what we are going to be hearing about – the key themes he wants us to keep in mind. This is going to be a story about the Word, about God speaking to us. But this word won’t be written on a page; it is going to be expressed through flesh, and in that flesh we will see God’s glory.  God is going to speak through a human being, through the whole of his life, all the physical stuff that all human people go through – being born, growing, eating, sleeping, rejoicing, suffering, dying.

We will see Jesus sharing a wedding feast at Cana,  thirsty at a well in Samaria, asking a woman for a drink because he hasn’t got a bucket, being anointed just before his death. We will see Jesus caring for the flesh of others too, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, washing feet. And, ultimately we will see Jesus’ flesh beaten and crucified, Jesus’ flesh, the flesh of the Word made flesh, dying and being laid in a stone cold tomb, while his disciples, afraid for their own flesh, hide away.

Today’s Gospel reading comes from what was originally the very end of John’s Gospel – another chapter, a sort of extended P.S. was added very early on – but it was meant to end here, with Jesus, standing among this disciples, God’s Word having the last word, a glorious word, stronger than death, but  a word which is still very definitely flesh, the same flesh as they had seen crucified. Jesus still bears the marks of the nails and the wound of the spear in his side. He isn’t some incorporeal ghost, a wispy spirit, or a figment of their imagination. He is a body, a flesh and blood body. I can’t explain that, but it is what the story insists on. His wounds haven’t been airbrushed away. So his resurrection isn’t about transcending the limitations of the flesh. It is a glorification of that flesh, a declaration that - just as it is - wounded and battered, flesh that has literally been to hell and back, this is flesh which is full of God’s glory.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory”. That doesn’t just refer to the baby lying in the manger, shining in the darkness of Christmas nigh – in fact John doesn’t tell any birth stories of Jesus, so it probably doesn’t refer to that at all. It is really about this moment, when a wounded Jesus stands before his friends , in flesh which has suffered and died, and been  raised from death.

Whatever else we might draw from the story of the resurrection we are meant to draw the message that bodies are blessed, that God, in his glory, chose to dwell in them, just as they are, wounded, beaten, scarred. Our bodies are not prisons for our spirits – however much they may sometimes feel like that. They aren’t a second best, from which death will set us free. Our flesh, our day to day bodily existence, just as it is, can be a message of God’s glory, of God’s love.

But to be that, our flesh, like Jesus’, needs to be filled with God’s life. Jesus breathes on the frightened disciples in that locked room. “Receive the Holy Spirit” he says – there’s no waiting for the Day of Pentecost for the coming of the Spirit in John’s story. The Spirit is given right now, to this bunch of stunned disciples , who aren’t ready for it in any sense, who are conscious at this moment only of their own failure and misery. Fine friends they turned out to be, deserting Jesus just when he needed them most. But it is into their frail flesh that God’s Spirit is breathed.

The Gospel writer surely means us to remember the story from the book of Genesis of the creation of Adam. God makes a creature out of mud. It’s fine. It’s God’s handiwork, but it’s lifeless. So God leans over and breathes into it his own breath – his Spirit – the words are interchangeable in Hebrew -  and the creature stirs and sits up and lives. Adam becomes a living being, a “nephesh” in Hebrew, the living being that God intends him to be, a combination of God-created flesh and God-breathed Spirit. Both are essential, both are blessed - and both are holy.

The story of Jesus isn’t the story of a comic book superhero, who swoops down with his special powers to save the day. It is a story of a flesh and blood person, who shows us how much God loves our flesh and blood, in all its wonder and its woundedness, in all the joy and sorrow that comes to it as we are born, grow, grow old and die.

That’s a vital message for us to take in, for ourselves and for others.
The ancient Greeks, whose thought world shaped the thinking of John’s first readers, still shapes our world. In Greek, the word for beautiful – kalos – is the same as the word for good. To be beautiful was to be good; to be good was to be beautiful. We have never really moved on from that; heroes and heroines in films are still rarely ugly. Young people obsessively post selfies online, trying to produce the best version of themselves, anxiously watching for their peers to “like” the pictures they’ve posted. Older people fight the signs of aging. Many of us really don’t much like our bodies.  “Keep young and beautiful; it’s your duty to be beautiful . Keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved,”  says the old song. Well, no, not in God’s eyes. The resurrection shows us that God loves us, wounds and all, warts and all. God uses us wounds and all, warts and all. God’s glory can shine from us, wounds and all, warts and all. In fact, it is the wounds and the warts which are the most powerful testimony of his life at work in us, the times of failure and weakness in which his glory is most powerfully seen.

The Easter story isn’t just about the resurrection of Jesus’ lifeless body from the grave; it is also about the resurrection that comes to his disciples when he appears to them. Jesus isn’t the only one in this story who has known death.   His disciples are stuck in the death of hope, so fearful of what might happen next that they daren’t even stir from the room where they are hiding. Jesus may have been held fast in the tomb by the stone across its entrance, but they have locked themselves in a tomb of their own, in a sort of living death. They need the breath of life to be breathed into them just as much as Jesus did if they are going to get up and go out into the world to become living Words themselves, ways in which God can speak to others and tell them that God loves them.

We often need the same, as we huddle in our own locked rooms – the locked rooms of depression or anxiety or hopelessness. And we pray today especially, of course, for our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka, whose church services have been cancelled, and who have been told to worship at home instead, literally shut in their rooms for fear of those who might harm them. We pray that they will feel the breath of God giving peace to their wounded souls and bodies as they read this story today.

An ancient Christian writer called Irenaeus famously said  “The glory of God is a human being, fully alive.”  The resurrection of Jesus doesn’t just show us God’s glory in him; it shows us the glory that can shine from all our frail and battered flesh if we will let him breathe his life into us and raise us from our deaths.

I started with the beginning of John’s Gospel. I will finish with its original end, the words that end today’s reading, John’s prayer that we may know, and show, the glorious life of God.

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. Amen

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Easter Sunday: An Idle Tale

Audio version here (with some competition from the children!)
And a bonus - our romp through Philip's arrangement of The Seven Joys of Mary

Detail from the Resurrection window
in Seal Church Lady Chapel
Luke 24.1-12

“But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” 

Just imagine for a moment that you were one of those women who had gone in the early dawn, taking spices to anoint the body of Jesus. What are you thinking and feeling as you walk there? How will you roll the stone away? What condition will the body be in by this time, three days after his death? Who might see you? What trouble might you get into? After all, the rest of his disciples are in hiding, afraid that they will be arrested and killed too. 

Imagine what you feel when you find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Imagine what you feel when two complete strangers – identified as angels in some of the other gospel accounts – tell you that “he is not here” reminding you of his own words that he would rise on the third day. You’re not given any instructions about what to do next. In some of the gospels the women are told to tell the rest of the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee, but not here. You are left in the lurch, with this awesome, baffling news. What a story you have to tell.

But how will you even begin to tell it?
What will your opening words be?

If you’ve ever had to give someone some big news – good or bad – you’ll know how carefully we tend to think out the beginning of the announcement. 
“There’s something I need to tell you…”
“Perhaps you’d like to sit down…”

Imagine you are one of these women, reeling from what you’ve seen, or rather not seen, at that empty tomb, trying to get your heads around what you have heard. What reaction do you expect as you push open the door to the room where the others are gathered and begin to pour out your story? Surprise, joy, fear ?;  but at the very least, surely interest, questions, demands for more detail. 

But that’s not what happens. Your extraordinary, unimaginable news is dismissed as nonsense, “an idle tale”, without so much as a moment’s thought. The Greek word Luke uses, leros, is about as insulting as it could be. It means rubbish, silliness, something too trivial even to bother with. 

You’ve just told these men that Jesus, their closest companion isn’t in his grave, that you’ve heard that he’s been raised from death as he said he would be, and yet they don’t even ask you to tell them more. Eventually Peter, just Peter, goes and looks for himself, but not before you have been humiliated, written off, treated as if you were all just imagining it, as if your brain had gone soft. How does that feel , not even to get a hearing?

I can understand the apostles not believing the story these women tell. They have seen Jesus die. How can he be alive again? It’s really not what you expect. But to dismiss the women? Not even to consider that their story of the empty tomb might be worth investigating? That seems very odd. Why is it only Peter who bothers to go and look for himself?

The main reason, alas, stares us in the face if we know anything about the culture of this time and place. It is the fact that those who bring them this news are women. Women weren’t considered to be credible witnesses in Israel at this time. In a court of law, their testimony couldn’t stand on its own. Essentially their society treated them as perpetual children, always needing to be under the guidance of a man – their father, husband, son, uncle. Jesus had shown his followers a different way, treating women as equals, with dignity and respect; that’s why they followed him. But old habits die hard, and when they come bursting in with their tale of angels and empty tombs, the old responses rise up readily – silly women, telling silly tales, carried away in some collective delusion. What can you expect? Their brains aren’t up to dealing with hard facts, like the fact that the dead stay dead and stones need burly men to shift them.

The women are silenced, waved away by the other disciples, who are too exhausted, fed up and frightened to find the energy to think outside the boxes their culture has created for them. 

It’s a story which ought to make us wonder about the voices we don’t hear or don’t pay attention to. Today, still, women’s voices often go unheard – the shock waves that the #metoo movement has unleashed have shown that. Women across the world have told tales of harassment and violence, so common to us, as women, that we perhaps took it for granted that everyone knew about them, and yet, what most women live with as a daily reality seems to have come as a surprise to many men.

It’s not just about gender, of course. Out of 881 Nobel Prize winners  since 1901, when the awards began, only 15 have been black, and most of those were Peace prize winners – Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and so on. No black scientist, as far as I can see, has ever won a Nobel prize – are there really none who qualify, and if not, why not? Class and economic status often determine whether your voice is heard too. The residents of Grenfell Tower warned repeatedly of the safety problems in their block, but it took the death of 72 of them in that terrible fire before anyone seems to have taken their voices seriously. Would that have happened if they had been living in a luxury development...? And while I was very glad that the BBC wheeled out David Attenborough to front their documentary on Climate Change last week, it is telling that they felt they had to do so, that the voices of Bangladeshi peasants flooded out of their homes repeatedly, or African farmers whose drought-stricken crops had failed again wouldn’t be enough to make us sit up and take notice, despite the fact that they’ve suffered the reality of climate change for years.  

In our world, just as much as in the world of Luke’s Gospel, some voices seem to have a built in loudspeaker, while others are always turned to mute. 

That makes it all the more extraordinary, though, that all four Gospels insist that the first to know about and to announce the resurrection were women. It is one of the most powerful pieces of evidence to say that something really did happen on that first Easter Day, even if we can’t explain or understand it in any rational way.  If you were going to make up this story, you wouldn’t make it up like this, with a bunch of women at its centre. You’d choose reliable, respectable witnesses, and that would have meant male witnesses in the first century, people who would carry some weight with those you were trying to convince or impress.   

But the Gospel writers don’t. They’re clear and unanimous that it was women who stuck with Jesus when he was crucified, women who found his tomb empty and women who heard the news that he had risen and were the first to announce it. It makes no sense to tell the story like this – unless it happens to be true.  

This ending, with women playing centre stage, is also to be entirely in line with the rest of the life and ministry of Jesus, of course. Luke starts his Gospel with the stories of two marginalised women, Mary the mother of Jesus, a virgin who had no business being pregnant and faced disgrace because of it, and her cousin Elizabeth,  the mother of John the Baptist, who’d been shamed by her society for her childlessness, but now, long past childbearing age, found herself expecting.  Two unlikely women turn the world upside down between them. Mary sings of a God who will “lift up the humble and meek” – people like them – and evidently she taught her son to do just this. He ate with tax-collectors and prostitutes, prioritised the least and the lowest, those others rejected and ignored, and eventually was crucified for his commitment to them. Of course the news of the resurrection would be revealed to women first, even if their voices would almost certainly be doubted and rejected – it’s all of a piece with the rest of the story. Mercifully Peter had the courage to risk the ridicule of his fellows to go and check it out.

“He is not here”, say the angels to the women, when they come looking for Jesus. Notice that they don’t tell the women where he is, only where he isn’t. He isn’t in the place of the dead, they say, in the stone-clad certainty of the tomb, in the world that is bounded by their understanding, or anyone else’s understanding. Something has happened which is beyond all that, which defies explanation, which can’t be boxed into any conceptual containers they already have. God is bigger than our imaginations. “He is not here”, if “here” is the place where we think we have him safely pinned down. 

That becomes clear in the rest of this chapter, the last one in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus turns up on the road to Emmaus, but the tired, dispirited disciples he walks alongside don’t recognise him until he breaks bread with them at supper. They then rush back to Jerusalem with the news, but there they’re surprised again, as he appears in that locked room, giving them his peace and his blessing. 

Luke’s Gospel, from beginning to end, is a litany of surprises. It constantly calls us to look beyond our expectations, to think outside the prison of our assumptions and prejudices. It calls us to turn the world upside down ourselves, so that we can see what it looks like from the underside and hear what it sounds like when we listen to the voices we’ve been deaf to. It calls us to dare to wonder whether life could really be different – our lives, everyone’s lives – if we were to trust in the power of resurrection, not just of Jesus, not just in the physical sense, but the resurrection of hope and joy and love when they seem irretrievably to have been lost to us. 

Like those disciples huddled in that locked room in Jerusalem, though, it’s up to us to decide whether we think this talk of resurrection, this possibility of hope, of joy, of love is just an idle tale, or something that might change our lives.  

Friday, 19 April 2019

Good Friday: O Love that wilt not let me go

O Love, that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O Light, that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to Thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in Thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy, that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross, that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.                          (scroll down to hear the hymn)

The hymn we have just sung has a story attached to it, as so many hymns do.

It was written by a Church of Scotland minister George Matheson, in the late 19th century. This was a man whom  life had dealt a rough hand. As a child, he had begun to lose his sight, and by the time he was grown up was virtually blind.

He’d been engaged to a woman whom he loved very much, but she’d ended the engagement as his sight worsened, saying that she couldn’t face being married to a blind man. His main support and comfort in life was his beloved sister, but in time she married, and that meant that she had to move from him. The hymn was written, he said, just before her marriage, in a moment of private despair. He never said what exactly had prompted his writing it, but it’s not hard to see how he might have felt alone and afraid, ground down by the losses and challenges of his life.

It’s remained popular ever since, and I think the reason for that it is that it is so honest. It doesn’t try to sugar-coat suffering and misfortune. It doesn’t offer any easy answers. Matheson talks about his “weary soul”, and his “flickering torch” – a reference to his blindness. This is a moment when he is suddenly aware of his own powerlessness.

George Matheson’s life wasn’t easy, but in some ways it isn’t unusual. Day by day I meet people facing heartbreak and loss, fear and regret through illness, untimely bereavement, the collapse of relationships or businesses. Day by day I meet people who feel as if they are lying face down in the mud and every time they start to lift their heads from it, something comes along to push them back down. Some people live their whole lives in tough places like this, but I think it is rare for anyone to go through life knowing only its sunlit uplands.

That’s the reality of human life, the reality which Matheson knew and which those who love this hymn, as I do,  recognise and respond to.

Matheson, as I have said, doesn’t give us any easy answers, and yet, somehow this is a hymn which helps simply by giving dignity to these tough times, affirming that they can be holy places too, places where God can be encountered in a new way. “From the ground there blossoms red, life that shall endless be.”

It’s tempting, on Good Friday, to want to hurry on to Easter.  We don’t like death and pain and loss. This service will never be as popular as Easter Sunday’s rejoicing. We want resurrection and new life. That’s entirely understandable, and of course we know that the cross isn’t the end of the story. Death won’t have the last word. But that is Easter Sunday’s message, and we’re not there yet. Some people won’t be there the day after tomorrow, either. Their pain will continue. The morning won’t dawn bright and clear for them on Sunday, no matter what the calendar says. It’s important for them, for all of us, to hear the message of this hymn. What does it say about enduring those dark times, the Good Fridays and Holy Saturdays of our lives, when, like Jesus’ friends, we can see no sign of hope, to reason to think there will be resurrection?

The hymn reminds us that at those times, it is God who holds us. The hymn doesn’t say “O me, that wilt not let Love go”. It says “O Love that wilt not let me go”. It is God who holds us, not the other way around. He holds us. He just holds us, but that is enough. He is like the earth which holds the germinating seed, the womb which holds the growing child, the egg which holds the developing chick. He is the vital, safe place in which we need to spend as long as it takes for us to be ready to face the world again.

There’s nothing more irritating, when life is collapsing around you, than for well-meaning people to try to cheer you out of it, to talk about “light at the end of the tunnel”. It’s understandable that we say this – it eases our own anxiety. It is often harder to watch others suffering than it is to suffer ourselves. We feel helpless. We feel as if we ought to be able to do something to help. But the strength of Matheson’s hymn is its willingness to sit with those painful feelings, the things we can do nothing about, to accept them and honour them, to discover that pain we endure is not a squalid waste – however much it feels like that - but is also a place which can be made holy by God’s presence.

That’s why it’s important to spend this time at the foot of the cross. There was no shortcut for Jesus, no way around his humiliating and painful death, not without reneging on his message of hope and dignity for those who the powers of the world were determined to crush, as they tried to crush him. There is often no shortcut for us either. The cruelty, betrayal and brutality he endured were real and painful, and they took as long as they took, just as the struggles we may face are real and take as long as they take. But God’s love is “ocean deep” as the hymn puts it, his presence is eternal, and the life that can grow out of this bloodstained soil is endless and blessed.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Love is never wasted: Lent 5

Audio version here

You have to admit that Judas had a point.
A pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, poured out over Jesus’ feet. It is reckoned to have been worth thousands of pounds in today’s money. This was an extravagant gift, an extravagant gesture.

Nard was used to anoint the dead, among other purposes, and it was very pungent stuff, made from the spikenard plant. Maybe it had been bought when Mary’s brother, Lazarus had died. But Jesus had restored him to life, so it wasn’t needed. We don’t know, but, as I said, Judas had a point. The Gospel writer casts doubt on Judas’ motives, suggesting he was stealing from the common purse, and maybe he was, but whether that’s true or not, this does look like a terrible waste.  It could indeed have been sold and the money given to the poor.

But Jesus defends Mary. She’s recognised what none of the rest of them have, that he really is going to die. She’s seen that he knows this, and that he needs this loving, tender gesture, an action which communicates her care for him. Jesus didn’t go to his death with unruffled courage. He wept and prayed and sweated blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. He knew that crucifixion was the inevitable result of sticking to his message – you didn’t challenge the authorities and get away with it in his world – but he didn’t want crucifixion, no sane human being would. Mary saw his struggle and his pain, and she did what she could to give him her support. She gave him what she had, all that she had, that precious jar of ointment, because that’s what he needed at this moment.

As I said, nard is pretty pungent stuff. “The house was filled with the fragrance”, we’re told and my guess is that the smell clung to Jesus for a long time afterwards. Perhaps he could still smell a faint trace of it when he was arrested, beaten, crucified. Perhaps it reminded him that though the cruelty and pain were real, the love he’d been shown was real too.   

Mary gave what she could. It might not have looked like a sensible use of resources to those around her, but she knew that cost/benefit analyses don’t always tell you what you most need to know. Balance sheets are important, but they often can’t measure the things that matter most to us.

Mary’s extravagant gift here reminds me of the story of another gift in John’s Gospel, a few chapters earlier. It might not seem anything like as lavish, but to the person who gave it, it was everything.

It’s in John chapter 6 if you’re interested. A great crowd – thousands and thousands of men, women and children - had followed Jesus out into the wilderness to listen to him preach. The day had drawn on, and suddenly everyone realised they were hungry. Jesus said to his disciple, Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip, ever the realist, answered, “Six months wages wouldn’t be enough to give people even a little”. Jesus had set them an impossible task. Logically speaking there was nothing they can do here ; they would have to send people home hungry. It seemed they had nothing to work with.  Looking around rather desperately for any scrap of hope, though, Andrew announces  “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish” but he then quickly dismisses the thought that that might help, “what are they among so many?”  Five loaves and two fish aren’t even going to scratch the surface of the hunger of this vast crowd; that’s obvious to any rational person.

But Jesus only seems to hear  the first part of  Andrew’s statement. “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish”. Jesus sees what they have, not what they haven’t. He sees that this small boy, in offering his lunch, is giving everything he has. I don’t know about you, but most small boys of my acquaintance are extremely reluctant to be parted from their food, but this boy gives it willingly, his best, his all. That’s what Jesus sees – a generous gift, a loving gesture. And that’s why he knows it will be enough, because in God’s economy, it isn’t the size of the gift that matters, it’s the size of the love with which it is given. In the same way, Mary’s gift of this precious ointment isn’t sensible, logical, practical – you can’t prevent crucifixion by anointing someone’s feet – but it makes all the difference in the world to Jesus. The love with which it is offered makes it priceless, something which sustains Jesus through this terrible time. It might look like a waste, but love is never wasted.

Both these stories encourage us to be aware of the gifts we have to offer, an important thing to do as we come to our Annual Meeting after this service.  Our gifts may not seem great, like those loaves and fishes. Like Andrew, we might say “what are these among so many?” , “What can I do that will be any use?”. We might look at our church and think, “if only we had a spare million pounds or so, or a hundred more people, or a decent heating system and some toilets, just imagine what we could achieve…” But when we think like this we  often miss what we have, the precious treasures God has given us, as individuals and as a church; our personalities, our experiences, our voices, our time and talents, the particular strengths of being who we are. We may not be able to do what others people or churches do, but they can’t do what we can either. We are called to offer what we have, not what we haven’t, to serve as we can, not as we can’t.

Our gifts, like that small boy’s lunch, may not always seem great, but in Jesus hands, they can do much more than we imagine. Our gifts may not always seem practical or sensible, like Mary’s outpoured ointment, but they might make all the difference to others. We may see a sick friend and be aware that all we have to offer is prayer, or a hug, or a cake, when we know that what they really need is a cure for cancer. But that prayer, that hug, that cake may give them the strength to get through it. We could draw up a list of skills we wish we had on tap in our church – I bitterly regret that there was no module on boiler maintenance in my ordination training! – but we are great at loving and welcoming people, and if I had to choose between a cold church and a warm welcome, I go for the warm welcome anytime. Judas complains about the waste of money that Mary’s offering represents. He doesn’t understand that love is never wasted.

At our Diocesan Clergy Conference last autumn, one of our most inspiring speakers was the Director of Social Justice for the Diocese of Liverpool, Canon Ellen Louden. After many years of working in the area of mission and social justice, she’d come up with what she called her 12 rules for Christian Activists – and surely we should all be Christian Activists,  people who act to help the kingdom of God grow in our midst. I won’t go through them all, but there was one which really stuck with me. “Identify the good things” she said, “and give good things away”. Find the best things you do as a church, your treasures, and give them away. It is so tempting to try to hoard and protect and control what we think our treasures are, in the church or as individuals, to be precious about them. It is tempting only to give away what is leftover or doesn’t cost us much to lose – like the pile-it-high-and-sell-it-cheap “loss leaders” you see in supermarkets which aren’t really worth much, but lure you in to buy more of the expensive stuff. Churches do this when they attract people in with a glossy programme of events, but then make people jump through hoops really to belong, insist that they must believe and behave as the existing members of the church do before their voices can be heard. “You can’t just let any Tom, Dick or Harriet in; they might change things!”

Ellen Louden said that she’d learned that the churches that really made a difference in their communities were the ones who were open-handed with the things they did well, who identified the things they were best at, and gave them away freely, the churches which didn’t set barriers around their church life, but let everyone share their gifts and their opinions, whoever they were and however long they’d been there.

One of the reasons we set up our Talking Village initiative was that we recognised that talking is something we’ve got a gift for! We’re a welcoming and inclusive community; that’s one of our strengths. We’ve learned that and proved it over many years; Know Your Neighbours, Friday Group, our new Community Lunch, all those village events we’ve been involved with, often forming the bulk of the organising group. They aren’t the answer to all the world’s ills, but they make life better, and people who needed company and support have found it through them. God has been at work, blessing people and enriching our community. And part of the reason for that is that we have, perhaps unconsciously followed Ellen Louden’s rule, identifying this skill, but then giving it away, involving everyone who wants to be part of running those things whether a part of the church or not,  rather than trying to hold onto and control them ourselves.

Our Annual Meeting, after this service, gives us a chance to celebrate the things we do well – and there are many of them – to identify our good things. We look back, and look forward as we think about our church’s life. As we do, it’s great to be reminded of this Gospel story, of Mary’s extravagance as she gave the best thing she had, poured it out, literally, in a gesture that looked completely wasteful. But love is never wasted. Her story reminds us to notice what we have rather than what we lack, what is most precious to us, not so that we can hoard it protectively for ourselves, but so we can give it away, knowing that as we do, God will bless it and use it for the good of all. Amen