Sunday, 29 December 2019

The Juxtaposition of Pain and Joy

Matthew 2.13-23, Isaiah 63.7-9, Hebrews 2.10-18

This is always a challenging Sunday to preach, not just because in most people’s minds Christmas is now over for another year, Christingles, nativity plays and carol concerts are all done. After all with many Christmas celebrations starting in late November some have been enjoying the season for over a month now and feel that it’s time to move on.

We will welcome in a new decade in a couple of days’ time and then we can all get back to more routine lives.

But hang on a minute, today is the first Sunday of Christmas and today’s readings are an important part of the Christmas story, even if they spoil the warm glow of mangers, shepherds and wise men on our Christmas cards, which will remain in place for a little while yet.

Coming after the Christmas celebrations of this week the Gospel reading is the slaughter of the children under King Herod. Not a joyful story.

Perhaps this is a good thing. Perhaps we need to be reminded that great joy and great suffering exist right beside each other. Certainly this is a message we find in our readings today. Perhaps we need to be reminded that even as some celebrate, others grieve and I know from what several people have told me recently that many find themselves doing both simultaneously.

It’s exactly this, finding joy and love in others while recalling regret and loss which reinforces our Gospel message. Those of us who have lived a bit, loved, lost and still managed to keep our faith know this to be true.

God is there for us, unchanging throughout the ages, and this this is reinforced by the words of Isaiah we heard reminding the people of all that God has done for them, of his merciful, steadfast love.

Perhaps it’s good for us to go directly from “Peace on earth and good will to humanity” to a story of misused power, selfish violence and suffering inflicted by Herod, so that we can renew our commitment to the Christmas message in a more balanced way rather than a celebratory vacuum out of sync with the reality of the world around us.

When you think about it, Emmanuel – God-with-us – wouldn’t really mean all that much if it was only God with us during the celebrations and times which leave us with a warm glow. Speaking with someone who lost her adult daughter recently, despite the fact that she remained heartbroken, she told me that there was an irrepressible inclination to count her blessings, being thankful for the good times in her daughter’s life and for the grandchildren who love her.

Of course we don’t have to try very hard to find a continuous stream of sad stories from around the world about slaughter and displacement by modern day ‘Herods’ or would be ‘Herods’ including that of Christians executed in Nigeria this Christmas day.

Christingles and nativities seem far removed from such brutal realities and stories about cruelty, fear and despair don’t match with the idealistic fantasy of Christmas but as Christians we want the full picture.

As our faith deepens and matures we find that in facing up to a reality which includes the unjust, sad and tragic elements of life that God is in there, somewhere. This is exactly the world he chose to be born into, a world of injustice, cruelty and danger. Where leaders demonstrated their power by killing those who threaten their status and continue to do so today.

King Herod (‘the Great’) executed anyone he perceived as a threat to his throne, even including three of his sons and a wife so the elimination of some infant males in a small village would not have been big news to those that knew him. He was prepared to protect his privileged position with brutal force without a shred of guilt over the unbearable suffering caused to their loved ones. This was his definition of security and one which has been repeated through the ages.

Contrast this display of power with that of a God who reveals himself as a small, vulnerable and powerless baby. Indeed so vulnerable that his parents must seek refuge in Egypt if they are to avoid the same fate as the other baby boys.

It is to recognise the grief of God in the cry of the mothers who lost their children.

Matthew refers to the voice of ‘Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’

We are introduced to Rachel in the book of Genesis where we can read of her great beauty and how Jacob is besotted with her.

Rachel dies giving birth while on the road to Bethlehem. In the midst of her suffering, the midwife tries to comfort her with the news that she is having another son who she calls Ben-Oni (son of my suffering) though Jacob named him Benjamin. Her child is the cause of her weeping but also her hope for the future.

Matthew tells us that the massacre by Herod is the fulfilment of a prophecy from Jeremiah.  Rachel weeps again, on this occasion over the slaughter of the children at Bethlehem. But the next verse offers hope as it tells of Herod's death and the return of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to the land of Israel.

Time and again we are given examples of why God offers hope that lives on but which we can sometimes find hard to see among the desperate sadness.

Let’s be honest, all this is pretty heavy going isn’t it but if we want to go beneath the surface of Christianity, to dare to discover what God’s love for us really looks like then elements of that journey will be painful.

If we read enough of the bible over a long enough period of time we will experience a range of reactions and emotions, partly due to the text and partly due to where we find ourselves on life’s journey.

I love to find humour and lightness in our readings, sometimes throwing a joke into a sermon, if only to see whether anyone is still listening!

As we lament about children being born in African refugee camps and acts of genocide today we are faced with the stark reality that God has experienced this first hand.

Matthew’s depiction of events is one of those passages which kind of ‘stop us in our tracks’. It’s part of the beauty of scripture and the power of the crafted word which should inspire us to read more of the bible.  

It makes Jesus even more real when we work and think about scripture.

As we explore Matthew’s gospel further over the coming year we will have the opportunity to go deeper and my prayer is that we have the disciple, courage and passion to seek out the authentic Jesus.

Sometimes we have to look a little beyond the immediately obvious to find true meaning. We are all probably guilty of wanting to believe a certain version of events knowing that the reality is going to be a bit harder even it proves to be more enduring and have more real meaning. Christmas is very much like that, we enjoy the socialising, the carols and the cosy images but how much richer can our lives be if we scratch beneath the surface to seek the real love God sent us in Christ? Love that is so strong that it can be with us in every aspect of our life’s journey through sadness and suffering as well as in the good times. Love for all of us for every day, rather than for a season.

Much of the truth we find in the bible is uncomfortable, disturbing and inconvenient but then absolute truth cannot be moulded to suit the circumstances. If we choose to wrestle with this then we are truly engaging with God.

Hebrews pictures Jesus as the pioneer who opens the way to God. Our challenge is to take the imagery from the Christmas cards, the stained-glass windows even, and seek the man who walked our earth in the first century.

As we continue to learn, to be inspired and strengthened we need to think deeply what difference our allegiance to Christ makes to our lives and the lives of others.

Many will choose to dismiss our Christmas celebrations as a fanciful Christmas fairy tale but it becomes a lot more difficult to dismiss when it manifests itself as a gritty determined love which suffering and pain cannot overwhelm.

If we each play our part in sustaining this reality, wherever we find ourselves, it can also be a celebration of justice and a call to life in all its fullness.

Kevin Bright

29 December 2019

Wednesday, 25 December 2019

The House of Bread: A story for Christmas Day

As usual, I told a story at our Christmas morning communion service instead of preaching a sermon. Here it is...

Terraced fields near Bethlehem.
Audio version

There was once a baker who lived in Bethlehem. It was a good place to be a baker, because Bethlehem was surrounded by terraced fields stretching down the high hill on which it stood, which grew good wheat and barley. The grain made fine flour for baking into bread. The town’s name even reflected that. People said that Bethlehem, in Hebrew Beit Lehem, meant “The House of Bread”.

The baker had done well for himself in this House of Bread. He was married and had two young daughters, Ruth and Naomi, and he’d been able to build a good house for them all to live in. At first it was just one room, like most of the houses in Bethlehem, with a section at one end down a few steps where the animals were brought in at night, with a feeding trough on the raised platform. But as the baker prospered, he was able to build a store room for his jars of flour, and a guest room for visitors, and even a shelter on the roof where the family could sleep out on hot summer nights.
All was well until the Emperor Augustus, in far-off Rome, decided that everyone in his empire should return to the place where their families came from to be counted, and taxed…

The baker and his wife didn’t have to go anywhere. Their families had always lived in Bethlehem. But soon the town was full of those who’d moved elsewhere, coming back home, and needing somewhere to stay, relatives who would put them up. Soon there were aunts in the guest room, uncles in the store room, cousins in the roof shelter. Then the baker’s wife’s mother’s nephew turned up with his family. The only place left to put them was in the baker’s family room. Still, never mind, said the baker’s wife. “If we all budge up, I’m sure we’ll fit in. We can sleep down at the animals’ end of the room – it’s a bit smelly, but it’ll be warm!”  

“Alright” said the baker, “but really, after this, we have no more room, and even if we had room,” he whispered to his wife, “we have no food left to feed all these people. I looked in the store room just now, and I am down to the last handful of flour in the last jar. There isn’t even enough to feed our guests, never mind to have any to sell to the people of Bethlehem. I don’t know what we’ll do when that is gone, because I know that all of Bethlehem is the same!”

“God will provide”, said his wife, “He has told us we should welcome people. And we must never forget, after all, why we gave our children the names we did.”
The children pricked up their ears. “Why did you give us these names? Why did you call us Ruth and Naomi, mother?”
“Dear me! Have I never told you the story?”
“No – tell it now”
“Well, I suppose it is bed-time, so perhaps I should!

Many years ago, in the time of your great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, grandparents…a woman lived in Bethlehem called Naomi”
“That’s me!” said the older girl.
That’s right! She lived here with her husband and two young sons. But there was a famine. The food ran out. Naomi and her family had to leave or they’d starve. But they had to go all the way to the land of Moab before they found food.”
“Moab – but they are our enemies!”, said the girls.
“It’s true, we have often fought with them, but on this occasion they were kind. They welcomed Naomi and her family, and there her two boys grew up, and, in time, married Moabite girls. But then tragedy struck again. Her husband and two sons got very sick and they died. Naomi was left all alone in a foreign land. She decided to go home to Bethlehem where, surely, her own family would take her in – it was the custom of their people that they should!”
“So Naomi said goodbye to her son’s wives – they could marry again in Moab. But one of them, called Ruth…”
“That’s me” said the younger girl.
“…Ruth insisted on coming with Naomi. She said ‘where you go, I will go. Your people will be my people and your God my God’.

So, off they went together, but when they got to Bethlehem, no one would take them in or look after them. They had no money, no food, no friends. Fortunately, it was the time of the barley harvest, and Naomi remembered another custom of her people – she hoped this one hadn’t been forgotten like the law of hospitality!  
‘Go out into the fields,’ she said to Ruth. ‘It is a law here that farmers mustn’t cut the crops right up to the edge of the fields or go back for what they have missed. So you should be able to gather a little barley for us to eat.’

So that’s what Ruth did. She worked all day long in the hot sunshine, and at the end of the day had gathered enough to feed them for a day or two. But she hadn’t realised that the owner of the fields, a man called Boaz, had come by and had noticed her working hard. He’d asked his farmhands who she was, and they had told him that she was Ruth, a Moabite scrounger, who had come back with a woman called Naomi, who claimed she was from round here. They were dismissive, but Boaz saw how hard she worked, and how kind she was, and realised how much she must love her mother-in-law. He called her over and gave her a whole bag full of grain to take home, and…to cut a long story short… he very soon fell in love with her, and she with him, and he married her…!”

“Ahh! That’s a lovely story, “said the girls.
“But it’s not just a lovely story,” said their mother. “It is also an important story, because Ruth and Boaz had a son, called Obed, and when Obed grew up he had a son called Jesse, and when Jesse grew up, he had lots of sons, and the youngest of them was a little shepherd boy who became a king.”
“Not David, King David, the one who killed Goliath!” said the girls.
“The very same!  But he wouldn’t have been born if Ruth hadn’t been kind and generous to Naomi, and Boaz hadn’t been kind and generous to Ruth and Naomi! So when we welcome people we never know what will come of it. We might be welcoming a king!”

“It is a wonderful story,” said the baker, “ but it doesn’t change the fact that we have no room for anyone else – so the next time someone knocks at our door, the answer has to be “no!”.

And just at that moment – you’ve guessed it – there was a knock at the door.
The baker’s wife went to the door, and she opened it. Outside was a worried looking man, and a very tired, very pregnant woman. “Please could you help us? We have nowhere to stay,” said the man “and my wife, Mary, is about to have a child. Please can we stay with you!”

From behind the door the baker mouthed “NO!” silently at his wife, shaking his head. “Yes! Of course you can come in!” said the baker’s wife. “It’s very crowded, and you’ll have to sleep next to the animals, like us, but our home is your home, and you’re welcome! And in they came. And everyone budged up a bit more. And there was just enough room. And it was not a moment too soon, because that very night the baby was born. But it was now so crowded in that little house, that the only place to put him where he wouldn’t be trodden on was in the manger, the animals’ feeding trough.

What a night it was! The baker’s children should have been asleep, of course, but who could sleep with all the excitement of a new baby. So they were still wide awake when a bunch of shepherds came in from the neighbouring fields, saying they’d heard from angels in the sky that the child had been born. They’d been sent to find him.

“Who is this child” said Ruth and Naomi “that all this fuss should be made of him?”
The angels told us he was the Messiah,” said the shepherds, “the great leader God said he would send us.”
“What? Like King David?”
Hmm,” said one of the shepherds. “The way the angels talked about him, it sounded as if he’d be an even greater king than David but if God sent him to start life in a manger, maybe he isn’t going to be the kind of king who rules from a throne with a golden crown on his head, but someone who rules in our hearts, and shows God’s love for everyone, however humble and ordinary they are. And that’s the best kind of king, I reckon.”
The baker’s wife looked at the baker, and smiled. Just as she’d said, you never knew who you might be welcoming when you took in a stranger!

Eventually the shepherds left, and everyone fell asleep, except the baker, because, for all the wonderful things that had happened, he still knew that in the morning, he’d have nothing to feed his guests, or the rest of Bethlehem. What was he going to do?
As dawn broke, he decided that the only thing he could do was to do what he always did, get up and start baking. He might only have a handful of flour, but it would at least make bread for this new mother and her husband, who needed it most of all.

So he crept into the storeroom, picking his way over the sleeping uncles. He lifted the lid of the flour jar. Sure enough, there was just a handful left. He scooped it out, and went out into the courtyard to mix it. He fired up the bread oven till it was good and hot, and shaped the dough into a flat circle, then put it in the oven to bake. While it baked he went back to the storeroom to put the lid back on the jar. As he did so, he peered inside. How strange! There was still a handful of flour left in the bottom. “I’m sure I emptied it!” He thought to himself. “Still, if there’s some more, I might get another flatbread out of it.” So he scooped that out, and mixed it and put it in to bake.

Back he went to the store room. And – what was this? – there was still a handful left. Again he scooped it out, making sure he’d got every last speck this time, and went to mix it up and bake it. But when he came back, there was yet another handful there. To and fro he went, again and again, but though he emptied the jar every time, there was always more when he came back.

Soon he’d made enough bread to feed his household, then enough to feed his whole street, then enough to feed the whole of Bethlehem. And so it continued, until the little family left Bethlehem for the next part of their journey, the next part of their story.

And it’s said that when that baby grew up there were other times when people found themselves miraculously fed on bread, and fishes, and even wine, when there should have been none.  And still today, people find that they when they welcome others and share their food - not just bread, but also the food of love, hope, joy and peace -  however little they feel they have, somehow it always turns out that there’s enough and more to spare, for themselves and for everyone else as well.

Acknowledgements: There's no such thing as a "new" story, and this, like all stories contains recycled bits and pieces pinched from all over the place. I am indebted to Paula Gooder for some very helpful insights into the likely background to Luke's statement that there was "no room in the inn". The ever renewing handful of flour is drawn from the story of Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath. (1 Kings 17). The story of Ruth and Naomi can be found in the book of Ruth.
Excavations at the traditional site of the Shepherd's Fields, near Bethlehem. Taken on our trip to Israel earlier this year.

A reminder of the significance of Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus. I couldn't resist taking this photo, just opposite the entrance to the "Shepherds' Fields".

No room? Midnight Mass Christmas 2019

I wonder how many of you are here because you are visiting family this Christmas, perhaps back in your parents’ home, or gathering with other family members.  If you are, you might have come across the twitter hashtag #duvetknowitschristmas . People are using it to tweet pictures of the extraordinary sleeping arrangements families come up with to fit in all their Christmas guests. Adult children are squashed back in their childhood beds, sleeping under Thomas the Tank Engine bedding which they loved when they were six, but somehow doesn’t feel quite right when they are 28 and trying to look cool in front of their new girlfriend. But they’re the lucky ones. Others are being put up in storerooms, offices, under the stairs, under the dining room table, under the piano, in walk-in cupboards, in camper vans on the drive, on rickety camp beds and inflatable mattresses and yoga mats… My two children are home for Christmas and that means one has to sleep in what I call my craft room, among my sewing bits and bobs. I do try to make sure I’ve picked up all the stray pins and needles from the floor, but still, it’s safest to keep your shoes on! If you’re one of those who’s enduring “less than optimal” accommodation this Christmas, you might have some sympathy for Mary and Joseph, who found there was “no place at the inn”  and who end up putting their newborn in an animals’ feeding trough.

“There was no place … at the inn”. It’s a phrase which probably conjures up memories of school nativity plays, where a series of grumpy innkeepers turn Mary and Joseph away until one softens, just a bit, and says that, ok, they can bed down in the stable round the back if they really must, but don’t expect any special treatment, because it’s a busy night, and there are far more lucrative customers needing attention in the bar…

In reality, though, it wasn’t like that at all. For a start, the Greek word that’s translated as “inn” in our Bibles doesn’t mean somewhere like the Five Bells in Seal. Luke could have used the word pandocheion, literally a place that welcomed all, if he’d wanted to. That would have been the equivalent of our  word “inn”. That’s the word he uses to describe the inn to which the Good Samaritan takes the man he’s rescued on the Jericho road in the story Jesus tells. But Luke uses a different word here – kataluma – and it really just means a “guest room”, the spare room, the room you put Auntie Flo in when she comes to visit.

Many homes in ancient Palestine would only have had one room, where the family ate, slept, and worked. At one end, down a step or two, would be an area where the animals were brought in at night. But if you could afford it you’d build an extension, a kataluma, a guest room, so you could offer hospitality to visitors more easily. Welcoming others, even if complete strangers, was an essential part of the culture Jesus grew up in. Pandocheia, those public rooming houses, only existed in out of the way places where no one lived, like that Jericho road out in the desert.

So when Luke tells us that there was “no room in the kataluma”, all it means is that the guest room was already occupied. Mary and Joseph had to squash in with the family. And it must have been a squash. Because when Mary’s child was born, there was nowhere to put him except the animals’ feeding trough, a makeshift bed, so at least he wasn’t lying on the ground where someone might tread on him.

There was no grumpy innkeeper, just a family who wanted to show hospitality, but had to budge up to a ridiculous extent to do so. Mary and Joseph weren’t rattling around in a barn. They were cheek by jowl with the family - and their animals – in their home when the baby arrived. They ‘d been made as welcome as that family could manage, but all they could offer was a tiny space in a very crowded house in a very crowded town, packed with people who’d been forced to return by the edict of the Emperor in far-off Rome who wanted to count, and tax, his subjects, and didn’t care how disruptive that was.   

And, of course, it was always going to be the poor who suffered most. It always is. Luke’s account of Jesus’ life is full of stories of his ministry to people on the margins, the kind of people who are overlooked and pushed about, people for whom there is no room in the world.The birth story he tells sets the scene for that, as Jesus is born in an overcrowded house, where there is no room for him.

Poverty and overcrowding tend to go hand in hand. In our own nation, the urban poor of the Industrial Revolution were crammed into slum tenements, and back to back terraces, while the rural poor crowded their large families into tiny cottages that now sell for hundreds of thousands as bijou holiday homes for one or two. In more modern times, cramped shared houses, with rooms divided and divided until there is barely enough room for a bed, command ridiculous rents in our cities, and sheds and garages are often illegally converted to house people too. Space is a luxury that only the rich can afford; the poor have always been expected to put up with living on top of each other. Official figures say over 84,000 UK families are in B& B’s, hostels or temporary accommodation right now, often in just one or two rooms, with cooking and washing facilities shared with others. More than 126,000 children in the UK will wake up on Christmas Day in places like that, often with barely enough room for everyone to lie down, and that number has been steadily growing

According to this story, Jesus would have been one of them, spending his first night in the world squashed into a narrow, hay-filled trough. It was the least likely place for the Son of God, the new Messiah, the great leader his people had been expecting.  And yet that little space was enough, says Luke. A tiny child, a manger bed, a small beginning was all it took to change the world. In that small space a huge thing happened.

A thousand years ago, a monk called Aelfric (955-1010) put that into words better than I can.  "[Jesus] was crowded in his lodging place” Aelfric said, “so that he could give us spacious room in the kingdom of heaven."  Aelfric’s words echo the words of the Psalms in the Bible “Out of my distress I called on the Lord,” says Psalm 118, “the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.”

Spacious room, a broad place: these are images that we can probably all understand, even if we’ve never been physically crammed in somewhere. We may have felt hemmed in by circumstances, with no room for manoeuvre, mentally and emotionally overcrowded. We talk about being in “dire straits” when we’re in trouble, when we can’t see any options, when we don’t know where to turn. Strait, in this sense means “narrow”, like the Straits of Gibraltar.  

Many of us live lives that are over-crowded with busyness. We’re bombarded with words and images, demands and opportunities , haunted by FOMO, the fear of missing out.

And then there are the possessions we crowd our lives with. Marie Kondo, the decluttering guru, has a huge following, but perhaps that’s just an indication of the hunger we have for that “broad place”, a place where there is room to breathe, room to move, room to be ourselves.

The good news in this Christmas story, though, is that God doesn’t wait for us to declutter before he comes to us.  He doesn’t need us to get ourselves sorted out before he can act. It doesn’t matter whether your t-shirts are folded just so, or you’ve got rid of everything that doesn’t “spark joy”. A manger is enough for him, a tiny space. That’s all God needs to start to change us, to bring us out of those “dire straits” into his “spacious room”.  

Our mess and muddle and shortcomings are no problem. That manger was never meant to be a baby’s bed. It was quite unsuitable, horribly unhygienic – someone should have made a safeguarding referral – but that didn’t matter to God. He doesn’t wait until we’ve been to the spiritual equivalent of Mothercare to get the kit we think we need to live a holy life. We don’t have to know the words of the hymns or be able to find our way around the Bible or understand what’s going on in church services. Just as he made his home in that narrow manger in Bethlehem, he can make his home in us, however unprepared we feel.

So, whatever your sleeping arrangements are this night, whether you are crammed in like sardines, or on your own, but over-crowded with worries and cares, the message of Christmas is that there is plenty of room for us all in God’s heart, the “broad place” which is our true home.  All we need to do is whisper “yes – come in!” and that’s enough.

I’m going to leave the last words to the seventeenth century poet, Richard Crashaw from his poem, The Holy Nativity of Our Lord.

Poor World, said I, what wilt thou do
       To entertain this starry stranger?
Is this the best thou canst bestow,
       A cold, and not too cleanly, manger?
Contend, ye powers of heav’n and earth,
To fit a bed for this huge birth.
Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
       Eternity shut in a span;
Summer in winter; day in night;
       Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav’n to earth.


Sunday, 22 December 2019

Whose child is this?: Advent 4

“And he named him Jesus”. That moment, at the end of our Gospel reading, is a crucial moment, a moment which its first hearers would have been very struck by. It’s not the name itself – though it is significant, and we will come back to it - it is who is doing the naming that they would have noticed. It’s Joseph, that often overlooked and side-lined character in the story of Christ’s birth.

In the ancient world, even more than in ours, paternity really mattered. It’s still very important to people now, but for fathers in the ancient world, a deeply patriarchal world, knowing that your children really were your children was considered to be serious matter. There was no DNA testing, of course, so the only way to be confident of this was to make very sure that women didn’t have any opportunity to consort with men who weren’t related to them. In many cultures, respectable women were basically confined to the house, veiled and escorted when they did go out – as they still are in some societies - so that there could be no grounds for suspicion. Until very recently, one of the worst and most shaming things a man could be called was a cuckold, derived of course from the word “cuckoo”, the bird which lays its eggs in another bird’s nest . Genetically speaking, it’s understandable that animals want to be sure that the offspring they are spending vital resources on are their own, but in human societies, that biological impulse has become tangled up with male pride, and it’s usually women and children who suffer most because of it.

That’s what was going to happen to Mary. We don’t know how Joseph came to know that she was expecting a child. Matthew doesn’t tell us, only that she “was found” to be pregnant. Did she tell Joseph herself, or was it blurted out by a meddling sister or aunt or friend who noticed the signs and thought Joseph ought to know. However it happened, though, it wasn’t going to be something that could be hidden for long. Joseph had a dilemma. He needed to do some damage limitation. He obviously cared about Mary. He didn’t want to expose her to public disgrace. She could even have been stoned for adultery. But if he didn’t denounce her it would either look as if the child was his, and they weren’t supposed to be sleeping together yet, or that he knew she’d been unfaithful and had put up with it, which would make him seem weak in the eyes of those around him. He couldn’t win.

He weighed up his options. We can imagine him agonising in the wee small hours of the night , flipping between plans, desperately trying to find some way of squaring the circle, so that everyone came out of this ok. In the end, he made his choice. He worked out a solution he could live with. The least worst option seemed to be to send Mary away quietly. Least said, soonest mended. Call the wedding off, and hope against hope that people would forget about the whole sad business. That way Mary wouldn’t suffer too badly, and Joseph would save as much face as possible. Perhaps that was the moment he fell asleep, finally having made up his mind.

But then he had a dream, and in his dream an angel came to him, and dropped the bombshell that the child was “from the Holy Spirit” – whatever that meant – Matthew doesn’t explain it. But the message was clear; this child wasn’t a mistake or a sign of shame, but a child through whom God was going to do something new, something vital, saving people from their sins. That’s what the name Jesus means – God saves. It was the same as the name Joshua – the great leader who had led the people of Israel into the Promised Land after they’d been freed from slavery in Egypt.  Jesus had been chosen to lead people into a new sort of freedom. And Joseph was called to be part of God’s plan too. Mary needed his protection. This child needed his protection.

We often focus at Christmas on the price Mary paid, on her faithfulness and courage in saying “Yes” to God, but Joseph paid a high price too, because doing what God asked was going to result in a lifetime of humiliation, which he couldn’t defend himself against. Who was going to be believe him if he said that the child was “from the Holy Spirit”? He’d be a laughing stock. But Joseph, like Mary, was a person of courage – a righteous man – one of those people who decide what to do on the basis of whether it is right or wrong, rather than on what will bring them advantage. And so, when he awoke, we’re told, “he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him”. That’s a small statement, but a huge act of commitment.  Joseph threw his own carefully laid plans out of the window and chose God’s plan instead. “He took Mary as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son.”

That sentence, by the way, is the sum total of Matthew’s account of the actual birth of Jesus. There are no inns, no mangers, no shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in his version. There will be Magi, but not for some time – they don’t turn up until well after the birth.  “Until she had borne a son” is all we hear.

Those scene those words invite us to imagine, though, wouldn’t be out of place in Eastenders. Imagine we were there, standing in a corner of the room as Joseph meets Mary’s child for the first time, newly arrived in the world, as he is faced with this child that he knows isn’t his. What is he going to do? What is he going to say? In the Roman world, when a child was born it was laid on the ground. If the man who was supposed to be its father picked it up, that was the sign that he’d decided to assume paternity, to acknowledge it as his own, whether it was or not, giving it the rights and privileges that went with that decision. When Joseph names Jesus, he’s doing something that is the Jewish equivalent of that, saying that this child is his child in every way that matters.

Who gets to choose a baby’s name? Who gets to declare it to the world?  Their parents of course. Grandma might or might not like their choice. Uncle Bill might have hoped they’d name it after him. But no one would seriously argue that it was anyone else’s right to name a child but the parents. In naming Jesus, Joseph takes on parental responsibility for him. He is saying that he’ll be the one who will protect him, provide for him, teach him a trade, worry about him.  That’s a father’s job. When he publicly names him, he lets everyone know that he is signing up for that job.  

But we also know, because we have heard about his dream, that in choosing the name he does, he’s also committing himself to being part of God’s plan for this child, because the name he announces is the one the angel told him to use. Maybe he’d have called him Joseph, left to his own devices, but he doesn’t. He takes on the responsibility of fatherhood, but he also recognises the greater fatherhood of God, who has a purpose for this child which is beyond Joseph’s control and understanding. He calls him Jesus – God saves – and trusts that God knows how that will work out.

Matthew does give us a hint, though, about what that salvation will look like, in that little quote from Isaiah, which gives us another of the names by which Jesus has sometimes been known – Emmanuel, God is with us. Matthew is quoting from a rather obscure story from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and it’s worth us taking a small detour to find out a bit more about that.

King Ahaz, the king of Israel, was being attacked by neighbouring kings and things weren’t going well. “The heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind,” says Isaiah just before the passage we heard. (Isaiah 7.2)

But in the face of Ahaz’ fear, God declares that he will act. He will defeat these two kings himself, and it will happen soon, by the time that a child who is soon to be born has grown up enough to know right from wrong. It is Isaiah’s own child, by a Israelite prophetess, if you are interested. And this child will be called Immanuel. “God with us” He’ll be a reminder of the presence of God in these difficult times.

Matthew sees an echo of this in the birth of Jesus, because he knows that salvation, God’s gracious reshaping of our lives, begins when we realise that he is with us, beside us, within us, around us, close to us, caring about us. That’s what Ahaz had forgotten in that long-ago story. He thought that rescuing himself and his people was all down to him. Matthew is telling us that Jesus will save people by being God’s presence among them. They will start finding the new life God wants to give them as they recognise and acknowledge God in him, healing, teaching, welcoming, loving.

Joseph could have said, “this child is nothing to do with me”. He could have turned his back on him and never given him a second thought. No one would have blamed him for it. It wasn’t his child. But he didn’t do that. He got involved. He picked him up and named him. He let this baby’s life become tangled up with his own, so that there was no going back. The fact that he had taken on the responsibility of a father to Jesus’ would affect the whole of the rest of his life.

The story asks us to consider what Jesus is to us? Is he just a theological idea, a long ago story, an image in stained glass, paint or plaster? Or is he, in some sense, a living presence – God with us - someone we can’t forget about, someone whose life, whose ministry, whose priorities, impinge on us in a way we can’t ignore?
This story invites us into the moment when Joseph looked down at Mary’s baby and was given a choice – to pick him up and make him his own, or to leave him and walk away. Which will we do?

Monday, 16 December 2019

Advent Breathing Space 3: Love in the ordinary

In our previous two services we’ve thought about the way in which Jesus was a message of love to Mary and to Elizabeth. Tonight we heard about a group of people who are, in a sense, no more than bystanders, bit part players. They have no names, and as far as we know, no further involvement in the story of Jesus after this point. Mary and Elizabeth continued to be tied up in this story for the rest of their lives, bringing up their special children, and in Mary’s case at least, watching them die.  But the shepherds have just this one night of amazement, of wonder, of glory, before returning to their normal lives. We’re told that all who heard it were amazed, but how long for, I wonder. How long did it take for people to dismiss it as old news, the ramblings of a group of men who had maybe had too much to drink? They might never have forgotten it – you wouldn’t, would you? But I wonder whether their families rolled their eyes when they started in on the tale again. “Yes, Grandad – we know – you saw angels once!”

We don’t know the answers to any of those questions, of course, but Luke tells us this story about these people very deliberately, as if it mattered that it was a group of anonymous shepherds who first heard the news of Jesus birth. Shepherds were seen as ordinary working people, often disregarded and rough. They lived out in the fields with the flocks for long periods of time. That made it hard for them to keep the complex purity laws of Judaism. They were the last people who anyone would expect – or who would expect themselves – to be called and used by God. No one else noticed them. Why should God? And yet, shepherds were significant figures in the Bible. Moses was a shepherd when he heard God call to him out of a burning bush. King David was a shepherd, long before he was a king, in these very same hills around Bethlehem. The fact that God chooses to announce Jesus’ birth to shepherds sets us up to wonder what will happen next.   

But the thing I like about this story is that, in a sense, nothing happens next, not to the shepherds, not as far as we know. Unlike Moses and David, they don’t go on to be kings or leaders. Moses and David look as if they are ordinary, but we discover that they are singled out for greatness. These shepherds really are ordinary, and they stay ordinary, and yet they hear that God loves them, that God has come to them, and for them.

I like the idea that they go back to their anonymous lives. That was the experience of most of those who met Jesus, after all, those who were healed by him, those who heard his preaching. They didn’t all become superstar apostles, and yet God had touched their lives for good, and I am quite sure that they never forgot it. And let’s face it, that’s what happens to most of us too. We are drawn to Jesus, we are enriched by his message, challenged, loved, supported by it as we do the stuff that we need to do, ordinary stuff for the most part. But we’re not superstar apostles either and we don’t have to be in order to be the people God wants us to be. Just as we are, we are precious, and worth the birth and death and resurrection of his son.

I decided to pair this Gospel story with Psalm 8, because I have always imagined this Psalm being composed by someone sitting on a dark hillside in the middle of the night, looking up at the heavens, with the moon and stars shining in them, wondering about their own littleness in the face of that vast night sky, and realising that, in their ordinariness, not despite it, God has loved and honoured them, entrusting them with the care of the rest of his creation.   “A little lower than the angels”, and yet, in God’s eyes “crowned with glory”, just as they were.

The God who delights in ordinariness, who calls most of us not to do great things, but to do small things with great love, was good news for those Bethlehem shepherds, and he’s good news for us too. We don’t have to be something we’re not; all God wants is for us to be who we are, and know that we are loved for it.

As we come to the end of these three  Breathing Space services, I pray that , just like those shepherds, the message of God’s love will have lodged somewhere in our hearts, in the place where we need it right now, tonight, and will sing to us the song of the angels. “Peace, peace, peace.”

Sunday, 15 December 2019

The Flowering Desert: Advent 3

This is the homily from our evening service tonight.

Isaiah 35.1-10, Matthew 11.2-11

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad. The desert shall rejoice and blossom,” said Isaiah in our Old Testament Reading. Deserts sometimes blossom, exactly as he describes, and it’s clear that he has that in his mind. Flower seeds lie dormant in the dry dusty ground, sometimes for years, until a sudden rainstorm drenches them. They spring up, flower, set seed and die all in a few weeks, and the land returns to its usual parched appearance. It is a wonderful spectacle, , and to ancient people it must have seemed like a miracle. How could so much life be hidden in such an apparently dead landscape? 

Stories of the saints often featured miraculous flowering too. Flowers were said to spring up in the footsteps of the Irish Saint Brigid, for example , though the “deserts” in her case were the cold landscapes of Ireland not the burning sands of the desert. Joseph of Arimathea on his legendary visit to Glastonbury after the resurrection was said to have stuck his wooden staff into the ground where it promptly blossomed; what are said to be its descendants still do. I did much of my training for ministry in Glastonbury, and there are varieties of hawthorn there which do indeed bloom in the winter. 

The springs and wells which fed this flowering often litter the stories of saints too. Wells have an almost boringly predictable habit of springing up where saints are martyred, and we find stories in the Bible too, like that of Moses, who struck a rock in the desert, as God commanded, and water poured from it. In Jewish legend, a well of water appeared everywhere the people camped, following Miriam, Moses’ big sister, who had watched over him in his rush basket in the waters of the Nile when he was a baby, and rejoiced with him when he parted the waters of the Red Sea. Where Miriam went, the well went too, and on one occasion when she was banished from the camp, the people soon realised that they were now waterless and insisted that she be brought back in. When she died, the well disappeared, and, the Bible says “the people had no water”. (Numbers 20.2) That little phrase is what gave rise to the legend.

Whether we put any credence in these stories or not, the message is obvious. There are times when we are confronted with situations that seem lifeless, hopeless, but what you see is not necessarily what you get. There is more to life than meets the eye. There is more life that meets the eye. God can be at work even when we don’t see him. We can flourish and bear fruit in the most arid and unlikely situations, and the reason for that is that it isn’t down to us. It is the work of God, who is as much at home in a desert as he is in a fertile pasture.

In our Old Testament reading today, that’s what’s promised. The people of Israel are in exile in Babylon, and have been for many decades, long past the point where hope of return seemed sensible. And yet, says Isaiah, God will lead them home, and not only that, as they travel together with him, flowers will spring up in their path, pools of water will appear. Whether or not the journey was actually like that, they did return and rebuild, just as Isaiah said, so perhaps that’s how it felt. 

In the Gospel reading Jesus isn’t promising a flourishing desert in the future. He is pointing to miraculous flowers in the present. John the Baptist has sent word to him as he languishes in Herod’s prison, knowing that he is likely never to get out alive. Has it all been worth it? Does his sacrifice mean anything? It’s easy to see how he might question himself, facing a squalid and terrible end, and want to know that his suffering wasn’t in vain. 

Jesus’ response is tender, consoling, but very, very definite. “Go and tell John what you hear and see; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them”. It’s almost as if each of these things is a flower from the desert, a miraculous bloom, which he is sending to John. “See! Here is God at work! Nothing you did, nothing that will happen to you is a waste, because love is never wasted.” 

All of us need to hear that at some point in our lives. We look back and wonder what we have achieved, what good we have done, what we will be remembered for. What is there to show for our lives? We look forward and wonder how we will cope with the future, how we will cross the trackless deserts that might confront us – illness, aging, the uncertainties that we all face. Most of us are not called to the sacrificial life of John the Baptist, but we are all called to share in God’s work of bringing healing to the sick, good news to the poor. It’s no surprise that that feels like a challenge. It is a challenge. But ultimately, these stories remind us, it isn’t our challenge; it’s God’s. 

All we need to do is put one foot in front of another in his love. God says to us “look! I have been at work, here, and here, and here, in the love you have given and received, and if I have been there in the past, why should I not be there in the future to bless and enrich you? It’s not about you, and your strength – you of the feeble knees and the fearful hearts – it is about me, the limitless creator of the universe. I spoke the light into being with a word. Flowers in the desert? Water in the wilderness?  Hope in despair? Love out of bitterness? Life out of death? Why should they be impossible for me? Watch, wait, and rejoice!”  

Monday, 9 December 2019

Breathing Space for Advent 2: God's message of love to Elizabeth

Psalm 85, Luke 1.39 – 45

Last week we thought about Jesus as God’s message of love to Mary. This week we move on to the visit she made to Elizabeth, and find that the message of love is starting to spread.

Elizabeth is some kind of relative to Mary – the Gospel isn’t precise about what their relationship is – but she is obviously someone Mary trusted, because the reading starts by telling us that “in those days Mary set out and went with haste” to see her. In what days? In the days after the angel had told her that she would bear the Son of God. In the days when the reality of that statement was starting to become clear, not only to her, but maybe to others as well. She went “with haste”. Why? Maybe because she knew her pregnancy would soon start to show, and there would be a scandal, which would put her and her unborn child at risk. So she goes to a place where she hopes she will be safe, where she hopes she will find a welcome. And she is right to have chosen Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is also living in extraordinary times. She is pregnant herself despite being long past the age when that should have been possible. Her husband had heard from that same angel who came to Mary that their child would be the forerunner of the Messiah, the child we know as John the Baptist. When she heard she was to bear a son, and a special one at that, she said “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

Of course, we would want to say to her that there is no disgrace in not being able to have children, but the reality was that in her society, women’s main role in life was to marry and bear children. When we read the Bible we have to read it from within the thought-world of its characters if we’re going to understand it.

In her time, fertility was seen as a sign of God’s favour, and infertility a sign of his curse. She had felt, and others had probably encouraged her to feel, that being childless meant that she and Zechariah must have done something to displease God, but now she realises that was wrong, and that God is much bigger than she’d been taught. God had a purpose for her. She was beloved of God all along, and so is this other mother-to-be who has come to her in her moment of need.

Artists have imagined this scene – the moment when Elizabeth and Mary meet – in many ways over the centuries. Often Mary looks a little tentative. What will the reaction be? Will she be met with scorn or suspicion? But always the answer is no. Without needing Mary to say a word, Elizabeth welcomes her, recognising that God is at work in her too. Sometimes there is laughter in the pictures, a bubbling over of joy. Sometimes Elizabeth puts her hands out to feel Mary’s “bump”. Each of them has been cherishing a private joy. Now, for the first time, that joy spreads beyond them and is recognised and acknowledged by someone else. “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other”, said our Psalm tonight, and that might be a caption for this moment.

Of course, for both these women there will be pain ahead. Both will lose those precious sons in brutal and cruel circumstances, but they know that their children will change the world, that they will have given the world a great gift. Elizabeth and Mary discover that their lives matter. They’re called. They’re chosen. In a world where most women, most of the time were invisible, and encouraged to be so, they proclaim that each of us, however ordinary we feel, is noticed by God, valued by God, vital to God, called to bear good news.

In the silence tonight, perhaps we could think about how much we feel our lives matter, how much we feel our choices matter, how much we feel our response to God’s call matters. Like Mary and Elizabeth, that call may not look the way we thought it would. It may come later or earlier than we think it ought to. But these women’s stories remind us to be ready for that moment when the life of God leaps within us for joy, ready to recognise the life of God in others too, ready to rejoice in it and share it.


Claudia Williams

Carl Bloch

Jacques Daret

Domenico Ghirlandio

Rogier van der Weyden

Modern Icon of the Visitation 

Corby Eisbacher

Sunday, 8 December 2019

A journey in search of itself: Advent 2

Audio version here

“The people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to John, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptised by John in the River Jordan”

The Judean desert
 Earlier this year, Philip and I went to the traditional site where John the Baptist is thought to have done those baptisms we heard about in the Gospel reading. The river Jordan is a narrow, muddy river, just a dozen or so metres wide, which now forms the border between Israel and the state of Jordan on the other side. You could cross it in a hop, skip and a jump, though you’d be foolish to try, because there are soldiers armed with submachine guns on both banks.
The plains beside the Jordan
The baptismal site, with the State of Jordan on the other bank.

It’s quite a trek to get there from Jerusalem. It’s about 26 miles from the city, steeply down through barren, rocky hills, on the same road that features in the story of the Good Samaritan, the one which starts with a traveller being ambushed and left for dead, and it’s easy to see how bandits could have lurked unseen in this landscape.  Once you’re down in the Jordan valley you have to cross a baking hot plain, and then drive down a road bordered by barbed wire to left and right, and festooned with signs warning you that you are crossing a minefield, the legacy of decades of warfare between Israel and Jordan.  

Of course the mines weren’t there in Jesus’ time, but our visit brought home to me how hard and dangerous this journey must have been back then. And yet Matthew tells us that large crowds went out to see John, ”people of Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region along the Jordan”. It’s not the only time Matthew describes large scale reactions like this. The Magi’s arrival in Jerusalem, looking for a new baby king not only frightens King Herod, but “all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2). When Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, just before his death, Matthew tells us that “the whole city was in turmoil”. The events that surround Jesus’ life aren’t quiet and polite, they are rabble-rousing, disturbing happenings, which no one can miss, whether they approve of them or not.

At this point, though, it is John the Baptist’s preaching which has electrified the area. Everyone wants to go and see him, and they’re prepared to go to great lengths, quite literally, on that long hard journey to do so.

Imagine you were part of that crowd. What might have drawn you there?
There’s an old definition of pilgrimage that says it is “a journey in search of itself” – you only discover why you needed to make it as you make it , through the thing the things that happen along the way, the struggles and the joys, the conversations you have, the times you lose your way and find it again. But something has to propel you out in the first place.  

Some of the crowd might simply have been curious or bored. It’s a long way to go for that, but boredom can be a sign of a deeper restlessness, a search for meaning in our lives, so it might have been enough. Maybe some were looking for guidance,  wanting to know how they should live. Others might have been carrying old burdens of shame or guilt – justified or not – and set off to see John hoping that he, at last could  wash their guilt and shame away where all the others had failed, finally allowing them to feel clean. 

But the implication of this Gospel story is that some of those who came to John really hadn’t thought it through at all.  They knew John was a fiery, challenging preacher, but they seemed to think that whoever John might challenge it wasn’t going to be them. They were the good guys, the religious “in crowd”, the ones who knew what was what, the gate-keepers. They came for baptism, we are told, but they don’t seem to have thought there would be much to wash away.  

That’s the only explanation I can think of for the presence in this crowd of Pharisees and Sadducees. Pharisees were religious experts, people who cared about the law, the word of God, the heritage of faith that had been handed down to them. They had great influence in the synagogues, among the ordinary people. Sadducees were more often associated with the Temple and its rituals, drawing their support from the ruling classes. They often seem to have had that effortless sense of entitlement that ruling classes everywhere have. Both groups probably expected John’s approval. It must have been a shock to them when they didn’t get it.  “You brood of vipers!”  thunders John as they come towards him, demolishing that sense of entitlement it in a few fiery swipes.

“You think you are the guardians of the faith, the true inheritors of God’s blessing, children of Abraham, because you can trace your family lines back to the patriarchs God first made his covenant with? So what?” says John. “God doesn’t care who your father and mother were, how far back you can trace your family line, where you’ve come from. He cares about where you are going, whether you are walking his path of justice and peace, helping to create the world Isaiah spoke of where wolves live with lambs and leopards lie down with kids, whether you are prepared to make the changes in your own lives that will bring that about.”

Genealogy – family history - was very important to ancient people. That’s why we get so many genealogies in the Bible, long lists of people’s ancestors. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, which opens his Gospel, traces Jesus’ own family line right back to Abraham. Jesus is the real deal, he says, to those who think it matters. But he mischievously throws in five women who disrupt that neat lineage along the way. There’s Tamar, who had to trick her father-in-law into fathering a child with her because that was the only way of getting the support she needed. There’s Rahab, a prostitute, who protected the Jewish people when they first entered the Promised Land. There’s Ruth, a widow from the enemy territory of Moab, who came to Israel with her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi. And there is “the wife of Uriah”, Bathsheba. King David committed adultery with her, though as she probably had no choice it would probably be more accurate to call it rape. She eventually bore him the future king Solomon. And, of course, at the end of Matthew’s genealogy there is Mary, who, scandalously, was pregnant before her marriage to Joseph, in circumstances which looked pretty suspicious to those around her.

John the Baptist’s message to the Pharisees and Sadducees reminded me of that subversive list.  God can make a family out of whoever he wants to, says Matthew, incorporating people who might seem very unlikely at first glance. “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘we have Abraham as our ancestor’  for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”  There’s a play on words here which we miss. In Aramaic, the language John and Jesus spoke, children are “banim” and stones are “abhanim”. So much for the lineage you are so proud of! It’s no more godly than a heap of stones, says John to these Pharisees and Sadducees.

Paul’s letter to the Romans makes the same point. It was written against the backdrop of bitter infighting between Christians who had been born Jewish, and Christians who had been born Gentile. The Jewish Christians looked down on the Gentile Christians, and vice versa. Which of them was more important? Which group should have the upper hand, the casting vote in this new community of faith? If you have to ask the question you’ve already got it wrong, says Paul. Instead of fighting about  who is top-dog you should “Welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you”.

The first bit’s fine. It’s the second bit that should pull us up short. “Welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you”.   How did Christ welcome us? What is it about his welcome which Paul is drawing attention to?  Paul is surely reminding us that Christ’s radically inclusive welcome came at a great and terrible cost to himself. Tax-collectors, prostitutes, Roman soldiers, riff-raff of all sorts and varieties, anyone who wanted to be part of his movement was in, just by wanting to be in.  It scandalised the respectable people, the ones who thought they were the gate-keepers of God’s family, and they killed him for it. If we want to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us”  then it will almost certainly mean that we are sometimes scandalised too, taken out of our comfort zones, challenged to open our ears, our eyes and our hearts to people who we wouldn’t normally get along with.  

I was deeply moved this week by the reaction of Jack Merritt’s parents to his murder along with a fellow worker in Fishmonger’s Hall last week, by a man who his organisation had been trying to help. In the midst of their grief at his death, his father said he knew that Jack would “be seething at his death, and his life, being used to perpetuate an agenda of hate that he gave his everything fighting against.”  His work had opened up a door, he said, to a place “where we do not lock up and throw away the key… where we focus on rehabilitation not revenge”  Borrow his intelligence” his father went on, “ share his drive, feel his passion, burn with his anger, and extinguish hatred with his kindness. Never give up his fight.”

I have no idea what, if any, faith the Merritt family have, but these words could have come straight out of John the Baptist’s mouth. They express kingdom values. We often say of a child, “he’s got his mother’s nose, she’s got her father’s eyes”, but these words display the family likeness of God’s people, that determination to love, to hope, to welcome in the face of all that would destroy those things.

The readings we’ve heard today can be uncomfortable, especially to those of us who are old hands at Christian faith, and who all too easily fall into the trap of thinking we know what’s what. Like those who made that pilgrimage to John the Baptist , that “journey in search of itself” these readings ask us what draws us to God’s presence, and what we expect to find when we get there? They challenge us to ask ourselves how we are being formed into the family likeness of God, not just ticking the box marked Christian on the census form but learning to welcome as he did, with costly love that’s open to all.