Thursday, 24 December 2020

Midnight Mass 2020

 


In the beginning was the Word.

 

Every other day during this pandemic, I’ve phoned my mother in Exeter, taking it in turns with my brother to keep in touch with her. I guess many of you will have done the same sort of thing. When she asks what I’ve been doing all day, more often than not I reply,  “shovelling words. Mother, shovelling words”. Writing is a big part of a vicar’s job at the best of times, but like many other people, my job has been even more desk-based over the last nine months. I’ve often felt like one of those old-fashioned firemen on a steam train, whose job is to pitch coal constantly into the firebox to keep the engine running, except in my case, it’s not coal but words that have been the fuel. I did a rough calculation and worked out that just the weekly newsletters and sermons during the pandemic have added up to 120,000 of them, let alone everything else that needs to be written, recorded, broadcast. Podcasts and videos, zooms, and social media posts. It’s all been about communication. And of course there’s been a lot to read too – mostly ever changing government guidance…

 

Words, words, words. How many words have we spoken, or heard or read today? And how many of them really mattered. Some of the words we speak are life-changing. ‘Will you marry me?’ ‘You’re hired – or fired’ ‘I’m sorry, I have bad news for you’. Words like those are never forgotten, and can’t be taken back, but often, if we’re honest, we just talk for the sake of talking.

 

Our readings today have lots of communication in them. In the Old Testament reading there are messengers announcing peace and sentinels lifting up their voices.  Even the ruins of Jerusalem sing for joy, and in the Gospel there are angels – angel means messenger, so they are wordsmiths too, delivering their important news – and then there are shepherds bubbling over with excitement as they share what they’ve seen, probably fairly incoherently, because they don’t understand it any more than we would.

 

But at the centre of all this noise, all these words, there is a speechless baby, an infant. Infant literally means ‘unable to speak’ – fans is Latin for speaking, so “infans” means not speaking. He can’t even move his hands to use sign language – he’s wrapped in swaddling bands. All he can do is cry or not cry, and as every new parent knows a baby’s cry could mean a whole host of different things. And yet John’s Gospel tells us that this infant, this unspeaking one, is the Word, God’s definitive communication of himself to the world, the loudest and clearest thing God can think of to say. He has no words, this little child, but he is the Word.

 

When he is grown he will preach and teach, but now he has nothing to say for himself, no way of explaining himself, no way of defending himself against the oppressive rule of Rome and the murderous rage of Herod. One tenth century writer, Alan of Farfa, described Jesus as “unspeakably wise . . . wisely speechless; filling the world, he lies in a manger; guiding the stars, he nurses at his mother’s bosom; he is both great in the nature of God, and small in the form of the servant.” Later on, Jesus will be wordless again, falling into the silence of death on the cross, and lying speechless in the tomb.

 

I don’t think it is any accident at all that these two, silent, speechless moments at the beginning and end of his earthly life are the ones which seem to speak most profoundly to us. They are the ones which inspire the best art and music, and which seem to draw people most readily into prayer. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because birth and death are mysteries that we know can never fully be explained.  

 

If you have ever witnessed a birth, or a death, you’ll know that it’s often very difficult to find words to describe them. Words fail us – quite rightly – at these moments when a unique human life begins or ends. Birth, and death – anyone’s birth and death - are moments to be experienced, not explained. They may be times of unspeakable joy, or unspeakable sorrow, but the fact that we often find we have no words in the face of them is a sign of how much they matter to us, not how little. 

 

At the heart of the Christmas story there is a deep silence, a speechless child, who, like all babies, takes us as we are. We don’t need to explain ourselves to him, to make excuses, to think clever thoughts about him, any more than we do any other baby. We just need to be where he is, and know that he is where we are. What is distinctive about Jesus, though, is that it will always be like that with him. There will always be unconditional love, unconditional welcome. He will tell his followers that unless they “become like little children” they will never be able fully to see and understand and share what God is doing in the world.

 

The child in the manger reminds us that, in the end, it probably won’t be any of our words, yours or mine, which will make the greatest difference to others as we pick our way through the challenges and tumult of this time of crisis, however clever, or prolific those words might be. It will be the tiny, silent acts of kindness that we give and receive; the time taken to check that a neighbour has what they needed, and if they don’t, to find a way of providing it, the time taken to listen, just to listen, to someone who is feeling sad or hopeless or afraid; the little acts of creativity, like our Advent windows around the village, which spread good cheer and keep people’s spirits up. Even the everyday acts of wearing a face mask, washing your hands, giving people space, which say to others “you matter, even if I don’t know you” communicate reams without a word being spoken.

 

In these small acts of love, Christ is born again, and the Wordless Word speaks loud and clear. In these small acts, a small as a baby, new worlds of hope, new possibilities open up for us, and for the world, just as they did for Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men so long ago in Bethlehem.

 

Amen

 

 

 

Sunday, 20 December 2020

Advent 4

 

2 Sam 7.1-11,16, Luke 1.26-38

 

We probably all feel we’ve all seen quite enough of the inside of our own homes this year. Some may have enjoyed having time to do some clearing out and home improvements, though I gather that there’s been a lot of bodged DIY for the professionals to sort out later…For others, though, it’s been a real challenge. Some have had to try to live, work, and maybe educate children as well, in homes that are overcrowded, inadequate or unsafe. Others have felt isolated and lonely.

 

This year has shown us how much home matters, for good or ill, and how important it is to feel comfortable there – something far too many people are denied. A home doesn’t just provide physical shelter from the elements, but, if all is well, emotional security too. We should be able to feel we belong there, whether we live alone or with others. It should be a place where we can be ourselves.

 

In today’s Old Testament reading, King David has just built himself a house, a splendid house of cedar wood. He’d started life as a little shepherd boy, probably living out on the hills with the sheep some of the time. As a young man though, he’d often been on the run, hiding with his band of guerrilla fighters in caves, or having to seek shelter with others because King Saul saw him as a rival. But now, after Saul’s death, he is king. He’s captured the city of Jerusalem and made it his capital city. After all that turmoil and placelessness, David has found his place. He is finally “settled in his house” as the reading says.

 

But then he has a thought. He has a fine dwelling, but what about God? Ever since the Israelites had first been led into the Promised Land many centuries before, after their escape from Egypt, the people have worshipped God in what was basically a tent.  It was a very fine tent, richly festooned with blue, purple and crimson curtains, with cherubim worked into the them according to the instructions given to Moses about its making in the book of Exodus. But it was still a tent. It was the kind of thing that nomadic people used, not those who had settled into a land of their own. It might have been fine when they were wandering in the desert, but surely this couldn’t be right now, thought David. God deserved better than this.

 

So, David sent for the prophet Nathan and asked him to talk to God about it. God’s answer surprised David. God was actually perfectly happy in a tent, thank you very much, close to his people, where they are. That’s where he wanted to be. He didn’t want a house of cedar. Eventually he got one anyway – King David’s son Solomon built the first Temple, and very splendid it was – but this story makes it plain that it wasn’t God’s idea! The building of the Temple had far more to do with the human desire for prestige on the part of this fledgling nation than it did with God. It was the kind of thing proper nations had, and they wanted to be seen to be a proper nation.

 

But God’s was not bothered. The only “house” he was interested in was the royal house of David, the line of kings he wants to lead the kingdom, so that it would be a source of blessing for its people and for the world.  He wanted to “make a place for my people Israel”, not a place for himself. The whole earth was God’s home. He could be “at home” wherever he chose, with scruffy shepherd boys or magnificent kings.

 

In our Gospel reading, set many centuries after David, God declared that  he was “at home” in the womb of a young woman from the backwater town of Nazareth, who found the courage to say “yes” to God’s plan. It was a strange sort of home for the Lord of Creation but that was all of a piece with the way God worked, through those who are least and littlest. He would go on to be at home in places where there seemed to be no room for him – a manger would be fine for his cradle. He would be at home among disreputable tax-collectors and prostitutes, rebels and lepers. He will be at home even on a cross, and in a tomb, in the darkness of death. Everywhere we find ourselves, every human situaion is also a place where we can find God, perfectly at home, waiting for us, keeping us company there.

 

There is a way of telling the story of the Bible which says that when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were expelled from the Garden of Eden, a great gulf opened up between them and God, which was only bridged by the cross of Christ. You can even make a neat little diagram of it, with God on one side of this spiritual Grand Canyon and us on the other with the cross laid between the two. Personally I don’t really buy it, though, because when I read the Bible I don’t see a God who withdraws into some distant heaven in a horrified huff when Adam and Eve make the wrong choice. It seems to me that when they leave the Garden, God goes out into the wide, wild world with them, popping up all over the place, making himself known, appearing to his people in many different ways. He speaks to people through angels, or mysterious strangers like those who wander into Abraham’s encampment to tell him that his wife is going to bear the son they’ve waited so long for. He speaks to them from burning bushes, in visions and in dreams to guide them or comfort them or challenge them. He leads them through the desert, as a pillar of fire by night and cloud by day. He’s never far away from those who have their eyes and ears open. It may feel to us as if there’s sometimes a gulf, as if he’s absent, but I think that’s our perception, not his reality. He’s at home in his creation, at home with us, just as he always has been.

 

This year, as I’ve said, we have probably got to know our homes very well. That can be a good thing, because it has given us the chance to discover that our homes, whatever they’re like, are also God’s home, that he is present in them with us, whatever we feel about them. He is the God who is where we are, who, in Jesus “became flesh and dwelt among us,” as John’s Gospel puts it.

 

As you listen to these words you may be a wide variety of places.  Some will be in church when they hear them, others will be at home listening on the podcast or video. The message of these readings is that God is there, wherever we are physically. But that’s not all, because he’s also with us wherever we are spiritually and emotionally. We might be contented and full of faith today. Or we might be downhearted, disappointed, doubting, indifferent, afraid…

 

Wherever we are, physically, emotionally and spiritually, these readings remind us that God is there too. He’s not afraid of our feelings, as we might be. He’s not shocked or disappointed by them. He is Emmanuel, God with us, always at home, wherever we are.

Amen

 

 

Sunday, 13 December 2020

Advent 3 St Lucy

 

Isaiah61.1-4, 8-end, John 1.6-8, 19-28

 

I wonder whether you’ve put any Christmas lights up yet, or whether you’re intending to. It seems to me that there are more lights around this year than ever, and perhaps that’s no surprise after all we’ve been through. The ones in the village went up last weekend – many thanks to Marion who organised that and all those who helped to do it. Philip put ours up around the front of the vicarage last week, so we’re lovely and twinkly. Christmas trees are being decorated with lights, and, of course, Advent candles like ours in church are gradually being lit as we approach Christmas. Christians aren’t alone in celebrating with lights at this time of year. The Jewish feast of Hannukah was last week, and the Hindu celebration of Diwali a few weeks ago – both festivals of light. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere it’s easy to see why there is such an obsession with lights at this time of year. Few of us really like the long nights of winter.. Light is important emotionally as well as practically. We need these light-filled celebrations to cheer us up and remind us that the darkness won’t go on forever.

 

Today, as well as being the third Sunday of Advent, is also St Lucy’s Day, a saint who is very much associated with light. Her name comes from the Latin word for light - lux. She was a young Sicilian Christian who was martyred in Syracusa around 304 AD, in a wave of persecution under the Emperor Diocletian. It is said that she refused to enter a forced marriage with a wealthy pagan man, who was so incensed at this that he had her arrested, imprisoned, tortured and eventually executed – sadly an all too common female saintly story - forced marriage was something that many faced. Later stories say that before this she had taken food by night to other Christians in hiding in the catacombs, wearing a candle on her head so that her hands were free to carry it. Her story spread northwards from her Mediterranean home and especially caught on in Sweden and other Nordic countries. Her feast day - December 13 – was the mid-winter Solstice before the calendar reforms of the 17th century, and that story of her candlelit visits to the catacombs made her an obvious figure for a festival of light, especially in dark, Northern latitudes. On this day, in Swedish speaking communities, young girls dressed as St Lucy, in white robes and red sashes – the symbols of martyrdom – process through streets and churches and homes singing, and - terrifyingly, in my opinion - they do all this wearing crowns of candles on their heads. For younger children, the candles are battery operated, but older girls are expected to wear the real thing. I can hardly bear to think about the risk assessment!

 

Like all our Advent and Christmas light customs, St Lucy’s day underlines just how much light matters to us. Whether we believe she wore candles on her head to visit those in hiding, the symbolism is powerful. Just imagine what it would have been like to see that light come towards you through the darkness, if you were sitting there afraid for your life. It wouldn’t just have been the candle flame that made the difference, but the light of kindness and courage which shone from her. You would never forget it.

 

Lucy’s story reminds us of all those who’ve discovered the light of Christ in their own lives, and then borne it for others. Even if we don’t believe her story is literal truth, there were many other early Christian women whose stories were similar, and many since, whose lives have been lit up by knowing how Jesus had treated women, as individuals with hopes and dreams of their own, included and honoured in his mission. Women have found strength and dignity in that, and the courage to resist forced marriage and the other pressures of their society, to live their own lives, fulfil their own callings.

 

Men as well as women, of course, have discovered the light of Christ shining in their lives, showing them new ways to live, inspiring and comforting them, giving them new purpose, no matter who they are, how humble their background, what they have done or what has been done to them. As Isaiah put it in our first reading, they have found in Jesus the one who brings “good news to the oppressed, binds up the broken-hearted, proclaims liberty to the prisoners”. It has happened to them. They know it’s true.

 

Like John the Baptist in our Gospel story, those whose lives have been lit up by Christ know that they themselves are not the light. I am not the light. You are not the light. And thank goodness for that. We can’t save the world - we can’t even save ourselves – but we don’t have to do so. The candles we light at Advent don’t just burst into flame by themselves. The fire has to be brought to them from elsewhere. The fairy lights don’t glow on their own – they have to be connected to a power source. But when they are, they can transform everything around them, just as we all can – “you in your small corner, and I in mine” as the old children’s song puts it.

 

John the Baptist and St Lucy discovered the light of Christ for themselves, and they carried that light to others, lighting up their lives too, and they call us to be light-bearers as well.

If we’re going to do that, though, we first need to know what the light of Christ looks like in our own lives, what difference he makes to us. We can’t bear witness to something unless we know what it is. We can’t bring light to others unless we have found out what it means for us. So, what does Christ mean to us? How does faith bring light to our lives? There’s no stock answer to that. It’s different for everyone, but something has drawn each of us to pray, to worship, to read the Bible, to wonder about Jesus. Something in these things enriches us, intrigues us, changes us, inspires us to love and serve others, brings us peace or maybe shakes us out of our complacency. If it didn’t we wouldn’t be here now, listening to this. Something in the Christian story enlightens us.  Just as a traveller lost in a dark place might head towards the glow of a distant lighted window, knowing that there would be at least a possibility of finding help there, we’re called first to notice the light that has drawn our attention to Christ.

 

Then, having found our light, we can share it with others. We don’t need to know any fancy theological words to do this, and we certainly don’t need, thank God, to wear crowns of burning candles on our heads! Bearing the light is really just a matter of naming that light in our lives, and living as if it matters. We may not think our faith is anything special. It may feel very feeble or tentative, but the light we’ve found might be just the light that someone else is desperately looking for, like the candle flame that shone through the darkness of the catacombs as Lucy made her way to her friends there. And if we don’t share it, maybe no one else will.

 

So, as we look at the lights around us lighting up this dark Advent, may we find and name the light in us, so that when the fairy lights and candles are packed away, we’re still shining, and bearing Christ’s light for others too.

Amen

 



Advent 2

 

Isaiah 40.1-11, Psalm85.1-2,8-13, Mark 1.1-8

 

“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness”, says St Mark. That’s where he starts his story of “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” as he puts it in the opening words of the Gospel. He doesn’t begin with stories about angels and shepherds and a baby lying in a manger, or with Magi following a star, but with a rather wild looking man, who tells people to repent and washes away their sins in the river Jordan – a rather unimpressive, muddy river from my experience of it last year. Frankly, John doesn’t sound like a whole heap of fun, not very Christmassy at all. I’m not sure you’d want to invite him to a party, even if we were allowed to have them. For a start, I don’t think Sainsbury’s sell locusts in their party food section.

 

But Mark is clear that this man is part of the good news, and that his words and actions are the preparation we all need to be ready to meet Jesus. It’s easy to caricature John as a sort of hellfire and brimstone preacher, denouncing people for their sins and making them feel miserable, but if that’s all that was happening, it would be hard to understand why people came out to see him in such great numbers “from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem,” It’s clear, too, that many of them went home changed profoundly. You can’t do that through fear. You have to do it through love.

 

The truth which John proclaimed, his challenge to them might not sound much like good news to us, but it is, because John didn’t tell people that they should feel rotten about themselves – even if they sometimes did . He preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins – change that would lead to new life, and he pointed people towards Christ, who would show what that forgiveness, love and new life looked like in his ministry, his death and his resurrection.

 

We’d all like to think we were perfect, or at least to look as if we are. There’s often quite an emphasis in modern life on talking yourself up, dressing to impress, faking it till you make it – perhaps there always was, but I notice in things like the TV programme the Apprentice. It’s important, of course, to take proper pride in our achievements, not to do ourselves down out of false modesty, to have the confidence to give our gifts, but there’s a danger in it too. We can end up building a wall around us adorned with all the things we want people to see, while behind it we know perfectly well that we haven’t got a clue what we’re doing, and that we get it wrong as often as we get it right. The most dangerous thing of all is when we start believing our own PR – in the end even we can’t see ourselves truly. We hide from ourselves as well as hiding from others, and we even think we can hide from God too.

 

That’s why John the Baptist’s message evidently came as such a relief to so many. Instead of saying “fake it till you make it”  or “I’m ok, you’re ok”, he says “we’re not ok, none of us, but that’s ok, because God still loves us anyway”. Far from being all hellfire and brimstone, John’s message is really one of tenderness and love, which takes seriously our sense of frailty and fallibility and brokenness. His message allows us to admit that often we don’t know how to do this thing called life, for all the gifts and skills we might genuinely have.

 

“Comfort, O comfort my people” said the Old Testament reading from the prophet Isaiah, in very much the same vein. The people of Israel had been in exile for many decades in Babylon, and thought they would never go home. What made it worse was that many believed that they’d been abandoned by God.

 

Before the exile, there were many in Israel who believed that God would never let them be conquered by a foreign power. After all they were his people, and he was their God. The exile shattered that sense of exceptionalism, made them doubt and question themselves. They went from having an over-blown sense of their own wonderfulness to having no self-confidence at all. The truth which Isaiah proclaimed was that it had never been about them and their abilities. It had only ever been about God’s love, and it still was.

 

They’d never been out of God’s sight, out of his mind, out of his care, and now he’s going to take them home. This passage comes from the time when the Persian king, Cyrus was conquering Babylonian territories, and as he did so, he sent those whom the Babylonians had taken prisoner back home to their own countries.  Israel’s belovedness in God’s eyes had never depended on them and what they did – “all flesh is grass” says Isaiah. Our faithfulness flickers and fades, our power to act is here today and gone tomorrow. But God’s word, God’s love, God’s faithfulness stands forever. That is the comfort Isaiah proclaims. It’s not like the Danish concept of hygge  - a cosy blanket and a mug of hot chocolate by the fireside on a winter night - but comfort in the old sense of the word, strength that enables us to stand and face a world that can be very cold and dark.

 

God understands our frailty. “He will gather the lambs in his arms, and gently lead the mother sheep” When our cares are too great and our ability to cope with them too small, God is there, says Isaiah. We can’t do this; but God can. “God speaks peace to his faithful people,“ said the Psalm, not a uneasy truce based on posturing and deal-making, but the real peace which comes from knowing that there is no longer any cause for war. “Mercy and truth have met together,” it says, “righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”  The change Isaiah and John point us towards is genuine and deep-rooted, not just skin deep, for the sake of appearance. It is this deep change which “makes the paths of the Lord straight” lifting up the valleys within us, bringing down those puffed up hills of anxious, false pride so that we can walk with God on his journey of healing. As the Psalm put it – peace shall be a pathway for his feet. This is the message that Isaiah proclaimed, and that John echoed loud and clear in his ministry in the wilderness, and it is indeed the “beginning of the good news”.

 

I’d like to finish by reading a favourite poem of mine about John the Baptist, written by Charles Causley. It’s a simple poem, written originally for children, but like so many of Causley’s poems, and all the best writing for children, it lingers in the heart and soul and has great power in its simplicity.

 

John, John the Baptist

Lived in a desert of stone.

He had no money,

Ate beans and honey,

And he lived quite on his own.

 

His coat was made of camel,

His belt was made of leather,

And deep in the gleam

of a twisting stream

He’d stand in every weather

 

John, John the Baptist

Worked without any pay,

But he’d hold your hand

And bring you to land

And he’d wash your fears away.

 

Amen

 

 

 

Sunday, 29 November 2020

The First Sunday of Advent

 

Mark 13.24 – 37 & Isaiah 64.1-9

If your job is to collect the refuse, nurse the sick, construct buildings or serve customers in food stores then it’s highly likely that your boss can see what you are doing, how well, and when.

However, if your work, pre-Covid was usually done sitting at a screen in an office then there is a high probability that you are now doing this from a room in your home.  It turns out that the execution of many knowledge-based tasks can be done pretty much anywhere that the technology reliably functions.

Some managers and employers I have speaking with don’t like this. They can’t always see what time the employee starts and finishes work, what they have open on their screen, and worry that their cat, or family member will distract them when they should be labouring away producing easily measurable outputs.

A business article I read recently observed that the combination of automation and artificial intelligence is changing the nature of work. Basic tasks are being stripped away, and work is skewing towards the things that tech can’t do as well: creativity, persuasion, empathy, and complex problem solving. Thinking, often in combination with others, rather than just executing processes is now the essence of much work.

I believe that taking readings from the bible and sharing some thoughts on them currently falls outside the scope of automation, just in case you felt that this sermon sounds like it was written by a robot. Our individual heart felt reactions to our bible readings certainly don’t feel threatened by technology despite its ever growing prevalence in our lives.

Back in the new workplace, in many cases also known as your bedroom, most people are highly conscientious and put in a full shift, and some, without the need to be seen doing so. It’s evident that in many cases working at home has proven highly productive for certain sectors of the economy and whilst it’s not the long term answer for all it has helped shift the focus from presenteeism to productivity, a much more positive way of thinking about work.

It’s not a bad starting point from which to approach our Gospel reading on this first Sunday of Advent, ‘Keep awake for you do not know when the master of the house will come’ we are told, but Jesus doesn’t tell us exactly what we should be doing. The message for the disciples hearing this and for us today is initially both frightening and confusing.

Are we to constantly be busy at work which God approves of? Well that can’t be a bad thing but God also wants us to make time for reflection, rest and recreation so I feel that Jesus was saying more than this.

Perhaps we are to be awake, aware of God in our midst in a way that we hadn’t previously been able to see.

It sounds good but it’s so much easier to passively receive what we are fed by all forms of media, and get angry with various groups of people we will never encounter than to take a moment to breathe deeply, still ourselves and think where we might find God among us.

It could be that the way we understand Mark’s apocalyptic language now is very different from how those who heard Jesus directly.

I read that the Greek word from which our ‘apocalypse’ comes meant uncovering or revelation. Consider then whether this is about the end of the world as we know it or whether it’s more realistic to see it as God being revealed to people otherwise blind to him, offering new hope in previously hopeless situations.

Our reading from Isaiah is a lament by people who feel that they can no longer see God among them. They want him to be like he was in the old days, you know make some mountains quake, tear open the heavens, send fire that makes the waters boil!

God hasn’t changed, God hasn’t gone away, perhaps the people have busied themselves to the extent that they have crowded God out of their lives and entered into a period of spiritual dryness.

In in a moment of calmness and reflection the people recall that God is their creator and Father, ‘we are all your people’ they eventually say.

Particularly at the present time when our freedoms are severely constrained no one could be blamed for focussing on the negatives, and there’s no denying that these are very real for many. Yet it’s also essential that we don’t let copious amounts of sad news stories accumulate into a wall that we cannot see over.

Times of bad news, sadness, stress and exhaustion don’t always feel like times of growth with God, of deepened spirituality, but as God has proven over and over they are exactly the situations into which he welcomes an invitation to journey with us.

We must resolve to look around us again with open hearts and minds aware of the possibility to see things anew in our current reality, not always putting it off until things are better in the world or until we are in a better place. God is able and willing to meet us where we are now whether it be in a dark place or a challenging time.

We need to keep in mind that the weeks of advent lead us towards a God who came to us as a vulnerable baby and is who no stranger to suffering.

For all the challenges many face some will also see anew how blessed they are to have family, to live where they do, for the people they walk among and take for granted. Enforced time at home can make the wonder of God’s detail in the natural world more vivid if we make time to enjoy and celebrate it, an antidote to staring at screens for hours.

We do not know when the time will come that Jesus speaks of or indeed whether it will be the same for any of us but neither do we need to wait for it to experience his revelation, by serving each other, regardless of background or belief, we may well find that God becomes more real to us.

For some an apocalyptic second coming of Christ might be more attractive than playing their part now in the ‘new heaven and new earth, spoken of by the prophet Isaiah later in his book.

Maybe the same Jesus who spoke of the Kingdom of heaven as like a net thrown in the sea, like a merchant in search of fine pearls, like treasure hidden in a field and like a mustard seed, wasn’t being literal when he spoke of stars falling from heaven.

Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion are near in Mark’s gospel. But no matter how much he was to suffer and no matter those who chose to follow him may do so the imagery of stars, clouds and winds of the earth serve as signs that our imaginations can start to fathom which tell us there is so much more. It could be more than we can cope with but it’s there to remind us that there is a parallel story where Jesus remains king of all seen and unseen.

Perhaps this difficult year still has time to be an apocalypse for us, a revelation of God into our imperfect lives.

Amen

Kevin Bright

29th November 2020

Sunday, 22 November 2020

Christ the King

Audio version here

Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24, Matthew 25.31-46

 

There’s a story told about St Elizabeth of Hungary, who lived in the early 13th century which always comes into my mind when I hear today’s Gospel reading. Elizabeth had wanted, from an early age, to enter a convent and devote herself to God. She had been very much influenced by the Franciscan movement – she was a contemporary of St Francis-  and she wanted to live the life of radical simplicity, helping the poor, that Francis did. But Elizabeth was a princess, the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary, and princesses didn’t get to choose what they did with their lives. They were valuable bargaining chips in making alliances and building up power bases. Elizabeth had been promised in marriage from early childhood to Louis, the Landgrave, or Lord, of Thuringia. She was married at 14 and bore him three children in quick succession, but still held onto her Franciscan ideals. Her marriage was happy – she and Louis grew to love each other - but the same can’t be said of her mother-in-law. She was very sceptical of Elizabeth’s care for the poor and sick. Elizabeth would be more likely to be found helping a filthy beggar than mixing with the high and mighty as her mother-in-law thought she should.

 

What infuriated her most, was Elizabeth’s habit of taking in waifs and strays, the sick and destitute. On one occasion, says the story, while Louis was away, Elizabeth and her mother in law were left behind to manage the castle. Before long Elizabeth began to fill it with the needy. The castle was overflowing with people. But just when it seemed that even she would have to call a halt, a leper turned up at the castle gates, filthy and covered in sores. What was Elizabeth to do? There was no more room, no more beds. Except, she realised, one. With Louis away, his bed was empty. Elizabeth promptly installed the leper there, washed and fed him, and left him to sleep. Her mother in law was incandescent. How dare she! She sent a message to Louis telling him that his wife had put another man in his bed, leaving him to imagine what that might mean.

 

Louis took the bait and stormed into the castle and up to his room. He flung open the door, but whatever he expected to see, it wasn’t this. There on his bed, lay Christ himself, fast asleep. Louis shut the door quietly and went away. In the morning, when he looked again, there was the leper, healed and well, and able to go on his way rejoicing.

 

It’s a lovely story, whether you believe it or not, and it clearly draws on the imagery of the Gospel reading today. In Jesus’ parable, those who help others eventually discover that they have, completely unawares, helped Jesus himself.

 

But that’s the important thing to note. They are completely unaware of what they’ve done.  The “sheep” in Jesus’ parable, the ones who are singled out for praise, have no idea what he means when he says that they saw him hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, in prison and looked after him, any more than Elizabeth thought she was helping Jesus when she took in that leper. She and the people in the parable cared for those in need simply because they were in need. It was their humanity, not their divinity which mattered to those who helped.

 

To be honest, when I am in need, I don’t want people to help me because they see Jesus in me. I want them to help me because they see me, as I am. I want to know that I am of value in myself. Being seen and known as ourselves, as someone unique and precious, is often the thing that helps us most when we are in trouble. Being acknowledged and noticed, knowing you aren’t just a number, a set of case notes, a bed in a hospital ward, a nameless bundle of needs; that’s what empowers us and gives us dignity in times of trouble. When we read the parable of the sheep and goats as an invitation to look on everyone as if they were Jesus, we risk denying people their own individuality, implying that they aren’t worth our help as themselves, and that turns the parable on its head. It’s even worse, of course, if we see helping people as a way of getting our own ticket to heaven, and those we try to help will soon pick up the fact that they are being used for our own selfish ends.

 

Today is the feast of Christ the king, It’s the last day of the Church’s Year, the end point of the great cycle of stories that takes us through the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ,  the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost to inspire his followers. It all leads to this, to the recognition of Christ as king, whose kingdom we pray will come, and his will be done “on earth as in heaven” as we pray so often.

 

But what kind of king is he? The image that Jesus’ first followers would have had of kingship, would have been based on the rulers they saw around them – the Roman Emperors, or local kings like Herod. Like so many leaders throughout history, their main aim was to get and keep power, whatever the cost, like the leaders the prophet Ezekiel denounced in our Old Testament reading. Power was what counted in the ancient world. The belief that the Roman emperor was divine was first established during Jesus’ lifetime. The Emperor was, quite literally, to be put on a pedestal and worshipped.  Rulers behaved as if they should get whatever they wanted and be obeyed unquestioningly. It was all about them, as it still so often is with leaders today. All too often, they climb the greasy pole to get themselves into positions of power because they need to be needed, recognised, adored. It’s a dangerous thing, because that sort of need can never fully be met. It’s like a permanently hungry monster, always needing more.

 

Jesus upends that image of leadership completely, in this parable though, as he did throughout his life. It’s not all about him. He doesn’t look for glory. He doesn’t need adulation. He’s perfectly secure in the love of his Father. He can serve others without ever feeling diminished himself. And he teaches his followers that it is in loving those around us, just as they are, that we do his will and delight his heart, without us even knowing it.  

 

To serve, and to lead, like that is difficult and demanding, though. No one can affirm the worth and dignity of another unless they have a good sense of their own worth and dignity. “We love,” as the first letter of John puts it, “because God first loved us.” (1 John 4.19) We can only treat others as beloved children of God, if we know that we are too. We can only listen to others with full attention, and give them space, if we know that we’ve been heard and have our own secure space in the heart of God.

 

In Christ, God comes among us, becomes one of us, but not as some kind of superhero, who covers our feeble humanity with his glorious divinity. Christ comes to show us that this flesh and blood which God made and gave to us, is already blessed. He came to show us that always and everywhere we’re standing on holy ground, because of our humanity, not despite it, that we and everyone, are his gift, his good idea, to be cherished and celebrated.

Amen

Monday, 16 November 2020

Treasuring our treasure: Second Sunday before Advent

 Audio version here 

Zephaniah1.7.12-18, Matthew 25.14-30

 

Well - Zephaniah was a bundle of laughs, wasn’t he? What a miserable Old Testament reading we heard today. “Distress and anguish, ruin and devastation, darkness and gloom, clouds and thick darkness, trumpet blasts and battle cries.” I didn’t choose it deliberately. It was just the reading set for today, but I’m glad we got the chance to hear Zephaniah’s words, from his very short book of prophecies, just three chapters long, sandwiched between Habakkuk and Haggai in the Old Testament. Zephaniah gives searingly honest voice to deep human emotions here. He says what people so often feel when things go wrong, that they are being punished for something. We may not agree with him – I certainly don’t see God like this, and other parts of the Bible put very different views. It’s often in dialogue with itself. But whatever the true cause of the disasters which hit us, it can feel like this when a day of reckoning falls on us and all our usual landmarks are swept away. During this pandemic, as many people have struggled with illness, bereavement, economic catastrophe and exhaustion, they  have cried out, ‘Why me? Why us? Why now? Why this?’

 

Zephaniah had good reason to feel so desperate. He was writing not long before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, just as it started to become obvious that the writing was on the wall for his nation. This isn’t some vision of a far distant apocalypse. It was what he saw happening around him, as nation after nation fell to this all-conquering army. There were still some people who wanted to deny reality, “surely, it can’t happen to us!” But the axe soon fell on them too, just as Zephaniah said it would. His words remind us that it’s all right to howl at God, to howl at the world, to tell it like it feels. We don’t have to pretend things are ok when they’re not. In fact, it’s only when we stop doing that that that we have any chance of moving forward.

 

Zephaniah’s people were coming to a day of reckoning, which would reveal their vulnerability and powerlessness, just as our own day of reckoning has to us. This pandemic has shown us that everything in our garden is far from rosy. It’s revealed the inequalities in our society and the precariousness of so many people’s lives. It’s stripped away the illusion that we could protect ourselves from everything that threatened us. If we were resting ‘complacently on our dregs,’ like some of those Zephaniah was writing about, we certainly aren’t now.

 

The story Jesus tells in today’s Gospel reading is also a story about a day of reckoning, and what is revealed by it. It’s a story about a rich man who entrusts his fortune to three of his slaves when he goes away. And it is a fortune. A talent was originally a unit of currency – nothing to do with the ability to sing or dance or juggle!  It was, specifically, a weight of gold or silver - about 4 stone– 28 kilos – to be precise. It was worth a huge amount. One talent represented about 15 times the annual salary of an ordinary working man. 

 

So, a talent was treasure beyond the wildest dream of most people. This master is placing a serious amount of trust in his slaves. The first slave gets 5 talents to look after; that’s 75 years’ worth of wages. The second gets 2 talents – 30 years’ worth – and even the third slave is entrusted with 15 years’ worth of wages. Their master doesn’t say what they’re to do with it, but the first two trade with it and double their money.

 

The third slave though, is afraid, and we probably sympathise. Trade is risky. Investments can go down as well as up, as financial advertisements are always careful to tell us. What if he loses it all? Just as Zephaniah believed God was wrathful, rightly or wrongly, so this slave believes, rightly or wrongly, that his master is a harsh man. We don’t know whether it’s true or not, but, like Zephaniah, it’s what he thinks, and he allows that to shape his actions. He doesn’t want to risk losing a penny of what he’s been given. So, he digs a hole and buries it.

 

But when his master comes home, it’s precisely that caution, that lack of appreciation of the trust that was placed in him which makes his master furious. He could at least have put the money in the bank, where it might have made some interest! The slave is unceremoniously thrown out into the darkness. That probably seems unfair to us - but I think Jesus means us to feel that way. I think he means to play on our empathy for this slave whose fear has made him too cautious to do anything with the treasure he’s been given, because very often we’re like that too.

 

I said earlier that times of reckoning can reveal uncomfortable truths about ourselves, and sometimes that is because they show us the treasure we have been given, and ask us what we’ve done with it -  the treasure that is the people around us – family, friends, neighbours – the treasure of this beautiful world, the treasure of faith, of the Bible, of fellowship, of prayer, the treasure of life itself, with all its opportunities. How have we “treasured our treasure”? Have we shared it, used our precious opportunities, have we hidden our treasure in a hole in the ground, where it won’t be at risk, but won’t do us, or anyone else any good either. If it’s the latter, this story asks us, then why? Are we afraid of trying something new, going deeper, in case we get it wrong? Are we afraid of what others will think of us, of what God will think of us if it all goes pear-shaped?

 

Those fears are quite understandable. It could have all gone wrong for the first two slaves. The business ventures they invested in could have gone bust. But its important to note what the master says to those first two slaves when he returned. He didn’t say, “well done, good and successful slave”, he said “well done, good and trustworthy slave”. It is the slave’s faithfulness, their willingness to join in with the master’s work, to try to further it, which he praises, not the amount of money they’ve made.

 

During this pandemic it has been great to see people in our community and our church here at Seal  having a go, taking a chance, connecting with others, responding to need as they can, where they can, not waiting until they can be sure of success, but doing something to help – using their treasure. Not everything may work out, but some things do, things that would never have happened otherwise.

 

Life can be hard, and it’s quite right, along with Zephaniah, to tell it like it is, to be honest about pain and loss, but Jesus’s story reminds us that although suffering is real, love is real too. We have treasure, great treasure, treasure beyond counting; the treasure of one another, the treasure of a new day, every day, the treasure of God himself, with us, walking beside us. We are called to treasure that treasure right now, at this moment, not by hoarding it or keeping it to ourselves, but by working with the generous God who gave it to us, letting it multiply and grow as we use it, so that it can enrich the world.

Amen

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Remembrance Day

Video sermon here

Micah 4.1-8, Matt 5.38-48

There’s an old story from the Muslim Sufi tradition which goes like this…

A traveller was once walking along the road when he came upon a holy man, a dervish, sitting by the side of the road quietly praying. The man was old and frail, and had obviously been sitting in this place a long time. 

As the traveller watched, a young man on a great white horse came riding hell for leather along the road towards them. When he got to the place where the holy man sat, he reined in his horse, jumped down and started beating the man savagely. The traveller started forward to defend him, but the young man leapt back up into the horse’s saddle and rode off down before he could reach him. 

The holy man struggled to his feet and looked down the road after his young attacker, who was vanishing from sight in a cloud of dust, and he shouted after him

“May you get what your heart desires!”

The traveller was astonished at this and said to the old man, “Tell me, why did you shout that at a man who had so brutally beaten you? It’s not at all what I would have shouted at him”.

“Ah” he said  “But, you see, the thing is, the person who has what their heart desires will not need to go about the world beating up holy men.”

I’ll let that sink in. “The person who has what their heart desires will not need to go about the world beating up holy men.”

This year has seen a great deal of loss for many people. The death toll from Covid 19 stands at over 46,000 in the UK, and there have been many other deaths from disease and natural disaster too, like the recent earthquake in Turkey. But today, on Remembrance Sunday, we’re not remembering those death, deaths caused by viruses, or the shifting of tectonic plates, impersonal forces. Today, as if all that was not enough sadness, we are mourning deaths which were caused deliberately. People have different opinions, of course, about when and whether war is justified, but I don’t think anyone with a shred of decency would say that it’s good, or desirable. It’s always a sign of failure. Wars don’t spring from nowhere. They are born from petty disagreements, suspicion, prejudice, fear, which only escalate into cataclysmic destruction because we can’t find or won’t seek other ways of resolving differences and we often don’t realise the importance of doing so until it is too late.

That’s the tragedy of war; the knowledge that it didn’t have to happen at all. When we look at the names on our war memorials we know that these people, young people for the most part, could have lived full and happy lives, had brilliant careers, formed relationships, seen their children grow up, and their grandchildren too, if it hadn’t been for the wars into which human failings catapulted them. 

In our first Bible reading, the prophet Micah, amidst the loss and violence of his own time, had a vision of a better world. There are grand images in his vision, of nations streaming to Jerusalem, for example, but it’s the small things which really stand out for me, because it’s often the small things which matter most to us. Micah dreams of a time when people will be able to sit under their own vines and fig trees without the fear that an invading army is going to take it all from them. Sitting under your own vine and fig tree? It’s not so very much to ask, is it? And yet, for so many people, in every age, even that simple dream is beyond them. War steals their dreams, along with their lives, their loved ones, their homes, their futures. War slaughters them in the trenches, gasses them in the concentration camps, drives them out as refugees, causes them to die of starvation and cold as they try to seek safety. And we know, deep down, that it didn’t have to happen. 

As that Sufi story implied, violence isn’t inevitable. It springs from a sickness in the human heart, but it’s a sickness that seems so endemic that we all grow up infected by it to some extent. It produces in us a deep insecurity, which makes us cling to what we’ve got instead of sharing it, and grasp at what we haven’t got, thinking it’ll be the magic wand which makes us finally feel safe and loved and worthwhile.  That Sufi mystic knew what made for peace; not, in the end, diplomatic treaties backed up by sophisticated weaponry, but the healing of the human heart. 

The way of life Jesus calls his followers to in today’s Gospel reading depends on us finding that kind of healing and wholeness. We can’t live a life of radical generosity, we can’t love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us unless we’re secure in ourselves, and Christians believe that security ultimately comes from discovering we’re secure in God. We find that security by trying to live as Christ did, and failing, and being forgiven and trying again, and failing again and being forgiven again, until we realise that we can’t destroy God’s love for us, that nothing can separate us from it, “neither death nor life nor anything else in all creation” as St Paul put it. 

Today, as we look at these long lists of names - far too many – names that are echoed on war memorials all over the world, of course, we long for peace, from the depths of our broken hearts. The invitation of Christ is to bring those broken hearts to God, to let him heal them, casting out the fear and hatred which destroys peace, and filling them with his love, so that it can overflow to others. Then maybe, we will realise that we have what our hearts desire, and we won’t need to go about the world beating up holy men, or anyone else, for that matter.

Amen


Friday, 30 October 2020

Bible Sunday

Nehemiah 8.1-12, Matthew24.30-35

 

Today is Bible Sunday, the day in the church calendar when we ask God’s help, as today’s special prayer put it, to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the words of Scripture.

 

I wonder how you feel about the Bible? You may be an old hand, who’s been reading it for many decades, but for many people it’s a closed book – in every sense of that phrase – a baffling tome that seems so irrelevant and outdated. What on earth is it about? Where do we even start? How can we understand it? Do we need to take it all literally if we want to call ourselves Christians? If these are your questions, then you aren’t alone.

 

It probably won’t surprise you to hear me say that I think reading the Bible is a Good Idea. That’s not just because I’m a vicar, but the Bible records the voices of countless people who’ve gone through the same human experiences and trials we all do, and encountered God within them. As we listen in, we can often hear that “still small voice” speaking to us too.

 

The Bible isn’t a simple instruction manual, though. It’s not even one book, but many different writings put together over a period of more than 600 years. It’s not always internally consistent. Why should it be? No one who wrote the books that made it up ever imagined they would all be bound in one volume.

 

It’s often in dialogue with itself. Jesus himself argues with the Scriptures. “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’” he says, quoting the Old Testament book of Exodus(21.24) . “But I tell you not to resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  In fact the ancient law was intended to place a limit on the retribution people could inflict if they were hurt – they could only take an “eye for an eye”, not more, as they might be tempted to – but Jesus calls his followers to show generous mercy.

 

He wasn’t doing anything new in reinterpreting the words he’d grown up with. It’s what serious students of the Hebrew Bible were expected to do, weighing up the many different images of God it contained, different understandings of life and death, and what comes after it, different ideas about how people should relate to each other, arguing with one another, reinterpreting in the light of new experience. If we want to read the Bible seriously, and feel the breath of God coming off its pages, we need that same open-minded, open-hearted approach to it.

 

The Bible is a treasure chest to delight in, and if ever we needed its rich array of stories, poetry and wisdom it is now, because it was almost all written in times of crisis and trauma, times when its writers and readers had their backs to the wall, when the future looked bleak - times like our own, in other words.

 

The books of what we call the Old Testament – the Hebrew scriptures of the Jewish people – were largely drawn together just before, during and after their deportation into exile in Babylon. The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem, and taken its people away across the desert. In a foreign land, powerless, often brutalised, many of them became convinced that this was the end for them. But others looked back at the ancient stories that they’d heard and told around their camp fires for centuries and found new meanings in them in the light of the present disaster. Eventually they shaped them into a new narrative which spoke to them of God’s love and faithfulness. The world had been created good, and God had delighted in it, said the stories. He wanted nothing more than to be close to his people and have them close to him. But  soon things went wrong – the story of Adam and Eve cast out of Eden symbolised that. But did God give up on them? No. He went out into the wilderness with them, calling to them, guiding them, forgiving them, turning up again and again, looking for goodness amidst the self-inflicted chaos of the world, nurturing small seeds of hope. Even when the people became slaves in Egypt, said the story, God didn’t forget them. He raised up an unlikely hero, Moses, to confront Pharaoh and lead them out of slavery. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.

 

Imagine hearing those stories, reframed by this new time of trial in Babylon. “God was with us then,” they said, “even though we didn’t always know it at the time. Even when we’d given up on God, God never gave up on us. And if he didn’t then, maybe he hasn’t given up on us now either.” It was a message of hope in a time when hope seemed all but extinguished.

 

Today’s Old Testament passage told the story of the reading of those old stories of Moses shortly after the exile, when some of the exiles had returned to Jerusalem. How should they rebuild? What could they make of the ruins they’d been left with, along with those who’d been left behind, abandoned to try to survive amidst the rubble?  The ancient tales, reshaped, brought them to their knees in mourning and repentance for what had gone wrong, but also gave them hope for the future, which sent them home rejoicing.

 

The New Testament too was written against a backdrop of trauma. It was written for small, scattered groups of Jesus’ followers who were trying to live out the message he had taught against a backdrop of intermittent persecution. The Gospels date from between 30-50 years after the time of Jesus crucifixion – a bit like writing about the 70s and 80s now - far enough away to reflect on with a bit of perspective, but well within living memory for many. By the time the Gospels were being written, the beautiful city of Jerusalem had been destroyed again, this time by the Romans, and its people driven out around the ancient world, This disaster resulted in savage arguments and infighting in the Jewish community, and the followers of Jesus were often caught up in this, because Christianity was still just a reforming group within Judaism at that point. It looked as if this tiny new movement would be swept away before it had a chance to grow. But the Gospel writers, like those earlier Hebrew scribes, pointed their readers back to the story that had begun their movement, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was a story of apparent failure and hopelessness, his humiliating execution, but it had become the well-spring of their faith. Jesus’ resurrection had upended the expectations of the world, which said that the might of Rome, like that of Babylon, would always rule, and that cruelty and hatred would always have the last word. “Heaven and earth will pass away” says Jesus in the passage we heard today, “but my words will not pass away.” His words would be the words that endured.

 

And so it has proved to be. The Roman Empire, like the Babylonians before it, is long gone, but people still find life and hope in the words of Jesus.

 

So, should we read the Bible? Yes, we should. That doesn’t mean taking it literally, and certainly not looking to it for easy answers, but if we read it with open minds and hearts, we can still feel the breath of God come from its pages to breathe his life into our weary souls, to revive us and give us hope amidst the fears and troubles of our present age.

Amen

St Luke

 


Today is the feast of St Luke. He’s the patron saint of doctors, which isn’t surprising, because, according to the Bible, he was one – St Paul calls him “the beloved doctor” in his letter to the Colossians. (Col 4.14). Rather more curiously he’s also the patron saint of artists, because according to legend, he painted an image of the Virgin Mary on visits he made to the house she shared with St John in Ephesus after the Ascension of Jesus. Jesus had entrusted Mary and John to each other’s keeping as he hung on the cross, and tradition says they lived together for the rest of Mary’s life. Quite why Luke painted her isn’t spelled out in the legends, but they say that as he did so, she shared with him the stories of Jesus’ conception and birth – you have to talk about something while you’re being painted! That’s why, say the legends, Luke’s Gospel’s the only one to have the story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary, the journey to Bethlehem, the manger and the shepherds. Sadly, it’s highly unlikely that this legend is true, but if Luke didn’t paint Mary in pigments, he certainly painted her in words far more vividly than the other Gospels.  

 

Luke seems to have been a companion of Paul, and he’s traditionally thought to have written the Acts of the Apostles, which tells Paul’s story, as well as the Gospel that bears his name. Whoever wrote them seems either to have been a Gentile, or what’s called a Hellenistic Jew, a Jewish person who’d grown up in a Greek-influenced environment. Luke’s Gospel shows a particular care for those who were outsiders in some way, as the Gentiles were, and for those who were sick or disabled, so maybe it’s not so far-fetched to think it was the work of that “beloved doctor”. But if the author was a doctor, he was certain one who believed that healing was about more than curing individual bodies of individual diseases. The healing of souls mattered just as much to him, and so did the healing of society, and ultimately the healing of the world. It’s in Luke Gospel that Mary sings of the God who has “put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble and meek” , who has “filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty”.

 

Isaiah has the same sort of vision for the world in our first reading. He looks forward to a time when not only the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped, but also waters will break forth in the wilderness, a time when healing will come to the whole of creation.

 

In Hebrew, this vision of wholeness is called “shalom”. It’s often translated simply as “Peace” but it means far more than just an absence of war. God’s shalom is the state where everything is as it ought to be. And don’t we just long for that right now? On this day dedicated to Luke the healer, we’re all aware of how much the world needs healing, not just physical healing from coronavirus, but healing for all that this pandemic has revealed about our society; the inequalities it’s exposed, the precariousness so many are living with, the strains in communities and families. The effects of this tiny germ have been, and will continue to be, profound. We long for shalom, for peace, wholeness, healing.

 

In today’s Gospel reading, shalom is the first thing that Jesus’ disciples are told to announce to those they are sent to. “Whatever house you enter,” Jesus says to his disciples, “first say ‘Peace to this house!’. In fact, peace is the only thing they’ll have to  give, because Jesus tells them not to take a purse or a bag, or sandals, with them. They will be turning up on people’s doorsteps destitute, powerless and barefoot.

 

They’ve even got to leave their personal scruples behind. They’re to eat and drink whatever they’re given – a challenging thing for people brought up to keep the Jewish food laws. What if their hosts give them unclean food to eat?

 

Jesus doesn’t pretend it will be easy. They’ll be like lambs amidst wolves – a combination which usually isn’t too promising for the lambs! And there’ll be more to do than they can ever manage – the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few. If this is meant to be a pep talk, I wouldn’t have been feeling very “pepped”.

 

But Jesus’ advice has wisdom in it. With nothing to offer, they’ll be the ones in need, and they’ll have to be open both to the people they’re going to and to God. And because of that they’ll be much more likely to discover God’s presence, to find that he is already there, close at hand, wherever they end up. They’re told not to move about from house to house, looking for a more congenial place to be.  Wherever they are, God will be there, and where God is, there is peace.

 

They’ve seen this as they’ve watched Jesus at work. They’ve seen the peace of God in him, in the midst of storms, in the face of opposition, as he’s crossed boundaries to heal and welcome people who others shunned. They’ve seen Jesus go into all these unlikely places, trusting that his Father will be at work. Now it’s their turn to find that out for themselves. This mission is a “great God hunt”. Jesus isn’t going to equip them with “quick fixes” or pre-packaged answers to impose on people – In fact, the less they have to offer the better. But he’s hoping rather that they’ll discover that God is already there. All they will have to do is join in with what God is doing, and they will discover that “the kingdom of God has come near.”

 

It is so easy to feel we should rush in with our own solutions when we’re trying to help people, rather than listening and waiting with them, trusting that God has the situation in his hands, that it’s his job to do what needs to be done, in his time and his way. We get anxious. We’re desperate to do something, to look useful, but our quick fixes usually turn out not to fix much at all, and quite often we make things worse. The best helpers are usually those who realise they have little to offer but themselves, their time and attention. In the space we make when we do that, often, often, we find the healing peace which is God’s gift to us, peace within the storm, peace which gives life to the spirit, even if the body dies.  

 

There’s a wonderful challenge for all of us in this story. How would it change our lives if we greeted each day, each place, each person with the words “Peace to this house. Peace to this time. Peace to this place, this person” expecting that we’ll find God, the God of peace in it? What difference would it  make to that conversation we’re dreading,  the task that seems beyond us, or the dull grind of something we’ve done a million times before, if we go into it trusting that God will reveal himself to us in it? Perhaps this week, we should try that. Perhaps we should say those words to ourselves as we pick up the phone, or compose that email, or start a new shift at work, or set out on a journey? “Peace to this place”. Perhaps if we did so we might discover more often that the “kingdom of God had come near?”  and that the healing we long for is already growing within us.

Amen