Sunday, 28 June 2020

St Peter & St Paul: Lockdown saints

Audio version here

Today is our Patronal Festival, the feast of St Peter and St Paul. I’m trying not to think about the fact that in normal years, we’d have been preparing for a lovely strawberry tea this afternoon. It’s just one of many things that have gone by the board over these last few months of disappointment. Of course it’s nothing to the suffering of those who have lost loved ones, those whose health has been permanently damaged, those who’re desperately worried about their jobs, but sometimes the small things hit home in big ways, reminding us that life isn’t as it was, that nothing is certain, not even a strawberry tea.

At the moment, some people are emerging a bit from lockdown, as shops and other places open. We’re thinking about how we might resume some sort of worship in the church building in the coming weeks. But these podcasts will continue even when we do that, for as long as they need to, because I know that for many, that freedom is still far off. Some will need to shield themselves for quite a while yet, and will probably find this time even more difficult as they see others getting out and about. Even for those who can meet physically, there’ll be all sorts of restrictions we’ll have to observe.

It’s no accident that we’ve called this experience “lockdown”. Of course, it’s nothing like really being in prison, but for many it’s been lonely and miserable, especially if they’ve been in cramped or inadequate housing or if their homes are unhappy or abusive places. Even the luckiest among us, have had to deal with severe limits to our freedoms – and we don’t tend to find that easy to cope with.

That’s why, this year, from the vast array of stories about Peter and Paul in the Bible, I chose the one we’ve just heard from the Acts of the Apostles, and the reading from Philippians, because, as we’ll discover, they remind us that our Patron Saints were people who knew all about lockdown.

In the strange story from Acts, Peter is locked down very literally, chained between two guards in King Herod’s prison. James, one of his closest friends, had been killed by Herod, and Peter must have been fairly sure he’d be next. But it wasn’t so. In the middle of the night, an angel appeared to him, wreathed in light – I did say it was a strange story. His chains fell off and the doors sprang open. It wasn’t until he found himself standing in the street that he realised this wasn’t a dream, though; that he really was free.

It seemed equally unbelievable to his friends, particularly the maid, Rhoda, who answered his knock at the door. It’s probably significant that we’re told her name. We don’t need to be for the sake of the story - she could simply have been “the maid”. The fact that she is named probably means that those who first read this story would have known her. “Oh, that was Rhoda!”  Poor Rhoda. I bet she never lived it down! The night she left Peter, the foremost apostle, the leader of the church, standing on the doorstep. But it’s a measure of how astonishing his release was that she did so. Peter shouldn’t have been there. And yet, there he was. Eventually he would be executed by the Romans, but for now he was free, and able to carry on the ministry he’d been called to.

The first reading we heard, from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, might not seem to have any obvious prison connections at first glance. But if we’d read the whole of the letter we’d have discovered that it was actually written from a prison cell. Paul had been imprisoned by the Romans– as he was several times – and he wasn’t  expecting a miraculous deliverance. For all he knew these might be his last days, the end of the story for him. And yet, his letter is full of joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always”, he says – even now, even here. That little phrase sounds very different when you know it was written in prison – these aren’t glib, saccharine words from an inspirational poster, they are hard won wisdom. Paul talks about how he has learned to be content with whatever he has. In those days, prisoners only ate if their friends or family brought them food. The Christians in Philippi have, rather belatedly, sent him money, but he wants to reassure them that, though he appreciates their help, he will be ok, because, as he says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” His body may be in prison, but his soul, his spirit, his heart is free. There are no bars that can confine him. He lives in the wide expanse of God’s love.

Freedom is a theme which runs right through the Bible. Near the beginning of its story, Moses led the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. Later on the Jewish people were delivered from imprisonment of another kind, their long exile in Babylon. The Old Testament was largely drawn together in that time or shortly after it, shaped by and for those who lived with the daily reality of oppression.

By the time of Jesus, Israel was dominated by the Romans, and once again people longed for freedom. They looked for a Messiah, literally an anointed one, who would defeat their enemies and lead them to political independence. If only they could break the yoke of Roman rule they thought that all would be well. At first, the crowds believed they’d found that liberating Messiah in Jesus, but when the Romans crucified him, that  support ebbed away. Just a few of his followers stuck with him, and even they were none too sure what his message had really meant if it wasn’t about the overthrow of Roman rule.

It was the resurrection that revealed it to them. If death couldn’t hold Jesus prisoner, then what was there to fear from any other sort of imprisonment or oppression? The prisons which hold us most securely aren’t the ones made of stone and iron, but the prisons of fear we build around ourselves . Knowing that God hadn’t abandoned Jesus as he hung on the cross, even when all had seemed lost, meant that they were able to face the hardships that came their way too. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” said Paul, in another of his letters (Romans 8). That wasn’t just “pie in the sky when you die” to him, a consoling promise of something better to come in the hereafter. His experience of God’s presence set him free to live fully in the here and now, to “rejoice in the Lord always”, to find peace that passed human understanding, love that overflowed to others, even in a prison cell.

Today, we may not be able to enjoy a strawberry tea together. We may not be able to meet with friends, or travel off on holiday. We may be living with restrictions which chafe and frustrate us – in the short or the long term, because of Covid 19 or for a host of other reasons -  but, like Peter and Paul, we are called to discover the true freedom which comes from knowing we are loved indestructibly by God, an infectious freedom which sets others around us on the road to freedom too. As Charles Wesley described it, in the hymn which will close our worship today, referring to that story of Peter’s release “My chains fell off. My heart was free. I rose, went forth and followed thee.”

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Lives that matter: Trinity 1

There are sometimes odd phrases in a Bible passage which leap out at you as you read them. You suddenly notice something you hadn’t seen before, something that makes you wonder.

That happened to me as I read today’s Gospel story earlier this week. Jesus sends out his disciples to spread his message in word and deed, casting out demons, cleansing lepers, curing the sick, even raising the dead – all this will proclaim that God’s Kingdom has come near. But where does he send them? “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. That was the bit I noticed. I mean, what’s he got against Samaritans and Gentiles – non Jewish people - that these disciples can’t go to them? The answer is, nothing, of course. We know that Jesus loved, healed and mixed with Gentiles and Samaritans in his own ministry, but for some reason he tells his disciples not to begin by going there.

At first I thought he was just being kind to them, figuring it would be easier for them to start in a culture they were familiar with, but then I thought a bit deeper, and wondered if I’d got that the wrong way round. Often the hardest issues to see and to tackle are the ones that are all around us, like the air we breathe, because we’ve never really noticed them. Jesus talks elsewhere about the need to take the log out of our own eyes before we start pointing out the speck of dust in someone else’s. Perhaps he knew that they had to start in their own communities, the cultures that had shaped them, if they were ever to be ready to go anywhere else.  Maybe starting where we are is the toughest challenge of all.

The crowds who came to Jesus were made up of the same kinds of  people these disciples had grown up amongst, the ones they’d probably seen every day of their lives; the lepers forced to the edges of their villages and towns, the beggars they’d stepped over and skirted around, the widows and orphans who’d probably irritated them with their inconvenient cries for help. They were a part of the backdrop to everyday life, yet probably often not noticed as individuals with hopes and dream of their own, stories to tell that were worth hearing. But Jesus, sees these people, we’re told, and has compassion for them – a word that doesn’t just imply a vague sense of pity, but a deep identification, allowing himself to feel what they feel. He sees them as fellow human beings but, “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”. And having seen them, he does something to help, not just by healing them, but by challenging those who’d created a culture which marginalised them, often blaming them for their suffering, as if they’d brought it on themselves. Proclaiming God’s Kingdom meant saying that it couldn’t be like this, It was this unflinching support for the marginalised which led him into conflict with the authorities, and to the cross.  As the Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Helder Camara said "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

Maybe Jesus sends his disciples into their own culture first because he knows they need to see what they’ve closed their eyes and their hearts to first. It has to start with them.

Over the last couple of weeks, speaking as a white woman, I have been acutely aware of that same challenge in our own time, as protests have spread around the world in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a policeman who callously knelt on his neck as Mr Floyd pleaded for his life. “Black Lives Matter” is the simple cry of those who’ve protested. Amen, Amen. Black Lives Matter. Some people have countered that “All Lives Matter” which is, of course true, but it’s black lives which have, again and again, been cut short by racist murders, black people who’ve been disproportionately stopped and searched, imprisoned, denied jobs and housing over the years, black voices which are often silenced or discounted. White people like me may not have noticed that, but that’s because we’re white; we’re not the ones who are suffering.

Black people, along with those from other Ethnic minorities, have died disproportionately from Covid19, and the main reason seems to be that a larger proportion are poor, working in insecure jobs they can’t do from home, without the financial cushions that would enable them to take time off, living in overcrowded, densely populated areas where it’s harder to keep a safe distance.

People have sometimes said that we’re all in the same boat in this epidemic, but that’s not true. We may all be in the same storm, but some of us are weathering it in comfortable, luxury cruisers, while others are in rubber dinghies or barely clinging to driftwood rafts, always at risk of being overwhelmed by the next wave.  Coronavirus hits the poorest hardest, and black people are disproportionately poor.

Why is that? In large part it’s a legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. Although it ended 200 years ago we’re still living with its aftermath.  It was a trade that gave those who profited from it - individuals and nations - an economic and political advantage not just in their own time but for generations afterwards.  Sugar, tobacco and cotton industries, and those who invested in them, including the Church of England - were bound to succeed when the major expense – labour – came free. That advantage spilled over to everyone who was linked to the trade – shipping companies, dock owners and many other ancillary businesses, and the institutions, schools, hospitals, museums that were funded by their profits. Wealth breeds wealth. Power breeds power. If you have it, you are likely to find you can get more of it, and pass it on to your heirs.

The reverse is just as true. Even when freed, ex-slaves were locked into poverty, trodden back down into the dirt by discrimination every time they tried to rise from it. That discrimination fed into colonialism, segregation, apartheid, and all the unrest and inequality that has come in the wake of those things, right up to our own day.  

Our history, for good or ill, is part of what makes us who we are. That’s why it matters that we all – white and black - revisit it together, and debate it afresh, listening for the voices that haven’t been heard, seeing the people who aren’t on the pedestals, honouring the stories that aren’t on the plaques.

Jesus called his disciples to learn to see people as he did, every one as beloved and important as any other - “God’s people and the sheep of his pasture” - and to challenge any situation where that equality was denied. The colour of your skin wasn’t an issue in his time, but the principle was the same. It meant declaring loud and long that lepers’ lives mattered. Beggars’ lives mattered. Widows’ lives mattered. Today he’d be joining in the affirmation that Black Lives Matter. Wherever people are overlooked and silenced, that’s where we’ll find him, listening, seeing, honouring those at the back of the queue.

There are no simple ways to untangle the mess of racism, and many different views about how to protest and what to do with all those statues, but God still calls us first into the places where we are, our own communities, our own hearts, because if we can’t proclaim and live the kingdom there, we can’t proclaim and live it anywhere. Amen

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Enfolded in God's love: Trinity Sunday: A sermon by Kevin Bright

You may have watched the recent Space X rocket launch and seen how quickly the astronauts looked back onto earth after their successful launch. I don’t know about you but seen from this perspective it makes me feel pretty insignificant as all on our planet is viewed from afar. Does my, dare I say our, existence matter? After all none of us are known for building space craft or even electric cars!
Yet in today’s Psalm we heard that the very God who established the moon and stars is mindful of each and every one of us.

Jesus gave us insight into God’s mindfulness of those who feel low, unworthy of attention, lost to God or unable to value themselves. In fact, he sought them out and noticed them on numerous occasions positively mixing with the hated tax collectors, siding with the poor, those shunned because they were considered unclean and numerous other outcasts. This mindfulness came to light as he noticed a despairing woman graze the hem of his garment, even as he was dying and in agony on the cross he was mindful of the penitent thief beside him.

Of course there are plenty of times when we find it hard to acknowledge, accept or even believe that we are constantly held in God’s love but as Paul wrote to the church in Rome ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
Undoubtedly a challenging aspect of our relationship with God is whether we are mindful of him and his love for us. If we can keep this in mind then it’s easier to recognise ourselves as people with purpose and value, ultimately people with a future regardless of wherever we find ourselves in the challenging aspects of our lives.

It then becomes possible to pray not only with thoughts and words but through listening, observing, and patient contemplation.

Words from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi say’ Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross.’

Clearly the mind spoken of by Paul is that which isn’t self-centred but which cares for others, keeps the wellbeing of others in mind even when we cannot be with them in times such as these and it’s encouraging to see this manifest itself in so many forms as people try to support each other. It’s a consoling thought that there must be much in people’s behaviour to each other in this crisis which is pleasing to God.

Matthew’s Jesus tells the 11 to ‘make disciples of all nations baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’
Even though this is the end of Matthew’s gospel it is also a new beginning where those taught by Jesus are to become teachers themselves, however inadequate they may feel for their task.
Is this about building a franchise, dominating an area or pushing our faith upon others? I don’t think so. In my view it’s got much more to do with what we are really rooted in deep down, how we live our lives every day and how we relate to each other.

We need to keep in mind the words of the Psalmist as he speaks of human beings, ‘Yet you have made them a little lower than God and crowned then with glory and honour.’ It follows that we go directly against God every time we fail to recognise how much he loves and values the entirety of humanity regardless of race or any factor we allow to divide us.
Discipleship will involve working alongside each other and serving each other in ways that make it possible for God’s love to be seen and recognised. We need to keep coming back to Jesus to learn from his teachings to ponder his parables.

I was watching a TV programme this week in which the comedian Jack Dee discussed his attraction to Christianity and that fact that he had a selection interview to become a priest as a young man. The panel soon worked out that this wasn’t his calling and now, much later in life, he agreed that he wouldn’t have been suitable for this role. As much as he retains a positive curiosity about Christianity, for him he said it’s always been the Christians that have put him off taking this any further. I guess he’s not convinced by those he’s met, that they don’t show him anything real about God and as such he’s left hanging in a strange space, labelling himself ‘an Agnostic Christian!’
Whilst he was fairly light-hearted about it all it does make you realise that even when we accept the calling to become disciples we won’t always get it right. If we recall the 11 as they heard what has become labelled as the ‘Great Commission’ we realise that we are in good company among ordinary people with weaknesses and failings just like us. Even as they saw Jesus in today’s gospel reading we hear that ‘some doubted’.

Today is labelled Trinity Sunday in the church calendar. I’ll excuse myself any attempt at an explanation of the Trinity (a word you won’t find anywhere in the bible) by quoting John Wesley. ‘Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the triune God!”

However, like many things the Trinity is no less real because of our inability to completely understand it. Countless attempts to explain it will highlight certain aspects which interrelate, overlap, connect and fuse yet as much as we cannot know God wholly in our earthly lives this too remains part of the mystery.

Our faith and trust in God is such that we know there is nothing untoward in that which we don’t know or comprehend so in baptism we are enfolded in God’s love both in what we know of it and what we do not yet know. How could it be otherwise, would Jesus have told his disciples to baptise others if it wouldn’t bring them closer to him?
The symbolism of cleansing water reminds us that forgiveness and a new start are available to all, that a new life is possible and that once we begin our journey that Jesus will be with us always ‘to the end of the age’.

As we journey on through the weeks ahead let’s continue to keep each other and those needing support in mind, turning to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit for guidance.

Kevin Bright