Sunday, March 04, 2018

Gospel for Body Hackers: From Dust To Glory (based on John 2:13-25)

We are in a world where science fiction drives science fact. I read recently of people gathering in Austin, Texas for the annual Body Hacking Con. A conference where people have experimented with body modification gather to share and talk. Body hacking is actively changing one's body to better reflect one’s belief of what your "ideal self" would be. People like Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow - yes, that's his legal name - has the chip from his Sydney travel card implanted into his hand or Angel Giuffria.  She is an actress with a striking, personalised bionic arm.  "Older prosthetics were all made to try and blend in. I never really cared about hiding it, but that was the only option …I kind of like the idea my arm can match my personality by adding lights and colours and matching it to my outfit…” 

Bodies. We all have one. Some of us may not like ours much but we all inhabit one. We desperately want to change them but maybe not in as extreme ways.  We compare ours to others. We analyse them, take them apart, and we like some parts more than others.  Yet bodies play such a key role in the story of God which we tell.

Jesus seems to spend time with anybody. In the previous section of John’s Gospel he has been mixing other bodies of people at a wedding party in Cana. And after a brief stop in Caesarea Philippi, he’s on his way to Jerusalem. This story of turning the money changers tables features in the other Gospel accounts too but it’s not told this close to the beginning of the Gospel. And I wonder whether it is because it allows John to raise at this early stage the importance of bodies in the story of salvation? There’s no account of Jesus birth in Bethlehem in John’s Gospel - but this account of clearing the Temple asks some fundamental questions about where God is located.

“… [Jesus] drove all of them out of the temple… 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

Pauline Dakin’s parents separated when she was 5 years old, in part because of her father’s drinking. When Pauline asked why they had left leaving her father behind, her mother Ruth fobbed her of and told her she would tell her when she was older.  By the time she was 11, she had attended 6 different schools. Around this time, Stan Sears had come into their family - a minister who ran a support group for families of alcoholics to which Ruth had gone to seek support. There then were years of relative normality.  After graduating and insisting to know more about the moves and her earlier life, Pauline arranged to meet her mother at a local cafe. Over a table her mother slipped her a note in an envelope that read ‘take your jewellery off and put it in the envelope.’ She complied and her mother took her to a motel room where Stan was waiting. There she was that for the past 16 years their lives had been in danger from the mafia and that their family had been targeted because her father had been involved in organised crime. Suddenly her life was full of half truths and stories and layers of meaning. She couldn't wear her jewellery because it needed to be tested for bugs.

Pauline Dakin
Over the following years, Stan’s stories became more elaborate to the point finally where Pauline, no longer believed them, and set up a sting. She called her mother one day to tell her that her house had been broken into, which wasn’t true. A while later, Stan arrived with stories of men being picked up in the street having broken into her house looking for things. When Pauline told that the story wasn’t true, she recalled how sad Stan looked. Pauline eventually went to see a psychiatrist to try to understand more where she was told about a syndrome called ‘follie a deux’ in which symptoms of a delusional belief are transmitted from a dominant personality (Stan), to a less dominant personality (Ruth). Years later Pauline did forgive her mother for the years of lies, but Ruth, her mother, never did stop believing all that Stan told her.

Stan and Ruth in the early 1990s

This story of the cleansing of the Temple has many layers of meaning to it. The Temple was doing what it normally did one Jesus arrived.  The vital trades are in place for the necessary exchange of monies, animals, and grains for the required sacrifices. Nothing is out of order at this point. Jesus orders that his Father’s house not be made a marketplace. For the temple system to survive, however, the ordered transactions of a marketplace were essential. Jesus is accusing no-one of malpractice but instead is trying dismantle the whole system intimating that the Temple is not needed at all.

The Jews ask for a sign from Jesus, an authoritative reassurance that what He did and said was true. But both looking back to the sign He performed at Cana and forward to the 6 miracles recorded over the next chapters of the Gospel, what they did not see was that the signs ultimately point back to Jesus Himself and his reference to the Temple here or to the woman at the well or to the blind man all in John’s account - reinforce the sense that you can look for God in signs and stories - but an authentic experience of Him only comes through spending time with the one who abides with us, who is with us for the long haul, who knows what it is to be human because he came as one of us - Jesus himself. For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…

God made the decision to be incarnated, but if we take the incarnation seriously, and that God loves the world, I think it must mean that God loves every body, everybody, every person, every expression of what it means to be human, whether we fall into an accepted social stenotype or norms or not. Otherwise, incarnation - God becoming fully human and experiencing that in every respect - is partial and penultimate. You can’t be partly human, selectively human. If you are human, well then, it means the whole thing. I’m not saying that a Middle Eastern male Jesus experienced what it is to be a black man under apartheid in South Africa or gay white woman in Edinburgh, but what I am saying is that He has experienced our motives, emotions and drives in every fundamental respect. He has lived us from the inside out and loves us that way too. In the end, Jesus is saying that his body is the location of God, which means in turn ours is too as it is through our bodies we read and hear Scripture and receive Jesus’ body and blood in the sacrament of Holy Communion, and in so doing our bodies, our lives are transformed from the dust of which we are made into the glory that we are promoised.

Lent for us is hungry body in the wilderness, a body anointed, a body beaten, a body on the cross, a body laid in a tomb. The only way we can get at that is to embrace our own bodies. Lent, Easter and beyond, cannot be fully captured or experienced in our liturgy or our preaching. Instead, Lent invites a deep reflection on the role of bodies in faith and in life.  God is counted on Jesus’ body then and therefore ours now to be the places where He is to be found because He loves the world. God is counting on it because God being embodied in Jesus ended on the cross.  People are still looking for signs of God present in our world, but God is embodied in our world still and people can have an authentic experience of Him and His love for us and all the world… through you.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Walking In His Shoes

The most striking image I have seen in the days since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is that of a bereft mother, her arm around another, both unconsolable at the death of their children. And the reason that the photo will live with me is because on the forehead of one mother as she embraces the other is the symbol of our mortality and the sign of our salvation - an ash cross.

We receive these ashes at the start of Lent as a sign of repentance, of our yearning for God’s forgiveness, of our intent to live our faith more truly in the face of our mortality. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return,” says the minister ‘blessing us’ with a blackened thumb. The ashes that mark our foreheads only last for a day, but the mark this makes on our hearts is meant to endure for the entire 40 days of Lent.

And yet this is not the first time we will have been marked in this way - we will have received a similar sign and symbol at our Baptism and again at our Confirmation.  The cross marked on us reminds us that we journey the way of Christ, all too aware that we cannot avoid it and should not shy away from it.

And yet we do shy away from it. We try to down play it’s horror, trying to explain it away as a symbol of the love of God and in so doing, denying the judgement it exercises on Jesus, his ministry and the world. But as we grapple with the cross, we all too often fail to acknowledge that here, at it’s foot, salvation was wrought for us and our relationship with God was forged afresh.

Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four we have in the canon of scripture and  it’s author wastes no time in telling us things they think we don’t need to know or that may be considered commentary rather than essentials, so for example, there is no birth narrative in Mark - no manger, no shepherds, no angels or wise men. Scholars reckon it’s because Mark just didn’t think it was relevant to the story that the author wanted to share with his readers and hearers. Scholars also reckon it is the oldest of the Gospels we have with Matthew and Luke sharing  many of the same stories about Jesus. We arrive, almost breathless, at what we hear this morning after a whirlwind of healings, teaching and miracles.

Jesus has been in Caesarea Philippi, the city founded by Philip II, son of Herod, as his seat of power. It was the site of natural springs in a pretty desolate landscape and so was an area historically dedicated to the Greek God Pan, the God of desolate places and fertility. It was a wealthy trading hub - a clash of cultures, traditions and languages. In that religiously and political diverse environment Jesus teaches about who he is and what he has been sent by God to do.

‘… He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it…’

John Hesp still lives in Bridlington with his wife. I say still, because he recently won £2million at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. But he hasn’t left his job as a caravan salesman or moved house. There are no designer clothes or Rolex watches. He has gifted money to family members and invested some in a business. He still drives the same car and has gone back to playing poker once a month with friends. But I wonder what you would do in his shoes?

Jesus has invited people to be in his shoes since the beginning of the gospel. He invited fishermen to literally come behind him, to walk in the dust of his shoes, to listen, learn and do as He has done. To follow. But here the rubber hits the road - in this multicultural, multiethnic, multifaith place, a seat of power, a place of wealth, Jesus nails his colours to the mast - or perhaps more correctly - looks ahead to what was to come at the cross. This isn’t Jesus predicting his fate - it’s him knowing what He is to do. If Jesus yielded to Peter’s tempting to take another path, Jesus’ status as Son of Man would have been in doubt. He might have gained things, perhaps even the whole world, but he would have lost who he is as the Son of Man, bound to suffer rejection and death. But more than that, the essential identity that Jesus is tempted to forego – taking up his cross – is the identity and temptation that faces anyone who would come behind him, who would follow, who would walk in His shoes. 

This morning, Jesus invites us take up our cross. Not His, but our own. We must take responsibility for following Him ourselves. We must carry the sign of what it means to be His disciple everywhere He goes, and there is nowhere in our own daily living that Jesus does not go. We carry that cross into school, into our workplaces, it comes with us as we drink coffee with friends, or sit at the bus stop. We shoulder that cross at the bedside of a sick spouse. We carry it to the graveside of a deceased neighbour - because in all of these places Christ goes before us and we follow. That is what it means for us to be a disciple, to be a Christian - to speak and act as He would in these and countless other places.

But the temptation we face is to leave our cross here. But if we do, we are no longer following Jesus and have given up on the life that He counsels us not to lose.  The Greek word here is the one from which we get our word psyche - our whole selves, our very identity as people. And that life is now so intertwined with the one whom we follow as we bear His mark from Ash Wednesday; from our confirmation; from our baptism. In other words as soon as speak to others as ourselves and not as we have heard Jesus speak - we have put down our cross. As soon as we respond to others in any other way than Jesus would, we have put down our cross. Our cross is hard and heavy - following Jesus is and will be sometimes be really difficult - but in carrying it - we accept the life He offers us and all the world as He heads to Jerusalem, knowing what He must do there.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Lent As A Habit Forming Season

Here's a version of what I said at 8am and 11am this morning for Lent 1...


I discovered this week that some psychologists reckon it takes around 6 weeks for us to break out of the cycle of a habit, 6 weeks to become used to a new ways of living or thinking or acting. When we are struggling with a new discipline or skill, that period of time can feel like forever - will we ever master it.  It is an interesting accident perhaps that Lent now lasts around that length of time - 40 days - as we seek to grow in faith and become disciples of Jesus once again.

This morning’s Gospel takes place in the wilderness. Many of us hear the word desert here, but Mark is clear - this is the wilderness. It is a sparsely populated place between conurbations but it is not lifeless, but it can be dangerous as it is where wild animals live that may attack a flock; it is where bandits dwell that may attack at the roadside. It is also a place to where people flee from their problems to seek safety but it is also somewhere that one may be driven against one’s will to confront them in both cases the stories of Moses and Hagar are good examples. The wilderness was also a place of encounter - for many including John the Baptist and the Essene community who wrote and cared for the library of books we know as the Dead Sea Scrolls - it was a place to go to get away from the noise and bustle of the urban environment, and in a different physical landscape to allow the inner landscapes of our hearts to encounter God. It was a strange dangerous and spiritual place. A places where if you were to survive you needed to rely on the provision and protection of God.

'...And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him… 12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness...'

If you type the word retreat into Google you end up with pages of listings of days of yoga, spa, fitness, reading, writing and the opportunity to book luxury apartments. The popularity of retreat has gone exponentially through the roof as it were. The ‘because your worth it’ culture in which we live has discovered the need for some sort of self care. In the most extreme cases, the number of 30 and 40 something who are now taking silent retreats as a way to detox from this digitally noisy instant news world. This counter culturalism remains so fascinating that it pops up on tv too, most recently on BBC4’s ‘Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery’ which had no commentary but filmed some of the daily lives of monks and allowed their life to be the soundtrack was not voyeuristic but entrancing and enticing.

For me at least, the most transforming of these sorts of programmes was simply called The Monastery and was based at Worth Abbey. 5 individuals lived the life of a monk there for 40 days and it had a transformative effect: It is fair to say that everybody on the show had been affected by their participation in some way. Four out of the five had either changed their job, or were going to change their job soon, and all it seems had utterly transformed the focus of their lives and their faith.

It is interesting to note that it is God the Holy Spirit that literally throws Jesus out into the wilderness. And part of Jesus being there for 40 days is to make him the new Moses linking the 40 years that Moses lead the Israelites, but I also noticed that Jesus is the new Noah too. Noah sent out the dove which returns with an olive twig in its beak indicating that the land was dry and a new start can be made, so the dove descends on Jesus According to St Gregory Thaumaturgus, the Father is “pointing him [Jesus] out right there as the new Noah, even the maker of Noah, and the good pilot of the nature which is in shipwreck.”

The glory of the new Noah is greater than the old. The first Noah’s righteousness preserved his own life from the flood. By contrast, the righteousness of this new Noah leads to his death, that a “shipwrecked” world might be “piloted” to resurrection life. And it is this rediscovery that we are encouraged into during these days of Lent.

The wilderness may times for us where we feel spiritually dry and lifeless. Where we feel barren, broken or alone. Times where need exist one day at a time - only just getting through. We all have experiences like that even if we are not brave enough to admit to them to ourselves let alone to others. God the Holy Spirit forced Jesus into that same environment as he entered the wilderness. Mark only gives us scant details - he was tempted, he was in with the wild beasts (a reference in the Old Testament to oppressive leaders in surrounding nations so here perhaps referring to the wild environment and the real challenges of existing safely there) and the angels waited on him (in other words God cared for him through it all.)

As we begin our journey into the Lenten wilderness some thoughts: Jesus must have experienced brokennesss and loneliness in that environment and in it God cared for Him. When we experience the wilderness internally where we feel lonely and uncertain of a direction - God loves us and cares for us - even when it feels like all around is barrenness bleakness. If you are not in this place I encourage you to reach out to someone here, or someone you know who is, and gently love them. You will be an angel waiting on that person. And if you are in that place, and all you see is rocks, sand and wild animals - know that one of those animals will be a hand to love and care for you and not attack you.

Lent can also be a place where God’s spirit drives us. It is not a time and place of austerity for penitence’s sake, but it is the gift of time to rediscover what it means to be a disciple - which is what it means for us to be Christian.  In our urban, visually noisy world which is still looking for an alternative way of living, there is a hunger for stillness and space, I encourage you to model it - find some time each day to detach yourself from the world. To find some space and enter a wilderness of silence for a few minutes each day: to intentionally stop, still down, be silent, maybe quietly reciting a simple prayer like the Jesus Prayer or a favourite verse of scripture - and invite Jesus, the New Noah, to lead you through the tricky landscapes of your heart and life - the bits that only he and you see - so as to learn once more how live the life of Resurrection hope again in 6 weeks time.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Mary: A Model For Teenage Discipleship

Robin King was 13 years old when he discovered that he was adopted and his response to the news? He and a friend fled home and cycled from London to Southend where they slept in a tent for a few days before they were picked up by the police. The news didn’t prevent him marrying, having children and eventually finding good work as an architect.

It was only later in life whilst applying for a passport that further startling news about his identity was shared with him - that he had been abandoned as a kid outside the Peter Robinson department store - which is why he was named Robin and his middle name is Peter. In his quest for meaning and roots he eventually found out that his parents were Douglas and Agnes Jones - he was Canadian and serving in the airforce in Glasgow during WW2. They met and married and after the war moved back to Canada. But Robin will never know why he was given up for adoption as they’ve both subsequently died.

Families can be a complex web of relationships and they’re often far from straight forward. Many of my friends had a stream of ‘Aunts’ and ‘Uncles’ who I later discovered weren’t actually aunts and uncles but close family friends and I eventually became and ‘uncle’ too. But families can be places of pain with relatives being cut out and ostracised for years maybe permanently for all sorts of reasons. And yet despite the challenges and sometimes in spite of them, they are the places where we are formed as adults.

Mary’s shocking news from the angel Gabriel was foretold. Back in the 8th century BC, the nation of Judah was faced with invasion by it’s northern neighbour Israel.  The prophet Isaiah is sent to King Ahaz of Judah with a message that God will destroy Judah’s enemies.  Isaiah tells the King to ask God for a sign that this will be fulfilled. The King says he will not test God, and Isaiah responds that God will give him a sign whatever: ‘a young woman will conceive and bear a son who will be named Immanuel and before he knows right from wrong, desolation will come upon the land.’ An odd sign by any standard.  But the word ‘young woman’ ‘almah’ does not mean virgin but maybe a girl who has not yet had a child. The significance of this prophesy of a young woman with child, when looked at through the lens of the history of Christian faith, brings Mary and the infant Jesus she bears into sharp focus, but to King Ahaz, the prophesy’s focus is that before the child (whoever it is) is very old, his kingdom will fall.

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. This is how we often perceive Mary. Submissive. Trusting. Passive. Back in October, in the wake of celebrity sex scandals, a campaign began on the internet through facebook and twitter using the #Metoo hashtag, giving a voice to women who have experienced sexual harassment in some way. Some of the stories were really shocking and it exposed how ingrained this sort of behaviour by some men still is. Did Mary say #Metoo? There is a moment in this morning’s Gospel reading where a girl just being ushered into womanhood is encountered by a powerful masculine figure who tells her what will happen to her body in the most intimate ways.

Just sit with this uncomfortable notion a moment before rushing to tell me that contemporary notions of consent don’t apply here or that God knew that she would say yes. Mary knew what all this meant. She ‘got’ the biology of it all. And yet in her questioning ‘how can this be’ I meet a young woman who is totally ok with challenging patriarchal and even divine assumed power and come away unscathed.

For us who honour Mary in the story of our faith, in her we find a role model of faithful discipleship especially for our young people, because in her puzzlement at Gabriel’s greeting and her disbelief of his message, I see a pattern for youth in the church today. Mary questioned the message of Gabriel and the action of God in her life, and it was ok. It is ok if you, especially as a young person, come to these oft told stories of the faith of your parents or grandparents generation, and ask: is it true? Mary sought to understand for herself. As the adults of the community of faith - the angelos - the bringers of the message of love from God for all - our responsibility to our young people is to allow these questions, not to close them down. To hear them. Not to be afraid of them.

For us who honour Mary in the story of our faith, this morning I don’t hear of a submissive girl, but of a young woman willing to question, and open to being empowered, perhaps literally inspired, by God. Gabriel uses the word ‘overshadowed.’ In English this has all sorts of negative connotations to do with insignificance, a lack of joy or success, and this feeds an image of a submissive and passive Mary in the presence of a powerful God. We must not let our young people be dominated or conformed by us as adults or by their peers. In scripture the the image of the cloud is not a dark but a bright one that lead the Israelites by day as they sojourned in the wilderness and that enveloped Jesus on the mountain top. We must allow our young people to explore the wilderness and lush pasture of life and faith trusting in both places God comes and leads His people. Mountain climbing is hard work - we must celebrate with them when they triumph over adversity or have extraordinary experiences of God that we cannot understand or comprehend.

As Gabriel shares news of Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, there is a hint that they stand in a line with Sarah and Hannah long before them, of God by the Spirit bringing about the biologically impossible. For Luke, the Holy Spirit brought all things into being in the first Creation, and it will be the same Spirit that fills disciples at Pentecost which ushers in the New Creation wrought by Jesus’ resurrection. Gabriel says that Mary will be enveloped by the presence of the God of Israel who faithfully led and kept her ancestors, and she will be anointed by the Holy Spirit. The only other person to experience the Spirit in this way up to this point was King David. Through God, Mary is brought into David’s line, so that the New Creation and the Kingdom of God are revealed to and through her. That is why I believe she said yes to Gabriel.

How can we be like Gabriel, angelos - messengers of good news with the  young people in our churches? How can we each share and show the love of God to them? How can we like Elizabeth and Sarah and Hannah before them, walk with our youth as they journey through the wilderness or climb life’s mountains?  Mary’s yes, rose out of an assurance that God had kept and led those before her - how can we share our own faith stories with our youth today? Above all else we must pray that that same Holy Spirit that came upon Mary, would fill and transform our young people today - calling them into the Kingdom and filling them with the hope of the New Creation.

Monday, December 18, 2017


Ahhhh, my much missed blog. It's not that I've not had stuff to say as such, it's been the fact that I have been processing stuff differently of late. I also haven't shared any sermons here for quite some time. Here though is SUnday's for Advent 3 based on the reading from Isaiah 61.


Flickering shadows
In the mind
The dead are present
Even when we forget them
Even in the words we fail to speak
But when concerned observers
Publish words of anger or distress
Attempting to be the voice
Of those who have lost the most
We’re left with little more
Than dust on our lips...'

These are the closing words in the last stanza of Fr. Alan Everett’s poem ’14 June 2017’ about the fire at the Grenfall Tower. Words that are still pertinent following the service of remembrance for the 71 people who died in the tragic fire on 14 June. Emotions still run high as some locals want the tower torn down whilst others want it to stand as a permanent reminder - an indictment of unheeded warnings and management failings. 

In some senses Fr Alan’s poem could be on the lips of the exiled residents of Jerusalem. After the Babylonian sacking of the city in 587 BCE, when the city and temple were laid to waste and the residents were marched off into an uncertain future in Babylon. The mourning in Isaiah 61 rises out of frustration and humiliation over the failure to rebuild the city and the temple to match its former glory and the failure to reconcile the economic disparities and the religious and political factions within the city. The reality of life in Jerusalem was nothing like the expectations for a restored Jerusalem and a righteous community as proclaimed by the prophets and as envisioned by the returnees. Their hopes and dreams remained crushed and the renewed infrastructure and architecture were memorials to failed leadership and lack of vision.

‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed…’ Desmond Tutu I think it was once said that the gospel, good news from God, to a hungry person is bread. Hope in that sense is incredibly practical and at it’s best utterly transformative and rooted in the real life situation that someone finds themselves in. If you type ‘stories of hope’ into Google you end up with tale after tale of people finding some light in the midst of the darkness of extreme poverty; of cancer; of natural disasters; of mental breakdown; of bipolar disorder; of drug addiction; of MS and so on. Hope meets people where they are and lifts the burden they carry, even for a time. This was the task given to the prophet in our first reading. God has tasked them to offer his alternative vision to a broken people. And it’s stirring stuff. And as we hear these words this morning our minds are transported to Jesus’ visit to the Temple where he stands to read the reading appointed for the day, which are these words, and as he finished reading and sat down, he says that this transformative vision of God has been fulfilled in Him that day. Isaiah spoke these words to a nation in devastation, but Jesus speaks them to his people under Roman rule and indeed to anyone and always to those who lives have been razed to the ground. For whom hope is just a pipe dream.

I wonder what God’s vision through Isaiah but fulfilled in Jesus might look like to 21st century Britain? To provide Christmas lunch for those who can’t afford it due to benefit cuts? Offering the hand of friendship to the lonely isolated neighbour who’s family either live a long way away or who have washed their hands of their mother? To push the trolley around Meresworth and support the residents and their families with a  cheery word. The thing is, the prophet only does all that he or she does because God’s spirit is on them and they have been anointed and commissioned for this task. As have we.

At our baptism we were gifted the Spirit of God and either then or at our Conformation we may have been anointed with oil to symbolise being set apart for the task which God gives us all. This is the task of the church afresh in each generation.

Isaiah’s words weren’t just about rebuilding the Temple.  They were about rebuilding a whole city; the prophet’s words weren’t just for the faithful remnant of Israel, as strangers and foreigners were welcomed to work and live within the community. God’s vision has much wider scope. As Israel accepted and built this vision into a reality, so the nations would look at them and see the hand of God at work. But it starts with kindness to the bereaved and broken as a sign that God is coming to rescue and to free.

And it begins with us. This wild, unbridled hope begins with us. It begins with us accepting that this is God’s agenda; it begins with us receiving this as God’s agenda in us; it begins with us living this as God’s agenda in our communities as an evangelistic task. In a society that knows less and less of the story of faith and is open less and less to the institution - people are still inspired and changed by acts of kindness and love. There’s lots of talk in the Church of England about growing our churches and some here too. This in of itself is not a bad thing save that the vision that Isaiah shares isn’t about numbers but about transformed lives. I’m not convinced that if we ran the Alpha course more regularly that the church would grow;  I’m not convinced if we shorted or changed our worship that our churches would grow; but I am completely convinced that when we each open our hearts and our hands and our homes and offer kindness and compassion of the sort of which Isaiah spoke and Jesus ministered it is here that love is found and it is in these pockets of hope where friendships are built and God is encountered.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Charles de Foucauld, Zoe and the Cross

Charles de Foucauld was born into an upper class Strasbourg family in 1858. His parents died when he was quite young leaving him a large fortune, which like the parable of the prodigal son, he spent on rowdy parties, froie gras and champagne. He served for a time in the French Foreign Legion in Afghanistan. Whilst there, he found a growing fascination with Islam but he remained firmly an agnostic, but something was happening.

Returning to France he embarked on a spiritual quest that led to him to stop frequently in Catholic churches to make a simple prayer - God if you exist, let me know it. Finally in 1886, in St Augustine’s church in Paris, he experienced a profound answer to his prayer and was converted. He began to discern a vocation centred on the ordinary life of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. He entered a Trappist monastery and was eventually assigned to Syria where his work was to supervise Muslim manual labourers who worked there. It was here that he discerned a call to serve not lead; he left the monastery and became a gardener for the Poor Clares in Nazareth. He was ordained in 1901 and returned to Afghanistan to live as a hermit - during the day labouring alongside the locals and translating the Gospels into the native dialects and at night lost in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. He was murdered by a band of anti-French tribesmen on December 1st in 1916. His life of self-denial remains inspirational to this day.

Self denial like that of Charles de Foucald is as counter-cultural now as it was then - a car overtook me yesterday having driven hard behind me in a queue of traffic for a few miles, just to get one car in front. Or the lady in Wallmart in the USA who pulled a gun in a fight over the last notebook in the school supplies section. Or commuters on a train whose bags need seats but haven’t paid for a ticket for them. Or the able bodied person who parks in a disabled space because they’ll only be a minute… and I’m sure you can think of many other examples too.

Assuming that this passage follows on chronologically from last week’s, Jesus and the disciples around Caesarea Philippi and Jesus is curious as to whether people understand who he is. Amid a variety of responses, Simon Peter proclaims Jesus as Messiah and Jesus affirms Simon as trustworthy friend and on this proclamation of faith the church will be built. From here though, Jesus’ eyes and focus turn to Jerusalem, the place of his trial and passion and so He begins to teach his disciples that this is where all this is heading.

Jesus said: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Hurricane Harvey has just devastated parts of Texas leaving 42 people dead and some 43,000 people out of their homes. In the midst of the criticisms of how fast the president and emergency services responded come stories of people opening up their homes to support the needy as some 20% of the homes in Houston do not have flood insurance - a clear indicator that this happens with some regularity - but also a clear indicator that the poorest and most vulnerable have been left poorest and most vulnerable because those who need that insurance couldn't afford it. But this story made the news above the devastating floods in Mumbai that have killed 1200 people and shut a million children out of school. Many here have lost lives and livelihoods. Many are grateful they have been saved.

What is Jesus talking about in terms of losing and saving life? The word translated for life is the word from which we get our word psyche - our individual conscious selves, that which makes us us. The issue is that there are 3 words for life in Greek - Bios (alive as in biologically alive), Psyche, and Zoe (literally ‘with-God-life’ or eternal life.) Jesus is encouraging his hearers to put to one side our priorities in life - manifesting itself as an innate quest to survive at all costs at best, or as selfishness at worst, and instead to seek the life of the kingdom where our own selfishness self-preservation is secondary and God’s ways and purposes have first place in us for the good of all.

All of this happens though in the shadow of the cross, which all too often reveals us as we really are.  The cross showed Peter to be the one on whose rock like faith the church will be built but also to be a stumbling block. The cross showed Jesus to be a political revolutionary but also a spiritual messiah. The cross isn't just empty - a symbol of hope, that all will be well and that Jesus is alive, but it also continues to be a place that judges our motives and drives.

You may wear a cross on a chain round your neck, but we all wear one by virtue of our baptism, is not just to show the world who you are, but to remind you of who the world needs you to be. Before the cross signified salvation, it was the instrument of condemnation. It was a sign for what happens when power is crossed, when we lose our life, and when you instead choose the life of the kingdom living out forgiveness, love and peace, which means the willingness to stand against power that silences and oppresses: the insistence on speaking up for those the world would crucify; the courage to call a thing what it is. It means the resolution to renounce those systems and institutions and leaders and yes all too often ourselves - who choose themselves over others, and all those who choose their own needs over the good of all.

The cross is always a crossroads in us everyday as we always have the choice - psyche or zoe - my way of God’s? If we chose our own way, we lose zoe; we chose God’s we find zoe and psyche. Charles de Foucald knew this which is why his prayer is this:

Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you
with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,

for you are my Father. Amen.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

And On This Rock...

As some of you know, I was invited to attend a 10 residential conference at Windsor Castle in July. At one of the sessions we entered the room to find all of the chairs removed and it filled with a number of easels with large bits of blank paper attached to them with pencils and charcoal to hand, and we were invited to spend 2 hours drawing. I can’t draw or paint. I have been told I can’t over many years, most often by me. I can’t translate what my eye actually sees in terms of lines, shade and shape - all too often I try to draw what I am asked. I need to unlearn what I have been told about my ability and relearn to look and to really see what’s there and to represent that. I have bought a sketch pad and some pencils and I am trying to unlearn. Not to draw a thing but to look. To see lines and shapes.

We all come at life with presuppositions like this - previous experiences or statements in the past shape our response to something in the present, sometimes we can name that as something that happened to us at school or something a friend or family member said. Sometimes it’s things we just cant name. It’s the same with people. Daryl Davis, a black blues musician, has spent 30 years befriending members of the KKK. He goes to their rallies; he goes to their homes and eats with them. ‘How can they hate me if they don't know me?’, he asks.

People have been wanting to know more of Jesus’ teaching by the time we encounter him in this morning’s Gospel reading. By asking his disciples who the Son of Man is, He trying to gauge how much of what he teaches is hitting home, but also wether people have grasped who he is and by who’s authority he is ministering. By the disciples naming John and Elijah and Jeremiah - people are identifying Jesus with what they have known themselves or have heard in the stories of the faith of their ancestors from the past. They need to unlearn what they think they know about Jesus if they are to truly grasp who he is and what God has called him to.

Here’s the news folks - God was already at work in Peter. In foot in mouth, getting it wrong, Messiah denying Peter. God was at work in Him. So when Peter answers Jesus’ “Who do you say that I am?” question with “You are the Messiah the Son of the living God” this rose out of Peter’s experience of God at work in Jesus yes but also of God at work in Peter, enabling him to see Jesus his friend and teacher in a new way.

But Jesus goes on - I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it… What Jesus actually says is “I say to you Peter (Petros) that on this rock (petra) I shall build my ekklesia (assembly; usually translated church) and the gates of Hades shall not overpower her.” The word petra translated as rock is grammatically feminine and it agrees with the Greek word ekklesia, which is also grammatically feminine. Thus, the noun petra does not refer to Peter. Jesus will build his church on one so fickle, so week, who would let him down, who would deny him and yet despite all of this - the gates of Hades would not prevent the good stuff that God is doing in and through him - because Peter has come to know that Jesus is the Messiah. It is this confession on which the church will be gathered and built. On a shared belief; on a shared experience on the life changing news that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of the Living God - a God who enters our present experience; a God who is relevant to our here and now and not focussed on dead prophets or the things and ways of the past.

Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah cashed up. What he confessed with his mouth and heart impacted the life he lived. What this meant was that Jesus’ way and the values of the Kingdom were Peter’s first priority - his own concerns and needs were secondary. What we are presented with in this morning’s Gospel isn’t some early church creedal statement; this isn't a piece of doctrine inserted into Peter’s mouth - Peter seems to be a person who speaks first and suffers any consequences later. He couldn't help himself in saying what he said that day. It was a direct response to Jesus’ question and a response to being in his presence. 

What we confess of Jesus here in Church in our creeds and hymns and prayers, impacts what we live - our whole lives. Yes our response to Jesus is more formalised in our liturgy but at it’s heart is the same instant and vital response - yes Lord you are the Messiah; yes Lord have your way; yes Lord your will be done on earth and in my life as it is in heaven. Peter’s confession of Jesus’ Messiahship was due to God working in and transforming him. As we confess Jesus, God is still working in us, transforming us. And we’ll know we are being transformed by God ourselves by the way we act and react and I think that’s what Jesus means about binding and loosing and maybe why he told His disciples to tell no one about Him.

When we bind or restrict justice to the dominant and powerful and loose or release or enact injustice to the most vulnerable among us, heaven knows God sees and His heart breaks and people around us fail to see Jesus in us. When we bind ourselves to wanting things our own way, and do not release or loose ourselves into new possibilities for the good of us all, heaven knows, God sees, His heart breaks and people around us fail to see Jesus in us. If we fail to act because we are more concerned about what others will think of us rather that what others need, heaven knows, God sees, His heart breaks and people around us fail to see Jesus in us. Whatever we do and say in Jesus’ name on earth has an impact in the heavenly realm - God sees it - and others will either see or not see Jesus in us as a result.

Why does Jesus command the disciples to say nothing about him being the Messiah? How will they build the church or withstand oppressive powers if they tell no one? Because the confession of Jesus as Messiah isn't theological algebra but evidence of a heart and life being transformed by God. Nothing needs to be said of Jesus and the kingdom when we are actively looking to forgive and be forgiven; when we are working for justice especially for the marginalised and the poor; when we are loving our neighbours and even our enemies in demonstrable ways. It is on rocks such as these that Jesus has and continues to build his church.