Sunday, January 31, 2010

Candlemas Thankfulness

Well I hope you have taken down your tree and packed away the lights, cards and crib, for today finally and formally brings to end our celebrations of the birth of Jesus. Christmas, the annual time for people to coo and ahhh over the soft-focus story of the birth of a beautiful baby some 2000 years ago. But we should not be taken in by the tinsel and pretty lights: Christmas has been more serious than that. The question we are left with is: what really happened?

Candlemas is a festival that the Church of England tended not to make too much of up until the very recent past perhaps because of it’s Mediaeval focus on the purification of Mary and not the presentation of Jesus as the first born son dedicated to God. Latterly the Church realised how significant this major feast is in her the worshipping life, because, like a steep hill on a good walk, Candlemas provides us with a vantage point enabling us to look back to the Christmas celebration of the birth of God in our midst from where we have come, and forward to the destination of our journey - the cross and death PAUSE... and resurrection.

The Gospel story tells of the Holy Family’s trip up to Jerusalem, to visit the Temples. They went to carry out what was necessary under the Law. Firstly they went so that Mary could be made ritually pure 40 days after childbirth by the offering of the appropriate sacrifice.

The book of Leviticus outlines very clearly the correct sacrificial practice in various circumstances. If you suffer from insomnia I suggest it as a cure, but the book makes it clear that the poor, should sacrifice a pair of young pigeons or a a pair of turtle doves in various circumstances. Luke is making a very important point here. Throughout the Old Testament, God again and again identifies himself with the poor, downtrodden and the outcast. Luke’s point is clear - with the coming of the Messiah, God’s eternal attributes of love and justice have not changed. As the King of the Nations, the Prince of Peace, God’s Son comes to the Temple he comes not just identifying with the socially, spiritually, emotionally and financially poor, but as one of them.

Secondly, the family went to have Jesus dedicated to God. Again the Levitical Law is clear and Luke quotes it for us - every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord. Luke is making another very important point here. This child will be dedicated to the service of God, like every firstborn Jewish male, but the service he will undertake for God will transform the world.

The other key players in this drama set in the heart of Israel’s spiritual life, the Temple, are Simeon and Anna. Simeon clarifies what God has planned to achieve through this little baby, things that Luke’s readers already know about but now have confirmed through the mouth of a pious and faithful Jew. Simeon had been promised that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. How Simeon knew that this firstborn male was what he had been waiting for all these years we will never know. But as he holds Jesus (whose name literally means ‘the Lord is my salvation’) in his arms he holds God’s salvation itself. As a result he may depart in peace - he can die happy , knowing that what had been promised to him had been fulfilled, and also knowing that shalom, God’s peace was about to break though in a new way to the whole of creation bringing reconciliation, forgiveness, healing, love and justice to reign on earth through this child. Simeon does here what neither Moses or Elijah or the other great prophets of God could do - as he looks lovingly at that newborn he sees the face of God Almighty the Creator - and lives.

Many of Israel, like Simeon and Anna - are pious and faithfully waiting the redemption of God through this child. Many are not and there will be those who will hate Jesus and in the end they will crucify him. Even here in the temple here is the shadow of the coming cross.

At Christmas we recall the greatest mystery - that God became human like us. The Incarnation, the birth of God amongst is surely about God identifying not only with humanity but with everything created, not to understand it so as to apprehend it, but to love it into eternal life. At Candlemas as Jesus God’s own Son is presented in the Temple and dedicated to God, Jesus offers back to God his humanity, our humanity, and reconciles everything that is created to it’s Creator for his use and his glory.

Today as Jesus is presented to God in the Temple, God presents creation with his peace, the Shalom that Simeon knew, in his Son, to which creation responds with thanksgiving knowing that soon pain, suffering, sin, and evil will be banished and all will be restored into the life of God. My friends it is this that marks us Christians out as distinct from the rest of humanity - our part in the great thanksgiving of all created things, a thanksgiving that knows that God will free the world from sin and it’s affects - sin that makes people lie, murder, cheat, abuse, and corrupt. As Christians, as children of God, our lives are a visible thanksgiving to God from the people of Leverstock Green for all that he gives us in Creation and all that he promises Creation in Christ - to be free from the power of sin. Secular humanity find it so hard to give thanks when they do not know whom they should be thanking, and very often can see nothing to be thankful for. My friends I believe our secular friends and neighbours need us. We must not let them down.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Epiphany Christingle Wordle

Sunday 24th sees us hold our annual Christingle service at 10am. It is a wonderful service of light and an opportunity to raise much needed money for the Children's Society.

Christingle and supporting the Children's Society is a great was of us answering the call for us to be an Epiphany people, to reveal Christ in the world in the way we live our lives, and to pray that God's light would shine in the dark places, transforming them by His light and our action.

The Wordle is of Matthew 2:1-11 - the reading we will use.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


I have been moved to the core by the desperate tragedy of the people of Haiti. The situation there opens up the chasm of a question for people of faith - where was God?

I am not going to try and explain it away or offer some patronising nonsense about God walking the streets of Port au Prince weeping like Jeremiah.

In a country crushed by poverty, a poverty embedded by debt that my Government and the Governments of other Western nations hold in their glove-lined fists, I am left bewildered that their suffering could be made worse. And yet it has.

Where were you God? Where were you for your people, for your sons and daughters? Where were you for the people of Haiti, made in your image? Where were you for the people of a nation for whom your Son came to live and to die? Was the faith of that nation worth nothing? Did the prayers of countless faithful Hatians count for nought?

Why did you abandon them, like your Son on the cross? His crucifixion ultimately brought you glory. That paradox, brought us nearer to your glory. And yet their crucifixion over years and nailed home in recent days is, for me, the ultimate theodicy...

And yet God, you were moved with compassion when you created us. You were moved with passion to draw people into a living relationship with you through the suffering of your son.

I feel moved with passion and with anger. Anger that this should have happened to such helpless a people (God that sounds patronising...) but with a passion; a passion for justice for them so please give as generously as you can to the DEC Appeal, a passion to understand your mind O God and for you to know my heart.

A friend of mine put it so well on her blog, '...all I know is that I was fully aware of suffering before I became aware of God, and so the two have to live alongside each other. I also know that prayer changes me and hopefully I become more compassionate and reach out to help alleviate or perhaps simply weep over some of the shit that happens...'

Prayer for Haiti

O God, our refuge and strength,
we hold before you the nation and people of Haiti,
and pray for healing in the midst of tragedy and devastation.
Give comfort to the homeless, the bereaved and the suffering,
courage to survivors,
wisdom to those who seek to help,
and light to all who live in the shadow of death.
This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ,
our rock and our salvation. Amen.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Wine into Water - The Church has done something more difficult

Alex commented to me yesterday, when I told her what the Gospel reading appointed for today was, haven’t we heard that recently? Her question, echoed my own frustration, and implied a certain amount of ‘not that one again!’ In answer to her question, no we haven’t this story for a while, in fact it is a reading appointed for this Sunday every year. As a preacher, it is one of those passages that is so well known, and much preached on, therefore this preacher could not help but feel that I had nothing new to say to you this morning.

As you read the passage there are several ways of understanding or interpretting this wedding feast at Cana that John has recorded for us. I would like to point out 5 to you here this morning.

Firstly, we can read of a God who transforms the ordinariness of water into the specialness of wine, paralleling his transformation of people from sinners needing him, into citizens of the Kingdom of God and introducing the enhanced, improved, better, more full life that God has pomised since the prophets first opened their mouths and spoke.

Secondly we could focus on the transformation of the water in the water jars used for rites of purification called for by the Old Testament Law, into wine; the new wine of the Kingdom first drunk by Jesus at the last Supper and referred to again in Revelation, implying the replacing of the old Law of Moses with the new, brought in by Christ.

Thirdly, another way of understanding this story centres on the the waiter’s ‘joke’ about saving the best wine till last (unheard of at a Jewish wedding clearly!), perhaps we are to understand that God has done a surprising thing by saving his best up till last - his very best gift to Israel and the world was not Moses and the Law, but his Son Jesus.

Fourthly then, there is the volume of what Jesus produces, in his later tradition of loaves and fish and the parable of the sower. Jesus transforms 6 stone water jars holding gallons and gallons of water. In so doing we rediscover the extravegant grace and generosity in love God shows his world - more than we will ever ever need.

Finally, in Jesus’ words to Mary, ‘My hour has not yet come’ there is a reference not to his unwillingness to provide for people’s physical need in great abundance, but that his greatest hour, the crucifixion and resurrection, has not yet come. He will only act when God wills it not when she wants.

Now perhaps you begin to see the richness of this story, but also how hard it is to bring a fresh interpretation to this miracle.

Whatever you have taken away from this story in past sermons or your own reading and understanding is all almost certainly good, true and life-giving. Whichever interpretation works for you, there is always an element of God celebrating, of rejoicing like at a wedding, of all that Jesus is doing or will do to forge a new relationship between him and people. This is the central message of the Church. We are not asked by Christ, following the ghastliness of the Hatian earthquake in such a God-fearing country, to go and debate whether the God of philosophy exists; we are not called to just be the compassionate or even the good people in society; we are centainly not called to retreat behind the safety of closed doors and carry on in private.

The Danish philosopher of the 19th centuray Soren Kierkegaard said ‘Christ turned water into wine, but the church has succeeded in doing something more difficult, it has turned wine into water...’ It is, if you excuse the pun, a very sobering thought. Have we, by the things we say, the way that we live, the way that we worship, reversed this miracle so much that when people come to church or come into contact with us as Christians they taste, not the best wine (good worship done to the best of our ability, love between us as people, the presence of God himself), but water which is either flavourless and dull or at worst stagnant which has to be thrown away. Have we made the message we have been sent to tell the people of our village in our day, once so full of rich and sweet flavour, now so flavourless so as to be not just unappealing but pointless?

The Greek word for Church in the New Testament is ekklesia, literally, called out. We have been called out of family relationships into a new relationship with God and with each other as disciples - HERE. Here in the security of this room we learn and worship together, here we get to know one another. BUT, from the safety of a room, God empowered the first disciples with the Holy Spirit and sent them out with is same message. He has does the same with us.

From Cana’s water in wine to Calvary’s blood and water, in this sweep we see Jesus’ whole life as one miraculous event, an invitation into an eternal relationship of love. I believe that in this Gospel my friends, God is offering us a challenge to be his Epiphany people again, sharing the sweet and rich wine of the Gospel with our community through some new things that we will do together this year - whether that is people trained to visit the sick and bereaved and show God’s love and care; through services planned in small groups together with me bringing the needs and life of the community to God in our worship; through the warmth of the welcome that people receive we they worship with us. God calls us to prove Kierkegarrd wrong. Amen.

PS: I don't think I have been ready for a Sunday this far in advance, ever!

The Word as a Wordle

This week, the wedding at Cana from John 2:1-11...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

O Brother (and Sister) Where Art Thou?

One of my favourite films of all time is ‘O Brother Where Art Thou.’ For those of you who may not have seen it, it’s about three escaped convicts are racing around the Mississippi delta looking frantically for buried treasure. They still have the shackles on their legs from the chain gang from which they escaped. They are not innocents; they’re thieves, what you might call “common criminals.” As they meander through the woods they come upon a congregation of people headed for a river, singing a Gospel song, “Down in the river to pray.” The escapees watch, mesmerized, as people wade into the water to be baptized. Two of the men are seized with an overwhelming conviction that this is what they need, that they want to turn their lives around. They wade into the water, the congregation’s singing ringing in the air all around them, and they emerge, soaked and overjoyed.

Today as we baptise Craig, Samantha, Kelvin and Jessica we also remember Jesus’ baptism which started the ball rolling on his public work. It is in baptism, in this moment of heaven-ripped-open time with the God who loves him, that his work begins. It’s like that for us. Yes baptism is about repentance - which is more than a quick I’m sorry - but about seeing our lives turned round our lives around, transformed by the knowledge that we are loved whether we feel we deserve it or not. And yes, baptism is about living a new way. But also, baptism is about being claimed by God, named as God’s own much loved children, called by him to work and serve.

This is true Craig, Samantha, Kelvin and Jessica as they are baptised themselves today but it is true for all of us who recall our baptism today. Every one of us has been baptised has been named by God. Baptism isn’t a naming ceremony though. As we are baptised God gives us and Jesus a new name - beloved, much loved. Through his baptism God gives Jesus a clear path of work and service for Him. Through our baptisms God has set us on a path for work and service. Discerning where this path will take us is challenging and exciting and even a little scary. After all, the heavens don’t rip open every day. Some of us are called to serve God in the church, in particular offices such as a priest, or by other kinds of service to the church. All of us are called to serve God outside the church, in God’s beautiful and broken world, and that work and service is as wide and varied as there are people. We can serve God by working for safe and peaceful communities like our own, or helping out and elderly neighbour, or by giving someone a lift to a doctor’s appointment. We can serve God by loving and caring for our aging parents or our children or even our families of choice, those who are knit together not by blood or legal contract but simply by love. Anywhere we can serve God’s people, we can serve God.

Today as we remember Jesus’ baptism, we also remember our own, whether they happening within this service or decades ago. We remember, whether we were infants held in the arms of a parent or godparent, or we were adults who emerged from the experience soaked and jubilant and glowing with the love of God, we remember that baptism is about seeing our lives turned round, and the opportunity to do that is always before us, always a possibility, whereever we are wheatever we are doing, in the waters of baptism or not.

Today we remember Jesus’ baptism,and as we baptise Craig, Samantha, Kelvin and Jessica, we remember that our baptism is about living: living empowered by God, by His Holy Spirit, living heaven in the now, living by throwing in our lot with a community of people who are striving and struggling to follow God through God’s Child Jesus. And we also remember that baptism is about loving: Through baptism, even though we feel unlovely or unloveable from time to time, God says to us “You are my Child, my beloved Child, “with you I am well pleased.”

In His Baptism Christ was comissioned to speak these words both so that people could hear them and in signs of the kingdom - in acts of love and compassion, in healings and miracles - so people could see them.

In our Baptism we have been co-missioned to share in telling and showing how much we are each loved by God. Today as Craig, Samantha, Kelvin and Jessica are baptised and all of us recall our baptisms God says to us “You are mine; I love you; with you I am delighted and pleased.”

But it’s not just about each of us hearing those words of love, it’s not even about just knowing that we are loved by God. Jesus didn’t just hear those words of love from God, he didn’t just know them to be true for him and all people, his baptism was his comission and our co-mission with him to show that transforming love of God. Today Craig, Samantha, Kelvin and Jessica we we baptise you and recall our own it is about but about each of us living and acting in ways that others see, hear and know that God loves them too. Amen.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Migraine Mysticism...

Not a good day really I have to say. All was going well this morning...

After having finally extricated myself from the kids' breakfast/dressing routine (today was an inset day for them - term begins tomorrow) I set down to deal with a lot of admin. I popped Spotify on and began to enjoy albums by Oceansize (the new love of my musical life), The Portico Quartet, and The Pineapple Thief. I was making good progress. Then...

About an hour or so into making headway, it started. It is almost spiritual as it comes over the horizon. The egg of molten lava behind my left eye began to hatch allowing it's nauseous core to seep into my system.

At first I tried to ignore it, but then the peripheral vision in my left I went and the pain ratcheted up a notch. I had to go out...

On my way home, I felt what had started to erupt in my head, begin to awake in my stomach and the first thing I did when I came through the door was be sick. Oh no... the inevitable decline.

I have spent the rest of the day in bed, sleeping, trying to push the pain out of my mind (no not literally), reading a little and managing to vomit the pain in my head out of my stomach. It's not very graceful.

This forced inactivity has made me think. I have received the love and care of my family. Especially touching was the reaction of my children who came in to see me in bed, holding my hand and talking gently to me. A little later my oldest (his own initiative) organised and brought up a glass of water for me and my younger sons came to ask if I wanted some toast or an apple. Touching... Most touching of all was my 2 younger boys brought me some of their favourite teddies to keep me company. They would want them close by if they were ill. So should I.

I have also reflected on how we take good health for granted, and we do. I have been reminded today of how fragile the line between health/ill health is and how being the one side of the line rather than the other can lead to enforced inactivity.

I don't get migraines very often and they tend to last about half a day. For that I am thankful, but there is also something deeply spiritual going on in the physiology. The loss of sight, the dulling of senses, the enforced slowness, even the pain are all best described using deeply spiritual or mystical language. I wonder what St Theresa of Avila, St John of the Cross or Mother Julian would make of what I have experienced today?

Mother Julian's Revelations of Divine Love were given to her after serious illness, and it is perhaps that which enabled her to see the fragility and yet sacredness of life at the closeness of all things to the heart of God. She saw God holding a tiny thing in his hand, like a small brown nut, which seemed so fragile and insignificant that she wondered why it did not crumble before her eyes. She understood that the thing was the entire created universe, which is as nothing compared to its Creator, and she was told, “God made it, God loves it, God keeps it.”

I am not trying to suggest that God was necessarily trying to reveal himself to me in between bouts of vomiting but I have prayed more than usual today (perhaps selfishly), I have been forced to be still and reflect on my lot, and I have received unconditional love. I am feeling significantly better tonight, and some words of Mother Julian ring in my ears, "... All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well..." but does my afternoon get more spiritual than that...?

Word as a Wordle returns for 2010

Hello! Here is the Gospel reading for Sunday 10th January 2010, the Feast of the Baptism of Christ.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22...

Sunday, January 03, 2010

New Year - New Vision

Happy New Year! It doesn’t seem possible that it’s 2010 does it? Only a short time ago we were celebrating the milennium weren’t we? And policemen and clergy are getting younger too...

The milennium was a significant milestone in many different ways for all of us. Ten years since the millennnium marks something significant for me. Clergy in this diocese who have been in holy orders for 10 years and in their current post for at least three years are invited by the Diocese to take a sabbatical. I have been offered and accepted this opportunity. This has been no secret but I am concious that I have not said anything to you all publicly.

Beginning on Sunday 21st February 2010 I will be off duty for 12 weeks. My first Sunday back will be Pentecost Sunday, 23rd May. This is not an extended holiday although that is part of what we will, be doing over that time. It is not some sort of jolly. Sabbaticals are a time for reflection, recovery, renewing of vision, and a certain amount of taking stock. It’s sort of professional development for the clergy. After over 10 years in ministry, and over five years here, being honest, I need some of that. You are probably rightly wondering what I will be doing with my time.

I have a project that I will be working on over that three month period. I will be visiting, working with, talking to and learning from church communities like our own which gather around the Lord’s table and who allow the the sharing of bread and wine, the Eucharist, to be the living and beating heart of their life together both in the church building and the wider community. I will be spending time with churches in our own diocese, in London diocese, in our link diocese of Linkoping in Sweden and in New Zealand. Basically I want to see what God is doing in churches like our own, to see if there are any themes, any common activities, any fresh ideas that I can glean, and be inspired.

My final Sunday of active duty will be 14th February 2010. I will be around over that following week clearing my desk and doing final bits of prep. During the period of time over Lent, Holy Week and Easter the people who will ensure that everything continues as normal day to day are all of you ably assisted by the Church Wardens, Hitesh, and other members of the clergy team and they will be your first port of call. But we are the church, and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit we will continue to be blessed and be a blessing according to his will and word.

There will be periods of time when I am at home at the Vicarage, there will be times when I am not. I would appreciate it, to enable me to get the most out of this experience, if you did not to call by asking about parish business, but if you do see me around the village do feel free to stop and catch up as normal.

I will be keeping a regular blog of what I am doing and where I am, what I have experienced and what I am thinking about plus posting up to date photos can be found at my new Rectory Wanderings blog.

What has all of this to do with what we recall today? We are keeping today as the feast of the Epiphany which actually falls on Wednesday of this week.

How many kings does our Gospel reading mention this morning? Three? No, only two... The first is obvious, Herod, the reigning monarch. He sits on his throne in the capital city of Jerusalem, able to command, used to being obeyed, ruthless in ordering drastic measures in order to safeguard his kingdom.

Herod is used to taking centre stage, to being in the spotlight…apparently strong  - but surprisingly vulnerable, paranoid, a King who wonders how long his reign will last. He courts attention but in this story, actually, Herod is a distraction…for us, and for the travellers.

You see, just down the road…in an insignificant house, in an insignificant village…there is a new-born baby – the one for whom the star shines…But it’s easy to miss him, and the wise men who sought him, also nearly missed him too.
These wise men, astrologers, distracted by stars and then attracted by one in particular, distracted by the trappings of the power, wealth and influence of Herod, are constantly having their vision refocussed.

But this story is one of continual readjustment…of vision clouded and then cleared… It is, perhaps, remarkable that the travellers managed to see past their own expectations…of royal pomp and power to recognise and rejoice in heaven in ordinary, a baby boy snuggling with his mother. Perhaps that’s the greatest gift of this story, that God gave them the grace to get past their expectations and truly see the Messiah.

Here we begin another year, and another decade. We’ve all travelled a fair distance, and the journey isn’t done yet. It’s easy for us, too, to be distracted from the purpose of our journey, to be lured by the bright lights of Herod’s palace, where power and politics carry the day…

Yet the Epiphany of Jesus and indeed every day with God is about readjusting our vision of God and His ways and plans - whether we are on Sabbatical or not.... as we look into the manger God begins to reveal through the gift of Gold His King, through the gift of Frankincense a priest to forge a new relationship between Him and people, and through myrrh God reveals that this baby is born to die, to use John the Baptist’s words, ‘to take away the sin of the world.’

As we gaze into the manger, God reveals the destiny of not only this baby, but of each of us too. Through his Son he calls us to inherit his Kingdom and to play our part in building it locally, nationally and internationally through our words deeds and prayers. Through his Son, he calls us home as sons and daughters and welcomes us through faith into his arms of love. Through his Son, the affects of our sin are nailed down and done away with with And what can we offer in return?

The best that we can offer will only be of value as an expression of our love…because however hard we try to match the gift to the recipient, there’s NOTHING that God needs…except our love….and whatever we bring, God will recognise the love that lies behind it, and the only way that we can show that love from day to day is by allowing it free play in all our lives so that we come with our all of our gifts to places and to people every bit as unexpected and unlikely as that child in the back street of Bethlehem.

(With huge thaks to Kathryn for inspiration and ideas towards the end!)