Monday, November 25, 2013

The King of Second Chances

In January, when Barack Obama called for the US nation to put pressure on politicians to pass gun control legislation, he warned: "Every day we wait [the number of Americans who die at the end of a gun] will keep growing." While legislation lay orphaned in Congress, 20-year-old Michael Hill walked into Ronald E McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia, with an AK-47-style assault rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition and "nothing to live for”.

With 870 children inside aged between five and 11 years and Hill confessing that he had not been taking his psychiatric medication, the nation was, in all likelihood, staring down the barrel of yet another horrific school shooting.

Luckily for everybody, Hill took as his hostage the school bookkeeper, Antoinette Tuff. 

"We're not going to hate you," she said, referring to him first as "sir" and later as "sweetie" and "baby". "My pastor, he just started this teaching on anchoring, and how you anchor yourself in the Lord," she recalled admitting she was terrified. "I just sat there and started praying.”

And so in between updates with the 911 dispatcher she shared her own travails with Hill, telling him about her divorce and disabled son, all the while reassuring him. "I love you. I'm proud of you. We all go through something in life. You're gonna be OK. Sweetheart. I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me." Eventually, while keeping police at a distance, she persuaded him to give up his weapons, lie on the floor and give himself up - giving that gunman and herself a second chance.

And we’d all like to have another go at bits of life - things we wished we’d never said or done, people we’d like not to have hurt or isolated.  We’d all like a second chance to say something different…or maybe not say something. A second chance to repair a relationship or make the most of some opportunity. A second chance to chase a dream you deferred or follow through on a responsibility you avoided.

Luke’s account of the crucifixion that we hear this morning is peppered with second chances. The obvious one, of course, is that in this Gospel alone Jesus forgives those who crucify him – all those who crucify him - both the active participants and passive bystanders alike. And then there’s the thief, who names his own sins and yet then asks to be remembered, to have a second chance, only to receive Jesus’ promises that he will join him in paradise.

But that’s not all. Earlier in the story Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him and told him he would have a second chance to return and strengthen the other disciples. And after Jesus is tried by both Pilate and Herod, they receive a second chance at their relationship, actually becoming friends. And, when you think of it that way, Barabbas is also given a second chance when he is released in place of Jesus. Later the crowds who have followed him, at times admiring him and at others jeering him, receive Jesus’ words of consolation and warning and are given another chance to perceive in him God’s active love for the world. Later still, the centurion who put him to death will seize the second chance offered and declare Jesus innocent, and all the world will receive another chance to encounter God personally and directly as the curtain in the Temple separating the ordinary people from God’s most holy presence is torn in two.  

You see every regret we harbour, every, every harsh word to another, every time we are frozen out or lied to, every time we betray someone - every time we look back and long for a second chance - it rends the heart of God…

But Jesus’ death and resurrection don’t just offer us healing and hope a second and final chance from God’s wounded heart of love, but rather that we always have available to us another opportunity for life, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Jesus’ death is according to the rule, order, and expectations of the world. There is nothing terribly unusual about it. People die unjustly all the time. But his resurrection invites us to see it both as ordinary – like our death in all respects – and simultaneously as extraordinary – unlike our death in that it ushers in a new realm and order altogether where death does not have the last word and where our mistakes and regrets no longer define us.

Jesus is not coming to be just one more king, another means of power and rule, but rather that he is ushering in an entirely new order – a world and order and reign and kingdom characterized by new life, hope, grace and above all love – the kind of love that never wearies in extending and receiving second chances.

We do not experience the fullness of this kingdom in this life, but we do get glimpses of it – foretastes of the kingdom, as our hymns and liturgy sometimes remind us – each and every time we hear Jesus’ words of absolution and promise of paradise directed not only to the crowds of his day but also to us.

I’d like you to invite you to call to mind one of those things for which you long to have a second chance so that you might take seriously whatever regret or disappointment you harbor and then take just as seriously the second chance and new life Jesus offers us from the cross…
This One, you see, strung up by the Empire for treason and insurrection is, as it turns out, not merely challenging the orders of the world but overturning them altogether and establishing a new reign governed not by might, power and judgment but rather by love, mercy and grace. For he is the King, reigning from his unlikely throne, granting second chances to us all.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

As the Feast of Christ the King looms gloriously...

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Sunday Podcast

Better late than never!  Here's the audio of Sunday's sermon...

It's The End Of The World As We Know It

Are we in the end times?  When we hear about natural disasters, like that which has devastated the Philippines in recent days, our minds might be taken back to passages like this morning’s Gospel reading.  I am sure that there will be street corner preachers still who will tell us that if we stop long enough to listen.

Looking more closely at this morning’s Gospel reading, I not sure that’s what Jesus meant.  You see He flatly refuses to answer his disciples questions for clarity and timescales after He refers to a coming time when the Temple will be razed to the ground.

Herod’s newly rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem was the enormously impressive focal point of the religion of Israel. The Ark of the Covenant was kept in the centre, the Holy of Holies, and so the Temple enshrined the sacred commandments of God and was the place where the presence of God was focused. It was to the Temple in Jerusalem that the pilgrims journeyed for the religious festivals. In post-exilic times, the Temple was presented as the place of true worship of God. In this context it was natural for pilgrims to admire the beauty of the building dedicated to God, and to look for spiritual leadership there. As God was eternal, so was this holy place.

But Jesus’ actions in cleansing the Temple (19.45-46) had challenged the power of the temple authorities. He had had arguments with different factions among the temple leadership and, in this context, predicted that the Temple itself would be destroyed. Jesus was talking particularly about the fall of Jerusalem, after a lengthy and indeterminate period of time, rather than the end of all things.

Instead of answering his disciples questions about dates and times, Jesus mentions other scenarios where other things are razed to the ground - his disciples’ beliefs, political ideologies and nation states, even their own relationships will be fractured and destroyed.

This starts to sound like an unnervingly contemporary gospel reading.  If something as eternal as God’s Temple will crumble and fall, what else will? The occupying Romans forces that filled the land in Jesus’ day? The corrupt tax system that kept the poorest poor and the richest rich?  David Cameron’s coalition Government? The United Nations? The NHS?  Jesus is questioning the permanence of power and ultimately asking each one of us, that when it comes to it, when our world is shaken, where we each place our trust?

We have seen in recent years ourselves, that institutions that we thought were effectively eternal can come crashing down with disastrous concequences.  We were just as naive to assume that the banking sector was somehow immune to the rise and fall of markets and the corrupt dealings of broken people and look what has happened since.

The devastation in the Philippines is not a sign of the end of the world, or of the judgement of God, although it will feel like it to the millions caught up in it.  Our hearts go out to them in love and compassion as the world which they now has come crashing down.  Their plight is a sign, a reminder, to all of us of the transience of all things.  Our hearts go out to them beating with a simple common humanity - giving what we can and praying.

When our lives our shaken who do we trust? Our politicians? The banks? Our religious leaders?  When grief or illness, knock us flat; when others shun us or  tell lies about us; when institutions fail us where are we?

Instead of timetables to destruction, Jesus talks to us about trusting in him. In the face of tragedy and transience the heart of God continues to beat with an eternal love for humanity.

Jesus talks about a series of terrible events – wars, famines, earthquakes and plagues, the destruction of powerful institutions, not to mention changes in the pattern of the natural world and the fracture of relationships. Any one of these events would be enough to fill us mind with worry - never mind to experience any of them. But Jesus also speaks of a God who loves, and goes on loving in the midst of it all, a God will keep us safe for ever.

In the midst of trauma, turmoil and tragedy, God says ‘not a hair of your head will perish’. 

then invite people to touch their own hair for a moment (on their head or arm) and experience what a fragile thing one hair is, yet it is a sign of the attention of love that God gives us. I then prayed:

Heavenly Father,
when we consider the times in which we live 
and the events that occur, 
it is easy to be anxious or in despair. 
Thank you for the assurance of your presence and peace, 
even at those times when there is chaos and discord.
Enable us to see the world through your eyes, 
where, as a Sovereign Lord, 
you are firmly in control of all events,
and there is a purpose and a plan to all things.
This we ask in Jesus’ precious name. 


I couldn't help but think of this song too...

Sunday, November 03, 2013

All Saints - Losers For Christ

Today as we celebrate the lives of the holy men and women of God is not the time to think about what made them holy.  That’s easy - God.  On this All Saints Sunday we should dwell more of what makes them and each of us human.

What are the universal human traits? Robert Peston, the BBC business editor reflected on it all recently in an article (you can read it here) he wrote about a year on from the death of his wife Sian Busby.

One of those traits is bravery. He reflects, very movingly, how brave she was in the face of terminal illness, 

… Sian hoped for the best and was never pessimistic; she only ever revealed to me her fears and anxieties, protecting our children and friends, so that life could be as normal as possible; she rarely complained when wracked with acute pain. If she occasionally remarked that, as a non-smoker, rare drinker and healthy-living person, it seemed a bit unfair that she was afflicted with a disease more normally associated with a life of indulgence, would that be so terrible and shameful? … [She] was not a saint. She could be intolerant and damning of those she considered vain and stupid. But she was the best human I will ever know…’

It’s all too easy though to think of the Saints in their humanity as being nice people, people ‘like us’, people who we’d invite for dinner, and yet St Luke’s account of Jesus’ words this morning should bring us up short.

St. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, you see, contains language that is just familiar enough to us that we can easily read or listen to it without really paying attention. We tend to hear it through Matthew’s better-known version, where the poor are poor in spirit, and those who hunger and thirst do so for the sake of righteousness. But not so in Luke. In Luke they’re just poor and hungry and hated -- vagrant beggars who can’t sustain themselves, can’t provide for themselves, are hard to look at, and are a drain on the system.

The Greek word that Luke uses to describe the poor is ptochoi. The ‘Pt’ sound should take us back to words like Pterodactyl. It’s not that the poor are dinosaurs or dying out, in these austere days - far from it - rather the poor swirl around the marketplace like birds pecking up stray crumbs or any charity they can.

The ‘Pt’ sound also lies at the heart of Greek words for vertigo in the face of falling. It would remind Jesus’ hearers that for the poor, life is risky tightrope walk.

Jesus’ words of blessing are picking up body and character. The people who are blessed are not simply an economic class characterized by their net worth, they are people who must compete against each other, swirling and skittering in the imposed act of begging. They are people who embody signs of how easily any one of us might fall.
The ‘Pt’ sound also lies at the heart of Greek word “ptuo,” which means “I am spitting.”

Blessed are the spat-upon.  There’s a blessing to stop your heart.

Blessed are the people who are made into warning signs of the possibility of catastrophic collapse, of abject failure, people who are impossibly weary of the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

In short, the Saints we remember today, the poor, the broken, the lonely, the insecure, those we’d just rather avoid, are losers. And yet Jesus calls them blessed, holy, favoured by God, Saints. Why? Simply because God always reserves God’s most acute attention for those in need, those left behind by the powers that be, those left out of the lavish bounty of the world’s produce. Sometimes called God’s preferential treatment of the poor, at other places epitomized by recognizing that God is always on the side of the underdog, God’s unfailing and unflagging concern for the losers of this world is etched across the pages of Scripture in letters deep and clear enough for anyone willing to read.

And in case we’re not sure, Jesus goes on not only to uplift the poor and hungry and those hated for his sake, but also to warn those who are rich.

 This is, of course, a challenging verse for most of us to hear. For even after a multi-year recession and nearly imperceptible recovery most of us are still far better off than the vast majority of the world’s population.

Is that part of the reason it’s hard for us to identity with the people Jesus lifts up? Have we worked hard enough to attain a measure of security that hearing Jesus affirm what we have tried to avoid is unthinkable? Do we fail to recognize in the face of poverty near and abroad the face of our Lord, beckoning us to do with less that others may have more? Or does the idea of that kind of vulnerability -- the kind imposed, not chosen, by poverty, hunger, and persecution -- simply make us shrink back and fail to recognize our own vulnerability and need.

We need to recognise that we are losers. We put great effort into convincing ourselves and those around us otherwise. We dress well. We live in nice homes. We work hard to be upwardly mobile. But no matter how hard we try, we are still racked by insecurities, still find it hard to love ourselves or others, still destined at the end of all of our striving for a hole in the ground. We, too, are losers, and unless we recognize and confess that -- not as something to be ashamed of, but as one of the defining elements of our existence -- we will have a hard time receiving the mercy and forgiveness, grace and life Jesus offers.

When we consider the lives of those the church traditionally calls Saints, what strikes me first is how very ordinary most of them were ….from that clutch of Galilean fishermen to a consumptive French nun, from a wounded soldier who spent most of his time dreaming of damsels in distress to a forthright Albanian with a genius for spotting Christ in the slums of Calcutta. None of them looked in the least remarkable – they didn't start out as super-holy beings.  They were losers for Christ, accepting His gift of grace, and in so doing, they found themselves transformed.

On this All Saints Sunday, we thank God for His transforming grace at work in people past as well as in us today as we seek to follow Him. We pray that we would not squander His grace to us, but rather that we let it transform us with the poor, the hated, the grieving amongst us, to be Saints - fellow losers for Christ.